Tag Archives: family history

Book review: The Lost Ancestor

Nathan Dylan GoodwinWhen forensic genealogist Morton Farrier is asked by a dying client to find out what happened to his great aunt, who disappeared in 1911, Morton doesn’t expect to find his own life threatened. The Lost Ancestor by Nathan Dylan Goodwin is a moreish combination of mystery, history about the pre-Great War period, and family history research.

If you like Downton Abbey, you will identify with the 1911 sections about Morton’s great aunt Mary Mercer. In an effort to escape her rough, unemployed father and unpleasant mother, Mary takes a job as third housemaid at Blackfriars, a great house at Winchelsea in East Sussex. Little does she realize the love and heartache she finds there will shape her life. A dreamer who imagines she is the lady of the house, Mary has a rude awakening on her first day at work. She had no idea what the job of a chambermaid entailed. But the presence of her cousin Edward makes life easier to bear. When her parents fall ill, Mary gives them all her wages and so loses her chances of escaping to a better life.

Goodwin knows the Winchelsea and Rye area so well that I immediately felt I was there. His descriptions of Rye, where Morton lives and work, feel real: the streets, the old houses, and the Mermaid Inn are described with a light pen.

The story is told in two strands. Morton searches online and at local archives, and visits the real Blackfriars house, now open to the public. This story alternates with Mary’s in 1911. Goodwin weaves the two tales together so as we get nearer to the truth of Mary’s disappearance and why her mentions in all official records stop – did she die, was she killed, did she change her name and run away to Scotland, or emigrate – the threats on Morton’s life, and that of his partner Juliette, get serious. The mystery in both strands build as the family connections between past and present are revealed. I did not forsee the ingenious ending.

The Morton Farrier books are excellent. Although the cover designs are a little old-fashioned, don’t let this put you off reading them. Read more about Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s books at his website.

Here’s my review of the first Morton Farrier book, Hiding the Past.

If you like this, try:-
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘Deadly Descent’ by Charlotte Hinger
‘The Marriage Certificate’ by Stephen Molyneux

‘The Lost Ancestor’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin, #2MortonFarrier [UK: ND Goodwin]

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#BookReview ‘Pale as the Dead’ by @FionaMountain

genealogy mysteryThis is an unusual mix of genealogy mystery and history, centred on the glamorous Pre-Raphaelite artists and Lizzie Siddal, the girl in the famous ‘Ophelia’ painting. Ancestry detective Natasha Blake meets a mysterious, beautiful young woman, Bethany, who is re-enacting the Lizzie Siddal scene for a photographer. Bethany confides in Natasha her fear that her family is cursed following the deaths of her sister and mother. After asking Natasha to research her family tree, Bethany goes missing. Has she run from a failing love affair, committed suicide, or has she been murdered?

The trail is cold. Natasha must turn detective in two senses: she searches the birth, marriage and death records, census returns and wills, to find Natasha’s ancestors; at the same time, she is being followed by someone driving a red Celica. Adam, the photographer, is also Bethany’s boyfriend but Natasha feels there is more to his story than he is telling.

The narrative wandered rather from the central story, complicated unnecessarily by Natasha’s own history and love life which added little. Perhaps this could have been avoided by telling part of the story from Lizzie Siddal’s point of view. There were so many peripheral characters, both in the present time and the historical story, that at times I lost my way. I was also unconvinced by the threat to Natasha – the red car, the break-in. These jarred, almost as if added as an afterthought to appeal to lovers of crime fiction which I think was unnecessary. The kernel of the story about Bethany and Lizzie is fascinating in its own right.

Pale as the Dead is the first of two Natasha Blake novels. The second, Bloodline, will be reviewed here soon.
Read more about Fiona Mountain here.

If you like ‘Pale as the Dead’, try these other genealogical mysteries:-
‘Deadly Descent’ by Charlotte Hinger
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘The Marriage Certificate’ by Stephen Molyneux

‘Pale as the Dead’ by Fiona Mountain, NBlake#1 [UK: Orion] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: Deadly Descent

Charlotte HingerIt all begins when West Kansas historian Lottie Albright receives a submission for her oral history project. Written by Zelda St John, aunt of political hopeful Brian Hadley, the piece examines torrid racist attitudes in the family’s history. This is the sort of book you settle into and read with relish. Deadly Descent by Charlotte Hinger is a mystery thriller which moves with steady detailed steps as the tension twists and twists like a screw being slowly turned.

A first murder is followed rapidly by a second, Lottie is sworn in as a deputy and balances her twin jobs of detecting and collating historical records. The two jobs fit neatly together until anonymous letters start to arrive. Lottie is ably supported by her quiet long-suffering husband Keith, and her clinical psychologist twin sister Josie. Remember the twin thing, it is important later. Sam Abbott, sheriff of the woefully-underfunded Carlton County police, welcomes the resources of the Kansas Bureau of Investigations and so distracts Lottie with research into an old dead case: the old Swenson murders. This feels like a massive diversion, but go with the flow of this book and you will be rewarded.

Hinger plots intricately and draws a totally believable picture of the historical society in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets. Lottie’s project involves everyone writing the story of their family: for some people, the shame is too much.

This is the first of the Lottie Albright series of family history mysteries. For more about Charlotte Hinger’s books, visit her website. Hinger is a Western Kansas historian who edited more than 500 family submissions for county history books.

If you like ‘Deadly Descent’, try these other genealogy novels:-
‘The Blood Detective’ by Dan Waddell
‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘Deadly Descent’ by Charlotte Hinger, LottieAlbright#1 [UK: Poisoned Pen Press] Buy at Amazon

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#BookReview ‘Blood Atonement’ by @danwaddell

Dan Waddell A fascinating mixture of modern crime novel and family history research, Blood Atonement takes Nigel Barnes from London to the USA as he races against time to find answers for Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster.

Foster’s first case after returning to work following injuries sustained in The Blood Detective [first in this genealogical crime series] is a dead actress and her missing daughter. Links to the actress’s past, mystery about her family and unanswered questions, lead Foster to call in the help of genealogist Nigel Barnes. Both men are strong characters who walk off the page, both loners of a kind, both lonely in love.

This is a fast-moving mystery revolving around what happened to Horton and Sarah Rowley, who we know from flashbacks were teenage sweethearts planning to run away, but who only appear in records in the UK from 1891. Before that, they cease to exist. Where did they come from, and why were they running? Simply because their parents disapproved of the marriage, or something more sinister? And what has this to do with the dead actress found lying face down on her lawn in London? As he searches for the missing 14-year old, Foster finds chilling parallels with Leonie, another 14-year old who disappeared three years earlier and has never been found. As links to a cult are uncovered, attention focuses back on Sarah and Horton.

A satisfying well-written plot which manages to slip in a little history too.

Read my review of the first in the series, The Blood Detective.

If you like ‘Blood Atonement’, try these:-
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin
‘Blood Atonement’ by Dan Waddell, #2 Nigel Barnes [UK: Penguin] Buy at Amazon

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#BookReview ‘The Marriage Certificate’ by Stephen Molyneux

Stephen MolyneuxThere’s a new genre appearing in mystery, thriller and general fiction sections: #genealogylit. Involving a combination of old-fashioned mystery, family history, detective fiction and combined historical and modern-day settings, #genealogylit has grown from the love of family history research and television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Long Lost FamilyThe Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux is another example of #genealogylit, combining family secrets with turn of the century British history: the Boer War, the Great War, the merchant navy, the changing role of women and attitudes to illegitimacy. Unlike other #genealogylit however, it is not a crime novel, there is no murder.

It is the story of two couples – the bride and groom, Louisa and John, best man Frank and bridesmaid Rose – at a wedding on January 15, 1900; their lives, loves, dangers and tragedies. Running alongside is a modern-day strand. In 2011, amateur genealogist Peter Sefton finds the marriage certificate of Louisa and John’s wedding in an antiques shop and his curiosity is piqued. As he researches the names on the certificate, we also see their lives unfolding in a rapidly-changing world as the 19th century turns into the 20th. The men leave home to fight, while the women stay at home. War brings a change of life, but social mores remain Victorian.

Meanwhile, an elderly man dies alone in London. Without relatives, Harry Williams is listed on the Bona Vacantia list of unclaimed estates. In 2011, a professional heir hunting company starts to research Williams’ life in the hope of finding distant relatives and earn a share of the money. How will Highborn Research’s investigation coincide with Peter’s? Is there a connection to Laura and John? And who will inherit Harry Williams’ money?

This is not a thrilling page-turner with rapid action on every page, instead it is a slow-burning story rooted in historical detail which, for me, came alive in the final 100 pages. Perhaps this is due to the writing style, which can be a little formal and repetitive, and the author’s tendency to include tiny details. I did wonder whether the storyline was based on real people, the genealogical detail is fascinating and it is clear the author knows the research procedure, its twists and turns. I read this over one weekend, and found myself sitting up late to read to the end. Incidentally, the last page leaves the story hanging – but don’t be tempted to look!

Read a sample of The Marriage Certificate here.

If you like ‘The Marriage Certificate’, try these other #genealogylit novels:-
‘The Blood Detective’ by Dan Waddell
‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson

‘The Marriage Certificate’ by Stephen Molyneux [UK: Sites To Suit] Buy here

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#BookReview ‘The Blood Detective’ by @danwaddell

Dan WaddellI raced through this book, a hybrid mixture of crime and genealogy mystery. Author Dan Waddell is also a journalist and genealogist, having written The Genealogy Handbook [below] to accompany the Who Do You Think You Are? television series. So, he knows his stuff and it shows. Usually a crime novel features a lead detective and team, here we have two lead characters: Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster, and genealogist Nigel Barnes.

Waddell’s plotting is ingenious. The past really does come back to haunt the present. There is a serial killer in West London who leaves a clue carved into the skin of his victims. This clue prompts DCI Foster to call on the specialist help of researcher Barnes. The murder hunt takes parallel paths: Foster chases living suspects, Barnes searches the archives for the true 1879 story of a serial killer, his victims and their descendants. What is the link? The final chapters are a thrilling race against time.

I really enjoyed this. The linking of historical and present-day crime was clever, and the characterization was convincing and not of the stereotypical detective form. An enjoyable mixture of fast-moving crime novel with genealogical research and historical gems about this particular part of London, its transformation from Victorian times to the 21st century, and its dark history of crime. There is a second novel featuring the same characters, Blood AtonementDan WaddellIf you like ‘The Blood Detective’, try these:-
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘Secrets, Spies and Spotted Dogs’ by Jane Eales
‘Seeking John Campbell’ by John Daffurn

‘The Blood Detective’ by Dan Waddell, #1 Nigel Barnes [UK: D Waddell] Buy here

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#BookReview ‘Hiding the Past’ by @NathanDGoodwin 

Nathan Dylan GoodwinAn unusual hybrid of genealogy and record checking plus amateur detective stuff makes Hiding the Past by Nathan Dylan Goodwin a worthy page turner for a holiday week. Anyone who loves family tree research, and a good crime novel, will like this with its narrative stretching from World War Two to present-day politicians.

Within days of taking on a new client, genealogist Morton Farrier knows this case is different: one, his client pays a fee of £50,000 straight into his bank account; two, the client shoots himself in the head. Or does he? Helped by his girlfriend Police Community Support Officer Juliette, Farrier studies the background of his, now dead, client, Peter Coldrick, a study which leads him to two key years: 1944 and 1987. Official records for Coldrick’s descendants have mysteriously disappeared, Morton is being followed by a glossy black 4×4, and it may be his imagination but a usually helpful archives officer is proving difficult to pin down.

Morton is an interesting character, adopted, rubbing along awkwardly with his widowed adoptive father and soldier brother, quick with a sharp word whilst knowing he should be kinder and hating himself for it. I also liked the clear drawing of his setting around the Kent & Sussex towns and villages of Sedelscombe, Rye, Tenterden and Lewes, an area I lived in and loved, Goodwin makes them feel real on the page. This is the first of, at the time of writing, four Morton Farrier novels, so expect to read more about Morton’s own adoption story in future books.

For more about Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s books, click here for his website.

If you like ‘Hiding the Past’, try:-
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase’ by Louise Walters
‘The Knife with the Ivory Handle’ by Cynthia Bruchman

‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin, #1MortonFarrier [UK: ND Goodwin]

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Book review: The House at the Edge of the World

Julia RochesterThe premise of this book by Julia Rochester is great. One night, on his way home from the pub, Morwenna and Corwen’s father stops to pee over the cliff edge. And falls. Their lives are never the same again.

The house of the title is the Venton family home on the Devon coastline, and this book is imbued with the history of this family, woven together with real family stories, family myths of things that may have happened, and coastal history. The twins’ grandfather, Matthew, is something of a recluse, working on the family history and painting an enormous map of the local area. Cameos of local places, people and events are featured on the map. Again and again, as the twins grow up [they are 18 when the story starts] they each run away to different places. Finally events draw them back to their childhood home, their grandfather and his map, as if drawn by a magnet and still wondering what really happened to their father.

I grew up by the seaside, and the town where they live is drawn so clearly the memories flooded back: the beach huts, the seagulls, the cliff top paths, the dropped ice cream cones. Morwenna and Corwen are difficult characters to connect to, but fascinating, and I was drawn into their stories. For the first half of the book, I wasn’t sure where it was going, but then the narrative speeded up and I couldn’t put it down. I had a faint idea of what may happen, but was surprised by the ending which is something that [at the beginning] I thought would never occur. The writing is atmospheric, the details about Morwenna’s book binding were mesmerising. The author doesn’t shy away from writing about the dark thoughts that real people think but don’t admit to, and this adds depth to an intriguing ‘what if’ story. If you like your characters to be ‘nice’, don’t read this.

A fascinating and unusual story.
For more about Julia Rochester, click here for her website.

If you like this, try:-
‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey
‘Kings and Queens’ by Terry Tyler
‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope

‘The House at the Edge of the World’ by Julia Rochester [UK: Viking]

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#BookReview ‘I Belong to No One’ by Gwen Wilson

Gwen Wilson

This is a brave book, a memoir written by Gwen Wilson knowing that she may be criticised, knowing that readers may disapprove, but having the courage to write it anyway. To say ‘This is me, this is what I did when I was a teenager’.

Gwen Wilson had a tough start in life. Her father was not in her life, in fact in later years she discovers that her father was a completely different man from the one she thought he was. Instead she grows up with her mother and half-brother Steve. Her mother would today be diagnosed as bi-polar, Steve is thrust into the role of authority figure. The young Gwen grows up relying on stand-in families, those of trusting neighbours or the parents of her schoolfriends. Looking for love, for approval, it is little wonder that she gets ’into trouble’.

Gwen Wilson celebrated her 60th birthday just before this memoir was published. She has travelled a long way and become a different person since the girl who struggled to be a mother and wife when she was still a young girl. There should have been more support for her, but 1970s Australia was in many ways an unforgiving male-focussed society and it sucked Gwen into its moral spin drier and spat her out again.

Pregnant at 17, she marries Colin [the baby’s father] but both teenagers are woefully prepared to be parents. They struggle on for a while until, under Australia’s controversial forced adoption rules, it is decided [not by them] that their toddler Jason would be better off adopted. Cowed, the teenagers agree and sign the forms to give away their son. Gwen Wilson has spent the rest of her life feeling guilty, full of regret.

But this book is more than a story about adoption, it is a window into the world of growing up, poor, in 1960s and 70s Australia. “They said the house was jerry-built. I knew what they meant. The house was cobbled together from scraps of timber, fibro and Masonite – bits other people threw away. Our roof was not terracotta tiles like the others in the street. It was tin. Corrugated iron, they called it. When the sun beat down, the heat spread through each room like an oven. We gasped and baked and prayed for a Southerly Buster. We knew it would come in the evening: we could smell its approach. It roared up the hill from the bottom of the street, and found us perched at the corner, wilting.” Wilson draws such a clear picture of her childhood house, I could be there.

This is no idyllic childhood, Steve and Gwen learn to live without their mother who is in and out of hospital, when their mother is there they know how to manage her moods. They grow up before their time, except they are still children and make bad decisions. Wilson admits that when she was a teenager, she felt bitter towards her mother, for not being there for her daughter, for not supporting her as she had in her turn been supported by her family. Now, Wilson understands how ill her mother really was.

For more about Gwen Wilson’s story, read my Author Interview with her here, or visit her website.

If you like ‘I Belong to No One’, try these other adoption memoirs:-
‘Secrets, Spies and Spotted Dogs’ by Jane Eales
‘Blue-Eyed Son’ by Nicky Campbell

‘I Belong to No One’ by Gwen Wilson [UK: Orion] Buy now

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#BookReview ‘Secrets, Spies and Spotted Dogs’ by @jane_eales

Jane Eales

This is the true story of one woman’s search for her birth family which crosses continents from South Africa and Rhodesia, to Australia, the UK, and Holland. Jane Eales discovered she was adopted when she was 19. Her adoptive parents made her swear never to tell anyone else about her adoption and never to search for her birth parents.

She lived with the uncertainty of not knowing for 40 years until, when both her adoptive parents were dead, she started to search. The journey crosses continents as she uncovers a family’s pre-World War Two flight as Hitler threatens, the politics of Southern Africa, and spying during WW2. The ‘Spotted Dogs’ in the title is a reference to Dalmatian dogs; the author’s birth mother, Phyllis, was a renowned UK dog breeder.

For Jane Eales, the promise she made to her adoptive parents was a difficult one to break. They were the only parents she had known, they cared for her, she loved them though she found it difficult to accept and understand their need for secrecy when it made her own life so ill-defined. What prompted her to search? With a learning-disabled son, she was advised to check her own genetic history.

The story is told slowly and carefully, starting with her own childhood and her adopted father’s Jewish family, leading first to a half-brother, cousins, before identifying her birth mother Phyllis. Although this is fascinating, and adds to the final picture, I wanted to get to the bit about spying promised in the book’s title. For that I had to be patient. At times, the book has the feeling of ‘my family’s story’, but the author’s honesty about coming to terms with the decisions taken in the 1940s when times were very different, make this book a worthy read for anyone interested in autobiographies about adoption or family history.

If you like this, try:-
‘I Belong to No One’ by Gwen Wilson
‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin
‘Seeking John Campbell’ by John Daffurn

‘Secrets, Spies and Spotted Dogs’ by Jane Eales [UK: Middle Harbour Press] Buy now

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