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.

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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.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce

Warning: spoiler down at the bottom. The perhaps-necessary prefatory explanation: the book was written in 1958 and it’s set in England. Greater London, in the direction of Cambridge and Fen Country (but then the southeastern third of England is Greater London, and was even then.)

For my own records as much as telling anyone else about the plot: Tom is being sent away from home for some weeks, while his brother gets over measles. The two boys had been looking forward to spending a delightful summer together building a tree house in the old apple tree in the bottom of their admittedly small town garden. Now Tom is stuck moping around his aunt and uncle’s completely gardenless city flat, quarantined until he’s gotten through the incubation period for measles himself.

Bored out of his skull after only a few days of confinement indoors, he lies awake, insomniac, night after night, until the fateful night when the grandfather clock downstairs strikes thirteen. He creeps downstairs to find out what’s up, and opens the door that leads out into the yard so the moonlight will fall on the clock face so he can read it…

…but outside he sees not the manky little scrap of sickly grass and paved yard, with dustbins, which his aunt and uncle have told him is there, but rather a huge garden. The sort found surrounding manor houses of a century long gone, even at the time the book was written. Rows of columnar yew trees divide the kitchen gardens from the flower walk from the croquet court from the greenhouse conservatory; this much he can see from his cursory stroll through the garden that moonlit midnight.

Over the next few days, or rather nights, he explores the garden further. There are children living here, three boys all older than he, and a forlorn girl cousin his age, always tagging along behind the boys, who prefer not to play with her for reasons other than ‘she’s a girl’ and ‘she’s younger than we are’.

His visit is scheduled to end in a couple of weeks, when his brother’s recovered from the measles and it’s clear that Tom himself isn’t going to come down with them, but Tom begs to remain. Nonplussed, his parents and aunt and uncle agree; he’s told only Peter of what’s going on, so only the two brothers understand why Tom wishes to remain. Over the course of the next few weeks, Tom and Hatty become close friends, though he is only a ghost to her, only nebulously present; walking through doors just gives him a funny feeling in his tum and he’s forced to instruct Hatty from the sidelines on how to make a toy bow because he can’t hold the knife to cut the branch or tie the string.

Though for Tom, the visits are nightly, on Hatty’s end they’re sporadic; Tom only comes every few weeks or months. Over the course of the book, we see Hatty growing up, and on Tom’s last visit, it’s clear that she’s on the verge of marrying the young man who’s been courting her.

‘Invisible friend’, dreams, or actual visits? We’ll never know.

A bit dated now–the book was written in 1958–so modern kids might be left wondering about things like the protagonist being sent away because his brother has measles. Otherwise it’s a fun book for dreamy readers. Astute readers will figure out the connection between the girl in the garden and Tom’s modern-day life, but it’s fun nevertheless. If you liked books like Magic Elizabeth or Octagon Magic, this is probably for you, especially if you’re a dreamy boy who wants to read books about boys.

(The spoiler? “Hatty”, the girl Tom keeps meeting in the garden, turns out to be the child version of the grumpy cantankerous old landlady, out of whose presence he’s been kept for the entire visit (even after he was out of quarantine).

Long Lankin by Lindsay Barraclough

Hello, children. All tucked in for the night? I’ve a lovely bedtime story for you. Too bad the storms have taken out the power lines and brought down the phone lines, but then I find that the flicker of a single candle’s light is so much more conducive to letting one’s imagination roam free.

What’s that you say? Someone’s coming up the stairs? Nonsense. It’s just the wind blowing across the marshes. This house always creaks, in calm and in storm…let me lock the door, just to make you more comfortable. Here, let me tuck up your comforter a bit higher, for protection against the phantoms of the night…er, drafts.

All set? Then let me begin. Barraclough’s novel Long Lankin is based on a ballad by the same name, in which a departing husband warns his wife to beware Long Lankin, who lives in the (depending on which version you’re singing) hay, moss, moors or marsh, and to fasten the doors and windows firmly against Lankin while the husband’s away…of course Lankin gets in anyway, or we wouldn’t have much of a ballad or story. He kills the baby, with the assistance of the erstwhile nurse. Lankin is hung, the nurse burned. There’s some question in regards the original ballad as to whether Lankin’s a living human being, or something more supernatural. Barraclough chooses option B.

Barraclough follows this basic trope and elaborates on it, in the process channeling every single nocturnal phantasm of my childhood; I challenge anyone to read this book on a dark and stormy night while alone in a house apart from any other human dwelling. Heck, I had trouble reading it myself in broad daylight—but then it’s hard to see the text when you’re hiding behind the sofa from the book.

The year is 1958, and Cora and her younger sister Mimi have been sent to live with their (great)Aunt Ida, in a small village caught between the tidal marshes and the deserted moors. (Yep. Exactly what you’re thinking.) Ida clearly does not want them, though she doesn’t specify why; the children simply assume it’s because she’s a crotchety, eccentric old lady who prefers to live alone. Ida insists on a number of peculiar restrictions: keep all the doors locked and the windows nailed shut, don’t go down to the near-derelict old church, don’t go near the creek or the tidal flats and so on. The children do their best, but soon rebel against remaining in the musty stuffy overheated house.

Needless to say, the kids disobey her the first chance they get, as who wouldn’t given the lack of explanations. Needless to say, the kids trigger the supernatural events of the book thereby. We progress from Mimi restarting wetting the bed because she’s too afraid to pass the creepy portrait hanging over the bathroom door to sightings of figures from nightmare associated with the derelict church and barred lychgate…to Lankin himself pursuing the four children and Aunt Ida through a long-forgotten crypt. We do find out more about who Lankin and the other ghosts are and their connection to the children narrating the story through the children’s research…but I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. Just remember to read this during the bright daylight.

The story is told in first person narrative, shifting primarily between Cora and Roger, with occasional forays into Ida’s perspective, and those of the historical figures. It might help if readers are familiar with the Long Lankin ballad, and American readers with English1 history of the past four hundred years, but not obligatory.

Steeleye Span’s version of the ballad, reasonably accurate.
Things I’ve learned from British folksongs, for those of us who can stand a joke.

1Hush now. That’s where the story takes place.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

A murder mystery told from the perspective of the murderer, a historical melodrama that only touches on the history it passes, a horror story which follows the horrifying agent. What to call this? A bit of each.

Grenouille is born in the fish market of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, with a uniquely detailed sense of smell…but no odor of his own. Raised an orphan, little is done for the child other than ensure he ingest enough to keep body and soul together; even as a child, there is something about Grenouille that causes both adults and other children to recoil from this gargoyle-like creature. Although he was only a child when he began to realize that his gift of smell was highly unusual, it is not until he has been apprenticed to a tanner for some years that he realizes that there is a profession which requires just such a keen sense of smell: perfumer. Now a young man, he presents himself to one of the premier perfumers in Paris at the time, M. Baldacci, and despite having no letters or presentation skills, earns himself a place with the man by creating, in mere moments, an exact duplicate of Amor et Psyche, the best-selling perfume of Baldacci’s chief competitor, Pelissier.

Through this and subsequent positions, not to mention a seven-year retreat to a cave in the Auvergne, Grenouille is working toward his ultimate goals: a human scent for himself, so that he may blend in with the humanity around him, but perhaps more importantly, the ultimate scent of love, derived from certain beautiful girl children, caught on the cusp of transformation into young women. The method by which he must extract the essences of Young Woman, unfortunately, proves final for the subjects in the short term, andequally terminal for Grenouille himself in the long run, …and for the people with whom Grenouille becomes engaged during his life. There are two trails of death which follow him: the one he causes in the course of collecting the various notes which will make up his Ultimate Scent of Love, and the subsidiary supports in his life…he does not cause the deaths of people with whom he has become close, but the majority of them die of apparently natural causes, unconnected with Grenouille himself. None of this touches Grenouille, any more than cutting a rose or a sprig of lavender would an ordinary human. And that’s what makes the book so creepy, so engaging.

It’s a creepy fairy tale of the life of a serial killer; Grenouille is not so much amoral, in the sense of deliberately choosing what he suspects is an evil path, but being so uncomprehending of human society that he cannot understand why the ‘scent normal’ majority are so upset about how he collects the components of his ‘Eau de Femininity’. The descriptions of what he’s smelling, and the skills and techniques of the perfumer’s art, are beautifully detailed enough that I was drawn in. Not a book for the squeamish, however. No, really. If the Donner Party’s nightmare upsets you…do NOT read Perfume

What to read next? Oo. If it’s the period language, try Edgar Allan Poe, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Poe’s got the overheated language that sucks you in and repels at the same time, although Suskind is a modern author. Incidentally, there has been a movie made of Perfume; while it’s an interesting movie—it’s hard to pan a movie which includes (please don’t laugh) Dustin Hoffman playing Baldacci and Alan Rickman playing a French nobleman—as is the way of the film industry, it strips out all the ornate language of scent which Suskind includes in the book.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Brat is on her own; she cannot remember her parents, and no one cares for her. She sleeps in the village dung heap as it’s by far the warmest option, and not so very much worse smelling than the rest of the village. The village midwife takes her in as a skivvy, to sweep and damp and tamp the cottage floor, scatter fleabane about to keep, yes, fleas at bay, and run the occasional errand. Though the cottage floor is not near so warm and soft as the dung heap, being provided food, however inadequate, gives Brat the time and energy to notice the world around her, and wonder if she might dream of becoming more than a beggar brat.

As Brat begins to settle in, she takes note of the midwife’s practices, the herbs to bring on milk, stop or intensify contractions, the charms to ease a woman’s labor and the general techniques Jane Sharp uses. Daring even to give herself a name, Alyce, she begins to think she’s earned a place in the village; a comb and a bath, an intact dress and nearly enough to eat, and she’s on her way. Not only does she befriend a cat, but arranges a position for a little boy of six, at first only called Dung but later Edward for the king, at the local manor house. Gaining confidence from aiding the local cowherd’s boy to deliver his favorite cow of her twin calves, Alyce, as we now must call her, dares help a local woman give birth after the midwife leave to deliver a likelier baby. She succeeds here—the baby is named Alyce Little—but flees aghast when she subsequently takes it upon herself to deliver another woman, but fails to deliver a difficult pregnancy.

She takes refuge in a nearby tavern-inn, using the work habits she’s learned with the midwife to earn her keep and then some. Even the local absent-minded scholar, staying at the inn for a quiet place to study, notes her keen wit and begins “teaching the cat to read”; needless to say, Alyce eavesdrops and learns her own letters easily enough. After Alyce helps a guest at the inn, thought to have a stomach worm, deliver a baby, Jane Sharp tracks her down. While she does not force the girl to come back, she makes it quite clear through an indirect conversation with the absent-minded scholar that she does not consider Alyce to be the incompetent dung-beetle the girl herself thought she was, but rather a girl who foolishly gave up after her first setback—determination is the key. Alyce comes back; at first Jane seems to send her away, but Alyce returns, saying “It is I, your apprentice. I have come back. And if you do not let me in, I will try again and again. I can do what you tell me and take what you give me, and I know how to try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. I will not go away.”

Karen Cushman’s written several books about girls in Medieval England: Catherine, called Birdy, Matilda Bone, and others. The language and setting is such that squeamish parents might want to reserve Cushman’s books for older kids, and indeed they might be good for teenaged reluctant readers, or those who think that history is dull lists of names and dates as dry as the desert. If you’re a curious tween with parents who understand the value of challenging reading, however, don’t let that previous statement stop you; all Cushman’s books are rattling good fun, about strong-willed girls, or those who learn to value themselves and the merits of determination and education. If you’ve read all these books, and are looking for something to read next, try Jane Yolen’s historical novels, or E.L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver…or indeed any of Konigsberg’s other books. They’re not all historical, but again interesting stories about girls who learn to be bold and sure of themselves.

The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

Combining philosophy with travelogue with phantasmagorical playing cards? Doesn’t always work, but Gaarder does a pretty good job! I’ll try to describe the book fairly without giving too much away about the plot twists.

The framing story is narrated by a boy named Hans Thomas; his mother, Anita, took off eight years prior to ‘find herself’ and hasn’t been back since. One day, an aunt sent them a fashion magazine in which Anita appeared as a fashion model, and as the novel begins, Hans Thomas and his father have set off from their home on Hisoy Island off the coast of Norway on a road trip down through Europe to Greece, where Anita’s most recent photoshoot was located. In Switzerland, we begin to pick up the story-within-a-story when the two are sent on a detour by a mysterious midget with ice-cold hands to a minuscule town in the Alps called Dorf; there, Hans Thomas befriends an old baker who gives the lonely boy four sticky buns, admonishing him to eat the biggest one only when he is alone.

Inside the sticky bun is a minuscule book1, readable only with the magnifying glass given Hans Thomas by the mysterious midget. At first deciphering the minute writing is only an amusing way to pass the time while his father drives, and pontificates, and drives some more2, but as he reads, Hans Thomas realizes that this story, and therefore the baker, may be connected to him. It’s told by the baker, Ludwig, now an old man, about how he came to be the baker in such an isolated town far from his own home: as a young man, he came to rest there after World War II, and was invited to take over the shop of the baker at the time, Albert. The villagers are wary of this seemingly cracked old man, but Albert shows Ludwig enough to convince him of the truth of his story.

I’ll stop there, not least because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but also because to do a proper job of describing the plot of that convoluted ‘sticky bun’ book would take several blog entries of the length I’ve been making. Just a note, though, as it took me a couple of readings to straighten this plot point out: the ‘sticky bun’ book is actually four stories nested one within the other like a matrioshka doll. Ludwig is the baker who spoke to Our Narrator; he was the German soldier in World War II. Albert is the baker from whom Ludwig took over the shop; he was the youngest child of an alcoholic. Hans is the baker from whom Albert took over; he’s the second sailor to be shipwrecked on the mysterious island in the Atlantic from which the midget came. Frode is the original shipwrecked sailor, and the one who dreamed up the playing-card beings. Confused yet? Don’t worry; just enjoy the book. Really.

Through the vagaries of international publishing, especially where the literature requires translating, this was written (and published in Norway) a year before Gaarder wrote Sophie’s World, but Sophie’s World, being an international bestseller, was published before The Solitaire Mystery in the United States. At this point, I’d suggest readers in any country read them in publication order. One is not the sequel to the other, nor is there any structural connection between the two; it’s more that The Solitaire Mystery is the simpler story. In a manner of speaking.

1presumably itself also crumby and more than slightly sticky; I’ve always wondered how the baker got the book in there without harming the book in any way.
2Don’t worry: Hans Thomas does get his nose out of the book long enough to not only engage with his father frequently but also notice some of the glories they’re passing in their trek