The Best History Books of May

OrwellLate spring/early summer isn't traditionally a great time for history books--but this season is different. There are a number of excellent history reads coming down the pike (and many have dark, decidedly un-summery covers). Below are some of our favorite history books of May. You can see the full list here.


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Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger - Amazon senior editor Jon Foro had this to say about the book, which frankly, surprised many of us with its readability: "You won’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8 (though it’s pure candy for aficionados). Kluger - who previously documented the Apollo 13 crisis with Commander Jim Lovell, also the pilot aboard Apollo 8 – recounts the first manned mission to orbit the moon, marrying technological and historical perspectives with eyewitness accounts to spin a brisk, thrilling, and informative tale. Kluger writes, 'The Saturn V engines had only one speed, which was full speed.' So does this book."

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The Black Hand by Stephen Talty - It seems like the Italian mafia has been in New York since the very beginning. But it really took hold in 1903. A series of almost faceless crimes--kidnappings, murders, bombings, and threats to public figures--gripped the city and its tabloids. Enter Joseph Petrosino, also known as the "Italian Sherlock Holmes." His efforts to find the roots of The Black Hand (the sign of the secret criminal society we now call the mafia) provide a fast-paced true crime saga that reaches all the way to Sicily. Read it now, because Leonardo DiCaprio is making the book into a movie (due out in 2018).

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Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks - A joint biography like this can be fascinating and effective, especially when the book illustrates how a particular age in history helped to forge the subjects. And in this case, how the subjects helped to forge an age in history. Churchill and Orwell never met, so the biographies in the book are developed separately. Author Thomas E. Ricks argues not only that these were men of their times, but that they were also the men that the times demanded--and once we reach the 1940s, with Churchill standing up to the Nazis and Orwell writing Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four, it's difficult to disagree. Their courage and moral conviction in the face of totalitarianism makes for a great read.

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Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War - Speaking of Britain and the Nazis... Last Hope Island is about a piece of history that I hadn't been aware of: after the Nazis swept over much of Europe with the Blitzkrieg, London became a refuge for the governments and armed forces of six occupied nations who escaped there to continue the fight. Oh, and Charles de Gaulle was in London, too. Erik Larsen called Last Hope Island “a rip-roaring saga of hairbreadth escape, espionage, and resistance during World War II," adding that the book "salvages the forgotten stories of a collection of heroic souls from seven countries overrun by Hitler who find refuge in Churchill’s London and then seek payback in ways large and small. In thrilling fashion, Olson shows us that hell hath no fury like a small country scorned.”

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The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home by Sally Mott Freeman - Here is the well-researched true story of three brothers living out a very personal narrative against the backdrop of WWII. Eldest brother Benny was an officer on the USS Enterprise, one of the only vessels to survive Pearl Harbor; middle son Bill was assigned by Roosevelt to the Map Room in Washington. Youngest brother Barton was sent to the Philippines, where he was expected to be relatively safe—but after a Japanese attack, he was listed as MIA. The Jersey Brothers is the story of a family’s frantic efforts to find and free the youngest brother, while he fights to survive life in a Japanese concentration camp. Author Sally Mott Freeman takes an intimately human approach to this war story, adding a memorable and meaningful chapter to our understanding of the Greatest Generation.
You can see the full list of our Best History Books of May here.

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