Every writer gets bad reviews.
Some take them to heart, others don’t bother reading them at all; in fact, I had a personal message back on Facebook from Karin Slaughter when I first started out and she said the same thing. She doesn’t read reviews. In her own words: “no good can ever come of it.”
Some of the biggest selling books in the world have swathes of one and two star reviews from readers who just didn’t like the book. Shit happens, and as a writer, you cannot please every reader.
When Mark and I were writing Sugar & Spice, there were quite a few discussions between us about some of the aspects in it, particularly those scenes involving the police and social services. We fought and squabbled over some of them like a pair of kids in the playground fighting over a toy, always keeping in mind that we were writing a work of fiction, but also, that bad things happen to good people and not all people who are supposed to help you and be good, are.
When we first published Sugar & Spice, we were under no illusion: It was going to upset some people. We knew it would – but we did it anyway.
The research for the book was not easy, but everything there came from public sources and examples, including the conduct of the authorities. People in positions of power who are meant to be the good guys. There is, as we all know, a very fine line between fact and fiction. Sadly.
In the year that followed the release of Sugar & Spice, we received many emails from irate readers, and plenty of scathing reviews on Amazon. Some of them raised valid points, to which we responded and explained our position politely. Some were plainly from that section of society who’s toilet-goings always smell of perfume and who see through pink-tinted gels with stick on butterflies. Hey ho, you can’t please everyone right?
Now, when a reader had a particular complaint about the writing or the characters (or even typos and formatting, which we happily corrected once we had sussed out this self-publishing malarky and were grateful to be informed of) or plot development, then we had to take the one and two starrers on the chin. But when we received downright abusive and personal (sometimes extremely libelous) attacks on us for even having dared to question the services, we drew the line. Amazon were very good at removing those reviews and of course, we sent strongly worded (ahem) email responses to those that included an address, but we always said the same thing: Really? Are you serious that this kind of thing doesn’t happen?
Here’s but a few of the wildly ludicrous comments we got:
The characters are, for the most part, hateful caricatures. The two social workers who are trying to elicit information from the twin girls (won’t say anymore so as not to spoil) may as well wear witches hats and cackle. Making bets with each other over who can garner the most information and hating kids despite their profession is ridiculous.
Yes, the writing is fluid and the authors obviously have talent, but the story is marked by so many implausible events and characters that it became impossible for me to finish: police brutality so egregious it defies logic; social workers who are strangely inept and easily manipulated into bumbling fools;
I had the feeling the author has an agenda with this story. The authorities come off looking bad in their jobs – the police jump to conclusions and force confessions from innocent suspects, Social Services workers are eager to find child abuse where there is none and adults discount the ideas of young people just because they ARE young.
The story is full of cliches on the capabilities and self serving nature of therapists and social workers
all the other characters are awful, and as a social worker myself I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I have seen many programs, films and newspaper articles that play up to the stereotypes but there is a complete disregard for the truth here. And i’m sure anyone who is a police officer or psychologist may have a thing or two to say about how they are portrayed!
Try googling social services abuse of powers or police brutality and then tell us this sort of thing doesn’t happen. All the portrayals in Sugar & Spice were based on real-life events.
I could go on. I won’t. Over Amazon and other platforms, Sugar & Spice has been reviewed getting on close to 350 times. With a hit rate of 76% of 4 stars and above and a quickly-developed rhino hide we are not fazed anymore by poor reviews, but I needed to start this blog post in this vein to set the scene.
Now I am not going to get into a huge moral debate about it. Mark and I have blogged enough about our reasons for writing Sugar & Spice and frankly, we are so over the one star review (genuine and contrived) thing now, that we are not defending ourselves any more. But I wanted to tell you about an email I received a few months ago.
Your book was a courageous write, very thought provoking, and stomach in mouth I sat down to read it on Monday of this week, I was finished by Thursday morning and full of so much more information and knowledge. I didn’t know what to expect from the book, but it was sensational, and although my child is sat in front of me healthy and alive, it doesn’t stop the fact that she has experienced something no child her age should ever have to face.
Thank you Saffina for writing a book that opens peoples eyes to the sickening world that is alive around us, to a lot they will walk this earth and never have to experience anything, but for some of us the reality is all too clear.
Of course I responded and in the weeks that followed learned more about what had happened. And eventually the writer decided she’d like her story more widely known.
For obvious reasons, with a child involved, I have changed names and omitted identifying detail. I’ll call the mother Cheryl here.
Now, I could describe Cheryl to you in detail. Since I received her initial email, we have talked a lot and there are many things I could say about her, but, I will let you decide by telling her story in her own words. I asked her to just let it spill out and she did so in an email which she agreed we could publish. This is it:
In April 2011, we were given our eviction notice by our Landlord, which was no shock as Simon, my partner is a tradesman and being in and out of work, can make things hard.
Therefore, armed with my eviction notice I went to the council and spent until my eviction date 19th July arguing for them to house me. As I had no rent arrears, but also no work security they agreed…
We spent the next four months in a one bedroom hostel. They had placed three single beds in the bedroom which didn’t leave any options for Simon and I to sleep as a couple or anywhere for Johnny (my youngest, who’s 3 in April) cot. I moved in to the lounge with Johnny and Simon shared the bedroom with the girl, far from appropriate but we had no choice.
So by September, with Lily starting secondary school I was stressed beyond belief and Simon decided to visit his family in Shropshire, while I had a lazy weekend with Johnny, he took Amy and Lily went to stay at her dads.
When they returned Amy had a dark cloud over her head, didn’t want to play out anymore, which i put down to the stress of the move. I did go in to school regarding her behavioural change but with a new teacher in September they didn’t know her enough to comment. So life went on and I booked a caravan in Norfolk to get away for a week.
The Sunday before we went away for the October half term my life fell apart!
I was going round to my parents as they had just returned from Florida and wanted to see the children. I stopped off at Waitrose to pick up some sausages and rolls and left the kids sat in the car. When i returned to the car Lily told me that Amy had something to tell me and that it wasn’t for her to tell me.
Confused I started the car and began driving to my parents while arguing with the girls to tell me what was going on. I threatened to go home when Amy told me when she went to Shropshire last, Simon’s grandad had touched her bottom. Without thinking I told her that she shouldn’t say things like that as it can get people in to trouble.
Not knowing what to do next i went round to my parents and quietly told my mum what Amy had said, i told her i couldn’t face asking anything more so my mum took Amy off to ask her.
I sat there for what seemed like forever before she came down and confirmed Amy had been sexually assaulted! Just turned 7, my little girl had experienced the worst! I excused myself and ran out the house in bits… I drove to tell Simon while he was playing Sunday League Football, as i couldn’t deal with it at home. Simon went quiet and drove off!
I picked the children up and took them to my friends, while we waited for Simon to return and we agreed the following morning i would go to the police and report Simon’s grandad for sexually assaulting Amy.
Monday morning with the car packed for holiday i drove to the Station, rehearsing the whole way what i was going to say. That all went out the window as the kind looking police officer asked me how he could help…
After logging all the details i left to take the children on holiday. I can never even begin to explain in a short email the emotional turmoil that i went through the following week, or months that followed.
On the Friday of our return a CPU Officer came to see the children and decided that a video interview was needed by both girls. At 8pm the children started there interviews.
Three weeks later we were finally given the keys to a new house, while we waited for details on the case.
A week later Simon lost his job and money became tight.
I started to call around to try and find help for Amy. Social Services told me that they couldn’t help me as they are for vulnerable children, and as she wasn’t a child at risk they wasn’t interested in helping.
Next i rang the counselling services around my home town, who told me £35 per week (not easy when you haven’t got). Barnardo’s rang around various sections of their charity, but as we didn’t fall under any of their catchment areas, no one could help.
The school contacted CAMHS and i waited. Two weeks before christmas i received a letter from CAMHS to say that they were not going to help. I fell apart and went to my doctors to speak to the Practice Manager as I had no where else to turn. They sent me home and made calls on my behalf. An hour later Amy had an appointment for an assessment with CAMHS 2 days before christmas.
In the meantime, the case had been passed to local police as it had happened in their jurisdiction. A lady called to introduce herself and would contact me again as soon as she had any further news as to when Simon’s grandad would be arrested. When the CPU officer called me back with the details of his bail, she informed me she had also let Amy’s biological father have all the details of the case as his girlfriend had called and asked for them.
Well i was in bits. Amy’s dad has not seen her for 2 years after choosing his new family over her, he was not on the birth certificate as he had only been in her life since she was 2 and to make things worse he had no parental responsibility, and someone somewhere had leaked this truly confidential information to someone Amy doesn’t want anything to do with, her choice!
Needless to say that a complaint was logged (I have letters to prove all of the failure in confidentiality policies etc) my last correspondence with the officer involved was by recorded delivery, yet if this goes to Court she is someone i am meant to rely on, hence why i said your portrayal of CPU wasn’t far from the truth!
Amy was assessed two days before christmas and a letter followed in the New Year stating that she needed Counselling but due to the service being over subscribed Amy would have to wait until May!
While all this has been going on i wondered why Simon was dealing so well with all this, considering his grandad and grandmother had brought him up and he lived with them when i met him!
Well he hadn’t been dealing with any of it! He had started gambling, when he lost his job he had been gambling a little, but when all this happened he couldn’t deal with not having money and decided to fund his gambling other ways!
On 25th January Simon was arrested outside my house for dwelling burglary. I knew nothing about the gambling, the stealing, I had certainly not benefited from any of it, as i had no money, some weeks i was struggling to pay for petrol to get Johnny to preschool… He had been stealing from my parents! £3000… he got probation for a year, 80 hours community service and a supervision order, which basically means he has to get counselling…
To say my life has fallen apart recently is an understatement. I am a very private person who lives like a hermit crab lol, but i feel pained by the fact no one is there to help my daughter, even Simon is on his 3rd week of counselling and now on medication for his bipolar!
I have lost family on the way, choosing between Simon and my family was the hardest thing i have ever had to do, and is still not without heart ache. Some people criticise me but my true friends are still there, not judging me! At the end of the day i have not stolen anything, or hurt anyone, I am merely trying to keep my family together and resume life as best i can
Sounds like such a sob story, but unfortunately this is my life at the moment. Dire, but i am still smiling, reading, cooking and looking after my little angels.
Well, I don’t think I need to add much to that do I? Nor do I have to use the words brave, courageous or TOTALLY let down by a system that is there to protect and serve.
Cheryl is attempting to put the pieces of her life back together and it appears, doing it alone. I am sure you will join me in wishing her the best of luck. We will be donating some funds over the next few months to enable her to buy little Amy and the other children a dog. Cheryl feels that having something to focus on and trust in again will help Amy get some of her confidence back.
It is astonishing in this day and age that convicted sex offenders, drug users, rapists and murderers have access to all kinds of therapy and rehabilitation and yet the most helpless and vulnerable do not.
I say again, Sugar & Spice is a work of fiction, the portrayal of the characters exaggerated for the purpose of the story. We whole-heartedly believe that MOST people working for the police and social services are doing a brilliant job, with limited resources.
But having read Cheryl’s tale, sadly, it is sometimes the fact that not every story is fiction.
UPDATE: 21ST APRIL 2012:
After meeting up with Cheryl (obviously not her real name, but she will see the irony of this when she stops talking for a moment and realises how significant this is) in London (baby), we have had a few phone call chats since. Much to my horror, her story WAS all too real, but even more so now that I have put a real person to the name. She is no longer a reader with a story, she is a friend with a story.
Here is the latest interlude, much to my disgust. BUT, I print it exactly as she wrote it, as she asked me to: Broken Britain? Broken World…
“ Finally went to court this week to dispute access over Amy with her father. She doesn’t like the man, doesn’t want to see him, and he has not bothered with her for 2 years yet he is ready to put her through extra stress for pure selfishness and i don’t even know why else. I know some people will judge me, as its another father kept away from his child, but he left when i was 3 months pregnant and i never heard from him again until Amy was 10 days old, he then was in and out of her life until she was 2. At the age of 2 he was told he either saw her regularly or i would cut all contact. To cut a long story short he was violent in front of all my children and Amy never wanted to see him again!So off i went to court to fight my daughters corner… i walked in to a waiting room with about 15 chairs and had to sit in the same room as him and his partner as both solicitors tried to settle out of the court room… considering Amy’s counselling still does not start until next week, i am not prepared for even in-direct contact, as Amy has pleaded with me not to make her go again…. so 4 hours later and 2 appearances in court, the judge sides with me and agrees that for the next 2 and a half months, no contact of any form was to take place. So i drive home to share the news.I walk in and find Simon on the phone, after 6 long months he has work again, things are going so great… i start flicking through the bundle of mail in my hand and thats when i find it… ‘while you were out we tried to deliver a recorded letter’… my heart sunk… Since i placed my complaint with the police i have been stonewalled… every letter about the sexual assault case have come via recorded delivery, much to my disgust… but i thought they would have had the decency to have picked up the phone to call me, or to send round an officer to tell me the CPS’ verdict… but no… The Royal Mail card says i cannot pick up the recorded delivery letter until the following morning, how could they, i could feel in my stomach it wasn’t right. I asked Simon to call his mum and see if they knew the outcome of the CPS. I look on as he calls his mum and hear one half of the story and them words… “not enough realistic evidence to secure a conviction… case dropped”The room felt like it was closing in on me, i could feel the tears burning my eyes… i made an excuse to go upstairs and locked myself in my bedroom… i couldn’t even cry to start with… why? does a child need to be raped for enough realistic evidence? Jeez she is 7 what realistic evidence did they want? She came to us within a month of him assaulting her… of him touching her inappropriately, to which she knew was wrong and instead of actually acting on this, he obviously didn’t do enough the first time… Even writing this now i feel sick and numb, i wont be telling her that he hasn’t gone to prison, she doesn’t need to know. One day if she asks i will show her the letter where it says that Amy was believed… the rest i will never be able to answer for her.The NSPCC announced a month ago that 9 out of 10 paedophiles are not convicted and that they were going to begin a programme going in to schools to teach children to speak out about abuse… what is the point? they get away with it… you have to fight to get your child help and in the meantime your whole lives fall apart! I would like to say that i can start rebuilding my life, but while i have her sperm donor breathing down my neck, i don’t think i can start rebuilding my life as there is still uncertainty as to how Amy will be affected with starting up a relationship she has never wanted! How far do we go to protect our children. She is 8 soon, but that is still 4 years too young in a court of law to tell a judge what she does and doesn’t want… maybe people should start waking up and listening to the young… maybe then we wont be Broken Britain.”
- Start 2012 with a bang! ‘Sugar & Spice’ wins indie mystery award! (saffinadesforges.wordpress.com)
- Official annoucement: Publishing deal for Sugar & Spice by Saffina Desforges (saffinadesforges.wordpress.com)