Vicky Newham


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Crimefest 2016 – observations and highlights

I got two wonderful reflection opportunities over the weekend: one thanks to a banshee-awful, cackling hen group on my Travelodge corridor on Saturday night, the other on the drive home from Bristol yesterday. Each year I feel different about aspects of my own writing and the Crimefest event varies too, depending on who’s there, but one constant is the friendliness and inclusivity of everyone involved.

Rather than a review of panels, I thought I’d share my observations and highlights.

It hasn’t all been done

In such a huge, competitive market, and with a lot of similar books, it’s wonderful to see fresh ideas, settings and concepts swim to the surface of the publishing pond. Not only does this broaden the scope of the genre, it invigorates it and introduces new sub-genres. Just as society is constantly changing, so is fiction. To me, anyone who says it’s all been done, and nothing is new, lacks imagination.

I’d seen Matthew Blakstad’s Sockpuppet gif-ing on Twitter. Having heard him talk about the novel, I bought it and started reading it. I firmly believe in ‘write what you’re passionate/curious about’ and Sockpuppet is a brilliant example of that. Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series is another imaginative creation, with Baby Ganesh, the elephant. I’m excited by books set in Eastern/Central Europe, written by British authors, and which are becoming mainstream, for example David Young’s Stasi Child and James Silvester’s Escape to Perdition. At one of the panels I asked what’s changing and new in crime fiction and which excites the authors. Two of them mentioned the World War I era as a setting, and explained its relevance to the present day.

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Less rigid boundaries and hierarchies

For a few years now a handful of independent publishers have been putting out high quality crime fiction and it’s encouraging to see this model going from strength to strength, and newbie publishers joining them all the time. It means there are more doors for authors to knock on, not just the big corporate publisher who may not see a book as an obvious commercial hit.

Similarly, I really believe self-publishing has lost a lot of its stigma. With authors such as Rachel Abbott, Joanna Penn, Mark Edwards and Mel Sherratt indie-publishing well edited bestsellers for several years, the indie route is a credible and worthwhile option for those wanting greater speed of publication, more creative control and higher royalties. Rather than a ‘vanity’ project, I see it as a business-savvy option for the clued up, pro-active author. It makes me sad when people say they won’t read self-published novels. Surely, read first, decide later?

Publishing is hard, competitive and wonderful

Ian Rankin was one of this year’s star attractions. He read from his Rebus-in-progress.

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In his interview with Jake Kerridge, he spoke candidly about his experiences in publishing. I know he’s done this numerous times but each book seems to give a new slant of insight. In a writing career lasting 30 years to date, it’s strangely comforting to know he struggled for years with his books, then was a mid-lister, until one book catapulted Rebus onto the bestseller lists. While these days many publishers might not keep on an author whose books don’t sell well, it is reassuring to hear him say he didn’t make the big time for years. Likewise, when he describes his writing process, and having little idea when he begins a new book what the plot is, you realise some stuff never changes however long you’ve been writing.

Authors have fascinating backgrounds and day jobs

When I was talking to Neil White about the Making a Murderer mock trial he, Steve Cavanagh and Sophie Hannah put on, I commented on how interesting it is to have events which are a bit different from panels and Q&As. Seeing Neil and Steve in action was a real treat. I kept wondering who I’d want to represent me if I was on trial for murder. (I asked Sophie the same question. We couldn’t decide) And I had no idea how important hand gestures are to justice! With such wide-ranging backgrounds, it would be fun to see more of these events at festivals and conventions. And different panel topics.

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The rise and rise of Scandi-Noir

I admit to first reading Jo Nesbo because I saw him on Richard and Judy and liked how he pronounced his name (Yo) and Harry Hole’s (Horry Hooler) in his Norwegian accent. Since then I’ve tried to be more mature in my selection process. Fabulous dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge, Follow the Money, have broadened the appeal (although I still hear people say they won’t watch anything with subtitles). It isn’t just the scenery. What appeals to me is the psychology and history of the people who live in Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, and of those who’ve moved there. The norms of their societies. I adore the multi-layered plot foci on: society and politics; immigration and employment; violence and addictions. Contemporary and new authors such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson are making my reading much more expensive, not least because I am determined to get to Iceland Noir soon. Ragnar, stop with the stunning photographs, okay?

The generosity of the crime fiction community

We’re all busy. Yet so many people take the time to chat, read books and review them for pure book-love reasons, write interviews and blogposts, read manuscripts to help others, boost the confidence of people when they’ve had a knock or a setback, help people with introductions and publicity. Beneath this is a wonderful respect. And a shared love of good fiction. Since 2011, I’ve been very pleased to help others, and hugely appreciate the kindness and help I’ve received. What is tremendous at Crimefest is the inclusivity and friendliness of being able to chat in the bar – as equals – to readers, writers, publishers, editors, past writing tutors and agents. Great fun also were meals, giggles and drinks shared with writing buddies from social media.

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Being sent home with a bottle of prosecco wasn’t bad either. Nor was getting to show Ian Rankin a photograph of my dog!😉 (I didn’t really)

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In addition to the awesome people, it’s about the books. And this is what I brought home with me. Stroke stroke.

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 

 

 


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In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings – blog tour

I was lucky to receive an ARC of In Her Wake from Karen Sullivan. What resonated deeply with me was the psychology in the novel and the nature of the themes which Amanda explores so beautifully.

For the blog tour I caught up with Bella, the protagonist in the novel, slipped on my psychologist’s hat and we had a chat about her life and how she feels about some of the things that have happened.

 

Interview with Bella Campbell

 

What was it like growing up with your parents, Elaine and Henry?

It was lovely, really. Our house was beautiful and I had a gorgeous bedroom that overlooked the garden. Elaine was a committed and caring gardener and it was stunning, a real treasure trove of hiding places and sunny spots to read. Elaine had a few issues, of course. She liked me close to her, and felt that the local schools weren’t up to much – at least that’s what she told me and I had no reason back then to question it – so she and Henry home-schooled me. Henry did all the science lessons and maths, and Elaine covered everything else. I particularly enjoyed English literature. She would read passages to me from all sorts of books and we would discuss the characters and the story. I’ve always loved books, you can really escape into them, can’t you? Henry was quiet. You could never describe us as close. But he was a kind man, even if he tended to keep himself to himself a bit.

 

Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby’s theories on attachment, both still inform much of contemporary thinking on the parent-child relationship and how it influences us throughout our lives. What can you tell us about your mother? What was she like?

She loved me, often a little too much. She was a powerful woman and it was easier to let her make all the decisions. Neither Henry nor I dared to argue with her, really. She could go from calm to furious in the drop of a hat! She went to church regularly and loved to cook meals for me. She enjoyed listening to radio plays while she ironed. She was wonderful when I was ill. She would get Henry to drag a chair into my room and she’d sit with me all night, stroke my head, make me chicken soup, and read to me, of course. She hated leaving the house though. It used to make her twitchy. Henry once told me she suffered from a form of agoraphobia. She definitely had a fear of crowds. Is there a name for that? She hated other people and always told me you could never trust anybody.

 

Elaine and Henry clearly had a particular dynamic to their marriage. When we meet your father, he is suffering. It made me wonder whether their marriage evolved to be like this, or whether it was always so. Can you tell us about their relationship?

I don’t really know what it was like before, but certainly there were moments when I’d catch a closeness between them. There were some albums which had a couple of pictures of them together, early on in their marriage, and they seemed totally different – especially Henry! He was smiling and toned and Elaine looked smitten with him. They were very reliant on each other. They had no other friends and no family, just the two of them. And me, of course.

 

The death of a loved one is never easy. Death of a spouse, sibling or child can take years to recover from. Psychology sometimes links grief and mourning to attachment and loss. How does Elaine’s death affect Henry?

I was shocked when I first saw him. He was even frailer than he was before. He seemed to have aged about ten years in ten days. She was just such a big part of our lives, such a presence, and she had real control over us. Henry was a bit like a ship without a rudder. He looked confused and, well, it turned out he was more lost than I thought.

 

I’m fascinated by what people know at a pre-cognitive or unconscious level. Sometimes when something major comes to light, people report afterwards that they had a ‘feeling’ about x, y or z. When you read Henry’s letter, did you have any prior inkling about your up-bringing and parents or was it all a complete surprise?

Things began to slot into place, began to make sense. Of course, I wanted it to be lies. I was cross with him too. I didn’t understand why he had told me. But I couldn’t shut up the voice in my head. All the signs were there. It was a shock, without doubt – I felt as if my world had ended, to be honest – but, if I’m totally honest, it wasn’t a surprise. That letter turned my life upside down. For a long time I wished I could unread it! But you can’t do that can you? You can’t go back in time and change things. You just have to forge onwards.

 

Freud had plenty to say about our choice of partner, some of which is still supported empirically. Bowlby’s ideas on childhood attachment have been extended to apply to our choice of romantic partner. The idea is that partner choice, and perception of relationships and love, are linked to and determined by the sort of attachment we’ve had with our parents. What do you think about this, and what made you choose your husband, David?

 I don’t think I chose him, really. I think he chose me. He was charming and handsome, or at least he had this aura about him that made him handsome to me. He just looked like someone who knew what he was doing. University was very different to home. I hadn’t even been to school and hardly ever out of the house. I’d never mixed with people my own age, so the whole thing was terribly daunting. I missed Elaine and felt lost at sea without her. David made me feel secure from the start, like I didn’t have to worry about anything. Sometimes I used to wish I had a younger boyfriend. I used to look at all my peers laughing and planning parties and things like that and feel jealous, but I knew I’d never have the courage to join them. And David really loved me. He told me all the time that he loved me and would always look after me. And that’s good, isn’t it? To have someone who loves you so much that they want to look after you.

 

Insight, compensatory experiences, and differences in personality and temperament can all affect how we respond to being a parent. If you have children, how will your experiences inform the sort of mother you would like to be?

I know what it’s like not to be able to make your own decisions and so I will encourage my children to be free and to have fun! I can’t help feeling like I won’t let them out of my sight, but that’s understandable, I think. I will tell them I love them and always put their needs first. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have something happen to one of your children. I try not to think too hard about it as it opens up all sorts of feelings I am still trying to process.

 

When people hurt or disappoint us it can be confusing. I’m fascinated by whether motivations make a difference to whatever has been said/done. Buddhism believes that motivation makes all the difference whereas the behaviourism of Skinner, Watson, of Pavlov maintain it’s simply the outcome which matters. When you learned the truth about your parents’ actions, were you able to understand what motivated them? Has this helped you in any way?

 It took a long time. I understand they weren’t well and that they weren’t acting in the right frame of mind. But while I might have a bit of understanding I don’t think I will ever really forgive them. They destroyed so many lives.

 

The theme of betrayal intrigues me. There is something about it which cuts to the core. Do you think that people can fully recover from betrayal? Are all betrayals equal, do you think? Are they forgivable?

 Betrayal is a breaking of trust and trust forms the building blocks of successful human interaction. Without trust it’s hard to have strong, functioning relationships. Betrayal takes so many forms, from things that appear minor, to things that shatter lives and mean there can be no turning back. I think trust can be rebuilt, but it takes patience. Sometimes you have to look at why the other person betrayed you. They will often have their own reasons and that might lay some of the blame at your own feet. It’s important to look at these things objectively if you want to repair the damage done by a betrayal. Sometimes, though, it’s better to walk away.

 

In our lives we each perpetrate, collude with and suffer from so many betrayals. What do you think motivates betrayal?

Lots of things come into play, I think. But selfishness fuels betrayal. Selfishness and lack of empathy. If you aren’t able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and grasp what damage your actions might cause, or worse still, don’t care, then you are more likely to betray someone you love.

 

Studies in psychology show that numerous factors influence the way people respond to life events. Faced with what might seem like the same situation, some people feel crushed and give up while others are able to overcome it. When you read Henry’s letter, what do you think gave you the strength and determination to find out what happened and to re-construct your life?

I just wanted to find out what might have been. And I needed answers. I battled with my decision to search out the truth for a long time, but in the end it just wasn’t an option not to. I couldn’t carry on not knowing my whole story.

 

When things go wrong, some people are more hopeful and optimistic than others. Where or who do you get your hope from?

Ha! Well, that’s a great question. Hope in the early days came from the Mermaid in Zennor. I just loved her story. It showed me that even when things look bleak, happiness is just around the corner, that you just have to chase it. You can’t wait for happiness to happen to you, you have to face adversity head on and claim happiness for yourself. Now things are more settled, I get hope from those around me, from the small things, from the idea that situations can only ever improve. I found myself in some dark places, but I made it through. Hope helped. Without hope I would have given up, I think.

 

Thank you so much, Bella, for sharing your thoughts with us.

My review of In Her Wake is here. It’s one of my favourite books of 2016.

 


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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon – a review

Not one to sit on the fence, I will say from the outset that I adored this novel. I found it funny and heart-warming, and it made me feel nostalgic for a time when life felt more innocent, even if it wasn’t. I can quite see why the book was snapped up by Borough Press, and why the author had so many offers of agent representation. Sometimes I can’t see why one book is ‘hyped’ over another, but in this instance it’s obvious (and I don’t like the word, hyped). It’s an unusual book which has universal themes, and which speaks directly to the complexity and confusion of life.

I read the book partly via an ARC which someone kindly passed on to me (legitimately, thanks Deb), and partly on my kindle. I also then bought the audio book, as I wanted to listen to Paula Wilcox reading it. I decided that my favourite mode was listening to Paula read, while I followed the text on my tablet, as it enabled me to be ‘read a story’ while poring over the text at the same time. You see, the writing is unlike anything I’ve come across and is quite wonderful. Quirky, synaesthetic, and vivid, I found myself reading and re-reading so many sentences, it took me an age to get through the book! The language used in the Grace and Tilly parts brims with innocence and trust and simplicity, yet it is infused with a sense of knowing about many aspects of life, sometimes in a way which may be beyond their years, but also in that wise way that children have.

The book opens in the sweltering heatwave of 1976. Margaret Creasy, from number eight, has disappeared. As ten year olds, Grace and Tilly, make it their business to find out what has happened to her, they get sidetracked into other investigations. Grace attempts to make sense of what they find by filtering it through the teachings she hears in church. This is a wonderfully humorous device, but actually it’s also exactly what children do: filter what they see and hear through other things they’ve seen and heard, creating a sort of jigsaw of life.

What I loved about this novel is that the reader can relate to it on various levels. There’s the story, set mainly in 1976 with flashbacks to key events in 1967, and the mystery of what has happened to Mrs Creasy. Then there are all the other secrets which lurk behind the curtained windows of all the houses on the street. Furthermore, there’s the goats and sheep philosophy about types of people, which Grace gets from church, and there are reflections on themes such as prejudice, belonging and paedophilia.

The characters on The Avenue are ones we will all recognise. It always amuses me when people’s nicknames get passed on from one generation to another, until, via a form of social crypto-amnesia, everyone’s forgotten where the name originated. Prejudices and judgements abound. No-one is exempt, including the police. There’s Walter Bishop at number eleven, and new arrivals, the Kapoors. Grace is wonderful: complex and a bit prickly, her first person sections remind me of the boy at school who makes out he doesn’t like you, and plays hard to get to mask his insecurities and fear. Sometimes I wanted Tilly to tell Grace to get stuffed, but ultimately Tilly knew that Grace liked and needed her. The period details provide the book with an authentic retro feel, and I had to give in and re-sample the delights of butterscotch Angel Delight (still nice, but a bit icky and made me feel a bit strange).

Part of me would love to highlight some of the hilarious and wonderful sentences, but, you know what? Just make a cuppa, grab a packet of biscuits, and read the book. It’s a real treat.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings – a review

In Her Wake, the mesmerising new psychological thriller by Amanda Jennings, shudders with suspense from the opening pages. Bella is on her way home, with her controlling husband, David, to attend her mother’s funeral. She refers to her mother as Elaine and her father as Henry. Henry wants to tell Bella something but somehow cannot get the words out. Regrets and conflicting emotions leak out of every exchange between the three of them the way that blood oozes from a wound. Henry seems to be guilt-wracked about something. Bella is confused about her feelings towards Henry and ambivalent towards her husband. What on earth is going on?

What I really liked about this opening is that Jennings presents the reader with a bag of fat, wriggling worms from the outset. She shows how it is possible to take a popular theme – unearthing family secrets – and put a completely fresh spin on it. It is this universal theme which makes this novel one which people will relate to and adore. The thing about secrets, which unsettles most of us, is their reach: their seeds germinate in the past, grow in the present and cast a shadow into the future, and the betrayal they result in is one of the worst.

In Her Wake is a beautifully written novel, which covers dark and complex themes with subtlety and nuance. Jennings shows how complex emotional needs are, how they can become physical and all-consuming. She shows how paradoxical love can be: selfish and possessive and cruel but genuinely caring at times too. So, if it’s acquisitive and demanding and desperate, is it love at all? And are those whose wounds make them ruthless and narcissistic necessarily bad people?

The plot turns and twists, giving the novel a wonderful momentum and pace. I got 10% in and realised there were multiple, interlinking mysteries, historical ones, current ones … and then Jennings delivers her first cull. And just as you think that Bella is going to get to the bottom of her family background, the author chucks in a curve ball or two. This is Amanda Jennings’ third novel, and is my favourite of hers. She has deftly steered the novel away from becoming a family saga and has firmly placed it in the psychological thriller category.

Reflecting further on the novel thematically, what came through most strongly for me was that In Her Wake explores types of love, and the various factors which can threaten this most basic of emotions, for example, betrayal and control. It made me wonder whether betrayal necessarily cancels out all love that may have existed. And, whether all betrayals are equal. Does it make a difference what they may be motivated by and how they come about? Can their invisible stains ever be wiped clean, and, if so, what amends are acceptable and what insights help?

For those who love coastal scenery and the Cornwall lifestyle, Jennings clearly knows the landscape. I could visualise the cliff-top B&Bs, feel the sea air blast my face on the sands of Porthmeor beach, and could hear the squawking of the seagulls as they swoop on chip wrappers.

I loved Bella, and could relate to her mistakes and confusion, and the strength she didn’t realise she had. Throughout the novel, I really hoped that she would achieve acceptance. For the novel is also about hope. When what you think you know crumbles, what do you cling to, and how do you maintain hope that you will once again find your footing?

A wonderful read, which will drag your head and heart through the wringer, while all the time making you believe in mermaids and human redemption. Thank you.

With thanks to the author and publisher for the review copy.

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 


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My standout novels of 2015

This is a lovely way to reflect on what I’ve enjoyed reading this year, and why. I am hopeless at ranking things, and I’ve liked books for different reasons, so they are in no order.

 

A Devil Under the Skin by Anya Lipska

This is the third in Anya’s brilliant East London based series, featuring PI Janusz Kiszka and DC Natalie Kershaw. No sign of staleness here, these books just get better and better. I adore two things about Anya’s writing. Her style is unique. It is both clever and funny and this makes it a pleasure to read. For me, though, what marks out her style is that many of her phrases draw on multiple reference sources, and word choices are evocative and ‘on trend’. I loved the plot in this book. Janusz, Natalie and Oskar are caught up in, and have to respond to, events which show the many facets of their characters. The Polish context is handled with affection and honesty and humour. Some of the exchanges between Janusz and Oskar are comedy genius.

 

Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

I often find that screenwriters write evocative prose, and dramatise events in their novels in ways which make you feel as though you are on a film set, not sitting on the couch with a paperback and box of Jaffa cakes. This is definitely the case with Alexandra Sokoloff’s writing. I found Huntress Moon gripping from the first sentence and deeply unsettling. Sokoloff’s language and writing are gorgeous. Descriptions of San Francisco and the other US locations are vivid and rich, and, in places, very unusual. Huntress Moon is the first in what is going to be a quintet of novels, with three already published.

For me, the ‘Huntress’ is the stand-out of the two main characters, but perhaps this is because female characters can be so hard to get right – in terms of gender stereotypes and clichés – and make ‘fresh’. This is a serial killer crime novel with several important differences. I adored the mythology and the way that the moon cycles influence behaviour. There was plenty of Psychology to get my teeth into, drawing on key aspects of Developmental and Forensic Psychology. Wonderful.

 

I Know Who Did It by Steve Mosby

Steve Mosby has become one of my favourite writers. His creative writing is different from his blog writing (as you would expect) but shimmers with the same intelligence. He explores unusual psychological terrain, and burrows into the rabbit holes of the human condition with empathy and nuance, including how morality adds additional considerations to the complexities of psychological processes. In this book, notions of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, right and wrong, good and bad, and what constitutes sin, are stirred in and create a heady mix. The book starts with a man named David Groves being driven into the woods. The atmosphere shudders with menace and intrigue. I had no idea what to expect. In a few brief chapters you have a woman who has come back from the dead and a man who’s receiving cards for his dead son. What I adored about this book was that I was continually having to check what I thought I knew. Mosby’s writing is a masterclass in the creation of suspense and atmosphere, and in manipulating reader assumptions in devilishly clever ways. In I Know Who Did It there are a number of game-changing plot twists which spin the reader three sixty degrees. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau kept me spellbound for several days. It left me motionless on my bed when I finished it, thoughts swirling as I lay there, all sorts of emotions competing. In the book, Anna’s life is hurtling out of control. She is taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. It made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. There are phrases, images and metaphors in Hausfrau which made me hold my breath. Having studied German at university, and long been interested in language and linguistics, I purred at the way Essbaum played with and explored language, and the relationship between language and thought.

 

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is absolutely not my usual kind of novel but reading it felt like savouring a long cocktail with bite while necking the occasional shot of tequila. It’s a tense, gritty eco-thriller set in Yemen in 1994. It has a gripping plot based on fictionalised versions of real events which the author experienced over many years. It opens with Claymore Straker (Clay), an oil company engineer, looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov into the eyes of a ‘kid’ terrorist who has hijacked him. By the end of the first page the reader knows some key information about Clay: something BIG happened thirteen years ago, and he has killed. So many questions arise from this first page. Clever hooks and wonderful writing.

 

After the Fire by Jane Casey

I knew I was going to love Jane’s writing and I had a feeling it was going to be funny. Getting humour ‘right’ in crime novels isn’t always easy. There are a number of mysteries within After the Fire – and a couple of sub-plots – and each one adds a layer of intrigue to the investigation, and ramps up the tension. The reader is quickly drawn into the murky lives of the residents and visitors at the tower block where the fire occurs, some of whom are more sympathetic than others. What makes this novel is the two main characters, Kerrigan and Derwent, and the various facets of their relationship. Their sparring is very funny and clever, and they clearly care about each other and watch each other’s backs. While Derwent is the senior officer, he and Kerrigan pass the power baton back and forth. I love the way they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses – and need each other. We see Derwent through Kerrigan’s eyes, and Kerrigan (mainly) through her own. In addition, Jane Casey’s writing is a treat. Her dialogue is sharp, and the character observations are astute and funny.

 

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

When the bodies of two boys are found curled together in a bunker in the garden of a house, twelve feet underground, DI Marnie Rome is determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out the strands of the mystery, they realise they are dealing with a crime which is as disturbing as it is morally complex. Sinister discoveries, involving foster children and ruthless property developers, pull Rome further into the maze-like investigation, and yet again she is forced to reflect on the reasons why people commit awful acts and whether it is possible to forgive them when they do. From the reactions and comments of Rome, Jake and another key character we gradually learn what occurred. It is more devastating than you could ever imagine.

Sarah Hilary is extremely good at showing the reader how characters are reacting and feeling. Sometimes she maintains the emotional intensity; others she makes tiny adjustments to the emotional barometer within each scene but without descriptions becoming melodramatic. For me, it is partly the emotional intelligence which threads through Hilary’s writing which marks her out. The other thing is the writing itself. When a writer describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m in awe.

 

Untouchable by Ava Marsh

Amongst crowded book shelves, a novel with an unusual setting or protagonist stands out. The story at the heart of Untouchable is a universal one: someone makes a terrible mistake which has awful consequences, and finds it hard to come to terms with it all. It takes courage to write a book set in the sex industry as you run the risk of having your book labelled erotica. However, to dismiss this extremely well written Vice Noir novel as that is to miss something fresh. There are a number of types of crime in the book, raising the question of whether crime novels have to include murders. These add to the story layers and epitomise how complex life often is. I really liked Ava’s main character, Grace, and felt hugely sympathetic towards her. The guilt she was experiencing as a result of the mistake she made had pushed her into self-destructive and self-punishing behaviour. Gutsy, principled, flawed and vulnerable, she’s a brilliant female character.

 

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Hummingbird is a fascinating and honest examination of what it can be like to be an immigrant in Finland. It delves into the thorny issues of prejudice and stereotypes, and belonging and identity. The protagonist detective, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from former Yugoslavia. On the first day of her new job, a female jogger is found dead and a Kurdish girl reported to be in danger.

The author has lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia and has taught immigrants in her role as a special needs teacher, so clearly knows her subject. Chapters are written from Anna’s point of view and that of one of the victims (the Kurdish girl), the combination of which provides useful insight to the forced marriage situation. I loved the way that Kati integrates landscape, weather and nature into the story of this novel, as it contributes to the tone and mood in a way which feels relevant rather than indulgent, and in a way which doesn’t pull the reader out of the story. For me, this is Finnish social realism at its bravest and best.

 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

If there is a book which demonstrates how redundant genre classifications can be, it is The Death House. It has elements of several genres and is set in the future. However, at its most essential it is a story about how a group of children of various ages respond to being taken away from their homes in a van to an institution. This happens because they have something in their blood tests which makes them ‘defective’, and which means that sooner or later they will get sick and die. And this is what makes the book delightful: it shows, via beautifully written prose, how differently each of them responds to the same situation. Toby is an emotional and sensitive boy, also proud and scared and angry. When Clara arrives, the bond they develop, and her response to her prognosis, have a profound effect on him.

I enjoyed the scenes in the dorms with the boys bantering and jockeying for position. Toby’s fellow ‘inmates’ are characterised well, distinct and real. I loved how Clara arrives on the scene and shakes everything up, apparently confident but with her own vulnerabilities.  While they all wait for their symptoms to develop, and for the lift to come in the middle of the night to take them to the sanatorium, the emotions of the children are continually changing, and so are their friendships and the group dynamics. If any one of the children exemplifies the words of the strapline, ‘Everyone dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts’, it is Clara. But it could equally well apply to any of the inmates, as this is the dilemma they are faced with having received their prognoses. Perhaps it applies to the reader as well. If life is so impermanent, how are we to live our lives?

 

Normal by Graeme Cameron

In a busy sub-genre, this serial killer novel stands out from the crowd for me in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept and writing are extremely clever. The protagonist, the serial killer, is interesting, scarily likeable (if you didn’t know about some of his predilections and cooking habits), smart and funny. Forensic Psychology tells us that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. Told from the viewpoint of the killer, some of his observations made me scream with laughter, sometimes because of how funny they are but also out of shock at what I was reading. Some of the throwaway comments are so simultaneously clever and funny, I did a double take along the lines of ‘What the actual flip?’ Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. It’s gory in places and requires the reader to suspend their sense of morality, and I absolutely loved it.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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A Blonde Bengali Wife by Anne Hamilton – a review

This book appealed to me as I am interested in Bangladesh. Based on the author’s experiences during a three-month stay as part of a voluntary cultural exchange programme, A Blonde Bengali Wife was a fabulous way for me to learn more about the country from the point of view of someone who lived and worked there. Prior to reading the book, I had been ploughing through travel guides to Bangladesh and watching videos, and trying to fit what I learnt from these round my own experiences of teaching Bangladeshi students in East London. Anne’s vivid book was an excellent complement, and transported me to the country in a way that a dry travel guide was unable to do. It filled in a lot of gaps for me, and expanded on things which my students had told me about. Given most of my reading is fiction, or text books, this was an absolute delight of a book and a welcome change.

I first read A Blonde Bengali Wife in 2013 when I was researching Bangladesh for an MA project. I read the re-published version in November 2015. On both occasions, what struck me was how much the pages are imbued with affection for the country and the Bengali people. Anne’s gentle humour tickles the narrative, and I shared her perplexity and frustration at many of the things she encountered. Some of the scenes had me snorting with laughter, for example, the visit to Imran and Sajid’s mother, the indomitable Mrs Begum, the bartering scenes, the dreadful phone lines, and the numerous declarations of love which started at the airport as soon as Anne arrived.

The cultural exchange programme involves Anne learning about and helping the Bangladeshi people, and travelling and undertaking a range of activities and projects for and with them. On many occasions I felt as if I were on the exchange with her, on the rammed, air-conditioned buses and crazy rickshaws, smelling the dry river bed and flora, eating yet more rice, lentils and eggs, and hearing the birds and local fauna. Anne travels to the capital, Dhaka, and Sylhet, and their surrounding areas. Her weeks shift between tea gardens in Sylhet, health projects in remote villages, the beach and sprawling urban centres. One of the projects involves levelling a school playing field. Then Anne is helping out in eye clinics and those for babies, sleeping on a mattress in a tiny room with men and using washing facilities which would have made me resort to wet wipes. I loved the scenes when she was putting together a sparkly outfit for a formal Bangladeshi wedding. It was fascinating to learn about the multiple phases of these weddings. I have taught Bangladeshi students about relationships and marriage as part of A-level Psychology, and while we explored cultural differences in these, I knew that various ceremonies were involved, but not that they take place over many days. The wonderful, turmeric ceremony seems steeped in history and symbolism. I also really enjoyed the sections based in Old Dhaka. The extremely atmospheric descriptions had me googling images, so keen was I to see it represented graphically.

I really liked Anne’s Australian friend, Christine, who is down to earth and practical. She and Anne made a good partnership and their friendship provided a buffering for Anne while she found her feet, but I felt we learnt more about Anne after Christine left. This isn’t a criticism at all, as Anne is describing what happened. I always like those friendships that we all make when we are away from home and undergoing something challenging. I also really liked Anne’s local companions, ‘tour guides’ and protectors, Hasina and Munnu, whose loyalty and concern were very touching.

For me, the book is part memoir and part travelogue … and much more. While it is one which inspired her to set up the charity, Bhola’s Children, and is thought provoking, it isn’t a book which is trying to make you give to charity, or make you feel guilty about poverty, disease and inequality. One of the quotes about the book is that “A Blonde Bengali Wife shows the lives beyond the poverty, monsoons, and diarrhoea” and I think this is extremely accurate. Anne refers repeatedly to what stuck out for her: the people. The shared moments, the sad and funny occurrences, the small things Anne had in common with those she met, were all poignant. For me, they emphasised how cultures may vary but how so many aspects of human experience are universal. What’s clear is that life will never be the same for Anne after this exchange.

If you are looking for a read which is a bit different, which is vivid and transporting, I highly recommend A Blonde Bengali Wife. It made me want to go to the airport and get on the first plane to Bangladesh. Who’s coming?

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Vicky Newham © 2015

 


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The Oval Chalet, Whitstable: so many questions, so few answers

When I first started coming to Whitstable, I noticed the plot of land in between the Tile Warehouse and the sea. On my walks I would wonder why it was so overgrown and neglected. Given its prime, seafront location, I started researching its history. The ‘closing down’ sign hung outside the Tile Warehouse for years, so I wasn’t surprised when people told me that its owners were waiting to buy it. Rumour, of course. Except – four years later, this is exactly what has happened. On 21st January, contracts were exchanged for the sale of the plot for the alleged sum of £160k, to the owners of the Tile Warehouse, completion dependent on successful planning permission.

When I learnt about the sale, I asked around. Had anyone known it was for sale? Nope. I asked on Twitter and Facebook. It was mentioned in the council agenda for x meeting, someone told me. I looked it up. There it was. Surely the council put it out to tender? Mumble, mumble … agendas … minutes … a closed meeting. A what? Oh yes, completely normal. After a bit of digging around, I learnt that the council did not make it public knowledge that the plot was for sale and met with the owners of the Tile Warehouse instead (now under the name of Sea Street Developments) and agreed a sale with them. Since then we have learnt a number of things.

  • In October 2014, the previous Executive at the council, decided to continue negotiations with Sea Street Developments, even though the recommendation by council officers was for a tender to achieve a ‘clean sale and early capital receipt’.
  • Urban Delivery, who valued the plot, were given an inaccurate description of the site, claiming it had no access. It is believed they spoke to the developers about the land but it appears no site visit was undertaken, just a desktop valuation.
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Access is available down this slope

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This access route is shown on the up-to-date title deeds but was not shown on the ones give to Urban Delivery

  • The sale contract is conditional on planning consent but failed to commit the developers to the public open space which was agreed for the plot when it was sold to Canterbury City Council.
  • When initial plans were floated for the development, they showed some open space but the ones drawn up by Lee Evans, to submit for planning application, have been altered and now show almost no open space, simply a tiny kiosk with a bit of ‘landscaping’ around it and steps. And no provision for ‘the aged’ of the town, just 18 holiday lets and second homes.
  • When the petition was being circulated, and documents requested, the council took ages sending out the files. Did this mean that councillors at the meeting on 17th October hadn’t seen – or had time to read – everything? And why was the Freedom of Information request turned down to know the exact sale figure?
  • At the 17th October meeting of the Planning and Regeneration committee, councillors voted for the sale process to be reviewed but not the actual sale.
  • At the 22nd October meeting the review by the Chief Executive, Colin Carmichael, was discussed. In public, most councillors agreed that the sale had not been dealt with well but in the non-public session they voted against the proposal for the Oval Chalet contract to be reviewed by full council and whether best value has been obtained.

This sale and development are so difficult to evaluate. It is hard to be objective when this is the last piece of seafront land in Whitstable. Different aspects of the situation bother different people. The way the human brain works, it is inevitable that ‘other issues’ get stirred into the mix. I have noticed a number of opinions and responses to the Oval Chalet sale. One of these is to form one’s view of the development based on one’s view of the developers, ie. the Greens. Another is to roll in one’s views on tourism, visitors, DfLs, traffic, parking, second homes. The second home issue is relevant: the planned development will bring in no section 106 contribution to local services. Others say that no-one has bothered about the land for ages, so why the concern all of a sudden? This last one is absolutely not the case. Many approaches have been made to CCC, and they have been turned down. The lease with the Yacht Club, to use the site as boat storage, precluded other ideas anyway. And a local resident has emails going back several years which document her questions to CCC about the Oval Chalet, and their repeated reassurance that they would tell her if plans were afoot to sell. (They didn’t)

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The site has been described by CCC as ‘a difficult one’ and ‘difficult to develop’ – this is the view from it onto Reeves Beach.

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Neglected, overgrown and in need of development, yes. But always intended to be public open space.

For me, as a psychologist, evidence is crucial. I don’t like witch hunts and I don’t like unnecessary blaming. I also don’t think conspiracy theories are helpful. Asking questions, assuming to know the answer and presenting a theory isn’t helpful. But asking questions and wanting answers is part of democracy, isn’t it? Having been a teacher since 2002, I believe that accountability is important. In a school the head teacher has a senior management team but ultimately he/she is accountable for what goes on. In the case of the Oval Chalet there are so many questions which have not been answered satisfactorily, the void of not knowing easily gives rise to suspicion and doubt. Everyone admits there has been a series of errors and oversights. Some see these as simple mistakes. Others believe they verge on neglect of duty and deliberate attempts to mislead. It is impossible to claim to know the motivations of those concerned. Only they know what they did and why.

I would like to outline what I believe the questions are. And I call on CCC to answer them:

  1. Can the previous Executive members, or the five remaining councillors who served on that body, explain why the recommendation by council officers to put the Oval Chalet out to tender was ignored, and the current development pursued?
  2. What responsibility do Urban Delivery have for their valuation based on the notion of the plot having no access?
  3. Did Urban Delivery make a site visit?
  4. Who gave Urban Delivery the inaccurate plot description and drawings?
  5. Who drew up the sale contract and why did it not include a condition that public open space was to be provided?
  6. To what extent can the current Executive be held responsible for a decision made by the previous one?
  7. To what extent are individuals responsible who were part of the decisions and negotiations?
  8. Has the Chief Executive discussed the significant plan changes with the developers, specifically the fact the public open space has now disappeared from the application?
  9. Has the Chief Executive discussed the valuation issues with the developers?
  10. What legal advice has been taken about the potential consequences of not completing on the sale, and re-negotiating the contract or offering it out to tender? (There are widely diverging views on what these consequences may be and the idea that a judge would just order CCC to hand over the land is not a fait accompli)
  11. What was the point of agreeing to a review of the sale process when the sale itself was to stand?
  12. Was Colin Carmichael the right person to conduct the review?
  13. Why is he reluctant to get a second opinion on the value of the plot given the inaccuracies on which the Urban Delivery one is based?
  14. Why did CCC not make it public that the plot was available? Do they expect residents to learn of upcoming issues and decisions by trawling through lengthy council agendas and meeting minutes? Who on earth has the time to do this? And – what sort of communication is that?

So, CCC – over to you.

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