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Tangerine by Christine Mangan

Former college roommates reunite in Morocco, with enigmatic tensions and references to a troubled past.

Christine Mangan’s first novel, Tangerine, offers suspense and lingering questions in a drama centered on the post-college relationship between two young women recently relocated to Morocco.

Lucy Mason and Alice Shipley were roommates at Bennington College in Vermont. They came from quite different circumstances: Alice was a well-off British orphan, whose guardian Aunt Maude is serious but somewhat unfeeling in her role. Lucy was a scholarship student, also an orphan, and this similarity is part of what led the pair to bond. They were terribly close in college–until the accident.

In Tangerine‘s opening pages, Alice has moved to Tangier with her new husband, John. He loves the city, its cacophony of sights and smells, its colorful crowds, jazz clubs and ubiquitous hot mint tea. Alice is not so sure. She hasn’t left their apartment in weeks, maybe months, when Lucy turns up on the stoop. By contrast, a local tells Lucy almost immediately upon her arrival: “You are a Tangierine now,” pronounced like the fruit, and highlighting the rich, fragrant foreignness of the backdrop to this drama.

In alternating chapters, the reader encounters past and present through Lucy’s and Alice’s respective perspectives. An epilogue and prologue, with unnamed narrators, offer more mystery. John is a shifting but mostly unsympathetic character. The two women’s accounts of past events differ only slightly, at first. But as the novel unfolds, it becomes complicated. Lucy’s devotion is perhaps a bit too intense. Alice’s agoraphobia is variously attributed to her parents’ death, or to a more sinister cause. Eventually, their memories of their shared past diverge enough that the question can no longer be ignored. Is this gaslighting? Mental illness? Surreality? Are these the simple mistakes of memory or is there a more ominous force at work?

In an atmosphere of shimmering heat, multiple languages and layers of history and mythology, two young women are bound together–although the reader must wait to find out if it is by a trick of fate or someone’s purposeful actions. While there is money at issue–Alice’s trust fund–the real risks are more significant. As this expertly paced novel rushes toward its finale, the question of whose reality is to be trusted becomes a question of sanity, or even of life and death.

Tangerine is a novel of intrigue and shifting perspectives, starring two ultimately unreliable narrators. Its appeal lies in the lush, sensual setting; the metered release of information about the shadowy past; and especially in untangling the twisted mystery of the present. Suspense fans will be well satisfied.


This review originally ran in the March 8, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scalding hot glasses of mint tea.

Let’s No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda

A teenaged squatter with a poet’s heart and a stolen fly-fishing rod struggles to map her own way.

“I know I’m not a woman yet. But I’m also not a girl. I’m a poem no one will ever translate.” With Let’s No One Get Hurt, Jon Pineda (Apology) offers a wild, yearning, strong-willed protagonist and a novel with both tenderness and violence at its core.

“In a few months, I’ll be sixteen, but my body doesn’t know it.” Pearl’s father says she’s 15 going on 50. She lives in an abandoned boathouse with her father and two other adult men. Dox and Fritter are father and son, and Dox remembers Pearl’s mother, from before. Now, they form a family of sorts, subsisting on catfish and crayfish from the river, mushrooms and wild rice from the woods and building scraps from the wealthy subdivision nearby.

Pearl has made new acquaintances: the upper-class boys who live in the development surrounding the golf course near her makeshift home. They drive tricked-out golf carts and shoot their daddies’ fancy shotguns for fun, filming it all for the Internet where they hope to go viral. One of them takes a special interest in her, playing his father’s wealth against her household’s tenuous living. Pearl’s coming-of-age and her troubled liaison with these boys define the novel’s timeline. As she grows up, her old dog, Marianne Moore, prepares to die. (If her father had his way, Pearl would do the right thing and shoot her already.) A former poetry professor who named the dog after one of his favorite subjects, her father also suffers from increasingly poor health. Fritter paints a never-ending mural of pitch black and Dox noodles on his cigar-box guitar.

Pearl’s mother was a scholar who said that “poems were never finished, that they were only abandoned.” Pearl likes to think that maybe all abandoned things are poems. She lives in an abandoned place; maybe she lives inside a poem. As a narrative voice, she fights the urge to see poetry in images and to describe her world lyrically: “I hate that I even see them as wings. They’re just napkins.”

Let’s No One Get Hurt is about race (most pointedly when Pearl unintentionally crashes a Civil War reenactment with Fritter, a dreadlocked, 300-pound black man) as well as class. It is about families and how they hurt and help one another, the mysteries of Pearl’s mother and of the rich boys’ everyday cruelties. “The river waits for me, and that’s all that matters.” As a river-based adventure of difficult adolescence, Let’s No One Get Hurt inevitably recalls Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as Bonnie Jo Campbell’s female-centered Once Upon a River. Pineda’s writing is thick with the lush warmth of the American South and the harshness of a life scavenged out-of-doors, and his teenaged girl’s perspective is spot-on. This novel of exploration, exploitation and the poetry in it all will stun readers of all kinds, especially those who appreciate strong characters and tough choices.


This review originally ran in the March 1, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 blue cats.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A Brothers Grimm fairy tale recast in 1980s London features a single mother fighting against long odds for her place in the world.

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The Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” features a wicked stepmother. A pious wife desperately wants a child; her wish is granted, but she dies just after giving birth to a son. Her husband buries her under a juniper tree and remarries, but his new wife, favoring her own daughter, cooks her stepson into a stew and feeds it to his father. Her daughter buries the boy’s bones under the juniper tree with his mother. He is reincarnated as a bird, who sings to the townspeople about his murder.

Barbara Comyns’s The Juniper Tree, originally published in 1985, bears an epigraph from the fairy tale: “My mother she killed me, my father he ate me,” but from there diverges sharply from the original. In 1980s London, Bella Winter has had a run of bad luck. Her pretty face has been badly scarred in an automobile accident. She has only recently escaped a manipulative relationship with a selfish man and withdrawn from her unloving mother. She has a young daughter of mixed race she calls Marline, born out of wedlock and fathered by a man whose name she didn’t catch. In the opening pages, she is jobless and homeless, but she is resourceful and unsentimental, and soon finds a home and vocation in a small antiques shop. The friendship of an upper-class couple, Bernard and Gertrude, completes her happiness, and she spends long, sweet afternoons with Gertrude sitting under the juniper tree in the couple’s garden. She even sees a fragile reunion with her mother. This contentment is shattered, however, when Gertrude’s longed-for pregnancy ends in both birth and death. Bella plays an increasingly large role in helping Bernard run his household with the baby, Johnny, and Marline becomes like a sister to the boy. When Bernard convinces Bella to marry him, however, her life takes a turn toward the Brothers Grimm.

Bella is a remarkable narrator and protagonist. Practical, independent, resilient, she builds a neat life for herself and her daughter, meeting all their needs and bothering no one. The friendship of the wealthier couple, which brings her such joy, turns out to be a curse, and Bella the tragic hero. Comyns turns the fairy tale on its head and complicates it with class and racial tensions, mental illness and the timeless struggle of a young woman to chart her own course. This is a richer, more relevant, modern rendering of the classic, heartbreaking in its fine attention to detail and its realistic, hardy heroine. While no knowledge of “The Juniper Tree” is necessary to appreciate this version, those familiar with the original will appreciate many subtle references. This edition includes a brief, helpful introduction by critic Sadie Stein, offering context within Comyns’s body of work. The Juniper Tree is a poignant, quietly disturbing novel for fans of strong female protagonists and dark fairy tales, and anyone who roots for the underdog.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 magpies.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

residency readings, part I

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


I posted last month about the readings (etc.) I’d be doing to prepare for this upcoming semester and residency. As I worked my way through the assignments, I wanted to share a few highlights and my general impressions. Again, you can take a look at the readings and seminar descriptions here.

In order of appearance, and therefore the order in which I read and viewed them:

Because of my longstanding problem with poetry, the packet assigned for Diane Gilliam’s seminar on “reading as a writer” was fairly mysterious to me, though not unenjoyable–I just didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. Maybe I’m too much a control freak for poetry. Because the contents of her packet weren’t spelled out at the link above, I’ll just list the poets here. It included works by Louise McNeill, T’ai Freedom Ford, Theodore Roethke, *William Stafford, *Ross Gay, Eavan Boland (author of “The Black Lace Fan” that I remember studying in high school), Li-Young Lee, *Lauren Rusk, W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, *Audre Lorde, Charles Simic, and *Eleanor Wilner. (My favorite poems were by the *asterisked names.)

Jessie‘s assigned readings for “writing in the gaps” included an excerpt from Housekeeping (so at least I was a little familiar, if also ambivalent); a craft essay I really enjoyed by Andrea Barrett that had plenty of personal essay to it as well; and, among other things, Albert Goldbarth’s essay “Fuller.” That last was a reread, and I got so much more out of it this time. Jessie is smart, and deep, and I have no illusions that I am grasping the point of her seminar yet.

Next was Katie Fallon’s packet, which I loved and swooned over, although it was indeed hard emotional stuff. It begins with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” a poem I felt I got. Brian Doyle’s “Leap” was a reread but an always-welcome one. “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer resonated with me in many ways, especially when he meditated on the distances we feel from tragedies close to home, and the different ways we mourn. And though I loved everything in between, the final piece, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always stands out. I’ve read it a number of times now, though I haven’t written much about it. I had such a wild time with it again on this reading that I had to amend my “best of the year” post to put it at the very top. I felt close to Katie as I read this packet, too, knowing her as my first semester’s advisor, and knowing from reading her Cerulean Blues of her own experience with trauma. I am very interested in her seminar on “writing personal responses to public violence,” and I imagine that teaching it will cost her something, but I also know she has a lot to teach.

Jacinda Townsend’s packet of magical realism blew my mind. I guess I should be reading more of this stuff?! I loved Byatt’s “A Stone Woman,” and then the next and the next and the next. This was not the first enjoyable reading of the residency assignments, but it was the first time I lost myself. Go find these stories immediately! Wow. I’m really looking forward to this seminar.


That’s all for now–this began as a single really long post but I’ve taken pity on you. Come back on Friday to read about the rest of my assigned readings for this residency period. Thanks for sticking around!

Glorybound by Jessie van Eerden

Disclosure: Jessie is the director of the MFA program I am enrolled in.


And it’s so hard for me to separate this book from the Jessie I know. I felt like I heard the lines read aloud in her measured, careful tones, with attention for each sound within them. Impartial I guess I am not, but I’ll tell you my opinion anyway, that this is a beautiful book.

Aimee and Crystal Lemley are holding it together, a decade after their father Cord, preacher at the Glorybound Holiness Tabernacle, predicted the end of times and then left town after times didn’t end. Their hometown of Cuzzert, West Virginia, population 335, is the kind of place where people stop over and then keep going. The girls take care of their mother Dotte and keep faith to the vows they made when Cord left: Crystal does not speak, and Aimee is celibate. They intend to be woman-prophets–by the rules of Glorybound, they will be able to prophesy but not to lead from up front.

Then a new teacher comes to town, from a volunteer program, sent from Chicago. His name is Aubrey Falls–Aimee calls him “sweet Aubrey Falls,” like an epithet. Aubrey finds the missing patriarch preacher Cord, and hopes to reunite him with his daughters. He uproots the past, which had come to feel well-buried in the drought-ridden, crusted-over, slow-moving Cuzzert; he raises questions and disrupts the Lemleys’ stasis. Unwitting, he becomes part of a swell of change.

This story, in its framing elements–setting in time and place and culture, religious backdrop and markers–is foreign to me. In fact, the Lemleys’ lives and understandings of the world are so caught up in their church that I would normally steer clear of them. In this way I’m like Aubrey. But like Aubrey, I was pulled along by the charm and charisma of Aimee and Crystal and the whole dysfunctional town. I guess in part I trusted in Jessie, whose work I knew to be luminous; but this book is luminous from its first lines, shines from within in a way that marks it as special, so I don’t think it mattered that I knew Jessie was an amazing writer beforehand, at all.

There is a magic beneath the words on the page, which glow and sing with music. These characters are all a mess and not quite decipherable, but they also feel perfectly portrayed, as in perfectly represented in all their weirdness; authentic. Think of entering a dark movie theatre and being transported, coming out with that dazed surprise at the world you live in, after all.

I realize I’m being a bit mystic and vague in my praise–perhaps the tone of this book has rubbed off on me. Here are a few of Glorybound‘s nameable strengths: exquisite detail and description, for example, of the dresses Aimee wears; lyric language, with a clear attention paid to every syllable; characterization through silences, diversions, and body language; tone and atmosphere. I would like to say that the West Virginia portrayed here is a true West Virginia, but that’s something I don’t know from personal experience so much as trust from what I know of Jessie and her background. (She made a lovely contribution to my birth/place project.) As a through-line, for those looking more closely for craft elements, I love the recurring quiet importance of clothing: Aimee’s dresses, Crystal’s worn work clothes, Aubrey’s discomfort with what to wear, Dotte’s seamstress work, the dresses worn by other women, the work of doing laundry. Every word counts.

Jessie has since had two more books published, her second novel My Radio Radio and most recently a collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping. I will read them all.


Rating: 9 pieces of wash on the line.

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas

Two novellas translated from the Chinese offer plucky characters in terrible situations, simply but poetically portrayed.

The Years, Months, Days contains two novellas by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. The title story, featuring just two characters, opens: “In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.” All the other residents of a tiny mountain village have fled, but an old man known only as the Elder does not think he’d survive the trip. He stays behind, with a blind dog for companion, to tend a single stalk of corn, in the hopes that when the villagers return, the kernels he nurtures will restart their community. In this stark tale, he speaks to the corn and the dog and his departed neighbors, alternately cursing and hopeful, and does battle with rats, wolves and the sun itself. As the food and water available to man and dog dwindle, every day becomes a fight for life.

The second novella, “Marrow,” is also about a grim struggle for existence. The father of four disabled children, out of guilt for his heredity, kills himself, leaving his wife to raise them alone. His ghost remains to accompany his wife and converse with her, in a twist that could be magical or merely her fantasy. When their children grow up, she works to find them marriages and homes of their own, despite their problems and the ill will of the villagers. Finally she discovers that there is a cure for their poor health and bad luck–but it involves the bones of direct relatives. When only her youngest is left at home, she devises a way to reinterpret his disturbing appetites for the better.

The common themes of these bleak stories are clear: hunger, solitude, the searing strain of existence. In a brief, insightful translator’s note, Rojas observes that Lianke’s work often transforms such abstract needs into literal ones. Indeed, the author’s descriptions are synesthetic: smells “roll noisily”; gazes produce a “crackling sound”; and a wolf’s roar is purplish-red. In a spare but artful style, Lianke presents the sun’s rays as physical realities, which have measurable mass and can be cut or shattered. His characters inhabit a bleak, harsh world. In bitterly hard circumstances, they show courage and ingenuity, defiance and grace. His renderings of real-world desolations are imaginative and wondrous; these austere fables are minimal, but beautifully composed. The Years, Months, Days is for readers who appreciate grim lessons, magical realism and lovely, lyric prose.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 yelps like blades of green grass.
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