God, War, and Providence by James Warren

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Massholes.

Quick synopsis: A look at how Roger Williams and Rhode Island came to be and also how the other colonies (especially Massachusetts, they come off looking really bad) screwed over their Indian neighbors and tried to destroy Rhode Island.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When an Indian party set fire to most of Providence, including his own house, Roger Williams walked out of the house and scolded the Indians doing it. Badass.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Oh man, if you hate the Boston Red Sox as much as I do, this book goes a long way to piling on the great state of Massachusetts from the beginning. (For the record, still love you Cape Cod.) Warren thoroughly chronicles how Massachusetts insidiously went after Williams, Rhode Island, and their Indian neighbors.

My Take: James Warren lives in Rhode Island. It certainly goes far in explaining why this book is a hit job on Massachusetts. Warren does not hold back! However, it does help that he has all the evidence to back it up.

Warren tries to cover a lot of ground in his book. It is part biography of Roger Williams, part chronicle of the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War, and the founding of Rhode Island. Warren is only partially successful mainly because any three of these subjects deserves its own lengthy book. Roger Williams alone is fascinating as truly being a precursor to the America we know now.

Ultimately, if you know the time period pretty well, then this book will leave you wanting more but in a good way. I wanted Warren to spend a lot more time on his subjects than he did. If you are just beginning to learn about the time period, then this is a fantastic book to get your feet wet. Warren has a sly sense of humor which adds a nice touch to the endeavor.

Verdict: Colonial history nerds may not be completely satisfied, but everyone else will love it and probably start buying other books which expound upon everything in the book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower
  • Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life
  • Richard Archer, As if an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Prohibition was so stupid.

Quick synopsis: The story of George Remus, a famous bootlegger who became famous for something else afterwards.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: George Remus was the “king of the bootleggers” and at one point owned one seventh of the bonded liquor in America.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: George Remus named his daughter Romola. What a dork. If you don’t get it, ask a friend versed in Roman history.

My Take: Prohibition was one of the dumbest things America ever did. First is slavery, second is Prohibition. Third is probably country music. Fight me.

Anyway, George Remus was a very successful attorney. He was the jazz age version of the overly effusive guest lawyers you would see on Law & Order. He wailed, he cried, he trashed around the courtroom. He got bored and Prohibition came along. He decided to become a bootlegger and damnit if he wasn’t really good at it!

Of course, as with any truly successful kingpin, he got caught. The story then focuses on his wife and a few other people whom I won’t spoil. No one in the story is particularly heroic. This is more a “Breaking Bad” kind of story.

It’s a really easy read and a great start if you want to dip your toe into historical true crime.

Verdict: A really breezy read although you won’t find many heroes in this story. Read it if you love true crime or the time period.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Miriam Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans

Lost Paradise by Kathy Marks

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: These people make the Tiger King look downright classy.

Quick synopsis: A short history of the people of Pitcairn Island with a specific focus on the sexual assault trials of 2004. It is all really gross.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The people of Pitcairn Island are the descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty. If you are unfamiliar with the mutiny on the Bounty then honestly, come on. Fine, I’ll give you the rundown in the “My Take” section but damnit you need to read more.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The hardest part of a trial is usually what the lawyers have to do to prepare. When it’s on Pitcairn Island then it’s a whole different set of challenges. Law and order basically didn’t exist. The United Kingdom had no court system to oversee a trial on Pitcairn because they left the island to its own devices. They didn’t even have a reliable way to GET ON the island.

My Take: Welcome to one of the craziest places on earth. In 1789, mutineers led by Fletcher Christian on a British ship named the Bounty sent their captain, William Bligh, on a small boat with the rest of the crew out into the ocean to fend for themselves. Two absolutely insane things then happened. Bligh captained his open boat and the survivors 4,000 damn miles to safety. Let that sink in. Yes, pun intended.

The second crazy thing? Christian and 8 other mutineers (after a bunch of kidnapping and murder, long story) ended up settling on Pitcairn Island with a bunch of kidnapped indigenous people. Good news though, almost all of the mutineers ended up killing each other so all is well that ends well, right? I will not point out the irony of the main psycho being named Christian. Oh, I guess I did.

Nope. Lost Paradise focuses on what happens when a society is left to its own devices with no oversight. Might be hard to be a libertarian after reading this. The people on Pitcairn currently come from four families dating back to the mutineers. In 2004, a trial was held due to the repeated sexual assaults on the island which were treated for years with a collective shrug. It wasn’t until the British government decided to actually do something that trials were held. Don’t hold out for a happy ending.

Verdict: It’s unbelievable and infuriating but a great read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Diana Preston, Paradise in Chains
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals

The Last Duel by Eric Jager

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why we have lawyers.

Quick synopsis: The story of the last trial by combat in France in 1386.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are set to write and act in the movie version of this book. That is all the pandering I will do for the rest of the post.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: It was really hard to kill a fully suited up knight! Turns out unless you have excellent aim, most of the weapons in 1386 would bounce right off.

My Take: Trial by combat really was a thing. And it was a very one-sided affair if you lost. Here’s how it worked:

  1. Crime is committed or alleged to be committed.
  2. Wronged party calls for a trial by combat.
  3. Accuser and accused suit up in a fight to the death.
    1. If accuser wins, then the accused is obviously guilty.
    1. If accused wins, obviously the accuser was a liar.
  4. Fun wrinkle, if you submitted before being killed, then you’d be executed anyway.

Pretty straight forward, right? Here’s the story of this dual to add some flavor. A knight was accused of raping another knight’s wife. Accuser calls for trial by combat. The big danger here was that is the accuser lost or quit, then his wife would also be executed for lying.

So, the next time you say you hate lawyers, just remember what it would be like if we didn’t have them at all.

Verdict: A really great book for history nerds. It may get too into the weeds for a non-nerd but hey, that’s what the movie is for. (Reminder: The book is always better.)

If You Liked This Try:

  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
  • Joel Harrington, The Faithful Executioner

Brilliant Beacons by Eric Jay Dolan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I have nothing snarky for this one. Lighthouses are awesome.

Quick synopsis: A comprehensive history of the American lighthouse.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: A Fresnel lens can be seen 20 miles out to sea.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: American lighthouses were way behind the times for a long while. While Europe improved their lights and lenses, American lighthouses were decades behind their competitors. 

My Take: I should start off by saying that I love everything about lighthouses so maybe I am biased. I am not ashamed to say so.

Dolan does a great job of giving you everything a lighthouse fanatic would need. He gets into the science, the history, the famous stories, and ones you’ve never heard of. He doesn’t get too bogged down in any specific details and by the end you feel like you got all the information you needed.

I found the science part to be more interesting than I expected. And as everyone knows, the elimination of the lighthouse keeper position is a sad development at the end. Dolan handles this well and really gets the emotion out of you. Or maybe I am a big baby. I dunno.

Read it and have fun!

Verdict: If you care about lighthouses even a little bit then this book is the one for you.

If You Liked This Try:

  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm
  • Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl
  • Kate Moore, The Radium Girls

The Phantom Killer by James Presley

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Another win for the press with cool serial killer names.

Quick synopsis: A true crime story from 1946. The Phantom Killer murdered 5 people and assaulted 3 more in Texarkana, Texas.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Texas Rangers were so frazzled by this guy that they arrested almost 400 suspects. Not questioned, people. Arrested. I believe this is the police definition of “flailing.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We actually probably know who the Phantom Killer was. The guy even spent years in jail. The evidence is damning but an official case was never hung on the suspect.

My Take: This is why I love good historical true crime. If you aren’t from Texarkana, Texas then you’ve probably never heard of the Phantom Killer. The city was so scared of this guy that gun stores ran out of weapons to sell. In Texas. We all realize how amazing a statement that is, right?

The killer focused on couples not unlike the Son of Sam would later on. He was amazingly adept at not leaving much of a trace at crimes scenes and his reign of terror only lasted about 3 months. Presley does a great job here making the dread build as the crimes continue. He also makes you feel the terror as people huddled in their houses hoping not to become the next victims.

I’d be remiss not to point out that Presley also presents a crime scene in an incredibly detailed manner. This all happened in 1946 but Presley pieces together the facts to create a great visual of each crime scene through his prose.

Verdict: This is really good historical true crime. Read it!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Miriam Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans

A Dune Adrift by Marq De Villiers and Sheila Hirtle

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The island is literally moving as we speak.

Quick synopsis: The history of Sable Island off the coast of Canada. Yes, it is more interesting than it sounds!

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Sable Island is home to at least 350 shipwrecks. It’s also home to 500 feral horses who descended from the first batch of horses dropped off in 1737.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Sable Island is moving. Because of where it lays in the Atlantic Ocean, the currents are currently pulling sand from the east side and depositing sand on the west side. Sable Island is slowly moving west. Yes, it’s a sandbar but shush.

My Take: I am from the east coast of North America and I had never heard of Sable Island until I read this book. I’m not sure how because it is pretty damn interesting.

Sable Island is a sandbar which is completely shaped by its location. Because it exists near the drop off of a continental shelf, it is constantly moving as sand is pulled from one side while the other side has sand deposited. It is also far north in the Atlantic and has frequent fog. It is just under 27 miles long but no more than ¾ of a mile wide. It also happens to be in the middle of a frequented shipping lane used for centuries.

What do you get when you add all that up? At least 350 shipwrecks in recorded history and probably more. Sable Island is one of the most dangerous things in the Atlantic Ocean. If you don’t know where it is then you may end up wrecked on it.

The book covers way more than just geography and shipwrecks. It’s worth checking out.

Verdict: I never thought I’d say it, but I really enjoyed reading about a physical landmass. Who knew?!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Scott Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours
  • Kalee Thompson, Deadliest Sea

Island of the Lost by Joan Druett

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Seriously, stories like this are why I didn’t go in the navy.

Quick synopsis: The story of the shipwreck of the Grafton on the Auckland Islands in 1864. Oh, it’s also the story of the shipwreck of the Invercauld on those same islands just a few months later in 1864. Yes, really.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The highest point in the Auckland Islands is Mount Dick. Stop laughing, you child.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This is a crazy story because you have two separate shipwrecks on the same island chain just months from each other. The most amazing part? Neither of the shipwreck crews even knew about the other.

My Take: This book (and Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard) made me fall in love with reading history again. What makes this book amazing is that it is a story of two shipwrecks, survival, and the importance of good leadership.

The shipwrecks are the most straightforward sections. Each ship gets too close to the Auckland Islands which are a few hundred miles south of New Zealand. The captains of the Grafton and Invercauld react very differently both during the wreck and afterwards. This directly leads to a fight for survival and the most interesting aspect of the book, leadership in crisis. The actions of each captain are polar opposites and cause dire consequences. One shows how to keep men motivated and hopeful during 18 months of isolation culminating in a desperate attempt to make it home. The other captain becomes morose and distant. His lack of leadership leads to the death of most of his crew.

Druett understands the sea and what these men go through. If you don’t like this genre of book, then it will seem to crawl in places. However, if you like survival stories, you will recognize that Druett is showing how desperate and monotonous the fight to live can be. I was riveted.

Verdict: I love this book. It may not be for the casual reader, but for anyone interested in shipwrecks, survival, and leadership, this is a must read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Peter Stark, Astoria
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea
  • Stephen Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • Buddy Levy, River of Darkness
  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio by Hubert Wolf

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Lesbian nuns. Don’t give me a dirty look. It’s literally true. 

Quick synopsis: It’s 1858 at a convent in Rome. Stuff is about to go down. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Lesbian nuns. Am I appealing to the lowest common denominator? Yes. It’s still true. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: You can get away with a lot in a convent in 1858. I won’t spoil it. 

My Take: This is a very challenging book to review because I don’t want to give anything away. As you can see above there is some salacious stuff in here. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. It gets darker and weirder as you go along. 

The author was allowed to go into the Vatican Archives in order to write this book. It is in depth and can drag at places but stick with it. The payoff is crazy. 

Verdict: If anything mentioned above or historical true crime is interesting to you then take a gander at this! 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans 
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin 
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights 
  • Sinclair McKay, The Lady in the Cellar 

Grand Avenues by Scott Berg

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why Washington, D.C. traffic sucks.

Quick synopsis: The story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s efforts to plan out Washington, D.C.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: L’Enfant got hired to plan D.C. and got fired before completing it because of bureaucracy. Yes, D.C.’s problems preceded D.C. itself!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Washington, D.C. was created as a homage to Paris. L’Enfant also set up many of the roads and causeways in order to maximize the view.

My Take: Anyone who has ever been in Washington, D.C. asks the same question, “Who the hell set up a city like this and why?!” The answers are Pierre Charles L’Enfant and he didn’t get to do it all otherwise it would have been much better.

L’Enfant was a very intelligent man who had wonderful vision and ambition. Unfortunately, he missed the one thing that is truly required in the Capitol. He did not know how to get along with others including the ones actually in charge.

L’Enfant was a personal favorite of George Washington who personally asked him to design D.C. Along the way, however, he decided to make an enemy of Thomas Jefferson which is not a good idea in the early days of the republic.

Berg gives all the gory details. And the myth of “the swamp” was well on its way.

Verdict: The story is a bit thin, but Berg tries to keep it as interesting as possible.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David McCullough, The Great Bridge
  • Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons
  • Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm