Tag Archives: Portland

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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Coming Up Next…

A review of Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman.

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Runnin’ Down a Dream

33 Days:  Touring in a Van.   Sleeping on Floors.   Chasing a Dream.   by Bill See (Lulu; available as a Kindle and Nook Book download)

Bill See’s account of a band on the run has its moments but…  If L.A.’s Divine Weeks was chosen as one of the best bands in the mega city by the hallowed Los Angeles Times in 1987, one has to wonder why its four members (George, Bill, Raj and Dave) decided they needed to make a tour of the Pacific Northwest, Canada and the mid-west to southern United States to prove their worth.   If you believe See’s words, it was not for a lack of ego:  “Sometimes you can tell the crowd wants it…  you have to understand something.   We really do believe we’re operating on a totally different plane than other bands…  we’re completely full of ourselves…”

Well, you can see videos of Divine Weeks on You Tube and judge for yourself.   To my eyes and ears, this was a decent band for the time (the late 80s), but nothing special – not great nor horrible, and on a par with what you’d see in a typical Sacramento club during this era.   Was Divine Weeks on the same plane as, say, Jane’s Addiction?   Absolutely not.   (Personal disclosure:  I was not a fan of Jane’s music, but their musicianship was beyond question.)

What 33 Days does offer is a glimpse of what life is like on the road for a struggling traveling band.   In itself that’s an interesting tale, but See detracts from it by spending a bit more time than is necessary telling us about his off-and-on relationship with quasi-girlfriend Mary.   It proves to be both distracting and tiring.

The best moment in the narrative is when See explains, early on, the power of music.   “Ever since I’ve known music, I’ve felt that my life could be lifted up by it.”   This is admirable but the egocentric prospective winds up making this a band biography that is less than the sum of its parts.   This reader came to feel as if only truly got to know two members of the band – the Paul McCartney-like Bill and the George Harrison-like Raj.   It felt, in the end, as if something was missing.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

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What the World Needs Now is Love

Delirium by Lauren Oliver (Harper, a division of HarperCollins; $17.99; 448 pages)

When we meet Lena, her final year of high school is ending and she has one last summer to spend with her best friend Hana before the demands of adulthood claim her.   Like many almost-eighteen-year-olds, she sees cracks forming in her bond with Hana, and they worsen when she discovers that Hana has been listening to forbidden music and breaking curfew to sneak out to illegal dance parties.

Unlike many almost-eighteen-year-olds, Lena does not feel the need to have a last hurrah.   In fact, she is counting down the days until she can embrace the life that the government will plan for her, right down to selecting the boy she will marry.   Why?   Because when she turns eighteen, she will undergo the cure for the affliction that took the life of her mother: amor deliria nervosa – in a word, love.   And she can barely wait.

In the dystopian world of Portland, Maine, of the not-too-distant future, the government has determined that love is the root of all evil, and the remedy it has devised not only prevents its occurrence but also erases the memory of the fevered, distracting, roller-coaster emotions that plague those afflicted in their teen years.   Lena, short for Magdalena, as in Mary Magdalene, is anxious to prove to the couple that raised her – and to Portland, in general – that she is not like her mother.

But, of course, then she meets Alex, and she realizes that she’s wrong.   “If pneumonia felt this good,” she says, “I’d stand out in the snow in winter with bare feet and no coat on, or march into the hospital and kiss pneumonia patients.”

Delirium is a bit slow to get rolling, but readers who hang with Lena through her first “evaluation” for her “pairing” will be rewarded with a love story reminiscent, in some ways of Romeo and Juliet, as well as an exploration of other forms of love, and a nail-biting chase scene at its climax.

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver – whose debut novel, Before I Fall, was a New York Times bestseller – is the first book in a trilogy.   So Shakespeare can rest assured that Lena will not by any other name become a Juliet.   It will be interesting to see who she does become.

Highly recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Delirium was released in hardcover form on February 1, 2011.

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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The Barricades of Heaven

The Opposite Field: A Memoir by Jesse Katz (Three Rivers Press)

“Better bring your own redemption when you come/ To the barricades of Heaven where I’m from…”   Jackson Browne

“Some nights I think, just maybe, I have found the place I belong.”   Jesse Katz

There are probably just three groups of people who will be attracted to this memoir by Jesse Katz – parents, baseball fans and those who love the greater city of Los Angeles.   No, make it four groups, as nomads must be included.   Nomads in this case being defined to include those who were born and grew up in one part of the United States but found their true, instinctual home in another part of the country.

Jesse Katz is one of those nomads but in his case it was genetic.   His parents met and were married in Brooklyn, but felt the need to move a million miles west to Portland, Oregon.   This was the pre-hip Portland, a city of mostly white persons before it became the ultra-cool city that attracted Californians – a city with a bookstore so big that it requires a map to get around inside of it.

Author Katz grew up in a humble apartment complex near downtown Portland’s Chinatown, his father a suffering artist and later a professor at Portland State.   Katz’ mother was a late bloomer, a Robert F. Kennedy inspired feminist-activist who eventually was elected to the State Legislature, then became the first woman elected as Speaker of the Assembly before becoming a two-term Mayor of the Rose City.

But this is Katz’ story which describes his escape from Portland as a teen, moving to the wilds of Los Angeles, a city that he so accurately describes as the anti-Portland.   In L.A. Katz – “a white boy” – found that, “I had become a minority, the exception…  I was a curiosity even.   God how I loved it!   Los Angeles…  Where had you been all  my life?”

Katz first lives north of downtown before he moves to the multicultural community of Monterey Park.   Monterey Park, a city of taco stands, noodle shops and Mexican restaurants, bereft of national retailers, where the local 7-Eleven sells the Chinese Daily News.   There he burrows into the Hispanic-Asian suburb (yet an independent city) just 7 miles east of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers.   And he finds a new life that centers around the seemingly minor sport of Little League baseball.

Katz, a reporter by profession, becomes the Little League coach of a team that plays at the La Loma fields in Monterey Park; coaching a team that includes his son Max.   Max, unlike his father, is himself multicultural, the product of his Jewish father and Nicaraguan mother.   The game of baseball as played by children may not seem to offer great lessons, but Katz comes to find the truth as expressed by writer John Tunis:  “Courage is all baseball.   And baseball is life; that’s why it gets under your skin.”

The game gets under Katz’ skin to the point where he agrees to serve as the Commissioner of Baseball for the multi-age league centered at La Loma.   This means that every waking moment for several years, not devoted to reporting on gangs for the Los Angeles Times or writing about the city for Los Angeles magazine, is reserved to keeping the league afloat.   It is, in many respects, serious business but also fun…  “I could not escape the feeling that Little League was like summer camp for adults, a reprieve from whatever drudgery or disorder was besetting our regular lives, a license to care about things, about events and people, that otherwise would have passed us by.”

Katz wisely chooses to omit little of the successes and failures that he encountered, both as “The Commish” and as the single father of a teenage son.   This is a look back at a life lived both large and small, and a look at a city, Los Angeles, that embraces the people who make up its communities.   Yes, the city and its suburbs embrace its citizens in a fashion that is far more real than the media’s myths of L.A.’s violence and tawdriness.

This reader, who lived in L.A. and learned to love it (and was embraced by it), would love to raise a toast to Jesse Katz (AKA Chuy Gato).   Perhaps one day he will let me buy him a beer at the Venice Room in Monterey Park (“the seamy cocktail lounge that sooner or later everyone ended up at…”).   A toast to greater L.A., the barricades of Heaven; a place to which we were not born, a place we discovered before it was too late.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from The Crown Publishing Company.   The Opposite Field was released in trade paperback form by Three Rivers Press on July 13, 2010.

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The Cutting

Author James Hayman has applied the skills he developed during a 20+ year career as an advertising executive to mystery writing.   Madison Avenue’s loss is the mystery-lover’s gain.   Like his main character, Detective Sergeant Michael McCabe, Hayman has transplanted himself to Portland, Maine from New York.   His use of dialog and plot line are reminiscent of the TV drama Criminal Minds.   As is customary on Criminal Minds, the lead investigator reaches out to colleagues for clues in piercing together the profile of the perpetrator.

In this case, McCabe is dealing with an “unsub” (unknown subject) who has surgically removed the heart from a teenage girl.   Added to the grisly crime against the teen is the abduction of Lucinda Cassidy, who just happens to work for an ad agency.   Typical of many popular mysteries, this one has a time factor that is key to a rescue opportunity.   Each chapter featuring McCabe has a subheading with the date and time.   Whenever the story switches to Lucinda, there’s a change in the type font.   We are not advised of the date or time.   This serves to heighten the suspense and draw the reader into the action.

Be ready for clever references to what surely must be Hayman’s favorite classic movies, The Third Man and The Day of the Jackal.   The story is kinky in a normal sort of way.   Hayman has applied his word use skills well, much as former corporate executive Lee Eisenberg did in his first book, Shoptimism:  Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What.   Of course, that’s where the similarity ends.   The characters at the center of McCabe’s life are:  his artist girlfriend Kyra, his 13-year-old daughter Cassie, his ex-wife Sandy and Maggie Savage who is his cop partner.   These characters and their interactions are compelling enough to merit a sequel.

Highly recommended.   4 stars with just enough plot twists and car chases to move the story along nicely in this very good first novel.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by Dorothy of Pump Up Your Book Promotion. 

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No Expectations

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Reservation Road: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Vintage Contemporaries, $15.00, 304 pages)

“Our love is like our music, it’s here and then it’s gone.”   Jagger/Richards

Reservation Road was the second novel from John Burnham Schwartz, author of The Commoner.   It is a tale of psychological suspense made all the more interesting as it is told through the thoughts of three characters (Ethan, a college professor; Grace, his wife; and Dwight, the man whose actions cause the death of Ethan and Grace’s son).   Ethan is a literature professor at a small college in New England, whose life is on course until…  

Returning late from an outing, the family makes an unscheduled stop at a gas station on Reservation Road.   As Grace and daughter Emma go in to use the rest room at the almost-abandoned gas station, Ethan and son Josh wait near the side of the road.   In a matter of mere seconds, a car driven recklessly by Dwight hits and kills 10-year-old Josh.   Life will never be the same for Ethan and Grace Learner…

Life, in fact, becomes “too much to bear” for the Learners.   Grace becomes paralyzed by her grief and Ethan moves on driven strictly by thoughts of revenge against the hit-and-run driver who killed his son.   Dwight, by contrast, is a man who has already ruined his life, his marriage and his legal career due to his recklessness and violence.   He becomes “like many whose lives are fueled largely by regret.”   He’s a dead man walking who eventually does “not seem to care any longer what happened to him.”

Schwartz does a masterful job of building and maintaining suspense through this novel’s 292 pages even though the denouement is obvious…   When the criminal justice system fails to find the man who so tragically killed Josh, we know deep down – as does Dwight – that Ethan will find him.   And what then?

But this is more than just a crime mystery.   It is a quasi-morality play about how people deal with losses – death and separation – in their lives.   We see how some rebound to live again and others never recover.   What is the line from Neil Young?   “On the day that she left he died but it did not show.”   This is a story about Ethan and Grace, who lose part of their life (their reason to exist) late; and of Ethan, who has lost his strength and his will to survive early on.

At the end of Reservation Road, Ethan finds Dwight and gets to serve as his judge, jury and – perhaps – his executioner.   What happens?   You’ll have to read Schwartz’s Reservation Road to find out.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

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