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SDPL Recommended Books 2021

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.

Last Best Hope: American in Crisis and Renewal book cover

Reviewed by Erin Moore
Librarian II – Youth Services Librarian, San Carlos Library
San Diego Union Tribune, December 19, 2021
Partisans who offend easily should proceed with caution when picking up the latest work from award-winning journalist, George Packer. Rather than blame one side over another as many political analysts do, Packer addresses the present-day problem of hyperpolarization with an even-handed approach that pardons no one. He explains that responsibility for our current crisis extends beyond the familiar red/blue binary. Our disagreements can now be better understood from a four-pronged framework of competing group narratives, which Packer labels: Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. Each of these visions of American identity provides its adherents with a sense of meaning and purpose. Together, however, these zero-sum worldviews are tearing the country apart. Though Packer offers no easy solutions, he suggests that a renewed interest in civil discourse may pave a way forward. By writing with candor and humility, Packer helps us get the conversation started.

The Space Between Worlds book cover

Reviewed by Shampree Fritz 
Librarian I, City Heights/Weingart Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, 5 December 2021 
The multiverse exists, and you can traverse it. However, traversing can be dangerous--an alternate world's version of "you" must already be dead in order for you to traverse there safely. Thanks to the Eldridge Institute, you too can become a traverser. Cara, our tough-as-nails heroine, is one such traverser. She is using her job to leave the wasteland of Ash Town and become a citizen of wealthy Wiley City. But at what cost to her body, her family, and the woman she loves? And what secrets await about the inventor of this technology? 
The Space Between Worlds is a fast-paced ride of sci-fi, action, mystery, and romance. Every chapter was a page turner and I loved seeing how one small decision could completely change an entire world. How small you ask? Well, why not traverse alongside Cara and find out? May you have Nyame’s mercy. 

Battle Born book cover

Reviewed by Angie Stava
Librarian II (Children and Teen Materials Selector), Central Library
San Diego Union Tribune, November 21, 2021
This graphic novel from SoCal marine veteran Uriarte is a rare gem. Set in modern-day Badakhshan, Afghanistan, Sergeant King and his soldiers’ mission is to gain the trust of locals and gather intel to stop the Taliban’s trafficking of lapis lazuli. Mined in the area for thousands of years, lapis lazuli is now entirely controlled by the Taliban to fund their insurgency. What starts out as a simple mission takes a turn into moral gray area quickly—what do you do when your orders conflict with what you feel is right? What happens when you cross the line from ordained violence into vigilante action? And how can you build trust when the Taliban murder the locals who are friendly to you? Uriarte deftly explores these issues in a gorgeous visual masterpiece that you won’t forget any time soon.

Obasan book cover

Reviewed by Jason Rogers
Accessibility and I CAN Center Coordinator, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, November 7, 2021
This evocative book tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II and the consequences that followed them after the end of the war. Naomi Nakane returns to help her aunt in rural Alberta after the death of her uncle. The visit, and pressure from another aunt, prompts Naomi to recall the circumstances of the family’s removal from their house in Vancouver, their internment in a former mining camp, and finally their removal to an Alberta farm. The recollections are filled with beautiful passages depicting small details, particularly of the environment around them, which heightens the sense of loss and sadness that pervades the story. Meanwhile, the dialog between Naomi and her Aunt Emily shows how the experience continues to affect the family, and highlights the debate over how to move on. Obasan highlights a tragic and important historical event in a deeply moving and personal way.

CitizenReporters Book Cover

Reviewed by Helen Broady
Librarian II, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, October 24, 2021
Whether your interest is history, the media, or just people who dared to be different, “Citizen Reporters” will leave you wanting to know more.
In the early 1900s, McClure’s magazine was perhaps the most influential source of public opinion. Through the stories of the brilliant but erratic S.S. McClure and fearless journalist Ida Tarbell, Ms. Gorton unveils the roots of the current war between the media and powerful politicians, as well as police corruption, corporate greed, and the struggles of professional women. The magazine first published stories by Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather, Henry James, and O. Henry, and Ms. Tarbell’s investigations exposed the monopolistic practices of the Rockefellers and Standard Oil.
Despite their ground-breaking work, these journalists were not reformers; and topics such as race relations were still taboo. The book ends with some surprising changes in the personal and philosophical lives of these characters of the Gilded Age.

All Systems Red Book Cover

Reviewed by Steven Torres-Roman 
Librarian, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, October 10, 2021
Murderbot (that’s what the main character calls itself ever since a certain “incident”) is a security cyborg assigned to a group of scientists exploring a new planet’s resources. Murderbot has hacked itself and secretly maintains its independence while performing its routine duties, commenting with alternating annoyance and frustration on the scientists’ behavior, and spending as much time as it can enjoying the thousands of hours of media it surreptitiously downloaded. When a scientist’s injury and missing research data suggest foul play, Murderbot works to uncover a hidden threat while doubling down on its sarcastic first-person narration and dealing with the anxiety of interacting socially with humans. “All Systems Red” is the humorously snarky first book in Martha Wells’s science fiction series, “The Murderbot Diaries,” and is a refreshingly short novel for when you’re in the mood for something sharp, fast, and acerbically witty. 

Eight Perfect Murders

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson


Reviewed by Kelly Verheyden 
Manager, Kensington-Normal Heights Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, September 26, 2021 
Malcolm Kershaw is a bookseller and mystery reader. In fact, he is such a fan of mystery novels, he wrote a blog post ranking the eight perfect murders committed in works of fiction, including Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. One snowy day, an FBI agent visits his shop with the theory that someone is committing murders based on the eight perfect murders he identified in the novels. Malcolm is not the innocent bookseller you think at the beginning of the book, but that only makes you want to read more and find out why the killer is targeting him. The plot moves quickly with many twists and turns. I like to try to figure out the identity of the killer before the author tells the reader and I didn’t quite get there with this novel, making this an unpredictable read. 

Little Miss Little Compton book cover

Reviewed by Jeremy Davies
Librarian I, Central Library, San Diego Public Library
San Diego Union Tribune, September 12, 2021
Have you ever visited Rhode Island? Lived there? Would you guess the state helped raise one of comedy's brightest stars? After reading Little Miss Little Compton by Arden Myrin, I am ready to uproot and move to Little Compton. Myrin's parents, who married as a joke, figured this quaint farm town was where their kids could "make [their] own fun." Quaint! As in an illiterate police chief driving around town giving the thumbs up when re-elected year after year. Fun! As in highly flammable, unsanctioned Fourth of July celebrations coming perilously close to incinerating treasured historic buildings. Myrin's book constitutes an exquisitely haphazard collage of her coming-of-age with lots of humor and heartfelt honesty about life. I invite you to dive into this off-kilter gem and scream-laugh out loud, as I did. Friends may gawk, but they just don't know they're missing out on all of the Rhode Island fun!

White Dog Fell From the Sky book cover

Reviewed by David Cederholm
Library Assistant II, Allied Gardens/Benjamin Library 
San Diego Union Tribune, August 29, 2021 
This is a story about dreams: dreams of lasting love, dreams of families made whole, and dreams of humans coexisting with all the flora and fauna of the natural world and each other. Alice lives in Botswana where she will meet two men: Ian, who struggles to preserve the indigenous people and the species they depend on, and Isaac, who is fleeing persecution and certain death in South Africa. One of these men, whom Alice believes is the love of her life, loses his life to the very beasts he is trying to rescue. The other she will help to reunite with his siblings and a very faithful dog who fell to the earth like a gift from heaven. The descriptive passages are so vivid you feel the heat of the Kalahari and gaze upon skies of azure blue. I have never been to Africa, but this story makes me want to go. 

Caste Book cover

Reviewed by Jay Evans
Library Assistant III, Kensington-Normal Heights Library
San Diego Union Tribune, August 15, 2021
In her book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson draws up a template of the human condition that is used "to justify [brutality] against groups within our species." She summons Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, the Caste system in India, and the history of enslavement and the Jim Crow South in the United States, to shine a searing light on inequality. Wilkerson’s treatment of Caste focuses on “Eight Pillars” that societies use to justify inequality: divine will and the laws of nature; heritability; endogamy and control of marriage and mating; purity vs. pollution; occupational hierarchy; dehumanization and stigma; and terror of enforcement, using cruelty as a means of control. Wilkerson compares the United States to an old house whose foundation is cracking because of unaddressed issues of equity and inequality. Her call is to understand and repair that foundation.

Loved and Wanted book cover

Reviewed by Peggy Goings
Library Assistant III, University Heights Library
San Diego Union Tribune, August 1, 2021
Christa Parravani, who wrote 2013’s “Her” about the death of her twin sister Cara who succumbed to drug addiction after a rape, has a new memoir out. In “Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood,” the author has accepted a writing professorship and moved her young family to the state of West Virginia. What follows is an unvarnished account of her marriage and family life as she finds herself both the primary parent and most reliable breadwinner with too little money and no margin for error. When her husband accepts a temporary job in California and the author experiences an unexpected pregnancy, the reader joins Parravani on her white-knuckled odyssey to get the medical care she needs with time running out.

Know Your Price cover

Reviewed by Jeffery Davis
Manager, Linda Vista Library
San Diego Union Tribune, July 18, 2021
In “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” Perry shares his personal history alongside original research and explanation of the mechanisms through which Black assets are devalued. The centerpiece is Perry’s research demonstrating that homes that are equivalent across a host of factors — physical structure, neighborhood income, access to jobs, crime, walkability — are nevertheless appraised 23 percent lower when located in Black-majority neighborhoods and cities (and relatively overvalued for tax purposes at the same time). That depresses wealth building, reduces collateral for business building, and makes borrowing for neighborhood reinvestment more difficult. The devaluation of Black teachers and of Black maternity extend the story and draw on Perry’s experience as a school administrator and as a father. Valuation, literal and figurative, is a useful lens for understanding and addressing disparity, including for San Diego County’s Black and Brown neighborhoods and cities.

See No Stranger Book Cover

Reviewed by Melissa Giffen
Youth Services Librarian, Scripps Miramar Ranch Library
San Diego Union Tribune, July 4, 2021
Valarie Kaur’s gift for words and storytelling are used to deliver a powerful and timely memoir about being an American Sikh from California’s Central Valley who discovers and uses her own voice to fight against injustice and hatred following the 9/11 tragedy. From a college road trip to capture the post-9/11 Sikh experience in film, to activism and protests, to beyond law school, Kaur has deeply connected with questions about citizenship, racism and communal love while grappling with the best and worst of the American experience. Along her journey, she’s developed what she calls her “manifesto of revolutionary love” based in a love for others, opponents and ourselves that can transform our communities through wonder, care and resilience. Kaur’s intimate look inside her own story--coupled with her practical and compassionate teachings--leave readers feeling connected to, and inspired by, the storyteller.

blacktop-wasteland book cover

Reviewed by Trevor Jones
Manager, College-Rolando Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 20, 2021
S.A. Cosby makes a big splash with his Southeastern noir “Blacktop Wasteland.” Bug is a mechanic trying to leave “the life”--aka a life of crime--behind him, but the ultimate and proverbial “one last score” calls him back. Now as a family man and a reformed criminal, he attempts to walk the line between two very different worlds while keeping his loved ones safe. Cosby’s crime fiction is a must for fans missing Elmore Leonard, while simultaneously defining his own voice and exploring the grim underworld of Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Patron Saint of Nothing Book Cover

Reviewed by Erin Moore
Youth Services Librarian, San Carlos Branch Library
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 6, 2021
High-school senior, Jay Reguero, is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life when he learns that Jun, his beloved cousin in the Philippines, has died under dubious circumstances. Even though he hasn’t seen Jun since visiting the island nation with his family many years ago, Jay is devastated to hear the tragic news. Devastation gives way to anger and confusion, however, when Jay discovers that Jun’s parents do not intend to investigate their son’s death nor give him a funeral. Why does everyone seem content to forget that Jun—one of the kindest and gentlest souls that Jay has ever met—even existed? As Jay seeks answers, he learns about the forces that shape his world—and ours—on scales large and small. This National Book Award finalist has it all. Suspense and intrigue? Check. Relatable characters? Check. Thought-provoking themes and impactful resolution? Absolutely.

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.