Title: The Poisoned House
Author: Michael Ford
Genre: YA, paranormal, ghosts
Format: E-Book, 270 pages
Publication Date: September 1, 2011
Published By: Albert Whitman & Company
Source: ARC from NetGalley
Synopsis from Goodreads
The year is 1856, and orphan Abigail Tamper lives below stairs in Greave Hall, a crumbling manor house in London. Lord Greave is plagued by madness, and with his son Samuel away fighting in the Crimea, the running of Greave Hall is left to Mrs Cotton, the tyrannical housekeeper. The only solace for the beleaguered staff is to frighten Mrs Cotton by pretending the house is haunted.
So when a real ghost makes an appearance - that of her beloved mother - no one is more surprised than Abi. But the spirit has a revelation that threatens to destroy Abi’s already fragile existence: she was murdered, and by someone under their very own roof. With Samuel returned to England badly wounded, it’s up to Abi to nurse him back to health, while trying to discover the identity of the killer in their midst. As the chilling truth dawns, Abi’s world is turned upside down.
Michael Ford did a brilliant job writing a realistic story placed in Victorian times. It is so easy to immerse oneself into the daily comings and goings of Greave Hall, following the actions and duties of Abi as she rises in the morning to stoke the fires, as she rushes about from room to room scrubbing the windows clean, and as she finally retires to her tiny room tucked up in the far corners of the attic, away from sight of the prominent members of Greave Hall. The characters and the world are alive and breathing, realistic and easy to believe.
The story itself however was very slow to start. I mentally had to force myself through the first 1/3 of the book, anxious not to give up on it without a fight. The hook at the beginning of the book was weak. I found myself only mildly curious as to why Abi ran away from Greave Hall, and not really interested enough to care why she was refusing to return.
Around the 1/3 mark (100 or so pages into the novel) the pacing finally started to pick up a bit. The plot was predictable, as were the character's actions. I feel the author tried too hard to pinpoint certain characters in their evil role and other characters in their helpful roles. So many things occurred in the book that were merely thrown in as misdirection and had no real merit to the story as a whole. There were points in the book where I wanted to yell at the characters, specifically Abi, for being so stupid and naive. It just wasn't realistic that she would believe, not notice, and fall for some of the things that she did.
The title was well suited to this story, and has an underlying double meaning referring not just to the murder of the mother (mentioned very early on so not a spoiler!), but also to the house itself and the people that reside in it - the fact that secrets not only poison people to sometimes do horrible things, but sometimes just the knowledge of some secrets can poison the people themselves.
I really I did like that this was a stand alone novel, no horrible cliffhanger or half-hearted sequel to try and string the story along even more. It has a beginning, a middle, and a nicely tied up ending. Everything does finally make sense in the end, but it takes a really long time to get there with not a lot of help along the way. I especially enjoyed the realistic feel the author tried to give the book by referring to diary pages at the beginning and an obituary for Abi at the end. I think it was a perfect way to round out everything that happens to Abi after her ordeal without having to write a second novel.
I would recommend this book to older readers with lots of patience. There are no real romantic plot-lines that many YA readers are so fond of. The action is there, but rare, and the spaces in between can drag on. I don't think there is enough to keep younger, more hyperactive minds engaged in the story for long.