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Book Buzz Book Reviews

Staff Picks 2021

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.


Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott

Reviewed by Angie Stava
Children & Teen Selector, Librarian II, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2021
This latest collection of essays by Anne Lamott, bestselling novelist and California native, does not disappoint. In each chapter, Lamott welcomes us into her messy life: her struggles with aging, relationships, sobriety, faith, wildfires near her home, missing pets, and the ever-present anxiety about disappointing everyone, including her long-dead parents. She delivers each story with insightful zingers and turns of phrase that make you laugh, stop and think, and commiserate with the struggle of just existing as a fellow human on this earth. The book itself is a smaller size, ready to be taken out when you have a few minutes waiting in line somewhere. It helps that the luxuriously soft paper is comforting to your hands, too. Above all, this collection of essays offers hope, from one flawed, damaged spirit to another. It’s the cathartic conversation with a best friend that you didn’t know you needed, plus a warm hug and maybe some hot chocolate.

Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon

Reviewed by Craig Wimberly
Library Assistant III, City Heights/Weingart Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 9, 2021
Alok Vaid-Menon crafts an approachable yet thought-provoking introduction to life as a non-binary person. They take the reader through their childhood when their carefree expression couldn’t be contained, into their adolescence when they learned that to be safe meant to conform, and beyond into their adulthood where they have learned once again to be who they truly are. The last half is written in a question-and-answer format, and Alok does a spectacular job of engaging the common threads of dialogue surrounding the gender binary, including topics like the difference between biological sex and gender as social construct, whether they/them in the singular is grammatically correct, and if someone can legitimately be transgender if they don’t medically transition. This book will be perfect for you if you want to learn more about non-binary identities, especially if you know someone who has recently come out and you still have questions. Watch Craig introduce their selection here.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Reviewed by David Cederholm
Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 25, 2021
It’s on Stephen King’s list of 50 must-reads. I was so not disappointed. You will laugh at the calamities and cry over the tragedies, while discovering the disturbing legacy of Western interventionism in colonial and post-colonial Africa. Kingsolver skillfully delves into the personalities and inner thoughts of the Price family, newly arrived missionaries in the Belgian Congo in 1959. Spanning 30 years, the daughters chronicle their lives and invite us to witness the transformation wrought upon them by the Congo. What they experience, and ultimately survive, to an outsider seems horrific and beyond the limits of human endurance yet is normal and accepted by the Congolese. One sees frightening beauty and unmistakable purpose in all of God’s creation as these young American girls adapt to, and overcome, adversity and mature into womanhood. Watch David introduce his selection here.

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Reviewed by Kelly Verheyden
Manager, Kensington-Normal Heights Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 11, 2021
Helena Smith, a neuroscientist who focuses on memory development and retention, is in danger of losing her funding. Her mother is suffering from dementia and she hopes her research will be able to reintroduce memories to her mother’s ailing mind. Her progress is at a standstill, due to lack of funding, and she fears she will never complete her project until an eccentric billionaire offers her the unlimited resource to finish her research. She agrees and moves to an abandoned oil rig in the ocean so that her research is not subject to government regulations. Helena builds technology that enables people to relive their precious memories, but if you can plant memories, you can also erase them or replace them with something else. She was so focused on helping her mother’s dementia that she did not realize the darker side of the project. Watch Kelly introduce her selection here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Reviewed by Linda Lou Brawley
Librarian II, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 28, 2021
It’s remarkable! For the first time in its 50 years, the Booker Prize, the U.K.’s award for best fiction, was awarded to a Black woman. But that is not why I’m recommending this novel. The novel presents 12 Black British, mainly female characters, each featured in their own section. While their lives do intersect at points, they have vastly diverse backgrounds, even those with familial ties. Issues of gender identity, social class, access to education and “otherness” are explored within their day-to-day activities. Like a kaleidoscope with 12 unique colors, each turn resets the picture with one color lit a little brighter, offering the same palette, but a unique perspective. Bernardine Evaristo coined the term “fusion fiction” to describe her natural free-flowing writing style — sparsely punctuated, sans periods. It took me a while to acclimate, but it was well worth it.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Reviewed by Laurel Berns
Library Assistant III, Rancho Bernardo Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 14, 2021
“History of Wolves” is a fascinating and unsettling story about a teenage girl and the events that ultimately lead to a life-impacting choice she makes one summer. There is death, there is a trial, there is suspense – but the story is about so much more than that. “History of Wolves” is about the consequences of action versus inaction. It is about accountability and guilt, how trauma shapes who we become, and the power of loneliness. Written with beauty and elegance, the characters have an honesty to them. There is teenage Linda, a loner and desperately friendless; Mr. Grierson, a teacher accused of an inappropriate relationship; and, finally, the young family that lives across the lake. Phrases and descriptions are lush, rich and worth savoring. The plot skillfully builds with gentle tension, creating uneasiness right up to the point of crisis, and lives are forever changed. Watch Laurel introduce her selection here.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Reviewed by Derek Human
Library Assistant I, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 28, 2021
2021 is both the 170th anniversary of the publication of “Moby-Dick” and the 130th anniversary of Melville’s passing. Everyone knows the broad strokes: whalers, obsessed captain, whale… but “Moby-Dick” lives up to its own legend by being way more relatable than you’d expect. The funny characters are actually funny. When Melville wants you to cringe, you cringe. You'll care about Ishmael and Queequeg before they even get on the boat. The first two pages can be tough: re-reading paragraphs until you’ve tuned in to the way Melville writes. You'll start gliding by page three. Then, that same density and resistance you get from every sentence is as satiating as chewing perfectly cooked steak. You'll be re-reading sentences and paragraphs to savor them. Just make it through the first two pages.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Reviewed by David Cederholm
Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens / Benjamin Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 14, 2021
Marina is a pharmacologist working a mind-numbing research job in Minnesota when her boss—and secret lover—asks her to go to their Amazon research station in search of answers to the untimely death of her colleague. At first, Marina won’t even consider the possibility. Later, when delivering the bad news to the devastated widow, Marina realizes she must make the journey and find answers. Deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest she wrestles with her past and inner demons, coming face to face with noted researcher and former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson. Succumbing to the domineering charisma of Swenson and engaging in the tribes’ cultish fertility rituals, Marina descends into madness. When surprise visitors to the research station arrive, she emerges from her darkness, proving to herself that redemption is possible, and that her life has meaning when she becomes willing to risk it for those she loves. Watch David introduce his selection here.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Reviewed by Marc Chery
Supervisor, Humanities Section, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 31, 2021
A 700-year-old book set during the time of the Black Death (1346-1353), the deadliest pandemic recorded in human history, resonates powerfully during our current moment in time. The Decameron is heralded as perhaps the greatest short story collection of all time, written in 1348 after the bubonic plague, which killed an estimated 75 million in Europe, Asia and Africa, hit Florence. Giovanni Boccaccio, a pillar of Italian and Western literature, was a poet and humanist who wrote in the Italian vernacular in addition to Latin. In The Decameron, ten young Florentines retreat into self-isolation for two weeks in the countryside and pass the time by telling stories, resulting in 100 stories. Many of the stories are amusing. Some are sad. None are about the plague. Watch video review.

Someone We know by Shari Lapeña

Reviewed by Jolanta Danaziene
Library Assistant I, Rancho Bernardo Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 17, 2021
Belfast, Northern Ireland. 1972. A crime committed – the mother of ten children abducted from her home. She never returned. Her body was found in 2003. “Say Nothing” is a work of non-fiction with a story that develops like a detective novel. It is shocking what was happening in Northern Ireland during the tragic period of civil conflict that lasted for almost 30 years (1969-1998). The author’s tone is captivating – neither judging nor condemning – just telling calmly and with empathy. The fears and horrors, as well as the atmosphere in Belfast are vividly recreated. The reader is cleverly guided through events and lives of people who contributed to those events, focusing on the first women to join the Irish Republican Army, Dolours Price and her sister Marian Price. “Say Nothing”, a New York Times best seller, won the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Literature.

Someone We know by Shari Lapeña

Reviewed by Kelly Verheyden
Branch Manager, Kensington-Normal Heights Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 3, 2021
If someone in your neighborhood was murdered, who would you suspect? Would you suspect her husband, the men she was having affairs with or your own husband? These are the questions Olivia Sharpe is struggling to answer. She never thought something like this would happen in her wealthy suburban community, but when Amanda Pierce’s body is found in the trunk of her car, her suspicions get the best of her. Olivia’s son, Raleigh, has been breaking into neighborhood houses and hacking computers and she is appalled to discover he broke into the Pierce house right before Amanda disappeared. Did Raleigh see something on the Pierce’s computer that will identify the killer? The domestic drama between Olivia, her neighbors and her family push the novel forward and create depth in the characters. Who killed Amanda? It might not be who you think. Kelly introduces her selection here.