Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

(originally posted 19 March 2021)

*Note: There are light spoilers in this review, but nothing is said that cannot be surmised by the blurb on the dustjacket of the book*

“What’s the point of living if you only do it how others want you to?”

This is one of the themes at the center of The House in the Cerulean Sea (Tor Books, 2020), the first of two books released in 2020 from Lambda Literary Award-winning author TJ Klune. Klune’s YA novel introduces the reader to Linus Baker, a kind-hearted 40-year-old with thinning hair and a few extra pounds around the middle. Linus spends his days as a case worker assessing magical orphanages for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and his nights at home listening to records with his cat, Calliope. Linus’s habit of doing everything by the book—specifically, the DICOMY’s RULES AND REGULATIONS—lands him a special, classified level four assignment from DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management to spend a month at the secluded and mysterious Marsyas Island Orphanage, run by the charmingly enigmatic Arthur Parnassus. Though Marsyas Island appears to be the real-life version of the sandy-beached blue ocean on Linus’s faded desktop mousepad at work, he soon realizes that the place and its inhabitants are so much more than he ever could have expected.

At its core, The House in the Cerulean Sea is a story of love. Klune illustrates how powerful familial love can be when fostered in such a warm environment as the one created in Arthur’s home. Arthur and his children—the devilishly delightful Lucy; the sensitive, introverted Sal; the optimistic Chauncey; the tough-but-sweet Talia; the pragmatic Phee; and the curious Theodore—open the rigid case worker’s heart to possibilities Linus thought unimaginable, and help him realize the difference between living and existing. The narrative shines when Linus and Arthur are helping the children—and each other—through their emotional trauma. In a poignant scene when Sal—who has been shuffled around to more orphanages than any of the other children, and fears Linus’s visit will lead to another displacement—finally invites Linus to appraise his room for the DICOMY evaluation, the two have a touching conversation about feeling small and how it’s okay to allow oneself to take up space. Through this and other moments of vulnerability, Klune also illustrates the wonderful audacity of self-acceptance.

While the language of the novel can come off a bit twee at times—do not turn Linus’s use of the phrase “oh dear” into a drinking game, you will lose—the book generates an aura of genuine goodness that will warm you from the inside out. Part of this goodness can be attributed to the easy romance between Linus and Arthur. Klune’s bio emphasizes the author’s belief in the importance of having “accurate, positive queer representation in stories,” and it is more than refreshing to read a queer narrative that isn’t centered on coming out or anti-LGBTQIA discrimination or violence. Klune creates characters who are admirable, complex, and relatable. By the end of the novel, it’s hard not to feel like a member of the family at Marsyas Island Orphanage.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting, uplifting fantasy that offers readers a welcome escape from the turmoil of reality. While there have not been any announcements about a sequel, fans of Cerulean Sea will enjoy the equally-heartening The Extraordinaries. For more information on these and Klune’s other works, visit the author’s website here.

Review: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

(originally posted 22 March 2021)

“Sometimes you just jump and hope it’s not a cliff.”

Red, White & Royal Blue (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019), the debut novel by Casey McQuiston, begins less with a jump and more with a trip and tumble as Alex Claremont-Diaz, First Son of the United States, causes a diplomatic disaster when he and his archnemesis Prince Henry, grandson of Great Britain’s Queen Mary, have an altercation at the royal wedding reception of Henry’s older brother Phillip that ends with the two of them ruining a $75,000 wedding cake. To smooth over U.S./British relations, the heads of state devise a plan to dupe the media into believing Alex and Henry are friends, putting an end to their tabloid rivalry. However, what starts out as enemies faking a friendship for good publicity soon turns into something more as the pair become closer, creating a whole new set of political and personal problems for Alex, Henry, and their famous families.

While this easily could have been a frivolous queer twist on the American-meets-European Royal fantasy in the hands of a lesser writer, McQuiston offers a narrative that is emotional and engaging, creating a perfect tension of humor, drama, and romance. Alex and Henry’s kinetic relationship drives the novel: through clandestine encounters, lakeside getaways, late-night texts, and e-mail exchanges, the reader is caught up in the whirlwind of their transatlantic affair. By weaving in love letters from prominent historical figures suspected of or confirmed as queer, as well as references to Jane Austen and Star Wars, McQuiston firmly situates Alex and Henry as a new classic pairing—and the placement is apt. From their cake mishap to their first kiss, the duo’s Elizabeth and Darcy, Han and Leia sexual tension could be sliced through with a lightsaber. Because this is a work of New Adult fiction, targeting an audience slightly older than the YA crowd, these moments of tension occasionally lead to horned up (but well-written and totally tasteful!) sex in any room that is vacant and available. These scenes are more gratifying than gratuitous, an unburdening of the restraint of hiding their relationship in public, where Alex and Henry can only communicate their feelings through an arm thrown over a shoulder or a brief meeting of their knees under a table. Their physical relationship is strengthened by their open communication and weighted with the significance of other moments between the FSOTUS and the prince, like when Henry shows Alex his favorite spot in the Victoria and Albert Museum after hours, or when they drunkenly sing karaoke with their sisters and friends.

At times it is difficult to not draw comparisons between Prince Henry and the real-life Prince Harry, as they are both the “spare” to their older brothers, have lost a parent, and are in relationships heavily scrutinized by the media. When Henry confronts his brother and the Queen about his relationship, his message is reminiscent of statements Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have made in the past, most recently in their interview earlier this year with Oprah Winfrey, regarding the discriminatory treatment Markle and their son Archie faced at the hands of the British royal family. While certain aspects of the novel may speak to real-world events, the narrative stands on its own and remains what McQuiston states is “a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe,” offering a rewarding, joyful fantasy that—if you are like me—you will tear through over the course of a 24-hour period.

For more information on Casey McQuiston and their upcoming novel, One Last Stop, visit their website here.

Tales of Gothic Horror: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo

From Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein to Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House and beyond, gothic horror novels have captivated readers for generations with their use of the mysterious, the supernatural, the psychological, and the grotesque. Mexican Gothic (Del Rey, 2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and What Big Teeth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) by Rose Szabo continue the legacy of their literary ancestors while adding their own unique twists and turns on gothic tropes.

Set in Mexico in the 1950s, Mexican Gothic begins with the young socialite Noemí Taboada receiving a curious letter from her cousin Catalina, who is newly married and living in the remote countryside town of El Triunfo. At the behest of her worried father, Noemí reluctantly agrees to visit her cousin in exchange for her father’s permission to enroll in a master’s degree program in anthropology. Upon arrival at High Place, the mansion where Catalina lives with her blond-haired, blue-eyed English husband, Virgil Doyle, and his family, it is easy for Noemí to see why her cousin might be feeling so frantic. The mansion is in a state of disrepair, with mold growing on the walls and rooms vacant under cover of dusty sheets. There is no electricity, only candles and oil lamps, adding to the dreariness of the place. The ouroboros, a symbol depicting a snake eating its own tail, is unnervingly visible everywhere in the home’s décor. Outside, an adjacent cemetery is perpetually thick with fog, and an abandoned silver mine is a physical reminder of the Doyle family’s fading fortune.

With the exception of Virgil’s introspective cousin, Francis, the family is somehow even less welcoming than the house: Francis’s mother Florence is immediately cold to her, policing Noemí’s actions and her time spent with Catalina; Howard, Virgil’s father and the aged and ailing family patriarch, comments on Noemí’s dark skin and is expressly clear in his interest in eugenics; and Virgil oscillates between being congenial and callous. It isn’t long before Noemí is having nightmares and wondering if the things Catalina wrote in her letter were true.

While the prose of What Big Teeth differs because of its target audience—it is a work of young adult fiction—the narrative style shares similarities with Mexican Gothic. After an incident at her boarding school, Eleanor Zarrin returns to her home in a remote town in Maine, with little memory of the family she hasn’t seen or heard from in years. The Zarrin family is an eclectic menagerie of supernatural creatures, to say the least, who are simultaneously welcoming and terrifying to Eleanor. After a tragic event leaves the Zarrins broken, Eleanor finds purpose in putting her family back together and working through their grief. However, things go awry and their situation goes from bad to worse. To say more would be to give away the secrets of the house and the family who inhabit it—and this is not a novel you want spoiled for you.

The influence of works like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is evident in both novels, and readers will delight in the slow unraveling of the mysteries at the center of each narrative. While Mexican Gothic is slightly better-paced, the twists in What Big Teeth are less opaque. However, both novels offer satisfying revelations and resolutions, and will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

For more information on Moreno-Garcia and Szabo, and for additional information and examples of gothic horror, visit the links below.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s website

Rose Szabo’s website

At Book Riot: What Is Gothic Horror? 18 Examples of the Genre

At History Answers: Scream Queens: The Women Who Pioneered Gothic Literature