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"Geeks," by Jon Katz, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," by Amy Tan, and "Deal with the Dead," by Les Standiford 

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Understanding the Geeks
"Geek" once was a name given to circus performers, mainly those people who bit heads off chickens. Today, people who spend a lot of time on computers and little time away from them have adopted the nickname because they are disconnected from mainstream society.

"Geeks" (Broadway Books, $12.95) by journalist Jon Katz documents the lives of Jesse Dailey and Eric Twilegar, two working class, teen-age geeks with dead-end jobs. After Katz indirectly prompts Dailey to research computer jobs, Dailey and Twilegar move from small-town Idaho to Chicago to see where their computer skills take them.

Katz, author of "Virtuous Reality" and "Running to the Mountain," and a writer for Rolling Stone, paints a glorious picture of these two boys' journey and also explains the "us and them" attitude of the geek subculture.

Katz reports on every aspect of these two kids' lives — from the fake ID business the two run for extra cash to his own breaks and struggles with the journalistic code. Katz admits to becoming involved in their lives. He gives them money for their move, encourages them to go to college and actually meets with a University of Chicago dean to vouch for Dailey. This involvement makes "Geeks" more than a journalistic account about computer kids. It's also a compassionate lesson in mentoring.

— Jacob Parcell



Two Cultures, One Family
Amy Tan's latest —"The Bonesetter's Daughter" (Putnam, $25.95) — covers the familiar terrain of the relationship between a Chinese immigrant mother and her Chinese-American daughter. Still, this novel, with its interesting structure and compelling storyline, feels fresh.

The first half of the novel follows Ruth, a fortysomething ghostwriter of self-help books, as she struggles to find the contentment she's been encouraging readers to grasp for years. Ruth questions the most important relationships in her life, and she fights to understand what's happening to her mother's health. LuLing seems to be losing her memory and her ability to reason, and Ruth wonders both what to do next, and what she hasn't been doing all along.

Now, as Ruth is caring for her mother, she comes across writings in her mother's perfect Chinese calligraphy, listed "Things I do not want to forget."

The translations of LuLing's words make up the second half of the novel. Written both for herself, to help her remember, and for her daughter, to help her understand, the stories describe LuLing's life before she came to America — who she was, where she came from, what she had seen. For Ruth, this history relates to the present, revealing why LuLing is the person she is today.

Tan's strength lies in her ability to structure the novel in the most effective way. Tan may not be telling a new story, but she's re-inventing, again, the way she tells it, and that's enough to satisfy. — J.B. Shelleby



A "Deal" You Can't Refuse
John Deal has been trying to understand his father's suicide since author Les Standiford first introduced Deal in "Done Deal." The bloody suicide — Barton Deal ate his gun — was an underlying theme in the four Deal books that followed.

Now, in "Deal with the Dead" (Putnam, $24.95), Standiford fills in the back-story in what may be his best thriller yet.

John Deal is a Miami construction-company owner with a penchant for getting involved in crime solving. The company he inherited from his father, DealCo, seemed to be making a success of itself just before Barton Deal died. Now, John Deal is ready to break out the champagne — or maybe a six-pack of Red Stripe — to celebrate a rewarding building contract that may enable him to make DealCo what it once was ... or might have been.

But Deal discovers that the lucrative contract may have more strings than a symphony orchestra. And the people who are setting him up may be the same ones who set up his bigger-than-life old man.

Standiford keeps the action moving at a brisk pace while developing three-dimensional, believable characters. At the same time, he paints a credible picture of evil with his bad guys. Part of the fun is in figuring out who fits which category.

In this gripping story of a brooding and sincere man's quest to understand his own history and how it made him what he is, Standiford has written a story that not only keeps the reader turning pages quickly, but also adds depth and breadth to the soul of his central character.

Standiford has raised the bar in his latest with finely textured prose, action that moves at the speed of life and piercing insight into the mind of his hero.

— Don Dale

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