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 September 2009 Book Reviews:



American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods

by Bonnie Tsui

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale




Travel writer Tsui tours five very different Chinatowns across America and provides a bit of history with her pop cultural analysis of their significance. 

San Francisco (the oldest): There has been a Chinatown as long as there's been a San Francisco, but anti-Chinese sentiment ran thick in the early days. Still, after the 1906 earthquake Chinese merchants went out of their way to rebuild with “an Oriental look” that was just foreign enough to still appeal to the white public. Everyone likes the exotic when it's only “a few blocks form home.” 

New York (the biggest): Immigrants want their children to learn English, but second generation Chinese get sent to special schools to learn their grandparents' language (now more so than ever with China's rise as a superpower). Meanwhile fortune cookies may have started on the West Coast, but the world's largest manufacturer is based in Queens. They ship around the world—except China, where nobody eats them. 

Los Angeles (the Hollywood icon): Much of America's view of Asia was formed by Hollywood. Since many films set in Asia were filmed in L.A.'s Chinatown, that became the de facto image of that side of the world. So strong was the attraction of Chinatown (everyone who was anyone from the film colony went) that a rival “China City” opened, designed and built by folks from the Paramount studios. There were rickshaw rides and plenty of “peasants,” native Angelinos dressed in traditional costume. 

Honolulu (the crossroads): Laborers came from China in the 1850s to work in the sugarcane fields.  Japanese, Chinese, and European influences often cause friction, but “friction causes heat, and change.”  Hawaii's Chinatown has evolved from social center to red-light district to trendy arts magnet. 

Las Vegas (the newest): Sin City hosts the Chinatown that nobody lives in. It's a mall. More than that, it's a vacation destination for Chinese tourists. Chinese New Year is “the biggest moneymaking period of the year” at Nevada casinos. Pop stars from Taiwan perform and VIP lounges are rearranged with proper feng shui.  And there's lots of tea.



Garner's Modern American Usage, Third Edition

ed. by Bryan A. Garner

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale




Descriptive not prescriptive, (but still opinionated), this collection of nearly 1,000 pages reflects on and explains our language as it stands today. Words like disconnect (noun) and office (verb) are branded as “vogue words,” while clearly and obviously—words which are supposed to intensify a statement, but actually weaken it—are some of Theodore Roosevelt's “weasel words.” The editors write in a clear and unstuffy manner, all the while calling 'em like they see 'em. Issue:  “Although the colloquial use of issue to mean problem is becoming common, many people find it grating.”  Safe-deposit box:  “This is the original and correct term, not safety-deposit box.” There are lists of Denizen Labels (someone from Lawrence, Kansas is a Lawrentian, while someone from Lawrence, Massachusetts is a Lawrencian) and Governmental Forms (hagiocracy is government by saints and kakistocracy government by a county's worst citizens). Certain terms are marked with the Language-Change Index, indicating how far along usages that were simply once wrong have come in the process of becoming accepted. Using ripe (mature) for rife (abundant) is still at Stage 1 (a mortal sin). Could care less for couldn't care less is now at Stage 3 (a venial sin), while decimate (which only means the death of one in ten) for large-scale destruction is now at Stage 5 (a virtue). An excellent book for reference, or just dipping into.




Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950 – 1963

by Kevin Starr

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale




In this, the most recent volume (he has already written on the 1990's, but not yet the 70's or 80's) in his epic history of California, professor and former California State Librarian Starr has produced a brilliant and engrossing work. Because of its concentration on Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco as they become the cities we know and love today, this volume will be of interest to more readers than, say, Starr’s earlier one on the largely agrarian 1920's. (Though locals will still get the most out of this book:  Perino's restaurant!  Big Sur!) Starr begins with the post-war population boom when returning veterans followed the words of the song Bing Crosby made so popular and settled down to make the San Fernando Valley their home, and takes us through such diverse topics as the rise of California cool, as personified by the career of jazz master Dave Brubeck, and the Cold War, as planned and fought on the various campuses of the University of California. Starr's depiction of San Francisco (with a heavy emphasis on Herb Caen) makes you want to hop the next plane (or rather, time machine) for the City by the Bay, and the unexpectedly entertaining history of L.A.'s freeways could serve as the narration to a Ken Burns documentary. The history of California is the history of 20th century America, and anyone who lives in a suburb or commutes to work via freeway will find their history here.




206 Bones

Kathy Reichs

reviewed by Jon Land


My prison was no more than thirty inches high and six feet wide!  Its length didn’t matter.  Already I felt the walls pressing in. 

That’s where forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan finds herself at the beginning of Kathy Reichs’s chilling new thriller, 206 Bones.  Well, not the beginning exactly since the rest of the book flashes back to the circumstances that led to her potentially fatal imprisonment. 

Those circumstances revolve around Tempe and Montreal detective Paul Ryan bringing home the remains of a recently discovered murder victim, the elderly Rose Jurmain, to the victim’s home in Chicago.  An especially considerate act, utterly unappreciated by Jurmain’s family who proceed to accuse Brennan of botching the autopsy.  She’s barely had time to process this before the bodies of more elderly women start turning up back in Montreal.  Never one to shy away from the lab or the field she inevitably prefers, Brennan finds herself forced to clear her own name even as she searches for a link between the latest victims and Rose Jurmain, a deadly combination that ultimately leads her to being buried alive. 

With a television series and near dozen bestsellers to her credit, Reichs remains hardly one to rest on her laurels.  In 206 Bones she again proves herself to be infinitely superior to Patricia Cornwall and, now, every bit the equal of Jeffrey Deaver.  As fiendishly intelligent and brilliantly plotted tale as you will read this year.





by Vincent McCaffrey

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Henry Sullivan is just squeaking by as a “book hound,” a wholesale rare book dealer. He scrounges yard and estate sales picking up the odd bibliographic treasure here and there. He thinks he might be onto a second shot at happiness when an ex-girlfriend asks him to appraise a collection of first editions left by her late husband. But when this former love is murdered, Sullivan turns from reading Raymond Chandler to trying to solve the crime himself. With a faster pace tempered by real emotional resonance, Hound is different from John Dunning's “Bookman” series, yet there is enough behind the scenes information about the rare book trade to appeal to Cliff Janeway fans. (McCaffrey ran an independent bookstore for 30 years, so he knows what he's talking about.) The tale is packed with references not only to mystery writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, but a variety of others from Charles Dickens to Nevil Shute. McCaffrey even name checks Harlan Ellison as an example of “The good ones are all difficult.” Set in a beautifully-evoked contemporary Boston, the old town soon provides a wealth of other mysteries for Sullivan, like a hidden stash of letters belonging to a flapper adventuress of the 1920s. As with all good books about books (even novels), this one will send you out looking for the other writers discussed.



Spartan Gold

by Grand Blackwood

reviewed by Jon Land



“So, a World War II German mini submarine, twenty some miles up the Potomac River,” Remi Fargo, one of the two intrepid heroes of Spartan Gold, intones early in the book.  “Okay, I admit it.  You got me.  I’m officially intrigued.” 

Good, old-fashioned treasure hunts have been a staple of thrillers for generations, and Grant Blackwood’s first entry in this new Clive Cussler franchise is the perfect example why.  True to that form, discovery of the sub proves to be just the beginning of the quest undertaken by husband and wife adventurers, Sam and Remi Fargo.  Indeed, the sub contains evidence of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Lost Cellar, containing the final reserves of his specially minted wine, the value of which is virtually incalculable from both a historical and monetary standpoint. 

Of course, no treasure hunt would be complete without a villain of especially evil vintage himself, and Blackwood make sure to include one here in the form of Hadcon Bondrauk, a ruthless billionaire who has his own reasons for wanting the Lost Cellar.  The result is a rousing and splendidly pleasing trek across continents and ages with any number of secrets being revealed well in advance of the proverbial treasure. 

Spartan Gold shimmers like a breath of fresh air to an oft-tried form and oft-overdone “co-author” syndrome that strains credulity even as it tosses anything remotely passing as original to the wayside.  Far from that, Blackwood’s tale of greed and obsession clicks on all cylinders like a perfectly oiled machine.




The Sheriff of Yrnameer

by Michael Rubens

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale




Comedy is difficult. Science fiction comedy doubly so. Clearly inspired by Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, here Rubens plays with the conceits of Westerns in a future where Earth is long-gone, but humans and aliens interact in galaxy-wide commerce. Yrnameer (Your Name Here) is the last unbranded planet (not like a steer, but like a sports stadium; Qwest Field, meet planet InvestCo 23). Some say it's a myth, but Nora the intergalactic relief worker is taking a bunch of previously dehydrated (literally) orphans there to settle in peace and quiet. Deep in debt and trouble himself, our hero Cole stumbles upon her hapless crew. Together they are plagued by countdowns to destruction (including a missile weapons system that wants them to answer a brief customer-satisfaction survey prior to killing them) and enemies from their pasts. Can you guess who becomes the sheriff when (spoiler alert!) they reach the planet? Although it never achieves the truly inspired levels of Adamsian lunacy, there are plenty of chuckles. And zombies. A hyperdrive is commonly called a “bendbox.” Its advertising slogan is “Get Bent.” If you just smiled, this is the book for you.





Velva Jean Learns to Drive

by Jennifer Niven

reviewed by A.B. Mead


This is not just another tale of hardscrabble mountain life in the 1930s seen through the eyes of a young girl as she grows up. Yes, at first ten-year-old Velva Jean Hart's life's ambition is to “sing at the Grand Ole Opry and wear an outfit made of rhinestones.” And her older sister Sweet Fern says things like, “Sometimes you got to learn that what folks says and what's the truth ain't always the same.” It's that kind of book. But it's also a book filled with lyrical passages like her description of the gold dust in her county:  “It was the only place I knew where the earth sparkled. Sometimes on a windy, dusty day, I came home shining like sunlight on Three Gun River.” Niven sticks to the more interesting “power chords” of rural fiction without having to descend into the gothic to keep our interest. Over the next eight years, we see revival tent preachers, moonshiners, a hobo jungle, prospectors, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The last are building a road into her little town of Sleepy Gap, NC, but, as someone tells her, a road in is also a road out. Velva Jean marries young, practices her mandolin, and writes country songs that she imagines no one will ever hear, yet, all the while, the call of the outside world grows stronger and stronger for her. 




 Young Adult



The Maze Runner

by James Dashner

reviewed by Hayden Bass



16-year-old Thomas has amnesia.  When he finds himself living with dozens of other boys, also amnesiacs, he can remember only his name.  He and the others are trapped in what is essentially a prison:  a small glade next to a huge, ivy-covered maze.  Dangers abound inside the maze, especially after dark, and the giant walls change position every day.  But since the maze may hold the secret to escape, Thomas knows he wants to join the Maze Runners, sprinters who explore the maze daily, making maps and plotting an escape.  This book lacks the psychological resonance and satisfying conclusion of Suzanne Collin’s futuristic thriller The Hunger Games (2008), and it also suffers from some minor plot inconsistencies.  Even so, it’s a page-turner that will likely attract many fans of The Hunger Games between installments of that series.




Giving Up the V

by Serena Robar

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Spencer Davis is a very real 16-year-old girl. At five-eight and 162 pounds, she's a far cry from the twiggy glamour gals that populate so much of young adult fiction these days (also nobody's undead in this book). In some ways, this is a typical Will She Do It or Won't She Do It novel (the V is her virginity). But Spencer's narration stands out as particularly amusing and appealing as she confronts the typical indignities of young womanhood (at her first Ob-Gyn appointment:  “Our family doctor had just made it to third base with me.”) as well as the good days (“He wore jeans like he was doing them a favor, and in response, they clung to him in appreciation.”). Spencer has never really given the matter of sex much thought, until new transfer student Benjamin arrives. Instantly attracted, she sets out to make him Her First. Her best friend Alyssa wants him, too. Fortunately, this isn't Heavy Drama. Even though the themes are sophisticated and the language sometimes raw (and also very real), the book stays light enough to keep the reader smiling. The other boys and girls in her circle of friends break up, get together, and have their own targets of lust and love, all the while playing Guitar Hero and (gasp!) actually attending classes. “Real” doesn't have to equal super drama. In fact, since most of life isn't Heavy Drama, that makes this book even more realistic. Not that nothing much happens; a lot happens.  It's just more low-key, and so, perhaps, easier for readers to relate to. Robar's novel is like listening to a friend tell her story, as opposed to seeing it staged in glossy Manhattan apartments by pretty actors in their twenties.





We Were Here

by Matt de la Pena

reviewed by Hayden Bass



Miguel has done something so horrible that he not only can’t talk about it to anyone, he makes sure he never even acknowledges it to himself.  Sentenced to stint in a group home, he meets Rondell, an enormous, developmentally disabled African American, and Mong, an apparently psychotic Chinese America teen.  Because he can't think of any reason not to, Miguel agrees to Mong's escape plan, and the three set off on a journey south to Mexico, while Miguel (who both of the other boys call "Mexico") keeps up his court-mandated journal.

Though at first glance the book seems riddled with stereotypes—the large, slow African-American guy who’s good at basketball, the mysterious Asian, the Latino reduced to the name of a country he has never even visited—de la Pena unpacks those stereotypes, and shows the secrets each boy carries underneath.  The crowning glory of this book is Miguel’s voice, which rings completely true, and his gradual journey to accept what he has done.  Highly recommended, particularly for reluctant readers who will identify with these characters.







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