The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – Review & Playlist

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I remember being assigned Life of Pi in high school as part of a Contemporary Literature class. At that time, it was a fairly new novel, perhaps only two or three years after publication. I remember thinking how strange it was to be reading a story that was essentially plot-less – for most of the story, it’s just Pi and the tiger stuck in the boat. It wasn’t, as the books I tended to read at that time were, driven by action. It took me until the end of the novel, until after I sat and processed what I’d just read, to realize what the book was really trying to accomplish. It’s a narrative of humanity at its rawest, at the edge of what we all could be – pure, wild, desperate.

In a lot of ways, The High Mountains of Portugal is very similar in that it is an exploration of humanity, but on a much more intimate level. The story is told in three acts – first, with Tomas in 1904, traveling across Portugal in an automobile that he only barely makes out of alive, on a quest to find an obscure religious relic. Second, Dr. Lozora questions spirituality and mortality with an unusual autopsy. Third, Canadian Senator Peter Tovy makes a radical life change in the form of an ape named Odo.

The truth is, this novel is heavily religious. And sometimes that makes me, as a reader, uncomfortable. Religion is a very personal thing, especially at the level that Martel writes about it. But I think in a way, it works for this story. The novel gets very deep and personal, accessing these characters at their most vulnerable. The exploration of spirituality takes various shapes throughout the novel but still speaks to the personality of the subject and their reactions to the world around them. And it is, at times, uncomfortable – but human vulnerability and truth always is. The novel studies humanity under a microscope, making the tiniest details and moments fascinating and moving. When it all comes crashing together, we are brought back out to the big picture – exploring questions of faith, fate and family, of our place in society and in the evolution of the earth. In this way, we noticed how connected everything is, and how the tiniest details and moments can effect the world around us.

This book, like Life of Pi, needs a little processing – it’s definitely one of those “what the fuck did I just read” moments. But at the end of it, I think you’ll come out feeling a little more enlightened.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm: Review & Playlist

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I love me a bad girl.

There is something so appealing about the anti-hero, especially when it’s a female. So
often we see the typical bad boy – leather jacket wearing, cigarette smoking, James
Dean types that steal our hearts. It’s nice to see a bad girl, a girl who shirks the
rules and does what she wants despite society telling her to do just the opposite.

We talk a lot about that pivotal intersection of literature and feminism, the Strong Female Character, quite a bit. We talk about the differences between Elizabeth Bennet and Katniss Everdeen, we talk about the failings of Bella Swan and the successes of Hermione. The Strong Female Character might be an elusive concept. She must be intelligent, self-suffiencient, adventurous, but she must also be feminine, and not strong simply because she’s had stereotypically male traits attributed to her. She must be, in the truest sense of the word, three dimensional – complete in and of herself, without the support or presence of a man.

That is what was so appealing to me about Unbecoming. Unbecoming is an unusual story –  part love story, part coming of age, part heist – that chronicles the (I’m sorry, I don’t know how to get around this:) falling from grace of it’s protagonist. Grace starts as a simple country girl from the wrong side of the tracks and turns into an intelligent and cunning woman all on her own. And while her story runs parallel to that of the men in her life, she never seems to need them – in fact, the story seems to be a progression of her needing them less and less. She loves them and wants them, but at no point do they hold her up. Often they hold her back.

What interests me most about Unbecoming is Grace’s transformation from girl to woman.  At the start, she wants what we as women are often told to want – marriage, a home of her own, etc. etc. But as she grows, she discovers that maybe those aren’t things she needs after all, and through less than savory means, discovers a life of her own. Grace quickly discovers that she life has so much more to offer, and she makes choices based on what thrills her.

Now, whether you agree with Grace’s choices morally is a different matter altogether – but lets be real, if she wasn’t the way she was, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it?

The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa – Review & Playlist

IMG_8609 When I began Muse Monthly, I set out with a clear goal in mind: to curate extraordinary fiction from world class writers. This, to me, revolved mainly around providing fiction that the Muses (our dear subscribers) would not be able to find elsewhere – we here at Muse Monthly tend to try to steer clear of novels you might pick up at the grocery store or Target, and instead opt to search out debut writers, small publishers, and stories that go against the grain.

To me, The Blue Between Sky and Water is extraordinary fiction. It is emotionally, politically, and morally complex, and told in beautiful, colorful language. And in terms of world class writers, turns out Ms. Abulhawa is a badass bitch, so. There’s that.

What’s exciting about The Blue Between Sky and Water is that it provides a viewpoint about the world that we don’t often get to see. As Americans, we tend to be Team Israel, and in general we have limited access to real stories about the Middle East. We may not realize, but our knowledge of most of the rest of the world is filtered through the media. I, for one, crave novels like this, that provide the opportunity to learn and gain insight into a culture I don’t feel like I have much access to. I’m excited for these learning opportunities, I’m excited to be invited into the home of this miraculous, magical family, and I’m excited to gain a new perspective on the world.

And this story is violent, violent to the point that I almost hesitated making it a Muse Monthly choice. But what’s important is not the violence itself, but the way Nazmiyeh and her family, most especially the women in her family, react to it, and thrive in spite of it. If you’re looking for the elusive and desired Strong Female Character, look no further: the women are broken yet resilient, strong and perceptive. This is epitomized by the hereditary empathy, both Mariam and Nur’s ability to see “colors” or auras. This novel, at it’s center, is about family and the women that hold it together, it is about the real stories, the everyday things that happen while politics are taking place in the background. It is an intense trip through hardship and hurt, but worth it to come out the other end a better person.

Both my mother and I devoured this book, and it’s not hard to see why. It gets both your mind and your heart working just as they should.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk: Review & Playlist

FullSizeRender (12)I remember bringing home One Hundred Years of Solitude after reading it for my Realism in Literature class for university. I remember feeling fundamentally changed after journeying through Marquez’s fictional Columbia, enchanted by the words on the page, my heart pounding and my imagination running wild. And, as I often do in this case, I remember handing the book off to my mother for her enjoyment.

Her response was: “It’s too weird”.

And it happens sometimes that I fail to see the weirdness of some novels, that my obsession with fantastical fiction has blurred the line of what is acceptable and not, what is progressive and experimental, what is strange or bizzare or uncomfortable. There are a lot of topics in literature that no longer bother me – sex, violence, supernatural, you name it. Doesn’t bother me at all.

But.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is weird.

It really is fantastically weird, everything from bear fucking to giant insects to limbless grandfathers with razor-sharp teeth, The Man Who Spoke Snakish hits the ground running, weaving the story of Leemet, a boy raised in the forest of Estonia, who becomes the symbol and protector of The Old Ways. I say “The Old Ways” because we all know what that means – at some point in all cultures, modernity swoops in and begins to erase everything that was once held dear, everything that people know and cherish. Some embrace change, and in this case, move into a village and change their names to fit the new standards. However, some cling to The Old Ways, finding themselves keepers of tradition, and often, watching the world change around them with distaste and uncertainty. Lemeet is one such person, who is staunch in his fight against the oncoming wave of newness. He is proud of his heritage, proud of the simplicity of forest life, and especially proud of his ability to speak Snakish – a quickly dying language that allows him to communicate and have mastery over animals.

But among the weirdness and the violence of the story, there is a clear and culturally relevant narrative. The majority of the book deals with impending change and how we deal with inevitability. Do we give up The Old Ways, pack up, and move to the village? Do we change our names, and with that, change the people we are? Or do we hold tight to our principals, to the things we know, and cement our identity in them? There are consequences in either decision, and a struggle that results in a palpable cultural tension. The meat of this book is the discussion of old versus new, and the weight of being the last of your kind.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish reads like folklore, reads like a story that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is complex and epic, wonderful and yes, weird. But at the center of all that weirdness is a tale of morality, humanity, and our relationship with nature. And blood. Lots of blood.

GOLD FAME CITRUS by Claire Vaye Watkins – Review & Playlist

FullSizeRender (6)Reading GOLD FAME CITRUS feels like a privilege. I first heard about it way back in March when I started researching for Muse Monthly, looking for books that were being released this year and might suit the needs of the company. I can’t tell you what it was about GOLD FAME CITRUS, I really can’t. There was just something about it, something magic, something that told me that this book was the book. I needed it, I coveted it, I became obsessed even before I’d read the first page. And it did not disappoint.

The thing about GOLD FAME CITRUS is that on the outset, it seems like another near-future dystopian novel. In a sort of ripped-from-the-headlines tradition, Watkins’ desolate California is a waterless wasteland, with rationed soda and government-ordered evacuations to the East Coast. The few that remain are dubbed Mojavs, and are surviving in a place that is less Hollywood glitz and glamour and more run down slum. The story focuses on Luz, former model and poster child for the Bureau of Conservation in California (a symbol of California’s perseverance and survivalism despite the terrible drought), and her partner Ray, a former military man turned surfer. Luz and Ray have, as anyone would, find an abandoned Hollywood mansion to stay in, and are living life as renegades. One night at a desert party, they find an abandoned child and take her, Luz’s survival instincts taking over, to raise as their own. When the child, Ig, enters their life, they begin to think of building a better life for their sudden family, and venture forth to escape California and find, quite literally, greener pastures. However, the trip away from their desert sanctuary proves more difficult than imagined, and results in the separation of Luz and Ray, the spread of the mystical Great Dune Sea, a band of survivors lead by wannabe water prophet Levi, government conspiracy, and above all else, the search for human connection in a land where everything has died.

GOLD FAME CITRUS is absorbing, thick with beautifully constructed sentences, complete and detailed world-building and mythology, and characters that blur the lines of morality. At the end of it, this novel does what every good novel should do – it holds a mirror up to humanity, humanity at the very ends of it’s threads, humanity when it has nothing else but it’s humanness to rely on. At the end of things, what kind of people are we? What do we do when faced with the extremes of life, when faced with impossible choices? Does humanity deserve to be punished for it’s sins? GOLD FAME CITRUS explores these questions, challenges our idea of goodness, and does it all with thoughtful and elegant prose. It was a privilege and an honor.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – Review & Playlist

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I think it’s safe to say that the reason most of us read is to be taken away from our normal, mundane lives and enter into something extraordinary. We want to be thrilled, enchanted, surprised. We want to experience adventure, mystery, danger, and romance. We want, more than anything, to feel something new, to take a walk in someone else’s shoes. We want to escape.

I felt completely whisked away from Natasha Pulley’s debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. It was obvious to me the intense care, planning, and research that went into this novel. It’s intricacies and incredible, sweeping sentences will whisk you away to Victorian London and Imperial Japan, placing you smack dab in the middle of history. The blending of real historical events along with fiction is what makes this novel so engrossing, what makes the story seem both grounded and fantastical at the same time. To me, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is the perfect escape.

The story, of course, centers around the namesake Watchmaker, a mysterious Japanese transplant in London named Keita Mori. After a bomb goes off targeting London’s Scotland Yard, Mori’s intricate and complex watchmaking skills – the same watchmaking skills that save unassuming telegraphist Thaniel Steepleton from certain death – make him the prime suspect. Thaniel’s Mori-made watch sounds the alarm that saves his life and, in turn, brings the two together. Despite the fact that he is supposed to be investigating Mori, learning more about him and looking for evidence of his involvement with the bomb, the two form an unlikely and co-dependent friendship. When Thaniel meets Oxford scientist Grace Carrow, their relationship is threatened and Mori’s intentions are thrown into question. The story then becomes a question of fate and time, of mystery and science, of the way lives intertwine with each other and effect events around them.

Ms Pulley’s story is an engrossing ride through time and space, both expansive and intimate, that makes us question the hands of time and fate. It’s an adventurous feat of a novel, a grand undertaking, and with a riotous ending that will leave you dizzy and breathless. It’s still on my mind, still ticking away in my thoughts, and I’m excited for everyone to read it.

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.