Vicky Newham


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Burnt Cakes and Pastel Pink Bloomers

The front door is wide open, as it always is, so I saunter in and deposit my school bag in the hall. The smell of burnt cake summons me to the kitchen where my grandmother is trimming a layer off two circular sponges with a bread knife. ‘Your mother rang,’ she explains, and dusts sugar off her fingers. ‘I forgot all about the oven.’

Fifteen minutes later we’re devouring homemade Victoria Sandwich in front of a crackling fire. Jam and cream squish between my fingers; the sweet, buttery cake is heavenly, and the fire is warming my back.

‘But do you love him, child? And are you happy?’ She asks when I tell her my parents have taken against my boyfriend, my first ever boyfriend. ‘That’s all that matters.’ She pats my hand, and in that moment something in her eyes shines a light on my confused teenage world.

My head wiggles an acknowledgement of how much her words matter to me, and I try to swallow the lump which has emerged in my throat: relieved someone understands how I feel; sad my mother doesn’t; desperate to squeal yes, yes, yes, I love him more than anything.

In the bigger picture, of course, what mattered wasn’t a boyfriend, that one or any other; it was the importance of deciding for myself what is – and isn’t – right for me, and what dreams I wish to nurture.

Encounters such as these occurred a handful of times before my grandmother died but they’ve etched themselves on the inner folds of my psyche.  A few years after the cake episode, I bumped into my grandmother in the street in Chichester. I was studying for my A-levels at the time and was relishing new-found freedom, whereas my poor grandmother had been progressively losing hers. Told not to drive by her GP, that day she’d given her residential carer the slip and got the bus from where she lived in order to do some shopping. It was this spirit which marked her out. She refused to be subdued in the same way that she refused to allow cynicism to infect her thinking. ‘It’s safe here,’ she always replied when asked to shut and lock her front door. Of course, she closed it at night but she didn’t lock it and she would often pop to the village shop and leave it open. In those days, and in that place, perhaps she was right: she never got burgled. It’s the trust which impressed me.

Another emotional memory of my grandmother is that she waited years for the house she wanted to live in with her family. She and my grandfather (who I never met) bought another house in the same village and asked the owners of their dream one, in a polite, English way, to let them know when they wanted to sell. The house in Singleton, which I knew, was her dream home. It may seem materialistic to fixate on a particular place to live but I don’t see it that way. She was somehow touched by its magic and waited patiently. When they eventually moved in, she made it into a place which everyone loved going to, and one which gave her immense contentment for decades.

Other memories are simply funny. She would never kill spiders; she would swoop them up in a voluminous pair of pastel-coloured knickers and chuck them out the window. We’d arrive for Sunday lunch and find her bloomers in the dahlias outside the kitchen or in the roses in the front garden. I am terrified of spiders and whenever I manage to relocate one, I always think of Granny’s knickers!

I’m sad that I didn’t get to spend much time with my grandmother but I also appreciate what an amazing and inspiring woman she was.When people visit me, I want to cook for them. In situations where I don’t know what to do, she is the person I channel. When I think I’ve got my priorities wrong, or world events are affecting how I feel, I bring to mind what my grandmother would say. I imagine her patting my hand, calling me ‘child’ and reminding me of the importance of happiness and love.

International Women’s Day 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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Submitting to agents and choosing the ‘right’ one

Since signing with Peters, Fraser & Dunlop in July 2016, I’ve had a lot of emails asking me about the submission process, and my agent, Adam Gauntlett, so I decided to write a blogpost. All I can say is how I used the advice I obtained, and went about things. It makes me sad when I read tweets and articles saying it’s impossible to get anywhere in publishing unless you have contacts, a private income and/or are supported financially. There are enough hurdles to overcome without unhelpful beliefs such as these. I don’t have any contacts, and I support myself.

 

Opening doors, timing and the book

At a talk which local author, Peggy Riley, gave about getting your novel ready for submission, she said that if you’re going to knock on doors, it’s important to consider the timing. I quickly discovered that it’s easy to talk about the novel you’re writing and drum up interest but if your book’s not ready to send out, it can be pointless. You will simply get, ‘Great. Contact me when it’s finished.’ If you get interest in your novel, you need to be able to send out the full MS within a day, preferably straightaway. If you cannot do that, I don’t think it’s worth querying agents. If you send out your book before it’s ready, you could blow your chances with that agent or book, and you may not find out why. You might get a chance with another book, or a substantial re-write, but you might get pigeon-holed as an average/dull/poor/whatever writer.

Several years ago, I had an agent ask to read my first novel. I rewrote it a few times, but what I sent wasn’t submission-ready, partly because I was over-excited (I know, can you believe it?!) and impatient. I got some useful and very encouraging feedback from it, perhaps because he’d asked to read it, but actually it would have been better to have rewritten that novel several more times and then sent it. As it turned out, someone published a novel with a very similar plot, so I shelved that book and wrote another.

It can be useful to do pitching events if you want a bit of feedback on your concept and writing, but it’s also important to bear in mind that your work will be judged on a small sample and a very short synopsis: polishing 2,500 words isn’t the same as re-writing 100,000 words and getting your structure and pace right. If the feedback you get is encouraging, that can be validating. If it’s bad, it can really knock your confidence. Whatever it is, though, it’s only the opinion of one person. I did a couple of one-to-ones at the York Festival of Writing in 2012. I pitched my first book to Juliet Mushens and Hellie Ogden. They were both lovely, and enthusiastic about the premise of the book and my writing, so it was a very positive experience for me – but, crucially, I was unable to follow it up as I hadn’t finished re-writing the book. When I then met Juliet to discuss my dissertation novel, I had to explain what happened with the previous one.

Regarding pitching at festivals, I know some people get their agents that way, but I decided the best approach for me was to submit through each agency, with a proper sample, detailed synopsis and cover letter. I find pitching sessions a little like speed dating but without the alcohol …!

Personally, I do not believe that all feedback is useful and I find it most useful when I’ve done my absolute best first. I also need to trust and respect the person giving the feedback.

 

Courses and masterclasses

There are numerous courses designed to demystify and ease the agent submission process. I always look carefully at who teaches any course I’m interested in, and what their credentials and experience are. I did a Guardian masterclass with the literary agent, Juliet Mushens. I knew and liked Juliet as she supervised my MA dissertation (which became my novel). Two of her authors, Jessie Burton and Francesca Haig, came along and talked through their submission processes. I also did a Guardian masterclass with Scott Pack, who I knew from Twitter. He’s worked as a bookseller and buyer, editor, and publisher. Between the two of them, what they don’t know about the industry isn’t worth knowing. Whenever I go on courses, I’m a complete geek: I write down everything, and write up my notes afterwards. And I followed their advice to the letter.

I saw on Twitter last night that Scott has written an e-book based on his masterclass, which can be found here.

 

Researching agents and agencies

If you query an agent, and they read your MS and offer you representation, you need to be prepared to work with that agent or turn them down. I decided, therefore, it was essential to only submit to agents whose comments and wish list appealed. I spent ages with the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. I took notes from Agent Hunter and Query Tracker. I googled each agent, and read everything that had been written and said about/by them, making notes. I used this information to personalise my query letters.

When you identify an agent you want to query, check out their agency. Are they a new agent? How big is the agency? If they work alone, who handles their subsidiary rights? Can they handle film and TV inquiries? How many clients does the agent have, and who are they? What deals has the agent made? Does the agency appeal as a whole? (When I went to meet Adam at PFD, the first thing I saw when I came out of the lift was a dog’s toy. Good sign!)

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD.

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD

It’s really important to read and adhere to the submission guidelines for each agent and agency. Some are similar but some are specific, and even have their own submission portal. I had various documents of different lengths. Do check how your MS may fit their requirements. If they ask for the first three chapters, and your first three amount to five pages, you may want to re-jig the chapter breaks. I am sure it’s true that the first page is a good indicator of your writing, and the particular book, but a few pages won’t show much about your structure, pace, dialogue etc.

 

Market research, deals and debuts

In 2012 I went to my first London Book Fair and Crimefest, then Theakston’s crime writing festival in Harrogate in 2013. The debut author panels at these events are informative about what novels have been bought a year earlier by which publishers and from which agents. I went to every panel I could at each subsequent Crimefest, sat in the front row and took notes! I also started using Twitter more often, and reading announcements in the Bookseller. The Bookseller gives an indicator of which agents are selling, and the sorts of books publishers are buying. I firmly believe that you have to write the book that fires you up, but it is important to get a feel for the market, and know where your book fits in your genre or category.

I quickly saw that some agents were getting good deals for debut authors, and actively like working with them while others seem less keen. I also noticed that attitudes to the slush pile vary. If people make it very difficult for you to submit to them, it’s worth thinking about. Response time varies enormously. Some agents state they can take up to two months to read your submission. Some reply and some don’t. I only queried a dozen or so agents but most of them I heard back from very quickly, including a couple on the day I subbed.

This brings me on to editorial input. Some agents like to take on books which don’t need much/any work before they can be subbed to editors. Others enjoy working with their clients editorially. It is often the case that the more clients an agent has, the less time they will have to work with you on your MS. It’s worth considering whether you want detailed editorial input from an agent, what it will involve and whether representation is contingent on you making certain changes.

It’s also useful to check out which agents represent the authors of books you like. I looked up agents who rep crime novels which are a little ‘different’. My series isn’t a traditional police procedural. I call it #UrbanNoir. It combines the police procedural with reflection on cultural dislocation, urban life and the psychology of violence. The crimes stem from the psycho-geography and socio-economics of Tower Hamlets in East London. I thought it was important to flag up these aspects (not all of them) in my query letter, and make it clear from the opening of the novel.

 

Social media

I find it hard to mention social media without a groan emerging. While it can be a major time-suck, and the rabbit holes and misunderstandings can be awful, I’ve found Twitter a fabulous way to gain information and get to know people. Many of the people I got in contact with on Twitter, in 2012, I quickly met in real life at events and festivals.

It is worth thinking about what you post, not just from the point of view of libel laws but general perception. The reason I say this is because in the last week an editor told me he’d checked out my Twitter feed, and a TV production company executive told me he’d read a blogpost I’d written on education and social mobility. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. That said, my rule for social media is the same as for everything else: to be myself. I use Twitter and Facebook for having a laugh, posting pix of the dog and the sea, and enthusing about books and dramas I like. I post about stuff which interests and bothers me. It is useful for getting a feel for what people are like. Most agents are on Twitter, so check them out.

 

Manuscript assessments, beta readers and feedback

I think it’s extremely difficult to know when your book is ready to send out on submission to agents. I don’t see agents as the people to use for feedback because they are extremely busy and you may not get any, or hear anything. In which case, how do you interpret that?

I decided not to query until I really thought my novel was ready. I was contemplating querying at one point but had reservations. Unable to decide whether my reservations were self-doubt and fear, or genuinely meant my book still needed work, I paid for a professional manuscript critique. In addition, an author friend offered to beta read for me. Having done two workshop modules on my MA, I knew I was okay with honest, constructive feedback. Unfortunately, the MS critique didn’t identify any strengths in my novel but listed a lot of ways I could write it differently. This was confusing and destructive for me, and I completely lost my confidence in the book and my own writing for at least a month. Fortunately, the report from my beta reader was more balanced and constructive, and another author friend offered to read for me, and gave me feedback. After a few weeks, I compiled a master list of all three sets of feedback, and set about making all the changes which felt right, ticking them off my list. After this, I rewrote the whole MS twice more, line by line, and read it aloud.

 

Which agent?

It helps to have a clear idea of the sort of person you will work well with. Having been a teacher for 10 years, I’ve had a lot of feedback from different people: as a teacher, you are ‘observed’ from the moment you step in the classroom. I also did the dissertation for my Effective Learning MA on feedback, and what is/isn’t helpful for learning. This has enabled me to clarify what feedback style works for me.

Above all, I wanted:

1) an agent I felt I could talk to, feel relaxed with and laugh with. You need to be able to be honest with your agent, and him/her with you. I didn’t want to have to have a gin before/after speaking to him (or both!). It is a business relationship but humour is a great defuser. (As Adam and I found out the first time I used tracking changes and didn’t realise you had to actually switch them on …! Gawd, the embarrassment.)

2) an agent whose judgement I respect, and who I trust.

3) an agent who liked my book on its own merits, not because others were interested in it.

When it came down to it, I was very lucky. I very quickly got several offers of representation. I also made my decision before everyone who had my full MS got back to me. Why? Because my gut feeling told me Adam was the right fit.

Do get clear before you sign with an agency what edits the agent is going to request, and whether you have a similar vision for the novel. None of the edits Adam suggested were deal breakers, and they’ve all helped to make the book stronger and tighter. I think it’s important to know what edits you are prepared to make and which will fundamentally change the book for you.

 

Attitude and beliefs

Assuming you want one, getting an agent is one step along the traditional route to a publishing contract. If you believe it won’t happen, that things like that happen to other people but not you, it’s unlikely to. If you believe it’s possible, it’s more likely. And if you can nurture the determination to do your absolute best, to get your novel as good as it can be, you’re in with a chance. Then, you can let go and see what happens. Expect nothing, hope for the best and believe it can occur.

On Facebook today, I got one of those memory things. Two years ago today I handed in the dissertation which became my novel. I began writing it in early 2014. Since then, I’ve re-homed a crazy puppy, finished my MA, finished the novel, bought three flats, done two up and sold them, written the first draft of another novel and half the follow-up of this one.

My point? ‘Luck’ and timing all come into play. All the rest is hard graft, and takes a lonnnng time.

 

Asking for advice

When I was subbing to agents, numerous author pals gave me advice on Facebook and privately. It was hugely appreciated and very helpful. I have written this post as I want to encourage people to feel optimistic about querying. All the agents I’ve dealt with have been really lovely, and there are lots of people around to ask for help. Everyone who’s written a novel knows how hard it is, and in itself is a massive achievement.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 


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Stuff Kevin – we need to talk about education!

The more I hear about education and social mobility, the more it worries me. To be specific, what bothers me is the claim by some ministers that the purpose of education should be social mobility.

I don’t have a vested interest here: I don’t have a child who’s failed entry tests or been turned down by the school of their choice. My interest in this subject derives from having gone into teaching because I’m passionate about learning, and left the profession because I realised the system isn’t about learning. I believe we are making some serious errors if we don’t radically re-think what we see as the purpose of education, and bring our system back in line with goals which will help our kids most and prepare them for a happy, healthy life.

My first teaching school was a comprehensive in Stepney in London’s East End. Tower Hamlets is a fabulous, vibrant and diverse borough but a quick google will tell you about the disadvantage faced by many groups living there. At the school where I taught for four years, the percentage of pupils on free school meals was very high. Forget A-levels. At the time, while Tony Blair was championing the belief that everyone should go to university, I witnessed the frustrations and disappointments of kids whose language and literacy levels were significant barriers for them in preparing for GCSEs. It was as though they were expected to wade through treacle to get to a destination which someone else was telling them they should want. For many, what would have helped and empowered them was greater learning support (including provision in the sixth form), more EAL classes, and a system which valued skills and learning rather than tests, targets, exams, qualifications and predictions.

Of course education can help kids to learn and access vocational and higher education. These, in turn, can help them to reach beyond their socio-economic origins, if they want to. But the idea that the purpose of education should be social mobility is, in my opinion, as misguided as it is unhelpful. And the possible reintroduction of grammar schools is not going to be the solution which many ministers and pundits claim it will be. Schools which use an entrance exam to select pupils, inevitably advantage kids who’ve been to ‘better’ schools, or whose parents have been able to afford tutoring. Sometimes innate ability and application are enough to gain a place at a selective school. Often, though, they are not.

Amidst all of this, numerous things concern me, and their implications flutter about in my mind like birds trapped in an aviary at the zoo. In my ears I hear the echoes of many of my students’ voices, telling me they don’t want to go to university, or that they’re so confused by other people’s ideas for what their aspirations should be that they don’t know what they want. For kids who want to work in the family business or raise children, often what they need is to be able to read and write well, and to learn some life skills. They don’t need or want to be told that they should aspire to something else or ‘better’.

That said, there is nothing wrong with the desire to ‘better’ oneself, to grow, to develop. Aren’t many of us doing it one way or another? Who wouldn’t want to escape deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination? But there is something about the idea of making social mobility the purpose of education which implies that everyone should be unhappy with who they are and what their backgrounds are. Rather than being told we should want to be socially mobile, perhaps government could more usefully consider whether everyone wants that, and what other factors hinder that mobility, so it’s actually possible? The education system is only one of many factors which contributes. Others are: welfare policies; housing shortage and cost; skill demand and supply; health inequalities; discrimination and prejudice; and many factors connected to our status within the EU. Plus variables I’ve forgotten, I’m sure.

And if, by education, these ministers mean qualifications, what sort of social mobility are they going to result in? When qualifications enable young people to get into jobs, or onto higher education courses, which they then cannot do or hate, how is that helpful? What I mean is, they’ve often passed the exam but not learned the right skills or knowledge.

When I was teaching, vocational courses were becoming popular again and many students were relieved to escape traditional A-levels. However, some of these courses were still assessed via the traditional means of exams and coursework, and inevitably disadvantaged kids who struggled with language and literacy. Time and time again what I saw was that students of all ages needed greater learning and SEN support, and far more extensive access to EAL classes. Some faced insurmountable economic barriers. Some faced discrimination and prejudice. Others struggled to assess pervading social and cultural norms. It’s obvious though that what affects, and benefits, kids in one region of the country may not be relevant in another. Stepney is a world away from Wimbledon and Croydon (both places I’ve taught also). The South East is different from the North East, Wales and Scotland.

To my mind, what our education system requires is a curriculum which is useful to kids from the moment they start primary school, and one which will cater for the needs, preferences and abilities of all children. The system should be free, and should offer equal access to all. In addition, rather than having someone else’s vision of what they should want stuffed at them, I see a greater need for much earlier help with option assessment and decision-making. Like most teachers, I’ve taught all manner of pointless subjects in PSHE lessons, and I’ve had my suggestions for topics the kids really need to know about fall on deaf ears. I’ve also seen scores of students put on courses they aren’t suited to, or don’t want to do.

The way I see it, education needs to prepare youngsters for the complexity, challenges and wonderfulness of life. For dreaming their own dreams, and making informed choices about what they want. This should be its primary purpose.

Radical, isn’t it?

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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Asking For It by Louise O’Neill – a review

I haven’t read O’Neill’s first book and knew very little about this one before I started it, just a few key details and the sledgehammer title. I’d read a couple of interviews with the author and was interested in what she wanted to achieve with the book. I remember watching the 1988 film, The Accused, with Jodi Foster. I was shocked at some of the attitudes portrayed in this film and how a vulnerable girl’s life can be ruined through rape. Asking For It is an example of how fiction can be used to highlight social issues. In this case, it works brilliantly because O’Neill simply lays out a story in a clever way. There is no moralising. She leaves the reader to absorb the events and reactions and make up their own mind.

In Asking For It, eighteen year old Emma O’Donovan – Emmie – and her friends live in the small town of Ballinatoom. They spend their time, when they aren’t at school, on Facebook, Snapchat, texting and taking photographs of each other and themselves. Their lives centre around who is doing what with whom, who fancies whom, and worrying about what people think of them. Not unusual, you might say, for teenagers.

One night, there’s a party and ‘everyone’ is there. Emma is drunk – as are her friends. Emma wants to be the centre of attention. She wants to know that people find her beautiful and that the boys fancy her. Quickly a situation escalates and alcohol and drugs interfere with Emma’s faculties. The next morning, her parents find her on the front porch of her house. She has no idea what happened. When she gets to school, no-one will talk to her or sit with her, and she is subjected to whispering and finger pointing. Then she discovers the photographs on the internet. Taken at the party, they show what happened to Emma that night. And she reads the comments of her friends and peers. Overnight she has gone from being someone who was looked up to, and sought out, to someone who is vilified, shunned and blamed.

Emma isn’t a likeable character. O’Neill says that she deliberately made her that way so that the reader would find it difficult to empathise and sympathise with her. She is vain, narcissistic, and shallow. She has friends but doesn’t treat them nicely. What she desperately wants is to feel loved by her parents, and for them to take an interest in her and her life. Given this doesn’t happen, Emma looks to others to validate her and to provide her with the self-esteem she so badly lacks. Although the book blurb describes her as happy, I didn’t see her that way. To me, she seems desperately unhappy and lonely and lost. These aspects made me extremely sympathetic towards her. She refers to secrets within the family and I wasn’t sure what these were. She seems to be almost invisible to her father, and her mother has moments of affection but on the whole is remote. Both parents are more concerned with how their daughter makes them look rather than whether she is happy and healthy.

This novel isn’t an easy read. It isn’t escapism. It isn’t relaxing. Nor is it entertainment. It portrays, in a highly realistic way, a chain of events which are extremely disturbing. It raises the problematic issues of responsibility and consent. And it lays in front of the reader a number of factors which contribute to the prevailing attitudes around rape. It highlights gender differences in the way that attraction and arousal can play out, physiologically and psychologically. With the wonderfully unsubtle title, the reader is asked to consider: was Emma ‘asking for it’?

For me, the interesting elements are how socialisation contributes to rape culture and how people react when someone makes a mistake and/or challenges the status quo.  Emma’s parents love the fact their daughter is beautiful, and the glory this brings them, as long as she is a ‘good girl’. Their world is one of appearances, worrying about conforming to cultural, religious and social norms, and worrying about how others see them. How does this affect their daughter and inform her attitudes? When she falls from grace, it’s their reputation they are concerned about rather than their daughter’s well-being. This made me furious. Not because it is unusual but because of how common it is. We also see what happens when things get taken out of Emma’s hands. This bounces her into taking a position. Her own confusion about her role in what happened is also highly poignant. It leaves her vulnerable to being swayed into giving varying versions of events based on the reactions of others to what she says. This upset me hugely. It is highly influential in why people don’t report rape: because they’re confused about whether they are in fact victims of a crime and fear that people won’t believe them.

However, for all its commentary around rape culture, Asking For It is every bit as much about the narcissistic, social media obsessed, smartphone, selfie society that has developed. The culture which encourages people to record and document their every move on social media as if it never happened unless it was photographed and uploaded. And it is also a sad tale of how people in communities – whether that is a family, a company, a town – can turn on a person when they behave in ways which they perceive break acceptable norms. The boys in the story are hero-worshipped. How could they do wrong? This means that Emma is lying and someone else to blame. Isn’t it fascinating how certain groups of people are put on pedestals in this way? How many ‘pillars of the community’ have got away with abuse simply because no-one wants to accept the possibility that they aren’t infallible and perfect: they are flawed individuals, just like the rest of us.

It is difficult to talk about the narrative aspects of Asking For It without getting sucked into the issues it raises. The story is told from Emma’s viewpoint. I really cannot say that I ‘enjoyed’ it. How could you enjoy such a harrowing tale? I found it interesting and it felt – and feels – extremely important. It isn’t action-packed. There are long sections where Emma and her friends are hanging out and where Emma is reflecting on her life and remembering events. As you would expect from teenage attention spans, the narrative moves around! I thought that this made it believable. O’Neill portrays Emma’s rumination brilliantly. She is bewildered, disappointed and unable to move on. The novel has many heart-warming moments amidst its bleakness, however. Emma’s brother eventually takes her side. And Conor. Lovely, lovely, Conor. Who sees through Emma’s defences and unhappiness and loves her – but who is invisible to her.

I think everyone should read this book, men and women of all ages. And discuss the issues. If a girl dresses provocatively, behaves flirtatiously, gets drunk and takes drugs, are they asking to be raped? And if they are, to what extent is it their fault? Like violence, sexual assault is a topic which many people don’t want to think or talk about. And it is this reluctance to shift the ‘elephant’ from the corner of the room onto the hearth rug under the light, where it can be looked at, which contributes to the silence when crimes are committed. When men hit women, they often come out with versions of ‘you made me’. When men rape women, the denial of responsibility is often similar. O’Neill says in an interview (my interpretation) that women are taught not to get raped but men aren’t taught not to rape. It’s simple: where consent isn’t given or isn’t possible, it is not consensual sex.

My copy of the book was bought from Amazon.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Sewing the Shadows Together by Alison Baillie – author Q&A and book review

Alison Taylor-Baillie

Alison, welcome to the blog for the second week of your blog tour.

Congratulations on your wonderful novel. I very much enjoyed reading it. I thought I’d ask you some questions about the writing aspect of it and also about some of the psychological themes.

1. How long did it take you to write Sewing the Shadows Together? Can you tell us about your path to publication?

It took about eighteen months to write, helped by attending two Arvon courses. When I first started I wasn’t thinking about getting published– I was writing for myself, just to see if I could do it. However, when I finished I thought I might as well give publishing a try. I had an early boost when I was long-listed in the Mslexia Novel-Writing competition, but when I approached a few agents there was no interest at all so I decided to self-publish. As I’m not very technically-minded I went for assisted self-publishing with Matador. You pay for their services, of course, but they give good support and I’m very pleased with the very professional final product.

2. I read on your website that the story is one which has been gestating for many years. Can you tell us what the inspiring event was and how it grew into your plot?

In the seventies and eighties I was an English teacher in Edinburgh secondary schools. At that time there were several high-profile cases, the World’s End Murders and Robert Black, the serial killer, was active very near where I lived (my grandmother’s garden shed was even searched).Even after the cases seemed to be resolved I couldn’t stop thinking about the families and friends of the victims – how did they ever get over something like that? The germ of the plot came into my head then but it took over thirty years before I finally wrote the book which had been gestating, as you say, for so many years.

3. Did you have to make many changes to your plot as you wrote, revised and edited it? How did these come about? 

Because the plot had been germinating in my mind for such a long time I had a pretty clear idea of the plot and characters before I started writing and, in some ways, the story sprang out fully formed. However, as I was writing, the plot and characters took on a life their own and I was constantly going back to rewrite the beginning chapters as the characters and plot diverged from my original plan. What I found strange was that whenever I made a change I had to alter comparatively little, as if I’d just wandered off track for a while and found my way back to the real story.

4. What have you learnt from writing Sewing the Shadows Together and getting it published? Has this affected you as a writer and reader?

I’ve learnt that I can actually do it – I wasn’t at all sure when I started that I would ever finish it. I’ve also started going to crime-writing festivals and I’ve been amazed by the support and encouragement I’ve received from the rest of the crime-writing community. As a reader I’ve been introduced to a lot of new writers so my list of favourite authors is now even longer.

5. I see you were a teacher. Snap! Does anything about that experience help or hinder you as a writer and novelist?

At crime-writing festivals I was surprised how few English teachers there were among the panellists – lots of journalists, lawyers etc. You’d think there would be more as we studied English literature and are mostly great readers. I think it may be that teaching is so emotionally-draining and time-consuming – there is always something to prepare or mark – that there just isn’t time. I didn’t begin writing until I stopped teaching, but I think my experience has helped me. I’ve analysed so many great works of literature and given so much advice about structure and character development over the years that something must have rubbed off. Also, after all those years of correcting essays, I’m a good proof-reader!

6. In Sewing the Shadows Together, the police investigation takes a back seat to the interactions and relationship dynamics. I’m sure this was deliberate. Can you tell us why you specifically wanted to focus on these latter aspects?

It’s partly because I don’t know very much about police procedure, only what I’ve learnt from reading crime novels and watching TV. However, the focus of the book is definitely ordinary people and how a murder affects their relationships and emotions.

7. One of the book’s themes seems to be about how people are affected when the past re-emerges. What is it about this that interests you?

I love reading books where we gradually find out why people act because of what has happened in the past. And as you get older you realise that hardly anyone is exactly as they seem and that if you scratch the surface of any relationship you uncover hidden secrets.

8. Similarly, the book opens with Tom returning to Portobello after a childhood tragedy prompted his family to leave Scotland. Was this always the starting point for the novel?

The first scene was originally written as an exercise on a writing course; I cut it down a bit, but Tom returning to Portobello and confronting the demons of the past was always the starting point. Then I attended a school reunion at my old school in Ilkley in Yorkshire and I realised that this was the ideal way to bring everyone together.

9. Part of the plot involves a miscarriage of justice. What appeals to you about this phenomenon?

I became very interested in miscarriages of justice and have read extensively on it, books, articles on the internet and have followed campaigns. I was horrified by what I read – people’s lives ruined, often on the flimsiest of evidence. And now the government is wriggling out of compensating people who have been wrongly imprisoned – which is another scandalous development.

10. The reader never learns how Logan Baird feels about the miscarriage. Was this for a particular reason? Did you have a sense of how he felt?

He was originally going to play a more important role in the story, but I realised it didn’t fit in with the main theme, so all we really learn about his story is from the TV programme with the Rev Hamish Mackay. I have the feeling that Baird, who has mental health issues and has been wrongly imprisoned since the mid-seventies, will find it very difficult to adapt to life in the twenty-first century. He always maintained his innocence, which is one reason he was never even considered for parole – a scandalous Catch-22 situation – and seemed to find some comfort in religion.

11. A lot of people have secrets in the book. What is it about secrets which interests you?

I think all the most interesting characters in literature have secrets. Sometimes we can question people’s actions and only afterwards do we realise that there are secrets in their past life which have formed this behaviour.

12. Whose character did you most enjoy writing in the novel and why? What do you like about their character and what do you find frustrating?

I enjoyed writing Flora, Sarah’s mother .because she has such a distinctive voice she just seemed to write herself. Also she is so awful, so insensitive, snobbish and self-absorbed, that her character was very vivid to me – nasty characters are easier to write than nice ones, where there is always the danger that they can come across as a bit bland.

13. Finally, can you tell us what writing ‘means’ to you? Why do you write? Do you only write fiction?

I love writing – I love creating another world and I see the characters as real people. As I was writing the book I could hear them speaking to me and my book world almost seemed more real, and more interesting, to me than the outside world. I’ve also tried writing poetry – but as you can tell from the doggerel in Sewing the Shadows Together I have no talent so I’ll stick to crime writing!

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Sewing the Shadows Together – my review

Set mainly in Edinburgh, but with sections in the Outer Hebrides and South Africa, Sewing the Shadows Together is a highly enjoyable murder mystery with a strong romance element. It begins with main character, Tom McIver, returning to Portobello in Edinburgh to take his mother’s ashes over to Eriskay. Edinburgh is full of memories for him: the sandy bay, his old school, the elegant buildings, his family home. And the culvert under the prom where his sister’s dead body was found thirty years earlier. Just thirteen, Shona, had been raped and murdered. Fortunately, the killer had been caught and sent to prison and Shona’s family and friends were able to grieve.

Tom attends a school reunion. Here, everyone’s memories are churned up. He sees some of the people he grew up with and went to school with. This includes Sarah who was Shona’s best friend. To make matters worse, Tom learns that modern DNA methods have now proved that Logan Baird was wrongly convicted for Shona’s murder, and news travels that the man is going to be released and the case re-opened. Understandably, this sends the community into free-fall. If it wasn’t Logan Baird, who who did kill Shona? The shocking revelation leads everyone to question what they thought they knew at the time, and who was where, doing what. It soon becomes apparent that no-one has been completely honest about what they were up to the evening Shona died, and everyone has something to hide. Including Tom. To further complicate things, Tom and Sarah realise that they are attracted to each other but there is one problem: Sarah is married to Rory.

In many ways the novel is about whether it’s possible to get over the death of a loved one, and the various ways in which people cope, outwardly and inwardly. Tom’s family left Edinburgh soon after the tragedy and moved to South Africa. Others remained living in the community where the tragedy took place. Having lived in a community linked to a terrible crime (I was living in Coulsdon when Meredith Kercher was killed), I remember how profoundly shocked the whole community was. Baillie vividly conveys the reactions and emotions of Shona’s friends and her brother. Each person has had to question whether they could have kept Shona alive if they had acted differently on that fateful evening.

Tom is desperate to find out what happened to his sister. I liked his character and, because he has suffered, wanted things to work out for him. He came across as a good man who wanted to do the right thing. As suspicions fall on a number of individuals in turn, I found it interesting to see how the characters reacted as it revealed their concerns, allegiances and vested interests. When people have secrets, self-interest and self-preservation can eclipse everything else and people start to panic.

In the novel, Baillie raises a fascinating question: do we ever really know the people closest to us? This is open to debate, and, to some extent, depends on whether you believe in the concept of a person being ‘born evil’. Can experiences and events in life turn us into ‘bad people’? Another possibility is that we all have the potential to ‘flip’ at any moment, and a final one is that we all exist on a continuum between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In psychology, personality theory is a vast and controversial area. Most psychologists believe that personality is a set of core traits which are relatively stable over time and across contexts. That would suggest it is possible to ‘know’ a person. However, theorists disagree over which are the core traits and not everyone believes that these are stable across all contexts. Defence mechanisms and facades can make people seem very different, and people can behave differently with different people. Certainly, history – and decades of crime novels – suggest that we can often be surprised by those supposedly closest to us.

I particularly enjoyed the Edinburgh and Hebrides settings in Sewing the Shadows Together, ones which the author clearly knows well and has affection for. I don’t know either, and it was wonderful to see the areas through the author’s eyes and those of her characters. It made me want to get straight on a plane and fly up to Scotland. I am sure that readers who live in, or know, the settings will really enjoy the book. The story flows beautifully with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and is well written. I found that I was swept along with the plot and wanted to know who had killed Shona. I love stories about secrets, particularly when people think they’ve got away with them and then discover they haven’t.

I only had one issue with the book narrative and this may simply be about my personal preferences: I felt that the Tom-Sarah love affair eclipsed the mystery aspect and could have been developed more subtly and gradually. They seemed to go from meeting up again to being in love almost immediately. However, every author is entitled to write their book the way they want to and I am sure that Baillie has her reasons for wanting their relationship to be the way she portrayed it.

In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you like secrets and intrigue, beautiful settings and a compelling mystery, Sewing the Shadows Together will appeal.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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‘Stirred With Love’ by Marcie Steele – a review

I first met Mel Sherratt in person at the London Book Fair in 2012 and she told me then about the books she had been writing under her pseudonym while self-publishing her crime fiction. Since then, and as a highly successful hybrid author, she has finally ‘come out’ as Marcie, with Bookouture as her publisher. At the time I met her, Mel was still struggling with back issues, and I was full of admiration for the way that determination and hard work have enabled her to get her books out into the world despite these challenges. What I love about her books is that they all have Mel’s distinctive voice, and her warmth and humour. She writes about people and situations which we can all relate to.

Stirred With Love tells the story of three women, Kate, Chloe and Lily, who are all at different stages of their lives but who are all facing decisions and/or coming to terms with sad events. Their lives converge when they hook up to run a business.

Kate Bradshaw might have beech kitchen units and cream worktops but she is fed up with the regular rows with her husband, Nick, and with waiting for him to come home from football related activities. Her friend, Louise, keeps trying to encourage Kate to leave him. When the opportunity arises for Kate to move away, with a job in a café and accommodation as part of the deal, Kate takes it.

A-level student, Chloe Ward, also sees the advertisement for help opening the café and views it as a chance to branch out from her family and stand on her own feet. After her mother’s death when she was seven she has appreciated her brother and father but nevertheless struggled to find her place in life and figure out ‘who’ she wants to be.

Lily Mortimer is hoping to re-open the café she used to run with her husband, Bernard. Older than the others, and with the option of retiring gracefully, Lily is unsure whether it’s the right thing to do, and whether she can pull it off. She decides to take the risk and see what happens, but realises that she needs help to do it.

This is such a great set-up for a novel. I love books about female friendships, about women who are at a crossroads in their lives and who find the courage to take a chance. The fact they are strangers also appealed to me as it is often the case that encounters with people we don’t know, under the strangest of circumstances, can be life-changing. When the women come together, and start working at the café, you just know that trouble is round the corner. Steele keeps the challenges coming for the three women and this gives the novel a good pace. I warmed to all three women and was rooting for them. When things go wrong, I wanted them to overcome them. Not everyone in the community is happy about the café re-opening, especially with its new ‘vision’ and team.

I was really keen to know how things would work out for Kate, Chloe and Lily. I kept wondering which way Steele would take the plot and there are plenty of surprises along the way. The ending works extremely well in my opinion. I can really see why Mel Sherratt likes writing women’s fiction as well as crime, and she does it brilliantly. This book is life-affirming in the best way possible. Life isn’t all peachy: we see characters take risks and strive to make changes in their lives when things are tough for them. Loved it.

My review copy of Stirred With Love was obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the author and publisher.

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Vicky Newham © 2015