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.

Deadly Sweet by Watson Sterling

Eddie Priest was a lawyer. Now he’s a hard drinking boat salesman and restorer, the latter chiefly of his own boat purchased sight unseen, with all the structural issues that suggests–hence its name.

Corey Darrow, auburn tressed green-eyed beauty, lightly leaps onto the Sight Unseen one day; she has been referred to him for help by Raymer Harmey, an acquaintance of Eddie’s who stuck with law enforcement. Corey’s worried about a botanist who went missing after he inquired at her office with the Water Management Department, a file that went missing from her computer shortly afterwards, sexual harassment following close on the heels of her expressing her concerns…not to mention the fact that she herself is being followed/stalked by a “darkly tanned” man in sunglasses who drives an outdated Caddy. Eddie demurs, insofar as a gun-toting tough guy of his type can do such a delicate gesture, despite the afternoon he spent skinnydipping (and other adult activities) on a picnic with Corey.

He’s sucked into the investigation willy-nilly when Corey Darrow is found drowned with a .357 Magnum locked in her fist, after her baby-blue Ford truck ran off the road into a swampy ditch. Or rather, when Corey’s twin sister, Sawney, comes sauntering into Eddie’s favorite gin mill dive to beg him to avenge her sister’s death.

Harry W. Feather, part-Indian, is working for Lofton Coltis, proudly pure Anglo and the local land baron–it is on Coltis’s land that a medical botanist (later found dead) discovered a plant (presumably still alive at the end of the book) thought only to grow in the Amazonian rain forest along with all the other phenomenally useful botanic specimens found there. Harry starts getting nervous when the police come sniffing around after he messes with Corey just a little too hard the night she died, and rushes off to the one lone body shop in town capable of repainting his Caddy where he bumped into Corey’s truck. The body shop owner, who is also the town’s only tow truck driver, puts two and two together when he realizes that the paint smudge on Harry’s car matches the paint on Corey’s car, and vice versa.

…and yes, if you’ve started guessing about the connection between Darrow and Feather and Coltis, with a few side bets on who lives and who dies at whose hand, you’re pretty much right.

Gators and swamps and long-legged beauties; big cars, handguns and gas guzzlers. Thugs and politicians1. Native Americans. Florida panthers. Steamy velvety dark nights, manly swaggering and fast car chases. This is dudelit if I ever saw it2; it’s an action-packed thriller with all the atmospheric swampiness one might expect from a book set in Fla’da. Reading it, I felt that I should have been sitting in a tent of mosquito netting imbued with full-strength DEET.

What to read next? Oddly, I first thought of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, though that’s largely due to the Florida backdrop, the protagonist’s ownership of a boat, and…well, the general dudelit air of the series, not to mention the protagonist who lives on a boat and who has an eye for the ladies.

1stop laughing. There is a difference. No, really.
2to the best of my knowledge, that’s not a real literary term, but I think it should be. Surely there’s a category of Manly Testosterone-Laden books to serve as a counterpoint to all the chicklit in which everyone has feelings but never does anything

A Conflict of Interest by Adam Mitzner

Alex Miller is the youngest partner at a prestigious New York law firm, and determined to be the firm’s rising star; needless to say, this involves a work week that, while light compared to associate partners’, is heavy by non-legal professionals. Sixty to seventy hours at work is not unusual for him.

The book’s action begins with the death of Alex’s father, from a presumed heart attack; at the funeral, a long-time family friend, Michael Ohlig, approaches Alex to discuss a legal matter, but refuses to divulge the exact nature of this request, as he believes it inappropriate to discuss professional matters at what is, after all, often considered an intensely personal event. Instead, Ohlig arrives at Alex’s office with a proposal that Alex represent him in an impending criminal case against Ohlig’s securities trading company.

Alex takes the case, but as he and Abby Sloane, the one assistant the firm spares him, work through gathering evidence and preparing for the case, Alex’s personal life becomes more closely entwined with his professional as a result of their work. Not only does Alex begin falling in love with his gorgeous clever talented assistant…but he discovers that Ohlig had been having an affair with Alex’s mother, which began prior to the death of Alex’s father. The personal entanglement between Alex and Ohlig tightens when Alex’s mother is found dead on a beach near her home in Florida; the police are inclined to think it was suicide, but there is enough evidence to suggest murder, and Ohlig is the chief suspect. Alex continues defending Ohlig to the best of his abilities, but is more than slightly relieved when that trial ends and Ohlig is arrested in the New York court and extradited to Florida to be put on trial for the murder of Alex’s mother.

Alex testifies in Ohlig’s personal trial, but does not play any further legal part in the proceedings. He believes that the close of that trial ends his involvement with Ohlig, allowing him to return to his work in New York. In the end, there’s something of a twist ending; is it a happy ending? I suppose that depends on which of the characters you sympathize with most.

Overall, this strikes me as dudelit in two parts. The first portion of the book might serve as an introduction to the life of a lawyer in New York and the stresses it places on partners’ and associates’ lives, and a description of the process leading up to a trial and the trial itself. While there are a great deal of subplots involving Alex’s personal life, each of which might serve as the basis for a chicklit novel’s worth of character development and relationship building, the majority of A Conflict of Interest revolves around legal proceedings–Ohlig’s trials and the amount of work Alex puts into his work to the detriment of his home life.

What to read next? Unfortunately, I haven’t read much in the way of legal books, so can’t make a personal recommendation, though John Grisham might be an option for readers who found this a bit slow moving. Scott Turow, particularly his Presumed Innocent, might work as well.

Kirkus Review
Seattle PI review

The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams

It’s a hot dry summer in Atlanta, and there’s a serial killer haunting the city. Chinese-American (and recovering alcoholic) private investigator Key Street is struggling to make ends meet with a range of cases1 sent her way by various local agencies, while struggling with the eternal desire to return to drink. Aaron Rauser, her close friend on the police force, pulls Street into the case on the theory that her background in the FBI2 will give her an investigative edge.

As the case drags on, with more murders claimed by “The Wishbone”3 and no plausible leads, the Atlanta police department calls in the FBI, and the head of the department insists that Street be removed from the case officially. Unofficially, from the police perspective, she remains involved in the case for a very frightening reason: the killer is targeting her. A loosened automobile wheel, two dozen roses delivered to her home4, and a predatory series of emails later, Street is frightened for her life. as it becomes increasingly obvious that not only is she being stalked, “Wishbone” is familiar with her every move in the way that only someone acquainted with her personally could be.

The fact that it took me a while to get into the book shouldn’t be construed as a criticism; tastes vary and I tend not to like dudelit or thrillers. Once I did get engaged, I finished it willingly. Racial and gender issues struck me as being handled awkwardly in the novel, however. At every other turn, the protagonist perceives women as lesbians interested in her while at the alternate turns, she oogles men. I can understand that the protagonist might not feel terribly Chinese, as she’d been adopted by a Caucasian family at age five; having never been through a similarly traumatic experience as she, I’m not sure how realistic it is to remember how her grandparents died while forgetting all her Chinese language, though I’ll take Williams’ word for it. The book felt like it was edging into hypertokenism with the second-adopted child, a gay African-American boy.

What to read next? If you like the (tough) female protagonist, try Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series or Wallace Stroby’s Cold Shot to the Heart; Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is somewhat similar but is more lighthearted than either of the aforementioned books/series. This book’s ending is constructed in such a way as to leave an opening for sequels, and indeed one is slated for publication this year.

And at the risk of spoilers: this is an interesting book for the underlying precept of “Never assume serial killers are men, even when they’re clearly preying on women and the crimes seem sexual in nature.”

1for which read largely serving subpoenas or collecting people who’ve jumped bail with the occasional leavening of odd cases, such as tracking down a cow
2awkwardly, she was asked to resign from the FBI because of her alcoholism, and hasn’t spoken to them since the separation
3so named for a comment the killer made describing the sound a victim’s neck made as it snapped
4one thing if its from a good friend…would you want roses from a serial killer stalking you? Me neither.

Cold Shot to the Heart by Wallace Stroby

This is dudelit1. Criminals, check. Dialog and action driven, check. Lots of guns and testosterone laden posturing, check. Little in the way of characterization and motivation, check. It’s dudelit.

The fact that the protagonist is a woman who’s never fired a gun shouldn’t give aficionados of this type of book reason to pause, however. She’s a pretty tough cookie.

Crissa Stone is a career criminal, skillful and clever. She never does a job in the same place or with the same crew, and never anywhere near her home. These are all things the man who mentored her taught her well2. That mentor is about to come up for parole, though, which means she needs money, and a lot of it, to grease the wheels of the arguably professional people in the court system to ensure his release. A robbery, although it does come off smoothly, doesn’t supply the expected payoff, and Crissa must find another heist and soon. Her desperation causes her to work more swiftly and less cautiously than she would ordinarily, and mistakes were made; a business acquaintance, Stimmer, sets up a holdup of a card came in Florida–the money is as promised but one of the robbers shoots one of the victims. This brings down not only the police, but the crime boss father of the man who was shot. The latter hires Eddie the Saint, newly released from jail himself, and one of the best most skilled competitors in Crissa’s field, to hunt down the person or people who offed his child.

The story alternates between Crissa’s storyline and viewpoint and that of Eddie the Saint. Readers can see the two inexorably converging on one another towards the inevitable conflict. The two meet, in a battle of wits, guns, knives, broken bottles and wrenches; this isn’t as bloody as it might be, though definitely not for the squeamish: the two main protagonists do come out of it alive, more or less, but it’s clear that Crissa’s comfortable life has been shattered.

I will confess I haven’t read enough in this genre yet to come up with a good suggestion, based on personal experience, for what to read next. There are a number of decent thrillers that someone who liked this might also enjoy, such as books by John Hart, John Connolly and Michael Koryta, but their books are more complex, requiring readers to stop and consider plot twists and complications. Richard Stark’s Parker series was suggested elsewhere, though.

1yes, I know this isn’t a real term, but I think it should be, as a counterpart to chicklit
2though as he’s in prison, these might be taken with a grain of salt, I suppose

The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond

Just a moment of inattention and your child’s abducted. How many parents have that fear?

The Year of Fog plays into that fear to the hilt. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)

One foggy morning, strolling along San Francisco’s Ocean Beach1, Abby Mason’s attention is diverted by a photogenic scenario. When she looks back, the six year old daughter of her fiance has vanished into the fog. No one knows if she’s been abducted or drowned. Abby and Jake spend days, weeks, months searching for her. The police declare the case closed. The volunteers close up shop, cease staffing the phone lines, pull down the “Have you seen this child?” signs. Not even a substantial reward, gathered at the price of mortgaging the father’s home, cashing in all his assets, produces a response and finally even Jake himself gives up hope, when one lone shoe washes ashore. He holds a memorial service and buries an empty coffin to provide himself and his family closure, as they all presume Emma to have been washed out to sea and drowned2. Abby and Jake begin to drift apart, put their wedding plans on hold.

Only Abby refuses to give up hope, despite the complete lack of leads not to mention encouragement from everyone except her sister. She feels compelled to continue; she loved Emma dearly and feels guilty that the girl vanished when in her care. She searches by day and by night, at her own expense and that of her business as a photographer. She tracks down one of the cars she remembers from that fateful day, only to find that the owner really did just happen to be parked by the beach when Emma disappeared. She undergoes hypnosis and retrieves a scrap of a hint about a van, similarly parked, and follows an increasingly nebulous trail down to the transient expatriate surfing community in Costa Rica, where she squanders her last savings in an effort to trace the child she lost. At long last, having spent her last reserves, Abby pauses on the first surfers’ beach she visited upon her arrival in Costa Rica to contemplate the end of that search…only to spot a familiar child. Can it be? Yes, it is! She has found Emma!

The two flee, hand in hand, so swiftly that Abby forgets the suitcase she’s left behind at the hotel, though fortuitously she has all her cash, her airplane ticket and her passport. They check into a hotel room and call Jake, who rushes to collect his beloved child…and promptly disappears from the picture, along with Emma. The readers effectively do not see either character again once they leave Costa Rica for the States. Abby is left, penniless and bereft of the family she dreamed of acquiring, only to find a friend in a surfer chick whom she contacted in her desperate search for Emma, who, familyless, has herself longed for a sister-friend. The book ends as the two women wait for a wave that will bring them back to shore together.

All the sources I’ve checked suggest this for fans of Jodi Picoult, so I’m guessing that the reverse is true: if you liked this book, and others like it, you might want to try Jodi Picoult. I’d add also Mary Higgins Clark to the list of possible reads, although I suspect that she’s a bit more in the chicklit thriller category.

Caribou’s Mom review
Book Addiction Review

1No, that’s not redundant: San Francisco’s on a peninsula and so has beaches on the bay side of the city and (drumroll please) on the ocean side of the city. Hence the name.
2not an entirely unreasonable assumption, as the ripcurrents off the beach in question are brutal
3according to Emma, Jake’s estranged wife (her mother) paid the surfer dude and chick to abduct Emma and smuggle her into Costa Rica

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

“Wolf” Hadda rose from his birth as the son of a woodcutter, or rather a groundskeeper for a wealthy English Lord, in the Cumbrian countryside, to business mogul married to the daughter of that wealthy landowner and back down below his original station to prisoner and parolee, reviled by the Cumbrian villagers who’d begrudged him a trifling respect as local boy made good when he was at the height of his business success. Fairy tale, perhaps, but this is the kind of story that continues beyond the traditional “and then they lived happily ever after”, in keeping with real life.

Wilfred Hadda is nicknamed “Wilf” to distinguish himself from his father Wilfred who is called “Fred”; ‘Wolf’ is a nickname given him by the local laird. The family moved to Cumbria when Wilf was in nappies to help care for Aunt Caroline, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers his father got a job working for the local laird as groundskeeper and woodcutter while his mother served as companion to the aunt. His mother died when Wilf was only six, and Wilf ran wild after that, his father being too busy to watch him as he was out of the house from early breakfast to “tea”1, leaving only the progressively more confused Aunt Caroline. Charming as a boy and more so as a man, Wilf endears himself to those around him effortlessly and without smarminess; children don’t mind getting punched in the nose, teachers let him slide by on the bare minimum of work, the laird lets Wilf marry his “princess” daughter and business ventures fall into his lap.

All his entrepreneurial empire comes crashing down around his ears one morning some years after his marriage, when the police arrive with a warrant to search his house for computer files pertaining to child pornography. Even this might have dissipated with a glimpse of the truth, but Wilf’s hot temper gets the better of him and he clocks the officer in charge not once but twice, then flees into traffic when he’s let out on bail…straight into the front of a bus. Wilf wakes up from his coma nine months later to find that all his wealth has evaporated, his wife is filing for divorce aided by Wilf’s lawyer (and later marries that same lawyer) and he has himself lost an eye, three fingers from one hand and the use of one of his legs. Not only has his life and career and love dissolved into mist, now that he’s awake, he can stand trial for the original child pornography charge.

Seven years into his prison term, he gets an avant garde prison psychologist, Alva Ozigbo, who is willing to work with him in greater depth than previous medical professionals. After several months, he breaks down and cries out to her for help in acknowledging what he has done and healing himself; her testimony gains him early release, though not soon enough to see his father or daughter again. He returns home to Cumbria, where only the young and idealistic vicar befriends him as part of his pastoral flock. Wolf sets about finding out for himself just what happened while he was in a coma, and just who doublecrossed whom–it will come as no surprise to those aware of the social dynamics in the U.K. that there’s a fair bit of class differential behind the plotting.

Overall, I liked the book well enough to devour it–all 528 pages–in an afternoon. I’m not entirely convinced by the plot, but that might be my own unfamiliarity with thriller tropes and devices rather than a real failing in the plot. The characterization is very good; Hill does enough back story, world building and delving into motivation that I can understand why the characters interact the way they do. Too bad the plot itself isn’t that well developed! I can believe someone would be just that charming, but Wolf seems curiously unaware of his own ability to influence others, despite utilizing a great deal of psychological manipulation of other characters, to be sure, including one who ought to know better.

I’m not sure I buy all the plot twists, although I appreciate Wolf would seek some sort of revenge against the people who landed him in jail, and attempt to clear his name. While a number of the secondary bad characters are a bit cardboardy or stereotyped, I appreciate the fact that Hill allows the vicar and psychologist to first judge Wolf based on the crime of which he’s accused, and assume his motivations are those of a criminal then gradually become more uncomfortable with that presumption of malice, and evil deeds/intent, and finally helping him redeem his good name despite recognizing how they’ve been used for his ends.

As an example, the vicar stumbles across a case of expensive liquor (having purchased a bottle of cheap plonk for Wolf as a Christmas present2) and a tin box full of packets of £50 notes. He mentions it to the psychiatrist–the only way either of them can conceive of Wolf acquiring this money is through some criminal action–and the psychiatrist drives up from London to pay a call on Wolf. He puts her in his bedroom3, complete with liquor and tin box, and returns downstairs to make tea/lay out a plate of cookies, knowing the first thing she’ll do is look for the suspicious items which the vicar has mentioned…and he’s already tucked a note into the tin box which reads “Your tea’s getting cold.” for her to find as soon as she opens it. The two converge on Wolf’s cottage, and he explains the thoroughly mundane origins of the money: in palmier days of yore, he sent his dad £1000 per month for a number of years, which his father promptly withdrew from the bank in cash and stuffed into that old tin box. That money was not considered part of Wolf’s estate when he was imprisoned, and his creditors were unable to lay hands on it as they didn’t know it existed (as indeed it didn’t belong to him at the time!)

For once, coming up with a suggestion of what authors to read next is easier than describing the book itself: John Hart, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, and Michael Koryta’s books; though the two I read had a supernatural plot twist, the overall tone seems similar to me. While the blurb on the cover describes the protagonist’s life as a fairy tale, I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it thus, rather that it has many of the tropes of fairy tales. Read it for the characters, and the setting; just don’t think too hard about the plotting.

1early supper, for Americans
2Wolf appears to be making do on his pension, being unemployable as both a convict and a cripple
3nothing unprofessional going on; Wolf’s planning to sleep in another room