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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The Last Hill by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Last Hill:

Yeah, they always say one more hill. Then there’s always another hill.

Quick synopsis:

The story of “Rudder’s Rangers” in World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

When the U.S. first entered World War II 85% of war resources were allotted to Europe as opposed to the Pacific.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Of the 130 soldiers who stormed Hill 400, only 16 walked back down.

My Take on The Last Hill:

Bob Drury and Tom Clavin are no strangers to epic stories especially about the military. This is another one of their excellent books which follows a Ranger Battalion in World War II to (essentially) their final action on Hill 400.

The book traces the story not only of the Ranger Battalion as an organization but also multiple soldiers within the unit from their arrival until the end of the war (or sometimes unfortunately sooner). If you like a good book on World War II, then this should be on your list. It is detailed without becoming a military science book and each man has his own clear character traits which makes them easy to distinguish.

My only minor quibbles are that it seems like there might be too many men who get a chance at the spotlight. As a former military member, I understand the pull to give every hero their due. For the narrative though, it can feel like too much bouncing between positions. Doc Block probably needs his own biography. The other quibble is that the book is more a battalion biography than a focus specifically on the battle for Hill 400. As I said, these are minor quibbles. This is still a great read.

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

Verdict:

A great book for any World War II nerds. Read it. Buy it here!

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The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams:

He’s more than just a beer!

Quick synopsis:

A biography of the overshadowed Adams, Samuel.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

He was never called “Sam.” Always Samuel.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Adams was gifted a slave from his mother-in-law. He immediately had her emancipated. Surrey would stay with the Adams family for nearly 50 years.

My Take on The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams:

He’s more than just a beer! Stacy Schiff resurrects the actual Samuel Adams from the scrap heap by writing a biography that will surprise most people because they don’t even know “Sam Adams” beer is actually based on a real-life person.

Schiff focuses on Adams’ life leading up to the American Revolution. What I appreciated most about Schiff’s book is her willingness to clearly point out the good and the bad throughout the book. Samuel Adams was not a selfless hero who flew above the fray. He was the fray and he caused the fray. He then reported on the fray and told everyone it was someone else’s fault the fray even happened. Adams was a hero and a villain depending on which side you chose. Schiff never denies either side of him and it makes for a great read because you feel like you are reading an impartial documentary as opposed to a fawning treatment.

There is plenty to cover here. The revolutionary fathers did not always get along and for good reason. The egos were big, and the stakes kept getting bigger. Schiff’s book keeps laser focused on Adams and keeps the scope intimate. A great read and a must for any Revolutionary War nerd.

(This book was provided to me as an advance read copy by Netgalley and Little, Brown and Company.)

Verdict:

It’s a must-read biography. Buy it here!

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Harbinger by Shelley Puhak

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Harbinger:

And now for something completely different.

Quick synopsis:

A collection of poems by Shelley Puhak.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

It’s a poetry book so none.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

See previous fun fact.

My Take on Harbinger:

I know, I know. “Brendan, this is called History Nerds United. What gives with you reviewing a poetry book?”

My answer is because I felt like it. You may recall Shelley’s name from her fantastic book (and subsequent wonderful podcast visit) The Dark Queens. Well, Shelley is a fantastic human and writer so I decided I needed to read this.

I won’t pretend to be a scholar of poetry. My two main questions when reading poetry are: 1. Did anything stick with me and 2. Do I want to read this again?

The answer to both questions for Shelley Puhak’s Harbinger is a resounding yes. Each of Puhak’s poems brought something different. Each takes on a different persona hence almost all of them being titled “Portrait of the Artist as.” Puhak has a knack for using words that jump off the page without being distracting. Portrait of the Artist as a 100-Year-Old House is the standout for me and perfectly illustrates her mastery of this whole thing. Who else could write about a house smelling “like old apple core” and make that feel real?

Ultimately, when I finished Harbinger, I had already planned to revisit it soon. I don’t think there is a stronger recommendation than that.

(I reviewed this book as an advance copy through Netgalley.)

Verdict:

It’s fantastic. Buy it here!

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