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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Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller – a review

Bold and raw, Freedom’s Child is a terrific début novel with a highly unusual storyline. I found it utterly compelling.

Freedom Oliver used to be called Nessa Delaney. She has spent the last eighteen years living under the ‘whippersnappers’, the witness protection programme, in Painter, a small Oregon town, USA. She has a new identity, after being arrested for the murder of her ’cop’ husband, Mark Delaney, but was released two years later when the real killer was apprehended.

After the arrest Freedom put her two children up for adoption, a decision which has pricked her conscience and haunted her ever since. The two children were given new names, Mason and Rebekah, and were adopted by a religious couple, both Third-Day Adventists in Goshen, Kentucky.

Freedom now works at the Whammy Bar, a local rock pub and biker bar, and is tough talking, brash and often drunk. But she is also funny and full of courage, and is kind to her eighty year old neighbour, Mimi, who has amnesia. She lives in a ‘shitty apartment’ where she spends most of her time drinking whiskey and wondering how her life has taken the turns it has. And keeping tabs on her now grown-up children through the internet and Facebook.

Then Freedom learns that her daughter, Rebekah, has gone missing, possibly kidnapped. Freedom becomes obsessed with finding her. She gives the whippersnappers the slip and heads to Goshen on a motorbike. Her flight breaks the conditions of her protection and makes her a fugitive. I was rooting for her to locate the daughter she’d held for just over two minutes before she was handed over to her new parents.

Matthew Delaney, Mark’s brother, has recently been released from an eighteen year prison sentence following an appeal. He has made it his business to find out exactly where Freedom is and is out to get her. No longer protected by the government, her husband’s vile, welfare abusing, low-life family all want revenge on Freedom for Mark’s death, and set out to find her.

When Freedom arrives in Goshen and learns what has been going on within the Adventist congregation, it is much worse that she could ever have imagined. I had been wondering what she was going to encounter but hadn’t anticipated this turn in the narrative.

I approached Freedom’s Child as an adventure into the unknown. I expected it to be dark but it was much more sinister and chilling than that. When I read the blurb, and started to read about Freedom and the Delaneys, I knew that I didn’t know anyone like them. The Adventists were also unfamiliar and I don’t know anyone who has ridden a motorbike across the USA. This is partly what made Freedom’s Child enjoyable for me: its plot, setting and characters were so unfamiliar. At the level of the story it is extremely interesting. And woven into the story are some fascinating themes. Freedom is brash and bawdy. But I felt sympathetic towards her. Having fallen in with a bad man when she was young, low self-esteem prevented her from leaving him. His family were like bindweed round her ankles. Freedom reflects on how feeling unworthy may have affected her life choices and course. This raises the question of whether we ‘choose’ relationships and experiences in life, or whether they are coincidental, the result of ‘bad luck’ or predetermined. The book also made me think about what happens to people when they are dragged down in life, and how difficult it can be to come back up again. Freedom loses everything: her children, her peace of mind and – as she remarks – her freedom. Her life becomes one of chaos and her plan is to end her life. Yet she is a survivor and a fighter. We see this so often: people unable to return from tragedy. Yet some do. Why are some able to and some not?

Freedom’s Child has a fair contingent of unpleasant characters, most obviously the Delaney clan. I liked Peter Delaney, the only good egg in the Delaney gang. He has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. I also liked Officer Mattley, the cop who is sweet on Freedom. And her two girl pals.

Something else I found interesting was that Matthew Delaney has been tracking Freedom from prison. Freedom has been tracking her two children the whole time, and her son (Mason) has been tracking his sister after being cut off by his adoptive family. I’m not quite sure why this fascinated me but it did. Perhaps because, in this internet age, it is so easy to do.

In places I found the narrative a little hard to follow. Chapters switch between aspects of the storyline, past and present, and often provide detailed flashbacks. This made it feel a little disjointed in places. However, it only took a page or so to re-orient. It also occurred to me that this might have been intentional: to symbolise Freedom’s chaotic existence and scattered state of mind. (In which case, it worked) Regardless of the moving between plot aspects, the story had a natural energy to it, partly created by Miller’s writing, and partly due to the tension around the Matthew Delaney and daughter storylines.

I really enjoyed Miller’s unconstrained writing. The imagery she uses is striking and fresh, and often raw and visceral. Many phrases made me stop reading and want to let thoughts and impressions swirl round in my mind. For example, “… her gums will shelve black rubble, and she’ll be nothing but bone shrink-wrapped in skin.” I found Freedom’s Child an unusual book in many ways – all positive. Its rawness felt genuine and it was simultaneously depressing and uplifting.  Which is exactly how I like my reads.

Thanks to the publisher, HarperCollins, and the author for my review copy via NetGalley.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The Island Escape by Kerry Fisher – a review

I really enjoyed Kerry’s first novel, The School Gate Survival Guide. I bought and read this when it was called The Class Ceiling, after Kerry came along to talk to my writing group. It was clear from that book that Kerry’s writing is clever: she puts things across humorously but underneath the funny scenarios and quick exchanges lurk important life issues and questions, and tricky relationship dynamics.

The Island Escape is another cracking read and showcases similar witty writing and well observed characterisation. It revolves around the friendship between long term friends Octavia (who is married to Jonathon) and Roberta (who is married to Scott). The two women are very different characters but both have been married for a long time. Chapters alternate between the two friends and the story is told from both points of view. Roberta’s marriage is on its last legs and, as so often happens, this results in Octavia wondering about her own marriage and reminiscing about the time she spent in Corsica. It was there that she met and fell in love with Xavi.

I adore books which have female friendship as a context, as this can be an intense relationship with many potential ‘rabbit holes’. It is fascinating to consider – through story – how changes in the life of one person so often affect others around them, and the range of feelings that can be prompted when someone close is either struggling or experiences success. The actions of those around us can be contagious, but they can also arouse fear, jealousy and conflict. The tensions and jealousies between Roberta and Octavia are very believable, all the more so as they genuinely care about each other. I also enjoy books which address questions which we all have about our lives, jobs and relationships: is it better to stay put with ‘the devil you know’ or get out and take a risk in the hope of something better? This aspect of the Island Escape is affirming and optimistic. There are never any guarantees but it’s always worth having dreams.

The story gallops along, taking the reader with it. Many sections are funny, with real laugh out loud lines, and other moments are poignant. Highly recommended.

My copy was obtained from NetGalley. Thank you.

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Vicky Newham © 2015