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Orange Mint and Honey: A Novel Paperback – February 12, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In Brice's accomplished debut, African-American Shay Dixon, a burnt-out grad student, has a visitation/fantasy/fever dream featuring Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul, who counsels Shay to go home. To do that, she must face Nona, the drunken failure of a mother she's not spoken to in seven years and blames for a harrowing childhood that left her emotionally scarred. Still, she takes Nina's advice, heads home to Denver and discovers that Nona's now an A.A. member with a good job, a lovely home and an adorable three-year-old girl, Sunny, Shay's half-sister. Their reconciliation is complicated by Shay's stubborn anger, Nona's A.A. sponsorship of a troubled young woman and Shay's sexual awakening. Brice's straightforward prose is dead-on in describing the challenges Shay and her mother face as they reconnect. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

What Would Nina Simone Do?

i should have known things were getting bad when Nina Simone showed up. Don’t get me wrong. I love Nina. I’ve been listening to her since History of Jazz sophomore year. The professor taught us to worship the great men of jazz, but it was the women who drew me in: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey. They were queens, priestesses, goddesses—encouraging me, pointing me away from danger, schooling me in the ways of life. Especially Nina Simone.

I listened to Nina Simone a thousand times, and I always got something from her music. But the night she came to me for the first time she must have known I needed more than a song could offer. I knew a famous singer—and a dead one at that—shouldn’t have been in my bedroom, but somehow I wasn’t surprised to see her because I had been wishing she were there. Wishing she would tell me what to do.

Usually when I was down I could keep going. But this time I bumped up against something that I couldn’t get over, a wall as hard and cold and impossible to see through as frosted glass. I had lost my job writing grant proposals for an indigent-care clinic, stopped going to class, and received an eviction notice from my landlord. But still all I could do was listen to music, hanging on to the life preserver of Nina Simone’s eerie, regal voice.

That night, I was listening to the fast version of “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s a live recording, seven minutes long. Nina gets so into it, you can’t make out what she’s singing. Behind her, the band chants “rising sun, rising sun” over and over, and the audience claps to the fast beat. The piano, the clapping hands, and the tambourine sound like church and juke joints, like sweat and heat, free and alive. I started dancing. I hadn’t had the energy to get out of my pajamas for a week, but “House of the Rising Sun” had me shaking my head back and forth, twirling in circles, and pumping my arms and legs up and down like I was performing a tribal ritual, like I was one of Alvin Ailey’s dancers. I danced through the song three times until all thoughts of jobs and grad school and unpaid bills were erased from my mind, and I could sleep.

At 3:33 a.m. I opened my eyes and Nina Simone was there, as if I had conjured her, standing in front of my bedroom window, blue moonlight spotlighting her features—thick lips, proud nose, slanted eyes rimmed in kohl like Cleopatra’s. I had been asking myself for days WWNSD (What would Nina Simone do?) and now she had come to tell me. I didn’t know if she was a ghost or a hallucination, and I didn’t care. Eyes wide, heart thumping like the speakers in the car of a teenaged boy, I sat up and waited for Nina Simone to say something wise, to tell me how to fix the mess I’d made of my life, to comfort me, and convince me that I had everything I needed to move forward inside me.

“You’ve really screwed up now,” she said.


“You heard me.”

That’s how low I had sunk. Even the spirits of the dead or my own daydreams were turning on me. “I thought you were going to offer me some advice!”

“You’re a grown woman. Why should I tell you what to do?”

It sounded bad when she said it. But I was tired. Tired of always having to figure things out, tired of always having to do everything myself. I’d been taking care of myself since I was eight years old. So for someone else to tell me what to do was exactly what I wanted. For once in my life, I wanted someone else to carry the load. “Because I need help!” I shouted. They were words I had never said before. But then again Nina Simone had never been in my apartment before. It was a night of firsts.

”You got that right,” she said, taking in the mounds of dirty clothes, used Kleenexes, heaps of junk mail, textbooks, CDs, notebooks, and milk-crusted cereal bowls and teacups.

“What I need is . . . is just a break. A rest. A time-out.”

Just the week before, Carl, my advisor, had convinced me that time off was what I needed. Actually, he had “strongly suggested” that I take a year off.

“No!” I had yelled, the most intense emotion I had shown in forever. As exhausted and sick of everything as I was I couldn’t just drop out. I couldn’t be away from school for an entire year.

He stared at me, even more worried.

“I mean, I can’t fall that far behind. I can take a semester off. You’re right, a semester off will do me some good.”

“Okay,” he said, relief washing over his face.

I guess since that MIT student set herself on fire a few years ago—even after visiting the mental health service—the plan was to get depressed college students off campus ASAP. Let them be someone else’s lawsuit in the making.

“What will you do with your time off?”

“I have no idea.” What did people do with time off? I had never taken a day off in my life. If I didn’t have to work, I still had papers to write or tests to study for. Even during the summers I took at least one class or put in extra hours at work. I’d never even skipped school before now. Playing hooky was something that bad kids, going-to-end-up-just-like-their-parents kids did.

“What about your family? Friends? Don’t you have anybody who can help?”

You would think that since I was sitting in front of him in dirty, rumpled clothes and a bandanna on my head, looking like “Who shot John?” as my old hairdresser Belinda used to say, he would know the answer to that question.

Of course, being an academic, he wasn’t much better dressed. Like me, he had on the requisite khakis and button-down shirt. We could have been twins except his clothes probably didn’t come straight out of the hamper. He still thought I was like all his other students, who got care packages, plane tickets, and checks from home. But all I ever got from Nona were postcards from her new, allegedly sober, life. And friends? The last good friend I had was in high school. Stephanie was still back in Denver. I hadn’t spoken to her since we graduated.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but you might want to see someone. You know? A professional. I want you to come back ready to finish your thesis.”

My thesis was just one of many things that had stalled. I nodded, exhausted. All I wanted to do was go back home and turn on my music.

“Let’s touch base in a month or so. Send me an e-mail, let me know how you’re doing.”

“I’ll be fine,” I repeated.

Though, clearly, I was far from fine. Things had only gotten worse. I had been “resting” for a week now, and look what happened: A dead woman was sitting in my bedroom talking to me.

“Go home, Shay,” Nina Simone said.

She knew my name.

“You need to go home,” she said.

She must have read my mind, which shouldn’t have been too hard considering there was a good chance she was being generated from the same place. But like Carl, she didn’t understand.

The last time I saw Nona I was in my junior year in college. She came to Iowa City when she reached the step where they make you apologize. She was very pregnant, and I couldn’t believe how ugly she was. Her face was all broken out and she must have gained fifty, sixty pounds. Not just in her breasts and stomach, but in her face, arms, hands, back, butt, and thighs. The bags under her eyes were puffed up like pot stickers. Even her feet were fat.

When I saw her, saw how heavy and zitty she was, I was almost happy she had come. I kept my eyes on her bloated feet the whole time she read her apology. Her voice shook. I don’t remember exactly what she said. Something about being sorry she let me down, sorry I learned I couldn’t trust her. But I remember her saying something about us “being mother and daughter again” and, even though I was looking down at her feet, I saw her rest her hand on her stomach when she said the word mother.

That was too much. Acting like her pregnancy was a good thing, not a horrible, stupid mistake. I had actually been hopeful when she told me she was going to A.A. For the first few months I thought, Wow, she’s really going to do it this time. Stupid me, I actually let myself believe her. Then she got pregnant. Knocked up by a guy she met in A.A., who promptly left her high and dry just like my own father had; and there she was expecting me to believe that things were different. She couldn’t even do A.A. without going off with some guy! She was thirty-six years old and she had never heard of birth control? Never heard of AIDS or chlamydia or herpes?

She told me she hoped I would give her another chance. I think she wanted me to shout “I forgive you!” and throw myself into her arms. But I just stared at her feet, at the flesh rising like bread dough over the straps of her red sandals.

Nina Simone gingerly toed a pair of jeans out of her way, revealing the panties I had worn with them weeks ago tangled up inside, and walked toward me. I hoped she wouldn’t get too close. It had been a while since I had seen soap and water. I was cloaked in a cloud of funk toxic enough to re-kill a dead woman.

She sat on the foot of my bed. “You could rest. Let your mother take care of you.”

I snorted. “That’s not how it worked. I took care of Nona. And I’m done.”

“Maybe it would be different. Maybe you’ve got nothing to lose.”

I doubted it would be very different, but she was right about my having nothing to lose. Spending the next few months in my old VW Bug didn’t sound very appealing. But still I hesitated.

“Go home,” Nina Simone urged, her long earrings swinging like chandeliers.

So I picked up the phone and called Nona for the first time in seven years.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: One World/Ballantine (February 12, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345499069
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345499066
  • Product Dimensions: 4.4 x 0.7 x 7.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #916,834 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Carleen Brice's debut novel, ORANGE MINT AND HONEY, is the basis for the NAACP Image Award-winning Lifetime TV movie "Sins of the Mother" starring Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie. ORANGE MINT AND HONEY was also an Essence "Recommended Read" and a Target "Bookmarked Breakout Book." For this book, she won the 2009 First Novelist Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the 2008 Break Out Author Award at the African American Literary Awards Show.

Booklist Online called her second novel, CHILDREN OF THE WATERS (One World/Ballantine), a book about race, love and family, "a compelling read, difficult to put down." Essence said, "Brice has a new hit."

Please visit her website,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Dera R Williams VINE VOICE on May 7, 2008
Format: Paperback
Carleen Brice, an author of such nonfiction titles as Age Ain't Nothing But a Number makes her fiction debut with Orange Mint and Honey. Shay Dixon is a nervous breakdown in the making. She is a twenty-five year old grad student who has hit rock bottom; laid off from her job, about to be evicted and carrying baggage that would break the back of the strongest of women. Not to mention she is channeling the voice of the late singer, Nina Simone who seems to be her guiding force and at this moment, she is telling Shay to go home. Home is the last place Shay wants to be. She has spent the last few years distancing herself from Denver, Colorado and her past.

Raised by an alcoholic, Shay finds it hard to forgive her mother's past neglect but that is exactly what her mother is asking--forgiveness. Shay returns to find her mother has made a transformation. Nona is now an employed homeowner replete with Martha Stewart living, a healthy lifestyle and a flower and herb garden. She is also the mother of another daughter, five-year old Sunshine. Shay watches as her mother is the epitome of motherhood as she dotes on Sunshine, something that was lacking when Shay was a child.

Shay has even more issues, baggage upon baggage that need fixing; she has a nervous habit of pulling out her hair, she is socially inept and her background is such that she guards against getting close to people. Shay gets a job in a record shop, reconnects with the only friend she has ever had and begins to navigate through her issues to reclaim her sanity and find balance. She is forced to step outside of herself as she begins dating, forges new ties, and begins the journey of repairing the most fragile of all relationships, that of mother and daughter.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 18, 2008
Format: Paperback
I'm not much of a reader but it only took me 5 hours to read this book! I'm only a few years older than the main character and I could relate to some of the issues a young woman goes through with her mother.I learned from Shay that people who "seem" together really aren't. I don't have my degree yet and the whole time I'm yelling (at the book) "you have a degree!! what are you whining about?" My generation is the first generation in the black community that's starting to talk about personal issues and family problems.It's hard to face things as black women. We were taught to hold it in and deal with everything on our own.I liked the way this character grew and decided to let it out. This was refreshing, real, and uplifting. I cried, laughed, and really want to make this tea!!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Tavares S. Carney VINE VOICE on May 12, 2008
Format: Paperback
Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice is the story of a mother and daughter, Nona and Shay Dixon, and the path both women take in discovering who they really are. The central theme in the author's first novel is forgiveness. Sometimes in life, we must face our bitter pasts in order to get to our sweet tomorrows.

Nona is a recovering alcoholic, who in yester-years was not very motherly to her first daughter, Shay. She is now striving to be a better mom to her second daughter, Sunny. After an emotionally unstable Shay puts her postgraduate degree on hold and returns home for a semester discovering her "new mom," her pinned up animosity towards her mother radiates through several incidents and conversations. In spite of Shay's resistance to the extension of Nona's olive branch to mend their broken mother-daughter relationship, Nona continues her quest to stay on the right track and repair their relationship.

Readers will find themselves drawn into this story, especially mothers and daughters. Mothers and daughters may not always see things from each other's perspective; however, through communication and mutual respect, anything is possible. Nona relied on her AA meetings and tending to her garden to keep her on the straight and narrow; while Shay found herself after she opened up to newfound beau, Oliver.

Through supporting characters Ivy, a recovering alcoholic, drug abuser and prostitute, and Oliver, Shay's first "real boyfriend," Nona and Shay face situations where they lean on each other for emotional support and finally begin the healing process in their own relationship. Sitting down over a cup of orange mint tea with a splash of honey, the two women discover that sometimes in life we just have to accept the bitter with the sweet and make the best of it.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Karen L. Carter on March 6, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
ORANGE MINT AND HONEY incorporates layers of emotions into a wonderfully readable and often humorous story. Having raised herself due to her mother's once-rampant alcoholism, Shay Dixon nearly reaches the pinnacle of years of struggle--the completion of her graduate degree--when she finds she cannot go on. A "visit" from the late great jazz singer Nina Simone compels Shay to return home to her seemingly re-made, AA-saved mother...and a new little half-sister.

The twists and turns that Shay's first few months with the family she's unsure she wants drive the plot and the growing understanding of how Shay must reconcile her tragic childhood with the potential promise of her future. Only through difficult lessons does she learn to relax, to relish the sweetness of simple pleasures despite the bitterness that often accompanies them, to love herself despite her perceived weaknesses and handicaps, to appreciate her unique style of gracing the world in which she lives and the lives of those who love her.
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