Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson

Well, I finished the book, and that’s more praise than it sounds. That said, my reaction upon finishing the book was “Bwuh? …sorry, don’t follow?”

Hopefully, I can summarize the plot without giving too much away. Indeed, the apparent central question never is really decided one way or the other.

The book jacket blurb plot synopsis: Chris Lowndes arrives in Yorkshire, having carried through with the plans he’d made with his now-dead wife to return to his childhood home, in a broad sense–he’s purchased a house in the Dales that’s stood empty for some years, with only a sporadic tourist rental. The house agent seems mildly discomfited about his inquiry into why the house has been, in essence, unoccupied for so long; he suspect there’s something she’s not telling him.

And sure enough, there is, and it’s a whopper: there’s been a death in the house sixty years earlier. The husband, a cold-fish doctor, dies in the night. Caught in a snowstorm, the wife and her guests cannot leave or even communicate with the outside world until the snow is cleared and the officials arrive. Was he poisoned or did he die of a heart attack? The circumstances are of concern to officials, but the forensic evidence isn’t conclusive one way or the other, due in no small part to the time elapsed between death and inquest.

The wife is tried, found guilty and executed.

This is not wholly a surprise to the readers: Banks has set this plotline up quite clearly from page one, with the “contemporary” account of the wife’s execution, before we’ve even met the narrator. Even the question of her motivation is made fairly clear during the course of the trial: she has a young lover, and her husband had been an emotionally cold man. Divorce is not particularly an option, not least for the shame and social ostracization involved.

Well, maybe not. The death or her reasons for doing….well, whatever she did or did not do to her husband. The book leaves the did she/didn’t she question rather up in the air.

But I have a couple of problems that begin way back at the beginning of the book. And hopefully, I can explain them without giving away too much about the denouement and conclusion.

Why did the legal system, in 1953, decide that quickly that Grace had killed her husband? The evidence truly can be fit into either conclusion–an overdose of potassium can stop a person’s heart, but a severe heart attack does also release significant amounts of potassium into the victim’s bloodstream. The prosecution’s case is shaky but it’s generally agreed among the people surviving in 2010 that the defence didn’t even try.

Why did Lowndes, in 2010, go to such great lengths to investigate the dead past? He’s justifiably distraught about his wife’s recent death after he (plot point I can’t give away) but we don’t find the precise distressing circumstances out until the last twenty pages of a 350 page book, and I didn’t really get a sense of just how distraught he was through the previous 320 pages. Somewhat, to be sure, but beginning the process of moving on. Even after rereading the conclusion, I’m not entirely sure why Lowndes feels there is a connection between himself and Grace?

My polite reaction: I don’t think I’m the correct audience for the book, but then I was expecting a tale somewhere on the mystery/psychological thriller/suspense spectrum. This strikes me more as a book about a man’s exploration of history, and contemplating his life and life choices.

The Street Dancers by Elizabeth Starr Hill

I picked this up on a whim from the local Bargain Books years ago, and had forgotten I had it. Readable, to be sure! Though I’m reminded of the wheezy old joke about a kid who belonged to the circus who wanted to run away and join a normal home: Fitzi’s parents live a hand-to-mouth existence as mimes, working in plays and on television when they’re lucky, street buskers when they’re not so lucky….and all too often, there’s no work at all. Treats from Zabar’s when they’re flush, and tuna/coleslaw when they’re not, and never the certainty of whether they’ll be up or down for a day, a week, a month. Fitzi herself has always been part of this life, doing commercials, busking with her parents as one of the “Wolper Windups”. But now she’s hit the point that she wants a normal life. A life like that of the kids she sees outside at recess in the nearby public school. Though she enjoys spending time with her actor grandfather, and loves her parents, she wants out of the theatrical life.

As the story opens, they’re sub-leasing a third-floor walkup apartment in a slightly grubby building while a family of acquaintances is out on tour. It means a room for Fitzi, and even an avocado tree to water and love, but…. You knew there was going to be a but, right? As the book begins, her grandfather has a stroke, and cannot return to his life and job and home after he’s released from hospital. Fitzi’s aunt (mother’s sister) and her husband would like to take Clement in to their respectable home and stable life in Metuchen, but Clement prefers to stay with the Wolpers, close to the environment he’s known for most of his adult life. Used to fluency in movement and speech, Clement is frustrated by his new disability and dependency, and the slowness of his recovery. Fitzi, herself increasingly frustrated with the life she’s hitherto enjoyed, mostly, clashes with her grandfather. Though she finds friendship with a neighbor who goes to school with one of Fitzi’s friends now retired from show business, Fitzi’s increasingly embarrassed by her parents, to the point of fleeing in tears when her parents try to give her a treat by showing up, in costume and makeup, to the friend’s party at school. As this is an after-school special sort of book—though a well-written one!—Fitzi does get her wish, but realizes in the end that the lives of those “normal” kids does not always match the fantasy life she’s built up around the dollhouse her grandfather splurged on as a birthday gift for his beloved granddaughter. We find out near the end of the book that Karen’s family, idolized as ideal by Fitzi, is about to break up; the father’s been having an affair for some time.

As the book ends, Clement is back in hospital, after suffering another stroke while Fitzi’s parents are performing in a matinee. It is she who had to get help, and wait with him in the hospital while Pip tried to get hold of the Wolpers at the theater.

The Street Dancers is more than slightly bittersweet: you (tweens) aren’t the only ones who are lonely, the only ones who have doubts, fears and regrets or who have gone through what you’re going through, and perhaps most dismaying of all, all these doubts and fears do NOT end with some magical transformation into An Adult.The author makes clear that Fitzi’s parents have worries of their own, but love the life enough to continue, despite the financial concerns and uncertainty. And like all afterschool specials, the lesson to take away is: make the best of what you can but where love is, happiness can be found. What to read next? I’d suggest something by Barthe deClements, perhaps, or Judy Blume; both authors are a bit dated, true, but then if the child liked this, now twenty-five years old, chances are they’d like other books rom that timeframe.

Secret of the Old Post Box by Dorothy Sterling

Short plot summary, as this is another of those history or social lessons thinly veiled as bits of fluff that Scholastic so loved to reprint…and indeed, I found this as a Scholastic reprint a couple of years ago. Pat’s moved from New York City to a small town, and one summer morning her mother shoves her out to take up a neighbor boy on his offer of a game of baseball. Things aren’t exactly going swimmingly–three brothers, clearly proto-thugs, are angry about a GIRL playing with them, though it turns out there’s an underlying cause. They used to live in the Revolutionary War-era house nearby. This is brought to a head when Pat slams a line drive through one of the windows of the house.

They explore, and find papers that suggest there’s a treasure hidden in the house. They search and, because this is a feel-good afternoon-special sort of book, they find it. But because this is also a veiled history lesson, it’s not the treasure the kids were expecting (cash, jewels, something like that) and they can’t understand why the adults all get so excited about what they DO find.

Like Julia Sauer’s Fog Magic, I can’t really imagine this being read by modern kids in the intended age range. Literary styles have changed too much. not to mention the ways in which educational information is woven into the text. Basically, this is a thinly veiled lesson in Revolutionary War-era history. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would someone else who cut their teeth on Scholastic reprints appreciate this? Possibly. Would I consider giving it to a kid? No, but I certainly wouldn’t wrest it from their grasp.

Dated, absolutely. A girl putting on pedal-pushers to play baseball? Oh, Please! Didactic? That too. Stopping in the middle of the action to explain about George Washington and his network of Revolutionary Spies? YAWN!

But on the other hand…and this is important to me. That girl IS playing baseball. With boys. Not very well, perhaps. But at no point did the author stop to say “because Pat was a girl”. Rather it’s more likely that this is because she’s played baseball only in her school’s gym, having just moved out from New York City to the suburbs; this is the first time she’s played proper baseball out in a field.

Not to mention the fact that the girl in question then wallops out a home run…which leads to the primary action of the book: discovering the treasure in the Revolutionary War-era home, which belongs to three of the four boys with whom she’s playing.

Or rather belonged, before the family lost it because they couldn’t pay the taxes, much less keep up the house in the way it needed to be–the furnace was, apparently, installed some time shortly after the Civil War, almost a century before this book was set.

(Rest assured, baseball has very little to do with the book. It’s about family pride, and settling in to a new neighborhood, and learning a bit about history while we’re at it. This is just what struck me about my copy of it.

No Place for Me, by Barthe DeClements

Copper’s mother has checked into an alcohol detox center. Again. And her stepfather is heading out for Portland, Oregon, with no intention of taking Copper with him. and indeed it’s unclear whether he intends to remain with Copper’s mother. Copper still has hopes of staying with her best friend, in Seattle, until her mother’s released from the program, but her stepfather kills that plan immediately; as the book opens, he’s calling her mother’s siblings to try to arrange a place for Copper. Stop one is Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Tom’s house. They have three daughters, thirteen, eleven and eight…and Copper gets stuck with the nasty tattletale bedwetting youngest. Or at least that’s how Copper sees the brat—er, her cousin. She can’t put posters up, because the walls have just been painted. She can’t wash the smelly quilt she gets stuck with because her aunt wants it dry cleaned. She has to start at a new school part way through the school year. And worst of all, she’s stuck in Hicksville1. Nowhere to go after school, except the skating rink. And Dorothy and Tom have so many rules! And they enforce them2! Finally, Copper talks the oldest daughter, Kim, into sneaking off to the roller skating rink; the parents have forbidden it because they think that’s where all the stoners go, but it’s also where the Cool Boy spends his time. The eight-year-old rats them out… …and Copper’s off to home number two. This one seems at first to be a better home, at least from Copper’s perspective. No other kids, she gets a canopy bed because it’s Aunt Judith’s childhood fantasy3. and the condo has a pool. But Uncle Raymond is running for state senate and one night they have to go off to a fundraising dinner. But the babysitter’s got the flu! Copper says she’s old enough to stay home alone, and ordinarily she would be. Someone breaks into the condo. Copper, terrified, hides under her bed and calls the police from the extension in her room.

Brave of her, no? Certainly faster than i’d have thought, at age twelve, in a similar situation!

But all Uncle Raymond can think of is a) the liability of a child left alone while he’s off politicking4.and b) that this barely pubescent girl is standing in a sleep-t in front of a couple of strange men5. …and we’re off to home #3. The home of last resort. The home with (gasp) the sister of the biological father, whom we haven’t met, The sister who is a witch. And yes, she really is a witch, in the sense that she’s Wiccan, or pagan, and that in a fairly modern sense, given that the book was written almost thirty years ago. Also completely unlike Copper’s previous three families. She cooks for the entire week and freezes the meals for reheating later. She works outside the home. She takes an interest in Copper’s schooling–they go to the school together on Copper’s first day, and the aunt introduces her around, and the aunt agrees to let one teacher bring a field trip to her property to search for mushrooms. And she doesn’t put up with any of Copper’s bullshit. Despite Copper’s self-justifying’ behavior, in the end Maggie offers Copper a home for as long as she needs it, even after her own mother is released from the treatment program. Open with Copper at every turn, in the end Copper feels bad enough about lying to Maggie that she does seriously consider…well, growing up. And also considering the very real possibility that her own mother might not be able to provide her with a home. At least I get the feeling that Copper’s beginning to recognize that these aggravating rule-bearers are people in their own right. Not just her caretakers I’ll admit here that Copper at first comes across as being…what? Spoiled? Entitled? Self-centered? Twelve? Having grown up in a manipulative environment, raised by an alcoholic mother with no money-management skills and a stepfather who doesn’t regard her as his own child, in the sense of someone for whom you’re responsible?

Reading this as an adult, I can see that a lot of Copper’s problems do come back to that last issue. But this is an afterschool special type of book. A good one, perhaps, but I think it’s meant more to be enjoyable, and teach a lesson to kids about what constitutes a family, than provide an in-depth analysis of child rearing to adults. All standard disclaimers apply; I was given this book by someone else who reviewed it on WordPress, though with no obligation to review it at all, much less give it a good review. Just give this beloved book a Forever Home. Review by Nikki B. 1having spent some time in Seattle, yeah: Copper’s right on the mark here, at least from a twelve-year-old’s perspective. Marysville is hicksville, if you’ve grown up in Seattle. 2As an adult, reading between the lines, I can guess that Copper’s mother was simply drunk enough of the time that she couldn’t be bothered with Copper 3see where this is leading? 4never mind the liability of discarding said child simply because she might become a liability! 5never mind that she’s just had the wits scared out of her and the two strange men are the police officers she’s had the presence of mind to call

Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

It’s Christmas Day. The long-lost daughter, vanished these twenty years, shows up on her parents’ doorstep; she appears no older than when she left, though ragged, exhausted and weary…and she claims to have been abducted by faeries.

The parents take her in, are gentle and caring. avoid pressing her for details…and don’t believe a word of her mad tale. She’s sent to a psychiatrist, is shouted at by her brother, now a father of four, but she sticks to her story, despite the lack of proof. She ran off with a Fairy Man, not realizing what he was, and has stayed only six months in that other world. She has no explanation for the discrepancy in time between the two worlds.

Is she schizophrenic? Or was she really taken by the elf folk?

Interesting! I know there were a number of reviewers on Goodreads who weren’t as taken as they thought they’d be, but I suspect that’s because they were expecting more about the faeries (or however you prefer to spell that). I’m not sure that’s the point of the book. There are more than a few stories, some ‘real’ insofar as oral history can be proven, and some overt fictions, about people taken by the Fair Folk who stay for what seems to be a day, a night, seven years, and return to their home only to find that some horrifyingly long span has elapsed. But do any modern folk really believe those tales? Would you?

And I think that’s what Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s really about: what if someone today claimed to have been taken by the fairies? Believe them? I don’t think so. Instead, we’d do pretty much what the family did: assume the person was mentally ill, help them seek treatment, treat them gently and lovingly…but believe them? NEVER!

Well, hardly ever. Tara sticks to her story, although we see this through not only her family’s eyes but that of her psychiatrist, who breaks it down into terms of someone who’s gone through (I think) a nervous breakdown, interpreting her tale in terms of the underlying psychological underpinnings of folklore as seen through the eyes of someone who has retreated from reality.

Yet there’s the dentist, who insists that her teeth are that of a much younger woman, and suggests that the family test her saliva with a new technique that can determine someone’s age. She’s being stalked by a man whom she claims is the fae who stole her, and brought her back, and who beats up the long-ago boyfriend in a quite convincingly real fashion. The old woman living nearby claims to have been herself abducted by the fairies; is she telling the truth, or is this another example of mental illness? Certainly she was treated for just such a problem, though with very different techniques than those used on Tara. But she’s on the ball enough to not only send an email for the first time but also recognize that the cat whom Tara’s nephew brings to her is not her own—another subplot implies he’s shot her moggie and is trying to make amends. After Tara vanishes, the (ex) boyfriend sees a revival in his musical career, composing and singing as if he’d been given…well, a fairy gift.

In the end, Tara vanishes in a puff of taxicab exhaust, and we’re left only with a brief scene in which Tara’s brother sees his wayward eldest daughter speaking to a man who matches Tara’s description of her abductor. The brother, a farrier doing quite well for himself even in this day and age of modernization and mechanization, comes over, but the stranger is gone before he arrives.

What actually did happen to Tara? We’ll never know. But I do appreciate the ambiguity in the Otherworld which Tara presents to us. On the one hand, these fae of hers are no dainty sprites, small enough to sleep in the bluebells they so love, but the size of humans, and seemingly without moral scruples about sex or nudity. On the other, it could have been a commune or psychopaths.

Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels

“They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.”

Couldn’t resist starting the review with that first line! It’s one of my favorites, along with the first line of 1984.

No, despite what lurid conclusions many modern readers may leap, nay, pole vault into, Horty was caught eating ants. The primary story arc begins as Horty flees his adoptive parents’ house, taking only a handmade jack-in-the-box called Junky1, after the husband smashes Horty’s hand in a door frame, severing three fingers. (The Bluetts took him in rather as a publicity stunt during the husband’s failed run for office.) With more luck than he realizes, Horty is taken in by carnies, members of the sideshows of Pierre Monetre’s traveling circus. One of the midgets, Zena, takes him under her wing, and he travels with them for ten years, posing as Zena’s kid cousin2.

In this first portion of the book, there are clearly dark elements largely pertaining to Monetre’s antipathy to humans, but we have to wait until about halfway through the book to learn the underlying cause: on this planet, there are thousands, perhaps millions of alien lifeforms, which resemble, at least to humans’ limited perception, clear crystals. These ‘jewels’ dream, and when a single jewel dreams, it creates a duplicate of a living thing, flawed to varying degrees: a tree that is stunted, a cat with two legs, a man with no limbs or sweatglands…a midget. When two jewels mate, their combined dream pervades a living creature, and recreates it as something more than what it ought to be. Monetre has traveled the country, collecting ‘one jewel’ creatures, and planting plagues and infestations throughout, seeded by a jewel; he is constantly searching for a two-jewel human which he can control to wreak vengeance on humanity.


Well, it would have been Horty if Zena hadn’t gotten to him first.

Outdated a bit—how many carnivals are there today of the sort Sturgeon is describing? Stilted, more than slightly; the characters seem to spend most of the last third of the book explaining things to one another about the jewels, and as an editor and librarian, I lost track of the number of places I’d flag as “Show, don’t tell.” And yet I keep reading it! Because Sturgeon is arguably in the top 20% of science fiction writers—I’m not committing myself to higher than that because (and I’ll be the first to admit this) quite simply…tastes vary. But the characters are memorable, though the backstory of the jewels is a bit awkward, due to all that ‘telling’ I mentioned. Coming back to it again, I can feel the clamminess of Armand Bluett’s hands, recoil at Monetre’s venom.

As for what to read next, I’m going to assume you’ve come to Sturgeon after having read the Classic Three Authors, Heinlein, Clark and Asimov. Not necessarily liking them, mind—as I mentioned above, tastes vary—but that you’re at least familiar with them. Once you’ve worked your way through Sturgeon’s work—he wrote quite a bit—try Bradbury, and Henry Kuttner/C.L. Moore, both singly and in combination.

Oh, and the ants? The process of being altered by a pair of mated jewels creates a craving for formic acid.

1Keep an eye on that jack-in-the-box.
2Bear with Sturgeon; he does explain both how a boy can pose as a woman for ten years and why Horty was eating ants in the first place.

S.J. Watson’s Before I go to Sleep

Just a short entry, to get back in the swing of things, and sadly it’s for a book that I can only recommend with reservations. Although I love ‘unreliable narrator’ stories—Don’t Breathe a Word and An Example of the Fingerpost are among the 1% of the books I’ve read in the past three years that I bothered to buy—I couldn’t bring myself to like this one.

What would it be like to wake up, each morning, next to a complete stranger who claims to be your husband of twenty-two years? Horrifying? To be sure. Christine has a combination of forms of amnesia, which, together, means that she can neither form new memories–she can’t transfer information from her short- to her long-term memory–nor can she recall anything of her past life. The story begins in media res, and preceding events are revealed to the readers, as they are to Christine, through a diary that her psychiatrist has asked her to keep.

Re-reading the diary, and consulting with the psychiatrist, Christine begins to recall memories of her past, fragmented, confusing, frightening. Her husband’s told her she was hit by a car, which, among other things gave her a concussion which caused the amnesia. In the end, there’s a twist…but I’ll stop there.

On the plus side, I finished Before I Go to Sleep; that may sound like damning with faint praise, but I have no qualms about setting a book aside if it doesn’t pass the ‘fifty page test’.

There are more than a few minuses. Starting a book like this in media res is always difficult, since it gives astute readers clues about the underlying truth from the get-go. I started figuring out the plot twist about halfway through the book, and I’m terrible about figuring out plot twists, or why I love whodunits so much. I’ll try not to explicitly give the ending away, just say: We have only the husband’s word that he is her husband. No neighbors come to call, no friends visit. The psychiatrist has never met him, only spoken to him on the phone. Perhaps most perturbingly, there are no photographs of their early life together, before the accident that stole Christine’s ability to form memories.

Oh, and especially don’t read this if you’re fussy about medical accuracy in fiction. In fairness, Watson did work for the NHS in their health services branch, so he’s not entirely uncognizant of such things, and he does admit he combined different forms of amnesia deliberately herein; he didn’t err from ignorance.