The Betrayal of Maggie Blair by Elizabeth Laird

Set during what are historically known as the Killing Times, when Scottish Presbyterians were harassed, fined, and even executed for their unwillingness to submit to a church hierarchy under the king, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is both an adventure novel and a coming of age story.

In seventeenth-century Scotland, saying the wrong thing can lead to banishment—or worse. Accused of being a witch, sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair is sentenced to be hanged. She escapes, but instead of finding shelter with her principled, patriotic uncle, she brings disaster to his door. 

Betrayed by one of her own accusers, Maggie must try to save her uncle and his family from the king’s men, even if she has to risk her own life in the process.

When Maggie Blair is accused of being a witch alongside her grandmother, it looks very likely that the pair of them will be executed. Maggie has never had much going for her. She’s orphaned, has grown up poor, and lives with an abusive grandmother. Not surprisingly, she has low self-confidence and is fearful of the world that has always rejected her.

But when Maggie finds herself in prison, she needs to learn self-confidence and self-reliance. With the help of friends, she escapes the Isle of Bute and makes her way to Kilmalcolm to live with her uncle. There, Maggie comes of age as her Covenanter relations teach her about religion. She is forced to make choices about her loyalty to her family, to her church, and to God.

The novel is broken up into two adventures. The first is Maggie’s trial for witchcraft and her subsequent escape. The middle of the book is devoted to Maggie’s personal growth, and when she has managed to learn something from the people around her, the second adventure begins. Maggie sets off across the country to rescue her uncle from prison, where he is being held as a traitor for refusing to acknowledge the king as head of the church.

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is a solid coming of age tale. The heroine is neither pathetic nor completely loveable. She grows at a realistic, relatable pace, and faces challenges that even modern-day readers can relate to. The only thing that disappointed me was the way Laird dealt with her villains.

The book’s most persistent villain, Annie, is treated quite abruptly at the end of the novel. After tormenting Maggie for three quarters of the book, Annie goes her own way. The next time the reader hears of her, it’s in a terse statement that she has been mutilated and is waiting transportation to the American colonies as punishment for her many crimes. Annie no doubt deserves to be punished, but the way it’s presented is a blunt shock–and then we never hear of her again. The chapter ends on that statement with nothing to cushion the blow.

The characterization, however, is what makes this book. Laird writes actual historical figures into her story, including some members of her own family. Maggie’s uncle Hugh Blair is the most notable character based on a real person. The Betrayal of Maggie Blair contains a cast of well-rounded and varied characters, which is where Laird really shines. Even the most minor characters, such as Virtue the laundress, are vivid and lifelike.

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is definitely a worthwhile read.

The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls

What sane woman would consider becoming any man’s ninth wife?

Bess Gray is a thirty-five-year-old folklorist and amateur martial artist living in Washington, DC. Just as she’s about to give up all hope of marriage, she meets Rory, a charming Irish musician, and they fall in love. But Rory is a man with a secret, which he confesses to Bess when he asks for her hand: He’s been married eight times before. Shocked, Bess embarks on a quest she feels she must undertake before she can give him an answer. With her bickering grandparents (married sixty-five years), her gay neighbor (himself a mystery), a shar-pei named Stella, and a mannequin named Peace, Bess sets out on a cross-country journey—unbeknownst to Rory—to seek out and question the wives who came before. What she discovers about her own past is far more than she bargained for.

The Ninth Wife and I never really got along. We learned to co-exist, but that’s about it.

Initially, I had a hard time with the prose style. Bess’s chapters are particularly wordy and meandering. Introducing new characters takes pages of flashbacks to accomplish. It would have been easier to bear if Bess was a likeable character, since she forms the lens through which other characters and events are portrayed.

At the beginning of the book I had a hard time connecting to Bess or feeling moved by her depression. She has a good life, but can’t seem to see it and appreciate it. Instead she’s a pathetic, self-pitying, rootless worrywart.

At thirty-five, Bess still craves validation from external sources. She seeks her roots through her job as a folklorist, and she only seems to feel good about herself when others give her positive feedback (flirting, compliments, etc.). I felt like she gained a bit of confidence and self-respect by the end of the novel, but I still wouldn’t want to hang out with her in real life.

The introduction of Rory, Bess’s significant other, was a breath of fresh air. He’s fun, interesting, able to part with the past, and willing to take risks—basically, the total opposite of Bess. That said, he’s also very flawed. Much like Bess needs others for validation, Rory feels the need to propose marriage to every woman he experiences an emotional response to (and one he doesn’t). He feels validated by being in a relationship and in his mid-forties, can’t seem to form his own identity without adding ‘husband’ to his list of roles.

He explains to Bess, “I like the version of me as someone’s husband better than the version of me alone and single. Plain and simple.”

The ‘someone’ in that sentence is very telling. Rory likes the role of husband more than he likes his wives, which explains why he feels the need to put a significant label on every passing attachment or attraction. The woman means less than the label.

Rory and Bess’s relationship is fairly predictable. The ending is inevitable within the first hundred pages. Maybe because of this, in places it felt like Stolls was trying to write their romance to be as ridiculous and bumbling as possible just to spice it up. One of the most significant scenes involves an uncomfortable marriage proposal during an episode of diarrhea, seemingly crafted to be as outrageous as possible.

Toward the end of the novel, the plot breaks down into a series of happy coincidences. It means that the book wraps up nicely, but these conclusions are not always believable, particularly the one belonging to Bess’s friend and neighbour, Cricket.

I wouldn’t reread The Ninth Wife, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it to a friend. I came away from the book frustrated and feeling like I had learned nothing, which isn’t a good feeling after 400+ pages.

 

MacFamilyTree 6

In the past I’ve reviewed MacFamilyTree on this blog, comparing it to similar programs such as Ancestry.com‘s Family Tree Maker. This year Synium Software released an update to MacFamilyTree, which is now in its sixth edition (6.1.2). The update fixes small glitches, improves soundex calculation, and has better data migration than pervious versions.

How can I update to Version 6?

If you purchased any previous version of MacFamilyTree (Versions 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5), upgrade to the latest version for only $25. Simply click the link on top of this page which will open the online store. You’ll find the regular version as well as the upgrade version there. Just like with previous versions of MacFamilyTree, all version 6 updates (like 6.1 or 6.2) will be free for all version 6 customers.

If you purchased MacFamilyTree on April 20, 2010 or later, the update to version 6 is free. Your serial number is already valid for the new version and will unlock it after installation without additional cost (in case you purchased the boxed version on or after April 20, 2010, please refer to the support form and send us a proof of purchase).

When I started MacFamilyTree after installing the update, it migrated my family tree. The process took about thirty seconds. I browsed through the updated toolbars and really liked what I saw. The Media Browser is quite attractive and allows you to easily browse photos and other media by name:

I was also pleased with the Web Search tool, which allows you to run the data on any member of your family tree through several databases, including Ancestry.com/ca/co.uk, CollectionsCanada.gc.ca, EllisIsland.org, FindAGrave.com, FootNote.com, MyHeritage.com, WorldVitalRecords.com, and Google. It’s default is FindAGrave.com, which can be either helpful or disturbing, depending on which member of your family tree has been autofilled to the search fields.

Also handy are the new Database Maintenance tools. You can reformat dates, search for duplicate entries and mismatched partners, reformat names, and remove empty entries. The To Do list function is also helpful, since genealogy is one of those activities that can quickly balloon outwards. The Sources tool is helpful for the same reason. Never again will you have to track down a webpage or document to double check information.

I’m a total geek for statistics and lists, and MacFamilyTree totally delivers. The plethora of charts and options is incredible, and I particularly love the list of birthdays broken down by month. It’s helpful if you have a large extended family or if you’re just curious about which ancestor would have turned 301 last week.

If you want to give the information on your family tree to someone who doesn’t run family tree building software, try using the List of Persons or Marriage List reports to print hardcopies of all the data on your family tree. It’s laid out as simple as can be.

The only significant glitch I found in my recent use is in the Kinship Report tool. Most of the lists are listed numerically (9th-great-grandparents, etc.) but for some reason every ‘great’ is written out on the list of aunts and uncles:

But what really tickles me pink about the new version are the fixes for problems I had with Add Person in the previous edition. Now when you add a person and click Person Events, it automatically starts with Birth and not with something random like Confirmation or Burial. A little magnifying glass next to Place allows you to select an event location from a list of previously entered places–no more filling in the same hometown for six generations!

Family Tree Maker for Mac

Take a look at this image:

If you think that it looks familiar, that’s because it does. It looks almost exactly like Family Tree Maker, and that’s intentional.

This annoys me: Nova Development has an app on the Apple App Store called Family Tree Maker, sponsored by Ancestry.com. It is exactly the same as the PC Family Tree Maker I reviewed in an earlier blog post. The only difference is that it is written for Mac and is available for direct download, versus the earlier version that was an old-fashioned CD-rom in a box. What annoys me is that the PC boxed version costs $69.99 plus tax. The App version, with no physical materials or shipping costs, costs $99.99. Can somebody please explain to me why the same program, with no overhead costs from producing a physical product, costs twenty dollars more than the same CD-rom program for PC? Methinks they’re gouging for the downloadable convenience in some attempt to corner the Mac market for genealogy software. This program has the might of Ancestry.com behind it, which can be a swaying force for people who prefer it to the less efficient FamilySearch, with which MacFamilyTree is equipped. I don’t think it’s worth the extra thirty bucks, though. Reviews of the product say that it’s glitchy and prone to crashes. I didn’t even have that problem when I used the PC version. This might just be the Windows Vista of genealogy software—expensive and aggravating.

Genealogy and Technology

I don’t usually do product reviews, but in this case I felt particularly motivated. For three years I’ve been using Family Tree Maker 2008 to keep track of my family’s genealogy. The software is produced by Ancestry.ca and is available in stores and from Amazon.ca for $75 new ($45 used). A 2011 edition is now available for purchase at $70. Last month, I purchased a similar product from the Apple App Store: MacFamilyTree, produced by Synium Software. Both programs are designed for the same purpose: to track genealogies, store information about individuals (photos, stories, facts, etc.). My plan is to compare the differences between the two programs and explain what it is about MacFamilyTree that makes it more enjoyable to use than Family Tree Maker 2008.

The first thing to consider is price. At $49.99, MacFamilyTree is cheaper than all but the most basic Family Tree Maker package. MacFamilyTree includes membership to an online database called FamilySearch. Family Tree Maker is produced by Ancestry.ca, and offers a free one-year membership to the site. This, comparatively, makes the cost of the software somewhat worth it. Purchase carefully, though, because buying the software from a secondhand source could result in forfeiting the free membership.

Let’s talk about usability. Given Apple’s track record, it’s safe to assume that a product designed to run on a Mac will be more user-friendly than similar PC-based models. I find this to be absolutely correct when it comes to these two programs. The first time I opened MacFamilyTree, I was impressed by the functionality on the welcome screen alone:

Once you start building your family tree, the two programs work very similarly. Just look at the layout:

Click to zoom

For every person you add to your family tree, both programs prompt you to add that person’s spouse and parents. Adding children and second spouses is optional and slightly tricky in Family Tree Maker. In order to do this you cannot simply add a new tab to the tree—you have to enter any additional children and their personal information in the listing box at the bottom of the page. I find this cumbersome and the tool does not lend itself to easy visualization of the family tree, except in the case of direct descendants.

On MacFamilyTree, this process is somewhat easier. In the image above, you’ll notice that the person Michael Margraf is glowing. This makes it easy to see which person you are working on at any given time. To add children to this person’s record, I would simply click on his avatar. After a brief pause, MacFamilyTree would prompt me to add a spouse/mother/father/daughter/son. I simply click on the bubble that suits my needs, and fill in the information for a new person on the tree. Easy as pie, and the layout of the tree lends itself well to visualization. The screen is never cluttered because avatars appear and disappear according to which person is selected at any given time. MacFamilyTree will only display the direct relationships of the glowing avatar, which eliminates a lot of clutter and unnecessary confusion.

There are areas where I think MacFamilyTree could improve compared to Family Tree Maker. Here is a selection from the sidebar of Family Tree Maker:

Every time a new person is added to the tree, a blank form appears in the sidebar. In this section you enter the person’s name, date/place of birth, death, and marriage, etc. You have the option to add other categories, such as immigration, religious rites, military service, etc. MacFamilyTree has these options too, but the form to enter them does not appear automatically when you create a new person on the tree. You must click on a small icon of a pencil to make the form appear, and the only options on its initial page are for name, married name, and gender. The benefit of this is that the form does not look cluttered, but a downside is that you have to select multiple tabs to enter basic information like date/place of birth and death. Furthermore, the obvious events are not automatically present on the form. You have to select birth and death from a long list of events. The form also lacks autofill. With Family Tree Maker, the software detects repeated place names and autofills, or offers suggestions for autofill. For example, If I type Paris, Fr the autofill option will suggest the rest of Paris, France. No such help from MacFamilyTree, which could mean a lot of repetitive entry of place names.

With both programs, you have the option to access a detailed person screen for ease of entering greater detail:

Click to zoom

Another helpful feature of Family Tree Maker is that it prompts users for the date of a marriage between two people, and even autocalculates the ages of the people at the time they were married. MacFamilyTree does neither of these things. You have to click on the relationship line between two people and select ‘marriage’ from ‘Family Events.’ Helpful if you come from a family of anarchists, but not so much for everybody else. MacFamilyTree also does not autocalculate ages at time of marriage/death, etc. Where Family Tree Maker also excels is in the relationship status of each person, available in the sidebar below his or her name (see image above). This tells you the relationship of each person to the ‘home person,’ which is usually the person making the tree. It takes the work out of manually counting how many greats to put in front of ‘grandfather/mother.’

While MacFamilyTree may have a few irritating functionality issues, when it comes to presentation of information the software is far superior to Family Tree Maker. Look at the publishing options for each:

With Family Tree Maker, you get the standard hourglass chart. Other options include bowtie chart, descendant chart, pedigree, and relationship chart. You can select how many generations to include on each chart. The tool works, but the printable result nothing that a fifth grader couldn’t throw together in half an hour using the drawing toolbar in MS Word.

With MacFamilyTree, the options are a little more sophisticated. The look is decidedly more professional, and options are greater. Whereas Family Tree Maker’s charts can only include direct ancestors/descendants, certain options in MacFamilyTree take account of all persons entered on the tree.

 

Above is the example of the program’s fan chart. Other options include hourglass chart, descendant chart, timeline, relationship chart, genogram, and a rage of statistics charts. The latter are yet another reason that I appreciate MacFamilyTree more than Family Tree Maker.

Click to zoom

As you can see from the sidebar, there is an abundance of options for viewing statistics associated with your family tree. These are separated by gender as well, which can reveal some interesting patterns in your family history. For example, the above image, taken from my family tree, shows a tendency to die around Christmas and Easter. I find the stats function very useful because it accounts for all persons on my family tree, not just my direct ancestors.

The virtual globe is another fun tool that MacFamilyTree offers.

Click to zoom

By imputing the geographical coordinates associated with specific events, you can track your ancestors’ passages around the world. At the moment, I don’t see much use for the tool other than for visualization purposes or to show off your findings to friends and family, but it’s a nice touch.

Ultimately, the difference between MacFamilyTree and Family Tree Maker is what you want to do with it. If you just want to keep a private record of your genealogy, Family Tree Maker is a very usable program, equipped with an online tool to help you start your search. If you, like me, prefer a program that helps you visualize the structure of the family tree and has a plethora of presentation options (i.e. the tree won’t be wholly private), MacFamilyTree is a good way to go. Like any piece of software, both programs have their issues. In the case of these two, It’s a choice between ease of use and time consumption, but genealogy is a slow process anyway, right?

Give MacFamilyTree a try if you’re just starting to build your family tree. I promise you’ll enjoy the experience.