30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #4 Jillian Cantor

As the publication date for my novel draws closer, I’m thinking and writing about 30 Novelists You Should Know. And they’re all women.

What if?

What if Margot Frank, Anne Frank’s older sister, had survived the concentration camps? What if she tried to shed her past by moving to Philadelphia and creating a new identity for herself as a non-Jewish woman named Margie Franklin?

This is the premise of Jillian Cantor’s compelling and haunting novel, Margot. The book takes place in 1959, just as the movie version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” sweeps across America.

A fresh look at a well-known story

A vast number of people throughout the world have read The Diary of a Young Girl. (For a fascinating examination of the book’s reach and impact, read Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose.)

I read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and have reread it as an adult. Like most Jews of my generation, I’ve also read a large amount of Holocaust literature.

Margot is something different. It centers on the sister we never knew, the one we readers saw only through our peripheral vision because we couldn’t take our eyes off Anne. And it provides a shocking glimpse of the casual and pervasive anti-Semitism in post-war Philadelphia, just years after the horrors of the Holocaust had become fully known.

An appalling inspiration

Cantor’s inspiration to write Margot emerged from an appalling event. She was only yards away when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six people were murdered, including a girl only a little older than Cantor’s own children. You can read about it here.

A writer to watch

Jillian Cantor has written another novel for adults and three for teen readers. I learned about Margot through book reviews, and had not been familiar with Cantor before that. I’ll definitely be watching for future work from her.

If you read Margot, read it for the story – and to see how a writer’s words can transform a tale so familiar into something new and evocative.

Jillian Cantor

Jillian Cantor

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #3 Octavia Butler

You would think that writing novels might sate your appetite for reading them, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. There seem to be countless numbers of novelists out there, writing dazzling books.

As the November 1 publication date approaches for my own novel, Her Own Vietnam, I’m writing about 30 of my favorite women novelists. I dare you to read their books and not become a fan.

The majesty and mystery of Octavia Butler

First, that name. Octavia Butler. There’s majesty and mystery to it. Someone knew something when that child was born. And that makes sense, because Octavia Butler’s books are full of people who have special ways of knowing.

You could call her a science fiction writer, although I don’t actually think of her that way. I think her books ask the universal question of all fiction: “What if?”

However, she certainly swept the top literary awards for science and fantasy fiction, winning both the Nebula and Hugo awards – twice.

Octavia Butler wrote 12 novels that comprised three different series, and two additional stand-alone novels. Many of these books unfold in worlds different from our own, with characters that are not strictly human.

Creating new worlds and reshaping familiar ones

Her most famous novel, Kindred, takes place in a completely familiar world. It has one small wrinkle, though: the main character, a young African American woman, keeps being flung back in time to a plantation in rural Maryland. There she is both enslaved and entrusted with a mission to save the future, including her own.

I am not a big fan of science fiction or fantasy, but I am a fan of Octavia Butler. Her books create other universes that serve as mirrors to examine what is most human in us. How do we understand and respond to race, gender, otherness? What makes a family? What is the purpose of power? How thin is the line between what we know and what we fear?


Octavia Butler herself seemed fearless. As an African American woman and a lesbian, she broke new ground and demanded respect in the predominantly white, male field of science fiction. She was the first writer in that genre to win a MacArthur Fellowship, which we all secretly think of as a genius grant.

She was an imposing woman, 6 feet tall, yet shy and introverted, according to her own description. I had the privilege of hearing her speak several months before her death in 2006, and she was witty and humble as she addressed an adoring, standing-room-only audience.

Octavia Butler died at 58. Who knows where else she might have taken us with her words?

Octavia Butler (Photo by Leslie Howle)

Octavia Butler
(Photo by Leslie Howle)


30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #2 Kim Barnes

These days I’m writing about Thirty Women Novelists You Should Know. In alphabetical order, today is #2: Kim Barnes.

Turns out I didn’t discover her

Like many writers I believe I’ve discovered, Kim Barnes had a distinguished writing career long before I stumbled upon her work. For instance, her first memoir was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve read only one of her three novels, but loved it enough to know I want to read more of her books – and to introduce other readers to her if I can.

In the Kingdom of Men is about a young couple from Pawnee, Oklahoma who move to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s so the husband can work for an American oil company. The wife, who grew up in poverty under a strict Pentecostal religion, suddenly has an Indian houseboy and a Bedouin driver, and nothing to do but chafe under the familiar restrictions the Saudis place on women. The novel does a wonderful job of creating characters and exploring the many political, racial and gender issues at play in the burgeoning oil partnership between the U.S. and the Saudis.

We all live in a dangerous neighborhood

I was first drawn to the book by its title, since I believe we are all living in the kingdom of men and it’s a dangerous neighborhood. The novel captured me with its vibrant depiction of the American oil companies’ frantic efforts to domesticate the Saudi landscape and people, as well as the book’s examination of the dangers – and temptations – of empire.

The main character, Gin, is complicated and compelling, always probing to find the limits of her freedom. As a reader you fear for her, cheer for her, and wish she could live in a less confining era. The novel brilliantly illuminates conflicts of culture – not only the tensions between the Saudis and the Americans who live in guarded compounds on their land, but the tensions between democracy and the rampaging capitalism of the oil companies. And I particularly loved how friendship served in the novel as both a means of redemption and insurrection.

I’m stealing this

On Barnes’ website, the discussion guide for In the Kingdom of Men concludes with this odd and thought-provoking question, which I am absolutely going to steal for my own discussion guide for Her Own Vietnam: “If you could save one life in this story, whose life would it be?”

Kim Barnes

Kim Barnes

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #1 Carol Anshaw

As I count down the days before Her Own Vietnam is published, I wanted to share some thoughts about my favorite novelists. If you’re not already familiar with these wonderful writers, I hope you’ll give their books a try.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post (in alphabetical order) about Thirty Novelists You Should Know. And guess what – they’re all women.

#1 Carol Anshaw

I discovered Carol Anshaw in 1992 with her first book, Aquamarine. In that novel she creates three alternate and equally plausible lives for Jessie, an Olympic swimmer who almost wins a gold medal but loses it to the Australian swimmer she has fallen in love with. Or was it love? Did the Australian woman woo her only to break her concentration? And which of the three possible futures does Jessie experience?

My admiration for Anshaw’s writing has grown through all four of her novels including her most recent book, Carry the One, in which young people on the way home from a wedding get into a car accident that will affect the rest of their lives.

What I admire

Here’s what I love about her work. Anshaw creates warm, lively, complicated characters who live in the real world, not in a fictional bubble. They recognize the impact of public events on their personal lives, as well as their capacity to help shape those events.

Her books are witty, with the smart, sharp-edged humor I most enjoy. Many of Anshaw’s characters are lesbians, but the books are never about the fact that they’re lesbians. She is a master at writing dialogue that’s realistic and revealing. Throw in some great Chicago locations (my home town) and you have the perfect mix.

 Where’s the love?

I know she’s a New York Times best-selling author, but it has always seemed to me that Carol Anshaw is underappreciated as a writer. I wonder if it’s because of the naturalistic way she writes.

Her plots unfold in ways that seem inevitable, as if anyone could see that the characters had no choice but to make those particular decisions. Her characters speak like your smartest, funniest friends, and they strive and stumble just as we all do.

Anshaw makes it look easy to write that way. It isn’t.

Carol Anshaw (thefeministwire.com)

Carol Anshaw

Egg Heaven has arrived!

Egg Heaven cover

If you love short stories, appreciate writing that shimmers with quiet beauty, long to be transformed by brief, intense immersions into other people’s harrowing and astonishing lives – then go to Egg Heaven.

Nine short stories about waitresses who work in diners and customers who can barely afford to eat there. Nine living worlds created in a Southern California no tourist will ever see. Diverse characters connected by filaments of hope amidst all the different ways a human can hunger.

I won’t even pretend

The author, Robin Parks – who won the Raymond Carver Short Story Award – is a long-time friend of mine. And Egg Heaven is the first book published by Shade Mountain Press, which in November will publish my novel.

So no, I won’t even pretend to objective. But let me tell you some of the things I love about this book.

Let me count the ways

With a few deft strokes, Robin creates indelible characters. For example, one character takes up less than two pages, yet is unforgettable as she tries to recruit a desperate young woman into the Marines by assuring her she will save money because “quite frankly honey, you will be too dog tired to spend it.”

The book creates a powerful sense of place. Long Beach, California and the elements themselves serve as characters. I reveled in descriptions such as “the long sigh of the outgoing surf,” and “So deep was the strength of the ocean that she could feel it shudder beneath her.”

Pages glint with beautiful writing and haunting evocations of loss. For instance, we experience a young woman playing her section of a piano duet she used to play with her twin sister, who has recently been killed. “She played her part like the one leaf in a bush that shivers in the wind when all the others are still.”

Don’t take my word for it

It’s not just me – lots of people love Egg Heaven. In the influential journal Foreword Reviews, Sara Budzik wrote, “Parks is a master of the short story and of using elements of place and resource as common threads between people. She connects lost souls to something they found in these diners and restaurants, and it connects us all with the poetry of the human experience.”

The book’s official publication date is October 1. But you can pre-order now if you click here. Read Egg Heaven, and let me know what you think. You won’t be sorry.

To be read: Egg Heaven