Vicky Newham


6 Comments

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.

 

—————————

Vicky Newham © 2016

 


Leave a comment

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.

 

—————————————-

Vicky Newham © 2016


3 Comments

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings – a review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 


3 Comments

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/

———————————————————–

Vicky Newham © 2015


2 Comments

Q & A with Sarah Hilary and review of No Other Darkness – special feature

The mass market paperback cover – released today.

To coincide with the mass market paperback publication of No Other Darkness, and its release in the US, I am thrilled to interview crime writer, Sarah Hilary. This is the first feature in my ‘Author on the Couch’ series.

At the The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate recently, Sarah’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the award for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. When the news spread, I remembered how much of a buzz there was about Sarah’s debut just two years ago at Harrogate when proofs of the novel were given out in goodie bags.

Now that Sarah has finally come out about her ‘dark mind’ (see the Guardian piece, the day after the award ceremony, here) I can ask her all sorts of psychological questions about her second novel and her writing in general. Except the ones which involve spoilers, of course.

Sarah, congratulations on your award at Harrogate. Tell us what it means to you.

 

Thanks, Vicky. It means a huge amount — to win such a major prize and for my debut novel — it’s genuinely humbling, especially when the shortlist was so strong. I’m massively grateful to the judges, and to everyone who supported me during the public vote.

 

One of the proofs given out at Harrogate 2013 (not with the dog!)

One of the buzz-creating proofs given out at Harrogate 2013

 

Q & A

 

1) I don’t look at reviews of books before I read them. When I started No Other Darkness I thought, ah, okay, children in an underground bunker. What you then reveal is so much more disturbing than that. Where did you get the idea for the plot?

The heart of the story came from a first-person account in a newspaper. It stayed in my head for such a long time that I knew I’d have to try and ‘write it out’. I always like my books to be surprising—for the stories to feel familiar at first glance and then to take the reader in unexpected directions. The idea at the heart of No Other Darkness seemed ideally suited to that.

 

2) I felt that Marnie had changed a bit since Someone Else’s Skin. Did you? If so, was it intentional?

Definitely. She should be changing all the time. I want to pull her in different directions—towards the past, and away from it, for example. That’s the nature of heroic struggle, to be always fighting. Not just the bad guys but her past, and herself. In book two, she’s starting to open up to Noah, and to Ed. But her journey won’t always be upwards; I can see her falling, too.

 

3) Throughout the novel, I kept thinking about forgiveness and how hard it can be, not just to forgive, whatever that means, but to let go and move on from a traumatic incident. We see it with Marnie and her foster brother, Stephen, and key characters in No Other Darkness. To what extent is the novel about forgiveness and making peace with the past?

To a huge extent. The whole series is about this, in fact. And it’s about redemption, and remorse. One of the characters in No Other Darkness tells Marnie that remorse can be a weapon. That’s going to resonate in book three.

 

4) Some authors opt for having their detectives at loggerheads. Marnie and Noah have an extremely good working relationship. I particularly like Noah’s caring attitude to his boss. Was this a conscious choice on your part and if so why? Do you envisage their relationship changing?

In Someone Else’s Skin, Marnie and Noah both suffer as a consequence of not working more closely together, and they’re smart people so they learnt a lesson from that and now they’re a better team. In book three, Tastes like Fear, Noah has just revealed to me that he’s been keeping a secret from Marnie which might threaten their teamwork. We’ll see. (In other words, yes, I can see things changing. Because it makes for exciting writing, and reading.)

 

6)I admire Marnie’s courage and bravery. What characteristics do you like about her and what frustrates you? Do you think her traits are as a result of nature or nurture?

Her courage, absolutely. It’s not bravado, and it’s not noisy. She doesn’t take silly risks, but she’s not afraid to fail or to admit when she’s got it wrong. That, for me, is real bravery. To fall and get back up again—not to be afraid of another fall. Nature versus nurture is a great question, because a lot of Marnie’s native spikiness is what keeps her going but it’s also what drove her away from her family which is something she’s struggling to forgive in herself.

 

7) In No Other Darkness, the children’s mother has had a difficult time. As a mother, human being and a writer, how sympathetic did you feel towards her?

Extremely sympathetic. I was terrified for her. The idea of losing your mind, or part of your mind  — of losing yourself — terrifies me. I hope that comes across in the reading—how scared I was when I was writing those scenes.

 

8) The case makes it hard for Marnie and Noah to avoid their own family situations. This can be a trope of crime fiction (investigations touching on the personal issues of the detectives) but I see it as being true to life: we all experience things which bring up our ‘stuff’. What is your take on this?

There’s no question that it’s true to life. I’d go further and say that our ‘stuff’ colours everything. We see the whole world through its filter, for better or worse. This was the idea at the heart of Someone Else’s Skin, and it’s at the heart of the whole series.

 

9) Tell us about Ed. He seems to be a really good ‘fit’ for Marnie. What about him appeals to Marnie and what does Ed like about Marnie?

Ed is the steady point in Marnie’s spinning world. He’s deeply honest, one of the few people who isn’t hiding anything. It makes him vulnerable, but he’s not afraid of being vulnerable. I think that’s the quality that Marnie most admires in Ed. And he sees the vulnerability in her because he’s intuitive and empathetic. He sees the chinks in her armour, but he would never exploit them.

 

10) Both your novels make me reflect on responsibility and blame. Stephen Keele’s actions are obviously awful. Being devil’s advocate here, given his upbringing, to what extent is he responsible for what he did? If he has deluded thoughts as a result of that upbringing, is that his fault?

I’m not yet sure of the details of Stephen’s upbringing, so I can’t quite answer this. Nor would I want to, as I prefer to keep the doors open for surprises. Stephen has secrets he’s not telling yet. Ask me again after book four..!

 

11) Other than Marnie and Noah, which of your characters did you enjoy writing? Any you have a soft spot for? (I adore bad boy Adam Fletcher)

I absolutely love writing Adam. He has so many of the best lines, and I love the snark (and the spark) between him and Marnie. I love writing Welland, too. And Noah and Dan, especially when they’re enjoying their downtime.

 

12) In both your books people do (often very) ‘unpleasant things’ to others. Do you think that when people are on the receiving end of these sorts of actions that they stop loving the person dishing them out? Does it make a difference what the perceived and real motivation is? I am thinking about Archie and Fred, Matt.

In the case of Archie and Fred, I want to believe that they didn’t stop loving the person responsible for their suffering, because losing that love could only have added to their suffering. That said, I don’t believe in love as a palliative. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s the cause of a huge amount of distress and cruelty in the world. Far too many people endure terrible things because they cannot stop loving the wrong people. I’m not sure that answers your question — sorry!

 

13) How was the process of writing No Other Darkness and Someone Else’s Skin similar and different?

Someone Else’s Skin was written for myself (and then rewritten). No Other Darkness was written for everyone else, including the art department at my publishers and all those with a vested interest in the series. I had to make space inside my head for lots of other voices and opinions, but it was all good and it definitely resulted in a stronger book. Book three has been different again. I hope I’ll always be surprised by the way the process works, always find some alchemy in the writing process.

 

14) What research did you have to do for No Other Darkness and how did you do it?

First-person accounts are always my starting point. I try to absorb as much real experience as possible of the things I’m writing about. Then I stop researching and tell the story, allowing myself to be guided by its fictional characters and its own momentum. Afterwards, I go back and check key facts.

 

15) You refer in articles to your own happy upbringing. Where does this dark mind come from then?

I wish I knew. But I don’t question it too much—it’s a terrific asset for a crime writer and I’m very grateful for it.

 

 

No Other Darkness – my thoughts

 

The cover for the trade paperback.

 

Sarah, signing my copy of No Other Darkness at CrimeFest 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part police procedural, part psychological thriller, No Other Darkness is the second novel in the DI Marnie Rome series. The plot is self-contained. The author gives readers who are new to the series a couple of useful backstory pointers and these are unobtrusive for those who have read the first book, Someone Else’s Skin.

When the bodies of two boys are found, ‘curled together’, in a bunker in the garden of a house, twelve feet underground, DI Marnie Rome is tasked with finding out what happened. Rome is determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out strands of the mystery, they quickly realise that they are dealing with a crime which is as disturbing as it is morally complex. Sinister discoveries, involving foster children and ruthless property developers, pull Rome further into the maze-like investigation, and yet again she is forced to reflect on the reasons why people commit awful acts and whether it is possible to forgive them when they do.

It is difficult to comment on the plot developments much more than this without spoiling it for readers. The novel opens with a prologue which flashes back to five years ago, before the two boys died. Written from the viewpoint of the older boy, it is deeply affecting and I quickly questioned whether this was going to be a standard story about children in a bunker or cellar. The author is Sarah Hilary. She is highly adept at making you think that one thing is the case when actually there is more to it or it isn’t the case at all. In No Other Darkness, there is no explicit misdirection or manipulation of reader assumptions but the boys’ story is more complicated and devastating than might be imagined.

And this is something else which I think Hilary handles extremely well: nuance. She peels back the layers of how the boys came to be in the bunker and shows us everything through the eyes of Rome, Jake and another key character. From their reactions and comments we gradually learn what occurred and some of the reasons why each person did what they did. Hilary carefully allows the reader to create her own meanings and to navigate her way through the morality of the case.

This is a harrowing tale – as much of crime fiction is. Many of the characters have suffered deeply and still are suffering. However, the story is one which can, and does, happen in real life. For me, I was reading a fictional exploration of various common and uncommon psychological phenomena and I was simultaneously enthralled and devastated. The story is told in such a way that the reader cannot help feeling both sympathy and empathy for all those involved. I noticed in Someone Else’s Skin, and it is the case here too, that the author is extremely good at showing the reader how characters are reacting and feeling. Sometimes she maintains the emotional intensity; others she makes tiny adjustments to the emotional barometer within each scene but without descriptions becoming melodramatic.

For me, it is partly the emotional intelligence which threads through Hilary’s writing which marks her out. The other thing is the writing itself. What I particularly like about it is the way that she uses fresh ways to describe gestures, expressions and behaviour. ‘High overhead, the sky squatted,’ she tell us. And, ‘Rust whispered under her gloved touch, like feathers.’ Some critics argue that if imagery and metaphors are too unusual they can pull the reader out of the story. I’m not sure that this is particularly helpful: what is unusual to one reader might not be to another. Personally, part of the enjoyment of reading is when a phrase or word stops me and makes me think. When a writer takes the time and effort to describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m purring.

In No Other Darkness, Rome continues to sift through the events of her past. As much as she tries to keep her personal traumas and childhood ghosts separate from the ones at the heart of the investigation, she is unable to. I think that this works well as it is what happens in life. Much of developmental psychology and psychoanalytic theory examines how we are often compelled to keep re-visiting – and often repeating – events with which we have not come to terms. Rome is haunted by why her foster brother, Stephen, could have done what he did. A troubled teenager, Clancy, who has been fostered by the family whose garden the bunker is in, reminds her of Stephen. As a result the investigation forces Rome – and the reader – to reflect on whether it makes a difference if someone truly believes that something awful that they’ve done was the right thing, and if their perceptions of ‘danger’ and ‘help’ vary from common ones. For Rome, forgiveness, letting go and moving on are extremely hard. Forgiveness of others and oneself. As they are for many people in No Other Darkness – and in real life.

Throughout the case Rome becomes more emotionally involved than DS Noah Jake, even to the point of putting herself at risk. I really like the relationship between Rome and Jake. In life, relationships and people change, often in an interactive way, and Rome and Jake have overcome some of the tensions which were evident in Someone Else’s Skin. They now have a strong working relationship and genuinely seem to care about each other. Jake, particularly, has his boss’ back in this book on a number of occasions and it reminded me of an intuitive brotherly relationship. Although less overtly than Rome, he is affected by the case, and this prompts him to consider his relationship with his brother.

Another strength of this book is its pacing. There is plenty at stake to keep the plot ticking along, and Hilary ratchets up the tension at regular intervals. Just as the reader thinks things are going to be okay, she chucks a curve ball and the whole game changes. And while the overall goal remains, to find out what happened to the two boys, the author builds in other sub-goals. I was completely gripped by the boys’ plight. And I kept wondering how it was all going to end.

With so many detective partnerships in crime fiction, it can be hard to create characters who are ‘fresh’. And sometimes, in trying to make them different, writers can create a collection of ‘tics’, neuroses and interests. In my view, Rome and Jake work well as individuals and as a cop team. They have issues, as we all do, but they come across as normal people who are getting on with the business of being imperfect human beings in a complicated world. I sense that there is plenty more mileage in this duo, and I am pleased. I am looking forward to finding out more about Jake. Other characters I think work well are Ed, Rome’s boyfriend, and bad boy Adam Fletcher (who, in my mind, is actor, James D’Arcy). Ed and Rome are such a good psychological fit but I love how she is drawn to Fletcher, like an ex-addict is to his fix – yet manages to walk away just in time.

In sum, if you’re looking for an emotionally intelligent, beautifully written crime novel, which will whip the carpet from underneath you, I highly recommend No Other Darkness.

My copy of the book was bought at CrimeFest, and I also bought a kindle version too (coz I like to read in bed!).

US cover – loving the super creepy doll.

 

Sarah’s website and blog are here: http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.co.uk/

On Twitter she can be found here: @sarah_hilary

—————————————————————-

Vicky Newham © 2015

 

 


Leave a comment

Are You Watching Me? by Sinéad Crowley – a review

This is a lively police procedural set in Dublin, with an intriguing and contemporary plot. It is the second to feature DS Claire Boyle.

After a few challenging years, Liz Cafferky’s life is looking up in the form of a new job doing something which she enjoys and is good at. Rescued from the problems of her past by Tom Carthy, the owner of a drop-in centre for homeless and lonely men, called Tir na nOg, Liz soon finds herself the charity’s public face. She runs its publicity and social media and after a television interview  ‘goes viral’, she becomes the overnight focus of the Dublin media.

Then one of the centre’s clients, James Mannion, is found dead in his house, not through natural causes or suicide, but brutally murdered. This man is very different from many of the centre’s clientele.

It is easy to understand how, amidst her busy job and newfound attention, Liz doesn’t pay much attention to a letter she receives saying, ‘I’ve been watching you’. She tries to dismiss it as harmless, an over-enthusiastic fan, but deep down she finds it unsettling and is freaked out. When Liz receives another, more threatening note, she is reluctant to go to the police as she is worried that the secrets of her past will be revealed and her new-found stability and respectability will crumble.

Initially there are no leads, and DS Claire Boyle is unsure how she can protect Liz. But when she and Flynn start to look into James Mannion’s life, things take a sinister turn. The murders create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion at the centre, as the clients worry about who they can trust.

I really liked the premise of this novel. Something menacing happens to someone who has secrets which she wants to keep hidden. There is conflict and jeopardy galore in the set-up.

Crowley introduced DS Boyle in Can Anybody Help Me? In Are You Watching Me? Boyle has just returned to work off maternity leave, and after two weeks doing nothing but filing, she is gagging to get stuck into an investigation alongside work partner Philip Flynn. I warmed to DS Boyle. She is a bit hard at times, but is juggling motherhood, a career, a home life and a husband, and there is some subtle and valid social commentary here on the challenges of working mothers.

Crowley provides chapters written from the viewpoint of the stalker come letter writer. These are fascinating as we learn what motivates him/her, what he/she’s thinking and what has gone on in his/her past. She intersperses these sections with chapters which focus on Liz and those which deal with the investigation. Crowley also uses Irish dialect in dialogue and, although this can back-fire, I thought it worked really well in this novel. It made for authentic exchanges and interactions, and gave the narrative a lively character.

The stalker element introduces menace and the themes of obsession and fear. There are plenty of plot twists as DS Boyle and her partner solve the crimes. Overall, this was an enjoyable read, not too violent and with a contemporary, believable plot.

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

——————————————————————————-

Vicky Newham © 2015


Leave a comment

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.

——————————————————————————

Vicky Newham © 2015