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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To Besiege a City by Prit Buttar

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for To Besiege a City:

I hate being forced to root for the Soviets.

Quick synopsis:

A look at the first two years of the siege of Leningrad in World War II.

Fact for Non-History People:

The Germans took about 5.7 million Soviet soldiers prisoner during World War II. About 3.3 million did not survive.

Fact for History Nerds:

Leon Trotsky’s real name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein. That’s not very Marxist sounding so he needed to change it.

My Take on To Besiege a City:

To Besiege a City is just another example of what author Prit Buttar does so well. He has written a history of the siege of Leningrad which will satisfy both military history buffs and people looking for a great story. Both sets of people will feel more enlightened by the end of the narrative and will have enjoyed the journey Buttar takes them on. I almost feel like my praise sounds rather ho hum, but this kind of history is exceedingly difficult to keep interesting and informative. I love military history but understand how some people’s eyes might glaze over reading about the movements of an army. Buttar knows this and intersperses the story with the actual words of people who were there and gives much needed perspective.

The other piece, which I thought was exceptional in To Besiege a City, is Buttar’s analysis of the German and Red Army. There is very often a general view that the German Army was nearly unstoppable and Stalingrad was where hubris became their undoing. Buttar doesn’t go for simplistic interpretations and takes a deep dive into the resources, strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly, the decisions which decided the fate of Leningrad. If you are a World War II buff, you need to read this.

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


A great book of military history. Buy it here!

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Bitter Peleliu by Joseph Wheelan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Bitter Peleliu:

“Bitter” is putting it mildly.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Battle of Peleliu in World War II.

Fact for Non-History People:

Japanese engineers created over 500 caves on the island before the battle.

Fact for History Nerds:

The Black Marine unit on Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of all Black Marine units in World War II.

My Take on Bitter Peleliu:

As a former Army officer, it is not in my DNA to give the Marines credit for anything. It’s a sibling rivalry (the Army is the older, for the record) which means we give each other endless….well you know.

All that said, the reputation the Marines have as indefatigable doesn’t come from nowhere. And the forgotten Battle of Peleliu is one of the places that burnished this reputation. As the U.S. marched towards Japan during World War II, Peleliu island stood as one of the paths to victory. Some historians will also let you know it was an island that could have been skipped. It wasn’t. And it turned into an absolute horror show.

Joseph Wheelan writes about the battle in a way that makes it readable for any audience. Military history can sometimes get too caught up in which unit was where and loses the human side of the battle. Wheelan weaves every component into a story that doesn’t require you to understand military science and strategy. Along the way, you will read names nearly everyone knows and you will feel just how horrific this battle was.

(This book was provided by Osprey Publishing.)


An excellent book of military history. Buy it here!

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Pure Wit by Francesca Peacock

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Pure Wit:

Pure indifference to people’s opinions, as well.

Quick synopsis:

A biography of Margaret Cavendish, an author in 1600s England.

Fact for Non-History People:

The title of a pamphlet in this time period for context, “The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Woman.”

Fact for History Nerds:

Cavendish was the first woman invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society….after attacking various members and satirizing the society in print.

My Take on Pure Wit:

Pure Wit by Francesca Peacock is an example of when a writer takes on a subject perfectly suited to their skills.

Pure Wit is about the life of Margaret Cavendish, a noblewoman and writer in England during the years before and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Needless to say, this time period is full of interesting events, but the fact that Cavendish was a woman and a writer is the story here. I cannot, unless I make this review excessively long, sum up Cavendish appropriately. She was an early feminist but also not really. Her books are both deeply thoughtful and a bit ridiculous. She defies a short description.

Luckily, Peacock is up to the task and then some. The book is mostly a high-level overview of the time period Cavendish lived, plus a short biography, plus literary criticism. Many authors would end up with an absolute mess of tangents and bungled narrative. Peacock’s ability to balance many different tones is key to why this book is so readable. Peacock knows when to take her subject seriously, but also will lighten the mood and poke fun at things which are patently ridiculous, including Cavendish herself. The key here is that Peacock clearly has affection for Cavendish but is not above criticizing her when necessary. I had no idea what to expect when I opened the book, but I didn’t need to worry. This is a fun read.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Head of Zeus books.)


An eclectic biography and fun read. Buy it here! (Note: Pure Wit comes out later in the US, but if you are in the UK, you can get it soon!)

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Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult:

You might kick her out, though.

Quick synopsis:

A memoir by standup comedian Maria Bamford.

Fact for Non-History People:

Maria puts an actual financial breakdown of what she makes for doing a show in the book. I’m not kidding. It’s a spreadsheet.

Fact for History Nerds:

It’s not that kind of book. She does rip into some specific self-help books which is amazing.

My Take on Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult:

This book is chaos. I mean that in the most positive way possible.

Maria Bamford’s “Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult” is first and foremost hilarious. It is hilarious at extremely inappropriate times. Admittedly, my family and friends agree that those are the funniest times. If you disagree, well, I don’t know how much you’ll like the book, but you are missing out.

As funny as Bamford is, whether in this book or her amazing standup, I was not sure what this narrative would end up being. Memoirs can be a mixed bag because the subject may lack true insight, may not know where the funny is, or just thinks their life is interesting when it’s not. Bamford almost lulled me into believing she was going to go hard into the humor of her life in the first few chapters. She talks about some heavy topics, but it felt like she was going to her closer material to heighten the laughs. Slowly, Bamford reveals a lot more about how her brain works (her time in mental health facilities is especially eye opening) and becomes much more direct about her challenges. Don’t worry, she never stops being funny in the book, but the latter half reveals the true intention of her book. She’s had struggles and she hopes this book helps if you do, too.

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


A hilarious and thought-provoking memoir. Buy it here!

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The Devils Will Get No Rest by James Conroy

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Devils Will Get No Rest:

The Reality TV Reunion Show of World War II.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Allied Casablanca Conference of World War II.

Fact for Non-History People:

FDR saw Churchill naked. No, I won’t explain it any further.

Fact for History Nerds:

During World War II, the Allies were known as the United Nations.

My Take on The Devils Will Get No Rest:

The British were arrogant. The Americans were unprepared. Somehow, Germany was in trouble.

James B. Conroy tells the story of the meeting which found two of the most powerful countries on Earth at each other’s throats while knowing they needed each other to end World War II. The Casablanca Conference (which had nothing to do with the movie) is a riveting look at the Allied planning of the most vital time in World War II. While I am sure there are many readers who would roll their eyes at the thought that a military planning conference could contain the type of drama which would be an entertaining read, allow me to enlighten you with just a few highlights.

FDR and Churchill are best friends. Well, sort of. Churchill loves FDR, but FDR only loves people who are politically useful. FDR won’t quite stab Churchill in the back (yet), but the seeds will be planted.

FDR and Churchill aren’t even the most out of control egos at the conference. No, that honor would go to two Frenchmen who do not like each other and who drive everyone around them nuts.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. This book is the World War II equivalent of a reunion special on a reality show. Everyone is nice to the cameras and then you get to read their confessional diaries. No big deal. It was just the fate of the free world on the line.

(This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.)


A great book about something you wouldn’t necessarily realize was dramatic. Buy it here!

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Trail of the Lost by Andrea Lankford

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Trail of the Lost:

If you don’t have a plan, one may be made for you.

Quick synopsis:

The search for three missing hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Fact for Non-History People:

The Pacific Crest Trail travels 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. So, it can kill you by cold or heat if you aren’t careful.

Fact for History Nerds:

There are about 600 missing person cases per year and 99% of them end up resolved. 97% of lost hikers are found within 24 hours.

My Take on Trail of the Lost:

Let’s just look at a quick list of some of the topics covered in Andrea Lankford’s Trail of the Lost: psychics, weed, drones, liars, and cults. Oh, and all of these are within the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) although admittedly it’s quite large.

Lankford chronicles the search for 3 specific hikers who disappeared from the PCT. The story tells itself with all of the things I mentioned above plus the emotional journey Lankford documents for the searchers and their families. The real trick here is to keep this narrative together while not overwhelming the reader with the sheer litany of names and the details of numerous attempts to find the missing men. Lankford handles this masterfully as I never lost track of where we were in the story and her connection with the people around the searches allowed her to imbue everyone with personality.

Along with all of this, the reader gets to learn about life on the trail which is its own distinct subculture. Sure, some people are on the trail to take selfies, but some people are on the trail for…well a lot of reasons and not all of them are noble. This book will tear at your heartstrings, but it will also keep you riveted along the way.

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


A fascinating story which has a little bit of something for everyone. Buy it here!

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Gallop Towards the Sun by Peter Stark

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Gallop Towards the Sun:

Be careful trusting a dude with three first names.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison as they battled both literally and figuratively.

Fact for Non-History People:

Presidential trivia! William Henry Harrison is the shortest serving president since he gave a long inauguration speech in bad weather and died of pneumonia. If you read this book you will know it could not have happened to a nicer guy…..

Fact for History Nerds:

There is a battle where the American Indians beat the Americans so badly that it was never given a name.

My Take on Gallop Towards the Sun:

I’ve always wanted to punch Thomas Jefferson. After reading Peter Stark’s Gallop Toward the Sun, I want to punch William Henry Harrison, too. (Additional fun fact: My original review did not expand on this thought and a guy on Goodreads called me out for what he thought was historical relativism argument and I think he thought I was a liberal leaning person who was applying current perspectives retroactively. Long story short, because he was way off base, I want to punch Harrison because Stark very clearly paints him as a hypocrite and coward of sorts. Hypocrites and cowards always suck.)

Stark’s book looks at the lives of American Indian leader Tecumseh and the jerk William Henry Harrison. Stark puts a bright spotlight on how Harrison was a major tool (and I mean that in two different ways) in stealing Native lands out from under them with shady deals, debt, and graft. Harrison is often remembered as the shortest serving president since he died one month after taking office. We ducked a bullet on that one, America.

While Stark is one of my favorite authors, there are some missteps in the narrative. Part I sets up the conflict between Harrison and Tecumseh leading to war. I found myself wanting to skip ahead because much of the set up doesn’t directly include Harrison or Tecumseh in places. I still liked much of what Stark was writing, but the book is really about these two larger than life figures and when they disappear from the book it can be frustrating. Part II, which deals with the War of 1812, runs into the same problems. The Battle of Lake Erie is the standout, and it is extremely compelling. However, Harrison and Tecumseh are once again on the sidelines for this.

This may sound like the book is unfulfilling but it is in fact still quite good. The narrative issues I mention do not ruin the book but merely take it from “great” down to “very good.” Stark is too excellent a writer to ever have a bad book. This one just needed a better focus to be truly great.

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


A really interesting book with a story you won’t find in many other places. Buy it here!

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