Unconditional Love and Family | The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea,
by T.J. Klune,
Published by Tor (2020)
Rating: *****

Introduction

I’m a sucker for books that contain the fantastic and magical, especially when they’re heartwarming reads. The blurb to this book, on Goodreads, was pretty reflective of something similar so I dived right in. I was rewarded with a journey filled with positivity and love, everything I needed at the time put into words.

Plot

The book takes us through Linus Baker’s life. A quiet man, he is a Case Worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). His job is to oversee the well-being of magical children who spend their time growing up at Government-sanctioned orphanages. It’s a job he’s worked for a long time, no promotion, no demotion, and he follows rules to the tee. Out of the blue, he is summoned by Extremely Upper Management at DICOMY and given a super-classified assignment: to travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage.

He is not told much else prior to his departure, but once he arrives on the island, he learns that six dangerous children reside there: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist – all under the care of Arthur Parnassus, who is charming and will go to any length to keep these children safe. Over time however, it becomes clear that not everything about the orphanage, or the island are as they seem, and Linus is faced with decisions to make that go against everything he believes in.

Riding on Characters

Good books, for me, center either around well-constructed worlds, or well-constructed character arcs. Naturally books that combine the two elements are therefore appreciated by me even more. This had a reasonably well-created world, you’re introduced to it early, and through Linus Baker’s view, it becomes quickly apparent what the distinctions from the world we live in today are. That allows focus to shift immediately on to the characters. Having nine protagonists on which the story rides requires meaningful relationships to be forged between each character, something Klune develops naturally. Additionally, each character arc is extremely well thought-out and the book concludes without any unanswered questions, which is a delight. The dialogue is a delight to read, leaving little thinking or effort on the part of the reader to understand each characters’ motives. This by no means undermines the complexity of the characters, but it’s just a pleasure to read something that feels effortlessly written and enjoyed.

Asking the difficult questions

All of that – the characters and the dialogue does not take away from the tough questions the book tries to ask of us. There’s a lot of internal conflict presented within the book about prejudices and differences, and the way we actually respond to these as against the manner in which we ought to be responding to these. It asks of us why we categorize people and experiences into extreme ends on a spectrum, or into pigeonholes, rather than looking at them as they are – complex, and not necessarily classifiable. A lot of the decisions Linus Baker makes through the book are a result of his own reflections on these topics, and they’re an excellent reminder of the need to reflect about these things on our own.

Conclusions

There’s so much joy in this book. I went into it knowing it was a standalone, but I long to understand and read more about the kind of joy Linus Baker is able to spread to the kids he learns to love. I hope there’s some fanfiction to keep me occupied while I wait for a sequel (should it ever arrive).

Brothers & Sisters | The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House,
by Ann Patchett,
Published by Harper (2019)
Rating:
 ***

Introduction

The title of this review stems from this Coldplay song. I discovered this book through the Goodreads algorithm, and later saw this lovely special edition that had been printed which looks stunning (here – look at those pages!), and was tempted to read it. I consumed this in-part through an audiobook, and in-part through the ebook. My overall rating stems from how I felt at the end of the book rather than being representative of individual components of the book itself.

Plot

The book navigates the life of the Conroy family, centering around siblings: Danny and Maeve, who struggle to confront the past and live in the present – returning to their childhood home as observers to figure out everything in their lives. The book begins at Danny’s childhood, with Maeve taking on a motherly role when their biological mother abandons them. It takes us through a tumultuous teenage time, where Danny and Maeve are booted out of the house by their stepmother once their father passes, and how they survive the world.

 The Home As A Character

Patchett does a tremendous job of making The Dutch House, the titular object a character within the book. She exposes the interiors, first allowing Danny to discover the house while growing up, and then allowing the younger stepsiblings to introduce us to more layers to the house when they are left in the care of Danny & Maeve. Maeve recounts everything about the past by using the house as a frame of reference. Not only does that set up context to the time in which events take place, but it takes you through the house’s own ageing process at the same time. The voice and tone of the book always make you remember the house’s presence – and in some sections in particular, it feels like it’s the walls of the house talking.

A Rushed Ending

This was honestly beautiful till I was about 70% in. I loved everything about it. I enjoyed the way the siblings grew up and grew older together, and the kind of challenges Danny was going through in processing his emotions. There was a complexity to both Danny and Maeve that made them feel like real people, and that these were real events happening in everyone’s lives. However, the last 30% really threw me off. The plot was rushed through and felt unbelievable. The changes to their lives felt like they were impossible in real-life, which took away from all of the set-up that Patchett had accomplished in the first half. That was disappointing. It felt, in a sense, that this book would have been more enjoyable had the ending not been as rosy as it ended up being. Especially because the book tries to hint at how we deal with the past as people. I would have genuinely preferred if Danny and Maeve struggled – in one final scene, with the idea that they would not get closure, and learned to live with that.

Conclusion

Read for characters who seem to have hearts of gold, and sibling relationships that seem to mirror what real siblings are actually like.

Science, Actually | Where The Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing,
by Delia Owens
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2019)
Rating: *****

Introduction

My book picks this year have been eclectic, but that’s the kind of spread that brings me the most amount of joy in my reading. Over the last few years there’s been a surge in the volume of historical fiction being read. I tried putting the genre aside for a while, but there’s something wonderful about being able to travel through time and live in a distinct period and learn about the culture that prevailed: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Delia Owens’ debut novel shows us just about all of it, and is going to rank high on my year-end list for sure.

Plot 

The main storyline takes us through the life of Kya Clark, between 1952 and 1970 (ages 6 through 25) as she grows up alone in a shack in the wet wilderness of North Carolina, having been abandoned by everyone in her family. We understand early on that Kya is a survivor, foraging and teaching herself skills to participate in a limited manner in the community, to get her essential supplies among other things. To the townspeople though, Kya is labelled as “the Marsh Girl”, uneducated, poor, and living alone and disconnected from the rest of civilized society. Owens introduces the centerpiece of the book: Kya is on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews, a rich town kid who is/was her love interest. Around the trial, Owens threads us along on a date-jumbled journey to understand the harsh reality of Kya’s life, and the reality that the public understands.

Nature 

This is a very vivid book. One of the things I learned after completing it was that Delia Owens is an American wildlife scientist. This shines through in her writing, which in some portions is so intricate – while describing foliage, or describing the kind of fish that Kya manages to get her hands on. Owens is skilfully able to tread this fine line between painting a perfect picture through her words, without her descriptions becoming excessive. That balance stems from the fact that Kya is gifted in her own understanding of wildlife and nature, allowing for nature to feature as a character, almost, upon which both Kya, and the furtherance of the book’s plot and narrative rests.

Kya’s reference points all stem from her surrounding environment, a fact that mirrors reality. Nature clearly plays a role in our upbringing (cue the nature versus nurture debate), and Kya is no different. This use of nature though, in making it the focal point of Kya’s life, allows for her depiction as a feral being, Mowgli-esque. Her isolation enables her to understand human interactions with nature far better than others, and her relationship with the environment is fundamental to her identity. Owens’ exposition of this relationship, by including wordy descriptions of the environment while critical scenes are taking place: abandonment, return, and love, made me feel that Kya had a personal relationship with nature that was left unexplored, and as all good books do – it left me wondering what was left unsaid about that relationship, and where it could go next.

Class 

Historical fiction leans on conflict and division very frequently, and this book is no different, relying on the class divide to allow for the development of the trial, and the tension in that trial even more. Kya is supported by a minority of the population, and her exclusion from the rest of the public speaks to her background and economic class. However, something I found interesting is that for a book set in 1950’s North Carolina, there was little direct mention of race – a choice that I found curious. Where race is introduced, it didn’t necessarily play a large factor in the book’s plot development – a creative choice I respect. The substitution with economic class allows for a less-traditional exploration of the divide in North Carolina at the time, and one I admired.

Conclusion

This was understandably one of the bestsellers last year. I’d sit and read it again in a heartbeat. Would recommend highly.