Vicky Newham


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Crimefest 2016 – observations and highlights

I got two wonderful reflection opportunities over the weekend: one thanks to a banshee-awful, cackling hen group on my Travelodge corridor on Saturday night, the other on the drive home from Bristol yesterday. Each year I feel different about aspects of my own writing and the Crimefest event varies too, depending on who’s there, but one constant is the friendliness and inclusivity of everyone involved.

Rather than a review of panels, I thought I’d share my observations and highlights.

It hasn’t all been done

In such a huge, competitive market, and with a lot of similar books, it’s wonderful to see fresh ideas, settings and concepts swim to the surface of the publishing pond. Not only does this broaden the scope of the genre, it invigorates it and introduces new sub-genres. Just as society is constantly changing, so is fiction. To me, anyone who says it’s all been done, and nothing is new, lacks imagination.

I’d seen Matthew Blakstad’s Sockpuppet gif-ing on Twitter. Having heard him talk about the novel, I bought it and started reading it. I firmly believe in ‘write what you’re passionate/curious about’ and Sockpuppet is a brilliant example of that. Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series is another imaginative creation, with Baby Ganesh, the elephant. I’m excited by books set in Eastern/Central Europe, written by British authors, and which are becoming mainstream, for example David Young’s Stasi Child and James Silvester’s Escape to Perdition. At one of the panels I asked what’s changing and new in crime fiction and which excites the authors. Two of them mentioned the World War I era as a setting, and explained its relevance to the present day.

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Less rigid boundaries and hierarchies

For a few years now a handful of independent publishers have been putting out high quality crime fiction and it’s encouraging to see this model going from strength to strength, and newbie publishers joining them all the time. It means there are more doors for authors to knock on, not just the big corporate publisher who may not see a book as an obvious commercial hit.

Similarly, I really believe self-publishing has lost a lot of its stigma. With authors such as Rachel Abbott, Joanna Penn, Mark Edwards and Mel Sherratt indie-publishing well edited bestsellers for several years, the indie route is a credible and worthwhile option for those wanting greater speed of publication, more creative control and higher royalties. Rather than a ‘vanity’ project, I see it as a business-savvy option for the clued up, pro-active author. It makes me sad when people say they won’t read self-published novels. Surely, read first, decide later?

Publishing is hard, competitive and wonderful

Ian Rankin was one of this year’s star attractions. He read from his Rebus-in-progress.

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In his interview with Jake Kerridge, he spoke candidly about his experiences in publishing. I know he’s done this numerous times but each book seems to give a new slant of insight. In a writing career lasting 30 years to date, it’s strangely comforting to know he struggled for years with his books, then was a mid-lister, until one book catapulted Rebus onto the bestseller lists. While these days many publishers might not keep on an author whose books don’t sell well, it is reassuring to hear him say he didn’t make the big time for years. Likewise, when he describes his writing process, and having little idea when he begins a new book what the plot is, you realise some stuff never changes however long you’ve been writing.

Authors have fascinating backgrounds and day jobs

When I was talking to Neil White about the Making a Murderer mock trial he, Steve Cavanagh and Sophie Hannah put on, I commented on how interesting it is to have events which are a bit different from panels and Q&As. Seeing Neil and Steve in action was a real treat. I kept wondering who I’d want to represent me if I was on trial for murder. (I asked Sophie the same question. We couldn’t decide) And I had no idea how important hand gestures are to justice! With such wide-ranging backgrounds, it would be fun to see more of these events at festivals and conventions. And different panel topics.

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The rise and rise of Scandi-Noir

I admit to first reading Jo Nesbo because I saw him on Richard and Judy and liked how he pronounced his name (Yo) and Harry Hole’s (Horry Hooler) in his Norwegian accent. Since then I’ve tried to be more mature in my selection process. Fabulous dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge, Follow the Money, have broadened the appeal (although I still hear people say they won’t watch anything with subtitles). It isn’t just the scenery. What appeals to me is the psychology and history of the people who live in Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, and of those who’ve moved there. The norms of their societies. I adore the multi-layered plot foci on: society and politics; immigration and employment; violence and addictions. Contemporary and new authors such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson are making my reading much more expensive, not least because I am determined to get to Iceland Noir soon. Ragnar, stop with the stunning photographs, okay?

The generosity of the crime fiction community

We’re all busy. Yet so many people take the time to chat, read books and review them for pure book-love reasons, write interviews and blogposts, read manuscripts to help others, boost the confidence of people when they’ve had a knock or a setback, help people with introductions and publicity. Beneath this is a wonderful respect. And a shared love of good fiction. Since 2011, I’ve been very pleased to help others, and hugely appreciate the kindness and help I’ve received. What is tremendous at Crimefest is the inclusivity and friendliness of being able to chat in the bar – as equals – to readers, writers, publishers, editors, past writing tutors and agents. Great fun also were meals, giggles and drinks shared with writing buddies from social media.

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Being sent home with a bottle of prosecco wasn’t bad either. Nor was getting to show Ian Rankin a photograph of my dog! 😉 (I didn’t really)

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In addition to the awesome people, it’s about the books. And this is what I brought home with me. Stroke stroke.

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 

 

 


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My standout novels of 2015

This is a lovely way to reflect on what I’ve enjoyed reading this year, and why. I am hopeless at ranking things, and I’ve liked books for different reasons, so they are in no order.

 

A Devil Under the Skin by Anya Lipska

This is the third in Anya’s brilliant East London based series, featuring PI Janusz Kiszka and DC Natalie Kershaw. No sign of staleness here, these books just get better and better. I adore two things about Anya’s writing. Her style is unique. It is both clever and funny and this makes it a pleasure to read. For me, though, what marks out her style is that many of her phrases draw on multiple reference sources, and word choices are evocative and ‘on trend’. I loved the plot in this book. Janusz, Natalie and Oskar are caught up in, and have to respond to, events which show the many facets of their characters. The Polish context is handled with affection and honesty and humour. Some of the exchanges between Janusz and Oskar are comedy genius.

 

Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

I often find that screenwriters write evocative prose, and dramatise events in their novels in ways which make you feel as though you are on a film set, not sitting on the couch with a paperback and box of Jaffa cakes. This is definitely the case with Alexandra Sokoloff’s writing. I found Huntress Moon gripping from the first sentence and deeply unsettling. Sokoloff’s language and writing are gorgeous. Descriptions of San Francisco and the other US locations are vivid and rich, and, in places, very unusual. Huntress Moon is the first in what is going to be a quintet of novels, with three already published.

For me, the ‘Huntress’ is the stand-out of the two main characters, but perhaps this is because female characters can be so hard to get right – in terms of gender stereotypes and clichés – and make ‘fresh’. This is a serial killer crime novel with several important differences. I adored the mythology and the way that the moon cycles influence behaviour. There was plenty of Psychology to get my teeth into, drawing on key aspects of Developmental and Forensic Psychology. Wonderful.

 

I Know Who Did It by Steve Mosby

Steve Mosby has become one of my favourite writers. His creative writing is different from his blog writing (as you would expect) but shimmers with the same intelligence. He explores unusual psychological terrain, and burrows into the rabbit holes of the human condition with empathy and nuance, including how morality adds additional considerations to the complexities of psychological processes. In this book, notions of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, right and wrong, good and bad, and what constitutes sin, are stirred in and create a heady mix. 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. In a few brief chapters you have a woman who has come back from the dead and a man who’s receiving cards for his dead son. What I adored about this book was that I was continually having to check what I thought I knew. Mosby’s writing is a masterclass in the creation of suspense and atmosphere, and in manipulating reader assumptions in devilishly clever ways. In I Know Who Did It there are a number of game-changing plot twists which spin the reader three sixty degrees. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau kept me spellbound for several days. It left me motionless on my bed when I finished it, thoughts swirling as I lay there, all sorts of emotions competing. In the book, Anna’s life is hurtling out of control. She is taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. It made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. There are phrases, images and metaphors in Hausfrau which made me hold my breath. Having studied German at university, and long been interested in language and linguistics, I purred at the way Essbaum played with and explored language, and the relationship between language and thought.

 

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is absolutely not my usual kind of novel but reading it felt like savouring a long cocktail with bite while necking the occasional shot of tequila. It’s a tense, gritty eco-thriller set in Yemen in 1994. It has a gripping plot based on fictionalised versions of real events which the author experienced over many years. It opens with Claymore Straker (Clay), an oil company engineer, looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov into the eyes of a ‘kid’ terrorist who has hijacked him. By the end of the first page the reader knows some key information about Clay: something BIG happened thirteen years ago, and he has killed. So many questions arise from this first page. Clever hooks and wonderful writing.

 

After the Fire by Jane Casey

I knew I was going to love Jane’s writing and I had a feeling it was going to be funny. Getting humour ‘right’ in crime novels isn’t always easy. There are a number of mysteries within After the Fire – and a couple of sub-plots – and each one adds a layer of intrigue to the investigation, and ramps up the tension. The reader is quickly drawn into the murky lives of the residents and visitors at the tower block where the fire occurs, some of whom are more sympathetic than others. What makes this novel is the two main characters, Kerrigan and Derwent, and the various facets of their relationship. Their sparring is very funny and clever, and they clearly care about each other and watch each other’s backs. While Derwent is the senior officer, he and Kerrigan pass the power baton back and forth. I love the way they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses – and need each other. We see Derwent through Kerrigan’s eyes, and Kerrigan (mainly) through her own. In addition, Jane Casey’s writing is a treat. Her dialogue is sharp, and the character observations are astute and funny.

 

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

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 determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out the strands of the mystery, they realise 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. From the reactions and comments of Rome, Jake and another key character we gradually learn what occurred. It is more devastating than you could ever imagine.

Sarah Hilary 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. When a writer describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m in awe.

 

Untouchable by Ava Marsh

Amongst crowded book shelves, a novel with an unusual setting or protagonist stands out. The story at the heart of Untouchable is a universal one: someone makes a terrible mistake which has awful consequences, and finds it hard to come to terms with it all. It takes courage to write a book set in the sex industry as you run the risk of having your book labelled erotica. However, to dismiss this extremely well written Vice Noir novel as that is to miss something fresh. There are a number of types of crime in the book, raising the question of whether crime novels have to include murders. These add to the story layers and epitomise how complex life often is. I really liked Ava’s main character, Grace, and felt hugely sympathetic towards her. The guilt she was experiencing as a result of the mistake she made had pushed her into self-destructive and self-punishing behaviour. Gutsy, principled, flawed and vulnerable, she’s a brilliant female character.

 

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Hummingbird is a fascinating and honest examination of what it can be like to be an immigrant in Finland. It delves into the thorny issues of prejudice and stereotypes, and belonging and identity. The protagonist detective, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from former Yugoslavia. On the first day of her new job, a female jogger is found dead and a Kurdish girl reported to be in danger.

The author has lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia and has taught immigrants in her role as a special needs teacher, so clearly knows her subject. Chapters are written from Anna’s point of view and that of one of the victims (the Kurdish girl), the combination of which provides useful insight to the forced marriage situation. I loved the way that Kati integrates landscape, weather and nature into the story of this novel, as it contributes to the tone and mood in a way which feels relevant rather than indulgent, and in a way which doesn’t pull the reader out of the story. For me, this is Finnish social realism at its bravest and best.

 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

If there is a book which demonstrates how redundant genre classifications can be, it is The Death House. It has elements of several genres and is set in the future. However, at its most essential it is a story about how a group of children of various ages respond to being taken away from their homes in a van to an institution. This happens because they have something in their blood tests which makes them ‘defective’, and which means that sooner or later they will get sick and die. And this is what makes the book delightful: it shows, via beautifully written prose, how differently each of them responds to the same situation. Toby is an emotional and sensitive boy, also proud and scared and angry. When Clara arrives, the bond they develop, and her response to her prognosis, have a profound effect on him.

I enjoyed the scenes in the dorms with the boys bantering and jockeying for position. Toby’s fellow ‘inmates’ are characterised well, distinct and real. I loved how Clara arrives on the scene and shakes everything up, apparently confident but with her own vulnerabilities.  While they all wait for their symptoms to develop, and for the lift to come in the middle of the night to take them to the sanatorium, the emotions of the children are continually changing, and so are their friendships and the group dynamics. If any one of the children exemplifies the words of the strapline, ‘Everyone dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts’, it is Clara. But it could equally well apply to any of the inmates, as this is the dilemma they are faced with having received their prognoses. Perhaps it applies to the reader as well. If life is so impermanent, how are we to live our lives?

 

Normal by Graeme Cameron

In a busy sub-genre, this serial killer novel stands out from the crowd for me in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept and writing are extremely clever. The protagonist, the serial killer, is interesting, scarily likeable (if you didn’t know about some of his predilections and cooking habits), smart and funny. Forensic Psychology tells us that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. Told from the viewpoint of the killer, some of his observations made me scream with laughter, sometimes because of how funny they are but also out of shock at what I was reading. Some of the throwaway comments are so simultaneously clever and funny, I did a double take along the lines of ‘What the actual flip?’ Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. It’s gory in places and requires the reader to suspend their sense of morality, and I absolutely loved it.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto – a review

Kati Hiekkapelto appeared on a couple of panels at ‘Crimefest’ last month, talking about The Hummingbird. I have never read a novel set in Finland so the setting caught my attention, as did the social themes of immigration and forced marriage which are linked to the investigations. I am really enjoying this burgeoning crime sub-genre of ‘social realism’, in which I include British authors such as Eva Dolan, Rob Wilson and Stav Sherez. Hiekkapelto looks set to be joining their ranks with her debut novel, now translated into English.

The main character, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from former Yugoslavia. She has lived in Finland since she was a child and has made an effort to settle. She speaks perfect Finnish and numerous other languages. In contrast, her brother never learnt Finnish and struggles to find work, and her mother returned ‘home’ as soon as she could. With an army career behind her, and now starting a police one, Anna is an interesting and complex character.  Hiekkapelto drip feeds some of her family and personal backstory throughout the novel, and there is plenty here to get the teeth into. I loved the way that Anna stands up to people. Her racist, sexist, bullying colleague, Esko, gets put in his place and I enjoyed seeing their working relationship evolve. I also liked how proud she is of her nationality. For example, she introduces herself as ‘Fekete Anna’, knowing that the surname-first format will reveal that she isn’t a Finn.

The Hummingbird takes the form of a police procedural. On the first day of her new job in the Violent Crimes Unit, Anna is thrown into the deep end when a female jogger is murdered, and a report is received of a Kurdish girl who may be in danger. When more joggers are killed, and the crimes appear to be linked to an Aztec god (where the Hummingbird comes in), things get intense. Anna seems to identify with the cases, gets over-involved and suffers insomnia as a result. Her own jogging regime is dropped in favour of cigarettes and beer. She becomes obsessed with the Kurdish girl, and is convinced that she is being forced into a marriage. It is an interesting examination of prejudice and stereotypes and how difficult it can be to distinguish these from reality.

I was interested to see how Hiekkapelto would cover her themes. Immigration and forced marriage are thorny issues and, because they can be controversial and emotive, it is easy to avoid their discussion. I thought that making the themes central to the story worked extremely well and crime fiction is a perfect genre for doing this. Having a detective who is also an immigrant on the team is a good strategy as the reader can see things from her perspective. Her viewpoint, in turn, is informed by having experienced life in former Yugoslavia, having moved to another country, and learnt a new language and different customs. I was shocked by some of the reactions of Anna’s colleagues to her ethnicity, and by some of the vocabulary they use (although I am aware that I read the book in translation). And I found it refreshing: in my opinion it is so important that literature shocks and horrifies us all out of complacency and ignorance and inertia, and encourages us to challenge our preconceptions and reflect on our behaviour. It might be easy to wonder if the ‘immigrant experience’ is exaggerated in the book. As the author has lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia and has taught immigrants in her role as a special needs teacher, I suspect it’s factually based. Chapters are also written from the point of view of one of the victims (the Kurdish girl) which provides useful insight to the forced marriage situation.

To my mind, the Hummingbird is also about identity and belonging. These are two of my favourite themes because they’re so psychologically complex. Through all the characters in the book the reader can reflect on how identity is constructed and what contributes to it. Anna is a wonderful example of someone whose cultural identity is both stable and malleable. Despite her respectable profession and linguistic competences, at times she feels lost and anxious but underneath – or mixed in with – her vulnerabilities she is strong and determined. The same with belonging: what determines our sense of belonging? Why do some people feel they ‘belong’ more than others? And belong to what?

Something else which appeals to me about Nordic novels is the role that landscape and the weather play. As a teenager, reading Thomas Hardy, interminable descriptions of meadows and harvests and towns had me skipping pages. In The Hummingbird Hiekkapelto integrates the landscape, weather and nature into the story and this works better for me: it contributes to the tone and mood in a way which feels relevant rather than indulgent. I liked the fact that the investigation spans August to November, and we are shown the changing seasons. It gives the plot a slower pace but also enables, I found, greater reflection. I didn’t anticipate the ending, and the twists worked well for me. The final twist made me smile.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that I found the translation a bit strange in places, and, initially, didn’t see the point of the untranslated Hungarian phrases and words, but neither issue impaired my enjoyment of the book. The author has since told me that these phrases were deliberately left untranslated to let the reader experience what it is like not to be able to understand. When she told me this, it made sense. Furthermore, this device was effective: I was a bit irritated by not understanding them in case I had missed an important detail. (The meaning of some could be inferred from the context)

I have no doubt that Hiekkapelto’s novels will go from strength to strength. She strikes me as an author with a lot to say about contemporary issues in society, from an informed viewpoint, and a writer with a wonderful imagination and use of language.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff – a review

Huntress Moon is the first in the ‘Huntress’ series of five books, three of which are published and two are to come. Huntress Moon has a cracking storyline and two fascinating main characters. It is the first novel I have read by this author and I thought that it was utterly brilliant. At the moment it stands as my favourite book of 2015, for various reasons, some of which I will explain below.

FBI Agent Matthew Roarke is out to solve a number of murders. One of these involves a colleague of his who has been working undercover. The crimes all have one thing in common: a woman is seen just before the event occurs, and descriptions of her coincide. Roarke and his colleagues are determined to establish whether the woman is the perpetrator of the crimes or whether her appearance is coincidental. A number of possibilities arise.

Sokoloff weaves aspects of developmental psychology and criminology into the narrative as Roarke – who has had profiling experience with the FBI – tries to establish whether the woman is a paid assassin, a serial killer or something else. She has a number of interesting characteristics which I will leave you to discover when you read the book. It is these these which makes the ‘Huntress’ books unique, in my opinion. The author also makes reference to moon cycles (hence the title) to create an intriguing, chilling serial killer in the ‘Huntress’. Her chapters are told in the present tense, while Roarke’s are narrated in the past. I thought this worked well. The present tense ones are immediate and involving.

Soon into the investigation things get tense for Roarke and he is forced to review events in his own past which he has tried to forget. This is quite a common crime trope but for two good reasons: it is true to life and it works. In Huntress Moon it raises the stakes for Roarke and increases jeopardy and conflict. I really liked his character and was rooting for him.

I found this book gripping from the first sentence and deeply unsettling. As we learn about the characters, they all emerge as complex and multi-faceted, all with their own flaws, passions and redeeming qualities. For me, the ‘Huntress’ is the stand-out of the two main characters, but perhaps this is because female characters can be so hard to get right and make ‘fresh’.

Sokoloff’s language and writing are gorgeous. Descriptions of San Francisco and the other US locations are vivid and rich, and, in places, very unusual. It is also as if you are ‘there’ in the story, watching things unfold. Character descriptions are sharp and the plotting is ingenious. When a book is part of a series, endings can be problematic. Not so here. I shall definitely be reading the next four books in the series.

My copy was obtained from NetGalley. Many thanks to author and publisher.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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NORMAL by Graeme Cameron – a review

I hadn’t read any reviews when I started this novel, nor did I have much of an idea of the plot but I will say straight off that I absolutely adored it. In a busy sub-genre, this serial killer novel stands out from the crowd for me in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept and writing are extremely clever. The protagonist, the serial killer, is interesting, scarily likeable (if you didn’t know about some of his predilections and cooking habits), smart and funny. We know that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. There are hints at a childhood gone wrong and at difficulties experiencing emotion, for example.

What I enjoyed most about Normal was the narrative voice. Told from the PoV of the killer, some of his observations made me scream with laughter, sometimes because of how funny they are but also out of shock at what I was reading. Some of the throwaway comments are so simultaneously clever and funny, I did a double take along the lines of, what the actual flip was that? There is quite a bit that we don’t find out about the killer but that didn’t bother me excessively. In addition to the protagonist, Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. In fact, in general, I thought the dialogue was very sharp.

Parts of the book are gory. Reference is made to which body part is chopped up with what instrument and what the blood flow and residue are like. I have either become desensitised after reading so much crime fiction or the humour made me feel detached from the graphic detail. My hunch is the latter: I don’t generally like books which are too violent, nor ones where the violence seems gratuitous. Cameron’s protagonist is performing butchery for his own pleasure, and describing it both with relish and dismissively, so I should perhaps have been wincing … but I wasn’t. The humorous way – and it is black humour – in which the killings, di-sections and disposals are described simply had me laughing too much to go, eeeew. And there was no way I was putting the book down. Perhaps this requires the ability to suspend morality, as with, say, Dexter, but if you can do this the book is great fun. I wasn’t, however, rooting for the killer to get away with his crimes, as some people have mentioned. I wanted him to get his come-uppance but I was sucked into colluding with his deeds for the duration of the book for sheer entertainment value. My only criticism is that the ending didn’t really work for me, but, hey, you can’t have everything and these things are often personal.

If you want to read something a bit different, pick up Normal. It is definitely one of my favourite crime fiction books of 2015.


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Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum – review

Hausfrau tells the story of housewife, Anna Benz, who lives outside Zurich with her husband, Bruno, and their three children. Anna, who is American, is unable to drive and cannot speak either German or Swiss German.

I finished the book last week and immediately wanted to re-read it (I did). There were a number of things which appealed to me about it. I loved the Swiss setting and, as I have known people who have lived the ex-pat life in Basel for many years, it was easy for me to substitute the references. One of my friends who lived there also didn’t drive or learn the language and I remember the issues that this raised.

Anna is a strange woman. When the novel opens she is clearly unhappy with her life and, perhaps more importantly, with herself. This leads her into affairs with various men, most of which she embarks on impulsively and extremely quickly. One of these has taken place before the novel opens. It is clear that this was a significant relationship for Anna, the loss of which she has not got over. Anna sees a Jungian psycho-analyst weekly, and the reader is privy to some of the questions and observations of both Anna and her analyst. In addition, she has finally enrolled for German lessons. There are repeated sections which explore the relationship between language (specifically grammar and vocabulary) and concepts. Having studied French and German at university I found these explorations fascinating. Other sections meditated on how language and thought might be inter-connected. I was interested in these also as this is something which Psychology considers. In addition a number of philosophical questions are raised, and many psychological ones. I found all of these utterly transporting.

I think that Hausfrau is an extremely brave book. Essbaum has taken a number of risks and has, it would seem, stuck to her guns and written the book she wanted in the way she wanted. Anna is not particularly endearing. She is self-destructive, self-regarding and deceitful. Whether these traits have arisen as a result of her unhappiness, or whether it’s how she is, is interesting to consider. It is indisputable that Anna’s actions and behaviour hurt others – in the way that many people who are unhappy, sadly, are unable to stop themselves from hurting others. But I didn’t find her irritating, and I didn’t see her as ‘a bored housewife’. I felt extremely sympathetic towards her. She came across as someone who was lost, who did want things but was split off from many of her own feelings, desires and motivations, perhaps as a result of depression, to the extent that she didn’t really know what she wanted. Her day-to-day existence seems to be one of anxiety and suffering and dissociation. To this extent I see her as immobilised by many of her feelings rather than globally passive. Anna has been compared to other characters in literature who have greater passion than her, and less passivity. I think this is a bit unfair: Essbaum wasn’t writing those stories. She was writing a different one.

Some of the sections with detail on Zurich and Dietlikon (where Anna lives), language, and Anna’s psycho-analysis may not appeal to everyone. For me there was a bit too much geographical and ‘tourist’ information but it’s clear from what the author has said about the book that this information is important to her. Everything else I found completely delicious. Some of it didn’t add to the plot or characterisation but I didn’t mind at all as I simply found it interesting. Much of Essbaum’s writing is lovely. There are phrases, images, metaphors which made me hold my breath. There is quite a bit of jumping around in the narrative and timeline, and between various parts of the story. Sometimes this jars in books, and pulls the reader out of the story, but I didn’t find this with Hausfrau.

It isn’t a plot driven novel, nor particularly character driven in my opinion. It is Anna’s story and I would describe it as a theme driven book. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plot. There is. But it is quite leisurely and takes a back seat to themes. The events which unfold felt inevitable in their nature. Anna is hurtling out of control, taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. As I was reading I sensed that something bad was going to happen. What I loved about Hausfrau was that it made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. I was also aware of thinking that there were a number of directions the plot could go in and would have been happy with several of these. The above may sound quite analytical and neutral. All I can say is that Hausfrau is an extraordinary book. It kept me spellbound for several days. It left me completely breathless and unable to move.

Vicky Newham © 2015


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When does an idea become a story or a novel?

Have you ever had an idea for a story, optimistically hoped it might make a novel and then found to your dismay that it petered out? Have you tried to squeeze it, invent sub-plots, import compelling characters – only to find that it just doesn’t have any more life left in it? Conversely, have you ever started writing about a teensy idea and then found that it has mushroomed into a novel length plot? Ideas are funny like that, aren’t they? Unpredictable and unreliable.

I’ve been thinking recently about what we choose to write about and why, when we decide that a particular idea is viable as a long term project and what we do if we have a number of competing ideas.

What about you? Say you have an idea. You want to write about: a place where people are kept underground; a woman who gets the job of her dreams but turns it down and walks el camino de Santiago instead; a group of people who don’t know each other but who are all connected by a crime; a teenager whose superpower is to show others how to deal with fear. (It’s okay: they’re shit ideas. I’m just hypothesising)

Do you consider:

  • How much the idea, themes and plot interest you? After all, if you are going to write a novel, you will be spending the best part of a year with your idea.
  • How your idea and plot may fit in with the publishing landscape of the moment? Do you analyse publishing trends and try to emulate or predict what is/will be successful? It can never be a bad thing to keep an eye on the market but writing to it, seems, in my opinion, a risky endeavour. For one thing your assessment may be off, and, secondly, things change quickly.

Is it the case that some ideas will never be more than a (small?) collection of related thoughts around a theme? An image or a recollection? Or is it possible that the idea itself isn’t necessarily ‘to blame’? It’s simply that the idea itself hasn’t been given enough time and room to grow into a plot? I think that both can be true.

From what I’ve read, and heard others say, I gather that writers tend to fall into various ‘camps’ when it comes to ideas. Some say that they find it hard to get inspiration, to come up with what to write about. Others say that they have lots of ideas, often too many, and have difficulty deciding what to write about or sticking to that idea when a new one pops into their mind.

I tend to have a lot of ideas for things I want to write about. These can be things that interest me or bug me in some way. For me, writing – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – is exploration. Of life, of my life, of people and relationships, of situations and predicaments and strange phenomena. Generally, I write down my ideas but I also forget a lot of them as they pop up at inconvenient times, for example: in the middle of the night; when I’m out with the dog; driving or in the shower. Some ideas return to me and then I know that I’m onto something. But many arise and fall away. And that’s fine.

Sometimes I find a plot forms itself around an initial idea, sometimes I have to flesh it out. I am usually itching to get writing and when this happens I write my way into the story to find out what that story is and where best to start it. This may involve simply letting the characters emerge and act and speak. If I am considering writing a novel, however, I like to map it out in my mind first and then on paper to see whether it has potential. Particularly with crime novels, I like to know that I can explain the crime(s) convincingly. Often, at this point, I can see that it’s just an idea, something which I can use for a piece of flash fiction or a short story, or maybe develop at a later date for a longer project.

Recently I’ve had to decide what I want to focus on. I needed a break from the novel I started for my dissertation. It was such an intense period of writing, re-writing, reading and more re-writing. Then NaNoWriMo came round and I was torn between using it to finish the first draft of that novel and using it to write something completely new. I had an idea for a ‘something new’ and finally plumped to write that for NaNo – and adored writing it. However, I had loved writing my dissertation novel too. When NaNo was over I finished the first draft of that novel and then faced a dilemma. Should I re-write the NaNo novel or return to the first draft of my dissertation novel?

People advised me to choose the one that touched me the most. Good advice but the difficulty was that I really like both novels. Each comes from the heart but in completely different ways. They are also different in genre. One is crime fiction, a police procedural, and one is a science fiction crime hybrid. I think that they both have potential. Neither has run out of steam (yet!). In the end I decided to go with the novel that I started for my dissertation. I know exactly why I wanted to write it. I feel as passionately about its themes as when I started writing it. Have I thought about where it might fit in the market? Of course. But my main motivation for writing it is to explore, through story, phenomena which are important to me and which I think matter in the world.

I’m not really into waiting for the muse. It’s not how I see writing. My ideas come from ‘out there’, ‘in here’ or a combination of the two. It’s simple. There are so many things in life which intrigue me and arouse my curiosity. Of course that doesn’t mean that they should all make it into a book … and they won’t.

How do you choose which ideas to run with? What do you do if you have competing ideas which you like equally? Have you ever started something and had to abandon it? Or found that something has grown beyond your expectations?

Vicky Newham © 2014