Category Archives: Fiction

Which magazines or journals earn the most Pushcart Prizes?

This interesting blog tallies the nominations by journal or magazine. If a Pushcart is what you’re after, it could make an interesting submission list.


Which magazines or journals earn the most Pushcart Prizes?

This interesting blog tallies the nominations by journal or magazine. If a Pushcart is hat you’re after, it could make an interesting submission list.


Sneak Preview: Birds of Paradise, by Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber, one of the most charming authors around.

Join me on Friday, September 2, at 4:00 p.m. EST for an online reading and chat with Diana Abu-Jaber about her latest novel, Birds of Paradise, which comes out on September 1. You’ll be among the first to hear Diana read and discuss this latest of her four novels, an exquisitely-rendered family portrait of the Muirs, who have been decimated by the absence of their runaway daughter, Felice. Somehow, Abu-Jaber manages to merge her signature good humor and her detailed knowledge of cooking with this deeply affecting tale.

Go early to to create your own ID so that you can ask Diana your own question via audio link, or just click on the link below and then on the link to the “scheduled episode” if you’d like to listen, only.

Here’s the link to the Jane Book Chat site where the reading/interview will take place:


Diana Abu-Jaber
W. W. Norton, New York
ISBN 978-0-393-06461-2
September 2011
$25.95 hardback ($30 Canada)
368 pages

Birds of Paradise

Diana Abu-Jaber’s fourth novel charms with delectable prose, vividly unique characterizations, and an exquisitely-rendered Miami setting, even as it wrenches the reader through a plot involving a family damaged by the voluntary disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl. Our hearts and our appetites are stimulated by this extraordinary quest to the heart of family connections.

Abu Jaber’s Miami is a dazzling blend of Eden and the Mad Queen’s Wonderland, both graced with the natural bounty of fertile soil and teeming sea, and patrolled by human sharks with a taste for blood and excess. Her protagonists plot a course that brings us perilously close to all its edges. The financially successful and inventively gifted Avis and Brian Muir are enmeshed in a world of gourmet cuisine and predatory business law, respectively, while their teenaged daughter inhabits a world of skinhead-infested flop houses, wayward skate boarders, and electric nightclub lights, supporting herself with occasional modeling gigs while she hides from her parents. Her brother, Stanley, an entrepreneurial organic food purveyor, stands aside and watches the emotional mayhem.

Avis, an expert pastry chef who is always elbow-deep in crème fraiche, snowy mounds of lemon peel, and lavender-scented blueberries, is bewildered but faithful enough to take heart and gingembre en cristal in hand for every infrequent rendezvous arranged on her daughter’s terms. Brian, a real estate attorney working for developers whose plundering of the landscape and neighborhoods makes him cringe, despairs, also, but in a different way: he toys with the possibilities of infidelity and spiking the salacious deals that allow him to keep the facade of success. Stanley, rejected from his mother’s kitchen and squeezed from the spotlight by his beautiful younger sister, builds a life as far away from his parents’ as he can imagine. Felice, is an enigma: why would a daughter who is loved and treasured, who has the gifts of beauty and brains and a luxurious home, want to live on the streets?

“A cookie . . . is a soul, ” Avis says to her children when they are small. ” you think it looks like a tiny thing, right? Just a little nothing. But then you take a bite.”

Every member of this mangled family has a soul that shines light on what it means to love and cherish others. Abu-Jaber shows us not just her character’s thoughts, but also the ingredients that made them. She is at her best divining the myriad interconnections and split-second impressions that determine emotional choices, and, thus, fate. Avis, tried to a degree that the reader can hardly bear as she prepares for the meetings that Felice cannot be depended on to remember, numbly recalls all the ways she tried to avoid repeating the mistakes of her own neglectful mother. She will not allow that disconnect between herself and her own children. She will marzipan their world. Her two children respond in vastly different ways.

In her kitchen, Avis is in control. Perhaps too much so, as she drives Stanley away when he tries to give her the close bond she longs for with her daughter. But when a neighbor’s screeching exotic bird disturbs her carefully-constructed world of pâtés and crème Chantilly, Avis storms off to confront her, and finds in Solange a will more indomitable than her own, as well as a retreat that entices her away from ringing phones and delivery vans.

We divide our time as readers between Avis’ domestic kingdom and Felice’s skateboard and partying scene, with glimpses into Brian’s carefully controlled despair among cheating, lying denizens of his high rise office, and Stanley’s determined social responsibility. Food and flora create the paradise in which Avis comes to grips with her growing despair.

One of the pleasures of this novel is its toothsome complexity, as satisfying as one of Avis’ sugar-encrusted creations. None of the characters skates through a scene, not even Stanley’s overwhelming girlfriend or Brian’s conniving business associates: characters grapple, with each other, their dilemmas, their fates. Eventually, the family’s conflicts mount to a fever pitch as Felice’s eighteenth birthday and a hurricane approach in tandem. As her characters careen toward climactic encounters, Abu-Jaber shows us the imperfections in paradise and the hope that accompanies each step in its realization.

This may be the best work yet from the author of the critically acclaimed Arabian Jazz, Crescent, and the memoir, The Language of Baklava. Certainly, this novel belongs with the pantheon of authors–Connie May Fowler and Carl Hiaasen come to mind–who have used Florida’s bountiful setting as an element in their plumbing of the human soul. Writers will want to savor and deconstruct Abu-Jaber’s graceful prose. Foodies will be rapt by Abu-Jaber’s deft descriptions, and parents–present and potential–will find much to ponder here. Anyone who has ever wondered how young girls cope with the demands of a sex-obsessed society will want to put this one on their lists. And if you love South Florida, or any vision of paradise, come taste the sensations and swim with the sharks. Highly recommended.

Should She Stay or Should She Go? Kate Evans’ Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors

by Kate Evans

Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing (2009)

ISBN-10: 1935407864

ISBN-13: 978-1935407867

Gwen Sullivan is a woman adrift. She has returned from a stint teaching English in Japan, and is committed but unfulfilled in her job at a tutoring center and her volunteer work for Bill Clinton’s campaign. She has been married and divorced and now drifts into a live-in situation with her boyfriend, Daniel, a scientist who works long hours and does not make much room in his life for her. Seeking something more, she joins a community poetry class. There she finds her passions stirred by the instructor’s assignments and her imagination piqued by two rather raucous dykes. Through her attraction to both poetry and one of the women, Jamie, Gwen begins to unravel what is missing in her life.

Evans writes well about the teacher-student relationship, the entanglements of love, and the difficulties in coming to self-acceptance. Gwen’s delight in poetry is playfully and exquisitely rendered, as are her growing doubts about her relationship with Daniel and the push-pull between her and Jamie, who has her own entanglement in an affair with a woman minister. Gwen has had one failed marriage and doesn’t want another. Reluctant to give up, she pushes Daniel for more communication, only to find him moving away from her. Meanwhile, her every communication with Jamie is sparked by desire, curiosity, intrigue. Is Gwen just bored? Is Jamie evasive because of her relationship with a woman minister, or is there something else that holds her back? Who can Gwen trust?

Although the plot turns on Gwen’s acceptance of her attraction to Jamie, and, subsequently, on her parsing the reactions of her women friends and family, Complementary Colors is more than a coming-out story. It is really a deep exploration about self-awareness and acceptance, about the nature of love, and the limitations of relationships. Evans is also a poet, and we feel that in her often-stirring prose. This is a very close portrait of a woman in the throes of change, who is discovering just how much of her happiness she is willing to entrust to another.

I admire a great deal about Evan’s thematic structure and her language. I am happy to see a coming-out story that delves deeper for the universal meaning. However, I found myself exasperated with her heroine, Gwen, for her seemingly-endless equivocations. I wanted to scream, “He’s not into you. Move on!” long before Gwen makes the first tentative steps toward Jamie. Better calibrated is her growing attraction to Jamie and Jamie’s response. Evans is too accomplished a writer to have our girl fall straight from Daniel’s bed into Jamie’s arms. There’s enough tension to make us doubt Jamie’s motivation, and enough faith in Gwen’s growing self-awareness to trust her judgment, at last. On the whole, though, I kept wishing she would step up sooner and take charge, not only of her love life, but also of her career choices and her evasive family.

But what I wish is not what happens in real life, is it? We dither and spin and cause ourselves endless heartache. I’d like my literary heroines a bit punchier––sometimes I wished to hear the story from Jamie’s point of view––but this is a fine book by a strong writer, and well worth your exploration.

Kate Evans is the author of a poetry collection (Like All We Love, Spirit/Q Press) and a book about lesbian and gay teachers (Negotiating the Self, Routledge). Her debut novel, For the May Queen, was released in 2008 by Vanilla Heart Publishing. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in more than 40 publications, including the North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Santa Monica Review,and ZYZZYVA.  Her work has been nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Lambda Literary Award and two Pushcart Prizes. A California native, she teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Jose State University. (A word to Vanilla Heart: better proofreading would do this author justice.)

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly. Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-446-54068-1.

Reviewed by Glenda Bailey-Mershon.

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly contains an encyclopedia of wondrous writing skills from Connie May Fowler. Memorable characters are Fowler’s forte. But the heart and humanity at the core of her latest novel surpasses even her best so far, and will make this book, I predict, a bestseller.

Fowler carries her readers forward like intrepid explorers of the human psyche, alive to each twitch of synapse, each pulse of her characters’ breaths. She paints the Florida landscape, the tethers of history, spirits struggling to break free, and even the souls of animals in prose that frequently lifts off the page. Impossible not to love a character as conflicted, as burdened, as funny and sensitive as Clarissa. But a fly? Well, that would not have been on my Valentine’s list, before now.

A summation of the plot might sound depressing: one day in the life of Clarissa Burden, a writer who suffers writer’s block—the literal stoppage of her voice—while she struggles against the disintegration of her marriage to a photographer who flaunts his young, naked models and treats her with contempt. A downer, you say? Well, hold on.

Ultimately, this is a triumphal story, one that is mindful of, but not subordinate to, gender or polemics in general. What I believe makes Clarissa Burden an important book is the intricate and deep portrait of self-abnegation drawn in the title character. Clarissa succumbs, as many people do, to the linked weapons of past and present emotional abuse, which rob her of self-esteem. Her challenge, and the main plot of the book, is learning to fight back, not with her body or the law, but with self-discovery and strength of character. In one very long, very hot Florida day and night, we accompany Clarissa on a journey that will set her free for good.

And did I mention the book’s humor? What if we threw in the fly, who dotes on Clarissa’s every breath; a slapstick interview with a youthful, breathless, admiring, but clueless journalist; blue cerulean boots that grant super hero status to the wearer; and the voices of the author’s Ovarian Shadow Women, who chant, cajole, shame, and celebrate like the most relentless, and closest, of girlfriends?

And what if one lingering scene of potential romance on a semi-tropical bay during a long, moon-bedeviled Solstice evening tempts you with extraordinary detail enough to put you on the next flight to Florida?

What if all this is written in the closest third person narrative you might ever have read, in the voices of characters who feel so close their breath brushes your cheek? If there are subplots that elucidate both the best and the worst in humanity? If, at the end, you feel you’ve learned something important about how souls contract, and how we can take charge of our own expansion?

When I feel like that, I keep reading, and I predict that many other readers will keep reading as Clarissa climbs the charts. Don’t miss the scene at Poor Spot Cemetery or the aforementioned scene on the Bay, or the story of the Villada family, or many other vibrant scenes, all the way to the end.

Speaking of the end––well, this is a complex, overflowing book. Only once did I lose the thread, near the final pages, when Fowler draws the knots of the plot taut––and suddenly there is a circus I wanted to brush out of the way while I found out what happened to the characters I had come to adore, as well as those whose heartless machinations I feared. But this was no more than a minor annoyance, and the conclusion is, as Publisher’s Weekly noted, explosive. Overall, it works.

In Connie May Fowler’s hands, Florida is a magical place. The state should seriously consider building her a monument, from which she can entertain us all by reading, shod, of course, in blue cerulean boots, and with all the Shadow Women singing doo-wop to her tune.

About the Author

Connie May Fowler is an essayist, screenwriter, and novelist. She is the author of five novels, most recently The Problem with Murmur Lee, and a memoir, When Katie Wakes. In 1996, she published Before Women Had Wings, which became a paperback bestseller and was made into a successful Oprah Winfrey Presents movie. She founded the Connie May Fowler Women With Wings Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to aiding women and children in need.

My Review of The Motel of the Stars

My review of The Motel of the Stars is out: Project MUSE – Appalachian Heritage – The Motel of the Stars (review)

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