Vicky Newham


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‘I Know Who Did It’ by Steve Mosby – a review

So far this year I have four favourite books. I Know Who Did It is one of them. What I like and admire about Steve Mosby’s writing is that I am continually checking what I think I know about the characters and plot. He is highly adept at giving the impression that one thing is happening when it is something completely different. Naughty. Or, giving few clues at all as to what is happening. I love books like this as they keep me on my toes by adding misdirection to the various mysteries to be solved. And what an unusual collection of mysteries I Know Who Did It presents.

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 but I was on complete tenterhooks, much as one is with a good horror film. Through his son’s clothes and favourite toy, Groves identifies the remains of his son in a pit. Fast forward, and, every year, Groves receives a birthday card for his dead son. This year, however, the card bears the message, ‘I know who did it’. Well, that really sends the birds into the air.

The story then switches to Charlie Matheson who died in a car accident. When a woman is found, who looks like identical to her, and claims to be her, Detective Mark Nelson is called in to investigate. Her account of her death and afterlife are unusual, to say the least. And there you have it. In a few brief chapters you know what you’re dealing with. Or, rather, you don’t: a woman who has come back from the dead and a man who’s receiving cards for his dead son.

This book ticked all the main boxes for me. There are historical crimes and contemporary ones. There are characters who are struggling to come to terms with loss. Furthermore, Mosby is a writer with an extraordinary understanding of the complexities of psychological processes and how morality adds additional considerations to already complicated emotions. When these are combined with notions of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, right and wrong, good and bad, and what constitutes sin, it makes for a heady mix. He weaves these themes into a plot which, trust me, will blow your mind. More than this I can’t say without spoilers.

The structure of the book works well and the reader hears various points of view, with Mark in first person. I warmed to his character and sympathised with his difficulties and conflicted feelings. The shifts between viewpoints are clearly indicated.

I could see thriller and horror elements and influences running through the book in addition to the crime set-up (although don’t want to say too much about these). There was a sense of time running out and this gave the novel a tense pace throughout. I never knew when someone was going to do something awful either to themselves or to another person. I was curious to know how Mosby was going to explain the various crimes and whether they might be linked. There were a number of game-changing plot twists, several of which literally had me grunt, OMG, through a clenched jaw, once I had returned to earth from their three sixty degree spin. And then immediately read on to find out what was going to happen.

Something else which I liked about the book is the way in which some of Mosby’s characters reflect on their lives, and on how motivation and actions converge. Integrity is an important theme, along with the conflicts that can arise when being true to one’s own feelings can result in feelings of disloyalty. It is a story about how difficult it can often be to do ‘the right thing’, or even to know what that is sometimes. It’s also a story about how difficult it can be to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes. Mosby’s writing speaks to the human condition with sophistication, subtlety and insight. There is no moralising or preaching: just a lot of questions which will worm their way into your wondering brain.

I hope we see more of Mark and Sasha. Mercer’s role was a little vague for me but this book has made me want to read the 50/50 Killer now (not necessary – I Know Who Did It is self-contained) to find out what happened on that case and what the deal is with him.

I wasn’t sure where this novel is set as, unless I missed it, no actual place names are mentioned. There is reference to towns and woods, and description of both, but I wasn’t sure if we were in London or the North of England. I then started to wonder if this bothered me. It didn’t. This raises an interesting question about whether stories need to be anchored in an identifiable location or whether imagination is sufficient. Towards the end of the book a place is mentioned which I know well – a fictionalised version in the book – and I found it hard then not to map events onto my knowledge of that place and its history. I then realised that was pointless as it’s a bit like readers mentioning in reviews that a particular bus doesn’t go up a particular street. It’s fiction!

In sum, I highly recommend I Know Who Did It. It crackles with menace, there’s plenty at stake, and the plot is unlike any other I have read. I seriously challenge you to guess its resolution! I think Mosby is one of the best male crime writers around. More, please.

My review copy was obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the author and publisher for this. Publication date is 24th September.

You can find Steve on Twitter @stevemosby. His website and extremely interesting blog are here: http://www.theleftroom.co.uk/

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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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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Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller – a review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Poison Bay by Belinda Pollard – a review

Callie and her Australian friends haven’t all been together for a decade. When the eight of them decide to have a reunion, and hike through remote and mountainous landscape in New Zealand, far from civilization, and with no phone signal, you just know that it isn’t going to go according to plan. It’s such a great set-up for a thriller, and the author creates a wonderful sense of menace and foreboding from the start with the opening scene.

To begin with, meals around the camp fire, and sleeping in tents, are fun for some, but tricky group dynamics quickly emerge which go back to their school days. These include longstanding tensions and rivalries and – inevitably – people who do not get on. The fitness levels of the group members vary, meaning that some quickly struggle with the uncompromising regime of trek leader, Bryan. Then, when shocking and sinister events start to occur, loyalties with the group are tested. Each person has to figure out who they can trust, and one by one each comes under suspicion. Which is worse, to know it’s one of them or that someone is following their trek? As the story progresses through a series of twists and turns, secrets come tumbling out of the undergrowth, and each person in the group is reminded of the tragedy at school all those years ago, of which they were all a part. What I found psychologically interesting about this aspect of the plot was that each person has responded differently to this tragedy, just as each of them copes in their own way with the trek.

One of the things which attracted me to Poison Bay was the setting and I adored the vivid descriptions of the scenery. Pollard conveys brilliantly its remoteness, its beauty and dangers, and the weather. The clever, multi-sensory details pulled me into the story and I felt as if events were unfolding in front of me. I felt the discomforts and pains of the group as they trudged through the cold and rain. One of the cover quotes describes it as an ‘eco/wilderness thriller’ and I agree. The author uses the New Zealand landscape, Shadow Land, and the inclement weather, as more than just a backdrop. It is integral to the plot, and forms part of the conflict, continually challenging the characters on their hastily-agreed-to trek. The sub-plot with Sergeant Hubble and the mountain rescue operation adds additional suspense and scenes with relatives back in ‘civilisation’ provide good contrast.

With so many characters, it is always a challenge for an author to make them not just distinctive but well-rounded. There are some real gems here, keenly observed and real. I liked Callie. I found Rachel interesting because of her diabetes, and conservationist, Bryan, is terrific as the weird leader of the group. Hubble fits in well, as a strong character who isn’t connected to the friends, and who combines a maverick spirit without being a loose cannon (which avoids cliché).

If you’re looking for a thriller with a ‘fresh’ setting, I highly recommend Poison Bay. It’s well plotted, the landscape descriptions are transporting, and the characters could be anyone’s school friends.

My review copy was obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the author.

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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.