Battle of the Books: Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett Vs. Katharine of Aragon by Patrick Williams Vs. Catherine of Aragon by Amy Licence

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Yes, it is the same woman even though it’s spelled differently.

Quick synopsis: Biographies of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII and yes then it all went wrong.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Catherine was the daughter of Queen Isabella. Yes, the one who sent Columbus across the ocean. She did more than that, you know.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: How impressive was Catherine during her lifetime? Thomas Cromwell, who was decidedly not a fan of hers, said, “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” Sexism aside, it is a compliment.  

My Take: Catherine of Aragon was much more than just the woman in the way for Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She was the daughter of Isabella I and Ferdinand II. She wasn’t even supposed to marry Henry VIII. She was married to his older brother, Arthur, who died six months into their marriage. This short marriage would be how all the divorce nonsense came into being. Also, Henry being one of history’s most notorious hornballs.

Catherine was beloved by the people of England which was not an easy thing to do for a Spanish princess. Spain was not always in favor with England and Catherine had to work hard to earn favor with the people and she did through various charitable functions.

What most people fail to realize is Henry and Catherine were married for a long time before Anne Boleyn came along. In fact, they were married in 1509 and did not get “divorced” until 1533. She had bad luck with children and only gave birth to one who would live to adulthood. Her name was Mary, although many probably know her as “Bloody Mary.”

Man, the Tudors really knew how to pile on the drama.

All three books are well done and in-depth. Can’t go wrong with any of them, although Williams’ and License’s has a bit more detail than Tremlett.

Verdict: Read any of the three and you will get a great story about Catherine.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Michael Jones, The Black Prince: England’s Greatest Medieval Warrior
  • Kristin Downey, Isabella
  • Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great
  • Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great

The Book Was Better: The Lost City of Z by David Grann vs. The Lost City of Z

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Who would have thought the Amazon could be so dangerous?

Quick synopsis: The story of famed explorer Percy Fawcett and his disappearance looking for the Lost City of Z.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: There are still indigenous people within the Amazon rain forest who have not had contact with the outside world.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Fawcett is one of the few British explorers known for not treating the locals like garbage. The movie and book show the lengths he went to create a positive relationship with indigenous peoples. The movie scene is pretty damn intense.

Book vs. Movie: The movie, The Lost City of Z, holds a special place in my heart. It was the first time I ever went to a movie alone. I had already read the book and loved it. I had an odd day off from work and knew full well that no one would go see the movie with me on a normal Friday or Saturday. This story is just to reveal to you, dear reader, that scarfing down popcorn without worrying about other people’s judgement is delightful. I looked like the floor of the movie theater when I was done. I regret nothing.

As for the movie, it was pretty fantastic and close to the book as it can be. The cast is stellar, and the best part is just how immersive the Amazon scenes are. The movie is intense and a little weird. Which is good, because Fawcett was kind of weird.

The book gives you more detail about this explorer who was equal parts obsessive and blissfully ignorant. He was driven, a bit of an absentee father and husband, and by the end maybe insane. I won’t ruin it for you.

The medium doesn’t matter here. You are in for a good time.

Verdict: The book is better, but much closer than most. You can’t go wrong with either.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Peter Stark, Astoria
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Candice Millard, River of Doubt

Freedom’s Detective by Charles Lane

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Even criminals hated the KKK.

Quick synopsis: The life of Hiram C. Whitley, one of the earliest leaders of the Secret Service and renowned KKK detective. He was also a criminal.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Why does the President have the ability to pardon criminals? It was intended to end insurrections faster by giving the executive power to entice leaders to quit rebelling without fear of jail.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Do you live in Chipley, Florida? Congratulations! Your town is named after a man who was part of the murder of a reconstructionist politician! His Wikipedia page erroneously tries to discuss it away. The references section is hilariously lacking.

My Take: It takes a thief to catch a thief. The Grant administration took this quite literally.

This book does a great job on two fronts. First, it is an unflinching look at Hiram C. Whitley. One on hand, he was a villain, racist, and thief. On the other hand, he was a hero, innovator, and friend to the black community. Lane lets you see both sides of him and does not make excuses to exonerate him.

Lane also does a fantastic job in describing the backdrop of Reconstruction in the south following the Civil War. Politics and violence were the ways of life for everyone and no one in between would be tolerated. This book makes you wonder how a single black person even survived in the south post-Civil War.

Lane also gets right to the point and moves the story along fast. For those who like to have sources to back up the facts, Lane has one of the most expansive references section especially considering it’s a short book.

Verdict: Really great book. Reads like a novel and could even interest non-history nerds.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Victoria Bruce and William Oldfield, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society

The White Cascade by Gary Krist

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A horror movie in book form.

Quick synopsis: The story of Wellington avalanche of 1910 which left 96 people dead. It is the deadliest avalanche in American history.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The disaster was so terrible that the town of Wellington quietly changed its name to Tye in order to avoid the awful association. It was later abandoned and burned to the ground.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The winter in the area was so bad that another avalanche in Canada killed 63 more people.

My Take: This book is about a horrible disaster that very few people know about. I certainly didn’t until I was surfing Amazon’s recommendations and came across it. It also made Gary Krist one of my favorite authors.

In 1910, two trains were stopped at the railroad depot in Wellington, Washington. A blizzard, which lasted 9 days, snowed in both trains. The blizzard was so bad that on one day 11 feet of snow fell. Once the snow stopped, it was replaced by rain and then a lightning strike started the avalanche and well…

Before you accuse me of a “spoiler alert”, the basics of the disaster are not what you read the book for. Krist turns this into a book of suspense and then horror by creating palpable tension. You know the avalanche is coming. You feel the buildup just like the snow outside the trains. The aftermath is the horror movie.

Krist does something most authors are incapable of. He takes something you know and still makes you dread what is coming. You are almost surprised when the avalanche finally comes.

Verdict: One of the best disaster books I have ever read. I’ve read a lot.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory, Empire of Sin, City of Scoundrels
  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles

Ship Ablaze by Edward O’Donnell

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Sometimes life preservers are a bad idea.

Quick synopsis: The story of the disaster of the General Slocum in 1904.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: On a pleasure cruise around New York City, the boat caught fire and sank killing 1,342 people on board. It was the worst disaster in New York history until September 11th.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The safety features of the boat were so out of date that the life-jackets actually made people sink faster rather than float.

My Take: Some disaster stories defy belief. First, you can’t believe they happened without ever hearing about them. Second, the details sound so alien to what we know today that it seems like fiction. The story of General Slocum fits the bill.

In 1904, a Lutheran Church from Little Germany in New York City chartered the General Slocum for an excursion. It was an annual trip which was now on its 17th year. As you may expect, whole families were planning on going. They boarded and the ship set off at 9:30 am. The fire was first noticed at 10 am.

Let me quickly list some of the safety features we now expect on ships like this and their condition at the time of the fire: fire hoses (rotted and couldn’t hold water), lifeboats (bolted in place), life preservers (weighted down with iron because the cheap cork used didn’t make minimum weight requirements). There were over 1,400 people on the boat. The estimated deaths were between 1,021 to 1,342.

O’Donnell doesn’t revel in the death. He takes the time to give backstory and make the reader feel the aftermath as a massive amount of a few city blocks were decimated by the deaths. Entire families died within Little Germany. O’Donnell tells the full story and doesn’t turn this story into disaster porn.

Verdict: This is a horrific and amazing read. O’Donnell does a great job giving the full story and not just the disaster.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Timothy Egan, The Big Burn
  • Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire
  • Denise Gess and William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo
  • Daniel James Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • David Von Drehle, Triangle

Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Want to know why Ireland hates England? Well, here is one of the many reasons!

Quick synopsis: The story of America’s first true humanitarian mission during the Great Irish Famine.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One of the donations to Ireland came from the Choctaw Indian tribe. Why is that significant? They were the people forced to endure the Trail of Tears just fifteen years prior.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: During the famine, Ireland was still a net EXPORTER of food stuffs. England never slowed the exports even while the people of Ireland starved. Yeah, Irish hatred of the Brits making more sense now?

My Take: Not a good look, England! Great look, USA!

Black ’47 is a reference to the worst year of the Irish Famine (Or Great Hunger). England’s policy (read: unconscionable indifference) of making the Irish fend for themselves meant little was done for Ireland in the beginning of the famine, which lasted 4 years. Additionally, when they did finally act, it was often late, plagued with administrative nonsense, and then ended prematurely.

Enter the United States. For the first time in its history, the US government chose to perform a purely humanitarian mission to help the people of Ireland. The mission was quickly executed while the people of the US contributed even faster than the wheels of government could work.

Puleo focuses on two main characters in his book: an American ship captain and Irish Catholic priest. It is a short book comparatively to the events, but Puleo does a fantastic job of giving you all the facts you need without getting too in depth. He also hammers England’s indifference and incompetence, which I truly appreciated as a person of Irish ancestry.

Yes, I am filing this under “true crime.” Slainte.

Verdict: A great book about an event that is equal parts horrible and uplifting. It is high level enough even for people who have no idea about these events.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing

Sudden Sea by R.A. Scotti

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It was a wicked stahm, brah. (Note to my editor: This is me mocking a New England accent. Please don’t tell me I have two misspellings.)

Quick synopsis: The story of the 1938 Great New England Hurricane.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Katharine Hepburn was caught up in this hurricane! The family house she stayed in was completely destroyed. (And this dear reader, is the fact which will finally get my Aunt Carol to read my site. Probably just once, though.)

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The hurricane was a “100-year storm.” Most people think it means a storm like this only happens once every hundred years. It actually means any hurricane season there is a 1% chance for this type of storm. Technically, you could have 100-year storms in back to back weeks.

My Take: The 1938 Great New England Hurricane was a monster for a variety of reasons. First, it was a Category 5 which is the highest classification in the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. Second, it targeted New England mostly which is not an area accustomed to strong hurricanes. Third, meteorologists still didn’t have a great handle on forecasting (still don’t, I kid, I kid). Finally, when it made landfall, it did so at high tide which made the storm surge that much worse.

What did it result in? 682 deaths and $306 million in damages. In today’s money, it would have been about $5.1 billion in damages.

Scotti writes a compelling disaster story. She focuses on specific people and places to drive home the overwhelming might of the storm. The time leading up to the storm showcases just how completely unprepared many people were for a storm of that magnitude.

Verdict: Great book for hurricane enthusiasts and even the casual reader. Get it for the summer.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Wallace Akin, The Forgotten Storm
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours
  • Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm
  • Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm

Never In Finer Company by Edward G. Lengel

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Military egomaniacs get their men in a jam? You don’t say.

Quick synopsis: Story of the “Lost Battalion” in World War I.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Jokes about using pigeons to send messages are commonplace as jokes. I think people forget that it actually was a useful way to communicate in World War I. Don’t believe me? Read this and tell me Cher Ami isn’t a badass (bird).

Fun Fact for History Nerds: When the German’s started talking smack to the encircled Americans, they were surprised when vicious epithets were sent back in their own language. The diversity of New Yorkers wins again.

My Take: It’s a tale as old as time. A high-level military egomaniac creates a horrible situation because they don’t know how war works, someone else bails them out, and then they celebrate themselves as if it was the plan all along.

The Lost Battalion of World War I was 9 companies of the 77th Division which were dangerously forced beyond their fellow units to their left and right. Ultimately, they were encircled by German forces and were cut off for days.

Lengel takes the reader through the story of how the 77th was formed and their movements which allowed for the story to take place. Lengel mostly focuses on specific characters both in and out of the unit to give a full view of how the Lost Battalion changed many lives. Unfortunately, it was mostly for the worse.

The book is an easy and quick read by history nerd standards, but it’s much deeper than it seems. Lengel touches on a lot of things, such as PTSD and incompetent leadership, but doesn’t use too heavy a hand. His subjects are complex people in horrible situations and he recognizes that.

Verdict: Great book for anyone. Go read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows

Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why I never go camping. OR In Soviet Russia, mountain kill you!

Quick synopsis: The story of the mysterious death of 9 hikers in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1959. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The nine hikers’ bodies were found in various forms of undress over a spread-out crime scene.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The biographies of some of the hikers are an excellent crash course in how Russia was in the late 1950s and why even “friends” were never really “friends.” 

My Take: As if living in communist Russia wasn’t rough enough, you can apparently die under mysterious circumstances in the mountains with your friends. 

The basic story is very simple. Nine hikers head into the Ural Mountains. They knew each other well for the most part and were experienced with hiking and camping in rough conditions. They never return.  

A rescue party is sent to find them and can’t explain most of the evidence. It seems like some may have been attacked by animals, some seemed to die from exposure, and there is no sign of an animal or murderer. No rational explanation exists. 

Eichar actually heads to the scene decades later for the book. His journey there is almost as interesting as the mystery. Even today, getting to the scene requires a lot of help and some very shady characters. Eichar eventually posits a rational theory but it will never be known for sure. And unless you are a hardcore scientist, you will not even realize such a thing exists. 

Verdict: This mystery is worth reading. The author goes the extra mile (literally) to provide a viable answer.  

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror 
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows 
  • David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood 
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze 
  • R.A. Scotti, Sudden Sea 
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky 

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: If you thought doctors were clueless now….

Quick synopsis: The story of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in England and how two men figured out why it was happening.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The cholera outbreak chronicled here killed 616 people. It all came from one water pump.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This wouldn’t be known back when this happened but one of the best treatments for cholera is somewhat ironic. Cholera causes you to go to the bathroom an excessive amount of times. If only people knew the best solution was to keep eating and drinking excessively. Eventually, the cholera would run its course and the infected person would not succumb to malnutrition of other effects.

My Take: This story is really straight forward but takes into account a lot of the confusion when trying to treat diseases before the idea of a germ was totally understood.

In 1854, a major outbreak of cholera occurred in London. Why? Basically, because no one understood sanitation, people’s waste was going into the Thames. Since no one knew about germs or how cholera infected people, it meant that many water pumps were contaminated. The one on Broad Street was particularly bad and would take over 600 lives.

It would have been worse if not for Dr. John Snow (no, not the Game of Thrones guy) and the Reverend Henry Whitehead. Yes, it sounds like the perfect set up for a buddy comedy, but this actually happened. Between Snow understanding how infection works and Whitehead knowing the neighborhood, they were able to pinpoint the Broad Street pump as the source of the infection and save lives.

Johnson tells this part of the story well but then tries to extrapolate a bit too much. The story itself is interesting enough and explains how the competing theories of a disease made this particularly difficult for Snow and Whitehead.

Verdict: A good book that falls apart a bit when the actual historical event ends. Still worth a read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five