Review // The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

by Joanna Cannon

Just finished reading this little gem for this month’s book club, and it was such a pleasure. I had to do a bit of speed reading over the weekend to catch up with the rest of the club, but I’ve never found it so easy to gorge myself on 450 lovely pages of writing.

Goats and Sheep is set in a cosy little English avenue in the summer of 1976. Although I’m too young to remember this scorching summer, I’ve heard about it from my parents. Despite growing up in the ’90s, my nostalgia was seriously sparked by this novel, as I grew up in an avenue the shape of a keyhole, just like the one in this book. People lived in your pockets, curtains twitched, neighbours looked out for each other and children spent all of their time outdoors on the kerbside in summer. In Goats and Sheep, this environment is put to the test in a pressure cooker of heat, and when one of the residents goes missing, characters are examined through the eyes of 10 year old Grace, who narrates most of the novel with a wisdom beyond her years.

This book is British suburbia at its very worst and very best, with dark secrets and rumours uncovered and exposed, gossiped about and spread. Cannon herself is a psychiatrist, and this experience shines through each character’s personality as they are scrutinised by Grace and her quirky pal Tilly. As the pressure of the avenue builds with the heat of the summer, a dark climax arises with a literal clap of thunder. Full of little twists and mysteries, this book made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions, giving us plenty to discuss about how we perceive, and ultimately treat, our neighbours.

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Words // Writing Competitions 2017

  • Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction – closes 31.10.2017

Welcomes entities on the theme ‘Cafe Stories’. Free to enter. First prize £500, with 10 shortlisted stories to be published in the Dinesh Allirajah ebook. More details here.

  • I Must Be Off Travel Writing Competition – closes 31.07.2017

Free to enter until 31st May, then €3. Prizes €200 and €50. More details here.

  • Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2017 – closes 14.07.2017

Welcomes entries for fiction, poetry and life writing. Winner in each category will win £300, plus publication in Wasifiri Magazine. More details here.

  • Reflex Fiction Prize – closes 31.05.2017

Flash Fiction from 180 – 360 words. Prizes £1000, £500 and £250. £7 to enter. More details here.

  • Dragonfly Tea Short Story Competition – closes 31.07.2017

Any story on the theme of ‘Journey’. More details here.

  • Henshaw Competition – closes 30.06.2017

Welcomes short stories on any subject up to 2000 words. Prizes £100, £50, £25 and publication online. £5 to enter. More details here.

  • Wells Festival of Literature – closes 30.06.2017

Three prizes for poetry, short story and a book for children. £750, £300 and £200, plus a local writing prize of £100.  More details here.

Books // My weekend reading

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How to Connect with Nature

by Tristan Gooley

I’ve been picking my way through this book since I found it in Oxfam Books Knutsford after Christmas. It’s the perfect book to pick up and read a quick chapter, with some nice illustrations and easy to read excerpts. I’ve had a couple of books from the School of life series, which are all written by experts and philosophers in a really accessible way – with loads of different topics to choose from. As we were going camping this weekend, it was a no-brainer for me to take this book, and attempt to connect with nature on a more physical level. The good thing is, you don’t need to be a hardcore survivalist to enjoy this piece of work. It’s aimed at making nature more open and accessible to everyone, even city dwellers like myself. The book begins by highlighting how we have lost touch with nature, and rather than lamenting it and blaming those of us who have office jobs, offers gentle tips and advice on how we can reconnect.

There are little techniques and exercises to try along the way, such as switching on our senses and listening and smelling the world around us. Or to head out on a blindfolded walk to see how much more notice about our surroundings. Thanks to this book, I even know the direction of the prevailing wind! Still didn’t help me to pitch the tent in a non-windy spot, though…

I love how gently informative this book is. It’s not in your face philosophy that reprimands you for losing touch with nature. Rather it’s an ambling exercise in getting back in touch, encouraging us to do more, notice more and feel more. I’ll definitely be dipping in and out of this one for a while to come.

Review // The Next Step in the Dance

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by Tim Gautreaux

4/5

This emotional, slow-burner of a novel was amongst the pile recommended to me at my recent Book Spa at Mr B’s Emporium in Bath. The store runs its very own publishing company, Fox, Finch & Tepper – aptly named after some of the most iconic literary characters. FF&T books are under-appreciated and crying out for some attention. Tim Gautreaux’s The Next Step in the Dance was actually published back in 1998 before falling out of circulation, and was picked up by the FF&T team back in 2014. Focusing on books with a strong sense of place with brave, confident characters, FF&T have succeeded in reviving a beautiful book with a heart as big as Louisiana itself.

Paul and Colette Thibodeaux are husband and wife at the very start of their marriage. Born and still living in the Deep South along the bayou, neither of them have ventured further than their little town of Tiger Island. The community is inward looking, small and timeless, and Colette is bored. She wants adventure and new things, and so sets out to California to discover something different. Paul eventually follows, and the narrative becomes a touching portrayal of two individuals trying to make sense of big city life.

Without giving too much away, this story has extremely emotional ups and downs, with a tense, testing build up to its happy, homely ending. FF&T weren’t wrong in choosing to publish this book for it’s sense of place. Gautreaux talks constantly and nostalgically about Cajun food, smells, sights and nights in bars. The bayou landscape is unique and all-encompassing, almost as hard to live in as the Thibodeauxs’ tenacious relationship. Thoroughly recommended.

Review // All My Puny Sorrows

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by Miriam Toews
4/5

I was recommended this story during my book spa at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath. I couldn’t resist the snappy, witty writing, and was intrigued by another female author who has a few award-winning books under her belt. All My Puny Sorrows is named after a line in a Samuel Coleridge poem, and has received so much praise for its combination of bittersweet humour and a tragic tale of loss. The story of two sisters – Elf and Yoli – explores the idea that sometimes in order to help somebody you love so much, you have to let them go.

Elf is an international pianist with a successful career behind her, and yet another global tour ahead. She has everything Yoli doesn’t – a happy relationship, a job she loves, a beautiful home and all the adoration she could wish for. The only trouble is that Elf wants to die. After numerous attempts on her life, she finds herself in hospital, and Yoli is at her side trying to convince her to find a way to stay alive.

The story is told from Yoli’s perspective and as such is quite stream of conscious-like. It flits between memories of the sisters’ childhood, and parallel storylines about family members and friends. This adds a certain humility and humour to the writing, and it’s obvious that Toews is drawing on her own experiences to write with such insight. Yoli is desperate to help her older sister get better, but Elf’s depression is all-consuming. After much convincing, Yoli agrees to look into helping Elf end her life, as one would help a family member with a terminal illness end the pain.

The story is touching and funny, honest and terrifying. It’s wise and insightful, and explores a point of view that’s difficult to imagine. I thoroughly enjoyed the style of writing, which rolled along like the thoughts in Yoli’s head. The poetic, rhythmic lines lent a lovely flow and honesty to the story. A highly recommended read, but be prepared to cry!

Review // All the Light We Cannot See

4/5

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Having met a little controversy with his ‘overly sentimental’ portrayal of World War II, I have to say that I don’t really mind too much about what some of the critics have said about All the Light We Cannot See. Some have fact-checked Doerr’s writing and found a few geographical inaccuracies. Others have accused him of not picking a side when it comes to the War itself. If I wanted a book that did all of the above to a tee, I would be reading non-fiction. Or my school textbook. When I pick up a book – and in particular a Pulitzer Prize winning book – all I’m looking for is a great story, challenging writing, and perhaps a new perspective. As All the Light We Cannot See ticked most of these boxes, there isn’t really much for me to complain about. Except that after hitting over 300 pages and discovering there was over 200 more to go, I do wish it would have been a little shorter.

All the Light begins in Paris, where we meet Marie-Laure, a terrified six year old who has recently lost her sight. With the help of her loving father, she is given an injection of confidence, and soon finds herself walking the paths of the Jardin des Plantes to the museum where her father works. Having spent a lot of time in Paris, I loved being taken through the streets with the help of Marie Laure’s cane. I could imagine the smells, the sounds and the bustle of energy that she would have felt. Fast forward a few years, and WWII has reached the city, and Marie-Laure and her father flee, having been entrusted with a priceless precious stone from the museum. The pair find themselves taking refuge in St Malo, a seaside town in France, where they stay with Marie-Laure’s Great Uncle.

In parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is that of Werner, a young and ‘feathery’ German boy who is groomed by the Nazi party thanks to his talent for fixing transmitter radios. He is sent away from his sister and the oprhanage where he grew up, and endures the gruelling regime of Hitler’s Youth Camp. He then joins the army on the front line in France, tasked with tracking the transmissions of the French Resistance.

Without giving too much away, it becomes a matter of time before Marie-Laure and Werner come across each other, and there’s a fantastic, pensive build-up until they do. This is short-lived, however, for when they do meet it’s a little anti-climactic, and I was already getting a little restless. This is redeemed slightly by the flip forward to the 1970s, and then to 2014, where we reconvene with some characters, and more loose ends are tied up.

All in all, the detail in All the Light We Cannot See is second to none. Not having an advanced history degree, I didn’t notice any of the mistakes that other reviewers have pointed out, but I also did have enough knowledge of WWII to appreciate the characters and their development. For me, the ending could have come a little sooner. But overall, All the Light was a thoughtful page-turner with those fantastically short chapters that you just can’t stop reading – and a clever little nod to the parallels in life that tend to go unnoticed.

Abandoning books

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I can’t put my finger on why it makes me feel so bad to abandon a book. When I think back over the hundreds of books I’ve read, there have only been a handful that I’ve decided to put down for good. First there’s the wrestle with the decision to close the book for good. Then there’s taking your bookmark out knowing that this is final – there are no intentions of returning to it at a later date.

Lately I’ve abandoned Johnathon Franzen’s ‘critically acclaimed’ The Corrections. Franzen joins my growing pile of abandons alongside The God of Small Things, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and, controversially, Moby Dick. In abandoning these titles, I’ve realised that there are two types of abandonment guilt. The first one comes because somebody has recommended a book that you really don’t get on with – because you then have to deflate their enthusiasm with a declaration of ‘I didn’t finish it…’. The second type of guilt comes from the fear of missing out. Moby Dick, for example. A classic. Referenced so much in popular culture that I already felt like I’d been introduced to the characters before I even read it. Once I put my copy down after the third chapter, I knew that was it. I’ll probably never pick it up again, and I’ll probably die having never read Moby Dick. I’ve missed out.

The one thing that makes me feel little better about book abandonment is the list of books that I probably should have abandoned, but didn’t. I struggled through Proust’s Swann’s Way for about three months, at times simply glancing over words without registering them in my mind. I remember nothing about Swann, or his way. But I remember everything about the Richard Yates novel that I read prior to Proust – and The Easter Parade remains a firm favourite, going on to influence my reading list ever since.

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Reading isn’t something that you should get something out of, all the time. But it’s also not something that you should get absolutely nothing out of. So last week when I felt a twinge of abandonment guilt as I unfurled the dog ear marking my place in The Corrections, I thought of Proust. Or rather, I remembered that I remembered nothing. How ironic, for a book about the search for lost time.