August 2022 Book Club: The House in the Cerulean Sea

Cover art for The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.

This post should probably start by saying this book was a much better read than the non-fiction I attempted last month. For starters, the writing draws you in from the beginning because as much as you don’t want to relate to Linus, it’s easy to. We’ve all had jobs that we do because they’re a paycheck and we’re good at them. They’re safe and easy, why put yourself out of your comfort zone if you don’t need to? Then there’s his desire to fit into society: his dieting, rule-following, and people-pleasing ways. Why stand up to your neighbor if it’s not so bad? You do have to live next to them after all and who’s to say it will improve things? I cheered when Linus stood up and quit his job because I’ve been there. I’ve felt the relief of coming to the decision that I deserve better and the excitement that comes from taking a risk. After all, let’s be clear here, DICOMY would be a toxic department to work for.

Then there’s the children, each special in their own way and each looking to be loved. I think that’s the big thing that Klune is trying to stress as we get to know them, even though they’re different and they don’t quite fit in with the world around them, they’re still just children who are in need of a loving home. It’s a friendly reminder that all children, I’m thinking of those outside the story now, are looking for the same things. They want to feel safe and loved, and when they do they have the ability to really thrive. We see it in each of them – Lucy wanting to feel safe from his nightmares and interact with the world through music, Chauncey dreaming of helping people, then there are dreams of creating beautiful gardens and writing poetry, all different and about being accepted for who they are and what excites them.

Fear is, unfortunately, one of the powerful emotions in this book that is often translated into hate. Linus fears being seen so he hates how he looks and interacts with the world. The villagers fear the children on the island, so they hate them. Arthur fears the children being mistreated, so he hates the idea of them ever leaving the island. Fear and hate hold everyone back, it wasn’t until everyone allowed their bubble to be popped that they were able to move forward and face their fears.

All in all, I love this book because it’s about finding the place you belong and the people you belong with. It’s about popping your comfort bubble so that you can let in those who have the potential to help you grow into the best version of yourself, not the version the world believes you capable of. It’s about letting go of your past hurts so that you can move forward a stronger person that can stand up for themselves. The House in the Cerulean Sea is a beautiful story, I was sad when it reached its conclusion.

Cover art for All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace.

For September, let’s continue our enjoyment of islands and magic with All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace. If I’m being honest, the cover drew me in and the description lead me to decide to read it. So while I’m not judging a book by its cover, it did lead me to pick it up ;]

Set in a kingdom where danger lurks beneath the sea, mermaids seek vengeance with song, and magic is a choice.

She will reign.

As princess of the island kingdom Visidia, Amora Montara has spent her entire life training to be High Animancer — the master of souls. The rest of the realm can choose their magic, but for Amora, it’s never been a choice. To secure her place as heir to the throne, she must prove her mastery of the monarchy’s dangerous soul magic.

When her demonstration goes awry, Amora is forced to flee. She strikes a deal with Bastian, a mysterious pirate: he’ll help her prove she’s fit to rule, if she’ll help him reclaim his stolen magic.

But sailing the kingdom holds more wonder — and more peril — than Amora anticipated. A destructive new magic is on the rise, and if Amora is to conquer it, she’ll need to face legendary monsters, cross paths with vengeful mermaids, and deal with a stow-away she never expected… or risk the fate of Visidia and lose the crown forever.

I am the right choice. The only choice. And I will protect my kingdom.

July 2022 Book Club: The Design of Everyday Things

Cover art for the Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman.

I really wanted to like this one but had the hardest time getting into it. Perhaps I need to give it a second try at a later date, but I honestly struggled to make it past the second chapter. Though the writing was dry, it reminded me of a time I enthusiastically purchased a teapot-cup combo from a thrift shop. In theory, it was genius. The teapot stacks inside the mug for easy storage and was designed so that you could enjoy two cups of tea using the included mug – perfect for a morning where you’re not sharing a pot with someone. In practice, however, the handle on both items was too small to use. This meant that you inevitably burned your fingers pouring the tea and again trying to drink it (the material of the pot was also too small. Despite paying $2 USD for the items, I couldn’t help but attempt to use them again and again over the course of two years before finally donating them.

I think this concept of design is interesting and can be applied to everyday life. There are things that seem like a good idea, but when you try them out it turns out they’re not a good fit. Maybe because it adds too much driving time to your commute so you never make the trip. Maybe the goal didn’t actually fit into your lifestyle. Perhaps the real point is that you give the idea the freedom to fail and then learn from your mistakes to improve the design. In thinking of my teapot/mug combo, the design would have worked better if the set was made of a thicker clay or if both items had a more practical handle. I will acknowledge here that sometimes items are donated to a thrift store for a reason and I should consider that when purchasing.

Back to fiction for August, which I tend to enjoy more by default. One of my friends lent me her copy of The House in the Cerulean Sea and it seems like the perfect book to slip into in the heat of summer:

Cover art for the House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

April 2022 Bookclub: Stardust

Cover art for Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

Stardust has a special place in my heart. It’s a book that I can reach for again and again, without the intention of discovering something new, but rather the intention of falling into a land I wish I could go to. Portal literature (think books like Alice in Wonderland where the reader starts off in the real world before “falling down the rabbit hole”) tends to hold a special place in my heart because I love the idea that there is a magical land waiting for me to discover the door to it.

There are many different adaptations of Stardust and they all seem to tell the story just a little differently. One of the most notable differences, in my opinion, is whether or not there is a final battle between the witches and Tristian for Ivaine’s heart. In the book, the witch recognizes that Ivaine’s heart was given freely to Tristian and therefore not usable to her. Though not very sensational, this idea has always struck me as romantic and beautiful. After all the idea that a heart freely given to someone cannot be taken by someone else provides a beautiful moral to the story, be careful who you give your heart to for you have no control how gentle they will be with it or how willing they will be to protect it.

The book also feels more adult than the movie does, spending more time developing the land beyond the wall as a place as opposed to racing the viewer through it while bouncing from one plot point to the next. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the movie (in fact it’s one of my favorites), it’s just that the two versions are very different experiences.

No matter which version you are enjoying, it’s hard to get over the idea that a bunch of brothers need to kill each other for the right to rule over the land. There’s no way that I can look at this where I end up with confidence in the final son who is allowed to rule (although perhaps that is the point considering that Tristian is said to do a good when he finally decides to take up the mantle).

May’s book club will be a little more serious than Stardust, we’ll be reading Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. It’s been a little while since I’ve fallen into a good suspense story and The Woman in Cabin 10 was enjoyable. Let’s see if reading about a nanny working with children who ends up in jail is more intense when you have a baby sleeping in the other room!

Cover art for Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

March 2022 Book Club: Laziness Does Not Exist

Cover art for Laziness does not exist by Devon Price

Over the last few months, I have worked very hard to let go of the idea that doing nothing is a sign of laziness. Some of this translated into craft breaks and some of this translated into canceled plans with friends (who thankfully understand needing a break themselves and didn’t take it personally). For the first time in a long time, I started making a concerted effort to listen to what my body was saying that it needed instead of pushing it just a little further. If I took the dog on a hike and didn’t have the energy to make it to the top, I turned around so that I could enjoy the entire hike rather than force myself to the top in a daze. Admittedly, a lot of this attitude came from needing to cope with the changes that being pregnant brings upon your body. You can either get mad at yourself for not doing something or you can be proud of yourself for doing the best you could in that moment. Rather than spend 9 months beating myself up, I chose to do the latter.

I love a good NPR podcast because they’re both informative and easy to listen to. After beating myself up because I pulled a muscle putting on a pair of pants that prevented me from running a race I was looking forward to in October (yep, weird pregnancy thing), I found myself curled up with the dog listening to “You aren’t lazy. You just need to slow down.” by Life Kit. Though they were discussing work, Price seemed to be speaking directly to me. You’re not lazy for taking time off running, your body gave you a sign that you need to do things differently and you’re listening.

Ok, they didn’t literally say that at all, but they did discuss how we’ve been trained to ignore our body’s symbols in the interest of increasing productivity. Combine that with having just beat myself up for having bodily limitations, I decided to take what Price was saying to heart and added their book to my to-read list. This brings us to our book club today.

Laziness does not exist challenged some of the things I grew up hearing, for example, “they homeless because they’re lazy”. Now, I knew going into the book that there are many reasons that someone may be homeless and some of these reasons have nothing to do with whether or not this person is able to find work. I also went into this book knowing that if you are homeless, it becomes harder to do a lot of things, including look for work. What I had never really thought about was how much work many things I take for granted are: going to the bathroom, being able to leave my things safely somewhere, and locating an internet connection. Some of those are made harder to find just due to the stigma of being homeless!

It was also useful to read stories about people with different types of anxiety, ADHD, depression, or other mental health issues, as well as how marginalized people, in general, are quickly labeled as lazy. These individuals are often taught by society that their differences don’t matter and are given less freedom and autonomy as a result of appearing “lazy”. Having heard stories from my dad’s childhood, he was marked as a “trouble maker” early on and placed in lower-level classes. It wasn’t until he scored high on his SATs that someone finally thought about placing him in an honors course where he excelled with fewer distractions and more stimulating material. This circles back to the idea of just because someone does something differently or it takes someone longer to do something doesn’t mean they’re incapable of doing it or that they’re doing it wrong.

This was an interesting read that I’ve started recommending to friends who look like they could use a lesson in listening to their bodies.

April brings us back to fiction as I reach for one of my favorite books: Stardust by Neil Gaiman. If you’re interested in listening to the story instead of reading it, I highly recommend the BBC radio adaptation. I love portal literature that takes me away to unexplored lands and am ready to enjoy the comfort that comes with re-reading a story and visiting with characters you’ve already come to love.

Cover art for Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

In the sleepy English countryside of decades past, there is a town that has stood on a jut of granite for six hundred years. And immediately to the east stands a high stone wall, for which the village is named. Here in the town of Wall, Tristran Thorn has lost his heart to the hauntingly beautiful Victoria Forester. One crisp October night, as they watch, a star falls from the sky, and Victoria promises to marry Tristran if he’ll retrieve that star and bring it back for her. It is this promise that sends Tristran through the only gap in the wall, across the meadow, and into the most unforgettable adventure of his life.

February 2022 Book Club: The Henna Artist

Cover art for the Henna Artist by Alka Joshi.

The Henna Artist is the story of Lakshmi, a 30ish-year-old woman who fled an abusive marriage in hopes of the freedom that comes with being self-reliant and independent. For ten years, Lakshmi creates beautiful henna designs on the wealthy women of Jaipur and uses herbal medicine to help them with their fertility, arthritis, and other health ails. The interesting thing about Lakshmi is that the things that she’s worked so hard for, the beautiful house where her family can come live with her, create a prison more restrictive than her gender or abusive marriage.

One of the first themes that presents itself in this book is that starting over is not a sign of weakness but a sign of hard work. In some ways, it would have been easier for Lakshmi to stay with her husband than to leave and try to make her way in the world. But she allowed herself to dream and then gave herself the space to make that dream come true. When that dream fell apart, Lakshmi tried to pick up the pieces only to discover that it was no longer her dream. This lead to moving on to work with doctors to create a complementary medicine program, work that she could be truly proud of. Radha (Lakshmi’s sister) throws herself into starting over when she moves to Jaipur, but then struggles to leave behind the idea that her baby wasn’t born of love. Then she struggles to leave her baby behind so that she has the opportunity of a better life. Lakshmi’s struggles to start over after she leaves him, but learns how to support women instead of abusing them.

Freedom is another interesting theme throughout the book. Freedom of choice. Freedom to make money. Freedom to move throughout the world. Yet, everytime Lakshmi turns around she’s faced with something that directly challenges her freedom. First, her husband and Radha come to find her, effectively turning her life upside-down. Then, Lakshmi must balance proving herself to the palace with keeping her benefactor’s wife happy. On the one hand, the opportunity provides Radha the freedom to attend a nice school, on the other hand, it traps Lakshmi into long work hours and leads to her sister getting pregnant. Then the lies start and Lakshmi’s world starts to fall apart around her, which is semi-ironic as the world she created was in itself created by a lie. Perhaps the message is that honesty can set you free as much as true freedom is found when you allow yourself to change your mind.

Another interesting theme throughout the book is the idea of being cursed and having that curse follow you no matter where you go. The curse began when Lakshmi fled her marriage and left her family behind for a new life. By creating a new name for herself, Lakshmi was able to live her day-to-day life with minimal reminders of what she left behind. Lakshmi’s curse was a deep fear of her past catching up with her and a desire for her parents’ forgiveness and approval. Radha’s curse was more out in the open, constantly being called the “bad-luck-girl” and a constant struggle to find self-worth. Both sisters had to let go and take a hard look at their choices/impulses in order to move forward in their lives. I appreciated the hope that this theme brought to the book, as both Lakshmi and Radha were able to take charge of their own destinies and move forward.

Though the story gave us a surface-level understanding of Jaipur and the lives of our characters, the Henna Artist was an enjoyable read. Though I haven’t settled on when, I do think I’ll pick up the second book, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, to find out what happens next. Something that is unusual for me when an initial narrative wraps up nicely while giving me space to dream about what happens next.

It’s been a little while since I’ve picked up a non-fiction book, let’s give Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price a try for next month. Price came onto my radar after they were featured on the NPR podcast Life Kit: You aren’t lazy. You just need to slow down. It’s a quick 17 minute listen that I highly recommend.

Cover art for Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price.

Extra-curricular activities. Honors classes. 60-hour work weeks. Side hustles.

Like many Americans, Dr. Devon Price believed that productivity was the best way to measure self-worth. Price was an overachiever from the start, graduating from both college and graduate school early, but that success came at a cost. After Price was diagnosed with a severe case of anemia and heart complications from overexertion, they were forced to examine the darker side of all this productivity.

Laziness Does Not Exist explores the psychological underpinnings of the “laziness lie,” including its origins from the Puritans and how it has continued to proliferate as digital work tools have blurred the boundaries between work and life. Using in-depth research, Price explains that people today do far more work than nearly any other humans in history yet most of us often still feel we are not doing enough.

Filled with practical and accessible advice for overcoming society’s pressure to do more, and featuring interviews with researchers, consultants, and experiences from real people drowning in too much work, Laziness Does Not Exist “is the book we all need right now” (Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet).