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Book Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes

Digital cover of the book "The Deep" by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes. A mermaid swims among what appear to be whales.

Summary:
Yetu is the historian for her people – the mermaid descendants of pregnant enslaved African women thrown overboard from slave-ships before they could give birth. As the historian, Yetu holds the painful memories of her people, helping them to experience them once a year. But the pain of holding the memories is more burdensome for Yetu than for previous historians, as she is more sensitive than any historian before her. One year, in the middle of the history ceremony, she flees for the surface in an act of self-preservation. Can she both preserve herself and not abandon her people?

Review:
This book wowed me, taking my breath away from start to finish. If you know you like mermaid stories and want a fresh take on them, just go pick this up immediately.

The number of authors is large because this book was inspired by a song by the hip-hop group, .clipping. I love that the song authors gave permission to Rivers Solomon to write this book inspired by the song, and Solomon in turn credited them for the book. It’s a beautiful collaboration, and the song is well-worth the listen.

No one ever says explicitly that Yetu is neurodiverse, but it’s clear that she is. Her neurodiversity both made her a candidate to be the historian but also made the task soul-crushing and life-destroying for her. I love that no one in the book ever decides that Yetu is the one at fault for this. In other words, Yetu is not blamed for this problem, rather the culture is questioned and it is wondered how sustainable this model is if it doesn’t work for everyone in the culture. Similarly, although Yetu on some level wants to break fully away from her society, she also feels a responsibility to them and wrestles with how to be loyal to both them and herself. The questions that Yetu asks herself in this process struck me as so poignant and painfully real.

Was there anything about her that wasn’t a performance for others’ gratification?

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Is this my curse? To be unfathomable? 

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But this isn’t just a book about a culture being a space for those both neurotypical and neurodiverse, it’s also a myth that demonstrates the role of intergenerational trauma. It shows intergenerational trauma rather than telling, and that is powerful.

As with all of Rivers Solomon’s work, there is also queer content in this book. There is gender fluidity (in the mermaids) and a queer relationship between Yetu and a two-leg. I thought this was one of the more artful relationships between a mermaid and a land dweller I’ve seen.

Recommended for readers looking for Black mermaids, a neurodiverse main character, and/or a queer relationship between a mermaid and a land dweller.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Cover of the book "Sorrowland."

Summary:
Vern desperately flees the strict, religious, Black Power compound she was raised on while she is heavily pregnant with twins. Giving birth shortly thereafter and raising her babies in the woods, she finds herself transforming inexplicably. But what is she transforming into? Why? And can she protect her children from both the compound and the world?

Review:
Another Rivers Solomon book was my favorite read of last year (An Unkindness of Ghosts, review), so when I saw their new book come available on NetGalley – featuring a religious, Black Power compound – I requested it immediately and was thrilled to receive a copy. Like all of Rivers Solomon’s work this book is a gorgeous, intertwining mixture of compelling and challenging.

I was startled by the focus on pregnancy and mothering at the beginning of the book. It hadn’t been the focus of the other Rivers Solomon books I’ve read, and I must admit as a person who has never been pregnant or a mother myself, I always struggle a bit more to connect to these characters. And, indeed, by the end of the book it was not Vern as mother I connected to but rather Vern as a person caught in a complex web of the world as we know it with her ability to right wrongs and change the future limited. That twist in the gut of being caught inside of something much bigger than yourself, that I was able to relate to.

Who cared who knew if the knowing didn’t prevent future occurrences?

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The fantastical elements are immediately engaging – beautiful and grotesque. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say her transformation took my breath away in a manner that reminded me of my feelings watching Season 1 of Hannibal. I mean that as a complement. It’s a fantasy that both feels like a fantasy and also real and leaves one wondering if Vern is right in the head or not? Can the world really work like this? What is happening to her?

The social commentary in this book is astute and apt without being preachy. Characters say what they say because their very lives have lived it – these are their experiences and real feelings. What may to some readers seem the most out there about the book can easily be traced to real occurrences in US history. It’s not far-fetched but one hopes its realness will reach more people because of how it is couched in fantasy.

There is rich queer content in this book, both in the sense of gender and in the sense of sexual relationships. There is two sex scenes, one of which I would consider explicit with people of multiple genders participating. However, contrary to how some booksellers are listing it, I absolutely would not call it “er*tica.” This is a serious fantasy book about issues of justice that just happens to have queer characters have sex “on screen” twice. Queer sex is not automatically “er*tica.”

With regards to other representation, there are many Black and two Indigenous (Lakota) people. Two characters have albinism, and this book eloquently depicts the visual impairments that come with that.

Overall, this book delivers what I have come to expect from a Rivers Solomon book – an engaging fantastical imagining with queer content and different abilities represented that draws attention to social issues. Readers who are able to keep an open mind to the book potentially not going the places they were anticipating or hoping for but who are willing to let the book lead where it may will enjoy this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

July 26, 2020 1 comment

Book cover depicting a Black woman's face set against a starry sky.Summary:
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

Review:
I went into this book hearing it was a space opera take on the American antebellum south with queer characters, written by a Black American author. That was an apt description, but what I didn’t know was that Aster is neurodiverse, and that was the finishing touch that really sent me over the moon about this book. So let’s talk about Aster first.

Aster is clearly autistic. (I am using this language, rather than person-first based on the wishes of the overall autistic community). Being autistic is just a part of who she is at her core of her being. It’s not perceived as something to be overcome or a superpower. There are parts of her autism that are strengths and parts that are weaknesses. Her ability to learn in-depth about plants and their healing powers is a strength and her tendency to take people literally and miss the point is a weakness, but only in situations where others aren’t considerate of how she perceives the world. When they are considerate and think about how to frame what they say in a way Aster will understand, it is totally fine. I loved everything about Aster. I want more books starring people like her with the representation handles so smoothly.

Other representations that exist in the book in beautiful ways include, but are not limited to: asexual, bisexual, trans*, lesbian, and a wide variety of abilities and disabilities.

The intermingling of spaceship and Antebellum American south was heartbreaking. Imagine everything about how Starship Enterprise is largely a utopia and turn that on its head, and you have the MatildaIt’s not that systemic inequality is not already clear to me, but I do think depicting it on the confines of a spaceship heightens the awareness of it seeps throughout everything.

The mourning of a child’s murder is not one of my moods, so please do not dismiss it thus.
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Although I think it should be obvious from the fact this is telling a story of the Antebellum south in outerspace, I do want to give trigger warnings for rape, abuse, violence, executions, and torture (all things that of course happened in the Antebellum south and anyplace with systemic inequality).

Everything about this was simultaneously richly imagined and depicting the diverse world we really do live in. I thought this was gorgeous and hope to meet Aster again (or someone like her) in future worlds by Rivers Solomon.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 351 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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