The Tick and Tock of the Crocodile Clock by Kenny Boyle (Literary Fiction)

It’s all about words. That theme comes up often in this earnest, confusing, and genuine book about Wendy, a young would-be poet who exists fully in the world of her imagination and is simply lost in the world in which we are all forced to reside.

The book is a gem. Starting with our narrator hiding (terrified) in her gran’s attic with a stolen painting at her side, the story backtracks to an explanation of how she got there, beginning with her short tenure at a Glasgow call center where her daily game is to sneak as many unusual words as possible into her calls. Wendy loves language and weaves wishful fiction into her own backstory (always confessing and eventually letting the truth out). When she quits the call center, she is surprised when several others accompany her in the walk out. One fellow decamper is Catriona, an artist who is wild, wonderful, and has (it becomes clear) been struggling with mental illness for some time.

The story is humorous, surprising, sad, and deeply insightful. I admit to almost closing the book because I got frustrated with the way Wendy could not handle her life the way I thought she should — a good lesson for me about the (should be obvious) fact that my way is not what is best for everyone! I was afraid the book was about self-destructive tendencies which I have little patience with, but it actually was not. I loved her interior monologue that laid bare her development into a whole person making decisions that were right for her.

Lots of great use of language including some truly “new” (to me) words such as curglaffic; ultracrepudarian; lexiphanicism. Seriously, they don’t even begin to sound familiar to me, never mind managing to use them in a call center dialog sentence!

Not surprisingly, there are some great quotes. Here are a few:
“Honestly, I don’t think call centres have the strength of character to be hell. In call centres even bright things or bright people get washed out and individuality is smothered by customer service.”

“Thank you for calling Chay Turley Telephone Banking. How may I dissuade you from truculence?”

“They’re mostly useless in conversation, because people look at you like you’ve just flown in from some fantasy land if you say them. Having to explain the meaning of a word every time you use it goes against the whole point of having words in the first place. I like them anyway; their uselessness adds to their mystique.”

“Her mind is ponderous, like an iguana. When you say something to her it takes a good two seconds to process it — two whole seconds of silent glaring as the words take root. When someone like that meets someone like me it doesn’t ever turn out well. I can’t bear those two seconds of silence, so I have to fill the gap. A lot of the time I fill it with incriminating evidence to my detriment.”

“She’s beginning to pick up speed, like a juggernaut of discipline ready to smash through me with sheer momentum.”

“There’s no amount of shyness that will diminish the West of Scotland impulse to respond to compliments with aggression — it would be weird not to.”

“I wish I weren’t so afraid of words in the real world, I wish they didn’t turn into glue in my mouth so often. Life is an unlimited cascade of parallel possibilities and every single word alters the path. That’s petrifying; it’s fossilising. How can people handle that responsibility?”

“There’s a miniature sun made of gratitude right in the centre of my rib cage and its beams are tearing out of me, but, because we’re in the real world where words can’t be retrieved once they leave your mouth, I don’t know how to tell her how much it means to me.”

“…but even when his expression was flat, the lines of it were an origami template for a smile.”

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont (Memoir)

Very well-written memoir about the author growing up in a dysfunctional family full of mental illness and big-time secrets. Raised as a Catholic, her discovery that her parents and aunt were instead Jewish holocaust survivors was the subject of her first book — After Long Silence (1999).  The Escape Artist starts with the aftermath of the previous work — estrangement from her family and an invitation to her father’s funeral only to find that she had been cut out of his will with the phrase “as if she had predeceased me.” The narrative bounces between 1965 and the present (well-labeled and easy to follow) and follows the wild dynamics of a sister who is alternately her best friend and a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy person vowing to kill her. While the first book uncovers the Catholic / Jewish secret, this book uncovers a second large family secret (which truthfully is not the main purpose of the book and is not over dramatized in any way — it’s just something we find out / figure out near the end). The primary focus is on her relationship with the family, particularly her sister, and her own slow self-discovery of the person she wants to be.

I enjoyed reading this book — it was well-written and the characters were deeply portrayed — intentionally from the author’s perspective. Exactly my kind of memoir where the author makes plain her interior logic, experiences, and even her own doubt as to what actually happened vs what she remembers happening. My only complaint might be that it was a tad too long — I was ready to be done about 40 pages from the end. I admit that there is also something that disturbs me about one person writing a memoir that exposes the secrets of others. There was a good reason her family did not want people to know they were Jewish and I can see being equally unhappy about the family exposure in this book.

Ask Again,Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Character: 5/5

I ended up loving this story exploring the impact of a “tragic event” on two families. In general, I don’t like reading about tragic events — it’s depressing, upsetting, and being the emotional sponge that I am, I don’t feel the need to soak up more misery than is absolutely necessary. But! This really wasn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s a book about people making their way through life, living with choices — both the ones they make and the ones thrust upon them — and learning about themselves and each other.

Two families brought together happenstance (two rookie cops in the same class, a move to adjacent houses in the suburbs) are inextricably bound together by the aforementioned “tragic incident.” The book does a brilliant job of showcasing the full impact of mental illness — from the person who suffers, to his or her family, and the swath of destruction left in its wake. Ranging from the early seventies to the present day, we get intimate portraits of each character as his or her innate personalities are molded, expanded, and stunted by his or her experiences — a kind of a human development lab examining the twining of nature and nurture. Some excellent portraits of marriage — I love one of the lines: “Marriage is long. All the seams get tested.”

Absorbing writing, in-depth, and insightful characters — an exploration of the impact of the vicissitudes of life on evolving into the person you become.

Good for fans of Ann Packer or Joyce Carol Oates.

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 10th, 2019.