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5 Books to Get to Know Portland

Posted by 
Claire Handscombe
Claire Handscombe
 28 days ago

Portland embraces its "weird" label. But weird is just another word for pushing boundaries, and pushing boundaries is a great starting point for producing great art -- including these novels.

Bonus: if you buy them all, they'll look great together on your bookshelf, since their covers all bring to mind the blue of the Pacific ocean.

Descriptions are taken from online bookstores.

Dryland, by Sara Jaffe

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Anything can happen when Julie hits the water.

It’s 1992, and the world is caught up in the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Balkan Wars, but for Julie Winter, 15, the news is noise. In Portland, Oregon, Julie moves through her days in a series of negatives: the skaters she doesn’t think are cute, the Guatemalan backpack she doesn’t buy at the craft fair, the umbrella she refuses to carry despite the incessant rain. Her family life is routine and restrained, and no one talks about Julie’s older brother, a one-time Olympic hopeful swimmer who now lives in self-imposed exile in Berlin. Julie has never considered swimming herself, until Alexis, the swim team captain, tries to recruit her. It's a dare, and a flirtation―and a chance for Julie to find her brother, or to finally let him go.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W Darrow

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The year is 1921, and "Nobody" Alice James has just arrived in Oregon with a bullet wound, a lifetime's experience battling the New York Mafia, and fifty thousand dollars in illicit cash. She befriends Max, a black Pullman porter who reminds her achingly of home and who saves Alice by leading her to the Paragon Hotel. But her unlikely sanctuary turns out to be an all-black hotel in a Jim Crow city, and its lodgers seem unduly terrified of a white woman on the premises.

As she meets the churlish Dr. Pendleton, the stately Mavereen, and the club chanteuse Blossom Fontaine, she understands their dread. The Ku Klux Klan has arrived in Portland in fearful numbers--burning crosses, electing officials, infiltrating newspapers, and brutalizing blacks. And only Alice and her new Paragon "family" are searching for a missing mulatto child who has mysteriously vanished into the woods. To untangle the web of lies and misdeeds around her, Alice will have to answer for her own past, too.

Glaciers, by Alexis M Smith

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Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. Glaciers follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a young girl in Alaska. Glaciers unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel’s sense of history, memory, and place, recalling the work of writers such as Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Virginia Woolf. For Isabel, the fleeting moments of one day can reveal an entire life. While she contemplates loss and the intricate fissures it creates in our lives, she accumulates the stories―the remnants―of those around her and she begins to tell her own story.

The Paragon Hotel, by Lyndsay Faye

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book cover

The year is 1921, and "Nobody" Alice James has just arrived in Oregon with a bullet wound, a lifetime's experience battling the New York Mafia, and fifty thousand dollars in illicit cash. She befriends Max, a black Pullman porter who reminds her achingly of home and who saves Alice by leading her to the Paragon Hotel. But her unlikely sanctuary turns out to be an all-black hotel in a Jim Crow city, and its lodgers seem unduly terrified of a white woman on the premises.

As she meets the churlish Dr. Pendleton, the stately Mavereen, and the club chanteuse Blossom Fontaine, she understands their dread. The Ku Klux Klan has arrived in Portland in fearful numbers--burning crosses, electing officials, infiltrating newspapers, and brutalizing blacks. And only Alice and her new Paragon "family" are searching for a missing mulatto child who has mysteriously vanished into the woods. To untangle the web of lies and misdeeds around her, Alice will have to answer for her own past, too.

A Song Below Water, by Bethany C Morrow

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In a society determined to keep her under lock and key, Tavia must hide her siren powers.

Meanwhile, Effie is fighting her own family struggles, pitted against literal demons from her past. Together, these best friends must navigate through the perils of high school's junior year.

But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation, and Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice at the worst possible moment.

Soon, nothing in Portland, Oregon, seems safe. To save themselves from drowning, it's only Tavia and Effie's unbreakable sisterhood that proves to be the strongest magic of all.