Tag Archives: Book Reviews

The Lost Ancestor by Nathan Dylan Goodwin: A Book Review

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.

The Lost Ancestor

Well, what can I say except that he’s done it again?:

Nathan Dylan Goodwin
Photo Used with Permission

Nathan Dylan Goodwin has written another genealogical mystery story with twists and turns and another surprise ending.

And what else can I say except that I’ve done it again, too?

I, in turn, sat down, as I did with Hiding the Past, and read the entire book on one day.

If you missed my review of Hiding the Past and haven’t yet been lucky enough to come across any of Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s works, you are missing some terrific, fun reading, genealogical novels.

The Lost Ancestor is the second in the Morton Farrier, forensic genealogist series and opens with a tantalizing mystery waiting to be solved. Of course, the mystery isn’t one that happened recently – it’s one hundred years old.

Ray Mercer hires Morton Farrier to determine exactly what happened to his grand aunt Mary, twin sister to his grandmother, Edith, in April 1911. Mary was secretly engaged to cousin Edward Mercer when she went missing without a trace in April 1911.

There is a definite plot structure to these stories – and I am not meaning that as a criticism in any way. That structure instead lends a familiarity to the setting and characters, which makes it feel like you’ve settled in for a good read with old friends.

The mystery begins when Morton meets Ray and decides to take on this century-old mystery. Author Nathan Dylan Goodwin develops another well-constructed plot with the present day and 1911 stories intermingled. Together, they guide us through the tragic story of Edith and Mary Mercer.

Edith Mercer is on her way to a better life, as she and twin Mary, along for support, make their way to the Blackfriars mansion and Edith’s interview for the job of third housemaid in January 1911. The first surprise, which sets the stage for the entire story, is that Mary is instead hired, although she lacks any real domestic skills. The first wedge is driven between the twins and it is one that affects each for the remainder of their lives.

Why did Edith, highly qualified for the post, lose the position to Mary? The answer to that question will unravel the mystery of Mary’s sudden disappearance three months later.

Even more so than with Hiding the Past, I had the conclusion all figured out – or so I thought. The author actually comes out and “reveals” the ending for the reader. The only problem with the conclusion reached is that there are still several vitally important pieces of information that haven’t yet been discovered by Morton. Therefore, the conclusion a reader draws near to the end of the story isn’t quite right.

I love all the historical details in these stories. As an aside, I learned a lot about the “help” living in those mansions. A day from 6:30 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. with one half day off per week was a grueling life and their jobs were never done.

I also really love all the genealogical details, too. Morton makes trips to local libraries and archives, sends off for vital records and uses FindMyPast and genealogy message forums, just like all the rest of us.

Lastly, the skill with which the author ties up all the loose ends to reveal the full story makes for a definite AHA moment. I get the same feeling reading the end of Morton’s current adventure as when I uncover tidbits that help solve my own genealogical mysteries.

I highly recommend that you check out both Hiding the Past and The Lost Ancestor if you are a genealogy nut or just of a fan of mysteries, in general. Morton Farrier leads a fascinating, fast-paced life and you won’t be sorry you went along for the ride.

Nathan Dylan Goodwin – you really must come to the Festival of Books 2019 at the University of Arizona here in Tucson. I think many more enthusiastic readers will love Morton Farrier!

Visit the author’s website for further details on The Lost Ancestor and his other books and to make a purchase.


Gianna the Treasurer Hunter: A Children’s Book Review

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.

As a retired language arts teacher and more than avid genealogist, I was excited to have the opportunity to review Gianna the Treasure Hunter by Becky Villareal, also a retired teacher who lives in Texas and enjoys writing and family history.

There are some real positives about this book.

First, I love that an author is filling a niche for young children in the hopes of developing a keen interest in learning about their own family history.

Second, I love the plot line that explains how Gianna and her classmate Stephanie embark on the journey, with the help of Stephanie’s French grandmother, to learn about her family history.

Stephanie’s story was interesting enough to make me want to learn more about her family, particularly since her father, who apparently had no real interest in the subject, was drawn in by the discovery of some family books.

Becky Villareal is a talented children’s story teller. Gianna the Treasure Hunter is a wonderful title to open the door to the idea that treasure comes in many forms and family history is definitely one of them. America is truly a melting pot and the multi-cultural aspect to the story is another positive.

However, being a retired teacher, I looked at this book with a much different eye than I do when reviewing an adult-oriented book, whether it be fiction or reference. I am at a slight disadvantage as I haven’t read the first two of Gianna’s stories, Gianna the Great and Halito Gianna: The Journey Continues, but I am assuming that the first two stories about Gianna are in a similar vein and structure to this one.

To review a children’s book, I checked the suggested age range on Amazon, which is for children in grades 1-5. I also looked much more closely at the structure of the book and the details in it.

Here are my observations.

First, I think Gianna is well suited for a parent reading to young children (5-7 years old) to introduce them to family history. Yet, having said that, a bit of ground work would have to be laid and explained to the child/ren. Paragraph 2 in Chapter 1 talks about Gianna’s excitement about finding a picture of her grandmother in an online border crossing record. I don’t think I know any young children who would have any idea what that record even was.  No explanation was given about it.

While I like that a sophisticated term like border crossing record (for young children) is in the book, it definitely should be in the glossary. There is a short glossary in the back of the book, which I love, but it only contains the foreign language words found in the book. Somewhere, either in the text or glossary, border crossing record needs to be defined and an adult needs to reinforce verbally exactly what it is/was used for.

The same comment needs to be made with terms like genealogy, genealogy link and ship’s manifest. These words need to be explained beforehand and a paper copy of a ship’s manifest should be at hand to share with the child/ren.

Second, because the book seems most appropriate for children ages 8 and under, my eyes opened a bit wide with the notion that Gianna, at her age,  was off chasing ancestors online at school, even if Mr. Williams was in charge of the Genealogy Club. The story should state that Mr. Williams is directly helping students as a search is being made. (In reality, most public school systems block sites like Ancestry, YouTube and others that one would need to research family history in a classroom.)

Next, I like the chapter lengths as they are short enough to hold a young child’s interest and still have some time to talk about the story together.

Fourth, it has been many years since I took my two years of high school French, but I believe there are mistakes in the French phrases in the story. This is a big concern to me. (See the Glossary at the back of the book.) For example, Quelle est cette mère? means literally, word for word, What is this mother? Imagine someone looking at an object with no idea of what it is and asking “What is this thing?” That’s the meaning of Quelle est cette mère? with the word mother substituted.

I vividly remember my French teacher going around the classroom asking each student Qu’est-ce que c’est, Linda? or What is this, Linda? and we had to answer This is a . . . . . Therefore, I believe the question in Gianna the Treasure Hunter should correctly be phrased, “Qu’est ce que c’est, Mère?” A comma makes a huge difference here, too. One isn’t asking what “this mother” is, but is asking Mother a question.

There is the same issue with mon chéri, or my dear. Unless I am way off, that would be said to a male. Grandmother speaking to Stephanie would say ma chérie.

I’ve had many years of Spanish and noted right away that the Mexican food  buñuelos is also misspelled.

These are details that an editor should pick up on and correct before publication.

Lastly, I’d like to discuss the physical structure of the book. With the font size as big as it is, I can’t see many of my former (grades 4-8) students choosing this book to read. I’m mentioning this because the suggested age range is through grade 5. I think most fourth and fifth graders would find this book looks too babyish. The cover also reinforces the idea that this book is more geared to very young readers, as Gianna and Stephanie appear to be quite young.

Illustrator Jessica Marie Balli has drawn each of the characters in this story, which is important, as it helps young children connect with the story. Balli, like Villareal,  is also talented at what she does. Her depictions of each person are colorful and fun. For presentation in a book, however, particularly a read-aloud, her images should have much more of a presence on the page.

That brings me to my last comment. Perhaps the small images were a space-saving device. However, it is a bit odd that every single chapter opens one third of the way down the page.The empty space would be much better used filling it with larger images. :

Finally, the book cover displays a seal stating Readers’ Favorite. Five Stars, but I couldn’t find any explanation in the book about the organization that awarded it.  I’d like to know, just because that type of information interests me. Teachers would likely also want to know who gave a seal of approval. Acknowledgements by the author on page i would be a good spot to include that information.

Overall, if I were grading this as a teacher, I’d give the story line a B+ because I really enjoyed the story, aside from my handful of concerns. I think Becky Villareal has written an engaging story that young children will enjoy with a bit of teaching beforehand.

It appears that Gianna the Treasure Hunter might be self published, as the only publication data that I find on the book is “Made in the USA, Lexington, KY 29 March 2018,” meaning that the book was most likely self-edited and/or self-published.

Most of us don’t do a very good job editing our own writing and I include myself in that description. Rewriting and running down miscellaneous details are not my favorite activities. However, if I were publishing a book, not only would I be double checking my work, I’d have at least one other person doing the same if self-publishing. Because of the foreign language errors, I’d have to give a grade of D to the editor of Gianna the Treasure Hunter, whoever that might be.







Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups

I have a new favorite book, although it is definitely an oldie but goodie.Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups

This tome (and I never use that word, but I think it fits here) weighs a hefty five pounds and measures 8 3/4 x 11 1/4 x 2 inches, but it is a real treasure!

Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups was published way back in 1980, but its detailed statistics about every ethnic group one could imagine still stand because each group is presented through an historical overview.

I’ve always known that my Slovak ancestors – my entire paternal side of the family – were peasant farmers who came to America for a better economic future.

Slovaks are covered on pages 926-934 (!!!) under the categories of Origins, Migration and Settlement, Economic Life, Organization and Leadership, Family and Kinship, Health and Leisure, Culture and Customs, Religion and Education and Politics and Neighborhoods.

In the sections on Origins and Migration and Settlement, I at least quadrupled the knowledge I previously had about my Slovak ancestors and cultural ways as I read about the European migratory path of the early peoples and how their lives evolved through two or three generations who became Americans.

Next, I had an even bigger surprise. My grandparents were Byzantine Catholic, aka Greek Catholics, and were part of the Slovak sub-group (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way in case any Rusyns are reading my blog. Some are quite adamant that they aren’t Slovak!) known as Carpatho-Rusyns.

Pages 200-209 in this book are devoted exclusively to the Carpath-Rusyns! Nine entire pages of scholarly details about 50% of my ancestral lines!

For example, Origins told me that my early ancestors settled in the area of today’s Slovakia by the 6th century. The Carpatho-Rusyns were an Eastern Slavic people whose dialects are most closely related to the Ukrainian language. I knew my grandmother spoke “Slovak” and could understand Polish and Hungarian, but had no idea that her language was more strongly tied to Ukrainian.

I’ve never found any resource with this much information about them. There is even a map showing the areas overlapping Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine that Carpatho-Rusyns have called home, without ever having an autonomous homeland of their own.

Each ethnic group has it’s own mini-bibliography at the conclusion of its write up. The bibliography includes other scholarly efforts to document each groups existence through time and through its new live in the United States.

I’m loving the bibliographies, as I’ve located some of the resources listed in them. So far, they aren’t very cheap to buy, but on the other hand, there is so little written about the Carpatho-Rusyns, for example, that buying a handful of articles/books won’t be cost prohibitive.

In addition to all of the ethnic groups identified in the United States, there are sections covering topics such as Assimilation and Pluralism, Immigration: Settlement Patterns and Prejudice and Discrimination, along with quite a few others.

I’ve got some Danish and Dutch roots, too, and found eight and eleven pages, respectively, on each of those immigrant groups. The Irish are covered in 24 pages. Gypsies, Mormons as a religious migration, and Kalmyks (Mongolian Buddhists), American Indians and a few ethnic groups I’ve never heard of are also treated in Harvard’s work. I have to believe that, as of 1980 when the book was published, if there was an ethnic group, however small, that had migrated to America, a history for them will be found. The Kalmyks were a group of only 20–250 families who arrived in 1951!

Everyone’s favorite shopping site currently has used copies of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups for about $40. The book isn’t cheap, but it is worth every penny.

If you have questions about the book, leave a comment.