I Take You – Nikki Gemmell

tlc tour hostThanks to the folks at TLC, I’m back with another book by Nikki Gemmell. You’ll recall that I took a look at her novel With My Body last month and today I am going to talk about her book I Take You. Beginning with The Bride Stripped Bare, With My Body and I Take You form a trilogy of sorts, although the characters and plots don’t really overlap so each book could be read independently of the others. I Take You

I Take You is the story of Connie Carven, wife to Clifford, a banker who has been seriously injured in a skiing accident and can no longer – erm – perform certain husbandly duties. No matter, Cliff has found other ways to satisfy his wife, most of them involving his Mont Blanc pen and a wicked imagination. At first Connie seems like a willing participant in her husband’s increasingly perverse sexual games, but one night Cliff takes things a teensy bit  (okay, a lot) too far and something in Connie, I don’t want to say snaps – changes.

Truthfully, I didn’t get Connie’s relationship with Cliff. Like, at all. Pre-accident he was  “her American…someone to be laughed at and admired and feared in equal measure.” Cliff is over-the-top rich and Connie “grew quickly addicted to this way of living – loved the sparkly, unthinking splash of it.”

When she tries to explain her relationship with Cliff to her father she says:

“We’re happy , Dad. As we are. I’m his wife and I have a job to do. A very important one. Now more than ever. Only I can help him, only me. I’ve bcome crucial to him in a way that’s impossible to explain.”

We are meant to believe that Cliff’s accident was the impetus for her to fall in love with her husband because “it tipped their sex life into something else. Because Cliff gouged out – patiently, gently, beseechingly – the very marrow of his impenetrable wife. It had been the trigger that now tipped him into something else.”  But the thing is, I don’t see these two as having very much of anything at all except perhaps for a co-dependent relationship and a penchant for kinky sex. And I never saw Cliff as a nurturing, kind man and he can’t kiss worth a damn, apparently.

Then, matters get more complicated when Connie meets Mel – he’s the gardener who takes care of the private communal garden that belongs to the houses on their square. It was at this point that I had a ‘wait a minute’ moment. I Take You was starting to sound suspiciously like another book: D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover.  According to the blurb on the back (which I hadn’t bothered to read) Gemmell was indeed inspired by Lawrence’s infamous book.

Everything you think is going to happen, happens. Mel and Connie start an illicit affair; Cliff gets all bent out of shape about it; Connie chooses personal happiness over marital responsibility.

So how does I Take You compare with the other erotica out there? Well, Gemmel’s writing is still lovely (although I think I might have appreciated this book a bit more if I’d had more of a breather between this one and With My Body.) It’s often quite graphic, so if that’s not your cup of titillation tea – perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

I can’t say I was quite as enamoured with I Take You as I was with With My Body. I may need a little while longer to figure out why Connie’s journey just didn’t resonate with me the way the narrator in With My Body did.

Blood – Patricia Traxler

BloodNorrie Blume, the protagonist of Patricia Traxler’s debut novel, Blood, is a thirty-five-year-old painter who has taken a leave of absence from her job as a graphic artist to focus on her art. To do that, she has accepted a Larkin fellowship at Radcliffe in Boston and has moved into one of the residences. It is there that she meets two other Larkin fellows, Clara, a journalist from Chile and Devi, a poet from London. Norrie doesn’t make friends easily and she is used to a certain degree of isolation – partly because of her vocation and partly because of her relationship with Michael Sullivan, a best-selling novelist who just happens to be married. It’s not like they can hang out in public. Nevertheless, she likes Devi immediately and sees all Clara’s character flaws just as quickly.

I have mixed feelings about Blood. Generally speaking, I liked it. The writing was decent and the story moved along. My problem had to do with a certain degree of uneveness.

Norrie tells the reader, “Though it’s true there’s a killing in my story, its principal violence is, I think I’d have to say, the violence of love.”

True enough: Norrie and Michael can’t keep their hands off each other and in one respect, Blood is a relatively explicit examination of infidelity. Of course, while  there’s no real honour in adultery, Michael does genuinely seem to love Norrie and wants a future with her. On the other hand, he can’t quite seem to get his shit together enough to leave his wife of 25 years. And why should he when he can have his cake and eat it, too.

Much of Blood is given over to the push/pull of Norrie’s top-secret relationship with Michael (no one, not even her best friend Liz, knows about him even though they’ve been together for two years.) And that might have been quite enough for one novel, but Traxler also delves into the mysterious world of female relationships and that’s where Clara and Devi come in.

Clara is clearly passive-aggressive and Norrie alternates between feeling sorry for and irritated by her. When she meets Devi, however, her feelings are immediately of the warm and fuzzy variety. This strangely dysfunctional threesome makes up the other third of the novel’s narrative. It’s also what, apparently, drives the book’s suspense – not to say that I didn’t turn the pages, but towards the end it did get a little, um, silly.

Not content with all those relationships, Traxler also dips a brush into the whole world of creativity. Traxler herself is an award-winning poet and so she likely knows a thing or two about the creative process, I’m just not sure that as it was written here is added any value to this story.

I guess that’s why when I came to the end of Blood I couldn’t really say I loved the book. I might have liked it a whole lot better if it had been about just Norrie and Michael, or just Norrie and Clara and Devi or even just about Norrie and her struggles to create art. As it was, the canvas was just a little too crowded for me.

Falling Under – Danielle Younge-Ullman

fallingunderMara, the twenty-something narrator of Danielle Younge-Ullman’s debut novel, Falling Under,  is a hot mess.  An artist who can barely leave the house except to have violent sex with a guy called Erik, Mara is clearly suffering from the cumulative effects of a troubled childhood, a stalled career and a tragic love affair.

Love always starts out well. There’s the chemistry, the lust, the gushy, dizzy, cuddly, branch-eating phase, the wonder, the miracle of togetherness. And then familiarity creeps in, followed by disappointment, disillusionment, fear. Inevitably there is silence, screaming, betrayal, the wrenching ugly truth when you look at each other and know that your love has turned to disgust, despair, boredom, hate.  All happiness gone, all rotten, all rotting.

Good times.

Younge-Ullman employs two narrative perspectives in the novel. When Mara is reliving her childhood, her parents’ messy divorce and its fallout, she speaks in the second person: “When you reach out to touch your shiny new bike, Mommy might start yelling at Daddy about how dare he spend their money and how you’re only five and what do you  need a new bike for anyway?”  The second person works really well here because Mara’s childhood, although not abusive per se, scars her emotionally and clearly hinders her ability to form healthy attachments to people as she grows up.  The second person narration is both intensely personal and somehow distancing at the same time.

The rest of the novel is first person narration and Mara’s black humour, self-doubt and neurosis is on full display. The reader will traipse though Mara’s life, often unwillingly, as she negotiates the thorny relationship with her mom, her co-dependent relationship with her dad and, miraculously, a new relationship with Hugo. But none of it is easy for Mara. She just doesn’t have the skills. She is sure, as was Chicken Little, that the sky is about to fall.

He would never understand how being happy makes you sad. How the happier you are the more you know the sky is about to explode into tiny, sparkling shards of glass that will pick up speed as they fall to the earth and slice right through you leaving your skin with little holes in it, leaving your heart bleeding.

Mara is, despite her quirks, a likable character. And Falling Under is a good book. But I can’t say that I finished it feeling wholly satisfied. Was it really necessary to make all the dangling and complicated threads of Mara’s life into a beautiful cat’s cradle in the end? Maybe – but given her problems, I wouldn’t have minded a little less happily-ever-after.

Our Daily Bread – Lauren B. Davis

ourdailybread

Picking a book for my book club  is serious business. The way our group works, we have one opportunity to pick and host per year and so you don’t want to choose a dud. The women in our group our merciless [cough] The White Iris [/cough] and it sucks to be on the receiving end of a book choice gone bad.  Usually I spend a lot of time choosing my book. This year I thought I would choose something from my own massive tbr  pile, but the problem was that every book I selected from my shelf was unavailable at local stores. In the end, I headed over to Indigo to peruse the shelves. The only criteria at that point was that there were enough copies on the shelf for the members of my club.

In the end, I chose a book I’d never heard of but which was plastered with accolades and a bright red sticker proclaiming that it had been longlisted for the Giller in 2012. Feeling confident of its pedigree, I brought home Lauren B. Davis’s novel Our Daily Bread.

Davis’s novel owes some of its gripping story to the real-life Golers from South Mountain, Nova Scotia. But Davis is quick to point out that Our Daily Bread is not ABOUT the Golers. While it’s true that Davis’s fictional Erskine family shares some similarities with the real-life family, that is only one small part of this mesmerizing and beautifully-written tale.

Albert Erskine is not like the rest of his violent, drug and alcohol addicted, sexually deviant family. He has already separated himself from the pack by building himself a small shack away from the main buildings on his family’s “compound”  on North Mountain.  His uncle Lloyd comments on Albert’s ‘otherness’ by saying: “You don’t act like the family at all now, do you? Don’t come visiting. Live in your little shack. Course maybe you have your own parties. That it? You have kids come to see you?”

It’s near impossible to trace the branches of  Albert’s family tree. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of younger kids with questionable DNA and Albert regards them with a mixture of annoyance and helplessness.  When ten-year-old Toots stops by his shack looking for food,  Albert ponders the sticky question: “What would she be like, if she’d been raised in some other place?” Albert often wonders how he might be different if his circumstances had been different. It’s a painful road for both Albert and the reader to travel.

Down in Gideon is another family with their own struggles: Tom and Patty Evans and their children Ivy and Bobby.  Tom is a good man. He grew up in Gideon and is well-liked and well-known. His wife, Patty, is another story. For starters, she’s from away. And although Tom seems desperately in love with her, she seems detached and unhappy. No matter what Tom does, it’s not good enough. As the tension in the household escalates, Ivy and Bobby seek shelter elsewhere. For Ivy, it is with the benign widow Dorothy Carlisle; Bobby’s new friend and confidant turns out to be  Albert Erskine. The intersection of these lives makes up the bulk of the narrative of Our Daily Bread.

I am guessing that some of the women in my group will have difficulty with the graphic (but never, imo, gratuitous) nature of the subject matter. As a mother, it’s certainly upsetting to see children in peril. The interesting thing about this book is that peril means different things to different people. Is Ivy’s falling-apart life any less horrible because she has a warm bed to sleep in? The impact Bobby and Albert have on each other’s lives is astounding and heart-breaking, too. Bobby is filled with a fifteen year old’s rage and angst and it isn’t until the novel’s powerful climax that he understands the value of his father’s love.

It truly is the mark of a great novel when you can empathize with so many of the characters. I loved Ivy’s resolute determination and Albert’s jaded hope and Dorothy’s refusal to bend to the will of small-town politics. And I loved Tom. A lot. As he copes with his unraveling marriage, as he asked himself the question, “How can I ever trust myself again?” I just saw so much of myself in him. But, ultimately, it all comes back to Albert. I so desperately wanted him to get in his truck and just go. I will be thinking about him for a long time.

Our Daily Bread isn’t ‘light’ reading, but this is a book that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

As expected, our discussion of this book was lively and we were SO excited to be able to Tweet with Ms. Davis about her book. Here is some of our conversation:

Lauren B. Davis:  Oh, that’s wonderful, Christie!  If you have any questions, just send me a tweet! Thanks so much. #Ilovebookclubs

The Ludic Reader: Lively discussion about Our Daily Bread. @Laurenbdavis girls want to know if you think Albert ever contemplated a sexual advance towards Bobby?

Lauren B. Davis‏:  Not consciously, altho I do think the conditioned response of his childhood arose (pardon the pun) a few times, including that moment in the cabin the night Bobby came up to the compound with him.

@bitebymichelle wants to know where the wife went.

Lauren B. Davis‏: At the very end of the book?  Ah, who knows.  She is a lost soul, I fear.  I wonder if she’ll  ever come back and finally make that long walk up to the door.  What do you all think?

The Ludic Reader: Nobody is going to love her like Tom did, but we don’t think she’ll come back until her life is shit.

The Ludic Reader:  We all loved Albert so much – why did he have to die? (Altho we do know the answer.)

Lauren B. Davis‏: Can’t tell you how I tried not to kill him.  In the first draft he survived, but it just didn’t work.  I suppose it’s the symbolic sacrifice, but to be honest, I still grieve him. I found the final scene difficult to write.

The Ludic Reader: Some feel the trial was not necessary. Why did you decide to include it?

Lauren B. Davis:  It is rough, isn’t it?  But I felt readers would want to know what happened to the abusers, and since the courtroom  dialogue was taken from trial transcripts, I felt I was bearing witness to the children whose story inspired me. There was so much more of the Goler case which I did not include, because it was simply too horrible. But the response of the townspeople was important to the meaning of the book  I understand the squeamishness.  I felt I, too.  But yes, I think it’s important to be fearless in our gaze and to speak  truth to power even if our voice shakes.

The Blue Notebook – James A. Levine

blue notebookIt’s easy to become complacent when you live in Canada. I live in a nice house; I have a car; I have a job; my children are healthy and go to school wearing the clothes they want, with full bellies. They sleep in warm beds. They are safe and loved.  So when I read a novel like James Levine’s The Blue Notebook it sticks with me. Not because it’s beautifully written literature – which I have to say, it’s not – but because it tells a story so compelling and upsetting and alien to my everyday life, I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

Batuk is just nine when her beloved father sells her to Master Gahil. I got the sense that he was strapped for cash and Batuk was his only asset. Thus begins her life of sexual slavery, a life she learns first at the hands of a variety of men in “the orphanage” and then under the watchful eye of Mamaki Briila. She is one of six children housed in “nests” on Common Street in Mumbai. Here she makes “sweet-cake” all day long.

It’s a ghastly life but Batuk is somehow able to separate herself from the act of sex by retreating into a world of stories. She is literate because she spent several weeks in a TB hospital as a child and a kind nurse taught her to read and write. She commits her story to the pages of a blue notebook and this is how the reader comes to know her story.

And so I look within myself and assemble myself in words. I take the words that are my thoughts and dreams and hide them behind the dark shadow of my kidney. I compress my need for love into words and hide that as a drop of blackness next to my liver (it will be safe there until I need it.)

James Levine, the author of The Blue Notebook, is actually a  professor of medicine and a respected scientist and researcher. He was compelled to write Batuk’s story after seeing a young girl on the Street of Cages in Mumbai. He says, “The image of the girl in the pink sari haunted me so that I was compelled to write The Blue Notebook, a work of fiction based on field-workers’ reports and observation of the conditions that such children survive.” There is an interesting article about Dr. Levine and the book here.

Batuk’s story is a dark one. There is really no reprieve for her or the reader but to be fair – why should we come out of this experience unscathed? The truth is horrific. According to Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) there are an estimated 10 million prostitutes in India. A February 2012 UN report indicated that India was the most dangerous place in the world to be born a girl. Not only are girls less desirable to their families, extreme poverty often leads them to a life of prostitution.(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/9054429/India-most-dangerous-place-in-world-to-be-born-a-girl.html)

If you are interested in helping the children of India there are several charitable organizations, including HOPE.

 

Ashes – Ilsa J. Bick

We learn quite a lot about the feisty heroine, Alex, in the prologue of Ilsa J. Bick’s dynamite YA novel, Ashes. She’s stubborn. Aunt Hannah tells us that. “…once you’ve made up your mind, there’s no talking to you,” she says. She’s seventeen. And  she has “a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball” lodged in her head.

Alex is on the run, sort of. She’s decided not to do any more of the experimental  treatments for her brain tumor – so she’s left her Aunt Hannah and headed to Waucamaw Wilderness in Michigan to clear her head and scatter the ashes of her parents, who had been killed in a helicopter crash.

Alex is enjoying the solitude of the woods until Jack, his granddaughter, Ellie and their dog Mina happen by. Ellie is eight and is clearly not happy to be tramping through the woods. By page 25, Jack is dead and Alex and Ellie are running for their lives.

By page 72 both Alex and the reader know they aren’t in Kansas anymore. When she and Ellie stumble into a camp site, this is what Alex sees:

The boy and girl were eating. Stuffing their faces, actually. Splashes of blood smeared their mouths and dripped over their chins like runny clown’s makeup. With a grunt, the boy plunged his fist into the woman’s abdomen and rooted around before coming back up with a drippy fistful of something liverish and soft enough that Alex could hear the squelch as the meaty thing oozed between his fists.

It’s a waking nightmare. But these flesh eating teens aren’t the only thing Alex has to contend with. For one thing, she’s completely cut off from the rest of the world. She is quickly running out of supplies. Winter is coming.

This is one of those no-holds-barred works of fiction that teens will love. I think boys will especially love it because it really has a gross-out factor.  As the story went on, it did make me think about Patrick Ness’s novel The Knife of Never Letting Go a little. Like that book, Bick’s novel stretches out beyond the confines of teen against supernatural/fantasy/strange forces/etc and starts to tackle some other questions. What does it mean to be free, for example.  Who is trustworthy and how can we be sure they don’t just have a personal agenda? Ashes has a crazy mythology: part religious fanaticism, part survival of the fittest.

As Alex tries to figure out what has happened to the world…and herself (because she isn’t the same anymore either), Bick continues to introduce new perils and characters we must decide – as must Alex – whether or not we can trust.

Ashes is the first book in a trilogy and I will definitely be continuing on with the series. Bick’s writing is crisp and fast-paced. Alex is a great character – smart and resourceful. Although the book is written in the third person, it’s a limited point of view – so it feels like first person narration. You really do see everything through Alex’s filter.

And holy-ol’-cliffhanger. Great book!

Rape: A Love Story – Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates wastes no time cutting to the chase in her novella, Rape: A Love Story.

After she was gang – raped, kicked and beaten and left to die on the floor of the filthy boathouse at Rocky Point Park. After she was dragged into the boathouse by the five drunken guys – unless there were six, or seven – and her twelve-year-old daughter with her screaming Let us go! Don’t hurt us! Please don’t hurt us!

Teena  Maguire and her 12 – year – old daughter, Bethie, leave a July 4th party after midnight and cut through Rocky Point Park.  They take a short-cut through the woods and encounter the group of drunken men – many of whom are known to Teena from around her Niagara Falls neighbourhood.

Although Bethie is beaten, she manages to escape and hide under a boat. She listens as her mother is raped and savagely beaten and left for dead. The reader is not spared from the horror of this crime, but Oates – skillful writer that she is – never crosses the line into gratuitous.

Bethie manages to attract the attention of a police officer and it happens to be Officer Dromoor, a man who knows Teena because of an encounter they’d had one night at a local bar. Dromoor is a good man –  a married father-to-be with a finely attuned sense of justice.

Teena survives the attack, but her life is forever altered. Rape: A Love Story sets about examining the ways in which this horrific incident changes her and Bethie and Dromoor and even three of the perpetrators and their families. It asks questions like was Teena dressed inappropriately and thus ‘asking for it’? Oates doesn’t offer any answers, though.

I have a love/hate relationship with Oates. There’s no denying her considerable talent, but sometimes I find her hard work. It’s not style over substance – although, no question she has some stylistic tics which take some getting used to. In Rape, she employs second person narrative (always a risky choice, imho, although clearly well-handled here), choppy sentences, and a narrative that jumps around. But, let’s face it, she’s Joyce Carol Oates.

I always want to like her more than I actually do.