Photo of Frank Chu and Prince Charles by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

Jen Wang, Koko Be Good (First Second, 2010).
A graphic novel and a sort of three-legged bildungsroman about young San Franciscans Koko, Jon, and Faron. When Jon meets Koko, he is planning to move to Peru to do charity work, a plan that seems like a good idea, but her outlook on life causes him to question himself. Koko, on the other hand, could use a little more structure and long-term planning, but instead she has Jon and Faron, who driftlessly works in his family’s restaurant. Wang’s characters are more complicated than they first appear; nonetheless, the dialogue sometimes evokes overly earnest late-night dormroom conversations. Even so, the terrific artwork more than makes up for it.

Here is the author’s site. Wang has posted a shorter, earlier (2004) work by the same name; here is the backstory. Here’s a quick and effective preview. Take a longer look on Google Books. Or take a look at the excerpt offered by the distributor. Cory Doctorow calls it a complex story engagingly told with ingenious layouts and lovely art. Eric Adelstein came away with a craving for more. Greg McElhatton says it defies easy categorization. Comicsgirl says Wang’s San Francisco is a place where people actually live and work. Xaviar Xerexes calls it a thought-provoking story with lively characters and a tone that mixes seriousness with fun. Sterg Botzakis calls it beautifully illustrated. Kristin Fletcher-Spear calls the artwork wonderfully unique and the characters truly realized. Erin Jameson says the combination of text and art is sublime. Cathlin Goulding likes the illustration of San Francisco neighborhoods. Zack Davisson loved the artwork, but not the characters or story. Holly agrees with Davisson. So does Ray Garraty. Johnny Bacardi gives it mixed praise. Jonathan says the characters are by turns funny and serious, but always real. DeBT appreciates Wang’s departures from conventions. Ralph Mathieu calls it delightful twice. Andrew Wheeler says the characters are realistically verbose and pompous. Wang talked to the Wall Street Journal about her inspirations. Kris Bather interviewed her. Here is another interview with Shaun Manning of CBR. Here’s one with John Hogan of GraphicNovelReporter. Here’s one with J. Caleb Mozzocco of And here’s one with Alex Dueben at Suicide Girls. MTV Geek! toured her studio. See more of Wang’s art here.

Buy it at

Photo by tibchris used under a Creative Commons license.

Thomas Roberts, Drake’s Bay (Permanent Press, 2010).
House-hunting one afternoon in Kensington, near Berkeley in the East Bay, San Francisco State history professor Ethan Storey stumbles onto a trail that may or may not lead back to evidence of Sir Francis Drake’s visit to the Bay Area more than four hundred years ago. As he soon discovers, the mystery is of more-than-academic interest to some rich and powerful interests, and Storey’s efforts to uncover the truth prove to be hazardous to his health. Without giving the plot away, I will say that the story (and Storey) move around the Bay Area, from Kensington and Berkeley to San Francisco to Richmond, both on and off the water.

Here’s the publisher’s page. Clark Isaacs says it features excellent prose. CelticLady calls it a suspenseful and entertaining story. Jenna A. recommends it highly.  Laura Pryor says it’s an old-school mystery (scroll down) that relies on intelligent plot twists and well-paced revelations, rather than relentless violence and gore. It’s on (UC Berkeley’s) Bancroft Library’s list of mysteries set in the Bay Area.  Mary Rees chatted with Roberts.  And here is Wikipedia’s page on Sir Francis Drake. Did he visit the Bay Area?

Buy it at

Route 66
Photo by Swiv used under a Creative Commons license.

Dan Morgan, Rising in the West (Knopf, 1992).
Subtitled “The True History of an ‘Okie’ Family from the Great Depression Through the Reagan Years,” this is a history of the family of Oca Tatham and his family, who fled Oklahoma in August, 1934, in search of a better future in California.   The Tathams are Pentecostal Christians, a faith that ties together the Oklahoma of the 193os and the California of the Reagan Revolution.

Morgan was a reporter for the Washington Post for four decades or so. Here’s a page at that will link to recent work there by Morgan; it also has a brief bio. Here’s another short bio. R. Stephen Warner (Christian Century) says it’s rich in social and religious history. This piece by William M. Hagen for the Oklahoma Historical Society recommends the book. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t like Morgan’s style, but appreciates his departure from some of the myths about Okies. Tom Snyder recommends it to travelers on Route 66. The book introduced Jane M. Smith to homeschooling.

Buy it at

St. Rita's Earth
Photo by jeroen020 used under a Creative Commons license.

Rex Pickett, Sideways (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004).
Two friends, Miles and Jack, head up to the wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley, in Santa Barbara County, California, for one last singles weekend before Jack gets married. Miles, not really rebounding from a divorce and unsuccessful as a novelist, is an oenophile; Jack, a moderately successful actor, is looking to party before he settles down. This book was made into the Paul Giamatti movie that depressed sales of merlot, but there’s more here that was left on the cutting-room floor when the film was made, and there are some differences as well. This novel doesn’t need to be aged to be enjoyed, but it’s not plonk either.

Here is Google Book Search. Sheridan Sawyer didn’t like it. Nor did LaShawn. Media Kitten liked it. Liane Schmidt liked it, and more than the movie. WhiplashGirlchild disagrees. So does Liz Miller (Bookslut), who is really impressed by the adaptation. Mo Pie takes a mixed view. I think Colophon liked it. Daphne Charette interviewed Pickett. So did W. Blake Gray (San Francisco Chronicle). Or listen to this piece about him on NPR’s Fresh Air. Patrick S. Pemberton profiled Pickett after the movie’s success. The movie spawned a wine club, which offers this map (.pdf) of the route Miles and Jack took in the movie and travel recommendations.
Beth Adele Long finds Pickett going after Stephen King.

Buy it at

Sunset Boulevard
Photo of Sunset Boulevard by Ilpo Sojourn used under a Creative Commons license.

Stanley Crawford, Gascoyne (Overlook, 2005).
A black comedy of Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Gascoyne is a private investigator who also seems to own half the town and to run local politicians, all of which he does from his car as he outsmarts traffic and red lights and talks on his phone. Things start with a murder, away from which Gascoyne espies the chief of police and a man in a sloth costume – among others – sneaking. Things spiral from there. Just as Gascoyne never lets traffic signals stop him, Crawford never loses momentum.

Michael Ventura welcomed Gascoyne’s republication in 2005. This review appeared in The Augusta Chronicle. JK liked it, and Buckie too. And Andy Jaysnovitch, though it’s not clear he read it.

Buy this book at

Hoover Dam
Photo of the Hoover Dam by ubik14 used under a Creative Commons license.

Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (Penguin, 1993).
The epic tale of water and the American West. Water is scarce throughout the West, and so its history is one of water rights, irrigation, dams, and lots and lots of politics. Two federal agencies – the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers – have battled for years to control the floodgates. Reisner’s research was comprehensive, and he recounts events over several decades and explains water projects in several states. If this subject matter sounds dry (pun intended) to you, rest assured that it isn’t. This book will change the way you understand half of the country, and should be required reading for anyone living in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones.

Here is a bio of Reisner. Here is his obituary from The New York Times. Outside of term-paper sites, there is less discussion of it on the web than the book deserves, but here are Jerry Keeney, Faith, Marty, Ray Swider, and Branislav L. Slantchev. And Camron Assadi agrees that it’s a must-read.

Buy this book at

Photo by used under a Creative Commons license.

Michael Lewis, The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story (W.W. Norton, 1999).
Largely a profile of Jim Clark, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape. When Lewis was writing this book, Clark was busy starting up Healtheon and building a massive sailboat. In the late 1990s, Silicon Valley was developing its own crazy business climate and peculiar climate, what Lewis describes as “the same center-of-the-universe feel to it as Wall Street had in the mid-1980s,” and Lewis uses Clark to get at that feel.

Google Book Search has an excerpt and more. Here is the first chapter. Here is Lewis’s Wikipedia bio. This article, “The Search Engine,” was adapted for The New York Times from the book. Here are reviews from Jennifer Schuessler (Publishers Weekly), Richard Seltzer, Kurt Andersen (The New York Times), Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Mark Gimein (Salon), Elise Ackerman (The Washington Monthly), Dr. N. Vania, Saurabh Garg, Jennifer Rivers, and Brian Lash. Joe Nocera and Jean Strouse discussed the book in Slate’s The Book Club. Jack Beatty feels sorry for Clark. And this article by Alex Salkever in Salon picks up on Lewis’s shifting take on journalism schools.

Buy it at

Next Page »