Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Disclosure: Mesha is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


Sugar Run has been getting a lot of press, and it’s well deserved. This is an astonishing novel.

Jodi was seventeen years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she is surprised to find herself paroled. She never thought this would happen, even as the lawyers and appeals pressed forward around her. Now she steps out the gates and is surprised to see that she’s been surrounded by mountains all these years in Georgia – mountains she couldn’t see, but that make her feel just that much closer to the mountains of her West Virginia home.

Jodi heads south before going home, though, to track down a boy she should have helped all those years before. She is surprised to find him transformed into a man she does not recognize; if time stood still for Jodi in prison, it hasn’t for the rest of the world. In short order, Jodi collects as well as a partial family in crisis; as she drives a new friend’s Chevette into rural West Virginia and up the mountain she calls home, the life and hopes she’s building may already be falling apart.

In flashback sections, we learn as well about the past, chiefly the buildup to the crime that got Jodi life in prison as a minor. The cast of characters is not small: Jodi’s mother, father, beloved grandmother, and younger twin brothers; Paula, a woman important to Jodi in her youth, along with her parents and brother; Jodi’s new friend Miranda, estranged from her pop singer husband, with three young sons and a coterie of associates; and the inhabitants of the West Virginia hilltop Jodi returns to, from fracking workers to activists and the locals she’s known all her life – or at least for its first seventeen years.

It’s a remarkable story. For one thing, the lives of Appalachian lesbian women are not much seen in literature, and women in prisons are somewhat underrepresented as well. (Mesha teaches writing in a women’s prison, so she has the research to back up that element.) But equally importantly, as a plot, it rips. From Jodi to Miranda, from past to present, the reader is kept totally absorbed (I would like to thank Mesha for getting me through six hours in the waiting room of an auto shop). It’s a fully realized world to fall into.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place. Jodi is deeply committed to her late grandmother’s cabin and property on a hilltop threatened by extractive industry: a classic West Virginia story, in a way, but one thoroughly fleshed out and real here. The place itself is described as carefully as the characters are. I realize that I’m portraying this book as both character- and plot-driven; it is also about the sentences, which weave and wend and take their time painting pictures as much as moving either plot or characterization along. Pacing-wise, it might be mid-range. The plot has momentum and keeps me turning pages; but the sentences take time for beauty.

This is a fine and multi-faceted novel, and I love it. Congrats, Mesha.


Rating: 8 hands.

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

A disenchanted teenager in 1980s Mexico City runs away from home hoping to find Ukrainian dwarfs on a Oaxacan beach in this lovely, surreal novel.

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis (Books of Clouds, Asunder) is a dreamy, wandering tale of teenage ennui and searching, and the pull of the sea.

Luisa is 17 and bored with school, her parents and her classmates (nearly all of whom have bodyguards waiting outside their elite Mexico City international school, which Luisa attends on scholarship). Her interests include her best friend Julián, who lives above a restaurant, and his stereo, as well as her French teacher’s encouragements and the books he lends her. And thanks to her professor father’s storytelling, Luisa is fascinated by shipwrecks. Perhaps this is partly why she is so taken in by the newspaper headline: “Ukrainian Dwarfs on the Run.” It is suggested that these escapees from the circus have headed to the beaches of Oaxaca, and for Luisa, they become crossed in her mind with a sort of hidden treasure: something to seek.

There is a boy, too. “I didn’t even particularly like him at first; intrigued would be a better word. He was a sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning.” Tomás Román: even the syllables of his name have power. “He had been a snag in the composition, somehow inserting himself in the picture in a way the others had not.” Luisa has trouble understanding his pull on her, but as it resembles the pull of the Ukrainian dwarfs at the beach, she follows the impulse, and boards a bus with Tomás for the coast.

Because it is 1988, a soundtrack of Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure and Joy Division back up Luisa’s surreal travels. Her attention drifts between the immediate present–where she observes dogs and waves with as close an eye as she does people–and an interior world populated by French poetry, ancient shipwrecks and imagined worlds. She makes up lives for the people she encounters, daydreams about the magic powers of a city billboard and a man she meets on the beach. She styles him a merman. “But that was the problem with mysterious people,” she tells him, “once you spend time with them they’re not so mysterious after all, and as [she] said this the merman smiled as if promising, no matter what, to remain a mystery.”

As Luisa dreams away her days in a little village called Zipolite, a community of hippies, nudists and beachcombers, her father searches for her. And he will have some of the best stories to tell by the end of this weird, captivating novel. Aridjis’s prose is well suited to this kind of story: her sentences are luminescent and imagistic, expressing Luisa’s tendency to fancy: a great marble horse “[chooses] the sea, and was there to this day, the horse that gave them the slip, galloping along endless banks of seabed, kicking up whole paragraphs of sand.” The plot of Sea Monsters is somewhat quiet, Luisa spending much of her time inside her own head, but Aridjis’s style makes this an absolute pleasure even when nothing is happening.


This review originally ran in the January 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hammocks.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This surreal, riverine, gender-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex will fascinate and fire the imagination.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Everything Under is a dreamy, twisty-turning tale set in modern Oxford but calling on mythology and upturning societal norms. Daisy Johnson’s first novel (following the story collection Fen) requires its readers to wonder and follow along for a while before its connections begin to form, but the payoff for that patience is well rewarded.

“The places we are born come back.” At the novel’s opening, Gretel is a lexicographer who mostly keeps to herself, caught up in her mysterious past: “I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to.” She lives in a remote cottage with her mother, Sarah, whom she has recently found and brought home. Then time shifts, and for much of the book the reader sees Gretel’s unusual childhood, and the long stretch of adulthood during which she searched for her missing mother.

Gretel grows up living with Sarah on a river, in a houseboat that never moves. They forage for food and remain apart from society: “River people aren’t like other people. You won’t see the police down here.” They make up their own language, words that make sense only to them. It is a watery world of shifting gender identities and slippery, changing rules. Gretel is shaped by self-sufficiency, words, fluidity and a fear: something under the water called the Bonak. When she is 16, her mother disappears, leaving Gretel to take care of herself.

In the flashback chapters, an enigmatic third character appears. “What happened to Marcus?” Gretel asks her mother, in the later timeline when they live together again, the older woman having lost her memory and the words that mattered so much. But it takes many more pages to reveal who Marcus is.

Many chapters are named for settings: repeatedly, “The River,” where Gretel grew up; “The Cottage,” where she lives as an adult; and “The Hunt,” when she was actively searching for Sarah. In those chapters on “The Hunt,” Gretel explores the countryside near the river, visiting a couple who lost their teenaged daughter years ago. She meets a failed prophetess, collects a stray dog and excavates her memories. This action is every bit as wandering, confused, seeking and amnesiac as Gretel herself.

This is a complex plot with profound themes: a monster under the water, the shape of fear itself; the importance of language; the death grip of the past; fate versus free will; flexible gender identities; unanswered questions. Everything Under remakes the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, with its prophecy that will be fulfilled, no matter how strangely it must twist. Johnson’s singular, hallucinatory storytelling is well up to her book’s ambitious form. The result is spellbinding.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rolls of cling wrap.

Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent

A reclusive young widow in the wintry mountains of Pennsylvania and a mysterious stranger from Uzbekistan guard the secrets of their pasts in a present that is still filled with danger.

Kathleen works in a small store at the edge of a state park in Pennsylvania’s Blue Ridge Mountains, frying burgers and onion rings for hikers and hunters, keeping to herself. She was widowed at 22 by a car wreck that left her badly injured, but she insists that she does not have a limp. She wants only to be left alone. But then a stranger appears out of the harsh snow of mountain winter, wearing dress shoes and a disarming expression; his native country is Uzbekistan, and he gives no good reason why he should be lurking out-of-season at the hostel next to Kathleen’s store. Despite her instincts, she indulges him with conversation and, eventually, a cautious friendship.

Sarah St. Vincent’s first novel, Ways to Hide in Winter, tells the story of these two people, each skittish in their own way, as they avert their eyes from the past. Kathleen keeps her world small: she cares for her grandmother, occasionally visits with an old school friend, warily guards a bad habit or two. The stranger–who has a name, but it’s rarely used; Kathleen calls him simply “the stranger”–speaks haltingly of a family and career back home, but there is clearly more that he’s not telling.

This is a story of secrets. Ways to Hide in Winter is told in Kathleen’s first-person perspective, so that the reader discovers the stranger’s secrets as Kathleen does herself; her own are as carefully doled out. It gradually becomes clear that Kathleen is protecting even herself from a past trauma. The stranger confesses to a crime committed back home, but this confession may not be what it seems. As the action of this gripping novel unfolds, then, the mystery of two personal histories races against the present: What will be revealed, and will it be in time to save the protagonists?

This novel of suspense has many strengths. Kathleen offers depths of emotional truth and texture. Other characters are portrayed at a certain remove, according to the narrator’s personality, but they open up by turns as she experiences them. Kathleen is thoughtful, as when she considers the morality of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wonders about Uzbekistan. The setting in rural Pennsylvania mountains is harshly beautiful and handsomely evoked. And, warning: this is a book to keep one up late into the night, its considerable momentum pulling the reader toward its finale. Ways to Hide in Winter is an impressive, compelling first novel, with characters that will be missed after its conclusion.


This review originally ran in the October 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chess pieces.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai

These stories about Chinese immigrant families range widely in their specifics, but offer a universal attention to love, hope and striving.

In Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai (Hapa Girl; Tiger Girl) illuminates a range of characters with experiences in common. This story collection is aptly titled: these are tales of Chinese immigrants to North America and, sometimes, within China. They are stories of family and community dynamics.

They encompass an adventure with a dying mother, an ice cream cake that potently stands in for a critical memory of childhood tragedy and the distinctive trials of a Chinese-American traveling to Beijing. A young boy new to the big city quickly learns to play rougher games there. While not linked by specific characters, these stories share certain things: the names and numbers of siblings vary, but details, like a treasured cloisonné bowl, reappear. Such commonalities, rather than contributing to a feeling of homogeneity, lend a feeling of continuity. In other words, families may diverge in their particulars, but face similar challenges concerning culture and relationships.

Literary form varies: one story examines an unfortunate event in public view–a body discovered at a construction site–from the perspectives of five characters, none of whom knew the deceased. Their somewhat clinical approaches leave room for the reader’s compassion to move in. The titular story begins with a simple shopping excursion and gets complicated by the protagonist’s English, which she is still learning. She relies on those useful phrases: “I would like to speak to your manager,” “I know my rights,” “rain check.” The shopping problem turns out to be a stand-in for a larger issue of filial relationships. In the final story, poignantly titled “Shouting Means I Love You,” an aging father makes a pilgrimage to honor his family’s hero; his daughter grumbles before realizing a profound truth.

Chai’s stories carry themes about borders–national, cultural and psychic–and traditions old, new and invented. As the world becomes increasingly global, this material proves ever-relevant. Chai’s prose is often unadorned, but occasionally startlingly lovely: “summer days stretched taffy slow from one Good Humor truck to the next.” Even unnamed characters prove memorable long after their brief appearances.

These evocative stories are variously funny, surprising, gloomy and heartening, ultimately about a universal human experience, of immigration and beyond.


This review originally ran in the September 25, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 training bras.

The Rope Swing: Stories by Jonathan Corcoran

Disclosure: this author, Jonathan Corcoran, is a repeating visiting faculty member at my MFA program, and one of my favorite people. I always aspire to tell you exactly what I think of a book, but I can’t claim objectivity here because I think Jon is wonderful.


That said, The Rope Swing is also a wonderful book. This is a collection of linked stories, sharing not characters, so much (although there are some glancing exceptions), but setting and theme. Most of the stories take place in a small town in West Virginia; the last two take place in New York City, where a native of the small town has resettled. Some of the stories are told in first person, some in third, and the first story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” is told in first-personal plural, using the ‘we’ pronoun. I appreciate this choice. This first story is really about setting the scene and the tone for the rest of the book: we are in a small town that is seeing a twilight of sorts, on the day the last passenger train leaves town. It is a mood of elegy, and with some conflicted feelings about the place. The use of a collective pronoun is perfect, because this story focuses on no person in particular, but on the town and its inhabitants collectively. In this story we see a few characters very briefly who will star in their own stories later; but this collection doesn’t follow anyone in particular. The title story, “The Rope Swing,” is referred to in a later story, but it’s a quick glance.

The theme-thread that unites these stories is the experience of LGBTQ characters in this particular setting. There are a few characters that the town acknowledges as a little different, like the florist, who was “funny, we knew, in a light green shirt and a darker green ties the color of a rose stem, but he was also harmless.” Others have a harder time, like the young man who leaves for New York City.

The strengths of the collection are as broad as these characters. Having heard Jon read a few times, I was not the least bit surprised to find lovely writing at the sentence level; he has clearly paid close attention to sound and rhythm and word choice. The small actions and attentions of his characters portray lots of personality economically. About a woman who has inherited the house of a close friend, who had in turn inherited it from his parents:

She had thrown everything out of the refrigerator. She didn’t care if the jam was good for another year; that jam didn’t belong to her. In this way, she had claimed dominion over an appliance.

The place as character is one of my favorite features of the book; I love a strong sense of place, as you know, but also it’s just so beautifully done here. The book opens, “We had forgotten how much we loved our mountains in the summertime.” Such a simple sentence, but it has a definite beat and lilt to it. And what follows is description; but description with momentum and pull, easy to read and easy to see and feel. Perhaps the key is that all the details–“young leaves of the maples and sycamores,” “rivers of meltwater sprint[ing] down the cliff faces”–are experienced by the ‘we,’ seen and heard and felt and thought and remembered, rather than just delivered to us as exposition.

This author knows how to use metaphor, as in this lovely image, when a grieving woman looks up at a tree:

But then, there was the thing she hadn’t noticed before: the end of that same branch had begun growing up again, at a right angle, the wood bending toward the sky.

But it’s not heavy-handed. My quick impression is that this is not a book that relies much on metaphor, but rather, it tells the world as seen and experienced, and leaves it to the reader to make meaning. That may be a deceptive impression. If I were to go back over these stories looking for literary devices or tricks like metaphor, I might find many. But their subtlety only speaks of their power.

I appreciate, too, how these stories are organized. As I work, this semester, to write a thesis in the form of an essay collection, I’m thinking a lot about organization. I have the impression that these stories come chronologically, although that feeling is somewhat loose, since we don’t follow a single character. The timeline feels organic, though. And most impressively (as I struggle through my own work!), there is a definite feeling of accretion: each story references oh-so-subtly what’s come before, builds on the details of the town or a single image from three stories ago, to increase its impact.

Clearly, a fine example of many skills: sentence-level writing, characterization, setting, subtlety in theme, organization and structure. I’m deeply impressed, and that’s not something I would say just because I like Jon. As a bonus, this is a region, and particularly a set of experiences within a region, that’s not been written about enough. Do check out The Rope Swing. It’s well worth your time.


Rating: 9 mottled leaves of the philodendron plant.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Since reading Yuri’s Signs Preceding the End of the World last summer, and then meeting the author and hearing him read, I’ve been looking forward to finding the time for more of this trilogy. As I left this summer’s residency, I should of course have been starting on the semester’s reading, but in transit I only had the books in my bag. Happily, this one.

Kingdom Cons was the first of the three books to be published in Spanish, and the third in English. These titles (second comes The Transmigration of Bodies, followed by Signs) form what Yuri Herrera calls a “loose” trilogy, so I’m not supposed to feel too bad about going out of order. They are so short, though, I’ll probably reread Signs in its proper position when the time comes.

Kingdom Cons is set in a similar world to that later novel, but without any overlapping characters, according to my memory. This one stars a man we first meet as Lobo (wolf), but who quickly takes on another name. The canine implication stays, though: he is repeatedly referred to as a stray. Lobo was a poor child whose parents (also strays) sent him out to earn a few coins as a street musician; he sings and plays the accordion, and most importantly, he writes lyrics. After his parents abandon him to this life, he develops his skills: music, writing, and the art of invisibility, of ingratiating himself to the right people. In the opening scene, Lobo performs in a bar while watching–admiring–a group of powerful men. It is clear to him who’s in charge.

He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as though made of finer threads. Other blood.

…Then he saw the jewels that graced him and knew: he was a King.

Two observations from these first lines will be central: one, Lobo’s interest in and feeling for blood. And two, the epithets that identify all characters from here on out. The head man Lobo follows hereafter (a drug lord, a mobster, a leader) is the King. He employs men known as the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Manager, the Traitor. Lobo will be known from here until nearly the end of the book by the title given to him by the King: the Artist. He moves into the King’s palatial compound, fulfilling a new role as court balladeer. He writes songs in praise of the King’s heroics. Completely uncynically, he feels lucky to be a part of something so good, and honestly worships the man in charge. But of course, the King’s rule will eventually be challenged.

The Artist did not do well in school, but his passion and gift for words in the form of song have served him well. At the King’s Court, the Journalist sees his need and gives him books to study. The Doctor gives him spectacles, so that he can see what he’s never seen before. He finds his first romantic and sexual experiences there, but the Girl did not choose this life for herself. In a way, the Court is a microcosm of the world; but in other ways, it is exactly what it seems on its face: a violent, greedy underworld in which girls are sold for a used car, and the King has no true friends really, except perhaps the Artist himself.

That makes it sound more heroic than it is. In the end, the Artists becomes just Lobo again, although he has learned to recognize his own blood.

I missed Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note in this book, but I remain pleased with her work; having read the Note in Signs I trust that the idiosyncrasies of her language here are faithful to Herrera’s. That is, the use of those epithets, the running pun of calling Lobo a stray, and the consistent spelling of ‘though’ as ‘tho.’ I marked many memorable lines. Lobo “thought that from now on there was a new reason why calendars were senseless: no date meant a thing besides this one.” Later, “endings and eccentricities were the most notable way to order time.” “People already knew the story, but no one had ever sung it.” “Maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover.”

Although more subtly than in Signs, I think one of the central themes in this book, again, is borders. Liminal spaces: not just the obvious border between the unstated country where this story is set and its neighbor to the norte, but the fragile transitional space Lobo hopes to cross between his street-hustling and the finer, deceptively safer, life in the Court; and the equally delicate lines walked by other characters in these spaces. Also like Signs, Kingdom Cons retains a slightly dreamy, mystic quality, as if this were a fable, or a myth to build a culture around. Again at less than 100 pages, what a world opens up. I can’t wait to get to The Transmigration of Bodies.


Rating: 8 sombreros.
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