Pax by Tom Holland

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Pax:

Congrats on becoming emperor. You’ll be dead soon.

Quick synopsis:

A look at the Roman Empire at the height of its power.

Fact for Non-History People:

Nero married a lookalike of his dead wife. Not strange except this person was a man who Nero forced surgery upon to remove…. well, parts.

Fact for History Nerds:

Newcastle, England is the furthest north a Roman emperor ever visited.

My Take on Pax:

I need to admit up front that I usually find Roman history nearly impenetrable. There are so many names, positions (what is a consul anyway?), and strict rules in Roman history that I often feel like you need a class on it before reading anything about it. Luckily, Tom Holland has taken pity on my feeble little brain.

Pax takes a look at Rome’s golden age when it was at the height of its powers and the various (or should I say numerous) emperors of the time period. Holland makes sure to hit the big events like Nero and the burning of Rome but will also drop into smaller events which a Wikipedia article will not touch on. However, please don’t misunderstand me. This book is still very dense and very involved. Holland does not write a high-level book with no insight. This is still a deep history and Holland’s research is clearly top notch. If you are a well-read Roman historian, I am not sure there would be anything new in this book, but I think it’s written for people who would be hopelessly lost without someone holding their hand. (Me, I’m that reader that needs the hand holding.)

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


A great read. Buy it here!

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One Fine Day by Matthew Parker

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for One Fine Day:

It wasn’t fine for everybody.

Quick synopsis:

A look at the time when the British Empire was at its zenith.

Fact for Non-History People:

The British Empire on this one fine day covered nearly 14 million square miles which is a quarter of the world’s land area.

Fact for History Nerds:

At the end of World War I, Britain owed the U.S. 900 million pounds.

My Take on One Fine Day:

To say that I was excited to see Matthew Parker’s new book One Fine Day was available is a massive understatement. One of Parker’s previous books, The Sugar Barons, is a personal favorite, and I knew what to expect before jumping in. I expected Parker to write effortlessly and for him to have a keen eye for interesting people and details. Dear reader, I also knew that this is a very long book. I loved it, but you should know it is very long.

The book basically covers the British Empire in 1923 when it was at its zenith. It was also showing massive cracks. The reader gets to spend time in various sections of the empire and watch as the rapid disintegration is beginning. Parker needs to perform a high wire act. Imperialism and colonialism are bad words nowadays and it would be ludicrous to celebrate the very negative impacts of English colonialism. At the same time, to call everyone in the British system evil would be just as great an injustice. Parker handles this perfectly in my opinion. Good acts are called good, bad acts are bad, and the super nice guy in chapter one may end up being a racist opportunist by the end. Parker does not condemn people with today’s eyes, but he does point out how history will remember them.

The sheer scale of this book is massive, and it does cause some slight issues. For instance, the strongest parts of the book are when Parker focuses on a person or place which is not normally covered in history books. For instance, I finally understand why guano was so important in the Pacific and I will be looking to track down a biography of Adelaide Casely-Hayford forthwith. However, it’s the bigger stories which slow down the narrative. Gandhi and India take up a good amount of page count. It feels like too much for this particular book, but also not in depth enough to do the story of Britain and India justice.

However, this is a very minor complaint, and another reader may think me ridiculous. You are welcome to, as you are not the only one. In conclusion, the book is fantastic, and I am already excited for whatever Parker puts out next. Just remember, though, to brew a pot of coffee before you open it. You need your strength for all these pages!

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


I loved it. Take the time to read it! Buy it here!

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Battle of Ink and Ice by Darrell Hartman

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Battle of Ink and Ice:

I’d rather go to the Arctic than a newsroom.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the newspaper wars around the expeditions to the North Pole by Robert Peary and Frederick Cook.

Fact for Non-History People:

For years, the New York Times was boring on purpose.

Fact for History Nerds:

James Gordon Bennett Jr. put up the financial backing for Henry Morgan Stanley to find Dr. David Livingstone in the middle of Africa.

My Take on Battle of Ink and Ice:

I came for the ice, but I stayed for the ink.

Darrell Hartman’s Battle of Ink and Ice is a wonderful combination of the trials and tribulations of New York newspapers mixed with Arctic exploration. I am an absolute addict for any sort of Arctic/Antarctic exploration story, but the majority of page count concerns the newspapers. That said, my enjoyment was still through the roof. Hartman adeptly homes in on the most interesting aspects of the newspapers which is often the amazingly egotistical owners. In other hands, this book could be a bore where the narrative focuses too much on paper politics rather than the dangers of the ice. It can’t be understated how much Hartman’s easy writing style and eye for detail keep this book fast paced throughout.

And if you are a polar nerd like me, don’t worry. The final portion of the book is totally dedicated to the legendary scandal involved the North Pole, Robert Peary, and Frederick Cook. You will not be disappointed.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Penguin Group Viking.)


A fantastic book with enough great characters for anyone to enjoy. Plus, the Arctic! What more can you want? Buy it here!

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The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel by Douglas Brunt

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel:

The engine’s name is truly apt.

Quick synopsis:

The life and mysterious death of the creator of the Diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel.

Fact for Non-History People:

By 1885, there were only 250,000 electric light bulbs in America. By 1902, there were 18 million.

Fact for History Nerds:

In 1899, the first speeding ticket was issued in America to cabbie in New York City was jailed for doing 12 MPH in an 8 MPH zone. Speed demon.

My Take on The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel:

I am always wary of reading a book from an author who is primarily known for novels. This is not an indictment of a novel writer, but I have bad experiences where certain writers will try to inject suspense and excitement into historical episodes which are well known.

Luckily, I can confirm that Douglas Brunt does not fall into this trap. Brunt’s The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel follows the life of the eponymous engine creator. Brunt is an excellent writer, but what really comes through is his love for his subject. I don’t just mean Diesel himself but also his engineering. Brunt explains the creation of the engine, its proliferation, and how many different people reacted to its unveiling. I will say that some passages are clearly trying to lead in a certain direction (more on that in a minute), but overall, the story flows quite well.

Now, about that ending. Brunt attempts to solve the mystery of Diesel’s disappearance. I will say that Brunt does not hedge his bet in any way. I would also say I do not think he proved his conclusion and quite frankly I disagree with it. That said, this book is way more than its ending and I definitely enjoyed the journey.

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


A fun history book which reads like a novel in a good way. Buy it here!

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Flee North by Scott Shane

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Flee North:

Thomas Smallwood is the KING of trolling 1800s slaveowners.

Quick synopsis:

The story of an extremely successful branch of the Underground Railroad in the 1840s.

Fact for Non-History People:

After helping slaves escape, Smallwood would write and articles that Torrey published mocking the slaveowners for “losing” their slaves. Again, Thomas Smallwood is THE MAN.

Fact for History Nerds:

The first use of “Underground Railroad” might have been uttered by a policeman complaining about Smallwood’s ability to get away with freeing slaves.

My Take on Flee North:

Slavery was evil and despicable. Any reasonable person would agree. Scott Shane’s Flee North adds a new adjective, messy. Flee North mostly follows the daring adventures of former slave, Thomas Smallwood and his literal partner in crime, Charles Torrey. Both men would actively help slaves flee north towards safer environments in increasingly dangerous ways that would put both men’s lives in danger.

This conceit is enough for a great book, but what takes it to the next level is Shane’s parsing out of just how many different viewpoints came into conflict during this time. Abolitionists were not all the same. Many people understand that, but Shane highlights those major differences while holding up both Smallwood and Torrey as heroes who were not always the easiest to get along with. Everyone could fall under the term, “abolitionist” but they were not all attempting to reach the same goal. This book is a great read for someone who wants to leave more about the nitty gritty of the Mason-Dixon line during the time of slavery. It adds a tremendous amount of detail that most books skip right over.

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


An excellent book for anyone interested in this time period. Buy it here!

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The Six by Loren Grush

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Six:

Space: yet another place I have no intention of visiting.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the first six female astronauts at NASA.

Fact for Non-History People:

A totally of 8,079 people applied to be astronauts between 1976 and 1977.

Fact for History Nerds:

From 1950 to 1960, women represented 1% of all people employed as engineers.

My Take on The Six:

If you asked me about women in the space program before I read Loren Grush’s, “The Six,” all I would be able to tell you was that Sally Ride was the first American woman sent to space and that two women were part of the Challenger disaster. That is to say, Grush nearly had a blank slate on which to school me. Chronicling the NASA careers for the first six women astronauts admitted to the program, Grush writes a wonderful tribute to each of their successful careers. I didn’t know they were all part of a class of new astronauts which included the first members of color.

Grush adeptly tells the story of each of the six as singular people but also as part of a larger group. At no point in this book was I bored or yearning to get back to a different character. This is a testament to Grush’s ability to highlight what made each woman unique to the reader. Grush also does a great job moving the narrative forward which is no mean feat. She needs to occasionally jump back in time to highlight a different character, but it seems seamless in Grush’s presentation.

I should point out that this is clearly a celebration of these six women as opposed to anything akin to an exposé. Grush focuses on the positives of each of the six and possible character flaws are not detailed extensively. In fact, she treats all the characters, even those not in the six, in the same way (with the exception of Johnny Carson but don’t worry about that). This is not to say Grush sweeps anything under the rug, but merely avoids diving into long discussions around things like marital fidelity. The book is better for it.

I did notice that some reviews call this book a “novel” or suggested some of the details may be fiction. My reading of Grush’s sources at the end seem to indicate there is nothing fictitious in the book and it is in no way a novel.

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


An excellent book everyone will like. Buy it here!

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