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Posts Tagged ‘Kate Morton’

ladyvioletI dined today with Lady Violet. Not really, but I did have Sunday dinner with my mother and several of her friends, all of whom now are of the age the Dowager Countess was back then, in 1925. All were looking forward, too, to the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre tonight. Although they’ve already bid farewell to Downton Abbey in the UK, with the finale airing Christmas Day, none of the ladies I was with went looking for spoilers on Google beforehand. Not that they don’t know their way around an iPad or a laptop, thank you very much. But they are anticipating the pleasures of reacquainting themselves with the Crawley family, upstairs and downstairs, certain that writer Julian Fellowes can be counted on to deliver the requisite drama.

Indeed, Downton Abbey has been rife with love, loss, scandal and the challenges posed by a changing world, or as the New York Times listed in a quiz about the characters: Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Forbidden Desire, Child Tribulations, Devastating Betrayal, Physical Misery, Blackmail Travails. Most of the main characters have been beset by multiple woes.

lakehouseDownton Abbey is like a good novel, and not surprisingly, it has been good for publishing, not only with the popularity of official companion volumes, but with the renewed interest in family sagas set in World War I or post-war Britain. I’ve recommended many over the last five years, but the only novel I’ve read recently that sort of falls in that category is Kate Morton’s The Lake House (Atria, digital galley). In 1930s Cornwall, the wealthy Edevane family is visited by tragedy when their youngest child, 11-month-old Theo, vanishes from the nursery during a midsummer’s eve party. The case is never solved, and in 2003, disgraced young police detective Sadie Sparrow, stumbles on the abandoned manor house while visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She’s intrigued by the case and also by the fact that famous mystery novelist Alice Edevane, a child when her brother disappeared, is still alive but has never returned to Cornwall. Morton shifts the story between past and present as Sadie investigates the cold case and as Alice recalls in vivid detail the events of that fateful summer. It’s a Downton-kind of saga, evoking a bygone time and many family secrets.

turnerhouseBut the Brits are not the only ones who write family sagas. If what interests you is how generations of a flawed family are torn and bound by secrets over time, then check out Angela Flournoy’s absorbing first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which was a National Book Award finalist. The house on Yarrow Street on Detroit’s East Side is about as far away from Downton as you might imagine, but for 50 years it was the home of Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was a comfortable one for a working-class black family, but by 2008, the recession has wrecked the East Side. The house is nowhere near its mortgaged value, and the clan must make some decisions. Flournoy focuses on three of the Turner offspring — truck driver Cha-Cha, young police officer Troy, and baby sister and gambling addict Lelah — and also includes flashbacks tracing Francis and Viola’s migration from the South. Social history, family history, American history. Also, Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Child Tribulation, Devastating Betrayal, etc., etc

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Whew! Glad that’s over. Oh, wait. You thought I was talking about the election? Well, that, too. But it seemed like it took me forever to finish Kate Morton’s new doorstop of a novel The Secret Keeper (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley & paperback ARC). I loved Morton’s The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden, but just liked The Distant Hours and now this one. Too many secrets but not enough surprises.

Fifty years ago, 16-year-old Laurel witnessed her mother Dorothy’s violent encounter with a stranger. Now Dorothy is turning 90 and in frail help; Laurel, an accomplished actress, joins her younger sisters at the family farm and is determined to find out the truth about the glossed-over incident. Several clues — an inscribed copy of Peter Pan, a photo of two young women, and the murmured name “Jimmy” — lead her back to the London Blitz, when Dorothy, aka Dolly, was a bright young thing from Coventry doing her bit for the war effort. She has a photographer boyfriend, and she greatly admires a beautiful neighbor, Vivien, married to a famous author.

Morton seamlessly shifts between present and past, spinning involving stories within stories. Laurel eventually connects the dots, proving that, as a child, you never really know what your parents were up to when they were young, and how long-kept secrets shape lives over time. The characters are interesting, the wartime atmosphere evoked in detail, but the plot’s not that original. Morton reminded me of a kinder, gentler Barbara Vine, the pseudonym Ruth Rendell uses when writing her serpentine tales. Vine/Rendell is more likely to tie up loose ends with a noose instead of a big bow.

Laura, the intense, angst-ridden narrator of Jenn Ashworth’s Cold Light (HarperCollins, digital galley via NetGalley), has been keeping secrets for a decade about her 14-year-old best friend’s suicide pact with her boyfriend. It has damaged her life to the point that she has no life to speak of — a menial cleaning job where she can remain an outsider, no friends except Emma, who was also close to dead Chloe. Now, at a ceremony commemorating Chloe, another body is found. Laura knows the identity of the corpse and the terrifying circumstances that led to a long-ago accidental death — or was it murder? Ashworth fashions a chilly tale of friendship, jealousy, betrayal.

Fiona Griffiths, the rookie Cardiff cop who stars in Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley), has secrets in her background to rival those of the victims in the cases she works. There’s the two-year-gap in her resume, for starters, and there’s also the matter of her close family’s history with crime. These secrets are alluded to as Fiona — young, intense, a bit of an odd duck — is detailed to the sordid death of a hooker and her six-year-old daughter. Drugs are the likely culprit, but the credit card of a missing tycoon hints at something darker, deeper. Bingham jump-starts this new series with a complicated protagonist with unusual issues.

I don’t think it’s possible for a good Southern mystery not to have family secrets, but Margaret Maron does her Deborah Knott series proud with  The Buzzard Table (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley via NetGalley.) She provides a heaping helping of secrets small and large, private and public as her other series detective, NYPD’s Sigrid Harald, joins Deborah and her deputy sheriff husband Dwight on their North Carolina home turf.

Sigrid and her mother, prize-winning photographer Anne Lattimore, have returned to visit the ailing family matriarch, as has long-lost cousin Martin Crawford, an ornithologist studying Southern vultures. He unfortunately manages to be in at the scene of several crimes — the discovery of the dumped body of a murdered real-estate agent in the woods, the vicious assault on a nerdy high school student, and the unexplained death of a man at a nearby airport hotel. The airfield itself is a point of contention as the CIA is using it as a fueling stop.

Maron adroitly shifts perspectives among the characters, including personable Deborah’s first-person narrative, and opens each chapter with fascinating details about buzzards, natural recycling machines who get little respect. They have secrets, too.

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Lately it seems as if everything I read reminds me of another book or author. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it often leads to playing a favorite game of “This and That.” You know:  “If you like this, then you should read that.” Or vice-versa.

To wit, if you like Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction, then you should read Emily St. John Mandel’s elegantly constructed new novel The Lola Quartet (Unbridled, publisher’s galley). Mandel offers episodic scenes with no readily apparent connection — a young woman with a baby on the run, high school seniors playing jazz in a truck bed in the hot South Florida night, a New York reporter fictionalizing facts. At the center of this jigsaw-puzzle plot is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl that resembles reporter Gavin’s adult sister and has the same last name as his high-school sweetheart. Returning to Florida’s suburban sea of foreclosed houses and lost dreams, Gavin’s search for the little girl leads to encounters with his past and the other members of his student jazz ensemble, all now coping with degrees of disappointment. Mandel’s noir tale is both perceptive and evocative as Gavin plays gumshoe in the sultry heat, not realizing that his well-intentioned quest has unleashed dangerous consequences.

If you enjoy Kate Morton’s historical novels such as The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden, then check out Katherine Webb’s The Unseen (Morrow, paperback review copy). Inspired by the infamous British fairy photograph hoax of 1917, Webb’s engaging tale unfolds as dual narratives. In 1911 Berkshire, the Rev. Albert Canning and his naive wife Hester welcome two strangers to their home — Cat Morley, the new maid with suffragette leanings and a tainted past, and Robin Durrant, a spiritualist looking for dryads in the nearby water meadows. In 2011, reporter Leah travels to the village while researching the identity of a World War I veteran who saved two mysterious letters hinting at 1911’s secret tragedy. But of course . . .

Now, if you can’t get enough of the true-life story of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and/or the lush period details of  Downton Abbey or The King’s Speech, historian Juliet Nicolson’s Abdication (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley) may be just the thing. As the royal romance unfolds in 1936, Nicolson focuses on fictional characters caught up in the wake of the manipulative Wallis, “a woman with an unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high little shoulders and a perfectly enormous head.” Evangeline Nettleton, a clumsy American spinster, is a girlhood friend of Mrs. Simpson, and her attempts to fit in with the royal entourage are cringe-inducing. In stark contrast, 19-year-old May Archer, recently arrived from the West Indies and living with Jewish relatives, forges an independent path as the chauffeur of a MP. No wonder she is attracted to a leftist Oxford student. Nicolson is a better historian than novelist, so her sudsy plot plays out against a fascinating factual tapestry.

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The three Bronte sisters wrote only a handful of books between them, but their influence is legion. Add in their peculiar lives in a Yorkshire parsonage, and you have the stuff of novels. Imagine moldering mansions, lonely children, crazy kin, starcrossed lovers, brooding heroes, poverty-stricken heroines, family secrets, a legacy of lies. The Brontes have been there, done that. There even are T-shirts.

But a good Gothic is hard to resist, especially if you first read Jane Eyre as an impressionable teenage girl. Reader, what a a story!

College professor and writer April Lindner is still enthralled. She makes her YA debut, Jane,  with a fond contemporary update of Jane Eyre.

Jane Moore, low on self-esteem and funds, has to drop out of Sarah Lawrence when her parents are killed in a traffic accident, and her selfish older siblings inherit the stuff that’s worth anything. Jane’s smarts, determination and lack of celebrity-awareness get her a job as nanny to brooding bad-boy rock star Nico Rathborn’s 5-year-old daughter. At Thornfield Hall, no less. Want to guess who lives in the attic?

Lindner faithfully follows the original story for the most part. It’s fun to see what details she changes to suit the times — after the wedding-day shocker, for example, Jane runs away and works in a soup kitchen with a handsome seminary student planning a mission to Haiti. That world-weary Mr. Rathborn (“call me Nico”) falls for pragmatic, good-hearted Jane isn’t all that incredible; her prissy moralizing after she’s already slept with him is more so.  Still, most jarring of all, is that well-read Jane Moore has apparently never heard of Jane Eyre, the book or many movie adaptation. Clueless.

Jane Eyre is referenced several times in the historical mystery The Distant Hours, by Australian Kate Morton. Following the successful formula of her previous novels — The House at Riverton, The Forgotten Garden — Morton leisurely layers Gothic details with classic romantic suspense, jumping back and forth among several time periods. The Distant Hours is a rich confection with lots of frosting.

“It started with a letter.” A letter, it turns out, that was lost for 50 years, and whose sudden arrival in the early 1990s stuns Edie Burchill’s mother, Meredith, who doesn’t want to talk about it. But the letter sets Edie on the trail of her mum’s history as a 13-year-old wartime evacuee at Milderhurst Castle, home of Raymond Blythe, author of a popular horror book, The True Tale of The Mud Man, and his three daughters. The elder sisters are twins, Percy and Saffy, and they have spent their youth looking after their increasingly demented father and their younger sister Juniper, who is subject to emotional spells and lapses of memory.

If all this sounds complicated, it is, because everyone, including all of the above, plus a handsome soldier and a former housekeeper, have secrets to spare. As kindly Mrs. Bird, manager of the B&B, says to Edie, ” ‘They can surprise us, can’t they, our parents? The things they got up to before we were born.’ ”  Edies agrees: ‘Almost like they were real people once.’ ”

Open Book: I purchased the e-book version of April Lindner’s Jane (Little, Brown), and received an advance copy of Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours (Atria) as part of a web promotion. While reading them, and rereading Jane Eyre, I consumed vast quantities of tea and quite enjoyed myself.

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I didn’t make a year-end list of recommendations for 2009 because I was too busy trying to get this blog going. (And it was the holidays, too). But now several of my favorite books from last year are out in paperback. I see that that they are all mysteries of one kind or another, but each is so different from another. Still, they all surprise.

When Will There Be Good News?  by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown): A great title for a great literary mystery that begins with a scene of shocking violence in the English countryside, then skips ahead 30 years to catch up with the 6-year-old witness and survivor. Her happy life intersects in unusual ways with a cast of well-drawn characters, including motherless mother’s helper Reggie, police inspector Louise Monroe and the always intriguing detective Jackson Brodie.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Random House): Agatha Christie meets Harriet the Spy in the personage of 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who as an aspiring chemist has a familiarity with plants, potions and poisons. But her experiments with a rash-inducing face cream for her older sister can’t compete with her discovery of  a dying stranger in the garden. When her father, the stamp-collecting Colonel, is implicated in the man’s murder, Flavia is not above picking locks, eavesdropping on her elders and figuring out clues, including a dead bird on the doorstep. Clever girl! 

 

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Grand Central Publishing): This sequel to The Poet, one of the best serial killer novels ever, finds LA Times investigative reporter Jack McEvoy forced to not only take a buy-out but also to show the ropes to his attractive rookie replacement. The two think they’ve found a good story when a drug-dealing teen supposedly confesses to a horrific murder, but that’s just the beginning of the bloodletting as Connelly unravels a twisty tale that also pays homage to the struggling daily newspaper industry and its ink-stained wretches. Give this to your favorite reporter, or former reporter as the case may well be.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill): In chilly 1907 Wisconsin, a wealthy widower sends for a mail-order bride, “a reliable wife.” But what he gets is a woman with her own secret agenda — and he knows it. “This begins in a lie,” he says. More lies follow, as does treachery and desire in a downright shivery novel. A good winter’s tale. 

 

 

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (Atria/Simon & Schuster): Combination family saga and English Gothic, Morton’s follow-up to the very good The House at Riverton reveals its secrets slowly. On her 21st birthday, Nell learns that her Australian parents adopted her as a 4-year-old left behind on a ship from England in 1913. No one ever claims the child with the small suitcase containing a few anonymous items and a book of fairy tales. Eventually, Nell travels to England’s Cornish coast and Blackhurst Manor in quest of her true identity. But it is left to her granddaughter Cassandra to finally link Nell to the mysterious Montrachet family, “the forgotten garden” and the enchanting book.

Open Book: I received a review copy of The Good Wife from the publisher, checked out The Scarecrow from the library, and bought copies of the other three.

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