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Book Buzz Book Reviews

Staff Picks 2020

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. These are a selection of the titles we've recommended. Checkout information may be found in the library catalog under Staff Picks


All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Reviewed by Dustin Vogel
Librarian II, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 2, 2020
 
“All American Boys” is a novel told from the alternating perspectives of teenage boys Rashad Butler and Quinn Collins. Rashad is an African American teen enrolled in ROTC at Springfield High, while Quinn is a white teen who plays basketball at the same school. What should have been a simple trip to the local liquor store for Rashad, becomes an incident of police brutality that Quinn witnesses. Although Quinn wishes to forget the incident, he cannot extract the violence Rashad experienced from his mind. A video of the event is released, sides are chosen, and Quinn realizes he can no longer be a bystander. “All American Boys,” displays the complexity of racism and how easy it is to ignore or overlook when it isn’t directly happening to you. More importantly, it focuses on Rashad and how he copes with what was done to him and its ties to the overarching issue of police brutality.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Reviewed by David Cederholm
Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 19, 2020
 
In 1940 Joe Kavalier and Samuel Clay take the comic book world by storm in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It is an incredible saga of how a young Jew, with dreams of becoming the next Houdini, escapes from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and unites with his American cousin in New York City. Together they embark upon an “amazing adventure” in the nascent comic book industry. Set against a backdrop of the United States’ entry into WWII and swirling rumors of concentration camps in Europe, the duo team up to create captivating superheroes who burst from the page with provocative detail, symbolically coming to life and destroying the Nazi menace. This was a “golden era” and this book - part adventure, part love story, part family saga - captures it eloquently. This work is a triumph and the best that this humble reviewer has read in quite some time.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo

Reviewed by Peggy Goings
Library Assistant III, University Heights Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 5, 2020
 
This timely and instructive volume by antiracist educator Robin J. DiAngelo expertly cuts through the defensive moves that white people routinely employ when challenged racially, such as being argumentative or maintaining silence. The usual tropes of “reverse racism” and the notion that only “bad” people are racist are quickly disavowed. The author shows that defensiveness is the point, that these innocuous seeming behaviors serve to maintain the racial status quo, thus cementing white supremacy. Initially drawn in by the title and slim size of the book, I quickly appreciated that the author does not waste our time, nor does she suffer fools. If you would like lessons in how to get past the usual pitfalls when it comes to discussing race in America, are willing to try discomfort instead of comfort, and listening in order for dialogue to begin, then you would do well to read this book.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett book cover

Reviewed by Kristin Tillquist
Chief of Innovation and Engagement, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 21, 2020
 
Maeve and Danny stay chained to their past through their inability to let go of all that the Dutch House symbolizes. The gaudy, elegant and thoroughly overwhelming Dutch House is not only a massive, intimidating and oddly configured historical house; it is a constant backdrop for the turbulent life of Danny and his older sister Maeve. From poor to rich to disinherited, from loved to abandoned, Danny and Maeve are an impenetrable force of two. But when their long-lost mother reappears, the author deftly introduces forgiveness and how we want to define ourselves into the siblings’ — and the reader’s — lives. The reader will be mesmerized by how the Dutch House, as a physical structure, manages to provide a sort of stage on which the characters of this compelling novel play out their lives and learn the hardest lessons, and the most beautiful lessons full of grace.

Highfire by Eoin Colfer

Reviewed by Evan Fickling
Library Assistant III, Pacific Beach/Taylor Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 7, 2020
 
Lord Highfire might be the last dragon in existence. After seeing his kind hunted for millennia, he prefers the company of alligators in the Bayou and tries to avoid humans. These days he goes by the nickname ‘Vern,’ short for Wyvern. Squib Moreau is a 15-year-old Cajun kid. He picks up odd jobs (sometimes legal, sometimes not) to supplement the income brought in by his single mother. Squib and Vern encounter each other by chance when they both get too close to a crooked cop carrying out a hit for the local crime family. Now, they must form an uneasy alliance to stay alive and out of the public eye. Colfer has a talent for humorous prose and this new adult novel, from the author of the Artemis Fowl series, is filled with salty, amusing dialogue.

Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond by Alexandra Horowitz

Reviewed by Dennis Donley
Librarian II, City Heights/Weingart Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 24, 2020
 
Canine researcher Horowitz examines our relationships with dogs from a variety of angles, including why we name them (because they are one of us) to why pure breeding is a horrible idea, with the inevitable inbreeding involved shortening their lives and resulting in some horrific disabilities, among other things. At times controversial, she examines whether spaying and neutering is a good idea. Why do we spend so much money on our dogs? Horowitz looks at the dog “furnishings” market and the huge business it has become, with Americans spending over $75 billion in 2019 on taking care of and outfitting their animals. You will never believe where the idea of kibble originated. She examines the contradiction that although we see dogs as family, they are still legally something to be owned. In the end, Horowitz concludes, “Who we are with dogs is who we are as people.”

Autobiography of Malcolm X – Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

Reviewed by Jimmy Lovett
Library Assistant III, Malcolm X Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 10, 2020
 
“People don’t realize how a person’s whole life can be changed by one book.” - El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), as told to Alex Haley, is a classic in every sense of the word. It tells the story of a man who went from criminal to law abiding citizen, from hating to loving, from darkness to light in a mere 39 years on this planet. Brother Shabazz is one of my heroes because he was not afraid to admit when he was wrong, and grew into a person who was honest and raw. His ever-evolving life is told in this autobiography which he did not get to see published. Regrettably, his life was cut short by a torrent of bullets as he began to speak at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965.

Only Killers and Thieves – Paul Howarth

Reviewed by Erin Moore
Youth Services Librarian, San Carlos Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 26, 2020
 
If you like fiction served straight up, look no further than this impressive debut novel from Paul Howarth. With lyrical and expressive language, Howarth evokes the spirit of the Wild West in this account of teenage brothers who, after suffering a family tragedy, are enticed by powerful men to seek vengeance. The difference between this story and many other westerns, however, is that the journey here takes place in the Australian outback of the nineteenth century rather than the American frontier. Unfortunately, it’s no spoiler to reveal that the chronicle of white settlement and the resulting mistreatment of native populations in both countries is similar – and Howarth makes no effort to spare the reader from this fact. But for those who can endure this devastating and haunting tale, lessons about morality, law, and the evolving nature of history abound.

Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn

Reviewed by Linda Lou Brawley
Librarian II, Humanities, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 12, 2020
 
Eighteen days after the terrorists’ attacks on 9/11, Lorne Michaels decided to go live with the “SNL” season premiere and asked his good friend Paul Simon to provide some comfort and unity for devastated New Yorkers — and we were all New Yorkers then! Simon delivered with “The Boxer.” Hilburn offers plenty of other anecdotes tracing Simon’s 50-plus years as one of the best singer-songwriters in recent history. Indeed, Simon is a 16-time Grammy winner and two-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The biography, according to Hilburn, was written with Simon’s full participation but without his editorial control — hard to believe given Simon’s proclivity for micro- managing. His desire for privacy is in constant conflict with his machinations for perfection and success. Overwhelming talent does have its cost. In this time of uncertainty and fear, maybe we can all use some of Lorne Michaels’ chicken soup.

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Reviewed by Melissa Giffen
Youth Services Librarian, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 29, 2020
 
In this Chinese-inspired fantasy, our protagonist is Maia Tamarin, a highly skilled tailor. As a woman, Maia cannot claim the title of tailor or run her own business, forcing her to run her ailing father’s shop from behind the scenes. An opportunity presents itself, however, when her family receives a royal invitation to the Summer Palace and a competition for the coveted title of imperial tailor. Maia seizes the chance, disguising herself as her brother and taking her family’s place at the palace. The competition is a fierce one, and as the tasks become increasingly difficult, Maia must maintain her disguise and use both skill and magic for any hope of success. It’s an immersive and well-paced fantasy with a romance that is given the time and space to unfold, and since it’s the first book in a series, there’s more to look forward to.

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

Reviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 15, 2020
 
Benjamin Black, pseudonym for Irish fiction author John Banville, usually writes detective novels taking place in Dublin in the1950s.But this novel is very different.In World War II London, just before the start of the German Blitz, the King and Queen secretly send the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to the rundown estate of the Duke of Edenmore deep in the countryside of neutral Ireland. The girls will be guarded by Cecilia Nashe, an MI6 agent posing as a governess and a young Anglo-Irish detective. The days on the estate are leisurely, with Elizabeth riding horses and Margaret getting into mischief until the secret begins to get out, first among the servants and then the townspeople.When a group of Irish rebels get wind of the princesses’ true identities, the situation becomes dangerous for all concerned. Anyone caught up in “The Crown” series will find this book engaging.

There There by Tommy Orange

Reviewed by Jason Rogers
Accessibility & I CAN! Center Manager, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 1, 2020
 
Everything about Orange’s novel has an energy that keeps crackling along, from the passionate prologue through the tense conclusion. It begins with a series of seemingly disconnected character sketches of several Native Americans in and around Oakland. We get to meet each character in their current circumstance and gradually learn about their personal histories that eventually lead them to the novel’s climax, a big community powwow. The narrative jumps between characters as well as chronologically, but each character is rendered in such terrific details that you will be immersed well before the plot connections begin to show themselves. The range of voices that Orange presents in the book is truly impressive, but so is the way he constructs the story to keep the reader engaged through the final page.

Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Reviewed by David Cederholm
Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 16, 2020
 
Fresh off a Pulitzer Prize, Colson Whitehead gives us this startling and all too familiar story of Elwood Curtis.  An intelligent and idealistic kid with a seemingly bright future, he plans to enroll in the local community college when things go sideways and he is convicted of a petty crime.  Jim Crow is on full display as Elwood is sentenced to the Nickel Academy.  Outwardly, a respected and long-established Florida institution for the reform of youthful offenders, in truth a penal farm where Elwood and the black “students” are put to work in the fields and homes of local officials and gentry.  Beatings, sexual abuse and disappearances occur with regularity and Elwood learns that dreams and an optimistic outlook may not be enough to keep himself alive.

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Reviewed by Vanessa Gempis
Manager, Pauline Foster Teen Center, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 2, 2020
 
Magic, murder, and mayhem abound in the first book of the “Crown of Shards” series. Fronted by a compelling and engaging main character and a host of memorable side characters, Estep’s world is a fun, page-turning ride all the way through. With no obvious magical ability and as seventeenth in line for the throne, Lady Everleigh is oft overlooked. She keeps her head down and does as she’s told, biding her time until she can secure permission to leave the court of Bellona and make a quiet life that’s all her own. Everything changes when the crown princess assassinates the queen and massacres the rest of the royals, leaving Evie the only royal survivor. Forced to flee, she finds safety and strength amongst a group of gladiators. As Evie finds her strength and her confidence, she also finds a new goal: become a gladiator herself…to kill the queen.

The Dinner by Herman Koch book cover

Reviewed by Christine Miller
Librarian II, Humanities, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 19, 2020
 
Two teenage cousins and one horrific act bring four affluent parents together to navigate an outcome while trying to keep their well-groomed lives intact. An expensive, classy restaurant is the perfect setting for the not-so-perfect complexities of these good families. Money, power, politics and human nature are on the table in this dark saga, not to mention sibling rivalries, ulterior motives, upper crust values and life out of balance. This dinner will be intense. By the time dessert arrives, you’ll be wondering whose reality is this, anyway? Elements of current events will surely come to mind. For fans of psychological suspense reminiscent of Defending Jacob and The Talented Mr. Ripley, there’s something to sink your teeth into here.

Chase Darkness With Me by Billy Jensen

Reviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 5, 2020
 
True crime fans rejoice! Readers of Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” should check out this page-turner as a great follow-up. Jensen outlines his own beginnings as an amateur sleuth and investigative reporter, slowly developing a method to “crowdsource” crime solving via social media — with results! Several cases are examined — some unsolved to date — as Jensen helps find missing persons, works hand-in-hand with police. and receives tips from literally thousands of people. Jensen also offers wisdom and several guidelines for would-be detectives in the new age of Internet sleuthing.
 
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