Skip to main content

Public Library

SDPL Recommended Books

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.

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

The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer

Reviewed by Magda Tamulski
Library Assistant III, Sciences, Central Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 20, 2020
This is the fascinating saga of one audacious thief who raids the nests, then snatches, in the course of his career, thousands of live eggs of some of the world’s most endangered birds of prey. Ultimately, the thief sells his booty to some of the world’s ultra-rich and elite. This book is as captivating as it is bizarre. Journalist Joshua Hammer takes us globetrotting, down the path of the thief’s mind, his follies and how he evades Interpol on multiple occasions. Hammer is both wildlife police detective and defender of these beautiful birds. He provides compelling explanations as to why we all need to do our part to preserve and protect these birds and their fledglings and arrest this illicit market of endangered birds now.

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Reviewed by Angie Stava
Librarian II, Children & Teen Materials Selector
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 6, 2020
Like all good fairy tales, Stepsister shows us both the gorgeous and the gruesome parts of life - we meet ugly stepsister Isabelle as her mother cuts off her toes to fit in the glass slippers of Cinderella fame. But then we watch as Isabelle refuses to be broken. Ignoring the taunts of the villagers and her family’s increasingly desperate circumstances, Isabelle fights to recover the lost pieces of her heart before it’s too late. In doing so, she maps out a future that is truly hers, with a little help from the fairy queen that made Cinderella’s night out possible. And like all great fairy tales, this one holds a mirror to our own society’s struggles – questions of beauty, who has value, and who gets to determine our fate. A rebellious, raging tale that will inspire you to show ‘em what you got with your chin held high.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in A World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez

Reviewed by Melissa Giffen
Youth Services Librarian, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, November 22, 2020
If you’ve ever wondered if there is strong empirical evidence that the modern world was designed for men, you won’t want to miss this read. From developing technology, the workplace, city planning, to the doctor’s office, author Caroline Criado-Perez takes a thoughtful look at how data collection (or the lack of it) shape the world and create a system that treats the average man as the average human—a troubling presupposition given that women account for roughly half the population and have their own gender and sex-specific needs. Criado-Perez takes a close look at how creating products and systems that take only male needs and anatomy into account has resulted in frustrating, dangerous, and sometimes deadly consequences for women. It’s a compelling argument for the inclusion of women into data collection at all levels.

The Undying by Anne Boyer

Reviewed by Trevor Jones
Branch Manager, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, November 8, 2020
“Slash, burn and poison.” That’s how poet Anne Boyer describes her surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer in 2014. Boyer rails against “pink ribbon culture” and the wider political landscape of feminism, illness, pharmaceutical companies and mortality. Boyer’s refusal to traffic in platitudes or advertising copy about the tortuous trials of a woman’s body is heartbreaking, but more than that its defiant tone transcends the category of ‘yet another survival memoir’. The result is a sobering and joyful ‘no’ to the policing of the rhetoric and language surrounding cancer.

After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

Reviewed by Marisa Carlson-Flores
Library Assistant II, Serra Mesa-Kearny Mesa Branch
San Diego Union-Tribune, October 25, 2020
Like waking from a half-remembered nightmare, the vague endings to each short story in After the People Lights Have Gone Off leave a lasting, if not disconcerting, impression. Each story is casually narrated as though being told by an old friend, lending a campfire-like quality. Ranging from stories of a tattoo apprentice for the dead, a ghoulish and impossible nighttime excursion, a loss-turned-metamorphosis, and a construction job so shoddy it can summon spiders and raise the dead, the contents promise a good thrill for fans of the type of horror that leave the worst parts up to the reader’s own imagination.

Me: Elton John, Official Autobiography by Elton John

Reviewed by Anne Defazio
Branch Manager, Mountain View/Beckwourth Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, October 11, 2020
Lovers of Rock and Roll history will enjoy Elton John’s autobiography. Candidly, he narrates from his humble beginnings, his entry into music, and his rise to fame. Songwriting seems to come easily, and he credits his lifelong friendship with co-collaborator, Bernie Taupin, a poet, who provided many lyrics. He doesn’t leave out details of his sexual journey or his addictions (cocaine, alcohol, and food), or his struggles with his unpredictable mother and his angry biological father. John has enjoyed a glamorous life as a performer, songwriter, humanitarian, collector, and sports team owner. The book ends happily as he describes his life today as something he could never have predicted: As a happy (despite some serious health issues), married, family man and father of two, that gives him profound joy. Also interesting was the mention of various music industry notables and their influences.

The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America by Eric Cervini

Reviewed by Miguel Covarrubias
Bookseller, The Library Shop, San Diego Public Library Foundation
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 27, 2020
In the first published account of astronomer Frank Kameny’s fight against the Government’s systematic persecution of homosexual federal employees during McCarthy’s Lavender Scare, Cervini masterfully weaves an enthralling narrative based on first-hand accounts, declassified FBI records, and 40,000 personal documents. Focusing on multiple legal battles and activism in the 1960s that birthed the Gay Liberation Movement, the book flows between the personal and intimate to the public and chaotic battle for civil rights. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that gay, lesbian and transgender employees are protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the monumental significance of this book is felt now and will be noted for ages as it covers LGBTQ+ history without judgment, emphasizes the intersectionality between Gay Liberation and the Black Freedom Movement, highlights the historical figures who fought for the rights the LGBTQ+ community has now and, most importantly, reminds us that Gay is Good.

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America by Conor Dougherty

Reviewed by Jeffrey Davis
Branch Manager, Linda Vista Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 13, 2020
In Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, Conor Dougherty, a former Union-Tribune journalist, walks us through the tangle of California's housing crisis. Alongside social history and policy detail, there are stories of activists, investors, builders, and tenants. San Diego's tragic outbreak of hepatitis A is recounted in a portion on 'literal homelessness', the formerly novel condition to which we've grown accustomed. Today, the cost to all of us of families spending most of their income on rent, tripling up in overcrowded homes, or super commuting from fire-prone fringes, is felt even more acutely. Golden Gates is an engaging and unpolemical exploration of how we got here and the ongoing fights over how we move forward.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Reviewed by Margaret Lindner
Access Services Manager, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 30, 2020
Dear Edward is a powerful, thought provoking, and ultimately uplifting work that brings Edward Adler and his coming-of-age search for home to living color. Edward is the sole survivor of an Airbus A321 commercial airplane crash on its way from New Jersey to Los Angeles. In mixed storylines, we follow his journey in alternating chapters through narratives that paint subtle insights as he progresses from traumatized tween to a mature young adult. The passengers we meet via “day of” sketches are brought to life through inner speech and conversations while aboard the jet, then cleverly woven into letters written by their loved ones to Edward. His gradual connections with these new, key people in his life usher Edward toward life-affirming discoveries. If you’re on the lookout for a story that reassures our shared humanity where hope shines brightly, this one delivers!

The Woman’s Hour by Elaine Weiss

Reviewed by Kathryn Johnson
Branch Manager, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 16, 2020
Author Elaine Weiss steeps readers in the history of the suffrage movement by beginning the book in Tennessee in August 1920. This well researched work effortlessly weaves in the stories of people and places that led up to the momentous and nerve-racking vote of August 18th. Even those who are well versed in the suffrage movement are sure to learn something new while gaining insights into both sides of the debate. In fact, Weiss' writing not only educates readers but provides extensive insight into why the movement took over 70 years to be successful. Overall, “The Woman's Hour” is an informative work that conveys the hard-fought struggle for women's suffrage while keeping readers engaged in this fascinating history.

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.