The Poison Tree by Erin Kelley

Through the framing story, the readers know from the beginning of The Poison Tree that Something Horrid has Happened to the narrator–she’s picking her husband up from his release from prison; he’s spent ten years in jail for something he didn’t do, or anyway isn’t wholly responsible for. For the weeks leading up to Rex’s release, Karen’s had hangup phantom harassment calls…not to mention the stranger in sunglasses parked outside her cottage at all hours of the night or day. To cap things off, there’s an obscure secret about Alice’s birth; Karen is worried that her daughter may be taken from her custody. None of this is mentioned to Rex, however. Karen and Alice struggle to fit Rex back into a life and a cottage that hasn’t included him physically since before Alice’s birth, nor his life their presence.

The phone calls and the anonymous observer circle closer, and through flashbacks, we the readers begin discovering what Karen’s past history is. In her senior year of college in London, Karen is considering her options. Academically bright, she’s got the opportunity to move farther up and away from her family’s middle-class with pretensions background; her linguistics ability has gotten her a spot in a graduate program in Switzerland. In the summer between her graduation and her continuation on to graduate school, her housemates decide, as a group, to go work on the estate of one of their relatives, leaving Karen as de facto house sitter while they’re gone. Karen, at a loose end, is in search of something to both keep her occupied and to earn some money towards her graduate school expenses, falls in with another student, Biba Capel, who is working towards becoming an actress and needs to learn German pronunciation for a role intended for her student portfolio.

Biba, and her brother Rex, suck the innocent and naive Karen into the maelstrom of their emotionally, familial and financially complex life with an almost frighteningly rapid pace. They’re living in a house the size of which Karen cannot imagine–a multi-story, single family dwelling, complete with servants’ quarters in the basement, of a size which would be divided up into multiple apartments for the people that Karen has associated with thus far. Drugs abound. Liquor flows freely. Relationships shift like quicksand and are rarely formalized with so much as an engagement. All this is intoxicating (aside from the chemical effects of what they may be ingesting) to the ignorant Karen, who has until now lived a staid and more than slightly repressed life in the suburbs with her lower-middle-class parents. She is enthralled by and fascinated with her new BFF, Biba, and with Rex, and with all their friends…until the father and stepmother return to Rex and Biba’s lives. Things spiral downward from there until Rex, Karen and Biba are involved in not one but two deaths relating to their activities and the house in which they’ve been living.

While it’s a reasonably well-written book, there are a few plot holes that bothered me. While it’s true that the police and courts give a considerable amount of credence to a heartfelt confession from someone who’s backed up by corroborating witnesses AND whose fingerprints are on the gun used in the murder, I don’t recall much investigation into the crime on the part of the law. While I acknowledge that’s not the point of the book–it’s a relationship book rather than a police procedural–I’m left with a few questions. Why did the father not do anything with the house he owned in London? I can see leaving it vacant for a short time, but to be so oblivious to the condition of a valuable property, simply by virtue of its location a urban area with sky high property values, that you do not know there are squatters on the property for months and even years? Nope, don’t believe it. Would someone overlook a brownstone in the Upper East Side? A house in Edgeware? Didn’t think you’d believe it either!

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the ending, but am reluctant to go into why for fear of giving away spoilers; all I’ll say is that this is either bad plotting or one heck of a twist: who’s the naif and who the manipulative ****? Self-absorbed to the point of blowing off one’s friends and relatives? Consciously pushing others’ buttons to get what one wants? Given it’s told from Karen’s perspective, she’s going to come off sympathetic, but having slept on it, I’m not so sure. Biba and Karen could fit either role. Not bad for a debut novel, but I’ll wait for the author’s subsequent novels before declaring this an author worth watching. I’ve read rather a lot of “brilliant first novels” in the past eighteen months and before to think otherwise.

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind by Ann Ross

This book came suggested to me as part of an email discussion group’s response to a request for interesting stories about outspoken women of mature years…old broads was one term used during the discussion, though that was not universally the agreed upon term. I’m not committing myself to which term is best for determined women of a certain age, but the book was a fun diversion for the afternoon.

Set in western North Carolina, this is the first of a series about “Miss Julia”. In this first book, Miss Julia was recently widowed when her husband, Wesley Lloyd, keeled over from a heart attack, draped over the steering wheel of his brand spang new Buick in the driveway. After forty-four years of being a dutifully subordinate wife and help-meet to one of the pillars of the local Presbyterian church, Miss Julia is beginning to enjoy having her husband’s money without having to put up with her husband, who was, to put it kindly, a condescending “Papa knows best” type…when a spanner gets lobbed into her works. Her husband’s mistress of long standing, one Hazel Marie Puckett, leaves Wesley Lloyd Junior—the bastard child of the dead husband—on Miss Julia’s doorstep and heads off for beautician school.

Needless to say Miss Julia is both gobsmacked and furious: who wouldn’t be after finding out there was a mistress that everyone else knew about but never bothered to mention it to the wife? The rest of the book is spent approximately equally fending off her pastor, who was under the impression that his church was to inherit her husband’s estate, and sorting out the mistress’ somewhat complex family entanglements—largely her smarmy televangelist uncle and greasily thuggish cousins’ impression that she was to inherit Wesley Lloyd’s estate. Televangelist Uncle kidnaps Wesley Lloyd Jr in order to convince Hazel Marie to hand over her presumed inheritance, prompting a rescue attempt by Miss Julia, who’s never driven on the freeway before, Hazel Marie, who’s just been worked over thoroughly by Thuggish Cousins, and Julia’s black maid, Lillian. With the assistance of a cadre of truckers, and a couple of hundred dollar bills, they make it home with Wesley Lloyd Jr….only to find that Wesley Lloyd Sr. left a will superseding the one in the lawyer’s office leaving everything to Hazel Marie and Wesley Lloyd Jr.

Fortunately, the retired lawyer (and family friend) who wrote will #1 straightens out not only the women’s financial status relative to one another but ultimately Miss Julia’s entanglements with the pastor.

Was it great literature? No, not by a long shot. Could it be an enjoyable read? Probably, but don’t stop to think too carefully about some of the underlying plot assumptions. How many of us would be willing to not only live with the woman with whom your husband committed adultery, but help to raise their child? In the context of the book, it actually works: the child’s got a stable home with loving mama and “grand”mama and doting cook, and the two women can have a life of their own, absent any of the men in their lives, who, quite frankly, came up a little short once all’s said and done. If there’s such a thing as “cozy Southern Gothic”, this is it; Faulkner’s in no danger, but these might make an amusing afternoon’s diversion.

Tony Strong’s The Poison Tree

Just as a warning: this book has extensive sexual content of the sort likely to discomfit all but the most broadminded readers. (Just as a test: did the movie The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover make you squeamish? Then don’t read this book. Trust me.) Hopefully, I’ll be able to review it in a no more than PG-13 way, although this will involve leaving a number of possibly relevant details out.

The book begins as our protagonist, Terry Williams, returns to Oxford in order to complete her degree after her (heterosexual) marriage has failed and her (homosexual) relationship with photographer Mo has not culminated in anything worth continuing. She is offered a part time lecturer’s position to support herself while finishing her thesis. Unwittingly, she purchases a house in which a gruesome murder recently took place–one of the tenants, an Oxford student–was murdered recently in a particularly unpleasant way. She begins by merely inquiring about the event but is sucked into her own investigation of the crime, despite the fact that the police have investigated the crime already and closed the case due to a combination of the only plausible suspects having cast iron alibis and Oxford pressuring them to hush things up.

The likeliest suspect to our protagonist is the one whom the police had already cleared of any blame as a result of a cast iron alibi discovered prior to Oxford hushing everything up. She persists in pursuing this train of inquiry to the point of obsession despite all the friends, police and forensic experts whom she contacts attempting to convince her that she is mistaken. As she delves deeper into the case, she uncovers ever more uncomfortable sexual practices conducted by her prime suspect and his friends, which serve largely to muddy her investigative waters. As the book continues, it becomes ever clearer that there is a sexual predator stalking the homosexuals, both real and perceived, in the Oxford academic community–one who is intimately acquainted with Terry and is out to silence her. As the mystery investigation sucks her in, Terry realizes that her own academic dreams are coming to naught as her students evaporate away in search of an easier seminar, such as Romantic Poetry. This culminates in finding out that the “chair” (academic position) she had been angling for and the funding attached have been awarded to another school within the university…and with it, any hopes of completing her own degree and gaining a teaching position.

Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. Is Terry convinced her neighbor done it because she has reasonable evidence of his guilt or because he’s an unpleasantly slimy ladies’ man who puts the moves on her because he relishes the challenge of ‘converting’ a lesbian to heterosexuality…and she just wants him to be guilty because she dislikes him so? Is the police officer in charge of the case lying to Terry in order to get into her pants, or is he telling the truth about both the investigation and his own motives? I checked this book out ‘by mistake’–I was looking for the Erin Kelly book of the same title–but I read it anyway, and am simultaneously glad I did and desperately wishing there were some way to disinfect my mind to remove what I have read. The short version? this book is NC-17 to say the least–if sex in peculiar permutations bothers you, don’t read this book. The slightly more analytical version: it’s either a brilliant skewering of perceptions of gender roles and societal treatment of victims of sexual crimes combined with a sendup of academic infighting OR a prurient attempt at titillating an unsuspecting audience with lurid descriptions of sexual crimes suitable only for the kind of gents’ magazines that get sold wrapped in plain brown wrappers. Your choice.

Overall, I’d say that Father Knox would be proud of this suspense novel: it breaks all the tenets of the ‘cozy’ mystery, starting with an unreliable narrator and ending with the unlikeable characters all being eliminated in favor of the most helplessly harmless unlikely suspect.

Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones

Frankly, this book deserves the attention that The Help‘s been getting. I heard the NPR story, and thought it interesting, but was reminded by a post to the Fiction-L email group about good books of 2011.

Normally I do try to avoid spoilers for recent books1 but the first sentence of Silver Sparrow gives away the reveal: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” It’s a complex book with a simple plot: the two daughters of the same man by different mothers grow up in Atlanta. Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon is the “public”1 daughter and Dana Lynn Yarboro the “secret” daughter of James Witherspoon. Dana and her mother know about James’ other official family, but Chaurisse and her mother are oblivious to the existence of this alternate family, even despite Dana’s befriending Chaurisse in high school. Growing up is always hard, and made more so by the knowledge of one’s family secret (or the discovering it, in Chaurisse’s case).

Overall, my assessment is “Thank deity: I’ve finally found a work of recent fiction that I not only like but can wholeheartedly recommend to readers.” The structure’s good–one half is told in first person narrative by Dana and the other similarly by Chaurisse–which results in the readers getting both sides of the story; it would have been too easily conventional to tell just one or the other. The denouement, Dana and her mother confronting Chaurisse and her mother in the Pink Fox, feels appropriately placed at the end of the book, although like many readers I wonder how they didn’t find out sooner. I just hope that Jones’ subsequent books get a better editor. I’ll overlook scrambled sentences in an advance readers’ copy, on the assumption that it’s not had the Final Official Edit. There’s no excuse for a published book to have so many misplaced words…and no, they’re not regional English. They’re errors.

I’ll confess that I was slightly startled by the term “Negro” appearing several times in the book–I wouldn’t have dared use the term in the ‘eighties, when the majority of the book was set–but I’ll defer to the author in this case. I’m not from Atlanta and I’m not the race of the character using the term, while the author is both. I’m clearly missing some cultural background aspect that would change the context.

1it’s not exactly a case of ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate; the father’s married to both mothers, hence the charge of bigamy. It’s more that Chaurisse is the daughter everyone knows about outside the family.

Keith Maillard’s first novel, Two Strand River

What a fascinating book! It does not read like either a 35 year old book or a first novel, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay anything. It’s about crossgendered romance, but that doesn’t do it justice.

Leslie is a boyish children’s librarian of the female gender, who used to be an Olympic class swimmer but as she matured lost that edge of speed and is now not sure what she wants to do with the skill lacking the talent. Alan is a (male) hairdresser who is…effeminate isn’t quite the right description as that’s always struck me as being derogatory. Somewhere between transgendered and transvestite, perhaps; he’s really not sure himself. Throw an aging hippie mother figure, several grumpy Indian Curmudgeons, a lot of rain and several disintegrating relationships into the mix, and you get a lot of people trying to figure out what they want to do with themselves.

Both Alan and Leslie are feeling their way through a society that is binary–man/woman, gay/straight–and does not allow for “none of the above” people such as they. Throughout the book, these two circle closer and closer never quite meeting. In the end, they do find one another; the book ends with the somewhat enigmatic “The girl was a boy. The boy was a girl. Alan and Leslie saw each other.” In the end, it’s not clear which character was which gender, but does that really matter? They found each other, and if that’s not a happy ending I don’t know what is.

Overall, I’m not sure what else to add–the fact that the book’s set in Vancouver might be helpful to some readers. Certainly it’s interesting to me as I grew up not too far south of Vancouver, though on the U.S. side of the border, and so have a passing familiarity with the climate and the cousins to the First Nations tribes that Maillard describes. Magical realism? Voyage of discovery? Acceptance of oneself and transcending one’s own expectations and prejudices?

Francesca Lia Block’s “Dangerous Angels”

Warning: if you read the stories in Dangerous Angels, you will catch Teh Geh. You will also become infected with self-esteem, and life-threatening levels of acceptance of interracial relationships and unmarried parenthood, and become addicted to Oki Dogs. You will be forbidden to live in small towns in Wisconsin, and be required to carry a passport whenever you travel more than 50 miles from the California coastline.

Not really. Books have a great deal of power, but so far as I know they don’t cause homosexuality. Give people the nerve to admit that they’re gay, maybe, but they can’t make you what you’re not, whether a gender orientation or a racist belief. For the sake of brevity, I’m only going to cover the first and fifth of the five ‘books’1 in Dangerous Angels, Weetzie Bat and Baby Be-bop2. And those are the two I like best.

In Weetzie Bat, the eponymous heroine is finishing high school and trying to find her place in the world; fortunately, in L.A. it’s a bit easier to be slinkster cool–hair in a mohawk, pink fringed miniskirts, cowboy boots and strawberry lipgloss–and still be accepted. She meets the person who’s to be her BFF, Dirk, and they run wild, “Duck” hunting together for their as yet unmet Significant Others. Weetzie’s own parents are divorced, and don’t seem to do a whole lot of parenting of Weetzie; Dirk’s grandmother, Fifi, having raised Dirk, takes Weetzie under her other wing as Weetzie and Dirk make bad choices in the people they date. Fifi’s lesson to the two is ‘value yourself’; she says of her canaries “They are in love. But even before they were in love, they knew they were going to be happy and in love someday. They trusted. They have always loved themselves. They would never do anything to hurt themselves.” Fifi then gives Weetzie the family heirloom genie lamp, which provides the obligatory three wishes–in this case, “a Duck for Dirk, a Secret Agent Lover Man for me, and a house for us to live in happily ever after.”

The wishes come true, and they do live happily ever after for the most part. And, of course (at least for those of us who read “The Monkey’s Paw”), there are bobbles. The house comes with a tear-jerker of a catch, there are witches and lovers’ quarrels, prejudice against unmarried parents/gay partnership/interracial relationships, a child with three ‘fathers’ and the ever-present specter of homosexuality then and now, AIDS.

In many ways, Weezie Bat can stand alone, as with other books that are now the first in a series but weren’t necessarily meant/intended to be thus when written. I’d say it’s as much a paean to the joys of hipster youth in L.A. as a story of acceptance of oneself and the way one is meant to be; Block’s writing style reads like a 75 page free verse poem about being young and artistic and in search of yourself in L.A., written by someone who’s stayed up all night at a rave and then had some pot brownies. The first time I read it, I was put off–what’s an Oki Dog, for pete’s sake?–but waded through it again (and ran a few terms through Google3) and came to appreciate it a little more. This is the sort of book that you’re either going to love or hate. Thankfully, it’s such a short book that it’s not that much of a struggle to finish if you don’t. It touches on a lot of things, but largely the lesson I’d take away from this is “Be assured in yourself–you are worthy of love, and love is worthy of having no matter the color of the participants’ skin or the gender of the people.”

Baby Be-bop is a prequel of sorts to Weetzie Bat. The sixteen year old Dirk has realized that he’s gay as a young teenager–he’s known for some years before the book opens, but is struggling with how to ‘come out’ to his beloved grandmother, Fifi, in the face of a community that uses “faggot” as an unimaginably crushing insult4 and how to gain acceptance from those around him. As he thinks about a gay couple his grandmother knows:

“They talked in voices as pale and soft as the shirts they wore and they moved as gracefully as Fifi did. Their eyes were startled and sad. They had been hurt because of who they were. Dirk didn’t want to be hurt that way. He wanted to be strong and to love someone who was strong; he wanted to meet any gaze, to laugh under the brightest sunlight and never hide.”

Not surprisingly, and as with far too many gay youth even today, the strain of being what he is in a culture set against such things drives him to the brink of suicide. As with Weetzie Bat, I’d say the main message of this book also was: Start by accepting and loving yourself because you’re worth loving, and don’t give up looking for the One Person For You. Oh, and you may be surprised by your relatives. Talk to them and learn their stories as your family and its history are important.

1published separately originally, but they’re little more than novellas
2this is the one that caused all the stink over in Wisconsin
3two hot dogs, pastrami, chili all wrapped up in a flour tortilla and burritoized? I’m getting heartburn just thinking about that. Urp.
4indeed, it still is. Alas.

Post-apocalyptic feminism #2: Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake

The brief synopsis: in a now sparsely populated Earth, after a devastating nuclear war, a woman called Snake travels the desert during her “proving year” as a healer, the future’s equivalent of a doctor. This future world is an odd mix of advanced techniques and reversion to what are, today, outdated techniques–Snake uses a genetically modified rattlesnake and cobra to manufacture medicines in lieu of venom, but the primary mode of transport is horseback. The plot centers on the fact that healers in this future Earth use an alien snake, called a “dreamsnake”, in addition to the genetically modified Terrestrial snakes, the venom of which produces effects akin to opiates in humans, and is therefore used to sedate patients who are in pain or dying. Unfortunately, the healers have not figured out how to breed this alien species naturally and therefore the dreamsnakes are few enough that the number of healers is perforce limited. As the book begins, the central character, Snake, has the ill luck to lose her dreamsnake; she encounters a desert family group which fears snakes to the point that they kill hers when she leaves it to keep their ill child company through the night. The rest of the story concerns her travels in a quest to find another dreamsnake.

Thirty odd years later, I’ll confess that the writing seems a bit stilted to me, although I don’t think that should necessarily be considered a flaw in the book; it could be my own tastes have changed in the interim, and the book’s still perfect for an adolescent audience. Certainly writing styles have changed! I will say, though that the ending always seemed a bit tacked on. Discovering how the dreamsnakes bred1 was important, as that was the point of the novel, but making this discovery in a commune of junkies2 headed by an albino afflicted with gigantism who bears a grudge against healers seems, oh, a trifle soapoperaish?

Before I go further in my blog post, here’s a link to a review of Dreamsnake; Whyte has got a few very good points, though his plot description should be taken about as seriously as most of mine, and here to the Wikipedia article on the novel. He’s right that a nuclear war decimating the world isn’t as plausible an apocalypse as it was at the time that the books was written. I’ve always assumed, though, that what made the book worth reading today, aside from being an interesting story, is that it presents a subtle picture of a world in which sexism has been eliminated to the extent that we never know the gender of one of the characters…and it doesn’t matter3. Men and women fill roles in this society without regard to gender; both genders are group leaders, both are physicians, both are caretakers of children. We have come a long way since 1978 in this regard, true: women can now get their own credit cards and home mortgages without the banker asking kindly “May I have your husband’s signature?” Have we conquered sexism? not quite. Here’s an example: You go to an appointment with a doctor whom you’ve never met; a man and woman of approximately the same age, both wearing white coats and both with stethoscopes around their neck, come into the examination room. Which is the doctor and which the nurse? Yes, it’s an obvious example, given the context of this book review…how many people caught themselves4?

Sexuality, important though not pivotal to the book, is considerably relaxed from current standards as well; while this future Earth is by no means a homogenous single society, group marriages exist, homosexuality and bisexuality are accepted and contraception is a matter of biological control far more reliable than anything modern medicine can offer. Snake may sleep with whomever she chooses, but it strikes me that the relationships, whether familial or friendship, are more important to the plot of the book than who has sex with whom consensually. (Non-consensual sex and sex with minors is taboo then as well as now, just for the record.)

All standard disclaimers apply; this is largely my opinions.

1unlike terrestrial reptiles, the dreamsnakes breed in trios and need a chilling cold in order to trigger maturity
2addicted to dreamsnake venom
3I’m sheepish that, after thirty years, it had to be pointed out to me…
4there are a lot of gender neutral responses: “I can’t tell until I read their nametags.” or “The one who steps forward, holds zir hand out and says ‘Hi, I’m Doctor SoandSo.'”