A gifted and prolific poet's second collection (and first US appearance) is a mixed bag -- some stories imaginatively conceived and deftly rendered, others falling flat -- but all here reveal Fainlight's dark and disturbing vision of what constitutes human nature. Together, these tales (19 in four sections) disclose a bleak world where sensitive children are misunderstood, unrepentant murderers walk away from their crimes undetected, betrayal and isolation are inescapable facts of life, and sexuality leads to violence or even death. Fainlight is at her best when she sticks closest to home, and the opener, ""A Wizard's Robe Patterned With Stars and Moons,"" explores effectively a child's illusory escape from a war that has sent her father overseas. In the poignant ""Malted Milk,"" a woman returns after 40 years to a childhood home that is scarcely identifiable in its modern incarnation. But later pieces wander off with no discernible destination and assume a stilted and lifeless tone that doesn't cooperate with their chilling subject matter. ""Soir de FË†te"" -- an older couple's intention to rape a young woman is cut short when they accidentally murder her -- rings false, and the sadomasochistic ""Pleasure"" ends on an off-kilter note of delight. The stories in the final and weakest section enter awkwardly into a realm of fantasy and perversion, abandoning in the process any larger context: ""The Fish-Scale Shirt,"" a heavy-handed contemporary fairy tale, leaves the reader cold. By the last (and title) story, Fainlight's lost control of what initially seemed a subtle, haunting style; what's intended to be shocking and metaphorical is merely gratuitous. Fainlight's undeniable ability to create an immediate mood is prominent early on, but, overall, her disjointed collection ends on a shrill -- and ultimately unsatisfying -- note.