Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim McQuarrie

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim McQuarrie
The Andes mountain range in South America runs down the west coast of the continent. The stories and histories of the place are as varied as the peaks themselves. In Life and Death in the Andes, Kim McQuarrie gives us a travelogue and a history book, a sweeping epic and an intimate portrait. 

From the cities of Columbia to southernmost Chile and Argentina, McQuarrie brings us stories of druglords and mummies, weavers and bandits, natives and revolutionaries. Mixing history seamlessly with his own travels, Life and Death in the Andes gives us a unique perspective of life in the Andes mountains. 

History buffs, world travelers, and the curious will find a lot to like in McQuarrie’s easy conversational style. Anyone who wants to go a bit off the beaten trail will enjoy the stories McQuarrie has to tell us.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Maladies and Medicine by Jennifer Evans and Sara Read

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Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans and Sara Reed

Europe in the 1600s was a strange place to be. Science and empirical data were beginning to subsume old superstition. The invention of the microscope opened up a whole new world to human sight. Discoveries in physics, medicine, and other fields slowly brought Europe into the modern age. But for a time, superstition and science existed as awkward bedfellows. Doctors tried to balance the ancient medical theories of Galen and Hippocrates with new, scientifically gathered data. It is this awkward stage that is front and center in Maladies and Medicine.

This is a straight-up history book. While the authors certainly inject frivolity and humor into the book, this is meant more for the dedicated history buff, and not for the casual reader. Evans and Reed, while admitting to the books limitations in scope (it’s a big topic), include a vast amount of information, conveniently divvied up by disease. The authors also delve into the differences between medical doctors, surgeons, midwives and other practicing women, and the unofficial medical practitioners. Each has their own origin and medical views, and it is curious to see when they agree, disagree, and borrow from one another.

History buffs will find a lot of great information (and a lot of cringe-worthy knowledge) in this book. If you’re interested in medieval history or medical history, this book is a great addition to your TBR. However, if you’re looking for a similar book for a more casual reader, you should check out Quackery by Lydia Kang.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock

The Revolutionary War is the origin story of the United States. Like every origin story, it carries certain expectations: a plucky underdog comes into power, or comes into the realization of their own inner power, and proceeds to upend the established order of things. The origin story reaches its climax when said plucky underdog is able to defeat the villain, who is the representative of the power of the old order.

That is certainly the popular narrative that winds through most histories of the Revolutionary War. But is this all there is? Hoock’s Scars of Independence seeks to add to the Revolutionary narrative, to complicate and humanize the feel-good legend most of us learn in school. Hoock has little time for the “immaculate conception” origin of the United States, which features a noble and forward-looking young colony rebelling and separating nearly bloodlessly from the stodgy and declining Britain. Rather, Hoock shows us the bloody underside of the fight for independence, a violent and cruel conflict regarded in its time not as a fight for independence, but as a civil war.

In Scars of Independence, Hoock takes us through the escalating violence on both sides of the conflict. We learn about tarring and feathering, prison ships, rapes, whippings, hangings and lynchings. We learn about petty grievances between neighbors turned into war crimes. About prison camps in mines, about the impossible position of Native Americans and of slaves, caught between two feuding (largely white) armies.

This is a fantastic, thoroughly researched history. A must read for any history buffs or Revolutionary War enthusiasts. Hoock has presented an aspect of the Revolutionary War that is seldom dealt with in popular literature. Though this is first and foremost a history book, Hoock’s writing style is accessible and clear, and Scars of Independence is highly readable, even for the more casual reader.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane by Paul Thomas Murphy

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy

In 1871, a young, pretty servant girl was found ruthlessly beaten in a country lane. Jane Clouson died a few days later without regaining consciousness. When the son of her employer falls under suspicion for her murder, the subsequent police investigation and trial spark unrest between the working class and the middle class residents of London. Jane, unremarkable and overlooked in life, became a powerful symbol of the suffering of working class girls, and the easy power of their “betters.”

Pretty Jane is an engagingly written book that straddles the true crime and history genres. Murphy’s style of writing is engaging and flows well, allowing the book to read more like a novel than a history book. Murphy takes the reader along for the ride in an investigation and trial that, in the modern day, would be up there with the OJ Simpson or Casey Anthony trials. Each side bitterly fought for their desired outcome, and the legal push-pull dynamic adds to the story’s suspense. Murphy is more than willing to unwind this suspense out slowly, leaving you to tensely wait to see if there will ever be any justice for poor Jane.

Any history buff will enjoy this book. The narrative style of the writing makes this book accessible and fun for casual readers as well. If you’re a fan of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, this book should be next on your TBR.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström

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From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon by Mattias Boström

Sherlock Holmes has been a cultural icon on both sides of the Atlantic since his first appearance in Study in Scarlet in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The famous consulting detective has occupied nearly every aspect of popular culture; from magazines, to books, to comic strips, to Broadway musicals, to movies and television shows. Sherlock Holmes has fought criminal masterminds, spectral hounds, nazis, Jack the Ripper, eldritch horrors, and vampires. His name and his legend have taken on quite a life of their own, and Holmes seems to exist almost entirely separate from the man who created him.

In From Holmes to Sherlock, Boström takes us from young Arthur Conan Doyle taking studious notes in lecture with Dr. Joseph Bell at the University of Edinburgh, through to the modern hit BBC television series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The century and a half span encompasses two world wars, the Great Depression, the advent of radio, the golden age of Hollywood, and the ubiquity of television. We see Conan Doyle trying desperately to rein in a creation that broke free from his control even in the earliest days. We see his heirs try desperately to retain some aspect of their father’s greatest work. We see how the world has made Sherlock Holmes their own, through countless books, movies, plays, and dedicated societies.

This is a must-read for any fans of Sherlock Holmes. Boström has written a comprehensive and fascinating history of one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. The book is rich in detail and engagingly told, and should not be missed by anyone who wants more information about the world’s greatest consulting detective.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

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George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

So here you are, reading a book review about a book about the history of George Washington’s books. It’s hard to get more meta than that. In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting angle for a history/biography about the first president of the United States.

Working roughly in chronological order, Hayes takes us through the library at Mount Vernon. We start with Washington’s earliest books (collections of devotions by famous preachers), and move from there to travel guides, reference books, abolitionist tracts (though he regrettably never used his considerable political influence to address the injustice of slavery, in his personal dealings Washington was an abolitionist), popular fiction, and military books.

Hayes introduces us to a man born in the American colonies, and denied a “proper” English education. In order to compensate for an education he perceived as lacking, Washington would embark on a lifetime quest of self-improvement. He actively sought out books to deepen his understanding of the physical, spiritual, and literary worlds. His passion for books and for reading would remain undiminished throughout his life.

George Washington has deservedly been the subject of countless biographies. Approaching his life from the direction of his library is both refreshing and educational. While some of the conclusions the author draws based on the content of the Mount Vernon library shelves seems a bit reaching, on the whole this is a fascinating look at one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Ice Ghosts by Paul Watson

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Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition by Paul Watson

In 1845, Sir John Franklin, a British explorer nearing the end of his career, set out in command of two ships to discover the Northwest Passage: a nautical route between Canada and the arctic that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The hunt for the passage had taken up decades, and the accumulated loss of lives and ships in its pursuit was largely considered part of the cost of ensuring Britain’s continuing dominance of the seas. Franklin was determined to be the one to finally find the passage, and to ensure the immortality of his legacy. Setting off with the prophetically named Erebus and Terror, Franklin and his crew of 128 men disappeared into the great white desert of the Arctic Circle. The search for the crew and for the ships would span more than a century, and cost millions of dollars; Franklin’s widow would spend the family fortune in a vain search for answers. The mystery of the Franklin Expedition would capture the imagination of governments, academics, and the public. Franklin achieved his dream of an immortal legacy in the most unfortunate way possible.

Watson explores the story from the late 1840s through to the present day. From the first rescue attempts (delayed by bureaucratic posturing within the Royal Navy), through to the high-tech hunts of the 21st century. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this story involves the local Inuit tribes, whose oral histories seemed to point to the fate of the Franklin Expedition, but were nearly universally disregarded by the European, Canadian, and American searchers.

Watson has written an engaging and fascinating history. The saga of the Franklin Expedition is one of those epic historical tales that seems more like an adventure story. Watson has done a marvelous job of capturing the suspense and drama that accompanied the lost expedition across the decades. His use of multiple primary sources, and his emphasis on the Inuit oral histories make this book stand out from the pack. Fans of adventure-oriented nonfiction like The Lost City of Z should certainly make a point to read this book next.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.