Tag Archives: family history

#BookReview ‘The Woman of Substance’ by Piers Dudgeon #biography

The Woman of Substance by Piers Dudgeon is in part an authorised biography of A Woman of Substance writer Barbara Taylor Bradford, and part analysis of how Barbara’s own family history features in her books. The story of Emma Harte’s journey from Edwardian kitchen maid to globally successful businesswoman is well known. Less known perhaps are the connections with Barbara’s own family history. Connections she did not know herself. Piers Dudgeon

Starting with a meeting at the Bradfords’ New York apartment at which he is surrounded by the great and the famous, eating amidst the glittering décor, Dudgeon realises this is the world of the successful Emma Harte at the height of her powers. And then he tells Barbara’s story from her birth in 1933 in Upper Armley near Leeds, born not into the family of a kitchen maid like Emma Harte, but a tidy working class family who were neat and always made ends meet. Barbara is an only child and spoilt by her mother who takes her at every available opportunity to visit the Studley Royal estate where she learns this history of the house, the estate and the family. ‘My mother exposed me to lots of things,” said Barbara. ‘She once said ‘I want you to have a better life than I’ve had.’’ Barbara did well at school and, wanting to write books, decided her best chance was to train as a typist and find a job as a journalist. Which she did, joining the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post and then, through dogged perseverance, moving to the women’s page.

At each significant point throughout Barbara’s story, Dudgeon provides a reference from one of her novels of fiction mirroring fact. A case of Barbara’s sub-conscious curiosity about her own origins finding their way into the backstory of her novels. It is an encyclopedic exercise of genealogy which lovers of the Harte series will enjoy. It is many years since I read the novel, but it made me want to revisit it. At the time when Piers Dudgeon was writing this book, Barbara did not know the true story of her grandmother Edith’s life or the mystery surrounding the birth of her own mother, Freda.

This is a long book which could have been made shorter by cutting some of the extraneous history and for that reason I gave it 4* rather than 5*. But if you are a writer interested in how your real life sneaks into your own novels, you will be fascinated.

Piers Dudgeon A Woman of Substance was made into a television mini-series in 1984 [above] with Jenny Seagrove playing the young Emma Harte and Deborah Kerr the older Emma. The series was filmed mostly in Yorkshire, including Brimham Rocks where Emma first meets Blackie O’Neill [played by Liam Neeson] on the moors. Series of the other two books in the trilogy would follow.

A prequel to the Emma Harte trilogy, called Blackie and Emma, will be published in 2020. Read more here.

If you like this, try:-
On Writing’ by AL Kennedy 
Giving up the Ghost’ by Hilary Mantel
An Education’ by Lynn Barber

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#Bookreview ‘The Sun Sister’ by Lucinda Riley @lucindariley #mystery

Electra, the youngest d’Aplièse sister in the Seven Sisters series of adoption mysteries by Lucinda Riley, has always seemed the most explosive personality of the siblings. And so The Sun Sister, sixth in the series and the one dedicated to telling the story of Electra’s family history, is explosive too. It’s a 5* read and a long one, 850 pages, as Riley digs deep into Electra’s African origins and the drug epidemic of today’s world. Lucinda Riley

Supermodel Electra seems to have it all, fame, beauty, money, rock star boyfriend, a glamorous lifestyle in Manhattan. But she also has a drink and drug habit. Her behaviour is erratic, obsessive, selfish and angry, made worse by the sudden death of her adoptive father Pa Salt and being ditched by her boyfriend Mitch. Cutting herself off from friends and family, Electra is spiralling downwards when she receives a letter from a strange woman claiming to be her grandmother.

The Sun Sister tells the story of Electra’s life now in New York 2008, interleaved with that of Cecily Huntley-Morgan, daughter of a fine New York family who, in 1938, has just been jilted by her fiance. Taking up the invitation of her glamorous and eccentric godmother Kiki Preston to escape the gossip and return with her to Africa, Cecily finds herself part of the infamous Happy Valley set living beside Lake Naivasha in Kenya. Unable to stick with Kiki’s partying and frequent hangovers, Cecily makes a friend of Katherine Stewart, soon be married to cattle rancher Bobby Sinclair, who introduces her to life in the bush and to Bobby’s friend, fellow rancher Bill Forsythe. With war approaching, Cecily finds herself in an impossible position. She must choose whether to stay in Africa or take a risky passage home to America. She stays and life presents her with tragedy and a discovery that will change the direction of her life.

Cecily’s story is told to Electra by her grandmother, Stella Jackson, a prominent black rights activist in America. With Stella’s help Electra begins to understand how being black affected her childhood in a predominantly white world. In drug rehab Electra must face up to her addictive behaviour, understand its roots and learn to live life differently. Stella insists that in order to understand her birth family, Electra must first learn about Cecily’s life in Africa

Previous novels have concentrated on the stories of the individual sister’s birth family two generations back, and I have longed to know more about the sister’s birth parents. I wanted the family connections to be immediate, more accessible, and in The Sun Sister Riley delivers. The life of Electra’s birth mother acts as plot pivot which deepens the emotion of the story. Interestingly, in the previous six books I found Electra the least sympathetic and difficult to like sister, but The Sun Sister explains how Electra became the adult she is at the beginning of this ambitious series. She has the most dramatic character curve of any of the sisters so far.

Overall, The Sun Sister is excellent though perhaps slightly too long, understandable given the difficult subjects addressed. Only one book left to go, the mysterious, missing, seventh sister.

Read my reviews of the first five novels in the series:-
The Seven Sisters
The Storm Sister
The Shadow Sister
The Pearl Sister
The Moon Sister

… plus my review of these standalone novels by Lucinda Riley:-
The Love Letter
The Girl on the Cliff
The Butterfly Room

If you like this, try:-
‘Run’ by Ann Patchett
The Ghost of Lily Painter’ by Caitlin Davis
The Irish Inheritance’ by MJ Lee

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
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#Bookreview ‘File under Fear’ by Geraldine Wall #genealogy #mystery

Geraldine WallSecond in the series about probate researcher turned genealogy detective Anna Ames, File Under Fear by Geraldine Wall takes off running from where the previous book left off. This is a well-written, page-turning series that combines family history, crime, family and secrets. But for me, the touchstone that makes it special is the sub-plot of Anna’s home life and her husband Harry’s dementia. If you haven’t read book one in the series, I suggest you start there to see the full emotional depth.

Anna’s new contract sounds boring: to write a business report on Draycotts, the company which makes Drakes lurid orange and green drink, analysing how the family members coordinate together to run a successful business. But there is a secret element to her contract, to locate a missing person for CEO Gerald Draycott. This case sees Anna physically and emotionally intimidated and encompasses bullying, illegal smuggling and rape. An intense story with red herrings and wrong assumptions made about family members, the actual crimes being committed and in which Anna questions who to trust. Backing her up are her very likeable family and the multi-talented more-than-workmate Steve. Some of the resolutions fall into place a little conveniently at the fast-paced ending, but this is a satisfying tale.

What makes this series so different, and adds the emotional depth in spades, is Harry’s illness and how the family and friends cope. Sometimes they struggle but ultimately they manage the reality of their life with compassion, humour and love. This series is maturing nicely.
Read my review of the first in the series, File under Family.

If you like this, try:-
Run’ by Ann Patchett
Shadow Baby’ by Margaret Forster
Deadly Descent’ by Charlotte Hinger

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
FILE UNDER FEAR by Geraldine Wall #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Ue via @SandraDanby

#Bookreview ‘File under Family’ by Geraldine Wall #genealogy #mystery

Geraldine WallAnna Ames is a trainee probate genealogist working for Triple H, Harts Heir Hunters, and File under Family is the first in a series of genealogy mysteries about Anna by Geraldine Wall. When Margaret Clark dies Anna is charged with finding her missing heir, daughter Briony. The trail leads abroad and unleashes an international social media campaign, reveals sexual abuse in prison and considers how enthusiasm can conflict with client confidentiality.

Wall introduces the character of Anna and her family life which I am sure will continue to feature throughout the series. While she faces problems balancing work with studying for her Diploma in Genealogy qualification, these are nothing when compared to Anna’s stress at home. Her husband Harry has early-onset dementia so Anna’s father George has moved in to help with caring for Harry and their two teenagers, Ellis and Faye. Faye has a new Russian boyfriend who wants to take her to Russia with him. Ellis is auditioning for a role in the school panto while George is investigating his spiritual side and writing poetry. Worst of all, as Harry’s condition gradually deteriorates he becomes increasing aggressive towards Anna. Into this walks an unattractive stranger.

I found the first couple of chapters disorientating as the story pitches straight into Anna’s day with minimal explanation of her job. But the story settles down and the mystery of Briony’s whereabouts kept me reading. I particularly liked the characters of Margaret’s friends, Joan and Diane, and the importance of Bob the dog in the family dynamics. Anna’s home life is at times a little over-complicated as each family member has their own drama. Anna is a positive character, strongly defending her own family and trying to do her best for her client, albeit crossing the line at times and getting into trouble. This only serves to endear her as a convincing character. However the last quarter of the novel, after Briony’s case is solved, seemed to meander almost as if it was merging straight into book two in the series.

Not so much a genealogical mystery, more a family drama enriched by Anna’s job as a probate genealogist. It made me curious enough to read the next in the series, File under Fear.
Amazon UK

If you like this, try:-
‘The Cheesemaker’s House’ by Jane Cable
‘The Lie of the Land’ by Amanda Craig
The Ghost of Lily Painter’ by Caitlin Davis

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FILE UNDER FAMILY by Geraldine Wall #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Aw via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The America Ground’ by @NathanDGoodwin

Nathan Dylan Goodwin The America Ground by Nathan Dylan Goodwin is based on a fascinating piece of local history, indeed Goodwin’s own family history, and made into a historical thriller. On April 28, 1827, a woman is murdered in her bed. Eliza Lovekin is the second to be killed, Amelia Odden is to be next. This is the story of Eliza, her daughter Harriet and a piece of ground in Hastings, East Sussex, which for a short period of time was claimed as a piece of the United States of America.

Forensic genealogist Morton Farrier is on the trail of his own adoption story, the identity of his birth father. But a visit to his adoptive father seeking answers sets him instead on the trail of a new mystery. The portrait of a woman from the 1800s: ‘Eliza Lovekin, Hastings, 1825’. Morton’s client is the proprietor of an antiques business who wants a potted family history of Eliza to add value to the painting before it goes up for sale at auction. Initially resenting time away from researching his own family, Morton is soon captivated by Eliza’s story. In the 1827 story strand, we follow Harriet Lovekin, teenage daughter of Eliza, as she longs to be treated as an adult. Unfortunately the day arrives when she is, and she doesn’t like it.

The build towards the climax is deftly handled, though the book starts slowly and I would have liked a more even balance between historical exposition and action in the first half. Originally I was unsure why we were following Harriet’s viewpoint rather than Eliza’s, but all becomes clear towards the end. There is one point when, in order to maintain the secret as long as possible, the author goes back a couple of days; that jolted me out of the story.

I particularly liked Goodwin’s use of local dialect with a light touch: ‘a low fubsy moon’, ‘a-going’ and ‘a-hurting’. As a genealogist and local historian, he knows his East Sussex locations well. As the action moves around the county, I found myself wishing there was a map to refer to.

Morton Farrier is a great protagonist – thoughtful, brave but scared too, a bit of a geek who has a sharp edge – though as my father used to say about Jim Rockford, it’s dangerous being around him; everyone he knows gets threatened, murdered, attacked or abused. And Morton’s own adoption heritage story continues from book to book.

Amazon UK

Read my reviews of the first three books in the series, Hiding the Past,The Lost Ancestor and The Orange Lilies.

If you like this, try:-
‘Blood-Tied’ by Wendy Percival
‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE AMERICA GROUND by @NathanDGoodwin #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3r5 via @SandraDanby








#BookReview ‘Shadow Baby’ by Margaret Forster

Margaret ForsterA slow-build read which, by halfway, had me glued to the page. It is in part a story about unplanned pregnancy – choices, motherhood and how a girl grows to be a mother herself – and part social history. The history is the skeleton on which the flesh of the story hangs and inter-connects. Two young women fall pregnant, Leah in 1887 and Hazel in 1956. Both abandon their babies. Shadow Baby by Margaret Forster is the story of Leah and her daughter Evie, Hazel and her daughter Shona. The circumstances are different – Evie is brought up first in a children’s home and then by reluctant relatives; Shona is adopted by a family desperate for a child with a mother whose care is suffocating – but the stories so similar. Both daughters are obsessed with their birth mothers.

From generation to generation, mistakes are uncannily mirrored. Attitudes from the 19th century reappear in the 20th. Shadow Baby is a thoughtful and measured exploration of how the nature of being a mother differs from woman to woman, expectations, fears, well-meaning but hurtful family and social pressure. And how, when the daughter grows into a woman who in turn becomes pregnant, the same fears, expectations and social pressures kick in. Forster is perceptive about the rejection felt by the daughters, and the shame of their mothers, shame which prompts denial and continued rejection. These women have to make hard decisions to survive, decisions a million miles away from how we live today in our comfortable 21st century lives but with a stark reminder of how the actions of a previous generation can affect the next.

If you like ‘Shadow Baby’ try these other novels about adoption:-
‘Run’ by Ann Patchett
‘Innocent Blood’ by PD James
‘Chosen Child’ by Linda Huber

‘Shadow Baby’ by Margaret Forster [UK: Vintage] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: The Orange Lilies

Nathan Dylan GoodwinThis is a novella, a short book which I wanted to be longer. Set at Christmas 2014 it revisits Christmas 100 years earlier, the first year of the Great War, and follows the story of one man in the trenches with the Royal Sussex Regiment. Third in the series by Nathan Dylan Goodwin about his forensic genealogist Morton Farrier, it is a little different from its predecessors in that it focusses on Morton’s own story rather than that of a client.

Morton knows he is adopted but has recently discovered a complicated family secret. So in an effort to build bridges and learn more about his ancestors, he and girlfriend Juliette travel to Cornwall to visit his Aunty Margaret and Uncle Jim. Over the festive break, Morton and Margaret trace official documents telling the story of Morton’s great-grandfather Charles Farrier, who fought with the Second Battalion, the Royal Sussex Regiment. However as records are uncovered, more questions appear. At the same time we are told Charles’s story in 1914, with its own mysteries, contradictions and secrets. Unknown to Morton, old and modern mysteries are inter-linked.

I love the formula of the Morton Farrier books, the combination of present and past, secrets and lies, the hunt for truth and puzzles solved. This book is a little different, I think for two reasons. First, I longed in the first half for more dynamic detail of Charles’s story rather than dry factual reporting. At the front of the book, the author explains that two of his own relatives fought with this regiment. At the end of the book, the author explains that the movements of the Second Battalion are recorded as faithfully and accurately as possible. It feels as if the history bound the creative hands of the author. The second difference is that Morton is researching his own family and so the emotional attachment is different. Unlike when he is searching for clients, there is no immediate danger to his life, property or loved ones.

I raced through this book, intrigued by the mystery of Charles and his young wife Nellie. If you are new to the Morton Farrier books, you will appreciate this novella better if you have already read the first two in the series.

Read my reviews of the first two Morton Farrier books, Hiding the Past, and The Lost Ancestor.

If you like this, try:-
‘Pale as the Dead’ by Fiona Mountain
‘Blood Atonement’ by Dan Waddell
‘The Quarry’ by Iain Banks

‘The Orange Lilies’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin, #3 Morton Farrier [UK: ND Goodwin] [UK: ND Goodwin]
THE ORANGE LILIES by @NathanDGoodwin #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2j2


Book review: The Doll Funeral

Kate HamerThe Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer is a dark, despairing and at times confusing tale of identity and the creeping links of family and genetics across the generations. It is about the difficult adoptive families, about ‘not fitting in’, and how blood families sometimes don’t work either. Ultimately, family is where you can find it and make it.

Ruby’s mother Barbara is a cleaning lady who nicks small things she thinks won’t be missed. Father Mick knocks Ruby around, forcing her to miss school until the bruises fade. Then on her thirteenth birthday, they tell her she is adopted. Ruby’s response is to run into the garden and sing for joy. Of course nothing is as simple as it appears.

Ruby, determined to find her birth parents, runs away and makes her way to the creepy home of a strange schoolfriend Tom. I found the thread of Tom, Crispin and Elizabeth rather unrealistic and at times gruesome. It does however act as an alternative take on dysfunctional families, wild children and parental neglect. The budding relationship of Tom and Ruby, two outsiders, is touching.

Ruby’s tale is alternated with that of her mother Anna who falls pregnant as a teenager, first abandoned and then reclaimed by her boyfriend. Although I empathised with Ruby, I found her viewpoint rather mature at times for 13. For me, the story of her search for family was complicated by her ability to see ghosts. She doesn’t know their names or identities, so she gives them names such as Wasp Lady and Shadow. Shadow is the most present, speaking with Ruby and passing her information. At times, Shadow seems threatening, at others like a brother/sister. When the identity of Shadow is finally revealed, it was underwhelming and an aside from the key storyline. Almost as if the author had too many good ideas and didn’t want to drop anything. That said, the cover is beautiful.

The portrayal of the forest, both Ruby and Anna grew up in the Forest of Dean, is vivid, at times both reassuring and threatening. The significance of the title, though, passed me by, and I would have liked more of Nana’s folk magic.

This is not a novel I can honestly say I enjoyed. It considers difficult, slippery topics and so, thankfully, there is no neat ending.

If you like this, try:-
‘Mobile Library’ by David Whitehouse
‘The Last of Us’ by Rob Ewing
‘Beginnings’ by Helen J Christmas

‘The Doll Funeral’ by Kate Hamer [UK: Faber] Buy at Amazon

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#BookReview ‘Bloodline’ by @FionaMountain

Fiona MountainThis is a combination of genealogical mystery, murder investigation and historical examination of the Nazis. Bloodline by Fiona Mountain, the second Natasha Blake mystery, covers a lot of ground from its seemingly innocuous starting point when Natasha hands in her report to a client. But nothing is mentioned lightly in this book, everything has a meaning. Natasha is not sure why Charles Seagrove requested this particular family tree, but knows he is unrelated to any of the people featured.

The real reason for Seagrove’s interest in genealogy is at the heart of this storyline. There are many dead ends and I admit to losing track of who was who at one point but Mountain ties all the loose endings together so there is clarity at the end. At first, Natasha is simply conducting another genealogical research but everything changes when she receives an anonymous note, ‘Cinderella is in the bluebell woods at Poacher’s Dell’. Once her client is murdered with his own shotgun, Natasha feels threatened as well as puzzled.

There are many storylines to be connected including Charles Seagrove’s grand-daughter Rosa and her father Richard, Second World War land girls, and two soldiers – one German, one English – who meet in the trenches during the Christmas truce of 1914. This is a lot to handle but Mountain manages the complicated history with ease and I enjoyed trying to work out the solution.

Read my review of Pale as the Dead, the first Natasha Blake book.

If you like this, try these other genealogical mysteries:-
‘The Lost Ancestor’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin
‘Deadly Descent’ by Charlotte Hinger
‘Blood-Tied’ by Wendy Percival

‘Bloodline’ by Fiona Mountain, NBlake#2 [UK: Orion] Buy at Amazon

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#BookReview ‘Blood-Tied’ by @wendy_percival

Wendy PercivalA mysterious beginning with an invalid, threatened by a stranger. Just who is this woman and what is her connection to Esme Quentin? BloodTied by Wendy Percival is the first of the Esme Quentin series of genealogical mysteries.

Esme’s older sister Elizabeth is attacked and in hospital in a coma. Why was she in a town forty miles from home? Did she fall, or was she pushed? And who are the two people in photographs hidden in Elizabeth’s treasured locket? At the start of this story, Esme knows who her family is but once she starts to dig into Elizabeth’s odd accident/attack she uncovers a complicated family history which had me confused at times. This genealogical mystery involves a long-ago family argument, a derelict canal and a feisty elderly lady in a residential home. Esme is a bit like a dog with a bone, she won’t give up despite getting the jitters in the dark of the night.

Two things would have made my reading experience easier. Esme’s history – scar, widow, background as investigative journalist – was thinly drawn so it felt as if I was reading part two of a two-book series. The family twists and turns were such that I was often lost, perhaps because so much was told as Esme discovered paperwork, rather than seeing the action on the page by the characters concerned. That said, the menace builds nicely though I read to the end to find out what happened to Polly, the feisty lady.

Read more about Wendy Percival’s books here. Next in the Esme Quentin series is The Indelible Stain.

If you like ‘Blood-Tied’, try these other genealogy mystery novels:-
‘Pale as the Dead’ by Fiona Mountain
‘Blood Atonement’ by Dan Waddell
‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin

‘Blood-Tied’ by Wendy Percival, #1 Esme Quentin [UK: Silverwood]

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