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SDPL Recommended Books

Staff Picks 2018

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

Cherry by Nico WalkerReviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 23, 2018
While I won’t tell you to throw your MFA in the trash just yet, readers should take note: One of the best American novels of the past two decades is by an Iraq War vet and recovering heroin addict, now serving out a prison sentence for robbing banks. While that is a wonderful sentence for me to write, wait until you read some of Nico Walker’s tough, terse yet poetic sentences. “Cherry” reads like Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son,” but there is little transcendence here for any of these characters in a landscape of war, recession, drugs and shopping centers. From inside a prison cell, Walker’s managed to pen a generational gut punch that’s a great story as well as one rude awakening.

First in Line by Kate Andersen Brower book coverReviewed by Julie K. Wong
Library Assistant III, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 9, 2018
The author discusses the interpersonal working relationships of vice presidents from Richard Nixon to Mike Pence. She did intensive research by interviewing more than 200 people, including all the living vice presidents, their families, friends and people who worked for them. It is a riveting insider’s perspective that humanizes how each vice president viewed his role in the executive branch. Access to the president is a key component of being able to offer advice and share concerns. The most notoriety comes during the presidential election, in which the vice presidential candidate is chosen with the main concern of how it will favorably impact voters. That choice is not based on compatibility in working together, which can lead to rivalry, jealousy and frustration over not having a more active role in the administration.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou book coverReviewed by Monnee Tong
Sciences Manager, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, November 25, 2018
Theranos, the now-defunct Silicon Valley startup that promised to revolutionize blood testing with just a finger prick, once had a valuation of $9 billion. Its charismatic founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, was considered a genius — a female Steve Jobs who was going to change health care with a blood-testing device that would be small enough to fit on a bookshelf. Everything sounded too good to be true, because it was: Holmes is currently under indictment on fraud charges, and Theranos has ceased to exist. How could a company and its leader live a lie and manipulate investors for so many years? Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood” takes readers on a pageturning journey that details the story of Theranos and Holmes, and the lies that hurt not only its employees but the patients who relied on the company’s technology. This riveting and highly detailed account from a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter is highly recommended.

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor book coverReviewed by Melissa Giffen
Youth Services Librarian, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library,
San Diego Union-Tribune, November 11, 2018
“Muse of Nightmares” by Laini Taylor is the anticipated concluding sequel to 2018 Printz Award Honor Book “Strange the Dreamer,” but it can rest on its own laurels. At the core of this fantasy series is a beautiful love story between a librarian turned-adventurer, Lazlo Strange, and the daughter of gods and mortals, Sarai. Sarai is the titular muse of nightmares, but the romance between her and Lazlo is dreamlike. Lest you think this book is a lighthearted romance, this mature young-adult title plays with many darker and seemingly dual themes (of trauma and healing, hatred and compassion, love and loss, etc.) with graceful nuance. Taylor’s prose paints vivid, lush pictures of the highs and lows of human existence with a story that’s the stuff of dreams and nightmares alike. Fans of Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” series will be gratified to find small connections to that series.

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro by Henry Louis Gates book coverReviewed by Jimmy Lovett, Jr.
Library assistant III, Valencia Park/Malcolm X Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, October 28, 2018
In the spirit of the “One Book, One San Diego” selection, “March: Book One,” this book tells of the richness of African American history. The book delves into the not-often-told history of a people that built this nation with little acknowledgment and respect. Just a few examples of questions put forth and answered in the tome are: “What happened to the ‘40 acres and a mule’ that former slaves were promised?” “What percentage of ‘white’ Americans have recent African ancestry?” and “Which civil rights warrior received numerous telephone calls from the U.S. president during the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964?” Let this book be a refresher or starting point on your journey to learn more about African American history.

13 Ways of Looking at A Fat Girl by Mona Awad book coverReviewed by Jason Rogers
Librarian II, Humanities Section, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, October 14, 2018
This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl follows the life of Lizzie (and variant names) for about 20 years through a series of connected vignettes. These episodes aren’t necessarily the big important moments in Lizzie’s life; things like marriage take place in between stories. Rather, we see times that illuminate Lizzie’s state of mind, the thoughts of those around her, and how those thoughts interact with and affect each other. The underlying theme is Lizzie’s struggles with weight and, especially, body-image. These struggles have far-reaching implications in her life and even among those around here. Awad’s presentation makes the reader understand and feel Lizzie’s struggle, but the book is also surprisingly funny, although it is often dark humor. A timely book addressing an important issue, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is also an engaging and absorbing read.

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo book coverReviewed by Azalea Ebbay
Librarian II, San Diego Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 30, 2018
As a college student, Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” opened my eyes to the cruelty and horrors that Filipino migrant workers experienced on the West Coast during the Great Depression. Fast forward to “America is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo: The author continues this narrative by embedding Filipino-Americans into a complex historical context. The main character, Hero De Vera, is an undocumented immigrant living with relatives in suburban Bay Area. In Milpitas, Hero learns how to exist after everything she was fighting for, as a communist rebel doctor in the New People’s Army, is destroyed by the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Castillo artfully weaves Filipino history and details about Ilocano, Pangasinan, and ’90s Filipino-Californian cultures. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to become immersed in the comforting and constricting worlds that immigrants recreate from their memories of a homeland.

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman book coverReviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 16, 2018
Tom Rachman’s third novel follows the life of a young boy as he grows in the shadow of his father, a famous abstract expressionist painter and larger-than-life figure. It opens in Rome where the family is living. Charles, called “Pinch,” is mostly with his mother while his father, Bear Bavinsky, paints, carouses and travels. His mother is a ceramic artist without much confidence. When Bear leaves the family for America and another woman, Pinch begins to think he, too, might be an artist. So begins his journey to discover who he is and how much he is responsible for his father’s legacy. This is an excellent follow-up to Rachman’s highly popular “The Imperfectionists,” which was also set in Rome. A compelling tale of fame and identity.

Desert Solitaire book coverReviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 2, 2018
Fifty years old and urgent as ever, Edward “Cactus Ed” Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” reads like a profane “Walden,” an irascible Mary Hunter Austin or a saltier Walt Whitman. Working as a seasonal park ranger in what was then Arches National Monument, Abbey jokes and rants about loneliness, wilderness and modern civilization. Were he alive today, how much would Abbey celebrate or lament what Americans have done to conserve their natural environment, their open spaces and scenic vistas? At a time when public lands are under threat, Abbey reminds us that it’s OK to be rude and confrontational about the loss of wild lands and wilder hearts.

Book coverReviewed by Kimberly Carroll
Buyer, The Library Shop, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 19, 2018
There’s a fine balance between disgust and enjoyment when reading a true-crime book, especially when detailing the decades-long hunt for one of the most prolific serial rapist/murderers in California history. “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” follows the trail of the Golden State Killer, who terrorized Northern and Southern California from 1974 to 1986. But fear not — this page-turning, diligently researched investigation is also a touching memoir posthumously published from a brilliant journalist whose light went out too soon. Michelle McNamara elegantly weaves harsh facts with her own story of obsessively trying to solve cold cases while balancing a normal life as wife and mother. The most amazing part? Following clues stemming from this book, authorities have since taken a suspect into custody.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson book coverReviewed by Jimmy Lovett Jr.
Library Assistant, Valencia Park/Malcolm X Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 5, 2018
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., paints a powerful picture of the United States’ justice system and how it should just have mercy. The book has personally redirected my social activism primarily to work to dismantle and build a new criminal justice system. The book vividly addresses our current system and how it has almost no mercy. There are people who have not committed crimes and are doing time unjustly. There are others who have done crimes, but the sentence does not fit the crime. The plea of the book is what we all need to hear: to have mercy and take a closer look at the so-called “justice system.”

Common Good by Robert Reich book coverReviewed by Erin Moore
Youth Services Librarian, San Carlos Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 22, 2018
In this insightful read from Robert Reich, the polarized position in which America finds itself is cast in a new light. Reich posits that what has long held the American masses together is our commitment to the same democratic ideals and institutions. Despite the nation’s imperfect history, a shared belief in the importance of equal rights and equal opportunity is what has allowed us to prosper as a free society, as well as become a more inclusive citizenry. However, the common good has increasingly been sacrificed to self-serving ends over the past half-century, causing resentment and discord while the middle class shrinks. Can we find our way back to trusting not only our institutions but also each other? The answer, of course, remains to be seen, but a blueprint for such a path lies within this impassioned appeal to our better selves.

Roughneck book cover.Reviewed by Jason Rogers
Librarian II, Humanities, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 8, 2018
“Roughneck” is a simple but moving story that makes great use of the graphic novel format. Derek Ouelette is a washed-up hockey enforcer back in his remote hometown. He is struggling to come to grips with his life, mostly by turning to alcohol. This battle is further complicated when his long-lost sister returns to the town from the big city with her own set of problems. Brother and sister must confront their own family demons and issues of identity to overcome their self-destructive paths. The narrative moves along at a good pace, but it is Lemire’s stark, spare artwork that will really make you feel the space - both physical and emotional - that Ouelette inhabits.

Warlight by Michael OndaatjeReviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 24, 2018
In 1945 London, just after the war, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are left behind at boarding school while their parents are posted to Singapore. On vacations they are to be in the care of an odd man named Walter, whom they nickname “the Moth.” Both children are unhappy and soon ask Walter’s permission to become day students and stay with him full time. It’s a mysterious world he inhabits, and the children are drawn to the characters he brings to the house. They begin to feel more settled until they discover the trunk their mother packed for Singapore in the basement still full of her belongings. If she didn’t join their father there, then where is she? A rich and atmospheric picture of postwar life in the margins where one never is sure who is or isn’t a spy.

Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness - George SaundersReviewed by Linda Lou Brawley
Librarian II, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 10, 2018
It’s graduation season, and this is the gift that keeps on giving. In 2013, George Saunders delivered a speech at Syracuse University’s convocation that lasted about 10 minutes. Three months later, it went viral after The New York Times posted it on its website. This book reads as if you are having a conversation with the author. With his usual earnest and humorously selfdeprecating delivery, Saunders shares a simple piece of wisdom: throughout your journey, err on the side of kindness. In the long run, it’s failures of kindness that will cause regrets. As for success or accomplishments? The real measure of success is how you get there.

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren StelsonReviewed by Erin Moore
Youth Services Librarian, San Carlos Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 13, 2018
In this powerful biography, we learn the story of Sachiko Yasui, who was 6 when an atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki, just half a mile from where she was playing house with friends. Sachiko survives the blast — even though her playmates, as well as many loved ones, do not. In the years that follow, Sachiko and her family work to rebuild their lives despite overwhelming loss and destruction. In sharing Sachiko’s experience, author Caren Stelson provides a glimpse into life in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. The horrors can be difficult to bear witness to, but Sachiko’s story, as well as her resilient spirit, warrant remembering. With ample reason to turn to anger and hate, Sachiko instead chooses to devote her life to cultivating peace. Told in spare but elegant prose, this award-winning narrative is geared toward young adults but makes for an engrossing read for older audiences too.

Great Risk Shift by Jacob HackerReviewed by Rabin Frame
Library Aide, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 29, 2018
Medi-Cal, Medicare, unemployment and health insurances, Social Security: Why were these social safety nets created? How well do they serve us? Do they cost the nation or actually expand economic opportunity for all? Would pushing away from these safety nets invigorate or destroy our national ideals of shared fate and justice for all? The author, a professor of political science, clarifies the pressing economic issues of the day and the risks they impose. Reporting real-life examples at all economic levels, Hacker suggests solutions and provides thought-provoking information.

Kill All Normies by Angela Nagel book coverReviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 15, 2018
Angela Nagle’s “Kill All Normies” is not for the faint of heart, queasy stomach or the righteously self-censorious. Nagle maps an eerie and awful genealogy of growing online vitriol, sarcasm and hate from the late 2000s to the recent 2016 election, from days of innocent meme-posting to the crazed days of the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton delivered her famous speech about the “alt-right” phenomenon. The serious import from the book, however, cannot be understated and unfortunately might be too casually dismissed by those not privy to Internet forums, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. The cultural and political battle lines of the 21st century are being radically redrawn, and few understand what is at stake.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorReviewed by Melissa Giffen
Youth Services Librarian, San Ysidro Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 1, 2018
“Strange the Dreamer” is a beautiful young-adult fantasy for mature readers that charms and devastates. The titular character, Lazlo Strange, is a librarian caught up in the pursuit of any knowledge of a mysterious lost city believed to be the stuff of mythology. Lazlo is convinced that the city is real and determined in his pursuit to find it and discover answers as to why it disappeared and no one remembers its true name. Lazlo makes an interesting and compelling protagonist in a tale full of the strange (pun intended) and heartbreaking.

Allegedlly by Tiffany JacksonReviewed by Bobbie Xuereb
Librarian II, Kensington-Normal Heights Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 18, 2018
An inside view of juvenile justice and “baby jail:” the place Mary B. Addison was sent for allegedly killing a baby that her mother was babysitting, before she was transferred to the group home where she now lives. Mary narrates her story, and we learn about what is happening at her group home, with glimpses into how she got here. Is she a reliable narrator? Will she ever be free of the shadow of what allegedly happened when she was 9 years old? This story is tense and tender. A youngadult book that will leave the reader with many questions.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny ColganReviewed by Julie K. Wong
Library Assistant, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 4, 2018
A charming novel with Nina, a librarian, who purchases a van to open a traveling bookstore, in which she goes each day to sell books at food markets in the countryside of Scotland. Her friend, Surinder, encourages Nina to pursue romance as if she was looking to find a good book for her customers. Nina is the bookmatcher for her customers as she tries to find the best book that would fit their interests. Nina finds it easier to suggest books for customers than matching up herself for the prospect of romance. Nina provides kindness to everyone she meets. Now it is Nina’s turn to look for love beyond books.

 The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order by Paul Vigna and Michael J. CaseyReviewed by Virginia C. Hire Damrauer
Information Systems Technician, San Diego Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, Feb. 18, 2018
With themes of trust, freedom and privacy, the authors share stories from people in the digital money community. Within these pages, you will meet technology innovators who hope to change the world, entrepreneurs, employees who are paid only in digital money, miners, firm doubters and true believers. Within and around these real-life examples, the authors illuminate the benefits and drawbacks of modern efforts to provide a worldwide form of digital money.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul KalanithiReviewed by Alice Yao
Librarian II, San Diego Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, Feb. 4, 2018
How does breath become air? Paul, a neurosurgeon, answers with his personal and medical point of view. He didn’t believe that anything, especially health, could go wrong since he was at the height of his career, but everything was threatened by a devastating diagnosis. With poignant perspectives, this story can move your heart.

The Word Exchange: A Novel by Alena GraedonReviewed by Phil Gunderson
Integrated Library System Coordinator, San Diego Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 21, 2018
Graedon envisions a near-future dystopia in which people have become so dependent on personal digital devices (called Memes) that they pay to use an online “word exchange” to access the meanings of even common words. This is great for Synchronic, the corporation that owns the Word Exchange and has a near-monopoly on the English dictionary. The last holdout is the North American Dictionary of the English Language, whose chief lexicographer Douglas Johnson has gone missing. As Douglas’ daughter Anana begins investigating his disappearance, the social fabric starts to unravel as “word flu,” a highly contagious virus capable of leaping from Meme to brain, spreads through the population, causing aphasia in its victims and sometimes even death. The clues to both her father’s disappearance and the rise of word flu point in the same direction: Synchronic. A thrilling extrapolation from Socrates’ original misgivings about writing’s effects on memory.

Book cover for "The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness” by Jennifer Latson Reviewed by Kristina Garcia
Librarian II, San Diego Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 7, 2018
Jennifer Latson, a journalist, spent three years with Gayle and Eli D'Angelo in order to accurately tell their story of living with the effects of the genetic disorder Williams Syndrome. Williams Syndrome affects learning, socialization, and physical development in very specific ways, but is not as well-known as other disorders such as autism. This highly informative yet readable book sharply illustrates Eli's unmodulated love of others and how his gregarious personality is both a joy and a burden to his mother as she tries to guide him to a fulfilling, happy, and safe adulthood. This book provides an engaging narrative that weaves themes of medical science with social science and keeps you rooting for Gayle and Eli all the way.