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Jen Jen

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Once Upon a River

Diane Setterfield

One of my favorite books of the year is now out in paperback! Once Upon a River is historical fiction (sort of) by Diane Setterfield, told in what I call storyteller tradition. Once Upon a River is set on the Thames, along which are a number of pubs, each with its own specialty. The Swan is known for storytelling. The Swan is owned and run by a couple with twelve daughters and one son. It has been in the wife's family for generations. One night, a local man comes into the Swan with a nearly-drowned child and from there, the mystery unravels. The author throws a wide net of characters and brings it all together. The characters are well-developed and lovable. I listened to this on and the reader is fantastic. Admittedly, I developed a book-crush on one of the male characters in the book due to the narrator's voice. This is the kind of book I can envision a family all listening to together while taking a road trip (a long road trip because no one is going to want to turn off the book!)


Sally Sally  

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Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl is a careful observer of the natural world around her. She not only notices the chokecherry root which pushed up the concrete of her parents' driveway, the dead robin in the street, and the blazing red of a cardinal illuminated in the autumn sunset, her description of each is beautifully written. Renkl is also an observer of her family, and chapters about incidents in their lives are braided with the essays about the natural world. The ordinary becomes filled with wonderment and loss, and the shadow side of love is part of the life we all share. Illustrations by the author's brother, Billy Renkl, sensitively complement the text.

Here’s a conversation Sally had with author Margaret Renkl about Late Migrations.

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The Line Tender
Kate Allen

Two summers ago, my husband and I took a vacation to Washington D.C. and Maryland with our granddaughter. We spent one day at the Aquarium in Baltimore, and our granddaughter was entranced by the sharks. We stood outside a huge tank for a very long time, watching as shark after shark swam by. Our granddaughter remembers that day as the best part of our vacation.

I thought of that experience while reading The Line Tender, Kate Allen’s wonderful book for young adults. In the book, the person taken with sharks was Lucy Everhart’s marine-biologist mother. She’d died suddenly, 5 years before the start of the book, while collecting shark data off the coast of Massachusetts. Lucy and her father have managed to keep going, after a fashion, with the help of friends and neighbors. The summer Lucy was 12, a great white shark was brought in by the tide, and soon after, she experienced another tragedy.

Following these events, Lucy grabbed “the line that connected her depressed father, a stubborn fisherman, and a curious old widower to her mother's unfinished research on the Great White's return to Cape Cod.” For divers, such as Lucy’s dad, the line tender is the person who supports and assists diving operations. It’s a great metaphor for the book. I’m looking forward to a rich discussion of this book and Late Migrations during our fall Reading Retreat.



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Min Jin Lee

Pachinko begins in 1910 and follows four generations in the life of a Korean family. Early in the story, Yangjin and her daughter Sunja are living in Korea where Yangjin runs a boarding house. Sunja meets and falls in love with the fish broker, Koh Hansu, a man twice her age. Their meeting is a turning point in Sonja's life. When she becomes pregnant, Hansu offers to take care of Sonja and the child, but reveals that he is already married and has a family. Sunja is devastated and refuses his offer. Ultimately, she accepts a marriage proposal from Isak, a traveling pastor who is aware of her pregnancy and wants to assure a better life for Sonja and her child. She follows him to Japan, where he plans to assist in church work. Thus begins the journey of Sunja and her descendants, a journey following four generations through the twentieth century. Reading Pachinko greatly expanded my knowledge of the difficulties experienced by Koreans living in Japan in the twentieth century. At the same time, it was like looking through a kaleidoscope. The differences in the personalities and mindsets of the characters were a reminder of how a person's perception of reality can influence their decisions and ultimately their future.

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Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler

The setting for Anne Tyler's updated version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is modern-day Baltimore. Kate is single and is employed as a somewhat unenthusiastic child care worker. Outside of work, she supervises her younger sister, Bunny, and generally manages the household. Dr. Battista, Kate's father, is a scientist whose main focus in life is his long-running project. The story revolves around Dr. Battista's request that Kate marries his Russian lab assistant, Pyotr, so that he can get a green card and avoid deportation. Initially, Kate is vehemently opposed to the idea of marriage to Pyotr, but gradually it begins to grow on her. Unlike The Taming of the Shrew, the ending of Vinegar Girl casts a positive light on relationships. It is an update that works in the 21st Century.
Despite, or perhaps because, of their strong and somewhat quirky personalities, Kate and Pyotr worked their way into my heart. Whether or not you are a fan of Shakespeare, if you are looking for a story that is both amusing and delightful, I would recommend Vinegar Girl.



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The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America
Matt Kracht

Do you remember the phone app for a game called “Angry Birds?” What, you still have it on your phone? This book is an “Angry Author’s” point of view on birds and how, in many ways they annoy him. Now I like to watch birds, either in the woods or at our bird-feeders. As a matter of fact, we must own 25 bird field guides. Let me tell you, this book is totally different as the author shows his unique sense of humor, creating a parody of bird books in Don Rickles style.

The book is broken into sections starting with a Table of Contents…..that has no page numbers. It has a general bird classification section that includes Backyard, Egotist, Floaters, and Murder birds. There are bird illustrations that are “sort of” like the birds and, by all means, check out Bird Regions of North America (spoiler alert: Canada has either geese or French-speaking birds.) Probably the section that really caught my attention, not having seen it in any other field guide, is “Extinct birds.”

So, if you are looking for something a little different with colorful language, check out this book.





Gravity: The Allure of Distance-Essays on the Act of Travel

W. Scott Olsen

What drew me to this book was that the author's home base is Moorhead, MN so all trips began there. The author talks about why people love to travel: the frontier, the unrealized quest, the places on any map we have yet to fill in. These are the things that bind us with our own history.

He describes trips that we have also taken. But even the trip to New Zealand sounded fascinating. He says, "Each bend in the road tells us that the world is precious."

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American Heart
Laura Moriarty

This story takes place in the United States sometime in the near future. Registries and detainment camps are a reality for Muslim Americans. 15 year-old Sarah-Mary and her brother Caleb unexpectedly discover a Muslim woman trying to get to safety in Canada, where her husband and son are waiting. Sarah-Mary and the woman set off on a dangerous journey north, hitchhiking in blizzard conditions. They discover courage and kindness in the most unexpected places. Sarah-Mary reconsiders her assumptions about Muslims and what true patriotism is. This is a great book for teens and adults that you'll want to discuss and share with others. Laura Moriarty is the bestselling author of The Chaperone.

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The Girl in Building C: True Story of a Teenage Tuberculosis Patient
edited by Mary Kruegerud

When 16 year old Marilyn Barnes from St. Peter, MN contracted tuberculosis, she was sent to Ah-Gwah-Ching Sanatorium in Walker, MN. He story is told from the collection of letters she sent home to her parents. She describes her time there, the treatments she received, friends she made, and also the loss of patients by death. The editor fills in information about the disease and the sanitarium. I enjoy historical nonfiction and it was great to read a story set in our own back yard. The book is well done and an important read.




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Lauren Groff

I don’t read short stories often, but this beautifully written book jumped off the shelf into my hands because the paperback came out just as I was heading to Florida. Most of the stories are from the point of view of women or girls, ranging from wilderness survival incidents to existential challenges. Florida is the common denominator, even in stories where Floridians travel abroad. This isn’t the Florida of Disneyland or Miami Beach. It’s the Florida of snakes and heat and fecund nights. We aren’t in the Midwest anymore, Toto.

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A Suitable Vengeance
Elizabeth George

If Sally and I have convinced you to read the Elizabeth George books in order, you may want to consider starting with A Suitable Vengeance. It’s the fourth one she wrote, but it’s a prequel, so it tells you how Lynley and St. James got into that sad situation before Havers observed it. book coverOh, and if you’re a fan of Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers: the next in the Lynley series, For the Sake of Elena, may be your cup of tea. It also has interesting insights into what it means to be deaf.





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A Spark Of Light
Jodi Picoult

This is a timely story about a women's reproductive health clinic in Mississippi that is involved in a domestic terrorist attack. As always, Jodi Picoult is able to take a current and controversial topic and put a human face to it. The novel follows multiple story lines and characters that intersect before and during the attack and hostage situation. We are able to empathize and better understand the dynamics surrounding the different and distinct characters. It has no happy endings, but is realistic and powerful. I am not sure I would say I “enjoyed it" because the topics are so disturbing and emotional, but I was moved by it and recommend it.

Note: the paperback of this book will release on September 24.
It may be pre-ordered now.



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The Lost Forest
Phyllis Root, illustrated by Betsy Bowen

How does one lose a forest? I found this true story almost unbelievable, and yet it’s a remarkable piece of Minnesota history. Phyllis Root tells the story of the losing and finding of an entire forest during 1882 by a surveying crew. The woodcut pictures by Betsy Bowen added to the beautiful mystery of the Lost Forest. This is a lake cabin must!



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Gone to Dust
Matt Goldman

I’m not a great reader of mysteries so it was a surprise, while listening to Matt Goldman’s talk at Beagle and Wolf’s Author Fest, to find myself wanting to read one of his books. He’s a Minnesota author who lives in Edina, and his book is centered in that area. The slight personal connection of having heard him talk, served as a personal bridge into the heart of his work. Wry, seriously clever, and local to the Twin Cities, this book was just plain fun!

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Out Stealing Horses
Per Petterson

“Tron Sander, a sixty-seven year old man, has moved from the city to a remote Norwegian cabin” near the Swedish border. So says the book jacket of Per Petterson’s book, Out Stealing Horses. Immediately I was hooked. I wondered how Petterson’s character would experience rural Norway, as compared to my experience of rural Minnesota? Be careful what you ask for. The book is not only a speckled mirror image of my own living situation here in the woods (as I sit here at the kitchen table with a cup of fresh coffee), but a self-examination of mature years coming to terms with life… its ugly missteps, aching losses and unifying congruencies…. Not to mention the changes wrought on our thinking by the passing seasons. Out Stealing Horses, is literally a watch-word.

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Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness
Sheila A. Kohler

This is a period novel based loosely on the life of Lucy Dillon, an eighteenth-century French aristocrat. It’s a perfect summer read! You can experience the French Revolution, romance, adventure, and suspense, all with the certainty that some of the story is true, while at the same time, knowing it’s historical fiction. Now don’t scoff! A little of reality and fiction mixed has a long history of taking a little known figure (even some well known figures) and weaving a story from history’s shadows. Kohler has done a great job of just that. You meet historical figures, whom you already know, and see them with new eyes… well, through the eyes of Lucy, Kohler's new character.


Would you like to be a guest reviewer? Email Sally at

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