Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Case of the Goblin Pearls by Laurence Yep

I've liked Laurence Yep's writing for years, ever since I read Dragon of the Lost Sea when I was a kid. Occasionally I pick up another of his books and I always enjoy them.

The Case of the Goblin Pearls is about twelve-year-old Lily Lew, who lives in San Francisco, and her Auntie, an actress who gained fame decades before as Tiger Lil but whose glamorous days are over. Auntie Lil comes to visit for Chinese New Year, mostly because she's organizing a parade float for a businessman whom she hopes might one day finance another Tiger Lil movie. But when a thief steals the famous Goblin Pearls, Lily and her Auntie end up digging into the mystery behind the theft. Not only do they uncover some shady goings-on in Chinatown, Lily learns a lot about what it means to be Chinese-American.

I liked the book, although it seemed a little rushed in the beginning while also taking a while for the actual plot to get underway. There's a lot of set-up for the whole series, not just this book. I would have liked to have a little more character development, too. But once the mystery really gets started, it's a lot of fun. Lily is roped into helping during the parade, and witnesses the theft of the pearls. She only decides to investigate when she realizes there's a connection between the pearls' owner and a sweatshop where the mother of a girl she knows works--a sweatshop that hasn't paid its workers in three months.

Oddly enough, the parts of the book I liked best were those where Lily was grappling with her own heritage and thinking about things she's always taken for granted. Another writer might have made this a Message book, but Yep handles the topic lightly. The glimpses of Chinese-American culture, particularly around Chinatown, are fascinating without overpowering the mystery. The book is for younger kids, so while the mystery isn't terribly hard to figure out, it's satisfying.

The book was published in 1997, and it's surprising how dated it feels. Lily's mother rents VCR tapes to show the family Tiger Lil's old films; when they can't find some of the movies, Lily asks a computer-nerd friend to check with his "connections on the Internet" to chase them down. It's a shame that the dated stuff shows up early in the book, because it's both distracting and not a bit important to the actual plot. I suppose if the book is ever reprinted it would be easy enough to update it.

B&N link (used book)

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