Vicky Newham


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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – a review

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Friendly single mother, Louise, meets David in a bar. Flirtation becomes a kiss, but it ends there. The next day, at work, Louise meets her new boss and gets a glimpse of his beautiful wife, Adele. Guess what? To Louise’s embarrassment, he’s the man from the bar. Then when Louise bumps into Adele on the street, they go for coffee together and start up a confiding friendship. It seems that it’s fresh starts all round. But while David says the kiss was a mistake, he cannot keep his eyes off Louise, and a love triangle develops.

The story is told from the point of view of Louise and Adele, and the reader quickly wonders which of the two is telling the truth, and whether Adele and David’s marriage is as perfect as it seems. With unreliable narrators, and a combustive domestic situation, it’s the perfect set-up for a twisty psychological thriller. But it’s also where Sarah Pinborough shakes things up.

What I adored about this book is the way the author deals with the subtle nuances of the inter-relationships, and brings them to life. For me – and it stands out in her YA novels too – Sarah Pinborough excels at writing relationships, and she brings an emotional intelligence to the many forms of communication which take place between people. She shows – in an often humorous, often poignant way – how easy it is to get drawn into a mutual obsession which escalates. And, with modern technology at everyone’s disposal, obsessions can be stoked and satisfied from the comfort of the sofa. Louise and Adele have very different lives, yet neither is happy.  The reader is privy to their reflections for all their honesty, neurosis and desperation. But what their reflections also show is how different people often are from the image they portray; how cruel and manipulative some people can be; how self-deception can eat away at their hopes and dreams.

Behind Her Eyes drips with menace from the first page, and that atmosphere continues throughout the novel. Most of the narrative is written in the present tense. It’s immediate and claustrophobic. It’s intimate and confessional. And it’s beautifully written.

What I admire about Sarah Pinborough is that with each novel she pushes her writing that bit further and is continually challenging genre boundaries. The #WTFthatending will certainly get people reading the book. And so it should. But in amongst the disturbing themes and dysfunctional characters, I also hope that people enjoy the subtle aspects of the book. After all, we know we can’t always trust others, but can we trust ourselves?

 

Vicky Newham ©2017


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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.

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 


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

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Steve, welcome to the blog!

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

So, over to you.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 


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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The Crooked House by Christobel Kent – a review

I thoroughly enjoyed this psychological thriller and was swept along by the story and the mysteries within it. It starts with Alison, who we learn has witnessed a violent incident when she was in her early teens and which left her an orphan. The precise details of the incident emerge as the story progresses and form part of the mystery. The book blurb says that she was the only person to survive. Alison, whose name was originally Esme, lived with her aunt for a while afterwards. She changed her name and decided that she didn’t want to know what happened to her parents and siblings, nor who was responsible. Eventually she moved out of her aunt’s and set up her adult life in a particular way. But an event brings Alison back to her home village of Saltleigh, with boyfriend, Paul, and she starts to ask questions about, and piece together, what might have happened. Part of her own denial, suppression and amnesia mean that she is unsure what she actually saw and heard that night in the crooked house. She appears quite detached from it all and from relationships. The lives of the inhabitants of Saltleigh have moved on to some extent but the killings are still on everyone’s lips, and there is a sense of menace about the way they watch each other – and Alison.

What I found particularly enjoyable about this novel was the atmosphere the author creates. Alison has gaps in her memory and is ambivalent about knowing the truth, and the reader doesn’t know whether she is reliable. And this is the same for almost all the other characters. Everyone seems to have something to hide and a vested interest in stopping the truth coming out. Suspense is well maintained throughout mainly via the creepy atmosphere and plot questions. Furthermore, the author drops in subtle reveals and poses questions and then shifts the narrative to another part of the plot. All of this did keep me guessing but as it involves quite a bit of switching between time frames, it is a little disorientating at times.

I found Alison interesting and I wanted her to get the answers she sought – but was also fearful for her. As so many people were involved in the original crimes (the killing of Esme’s family) and so many people were part of their lives in the Saltleigh, what happened is like a vast jigsaw puzzle. Each time Alison put a piece in place, and thought it fitted, it changed the appearance of the picture. Throughout the novel I had ideas about what might have happened but for most of the book, it was wide open, and I loved this about it. I also found interesting how the village community had responded to the killing of Esme’s family, and to her return thirteen years later as ‘Alison’.

There was a lot of psychology in this book for me to get my teeth into. I adore stories where characters are trying to piece together ‘who’ they are and what the reality was of their parents’ lives. I found myself imagining what it must be like to lose your family in the way Esme had. We see a little of how it has affected Alison, and how she has set up her life along certain lines. I wondered if she was perhaps a little too well adjusted but don’t know how to gauge this – and it didn’t affect the story. If you like complex psychological thrillers, I highly recommend The Crooked House. I’ve not read anything by this author before but will definitely read others of hers.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh – review

I Let You Go begins with a hit-and-run, a crime which is investigated by DI Ray Stevens and his team. The novel is part police procedural and part psychological thriller, with chapters alternating between these two aspects for most of the book. This structure provides suspense and the author keeps the pace going effectively throughout. I enjoyed the investigation element as it was written convincingly, with context about pressures in the service woven deftly into the story so that the reader sees how these affect investigations. I am not keen on crime novels which are gratuitously violent, and felt that this element was handled extremely well, sometimes alluded to and sometimes shown on the page: a good balance. Certain crime tropes were evident whilst others, refreshingly, were flipped. Ray’s relationship with his wife made me curious and the situation with their son added complexity to their home life and layers to their characterisation. I was aware of holding my breath at certain turning points in their exchanges. The female protagonist, Jenna, comes across sympathetically although the reader isn’t always sure what she may have done, let alone why. The author handles the sensitive topics extremely well. I like to understand why people behave in the way they do and the author provides enough to satisfy in this respect whilst also allowing the reader to make up their own mind about motivations. I Let You Go is a polished, compelling read. I look forward to seeing what the author has in store for DI Stevens if there are more to come with him.