What I’m reading : precocious child detectives

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon pulled me into its orbit with a cover blurb reading “part whodunnit, part coming of age,…” and a cute drawing of a goat. I like mysteries. I like coming of age stories. I like cute drawings. The story is about two pre-teen girls who decide to investigate the disappearance of a neighbour. Unfortunately, I did not like the book. It’s faults? Well, too many similes. I think they were on every page. It grates after a while. Ten year old protagonists (Grace and Tilly) who were an odd mixture of deep thought and complete naïveté. Nothing wrong with trying to portray ten year olds that way. I think children of that age are a combination of those things. They are just not the combination of depth and ignorance that Cannon presents. I think even a ten year old can grasp the idea that God is incorporeal but Grace and Tilly doggedly go to people’s homes looking for God. But the thing that really annoyed me (once it was pointed out to me on Goodreads) is that nowhere in the north of England in 1976 would you find two girls named Grace and Tilly. Women named Grace and Tilly in 1976 would have been well on in years.

And yet the book has many fans. I don’t understand their enthusiasm but I was impressed with Cannon’s portrayal of the heat of that summer. There were a few revelations at the end that I admired but I can’t tell you what they are without spoiling the book for you.

Soon, probably too soon, after finishing The Trouble with Goats and Sheep I began to read The Earth Hums in B flat by Mari Strachan. It’s about a pre-teen girl who decides to investigate the disappearance of a neighbour. Oh dear, here we go again. But this is a different book, and to my mind, a much better one. Gwenni is precocious and inexperienced but in her the combination is a much more believable one. In this book, religion also plays a role with strict Welsh Chapel practices playing a key role in the text. Interesting novel with rich characters and a central mystery. Who can ask for more?

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. Published by Borough Press in 2016.

The Earth Hums in B flat by Mari Strachan. Published by Canongate books in 2009.





What I’m reading

I finished, over the weekend, the five-volume Cazalet Chronicle by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

I am sorry that it had to end. I’ve been gripped for two months, maybe more, by the loves, losses, infidelities, and conversations of the Cazalets. The first book begins just before the Second World War and the last one ends at the end of 1958.

You can read about Elizabeth Jane Howard here. Better yet, you can read her memoir, Slipstream. 

What is it about multi-generational family sagas that is so engrossing? The best that I can say about the Cazelet Chronicle is that it provided “companionable monotony”. Throughout the five novels, people have the same conversations, repress the same issues, obsess about dinner party menus and seating arrangements. Endless hot-water bottles are filled for sleeping in cold, damp houses; thousands of cups of tea prepared.

Some of the characters who were funny, engaged, interesting children retain those characteristics as they become adults. Others grow into adulthood having shed themselves of anything interesting. Some characters disappear and we never do get a satisfactory resolution of their lives. Other lives get tied up a little too neatly. But people pretty much are who they are throughout all the books. No great transformations; no moments of life-changing insight.

I’m not really selling it here. I loved these books. I cared about the people and I will reread some day.

The Chronicle is an illustration, in novel form, of a statement made by a Zen master (can’t find a reference–I will continue to look) to his students suffering in zazen:

“The problems that are with you now will be with you for the rest of your life.”