The Angel Makers by Patti McCracken

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Angel Makers:

Don’t trust Auntie.

Quick synopsis:

A true crime story about a poisoning ring in 1920s Hungary.

Fun Fact for Non-History People:

An old test for finding out if someone was poisoned was combining copper, acid, and a sliver of organ tissue from the victim. If it turned black or grey, arsenic was probably in their system.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Dozens of people needed to be dug up when the investigation finally happened.

My Take on The Angel Makers:

The Angel Makers by Patti McCracken is a unique entry into the historical true crime genre. McCracken writes the book as if it were a novel and the results end up being a mixed bag. Mostly enjoyable, but sometimes frustrating.

The Angel Makers tells the story of a poisoning ring in early 1900s Hungary. The setting is a farming village, and the main culprit is a midwife who absolutely loves poisoning men and babies. By the end, the extent of the poisoning ring takes on mythic proportions.

I struggle to assign a final rating to The Angel Makers. The reason is McCracken’s choices in her narrative. She digs deep into details and consistently highlights the sights and smells we would experience if we were standing next to each character. At first, this is very effective. You feel heartbroken for a woman whose drunk husband beats and berates her and the description of him and his disgusting breath ratchets up the emotions. McCracken avoids telling a straight story in order to invest the reader in the lives of her characters.

The problem is McCracken never lets up on her descriptions and misdirection. By the final quarter of the book, you wish the pace would pick up and the interrogations would take center stage. Unfortunately, the obfuscation of what is going on, which works very well early in the book, becomes extremely frustrating by the end of the book.

Ultimately, I am giving the book four out of five stars with a disclaimer. McCracken has written something very different than most books of this genre. If you like your true crime to be straightforward, then this is not the book for you. If you want to live more through the eyes of the people who lived this tragedy as if it were a novel, then you won’t be disappointed.

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


An interesting true crime story written in a unique way. Buy it here!

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First Family by Cassandra Good

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for First Family:

Riding on Georgie’s coattails.

Quick synopsis:

A look at the children (and their children) who were raised by George and Martha Washington.

Fun Fact for Non-History People:

In 1789, there were only 4,200 houses in New York City. In 1790, Philadelphia had 7,000 houses.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

State legislatures had to approve divorces. Virginia granted its first divorce in 1803.

My Take on First Family:

Some apples do fall far from the tree. Some fall far from the tree and then roll down the hill and get muddy. In fact, some weren’t actually apples at all but oranges the entire time pretending to be apples. Okay, I’ll stop torturing the metaphor. The apples are the Custis kids who may be better known as the stepchildren of George Washington. Actually, they aren’t known much at all which is why Cassandra Good did the dirty work for all of us and wrote First Family.

Good’s book fills in so many holes for me as an American history nerd. Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, is one of my favorite places on the planet. I have often looked at the names on the headstones around Washington’s tomb and wondered, “Who the heck is Bushrod?” It turns out, Bushrod was a lot more like Washington than the Custis children. Good dives deep into the Custis clan and follows each sibling as they disappoint, aggravate, and then try to profit off their association with the Father of the United States.

You may be asking why on Earth should you read about these people who are clearly not getting a ringing endorsement from me. I don’t like them, but I did love the research and the storytelling done by Good for this book. It’s an easy read, deeply investigated, but does not overstay it’s welcome. Good also takes the time to highlight the lives of the people living on Mount Vernon who didn’t have the choice to leave. It’s this type of well-rounded storytelling which makes this a must read for anyone interested in American history.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by the author and HTP Books.)


A must read for anyone interested in American history. Buy it here!

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Highlight Real by Emily Lynn Paulson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Highlight Real:

You definitely wouldn’t post these stories to your insta.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Emily Lynn Paulson’s journey to sobriety.

Fact for Non-History People:

Female alcohol use disorder increased by 83% from 2002 to 2013.

Fact for History Nerds:

The human brain fires off 20 million billion (not a typo) calculations per second.

My Take on Highlight Real:

Oh, Emily.

I am very often wary of anything written by an author about themselves. How can you really trust what they are putting on paper? It is so easy to change your motivation after the fact. I picked up “Highlight Real” because I read Paulson’s second book, “Hey, Hun” first, and I loved it. I wanted to see what set up Paulson to have the epiphanies she had in her second book.

Do I believe Paulson put it all out there? Yes. Totally. She puts it all out there and I know it’s the truth because this is a searing indictment of her actions for years. Yes, she talks about how alcohol was a problem. Yes, she dives into her trauma. However, she doesn’t distance herself from her actions. She was responsible and she knows that. She doesn’t blame the alcohol or the trauma and excuse herself.

I uttered (out loud) quite a few times the opening line to this review. There are many places where you feel the pain and embarrassment of everyone involved. However, that honesty makes you root for Paulson instead of turning on her. Some people write outrageous things because they are desperate for any attention. Some people are trying to learn from their mistakes and let other people know they are not alone. Paulson is the latter.


A great read. Buy it here!

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Hey, Hun by Emily Lynn Paulson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Hey, Hun:

Get in line to lose your money!

Quick synopsis:

The story of Emily Lynn Paulson’s journey through the world of MLMs.

Fun Fact for Non-History People:

Between 96 and 99.7% of people who buy into MLMs lose money.

Fact for History Nerds:

Studies have found about 90% of new moms feel lonely and 54% consider themselves friendless. Hey, guess who MLMs target!?

My Take on Hey, Hun:

Hey, hun, I hate MLMs.

I suppose I should identify my own bias before starting this review. I hate MLMs. They take advantage of people (mostly women) who are in various states of distress. They don’t make their lives better and they don’t make them rich. Sure, maybe one or two make some money but the vast majority get caught in a cycle of chasing the money they already lost. I could go on, but it would be easier to just read Hey, Hun by Emily Lynn Paulson.

This book does something a lot of anti-MLM documentaries don’t. This book feels like a day-by-day walk-through of the soul-crushing life of a “consultant” for an MLM. I have not come across something which so thoroughly explains how even the people who seem to be winning in an MLM are still being victimized. Sure, most of us know that MLMs are bad, but did you know the “free” car many of them tout is far from free. Paulson explains how the car, like many of aspects of the glamorous MLM life, are really just another way to lose money.

Another aspect is the emotional manipulation rampant in this culture and how the people within it are often brainwashed and feel trapped when they start to see the light. This may be the most effective part of the narrative. Paulson is not a crusader. She knows and admits openly that she benefited significantly from her experience. However, she actively avoids criticizing the people within MLMs. They are victims and perpetrators. The system is on trial in this book.

There are other less successful narrative threads. We know MLMs are very white. The connection between this and white supremacy is not discussed enough to feel fully fleshed out. The pandemic politics discussion at the end of the book feels a bit rushed and tacked on when it could probably be eliminated entirely. These are minor quibbles when considering how much the book gets right.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Row House Publishing.)


A great read. Buy it here!

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The Watchmaker’s Daughter by Larry Loftis

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Watchmaker’s Daughter:

She did more than make watches.

Quick synopsis:

The story of World War II heroine Corrie ten Boom.

Fun Fact for Non-History People:

Corrie ten Boom is credited with saving nearly 800 lives.

Fact for History Nerds:

She was also the first female licensed watchmaker in the Netherlands.

My Take on The Watchmaker’s Daughter:

Any book on the Holocaust will ultimately contain stories which are hard to comprehend. The Watchmaker’s Daughter by Larry Loftis contains such a story but in a different way. For those who have read Loftis’s other books, they are thrillers centered around resistance fighters in World War II. Corrie ten Boom is also a resistance fighter, but this book is much more focused on religion and forgiveness than any other of Loftis’s books. Sure, you still have the nuts and bolts of hiding from the Gestapo, but the ten Boom family and their relationship to their faith is front and center.

Loftis is a gifted writer, and I enjoyed the book very much. I would caution readers that, as I mentioned, this book is not as action packed and closer to an examination of faith in the worst of circumstances. Also, the book is not purely about Corrie ten Boom until the final few chapters. Before that, the whole ten Boom family and various friends are the focus as they try to hide from the Germans.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t mention too much about how the ten Boom’s Christianity is tested and how their hope is incredible under the circumstances. Anyone looking for a story about faith overcoming all odds will not be disappointed.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by Netgalley and William Morrow.)


A great story of survival and faith in World War II. Buy it here!

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Author and Lost L.A. host Nathan Masters joins the podcast to talk his book, Crooked!

Let’s get crooked! TV host and author Nathan Masters joins us to talk his book, Crooked: The Roaring 20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, a Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal from Hachette Books. We talk about his show, Lost L.A., how often he surfs, and a little bit of noir. Come listen!

Buy Crooked
Check out Nathan’s website

A Brutal Reckoning by Peter Cozzens

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for A Brutal Reckoning:

Andrew Jackson needed serious therapy.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Creek War in the southern United States from 1813-1814.

Fun Fact for Non-History People:

The descendants of the Creek live in Eastern Oklahoma as part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and number 86,000 members.

Fact for History Nerds:

In the 3 decades after Spanish invasion of the U.S., upwards of 90% of the native population died of European diseases.

My Take on A Brutal Reckoning:

Andrew Jackson is one of those historical figures who is harder and harder to like the more you learn about him. I certainly didn’t have a high opinion before reading Peter Cozzens’ A Brutal Reckoning and it only got worse from there.

Cozzens chronicles the Creek War in the early 1800s. I knew very little about the Creek War as it is generally overshadowed by the War of 1812. I learned a lot and Cozzens knows how to keep the narrative moving and interesting. This book especially soars when recounting specific battles. Cozzens’ eye for detail is exceptional and he never makes the mistake of becoming too focused on any one thing. He even admits that certain chapters will contain a dizzying number of names but ultimately I felt Cozzens could have skipped the warning. His mastery of the subjects makes it easy to follow along.

This is an excellent book on an episode in American history which is often overlooked.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor.)


A great story of a little known war. Buy it here!

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Lost at Sea by John Wukovits

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Lost at Sea:

Yeah, this title is pretty spot on.

Quick synopsis:

The story of war hero Eddie Rickenbacker and his crew’s crash and fight for survival in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

Fun Fact for Non-History People:

Eddie Rickenbacker got addicted to speed when he first drove in a car that was going…10 mph.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Rickenbacker had a blind spot in his right eye from a cinder thrown from a train.

My Take on Lost at Sea:

I can’t count how many books I’ve read recently which contain so much extraneous material that I wonder, “where was the editor in all of this?” I just want the story I signed up for and not padding to get to a page count. A perfect example of avoiding this trap is John Wukovits’ Lost at Sea. It is a focused look at a forgotten episode of World War II which is all story and no fluff.

Eddie Rickenbacker may not be the household name he used to be, but anyone who likes flying has probably heard of him. In World War II, he was a civilian on a somewhat secret mission and hitching a ride across the Pacific. As you may be able to tell by the title of the book, it did not go well.

Wukovits tells the story masterfully, which is to say he states the facts and lets the history speak for itself. The entire narrative is unbelievable and needs no embellishment. There is even an undercurrent of religion and what it means when you are facing death. I worried that this theme might make the book preachy but Wukovits never lets it get that way. He talks about religion because his characters did. It’s a perfectly balanced book which any World War II nerd must read.

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


A riveting story of survival. Buy it here!

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