Genealogy Book Club Gems: Add These to Your Must-Read List

These three must-read titles from our Genealogy Book Club would be great stocking stuffers for yourself or someone you love. See my newest book recommendations for family history lovers by best-selling authors Christina Baker Kline (Orphan Train) and A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically)–and another author I recently discovered and couldn’t stop reading.

genealogy gems book club must reads

3 Must-Read Books for Family History Lovers

1. A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

“You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.” So says the Prologue to a new novel by best-selling novelist Christina Baker Kline, whose novel Orphan Train has been loved by millions around the world (and a lot of Genealogy Gems Book Club fans–we featured it in 2014).

A Piece of the World is a unique and irresistible story about a woman whose physical disabilities and family’s demands keep her adventure-loving spirit firmly homebound. Granted, her home is a fascinating place: a 1700s-era home on the coast of Maine that has been passed down for several generations. But the noble legacy of the home instills a sense of obligation in those who live there now: do they stay on the family land at all costs, even the cost of their happiness and health? What happens when a family’s heritage becomes a burden, not a blessing?

Those who love American art will love that the main character, Christina, was inspired by the subject of the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. (You can see an image of the painting here.) Christina was a real person who lived in this home. Andrew visited her and her brother and painted them many times. So the characters and setting are real, and the house is actually a National Historic Landmark now. Christina Baker Kline’s “fictional memoir” gives this historical Christina a powerful, honest, and insightful voice: the voice of a person who sees and tells it like it is–except the parts she just can’t see for herself.

2. It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs

You could say A.J. Jacobs is famous for asking questions that seem both important and inane, and then pursuing the answers and writing about it. That’s what he did with his best-selling book The Year of Living Biblically, a chronicle of the time he tried to obey every rule in the Bible. Now he’s done it again in his new book, It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.

The questions A.J. set out to answer here were, “Who is really my family? And what would happen if I tried to host the world’s biggest family reunion?” He’s been working on this topic for a while. Remember the Global Family Reunion in 2015? That was his brainchild. He also spoke at RootsTech in 2016.

A.J.’s voice is witty with lots of digressions, pop culture references, and a definite urban beat (NYC, specifically). He meditates on what genealogical connections mean to him and the larger story the world’s family tree tells us. Like, we’re all related, and therefore shouldn’t we get along better? But with the quick disclaimer that he’s not inviting us all over for New Year’s brunch. He did that already at the Global Family Reunion–which he reports on in detail. (Did it succeed? Did it fail? I’ve been wondering myself since 2015). In the appendix, he recommends all kinds of genealogy how-to resources, including Genealogy Gems.

If you yourself are somewhat relaxed and perhaps even a little irreverent about your genealogy hobby, you’ll likely really enjoy this book. What about the more earnest family historians? It’s still worth a glimpse into how others see us. A.J. comes peeking into the world of genealogy ready to crack jokes. And he does plenty of that. But he also comes away with a great deal of respect for the stories and relationships that can–and should, he says–bring us closer together.

3. Shannon by Frank Delaney

This isn’t a new book this year–it’s a classic I only recently discovered and can’t recommend more enthusiastically! I listened to the audiobook version, which the author narrates himself with great skill. Now I’m going to buy the print version so I can re-read, underline, and dog-ear all the passages that made me swoon. Oh. My. Goodness. Frank Delaney is a MASTER storyteller. He crafts every sentence, every image. You can practically see the story lines unfold, hear every action, smell it. I gasped, I cried, I laughed–all out loud in the car as I listened.

Shannon is a stunning tale: Father Shannon, an American Catholic priest of Irish descent, has serious “shell-shock” trauma after serving in the trenches of World War I. His archbishop sends him on a respite trip to Ireland to travel up the Shannon River looking for his family roots. He lands in the middle of an Irish Civil War—but also encounters person after person who helps him rediscover his faith in humanity and the restorative balm of daily life. Meanwhile, intrigue is afoot within his home archdiocese. A killer, who has his own traumatic backstory in Ireland, is dispatched to make sure Father Shannon never returns home. Their stories converge in a place of love, but also far too close to a place of pain. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about it. Read it or listen–and then clear a spot on your reading list for his epic novel, Ireland, which I read immediately after this one and also loved.

Genealogy Book Club: It’s All about YOU

genealogy book club family history readingThe Genealogy Gems Book Club is a service we provide the genealogy community because we love giving you more to talk and think about! We handpick our favorite mainstream fiction and nonfiction books that have great genealogy themes, such as someone searching out their family history, the complexities of family relationships, and the fascinating times and places our ancestors experienced.

As a special bonus, we sometimes invite authors of our Book Club titles to join us on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, available by subscription. It’s so fun to hear my favorite authors gush about the same kinds of topics I love! Hear from beloved and best-selling writers like Fannie Flagg, Annie Barrows, Helen Simonson, Lalita Tademy, and a favorite of genealogists around the world, Nathan Dylan Goodwin. Click here to see our full book list and where you can hear these interviews.

No More Late Fees! Check Out Free Genealogy Magazines and eBooks at Your Local Library

Your local library may offer free genealogy magazines and ebooks. Why choose them over print? So many reasons! No more late fees. Read on the go. Choose your font size. So go ahead: check out digital versions of that Genealogy Gems Book Club title you’ve been meaning to read, or the current issue of Family Tree Magazine. Here’s how.

genealogy library freebies

Here in the U.S., it’s my favorite time of year: back-to-school! The weather slowly cools. My children shake off summer’s mental lethargy. My own schedule resumes a more predictable, productive rhythm. And after months spent outdoors, I rediscover my local library. Top on my library list this fall: free genealogy ebooks and magazines I can check out on my mobile device. It’s on-the-go reading for my favorite hobby–with no searching under my bed when items come due to avoid those pesky late fees.

Free Genealogy eBooks and Magazines

Genealogy Gems Premium Member Autumn feels the same way about free genealogy gems at her local library. Here’s a letter she wrote to Lisa Louise Cooke:

“I’m really enjoying both the Premium and free podcasts. I also like the addition of the Genealogy Gems Book Club. I haven’t read all the books yet but am adding them all to my wishlist on Overdrive, a free app that allows you to check out digital books for free from your local library. They don’t have every book but they have many, many books including some from the book club. Most libraries have a lot of biographies and histories available through Overdrive for free that are of interest to genealogists as well. Some libraries are adding video to their Overdrive offerings too.

Many of these same libraries offer magazines free as well.  My library…use[s] Zinio, a magazine app. I only subscribe to a couple of magazines now because I can get so many for free through my library (not to mention keeping my home neater by not having them laying everywhere).”

genealogy book club family history readingIt makes me happy that Autumn is enjoying the Genealogy Gems Book Club. We hear from many avid readers who love browsing our list of mainstream fiction and nonfiction picks for family history lovers. As part of our book club, we interview every book club author, too–from beloved novelists like Fannie Flagg to acclaimed journalists, memoir writers, and historians who take their own unique approaches to family history themes. Hear excerpts of these interviews on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast; full interviews run on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, available by subscription.

Overdrive and Zinio

At Autumn’s recommendation, I started using Overdrive through my local library. I love it! I’ve listened to several digital audiobooks on the road and at the gym through Overdrive and have read several ebooks, too. (I’m always on the hunt for the next Genealogy Gems Book Club title.) The books just disappear at the end of the lending period (hence the “no late fees” bonus).

Genealogy Gems Service Manager Lacey Cooke loves Overdrive, too. She sent me these four reasons why:

1. Download for Offline Listening: “You can download the ebooks, audiobooks, magazines etc. to your device so that you can enjoy them offline (great for traveling). They’ll still disappear once your lending period expires, but having them available offline is awesome. You don’t have to worry about data charges or slow internet connections.

2. The Wishlist: Autumn briefly mentioned the Wishlist feature. I love this feature because it gives me somewhere to save book titles that I’m interested in reading at some point, but I’m not ready to check out just yet.

3. Bookmark/Syncing: You can bookmark a page, then pick up where you left off. If you have the Overdrive app on multiple devices, the app syncs. I can start reading on one device, and pick up on another right where I left off.

4. Format Adjustments: You can adjust the font style, size, and color to make it easier for you to read. I like to pick a nice, clean font in a big size so there’s no strain on my eyes.”

It’s worth noting that if you don’t already have a library card with your local library, you may be required to sign up in person to get a card, even if you only plan on using the Overdrive app to request items online. New releases or popular titles may have a wait list to check out the ebook or audiobook (especially if the library only possesses one copy). If you do have to place an ebook on hold, you will be notified via email when it becomes available to you, so if you don’t check your email regularly, keep that in mind when you place a hold. Each library system is different, so of course, your experience may vary.

Another helpful tip: not every library offers Overdrive ebook checkouts. But sometimes you can use another library’s Overdrive privileges. Autumn sent a link to these instructions on how to do so. (Thanks, Autumn!)

Autumn also mentioned the Zinio app. My library doesn’t offer Zinio yet, so I spent a little time on its public search portal. That doesn’t have a browsable genealogy category, and searches for the terms family history, genealogy and ancestry came up empty. But I did finally find these titles:

Lisa Louise Cooke, Genealogy Gems DNA expert Diahan Southard, and I are all frequent contributors to Family Tree Magazine, which we {heart} and recommend for its easy-reading research tips, hands-on tech and DNA tutorials, and the eye-candy layout. (Click here to subscribe personally, if you don’t want to read through a library app.)

More Free Genealogy Resources at Your Local Library

Of course, your local library may offer many additional free genealogy research and reading materials. Of tremendous value is access to Library editions of popular genealogy databases such as Ancestry, Findmypast, Fold3, and MyHeritage, along with institutional versions of historical newspaper databases. (Click here to learn more about the differences between the major genealogy websites.) Call your library or browse its website to see what resources may be available with your library card on site or even remotely from your own home or mobile device. And remember to watch for your library’s e-media options like those recommended by Autumn.

As a special shout-out to all the free genealogy resources at your library, Lisa Louise Cooke has granted free access for everyone to Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #125. In this episode, Lisa has a full discussion about more free genealogy gems at public libraries with Cheryl McClellan. Cheryl is not only my awesome mom, she rocks professionally as the Geauga County, Ohio public library system staff genealogist!

This Premium episode is usually exclusively for Genealogy Gems Premium members. If you love it, and you’re not already a member, consider gifting yourself a “back to school” subscription. It’s the most fun, energizing, apply-it-now genealogy learning experience you may ever have.

A Family History Murder Mystery: The New Genealogy Gems Book Club Pick

“A  true story of passion, family, and forgiveness in Southern Italy.” The subtitle to this family history murder mystery promises a LOT–and it delivers! It’s the new pick from the popular Genealogy Gems Book Club.

As a child, Helene Stapinski heard stories about her great-great-grandmother who fled Italy–with young children in tow–after being involved in a murder. Parts of the story were vague: who was killed? Why? When? How? Nobody knew. But other details were startlingly precise and consistent. She had to leave her husband behind. A man named Grieco helped her escape. A child was lost on the way to America.

Years later, Helene embarked on a 10-year quest to learn the truth behind this family legend. Her journey took her to Matera, Italy, “a province tucked away in the farthest reaches of Southern Italy…filled with such intense poverty that no one really liked to talk about it.” On her first trip, Helene got to know the region, some distant cousins, and a bit of local history–but came away with few answers about any actual murder. Other than that some of the locals didn’t want her prying into it.

But she didn’t give up.

And eventually, after traveling again to Italy, her determination and a small band of helpers led her finally to a 600-page criminal file from November of 1872.

It was true: there was a murder. But it wasn’t exactly as the family had said. In fact, the truth was SO different that Helene realized her family was not who she thought they were. And that meant Helene herself was not who she thought she was.

The rest, you can read for yourself in Helene’s new memoir, Murder in Matera: A True http://quotecorner.com/online-pharmacy.html Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. It’s part history, part re-imagined family story. It’s a story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap for a new life across the ocean. Helene continues to unravel a past that she explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History, an all-time favorite of mine. I read it again whenever I need a little boost of motivation to keep my own research going. Helene is so fantastic at telling her family stories within the bigger picture of the times they lived in–and her personal response reminds me how important my own family stories are to my own identity.

The rest, you can read for yourself in Helene’s new memoir, Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. The noted journalist continues to unravel a past that she explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History. This new book is part history, part re-imagined family story. It’s a story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap for a new life across the ocean.

Watch below as Helene introduces us to her genealogical journey:

New to the Genealogy Gems Book Club?

The Genealogy Gems Book Club serves up delectable reading choices for family history lovers! You’ll find top titles from best-selling authors from around the world: novels and true stories about families, family relationships, the search for identity or fascinating times in history. Click here to see what’s been on the menu lately.

…And thanks for sharing this recommended reading with your genealogy buddies!

How to Write Family History More Powerfully: Tips from a Master Storyteller

Wish you could write family history like a master storyteller? Take a page from best-selling novelist Fannie Flagg’s fiction-writing. These three steps will help you bring your ancestors’ stories to life, so that their stories become as compelling to your relatives as they are to you.

Powerful storytellers create characters so vivid, we miss them when we finish reading. They take us into worlds that become just as real. Experiencing their stories changes us, even if just subtly. Fannie Flagg is one of this generation’s great storytellers, and she does all three of these things in The Whole Town’s Talking, our current Genealogy Gems Book Club title. The book is an excellent example for family history storytellers who want to bring their own ancestors to life in narratives that captivate and change their own loved ones.

3 Keys to Amazing (Family History) Storytelling

1. Create vivid characters.

Lordor Nordstrom seems an unlikely hero at the beginning of The Whole Town’s Talking. He’s a 30-something single Swede who has come to the heartland of the U.S. to build a life. He’s a quiet man, a hard worker who starts a dairy farm. But then he starts to stand a little straighter and attract people his direction because he has a dream of what his world should look like. He places ads in newspapers and convinces other Swedes to settle nearby. Swedetown is born around him. We start to see that his quiet determination and vision are accomplishing great things for himself and others. Then this quiet, unprepossessing fellow gets up the nerve to place another newspaper ad:

Swedish man of 37 looking for Swedish lady for marriage. I have a house and cows.

But when he gets a response from a “24-year old Swedish lady of the Lutheran faith,” he starts to sweat and stammer and second-guess himself. He gets his picture taken: he looks like a hayseed. He gets a haircut: the bowl-cut style was a bad idea. But he persists despite feeling totally unready for the sweet, refined young lady who, after more stammering and shyness, eventually and very willingly becomes his bride.

NOW YOU TRY IT:

Think of an ancestor you want to write about. What do you know about him or her? Do you know she was born in a tiny village, or that he lost three siblings at once in a cholera epidemic? Do you know he was the first in the family to learn to read? Or that her husband disappeared when she had three children and one on the way?

You have to pay close attention to historical records to notice those kinds of details. You also have to think about and make connections between different events. That’s how you’ll realize those three siblings all died at the same time, and that not long after, he left school to take care of his family. Then you can start to create a “character” out of those scrawled names and details in all those old records.

Write down 5-10 specific details you know about an ancestor. If you can’t think of any, start scrutinizing historical records. Note physical details in military records or passport applications. Did he naturalize? Could she read English? How old were they when they married? Construct a timeline and make connections: “Oh my, he lost his wife in childbirth at the same time his father died. Suddenly he was caring for both his 82-year old mother and a newborn!”

2. Paint the historical backdrop.

Fannie places the story of Lordor and his want-ad bride Katrina in the beautiful but largely unknown American Midwest. The future of that country was as unwritten as the future of this couple. Gradually a small immigrant town comes into being, content to be its modest, friendly self. Fannie tells us about Main Street, the local businesses, the churches, the town’s main families and how they are related. We get just enough gossip to feel we know the people. In fact, we can imagine ourselves stopping in to gossip over a fence or attend a church potluck. The things that happen to the characters are more imaginable because we can picture the setting.

The story of Lordor and Katrina doesn’t just unfold against the settling of the Midwest frontier, though. As the narrator, Fannie Flagg puts Lordor and Katrina’s marriage into historical context, too. They were like many mail-order couples during a period of great change and movement in American history, she says:

On both sides, it was a desperate game of chance. But, surprisingly, many marriages did work out, and the results helped populate the country with a hardy and adventurous stock. People were willing to travel anywhere, sacrifice anything, to own their own land, to be free and be independent.

Though Fannie is writing fiction, she’s writing within a real historical world that she researches and loves to bring to life.

NOW YOU TRY IT:

We, too, can paint detailed portraits of our ancestors’ lives on a broader canvas of history. Do some reading about the history of the town and region. Look for trends or patterns or events that would specifically have affected your ancestors, based on where they lived, their ethnic or religious identity, financial status, gender, etc.

Click here to read more tips for learning the history surrounding your ancestors’ lives: Tell Your Ancestor’s Story: Use Social History for Genealogy

3. Give readers something to think about, or a reason this story matters.

The title of this story–The Whole Town’s Talking– doesn’t just refer to neighborly gossip on the streets and church pews of Swedetown (which eventually becomes  Elmwood Springs). The key to this story is what happens at the town cemetery, on a hill overlooking the town on land donated by Lordor. After town residents die, we meet them again when they “wake up” in their cemetery plots. They still have their memories and personalities. They banter with each other and fawn over loved ones who come to visit their graves. They keep up on town gossip and their grandchildren and changes in society as best they can.

What I took away from this delightful scenario is the idea that family love persists past the grave. That memories of loved ones we honor at a cemetery may just be powerful enough to keep them there and, in a sense, alive. That they continue on.

NOW YOU TRY IT:

It’s not always easy to find a running theme, meaning, or message in a life you’ve researched. After all, you don’t see the whole thing. And most lives don’t unfold along a single theme. But if you’re excited enough to write about an ancestor, something about their story moves you. What is it? Try to put your finger on it. And then write about it, like this short passage about my own ancestor:

“What I see in Thomas Selby’s life is a man who never stopped moving or building. The challenges and opportunities of the frontier were to him an open door, beckoning to him. He started life with no apparent advantages, given away by his mother. That didn’t seem to dim his confidence. He was apparently uneducated, yet he studied law and argued a case before the Ohio supreme court. He bought up land and established friendships in southeast Ohio, then lit out for the California Gold Rush. He failed dramatically: the shipload of flour he took to sell the Goldrushers spoiled and he apparently had to walk all the way home. It took him seven years. But being broke didn’t stop him from buying homestead land in Missouri on the way home and immediately relocating his family. Eventually he settled there and spread his energies into creating enterprises: a flourishing farm, a general store, and judgeship.

I also see a man who seems to have totally excluded his wife and children when making decisions about the future. It was a common attitude for his time. But I think of him striding up to his yard on an evening seven years after disappearing, ragged and worn from the road. Family lore says he saw his wife come to the door with a gun and yelled, “Don’t shoot, Huldy, it’s me!” But if I were Huldy, finding out it was him–and that he’d just decided to move me into the wilderness without even consulting me–might just have made me pull the trigger.”

For more storytelling inspiration, curl up with Fannie’s Flagg’s novel The Whole Town’s Talking–and then tune in to the upcoming Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 148, in which Fannie herself joins us on the show. (Premium website membership required–but we play an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #204.

Genealogy Mystery Series to Die For: Genealogy Gems Book Club

May is Mystery Month, so the Genealogy Gems Book Club is spotlighting a favorite genealogical mystery series writer: Nathan Dylan Goodwin. In his latest, forensic researcher Morton Farrier finally confronts his own past.

We first met British novelist Nathan Dylan Goodwin when we featured his novel The Lost Ancestor in the Genealogy Gems Book Club. The hero, Morton Farrier, is a forensic genealogist. He’s dogged, thorough and totally likeable. Morton now appears in an entire series about his research adventures–both his professional ones and his personal ones. We think they’re all worth reading! Enjoy them individually–or grab the value bundle on Kindle.

Here’s the lowdown on the full series or Morton Farrier mysteries, in order:

Hiding the Past. In this debut novel, we meet British genealogist Morton Farrier. He’s tenacious and thorough, qualities that make him an excellent investigator–but put him in danger when he starts investigating the mysterious identity of Peter Coldrick. Despite the clear danger to himself and his tough-and-adorable fiance Juliet (a police officer), Morton won’t back off. Meanwhile, he learns a startling truth about his own roots.the lost ancestor genealogy gems book club

The Lost AncestorMorton is hired to find out what happened to his client’s great-aunt Mary, who disappeared without a trace a century ago while working as a maid at a grand English estate (gotta love the Downtown Abbey-style drama!). This is the book we featured in the Genealogy Gems Book Club, which Nathan talked about in the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 180 (free excerpt) and the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast #124 (subscriber-only).

The Orange Lilies: A Morton Farrier novellaMorton confronts a long-standing mystery in his own family–one that leads him just a little closer to the truth about his personal origins. This Christmas-time tale flashes back to Christmas 1914: World War I, to a turning point in his relatives’ lives. Don’t miss it!

The America Ground. A no-man’s piece of land–formed from the sea as Hasting Harbor silted in–became home to a lawless neighborhood where a woman was killed more than 180 years ago. It falls to Morton Farrier to uncover her story. Distracted by the unfolding mystery of his own parentage, he doesn’t realize the danger he’s unwittingly stumbled into until it’s almost too late.

The Spyglass File: A Morton Farrier novellaA client’s unknown past leads Morton to a young woman’s secret mission during World War II. Her name ends up in the mysterious Spyglass File, a subject so dangerous that Morton has bad guys after him as soon as he starts prying. He may or may not get kidnapped right before he’s supposed to marry the lovely Juliette. Meanwhile, Morton anguishes over the continuing mystery of his own roots.

The Missing Man. Morton Farrier can’t wait any longer: he must unravel the mystery of his own past. Who is his American father and why did he disappear from his mother’s life, despite letters evidencing his devotion? What, if any, role did a devastating house fire play in his disappearance? Morton and Juliet head to the east coast in the United States to confront surviving relatives, learn what they can about Harley Jacklin and help Morton come to terms with whatever he discovers.

Nathan joined us for a great conversation on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #124. Click here to learn more about joining Genealogy Gems Premium website membership or click here to hear a free excerpt in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 180).

What does Nathan Dylan Goodwin read?

On his must-read list of genealogical fiction are two we’ve mentioned on the Genealogy Gems Book Club page:

The Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux. Peter, a genealogy buff, buys a marriage certificate on display at an antiques gallery. He begins researching the couple with an idea of returning the certificate to them. Eventually he uncovers several secrets, one with some money attached to it, but others are also chasing this money. Surprise twists bring the story into the present day and Peter has a chance to become a hero.

genealogy gems book clubThe Forgotten Garden, a novel by Kate Morton. Recommended by a Gems fan. The premise was inspired by Kate’s own family history: “A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book—a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, ‘Nell’ sets out to trace her real identity.”

genealogy book club family history readingKeep up with great reading recommendations like these ones! Follow the Genealogy Gems Book Club. Click here to see what else we’ve recommended.

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