Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: John Brown was a nutjob. A well meaning nutjob, but a nutjob.

Quick synopsis: The story of John Brown’s Raid on the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal before the Civil War. It went poorly.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Wilkes Booth was at John Brown’s execution.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Robert E. Lee was in charge of the mission to retake the arsenal. Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart were also part of the mission.

My Take: When you look at John Brown through the lens of history, you have to be willing to see the dichotomy of the man. He was a powerful abolitionist. He was severely mentally ill. He was a murderer. He killed some very bad people.

He staged an audacious and brave attack on a US military arsenal. It was intended to signal for the slaves of America to rise up. That is very uplifting. It was also incredibly dumb as it had basically no chance of actually working.

History looks on John Brown somewhat fondly because he ended up on the side of the angels. He was no angel, though.

Horwitz tells a great story. He gives you all the details of the planning and does not hide from the contradictions of John Brown. When the raid starts, Horwitz tells a great action story from there.

Verdict: A great book for everyone.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman
  • Jamie Malanowski, Commander Will Cushing
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman

The Ghost Ships of Archangel by William Geroux

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Stalin was kind of a jerk? You don’t say.

Quick synopsis: The story of PQ-17, a World War II supplies convoy headed for Russia. The convoy needed to pass across German occupied seas, and it goes…. badly.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Technological limitations lead to “funny” situations in war. The convoy could clearly see a German plane circling them and targeting their position for other attack aircraft. However, none of the guns on the ships could shoot down the plane. A ridiculous staring contest ensued. At one point, men on the ships signaled to the pilot that they were sick of seeing him flying in a circle. He signaled he understood and started flying in the opposite direction.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Another problem? The convoys were only partially protected on their trip. Due to ship strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, part of the convoy’s protection had to turn back before the destination.

My Take: Again, this is why I don’t like boats.

Geroux’s book is a perfect example of what happens when people at the top have no idea what is going on at the bottom. Two main threads make up the narrative. The politics between England, the U.S., and Russia is the smaller story but supremely important because they put PQ-17 in the horrible situation it ultimately ends up in.

The other thread is, of course, the boats of PQ-17. Geroux is a concise writer and he focuses more on the action than the numerous people and ships which make up PQ-17. He has three main characters to see the action through and he gives the reader a clear idea of what they are up against and how royally screwed they end up being.

Geroux’s book is a quick and fun read. You get a lot of little details about World War II which you will not find in a lot of other books.

Verdict: A really great World War II book about a very specific episode in the war. Only the biggest World War II nerds will know anything about it before reading it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La
  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Spying sounds exhausting.

Quick synopsis: The story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the spy master of a massive network in France throughout World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Spying in France during World War II was very often a family affair. Olson notes multiple instances where an entire family would be spies including children younger than their teens. “Pick up some milk, Timmy, and then get me those troops deployment numbers on your way home.”

Fourcade also escaped from the Germans by stripping naked and squeezing between the prison bars.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: If you want to know everything you possibly can about a spy ring, then this is the book for you. Too many great history nerd tidbits to pick just one!

My Take: Olson is one of those talented writers who seems to give you an immense amount of detail about her subject without making it feel like a literary lobotomy. This book is no exception.

Olson chronicles the life of Madame Fourcade focusing mostly on her spy ring during World War II. It is absolutely fascinating to read about how these spies could be both ingenious in their methods while also being complete novices who make stupid decisions. Fourcade ended up in charge of the spy ring because the original leader was kind of a gallant idiot.

Olson toes a tight rope. She throws hundreds of names at the reader while moving at a brisk pace. I could see how some people could be overwhelmed, but it also adds a vital element to understanding Fourcade. Olson’s writing and pace lets the reader feel how Fourcade must have felt. Overwhelmed, exhausted, and dizzy with the sheer amount of chaos going on around her.

And in the end, the Nazis get what’s coming to them. I love happy endings.

Verdict: Great read even for novices or even non-history nerds.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise
  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor

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