The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

225x225bb     In telling the story of a small community overrun by gossip, prejudice, and secrets, Joanna Cannon humorously reveals the dangers of obstinate righteousness through the voices of two ten year old girls.  In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a series of mishaps and strange occurrences threaten to upset the quiet row of British country houses in a small neighborhood – small enough that every knows every one else’s business, and if they don’t, they are willing to create their own versions of reality.

The driving focus of the story is Mrs. Cleasy’ s sudden disappearance.  As the search for her continues throughout the story, Cannon introduces a series of related incidents as possible clues to the mystery through the voice of ten year old Grace.  Mrs. Cleasy’s disappearance could be simply escape from her life or something more sinister.  The neighbors fear she may have uncovered a secret that could expose their past shameful action.  Ignorant of the adults’ trepidation,  Grace, a resourceful 10-year-old convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.

Posing as Brownies seeking badges, Grace and her friend Tilly, pursue their own investigation, and as they interview each neighbor they slowly uncover the neighborhood’s secret – an insidious plot against one resident that happened nine years earlier.

The title refers to a biblical verse:

“…He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…”

The trouble, Grace discovers as she interviews her neighbors,  is deciding who are the goats and who are the sheep.  Under the guise of a quiet existence, each has a secret misery:  Dorothy, bullied by her husband, Eric; Brian, who cannot escape his overbearing mother; John Creasy, husband of the missing woman, who fears his wife has discovered what he has done. Each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect.  In addition, two unexplained scandals lurk in the air – a kidnapped baby and a house fire – as well as the neighbors anxiety and anger over two who do not fit into their expectations – an Indian family newly moved in and a bachelor with long hair who likes to take photographs.

With so many diversions, the story may seem overwhelming.  Cannon’s wry humor, however, manages to expose human frailty while cautioning the reader to beware of making assumptions.  Her diversion into a creosote stain on a drainpipe that looks like Jesus is hilarious, with the neighbors keeping watch and fighting over the placement of lawn chairs to keep vigil.   In her review for the New York Times last year, Samantha Hunt noted:

Jesus’ manifestation births a driveway vigil, a Chautauqua of folding chairs and a struggle. Who sits closest to Jesus? This caldron of neighbors grows hot. At what temperature will community boil over into mob violence? Fear is contagious in small spaces… What belongs where? Who owns what? And what hollow treats will be developed to distract us from the real crimes committed in the name of safety?

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, privy to many secret fears; she has said her book was inspired by her patients and by the story of Christopher Jefferies,  the retired teacher and landlord who was falsely implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in 2010, and later won libel damages for the way he was portrayed in some newspapers.

In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon may be sharing her insights about inner miseries and hypocrisies,  and their manifestations on others – and perhaps, cautioning that we may not know our neighbors as well as we think.

Although a friend recommended this book a year ago, I returned my library copy unread – just could not get to it.  I was reminded of it recently from an interview on By the Book, and glad I read it – a book full of humor and profound moments worth thinking about and discussing.

Cannon has another book due to be published in January – Three Things About Elsie.  This time I’ve preordered it.

 

 

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The Queen’s Accomplice

9780804178723_p0_v1_s192x300  Women with power may be a threat to some but Susan Elia MacNeal uses this timely theme in her latest Maggie Hope murder mystery – The Queen’s Accomplice.  With the same British flavor as her other five books in the series, MacNeal features the young British secret service agent with a flair for logic in the search for a Jack the Ripper clone who has been killing women agents.  Since first meeting Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I’ve enjoyed her feisty attitude and mathematical acumen.  Her forays into romance with fellow agents help too.

The Queen in this book is not the newly popular Victoria nor the young Elizabeth of the new Netflix series “The Crown,” but Elizabeth’s mother, who stood by her husband, King George, during the war.  Although she only has a minor role in the plot, MacNeal confirms the Queen’s influence and wartime support.   As a modern woman of the nineteen forties, Maggie Hope has many of the same issues as women today, and has the support of other women, including the Queen.

MacNeal cleverly connects Maggie’s service in the war to ongoing problems women face in their personal lives and in the workplace.  Although the book is a mystery with a killer to be found, the story offers confirmation of women’s rights in making their own decisions, and in being valuable for their contributions to society.

9780399593802   The book ends with a new adventure about to start, as Maggie waves goodbye to the Queen and boards a plane to Paris.  The Paris Spy will be published this summer – I can’t wait.

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I Let You Go

9781101987490_p0_v2_s192x300    A hit and run driver kills a five year old boy walking home with his mother on a rainy night; after the accident,  his mother disappears in Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go.  The story follows a police procedural formula with chapters alternating between the investigation and the distraught mother, until a surprising revelation at the end of Part I changes the narrative into a tense mystery thriller.

Without revealing too much to spoil the fun of the many surprises, let’s just say every time I thought I had solved the crime, Mackintosh changed direction, and the plot twists were shocking.

After the death of the boy, Jenna is distraught and shaken. She leaves everything behind, and decides to disappear to a remote seaside town in Wales where she slowly begins her life as an artist again, drawing messages in the sand and taking photographs of them from the top of the cliffs for tourists to buy.  A year later, the police reopen the investigation with a new lead to the killer, and at the same time begin looking for the boy’s mother. They find both in the first shift in the plot.

Part II backtracks to Jenna’s life as a student and her relationship with a controlling abusive lover, who interrupts the story with his own insane ramblings.  In alternate chapters, Ray Stevens, the police inspector who is pursuing the case with his sidekick Kate, an attractive junior officer, tries to juggle the investigation with his own problems at home with his teenage son and his wife, a former police officer.  The family drama is a good distraction, but the pursuit of the hit and run killer is the focus, and drives the suspense as Mackintosh throws in red herrings – even to the last page.

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did – a great summer book to read fast and furiously – but probably not before going to bed.

 

In a Dark, Dark Wood

9781501112324_p0_v4_s192x300Ruth Ware expands on the spooky setting of her title in her first mystery thriller – In a Dark, Dark Wood.  A glass house with no curtains or phone service; a group of six forced together for a “hen” party, the British term for bachelorette bash before the wedding; a Ouija board spelling out murderer, a gun over the mantle – mix these with a self-possessed bride and the groom’s ex girlfriend – and you get revenge, murder, suspicion, surprise.

The story flips back and forth from the main character, Nora, recovering in a hospital bed, with a police guard outside her door, and flashbacks to the “hen” party events leading up to her current distress.  Her amnesia adds to the dilemma, and keeps the reader wondering who is telling the truth.  Nora herself is not sure what she has done, and a secret from the past she holds with the bridegroom threatens her resolve.

Ware cleverly throws in plausible red herrings and scary scenarios to keep the pages turning quickly.  If you enjoyed The Girl on the Train and Before I Go to Sleep, add In a Dark, Dark Wood to the books that will keep you awake at night.

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Her by Harriet Lane

9780316369879_p0_v1_s260x420Harriet Lane’s suspenseful thriller – Her – uses an unlikable revengeful protagonist to methodically stalk her unknowing prey.  The book is a page-turner: you will know early in the story who the victim, Emma, is and her past relationship to the sly Nina – but you will wonder exactly how far Nina will go to exact her revenge.  The ending will have you holding your breath.

As in her first book – Alys, Always – Lane focuses on the characters, slowly revealing the unlikely villain, until you are caught in the story and wanting to alert the poor target of the venom.  In Her, Nina recognizes an old foe and carefully calculates how to exact revenge for something that happened so long ago that Emma doesn’t even remember it.  Nina remains incognito as she slyly insinuates herself into Emma’s life – stealing her wallet and then pretending to have found it, luring her toddler into the woods and then alerting the police to his rescue.  The chapters alternate between Emma and Nina, each relating the same incident, but from a different perspective –  Nina, the stalker; Emma, the vulnerable target.

A great read – not only for the comparison of the lives of two forty-year olds – one who wears Prada, the other stumbling through parenting a toddler and a newborn – but also for the intense psychological thrills as the story quickly progresses to a climax.  Harriet Lane has mastered the art of the dangerous female protagonist; I can’t wait for her next one.

Related ReviewAlys, Always