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Coming Up Next…

A review of Red Cell: A Novel by Mark Henshaw.

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Brand New Day

Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kayne Kaufman (Grant Place Press, $24.95, 336 pages)

“I was lost, double crossed with my hands behind my back…”   Van Morrison (“Brand New Day” – Moondance album)

Yale grad Gloria Zimmerman is so germ-phobic that she endures an overnight flight from Chicago to London and then an excruciating car ride to Oxford University without peeing.   When she and her nearly bursting bladder finally reach her flat – and the private bathroom that she will sanitize and make her own – she discovers to her horror that she must share it with a neighbor.   Not only that, but he is messy and dirty – and he is occupying the toilet when she arrives.

Gloria is a Rhodes Scholar who is studying feminist poetry.   Her untreated Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has always prevented her from forming close friendships.   But even though flatmate Henry Young, a music student and son of a priggish and disapproving Oxford don, is an “unrefined, germ-infested oaf,” he intrigues her.   Or, more to the point, his taste in music does.   They share a love of the music – and the poetry – of the iconic rocker Van Morrison.

That small spit of common ground is enough for love to wedge its foot between the door and the jamb.   Henry embraces Van Morrison’s “fatalistic optimism” and dedicates himself to releasing Gloria from the prison of her cleaning compulsions.   But is it enough to keep the door open when the true extent of Henry’s vile germs becomes apparent?

Author Andrea Kayne Kaufman is a lawyer and a professor of educational leadership at DePaul University in Chicago, where she serves as chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum.   In an interview on her website, she speaks of her belief that people can overcome “irrevocable” damage with hard work and hope.   Her characters Henry and Gloria both view themselves as unlovable.   But as Van Morrison wrote, “It’s a marvelous night for a moondance…” and attraction compels them to muster the strength to try to help each other

Experts on OCD have raved about Kaufman’s sensitive and accurate portrayal of the condition as viewed from the inside.   But readers of all stripes will appreciate Oxford Messed Up for its unique take on what it means to love another human being, warts and all, and for its profound message of hopefulness.   Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Oxford Messed Up is also available in a trade paper version for $14.95, and as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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Oxford Messed Up

Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kaufman has been getting a lot of buzz in the publishing trade.   This debut novel by Kaufman is about a young, academically brilliant woman –  Gloria Zimmerman – with severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who attends Oxford University.   There she meets a unique and tragedy-stricken neighbor by the name of Henry Young.   Gloria and Henry find themselves drawn together by a shared obsession with the music and lyrics of one Van Morrison.

“Van Morrison’s lyrics provide a backdrop for this narrative, which is more than a love story – it is a study of fatalistic optimism.   I couldn’t put this book down because Kaufman makes you care deeply about the individual journeys of her two protagonists.”   Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Oxford Messed Up is a hardbound release from Grant Place Press ($24.95, 328 pages).   It is also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.   You can sample the book now by clicking on this link:

http://andreakaynekaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/OMU_Preview_Download.pdf

Joseph Arellano

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Prince of the City

The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, $26.95, 352 pages)

“I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone…”   Bruce Springsteen

Cristina Alger’s debut novel is to Wall Street and corrupt investments what Robert Daley’s Prince of the City was to corruption inside New York City’s criminal justice system; and it makes just about as powerful a statement about contemporary life in this country.   This is a story about New York’s monetary elite (the One Percent) and about Greed with a capital g.    It’s a frightening tale about a place in which people equate money with love – in which money is, quite simply, the most important thing in the world.

As the novel opens, financier Morty Reis has killed himself.   Reis, a figure apparently based on Bernie Madoff, is an outside manager for Delphic, the investment company hedge fund run by the powerful billionaire Carter Darling.   (“The Frederick Fund, Delphic’s only single-strategy fund, had 98 percent of its assets invested with Reis Capital Management…  Morty was a brilliant investor.”)   The problem, as Darling’s son-in-law Paul Ross soon finds out, is that Reis Capital Management was a Ponzi scheme and Delphic’s clients stand to lose billions of dollars.   Ross, in need of a job after being pushed out of the Manhattan law firm he worked for, learns this sad truth soon after becoming the head of Delphic’s legal team.   He’s barely had a cup of coffee before learning that the SEC is on the phone.

It’s a Grisham-like  opening but Alger, who has worked as both a financial analyst (Goldman, Sachs, & Co.) and white glove firm attorney, quickly steers the action to the fiscal side.   And she exposes the reader to the rough underbelly of life in the top stratum of New York high society – a class in which a small Manhattan apartment goes for $1 million with grossly high monthly maintenance fees, tuition for one child at a private school runs $34,000 per year, a summer rental in the Hamptons goes for $100,000, and SAT tutors ask for $1,000 an hour.   “Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers?   For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steely nerve…  a ruthless will to succeed.   (Carter’s daughter) Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think: Those are the offspring of killers.”

Merrill is soon to find that her father is the most ruthless of the outlaws on The Street – a man who hides behind opulence – and his actions may have doomed not only his own livelihood and reputation, but also those of Paul and Merrill.   “Carter Darling was hard to miss for anyone who read the financial news.”   The strong-chinned, patrician Darling is presented as a man who possesses some of the personality traits of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.   He’s proud of his success (Merrill refuses to give up her maiden name when she marries Ross) but God only knows what he’d be without his hundreds of millions of dollars…  His wife knows that he sees her as little more than a cash drain, “an extra person on the payroll.”

To her credit, Alger permits us to examine a legal system in which cheap, easy quick wins are valued more than prosecutions that can achieve social and economic justice.   For today we live in a world in which billionaires can outspend local, state and federal agencies in the courtroom.   When justice has been turned upside down – and the accused control the process – it’s all about the plea agreement, the deal.   (Financial wheelers and dealers are extremely proficient at fashioning the deals that benefit themselves the most.)

The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally-trained wife Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to an end.   The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling.   Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this stunning debut novel in a way that’s not foreseen before the final chapters.  

Who wins in the end – the white hats or the black hats?   You will need to read The Darlings to find out.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Darlings will be released on Monday, February 20, 2012.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger, which will be released on February 20, 2012.   “A page-turning debut novel about a wealthy New York family embroiled in the biggest financial scandal of our time.”

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Searching So Long

Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman (Harper, $14.99, 304 pages)

Chandra Hoffman makes a strong debut with her first novel, Chosen.   Written in clear flowing prose, Hoffman will draw empathy from the reader by presenting a true-to-life portrayal of individuals from both sides of the adoption process.

“I wanted to tell a story in which there are no heroes or villains, just shades of gray, real people trying to recover from their stumbles with grace.”

Chloe Pinter is the director of a private adoption program in Portland, Oregon named Chosen Child.   Engaged to a youthful beach bum who yearns for a life on the beaches of Maui, Chloe is immersed in the intimate details of the lives of her clients, torn on what she wants from her own life.   Chloe’s committed to support each of her clients, who range from delinquent, hostile convicts to wealthy high school sweethearts.   She provides them with the financial and emotional resources that she has available, even putting her career and personal life on the line when one of the babies goes missing.

There are other cases where her influence was heavy, life-changing…  and then there are those for whom her actions were like strokes on the Zen watercolor paper, where the darkest of watermarks disappear after brief moments…

Hoffman captures the waves of emotional confusion and exhaustion that accompanies parents of newborns.   She demonstrates the complexities of the adoption process with compassion and expertise that she brings to the novel from her prior professional work as an orphanage relief worker.   She further delves into sensitive topics such as infidelity, postpartum depression, and domestic violence but does so with grace.

This story has merit, and the passion that Hoffman has for the world of adoptions comes through clearly.   My recommendation falters due to the storyline’s predictability and the farfetched resolution to the main part of the story.   Hoffman’s attempt at portraying the complexities of the characters often falls short and results in several unlikable, egotistic male characters who either continue to imagine or participate in affairs, and two of whom describe in detail the way they would murder their partners (which, thankfully, never comes to fruition).   Therefore, this novel is simply recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Darlings

Imagine if the Bernie Madoff scandal had become public only after his death.   This is one of the key plot elements in The Darlings: A Novel by debut author Cristina Alger.   The Darlings will not be released until February 20, 2012, but you can read the first 33 pages now:

http://cristinaalger.com/about-the-darlings-by-cristina-alger/excerpt-from-the-darlings-by-cristina-alger

Joseph Arellano

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Age of Aquarius

Murder in the Eleventh House: A Starlight Detective Agency Mystery by Mitchell Scott Lewis (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 239 pages)

This debut mystery novel with, dare I say it, a quirky twist, captivated me from the first page.   The main character’s name is David Lowell, which is not that unusual except that my late father’s first and middle names were David Lowell.   Author Mitchell Scott Lewis has a distinct advantage when it comes to attention-grabbing in other ways as well.   The Starlight Detective Agency relies upon astrology for sleuthing insights.   Moreover, prospective clients are vetted when they first encounter Mr. Lowell.   He provides an unvarnished astrological reading that doesn’t always sit well.   Since the agency does not rely on fees, the clients tend to be more interesting than well-heeled.

The author has made good use of his own life for the premise of the tale.   Like David Lowell, Lewis has made money by investing according to astrological information.   He, too, is an astrological consultant with a credible client list.   The thoughtfulness and dedication he uses to portray the  other main characters, Melinda (Lowell’s daughter) and Johnny Colbert (the desperate client), make this a gentle engaging read.   The reader need not be a believer in astrology or even have an inkling of how it works.   Lewis fits in just enough background information to lend credibility to an often-misunderstood discipline.

Johnny Colbert is a tough and street-wise female bartender who is caught in a situation that many folks experience only as a nightmare.   A judge is murdered, Johnny recently made a threat on the judge’s life in open court and there’s little doubt as to who  committed the murder.   Melinda, who is an attorney with a white glove firm, has taken on Johnny’s defense as pro bono work for the firm.   She feels that Johnny has been wrongfully accused.   Of course Melinda knows that her dad has plenty of wisdom and technical experience to shift the case from hopeless to a better outcome.

The plot has just enough twists and red herrings to keep the reader involved and engaged.   This book is a mini vacation and very much worth the price of the ticket.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “This series has tremendous potential.”   Library Journal

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God Bless the Child

Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman (Harper; $14.99; 304 pages)

“…an engaging and engrossing novel…  counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.”

If you had asked me a few weeks or months ago if I’d be interested in reading a novel about adoptions I suppose I would have replied in the negative.   However, debut author Chandra Hoffman’s novel Chosen has the benefit of being set in Portland, Oregon which tipped the scales in favor of placing it on my to-be-read list.   It is, all in all, an engaging and engrossing novel; however, the pluses are counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.

This is primarily the story of Chloe Pinter, the director of Portland’s Chosen Child domestic adoption program.   Although Chosen Child is a fictional program (charging prospective adoption parents tens of thousands of dollars in fees), Hoffman worked as an orphanage relief worker in Eastern Europe, and so she knows of what she writes here.   Chloe is a young, ambitious woman engaged to a restless young daredevil who makes no money, and who is content to delay their marriage as long as possible.   As we meet her, Chloe has convinced herself – perhaps falsely – that she loves nothing more than combining otherwise abandoned children with couples for whom adoption is a last chance at parenthood.

All those adoptions where she believed she was creating a family, playing the puppeteer, chosing the right parents for this baby, or the perfect baby for the best couple.

The interest and tension in this story builds as Chloe must deal with flawed human beings, birth parents who decide to give up a child and then change their minds, and prospective adoptive parents who feel like their lives will be over if the planned adoption does not go through.   All of the parties involved express their frustrations to Chloe, who soon realizes that she – like her boyfriend – would rather be in Hawaii, or anywhere else where she would not have to deal with other people’s problems.

One of the unfortunate issues with this read is that Hoffman populates the story with a few too many characters for the reader to follow.   Unless you take notes as you’re reading, you may become confused as to who is who, especially as the characters include not only adoptive and birth parents, but also a couple that considered adoption before having their own child through natural means.

A more significant issue arises when Hoffman is compared (as on the back of the book cover) to writer Chris Bohjalian.   I attempted to read Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Night Strangers, but had to give up in frustration.   Bohjalian writes well but tends to insert sex scenes that seem to come from off of the stage – without context or introduction – and that are ultimately distracting.   They do nothing to advance the story being told.   Hoffman does the same here; all of the sex-related scenes could have been edited out without doing any harm to the tale.   And like Bohjalian, Hoffman writes comfortably about prosperous people – in this case, Volvo station wagon driving couples living in Portland Heights – but fails to be convincing when she writes about the gritty folks who live on the wrong side of town.   Part of this may be due to the locale she selected, as Chloe admits that while there are tougher parts of Portland, there are no truly dangerous sections in the greater city area.

To restate this, the harsh and adult content which is a key part of Chosen does not seem to come naturally to Hoffman.   Tough language and rough situations sometimes seem jarringly out-of-place in this story and require a suspension of belief that may be beyond the capacity of some readers.   As an example, when Chloe is threatened by some rough characters, she never has the street smarts to alert the local police, which would seem unlikely in a protagonist as seemingly intelligent as Chloe Pinter.

It is so much easier when, after the parents have signed, everyone simply retreats back to their corners, disappears.   The adoptive parents into the all consuming babyland, the birth parents drifting on, carrying their grief with them like battered travel trunks.

To Hoffman’s credit, she crafts a very satisfying conclusion to this tale, one in which we find that the bad actors are not quite as bad as they seem.   The ending may redeem any flaws that precede it for a majority of readers.   Personally, I view Hoffman as a new author with great potential who would benefit from developing a writing style that discourages comparisons with Chris Bohjalian or Jodi Picoult.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “…(An) unflinching and suspense-filled account of the pleasures and perils of domestic adoption.”   Los Angeles Times

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Coming Up Next…

A preview-review of Proof of Heaven: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett.

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