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Two of my favorite places, rural England and Seattle’s Puget Sound, are the locations for JC Miller’s new novel, Vacation. I’m so happy to welcome her as my guest today as we discuss writing and life.

1.     What was your first car? Sadly, a Pinto

10344786_1134309393265179_5704756389490035905_n2.     Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly? Actually I loved Star Trek, both the original version and Next Generation. I still have a huge crush on Jean-Luc Picard.

3.     Worst movie ever? This is stumping me because it’s so subjective. Barbarella? (sorry, Jane Fonda)

4.     Who would you most like to sit next to on an airplane? Gloria Steinem

5.     Best guilty pleasure ever? Project Runway

6.     As a child (or now!), what did you want to be when you grew up? When I was a kid I wanted to be a painter on ice skates or an ice cream man. Now I want to be a writer.

7.     Are the names of the characters in your novels significant? Names seem to float out of the ether. I have no idea why.

8.  What is the single biggest challenge of creating the settings in your novels? A novel’s setting is like a separate character. Creating imagery and authenticity grounds the reader in place and enhances the story. My biggest challenge is creating settings that reflect a character’s emotions.

9.  What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard? Keep writing.

JC MillerJC (Jeanne) Miller, M.A., is an educator and founding member of JAM, an
editorial-consultation team. An avid reader, aspiring traveler and table tennis enthusiast, she resides in Northern California.

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VacationCoverDr. William Koval, a pragmatist with little faith in humanity, prefers to dwell in the eerily comforting microscopic realm, where he is master of his domain. But his worldview is upended when he decides to go on the English walking tour his wife had been planning before her murder three years earlier. Only when William confronts his past, including his troubled marriage, will he find a way to rejoin the living, to move forward, and perhaps love again. The real journey, he discovers, lies within.
  • Book Title: Vacation
  • Author: JC Miller
  • Genre: Literary fiction/romance
  • Length: 225 pages
  • Release Date: September 2, 2014

4 1/2 gold starMy Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars for JC Miller’s Vacation

Having somewhere to go is home, Having someone to love is family, Having both is blessing.–Donna Hedges

Reading JC Miller’s Vacation felt both strangely wonderful and wonderfully strange. Two of my favorite places, rural England and Seattle, were beautifully drawn and absolutely evocative. I’ve been in that pub, I thought, the one with “Solid wooden tables dense with residue from more than a century’s worth of spilled ale, the stone building, cool as a bear’s den.”

I’ve navigated kissing gates in country English meadows, and I’ve stood at the deck of a Puget Sound ferry peering at the lights of an island, “glowing through the distant mist, like a string of pearls”. I’ve marveled at how the skies in both places were so blue, their fields impossibly green.

The ever-changing English sky was particularly beautiful, wisps of white floating in pale blue. Sunlight played on the wet grass, making it glisten. Celtic crosses hunkered in amid wildflowers, bluebells and poppies pushing through the earth, toward light.

But it was also strange to approach what I thought would be a typical boy-meets-girl romance and find that it was something completely different. As Dr. William Koval struggles to regain control over his own life three years after his wife’s murder, he decides to take the walking tour of England they had been planning before her death. One of his fellow tourists turns out to be a college professor on sabbatical, Annie Logan, who lives on Vashon Island in Seattle’s Puget Sound.

The other members of the tour group come in pairs—an older earthy Australian and his motherly wife, a dashing gay American couple, a beautiful French mother and daughter—all drawn by author Miller with a sharp but affectionate pen. In this group of pairs, William and Annie are almost a no-brainer for a holiday fling. Except they’re not. When the little group is abandoned by their feckless tour guide, a reluctant William becomes their leader as they continue on with their planned itinerary. Annie, the historian, provides the background stories “like little gold nuggets” for the sights along their path.

To the relationship-challenged William, Annie remains a mystery. Even as his attraction to her grows, he has no idea whether or not she feels anything for him. Don’t get me wrong: in a normal romance, this would drive me crazy. But about the time I was ready to shake the clueless couple, their relationship takes a leap forward only to hit a brick wall in the form of a devastating revelation about their pasts.

That’s about the time I finally got it. Vacation isn’t about romance; it’s about relationships. And even more, it’s about family relationships. Both William and Annie lost parents at an early age, his mother to death and her father to a divorce followed by new families in which “She was no one’s special little girl.” As the disparate group of hikers begins to gel, I realized what’s being formed is more than friendships. It’s a fragile, delicate form of family.

That continues even when the tour ends. William returns to Seattle, where he’s inherited the friendship of his dead wife’s best friend, Liz. Theirs is a comfortable relationship of friendly lunches and concerned questions. But when William is forced to confront the reality of his relationship with his dead wife, their easy companionship explodes. It would have meant the end of a mere friendship, he realizes.

Their uncomplicated friendship, the one relationship he could count on, had blown up. Fragments scattered and realigned, and it would never be the same between them. For better or worse, Liz was no longer his friend; she was family.

The pacing and character development get top marks all around, while the beautiful descriptions of places and people were presented with minimum fuss and crystal clarity with only two exceptions. The first exception, oddly enough, is with Annie. We’re told that William is attracted to her, but I just never saw why. Although the story was from William’s point of view, it would have been great to find out more about Annie, and get some idea of what these two fractured souls see in each other.

The other flaw, for me, was the big revelation that impacts their relationship. To prevent spoilers, I won’t go into detail except to say that in this beautiful character-driven and delicately paced story, this bombshell was somehow too big, too convenient a plot device. It took away from the personal issues each brought to the table by introducing what felt to me like a contrived sledgehammer smashing out results.

And a writer of JC Miller’s talent doesn’t need a hammer. Take the maple syrup, for example. Subtly positioned through out the novel are references. First, Annie mentions William’s childhood in Vermont, only to have him reject the reference.

She grinned. “Ah. Maple syrup, right?”

“Promise me you won’t mention maple syrup ever again.”

Then the first attempts at bonding get similar negative maple references.

The moment was ruined. William longed to take her hand again, to tell her how much he desired to be in her company, but it was too late; Annie had already spotted her Carolina sidekicks. She scampered over to reunite with her companions. As if on cue, Ralph took Winifred’s arm. That left Beatrice and Claudine, who glommed on to him, clung to him all evening, like Vermont maple sap.

But when William finally comes to terms with his past, maple syrup is also redeemed.

The kitchen was alive with intoxicating aromas. Hot coffee, buckwheat pancakes, Vermont maple syrup, toasted walnuts and bananas. William’s stomach responded audibly as Annie filled his plate.

The first bite did him in. The crunch of walnuts, the sweetness of the bananas, the savory hotcake, and deep amber syrup. “These are beyond incredible,” he said. “I’ve never eaten a better pancake in my entire life.”

I’d give Vacation four and a half out of five stars. The heavy plot device aside, it is a beautifully paced and crafted novel exploring what it means to find love, home, and family, even if it’s the ones you choose instead of the ones you’re born with. JC Miller is an exceptionally talented writer, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**