The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffery

Cover of The Mermaid of Black Conch against a backdrop of water.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of authors taking old myths or mythological creatures and putting a new spin on them.  The Mermaid of Black Conch is a great addition to that genre.  Instead of The Little Mermaid type tale about a mermaid who wants to become human, the mermaid of Black Conch used to be human and a curse transformed her into a mermaid. After living as a mermaid for centuries, she suddenly and violently finds herself returning to land. 

The story follows several characters, but primarily we have David, a young man born and raised in Trinidad who spends most of his days out fishing.  He brings his guitar and sings and plays while out on his boat.  His music catches the attention of a mermaid named Aycayia, who breaks the surface to hear him better, stunning David and encouraging him to return to the spot and sing day after day. 

Aycayia was a Taino woman, living before Columbus showed up and shattered the world.  Her beauty and voice drew men to her, to the annoyance of the other women of the island. They cursed her and another older woman who was Aycayia’s friend. Aycayia became a mermaid, the other woman a sea turtle, and they spent the centuries in the sea, avoiding humans.  Until David’s singing reached Aycayia’s ears in 1975.  Though Aycayia doesn’t speak to him, she begins to follow his boat, listening to his music and remembering her old life. 

Then a couple White Americans invade their tranquility. The father, a businessman – a “man’s man” – is determined to use a big game fishing trip to toughen up his perceived weakling of a son.  His son, not exactly thrilled to be on this trip, casts his line. Unbeknownst to him, Aycayia heard the motor and, assuming it was David, swam into the area. The bite on his line was no big game fish. Together, father and son reel in the biggest catch ever – an actual mermaid.

After they bring her in and string her up on the dock like the giddy fishermen in Jaws who imagine themselves to be kings of the ocean, they go celebrate at the bar. David, wracked with guilt, takes the opportunity to cut Aycayia loose and bring her back to his home. While she recovers in his bathtub, David tries to figure out what he should do next. Slowly, Aycayia’s curse seems to lift, creating new dilemmas for everyone.

Told primarily through a third person narrative, Roffey peppers in excerpts from David’s journal and Aycayia’s viewpoint as well. It’s an elegant use of language. Even though everything is in English, Roffey deftly uses distinctive voices for each of the characters. Aycayia’s use of verse is particularly well done.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is more than a revision of classic mermaid tales. It also tackles colonialism, racism, love, jealously, class, and more.  All of it is wrapped up into an intriguing and compelling story spanning centuries.   

Find it here

The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin

The World We Make book in front of an iron statute of a female figure carrying a book.
Photo taken at the Cleveland Public Library

First things first: The World We Make is a sequel to The City We Became.  Highly, highly recommend you go read that if you haven’t yet.  In both books, Jemisin tackles the very real and present issues of gentrification, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, etc., but with a sci-fi/fantasy twist.  I’ll give a brief review of The City We Became, which I read a few years ago when it came out. Then I’ll jump into The World We Make.

Mini-Review: The City We Became

The City We Became book against a hazy gold background and a shadow of some kind of tentacled monster.
I took this photo ages ago and I’m not sure I could ever pull it off again.

Jemisin is the kind of author who will throw you right into the deep end. You may spend time flailing to get to the surface, but once you learn to swim, you never want to get out of the water. In this book, we learn that cities become living things, represented by human avatars. New York City is undergoing this process, but something’s different this time. Each of the boroughs must come together to protect the city.  A different person represents each borough and each has a connection to their part of the city. 

As a result, the chapters jump between the various characters’ perspectives. Manny, Manhattan’s avatar, who has lost most of his memories.  Brooklyn, who fittingly represents Brooklyn. She’s a former rapper and now a councilwoman, fighting to save her family’s brownstone. Bronca, an artist, represents the Bronx.  Pamini, a mathematician on a student visa, embodies Queens.  And from Staten Island, Aislyn.  Aside from Aislyn, all the avatars are people of color, and many are queer.  In addition to the avatars of the boroughs, there’s a primary avatar, who is missing. 

Then there is the Enemy, a force committed to city infanticide. The avatars are the only ones who can see this Enemy, but civilians are unknowingly impacted by its actions.  Despite being strangers to one another, the avatars must find each other and beat back the enemy. 

Jemisin does a great job using Manny’s amnesia to stand in for our complete loss as to what’s going on without being heavy handed about it.  Each character has such a different personality and background, yet they all feel like complete people right off the bat.  Jemisin is a master at writing stories from different perspectives.  Each time I start with one character, I don’t want their chapter to end, but by the time I start the next one’s, I’m now committed to them.  It takes a lot of skill to pull that off and Jemisin makes it look easy.    

I’ve only been to NYC once, and it was a brief trip.  I only visited Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I would love to go back for a more in-depth visit someday.  Jemisin write a fantastic love letter to the city and its people.  She doesn’t hide from the city’s struggle, but she dwells in the glory of all of its people, all their diversity, their myriad backgrounds, and their overarching identity as New Yorkers.

Ok, now on to The World We Make.

Cover of The World We Make on a stone wall with a few buildings visible through the fog.
Just a fun note, I delayed posting this review because I wanted to take the book to work with me and get some shots of it against the backdrop of downtown Cleveland (I know, definitely not New York, but this blog doesn’t make money so no travel budget). And then of course the day I went was the day it was completely covered in fog. There’s supposed to be a skyline back there.

There’s a lot I want to talk about, but I’m not sure what would count as a spoiler.  So I’m creating a World We Make spoilers page and I’ll go into some of the things there.  If you want to go into the book mostly blind, then just stay here.  But if you’ve read it or don’t mind learning more details ahead of time, check it out!

While it should probably go without saying, from here on out, there will be spoilers for The City We Became, so if you haven’t read that one yet, beware!

The book picks up pretty much right where we left everyone after The City We Became.  The borough avatars (minus traitor Staten Island, but picking up sixth borough Jersey City) along with the primary New York City avatar (going by the name Nyc, pronounced Neek) are adjusting to life as the living embodiments of a city.  While they have unique powers, they also still live their regular life.  And over all that looms the Enemy’s stronghold, hovering over Staten Island.  The Woman in White might not be able to directly enter the NYC, but the avatars (and the city) are not safe by any means. 

There are personal challenges – Brooklyn needs to save her family’s brownstone home from a tricky gentrification grab.  Manny is slowly figuring out his past, as well as struggling to figure out whether he can make a future with Nyc.  Pamini has work and visa issues, and so on and so forth.  But the bigger existential crisis is the Woman in White and the rest of the world’s avatars seeming unwillingness to address the problem. 

In this book, we branch out a bit and meet some other cities, including Tokyo and Istanbul.  We see a dead and lifeless city, a victim of the Enemy.  And we spend some more time with Aislyn and see how her deal with the devil is working. 

Current events drive the narrative of this book. (Though it should be noted that reality stole from Jemisin, as she was writing this first.)  A new mayoral candidate has appeared, claiming he will make New York great again and bring it back to “real” New Yorkers. But of course, the  so-called “real New York” he claims to represent is simply a figment of a hateful imagination.  It would be comforting to think this is simply the Woman in White’s doing but, as we know all too well, this kind of hate can thrive on its own without outside assistance. 

Overall, I thought this was very well done and I really enjoyed jumping back into this world. I appreciated the insight into why the Enemy did what it did and where it came from.  I also thought Jemisin did a great job of giving us an understanding of Aislyn without excusing or condoning her. 

Unfortunately, I felt like some of the characters got short shrift in this one.  We almost never heard from Bronca, for instance.  Overall, I felt like there was more emphasis on events rather than characters this time around, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different.  I missed feeling as connected with everyone this time around though.  I also felt the conclusion was a bit rushed, but as I’ll discuss in the spoiler section, additional knowledge clarified why. 

All that said, this was a powerful follow-up to a fantastic concept started in the first book.  And now that both are out, you can enjoy reading them back-to-back.  And if you haven’t read any of N.K. Jemisin’s other books, I strongly recommend them all. 

Find it here

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Cover of The Sentence by Louise Erdirch against a bookcase.

November is Native American Heritage month, so it’s a great time to check out the plethora of amazing Indigenous authors.  I’ve written reviews on some already, and I’ll be doing more later. (There’s absolutely zero reason to limit it to a particular month!)  If you’re looking to support Native-owned businesses and get some great books by Native authors, check out Birchbark Books.  It’s an independent bookstore whose owner is Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians. She is also the author of today’s feature, The Sentence

The Sentence is, in a sense, a ghost story. A dead customer haunts a small Minneapolis bookstore. Not just any customer, of course, but the most annoying one. Because of course that’s the kind of customer who would come back and haunt a place. Flora was a white woman who desperately wanted to be Indigenous. Tookie, a thirty-something Native American employee, tries to find out how to help Flora find peace and move on. She soon learns that Flora died while reading a particular sentence in a book. When Tookie tries to read the book herself, eerie things begin to happen to her.

Yet the ghost of a frustrating customer isn’t the only silenced voice demanding to be heard. The story begins in November 2019.  Within months, the world fractures with the outbreak of Covid-19 and the Minneapolis police’s murder of George Floyd. The ghosts of our history soon fill the homes in which people sequester and then flood the streets along with the protestors, police, and tear gas. Tragedies big and small, intimate and emblazoned on screens around the world can only be ignored at our own peril. 

I cannot praise this book highly enough.  The writing is just so damn good.  (A common feature of Erdrich’s books.) The Sentence contains commentary on race and justice (and injustice), family, history, and more, but throughout it all is the power of words. The way Tookie constantly searches for just the right word at any given moment, and Erdrich’s way of breaking them down – well, I have to let them speak for themselves. The book opens:

While in prison, I received a dictionary.  It was sent to me with a note.  This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher.  But as she had known, this one proved of endless use.  The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence.’ I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife.  So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e’s, with its hissing sibilants and double n’s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of every day.  Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I’d done.

It’s the kind of writing that sends a thrill. It makes you wish you could somehow harness even a smidgen of this skill.

Setting the book in a version of her own store, The Sentence is heaven for book lovers. There are so many titles referenced, and a bibliography at the end, my to-be-read list grew another three feet. I also appreciated the feedback on how not to be that kind of customer. You know, this kind:

            ‘I could have bought in on Amazon, but I said to myself – although I live miles away, other side of St. Paul – I said to myself that I really should support the little independent bookstores. So I drove all the way here and you know it took me an hour because I-94 is down to one lane again?’

There’s a lot of little lessons on how not to be a well-meaning but cringy white liberal, something we as a group often need. 

But on a more serious note, it’s still odd to read about the early days of the pandemic and the protests. Obviously, I lived through them. Some of the scenes mirrored my own experiences – searching frantically for something I could use as a mask because we needed groceries and didn’t have delivery options set up yet, trying to figure out whether I really needed to wipe down said groceries, the sudden shrinking of the world to the walls of my home.

And then the video. The calls for mama. The increasingly desperate pleas of bystanders to stop, as George Floyd’s killer triumphantly corrupted one Black man’s symbol of protest against police brutality to take the life of another Black man. The protests. The burning of the precinct. The helicopters and the curfews and the National Guard. The weighing of the importance of being part of the protests vs. the risk of a deadly virus that thrives in close contact.

As a Minnesota native who left the state years ago, I appreciated having a first-hand account of living through it. If you’ll forgive the personal digression, it brought me back to an example of how our education shapes us, and the importance of having a variety of voices.  I remember clearly being in first grade, learning about the Civil War and being proud that my state was on the right side of that historic crucible, as though I was personally responsible for that choice.

As I got older, I learned a more complex side of that history – that during that same period, Minnesota’s treatment of the Dakota led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In college, I saw a photo of a lynching that occurred in Duluth during the 1920s. Throughout elementary school, I learned about the Rondo neighborhood, a Black middle-class neighborhood destroyed in the 1950s to make room for the interstate (I-94). 

More and more, I learned that while Minnesota was a great place to live and raise a family for white folks, it was a completely different story for Blacks, American Indians, Hmong, Somalis, and others. Some people might complain that this is critical race theory.  On the contrary, it’s vital to remember that there’s no simple “good vs. bad.” One can admire the ideals a state or country might have, but it’s imperative to also recognize its flaws. Life is complicated; history is complicated.  Good and bad can co-exist in an identity and it is our job to recognize both and everything in between. The ghosts of our history can guide us, not haunt us.

If we listen to them.

Once The Sentence reaches May 2020, sections are labeled by day: May 25, May 30, May 31.  And then May 32, May 34.  It’s an encapsulation of how that monumental month stretched past our usual boundaries. Life couldn’t simply keep going on as it always had. It didn’t stop, but it was not the same.

Some things in life are just that powerful.  A disease. A video. A murder.

A sentence. 

Find it here.

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Book cover of Master of Poisons with a tiger lily flower on the right.

I love entering new fantasy worlds.  As terrible as I am with learning new languages, I enjoy puzzling out a society’s hierarchy, the slang, the idioms, the power structures, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. Andrea Hairston creates a fantastic world to puzzle through. I’ve written previously that I’m also a big fan of fantasy based on something other than medieval Europe, and Master of Poisons, with its African foundation, checks that box too. 

“We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds.  Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own.  Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky?  So we twist every story to preserve our faith.”

Djola is the Master of Poisons for the Arkhysian Empire and the right-hand man of Emperor Azizi.  He has spent the last twenty years trying to convince the Emperor and the rest of his council that if the empire didn’t start caring for the environment and make the necessary, but difficult, changes, the consequences would be dire.  Slowly at first, and then more quickly, poison deserts expanded, destroying forests and rivers and displacing people.  But:

“As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night win, everybody promised to change – tomorrow or next week.  Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust.  Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible.  Who could fight the wind?”

The allegory for our current climate crisis is clear.  Djola’s frustration is one shared by anyone who paid attention to scientists since the 70s regarding greenhouse gasses.  No one wants to make the necessary changes, which might require some short-term pain or disruptions, to prevent disaster 50-100 years down the road.  But once they start living with the actual effects of their inaction, they become paralyzed, thinking that there is no way to change their trajectory and they are doomed.  They still don’t seem to understand that even if they can’t go back to a better time, they can at least work to prevent things from getting worse.  Instead, they’ll listen to short-term cons that might provide an illusion of improvement, but create even more long-term crises.  Djola finds himself exiled, searching for magic that might finally solve the problem.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Awa already has a significant connection to alternate spirit realms.  With an affinity for bees, Awa can make journeys into Smokeland, which creates dangers for her.  Sold off by her father at age 12, Awa is all too aware of society’s views of women, non-binary folks, and non-male magic users.  Thankfully, she was sold to a group of griots (storytellers), who help her develop her skills. 

Overall, Master of Poisons is a fascinating world.  Or worlds, when you consider the Smokelands.  I also really appreciated that these characters aren’t solving the problem overnight.  Years can pass between chapters or segments of the book and characters still aren’t even sure where to start.  In addition to the climate issue, Master of Poisons also tackles issues of race, gender, empire, and family.

In a lot of ways, though, this was a book that I felt more like I wanted to like rather than one I actually did like.  There were a lot of things that still seemed a little unclear or that I didn’t quite gel with.  It’s possible that part of that reason is that the climate situation is too close to reality and knowing that there isn’t a magic spell that could turn things around is disheartening. And yet, the point of the story is that even in a world of magic, fixing systemic problems requires a lot of work, dedication, and cooperation between diverse groups. 

I felt like this was a stand-alone book, which I appreciate it. Series are wonderful, but sometimes I just want a complete story in one book.  Master of Poisons is the type of book will probably benefit from multiple re-reads.  So while it wasn’t my favorite, I’m glad I read it and maybe at some point, I’ll be back to visit it again. 

Find it online here.

Book Review: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Cover of the book To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

I noticed recently that I haven’t read as many books as usual by this time of year. Then I realized that Almanac of the Dead and today’s book, To Paradise, felt like reading multiple books in one. This is especially true of To Paradise, which is comprised of three distinct stories that share a loose common bond. The book is divided into three parts, each of which could be a book on its own. The core setting remains the same: New York City, specifically, a large house in Washington Square, with each story set 100 years after the previous (1893, 1993, and 2093). The names of the characters also pass through each of these years, which creates an interesting set of questions for the reader: how is this David different from that David? How do I feel about this Charles, knowing what I know about the other ones? That age-old question of “what’s in a name” creates an undercurrent that swirls through the entire work without overwhelming it. 

Washington Square

Set in an alternate history version of New York City in 1893, the first segment of the book (“Washington Square”) focuses on 23-year-old David Bingham. Here, the Civil War did not end in a reunion of the Union, but rather additional splintering. The South remains ceded, reconstituted as “The United Colonies.” The northern-central/Midwestern part of the U.S. is now called “America” or “The American Union.” The West Coast is the Western Union, the Southwest (excluding Texas) is labeled on the map as simply “Uncharted Territory,” Maine is its own Republic, and the rest of the Northeast, including New York, make up “The Free States.” In the Free States, homosexuality is not only legal, but same-sex marriages are commonplace (and so are arranged marriages, complete with marriage brokers) and relatively unremarkable.

David lives in the Washington Square house with his grandfather, the only unmarried and aimless drifter of his siblings. While Free State society has a very open-minded view of homosexuality, it still maintains the usual biases against mental illness, class differences, and race. Free Staters pity Black people from the Colonies for the terrible plight in which they find themselves in the South and the affluent join aid societies aimed at helping them escape, but only to push them out to America or Canada or anywhere else. As a wealthy White man, destined to inherit even more from his famous banking scion grandfather, David is in a position of great respect and power, but his troubling “nervous issues” that occasionally send him into a catatonic state is a secret that needs to be covered as much as possible. 

David’s grandfather, Nathaniel, however, has found a suitable suitor for David, a gentleman from Massachusetts named Charles. A widower, Charles is a kind and dependable man, with a fortune of his own. But then a poor but beautiful and gifted music teacher named Edward catches David’s eye – and heart. Soon David finds himself in a common romantic dilemma: does he stay with the “safe” and practical choice expected of someone of his status or does he give it all up for romance and passion, despite potential red flags? What does it mean to be free? How will he get to paradise?

Lipo-wao-nahele

We leave David’s struggle over his future to jump to 1993, where another David Bingham is confronting his past. This David is a young paralegal in a relationship with one of the big-shot attorneys at the firm, named Charles. Charles is wealthy, living in the same Washington Square house, self-confident and assured. He handles everything, makes all the decisions, and wants David to just be with him and enjoy the comforts he can provide. David tells himself this is ideal, but under the surface, things feel off.

When we meet him, David is preparing for the huge dinner party Charles is throwing for a dying friend.  Death and illness seem to be everywhere, as a disease stalks gay men, striking silently and causing them to waste away. (While never named, it’s clear she’s talking about AIDS.) David observes how Charles’ friends have their own ways of dealing with this ever-present threat, including those who seem to have turned gluttonous, as though by gaining weight they could block the disease while simultaneously proving to everyone around them that they were not sick. 

But all of this suddenly takes second billing when David receives an unexpected letter from home.  David, we learn, is originally from Hawaii and through his father’s side, a direct descendant of Hawaiian royalty. If it hadn’t been for the colonization of Hawaii and the deposing of its queen back in 1898, David could very well have been preparing to take the throne, instead of living royally through his boyfriend.  Something fractured in his childhood, though, driving him to start another life on the other side of the continent. There was some sort of falling out between him and his father, a sickness of a kind that his father couldn’t overcome. 

This section is told in two different formats – one from David’s perspective in the present and his father’s perspective of his past through a letter. Through the letter, we learn of David’s father’s childhood, his meeting of the independence-focused Edward, his brief relationship with David’s mother, his love for David, and his inability to stand up for himself against those who would use him to push their own dreams of Hawaiian independence. Meanwhile, David must figure out if he is ok being swept along in Charles’ wake or if he is following the same path as his father. 

Zone Eight

The letter style continues in the third part of the book.  We begin in 2093 where we meet Charlie, granddaughter of a scientist/virologist also named Charles. Charlie grew up in the house on Washington Square with her grandfather, but only in a small apartment. The house has been divided up over the years and is only for married people. Charlie recently married, and her grandfather moved out, hoping he had done everything possible to protect her. New York is a much more dangerous and depressing place then it ever was in the previous centuries. 

As we learn in greater details through Charles’ letters, which begin in the 2040s, Earth is now continually plagued by pandemic after pandemic, despite scientists’ bests efforts to stay ahead. Some were more virulent than others – Charlie barely survived the pandemic of the 2070s that took so many children. The treatment that saved her life left her changed, erasing her original personality and causing her to struggle with human interactions. 

In addition to the waves of deadly illnesses, climate change has ravaged the planet as well. The government controls Central Park, and set up the Farm, where Charlie’s husband works, to try to genetically engineer plants and animals that could help increase the food supply and/or work as medicines. Nearly all civil rights are suspended – Charlie is left shaking and terrified each time their apartment is searched by authorities.  The internet is long gone – it was, as Charles explained in his letters, too big a source of disinformation that led to people dying. Mass crematoriums are set up on Roosevelt Island to keep up with the dead.  And yet, even with this large-scale horror show, Charlie continues with her daily life, using her ration book to get her allotments of food, wondering if her husband will ever love her, taking care of the embryonic rats at the lab. Despite the horror of everything, life moves along. Until it doesn’t.

Overall, I liked this book.  It was a bit confusing at first with all the names overlapping across the centuries, but I liked the implications of it. So much of this story revolves around questions of fate, destiny, free will, and the cumulative effects of our choices. Despite its length, it never felt long, perhaps helped by the fact that it has such discrete parts. And each part struck different chords in me. The Washington Square book recreates a sense of Victorian novels, diving into the world of the wealthy elite, the duty to one’s class, and the difficulties that can create for love.  Parts of Lipo-wao-nahele reminded me of And The Band Played On, a foundational work on the AIDS crisis, while the scenes from Hawai’i recalled Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn, about a Hawai’ian family dealing with the pulls of tradition, family responsibility, and finding one’s own path. 

Zone Eight, though, simply reminded me of now.  While published in 2022, apparently Yanagihara wrote much of the Zone Eight section before 2020 and the outbreak of Covid.  She did her work though, spending a great deal of time researching viruses and pandemics, interviewing scientists and researchers and figuring out how things might play out with a new virus sweeping across the globe.  Regardless of when she wrote it, she captured so much of the tensions we currently face. 

Generally speaking, when I read dystopian novels, I quickly and easily side with those fighting their oppressors. It’s usually clear-cut, though things rarely are in real life. Charles’ letters force us to see how well-meaning choices can spiral out of control. At one point, Charles tells his family it’s understandable to sympathize with a mother who smuggled her sick child out of the hospital and took him back to her apartment building, where she desperately tried to get someone to help her. He then urged them to think about how many innocent people she exposed to a deadly disease, how many of her elderly neighbors and other children paid the price of her fear – were they not deserving of sympathy? What of the families they left behind? Having lived through this pandemic, those arguments don’t feel so theoretical. But where do the lines get drawn? 

Questions are the foundation of this book. Yanagihara isn’t going to provide answers. But perhaps it is the asking of questions that leads to paradise.  

Thoughts on To Paradise? Did you have a favorite of the three parts? How do you feel reading fictional accounts of plagues and pandemics these days? Leave a comment and start a discussion!

Places you can buy online:

Bookshop.org

Amazon.com