Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Piracy, the original get rich quick scheme or die trying.

Quick synopsis: The story of arch-pirate Henry Every.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Henry Every is the most successful pirate of all time. He was only a pirate for two years. He was also never caught.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Life on a pirate ship was amazingly progressive. It was in many ways a floating democracy and a pirate captain could be replaced simply because the crew no longer trusted them.

My Take: Henry Every was a pirate. At least, some guy we think was Henry Every was a pirate. He also might have been named Ben. We think. He came from England. Of that we are almost 100% positive. Where in England? We have some solid guesses.

When it comes to pirates, there is a lot of guesswork. Myths become bigger than reality and a fair amount of details need to be filled in by conjecture. Henry Every is a perfect example of it.

He is the most successful pirate of all time. He took over a British ship and terrorized ships near India and Africa for a surprisingly short amount of time. He then pulled off one of the most amazing disappearing acts in human history. Why do I say that? Because Henry Every was the subject of the first global manhunt. England and the Mughal Empire wanted him dead, but they never tracked him down.

Johnson writes in a narrative style (which he admits) is not linear. He explains many of the contributing factors to the story in order to fully immerse the reader in the time and the politics. If you are hoping for a book purely on Henry Every, then it will frustrate you. If you want the full story, then you will get it.

Verdict: A great book for history nerds who love everything about pirates and the times they come from. It may be too in depth on other topics for casual readers.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag

How to Become a Tyrant (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It really doesn’t seem too hard.

Quick synopsis: A look at how many tyrants have come to power and held on or fell.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Peter Dinklage is the narrator. Yes, he is as effective as you would expect.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Hitler outlawed smoking.

My Take: Dark, satirical humor is a very fine line. This series tries it and succeeds!

The series keeps from being too flippant about a serious subject by introducing the tyranny playbook. The main theme is that all of these supremely evil people followed a common set of rules to acquire power, use it, and then fall or continue to survive.

It is funny in a dark way without being insensitive to the fact that we are talking about some of the worst psychopaths in history like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Il-sung, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek are not as well represented as they should be.

There are six episodes which talk about a couple of playbook tenets, focus on one tyrant, and sprinkle in facts about the others. They are short episodes and they are entertaining all the way through. I stumbled on it and was very happy I did.

Verdict: Have a few dark laughs, learn something. It’s a great watch. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • (Un)well (Netflix)
  • The Tiger King (Netflix)
  • Class Action Park (HBO)

The Immortals by Steven Collis

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A priest, two ministers, and a rabbi walk onto a boat….

Quick synopsis: The story of the SS Dorchester, a World War II troop ship sunk by a Nazi U-boat and the men who died saving others.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: All four chaplains would independently give away their life jackets to other soldiers as the ship sank.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Chaplains did not fare very well in World War II. They had the second highest casualty rate per capita. 

My Take: Religion and sinking ships. Who would have thought the two would converge for one of the most affecting books on World War II I have read.

Steven Collis writes in a way which speaks to me. He points out how we all can be accused of treating people differently. In a story which contains 4 chaplains of different faiths and a Black man, it is important to explain how these five men would do something extraordinary during one major action in World War II.

What do you need to know about this book? Collis keeps this whole story tight. Each of the five heroes (and a villain?) get their own in-depth introduction and then they are on the boat headed into battle. The story moves fast and not a word is wasted. If you are a history newbie, start with this book. You won’t get bogged down in too many facts which don’t effect the story.

Verdict: This is a great history book for anyone.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La
  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress
  • William Geroux, The Ghost Ships of Archangel

Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I believe the English term for a guy like this is “cheeky.”

Quick synopsis: The story of Eddie Chapman, the most unexpected double agent of World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One of the men in this book was known as “Passion Pants.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Eddie Chapman is the only non-German to be awarded the Iron Cross. Don’t worry, he was actually working for the good guys. He was just that convincing.

My Take: Eddie Chapman was…complicated.

He was a devoted companion. He was also very devoted to multiple women simultaneously. He was a criminal but refused to betray his country. He was a very successful German spy…according to them. He was moody, charming, and impossible to keep still or quiet.

When you watch TV shows today, they often try to have this conflicted main character who is flawed but also worth rooting for. Eddie Chapman is the perfect example from history.

Ben Macintyre is the spy master for these books. He knows how to write about them and make the story interesting at every turn. It also helped that Chapman was watched so intently, you don’t need to guess what he is thinking or what anyone else thought of him.

Why read fiction when a guy like this existed?

Verdict: A great book for anyone who loves World War II, spies, or just a person with more layers than an onion.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies
  • Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island
  • Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise
  • Tim Brady, Three Ordinary Girls

No Beast So Fierce by Dane Huckelbridge

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Well, I won’t look at the Cincinnati Bengals the same way again. They represent a murderer!

Quick synopsis: The story of deadliest animal in history: the Champawat Tiger.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Champawat Tiger killed 435 people. Yes, you read that correctly.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: A Bengal Tiger can kill you just by hitting you with its paw.

My Take: It was a showdown for the ages. The Champawat Tiger had killed 435 people and now was being tracked by Jim Corbett, at the beginning of a career that would catapult him to becoming the most successful hunter of man-killers in history.

But first, we get 100 pages of anything but that. This book is both great and very frustrating. The portion of the book which focuses on Corbett and the tiger are fantastic. We learn who Corbett is, the danger he is facing, and the hunt he goes on. Unfortunately, there is the first 100 pages.

Huckelbridge dives into the society of the surrounding area in depth. Actually, also for the decades and decades before as well. And he dives into the environmental factors. Also, the human factors. It goes on for what seems like forever.

I don’t want to dismiss all of Huckelbridge’s world building. There are some very interesting facts which you need to know before the hunt begins. However, this book is ten times better if an editor cut down the first 100 pages into about 40.

Verdict: The second half of the book is great, but the first half is a real slog. Skim the first 100 pages then start paying attention.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Candice Millard, The River of Doubt
  • David Grann, The Lost City of Z
  • Buddy Levy, River of Darkness

Louis XIV by Josephine Wilkinson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Current world record holder for longest reign!

Quick synopsis: A biography of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Louisiana is named after Louis.

He is the longest reigning monarch of all time (72 years, 110 days). Queen Elizabeth is 5 years behind him.

He outlived his son. And grandson. He had to be succeeded by his great-grandson. High marks for his longevity.

He cried a lot. Must be a French thing (zinger!).

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Louis XIV is hilarious to compare to Henry VIII. He had mistresses constantly in his youth but only two wives. He didn’t have to kill any of them!  

My Take: Don’t be fooled by the length of the book. Usually, 400 pages means you are getting a pretty in-depth treatment of the subject. Not here though!

Wilkinson does a great job of working her way through Louis’s life without getting too bogged down. Since Louis decided to have a super long reign this book ends up being much more of a high-level summary than an in-depth biography. And much of Louis’s life had to do with his love life more than anything else, but Wilkinson still hits all the big events of his life as well.

Wilkinson’s choices of where to put her focus are really well thought out. By the end, you do feel like you know Louis on personal level, even though that was absolutely impossible during his life. The dude took the whole “king” thing to another level.

Verdict: Great book on a very important subject. There are not many contemporary books on Louis and this doesn’t disappoint.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
  • Kristin Downey, Isabella
  • Robert Massie, Peter the Great
  • Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli
  • Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King

The Holly by Julian Rubinstein

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Denver is a damn mess.

Quick synopsis: The story of Terrance Roberts and the gang war he both participated in and fought against.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Rick Ross, the rapper, is actually using the name of “Freeway” Rick Ross, the convicted drug dealer. The drug dealer actually sued the rapper for it.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: If you never knew the difference between Crips and Bloods, this book will take you through their whole history. It’s pretty terrifying on a number of levels.

My Take: Julian Rubinstein wrote Ballad of the Whiskey Robber which is true crime hilarity. This book is…. demonstrably not funny.

It is really good though, especially if you find the history of gangs mixed with current events. Rubinstein tells the story of Terrance Roberts, who was in a gang but got out of the life and tried to make a difference. Ultimately, he ended up shooting a gang member when he thought his life was in danger. He shot him at a peace rally to really amp up the irony.

The story sounds simple, but Rubinstein explores what makes it all so complex. Gangs fight within their own ranks, politicians seem to be on both sides and also no sides at all, and Terrance Roberts is both a crusading peace activist but also someone who can come unglued rather easily it seems.

If you go into this story looking for a simple hero or villain, whether it be gang members, police officers, or politicians, you will be disappointed. Rubinstein will convince you that everyone has to look in the mirror.

Verdict: A really great read that provides no easier answers to a lot of troubling questions.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, Empire of Sin
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Carryrou, Bad Blood
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial
  • Julian Rubinstein, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

Gibralter by Roy and Leslie Adkins

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: (In Sean Connery voice) Welcome to the Rock!

Quick synopsis: The story of the Siege of Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: There were so many cannonballs shot into the streets that you could basically walk on them as if they were the actual street.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The Adkins’ posit that Britain’s obsession with Gibraltar was a main reason they could not adequately flood the American Colonies with the men and resources they needed thus losing the American Revolution.

My Take: 4 years stuck on a rock. It might be the ultimate case of cabin fever.

The Siege of Gibraltar is one of those famous things people have heard of but have no idea what it is actually about. The Adkins’ take a very well heard of British event and place it perfectly within it’s time period and explain how it has had lasting effects in history. Specifically, U! S! A! U! S! A! I’m not sure all scholars would agree Gibraltar is one of the main reasons the American Revolution went the way it did, but I’m not going to complain!

This book could have easily been a real snoozer. Sieges are notoriously boring as all hell to read about. However, the Adkins’ give you all the details you need to really feel just how much this sucked for the inhabitants of Gibraltar without putting us, the dear reader, to sleep. Every time it seems the narrative might slow down, the authors jump to the next big event.

However, it’s worth pointing out that the Adkins’ do give a great amount of detail. The story of the intermittent blockade runners is especially fun.

Verdict: Great book which is well written and has a great story. Still very history heavy and won’t be a good book for the non-history nerd.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Cordingly, Cochrane
  • Dan Jones, The Templars
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, The Last Stand

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It’s worse than you remember.

Quick synopsis: The Columbine school massacre of 1999. If you were alive, I am sure you remember where you were.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Columbine is only the 5th most deadly school shooting in U.S. history.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: One of the killers actually went to prom the weekend before the massacre.

My Take: I pride myself on remembering historical events accurately. At the very least, I know enough to identify things I don’t know. Turns out, I failed miserably when it comes to Columbine. There is cold comfort in knowing I am by far not the only one.

Things I remember about Columbine:

  1. The killers were goth kids
  2. They were bullied and committed the massacre to even the score
  3. They wore trench coats
  4. Columbine is in Colorado
  5. Their parents were neglectful
  6. Other than their parents, no one could have been expected to see this coming

I was only fully right on #4. #3 was only true for the first few minutes.

Klebold and Harris weren’t bullied. As I mention above, one went to prom with a date the weekend before. They were not goths. Their parents were not neglectful, but certainly guilty of underestimating the depth of evil in their kids. As for not seeing this coming, well, Dave Cullen will dive into that for you.

The book is great and scary all in one. Cullen tells the story out of order in a way that makes sense. He weaves a lot of people into the narrative without overwhelming the reader and his insight is earned through facts. Thank God he sticks to the facts because in the aftermath of massacre, it seems like no one else did. Including me.

Verdict: This is required reading.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harold Schechter, Maniac
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain and Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Damn Nazis are still causing problems.

Quick synopsis: The discovery and attempts to identify an unknown Nazi sub off New Jersey in 1991.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Back in 1991, when the book takes place, a diver could only be at a wreck for about 20 minutes before having to return to the ship. The time needed to decompress means a dive that lasts hours was mostly spent returning to the boat.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Salvage diving is very dangerous for a number of reasons. One of them is panic. If you panic because you get caught on something for instance, you will breathe faster. If you breathe faster, you expend your air faster. Which means…

My Take: A shipwreck story? Count me in! Oh, in New Jersey… ok, fine.

Let me get the one bad out of the way first. Kurson does a great job of explaining the dangers of salvage diving. However, I felt he came perilously close to hero worship for this particular breed of diver. That is the bad news. The good news is that this is a short part of the book and everything else is fantastic.

The book follows the story of two divers as they try to identify a submarine off the New Jersey coast in 1991. The book is a mixture of biography (of both the divers and the submarine crew), adventure story (people die trying to identify the sub), and history lesson on World War II submarine warfare.

There is a lot to cover in one book but Kurson does a great job making this accessible to anyone who wants to read this. If you aren’t a full-blown history nerd, don’t worry, you’ll love everything else. Kurson leaves no stone unturned but never belabors the point.

Verdict: A really great book that covers everything about this story you could possibly want.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons
  • Spike Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Michael Tougias, The Finest Hours
  • Michael Schumacher, Wreck of the Carl D.
  • David Mearns, The Shipwreck Hunter