A Billion Years by Mike Rinder

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for A Billion Years:

Tom Cruise has some explaining to do.

Quick synopsis:

A memoir by Mike Rinder, who was a higher up in the Church of Scientology.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Scientology practices what’s called “bullbaiting” which is an exercise to eliminate reactions to people saying things to you. Sounds healthy!

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

L. Ron Hubbard’s rules are unalterable. Even though he is dead.

My Take on A Billion Years:

Listen, religion can get super weird. We should be tolerant of each other. We should try and see that we all have beliefs that can’t always be proven, explained, or understood.

I will, however, point out that if I say I’m not going to Mass, that no one will hire a private detective to ruin my life. I can do that by myself, thank you.

As for me bashing Scientology, I will not do it in this post. I will, however, tell you that this book is written by a higher up in Scientology who left it and is now spilling the beans.

“But wait, History Nerd, maybe he’s the crazy one? Have you thought about that?”

Excellent question. In the very beginning of this book, Rinder states that Scientology will try to discredit him. He then says exactly what they will say.

Then I looked at the one-star reviews for this book on Goodreads. A few accounts with almost no reviews and just a review of this book calling Rinder…. well exactly what he said they would call him. Oh, and these accounts also gave 5 stars to Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard if they reviewed it.

So no, I won’t bash someone else’s religion. I will tell you to read this book, though.

Verdict:

An excellent book which will have you saying “What???” a lot. Buy it here!

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Empire of Ice and Stone by Buddy Levy

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Empire of Ice and Stone:

The lesson, as always, is don’t go to the Arctic.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Karluk, which was shipwrecked in the Arctic and the crew’s attempts to survive.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Friendly reminder that many of the events in the Arctic take place at temperatures around -50 degrees or lower.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The leader of this expedition called the Arctic, “a friendly and forgiving place,” in case you needed to know why this went so wrong.

My Take on Empire of Ice and Stone:

Buddy Levy has gone and done it again. He took a story I already knew and wrote a book I couldn’t put down.

Empire of Ice and Stone is another great entry into the genre of Arctic exploration and adventure. The story revolves around the crew of the Karluk which is one of multiple ships put together for exploration by Vilhjalmur Stefansson. You will quickly learn not to like him. However, the captain of the Karluk, Bob Bartlett, will quickly become one of your favorite people. As with most Arctic exploration, things go horribly wrong. I won’t spoil it any further.

This book is another example of what makes Buddy Levy such a great author. The book is thorough, but tightly focused on the men (and women!) of the expedition. Levy’s eye for what you need to know keeps all of the extraneous information out. What’s left is an adventure that focuses on people which make it so engaging.

And then what happens is you stay up too late on a weeknight because you don’t want to stop reading. At least that is still better than being marooned on a giant ice floe.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press.

Verdict:

A great book. Read it. Buy it here!

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The Lion and the Fox by Alexander Rose

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Lion and the Fox:

Don’t mess with a pencil pusher.

Quick synopsis:

The story of a Union agent and a Confederate agent battling in England over the creation of a Confederate navy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

At the beginning of the Civil War, the South only had ammunition for 28 rounds per firearm.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Between 1800 and 1860, British need for cotton increased 1000% to 400,000 tons a year.

My Take on The Lion and the Fox:

Sometimes a book’s plot is a winner no matter who the author is. The story is so amazing and exciting that it can’t help but be a winner. This is not one of those books. The Lion and the Fox could be an extremely boring slog in the wrong hands, but luckily Alexander Rose knows how to write an engaging narrative.

Centered on two men in Liverpool, England during the Civil War, The Lion and the Fox follows the story of how these two men face off. One is trying to create a formidable Confederate navy while the other tries to stop him. Their main method of battle: paperwork. Yes, paperwork. This is ostensibly a game of cat and mouse but not of the James Bond ilk. If that sounds like a letdown, don’t worry, Alexander Rose makes this a page turner somehow. I flew through the book because even though the final outcome was preordained, the story of these two men was not.

Verdict:

A really fun read. Buy it here!

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The Lighthouse of Stalingrad by Iain MacGregor

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Lighthouse of Stalingrad:

Hard reading about the Russians as good guys right now.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The U.S. suffered 419,000 killed in action in World War II. The Soviets suffered 27,000,000.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

To put the previous number in perspective, the Russian Army needed to be replenished nearly 5 full times to keep fighting.

My Take on The Lighthouse of Stalingrad:

The Lighthouse of Stalingrad by Iain MacGregor is a tale of two books. Well, actually, one book and one major marketing error.

First, the good. MacGregor does a great job recapping the Battle of Stalingrad. MacGregor uses a hybrid style where he goes into great depths to talk about strategic aspects of the battle but will also drop down to the street level to give a view of the tactical warfare going on. If you have not read a book on Stalingrad, this is an excellently told one which moves at a steady pace without getting bogged down in details.

The bad, however, is a huge misstep. The title, “The Lighthouse of Stalingrad” is a reference to Pavlov’s House in Stalingrad. Without diving into too much detail, Pavlov’s House is a symbol of Russian resistance in World War II and is a cultural icon. Besides the title, the book description makes it seem like Pavlov’s House will play a huge role in the narrative. It does not. It takes up shockingly little. I have read about Stalingrad before, specifically, Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad which is the gold standard according to many including MacGregor in the introduction. I wanted to read this book because I thought it would be a more tactically focused book which dove into the myth of Pavlov’s House.

This book gets 3 stars out of 5. I feel guilty doing so as Iain MacGregor is an excellent writer and much of the book is excellent. However, the marketing seems to make a promise that it does not deliver on and that needs to be taken into account.

Verdict:

A very good book if you want on overview of Stalingrad but not if you want a deep dive on the Lighthouse of Stalingrad. Buy it here!

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Deadly Triangle by Susan Goldberg

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Deadly Triangle:

Canadian murder, eh!

Quick synopsis:

The 1935 murder of famous Canadian architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Francis Rattenbury had a major windfall in creating a government building by negotiating his profits to be tied to the final cost. He then went over budget by twice the original amount. Canadians are trusting people.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

That same government building didn’t have a press area and the lieutenant governor didn’t even have their own bathroom.

My Take on Deadly Triangle:

Deadly Triangle by Susan Goldenberg is unfortunately one of those stories that should just stay a Wikipedia entry. Goldenberg recounts the murder of a famous Canadian architect by his wife’s much younger lover and the aftermath.

There are some twists and turns I won’t spoil here, but the narrative breaks under the weight of a story that is not long enough for a book. Goldenberg is forced to speculate, repeat, and define very simple things just to reach book length and the whole thing is still very short. The second half of the book is mostly direct court testimony and newspaper articles. As a reader, I just couldn’t connect with anyone in the book or with the murder/scandal as a whole.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by NetGalley and Dundurn Press.)

Verdict:

A good writer doing their best, but the story can’t sustain the whole book. It’s not without some good twists. Buy it here!

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Guest Post! Ryan Woolf’s Review of Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan

Alternate Tagline for Hero of Two Worlds:

I thought there would be more rap battles.

Quick synopsis:

The fascinating life story of The Marquis de Lafayette.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The Marquis de Lafayette was childhood friends with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette; he had a surrogate father/son relationship with George Washington; and he personally knew Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The Marquis de Lafayette was only 19 years old when he left France to fight in the new world against the explicit orders of King Louis XVI.

My Take on Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution:

Before reading Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, almost everything I knew about Lafayette came from the Broadway Musical, Hamilton. Don’t get me wrong, Daveed Diggs does a great job rapping a history lesson when he describes Lafayette executing Washington’s strategy against the British saying: 

“Watch me engagin’ em! 

Escapin’ em! 

Enragin’ em!”

Or his role in securing France’s support for the war when he rhymed: 

“I go to France for more funds

I come back with more

Guns

And ships

And so the balance shifts.”

That said, I think Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next hit musical should have Lafayette as the lead character.

Lafayette’s life spanned multiple geo-political environments. He was born and came of age as a French nobleman who was schoolmates with King Louis XVI; he fought alongside America’s founding fathers during the American Revolution; he survived the Reign of Terror after stoking the flames of the French Revolution; and he openly criticized Napoleon as a despot. Throughout all of this, Lafayette, against his own self interest as a privileged nobleman, idealistically fought for the republican virtues of liberty and self governance. 

I absolutely loved the book. The author, Mike Duncan, moved to France to immerse himself in Lafayette’s world to write the book and his narrative of Lafayette’s role in one of the most influential eras in modern history is second to none. I found Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution to be a captivating page turner. I genuinely enjoyed it so much that I bought copies for friends and family members.

Verdict:

Read it and read it again! Buy it here!

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I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for I’m Glad My Mom Died:

Thank God my mom is not like her mom.

Quick synopsis:

A memoir by former child star, Jennette McCurdy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Miranda Cosgrove seems like a good person and a good friend.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Ariana Grande seems like a jerk. You know, more so than she already seems.

My Take on I’m Glad My Mom Died:

I saw a lot of great reviews for this and thought, why not? I expected a few semi-shocking moments and maybe McCurdy is a good writer. It’s not a bad thing to stay current with pop culture.

Holy hell, did I get way more than I expected. I have never seen any show with McCurdy, but I was vaguely aware of her as an actress. That said, she is a gifted writer. You may be reading this and thinking the same thing that I did at first, which is, “I wonder who ghostwrote this?” You will quickly find this cannot be written by anyone but McCurdy. This is a visceral book. McCurdy spares no details in pointing out how horribly her mother abused her. It is told in such a frank and straightforward way as to be totally disarming. Also, a ghostwriter would have tried to make excuses for McCurdy’s own behavior and tried to make it all her mother’s fault. There is a complete lack of self-preservation here and clearly McCurdy wrote it that way.

Let me be clear, this is a story about horrific child abuse. If you can’t read something like that, do not read this book. However, if you want to read a very well written book which is not afraid to be honest about what abuse can look like, then I am not sure there is a better one out there. McCurdy’s mother was sinister in a way not often discussed. Her manipulative nature should go on the hall of fame of terrible mothers.

Simply put, the title of the book will not seem all that objectionable by the time you get to the end.

Verdict:

An excellent book, but reader beware about the subject matter. Buy it here!

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American Mother by Gregg Olsen

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for American Mother:

Family dinners must be awkward.

Quick synopsis:

The story of a 1986 true crime case where people were killed by tainted medicine.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Cyanide smells like bitter almonds. Stick to peanuts.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Anything I’d say here is a spoiler. Just know you need to read the whole book all the way to the end.

My Take on American Mother:

If you think your family has problems, wait until you read this book.

Gregg Olsen chronicles the story of a pair of cyanide poisonings in the late 1980s. This is actually an update of a book Olsen already published called Bitter Almonds. Does it matter? Not at all. The book is a great read and a must for any true crime nut.

Sure, the book is about the murders and how the case played out. There are twists and turns and the book would be good without anything else. However, this book becomes great because of the attention Olsen pays to the upbringing of the accused murderer and her daughter. A true crime case becomes a meditation and graphic illustration of how families perpetuate abuse through every generation. You may find yourself feeling sorry for some less than stellar people even if for just a second. Except for the weird juror. She just seems disturbed.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by Netgalley and Thread Books.)

Verdict:

A great true crime book. Read it. Buy it here!

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The Rebel and the Kingdom by Bradley Hope

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Rebel and the Kingdom:

You should always have a plan B when raiding an embassy.

Quick synopsis:

The story of an armed raid on a North Korean embassy and the person who made it happen.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

North Korea divides their people into 51 categories. About 75% of the country has almost no access to a comfortable life.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

During the Korean War, the U.S. dropped about 625,000 tons of bombs on North Korea over two years.

My Take on The Rebel and the Kingdom:

This book asks a very simple question. Why aren’t we more upset about the way North Korea treats its people? Well, there is a man who was very upset about it, and he tried to do something about it. It went very badly.

The Rebel and the Kingdom by Bradley Hope looks at the activities of Adrian Hong as he tries to take on the North Korean government. If I had to describe his activities, it would probably be “over-the-top.” Hong’s life makes for a compelling read because he seems capable but out of his depth, passionate but soft-spoken, and finally, organized but delusional. The main event of the book is an invasion of sorts that I won’t describe here.

Hope writes a lean narrative, and it works very well for the subject matter. Hong is an enigma anyway, but too much background would drown out the forceful aspects of this story. While the focus is Hong, Hope is also putting a spotlight on how the world is turning a blind eye to the North Korean people. Hong may not have made the right decisions, but at least he did something.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Crown Publishing.)

Verdict:

A really great book that asks some hard questions. Read it. Buy it here!

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