The Writer's Life
Kate Morton: The Hidden Lives of Houses
Kate Morton is the award-winning author of five novels, including
|photo: Davin Patterson
The House at Riverton,
The Forgotten Garden and
The Secret Keeper. Her sixth novel is
The Clockmaker's Daughter (Atria, $28); our review is below. Born and raised in Australia, Morton now lives in London with her family.
What was your inspiration for The Clockmaker's Daughter?
A book is thousands of ideas woven together, but in the beginning it takes only a few threads to form the kernel of the story. In the case of The Clockmaker's Daughter, these included a chance meeting with an archivist; a longstanding fascination with Victorian London; the discovery of certain unique aspects of Harvington Hall in Worcestershire; a lifelong love of art and photography; an abiding obsession with houses and their hidden stories; and my deep affection for the beautiful countryside along the banks of the Upper Thames.
Your novels often move back and forth between different eras and characters, but this book's narrative style is a bit more complicated than usual. How do you accomplish that?
My novels always contain an historical element, but what interests me more than history itself is the way the past and the present remain tethered. From the outset, I was eager to write a novel in which various narratives, taking place in different time periods, unfolded as seemingly discrete--but ultimately linked--storylines. This additional complexity meant that I had to alter my drafting approach: for the first time, I didn't write the book's chapters in the same order that the reader discovers them. Instead, I worked on all of the historical storylines at the same time, dipping from one to the other and then back again.
Time is a central theme in the book: not simply clocks and clockmaking, but the passage of time, the different lives led in one house over many years, the notion of what human beings do with their time. Can you speak to that?
Time, in particular its passage, is one of my favorite themes and I am always seeking new ways to explore it. I'm sure that having a mother who was an antique dealer shaped me in this respect. For as long as I can remember I've been aware of the way time passes; even more so, of the way objects pass through time. I used to love drifting through Mum's shop picking up this bonbonniere or that brooch, trying on a velvet fedora or a pair of fine kid gloves, and wondering at the people and places that they'd known before me.
Birchwood Manor, the house where much of the book is set, is almost a character itself. You've featured this sort of grand, mysterious house in several of your books. Was it inspired by a real house, and/or a combination of different places?
I adore houses: I love them architecturally and aesthetically--floor plans, proportions and living spaces, rooflines and materials--but I also value and respect them as places where human beings lead their lives; repositories of memories. I was inspired by a number of real houses when I was writing The Clockmaker's Daughter, including the early 16th-century Avebury Manor (which gives an incredible sense of the layers of time, sitting, as it does, within a group of Neolithic stone circles) and Kelmscott Manor, the one-time country home of William Morris (and his wife, Jane, and friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti). Both houses are now open as museums and Kelmscott is still furnished with Morris's possessions. Harvington Hall in Worcestershire was also an inspiration: it is Elizabethan and possesses seven priest holes.
Each of the book's different eras has a main character: a schoolgirl, a modern-day archivist, several writers, an artist's model….
I believe that fictional life should be as multi-faceted and layered as real life, and in The Clockmaker's Daughter, a book that explores the passage of time in a single location, it seemed inevitable that the central story should be told by different voices. I love that we hear from so many characters who call Birchwood Manor home over the century, and whose lives intersect across time to reveal the answer to the mystery at the novel's heart.
While not a traditional mystery, the book deals throughout with secrets: at least one character conceals her identity, and there are questions surrounding the deaths and disappearance of several other characters. There's also a lost diamond and a lost painting. Are you a mystery fan?
I grew up reading mystery stories after discovering Enid Blyton's The Famous Five
when I was six years old, and I love writing about secrets, especially the way they tend to haunt their keepers. For me, an essential part of being a storyteller is making a connection, and one of my favorite aspects of writing is the sense that I am playing a game with readers, concealing the answer to a central mystery in scenes that appear to be about something else entirely. --Katie Noah Gibson
, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
To some members of the millennial generation, whose formative experiences have included the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the economic hangover from the Great Recession of 2008-09, the relative ease with which their baby boomer parents have moved through life might seem especially galling. Feeding that resentment is the fact that many of those same boomers refuse to step out of the working world into retirement. That's the fuel to which Daniel Torday (The Last Flight of Poxl West) applies his satiric match in Boomer1.
Two millennials, Mark Brumfeld and Cassie Black, are one-time lovers and fellow bluegrass band members in Brooklyn, N.Y. Mark is a former editor at a glossy magazine in midtown Manhattan, with a Ph.D. in English literature that has yet to land him an academic job, while Cassie works as a fact-checker for Us Weekly. After Cassie rejects his marriage proposal and with his economic prospects plummeting, Mark decides to move back to his family's home in suburban Baltimore, taking up residence in the basement.
Following an encounter on the basketball court with an entitled boomer, Mark takes on a new identity as "Boomer1." He soon begins to craft a series of "Boomer Missives" on YouTube, railing against the predecessor generation. Mark's videos spark a movement of "Boomer Boomers," who support their ROWRY ("retire or we'll retire you") demand with increasingly brazen electronic guerrilla warfare.
Torday has his finger on the pulse of American society in the 21st century, and he smartly suggests that when it comes to relationships between the generations, the patient may not be in the best of health. --Harvey Freedenberg
, freelance reviewer
Discover: Daniel Torday tackles the issue of generational conflict in 21st-century America in a sharp satire.
St. Martin's Press,
$27.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781250191793
The Clockmaker’s Daughter
When Elodie Winslow, an archivist in London, stumbles on a box of assorted artifacts at work, she uncovers a mystery. A leather satchel holds a sepia photograph of a beautiful unknown woman and a sketchbook with an elaborate drawing of Birchwood Manor, home of Victorian painter Edward Radcliffe. But who was the woman, and what was her relationship to Radcliffe? And though she knows it's illogical, Elodie is sure the house is the same one from a bedtime story her mother used to tell. As she begins investigating, pieces of the house's complicated past, including a long-ago summer that ended with the violent death of Radcliffe's fiancée, come to light.
Kate Morton's sixth novel, The Clockmaker's Daughter, draws on some elements and themes from her previous works, such as The Lake House and The Secret Keeper: a grand country house with many secrets; a family saga spanning generations. This narrative is more complex, though, with sections focusing on multiple eras, and interludes exploring the life of the title character and her mysterious connection to the house. The shifts between Elodie's present-day narrative and the other strands can, at times, be confusing, especially as the cast of characters expands. But several of the protagonists are interesting in their own right, including Radcliffe's sister, Lucy, a naturalist who used the house as a school for girls, and Juliet, a London journalist who spent a summer at Birchwood with her children during the Blitz.
Each of the narratives leads back somehow to the fateful summer of 1862 and the book's central mystery. Like the house itself, the novel contains hidden corners and unexpected twists, and while some questions are eventually answered, others are left lingering. Fans of Morton's atmospheric novels will find much to enjoy here. --Katie Noah Gibson
, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Kate Morton’s moody, atmospheric sixth novel follows the history of a country house and its connection to a Victorian painter.
$28, hardcover, 496p., 9781451649390
The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish
Mae is 14, her sister Edie 16, when their mother tries to hang herself from a downstairs rafter of their Louisiana home. Mae, lying on her upstairs bedroom floor, senses what she is doing but does nothing to stop it. Edie arrives in time to save Marianne, who is committed to a mental health facility.
The girls are sent to New York to live with their father, Dennis, who walked away from the family 12 years prior. With Marianne as his muse, Dennis became a bestselling author; without her, he's blocked. He tries to provide stability for his daughters, and Mae finds comfort in the fresh start, away from the suffocation of an unnerving bond with her turbulent mother. Rebellious Edie, however, is fiercely protective of Marianne and wants nothing to do with this new life.
In The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, Katya Apekina dives into the abyss of family history and examines some rather unsightly affairs. Within short, alternating entries from more than 10 first-person perspectives--primarily Mae and Edie's, along with letters, journal entries, therapy notes and conversation transcripts--Apekina captivatingly unspools the saga of Dennis and Marianne.
Dennis and Mae's relationship begins to spin into dysfunction as her uncanny resemblance to Marianne awakens his creativity. As Mae becomes disturbingly entwined with Dennis, Edie's drive to flee and rescue her mother becomes undeniable. Mae ultimately takes drastic measures of her own to find escape. Dark yet bitingly funny, Apekina's debut evidences depth well worth the ugly. --Lauren O'Brien
of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: Two sisters are forced to deal with dark family history when their mother's suicide attempt results in their reunion with the father they barely know.
Two Dollar Radio,
$16.99, paperback, 353p., 9781937512750
Mystery & Thriller
The Witch Elm
Edgar winner Tana French (The Trespasser
) diverges from her Dublin Murder Squad procedural series for the first time with a hair-raising standalone that asks if knowing oneself is truly possible.
Toby Hennessy always thought of himself as the lucky sort, until burglars break into his apartment and savagely beat him. Left with fractures and a head injury, he wakes up in the hospital forever changed. Not only does he have a long rehabilitation ahead of him, but the brain trauma has also blurred segments of his memory and left him with aphasia as well as trouble concentrating and regulating his anger.
Solace comes in an unexpected form when his cousin Susanna suggests Toby should stay a few weeks at their family home, the Ivy House, to keep an eye on their beloved Uncle Hugo, an elderly genealogist dying of cancer. However, their idyll shatters when Susanna's small children find a human skull in the hollow wych elm in the garden. Police identify it as belonging to a high school classmate of Toby, Susanna and their cousin Leon. As suspicion falls on his family, Toby tries to unravel the case before the cops do, but he must suspect everyone, even himself.
While an amateur sleuth as protagonist marks a departure from French's customary focus on a murder detective's point of view, her dark and thoughtful tone remains. Readers who correctly solve the murder ahead of time should keep reading, as she has a few 11th-hour jaw-droppers in store. While Dublin Murder Squad fans may long for the next in the series, The Witch Elm
will satisfy cravings for French's blend of atmosphere and introspection. --Jaclyn Fulwood
, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: In French's first standalone mystery, a skull found in a manor house garden causes a young art dealer to question how well he knows his family and himself.
$28, hardcover, 528p., 9780735224629
Emmy and Academy Award nominee Michael Harvey (Brighton) returns to the city of his youth with another thriller alive with the haphazard streets of the Hub. With film rights already optioned, Pulse is a cinematic story of two young parentless brothers and two police detectives--one an Irish Catholic Southie and the other a 250-pound African American raised in a Roxbury tenement. Set in the '70s, Pulse is partly a whodunit, partly a historical coming-of-age story, partly gritty noir and partly quantum physics sci-fi.
Sixteen-year-old Daniel Fitzsimmons is a flaky Boston Latin student suffering from PTSD after witnessing the death of his mother in a car wreck when he was eight. He worships his older brother, Harry, who is gliding through Harvard, acing his classes and leading the football team. With an unknown absent father, they've got each other's backs--until Harry joins his teammates for a traditional end-of-season night in strip joints and brothels. In a deserted alley, Harry is stabbed to death and found by Daniel after a premonition draws him to the crime scene. Detectives Tommy Dillon and Barkley Jones catch the gruesome, headline case. When a sketchy street photographer snaps close-ups of the murder and the perpetrator from his seedy third-floor flat, it looks like an easy case-closed investigation. Until it isn't.
Like a good crime novel, Pulse
is driven by a trail of clues and coincidences that paint a picture of cause and effect. The ghosts, nightmares and visions that motivate and trouble its characters take a back seat to a solid good guys/bad guys tale set in the streets of an old city opening to a new world. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Michael Harvey's second crime novel set in 1970s Boston is rich in the ambience of a city facing problems of race, crime, technology and neighborhood loyalty.
$27.99, hardcover, 400p., 9780062443038
Passing for Human: A Graphic Memoir
How often do we reinvent ourselves throughout our lifetimes? And what do we gain and lose each time we redefine who we are, to ourselves and to the world at large? These are some of the intriguing questions Liana Finck explores in her graphic memoir, Passing for Human.
In Finck's case, she felt like an outsider, different than most people, with desires and dreams that didn't mesh with the conventional standards of being a woman. She called this otherness her shadow, which disappears and reappears throughout her story as she pays attention to her calling and alternately ignores it. In pondering her life, she depicts herself as an artist looking for a way to write the book that the reader is holding. With each new chapter, she starts her narrative over again, giving readers her mother's life story, then her father's, and these sections capture the strangeness of her father and the wisdom of her mother.
Various quotes from Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson and others and interpretations of stories from the Bible are used to offset new segments. Good against evil, God and the devil, love and relationships, shame and fear are themes throughout, with the fears imaginatively depicted as two rats that gnaw on Finck's shoulders. The line drawings are simple yet expressive. They convey the deep feelings of longing and desire, gloominess and dismay that Finck experiences as she continues the process of becoming her own highly creative and inventive person. --Lee E. Cart
, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: A cartoonist ponders the various paths of her life as a creative outsider.
$28, hardcover, 240p., 9780525508922
Business & Economics
Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day
, John Zeratsky
Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky (Sprint) are quick to point out that Make Time is not a productivity book. It's not about "getting more done, finishing your to-dos faster, or outsourcing your life." It is about prioritization, about focusing in on what matters (friends, family, health, hobbies, work, passion projects) and learning to let go of the rest (endless Facebook feeds, e-mail responses, the 24-hour news cycle). The two lay out an overarching strategy for making time (highlight, laser, energize, reflect), coupled with 86 individual tactics that can be cherry-picked, combined and otherwise manipulated to make the system work for individual readers.
That's the beauty of Make Time
, especially when compared to so many other productivity and business books: Knapp and Zeratsky are the opposite of prescriptive. While their thinking is influenced by their tech backgrounds--they created Google Ventures' "design sprint" process--they are neither for nor against technology for its own sake (Knapp has mostly bricked his iPhone, for example, while Zeratsky can't imagine a phone without e-mail). They make no recommendations--or judgments--about what an individual might focus on or what tactics may work best. Instead, they offer suggestions and guidance to shaping a more meaningful, less distracted kind of life. While their methods are not entirely original (and they respectfully give credit where credit is due), Make Time
is a thought-provoking guide for anyone who's tired of living on the "Busy Bandwagon," sure to inspire at least one new habit in the reading. --Kerry McHugh
, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: A set of principles and tactics designed to help readers make the most of each day by focusing on what really matters.
$27, hardcover, 304p., 9780525572428
God Is Young
, trans. by Anne Milano Appel
In this slim conversational volume, Pope Francis brings his spiritual wisdom and hallmark vivacity to a number of pressing matters. Translated by Anne Milano Appel, God Is Young relays a long conversation between the pontiff and Italian journalist Thomas Leoncini. The title derives from the way Pope Francis describes divinity. Rather than emphasizing Catholic dogma, he constantly conceives of God as a youthful, rejuvenating force that resists rigidity. "The Holy Spirit brings freshness, imagination, innovation," he says. To gather the young and old together, he calls for a "revolution of tenderness" in which "there are no hierarchies, each must seek the other out."
Pope Francis proves to be a formidable social critic. He tackles climate change, immigration, cyberbullying, drug addiction and a host of other issues. He uses his moral authority and erudition to promote stewardship of the environment and compassionate policy towards immigrants and refugees. He criticizes nationalism and unbridled capitalism that, in his words, has led to a "culture of discarding." As pointed as he can be on specific policies, the pope always returns to his greater vision of compassion. The most memorable lines in the book are aphorisms that arise naturally from the man's eloquent discourse. "A chink of hope in the heart is enough to let God in," he says when asked about the "machinery of corruption" in the world. At a later point, he tells the journalist "the darker it is, the more perceptible a tiny glimmer can be."
God Is Young
will appeal to both believers and nonbelievers, a window into the mind of an important world leader. --Scott Neuffer
, writer, poet, editor of trampset
Discover: Pope Francis discusses God, politics and the nature of hope in this extensive book-length interview.
$26, hardcover, 128p., 9781984801401
Comics artist and illustrator Philippa Rice (Soppy) captures the love-hate relationship between sisters in the cute graphic novel Sister BFFs. The story, based loosely on Rice's relationship with her younger sister, Holly, does not glamorize sisterhood. Instead, it runs the gamut of exchanges as these siblings poke and prod each other: food fights and disagreements about clothing choices, makeup and hair, as well as straight talk about work, romance and everyday life.
The figures are drawn as curvy and obnoxious with pouty lips. They are childishly cartoony yet mature at heart. As Rice delightfully demonstrates in her vignettes, they'll sit on each other, fart on each other and mock each other ("You're tacky and boring and I roll my eyes at you so much my eyeball wires have gone curly"). At the same time, they'll cheer each other on and celebrate minor accomplishments, lift each other up when their own self-esteem fails.
They navigate real-life dilemmas of young adulthood with reckless abandon and a fear that may feel familiar to many. Rice renders this with introspective dialogue in a discussion about the nature of romantic crushes:
"True crushes are best left in the imagination. As soon as you actually approach them in reality, the façade of perfection is shattered and you can't enjoy dreaming about them anymore."
Rice's stories are candid, self-deprecating and endearing. They will have sisters in stitches and nodding their heads in earnest. --Nancy Powell
, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: Philippa Rice reveals the highs and lows of sisterhood with laugh-out-loud candor and wit.
Andrews McMeel Publishing,
$14.99, hardcover, 144p., 9781449489359
So Far So Good
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was a popular and influential novelist, essayist and poet. She completed this final book of poetry, So Far So Good, shortly before her death in 2018 at the age of 88.
"I am such a long way from my ancestors now/ in my extreme old age that I feel more one of them/ than their descendant." In this book, she is a "little grandmother," the chickadee of her first poem who "gazes critically/ at autumn's entropy." The voice of extreme old age is a rare one in literature. Le Guin conveys much of her emotions and sensations, her pleasures and middle-of-the night thoughts with integrity and precision. Many of her poems, as with much of her other work, deal with human life in relation to the natural world. They are populated by trees, birds, animals, familiar landscapes, tides, the open ocean, seasonal change. Stray memories appear, too--a red pear set on a jar, the blackout curtains of her childhood in World War II Berkeley. The section "So Far" contains 12 poems in the voice of William Bligh, who lost his command of the ship Bounty
to mutiny, and navigated "an overloaded open boat four thousand miles from Tonga past the Australian coast to Timor." She considers her approaching death, and the final section of the book, "In The Ninth Decade," is devoted to her old age: "The wire/ gets higher/ and they forget/ the net." --Sara Catterall
Discover: This is the final book of poetry by the acclaimed author Ursula K. Le Guin, on themes of the natural world, memories, mortality and William Bligh.
Copper Canyon Press,
$23, hardcover, 100p., 9781556595387
Children's & Young Adult
Jarrett J. Krosoczka
In Hey, Kiddo, author/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka puts his talents to use on a sophisticated project: delving into his own chaotic past.
Krosoczka's mother, Leslie, "started using when she was just thirteen years old" and wasn't sure who his father was until Jarrett was born. When Leslie's "terrible decisions" became too dangerous for three-year-old Jarrett, his grandfather Joe insisted on becoming the boy's legal guardian. Jarrett's grandfather, usually depicted puffing a cigarette, frequently expressed love for his grandson, and provided for him in the best way he could. His grandmother Shirley--also a heavy smoker and a drinker--was abrasive, though she clearly loved the boy. Still, Jarrett "always felt the void that Leslie's absence created." When she did come around, there were good times. But, mostly, there were letters and homemade cards exchanged, where he'd "request a cartoon from her and then she'd request one back from [him]."
Eventually, Jarrett found himself in art. This memoir serves as an expression of the richness of his gift, as well as a tribute to his "two incredible parents" who "happened to be a generation removed." Rendered in black, white and a range of grays, with touches of color, the inked art is moody and expressive. By the time he graduated from high school, Jarrett came to terms with the family that, though far from "idyllic," is uniquely his. Perhaps, as Leslie told Jarrett while he was working on this book, their story "could help somebody who might be walking a similar path to the one [they] had walked." Here's hoping! --Lynn Becker, blogger
and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: Jarrett Krosoczka's graphic novel is a reflection on his unconventional upbringing, which included being raised by grandparents due to his mom's devastating addiction.
$24.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9780545902472
Thank You, Omu!
From an open window of a top-floor apartment on "the corner of First Street and Long Street" comes a most delicious smell. Omu (pronounced AH-moo) is preparing "a thick red stew in a big fat pot for a nice evening meal." The irresistible scent can't be contained: it "waft[s] out the window and out the door, down the hall, toward the street, and around the block."
Soon enough, there is a loud "KNOCK!" Omu opens her door to find a little boy who was distracted from playing with his race car by the "most delicious smell." Since she's made "quite a bit," Omu readily shares a bowl with the hungry boy, who eats and leaves with a satiated "THANK YOU, OMU!" The tempting aroma continues wafting "around the block" and no sooner has Omu settled back down when a double "KNOCK!" has her up again. This time Omu finds a police officer hoping for a taste. "Throughout the day, people from all across the neighborhood [knock] on Omu's door" and, of course, no one leaves hungry.
Oge Mora makes her author/illustrator debut with a joyous homage to her personal Omu: her grandmother. Mora's late Omu was a neighborhood beacon, whose large pots of stew fed many; she visually immortalizes her grandmother's ability to build community by enhancing her cut-paper designs with literal representations of assembling, constructing and connecting. Mora's art casually yet vividly reminds readers of the diversity we encounter all around us, presenting her characters in all hues while acknowledging multiple languages in various cut-outs throughout. Words and pictures, food and people all come together to fill hearts with "happiness and love"--and to make sure that Omu, who gave the most, gets "the best she had ever had." --Terry Hong
, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: The tantalizing scent of Omu's stew brings hungry strangers to her door until her intended dinner disappears, but then an impromptu neighborhood feast appears.
$18.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-7, 9780316431248
The Echo Room
When 16-year-old Rett Ward wakes up in an unfamiliar industrial-metal room with a scar on his head and blood on his clothes, his first thought is "[s]omeone is calling to me...." That "someone" is 16-year-old Bryn, a fellow ward of the state from the same boarding facility as Rett. They don't know where they are or how they got there, but know they need to escape. Just as Rett is getting his bearings, something sets him "spinning into blackness." He wakes up in an unfamiliar industrial-metal room with a scar on his head and blood on his clothes, his first thought that someone is calling to him. When it seems that Rett and Bryn will never escape this recurring nightmare, fleeting memories and just-on-the-fringe revelations point to something even more sinister waiting for them on the other side.
Each iteration of this mental puzzle lasts longer than the one before it, as Rett and Bryn begin to fill in the gaps in their memories. Parker Peevyhouse (Where Futures End) manages to avoid repetition fatigue by giving new information--about Rett and Bryn, the dystopian future in which they reside, their true purpose for being in the depot--that pulls curious readers into the storyline. The stakes get drastically higher when the teens gather enough information to complete their mission. What follows is a whirlwind of close calls and shocking disclosures with a mind-bending twist.
The Echo Room
submerges readers in its video game-like atmosphere, holding them in its grip till the gratifying ending. --Lana Barnes
, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Discover: In this time-looping sci-fi thriller, two orphaned teens with foggy memories escape a prison only to realize they may have been safer inside.
$17.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 13-up, 9780765399397