When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray

When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray

When the Lights Go Out is the story of Emma, Chris and their sons, Dylan and James, who are living in north west England during a very prolonged, unseasonal spell of heavy rainfall.

They do not see eye to eye about the climate change argument. Emma is the main breadwinner and seems to be holding the family together, while making small doable changes to their lifestyle such as recycling, using public transport and creating homemade gifts. Chris has lost a lot of his gardening work due to the effects of the inclement weather and subsequent flooding. He is taking extreme measures, such as stockpiling food in the garage and preaching in the street about the coming environmental apocalypse, regardless of the suffering he is inflicting on his family.

In the spirit of compromise, Emma has been putting up with Chris’s strange and obsessive behaviour, but eventually she reaches her ‘red line’ and he realizes he has gone too far. I won’t spoil it for you by saying any more.

The writing is very atmospheric – you can almost feel the dampness seeping into your bones – and the descriptions of Chris’s strange behaviour depict an evangelical obsession which echoes the religious zealotry displayed by his family (particularly his father) when he was growing up.

The pace is quite slow to begin with, and I found it took me a while to get into the story. The point of view is split between Emma and Chris, with occasional chapters from James, and Chris’s mother Janet. I found it quite hard to empathize with Chris’s fanatical obsession, as he could no longer see how his behaviour was affecting everyone else.

 The story works on many levels: a family drama about a marriage under severe stress; all the differing views surrounding climate change; the effects of parents’ behaviour and beliefs on their children. It could have been quite a depressing tale, but is saved by the black humour.

I had not read anything by Carys Bray before, but will definitely try some of her previous books. Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC to review.

The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

I have been reading Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series of novels from the very first one, Crossing Places; this is number eleven. It was a real pleasure to jump back into the world of Ruth and Nelson. While you could read this as a standalone, there are lots of references to things that happened in previous books. It would probably be better to start at the beginning in order to get the most out of them.

During the course of an archaeological dig, the remains of a 12-year-old girl are found. Margaret Lacey disappeared in 1981 during a street party celebrating the royal wedding, and her killer was never caught. DI Nelson receives anonymous letters very similar to ones sent to him in the first book, but they cannot be from the same person as he is long dead. The investigation that follows features suspects and red herrings galore; I did not guess who the murderer was, but very rarely do.

Part of the appeal of this series is the setting – a salt marsh on the north Norfolk coast – which lends the stories an atmospheric quality; it is a beautiful landscape, but treacherous if you don’t know your way around.

Another attraction is the cast of familiar characters, most of whom have been there since the beginning, who continue to evolve and grow as the series progresses. Ruth does not play as large a part in this story as she usually does, but she is always there, on the periphery. The overriding theme of The Stone Circle is complicated and difficult family relationships, both among the police officers and the people they are investigating.

If you enjoy reading well-established crime series, with characters that come to seem like old friends, I suggest you start with the first book; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

The Plus One Pact by Portia Mackintosh

The Plus One Pact by Portia Macintosh

Having been on more than her fair share of awful dates, Cara Brooks decides to give up on dating apps, and that is when she meets Joe Mills. They make a pact to be each other’s ‘plus one’ to all the weddings and family gatherings they both have lined up over the summer – purely as friends.

The ‘pretend romance’ trope has been done many times before, but The Plus One Pact is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. It all hinges on the likeability of the main characters; don’t expect the plot to be realistic – if you can imagine it as a rom-com, then the author has probably got the right idea.

The characters are well written and believable, even the horrible ones. For some reason, at every event they attend, Cara and Millsy seem to get into trouble. A lot of the humour lies in how they manage to get out of it unscathed.

The Leeds setting makes a pleasant change from London, and I also enjoyed the trip they took to Scotland to visit his Gran. The story moves along at a fast pace, from one event to the next, that will keep you reading far into the night. I will definitely be on the lookout for more books by Portia Mackintosh.  

Fair as a Star by Mimi Matthews

Fair as a Star by Mimi Matthews

Set in Somerset in 1864, Fair as a Star is the first in the Victorian Romantics series by Mimi Matthews. Newly returned from a mysterious trip to Paris with her aunt, Beryl Burnham tries to pick up her life where she left off. She is engaged to Sir Henry Rivenhall, in a marriage of convenience, but has always been good friends with his brother, Mark, who is curate in the local church.

No one knows why she left for France so suddenly, and local gossip was rife, but she has to come clean to Mark when he accidentally finds her weeping in a secluded spot by the river. She is suffering from depression (or melancholy as it was known then) and does not want anyone to know, partly because of the extreme treatments advocated by her previous doctor.

Mark is very understanding, and does not belittle what she is going through. As a curate, he is a good listener and this is just what she needs. He does not suggest cures for her melancholy, does not even see her as damaged. The message here is to accept others for who they are as individuals, and not try to make them all fit into the same mould.

This is a romance novel, and the ending is obvious from the start, but it is how Mimi Matthews achieves this end that makes it so readable. Sir Henry is very full of his own importance and thinks he knows best, but does not love Beryl. She realises her affections lie elsewhere and behaves in a very bold fashion.

I read this in one sitting, and thought it dealt very sensitively with the difficult subject of depression. It was not really understood back then, and a lot of strange, harmful beliefs and so-called ‘cures’ were commonplace. Medicine was a very male-dominated profession, and women faced both the patronising attitude of old-school male doctors, and the ludicrous treatments they prescribed.

The period detail is convincing, and the characters come across as well rounded individuals; my favourite was Beryl’s horse-mad sister, Winnifred, whose story will no doubt feature in a later book. I will certainly be looking out for the next book in the Victorian Romantics series.

Thanks to Mimi Matthews for a copy that I review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

We are introduced to Shuggie Bain in 1992, living in a grotty bedsit, while he’s working on the deli counter in a supermarket, and still attending school when he can fit it in around his shifts; he needs the money to pay his rent. Then the narrative jumps back to 1981 and we learn how he ended up in such dire circumstances.

Reader, she should never have married him. Finding her life married to the ‘good Catholic’ not exciting enough, Agnes leaves him for Shug Bain, a womanising Protestant taxi driver, who does not stay faithful or make any effort to hide his indiscretions. It is hard to see the attraction. Understandably, Agnes’s drink problem just gets worse. The Bain family have been living with her parents on the sixteenth floor of a tower block in Sighthill, but it is far from ideal. Shug promises her a house with its own front door, but when she sees the house in Pithead, a former mining community devastated by the Thatcher years, and realizes that Shug does not intend to stay with her, she understands that she has been tricked.

Although the book title is Shuggie Bain, it is really about his mother, Agnes, and her battle with alcohol addiction. Disappointed at how her life has turned out, the dreams of a better future in tatters, she relies more and more on alcohol just to get her through the day. There is no condemnation in this portrait of a woman who has reached rock bottom, but first-hand experience of the pain and degradation of loving someone whose only thought is where their next drink is coming from.

Neither Shuggie nor Agnes really fit in. Even at her worst, Agnes still liked to dress up and put on a good front.  Shuggie does not conform to the normal definition of masculinity in Glasgow in the 1980s. He is described as ‘no right’, and is very much alone because of this, easy prey for bullies and predators alike.

This is not just another story of a child neglected by an alcoholic mother. It is also the portrait of a city robbed of its industry and its pride, due to the destructive policies of the heartless Thatcher government. Shuggie’s love for Agnes, and forlorn hope that she will get better, shines through, and we are left hoping that he will be able to overcome his upbringing and make a life for himself. I hope that Douglas Stuart will continue writing Shuggie’s story in the future.

Halfway through reading Shuggie Bain I learned it had been longlisted for the Booker prize; and deservedly so. I don’t know if it will win, but it stands a good chance and I will keep my fingers crossed. These characters are so well drawn they will stay with you long after you have finished reading. It paints an accurate picture of Glasgow in the late 1970s and 1980s. The dialogue is authentic (I grew up in this part of the world) but not so broad it would be a problem for non-Scots. At times it will break your heart, as it deals with some very tough subject matter, but the quality of the writing lifts it to another level. I look forward to reading Douglas Stuart’s next book.

Thanks to Picador and NetGalley for a review copy.

SfEP badge Intermediate Member Social