The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter – Review & Playlist

The World Before Us captured my attention from the very first page. The prose is exquisite, filled with lush adjectives and a poetic quality that feels melodic, which contrasts against the typically gritty mental asylum setting when the novel starts. However, this is not the stereotypical patient narrative – there are no abusive nurse or complex escape plots here. Instead, this is a novel about humanity and how remarkably similar our stories can be.

The novel follows Jane, a timid archivist at the Chester Museum. The Chester Museum is in the process of closing, and Jane and her colleagues are getting ready for the final event – a talk by botanist William Eliot. Jane is particularly anxious about this event, as she and William have a complex history unknown to the rest of the museum staff. As a teenager, Jane was a nanny to Williams young daughter, Lily. During a walk in the woods, Lily was lost and never found again. The incident haunts Jane, as well as her residual feelings for Lily’s father. Meeting William again pushes Jane back to the scene of the crime, which also happens to be the location of the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics.

It is here that multiple stories merge. Jane, as perhaps a distraction from her disastrous reunion with William Elliot, revisits a project began some years before – the history of the Whitmore, including the disappearance of a young girl known only by her first initial, N. Jane throws herself into the project, delving into the archives to solve the mystery of a missing Victorian girl. This, it seems, serves as atonement for her guilt about Lily. If Jane can discover what happened to N, she can open up another possible ending to Lily’s story – the chance that Lily survived her mysterious disappearance. Jane becomes the master of an intricately woven story where past and present intersect and where ghost have voices.

Within the first few pages, this novel feels familiar, solid, comfortable in your hands, with words that enliven and awaken the senses. The characters feel familiar, the imagery vivid, so that the reader is made to feel in the midst of a memory. The plot is slow, but with good reason. The story is less about forwarding the action and more about exploring the stories and inter-connectedness of seemingly separate moments in time. These moments all focus together around Jane, and come to life as she solves the mystery of N. It is a story that pulls at the heartstrings, and makes the reader think about the past with new eyes.

The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell – Review & Playlist

I was not really prepared for how beautiful The Only Ones was.

The story begins with Inez (or simply “I”, which is a poetic choice for a first-person narrative), a young woman of little education but high wit and what we call ‘street smarts’, stepping off a bus in New Jersey, but not New Jersey as we know it. This is a near-future America that has been ravaged by plague and virus. Diseases that readers might recognize – tuberculosis and the flu, for example – as well as what’s referred to as The Big One wipe out millions at a time, leaving those who are left in a damaged and diseased world. Inez, who comes from a desolate background, has done whatever she could to survive – which includes selling teeth, fingernails, and now she has come to The Farm to sell her genetic material. The buyer, Rini Jaffur, is a woman who has lost her daughters to illness and seeks to replace them. As Inez seems to be immune (or “hardy”) to the dangers of this world, they clone her, but when the buyer backs out at the last minute, Inez promises to care for the child herself, despite the fact that she is unprepared to be a mother. Inez narrates with the frankness of a woman who has seen it all and who has had to grow up at a very young age. She has lived a hard life and become a realist because of it. She is surprised by little and shows the strength of someone who is prepared to do anything to keep herself afloat.

The novel begins with questions of ethics – is it a crime against nature to clone, to combat the high infant mortality rate with science, and is the resulting child a crime against nature herself? Is the child, as a product of cloning and her “gene-for-gene replica”, destined to become exactly like her? As Inez learns to care for and protect Ani, the child she is left with, she is continually asking herself this. It is a discussion of nature vs. nurture, and Inez is careful about the “environmental factors” that Ani is exposed to. As her motherly affections for Ani grow and she learns to care for someone other than herself, her questions and concerns evolve. Inez now not only is concerned with keeping Ani alive and safe, but is also determined to give Ani a better life than the one she had. She wants to know that Ani is ‘normal’ and is growing up like other children. She wants Ani to be educated and not have to live a life on the streets like she did, and is constantly fighting to get her child into good schools. And most of all, she wants to protect Ani from the truth that might put them both in danger. As the novel evolves, Inez begins to ask existential questions about her purpose in life, about motherhood, and the choices she has made.

The Only Ones is not only beautifully written and incredibly moving, but also intelligent and sure to spark some debate. In a similar vein to Never Let Me Go, Carola Dibbell raises questions for readers about our existence and what qualifies as ‘humanity’, as well as offers a unique view into a very possible near-future. It will move you, it will make you use your brain. It should frighten you a little bit. It should make you want to call your mother. This is a cant-miss novel, and one that will surely stick with you after the last page is turned.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller – Review & Playlist

It’s a strange thing to finish a novel at 1:37 in the morning, even more so when the novel ends with one of the biggest “what the HELL did I just read” moments you’ve ever experienced. It’s a feeling we all know well: the Book Hangover. And I’ve got a pretty severe one after finishing Our Endless Numbered Days.

The novel is told with beautiful, earthy prose, which exquisitely details both the beauty of nature and the tragedy bestowed upon young Peggy. There’s something very romantic about the wilderness and living off the land – a type of Christopher McCandless fantasy. But quickly the reality sets in, and we discover that this is not the fairy tale we thought it would be, but harsh, unforgiving, and full of unexpected dangers.

The novel begins in London, at the home of eight-year-old Peggy Hillcoat, where she lives with her concert pianist mother Ute and her survivalist father James.It is clear from the beginning that James is not your typical father. He meets with a group of men to discuss techniques for surviving in the wilderness in case of a catastrophic world event. He builds a fallout shelter in the basement of the family home, and instead of teaching his daughter to play football, he teaches her to pack a rucksack and be ready for life in the wild. Peggy follows her father with the nativity that any child would at a young age. She does not yet know that though it may seem like a game, it is part of a larger scheme. Her father is teaching her the necessary skills she’ll need when he takes her from her home and her mother, and brings her to die Hütte, a small cabin in the middle of a forest. Under the guise of taking a holiday, James takes his eight-year-old daughter to a secluded spot, and proceeds to tell her that her mother and everyone they know is dead. They are the only two left, and the rest of the world has fallen away past The Great Divide.

We quickly become aware that there is something wrong with James. As we take the journey with Peggy, we realize that not only will she need to learn how to survive in the wilderness, but how to survive her father as well. The solution is the mysterious Reuben, whom Peggy has only seem glimpses and hints of. It seems to be that finally Peggy has found a Prince Charming to take her away, but not everything is as it seems.

We’ve chosen this novel as the first Muse Monthly selection for a good reason – it’s written beautifully, and the story takes you away on the adventure of a lifetime. With a denouement you’ll never forget, Our Endless Numbered Days is sure to take your breath away. So curl up with a hot cuppa and enjoy!

On The Book Hangover…

It is 6:07 in the morning, and I have been up all night finishing the novel that will be the choice for August’s Muse Monthly box. The last pages fall softly to the left side, the hardback cover closes. I run my fingers along the spine, where the title is printed in a bold silver. I take a breath.

I do not know where the term “book hangover” originated, but I do know this: the feeling of finishing a story is just as strong, if not more so, than the rush of starting one.

I suspect that as readers, most of you are familiar with the feeling even if you do not use that choice of name for it. It’s a very particular feeling – a heaviness, a thoughtfulness, and if the novel was particularly good, a desire to go back to the beginning and start the adventure all over again.

There is an investment we take on with a novel, as opposed to a work of short fiction or a poem; it’s a commitment to the characters within and their stories, which tends to extend beyond the first and last pages of the story. We give our time, our concentration, our emotions over to the world of the novel and allow it to carry us through a life that is not our own, to temporarily abandon the real world and inhabit a new one. We celebrate joys and triumphs, feel heartbreak and loss, and experience the ups and downs of the plot along with the characters, which takes energy on the part of us readers.

The end of a novel can feel like the end of the marathon. We need to steady our breath again, to look up and calibrate ourselves within our surroundings. It can be a shock to find ourselves back in our bedrooms instead of walking along the halls of Hogwarts, in the woods of Narnia, or the mountains of Middle Earth. This is the hangover feeling – the soreness in our heads, the molasses-like awakening back to our real lives. And it can be more difficult to recover from than a night at the bar.

So, how do we cure a hangover? Do we rest, drink plenty of water, take some aspirin? Or do we keep drinking, do we pick up another story and dive right in, desperate to continue that buzz that is particular to reading and to giving oneself over to fiction. Do we solve the problem by going right back to it’s source, slave to a vicious cycle? Are we addicts, then?

There are worse problems to have.

Drink up, friends.

If You’re Considering Muse Monthly…

Think about the excitement of a new book. There’s that new book smell, smooth, unmarked pages, and an exciting story that awaits. It’s a new adventure to go on every month.

Think about the tranquility of a hot cup of tea, of curling your fingers around a warm mug and a moment of relaxation. Think about finding new, aromatic blends you’d never have considered before. Think about herbal teas to heal you from the inside, think about green teas to boost your energy, think about black teas to calm and soothe you.

Think about knowing you’ll have these feelings at least once a month. Think about finding new friends who are enjoying that same thing, who are reading the same book you are, who have the same questions, and are excited to find the answers along with you.

Think about finding new writers and getting to know them through the words on the page. Think about reading new stories by writers you already love. Think about being able to support writers that are women, LGBTQA, trans, POC. Think about finding writers from other countries. Think about finding writers that excite you and make you fall in love with reading all over again, and watching your bookshelves fill.

Think about being inspired each and every month.

Think about Muse Monthly