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An Interview with Sarah Jio

This is an interview with New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Sarah Jio, whose new book was released on November 26. Joseph Arellano

Sarah Jio

Q: There are actors who are called method actors. They like to put themselves inside the skin of the characters they play. For example, if a method actor is hired to portray a boxer, he or she will take boxing lessons and box with professionals. I tend to think of you as a method writer, one who inhabits a world before she writes about it. With this in mind, could you tell us about how you prepared to write the novel Morning Glory, which is set on a houseboat in Seattle?

A: Renting a houseboat for four months while writing this novel was the single greatest thing I could have done to put me in the right headspace to capture the essence of the floating home community. I got to soak up little details that I would have never known had I not experienced them – like how a houseboat sways ever so gently on a windy day or how a pair of Mallard ducks waddle up to the doorstep on Saturday morning and gaze in to the French doors. I will forever treasure that time on Seattle’s Lake Union writing this book.

Morning Glory 2

Q: Would you briefly summarize the plot of Morning Glory, your latest release?

A: Here is what is written on the book jacket: “New York Times bestselling author Sarah Jio imagines life on Boat Street, a floating community on Seattle’s Lake Union – home to people of artistic spirit who for decades protect the dark secret of one startling night in 1959.

“Fleeting an East Coast life marred by tragedy, Ada Santorini takes up residence on houseboat number seven on Boat Street. She discovers a trunk left behind by Penny Wentworth, a young newlywed who lived on the boat half a century earlier. Ada longs to know her predecessor’s fate, but little suspects that Penny’s mysterious past and her own clouded future are destined to converge.”

Q: In your novels, women who lived at different times (and who never met) are brought together by unique circumstances. Generally the woman who lives in current times is called upon to resolve a mystery involving a woman who lived 50, 70 or 80 years before her time. It has struck me that in this way each character gets to live twice; it’s a form of time travel. Is there an experience in your life or in your family that prompted you to write about this type of situation? Did you personally solve a mystery involving someone who preceded you?

A: I just smiled reading this question, because, yes – I love the concept of time travel, and I find it so heartbreaking that it isn’t really possible (someday?). I suppose the reason I tend to like to write books in this way is it gives me a chance to look back to the past. I feel incredibly romantic about my grandparent’s generation, and I’ve often thought that I should have been born in 1920, so I could have been a young woman in the 1940s.

Q: In Morning Glory a character states, “I know I may always ache for the past… but I want to be a bird now. I want to flap my wings through the rainstorms. I want to start my day with the earnestness of the morning glory….” Do you find yourself being both past and present oriented?

A: Absolutely, and I remember writing that passage. While I write fiction, yes, there is a lot of my heart and my own personal journey in all of my stories. It is impossible to separate the author from her characters. While they are not always me, I get to create them, and I get to choose favorites. And I often turn to my protagonists as I think about the important elements of life, or big things I’m working through.

Q: One thing I found in common among The Violets of March, Blackberry Winter and Morning Glory is that while your story conclusions are logical, they are unpredictable. Is this something that you strive for – to keep the reader guessing until the last page, or is this simply how the stories play out in the writing process?

A: Yes, I love to be sneaky like that – surprising readers with a conclusion that they didn’t see coming, or some surprising reveal at the end. Because isn’t that true of life? Often it is unpredictable and unchartered. Even the best laid plans have hiccups or surprise endings. And I love carrying this through in my books.

Q: Did anyone in our family or background use the phrase, “True love lives on….” (used by Esther Wilson in The Violets of March)?

A: No, I have never had that uttered to me by a loved one, but I believe it, and I cling to it.

Q: There are characters in your novels that are less than nice and honorable; but in general your stories tend to restore our faith in the best of human nature. Does this reflect a view on your part that while life can be mean and nasty, the better angels of our nature win out? In other words, do we see Sarah Jio’s basic optimism play out in your work?

A: Yes, we are flawed creatures – and that comes out in my books, for sure. At the end of the day, I am an optimist. We get one life, and only so many trips around the sun, and I believe in love and happy endings and beautiful sunsets that make you smile.

Q: Will most of your stories be set in the Seattle area?

A: Not all, but most. My heart is here and will always be. I naturally gravitate to setting my stories in the Northwest, but I’m interested in other locations too, so perhaps I’ll be switching things up in the next few books.

Q: I consider it as a positive that when I read Blackberry Winter, I was reminded of Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet since the two novels share a similar stage – Seattle past and present – and a journey of personal discovery. I loved both books. Have you met Ford and would you agree that the two novels are bookend-like in scope and theme?

A: I own Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, although I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (it is on my nightstand!). I have not met Jamie Ford, but enjoy following him on Facebook and Twitter and I think we’d have a lot to talk about over coffee (and anyone who is not following him on Twitter should – he’s hilarious). Readers have mentioned a similar connection in our books, and it’s a huge compliment to me, for sure.

Note: Before becoming a full-time author, Sarah Jio was the Health and Fitness writer-blogger for Glamour magazine.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/an-interview-with-sarah-jio-author-of-morning-glory/

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I Am A Child

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, $25.99, 181 pages)

Ocean at the End of the Lane (nook book)

At first glance, the lovely cream colored deckle edge pages and the crisply printed type face are a stark contrast to the cover artwork of this rather slim novel. The story that unfolds is a bit arresting, setting up a moody dark and deep tale. As a first-time reader of Neil Gaiman (Gaiman’s horror/fantasy book Coraline was made into a stop-motion film) this reviewer was a bit hesitant to begin what appeared to be a memoir by the narrator, a man who has gone back to his hometown for a funeral.

Gaiman plays on the magic thinking that some kids explore, or rather allow to bubble to the surface in idle moments or during spells of anger at being denied their desires. The narrator, clearly an introvert, lays out his painful childhood for the reader. A murdered man found in his father’s stolen car is traumatic for him. He visits a house at the end of the road where his childhood home used to be. The occupants are women, well, just one woman whose age and identity are a bit confusing. Is she the mother of his playmate, Lettie Hempstock, or her grandmother? What happened to Lettie?

As did other reviewers, I read the book in one sitting. Once a reader suspends his or her hold on adult reality and dives back into the spacey and somewhat murky thoughts of childhood, it’s easy to fall under Gaiman’s spell. He convincingly captures the ethereal and floating insights that we know as children and then lose to the world as we become grown-ups.

Well recommended for readers who enjoy being on edge.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Old Friends

“How terribly strange to be 70… Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” Paul Simon (“Old Friends”)

The Last Perfect Summer: A Novel by Ed Prence (Windy City Publishers, $12.99, 166 pages)

Then I paused for a minute. “Harry,” I said finally, “do you remember who you were?” “I was a baseball player?”

That passage right there from page 36 of Ed Prence’s sparse 166-page novel The Last Perfect Summer is the essence of the story.

This book is for anybody who still remembers what the term “ghost runner” means. It for those who remember “fastpitch” against the wall, overhand lob with a chain-link home run fence, and whiffle ball batting your favorite team’s line up from both sides of the plate. It is for those who’ve played it as well as those who love it.

In the story, Ted Tresh visits former Little League teammate Harry Kirkland in a care facility in which Harry is essentially condemned to die. Having lived for over a decade with other patients in similar but varying states of need and/or dementia, he’s had fewer than a handful of visitors. Harry lives in his own world of despair and confusion. When childhood friend Ted shows up for an extended visit, memories of the grand old game rekindle a semblance of life in the former cocksure Little League superstar.

Last Perfect Summer

As Ted reminisces with Harry about the good times from their banner Little League season, he detects sparks of humanity within Harry’s tortured being. Ted enjoys the afternoon, and, believing he is doing some good, stays for an extended period of time. In the end, Ted leaves the once-hopeful encounter disillusioned, and, when Harry’s fate is sealed years later, Ted legitimately cannot attend the funeral. Based on how this passage is written, while distressed on the one hand, it is likely that, deep down, Ted would not, or could have not have attended even if he were able.

The structure of the book alternates episodes from the story of their childhood and championship run and Ted and Harry’s visit. The relationship between the two characters is not only central to the story but the strength of the book. While the specific tales that bind them together are necessary, there might be a better way to get at them than alternating which disrupts the flow of the most powerful aspects of the tale. There are highlights in which certain points are made to great effect, but this is not consistently true.

When I was a kid, I visited family friend and former major leaguer and minor league home run king Joe Hauser periodically to keep him company and pass some time. Several times a year I heard the stories about Walter Johnson’s fastball and how much of a “sunuvabitch” Ty Cobb was. “Unser Choe” (Our Joe) was a local hero. He told endless stories, squinting at us through his pale blue eyes while chomping on his cigar. He came over on Christmas Day, always dapper with suit and tie and his remaining hair combed perfectly. Nobody parked near him in the retirement home after his 80th birthday passed or on our entire street in front of our house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t so easy for him to navigate the old Buick anymore, you know. And the tears over his departed wife came easily. Gradually, Joe drifted off into his own world and, then, he left us.

The Last Perfect Summer may not be a great “book,” but it’s a darn good story. Give me a good story any day. Rekindle a memory any time. Where would we be without either? Remember while you can.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author. Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

The Last Perfect Summer is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

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Positively Spot On

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95, 272 pages)

“I wish that for just one time/ You could stand inside my shoes/ And just for that one moment/ I could be you…” Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street

In the eternal quest to try to interpret the “real” meaning of Bob Dylan’s songs, some have speculated that “Positively 4th Street” is his retort to the many critics who emerged following Dylan’s controversial decision to “go electric.” Most people who have even some passing knowledge of music history have seen multiple examples of Dylan being cantankerous with the media, dating all the way back to the 1963 Newsweek article questioning his identity and past, and famously filmed in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps

Lately, Dylan has mellowed in that regard, or so it seems. Perhaps because he is now a revered survivor and not a young rebel.

What does Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music have to do with Dylan? Quite a bit as it turns out. This book is a compilation of writings on music by the late writer that appeared in a variety of publications, including her regular column for The New Yorker, “Rock, Etc.”, over a span of 34 years. The book is edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz, and virtually every column and essay that doesn’t actually address Dylan, references him. Judging by Willis’ intuitive take on the music as it interweaves with the various time periods, her insightful commentary, and fine writing, this would be one critic who Dylan might actually like.

Willis drops a few names, but rarely seems caught up with celebrity. For her, it is all about the music. Her favorites, in addition to Dylan, are Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, and the Rolling Stones. Many others receive prominent mention, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, an often under-rated band, and others ranging from obscure to superstar, such as Bruce Springsteen. Willis was a feminist who could objectively analyze the art for its strengths and flaws without either coming across as a man-hater or relinquishing her status as a fan — two of the three would be pretty good, but to pull off all three makes for a damn interesting and good writer.

Fifty-nine short pieces are divided into six themes: World-Class Critic, The Adoring Fan, The Sixties Child, The Feminist, The Navigator, and The Sociologist. The first entry is on Dylan, and the last is a commentary on her philosophy of the role of music in society that mentions him in the third to last paragraph of the book. The final paragraph invokes Little Richard and The Ramones in the same sentence. How great is that?

This book is perfect for any 60s/70s rock-and-roll head. No doubt they would be overcome with nostalgia. But for those who are just as fanatical, but younger — who love the music just the same — and who perhaps even fancy themselves a bit knowledgeable about rock’s history and the great music of this era, they, too, will love Deeps because Willis is one writer who can make you feel like you were there.

Highly recommended for music lovers of all ages.

Dave Moyer

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is available as a Kindle Edition download. This book was purchased for review.

Dave Moyer is an educator who thinks a lot about rock music. A drummer, he has not yet played for the Rolling Stones. His book about baseball and Bob Dylan is entitled, Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone

The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 352 pages)

“I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”   Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Paula McLain presents a convincing rendition of the unique but enduring relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, the conscientious and serene Hadley Richardson, in her first novel The Paris Wife.

After a brief and long distance relationship, the confident young twenty-year-old Ernest proposes to Hadley, a conservative spinster in her late twenties.   On the quest for the ideal inspirational setting in which to write, McLain’s story takes us to the art scene in Paris in the 1920s as the aspiring artists – on the brink of greatness – share their hopes and dreams in local cafes.   McLain’s story is so detailed and believable that you can enjoy teaming up with individuals as they meet their fellow artists and enjoy team with individuals such as Gertrude Stein.   Her character Hadley happens to recall a conversation that she and Ernest had while sharing drinks with F. Scott Fitzgerald as he announced his hopes for the success of his then-recently written novel The Great Gatsby.

The reader will understand why Ernest was so inspired during the couple’s trips to Europe, especially while watching the bullfights in Pamplona.   The reader will also sympathize with Hadley, the ever-loyal wife who strives to maintain the attention of her husband, standing by his side through circumstances that even the strongest of us would run from.   The depth of the conversations and the personalities of the characters come alive in McLain’s dialogues and Hadley’s interpretations of the relationships that develop during this phase of Ernest’s life (including his union with his second wife).

McLain does a remarkable job of defining all her characters and in describing the landscapes and cultures of the couple’s travels.   You will become so entranced with her story you will no doubt forget that you’re not actually reading Hadley’s autobiography.

The story left me with a desire to rediscover Hemmingway by rereading A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.   I know that I look forward to my next trip to Paris where, while sitting at some of the same cafes once visited by the Hemmingways, I will try to imagine what it was like for this young couple in the local art scene during the Roaring Twenties.   I will also contemplate what Ernest Hemmingway’s life may have been like if he had remained with his first love, Hadley.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Paris Wife was released in a trade paperback version on November 27, 2012.

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8-Track Flashbacks

8-Track Flashbacks by Tom Alt (Mag Mile Books, $11.99, 128 pages)

Tom Alt’s memoir, 8-Track Flashbacks, is the equivalent of a new band on the scene, which produces an album that has one or two decent songs, but as a whole does not stand on its own.   At 113 pages, it is sized more like a novella than a novel.   It is a story of growing up in the 60s (and early 70s).   Ironically, most of the story takes place before 8-tracks were popular.

Alt grows up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, a few miles west of Milwaukee.   His father leaves, and his early childhood involves sports, girls, drinking, and more girls – not all that dissimilar for boys of almost any era.

A key events almanac for each year of the decade introduces the chapters, though the events listed and the songs referred to are largely isolated from the stories contained in the chapters.

There are some very well-written passages, some vignettes that might cause the reader to recall that time of their life or that era in general.   Perhaps some from the Midwest will relate to the sports teams, towns, or liberalism of the University of Wisconsin.   However, there is a depth to the account that is missing.   The characters exist but the reader does not really get to know them sufficiently to bond with them.

Because of the vagueness, it is difficult to get to the main point of why this memoir might stand out as one to read.   It is hard to distinguish if this is supposed to be about the era, growing up, heartache or survival – too many important issues are introduced and then left dangling.   More time is spent on Alt’s high school years, which basically comes across as a boy clowning around and skating by.   His relationship with his mother and siblings probably should have been more prominent in the story; his college relationships; draft status and subsequent failed physical; and other portions of the story are glanced over a bit too hastily.

The book can be read in one sitting or as time permits.   It’s not a bad book.   It’s just not a great book.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author.   8-Track Flashbacks is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.  

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.   He has recently completed a second novel.

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Positively 14th Street

What It Was: A Derek Strange Novel by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, $9.99, 272 pages)

I live a block off 14th Street, the setting for much of George Pelecano’s gritty crime novel, What It Was.   Set in 1972, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes books set in the Washington “beyond the monuments.”   Watergate is briefly touched on, but this book contains no Senators, no wacky Masonic conspiracy theories and hardly any politics at all.

What It Was concerns the lives of real people, mostly cops and criminals, in a city scarred by riots.   The popular conception of 14th Street is that it was a wasteland, from the disturbances of 1968 to the start of gentrification in the 1980s.   But life went on.   Pimps, drug dealers and hustlers of all kinds moved in.   And for a lot of them, and the cops that pursued them, it was a hell of a time, even a good one.

Red Fury wants to make a name for himself and is going on a crime spree across the city.   He wants to be remembered.   Hunting him is Frank Vaughn, a dinosaur in the evolving era, someone not afraid to bend the rules to get the job done.   Also mixed up in the case is his friend Derek Strange, a cop who has left the force to become a private eye.

Pelecanos has a great eye for the details of the time, from the tricked-out cars to the soul music of the 1970s.   He also resurrects a lot of old DC haunts, legendary bars and restaurants that are long gone in this gentrified city.   His knowledge of the city is encylopedic.   For example, Red hides out in Burrville, a neighborhood I didn’t even know existed.

I wrote my own crime novel about the city, Murder in Ocean Hall.   It’s set in many of the 14th Street neighborhoods of What It Was but during a time of rapid change.

What It Was is a fast, involving read.   Pelecano’s style is muscular, alternating perspectives as it advances towards an inevitably violent conclusion.   Interestingly, the novel is available on the Kindle for only 99 cents.   It’s a limited-time offer designed to generate new readers for this crime novelist.   Forward-thinking publishers are experimenting with new strategies and promotions to adapt to the world of e-readers.

What It Was is also the first book I’ve read on my iPad.   Using the Kindle app, set to sepia, it was a comfortable reading experience – though not as easy on the eyes as using an e-ink reader like the Kindle.   But the 99 cent strategy worked for me.   After dipping into the gritty crime world of What It Was, I’m primed to read the rest of Pelecano’s work.   Well recommended.

Joe Flood

 Joe Flood is the author of two novels, Don’t Mess Up My Block and Murder in Ocean Hall.   He is also a photographer and web content manager.   You can see more of  his writing – and his photographs – at: http://joeflood.com/ .

What It Was is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download for $4.99.

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