"I let the telephone fall from my hand. Panic first cripples and then revives me." With the first sentences of The Poison Tree's prologue, author Erin Kelly grips the reader and seldom lets go. Her atmospheric debut (Viking, Jan.) opens as the protagonist, Karen, races from her home toward an unnamed crisis with "the strength of a woman who has everything to lose." Alternating between the present and enigmatic past, the book sends the reader on a compelling journey, as Karen, a straitlaced London college student, becomes entranced with the exotic Biba and her brother. Rebelling against her upbringing, Karen spends the summer in a haze of hedonism. But her freedom and happiness will not last, as Kelly builds the pressure among her characters to a surprising ending. This literary mystery has it all: obsession, desire, guilt, and tangled family secrets that keep you wanting to turn the pages, yet slow down to savor the anticipation.