Cover Image: Sorrowland

Sorrowland

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🌸 Adult • Cult• Sci-fi• LGBT+ 🌸

✍🏼 Book Quote:
Maybe it was hard to give the world your best when the world always gave you its worst.
~Sorrowland

Vern has always been different. Growing up in a strict religious compound was never going to be enough for her. At 15 years old, heavily pregnant, Vern runs away into the woods. Here, she gives birth to her twins while being stalked by the one she calls the fiend.

While running for her life, and the protection of her babies, Vern does some pretty extraordinary things. It soon becomes clear that what’s happening to her isn’t exactly normal. Is she sick, dying? Or have the people from the compound done something to Vern?

Unfortunately this one wasn’t for me. The first part of the book captivated me. I was really interested in Verns story, her children and what their futures held. But after the first few exciting chapters the story slows down a lot. It felt like it really lost its momentum. I was sure after such an intense start there was bound to be more action ahead which is why I kept pushing through. By 60% I wanted to DNF the book as I was so bored. I kept going though, positive the story would take off at any moment. Unfortunately, once I got to the end it didn’t seem all that climactic.

There was some really interesting moments but then I’d find myself skim reading again. My ratings are always based on my own enjoyment. Just because this one wasn’t for me, doesn’t mean others won’t enjoy it. If you’re into a slower paced, gothic, sci-fi vibe then this one might be exactly your thing 👌🏼

🎧 Song vibe:
River by Bishop Briggs
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I tried to think about what it would be like coming into this book with no knowledge of this author’s other works and I think the thing I would say before you read this is that this is not a happy story – that’s something you do expect if you’ve read other books by Rivers Solomon but if this is your first then I would recommend pacing yourself and bracing yourself. I personally like to know the tone of a book going in and so that is my two cents if you are planning on reading this. 

Because I do think this book is well worth picking up. I was astounded by how much I was sucked into this story. It’s one of those books that combines the incredibly real with the incredibly surreal and somehow (or rather, through the virtue of the writing) it all comes together into something that feels simultaneously well-grounded and utterly free. This book doesn’t fit the box of any story I’ve read before and I love that, and yet there are familiar echoes.

I thought the writing, in particular the voice of the book, really shone for me. I felt very much like I got into the head of this character and that I very much understood Vern’s background and her motivations. I wasn’t expecting to be so taken in by her character but I absolutely adored her. I thought that her identity as a parent was explored in a very interesting way and in a very nuanced way, it didn’t feel like other parental narratives I have read. Did loving Vern make the story ten times harder because of everything she goes through? Why yes it did. 

This story did not go in the directions I was expecting it to go – not by any means – and I truly say that as the highest compliment. I thought that the way that events played out was fantastic, it managed to take me by surprise while at the same time never feeling like the rug was pulled out from under me. There are some books where it can feel like you’re seeing behind the curtain, where you really feel the author telling you how to feel about something, this book does not have that problem, you’re swept away in a story and it’s only in coming out the other side that you really stop to say ‘wow’.

I do not think this is a book for everyone, I think it is a book that a lot of people should read but getting the timing right will be important. What this book has solidified for me is that I need to add Rivers Solomon to my auto-buy authors list because if fae keep producing content like this I know I have some all-time favourites in the future. 

My rating: 5/5 stars

I received a free digital review copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own. 

Sorrowland is out May 6th
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Sorrowland tells of of a young woman on the run who gives birth in the woods, what follows is a beautifully crafted narrative about the power of family, inner strength and sheer determination. 

Conceptually, Solomon absolutely nailed this. It is the perfect balance of realism and magic/fantasy. The writing itself is gorgeous, in particular the prose detailing the woods and the outdoors was so authentic that I felt as if I was there along with Vern every step of the way. Masterfully done.
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Sorrowland is as brilliant as it is dark and traumatic. That's to say, I loved this book, but it's not the easiest one to read. Filled with racism, misogyny, homophobia, human experimentation, incredible violence, and a deeply traumatised main character Sorrowland delivers a powerful narrative you can't look away from. The way it combined gothic horror with fantasy, sci-fi and literary elements was superb. Sorrowland is a must-read for those who love dark fiction filled with commentary on poignant real-world issues.

Sorrowland feels like a journey on a twisting forest path; you're never sure where you're going, but turning back isn't an option. Throughout all of it, you travel with Vern, the main character. She was a brilliantly complex person, driving the story forward with only her indomitable presence. She was both incredibly vulnerable and a powerful force of nature. What I loved most about her was her unapologetic difference. She doesn't care for the constraints that humans have placed upon people. She's partially sighted, intersex, sapphic, and a black albino that has faced so much trauma due to those identities. I loved that she raised her children as children, rather than any specific gender. Vern is a main character that could only belong in a Rivers Solomon novel, she's compelling, wild, and you can't help but root for her.

My favourite aspect of the novel is how it takes traditions associated with gothic horror and uses them in a fresh, new way. Gothic horror, as a form of western literature, has been predominantly white for much of its history. I'm incredibly excited by the increase in black authors who are using these tropes to tell their own stories. Including hallucinations, monsters, sexual taboos, the power of nature, the feel of being hunted, the dark atmosphere - this novel is gothic horror at it's best. Even the names of Vern's children: Howling and Feral encapsulate the gothic atmosphere perfectly. Some tropes are subverted, some are intensified; Sorrowland keeps you on edge in a slow, mysterious way that strengthens how brilliant the book is.

On that note, I loved how nature was depicted in this novel. The dichotomy of civilisation vs nature has been analysed in many narratives. Rivers Solomon describes nature as something that can be both wild and dangerous, but also freeing. Removed from the constraints of society the forest is a place where Vern feels most at home. Vern isn't a master of nature; she's a part of it. I love books that remind us that humans are nature, that our societal expectations are constructs that don't exist in the deepest forests, that survival in nature can be difficult but so-called 'civilisation' isn't any easier to traverse. 

Sorrowland focuses heavily on human experimentation. Vern is from a cult that began as a black nationalist group, the Cainites, that wanted people to renounce white civilisation. Vern has escaped after facing intense violence and abuse at the hands of the Cainites. When her body begins to change in ways she doesn't understand, she realises the Cainites might have a more sinister purpose. These themes link heavily to the history of human experimentation on black people. One of the more well-known examples of this was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which black people with syphilis were promised free medical care. They weren't informed of their diagnosis, and instead of treating them the United States Public Health Service used them to observe what untreated syphilis will do to a body. There are many more examples of such monstrosities spread over history. I don't want to say more about Sorrowland's specific example, as it's a major plot point, but the history it pulls off of is brutal.

Sorrowland is a gruelling, traumatic read that hides tiny fragments of hope within its narrative. You hold onto those fragments, hoping that despite everything, there might be some semblance of freedom from the suffering in its pages. Using gothic horror to build up a terrifying atmosphere, Rivers Solomon has created a book that's difficult to put down and difficult to forget.
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This is a book that is hard to review because it just has so much to say. This is my first book by Rivers Solomon but I have been interested in their novels for a while now and will certainly be picking up more after this. 

The writing style is reminiscent of the way myths and legends might be told, a little bit lyrical and almost as if it was designed to be told aloud rather than read off the page. 

Teh fantasy elements merge with those more grounded in reality to create a mesmerising and thought provoking narrative with messages about race, sexuality, marginalisation and particularly those that seem to exist on the fringes. 

It was a difficult read in a lot of respects because teh fantasy does not remove the lived reality that the author is probably drawing from. Vern is a fascinating character. Maybe not inherently likable but certainly resourceful and fierce and creative which is the exact sort of protagonist I like to read about.

I think the only thing that prevents it being 5 stars for me is that the story maybe gets drowned a little by the message. I feel Solomon had things that they wanted to convey and the narrative gets a little bit sacrificed as a result. That said, the message is certainly worth conveying so this may not be a sticking point for all readers.
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"In the woods, it doesn't matter that there is no patch of earth that has not known bone, known blood, known rot. It feeds from that. It grows the trees. The mushrooms. It turns sorrow into flowers."

Sorrowland tells the story of Vern, a young Black woman with albinism, as she flees from the cult where she was raised. She ends up alone in the woods, experiencing strange 'hauntings' and hunted by a mysterious fiend- it is here where she gives birth to twins. Vern and the twins spend several years surviving in the woods before they venture out into the world in order to find answers about Vern's past and the strange things that are starting to happen to her.

Sorrowland is a delicious blend of horror, sci-fi and coming-of-age story with a staggering and surreal atmosphere. With themes of race, motherhood, gender, trauma, wilderness and growing outside mainstream society, there is plenty here to really get your teeth into. As with The Deep and An Unkindness of Ghosts, Solomon's storytelling is full of originality, stunning prose and a quiet ferocity. The characters in Sorrowland are deeply fascinating, from the fierce yet protective Vern to the tough and astute Gogo. I found the relationship between Vern and her children to be a real strength of the novel, I loved the twins inquisitive nature and how they survive in the woods; with it being the only world they have ever known.

The fantastical and 'sci-fi' elements of the story were weaved in so beautifully at first, however for me there was just too much crammed in to the last quarter of the book. This was reflected in the pacing too. The book is structured into three parts, with the first part serving as a fantastic easing into Vern's character, her past and her life in the wilderness with her children, whereas the second part felt a little stagnant to me and the final third was very fast-paced and with a lot of conclusion seeming too convenient and rushed.

Overall I have struggled to rate this novel as there was so much that I enjoyed- the fierce originality, the symbolism, the beautiful writing- however I did feel a little let down by the pacing and clunky conclusion.

*Thank you to Netgalley and Merky Books for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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This is the story of Vern, a fifteen year old albino black woman who flees the  ‘Cainland’ compound where she has grown up. She goes into the woods where she gives birth to twins who she names Howling and Feral.  Vern experiences ‘hauntings’ which seem like hallucinations but also feel real. After several years surviving deep in the woods, Vern ventures out ......What follows is impossible to categorise, it’s part horror, part magical fantasy, there are elements of science fiction, it’s part political and historical. It has a multitude of themes including motherhood, race, identity and gender, survivalism and living wild and transformation. It includes characters that are on the fringes of society obviously which includes Vern but also Gogo who helps her, who is Native American. 

Vern is not a character who is easy to like, she’s in rebellion, lacks trust, is swift to anger and so can be aggressive and harsh. However, she does her best to protect her boys and I love the direct way she explains things to them. Much of this is attributable to her upbringing in Cainland which has its origins in black nationalist movements of the 1960’s and ‘70’s but which also becomes a religious movement. Much of the book is fierce, very unsettling, extremely hard to read in places because some events are dark, harrowing and very brutal,  both before and after Cainland. Gogo is a fantastic character as are Howling and Feral who without restraints of being raised among families and peers are precocious beyond their years, very capable, brave and tough. Some of the imagery is very powerful and supernatural, very original and almost like a nightmarish unsanitised fairytale which at times is unnerving. 

For the first two thirds of the book I’m all in, I find some of it weird and I can’t say that I understand everything but the power of the writing enthrals and the originality of the writing wins the day, we’re on track for a four or five star rating even though at times i feel I’m on some kind of weird LSD trip, without the drugs obviously!  However from that point on the storytelling seems to change and I don’t like the direction it takes. The pace slumps, the messages become unclear and messy, the storytelling is overblown, in places it’s horrific and as we reach the climax the author chooses to give us some background to characters in Cainland which halts the flow. Why???? 

There is no doubt this is a hugely ambitious book, it’s clever and a lot of it is a very different literary  experience. It’s challenging in a myriad of ways, at times a commentary on US society, on dubious government decisions, actions and race relations and at others it’s about gender. On occasions it’s mind bending and surreal with some of the imagery being so creative that it’s wise to suspend disbelief. Despite my reservations about the book, one thing is for absolute sure - it’s completely unforgettable. 

With thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone, Merky Books for the arc in return for an honest review.
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Rivers Solomon is an author who crafts stories about those marginalised, those seeking a voice, and those who experience inequality and intolerance. The writing is poetic and edgy, as Rivers Solomon uses a style to add another dimension to a very unique story. I was really enthused from the outset of Sorrowland to embark on a journey into a challenging plot and a unique set of characters. Rivers Solomon takes the opportunity to layer his novel with several contemporary messages on black slavery, anti-US establishment and how powerful people can evade repercussion for criminal and unethical acts. These themes overlay a central plot where a young girl Vern escapes a cult to gain freedom and seek answers.
“Sherman preached that Cainland’s untouchability by the law was because of the God of Cain, but Vern was old enough now to know there was no God of Cain. Something else safeguarded the compound. Or someone else.”
Vern is fifteen years old living in, Cainland, where she is pregnant and married to the cult leader Reverend Sherman. Her nights are horrifying as she is strapped into bed and fed a concoction of drugs. Vern, however, manages to escape into the woods and ekes out an existence for four years trying to evade any search efforts to find her. The Fiend hunts her and torments her with objects letting her know she is being watched and hunted. She hears the wolves at night as they flush out the runaways.

Vern delivers twins, two boys called Howling and Feral, and she teaches them about the woods with their exuberant thirst for knowledge. There is endearing respect the boys have for nature and all living things, even if it is to be food. Gradually Vern experiences physical change and we wonder if these are a reaction to the drugs (or now lack of), maybe cancer taking root and spreading, a viral infection, or a metaphysical change. Coupled with her bodily changes, Vern experiences nightmares and hallucinations she calls ‘Hauntings’. The hauntings feel very real and she struggles to recognise reality from the otherworldly visions she inhabits.

Realising she can’t live like this forever and that she needs to consider her children, Vern takes the massive step of leaving the woods and tracking down her best friend Lucy, who left the compound many years before. On Vern’s travels, we see her as an unlikeable person, brash, selfish, thankless, while also fascinating and resourceful. While easy to dislike, she has been deeply damaged with the lifestyles she endured. When she finds Lucy’s home, she discovers Lucy is presumed dead but forms a close relationship with Gogo, a Native American, and Bridget who take her and her children in. As expected, she is eventually hunted down and the scope of the conspiracy starts to unfold.

At this point, I’m thinking – take it home Rivers. You’re onto a winner. Unfortunately for me, the wheels came of the story and it became confusing, bizarre, convenient in the plotting, irrelevant holes the story jumped into to somehow illustrate some of the issues the author is passionate about and delivered plot lines that seemed impractical and unrealistic. Major WTF moments ruined a beautiful thing.

In the first 60 % of the book, I was enthralled with an unparalleled storyline and underlying mystery. The last 40 % totally turned my opinion 180 degrees on what had been a very impressive novel. This was a Buddy read with my Buddy, Ceecee, and after being excited for the first half of the book and excited about our discussions, we both reached a realisation that a major shift had occurred, and the scenes were difficult to enjoy. Please read Ceecee’s review, for her thoughts.

Ceecee and I seem to be outliers with this one. I would like to thank Random House, Merky Books, Farrar Straus & Giroux, and NetGalley for providing me with a free copy in return for an honest review.
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This book is such a harrowing read! This follows the life of a young girl called Vern who is escaping her current life with her abusive husband and the controlling world he creates around her. This book achieves so much within its writing, it is truly exquisite! 

This book deals with the struggle of a woman against may aspects of society - her femininity, womanhood, the concept of race and the treatment of black bodies as well as queer romance. 

You live through Verns transformation of herself as a person as well as her children and it is truly astounding!
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This is an astoundingly ambitious and harrowing novel from Rivers Solomon, destined to be one of 2021 must reads, a stellar sci-fi fantasy Gothic Horror, although it has to be said in many ways it defies easy categorisation. An alternative world that touches on numerous critical contemporary issues, and the hate, brutality, violence, sorrow and tragedies of American history. Vern is a 15 year old traumatised and abused albino black girl, 7 months pregnant who flees the Cainland cult for the woods, however, the community have no intention of letting her go. Hunted, the haunted Vern gives birth to twins, Feral and Howling, raised with curiosity at the heart of their unstructured lives.

With vitality and rage, this unapologetic, atmospheric, imaginative and lyrical storytelling takes in race, identity, gender, sexuality, misogyny, religion, motherhood, mental health issues, conspiracy theories, the damning state experimentations undertaken on black bodies. Intent on surviving the challenging environment of the wild woods, but burdened by her past and distrust of others, Vern slowly begins to forge connections with others, a highlight of which is her relationship with Native American Gogo and Bridget. There are twists and turns aplenty, there are revelations, the suffering endured, and the surprisingly powerful and transformative changes that start to take place in Vern as she begins to see, fight and take on the cruelty and horrors that have happened.

This is, without doubt, a disturbing and distressing read, but so ferocious, profound, poignant and moving, providing a pertinent social and political commentary, it feels like a beautifully written book I will never forget and I can see it occupying my thoughts for quite some time to come. I can see it having the same impact on other readers and it deserves to do incredibly well on publication. Hugely recommended. Many thanks to Random House Cornerstone for an ARC.
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What starts as a story about an albino woman leaving Cainland, a Black-only compound with its own set of rules and strictures, quickly evolves into a story of the lead character, Vern, escaping through the wilderness as she battles visions ('hauntings') and tries to keep herself and her two children ('Feral' and 'Howling') safe.

Vern's visions/'hauntings' continue to disturb her daily life, as she sees dead bodies and the ghosts of memories almost everywhere she goes, sometimes predicting things to come, and sometimes giving her insights into the world she left behind.

However, she slowly discovers a unique power and curse growing within her- mycelium, or tiny roots and spores, grow quickly within her, threatening to take over until she is only a vessel. She must navigate her distrust of everyone, with her desire for (re)connection, and her quest to find her friend and past potential lover.

Although the writing style feels somewhat distant and aloof at first, you quickly come to realise that that is part of its charm- indeed, Vern's thoughts are so focused on survival and so blurred by the mycelium and her brainwashing in the Cainland compound that she is cut off from almost anything apart from the facts and observations that will keep her safe.

Her two children, Feral and Howling, are fascinating in this sense, as they are the innocent eyes viewing not only the world around them and their mother's demise, but also the 'modern' world, which the boys are not initially equipped to survive.

Vern's increasing sickness, as she succumbs to the roots growing within her and sees more disturbing and realistic hauntings, and her increasing power as a result, are brilliantly written, and are deeply visceral and physical. I felt uncomfortable reading the descriptions of these roots growing within her, and the exo-skeleton that armours her body, which I think is a sign that this was handled well- they were so physical and grotesque that I have been thinking about them ever since I finished the book.

These, and some of the love scenes, where her 'sickness' and 'sinfulness' in being attracted to women mirror her growing contagion by the mycelium, are stunningly rendered, and the beauty of her coming into her own power towards the end of the book feels like a true moment of liberation, with all of the complicated feelings that can bring.

Although this book felt unlike what I usually read, there was something about the energy and physicality of this book that I found truly engaging and undeniable.

I received an advance copy of the book from Net Gallery in exchange for an honest review.
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Sorrowland is Rivers Solomons latest novel, and is a wild fever dream of a novel. Exploring themes of death, life and ultimately what it means to be human whilst also touching on race, gender, sexuality and motherhood this book ties it all together into a emotional ride.

We are following Vern, who at the start of the novel escapes a cult that she has been raised in. She gives birth to two children in the woods and from there we watch as she raises the children in the woods, whilst being haunted by strange ghosts of her past and her body is undergoing a metamorphesis. She is also being hunted down by the cult and a starnge figure called the fiend. Slowly throughout the novel secrets are revealed as well as goverment conspiracies and hidden agendas.

The best way I can describe this is weird but extremely compelling. I loved the exploration of the woods and nature, and there was a quote towards the end explaining the name of the novel and that almost made me start sobbing. This novel really explores memory and how people live on through others, we see literal and metaphorical ghosts (and I love ghosts so this was a major plus for me!!!) and the consequences these ghosts have on our main character Vern.

I found the cult aspect really interesting, they worship the god of cain seeing the traditional chirstian god as an abomination. The cult is also exclusively black people, and they are eschewing the corrupting influence of white people and the diseases of the west. They also very much look down of homosexuality and see it has a white mans disease, which definitely affects Vern and how she sees herself and discovers her sexuality, slowly learning to see it without shame. 

I adored Verns children, Howling and Feral, they added so much to the story for me and seeing Vern's struggles and joy in raising them was so emotional. They were also both so cute and I loved seeing their little personalities develop. The theme of motherhood is big in this novel, and the things mothers do for their children which may not seem like a good idea in hindsight but is the best they can do at the time, as well as the sacrifies mothers make. 

The relationships explored in this book were also fascinating, I esepcially loved Gogo and Verns relationships, and there were some suprisingly steamy sexual scenes!!!!! (sapphic sex scenes is always something i love to see). I also loved the discussion of masturabation and Verns wild and joyous exploration of her body. 

There was also some very interesting discussions on gender, with Gogo being trans (and some element of non-binary as well) and I believe Vern was intersex although this word wasn't explicitly used. Howling and Feral are also always used he/him pronouns for both but it is implied this might not match their genetalia. They are very much raised away from gender expectations and I think this is a great way of demostrating how children should just be able to devlop their personalities without having the restrictions of societal expectations.

I think, similar to an unkindness of ghosts, this book struggles a little with the pacing. I was kept engaged throughout despite a fairly steady pace, which I was enjoying and felt like a good chance to really explore the themes and characters however the last 10% the pacing becoems really fast and explosive events start happening and I just felt this was a little jarring and didn't have enough time to explore the consequences. Despite this I did still really enjoy the book!!!

In conclusion, a beautifully written immersive novel, looking at some of the darker aspects of humanity but also how beautiful things can grow from this.
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Vern, a 15 year old black albino girl, is on the run. She's trying to escape her abusive husband, leader of the Cainland cult. After she gives birth to twins, alone in the woods, her job is to protect them from the dangers surrounding them.
Gripping read, combining reality with hauntings, supernatural and sci-fi.
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Sorrowland is the story of Vern, her escape from a commune-turned-cult, her motherhood, her restless, righteous hunt for survival, for safety and for answers. It's also the story of state atrocities, overt & covert, of medical experimentation, of the body-horror and body-euphoria of transformation, of identity & feeling & being beyond the limits of language, of trauma and fury and also, insistently, tenderness. 

On a conceptual level, it's brilliant and sharp-edged and startling and exhilarating; on a prose level, it's both transparent and beautiful, lush, earthy, vivid in details but always clear and always moving. Just really, really, exquisitely good!
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I love the writing and voice, the beautiful imagery and the lush, strange, alternate-world setting. 

Some parts of the worldbuilding I struggled with (for example, I wasn't sure how usual or unusual it was for Vern to leave her babies for hours at a time in the woods--are kids unusually tough? Mine would have been dead most likely!) and it took me a long time to grasp what was going on in her settlement (no spoilers). 

It's definitely a book where you need to sit back, and let it tell its story in its own time, because it defies conventional structure and needs space to slowly make its point. If you're looking for a traditionally-structured narrative or a fast paced story then this may not be for you, but if you're happy to try a winding, intricate narrative with a surrealist bent, then there is a lot to enjoy and admire.
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