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Book Scavenger: 12/16/15

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a middle grade mystery set in the Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods of San Francisco. It combines local history, Edgar Allen Poe's "Gold Bug" story, and book swapping sites like BookCrossing and Paperback Swap.

Emily and her family are moving to San Francisco as part of her parents blog. They've decided to live in each of the fifty states and write about the experience. As they have jobs where they can telecommute, they have the freedom to move whenever the see fit. The moves, though, are wearing thin on Emily and her brother.

San Francisco, though, promises to be something special as it's the headquarters of an international book swapping site called Book Scavengers. Like BookCrossing, users leave specially marked books and track the travels of book through the website. Here, though, users leave clues to add a bit of a treasure hunt aspect to the site. Those who find books are rewarded points and rankings. Emily is a huge fan of game and is eager to explore the city that spawned it.

But for those living in San Francisco, there are also local games, announced on the radio, KFOG (as one can tell by the radio announcer describing listeners as "Fog Heads"). The most recent game, though, is put on hold when the creator the site, and local publishing mogul, Garrison Griswold, is found shot in a BART station.

As a local Bay Area resident (albeit, in the East Bay, rather than the City) with friends in the publishing industry, I was extremely skeptical at the close of the first chapter. See, Griswold is described without explanation (at first) as if he's a Willy Wonka cosplayer.

Well, turns, out that's intentional and he really is, in fact, a self styled "Willy Wonka of publishing." He's not some fanciful misconception of what a person in publishing is like. He has a back story with a solid time line, tied to the Beat Generation, that is revealed as Emily goes on her scavenger hunt.

In terms of structure, Emily's adventures in San Francisco and her learning of the city's history, and Griswold's part in it, is very much like Richard Mayhew's experiences in Neverwhere after he helps Door.

Emily's "Door" is her neighbor, James. He's her age and is the son of their building's landlady. He's a multi-generation Chinatown native. His family has lived in the same building for a century, something Emily with her itinerant lifestyle has a hard time comprehending. James is more San Francisco than San Francisco. He is her guide through the many layers of the City.

So although the first chapter was a bit rough for me, by the end I was completely swept away by the book. It's a beautiful blending of local history, the life and stories of Poe, Jack Kerouac, and other literary geekery.

A sequel has just been annouced for publication in January 2017. It will be called The Unbreakable Code.

Four stars

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