Tag Archives: Oregon

Arsenic and Old Lace

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Arsenic with Austen: A Crime with the Classics Mystery by Katherine Bolger Hyde (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 312 pages)

Professor Emily Cavanaugh is a 21st Century woman who finds herself caught up in the dealings of a sleepy village on the Oregon coast. She’s been widowed for two years, is childless and growing restless with her duties in the Language and Literature Department of Reed College in Portland.

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As would be anticipated in a traditional British mystery by Agatha Christie, Emily receives a piece of formal correspondence from an attorney in Stony Beach, Oregon. It seems her dear Great Aunt Beatrice has died and left her a legacy. What follows is one of the most heart-warming murder mysteries this reviewer has read.

Emily Cavanaugh is summoned to Aunt Beatrice’s funeral and the reading of the will. It seems Emily was fantasizing a modest inheritance when she hoped that the extensive library filled with leather bound books would be hers. Emily spent many summers sitting in that same library reading with the encouragement of her aunt. Clearly, the Victorian mansion, half of the town of Stony Beach and millions of dollars was way beyond her hopeful anticipation.

Yes, there are villains scattered among the townsfolk. How else would there be a mystery for Emily to solve? She also reconnects with her former boyfriend who seemingly dumped her at the end of a summer romance. As with Dame Agatha’s stories, Ms. Hyde leads the reader around leaving a trail of tantalizing clues and misdirection.

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Author Hyde has hit all the right notes in this her debut mystery novel. She weaves in enough credible references to classic literature written by women such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte to prove her in depth understanding of the genre. While Ms. Hyde is a resident of Santa Cruz County in California, she credits a writer’s retreat on the Oregon coast with inspiring the location of her tale. And, by the way, she is an alumna of Reed College. Let’s hope there will be more enjoyable mysteries from Ms. Hyde in the future.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Arsenic with Austen was released on July 12, 2016.

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Don’t Look Down

Never Look Down 2

Never Look Down: A Cal Claxton Mystery by Warren C. Easley (Poisoned Pen Press, $15.95, 312 pages)

Fans of Portland, Oregon will be delighted with author Warren Easley’s series set in and around the city. Never Look Down is the third in the series (Dead Float, Matters of Doubt) featuring Cal Claxton. Claxton is an attorney who balances his boutique winery clients in the country with his pro bono work in Old Town Portland for folks of all ages and persuasions that are down and out.

Easley has a smooth, natural writing style that works well in both the chapters narrated in the first person by Claxton and the third person narrative chapters – from the perspective of a teenage orphan whose street smarts are both instinctual and learned. The counterpoint to Claxton’s adult measured approach to life is Kelly Spence, whose father died in a mountain climbing accident leaving her to fend for herself along with her dad’s girlfriend Veronica.

The urgency created by a murder witnessed by Kelly brings the two together. Claxton’s best buddy, Hernando Mendoza, was collateral damage from the murder in that the woman he was going to marry was the victim. Kelly is a tagger whose work is anonymous and yet noted by the establishment in downtown Portland. Her anonymity is in jeopardy as she bounces around the city running from the murderers.

Never Look Down back cover

Anything beyond these storyline basics will give away too much of a well-crafted plot. To Easley’s credit, the story has an even balance of both Claxton’s and Kelly’s perspectives on life and living.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

Not Dead Enough

Not Dead Enough, the fourth book in the Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery series will be released by Poisoned Pen Press on June 7, 2016.

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Beer Review: Omission India Pale Ale (IPA)

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Generally, a taboo topic in the craft beer world is this notion of gluten-free beer. I mean, how could a beer brewed with barley and wheat substitutes honestly compete with counterparts using the real things?

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Well, Omission Beer doesn’t sacrifice their ingredients while crafting their beers. Omission is a brewery priding itself on creating beers with “traditional ingredients that everyone of legal drinking age can enjoy.” Recently I had the pleasure of trying Omission Beer’s IPA. I was told upfront that it was a gluten-free beer, and never having had one before I didn’t know what to expect.

Omission IPA crop

I poured this beer into a pint glass and was very pleased with what I saw. The IPA poured a deep golden color with a beautiful hazy-white, two finger-head with lacing to spare down the inside of the glass. Maybe I’m being picky, but my only complaint with the appearance is that I find a more copper color more appealing than gold. [Picky! Ed.] IPA receives a 4.75/5 on looks alone.

The nose on Omission’s IPA was wonderful, to say the least. IPA fills your nose with notes of fresh citrus and crisp pines; obviously influenced by its Pacific Northwest roots. This is just everything you could ask for – an IPA on the nose. The only thing lacking, for my preference, is a more juicy presence. Even though there is a pleasant citrus quality to the aroma, it does lack that juiciness I am fond of, and because of that its aroma gets a 4.25/5.

The lack of presence this beer brought to the mouth is what really hurts it. It is so thin that the moment you take a sip it is gone. Nothing lingers or coats the roof of your mouth like you’d expect and sometimes want from an IPA. I don’t know if this is the result of it being a gluten-free beer, but it just lacks some presence. I would have loved to get a longer taste out of this one, but it abandons the palate pretty fast. It’s not like this IPA delivers an unpleasant mouthfeel; rather, it does not give any mouth feel leading to its very neutral grade of 2.5/5.

The final piece of the puzzle is the beer’s taste. Omission IPA tastes exactly how it smells: fresh, bright, piney, and citrusy. But, just like the mouthfeel, that great taste dissipates immediately. Again, this does not mean that it is unpleasant, I just would have liked more out of it! Regardless of its short-lived life, it was very tasty and I believe it earns a respectable 4/5.

I didn’t quite know what to expect out of my first gluten-free beer. I’ve usually heard mostly negative reviews, so I was shocked and pleasantly surprised by how great this beer is. The only downfall to this beer is that it dies out pretty fast, but that is easily forgiven by its classic Pacific Northwest IPA taste. With a crisp pine and robust citrus nose and taste, IPA from Omission Beer easily receives a 3.88/5!

Well recommended.

Ryan Moyer

Ryan Moyer is a graduate of Indiana University, who works and pays taxes.

Omission IPA is brewed by Widmer Brothers Brewing Company and contains 6.7% alcohol by volume. Widmer Brothers is based in Portland, Oregon.

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The Teddy Bears Picnic

Hero: The Paintings of Robert Bissell (Pomegranate, $65.00, 140 pages)

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Hero bear

“Mystical” and “engaging” and “riveting” are words that only begin to describe the spectacular bear painting gracing the cover of Hero. This is obviously a lush coffee table book. More than that, it is a journey into the world of painter Robert Bissell. Bissell is a master at photorealism with a marvelous twist. Rather than slavishly reproducing the likenesses of creatures in the wild, he grants his subjects an intimate aura.

Hero bears and rabbits

The bears and rabbits (his favorites) have startling anthropomorphic qualities in their eyes, gestures and positioning. These creatures are caught in Zen-like moments. Bissell has provided disarmingly open statements about his works and their inspiration in the paragraphs that accompany most of the paintings reproduced on the pages of this big impressive, high-quality book.

Unlike many of the books of this genre that include explanatory historic notes, the text in Hero serves to draw the reader in and add depth to the paintings. The reading experience is captivating, so much so that the many pages are clearly not meant to be flipped through; rather, they must be savored and revisited to grasp the full meaning of Bissell’s work.

Mr. Bissell, who currently lives in Oregon, was born in the United Kingdom. He was a professional photographer prior to committing to being a painter. The composition of his paintings is impeccable and his photographer’s eye flawlessly translates a mix of fantasy and reality into pictures that hold the viewer’s attention.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Book Lovers

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $23.95, 384 pages)

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In My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice, numerous authors pay tribute to their favored bookstores, which are usually, but not always, the ones located near their homes. Eighty-one bookstores are examined, including three of the best, essential bookstores — Powell’s Books of Portland, Vroman’s Bookstore of Pasadena, and the University Book Store in Seattle (across from the University of Washington). Chuck Palahnuik explains that the city-block sized Powell’s is divided into color-coded rooms and “…each of these rooms is the size of most independent bookstores.”

Californians will be pleased to see that ten of the state’s bookstores, including two in San Francisco, are lovingly described here. (But San Franciscans will be shocked to find that both City Lights Books and Dog Eared Books are excluded.) Only 3 of these “favorite places to browse, read, and shop” happen to be in southern California. The underlying message of these accounts is that one-on-one service counts. These private businesses have thrived and survived the onslaughts of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and now-departed mega-chains.

This collection of essays will no doubt cause some to visit bookstores that they were previously unaware of. And perhaps at some point Mr. Rice will ask book reviewers to write about their favorite places, and this reader will shed a light on Orinda Books and Lyon Books of Chico.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: City Lights Books is located at 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway in San Francisco. Dog Eared Books is located at 900 Valencia Street in the Mission District of The City. Both are worth paying a visit to.

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Run To You

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Running Shoe Review: Skora Core

Is the Skora Core simply a visual work of art, or a beauty on the feet and on the road?

Years ago at the Portland Marathon Expo, I found a pair of Puma Complete Aello II running shoes. This extremely lightweight radiant yellow running flat, with Goodyear tire rubber on the back, is a work of art. So much so that I’ve never had the heart to put them on my feet and run in them. They should be in a glass case in some type of industrial/manufacturing art and design museum.

I felt a sense of deja vu when I opened the box of new Core running shoes, provided by Skora of Portland, Oregon. These shoes are singularly beautiful in their design and manufacture. And, yes, they do look a bit like the classic flats from Puma. This time, however, I resolved to place the charcoal, black and green tinted shoes on my feet and run in them in order to produce this report.

Skora does not call the Core a minimalist running shoe, but it is a shoe that’s designed to facilitate a mid-foot/whole foot running style. When you first stand in the shoe, it feels quite flat, especially when compared to a standard American running shoe with a raised heel. On taking the initial steps in the Core, it literally feels like you’re walking in a pair of moccasin-style house slippers. This made me wonder, as an instinctive heel striker, whether the shoe would be able to provide enough support and cushioning on the streets and trails of suburbia.

Initiallly I jogged in the Core on a crushed gravel road and felt the shoe to be firm — something I usually like — and supportive. After a few miles, running in this non-traditional runner felt almost innate. I think my running form, in response to the shoe, very quickly changed. In my mind’s eye, a video would have shown me adopting Deena Kastor’s flat, mid-foot, relaxed landing pattern. (The brain seems to readily determine that there’s no pay-off in this model for heel strikers, thus directing the feet to stay lower to the ground.)

On hard concrete, the Core’s ride is surprisingly cushioned. On asphalt, the Core feels like a pair of racing flats, meaning that you definitely feel the ground but on a short to moderate distance run it’s not going to punish the feet. I did not expect to feel any energy return while jogging in the Core, but found it to be a nice unexpected dividend; however, I ran with the floating sockliner in place and I think that helped. Some will choose to remove the sockliner.

The Core was truly impressive when I found a hard-packed natural dirt trail. It felt as if the shoes were anticipating my every move and turn — I can only compare it to driving a Mini Cooper, knowing that you can easily drive that automobile at close to its full capacity. “If you’ve got it, use it!” The Core’s an excellent trail runner that provides the confidence a runner needs to go virtually all out on a twisty trail. (What could be more fun than that?)

I would not run in the Core on a trail consisting of medium-sized and large rocks, but that’s the only surface I would avoid in this shoe. Fit wise, the Core is nice and narrow in the rear and in the mid-foot, while providing plenty of room up front. Some might find the length a bit too long — which matches up with the laces — but that’s better for retaining one’s toe nails than being too short.

I found the Core to fit a half-size larger than standard walking shoes, which is a true fit for most running shoes. The flexible and comfortable upper of the Core uses leather with sheepskin lining, so animal lovers and vegans will want to look instead at the Phase model which uses man-made materials. The men’s version of the Core weighs 8.1 ounces; the women’s version comes in at just 6.7 ounces.

The folks at Skora will urge you to transition gradually into their shoes, which is good advice. I felt a slight twinge in my dominant left heel and a bit of ankle soreness on that side after runs in the Core. But I had no signs of hip soreness, something that can crop up when using seemingly protective shoes that displace impact forces away from the feet and knees.

In the Core my feet felt released to work naturally. These running shoes allow one to run in style while enhancing an organic running style. (The company’s motto is Run Real.)

The Skora Core advances the notion of running real. As attractive and distinctive as they are, they should be used on roads and trails and not displayed in a museum case.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

The Skora Core retails for $155.00.

This article earlier appeared on the Blogcritics Sports site:

http://blogcritics.org/sports/article/running-shoe-review-skora-core/

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I Am Woman

Death on Telegraph Hill (nook book)

Death on Telegraph Hill: A Sarah Woolson Mystery by Shirley Tallman (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 341 pages)

Author Shirley Tallman proves herself a true San Franciscan, even though she now resides in Eugene, Oregon. Period piece mysteries have a charm all their own with the absence of current-day electronics, modern modes of transportation and social mores. Tallman takes issue with the way women, especially accomplished women, were treated in the 1800s. Her main character, Sarah Woolson, is one of three women in California who have been admitted to practice before the State Bar. Ironically, both men and women discriminate against Sarah. Their efforts to keep her in her place and devalue her for lack of a husband and home are irritating but understandable considering the time in which the story is set.

Deep-seeted class issues also play a significant part in this mystery. Among the characters are a pompous wife and her meek husband, Oscar Wilde (yes, that Oscar Wilde), a young Jewish woman and two wealthy elderly women. The action takes place all over San Francisco; however, the initial murder victim succumbs on Telegraph Hill. The hill is a favorite place of artists, primarily writers, and a dalliance for Oscar Wilde is the prelude to mayhem on the hill.

The Telegraph Hill mystery is the fifth in a series. This reviewer found it easy to grasp the story line and the circumstances surrounding Sarah Woolson’s dedication to mankind and the downtrodden. Her father is a prominent member of the Bar and a notable figure in San Francisco. Sarah chooses not to trade on her connections unless it’s absolutely necessary. Lovers of The City and its history will enjoy this book in particular and most likely the series in general.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. The prior books in the series are Murder on Nob Hill, Scandal on Rincon Hill, The Cliff House Strangler, and The Russian Hill Murders.

“A vibrant, intelligent mystery series.” RT Book Reviews

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The Loner

outside-the-linesOutside the Lines: A Novel by Amy Hatvany (Washington Square Press, $15.00, 358 pages + A Reader’s Club Guide)

He thought he could white-knuckle his way through to normalcy.   He thought he could do it without the meds.   He couldn’t decide which was worse – life on the meds or life off of them.   He concluded it was just life he couldn’t bear.   The simple act of breathing had become too much to bear.

Amy Hatvany’s fourth novel is an engaging and provocative look at mental illness.   Eden is a 10-year-old girl whose artist father leaves her and her mother behind in Seattle after he’s attempted suicide and refused to take the medications needed to “silence the rumblings in his head.”   The adult Eden achieves her dream of becoming a successful chef in the city, but realizes that she needs to find her father before it’s too late.

I’m not usually a fan of stories that are told in non-chronological order – they tend to be too clever by half – but here the author makes it work, and work well.   In fact, some of her time-shifts seem to have been crafted for a screenplay version of the story.   Hatvany has a gift for dialogue, although in Outside the Lines she’s created a character in Jack (Eden’s charitable boyfriend) who’s just too good to be true.

“Is he perfect all the time?” Georgia asked when I went on dreamingly about some wonderful thing Jack had said or done.   “I might have to hurl if he is.”

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While the family novel’s set in The Emerald City, there are side trips to San Francisco and Portland which provide changes of scenery.   This is a morality play in which Eden (as in the Garden of…) must save her long-lost dad before she can save herself and the world she lives in.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

“Hatvany’s novel explores the tragedy of a mind gone awry, a tangled bond of father and daughter, and the way hope and love sustain us.”   Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You

“I finally felt like I was contributing to something that made a difference in the world.”

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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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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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