Ghosts of Honolulu by Mark Harmon and Leon Carroll Jr

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Ghosts of Honolulu:

Yes, THAT Mark Harmon.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the spying in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor.

Fact for Non-History People:

In 1920, there were 109,000 Japanese immigrants in Hawaii which made up 43% of the total population.

Fact for History Nerds:

2,403 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor including 49 civilians.

My Take on Ghosts of Honolulu:

I always take a slight pause before picking up a history book which has an actor or pundit listed as a co-author. Luckily, I can confirm that Mark Harmon (from NCIS but more importantly, Summer School) and Leon Carroll do a great job with Ghosts of Honolulu.

The subtitle of the book is a bit misleading. While it sounds like this is a spy vs. spy espionage thriller, this book is more about the shifting fortunes of Japanese Americans on Oahu during World War II. There is the main character of Doug Wada, but he disappears for extensive periods of time in a short book. That said, the book is still a great read, and it covers a lot of ground.

There is one criticism I have which can either be a nitpick or a deal-breaker depending on your adherence to the tenets of non-fiction. There are at least two places in the book where the authors point out they “dramatized” a conversation. This would normally drive me insane, but the authors do have footnotes explaining where the information comes from and that the conversations are not made up from nothing. If you are a casual history reader, you won’t notice and will enjoy the book immensely. For the history nerds who see this as sacrilege (I am usually in this camp), these sections are slight and do not come from nowhere. The footnotes are extensive throughout the book. Quite frankly, the authors should have never bothered as the narrative would have been strong even without the dramatizations.

This is a great, fast-paced, and interesting book for anyone who likes a good story even if you aren’t a full-on history nerd.


A fantastic read for everyone. Buy it here!

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Into Siberia by Gregory Wallance

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Into Siberia:

Yes, it’s as cold as you think.

Quick synopsis:

The story of George Kennan’s journey through Siberia to evaluate the exile system of Russia.

Fact for Non-History People:

The Bell of Uglich was exiled after it was used to summon a revolt. Yes, a literal bell.

Fact for History Nerds:

Most Russian exiles had to walk to their destinations in Siberia and their sentences didn’t start until they got there.

My Take on Into Siberia:

I don’t know what is harder to believe. That someone would voluntarily go spend months in Siberia or that the same person thought the Russian prisons in the area wouldn’t be that bad. George Kennan was that man, and, to his credit, he realized he was wildly naive.

Gregory Wallance tells the story of Kennan’s two trips to Siberia in his immensely entertaining Into Siberia. I knew nothing of Kennan before this book. Wallance does an amazing job of explaining Keenan and why he ended up in one of the most desolate places on Earth multiple times. Sure, I still think he was a little nuts, but I definitely enjoyed reading about his adventures. The book is on the shorter end for a history book, but it is part of the strength of the narrative. Wallance does not bury the important parts of Kennan’s life and travels in needless detail. Specifically, Wallance’s ability to convey the horrors of Keenan’s journey in minimal page count is a feat in and of itself. Nothing lingers too long and Wallance might even convince me to read Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System.

Wait, Kennan’s book is over 1,000 pages. Just read this instead. You’ll love it.

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


A great read! Buy it here!

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The Rest is History by Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Rest is History:

Historians gone wild.

Quick synopsis:

Basically, whatever Tom and Dom felt like writing down about history in various forms.

Fact for Non-History People:

The first formal celebration of Christmas wasn’t until the year 336. AD, obviously.

Fact for History Nerds:

Stanley Baldwin, a very rich British PM, donated a fifth of his family fortune (about 120,000 pounds) to help pay off British World War I debt.

My Take on The Rest is History:

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook are drunk. Or at least, I assume they were drunk when they came up with the wonderfully random list of topics that became The Rest is History: The Book Not the Podcast (I came up with the subtitle myself).

Do you want to know who the best Australian Prime Minister? How about the worst dinner parties ever? What was St. Patrick’s deal? How ridiculous is The Da Vinci Code? All of this information can be yours just by reading this fever dream of a history book. I laughed at nearly every page. I learned nearly every page. If you have a sense of humor, then this book is for you. If you kind of like history but get sleepy when you try to read it, then this is definitely for you.

Their list of the best dogs is absolute rubbish, though. Gelert is number one and it’s not even close.

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


A lot of fun. Read it! Buy it here!

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The Black Angels by Maria Smilios

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Black Angels:

If you need something done, find yourself a nurse.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Black nurses who helped cure tuberculosis.

Fact for Non-History People:

Tuberculosis killed Doc Holliday at age 36.

Fact for History Nerds:

In the first half of the twentieth century, tuberculosis killed 5.6 million people in the U.S. alone.

My Take on The Black Angels:

Tuberculosis is one of those diseases that doesn’t scare us today but used to strike fear in humans for thousands of years. After all, it killed the Bronte sisters, Doc Holliday, and Andrew Jackson. That’s a very wide variety of personalities as examples. It stalked everyone and no one could tell when it would decide to start killing you.

Maria Smilios’ The Black Angels takes a look at the final days of the disease through the eyes of Black nurses in a tuberculosis hospital on Staten Island called Sea View in the early to mid-1900s. The reason why Black nurses stepped into this moment in history is mostly because White nurses wanted nothing to do with TB wards and had other options. Another major part of the narrative is the various doctors working to find a cure for TB.

The book is excellent from beginning to end. I should warn readers that there are a few times where the Black nurses disappear for a chapter or two while discussing the doctors’ journey to the TB cure. Smilios is a very good writer, and these sections are still enjoyable without feeling disjointed. That said, I wanted more time with the nurses.

The time we do get with the nurses is exceptional. I can’t articulate why, but Smilios had me invested from the very beginning in the lives of Edna and Americus specifically. These sisters and their sacrifices set a powerful reminder of what was at stake and how life during these days could change on a dime. I won’t spoil anything but be prepared to have some feelings.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Penguin Group Putnam.)


Absolutely fantastic. Read it! Buy it here!

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Disneyland on the Mountain by Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Disneyland on the Mountain:

Is there any place the mouse won’t set up shop?

Quick synopsis:

The story of Walt Disney’s attempt to build a ski resort.

Fact for Non-History People:

Bambi lost money at the box office.

Fact for History Nerds:

Walt Disney was so strapped for cash in 1938 that he had to pay a $2,500 investment in four different payments.

My Take on Disneyland on the Mountain:

If you thought Disney didn’t get stuck in political wrangling until the 2020s then do I have a story for you! Disneyland on the Mountain by Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer tells the story of the Disney ski resort that you’ve never heard of because it never got made.

The story of why the resort died in the planning phase is not the thing of fairy tales. Literally the opposite as it was very much about court cases and grassroots activism. What makes the story so complex is there is no true villain here. Walt Disney was not trying to make some naked cash grab and destroy the natural environment. At the same time, you wouldn’t necessarily fault the activists who believed a ski resort would mar the mountain. Glasgow and Mayer tell a fair story here although I’d recommend this mostly for nerds of Disney and/or environmentalism.

(This book was provided as a courtesy copy from Rowman & Littlefield.)


A must read if you are a Disney nut or environmentalist. Buy it here!

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The Last Ships from Hamburg by Steven Ujifusa

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Last Ships from Hamburg:

99 problems but a ship ain’t one.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the men instrumental in the Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe before World War I.

Fact for Non-History People:

Thomas Ismay purchased the White Star Line in 1867 for only one thousand pounds. Yes, the Titanic White Star Line although it wasn’t made yet.

Fact for History Nerds:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 people, and no one was ever sent to jail.

My Take on The Last Ships from Hamburg:

What do J.P. Morgan, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Henry Cabot Lodge have in common? You’re right: antisemitism! And as illustrated in Steven Ujifusa’s The Last Ships from Hamburg, they were not alone.

The book is pretty sprawling narrative covering the business of immigrant steamship transportation. The main characters are the aforementioned Morgan, and also Albert Ballin and Jacob Schiff. I knew nothing about Ballin and Schiff before this. Ujifusa makes them very interesting characters with specific drives and also obvious faults. There is no hero worship in this book even if there are heroic deeds throughout.

Ujifusa follows the explosion of Russian-Jewish flight from Russia right before World War I. The narrative of the business dealings was interesting, but the real highlight of the book for me was whenever Ujifusa tells smaller stories about specific immigrants and what they faced. A small chapter on what an immigrant mother and child experienced is one of the saddest things I have ever read. The business side of things is important to understanding the greater story, but these smaller instances are when I was completely hooked. Give it a read!

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


An amazing story you’ve never heard before. Buy it here!

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60 Songs That Explain the 90s by Rob Harvilla

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for 60 Songs That Explain the 90s:

Just put the nostalgia directly in my veins!

Quick synopsis:

Um, just look at the title.

Fact for Non-History People:

Green Day’s Dookie sold 20 million copies.

Fact for History Nerds:

Everyone in Metallica, including the drummer Lars Ulrich, concede that Lars is an overrated drummer.

My Take on 60 Songs That Explain the 90s:

Listen, big disclaimer up front. I was born in 1982, so my formative music years were the 1990s. Or, if you want to be mean, the late 1900s. Rob Harvilla’s 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is the type of book in which I cannot be trusted to be impartial. I’d like to say I’m mature and professional enough to not get completely overwhelmed by reading about the Gin Blossoms or Metallica. I am not. I am okay with it. So, let’s do this review.

Harvilla is a liar. He admits this. He talks about way more than 60 songs and clearly, I was here for it. Harvilla writes very informally but I honestly believe it works for this book. He is, in essence, trying to teleport you back to your childhood bedroom with your best friend as you discuss just how deep Alice in Chains is and how no one else gets it. Harvilla has an extremely wide taste in music, so you also get write-ups on rap, country, and most genres under the sun. No, this is not a scholarly book. Yes, I loved it. If you were a 90s kid, I guarantee there is something here for you. He even covers ska!

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


You have to read it. Just do it. Trust me. Buy it here!

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