Vicky Newham


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SIRENS by Joseph Knox – a review

I’ve read this book twice now and both times it’s made me feel very strange for a while afterwards, the way a dream can possess and linger. I love books which do this. In the main, I don’t read for escapism or entertainment; I like books which make me think about life in a different way, books which make me feel. And I guarantee you will never feel the same again once you’ve read Sirens.

What drew me to the novel was the setting. I am fascinated by contemporary urban life and psycho-geography, and Manchester isn’t a city I’ve been to or know anything about. Once I was into the first page, though, it was the novel’s characters which intrigued me. It might be easy to think their lifestyles aren’t common but, having lived in London for years, and worked at night while I was studying, I know how realistic the author’s depiction is. I wonder whether cities necessarily create nocturnal characters who creep around in the shadows; perhaps it’s the complexity of modern life which so often results in the alienation and sense of being adrift which Sirens evokes? Large cities then attract and enable people to slide into a faceless cloak of anonymity, and lurk. ‘In spite of social media, CCTV and the state,’ DC Aidan Waits observes at the start of the book, ‘we still live in a world where you can disappear if you want to. Or even if you don’t.’ And Waits’ adopted world is one of seedy nightclubs and trafficked sex workers, gangs and drugs, canals and underground car parks. It’s a world of power, corruption and exploitation, where derelict building sites cosy up to penthouse apartment blocks and Hilton hotels.

With three strikes against him, Waits is sent undercover to check up on the seventeen-year-old daughter of local MP, David Rossiter. The girl, Isabelle, like her mother, has a history of depression and has run away and hooked up with drug dealer, Zain Carver. Waits’ boss wants to know which police officers are on Carver’s payroll. Waits observes and infiltrates Carver’s entourage. Rather than eat and sleep, he takes speed. The secrets which you know are there, gradually reveal themselves. It’s not a cheery world. It’s a powerful story of human alienation and suffering, and of the things people do to numb their pain and escape what they cannot face.

To me, the sirens of the title aren’t just the girls who collect Carver’s drug money. They’re our own self-destructiveness; the dangerous allure of the drugs and the lifestyle, of the lights which seem brighter at night. They’re a reminder of the rocks of Greek mythology, which can smash us all to death regardless of any vigilance we may possess.

The story in Sirens is devastating, but it isn’t all dark. I cared about Waits. His life trajectory – from the glimpses we get – shows how easy it is to take a wrong turn, then another, and find yourself completely lost. But he’s not a bastard or a psychopath. He cares about others, especially Isabelle and Catherine, perhaps more than he does himself, and genuinely wants to help them.

I see the author spent around ten years on the book. It’s difficult to believe that it’s a debut novel, mainly because the writing is so vivid and affecting. At times it’s staccato and sparse, at others it’s brutal and graphic and detailed. The whole narrative is steeped in ‘noir’ and many of the characteristics of US crime novels. Perfect.

Intense, visceral and raw, Sirens is a stand-out novel for me.

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Vicky Newham ©2016


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Conversation with ‘Grace’ from Ava Marsh’s ‘UNTOUCHABLE’ – blog tour

I am excited to kick off the blog tour for the paperback publication of Untouchable with a special feature – a conversation with the novel’s main character, Grace.

My review of the book is underneath the Q & A.

jacket

 

Grace, you work on a rape crisis helpline under your real name and as an escort as ‘Stella’. How do you cope with, and feel about, your dual identities and jobs?

Having a dual identity is built into escorting, as most clients don’t know who you are in your ordinary life, and most people in your ordinary life aren’t aware that you’re an escort. I’ve certainly never told anyone in the rape crisis centre. I try to keep those two areas of my life well apart. It isn’t difficult. You soon get used to it. After all, how many of us are different people at work than at home?

 

That’s very true. An early scene in the book has you answering your phone to a client as ‘Stella’. Do you ever get confused and answer as ‘Grace’ when you’re taking an escort call, and ‘Stella’ when you’re at the rape crisis centre?

Not generally. It’s a bit like being bilingual. When you’re in one mode, you naturally fall into the role, and the name goes with it. Thankfully I’ve never made that mistake yet. Where it does get tricky is with other escorts. You may know them by both their real and working name, and sometimes it’s easy to get them mixed up.

 

I suppose it’s a bit like being undercover. You soon get used to a new identity.

The reader gathers early on that you’ve been through some kind of a trauma. What do you think helped you to survive its various aspects and cope with being an escort? And are you coping with it?

Becoming an escort was my way of surviving it. Escorting tends to be very all-consuming, something you can bury yourself in and use as a way to forget the past. Trauma tends to go with the territory of sex work– a lot of the women you meet in the business are damaged one way or another. I think a difficult past can make you more willing to take risks, to step over the line into something most people would regard as completely off limits.

 

Yes, I can see how it might provide escapism. I was thinking about the risks and limits with the party scene.

I really like your quick wit and humour. What characteristics do you like about yourself? Are there any you find frustrating?

I’m finding this a difficult question to answer. Some days I think I’m okay; many days I just want to be as far removed from myself as possible. I guess the characteristic I find most frustrating is my occasionally overwhelming desire to say exactly what I’m thinking. It’s not always what clients in particular want to hear.

 

Some of your retorts to your clients made me laugh!

In the book blurb it says that being an escort is exactly where you want to be. Can you tell us why you decided to go into escorting?

So many clients ask me this question! Do you want my evasive answer – ‘I do it for the job satisfaction’ – or the honest truth? I guess you’d rather have the latter, though the answer is quite prosaic. I knew someone who went into it to help pay her children’s school fees after she divorced. At that point in my life I needed money, couldn’t return to my previous career, and didn’t much care what I did or what happened to me. Escorting seemed an obvious choice. I like sex and meeting people, and it provides plenty of both.

 

Did you consider any other jobs or was it just escorting?  

I wasn’t really looking, to be honest. I was in a bad place when the escorting idea entered crossed my radar. In many ways it saved my life, though I know the people close to me don’t agree.

 

The concern of your friends came accross. It is understandable but must have made things tougher for you.

Why are you so hard on yourself about the ‘mistake’ that you made when you worked for several years as a Forensic Psychologist with dangerous offenders who have made ‘mistakes’? Why do you blame yourself for what happened?

Because it should never have happened, and it caused immense damage to others. I, of all people, should have been more aware of the dangers, should have known myself better. I’m not prepared to make excuses for myself over that.

 

A key theme of the book is forgiveness. What are your thoughts on human fallibility and forgiveness?

Show me an infallible human! At least outside a Hollywood film. Forgiveness is trickier. I agree with it in principle; in practice I’m not so sure, particularly if it involves letting the transgressor off the hook. That includes ourselves, by the way. For self-forgiveness to be meaningful, we have to take full stock of our own culpability first.

 

We’ve talked about why you ‘chose’ escorting. What do you get out of it on a day-to-day basis?

Apart from the money? I enjoy it. It’s a distraction. It fills my days and gets me out into the world, instead of sitting at home and ruminating all the time. I like meeting people too. Many of my clients are decent people, despite the common perception of men who pay for sex as all sleazy lowlifes.

 

I was thinking about gender as I was reading the novel. Do you think your ‘story’ is one of a ‘woman’ or a ‘human’? Could it happen to a man, and how might it be different, if so?

I’m not sure it could happen to a man. The world is different for men – for instance, they’re not generally punished for promiscuity. Generally speaking, I think women are less inclined to take their suffering out on other people, are more likely to internalise it and blame themselves. I also think many men are better at boxing up the bad things in their past and hiding them away in a corner of their mind they rarely visit.

 

Why does what happens to Elisa affect you so much? You put yourself at considerable risk to find out what happened and to help Kristen.

I liked Elisa. She was truly unique: charming, intelligent and considerate. But aside from that, I felt strongly for her girlfriend Kristen, who was clearly suffering and getting a very raw deal from everyone around her. Being a lesbian – like being an escort – can put you at the margins of society.

 

I love the title of the book, Untouchable. It’s possible to interpret it in various ways, all of which relate to themes in the novel. What is the significance of the title for you?

Exactly as you describe. I like the multiple meanings. The perpetrators in the novel, like many powerful men, consider themselves to be untouchable. There’s also an intimation that escorts, like me, who are ‘touchable’ for money, are also ‘untouchables’ in a caste sense: unspeakable people at the lowest rung of society.

 

Halfway through the book, you refer to how little ties you to your life, how easy it would be for you to disappear and move away. Did you have this sense of alienation from yourself before the trauma you experienced?

Escorting was my way of running away, I suppose, though the temptation to up and leave physically, to vanish to some far off place, is always there. Interestingly, it’s a common motif in many women’s lives, I’ve read; that urge to disappear, to leave everyone to it.

I’m not sure I felt alienated from myself before, so much as being blithely naïve. I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted from life, but what happened cut the ground from beneath me so thoroughly that I lost all faith in myself. Or perhaps had to relearn myself in a new way, if that makes any sense.

 

How do you feel about the way your story ends in Untouchable? How do you feel about your future … and your past?

I felt my story ended as it should, on a note of hope. It could have gone either way, to be honest, but I think my choice in the last chapter signals a renaissance in the soul, of moving on from this phase in my life, and rediscovering some faith in the redemptive power of love.

 

As someone who has had personal and professional experience of trauma, can you give any advice to others who have been through traumas in their lives, and lost their way as a result?

My best advice is therapy. A life unexamined is a life ungoverned. Only by reflecting on ourselves, our past, our choices and our mistakes, can we develop the strength not to repeat them.

But therapy doesn’t necessarily have to be with another person; you can do a lot with books. ‘Self help’ gets a bad press, but there’s a great deal of sense and wisdom in popular psychology.

 

UNTOUCHABLE

My (updated) review of the book is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/05/18/untouchable-by-ava-marsh-a-review/


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After the Fire by Jane Casey – a review

I have been wanting to read a ‘Jane Casey’ crime novel ever since I saw one of her book covers blown up into a giant poster at the London Book Fair in 2013. For some reason I had it in my head that the Maeve Kerrigan series was YA. I, therefore, read After the Fire (number six in the series) as a Kerrigan and Derwent newbie. And I loved it. What a fabulous detective pairing these two are.

When a fire tears through a tower block on the North London ‘Maudling Estate’ the last body the police expect to find amongst the debris is that of controversial MP, Geoff Armstrong. Two other bodies are found and various other people are unaccounted for. Kerrigan and Derwent are sent to investigate. Was it arson or an accident? And did the MP fall to his death, did he jump or was he pushed?

Having lived on a housing estate very similar to Maudling, I could imagine this tower block, the unreliable lifts, the grim corridors, the faulty CCTV, and the muggings which Casey describes so vividly. It is a perfect setting for a crime novel as the amount of people in one small space, and their socio-cultural heterogeneity, introduce multiple conflict sources and plot strands.

Kerrigan isn’t in a good ‘space’ for much of the novel. She isn’t sleeping well and is suffering other stress related symptoms. Despite this she is a determined and dedicated cop. Initially I didn’t warm to Derwent but that quickly changed as his fearlessness, his caring side, his intelligence and humour shine through his arrogant and often infuriating behaviour. Some say that attraction between detectives is a cliché – but I don’t see it that way. Perhaps the trajectory can be clichéd and control themes slightly gender stereotypical, but I didn’t find either with After the Fire. What I like about Kerrigan and Derwent is that they clearly care about each other, and watch each other’s backs. Their sparring is very funny and clever, and the characters are portrayed brilliantly by Casey, who is extremely witty herself. 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.

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, some of whom are more sympathetic than others. Their situations and predicaments are topical, and these give the novel an element of social realism and subtle commentary. I was fascinated by the ‘faceless crowd’ aspect of tower block life, its anonymity, the unseeing eyes … everywhere.

I read this novel a while ago and re-read it recently for this review. Despite knowing the plot, I was still spellbound by the characters and enjoyed the twists and revelations. Casey’s writing is a treat. Her dialogue is sharp, and the character observations are astute and funny. There are a few bits of backstory which seem to continue from previous books in the series but this is inevitable, and I found it easy to pick up on these as I read. Coming into the series at number 6 makes me want to read them all! With a contemporary plot, After the Fire ticks all the boxes for me. Highly recommended.

Review copy obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the author and publisher.

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Vicky Newham © 2015