Review: The Poisoned House by Michael Ford

Book: The Poisoned House
Author: Michael Ford
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release date: August 1, 2011
Source: ARC for review from NetGalley

Summary: (from Goodreads) Life can be cruel for a servant girl in 1850s London. Fifteen-year-old Abi is a scullery maid in Greave Hall, an elegant but troubled household. The widowed master of the house is slowly slipping into madness, and the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs.Cotton, punishes Abi without mercy. But there’s something else going on in Greave Hall, too. An otherworldly presence is making itself known, and a deadly secret will reveal itselfâ??-a secret that will shatter everything Abi knows.

First impressions: I adore it when stories start with outside information. In this case, the book opens with a statement that the story that follows is based on letters found inside the estate many years later. I practically rubbed my hands together in anticipation. That kind of literary device makes it all seem more real to me as a reader, and I was super psyched to dive into this one as a result.

Lasting impressions: Similarly, the book ended with an obituary outlining events as they transpired beyond the scope of this tale. It gave me a better sense of justice and finality for the story as a whole, and I liked that we got to see how things ended up instead of just how they ended when the plot came to its natural conclusion.

Conflicting impressions: As much as I liked the plot, the spooky elements weren’t quite spooky enough, and as a result, the action dragged.

Overall impressions: I am definitely becoming a gothic fiction fan. The old house full of sad memories, strange occurrences, and a mystery of love waiting to be uncovered. Gets me every time.

Here, Abigail Tamper is a servant girl in Greave Hall. The lord of the manor sequesters himself away for much of the time, and Abi’s only friend in the house, Lord Greave’s son, is off serving in the military. Enter Mrs. Cotton, the domineering sister-in-law to Lord Greave who tries to live above her station and treats her fellow servants like garbage. Abi is often the recipient of Mrs. Cotton’s abuse, and when we first meet her she is trying to run away.

Abi’s plight is depressing, and until she starts to witness ghostly acts, I have to admit that I found her quite boring. She’s a sad little thing, with not much hope in her world, and it was dreary to say the least. Once she witnesses her mother in the face of a medium Mrs. Cotton has secretly hired, Abi is convinced that the things gone missing and strange handprints found in unlikely places are her dead mother come back to deliver a message.

Tempting fate, Abi sneaks out during a dinner party to try and hire the medium to help her. Without any money, however, she’s forced to give up a sacred pocket watch that belonged to her father in order to walk away with nothing but a ouija board. Doom and gloom! I started to grow frustrated with the lack of options Abi faced, and started to wonder if we’d ever find out anything that could rescue us from boredom.

Luckily, the last third of the novel really picks up. Lord Greave’s son returns, and he’s up to no good. The tension in the house rises as he asserts himself over Lord Greave and steps on the toes of Mrs. Cotton. Abi uncovers more clues, and several surprising things happen that keep us wondering what will happen next.

This is a great read for fans of gothic fiction, but the story wasn’t quite compelling enough or scary enough for my tastes. Abi is a likable protagonist, and I wish I could have connected with her more. Though I felt for her plight, and particularly her unjust interactions with Mrs. Cotton, I didn’t become completely invested in her life. That emotional distance made it hard to ride the slower parts of the book, despite finding the overall story interesting.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Review: Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

Book: Haunting Violet
Author: Alyxandra Harvey
Publisher: Walker Childrens
Release date: June 21, 2011
Source: ARC received from I Read Banned Books Tour
Summary: (from Goodreads) Violet Willoughby doesn’t believe in ghosts. But they believe in her. After spending years participating in her mother’s elaborate ruse as a fraudulent medium, Violet is about as skeptical as they come in all matters supernatural. Now that she is being visited by a very persistent ghost, one who suffered a violent death, Violet can no longer ignore her unique ability. She must figure out what this ghost is trying to communicate, and quickly because the killer is still on the loose.

Afraid of ruining her chance to escape her mother’s scheming through an advantageous marriage, Violet must keep her ability secret. The only person who can help her is Colin, a friend she’s known since childhood, and whom she has grown to love. He understands the true Violet, but helping her on this path means they might never be together. Can Violet find a way to help this ghost without ruining her own chance at a future free of lies?

First impressions: We first meet Violet as a 9 year old child in the opening chapter, and she quickly drew me in to her hard London life of poverty and cons. Her mother swindles the rich society ladies with fake Spiritualist readings and seances, while Violet follows the script and occasionally picks pockets. It was a fascinating setting for a ghost story.

Lasting impressions: One of my favorite reads so far in 2011. A historical gothic YA book that was equal parts frightening, delightful, and heartfelt.

Conflicting impressions: It seemed like there were a couple of inconsistencies, though I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that I read an advance copy. A few times while reading I was scratching my head and flipping back through the pages, trying to figure out if we’d ever received that information before. At two different points, the color of Violet’s eyes becomes important, but I couldn’t find a mention of them at any time prior to these points. Odd.

Overall impressions: Quite simply, I wanted to hug this book when I was done with it. I wanted to climb under the covers and put it under my pillow, whispering “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” And of course, when it comes to explaining why exactly I loved it so much, I find myself coming up short.

Violet Willoughby has spent her entire life at the whim of her con artist mother’s moods and lies. Forced to help her mother with the various tricks and preparations for the then-uber-popular psychic readings and seances, Violet has never believed in spirits. Her mother, Celeste, has filled her head with lies about her father, and Celeste’s ego and beauty drive her to pursue a life of deceit (rather than honest work) in order to raise her young daughter.

Celeste is an awful person, and a worse mother. Unsatisfied with her poor station in life, and desperate to win her way into the society life of the peerage, she conducts herself as a medium – though she is a complete fraud. In order to pull off the various parlor tricks required for the seances and readings, she takes on a young boy named Colin, who also helps Violet pick pockets when they’re short on food money. It’s a hard life with few certainties save for the fact that Celeste will always be critical of Violet.

After a short chapter where we get a snapshot of this life when Violet is 9 and Colin is 11, we fast forward seven years to 1872. Violet, her mother, Colin, and a young maid are traveling to a country estate for a weeklong party held by an avid Spiritualist. It’s a big week for the family, and if they pull it off, it could mean the end of destitution and a real chance at a better life. Violet is being courted by a wealthy, handsome boy named Xavier, who can persuade his family to allow him to marry her (without a dowry!) based on her beauty and the fame of her mother. Violet seems ambivalent at best toward Xavier, but recognizes that without him she likely will face a life as a seamstress or cook.

I loved how well Alyxandra Harvey manages Violet’s feelings in this difficult historical time. She is play-acting the part of a lady while at this function, but she knows deep down that she doesn’t belong. The beautiful part is that she’s not sure she wants to. There is a certain freedom to being poor, without the expectations and rules and stifling conversations. Yet no one wants to stare a life of hard labor in the face and embrace it full on. Would she rather sew all day long until her fingers bleed or sit in a parlor drinking tea and reading books to her heart’s content? Not much of a question really, but she also struggles with whether being married to a dreadful bore is a price worth paying.

Shortly after arriving, and during the first of several readings by Celeste, Violet has a startling encounter with a ghost. Having never believed in them, it takes her a while to accept that she truly has developed the ability to speak to the dead. This is when the spooky kicks in. There are ouija boards, brushes with death, and various attempts to communicate before Violet, with the help of her friend Elizabeth, decides she must find out what happened to the ghost Rowena. Most of the book revolves around this murder mystery, and Violet was like our very own 19th century Nancy Drew. She bumbles around, trying to nose her way into everyone’s business to determine who killed Rowena, because if she doesn’t she’s afraid that either Rowena (and the other pesky spirits who are on to her new medium status) will never leave her alone, or the killer will strike again.

The mystery contains lots of red herrings and lots of action. I thought it was well paced and had appropriate amounts of clues thrown at us from time to time. Interspersed throughout the story are further complications to Violet’s well being and her relationship with her mother. There is a dramatic turn of events around the two-thirds point, and it serves as an important catalyst for Violet to decide what she wants out of life. She also starts to develop feelings for Colin, which only makes it more difficult to decide whether to marry Xavier.

Ultimately, this is a story about a girl who grew up never believing in the Spiritualist movement, only to wind up being a true medium herself. Violet must decide what to do with her gift – ignore it and whatever is bothering Rowena, or accept that she can choose to help people instead of exploit their grief like her mother did. Violet is such a likable character, with a quick wit and a heart of gold despite the hardships she endured under her controlling and wicked mother. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially if you at all enjoy historical or gothic tales.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Thank you to I Read Banned Books Tour for lending me this copy!

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Review: Cold Hit by Linda Fairstein

Book: Cold Hit
Author: Linda Fairstein
Publisher: Scribner
Release date: August 17, 1999
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series: Alexandra Cooper Mysteries #3

Summary: (from Goodreads) Alexandra Cooper has seen many murder victims, but few more disturbing than the silk-clad body of a woman, her hands and feet tied to a ladder, pulled from the turbulent waters at Manhattan’s northern tip. With her colleagues, including NYPD detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, Alex races against the clock and hopes for a “cold hit” — a DNA match that would reveal the identity of the murderer by linking the crime to someone already in the police database. But as the case pulls her into the exclusive world of East Side auction houses and cutting-edge Chelsea galleries, Alex discovers she may be marked as an expendable commodity in a chilling and deadly scheme.

First impressions: I adore this series, so I settled right in to the narrative. The book opens with a crime scene, which always makes for interesting reading.

Lasting impressions: This was definitely not one of the most memorable crime novels I’ve read. The book was incredibly slow through the middle, and the ending seemed anti-climactic, despite a lot of action.

Conflicting impressions: The plot revolves around the art world, which seemed to be a really exciting premise, but somehow it didn’t quite create a compelling enough story. I found the discovery phase of the investigation quite boring.

Overall impressions: Alexandra Cooper is a great character. She’s a wealthy New Yorker, heads the sex crimes division of the District Attorney’s office in Manhattan, and relaxes with ballet on the weekends. Her cop friends that help her investigate the crimes are playful, yet tough, and they have a good working relationship accompanied with some old-fashioned ribbing.

Though the book unfurls at a snail’s pace, the glimpse into the cut-throat nature of the art bidding process and how rich people build up their collections is quite interesting. I’m not convinced that it was tied in well enough to the actual crimes, however. When the big reveal came at the end, the motivation just didn’t quite gel enough to the severity of the crime.

Still, this was a satisfying way to quench my mystery thirst. I enjoy the characters enough to let a little plot fizzle slide, and I’ll pick up another Cooper mystery when I get the chance.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge

It’s time for another challenge! I’m a huge fan of the mystery genre, and this challenge will be a great way for me to make room in my reading schedule to enjoy some of my favorite authors.

This challenge is hosted by Book Chick City, and involves reading 12 mystery or suspense novels in 2011. All participants receive a free ARC of The Survivor by Sean Slater, courtesy of Simon & Schuster. How awesome is that?

Click the button to sign up! Sounds like fun to me.

To see my list of books I plan to read for this challenge, check out my Challenge Index page.