The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

‘There are decent people,’ said Mrs Roper, ‘and then there are the weird ones, the ones who don’t belong. The ones who cause the rest of us problems.’

‘Goats and sheep,’ said Tilly from across the room.

Mrs Roper frowned. ‘Well, I suppose so, if that’s the way you want to look at it.’

‘It’s the way God looks at it,’ said Tilly, and folded her arms beneath her poncho.

‘The point is, these people don’t think like the rest of us. They’re misfits, oddballs. They’re the ones the police should be talking to, not people like us. Normal people.’

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June, 1976. The Avenue. Mrs Creasy has disappeared. No one knows where to or why. They suspect Mr Creasy. Ten-year-old best friends Grace and Tilly decide to investigate. After questioning the local vicar as to how to stop people disappearing and receiving the answer, ‘If God exists in a community, no one will be lost’, they decide the key to finding Margaret Creasy is to find God. They set about this task by visiting the people who live on their estate.

Early in their investigation, Grace and Tilly overhear a conversation between Mr Creasy, Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb in which it’s clear Mr Creasy suspects the others of revealing a secret to his wife and this is why he believes she’s left. This is the beginning of Cannon opening up the secrets which are hidden behind every door on the Avenue. It quickly becomes clear that everyone has a secret and everyone’s told their secret to Mrs Creasy and they’re terrified it’ll be revealed in her absence.

Grace narrates about half of the novel (it’s not quite alternate chapters), Cannon using the limited viewpoint and understanding of a ten-year-old to good effect, introducing questions for the reader. It also allows for Grace’s behaviour towards Tilly to be shown and to echo the main theme of people being different. Tilly is vulnerable to illness. When Grace asks her why she’s wearing a jumper in a heat wave, she replies:

‘My mother says I can’t afford to catch anything.’

‘When is she going to stop worrying?’ It made me angry, and I didn’t know why, which made me even angrier, and my sandals became very loud.’

‘I doubt she ever will,’ said Tilly.

This is the first of a number of occasions where Grace fails to see that Tilly’s differences don’t make her less of a person.

What’s particularly impressive about the novel, however, is the chapters narrated from the third person subjective point of view. These chapters travel around The Avenue, often following in Grace and Tilly’s footsteps, and provide an insight into the thoughts, behaviour and preoccupations of those who live on the street. Cannon excels at revealing how frightened people are of exposing their own vulnerabilities and tacitly agreeing to make one person a scapegoat to avoid anyone noticing they might be different too.

‘Bloody pervert,’ she said. ‘I don’t care what the police said. It’s a normal avenue, full of normal people. He doesn’t belong there.’

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is an entertaining whodunnit, a glimpse behind the curtains of a ‘normal’ street and a psychological insight into people’s behaviour. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and very smart novel.

If you want a taste of Joanna Cannon’s writing, I hosted a section of her short story, ‘The Greatest of These’. The post includes links to all the other sections of the story which you’ll find on various websites. Also The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is this week’s Bedtime Book on The Pool.

 

Thanks to Borough Press for the review copy.

The Greatest of These – Part Four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon

An absolute treat today: part four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon, author of the hotly anticipated The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I loved the novel, which I included in my Ones to Read in 2016, and will review it in full next week. The story – ‘The Greatest of These’ gives a real flavour of the novel in terms of introducing some of the main characters, the tone and the themes. If you haven’t seen parts one to three, a list of all the places the story is appearing is below.

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Mr Forbes swung his arms about and stamped his feet. ‘I think we should spend a little less time worrying about butterflies, and a little more time clearing this snow. We’ll run out of food.’

‘And television,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘We need more man power.’ Eric Lamb stared at Mr Forbes’ shovel, where it rested in a bank of snow, and then he stared at Thin Brian, and Thin Brian stared at the sky, as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.

‘Don’t look at me,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘My knee’s given me a lot of gyp since I did that sponsored walk for orphaned children.’

‘That was in 1967, Harold,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘Exactly.’ Mr Forbes sniffed the air, and his knees did an awkward bounce, to prove their point. ‘I need to restrict myself to giving directions.’

Mr Forbes gave a lot of directions. Eric Lamb needed to dig a little more to the left, and then a little more to the right. He needed to stack the snow a little higher, then a little lower, and he was too diagonal and then not diagonal enough. Mrs Forbes appeared half way through the directions, with a mug of tea and a selection of Fondant Fancies on a doily, because Mr Forbes said he found giving directions quite taxing. We all stared as the last cake disappeared into Mr Forbes’ mouth, and Eric Lamb grew very red in the face.

We were all so busy, we didn’t see the man straight away.

Eric Lamb’s digging had become very loud and interesting, so Mr Forbes was having to shout, May Roper was explaining religious symbols to no one in particular, and Mrs Forbes was having a conversation with the butterfly, which had landed on the doily and stared up at her from a handful of crumbs.

It was Tilly who noticed him first.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘Someone’s waving to us.’

We all stared at the bottom of The Avenue, where the man stood in snow up to his knees. He wore a brightly coloured scarf and a brightly coloured jacket, and a hat which seemed to wind itself around his head. As we watched, the man lifted his legs out of the drift and started to walk towards us.

Tilly put up her hand to wave back.

‘He’s not from around here.’ Mrs Roper grabbed an edge of the duffel coat and pulled Tilly’s arm back down again. ‘What could he possibly want from us?’

‘We’ll never know if we don’t wave back,’ said Tilly, but the man kept walking anyway, and I watched everyone tighten their lips and their eyes, and Mr Forbes fold his arms around his waist.

And the butterfly left Mrs Forbes’ plate, and it danced around in the air, and we all waited for the man to tell us.

His name was Mr Dhillon and the hat he wore was called a turban. You couldn’t tell where it started from, and Tilly and I walked around him several times to get a proper look, although we were very subtle about it, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

He said he was stuck.

‘It’s my car.’ He pointed across the estate, beyond the snow-packaged roof tops. Except you couldn’t tell where the roof tops ended and the sky began. It was as if they’d been welded together by the weather. ‘It’s on Rowan Tree Croft. In a drift,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d help me push it free?’

Mr Forbes did a knee bounce and Thin Brian stared at the sky, and Mrs Forbes made a big fuss of rearranging her doily.

‘Can’t you ask the people on your own street?’ said Mrs Roper, from behind her blanket.

Mr Dhillon said the people on his own street were all elderly. He said there was no one from his own street who could help.

‘We’re all in the same boat,’ he said, and he smiled.

Mr Forbes’ hands found their way around his back, where they linked together and made him look even more stout than before, and even less interested in what anyone else had to say. ‘The thing is,’ he bounced, ‘we have enough on our plate here, without digging other people out of their problems as well.’

‘Then perhaps I could help you in return?’ said Mr Dhillon, and he picked up Mr Forbes’ spade (which was still asleep in the snow), and he started to dig.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Ones to Read in 2016

2016 is already being talked about as a ‘vintage year’ in terms of forthcoming books. In the second half of the year there’s a spate of second novels from writers who published fantastic debuts two or three years ago. There’s also lots of promising looking books from more established writers. I’m looking forward to all of those but there’s the first half of the year to talk about first.

Initially, I was going to limit this list to ten books; I could’ve populated that list three times over with the wealth of good stuff coming in the next six months. So, the list’s a little longer and the books I’ve chosen to recommend are those that, for me, had the ‘wow factor’ (often for different reasons). Listed in order of publication, all publication dates are UK and subject to change; full reviews will appear on the week of publication.

Human Parts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Human Acts centres around the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with Dong-Ho working in the gymnasium where the bodies are being brought and looking for the friend he abandoned, the story moves through a variety of characters as the repercussions of the army’s suppression is felt throughout the city. Brave, brutal, brilliant.

Wow Factor: the variety of voices/perspectives (credit to Deborah Smith’s translation); the sudden switches to violent imagery

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Portobello Books 7th January 2016

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

A short story collection giving voice to a variety of American housewives. From the emails of two neighbours who move from passive aggressive to downright aggressive moves regarding the décor of their shared hallway to the struggling writer taking part in an antiques reality TV show to the woman allowing junior pageant participants to escape, this is a sharp, darkly funny look at women’s lives.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insight into people’s (often appalling) behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Scribner 14th January 2016

Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser

Art students, Paulina and Fran, meet at a party. Self-conscious and desperate to be liked, they (Paulina in particular) behave appallingly, feigning an air of indifference. But when they leave art school, they have to negotiate their own ways in the world and decide how much their friendship’s really worth.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insights into a type of female friendship and behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Granta 14th January 2016

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

Mallika gives birth to twins but only one survives: a boy, Siva. But she wanted a girl and refuses to believe her daughter’s dead. She calls Siva, Tara and flies into a rage if anyone attempts to do otherwise. Narrated by Siva, who believes his sister lives within him still, this is a beautifully written novel about trying to find your own identity.

Wow Factor: the language; the storytelling

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Bluemoose Books 21st January 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

If you’re on social media, you’ve no doubt heard lots about this novel already. If hype puts you off, ignore it and get stuck into this regardless. The story of a ‘normal’ street in England in the heatwave of 1976. Margaret Creasy’s disappeared and she knows everyone’s secrets. Ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly set out to find her and uncover a whole lot more in the process.

Wow Factor: the psychological insight

#ReadWomen

Published by Borough Press 28th January 2016

Rush Oh! – Shirley Barrett

Eden, New South Wales, 1908. The story of a whaling season told from the point-of-view of Mary Davidson, the 19-year-old daughter of a whaling family. There’s whales, running a family after the death of their mother and a romance with former Methodist minister, John Beck. Often funny, feminist and fascinating.

Wow Factor: the voice; the descriptions of the whales and whaling

#ReadWomen

Published by Virago 4th February 2016

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The 1960s. Two girls. Mahsa, born to an Afghan mother and an American father, is orphaned after her parents are killed. When the relative she’s sent to live with discovers her relationship with a boy they send her to study in Montreal. There her love of jazz music grows and brings her a lifetime’s friendship with Katherine. Born to an American mother and a Chinese father who she never meets, Katherine sneaks out and begins playing the jazz clubs as a teenager. They lead her to a lifelong romance with an unreliable man. A gripping story of women who want more than society wants to allow them. Already a firm contender for book of the year.

Wow Factor: the language; the protagonists; the insight into relationships, marriage and family

#ReadWomen

Published by Serpent’s Tale 4th February 2016

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Sent to London by his Irish mother, he works, goes to visit Aunty Noanie, phones his mum regularly and circuits Euston Station looking for women he can rub up against. As his mental health deteriorates so does Martin John’s behaviour, revealed in vignettes and repetitive language. But it’s his mother’s story that will really get to you.

Wow Factor: the language; the mother’s story

#ReadWomen

Published by And Other Stories 4th February 2016

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

1911. An asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Ella Fay’s incarcerated for breaking a window in the textile factory in which she worked. John Mulligan was brought there emaciated and destitute. When John and Ella meet at the dance inmates are allowed to attend on Friday evenings if they’ve been ‘good’, a romance begins. The third wheel in the story is the doctor, Charles Fuller, who’s been at the asylum for five years. A disappointment to his parents, he decides he’s going to make his name with some research on eugenics. Gripping.

Wow Factor: the language; the treatment of the main theme

#ReadWomen

Published by Doubleday 11th February 2016

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

Told over a 24-hour period from the moment Simon Limbeau’s alarm goes off and he leaves to go surfing with his friends to the point when his heart is transplanted into someone else’s body. de Kerangal tells a gripping tale of the procedure that occurs when an emergency transplant can take place. As the timeline progresses, she dips into the lives of all those involved in the procedure.

Wow Factor: the language; the dipping into the life of each character involved in the transplant

#womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by MacLehose Press 11th February 2016

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

1964. 24-year-old Eileen is thin, jagged, angry and unhappy. She lives with her retired, ex-cop, alcoholic father and works as a secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. Desperate to leave her grim homelife, Eileen dreams of moving to New York. The novel tells the story of the week before Christmas 1964, the week Rebecca Saint John comes to work at the facility. Dark and disturbing, the less you know about this book before diving in the better.

Wow Factor: the perspective; the plotting

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Jonathan Cape 3rd March 2016

Not Working – Lisa Owens

After the day she felt an impulse to start swallowing office supplies, Claire Flannery quit her job to work out what she really wanted to do. Told in vignettes about her long-term relationship with Luke, trips on the tube, increasingly drunk nights out with friends and fall-outs with family members, Claire could be any one of us.

Wow Factor: the protagonist; the insight into a 21st Century female psyche

#ReadWomen

Published by Picador 21st March 2016

The Cauliflower® – Nicola Barker

A fictionalised biography of guru, Sri Ramakrishna. Told in fragments partly by his nephew, Hriday, but also by an anachronistic film director and another narrator. Using haiku and script as well as prose, Barker tells the story of a man elevated by faith and raises questions about the nature of worship.

Wow Factor: Barker’s unique style

#ReadWomen

Published by William Heinemann 21st April 2016

My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

1980. Tina gives birth to baby Jake when Leon’s nine, but she struggles to cope and when the upstairs neighbour rings social services Jake and Leon are taken into care. Initially they both go to live with Maureen, an experienced foster parent, but soon baby Jake – who’s white-skinned – has people who want to adopt him. Older, black-skinned, Leon is left with Maureen and his anger at the unfairness of the world. Searing and heartbreaking.

Wow Factor: the voice; the insight into a life of poverty, mental illness and foster care

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Viking 2nd June 2016
Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.

TBR Book Tag

I don’t often take part in memes but I’m doing this one for three reasons: the first is I was tagged by Leslie at Folklore & Literacy whose blog I highly recommend, so it’s a good reason for me to send you over there for a look if you don’t read it already. The second is by confessing all about my TBR, I might do something about it! The third is so I can tag some of my favourite bloggers and see their terrible habits too!

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

Pile? Hahahaha. Book case(s). I don’t. I do keep track of the review copies I’m sent by publishers; I have a spreadsheet in which I log publication dates but I’ve been useless with it the second half of this year. I do actually have two priority piles at the moment though – the books that are on my women of colour #TBR20 pile, which I’ll be finishing reading at the end of the month (yes, it’s taken me this long) and the 2016 publications I’ve been sent which I’m reading in anticipation of my preview post around Christmas.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

It’s probably 75% print. I’ve bought fewer ebooks this year but that’s mostly because it was getting out of hand – it’s easy to pretend you haven’t got a huge stack of unread ebooks when they aren’t physically in front of you!

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

It varies. Sometimes it’s an upcoming publication date, sometimes it’s because a book’s been nominated for a prize, sometimes I just fancy a particular type of read. What’s changed this year though is I’m consciously reading widely so I’m looking at the authors of the books I’m reading and making sure I’m reading more by women of colour and LGBT authors.A book that has been on my TBR the longest?

There are books on my TBR still that I bought in Sixth Form which is 20 years ago now. They’re mostly classics – Middlemarch (which I attempted last year but stalled on) and The Woman in White spring to mind although I’m sure there’s more.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

I bought a copy of Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe which has just been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

The 4th Estate boxset of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper and Mislaid. I already had a copy of The Wallcreeper from the Dorothy Project but the boxset is so beautiful I couldn’t resist.

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

Haha! I think I got rid of all these in the summer. I culled 300 books before moving house and I was very strict about ones I’d held on to that I was never going to read. They were mostly by middle-aged British and American white men!

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

I’m going to be cheeky and have three: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon which it seems everyone’s talking about; My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal which people I trust are telling me is wonderful, and Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann which I’ve had a sneaky read of the opening of and promises to be wonderful.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

Middlemarch!

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

Beloved by Toni Morrison. I’m going to rectify that before the end of the month.

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

So many! If I was choosing one it’d be Pleasantville by Attica Locke. I loved Black Water Rising, I think Jay Porter’s a brilliant, complex character and Locke’s writing about politics is smart, nuanced and creates cracking page-turners.

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

Oh. Ah. Well, earlier this year I calculated it would take me 23 years to read all the books I have. I’ve removed 300 since then but added some too. Let’s just go with a lot!

People I’m tagging:

Susan at A Life in Books
Cathy at 746 Books
Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal
Eleanor at Elle Thinks
Janet at From First Page to Last 
Eric at Lonesome Reader
LaChouett at Chouett
Ali at HeavenAli