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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Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton – a review (blog tour)

S. J. Bolton (c) Mark Bassett

I have read several of Sharon Bolton’s novels and really enjoyed their dynamism. Her first novel, Sacrifice, in 2008, was set on remote Shetland, and she returns to a rugged island location for the sharp, dark, Little Black Lies.

Little Black Lies is a standalone novel set in the Falklands Islands in 1994. It’s an interesting choice of location with its stunning scenery and conflict history. It is courageous for a writer to take a break from a popular detective series (the Lacey Flint novels) and write a standalone, but I think that the gamble has paid off in this case. Little Black Lies showcases Bolton’s versatility as a writer. It is clear to her readers that she loves her writing and is prepared to take risks. Her writing, plots and sub-genres have evolved since Sacrifice, and the fabulous Blood Harvest, both of which have greater reference to folklore and legend than Little Black Lies.

Little Black Lies

The plot of Little Black Lies spans five days and involves multiple mysteries. The story is told from the first person point of view of three characters, Catrin, Callum and Rachel. Rather than flitting between the characters in brief chapters, which has become quite fashionable, Bolton splits the novel into three discrete parts. I thought this was extremely effective. The longer sections enable the reader to really ‘get into’ the thoughts and feelings of each character, and understand their struggles and conflicts. The three characters have various things in common: they all have secrets which they are keeping from each other; they are all suffering, albeit in different ways; they are all telling … little black lies. Except they’re darned big ones. Startling confessions emerge which stir up the story and which keep things fresh for the reader. It’s a genius narrative decision to throw together three volatile characters, all of whom have issues of some sort with each other. The reader can never be sure whose account to believe.

In Part One we hear from Catrin, who is still grieving the death of her two sons, Kit and Ned, in an accident nearly three years ago. She is still angry about what happened, has got ‘stuck’ in prolonged grief and has cut herself off from everyone. I found this aspect of the book especially interesting – and moving – as it taps into a fascinating and important area of psychology: John Bowlby’s ideas on loss, sadness and depression. The reader learns that Catrin blames Rachel for Kit and Ned’s death and feels vengeful towards her. The third anniversary of their death is approaching and Catrin tells the reader how she plans to mark the day.

I deliberately didn’t read the book blurb before starting Little Black Lies, and from the opening paragraphs I honestly had no idea what direction the plot was going to take. It starts with Catrin arriving back on the island to discover that a boy has gone missing, and she agrees to help find him. Reference is made to it being ‘another’ disappearance, and as the story progresses we learn that this is the third child to go missing in three years. What on earth is going on?

In Part Two we hear from Callum, who is an ex-serviceman who fought on the islands in the conflict and is still suffering PTSD. He has returned there to live, in the hope that it will help him to overcome his trauma and his unresolved feelings for Catrin. He suspects that there is something sinister behind the disappearances of the children.

Rachel’s turn comes in Part Three. She was Catrin’s best friend before the accident which resulted in Kit and Ned’s death. The island community have conflicted feelings towards her as a result of the accident, and split loyalties. Rachel is guilt-wracked about her involvement and is desperate to make it up to Catrin. I found Rachel fascinating. As the plot proceeds, we learn why she might feel guilty. It prompted me to wonder about guilt. If something is an accident, should one feel guilty? If deception is intended, planned even, does this make a difference? Or is intention irrelevant, and guilt determined by consequences? And what is the relationship between forgiveness and guilt? If only the former removed the latter …

I loved the universal themes in Little Black Lies: love; loss and grief; suffering; revenge; family; secrets and conspiracies; relationships and loyalty. They are all explored in a menacing setting via a story which is poignant and moving without being sentimental. I found the plot compelling from the first page. Bolton is superb at creating unsettling atmospheres. She cranks up the tension and leaves it suspended like a storm cloud, and when you think you should be able to breathe again, you still feel uneasy although you don’t know why. There are mysteries galore in this book: why are children going missing? What is going to happen with Catrin and Rachel? Will Callum lay his ghosts to rest? In many ways, the book as a whole is about coming to terms with the past, how difficult it can be and how each person has to find their own way.

Little Black Lies is a different type of book from the Lacey Flint detective series – more emotive and raw, in my opinion – but it is similarly thrilling. The descriptions of the island landscape and the sea are vivid and often lyrical. The author captures their beauty and magic on the one hand, and their harshness and dangers on the other. The suspiciousness of the islanders is conveyed convincingly and I loved how the claustrophobic island community experience quick loyalty shifts, often without real foundation but based on fear and self-interest.

In addition to the above, Bolton includes some fabulous twists in Little Black Lies. I have encountered these before in her novels, and they are something she is particularly good at. They genuinely surprise without seeming outlandish or inconsistent with the characters. The final twist at the end of Little Black Lies is a real curve ball. I have never encountered a twist like it. Very, very smart.

I highly recommend Little Black Lies. It is powerful, visceral and poignant. And the ending will leave your mouth open.

My review copy was obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the publisher and author. This review is part of the Penguin Random House / Transworld blog tour.

Sharon’s website is here: http://www.sjbolton.com/ If nothing else, check out the brilliantly creepy music!

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Vicky Newham © 2015