Vicky Newham


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THE INTRUSIONS by Stav Sherez – a review

When you pick up a Stav Sherez novel, you know you’re in for something different. He weaves intricate layers into his stories, and cleverly transports the reader into mental landscapes beyond their imagining and into their worst nightmares. I tried to read The Intrusions slowly. It was my afternoon treat, and I wanted to savour the prose and mull the ideas over. I managed that for a third of the book, and then bolted through the rest, so desperate was I to find out what was going on at the (brilliantly named) Milgram hostel. I mean, with a name like that, you know something dodgy’s bound to happen, right?

The story begins with a girl in a dark alley, stumbling, and under the influence of a psycho-active substance or several. Then another girl arrives at Carrigan and Miller’s police station, saying her friend’s been abducted by a man who’s threatened to come back for her. From there, the reader is very quickly in the Hades-like world of the internet, faced with the stark reality of how much technology has changed all our lives – and continues to every minute of the day.

‘… what technology gives with one hand it takes away with the other,’ observes one character.

It’s fair to say that neither Carrigan nor Miller are on good emotional form in this book. Carrigan, in particular, I felt sorry for. He’s been through the wringer on the personal front and in this book we see his mother in hospital. His team are undergoing an audit which is allegedly about investigation expenditure but is really about rapping Carrigan’s knuckles over misdemeanours on a previous case. Life and time are slipping through Carrigan’s hands, and I was rooting for some reprieve to come his way, for a few feathers of hope for him to latch onto. Various aspects of Carrigan’s journey in this book had me stabbing at my kindle to gobble up the pages. I found the whole plot utterly addictive and completely terrifying. Sherez deftly uses technology to bring themes alive, and as part of the plot itself. The police, too, have had to change the way they investigate to keep up with developments. We experience events through Carrigan and Miller’s eyes, and as they reel through shock and horror, so does the reader.

CCTV prowled public spaces, Carrigan reflects, but the job pulled you into darker provinces where neither God nor cameras could penetrate.

In my opinion, it’s not possible to pigeon hole a Sherez book into a particular sub-genre. The Intrusions has identifiable elements of West London urban noir, serial killer thriller, techno-thriller, social realism and more. And then there’s Bali. Which I’ve now scrubbed off my bucket list!

‘You’ll never be alone again,’ one of the perpetrators tells the police. ‘If you use a phone or a computer or a TV, I’ll be there watching you.

As dénouements go, I found this one both electrifying and poignant.

‘Even if you catch me,’ says one of the suspects, ‘there’s hundreds of thousands just like me all over the word, looking for prey, and it’s only going to get a whole lot worse.’

Highly recommended and definitely one of my books of the year so far.

 

Vicky Newham ©2017

 


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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – a review

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Friendly single mother, Louise, meets David in a bar. Flirtation becomes a kiss, but it ends there. The next day, at work, Louise meets her new boss and gets a glimpse of his beautiful wife, Adele. Guess what? To Louise’s embarrassment, he’s the man from the bar. Then when Louise bumps into Adele on the street, they go for coffee together and start up a confiding friendship. It seems that it’s fresh starts all round. But while David says the kiss was a mistake, he cannot keep his eyes off Louise, and a love triangle develops.

The story is told from the point of view of Louise and Adele, and the reader quickly wonders which of the two is telling the truth, and whether Adele and David’s marriage is as perfect as it seems. With unreliable narrators, and a combustive domestic situation, it’s the perfect set-up for a twisty psychological thriller. But it’s also where Sarah Pinborough shakes things up.

What I adored about this book is the way the author deals with the subtle nuances of the inter-relationships, and brings them to life. For me – and it stands out in her YA novels too – Sarah Pinborough excels at writing relationships, and she brings an emotional intelligence to the many forms of communication which take place between people. She shows – in an often humorous, often poignant way – how easy it is to get drawn into a mutual obsession which escalates. And, with modern technology at everyone’s disposal, obsessions can be stoked and satisfied from the comfort of the sofa. Louise and Adele have very different lives, yet neither is happy.  The reader is privy to their reflections for all their honesty, neurosis and desperation. But what their reflections also show is how different people often are from the image they portray; how cruel and manipulative some people can be; how self-deception can eat away at their hopes and dreams.

Behind Her Eyes drips with menace from the first page, and that atmosphere continues throughout the novel. Most of the narrative is written in the present tense. It’s immediate and claustrophobic. It’s intimate and confessional. And it’s beautifully written.

What I admire about Sarah Pinborough is that with each novel she pushes her writing that bit further and is continually challenging genre boundaries. The #WTFthatending will certainly get people reading the book. And so it should. But in amongst the disturbing themes and dysfunctional characters, I also hope that people enjoy the subtle aspects of the book. After all, we know we can’t always trust others, but can we trust ourselves?

 

Vicky Newham ©2017


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SIRENS by Joseph Knox – a review

I’ve read this book twice now and both times it’s made me feel very strange for a while afterwards, the way a dream can possess and linger. I love books which do this. In the main, I don’t read for escapism or entertainment; I like books which make me think about life in a different way, books which make me feel. And I guarantee you will never feel the same again once you’ve read Sirens.

What drew me to the novel was the setting. I am fascinated by contemporary urban life and psycho-geography, and Manchester isn’t a city I’ve been to or know anything about. Once I was into the first page, though, it was the novel’s characters which intrigued me. It might be easy to think their lifestyles aren’t common but, having lived in London for years, and worked at night while I was studying, I know how realistic the author’s depiction is. I wonder whether cities necessarily create nocturnal characters who creep around in the shadows; perhaps it’s the complexity of modern life which so often results in the alienation and sense of being adrift which Sirens evokes? Large cities then attract and enable people to slide into a faceless cloak of anonymity, and lurk. ‘In spite of social media, CCTV and the state,’ DC Aidan Waits observes at the start of the book, ‘we still live in a world where you can disappear if you want to. Or even if you don’t.’ And Waits’ adopted world is one of seedy nightclubs and trafficked sex workers, gangs and drugs, canals and underground car parks. It’s a world of power, corruption and exploitation, where derelict building sites cosy up to penthouse apartment blocks and Hilton hotels.

With three strikes against him, Waits is sent undercover to check up on the seventeen-year-old daughter of local MP, David Rossiter. The girl, Isabelle, like her mother, has a history of depression and has run away and hooked up with drug dealer, Zain Carver. Waits’ boss wants to know which police officers are on Carver’s payroll. Waits observes and infiltrates Carver’s entourage. Rather than eat and sleep, he takes speed. The secrets which you know are there, gradually reveal themselves. It’s not a cheery world. It’s a powerful story of human alienation and suffering, and of the things people do to numb their pain and escape what they cannot face.

To me, the sirens of the title aren’t just the girls who collect Carver’s drug money. They’re our own self-destructiveness; the dangerous allure of the drugs and the lifestyle, of the lights which seem brighter at night. They’re a reminder of the rocks of Greek mythology, which can smash us all to death regardless of any vigilance we may possess.

The story in Sirens is devastating, but it isn’t all dark. I cared about Waits. His life trajectory – from the glimpses we get – shows how easy it is to take a wrong turn, then another, and find yourself completely lost. But he’s not a bastard or a psychopath. He cares about others, especially Isabelle and Catherine, perhaps more than he does himself, and genuinely wants to help them.

I see the author spent around ten years on the book. It’s difficult to believe that it’s a debut novel, mainly because the writing is so vivid and affecting. At times it’s staccato and sparse, at others it’s brutal and graphic and detailed. The whole narrative is steeped in ‘noir’ and many of the characteristics of US crime novels. Perfect.

Intense, visceral and raw, Sirens is a stand-out novel for me.

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Vicky Newham ©2016