There's something sickening about Janet Fitch's first novel, White Oleander (Little, Brown; $24), and it's not entirely intentional. Her premise certainly shouts melodrama: Ingrid, beautiful blonde poet, murders her ex; her beautiful blonde daughter, Astrid, is sent to a series of foster homes, dropping swiftly from the cultural elite to white trash. This is the kind of book in which, as soon as you meet Uncle Ray, Astrid's foster mother's boyfriend, you know there's going to be sexual abuse. White Oleander is a loosely stitched-together series of these worst nightmares: a mother who starves her young, a high-class prostitute, a suicidal fading actress, a tough-talking Russian flea-market hustler. Ingrid is the most monstrous and yet the most refined, like an Aryan vampire. Fitch's writing has trippy, visceral power, but the reader remains unconvinced that she hasn't just written this as an exercise in high-brow shock lit -- A. M. Homes Lite.