One of the problems of working in retail is that we are always looking ahead (and keeping an eye on what is happening right that moment at the same time – my squint is awful….). When others are complaining that Christmas is still three months away so they don’t want to see snowmen, mince pies or Santa I’m thinking that I have already put all my calendars out, planned where the trees are going and bought most of my presents. Let’s face it, in an ideal world I will be too busy with customers to think about shopping once we get to December!
Of course planning isn’t just for Christmas. We have to think of stuff like half-term activities for kids, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, major anniversaries (like Waterloo, Agincourt and Magna Carta – 2015 has been HUGE in historical terms!) and events such as the Olympics, the Tour de France and all the big film releases. And we have to start thinking of them early – all that stock ordering, window displays and witty chalk-boarding doesn’t do itself you know! And this is before we even start thinking about individual books. Although some books sneak up on us – we had very little warning about the Morrissey novel or the tenth anniversary edition of Twilight – most of them are promoted to bookshops, bloggers and the trade press anything up to six months in advance. Which causes its own problems. Do you read a book straight away and risk it being pushed out of your mind in the intervening 3-6 months? Do you put it to one side and risk losing it in the teetering to-be-read pile? Or do you give up and just review whatever is coming out in the next week even though everyone else is covering the self-same books? I put this problem to a group of book bloggers on Facebook and they were very helpful. Some arranged their physical bookshelves into date order of publication, some did a lot of advance scheduling so they could read in whatever order they liked and some turned to the power of spreadsheets. And which did I go for? Well, I do love a well-organised bookshelf and enjoy planning ahead but in my heart of hearts I just knew that Excel was the way to go! So now, everything I plan to write about gets added to the spreadsheet (usually when I get it but sometimes, when they sneak up on me in the staff-room at work, after I have finished them).
Getting to the actual point of this post – The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon is one of those books which waylaid me at work and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished it. Even though it isn’t published until January and wasn’t on the spreadsheet I just have to tell you about it (although I have scheduled this post for mid-December I’m writing it in early October…) because it was fabulous. In fact, I’m thinking I’ve not been as excited about recommending a book since I read The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Or maybe even Wool or the Martian – and I think I’ve suggested them to the whole of Bradford….
It is quite hard to describe what I loved so much. The story is good – a group of neighbours, in the long hot summer of 1976, react to the mysterious disappearance of one of their number – and the format is even better since the main part of the story (barring flashback episodes) is told from the point of view of a ten year-old girl. I think the narrator, Grace, and her best friend Tilly are the first thing I fell in love with. Given that I was almost exactly their age during the summer of 1976 I think I can say with confidence that they are pretty accurately drawn – the mystery of adults and their lives, the lure of a sherbet dib-dab and the many happy hours spent picking stuff you’ll never have out of a great big mail order catalogue and trying to convince your Mum that 25p a week for 48 weeks was an absolute bargain, it is all spot on. Beyond the two girls there is a whole cast of fascinating characters and a host of secrets which emerge throughout the novel. Without wishing to give anything away I can say that we, along with Tilly and Grace, spend a lot of time trying to work out who are goats and who are sheep but, more importantly, we learn that right and wrong, sheephood and goatdom, are not fixed but change according to how much we know about each member of the flock. And every individual living in this neighbourhood, up to and including Grace and Tilly themselves, have their secrets. For such a close-knit community (most have lived in the area for decades) they all, in some way, feel like outsiders: as if they must conceal their secrets or risk being cast out of the group. There are secret drinkers, hiding from the sordid past in a bottle of sherry, there are the anxious and mentally fragile, widows with no interest in life beyond sweets and funerals and a widower who spends all his time in the garden to avoid the memories within his empty home. And above them all is a loner whose interests in childhood and photography strike the whole street as suspect.
I really don’t want to say any more about what happens in the book – I want people to have the joy of reading it for themselves – but please be aware if I see you after Christmas this year I will be encouraging you to give it a try.