Crooked by Nathan Masters

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Crooked:

Thank God politicians aren’t criminals like this anymore.

Quick synopsis:

The story of a corrupt Attorney General and the senator who tried to bring him.

Fact for Non-History People:

How about this for graft? During World War I, Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation overcharged the government by $2 million dollars. They never delivered a single plane to the European theater.

Fact for History Nerds:

In many places during this era, it was a crime for unmarried couples to register at hotels under false names.

My Take on Crooked:

These days, the news will have you believe every new political scandal is the biggest one ever and something like this has never happened before. Well, then come meet disgraced Attorney General Harry Daugherty!

Crooked by Nathan Masters is all about the epic take down of Daugherty by Senator Burton Wheeler in the 1920s. By itself, this is already a great story of a new senator taking on an entrenched political animal with the power of what would become the FBI. Crooked detectives, personal lives shrouded in secrecy, and dirty money; what more can you possibly want?

While the story writes itself in many ways, Masters writes this story…well, masterfully. Pun not intended but let’s roll with it. Instead of reciting facts and events, Masters slowly reveals new characters as they come into the focus of the story. What results is a historical true crime narrative that feels like a thriller at times. However, Masters doesn’t fall into the trap of turning everyone into a trope. He keeps perspective throughout the story. Burton Wheeler is our ostensible hero, but that does not mean he is without his faults. This is a great book and I loved all of it.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Hachette Books.)


A fantastic book everyone will love. Buy it here!

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Ghosts of the Orphanage by Christine Kenneally

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Ghosts of the Orphanage:

“Orphanage” is a super misleading term.

Quick synopsis:

The history of abuse at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Vermont.

Fact for Non-History People:

Most children in orphanages WERE NOT ORPHANS. Usually, one, if NOT BOTH, parents were still alive.

Fact for History Nerds:

Efforts by the Catholic Church to make religious orders less strict actually led to a massive drop in the population. Some estimates put it at 80%.

My Take on Ghosts of the Orphanage:

I’d like to start off this review by stating unequivocally that this book is excellent, well-researched, fair, and the prose is easy to read. All that said, it is going to ruin your day.

Ghost of the Orphanage by Christine Kenneally chronicles the horrific story of the abuse of children at St. Joseph’s orphanage in Vermont. There are some short detours to other areas but trust me, there are enough stories from St. Joseph’s alone to ruin your soul. The book is based off an article published by Buzzfeed and penned by Kenneally. I truly appreciated the way Kenneally approached the subject and the people within it. Where a lot of books have a clear agenda from the outset, Kenneally at multiple points will let her own skepticism come through even if the evidence quickly clears it up. She is not afraid to add nuance to the narrative and it makes for balanced but clear story.

It goes without saying that for those who are triggered by abuse stories, this may not be the book for you. But for anyone who wants to read about systemic abuse and those who fought back, it is a must read.

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


One of my new favorites. A tough subject matter presented masterfully. Buy it here!

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Africatown by Nick Tabor

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Africatown:

Apparently, slavery wasn’t bad enough, so the discrimination just kept going.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the last slave ship to land in America and the fate of the people when slavery ended.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

In 1850, cotton consumption worldwide was 1.5 billion pounds. By 1859, it was 2.5 billion pounds.

Fact for History Nerds:

The mortality rate on slave ships from Africa as of 1860 was 6.4%.

My Take on Africatown:

Africatown is the rare example of an epic book which gets everything right. Nick Tabor has written a book which follows the last group of slaves every brought into the United States in 1860. Tabor follows the lives of these people and then looks at the community they created up until the present day. There is so much that can go wrong when you mix history, politics, and generational conflict. Often, I find these books become too unwieldy. The politics will be too one-sided, the history will be superficial, and the dizzying number of names make it impossible for anyone to stand out. Thank you, Nick Tabor, for making me look dumb because this book is fantastic in every aspect.

The history portion of the book dealing with the Clotilda, the Civil War, and the Jim Crow era are expertly done. The reader learns about the origins of the slave trade in West Africa, the emancipation of the slaves, and how they tried to build new lives post-Civil War. Tabor creates a narrative which is short by comparison to other books on slavery but is just as effective, if not more so. If the story of Cudjo Lewis doesn’t affect you then it’s time for therapy.

Somehow, this book then slips into current state politics and does not lose steam. I generally hate reading about contemporary politics because you end up hearing a very one-sided argument. While Tabor clearly has a point of view, he never fails to point out the valid concerns of the counter argument. This is sometimes just a single line in a much larger section, but it goes a long way in the reader trusting that the author did his homework and is being realistic and fair.

Quite simply, this is a fantastic book that everyone should read.

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


A great book which covers a lot of ground. Buy it here!

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The Strangers’ House by Alexander Poots

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Strangers’ House:

Take a relaxing stroll through a sometimes-dangerous place.

Quick synopsis:

A look at some of the writers and poets of Northern Ireland.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett both went to Portora Royal School, but decades apart obviously.

My Take on The Strangers’ House:

I can’t quite tell you what Alexander Poots’ The Strangers House is about. Sure, Northern Ireland and some of the writers who come from there or passed through. Is it history? Somewhat. Is it literary criticism? Yes, but not entirely. Is it an attempt by the author to understand a place that often defies explanation? Yes, definitely.

Generally, doing all of these things in one book is a total disaster. Somehow, Poots put together a book which seems to flow so easily that you can’t help but float along with the narrative. In some ways, the book feels like a poem itself. You get short biographies of authors and events but just enough to understand how they connect to the greater narrative. You’ll hear about the Troubles, but almost as a background detail to a piece of literature. It begs the question of what someone who knows nothing about Northern Ireland would take from this. However, as someone whose ancestors all came from Ireland, I can only speak as someone who has at least a baseline understanding of the people and topics in the book.

An author talking about other authors can come off as fawning, and at its worst, pretentious. Poots never falls into this trap. He doesn’t tell the reader these authors changed the world. Instead, he just lets us know how important they are to him.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Twelve Books.)


It’s literary comfort food. Read it. Buy it here!

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Our Man in Tokyo by Steve Kemper

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Our Man in Tokyo:

Ohhhhh, so that’s why Pearl Harbor happened.

Quick synopsis:

The story of how Japan ultimately chose to attack the U.S. from the perspective of the American ambassador, Joseph Grew.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The Japanese emperor was seen as infallible, so he was never allowed to make any decisions because then he might be wrong.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Mein Kampf was available in Japan. It was edited a bit for obvious reasons.

My Take on Our Man in Tokyo:

Growing up, history tends to drop Japan into World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbor. A more thorough history will mention the horrific actions in China, but otherwise, not much more ink is spilled on Japan in U.S. textbooks. Well, guess what? Turns out there is a lot more to the story!

Luckily, Steve Kemper is here to write a book about Japan before Pearl Harbor. And even luckier, Ambassador Joseph Grew was the diplomat in Japan during the ramp up to war. Grew is not a name you hear often, but he is absolutely vital in telling this compelling story. Kemper clearly had a lot to work with due to Grew’s diaries and documents which show a slow and disjointed march towards war. For me, a book needs two main things for it to be great. The story itself needs to be interesting and the author needs to tell it in a compelling way. Both are fully on display here. Japan was far from a country of bloodthirsty people hell bent on conquering the world. In fact, Kemper makes a hypothetical case that Pearl Harbor was far from a fait accompli.

Kemper is a very gifted writer. I consistently forgot that this book is a tremendous amount of political back and forth. This book could have easily felt like someone was reading Grew’s journals back to you. Instead, Kemper presents Grew’s words and provides insight which makes this book read like a thriller. It cannot be understated how much Kemper’s writing takes this book from good history to great read.

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


If you like World War II at all, this is a must read. It explains so much that you won’t find anywhere else. Buy it here!

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Putin’s Wars by Mark Galeotti

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Putin’s Wars:

So, this is why Ukraine is whooping his a–.

Quick synopsis:

A look at the Russian military from the end of the Cold War to now.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Other than a short stint in a basic training program, Putin was never in the Russian military.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

In 2000, Putin seemed to think Russia could someday join NATO. Whoops.

My Take on Putin’s Wars:

At first glance at Putin’s Wars, you might think oh this is just another hit piece on Putin and, good, screw that guy. But dear reader, it’s so much more!

Author Mark Galeotti takes a deep dive into the Russian military in a way I have not seen before. This book was completed before the beginning of the Ukraine War but was slightly updated once it happened. Here’s what you need to know. This book explains everything about what we are seeing in the news. The rot of the Russian military system and why Putin is partly but not entirely to blame.

Galeotti is rightly seen as an expert on Russia and has written/talked extensively on it. This is a huge boon to the book because books like this can often get stuffy and bore the reader into submission. Galeotti keeps an eye on the wider picture and his anecdotes are fascinating. A story about cell phones going off in the middle of battle is a particular standout. If you want to know how Ukraine happened, you must read this.


If you have any interest in current events involving Russia, then this is a must read. Buy it here!

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Wanderlust by Reid Mitenbuler

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Wanderlust:

“Eccentric” explorer is putting it lightly.

Quick synopsis:

A biography of Peter Freuchen who had a life you need to read to believe.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Creatures happiest around ice are called “pagophiles.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Male narwhal horns were believed to cure epilepsy, impotency, and flights of the mind.

My Take on Wanderlust:

I read a lot of Arctic/Antarctic literature. Every now and again, I wonder if I will get sick of these adventures. Honestly, sooner or later you can only read the word “pemmican” so many times before you lose your mind.

Then a book like Wanderlust by Reid Mitenbuler arrives and makes you feel like a fool for every doubting how exciting travel in extreme environments can be. Now, before you write this book off by saying this isn’t your thing, I would like to point out a few things. Namely, the subject of the book, Peter Freuchen was the following things: Arctic explorer, writer, reporter, game show contestant, Danish resistance fighter, actor, and MacGyver in one of the grossest stories I have ever read in my life. Everyone likes at least one of those things.

Mitenbuler writes a book which feels effortlessly short while containing an increasingly insane amount of varied stories. And yet, I also felt like Mitenbuler could have easily written 1,000 pages on Freuchen and not gotten all of it in. The book is very well written, but even Mitenbuler would probably admit, once he chose Freuchen, the hard part was already over. It’s great and you should read it, no matter who you are.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Mariner Books.)


An amazing book and a must read. Buy it here!

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Empress of the Nile by Lynne Olson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Empress of the Nile:

It is way easier to acquire an ancient temple than I thought.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, a trailblazing archaeologist and preserver of Egyptian treasures.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

More than 1.25 million people went to the Louvre to see King Tut’s treasures. It was the most popular exhibition in the Louvre’s history.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, France averaged a new government every 6 months.

My Take on Empress of the Nile:

Ancient Egyptian graves, spy-craft, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. These are just a few of the topics which are contained within Lynne Olson’s “Empress of the Nile.” The book is very good, and, like archeology, you wind up in places you did not expect.

Empress of the Nile feels like quite a few books rolled into one. The first is a biography of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt. She was a pioneering archeologist when women in archaeology was almost completely unheard of. She is the through-line of the book which also touches on World War II in France, the rescue of ancient Egyptian temples from the building of a dam (especially Abu Simbel), and a not insignificant amount of world politics.

There are large parts of the narrative where Desroches-Noblecourt disappears. For someone who wants a fully focused biography only of her, I could understand where these diversions could become distracting. However, I am a fan of Lynne Olson’s work because she has an uncanny ability to make every chapter interesting. While I believe the book would still be a great read without any tangents, they do add some nuance which enriches the overall book.

An example would be the portions of the book that center on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Kennedy Onassis is a great contrast to Desroches-Noblecourt. They were both intelligent and driven, but they achieved things in completely different ways. No one would have ever called Desroches-Noblecourt a shrinking violet. In fact, the end of the book is extremely satisfying as Olson fully reveals what Desroches-Noblecourt was like to work with from the view of her colleagues. Their comments are both a bit shocking in their candidness and yet not surprising in the least.

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


A great book that has something for everyone. Buy it here!

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Walk Through Fire by Yasmine Ali

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Walk Through Fire:

Don’t go look at train derailments!

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Waverly Train Disaster of 1978.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The explosion was so powerful that a tank pipe was thrown over 400 yards.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The medical examiner for the disaster also did Elvis’ autopsy.

My Take on Walk Through Fire:

Ever heard of the Waverly Train Disaster of 1978? No, I hadn’t either. However, I am glad Yasmine Ali rectified that situation.

Ali, who grew up in Waverly, TN and whose parents feature prominently in the narrative, tells the story of a train derailment which turned into a massive explosion well after the crash. The explosion would leave hundreds injured and 16 dead. The aftermath would lead to the creation of FEMA in the U.S.

The good parts of this book are very good. Ali writes about Waverly in a very loving manner and her familiarity with the people of the town makes her prose that much more effective. She does not dwell too long on any one person or event and the increasing tension is palpable before the explosion. Ali’s medical training also adds to the story, but she never gets too deep into “doctor speak.” When Ali is focused on the people and the train disaster, this book is excellent.

I have some minor quibbles. The section on legislation and the creation of FEMA slows down the book overall. Other disaster books usually need to talk about long, drawn out court battles but there wasn’t much to speak of after Waverly. FEMA just sort of seemed inevitable as opposed to a true call to action over insurmountable odds.

The only other criticism is the explosion is not explained in depth. There are recollections from people in Waverly when it happened, but there is no cohesive section explaining exactly what happened when everything finally ignited. Again, this is a very minor detail and did not inhibit my enjoyment of the book. I definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys books of people or towns overcoming tragedy.

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


A really interesting book about a disaster you probably never heard of. Buy it here!

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The Confidante by Christopher Gorham

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Confidante:

I don’t know what she said in those meetings, but it worked.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Anna Marie Rosenberg who was known as the most important woman in the U.S. government during World War II and beyond.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

To keep up morale during World War II, movie theaters often showed movies until 5 a.m. for overnight workers getting off shifts.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

A ping-pong ball size of Uranium 235 in a nuclear reaction is equal to thousands of tons of TNT.

My Take on The Confidante:

Have you ever heard of Anna Marie Rosenberg before? I will admit that even a nerd like me had never heard her name before. Luckily, Christopher Gorham did the hard work and wrote this book!

The best way I can describe Anna Rosenberg is to take Forrest Gump, make him a woman, and then make her extremely smart and savvy. Rosenberg was a key player in the presidencies of everyone from FDR to LBJ. She was the first person ever to receive the Medal of Freedom at the behest of then General Eisenhower. She was also an Assistant Secretary of Defense in 1950. She also made a whole bunch of money on her own through her own business in the private sector. She seemed to be in the middle of everything for decades.

So why don’t people know her name? Gorham goes a long way to show how it happened. Rosenberg’s power was in her personal touch and, perhaps more importantly, she knew how to keep her mouth shut.

This is a great biography of someone you never heard of before but really should have. Also, bonus points for one president coming off as a total jerk in this narrative. It’s not the one you think it is!

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Kensington Books.)


A great book about someone you never heard of but should have. Buy it here!

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