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!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try: