Staff Recs 2023




Beyond That, the Sea by Laura Spence-Ash. A gorgeous, stunning debut set between 1940 and 1965 about a young girl whose parents decide to send her to live with a family in Boston to avoid the perils of war in her home city of London. Short, beautifully written chapters follow the different characters through time as we learn of their lives, loves and sorrows and how they are all impacted for decades by a seemingly benign decision. I was utterly captivated and at times a tearful mess; this story and these characters will be with me for years to come.  - Carolyn

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. In this fast-paced eco thriller, members of a guerrilla gardening collective illegally occupy and farm a remote parcel of land near a national park in New Zealand. Then they discover they are not the only trespassers. Ideological conflicts, internal divisions, and personal jealousies complicate the cohesiveness of the collective, even as they face their most existential threat. A sophisticated page turner you won't want to put down. - Alison

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. Epic, enthralling, engrossing, and exquisitely written. Full of 20th century Indian history and lush descriptions of the land and environment, Verghese’s writing will immediately pull you in. An extended family, profoundly written with depth and emotion, surrounds matriarch Big Ammachi, a main character you won’t soon forget. Their story unfolds as they realize the sacrifices made by earlier generations and their own as they struggle to break the cycle of family deaths-by-water. Long but well worth it! - Eric

The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn (in paperback).

WOW! WTF did I just read?!?! If the back cover copy and writing format intrigue you, then run - don't walk.  - Eric



The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris. This is the most fun book I’ve read in quite a while! Do not turn away from it because it’s “animal fiction;" you’ll be missing out. You will thoroughly enjoy Dave Eggers’ latest if you — Love Golden Gate Park; Love dogs; Love entertaining wordplay; Love good friendship tales; Love the magic in everyday things; Love books that are fun for the whole family; Like Golden Gate Park, even just a little (beware of the ducks) - Eric


Family Meal by Bryan Washington. Punishing grief and rampant gay sex collide in Bryan Washington's intrepid and astute sophomore novel about Cam and TJ, childhood best friends turned family, who reconnect after years of estrangement when Cam moves back to Houston after the death of his lover, Kai. Washington, a master of inserting the sensual and fleshy bodies of his characters onto every page, doesn't flinch away from sadness, brutality, tenderness, or overt sexuality in this moving story of food and the body, family and friendship, love and loss. - Hannah
Go As a River by Shelley Read. A deep, moving story about a strong female character and her relationship not only with humans but with the natural world she knows and loves. Parallels are drawn between the ousting of indigenous communities from their home and her community from theirs to build a dam, all in the name of national progress. Set in the Colorado wilderness, Read does an amazing job of introducing the natural world as a living, breathing character in this emotional story of life, relationships, and resilience. I couldn't put in down! - Jessica
The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng. This all encompassing historic novel follows the life of a boy growing up in Singapore during the post-war colonization and the authoritarian modernization of the 1940s-70s, also known as the Great Reclamation. The societal values and norms of a small fishing village are challenged by their government's desire to elevate Singapore's economic and cultural influence in the world. Each resident has to decide how they will navigate the challenges to their lives and relationships. What must they sacrifice for a more independent, modernized lifestyle? A well-written, engaging approach to the Great Reclamation; I loved it! - Jessica

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride. A brilliant storyteller takes us back to the 1920s and 30s in Chicken Hill, a dilapidated neighborhood in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where immigrant Jews and African Americans live side by side. The groups are different in many ways but united by interconnected relationships and the racism shown to both by the White Christian leadership of Pottstown. When the state comes looking for a deaf Black boy to institutionalize him, it triggers an incident involving the beloved “matriarch” of the community that brings the Chicken Hill population together with an inspiring show of caring and humanity. - Hut

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. This full-bodied emotional family tale is so rich in its telling that it will draw you right in. "Hello Beautiful" is the greeting the father Charlie gives to his four daughters -
Julia: ambitious and organized
Sylvie: the dreamer
Cecelia: the artist
Emeline: the sympathetic one
Their inter-relations and the drama that comes with Julia's boyfriend William into the fold is riveting. Addresses beautifully the hard stuff of family, depression, & self-worth. - Heida
My Murder by Katie Williams. For fans of Blake Crouch and Sarah Gailey's The Echo Wife, this humorous, spellbinding, genre-bending sci-fi thriller, about a woman murdered by a serial killer who is then cloned back to life, reveals itself like an onion, chapters like layers peel away to reveal more layers, the fascinating mystery at the core both dark and elusive up until the very shocking end. I loved every smart plot twist, and couldn't have put it down if I tried. - Hannah
The Postcard by Anne Berest. An unforgettable read! The story of a mother’s detailed research into the path of her family’s journey from Russia to Palestine to France directly before the Holocaust, and the daughter’s continuation of that search years later to find the truth about her family’s fate. It all starts with an un-signed postcard… Set primarily in Vichy France, this brilliant work of auto-fiction shines a spotlight on anti-semitism in historic as well as contemporary France. A harrowing personal account and a nail-biting mystery joined seamlessly together — you will never forget this story. - Heida
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer (in paperback). Such an inspiring and moving story! Set in 1834 on the Carribean islands of Barbados, Guiana and Trinidad, Rachel is a just-freed slave who risks so much to find her five children stolen from her over the years. Shearer does not shy away from the realistic details of the slave trade and the entrenched cruelty of slave owners and the racist system that supports them. Even so, the heart of this story lies in its celebration of motherhood and female resilience. And along the way, the characters lead us through the humid streets of Guiana, terrors on a lush tropical river and beauty, hope and strength of those living and loving as best they can in this unjust world. - Heida
Same Time Next Summer by Annabel Monaghan. From the author of Nora Goes Off Script comes this delightful and charming second chance romance starring Sam and Wyatt, childhood friends turned teenage sweethearts turned strangers, as they reunite after 10+ years at their parents' neighboring Long Island beach houses where Sam has returned to plan her wedding to (boring but otherwise "perfect") fiancé Jack. Full of nostalgic nods to first love, quaint beach town vibes, lazy guitar tunes drifting over the dunes, early morning surf sessions, and dreamy pink and gold sunsets, this is everything you want in a perfect summer book. Read it (and by read I mean devour) poolside, on the plane, or curled up in bed. - Hannah
Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal. Humor and heartbreak weave throughout in this fabulous new novel set in fictional Bear Jaw, Minnesota. Two very different restaurant families are blended together when Mariel Stenerud and Ned Prager meet and marry. Her inherited and family-owned local supper club is a world away from the restaurant chain Ned is expected to take over, and each of them must come to terms with their own wishes and desires in the face of family legacies and tragedies. A cast of flawed and loveable characters (including a persnickety parent who's waiting to be picked up at church), hearty food and delicious drinks leap off the page over the course of 85 years...another winner from a beloved author. - Carolyn
Shark Heart: A Love Story by Emily Habeck. You might not believe me when I tell you that this quirky debut novel, about the relationship between newlyweds Wren and Lewis (a man diagnosed with a mutation that will, over the course of a year, transform him into a great white shark... I KNOW, but trust me here) will knock your socks off, charm you and steal your heart, and leave you in tears—and you will be grateful, transformed yourself by the experience of living in this world that Habeck has created for a few hours. WOW. - Hannah
Whalefall by Daniel Kraus. I couldn’t put this book down! The suspense and tension grows consistently throughout as protagonist Jay physically and mentally struggles with having been swallowed by a whale. Add to that impressive, intertwining storylines of the physical present moment juxtaposed against emotional memories of the past and tumultuous family relationships. We enter the guilt-ridden, oxygen-deficient mind of Jay through this excruciatingly tense, life-changing ordeal. Is it all a metaphor? Brilliant! - Jessica

What We Kept to Ourselves by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. When a stranger is found dead in the Kim family’s Los Angeles backyard holding a mysterious letter addressed to their missing mother, a wave of family secrets comes crashing down. Old wounds are reopened, feelings of desertion and betrayal revisited, and more questions are raised about their mother’s disappearance. The story spans several decades with tensions exacerbated by the backdrop of 1990s Los Angeles, the treatment of immigrants (especially Koreans) during the Rodney King riots, and the anxiety and fear of a Y2K armageddon as the end of the millennium approaches. A riveting mystery intertwined with intergenerational trauma, the destructive nature of secrets, and the human ability to build strong, healthy relationships through honesty and understanding. - Jessica



Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker (in paperback). Set mainly in California's Central Valley, the stories in Heartbroke feature a quirky cast of characters on the edge of society, looking for love or money, an education or the general meaning of life. Bieker writes like a car careening over a mountain road, with a tipsy, frank fearlessness, her headlights catching all the humor and desperation and need in her characters, creating short stories that are shiny and raw. - Hannah

Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri's new stories are quiet and acutely observed - a series of poignant reflections on issues of exile, alienation and discrimination. I was flooded with the feeling of Rome in reading these nine short stories - the history, culture and both the spareness and the luxury of the Roman environment and the lives lived there. Lahiri, living in Rome since 2011, composed this collection in Italian, then translated it beautifully into English with editor Todd Portnowitz. Jhumpa breathes life into the barest of sketches. Read the stories slowly and savor them! - Heida


So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men by Claire Keegan. In these three short stories, Claire Keegan writes about 3 women and 3 men - their twists and turns, and how they react to each other - as strangers, lovers, betrothed, or a potential threat. As Keegan explains "So much of life carrying smoothly on despite the tangle of human upsets and knowledge of how everything must end." You can feel the impending doom in her simple words - so beautifully chosen. And yet Keegan can, even when talking about ugly things, always find the beauty in them. - Heida



All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby. Racial tensions in a small Southern town impede a Black sheriff's determined search for a serial killer in a compelling and tension-filled thriller from one of the hot new voices of crime fiction. Cosby's gritty storytelling and rich characters - especially protagonist Titus Crown - definitely put All the Sinners Bleed a cut above.  One of my new favorites!  - Hut

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead. This stylish sequel to Harlem Shuffle moves a decade forward to the 1970s, where furniture store owner Ray Carney and his partner in crime Pepper navigate a city and neighborhood beset by corruption and political unrest. Whitehead's gift with words enriches this fully realized portrait of a time and place - in his hands, Harlem is a main character of its own. The result is an entertaining crime thriller elevated to a layered, nuanced literary masterwork. - Hut

The Golden Gate by Amy Chua. Boy, is this a good one! Set in Berkeley in 1944, the story starts out with a bang (literally) in the Claremont Hotel, where a presidential candidate has been assassinated. For homicide detective Al Sullivan, solving the case means dealing with white privilege at its most imperious, with the formidable Bainbridge heiresses and their intimidating grandmother - all suspects - offering up flirtations, misdirection, and disdain. Throw a tragic death in the Bainbridge family 14 years earlier and Sullivan's precocious niece into the mix and you have a terrific, multi-layered story. Oh, did I mention Madame Chiang Kai-Shek also makes an appearance? - Hut

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn (in paperback). Four elite female assassins recruited decades earlier by a clandestine organization are just trying to retire in peace, but someone wants them retired permanently. It’s bad news for the bad guys, though, because while the fearless foursome may be off the job and a step slower physically, their expertise and cunning is still in fine working order. A page-turning revenge thriller that delivers. - Hut
The Quiet Tenant by Clémence Michallon. I flew through this book in two days and I'm still thinking about it weeks later. A beloved widower of a small town is keeping many secrets which we learn about in alternating chapters from the three women in his life: his daughter, his new crush and the one he's held captive for five years. His tightly controlled world starts to unravel when he's forced to move to a new home. A riveting thriller that engaged me to the very end! - Carolyn
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty. Prepare to be swept away to sea with Amira al-Sirafi! I've always wanted a swashbuckling pirate adventure where the main character was like me: a grown woman. Not an airbrushed teenager, but a real person with bad knees, the memory of questionable decisions, and the skills and experience to handle what comes. And the adventure! The quest to rescue an innocent girl turns into a fantastic voyage beyond the known world, populated by sea monsters and dangerous beings both beautiful and grotesque. The plot twists and turns like a sea snake, and nothing is what it seems. Chakraborty's City of Bliss trilogy was just the beginning, and I can't wait to see where this new series goes. - Cynthia


LeBron by Jeff Benedict. I'm a big basketball fan, especially of the Warriors, so it felt a little traitorous to go all in with a biography of LeBron James. But I'm glad I did - this book is as entertaining, informative, and fascinating as the man himself. The author does a terrific job of tracing and weaving together the various storylines of LeBron's life, from his childhood in poverty to the women, coaches, friends and colleagues that have influenced him and impacted his choices (and puts his "I'm taking my talents to South Beach" blunder in a whole new light). I was left impressed and in awe of this generational talent. - Carolyn


Making It So: A Memoir by Patrick Stewart. I'll admit I'm a bit of a closet Trekkie, so I went into this book super excited to read loads of behind the scenes tidbits about Star Trek: The Next Generation. This delightful and heart-felt memoir proved to have all that and so much more. From his early days growing up in poverty in Yorkshire, touring as a young Shakespearean actor with Vivien Leigh and his eventual worldwide television success, Stewart provides us with fascinating insight into his life and passion for his work. Some terrific celebrity interactions are peppered throughout; his first meeting with Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) is especially entertaining. - Carolyn

Wandering Through Life by Donna Leon. As she enters her ninth decade, the author of the Commissario Brunetti mystery series offers up a series of delightful semi-chronological vignettes about her life, travels, and myriad interests. Leon describes growing up in New Jersey, teaching overseas in Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia, and her love affair with Venice - now tempered by the influx of cruise ships. Her self-deprecating style belies a natural curiosity (I loved her chapter on bees), and her writing here -  casual and straightforward - has its own elegance. Fans curious about her creative process may be disappointed by her avoidance of the subject, but I was thoroughly taken with this leisurely, anecdote-filled memoir. - Hut

You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith. In this ravishing gut punch of a memoir about a broken marriage, poet Maggie Smith (of Good Bones fame) unveils the fractures that led to her divorce, the bittersweet knowledge born from parenthood, the harrowing solitude of miscarriage and postpartum depression, the unseen weight of labor carried by women in relationship with men, the creative process of writing and living, in prose that is aptly poetic, fierce and unflinching. You don't need to have walked through the fires of divorce to feel the lick of the flame, to be burned and reborn along with Maggie. What a gift. - Hannah
David Wojnarowicz: Dear Jean Pierre edited by James Hoff and Cynthia Carr is a collection of handwritten and typed letters, postcards, and photographs from the artist to his lover between 1979 and 1982. Wojnarowicz was an incredible artist whose career was cut short in 1992 at the age of 38 by AIDS. This collection offers an intimate glimpse into a specific time and place in which the young artist worked and loved. It is a brilliant piece of art history. - Jennifer
The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel. "Could I name 20 women artist's off the top of my head?" That's what Guardian columnist Katy Hessel asks herself one day. So many women are missing from our traditional art history lexicon. Interweaving the female artists back into our history, we learn about women painting in the Dutch and Italian Renaissance and the Pre-Raphaelite era, printing Japanese woodblock prints in the 19th century, and even carving medieval bas-relief doors. Thoroughly mind-expanding! - Heida
The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China by James M. Zimmerman. The Peking Express is an engaging, historic account that reads like a suspenseful mystery novel. Zimmerman’s well-researched presentation emanates from diaries, newspaper clippings, and anecdotes passed on from some of the hostages to their family members. Hitting close to home, Roland Pinger, one of the hostages, settled in Berkeley and passed on stories of this life-changing episode to his children and their children, some of whom still live in Berkeley. An enlightening story of bravery, resilience and diplomacy. - Jessica

Bunny & Tree by Balint Zsako is a gorgeous wordless picture book perfect for reading with little ones. While wordless picture books can seem challenging to some adults, they can be a wonderful gateway into the world of reading for children. Bunny & Tree is a stunning example. Grownups and children will love pouring over each beautiful page and working together to create stories about bunny and tree’s adventures. Honored as one of the best illustrated books of 2023 by The New York Times, and Mrs. Dalloway’s has a limited number of specially signed copies. - Jennifer

Together We Swim by Valerie Bolling and Kaylani Juanita is a beautifully illustrated celebration of swimming and family. Juanita’s lovely detailed drawings bring each of the characters’ personalities to life. A fun read aloud that will make everyone want to head to the pool! - Jennifer

The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris.. I adored this book and didn’t want it to end. Johannes, our narrator, is a very fast runner and a free dog who lives in a sprawling city park near the ocean. As the park’s eyes it is his job to report its comings and goings to the elders, three bison who live in an enclosure. When things in the park begin to change and his freedom is threatened, Johannes must make some important decisions. This is book for everyone, and would make a wonderful family read aloud. - Jennifer

A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat is this year’s National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature and one of my favorite books of 2023. The graphic memoir is based on Santat’s trip to Europe the summer before high school where he experienced a series of life-changing firsts -  his first fondue, his first time stealing a bike from German punk rockers... and his first love. This brilliant and funny coming-of-age story is a perfect reminder that life gets better no matter how awkward or out of place middle school makes you feel. Young readers as well as adults, especially those nostalgic for their youth, the early 1990s and Fanta, will love this book! Be sure to check out the playlist. - Jennifer

Blood Debts by Terry J. Benton-Walker. Can I start a recommendation with WOW? Well, I am. Wow, just wow. This young adult contemporary fantasy, set in New Orleans, is a family saga that is steeped in mystery, magic, young love and social commentary. Benton-Walker has created an incredible world with richly realized characters, ferocious plot lines and so much drama; I am here for it all. I can't wait to read what's coming next in this new series! - Carolyn

Invisible Son by Kim Johnson. Kim's second young adult novel is another social justice thriller like her debut "This is My America". Set in Portland at the onset of the pandemic, 17-year-old Andre has been wrongly accused of a crime and is protecting one of his best friends who is now missing. Andre is determined to find out what happened to Eric amidst the chaos of quarantine, the racial injustices playing out on the daily news and the BLM protests, all while navigating the restorative justice program in which he's been placed. And why are Eric's white adoptive parents not trying to find him? The pacing and tension kept me riveted, and the many themes and storylines are sensitively and expertly handled. Song titles announce each chapter and there's a terrific playlist for the book available on Spotify! - Carolyn