Vicky Newham


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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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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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Q&A with Steve Mosby for the publication of I Know Who Did It

stevemosby

Steve, welcome to the blog!

Congratulations on the new novel, I Know Who Did It, which is out today. I was lucky enough to read an early copy at the end of August. Having already reviewed the book (linked at the bottom of this post), I thought it would be interesting to ask you a few questions about your writing and some of its psychological themes.

So, over to you.

 

1. On your website you refer to I Know Who Did It as the book that’s been the hardest to write. Can you tell us a little about this and how you feel now?

It’s certainly taken the longest, from start to finish. I started it in 2012, immediately after finishing Dark Room, and actually wrote a full draft that year. At that point, the story was very different. It had the same central idea, and several of the secondary characters that are in the finished version, but it was centred on Groves; none of the characters from The 50/50 Killer appeared in it, and the ending was very different. And it was a bit of a mess, to be honest. Back then, I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the idea work.

So I talked it over with Orion, and we agreed to shelve it for the time being. I went away, despondent at having basically wasted a year’s work, and started something new, which eventually became The Nightmare Place. But I couldn’t let the original idea go, and I decided to go back to it. And with that distance, I figured out that by splitting up a couple of the storylines and giving it all a different focus, I could make it work.

It’s actually not so different from how I’ve written any of them, really. My first drafts are always a bit exploratory. But I Know Who Did It is the first where I’ve had to abandon it and write an entirely new book in the middle of the process. I really, really hope it’s the last. I usually get a bit closer with the first proper draft than I did there.

 

2. There’s no snoozing with your novels! At any point, almost anything can happen and this creates an exhilarating read. Readers often don’t like ‘too predictable’ or ‘too unexpected’. I think you get the balance just right but have no idea how you do it. How and where do you draw the line?

Thank you! I appreciate that. I don’t really know, except to say that any unexpected developments emerge organically – hopefully – from the story as it develops. But I do think quite a lot about how to undermine or subvert things. For example, I’m not a big fan of reading or writing huge action scenes, so I tend to cut them off and take the book in a different direction. The ending of I Know Who Did It could have been a lot longer and more action-packed, but I always figure: why bother? That’s not the point, so why not just get to the point instead? So I often find I’m building up to something that in a more normal crime novel would go one way, and I decide to take it another instead. What’s the most interesting and unexpected thing that could happen here? It’s a good question to ask yourself. You can go anywhere you want, so long as it feels natural and doesn’t come totally out of the blue.

 

3. The new book sees a return of Mark Nelson and John Mercer, both of whom appeared in The 50/50 Killer. Why did you want to write about these characters again? Do you plan to do this with any of your other characters?

I’ve never deliberately set out to avoid writing a series; it’s just that standalones tend to suit me and the way I work. Because it always starts with an idea or a basic theme for me – not a story but a subject. So with Still Bleeding, it was “oh, I’d quite like to write about this online culture of sharing images of death, and what that says about us”. Or with Black Flowers, it was “I’m interested in how real life influences fiction, and then fiction can influence real life”. It’s always vague ideas like that, and from there, I develop a story and the characters I need to make it work. And since I like everything to fit together thematically as tightly as possible, I want characters that reflect the story and the subject matter – people I can fully explore and empty out through the book – and it’s usually easier to build them from the ground up. A series character comes with his or her own baggage, and that might clash with the wallpaper, if you see what I mean.

With I Know Who Did It, when I came back to look at it, I just realised that the characters from The 50/50 Killer worked with the themes and the ideas, and that it might be fun to return to them. The first book is very contained, and I’d never been able to see where to take them after that. But although I Know Who Did It is very different in some ways, it’s about similar concepts and has the same tone, and when I put the characters into it they didn’t seem out of place.

Whether I’ll do it with any of the other characters – I don’t know. Certainly not for the sake of it. But if the right idea comes up, I’d happily go for it. I mean, I know writing a series brings its own set of challenges, but for me, with this one, it really did help to have the characters lined up already.

 

4. Many of your books show ‘horror’ influences. Is this deliberate on your part and do you think that crime and horror are natural bed fellows?

I always wanted to write horror. When I was growing up, I fell in love with Stephen King’s books, and it was a short step from there to Dean R Koontz, Richard Laymon, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and so on. Those were the kinds of books I wanted to write. I think it was only as I got older and started to read more ‘slipstreamy’ stuff – people like Michael Marshall Smith, Graham Joyce, Jonathan Carroll etc – that I started to see what was possible and to blend different genres into my own writing. And I guess The Third Person could easily have been published as horror or SF, but the crime element stuck, and here I am. Which I like, because I find I can do whatever I want within the crime genre. It’s very flexible.

In general, I think crime and horror go together very well indeed. There’s a natural crossover there – to the point where books with a strong element of supernatural horror like John Connolly’s are published as crime, whereas you’ll find something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door on the horror shelf. Certainly, a lot of novels published as crime – the serial killer stuff, especially – could be packaged as horror instead. At heart, they’re basically ‘beat the monster’ stories: the serial killer could just as easily be a vampire, or whatever, and the point of the story would be the same. And I guess with some noir there’s this sense of existential horror: this bleak idea that we’re alone in an uncaring universe, making mistakes, and everything doesn’t necessarily turn out the way you might want it to. Crime fiction generally goes from order to chaos to order again at the end, whereas horror is allowed to leave you in chaos, and I think some crime fiction can do that too, albeit in less obvious ways.

 

5. In many of your books you play with what the reader ‘knows’ and thinks he/she knows. To an extent this is a trope of crime fiction but you do it in a very psychological way which makes for a particularly ‘Steve Mosby’ read. Can you tell us about this? Why and how you do it, and if anything is off limits?

I think I just like twists! And I tend to rate twists by how much of what you’ve read or watched you’re forced to re-evaluate in light of it. And since I tend to focus on the psychological side of things rather than, say, intricate plot machinations or big confrontations, the twists I try for generally happen on that side of things. I wouldn’t say my books have unreliable narrators as such, but they’re first person narratives, and I think people often do hide things from themselves to an extent. With first person, you’re listening to someone telling a story, and the story they tell is inevitably going to be biased and incomplete. And of course, you’re doing that too as the writer. But a twist has to feel right. That’s the boring answer to what’s off-limits: absolutely nothing is, so long as it works. It has to make sense and I think it also has to feel organic and even necessary on some intuitive level. There has to be a point to it – a moment of “oh god, of course the story had to go there; I get what it’s all about now”. That’s one of the differences between a top-drawer twist and, say, a character waking up, and there’s another character in the shower, and it was all a dream.

 

6. ‘Justice’ is a theme which occurs in your novels. What aspects of this interest you and how do you think morality complicates it?

Well, I think justice and morality are intertwined concepts. When someone does something immoral, justice is about them being punished; when someone behaves well, they should be rewarded. It’s not quite as simple as that, but it’s close enough. So the concept of justice is kind of predicated on the concept of morality. And that’s fine, because for the most part we share a sense of morality: it varies through time and around the world, but most of us growing up in the same stew of religious and social influences are going to agree on some basic norms of good and bad behaviour that serve to maintain social cohesion. Many of those will be codified in law; others just frowned upon. And there will be disagreements. But I don’t think you can have a sense of justice outside of a moral perspective.

Now, in crime fiction, the immoral act is frequently a murder: the social cohesion is broken by a killing, then restored by the culprit being identified and taken into custody, and there you go: that’s justice. But put like that, that’s obviously really trivial and mundane. And so of course, most crime fiction goes well beyond that. All is never well again, for one thing – how important or comforting really is ‘justice’ to the people left behind? And it’s never sufficient to say “the murderer acted immorally” and leave it at that; it’s the equivalent of just saying “he did it because he was evil”, which is an intellectually lazy cop out. Good crime fiction addresses these different aspects, and I think the complicating factor isn’t morality, but empathy. Empathy for the victims and the survivors, of course. But also, perhaps perversely, empathy for the perpetrator, insofar as trying to understand not just the motive but the reasons behind the motive.

One of the characters in I Know Who Did It, Groves, is a policeman whose infant son has been abducted and murdered. He’s a man of faith and a fierce believer in the law. And at one point, he’s investigating a suspected pedophile, a man he should hate, and he forces himself to try to understand, to think about the man’s upbringing and the social conditions that formed him. Groves says that the story of everybody’s life is a book that was started before they were born. And it’s important to me as a writer to try always to consider that aspect – to try to have empathy. Everyone walks their own hard road, and all that.

 

7. In both The 50/50 Killer and I Know Who Did It people do are faced with decisions which require them to save themselves or a loved one. Can you tell us why this intrigues you?

I don’t know; it’s always been an interest. I suppose one of the things I’m keen on exploring is how and why people care about each other, and what can intervene to change that. And the kind of decision you mention is just an ultra-extreme version of that. In The 50/50 Killer, the killer challenges one of a couple to decide which of them will be tortured and killed over the course of a night – and they can change their mind at any point. Which just seemed to me to be an apt metaphor for a relationship in flux! You can claim you’ll love someone forever, and that you couldn’t live without them, and so on, all that stuff – but what happens when real life gets in the way? How much hurt do you put up with? How much are you prepared to hurt someone to get what you want? When do you give up on love – or do you? The scenario is really just a dramatisation of those concerns, and it’s those underlying questions that intrigue me.

 

8. Crime fiction is evolving all the time. Are there any developments which interest, please or bother you?

Not really. Crime fiction is a broad church, and that’s wonderful, and the key thing with evolution is natural selection, so we all know that trends will come and go, and what’s successful will stick around. As a writer, it’s the same as ever: all you can do is work on what interests you and hope for the best.

Negative stuff? I suppose you could point to things like increasingly explicit violence, but I don’t know if that’s actually a problem, and I think it’s a cultural thing across the board anyway, rather than particular to crime fiction. Violence against women – but again, that emerges from the wider culture; I suppose it’s good that we have that conversation every so often, even if it never gets resolved. I sometimes wish crime fiction would be more open to cross-genre stuff. It is in some ways, but there are books like (for example) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass and China Mieville’s The City And The City, which were all published as SF but I think deserved to have gained more traction and recognition in the crime world. So it goes, though.

 

9. In what ways do you notice changes in your writing since The Third Person in 2003? Either in terms of what you write about or how you do it?

I hope it’s got considerably better! I’m proud of The Third Person and The Cutting Crew in their own separate ways, and for different reasons, but they both feel a world away from what I’m doing now, and I always cringe slightly when someone who’s enjoyed one of the later books picks one of those up next.

There’s this conventional wisdom that a writer spends their life writing their first book, and then has to write their second really quickly to a deadline. Difficult second album syndrome, and there’s truth in that. Val McDermid told me once that she was often far more interested in a writer’s third book, because by then they’re starting to figure themselves out and find their feet. That was 100% true for me. In many ways, The 50/50 Killer was a complete break away from the first two, and that was the point I began to feel like “right – this is my subject matter, this is my style”. It hasn’t made it any easier, of course. Each book gets harder to write.

 

10. Finally, what can we expect for the book after I Know Who Did It?

Another standalone. But it’s very early days in terms of writing it, so I don’t want to say too much about the storyline at this point – not least because it will probably change!

But in the meantime, thanks a lot for having me here, and for asking such interesting questions. Cheers!

 

And now for the book. My review of I Know Who Did It is here.

 


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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


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‘I Know Who Did It’ by Steve Mosby – a review

So far this year I have four favourite books. I Know Who Did It is one of them. What I like and admire about Steve Mosby’s writing is that I am continually checking what I think I know about the characters and plot. He is highly adept at giving the impression that one thing is happening when it is something completely different. Naughty. Or, giving few clues at all as to what is happening. I love books like this as they keep me on my toes by adding misdirection to the various mysteries to be solved. And what an unusual collection of mysteries I Know Who Did It presents.

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 but I was on complete tenterhooks, much as one is with a good horror film. Through his son’s clothes and favourite toy, Groves identifies the remains of his son in a pit. Fast forward, and, every year, Groves receives a birthday card for his dead son. This year, however, the card bears the message, ‘I know who did it’. Well, that really sends the birds into the air.

The story then switches to Charlie Matheson who died in a car accident. When a woman is found, who looks like identical to her, and claims to be her, Detective Mark Nelson is called in to investigate. Her account of her death and afterlife are unusual, to say the least. And there you have it. In a few brief chapters you know what you’re dealing with. Or, rather, you don’t: a woman who has come back from the dead and a man who’s receiving cards for his dead son.

This book ticked all the main boxes for me. There are historical crimes and contemporary ones. There are characters who are struggling to come to terms with loss. Furthermore, Mosby is a writer with an extraordinary understanding of the complexities of psychological processes and how morality adds additional considerations to already complicated emotions. When these are combined with notions of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, right and wrong, good and bad, and what constitutes sin, it makes for a heady mix. He weaves these themes into a plot which, trust me, will blow your mind. More than this I can’t say without spoilers.

The structure of the book works well and the reader hears various points of view, with Mark in first person. I warmed to his character and sympathised with his difficulties and conflicted feelings. The shifts between viewpoints are clearly indicated.

I could see thriller and horror elements and influences running through the book in addition to the crime set-up (although don’t want to say too much about these). There was a sense of time running out and this gave the novel a tense pace throughout. I never knew when someone was going to do something awful either to themselves or to another person. I was curious to know how Mosby was going to explain the various crimes and whether they might be linked. There were a number of game-changing plot twists, several of which literally had me grunt, OMG, through a clenched jaw, once I had returned to earth from their three sixty degree spin. And then immediately read on to find out what was going to happen.

Something else which I liked about the book is the way in which some of Mosby’s characters reflect on their lives, and on how motivation and actions converge. Integrity is an important theme, along with the conflicts that can arise when being true to one’s own feelings can result in feelings of disloyalty. It is a story about how difficult it can often be to do ‘the right thing’, or even to know what that is sometimes. It’s also a story about how difficult it can be to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes. Mosby’s writing speaks to the human condition with sophistication, subtlety and insight. There is no moralising or preaching: just a lot of questions which will worm their way into your wondering brain.

I hope we see more of Mark and Sasha. Mercer’s role was a little vague for me but this book has made me want to read the 50/50 Killer now (not necessary – I Know Who Did It is self-contained) to find out what happened on that case and what the deal is with him.

I wasn’t sure where this novel is set as, unless I missed it, no actual place names are mentioned. There is reference to towns and woods, and description of both, but I wasn’t sure if we were in London or the North of England. I then started to wonder if this bothered me. It didn’t. This raises an interesting question about whether stories need to be anchored in an identifiable location or whether imagination is sufficient. Towards the end of the book a place is mentioned which I know well – a fictionalised version in the book – and I found it hard then not to map events onto my knowledge of that place and its history. I then realised that was pointless as it’s a bit like readers mentioning in reviews that a particular bus doesn’t go up a particular street. It’s fiction!

In sum, I highly recommend I Know Who Did It. It crackles with menace, there’s plenty at stake, and the plot is unlike any other I have read. I seriously challenge you to guess its resolution! I think Mosby is one of the best male crime writers around. More, please.

My review copy was obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the author and publisher for this. Publication date is 24th September.

You can find Steve on Twitter @stevemosby. His website and extremely interesting blog are here: http://www.theleftroom.co.uk/

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto – a review – special feature part 2

The Defenceless, published in e-book in the UK today (translated), is the second novel in Hiekkapelto’s series featuring Yugoslav Hungarian Senior Constable Anna Fakete, a new recruit to the Violent Crimes Unit in Northern Finland. It follows up the stunning debut novel, The Hummingbird.

When an old man, wearing pyjamas, is found dead on the road, Anna is asked to investigate because the person who has run him over is Hungarian and she cannot speak any Finnish. Anna is nervous about interviewing the girl, Gabriella, and wonders whether her lapsed Hungarian will be up to it. As soon as she starts to investigate the man’s flat she is quickly convinced that it isn’t a simple case of the man being run over and this is where things begin to get extremely sinister. Goings on in the apartment block bring Anna in contact with seedy drug dealers, ruthless street gangs from Sweden and Denmark, and an illegal immigrant from Pakistan called Sammy who is dodging deportation. All of these people are connected to this apartment building. I thought that this was a brilliant set-up for the novel and the plot is ingenious in this regard.

Anna’s colleague, the irascible Esko, is also investigating the case but from a slightly different angle. He uses a ‘snitch’ to gather information on who has set up the Black Cobras and the Hell’s Angels gangs in Finland. Battling health problems as a result of his smoking and drinking, and unhealthy lifestyle, Esko’s behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and offensive. In the last book I warmed to him half-way through. In this one I found him objectionable (although we learn some of the reasons why).

The novel is well paced and its numerous mysteries provide plenty of forward momentum and suspense. What I liked about the plot was that the mysteries were of varying types, and this made me want to read on as chapters shift between aspects of the plot. The mystery variety raises the interesting question of whether crime fiction needs to have murders, and, if not, what constitutes a satisfactory ‘crime’ from the reader’s point of view. Readers of The Defenceless won’t be disappointed: there is something for everyone here.

The plot is very much in keeping with The Hummingbird: the crimes stem from various complex socio-cultural issues affecting not just Finland but most of the world. While The Hummingbird looked at how forced marriage can affect people, in The Defenceless we see how a person can be affected when he is forced to leave his home country because his life is in danger as a result of not being part of the majority religion. After the murder of his father, mother and brother, and having made the treacherous journey to Finland to request asylum, Sammy is plunged into desperation when his application is turned down. He has spent the last two years, four months and a week in a reception centre, trying to kick his heroin addiction, and then he received his deportation notice. After that he went underground, sleeping rough and dossing down where he can. His heroin addiction has been replaced by an addiction to Subutex. Hiekkapelto shows the reader a vivid and terrifying picture of what Sammy’s life is like, and how it feels to be trapped by circumstances which are out of your control. She also shows how inter-connected social issues are: problems in one country affect others in complex ways.

Just as The Defenceless is about the old man, and Sammy, it is also about Anna and her life in Finland as an immigrant and a police officer. As an outsider, she reflects on the customs and preoccupations of the Finnish people, and on how she has adopted many of these. She reflects on where her home is, the displacement she feels, and how odd the situation is that her home country now has another name. It made me think about the link between belonging and geography. Is it people we get attached to or a place? Is ‘place’ a name given to a geographical space or is it landscape, terrain, soil and buildings? Or is place a combination of people and landscape?

Part way through the book Anna’s brother returns to Hungary and the events surrounding his departure, and his absence, prompt reflection by Anna on how settled she feels in Finland. In The Hummingbird, I was aware of thinking how much better Anna had coped with cultural dislocation but in this novel it felt more obvious that she appreciates many aspects of her life in Finland but also grieves for what she has left behind in a way which eats into her peace of mind. She stops herself from drinking daily but seems to want to, and then when she does, she ends up binge drinking and having a one night stand with a man whose name she cannot remember in the morning. Her melancholic reflections are frequent and she thinks a lot about Esko’s drinking, and her brother’s. Her attitude towards alcohol seems conflicted: she is sympathetic of those who drink but also slightly judgemental.

I find Anna an extremely interesting character. She is complex and full of contradictions. She is intelligent and thinks continuously about her life and life in general. She is sympathetic, particularly towards Sammy, and to her friends who run the pizzeria, but she allows Gabriella to become quite dependent on her and then feels irritated by her neediness. It is as if she is still figuring out who she wants to be and how she wants to live her life. There are some nice friendships growing in the Violent Crimes Unit, for example with Sari.

Many aspects of The Defenceless are sad. If you read for escapism and entertainment, this novel probably isn’t for you. But in my opinion, it is an extremely important book. Hiekkapelto does social realism extremely well, and having worked with immigrant children and been an immigrant herself, she has plenty of experience from which to write. She doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics and is prepared to take risks to explore aspects of life which interest her. What leaps off the page is how much she clearly cares about the worlds she writes about and the people in them. This is why I believe that there is much in the book which is heartening and transcendent and redemptive: the role of friendship and love; loyalty; courage and resilience; human adaptability; hope. And much more. Sammy’s story is an important one. It is also heartbreaking. When I was re-reading the novel for this review, I caught a programme on Radio 4 with Kate Adie, and it was looking at the problems of addiction in Karachi. I immediately thought of Sammy. (The programme is here for anyone who’s interested: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b062hbn1 The Karachi part starts 11.45 mins in)

The role of nature is often prominent in Nordic Noir, and I really like the way that the author builds descriptions of the weather, the flora and fauna, the changing temperature and the melting snow into what the characters are doing and thinking. The weather is prominent in their lives as it is for people living in Nordic countries.

Finally, I would like to mention how stunning the covers are to Hiekkapelto’s books. When I read The Hummingbird, I really liked the light on the water, through bare trees, and also the black, white and red circles. The Defenceless continues these themes, foregrounding the role of the weather, the seasons and the landscape in the novels. With the new novel, I like the light coming through the snow-covered trees onto the forest path.

In sum, I found this novel highly affecting. It is so interesting to read how issues which affect society in the UK affect other countries in similar and different ways. Sammy’s plight has stayed with me.

The first book in the series

The second book in the series

Kati, signing my book at CrimeFest, Bristol, May 2015

With thanks to Orenda Books for providing me with a review copy of the novel.

My review of The Hummingbird is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/06/07/the-hummingbird-by-kati-hiekkapelto-a-review/

Kati’s website is here: http://katihiekkapelto.com/

My interview with Kati, on the themes in her writing, and much more, is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/07/31/q-a-with-kati-hiekkapelto-special-feature-part-1/

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Vicky Newham © 2015