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Book Buzz Book Reviews

Staff Picks 2023

San Diego Public Library staff write short book reviews of their favorite titles for the San Diego Union Tribune, which are published every other Sunday. Here is a selection of the titles we've recommended. Checkout information may be found in the library catalog.

For more book recommendations and reviews check out our YouTube Channel for video reviews by staff.


Book cover for Grey Bees

Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov
Reviewed by Jolanta Danaziene
Library Assistant II, Carmel Mountain Ranch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, November 19, 2023

Set in 2016 in the western territory of Donbas, the so-called Grey Zone of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Grey Bees depicts the remarkable journey of Sergey, a Ukrainian beekeeper—both a physical journey through Zaporozhye to occupied Crimea while trying to rescue his bees, and a journey of understanding, as we glimpse the lives of loyalists, separatists, soldiers, and citizens. Unable to find any safe place for himself and the bees, Sergey decides to turn back and return home to Donbas with a growing sense that the deepening conflict may escalate into a war. 

The novel was written in 2018, four years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine—knowing what befell the Ukrainian people in 2022, Grey Bees carries a powerful emotional sting for the reader. 

Book Cover for Remarkably Bright Creatures

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Reviewed by Debbie Taylor
Librarian II, Valencia Park / Malcolm X Library
San Diego Union Tribune, November 5, 2023

Pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in for a trip to the fictional town of Sowell Bay. Tova Sullivan is a seventy-year-old widow who works at the Sowell Bay Aquarium off Puget Sound. Tova likes to keep herself busy so as not to dwell on the losses of her husband and her son. One of the aquarium residents, a curmudgeonly Giant Pacific Octopus named Marcellus, likes to escape his tank to seek out more desirable snacks. One night, Marcellus gets entangled in some electrical cords, and Tova rescues him. Thus begins an unlikely friendship. Some chapters are narrated by Marcellus and are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Throw in a town full of colorful characters, and you get a book that has humor, sadness, hope, love, and a little bit of a mystery. I didn’t want this story to end!

Book cover for The Coward

The Coward by Jarred McGinnis
Reviewed by Peter Miesner 
Librarian IV, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, October 22, 2023

A car accident leaves Jarred paralyzed from the waist down. He already considered himself a screw-up. Now he’s a screw-up confined to a wheelchair. His situation is further complicated by the fact he is forced to move in with his father whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to for 10 years. Now, in addition to navigating the world as a paraplegic, he is also navigating the complicated and uneasy relationship with his estranged father. While Jarred’s sharp wit and short fuse make for some funny scenarios it also makes him his own worst enemy in trying to heal from a traumatic past, forgive his father and heal that relationship, and forge new relationships. A heartbreaking and heartwarming story that gives able-bodied readers a new perspective. This is author Jarred McGinnis’ first novel.

Book Cover for All the Beauty in the World

Reviewed by Peggy Goings 
Library Assistant III, University Heights Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, August 13, 2023 

What would it be like to spend all day in one of the world’s greatest art museums? What would be revealed day after day? In this meditation on art and life, writer Patrick Bringley, grieving the loss of his brother, quit his job at The New Yorker to become a security guard inside the hallowed walls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In eight-to-twelve- hour shifts over the course of ten years, the author reveals not only the inner workings of The MET, but the treasures that take time to be seen and felt, from every visitor seeking Washington Crossing the Delaware to the hushed rooms of Islamic art, from musical instruments to medieval armor, Degas to Dutch masters. After reading, you’re left feeling like you’ve received not only an excellent art history tour but a greater lesson in contemplative life. Bringley is a lucky man.  

Book Cover for Malice

Reviewed by Kit Jackson
Library Assistant I, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, July 30, 2023  

What if Maleficent wasn’t the villain? What if she was the only person whose kiss could break the spell? Alyce, the Dark Grace, is the last of her kind. Hated and feared in equal measures, her talents are unique, and nobles will pay any price to use them. What other Graces can make beautiful, Alyce can sour. She is stronger than she knows, and she has been kept in a dark corner, trained to only see the evil in herself and her lineage. The birthday ball for Princess Aurora brings her in contact with the last descendant of the Briar Queen, destined to die by her next birthday if she does not meet her true love to break her curse. Beautiful, kind, and courageous, Aurora shows the qualities of a true queen, one that could return the kingdom to its past glory. Can they work together to break this curse? 

Book Cover Jacket Weather

Reviewed by Peter Miesner 
Librarian IV, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, July 16, 2023 

A twice-divorced Mike reconnects with June, herself on the verge of divorce.  In their twenties they were part of the rock and roll scene in New York. Now these fifty-somethings are discovering something new between them. Through snapshots, DeCapite deftly conveys everyday life, personal histories, and a romance unfolding: conversations while lying in bed, a regular cast of characters arguing and trading recipes at the Y, observations at the Walgreens, and reflections while riding the subway. Music references give us the appropriate soundtrack that wends from Frank Sinatra to the Stranglers with everything in between - and none safe from critique. What seems at first a fragmented collection of mundane bits and pieces of life in New York evolves into an insightful, realistic, funny, and romantic story. 

Book cover of Goin' Off

Reviewed by Dustin Vogel 
Librarian II, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, July 2, 2023 

Unless you’re a hip-hop head, you might be unfamiliar with the story of the Juice Crew and Cold Chillin’ Records. Goin’ Off chronicles the rise and downfall of both the crew and record label, who spawned rappers MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane, as well as super producer Marley Marl. Author Ben Merlis masterfully blends artist interviews with his own prose, giving context to the stories being told, making this an easy read. Potential readers may ask, why the Juice Crew and Cold Chillin’? This question is answered in the prologue with one word: Influence. Without the Juice Crew and Cold Chillin’s influence, hip-hop would have missed out on foundational elements that make the genre what it is today. If your hip-hop education is lacking, start here and learn about some of the best from the Golden Age. 

Book Cover for Electrify

Reviewed by Carl Adkins 
Librarian II, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, 18 June 2023 

In the next ten years, a fifty percent reduction of greenhouse gases will be required to fully decarbonize by 2050, rapidly enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But how? Australian inventor Saul Griffith’s Electrify is the blueprint for policies which will spur a rapid global energy transition. Griffith worked with the US government for two years, and his strategy is the basis for the recently passed US climate legislation, the “Inflation Reduction Act”—so-called because renewables are inherently anti-inflationary, operating at a fixed cost, unlike fossil fuels which are historically economically volatile. This legislation is projected to drive emissions down by forty-two percent while creating a new energy market dominated by renewables. With solar and wind now the cheapest forms of energy, a massive shift in how industrialized economies can generate power is possible, making global energy transition attainable by 2050 and sustainable beyond. 

Book cover for Priest of Bones

Reviewed by Steven Torres-Roman 
Librarian II, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune: June 4, 2023 

After a devastating war between two nations that everyone arguably lost, Thomas Piety, soldier and priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, returns home to Ellinburg with his regiment and compatriots, including: Bloody Anne, the best sergeant and second a leader could have; Jochan, Thomas’s bloodthirsty and broken brother; and Billy the Boy, a young man touched by the Lady, with strange and terrifying abilities. Thomas intends to reclaim his place among Ellinburg’s underworld, with the soldiers he commanded forming a crew to back his play. But Thomas soon learns that the strife in his former stomping grounds is only a reflection of a much larger conflict, and finds himself drafted into an entirely different kind of war, one filled with bloody intrigue and espionage. McLean weaves a web of lies and conflicting loyalties in this magnificent mash-up of fantasy and organized crime--think “Peaky Blinders” with swords and sorcery! 

Delicious in Dungeon Book Cover

Reviewed by Amanda Lorge 
Librarian I, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, May 21, 2023

Manga series Delicious in Dungeon takes on a classic fantasy premise with a fascinating twist. A questing group led by human warrior Laios needs to reach the bottom of a dungeon to rescue his sister, but they’ve run out of gold for supplies. With the help of a mysteriously wise dwarf, Senshi, the group learns how to cook and prepare monsters like walking mushrooms and kelpies in order to sustain them as they traverse the levels of the dungeon. 

Delicious in Dungeon is full of in-jokes about fantasy gaming (tabletop and video) and genuinely funny banter between characters. Every chapter features a gorgeously illustrated monster dish with ingredients and nutrition information—one of the most fun and innovative ways to drop monster lore in the genre. All types of gamers and fantasy fans should check out Delicious in Dungeon if they’re looking for a new obsession. 

Headshot of a female smoking a cigarette

Reviewed by David Cederholm 
Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens Benjamin Branch Library 
San Diego Union Tribune: May 7, 2023 

Mexico City, 1971. At the height of the “dirty war” a lonely secretary stuck working a dreary steno pool job finds some excitement when she agrees to apartment sit for her neighbor for a couple of days. Maite never expects that she will soon pair up with a young radical in a desperate search for a missing girl. With a solid dose of vintage pop music from her record player as background, she plunges into the violent conflict as it erupts in the streets of the Distrito Federal. Will she find love and fulfilment? Is she unwittingly becoming a real-life character from the pages of the cheap romance novels she enjoys? Will she get herself killed in a wild shoot-out between the radicals and government agents? A gritty and atmospheric noir drama with shady characters galore—who knows, there may even be an Elvis sighting. 

Book cover of When I grow up. Girl in a orange dress skating down a city block.

Reviewed by Bridget ThomasMayhew
Librarian Assistant II, Central Library
San Diego Union Tribune: April 23, 2023 

When I Grow Up is a translated and illustrated collection of six autobiographies written by Eastern European Jewish teenagers in the 1930s. Starting in 1932, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research held anonymous autobiography contests to learn more about the lives of the Jewish youth. After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 the contest was canceled, and these autobiographies were either destroyed or hidden. More than seventy years later they were found, and in When I Grow Up Ken Krimstein has illustrated six of these autobiographies to create a glimpse into the lives of everyday Jewish people living in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. The chapters read like short stories and include a heartbroken boy remembering his difficult time in a Yeshiva school and a music loving girl describing the suffering her father brought to their family. It is an interesting read for anyone wanting to learn a little more about Jewish history.

Prince of Thorns Cover

Reviewed by Steven Torres-Roman
Librarian II, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune: April 9, 2023 

Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath is not your typical fantasy hero. Having survived an assassination attempt that took the lives of his younger brother and mother, Jorg leaves his father’s castle and his life of privilege behind and becomes the unlikely leader of a vicious group of thieves and cutthroats at the tender age of thirteen. Scarred and cynical, furious at his father for replacing him with a new heir, this enraged and ruthless boy decides that if his father won’t acknowledge Jorg’s birthright, then he’ll simply take it. Soon, however, Jorg realizes that kings and queens are merely figureheads, puppets of sorcerers with true power, and Jorg no longer suits their plans. This gem of grimdark fantasy is not for the faint of heart, but if you want something grittier than the usual noble heroes, wise wizards, and happy endings, then start reading Prince of Thorns

Book Cover of Rebel with a clause

Reviewed by Erin Moore
Librarian II, San Carlos Branch Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, March 26, 2023
When the topic of grammar comes up in conversation, it is rarely met with cries of delight. But the latest book from language expert Ellen Jovin, which details her grammar-inspired journey across the United States, just might lead to an overdue reevaluation of this often-maligned subject. Traveling with only a few reference books and a folding table that she pitches outside various public venues, Jovin invites inquiring passersby to ask their most pressing grammar questions and chat about grammatical pet peeves. She then shares these conversations with readers, providing helpful tutorials on common problems, such as run-on sentences and misplaced apostrophes, as well as sensible advice on how to navigate the evolving world of language. With humor and humility, Jovin demonstrates that discussions of grammar do not have to be fraught with fear and judgment, but can instead be a source of discovery, connection, and—dare I say it—fun.

Book Cover for Animal by Lisa Taddeo

Reviewed by Cora Lee Womble-Miesner
Library Assistant III, College-Rolando Branch Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, March 12, 2023
Animal is a brutal novel that I can’t get out of my head. In it, Joan moves from New York to Los Angeles to track down a woman she’s never met, seeking closure from an ominous and violent past. Taddeo delivers Joan’s story in tense, muscular sentences. She fills in bits and pieces like a paint-by-number, until the fragments come together to reveal a complete image. No synopsis of the plot can do it justice—it’s best enjoyed without knowing what is to come. Taddeo's writing is dynamic, crisp, and alarmingly original. Despite the depraved ferocity of this novel, it ends on a sentimental note—Animal is a book charged with rage and torment, but also fueled by a tender capacity for love. 

Book Cover for It's One of Us

Reviewed by Kelly Verheyden 
Supervising Librarian, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, February 26, 2023 
Olivia Bender is a chic interior designer desperate to have a child. She has tried numerous fertility treatments, without success. She is ready to tell her husband, Park, that she is ready to stop trying when the police arrive with shocking news: DNA testing shows that the prime suspect in several murders is genetically Park’s son. Olivia feels shocked and betrayed to learn Park donated sperm in college. Park has no idea how many children he has, and one of them is a killer. J.T. Ellison’s emotional thriller unwinds quickly, questioning nature vs. nurture, genetic privacy, and marital trust. Olivia becomes increasingly suspicious of Park, after all, he fathered a murderer, so what might he be capable of, and what is he hiding from his past? If the police know the killer is genetically related to Park, does the killer know too, and will he come looking for his “father”? 

Book Cover of The Devil Takes You Home

Reviewed by Steven Torres-Roman 
Librarian II, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, February 12, 2023 
Mario’s daughter died, he lost his job, and his wife has left him, but in an effort to reclaim his life Mario may also sacrifice his soul. Out of desperation, Mario takes a job to hijack a truckload of drug cartel money, but soon finds himself out of his depth and mired in criminal violence and supernatural horror. Iglesias's latest book is a brilliant and bleak blend of crime and occult horror fiction, as well as a sharp denouncement of institutional poverty and racism. And while some of the dialogue is written in Spanish, the native language of the author and many of the characters, much of the important Spanish dialogue is translated to English, though some readers might find Google translate helpful. Despite the similarities between noir and horror fiction, there aren’t enough books that blend the two effectively; fortunately, Iglesias effectively bridges cultures and genres with equal skill. 

Book cover of Gallant by VE Schwab

Reviewed by Yvette Jackson 
Library Assistant II, North University Community Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, January 29, 2023 
Gallant is a beautifully spun, darkly written book I've recently had the pleasure to enjoy in both text and an exceptional, energetic, and emotionally vivid audiobook. The main character, Olivia, was left with an orphanage as a baby, with nothing but a journal written by her mother to connect her to the past. Olivia cannot speak, but she can see ghosts and ghouls haunting her world. Her dismal life at the orphanage comes to a halt when she receives a letter from her uncle telling her that he has been searching for her and instructing her to come home to Gallant. What seems like an orphan's dream come true, a discovery of family, leads to mystery, magic, and revelations that will keep you turning pages.

Kings of the Wyld

Reviewed by Steven Torres-Roman 
Librarian II, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, January 15, 2023 
In his youth, Clay Cooper belonged to the greatest crew of monster slayers in history, the Kings of the Wyld. Bands of warriors like theirs were treated like heroes and feted like rock stars. But age catches up to everyone, and Clay has retired. He has a wife and child now, so no more adventures for him… until a former bandmate, Gabriel, shows up at his door, begging for his help. Gabriel’s daughter Rose is a warrior like her famed father, and she’s trapped in a city under siege by fiends and horrors. Gabriel needs the aid of his fellow adventurers to break the siege and rescue her. For better or worse, Clay knows that, if they’re to complete this mission, it’s time to put the band back together. Eames’s novel is a must-read fantasy adventure full of action and humor with a “we’re too old for this” twist. 

Cover of The Body Keeps the Score

Reviewed by James Leftwich 
Library Assistant 3, Central Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, January 1, 2023 
This book is a great introduction to the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Written in an accessible narrative style, The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, gives light to a woefully neglected topic: the profound effects of trauma and its treatments. Van Der Kolk makes a valid distinction between PTSD and Complex PTSD: you don’t have to have an acute traumatic event to experience PTSD; rather a long-term toxic situation is in many ways equally damaging. The basic message is that trauma is an injury to the brain, and changes how we think and feel. Interestingly Van Der Kolk goes beyond the brain and relates how these events are actually stored within the body. The effects of trauma are far-reaching. In a hopeful message Van Der Kolk devotes chapters to various treatments, and new insights and treatments are evolving rapidly.