Book Review: Never Be Broken

Never Be Broken, by Sarah Hilary, is the sixth and possibly final instalment in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with DI Rome attending a crime scene – the wreckage of a car that is stained with the blood of her colleague, Noah Jake. The timeline then moves back forty-eight hours leaving the reader to ponder if a favourite character from the series has been killed.

DS Jake is receiving counselling following the murder in prison of his brother, Sol. Noah feels responsible for Sol’s incarceration. Despite knowing it must be his subconscious speaking, Noah is haunted by his brother’s ghost. He is reluctant to lose even this tenuous link and refuses to speak of it to anyone.

Marnie’s crime team are investigating the growing number of deaths of children from London’s less than salubrious estates. There are links to drug dealing, the supply of knives and guns, and perhaps even people trafficking. When the latest victim, a white girl named Raphaela Belsham, is gunned down in Muswell Hill close to her parent’s expensive home, questions are asked about possible links to the run-down high rises where the dark skinned victims lived. Raphaela’s father is furious at the suggestion that his privileged daughter could have been caught up in any form of criminal activity.

The police are widely regarded as either incompetent or the enemy. Belsham blames people of colour for the country’s ills. When Marnie takes Noah along to question the Belshams about Raphaela, her father’s anger and racism manifest. He accuses Noah of planting evidence.

Much of the action revolves around Erskine Tower, a block of flats within sight of the fire damaged Grenfell. The residents include the elderly who have lived there for decades and younger people caught up in the escalating violence. Raphaela had been a visitor to the tower as part of a supervised school project. Her level of supervision comes under scrutiny.

Although following the fast moving, tense and twisty structure of many compelling crime fiction novels, the author digs deeper into complex issues raised. This is skilfully done, never compromising effortless reader engagement. Her use of language is impressive conjuring the tastes, sounds, smells and feel of challenging locations. Shocking events are presented to the reader in high definition.

The denouement is violent and rendered without compromise whilst avoiding sensationalism. There are several heart palpating moments involving key characters. There is a nagging fear throughout that the author will kill her darlings – she has ensured that the reader cares.

This is a tenacious and troubling exploration of the many colours of life existing beneath the shiny veneer of our capital city. It is crime fiction at its best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline. 

Gig Review: Sarah Hilary in Bath launching #ComeAndFindMe

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to attend the launch of Sarah Hilary’s fifth crime fiction novel in her DI Marnie Rome series, Come And Find Me. I have been lucky enough to receive proofs of each of the books in this series to review and they just keep getting better. As I now choose to read very few crime fiction novels, I put my continuing enjoyment of Sarah’s books down to the quality of the writing, the challenging topics explored and the skilfully rendered plot development. They are fast moving page turners and follow expected structures but never feel formulaic during reading.

The launch was held in Toppings bookshop where we received a warm welcome alongside a tasty array of nibbles to go with our wine. Alison Graham had prepared a series of interesting questions which enabled Sarah to offer an insight into the nuts and bolts of crime writing. In the audience I spotted Mick Herron, another Bath based crime writer. It is always good to see authors supporting each other’s endeavours.

   

Following introductions and thanks the Q&A began. Below I summarise the key points I came away with.

Marnie Rome is a complex character. Throughout the series she is trying to find out why her step-brother, Stephen, killed their parents. He knows this and baits her. In Come And Find Me the plot is based around a prison riot at the prison where Stephen is serving his sentence. He is hospitalised and Marnie must deal with how she feels about this. A violent offender has escaped and Marnie’s job is to find him.

Sarah was asked what will happen to Marnie in the future.

As she doesn’t plot, Sarah doesn’t know. She develops her characters as she writes them. Part of her impetus, the pleasure in writing, is this discovery. Sarah dislikes giving out too much information about her characters as subsequently this can limit what happens next. Such parsimony of detail has led to readers getting in touch when some minutiae is revealed – as when Marnie mentioned having a slow cooker.

Women in real life write to violent prisoners. Sarah was asked what research she did into this.

When preparing a media interview Sarah was once asked if she had been such a penpal (the answer is no). She was inspired by a particular news story about an apparently intelligent woman who remained in thrall to a cult leader convicted of abuse. The characters she writes are rounded but have flaws, just like people in real life. She will feel a degree of sympathy for most of them. She likes to pose the question: who do you think the monster is?

A further question in this vein was how such a lovely lady as Sarah can write such malign characters.

Sarah told us that she has always been interested in dark stuff. Since reading her books, her mother’s neighbours have commented on this – what is it with Sarah! She reminded us that it is fiction. Had she experienced anything so dark she doesn’t believe she could have written about it in the way she does. She talked of the reader’s desire for a vicarious thrill, to experience from a position of safety.

Asked why women in particular seem to lap such stories up Sarah suggested that part of this may be because, from a young age, women are taught to be afraid – of strangers, of walking alone after dark. Perhaps there is a fascination about what may happen.

Sarah mentioned a real life example. In 1879 Kate Webster, a housekeeper, murdered her mistress. She disposed of the body by cutting it up and boiling the remains. She then sold the resulting dripping to neighbours who had belittled her. She was hanged for the crime but, whilst in prison, people could pay to go in and observe her. Most of those who went were of a similar age and class.

Sarah was asked if she would have gone to look.

After some consideration she admitted that she might have done.

Sarah was asked if she had ever visited a prison.

She hasn’t. She doesn’t even have a police consultant to talk to about the procedures she writes about, although she has been assured they come across as credible.

Moving on, Sarah was asked if Marnie has any friends, and if Sarah would be her friend.

Sarah admires her courage. She considers Marnie brave because she is afraid but tries not to let this get in the way. Sometimes she fails but she doesn’t give up, she carries on. In Come And Find Me she is changing. In the early books Marnie was spiky and brittle. Now she is softer, she has allowed herself to be more vulnerable and this has made her stronger.

One detail about Marnie that has been revealed is her tattoos. Although embarrassed by them she carries them as she does her guilt for how she behaved towards her parents as a teenager. These things are a part of her past that she must somehow learn to live with.

Alison commented that Sarah is good at writing lost souls and asked if she empathised with everyone.

Like all writers, Sarah watches people. She is drawn to the stories of those who do not belong, who are invisible to society, such as the homeless. She commented that it can sometimes be necessary to look the other way. There are so many bad things happening in the world that we feel powerless to change – considering them all would be overwhelming. She is, however, inspired by the Arthur Miller quote:

“I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

Sarah was asked if she considered her books violent.

She doesn’t like horror to be written in graphic detail as she believes this numbs the reader. Instead she seeks an emotional reaction, to open a door and then allow imagination to take over as this can be more powerful than words.

Alison asked how many more books there are to be about Marnie.

Sarah told us that she may rest the series after book six, although this depends on what temptation presents itself. She is aware that she is stretching readers’ patience for certain answers. When she started writing, series were wanted by publishers. Now it seems that debuts are the thing. Her next book may be standalone.

As a professional writer does Sarah have a routine?

There is a certain element of this although waiting for ideal conditions is a writers way of prevaricating. If words need to be written they will happen. Sarah’s inspiration no longer flows as freely as it once did. She writes in the mornings, currently in a cold kitchen wearing fingerless gloves for warmth – very Dickensian.

Questions were opened up to the audience and the subject somehow veered into a discussion about Blake’s Seven. Sarah was then asked if Come and Find Me could be read standalone.

Each book details a crime that is solved so yes. However, the depth of Marnie’s character is best understood by reading the series from the beginning.

Sarah was asked if she ever felt uneasy when real life crimes mimicked her fiction.

In one sense yes, but in writing realistic crime fiction this can happen. It would probably be different if a copycat crime happened and she was cited as the inspiration. She tries to write with compassion, to shine a light on dark situations. She is not squeamish about what is real.

Marnie is a difficult character to write whereas Noah is easy. He started with a much darker persona but Sarah was told that she must have at least one lighter character. As a result she doesn’t believe Noah could work as a protagonist, there wouldn’t be enough of interest. Her favourite part to write in each book is when Noah plays the part of the criminal in order to allow Marnie to try to solve the crime.

Sarah was asked if we can expect a Marnie cookbook and what her favourite recipe would be.

This ellicited some discussion about slow cookers and pot noodles. In the end Sarah decided Marnie would advise visiting a favourite cafe.

To finish, Sarah mentioned that she had seen a comment on Twitter, that books put us in touch with humanity in surprising ways. She liked this, and also the irony of reading it on such a site.

   

Having wound up the formal part of the event there was time to chat, imbibe, and purchase books. Sarah was being kept busy at her signing table so I slipped away.

Come And Find Me is published by Headline and is available to buy now from all good bookshops. Toppings currently hold a limited number of signed first editions.

 

Book Review: Come And Find Me

Come And Find Me, by Sarah Hilary, is the fifth book in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with a prison riot during which several inmates are viciously attacked, a fire is started and, in the ensuing mayhem, one escapes. Mickey Vokey was incarcerated after he assaulted a young mother in her home. He has been receiving impassioned fan-mail from women since his conviction, who have provided him with their addresses that he may write back to them. In attempting to locate the felon, the police are spread thin. Cutbacks and the interest of the press add to the pressures the force comes under, that and the consensus from those who knew Vokey that none of the photographs being circulated of the missing person look anything like him.

DI Marnie Rome must once again detach her professional life from her personal demons. Her foster-brother, Stephen Keele, has sustained life-threatening injuries in the riot. Marnie approaches her contacts within the prison but is unsure of the veracity of their testimony. Prisoners know that they must not upset those within the system for fear of direct retaliation. They are also aware that those on the outside maintain control by threatening family members.

Marnie and her team quickly uncover a number of valuable leads, including access to the Vokey family home. Mickey Vokey is a talented artist with a particular interest in capturing the emotions of his subjects. He collected photographs including some of his known victim. The police officers fear that there could be others unaccounted for within his collection, and that now he could strike again.

Interspersed with the details of the ongoing search and investigation are chapters narrating the thoughts of Vokey’s cellmate who is on life-support due to injuries sustained in the riot. Ted Elms was convicted of benefit fraud and is regarded as a model prisoner. He knows what happened during the riot but is now unable to speak. He is, however, more aware of what is going on around him than his carers and visitors realise.

The reader is offered glimpses of past lives that enable empathy with the varied cast of characters despite their obvious flaws. Where there is evil it has been exacerbated by the prison system. Prisons also exist on the outside due to loneliness and societal dislocation. Initial, easy judgements rarely stand up to scrutiny.

The author is a master of suspense – it is almost frightening how good she is at injecting dark, twisted suspicions and changes of direction. Although gruesome in places the prose remains emotive and sensuous. Smells and tastes permeate each tightly constructed scene.

A crime thriller that dives straight into the action and maintains a roller coaster tension through to the unanticipated denouement. It will appeal to fans of the genre but contains sufficient depth and consideration to satisfy any reader. A fiercely assured addition to an unflinching series. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: No Other Darkness

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No Other Darkness, by Sarah Hilary, is a tense and gripping crime thriller which opens with the grisly discovery of two little boys entombed in an underground bunker. It features DI Marnie Rome who first appeared in the author’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin. Like the first book a challenging crime involving families and their dark secrets is explored. The story has depth and complexity but is presented effortlessly, thereby confirming the skill of the writer.

The boys’ bodies are found by the owner of a house which was built above the bunker eighteen months previously. It is estimated that the boys have been dead for around five years. With little to go on as to who these children could be or why they were entombed DI Rome’s team struggle to deal with what is threatening to become a cold case. They are not the only ones adversely affected by the tragedy. The home owner who found them has been rehomed while the investigation is ongoing. He and his family are struggling to come to terms with the effect the find and their enforced move has had on their psyches. As their home is exposed to outside scrutiny questions arise about how they chose to live and why.

The family have two young children, another on the way, and are also fostering a teenager. When the press become interested in the case an old flame of Marnie’s emerges, taunting her with parallels from her past. The teenager is the same age as the foster child who killed her parents.

At various stages I correctly guessed ahead of the plot yet each time found that this was not the conclusion but merely a step along the way. The story is heartbreaking on so many levels, the final few chapters oozing the terror of the darkness.

For crime fiction fans this thriller is an absolute treat. Graphic but never gratuitous it explores the potentially devastating consequences of untreated mental illness, of paranoia, and the damage that can be wrought by guilt, grief and fear.

I was fortunate enough to receive two proof copies of this book to review: one from the publisher, Headline, and one from Goodreads via a First Reads giveaway.

 

 

Author Interview: Sarah Hilary

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Sarah Hilary lives just down the road from me, is also a wife and mother, but has recently become a published author with rave reviews in the national press. I love to see a writer succeed. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, is available from Headline in the UK and Penguin in America. It is the first in a series and at least three other books featuring the protagonist, DI Marnie Rome, will follow.

It has taken Sarah nearly thirty years to get to this point. Despite many rejections along the way she continued writing, listening to feedback, improving and not giving up. The result is an impressive crime thriller that I and many others have very much enjoyed. She deserves the long awaited accolades that are now coming her way.

So many people have a story inside, but few have the patience and skill to craft these into a book that others will want to read. If you are looking for a crime thriller with power, depth and a compelling plot then you will enjoy this author’s work.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Sarah Hilary.

Where do you typically write?

For preference? In cafés. Im a big fan of white noise. Im trying to get better at working at my desk at home, so if anyone has any suggestions for neat shelving or pin-boards to make my writing space exciting, please let me know!

Tell us about your writing process.

Im not a great plotter, as I get bored easily; one of the reasons I write is to find out what happens, and to be surprised by the characters. I found a really good (fun) list of different ways to plot on Chuck Wendig’s blog, so Im going to take a crack at a couple of his methods to see what gives. Usually, I start with a rough idea and write around 4,000 words to see if it excites me. Then I start jotting down questions, and twists. The story grows out of those. After that, its a matter of sitting down and writing a couple of thousand words every day until the first draft is done. Usually a lean draft that needs layers, but Im much happier when I have the whole story down, as thats my map for rewrites.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

It took me a long time to get good enough to be signed by the agent of my dreams (Jane Gregory) but after that it happened quite quickly. Someone Elses Skin and the follow-up, No Other Darkness, sold after an auction in the UK, and I have publishing deals in seven other countries, which is beyond a dream come true. I have a terrific editor at Headline (Vicki Mellor), and a great publicity team who launched Someone Elses Skin with fanfare earlier this year. Since then its been pretty much non-stop, as Ive been finishing No Other Darkness at the same time as travelling to events around the UK to promote Someone Elses Skin. And now Ive started the third book in the series; my heads still spinning a little, and I feel Ive learned a heck of a lot, very quickly, about the publishing process.

In what ways do you promote your work?

With the help of my publicists here and in the US, Ive done a lot of blogs and interviews, and a couple of live Twitter chats (it really helped that Id been active in social media for some time before I got a book deal, as I had a head-start). Ive also done events at independent bookshops, some first person features for newspapers and magazines, and radio interviews.

What are some of your current projects?

Ive just started the third book in the Marnie Rome series, and Im making notes for the fourth book, so that the long-term character arcs are in place.

Where can my readers find you?

On Twitter: Sarah Hilary (@sarah_hilary)

Author’s Blog: Crawl Space (http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.co.uk)

Facebook: Sarah Hilary (https://www.facebook.com/Sarah.Hilary.Author)

Someone Else’s Skin is available from the publisher, Amazon and all good bookshops.

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Sarah Hilary lives in Bath with her husband and daughter, where she writes quirky copy for a well-loved travel publisher. She’s also worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. An award-winning short story writer, Sarah won the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012.

Someone Else’s Skin is her first novel, published by Headline in the UK, Penguin in the US, and in six other countries worldwide. A second book in the series will be published in 2015. Set in London, the books feature Detective Inspector Marnie Rome, a woman with a tragic past and a unique insight into domestic violence.

The Observer chose Someone Else’s Skin as its Thriller of the Month in March 2014, describing the book as Superbly disturbingan extraordinarily good debut.