With My Body – Nikki Gemmell

With My Body Full disclosure: I am a Nikki Gemmell fan and have read three of her previous novels including The Bride Stripped Bare, Cleave and Shiver. So when TLC Book Tours offered me the opportunity to review Gemmell’s novel With My Body  I jumped at the chance.

Gemmell is one of those writers who somehow seems to burrow into the very heart of things and her stories – mostly about (at least those I’ve read) complicated, messy, consuming love – always seem to make me nod my head in agreement. Yeah – that’s right, Nikki. It’s just like that.

The unnamed narrator in With My Body is at a cross-roads in her life. Married to Hugh, she’s fallen into a sort of endless to-do list life, a never-ending cycle of  “wellies and Range Rovers, school runs and Sunday church.” Three young sons keep her busy and although she’s grateful for the life she has, she also feels “infected with sourness.”  Motherhood, for her,  is a complex state of being, full of “richness…depletion…incandescence…despair aand loneliness.” I hear you, sister.

She loves her husband, but they haven’t had sex for two years and the truth is, she’d rather be “celibate from now on.” Besides, their marriage is bound by an unspoken agreement that they’ll never split up and are “in this together, for life.”

Sounds like fun, eh?

With Your Body is really two stories. In one, the second person narrator dutifully fulfills her obligations as wife and mother, but the spark is gone. In another, we see her back in Australia first at age 11, coping with adolescence and a single father about to be remarried and then, slightly older, 14 perhaps,  experimenting with sex with a teacher and then slightly older again, 17ish – estranged from her father and the stepmother who turns out not to be all that happy in the role. It’s at this juncture that she meets Tol. He consumes her thoughts:

That night the memory of him, all of it, soaked through you, like smoke; in your hair, your clothes, in the pores of your skin. The memory of his fingers, his desk, his dog, his hand on the gearstick, his waiting house.

The sky has released its payload at last. Rain pummels the tin roof. You open the canvas flaps, fling them up and breathe in the earth as you lie on your stomach on the pillow, and watch.

Your sky, his sky.

The only thing you have in common, and you are caught.

The relationship between the narrator and Tol eventually becomes sexual. She becomes “cracked open into womanhood” under Tol’s patient tutelage. And so the two pass the summer. It is this affair that shapes her and, in some ways, spoils her for the men who come later – including her husband.

While I wouldn’t exactly call With My Body erotica, it is certainly erotically charged. It’s not meant, I don’t think,  to titillate though. The second person narration puts the reader in the driver’s seat, however, and therefore  we experience what the narrator does. Sometimes it had the desired effect.

I was more interested in the older version of the narrator, though – the wistful, dissatisfied, woman who sees the “signs of slippage everywhere.”

Your body thickening after its quicksilver years of slenderness, finally you have lost control of it. Your metabolism is slowing, you cannot keep the weight off. Hair is growing in places it shouldn’t be, with vigour – the only vigour in your life it seems. You are tired, so tired, constantly.

I got this woman. I didn’t have a Tol in my life, but I did have a life filled with abandon and abundant sexual appetite. I understood her longing to recapture the woman she was before she became a wife and mother and her journey felt authentic to me. I mean, who doesn’t wonder “what if?” When the narrator decides to leave England and return to Australia, she can’t resist revisiting the place where she and Tol spent that one incredible summer. She goes there, really, to find him – both literally and metaphorically. The past, it turns out, is not so easy to reclaim.

If I have any quibbles with the book, they are minor. I love the way Gemmell writes, although I wasn’t totally enamoured with the second person narration in this instance. Curious choice and I’d love to know why she made it. (Ms. Gemmell, if you pop by – I’d love to have your thoughts!)

Thanks to TLC for the opportunity to read the book and share my thoughts on this tour. I’ll be talking about another Gemmell novel, I Take You, in January.

WITH MY BODY ebook will be $1.99 from 12/16 – 1/6 

Bookish lists – I want yours

I have a love/hate relationship with the end of the year. On one hand it means I have to reflect on all the ways I have flailed and failed, my squandered opportunities, that 10k I didn’t quite manage, the times I wasted worrying about things and people I can’t change. On the other hand, once 2013 slips into the past, I can start thinking about what I can accomplish in 2014. The places I’ll go, the people I’ll gather close, the ways I can improve my life, the books I’ll read. calendar

And that’s another reason I love this time of year – every book lover/organization on the planet shares their best books lists. I love lists. I love reading about the books that have risen to the top of the heap. I love it that there’s always disagreement and someone’s best book invariably ends up on someone else’s worst list.

It’s easy enough to find fantastic book lists online. Book Riot has a great selection of the Ten Best Top 100 Book Lists . And, of course, at this time of year everyone wants to weigh in on the best books of 2013. Here’s a small sampling.

Good Reads

Publisher’s Weekly

NPR

Huffington Post

Kirkus

Seabury Reads

I, too, always offer a top ten list. I’ll do that in the next few days because although I did meet my reading challenge of 60 books, I am hoping to read a couple more before year’s end and, who knows, perhaps one of those books will be worthy of a place on the list.

In the meantime, I’d love to feature your favourite books of 2013 here at The Ludic Reader. If you’ve posted a list at your blog, link me up. Otherwise, shoot me an email (ludicreader AT rogers.com) and I’ll let you have the floor in an upcoming post. Or leave a comment and tell me about the best or worst book you’ve read this year.

You Against Me – Jenny Downham

youagainstmeI read Jenny Downham’s first novel Before I Die a few years ago and I really like it a lot. I liked You Against Me, too. Downham certainly isn’t afraid to tackle the big stuff.

Eighteen-year-old Mikey McKenzie’s life is far from perfect. His mother is an alcoholic and he has two younger sisters, Karyn, 15, and Holly, 8, for whom he is responsible. He’s doing the best he can, but he’s all too aware that sometimes it’s just not good enough. Especially now. Karyn was recently raped while at a party and she now won’t leave the house. Mikey figures he can make everything right again if he beats the crap out of the guy who did it, Tom Parker. He and his best friend, Jacko, come up with a plan but everyone knows nothing ever goes to plan.

Sixteen-year-old Ellie Parker is every bit as anxious as her parents for her older brother Tom’s homecoming. He’s spent the last couple of weeks detained after having been accused of rape, but now he’s coming home to await the trial. Ellie’s her brother’s star witness; she was home the night Tom brought a bunch of friends back from the pub, Karyn included.  She’s already told the police that she didn’t hear or see anything much and her parents are convinced that Tom will be found not guilty.

And this might have been nothing more than a he said – she said YA novel except that Mikey and Ellie meet and discover…they like each other. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but once the wires are uncrossed and trust has been earned, Ellie and Mikey really do genuinely fall in love.

Downham does a good job of balancing the story of Ellie and Mikey  with everything else that’s going on including Ellie’s doubts about her brother’s innocence, Mikey’s concern for his sisters and frustration with his mother’s lack of responsibility. The novel moves pretty quickly, allowing the reader plenty of time with both Ellie and Mikey so we get a real sense of who they are and how they’re coping with their complicated circumstances. What started as one thing quickly becomes something else for both of them and as Mikey says to Jacko

When I first saw Ellie, I knew it was her – she was my fantasy. I didn’t want it to be true, but every time I met her it was obvious, and the funny thing was that she was better than the fantasy, like I got more stuff than I’d imagined.

You Against Me is about family and friendship and making choices that have far-reaching consequences. Downham offers careful readers lots to think about and has created two young people worth rooting for.

 

Cemetery Girl – David Bell

cemeteryI read the first 192 pages of David Bell’s novel Cemetery Girl lickety split. I couldn’t put the book down. I wondered – how come I’ve never heard of this book or this author? How come the only positive promotion is from other authors? Where has this author been all my life?

And then it all went to hell in a hand basket.

Cemetery Girl is the story of college professor Tom Stuart and his wife, Abby, and their daughter, Caitlin, who disappeared four years ago when she was twelve.  Now, Abby has decided it’s time to say goodbye to Caitlin and has organized a memorial service for her daughter. It’s caused something of a rift between Tom and Abby because Tom hasn’t given up hope that his daughter will come home to them because her body has never been found.  But Tom and Abby’s marriage is on the slippery slope anyway. Abby has found religion and is spending more and more time with Pastor Chris her new ‘best friend.’ Yeah, right.

For the first half of the book I was totally invested in Tom’s story and the novel’s attempt to make him a somewhat unreliable narrator. For example, he and his half-brother, Buster, have different takes on their childhood. Tom remembers his step-father, Paul, as a mean and abusive drunk; Buster claims it wasn’t like that at all.

There are a bunch of minor characters in the novel – Detective Ryan, the one and only cop still assigned to Caitlin’s case; Susan Goff, a volunteer with the police department (who is not a therapist or professional counsellor, just someone to talk to); Liann Stipes, a lawyer whose own daughter had been murdered and who has acted as an advisor to Tom; Tracy Fairlawn, a stripper who claims she saw Caitlin. Then there’s this mysterious blonde girl who keeps appearing near Caitlin’s tombstone or outside the Stuart house in the middle of the night.

Like I said, Bell kept me turning those pages for quite a long time. Then I just didn’t believe it anymore. I didn’t believe the way characters started to speak to each other. I didn’t believe the resolution of the book’s central mystery. I didn’t believe any of Tom’s interactions with anyone – they just all felt artificial. I’m a parent; I wouldn’t behave this way.

Cemetery Girl had a lot of potential, but a book like this depends on credibility and at the end of the day – it just didn’t have any.

 

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and parkEleanor & Park turned up on Kirkus’s list of Top Teen Books in 2013, and rightfully so. Rainbow Rowell is a new-to-me author, although I have been wanting to read Fangirl for a while.

Set in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s, Eleanor & Park is a novel about two young people who find each other and themselves despite the many obstacles in their way.

When Eleanor moves to a new house and school she’s already aware of how different she is.  Park notices her right away because she is

…big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she dressed like…like she wanted  people to look at her. Or maybe like she didn’t get what a mess she was. She had on a plaid shirt, a man’s shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.

Park notices something else, too. He notices that she starts to read his comic books out of the corner of her eye.

At first he thought he was imagining it. He kept getting this feeling that she was looking at him, but whenever he looked over at her, her face was down.

He finally realized that she was staring at his lap. Not in a gross way. She was looking at his comics-he could see her eyes moving.

Eleanor notices Park, too.  (“Stupid, perfect Asian kid.”) And soon, over a shared love of comic books and new wave music, the two teenagers discover a mutual appreciation for each other.

The course of true love doesn’t run smoothly, of course. It never does.

Eleanor lives with her mother, four younger siblings and her step-father, Richie, who is not a nice man. At all. In fact, Eleanor has just returned home after living with family friends for a year. She’d been kicked out and the stay was supposed to be temporary. Now Eleanor lives in a home where everyone is always walking on eggshells, especially her.

Park is half Korean and lives with his parents and younger brother, Josh. Everything about his home life is stable and ‘normal’, but Park still finds it difficult to fit in.

Eleanor is a prickly person and Park is exceedingly patient with her, but that doesn’t always prevent hurt feelings and misunderstandings. It’s impossible not to love her, though. Park, too. They are not nearly as frustrating as other ‘teens in love’ might be. I wanted to shake Eleanor’s mom  though. But then I had to take into consideration the year in which the novel takes place – 1986.

I was a young(er) person in the 1980s and I loved the pop culture references in Eleanor & Park. Setting it then also allows the reader to forgive the lack of  outside agencies (school, Child Protective Services, police) involved in Eleanor’s dreadful home life. Even Park’s dad knows Eleanor’s stepfather and offers Eleanor a safe place to be.

If I have any criticism of the book it’s that I didn’t love the ending. I’m all for ambiguity, but it just seemed a little anti-climactic after everything that happens. It’s a small thing, though. Time with Eleanor and Park is time well spent.