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SDPL Recommended Books

Staff Picks 2019

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

Those People by Louise CandlishReviewed by Kelly Verheyden
Manager, Denny Sanford Children’s Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 22, 2019
Lowland Way seemed like an idyllic British neighborhood. Quiet, tree lined streets and lots of families with kids and dogs. It was the perfect place to live, before Darren and Jodie inherited the house on the corner. The neighbors become increasingly distressed by the loud music, broken down cars on the lawn and endless parties. They call the police, but the behavior continues. As the neighbors plot against Darren and Jodie, the perfect neighborhood starts to crumble. Are the other neighbors as perfect as they seem? Does everyone have something to hide? The nearest neighbors install a security camera to record evidence of wrongdoing, but they capture more than just a wild party. Can anyone be trusted or will the neighbors turn on each other just as fast as they turned against Darren and Jodie?

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth RushReviewed by David Cederholm


Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 8, 2019
If you reside on or near the coast, read this book. First, because it provides you with an understanding of what is happening and will happen in coastal wetlands and communities due to rising sea levels. Second, because it is so eloquently written that it reads more like poetry than prose. Nominated for the 2019 Pulitzer prize in General Non-Fiction, Elizabeth Rush invites the reader to travel with her as she wades through saltwater marshes slowly being inundated by the sea. She interviews scientists, homeowners and other stakeholders facing a decision; surrender and retreat from more frequent, destructive storms and salt water incursion or stay and adapt their land, homes and infrastructure to withstand the relentless onslaught. Rush is an empathetic voice, giving us glimpses of natural beauty juxtaposed against ugly realities that she and others experience and endure because of who they are and where they live and work.

Welcome Home by Lucia Berlin book coverReviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, November 24, 2019
Itinerant extraordinaire and short story master Lucia Berlin crafts impressionistic vignettes from memory in this moving, subtle auto-portrait of a working class yet deeply artistic life. Berlin puts a 21st century spin on the old ‘writer-alcoholic’ stereotype and upends literary pretensions of heroic drinking and writing-as-a-craft: she did it all and raised children too! After achieving sobriety in the 1990s Berlin’s productivity grew but ill health took its toll not long after. While this memoir is incomplete we should recall all memoirs are incomplete and Berlin’s voice still rings through as genuine, down-to-Earth and singular, to say the least.

An Anonymous by Girl HendricksReviewed by Kelly Verheyden
Manager, Denny Sanford Children’s Library, San Diego Public Library


San Diego Union-Tribune, November 10, 2019
This is an ethical and psychological thriller by the authors of The Wife Between Us. Jessica Farris, a make-up artist, signs up to participate in a research study about ethics and morality. When Jessica arrives for the study, she answers numerous questions to determine if she will be selected to participate. “Could you tell a lie without feeling guilty?” and “Have you ever deeply hurt someone you care about?” are just some examples of the invasive questions being asked by Dr. Shields. Jessica is accepted into the study and paid handsomely for her time. She attends sessions with Dr. Shields and participates in a variety of manipulative experiments. As the study continues, Jessica becomes more and more paranoid. She starts to question Dr. Shield’s motives and what she is doing with all of Jessica’s innermost thoughts.

What to Do When I'm Gone: A Mother's Wisdom to Her Daughter by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie BatemanReviewed by Bernard Cayetano
Library Assistant II, Valencia Park/Malcolm X Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, October 27, 2019
This book presents life after death in a different way. Whether we are grieving for a lost parent, friend or pets, this book is helpful. When someone close to us passes, the author recommends that we should invite people to come over, have tea, and cook for us. Who says we don’t need all the support and company we can get? Death comes without knowing. Daily instructions accompanied with great food recipes are given by a mother to her co-author, her daughter, for how to cope after she's gone. Such advice is not to distract her daughter from grief but to press her to keep moving forward. This book encourages humanity facing death and grieving to create new traditions, focus on present relationships, and if you’re not happy with what’s in front of you, change it, let it go and maybe go shopping for a great pair of shoes!

Homegoing by Yaa GyasiReviewed by Isabella Dumon
Library Assistant I, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, October 13, 2019
Two sisters who never knew each other find themselves on opposite sides of the slave trade in eighteenth century Ghana. One sister, raised in a Fante village, marries the British man in charge of Cape Coast Castle. The other sister, an Asante woman, is captured and held in the dungeons beneath the Castle before she is sent as a slave to America. Homegoing follows the descendants of both sisters over 300 years of Ghanaian and American history. Gyasi seamlessly weaves her characters into their snapshots of the past, and reminds readers that historical events do not occur in a vacuum; the events and choices of the past resonate through generations. Each character struggles to survive in societies that fear, hate, and take advantage of them, but at the core of each chapter is someone's attempt to find love and family despite their hardships.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag Reviewed by Jason Rogers
Accessibility & I CAN! Center Manager, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 29, 2019
Ghachar Ghochar is a deceptively captivating family portrait. The narrator is pondering his family situation, which at the beginning of the book is unclear to the reader. Each member of the family is introduced, which allows us to learn about the family’s rise from poor status to relative wealth. As each character is fleshed out, however, we also get glimpses of the flaws in the family life and begin to get an insight into the narrator’s current situation. Some of this is accomplished by what’s unsaid, as Shanbhag’s economical prose allows the reader to fill in the details that the family avoids talking about. A short book, Ghachar Ghochar may stick with you for longer than its reading time would suggest.

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott DouglasReviewed by Samantha Shepherd
Library Assistant I, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 15, 2019
This memoir written by Scott Douglas, a public librarian in Anaheim, recounts his experiences behind the desk. With witty footnotes, fast-paced action and workplace gossip, this book is sure to be enjoyed by all. Douglas creates such descriptive personality profiles the reader will feel like they know these characters personally. Plus, he recounts the history of libraries from the 1870s to present times and divulges the history of Anaheim before, during, and after Disneyland was built. Librarians will find relatable and humorous anecdotes, and patrons will get an inside look at the people and protocols of a typical library. For anyone interested in library secrets, look no further than this memoir.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum Reviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 1, 2019
During the 1999 East Timor crisis, journalist Marie Colvin and two other women found they were the last to remain to pursue a story working with refugees and aid workers. Noting the departure of all her male colleagues, Colvin said, “They don’t make men like they used to.” That attitude, recklessness and passion informed Colvin’s life work reporting from hot zones, hiding from bombs and continually working through perpetual PTSD. A bona fide ‘badass’ war correspondent, Colvin’s real empathy for the victims of war and the plight of the individual in international conflict marks why she is so important to read today. In 2012, knowing her coverage would compromise the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s campaign against his own citizens, she was deliberately murdered with an IED. Her legacy of bearing witness, no matter the risks, should stir the most cynical of hearts.

orcery of Thorns by Margaret RogersonReviewed by Melissa Giffen
Youth Services Librarian, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 18, 2019
Elisabeth knows that sorcerers are evil, just like she knows that the books in her Great Library are alive and dangerous. Raised in the library and training to master the care and keeping of magical grimoires, she is surrounded by reminders of what sorcerers can and will do. But when her library is targeted by an act of sabotage and a dangerous grimoire is freed, she’ll find herself thrust into the world of sorcerers and their demon counterparts and left to determine who among them can be trusted. It’s a book with heart, thanks in large part to its charmingly difficult characters including Elisabeth. The dialogue is full of dry humor and there’s a lovely and light romance to round out the plot. Perfect for library lovers, this utterly charming young adult title is perfect for fans of Diana Wynne Jones and anime.

Maid book by Stephanie LandReviewed by Kristina Garcia
Librarian II, Humanities Section, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, Aug. 4, 2019
A fly-on-the-wall account of one woman’s struggle to keep herself and her daughter out of a homeless shelter. Stephanie’s circumstances could be examined through the lenses of sociology, public administration, women’s rights, as well as the psychology of a trauma survivors, but, at its heart, it is an emotional self-examination of a single mother who reveals her extraordinary gift for writing by documenting her “ordinary” life as a cleaning lady. I found myself comparing her tale of physical endurance, mental toughness and determination with that of a professional athlete, but instead of a million-dollar contract at the end of her journey, she gains the opportunity of a living wage that would rise her off the edge of homelessness. An inspiring and thought-provoking biography that would be a great book club read.

Flights by Olga TokarczukReviewed by Jolanta Danaziene
Library Assistant I, Rancho Bernardo Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 21, 2019
This book, winner of the Man Booker Prize International, 2018, is so unique. “Flights” is not a novel, nor is it a collection of essays or short stories. Is it perhaps all these genres together? There is no traditional plot, and no main characters. The book reads like a puzzle and everyone has to find their own way to put all these pieces together. Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk, got the idea to write this book when she heard about Biguny, the Slavic Orthodox sect in existence since the 17th century. Biguny means ‘the Runners’. They believe that people can escape an evil by continuously changing their life and that the motion could save the world. This book is about, and for, the wanderers - those who can’t stay still for various reasons. It is for those who think that only by running they could survive.

Feast Your Eyes – Myla GoldbergReviewed by Bobbie Xuereb
Librarian II, Logan Heights Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 7, 2019
A book for people passionate about photography and art and its impact on the lives of creative, driven people. But also, a story of family, love and loss. A book that opens your eyes as the title states to “feast” on our surroundings as well as ourselves and our families. A story told from multiple perspectives via the photographer herself, her daughter, friends and lovers. A good story, well written and visually engaging.

Sabrina by Nick DrnasoReviewed by David Cederholm
Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 23, 2019
If one day I go missing, and then a video of my demise surfaces on the Internet, will my friends and relatives be attacked by shock jocks, online trolls and conspiracy theorists? Nick Drnaso masterfully explores this question in his graphic novel “Sabrina.” Sabrina’s disappearance and murder create a ripple effect that stretches out for a year in a novel in which the dialogue is comfortable and the characters are as real as old friends. Sometimes life presents people with situations that test bonds of friendship and family, leading to bewilderment, introspection and catharsis. If you have never read a graphic novel and are looking for one that is more of a contemporary story than a sci-fi comic book, then “Sabrina” is a good choice.

Monuments Men book cover by Robert EdselReviewed by Magda Tamulski
Library Assistant III, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 16, 2019
This is the unprecedented story of a small group of Allied soldiers and one remarkable French woman, who recovered Italian, French, Dutch and Belgian art treasures before the fall of the Third Reich. Under direction of Gen. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander in Europe, The Monuments Men was established to seek and preserve art treasures looted by the Nazis. Time is of the essence to recover as many paintings and sculptures as possible before Hitler’s and Goering’s henchmen plunder and destroy the treasures from Europe’s finest art galleries, museums and many Jewish private collections. What will ultimately become of these great masterpieces? This story will transport you from war-torn Europe to standing before the Ghent altarpiece to the Neuschwanstein mountaintop castle in quest of the world’s art treasures.

The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef PenneyReviewed by Laurel Berns
Library assistant III, Rancho Bernardo Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 26, 2019
Winner of the Costa Book Award, “The Tenderness of Wolves” is a beautifully written mystery that examines the meaning and nature of love and honor. The story takes place in the harsh and desolate Canadian northern territories in the late 1860s. It is winter, and a fur trader is found murdered. Footsteps in the snow leading away from the crime scene suggest that two people have left on foot into the wilderness. It’s soon discovered that a young man is missing from the settlement, and suspicion for the murder falls upon him. The mother of the young man sets out into the wild to find her son, and she is soon followed by others with their own motivations. Read this for the quality of the storytelling, the complex characters and the journey into history. The book will have you thinking about it long after you have turned the last page.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka MurataReviewed by Brenda Wegener
Branch Manager, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 15, 2019
Sakaya Murata is a bestselling novelist in Japan, and this is her first book to be translated into English. The narrator, Keiko Furukura, is a 36-year-old single woman who has worked at the same Tokyo convenience store for the past 18 years. Though she graduated from college, she never pursued a career, preferring the uniformity and order of the store. As a child, she was a bit peculiar and did not really understand societal norms. At the store, she feels that as long as she follows store rules, she can pass as a normal person. But her predictable world is interrupted when a brash new male coworker asks to move in with her so he, too, can “pass” as normal. An uncommon portrayal of the lives of Japanese millennials trying to fit in.

Horizon by Barry LopezReviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 28, 2019
National Book Award winner Barry Lopez returns with an urgent “reminder” to readers about traveling as a “moral act,” climate change, and how not to be complacent (or complicit) in the dismantling of the planet. A visitor to over 70 countries in his lifetime, Lopez is far from world-weary: He keeps a sense of wonder, promise and hope very much alive the more he sees on his travels. After facing down an aggressive bout of cancer a few years ago, Lopez wants not only to help readers understand different cultures but to help us understand the culture of the future that will be dealing with the catastrophic consequences of climate change head-on.

The Year of the Hare by Arto PaasilinnaReviewed by Jason Rogers
Accessibility & I CAN! Center Manager
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 14, 2019
This slim, comic novel was originally written over 40 years ago, but its protagonist’s wish to escape the crazy world seems as relevant now as ever. Vatanen is a journalist on assignment who decides to drop everything and wander the countryside after hitting a hare with his car. Rabbit in tow, Vatanen stumbles into absurd, funny and life-changing adventures across Finland. Societal critiques are implicit, but Paasilinna keeps a light touch — and his character barreling from one adventure to the next. The Year of the Hare makes for a great, quick read for anyone wishing to escape for a bit.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp SendkerReviewed by Stacey Richards
Library Assistant III, Carmel Mountain Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 31, 2019
When her father goes missing, Julia’s world is turned upside down. Part mystery, part love story, Julia sets off on a quest to discover the truth about what happened to her father. From city life in New York City to the villages of Burma, the author takes the reader on a magical journey where one is forced to ask, what secrets do we keep? What secrets should be shared? In the small village of Kalaw, Julia realizes she never really knew her father. There she learns his remarkable tale of love, strength and courage that is a testimony to the human spirit.

In the Distance by Hernan DiazReviewed by David Cederholm
Library assistant II, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 17, 2019
In 19th-century America, a young Swedish immigrant sets out from the California gold fields on the seemingly impossible task of crossing the entire continent on foot. Hakaan is determined to get to New York City, where he can reunite with his brother. Along the way he encounters treacherous conditions, villainous fortune hunters and, over time, his growing legend. Young Hakaan is a very large man. His notoriety is due to an unfortunate incident in which he killed a large group of bad men. No matter where he turns up, people recognize him as “the hawk” and he is forced into hiding. Diaz’s prose is achingly beautiful, transporting the reader into Hakaan’s world of natural beauty and solitude.

Every Note Played by Lisa GenovaReviewed by Steve Wheeler
Branch Manager, Logan Heights Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 3, 2019
Lisa Genova, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, draws on her knowledge of neurological disorders in writing her novels. She is probably best known for “Still Alice,” the story of a psychology professor with Alzheimer’s disease. In “Every Note Played,” a concert pianist develops amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease that over time renders him unable to play music, walk, feed himself or even breathe. His ex-wife, a piano teacher who had given up her own dreams of playing professionally, takes him in and becomes his reluctant caretaker. Resisting cloying sentimentality, Genova satisfyingly depicts the struggles of the main characters to come to terms with the fatal illness and the problems in their relationship that had driven them apart.

My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott KingReviewed by Julie K. Wong
Library assistant III, Carmel Valley Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 17, 2019
An intriguing and inspiring posthumous memoir. Coretta Scott King grew up in the Deep South experiencing segregation from the day she was born in 1927. Her parents encouraged their daughter to attend school and graduate from college despite segregation. She later met and married the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. They became civil rights activists and leaders and joined others in pursuing pacifism and nonviolent protests to dismantle segregation. She describes the religious faith of her and her family in the midst of harm, murder, and destruction of property in the black community. She developed political coalitions to continue to advocate nonviolent protests for providing human rights to all by establishing the King Center and lobbying for the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.

The Bird and the Blade - Megan BannenReviewed by Bobbie Xuereb
Library Assistant II, Kensington-Normal Heights Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 3, 2019
Author Megan Bannen gives us a wonderful historical fiction that is set during the Mongol Empire in 1280. Jinghua is a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, and a girl with many secrets. When the Khanate is invaded, she chooses to flee, disguised as a boy, with the exiled Khan Timur and his youngest son, Prince Khalaf. The story is woven around a contest of three riddles to win the hand of the cold princess Turandokht, the beautiful, heartless daughter of the Great Khan, and the struggle for power. A retelling of the opera “Turandot,” the story unfolds with mystery and suspense and romance and danger. Enjoy the time travel in this beautifully written debut young-adult novel, and if you are like me, maybe you will even try to see the opera sometime.

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari - Robin S. SharmaReviewed by Bernard Cayetano
Library Assistant II, Skyline Hills Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 20, 2019
Author Robin Sharma brings us these most exquisite fables from the highest elevation of the Himalayas, where the Sages of Sivana live, to share the wisdom passed down to them from 5,000 years ago. Even the wisest of all monks know that life’s greatest secret is simplicity. Each fable provides delightful experiences we can taste in our soul, cultivated by the garden of our minds. If you’re ready to explore the gift of living, give up your busy life and make time for priorities like yourself. As the book says, not giving yourself time is like, “driving a car and not stopping for gas because you’re too busy driving.

Jell-O Girls: A Family History by Alice RowbottomReviewed by Peggy Goings
Library Assistant I, Mountain View/Beckwourth Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 6, 2019
Salad or dessert? Sparkling inheritance or toxic curse? Allie Rowbottom’s new memoir interweaves the tale of Jell-O gelatin in the American diet with family history as heir to the Jell-O fortune. This surprisingly feminist tract is ultimately a mother-daughter story. In excavating her mother’s story, Rowbottom reveals the curse of Jell-O’s allure. Read this delicious book for yourself, but the stomachache left behind? It is patriarchy.