Book Reviews

I’m bringing back my book review page, it’s been awhile since I have posted one.  I hope to do it once a month again. Most books will have some historical content whether non-fiction, or historical fiction.  Maybe now and then a book of another genre.

January 2020 Book Review

Pacific Street

by Amy B. Cohen

pacific street

This story is about the author’s grandparents.  It is based on facts and events in her grandparents lives.  She filled in around real dates and events with fiction.  It follows her grandfather Isadore’s life in Iasi, Romania as he prepares to leave at age 15 to come to America alone.  He walks out of Romania and through Hungary and eventually catches a train to Hamburg, Germany where he boards a ship to America.  When he gets to America he is detained at Ellis Island for a short time and finally meets his relative who helps find a place to live and a job.  The story also follows her grandmother, Gussie’s life.  Gussie was born in New York.  Her father dies when she is young and her mother tries to earn a living to support the family, but eventually Gussie must leave school to stay home and take care of her younger brother and sister while her mother works.  The author weaves the two stories together until they finally meet and marry.  I was interested in reading this book because of my interest in genealogy.  I have thought about doing this kind of book myself, but have never gotten around to it.  I thought it was very good and held my interest; I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next to Isadore or Gussy throughout the book.  I found the book recommended on Dusty Roots and Forgotten Treasures blog which provided a link to the author’s blog at  Brotman Blog: A Family Journey  Check out both of these blogs.

May 2019 Book Review

As Bright as Heaven


Susan Meissner

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

A fantastic read! If you decide to read it, get your box of tissues ready. It’s a tear jerker for sure! The Bright family moves to Philadelphia to help their Uncle run his funeral home around 1918. The Spanish Flu hits hard and affects their lives in so many ways, and on top of that there is WWI. I was interested in reading it because my grandfather’s brother died from the Spanish Flu at the start of his adult life. The author did her research on the Spanish Flu so that part of the book is authentic. I am now interested in reading her other books. A great book, I highly recommend it if your into historical fiction.



December 2016 Book Review

There is no book review for December 2016

November 2016 Book Review

Small great things


Jodi Picoult



Ruth is a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital with more than 20 years’ experience.  Everyone agrees that Ruth is an excellent nurse and there have never been any complaints about Ruth.  Ruth is doing her usual routine of taking care of mothers in labor and their newborns when she is told by her superior that the parents of Baby Bauer ask that she not touch their son.  When Ruth asks why, she is told it is because she is African-American and the parents are White Supremacists.  Ruth is left alone in the nursery with the baby because of a staff shortage, when the baby stops breathing.  Does Ruth disobey her supervisor and intervene to save the baby, or does she follow orders and not touch the baby?

The baby dies and Ruth is charged with the baby’s death.  Ruth must stand trial for the murder of the baby.  She is represented by a white female lawyer and the prosecution is an African-American Female lawyer.  The author writes it from the perspective of Ruth, the baby’s parents, and Ruth’s lawyer.   The story really makes you think about what it is like for Ruth who all her life played by the rules and did everything right and now is facing the possibility of prison.  Was she treated fairly or is this a case of racism?  Should the hospital have taken her side over the parents?

Her lawyer struggles with her own beliefs as she always viewed herself as open minded and not racist, but now she  questions whether or not she has been racist and not realized it. Did her white privilege made her insensitive to African-Americans and other minorities?

The White Supremacist parents are dealing with the grief of losing their child in addition to their anger at Ruth who they believed was responsible for the death of their son.  The baby’s mother comes to find out that she is not as pure white as she was led to believe which makes the story take another twist.

Jodi Picoult nails it again in this novel.  She writes about a controversial subject with great insight and complex characters.  It will leave you thinking about the characters and the story line long after you finish reading it.  I have loved all of Jodi Picoult’s books, but I think this book made the biggest impression on me, and I will remember it for years to come.

October 2016 Book Review

There will be no book review for October.  Too busy watching the Cubs in the playoffs and World Series to read.  More about the Cubs at a later date!

September 2016 Book Review

Golden Age


Jane Smiley


The Golden Age is the last book of a trilogy The Last Hundred Years.  The first two books are Some Luck and Early Warning.  I read them all one after the other.  I became interested in the stories because it involves a family, their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  In the front of the book is the family tree.  I find it fascinating to read about all the children as each one grows up and takes a different Path.  Sometimes I cheered for them and other times I cringed at the decisions they made.  Just like real life.  Only it wasn’t my family so it was OK.  All the books include historical events.  The first book Some Luck starts out in 1920 with the Langdon family on an Iowa farm and takes the reader through the depression, World War II, and up to 1952.  Each chapter is devoted to one year.  Second book Early Warning continues from 1952 through 6O’s with the drugs, free love, Viet Nam War and into the 70’s and 80’s. The children are scattered throughout the country from Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Iowa, and California. The third Golden Age book picks up in 1987 and takes us through 2019.  Yes, even a little into the future.  The author hits on hot topics of the last 30 years, such as 2000 presidential election, 9/11, the Iraq war, climate change, etc.  If you like family stories and history you will like these books.

August 2016 Book Review

Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival


Jennifer Chiaverini

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Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival is the story of Kate Chase Sprague, daughter of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the treasury during Lincoln’s presidency.  Her father was thrice widowed and need Kate to host social gatherings crucial to his career.  He was the former governor of Ohio and had his sights set on the White House.  Beautiful and intelligent Kate hosted parties that were the talk of Washington society.  The author does a marvelous job of describing Civil War Washington.  If you’re a civil war buff you might like this book.  I did get lost in the description of all the battles.  I also expected by the title that there would be actual arguments or words between Kate and Mrs. Lincoln.  But it was more of who could out do the other one with hosting the best parties and wearing the best dresses.  Kate married William Sprague, the young wealthy governor of Rhode Island.  Her wedding was pinnacle of Washington society with Abraham Lincoln in attendance, but the first lady did not attend.  Kate’s marriage did not have a fairy tale ending.  This book is a good read if you are interested in the Civil War era and the politics of Washington.

July 2016 Book Review

Lilac Girls

by Martha Hall Kelly

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The Lilac Girls is a Historical Novel about three women during WWII.  One is socialite, Caroline Ferriday, who works at the French Consulate in New York City, one is Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, who gets involved with the underground resistance movement, and Herta Oberheuser, a young German doctor, who takes a government medical position at Ravensbruck, the notorious, Nazi concentration camp for women.  Kasia is caught after picking up a package for the underground resistance movement, and sent to Ravensbruck along with her mother and sister.  Doctor Herta Oberheuser learns to put people to death by injection as well as to conduct experiments on the prisoners at Ravensbruck.  Herta Oberheuser and Kasia’s paths cross when Kasia and her sister are selected for an experiment on their legs which leaves them crippled.   Some of the prisoners died from the experiments.  Years later after the war Caroline Ferriday hears about the women who were experimented on at Ravensbruck and through her charity work raises funds to bring the women to America.  In America they are treated for the injuries to their legs.  This brings them some relief from the horrible experiments done to them.  They are also treated for other illnesses, receive dental work, and glasses if needed.  Herta is tried for war crimes and is sent to prison for 20 years, but somehow manages to get out and is practicing medicine in Germany.  Once again Kasia is chosen to seek her out and identify her so authorities can stop her from practicing medicine.  It is very interesting how the author weaves all their stories together.  Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser are real people.  Kasia was based on another person and the character was shaped from the qualities and experiences of the seventy-four women operated on at the camp.  A very intriguing story.  If you like reading about WWII Germany and the Nazi’s you will like this book.  It held my interest and was hard to put down.  I thought about these people long after I finished the book.

June 2016 Book Review Fever


by Mary Beth Keane

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Fever is a historical novel about Mary Mellon better known as Typhoid Mary.   The story takes place during the early part of the twentieth century.  Mary Mellon was a silent carrier of Typhoid.  This is her story and what happened to her during a time in our history, when little was known about carriers of diseases.  As an immigrant from Ireland, she was doing her best to survive by cooking for wealthy families, and it was through her cooking that she spread the Typhoid Fever.  The New York Department of Health locked her up to prevent her from spreading it.  Although, there were other carriers, she was the only ever locked up. Was it because she was an immigrant, Irish, a woman?  She lived with a man who was an alcoholic, and worked sporadically.  She had few friends who would or could help her.  After being locked up for three years she was set free on the condition that she not cook again.  She worked in a laundry for a while.   She put in long hours for low pay.  She took the job working in bakery because it paid better and she needed the money.  She cooked for the man she lived with and for neighbors and they never came down with Typhoid.    She concludes that because they did not get sick, it would be OK for her to work in a bakery.   Although no one they know of got sick from the bakery goods, she was eventually caught and spent the next twenty three years locked up again.  If you count the first three years she spent a total of 26 years of her life locked up.  A tragic story of how one woman suffered because she was a carrier of a disease she never had, and how the newspapers and people demonized her and gave her the name Typhoid Mary.  It is an unforgettable story well worth reading!

May 2016 Book Review

America’s First Daughter

By Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

America's First Daughter

I am a fan of Historical Fiction so when I saw America’s First Daughter about Thomas Jefferson’s Daughter Martha “Patsy” Jefferson I had to read it.  The author’s did their homework, through the more than 18,000 letters written by Thomas Jefferson, visiting Monticello and Tuckahoe, biographies, and historians they were able to form this story.  As with any historical fiction the authors will take some liberties to make the story more interesting.  Of course, no one can know what conversations really took place.  The book takes you through Patsy’s life from a young girl when she and her family have to flee the British and go into hiding, to Paris after her mother’s death, a marriage proposal from William Short, back to Monticello, her marriage to Thomas Randolph, and to the White House.  Much happens during her life including the demise of her marriage, losing children, and other family members.  I always picture historical figures to be rich.  In this case they end up in poverty having to auction off property and slaves.  The Jefferson family differed on their view of slavery. The authors include Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s love affair with her and the children they had together.  I believe this book gives insight into Thomas Jefferson’s life.  It is a story of fame, fortune, and struggle.  Patsy did not have an easy life, quite the contrary.  She must have been a strong woman to survive all she did in those days.  If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I think you’ll like this book.

Copyrignt©2016 Gail Grunst

April 2016 Book Review

I’m still with you: True stories of healing grief through spirit communications

 By Carole J. Obley

Carole Obley is a spiritual medium and in this book she tells true stories of people who have come to her for help in communicating with the spirits of loved ones who have passed.  In many cases it helps people to heal their grief.  She gives an overview of life after death.  She talks about how we come here with a life purpose, a mission, and after death we review our life to see how well we did.   She believes in reincarnation and also talks about that as well.  She says that our loved ones want to communicate with us, and will try to do so in various ways.  They might come to us in a dream visitation, or they might use electrical appliances, such as turning the TV on and off, or lights on and off.  They may phone us.  Ever get a phone call and no one is there?  Another way to contact us is though animals, a song on the radio, a rainbow, butterfly, and many more ways.  There is even something for the genealogist in this book. Our ancestor’s like it that we do genealogy and are anxious for us to find them.  They may even give us hints.  When she does a reading for someone who is tracing their family tree, the ancestors will give names and places to help the person researching the family history.  This book made me think of some things that have happened to me in the past that I now think were signs from my family who have past.  All they want is to be able to tell us that they are OK and that they are still with us.   I was a total unbeliever in this kind of stuff, until something happened recently that started me thinking about the possibility, and I found Carole Obley’s book.  After reading it, I feel there is more than meets the eye in this universe, and I am looking for signs.   A great read even if you are a skeptic like me.  Give it a try!

March 2016 Book Review

Evidence Explained:  

Citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace


Elizabeth Shown Mills

It’s not easy to write a review on a reference book and this is certainly a reference book.  It’s a book that anyone doing genealogy needs in their collection.  I had a small book on citing sources that I thought would do just fine until I actually started to write a family history.  There are so many things out there today that we use as sources, it gets complicated trying to write a citation.  Sometimes I spend so much time trying to cite my sources, I want to give up.  But the first thing we learn in genealogy 101 is cite your sources, cite your sources, cite your sources. Even cite those that don’t bring results.   You want to know where you have been so as not to repeat it. This book has everything you ever want to know about citing your sources.  It not only gives examples of citations, but also covers fundamentals of evidence analysis and fundamentals of citation.  I can’t possibly list every kind of citation covered in this book, but it goes way beyond citing the usual genealogical sources such as  vital records, census, etc.  It’s not the kind of book that you read from cover to cover unless you want to.  I know that I would never remember it all.  It’s a reference book meant to be kept on hand to refer to when you need to cite something.  If you are new or need a refresher on analyzing evidence  or source citation, then it worth reading those chapters.  This is the most complete book on citing genealogical sources currently available.   I’m still learning and probably have made mistakes in citing sources especially from the Internet, and I will probably make mistakes in the future.  I ‘m hoping with this book the mistakes will be less frequent.  It takes time to cite your sources, and if your like me, you would rather be researching than citing your sources.  Maybe this book will help speed up the process of citing my sources.  I know that I want this book to be part of my collection of genealogy books and will be referring to it many, many times.

February 2016 Book Review

The Shoemaker’s wife

By Adriana Trigiana

This is the first time I have read a book by Adriana Trigiana and it won’t be the last.  I have become a fan!  The Shoemaker’s wife take place in the early 1900s  It takes us from a small mountain village in Italy with two young boys left off at a convent when there mother who can no longer take care of them.  She plans on coming back for the, but years pass and she doesn’t come back.  They grow up in the convent with the nuns who take care of them.  Ciro and Eduardo leave the village when one goes off to become a priest, and the other one is forced to leave because of something he witnesses.  The story follows Ciro’s life to America and New York City where he learns to become a shoemaker.  Right before Ciro leaves the village he kisses a girl, Enza, who he can’t seem to forget.  She also leaves Italy for America with her father.  Their plan is to make money in America send it home to Italy to build a house for her mother, brothers and sisters and then return to Italy.  In New York she meets up with Ciro a couple of times but they are separated by circumstances and never quite get together.  She becomes a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera where she meets Caruso and others.  On her Wedding day Ciro finds her and convinces her to marry him instead, and they go off to Minnesota where he opens a shoe shop and she sews.  It takes us through the ups and downs of their lives from the age of 15 to mid-life.  It makes you think about your own life and the twists and turns it takes.  There are good times, new friends, and also the heart-break of leaving family behind, family they may never see again, and the loneliness of being all alone in a new world.  Also the strength of the human spirit to keep on going in spite of difficult times.  I highly recommend this book.  Have your tissues ready!  You will cry with happiness and sadness.  There are some books you read and forget a short time later and there are books that stay with you forever.  This is the kind that will stay with you and you will be thinking about the characters long after your done with the book.

January 2016 Book Review

Witches: Salem, 1692

by Stacy Schiff

For some reason the Salem witch trials have always fascinated me.  So when I saw this book, I had to read it.  It is a true account of what happened in the 1692.  The book gives you a great understanding of Puritan life.  It helps one to understand the how and why this happened.  While reading I tried to imagine what it was like to live in those times.  There was of course the strict rules of the Puritan life and a lot of fear of the devil, but there was also rugged country.  Imagine the wilderness, very dark nights, long cold winters in a small cabin or house with little entertainment if any, sicknesses, Indians, their religious beliefs, and teenage girls with vivid imaginations..  They stripped the calendar of all holidays, and life was all work and no play.  Were the girls bored and this was sport for them?  When not working they were in church.  Some of the accusations could be to get even with those they have a grudge against for one reason or another.  Neighbors quarreled and if a chicken died after a neighbor’s visit, that meant the neighbor was a witch.  If a person had a sore that healed, that meant they were a witch.  How else could that sore heal?  These were some of their beliefs.  The first hanging was in June of 1692 and the last in September of 1692.  All-in-all 14 women, five men, and two dogs were executed for being witches.   Most of the accusers were teenage orphaned girls working as servants.  Although there were others too.  Neighbors accused neighbors, children accused parents, parents accused children, husbands accused wives.  The trials were not like today’s trials and were not fair.  No one accused was found innocent at trial.  When the trials were over that wasn’t the end of it.  Many people had their lives ruined.  If a man’s wife was in prison he could not handle a farm by himself and visa versa.  Some of their places had been ransacked, their crops ruined, and their jobs lost.  They did not just return from being imprisoned to the life they left.    I really enjoyed this book and the in-depth look at the Puritan’s life in 1692.  While no one knows for sure why they did this, one can deduce several theories after reading this book.  It’s a much more clearer view of what happened than anything I have read before.  If interested in Puritan life or the witch trials, I highly recommend this book.

December 2015 Book  Review

How to Use Evernote for Genealogy

by Kerry Scott

I have been using Evernote here and there mostly for Genealogy.  But I was not taking full advantage of it until I read How to use Evernote for Genealogy.  There are three versions, the Free one, Plus (24.99 per year), or Premium (49.99 per year).  I am for using the Free version for now.  I may upgrade  eventually.  The screen shots in the book look different from mine, but maybe she was using a paid version and it looks different from the free.   I was still able to learn how to use the tools for my genealogy research.  It’s easy to organize your research with notes, notebooks, and stacks.  There is a search feature that makes searching for information on you ancestors in your notes easy.  Tags can be used to help you spot clues, patterns and connection between people and places.  You can include notes, pictures, audio, web clippings.  I found the web clippings to be the most fun and useful. You  will need to download the web clipper, but it’s easy to do and goes fast.    When you find something you would like to save from the web, you just click on the web clipper and it saves it to Evernote.  Simple as that!  You can share you information in Evernote with others.  If you and a cousin and are working on the same line you could share your information.  I took this book out of the library, but I am going to have to buy it so that I can refer back to it as I advance in using Evernote.

October 2015 Book Review

Her Daughter’s Dream

By Francine Rivers

Her Daughter’s Dream is the conclusion to Her Mother’s Hope.  Marta, Hildemara’s mother, comes to take care of her children while Hildemara is recovering from Tuberculosis.  Marta and Granddaughter, Carolyn, bond.  This is a bond that goes on for a lifetime.   The story follows Carolyn through her childhood in the 1950’s and through her college years during the turbulent 1960’s and the counterculture of San Francisco.  After a couple of years living in Haight-Ashbury,  taking hard drugs, drinking, and sleeping around, Carolyn returns home to parents broken and pregnant.  She is sent off to spend time with a friend of her mother’s and to have the baby she names May Flower Dawn.  She leaves May Flower Dawn with her mother while she works to support herself and puts herself through school.   She ends up getting married to her brother’s best friend.

Through the years, her life has it’s up’s and down’s, but her faith in God keeps her strong.  May Flower Dawn grows up, but that is not the end of the story.  There is more heart ache and tragedy along the way.   May Flower Dawn is also a women of faith and her faith sees her through.  May Flower Dawn gets married and has a baby girl she named Faith. Great Grandmother Marta, Grandmother Hildamara,  Daughter Carolyn, Granddaughter May Flower Dawn must learn about each other and what secrets they’ve been keeping to finally come to grips with the life each has been handed and to understand one another.

In the end Carolyn travels to her Grandmother’s home in Europe to learn about her Grandmother’s family.  She was given letters that her Grandmother wrote to her best friend all those years ago.  What a treasure to be able to read about your grandmother’s life in her own words.

A very moving book, it will keep your interest and be ready to cry tears of joy and tears of heartbreak.

September 2015 Book Review

Stalin’s Daughter:  The Extraordinary and tumultuous life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

by Rosemary Sullivan

I was attracted to this book because I had read that Stalin’s daughter was living in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  I had been to Spring Green nearly every summer for years and never knew this.  Stalin’s Daughter is a long book 623 pages, plus pages of Acknowledgments, list of characters, sources, notes, bibliography, illustration credits, and index for a total of 741 pages.  It was slow reading for me as I struggled over the Russian names and other Russian words.  I wanted to take my time to make sure I understood everything.  I am still not sure that I grasped everything or can remember all the details.  It is quite an in-depth look at Svelana’s life.  Svetlana was born in 1926 and spent her youth inside the Kremlin.  Her father had many of her family killed or sent away.  Her mother committed suicide when Svetlana was six years old.  Growing up in the Kremlin protected Svetlana from the mass starvation and murder inflicted upon the Soviet citizens by her father.  You would think that she would grow up spoiled and act like a princess, but she did not.  She lived modestly and people said that she didn’t act like the typical princess.  However, she did have problems.  She had many lovers and multiple marriages.  She could get angry and tell people off.  Some said when she was angry they could see her father in her.  After her father’s death she discovered the extent of his cruelty.  The Kremlin still exerted control over her life.  In 1967 she defected to the United States leaving behind two children.  She wrote a book Twenty letter’s to a friend and received a substantial advance from the publisher. She did not inherit any money, although there were rumors that her father had a Swiss bank account, he did not.  She had no idea of how to handle money and gave a lot of her money away to charities.  She was hounded by the press and felt that all they ever wanted was stories about her father and did not care about her.   She said people judged her because of her father and not on her own merit.  She moved a lot and could never seem to settle down to one place.  In 1970 she married Wesley Peters, head architect of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.  They lived at Taliesin in Spring Green Wisconsin and at the Taliesin West in the Sonoran desert.  They had one daughter Olga Margedant Peters.  They divorced in 1972.  Svetlana moved to England so her daughter could get a better education.  In 1984 she defects back to the USSR with Olga.  She thought that she could reunite with the two children she left behind.  The reunion with her son, Joseph, did not go well and her daughter, Katya, refused to see her.  In 1986, she again defects back to the United States.  She moved around the world several more times and finally ended up in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  Svetlana always kept up with Russian politics.  She did not like Putin and said that nothing has changed.  It is still the same USSR when a shadowy KGB Colonel got to the top.  She said that little is understood about Russia here in the United States.  Svetlana should know, she lived through it all.  She should understand better than anyone the way things work in Russia.  In 2011 Svetlana was diagnosed with Cancer and died on November 22, 2011.

She led a very interesting life, but also a hard life.   I can’t imagine having to live life as Stalin’s daughter, losing all your loved ones over and over again, and knowing that your father was responsible for the mass murders of innocent people is a hard cross to bear.  If you like history, I would recommend this book.

One thought on “Book Reviews

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Fever | Family Tales from Gail

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