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Jen Jen

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Why We're Polarized

Ezra Klein

This is the Current Events Book Group pick this month. Author and political scientist Ezra Klein examines the polarization of modern day politics. I love that Klein backs up in time and revisits the history of how we got to the modern day two party political system in the U.S. Did you know that in the 1950s there was worry that there weren’t enough distinguishing differences between the Republican and Democratic parties? Hard to imagine that now!

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A Delhi Obsession
M.G. Vassanji

For those of us in the U.S., this book is ONLY available as an audio book, available from our e-audiobooks partner, (thank you!) Munir Khan is a widowed , has-been author of Indian heritage living in Canada. Curious about family history, he takes a trip to Delhi, India. Once there, he meets Mohini, a married Hindu woman. Mohini offers to show Munir around and the two form a friendship. Before long, the friendship becomes romantic. It's not an ideal relationship, not only because Mohini is married, but because the two lovers live in different countries and have very different cultural histories. Vassanji provides an in-depth look at the two main characters in this book, as well as spending a fair amount of time on the history, culture, and religion of India (not just Delhi) This book was published by Doubleday Canada, and the print book is not available in the U.S. Fortunately, you can listen to the book on and I highly recommend it—the narrator is excellent.

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The Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden

I've had my eye on this book for a while. It's the first in a trilogy and I tore through it. The story is set in Russia and based on Russian folk/fairytales. The heroine is Vasya, born into a family of middle-royalty. Vasya’s mother dies shortly after her birth. Her father remarries and his new wife bears another daughter. Included are wilderness demons (not necessarily evil) and the old Russian beliefs in these demons clashes with the Russian Orthodox church. It’s a story filled with heart, adventure, fantasy, and mystery. If you want to know what the title means, well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I’m off to read book #2, The Girl in the Tower.

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The Splendid and the Vile
Erik Larson

It’s no surprise that this book has been a bestseller for us, despite being the storefront being closed. Erik Larson does what he does best—making history as interesting as possible. The Splendid and the Vile is a WWII book focused on Winston Churchill. I was intrigued to learn in the author’s note in the beginning that this subject matter became of immense interest to him after he moved to New York City and began to understand that New Yorkers’ memories and history of 9/11 are much different than the memories of the rest of the country, and the world, have of that day. Larson began to wonder about other historical events in which the impact hit some people much harder than others. I’ve been listening to this on and enjoying it a great deal; the narrator is good.


Sally Sally  

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Mastering the Process: From Idea to Novel
Elizabeth George

In high school, I won the prize for Creative Writer of the Year. My dream in college was to write the Great American Novel. But somewhere along the way, I realized I didn’t have the fire in my belly to make that happen. I did lots of other writing over the years, primarily curriculum (and now, book reviews!) I set aside Elizabeth George’s new book when it came in, disappointed that it wasn’t a new mystery in her Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers series. However, it stayed on my stack of books to be read and eventually worked its way to the top.

book coverWith great generosity, George outlines her process for writing novels. Her mysteries are set in England, and her process always begins with research, taking a trip to the area where the next book will be set, and taking lots of pictures. (Some of which are included in the book.) Developing what she calls a plot kernel follows, along with a great deal of time developing characters. Only later does the plot emerge. George has a great deal to say about discipline and the technical aspects of writing. She uses her book Careless in Red as an example. (It’s not necessary to have read that book to find this helpful.) I think this book would be extremely helpful for aspiring writers, as it was for me—someone interested in the craft but with no intention of writing a novel. I will, though, read them differently as a result of reading this book.

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Old Lovegood Girls
Gail Godwin

This year marks the 50th year since I graduated from college (reunion delayed a year by COVID 19) and a book following two college roommates from their freshman year in 1958 through 2001 appealed to me. The two women come from completely different backgrounds, but form a close friendship. Although they rarely see each other after school, they remain in each other’s thoughts, and sometimes those thoughts serve to influence each other’s actions. In addition to their friendship, their bond includes jealously, rivalry, and competitiveness. In addition, the book provides a look at a time when our society was far different than it is today. I think I’ll send my college roommate an email, just to say hi!

Note: this book will be released May 5, and may be pre-ordered here.

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Redhead by the Side of the Road
Anne Tyler

This month I found myself listening to audio books more than I usually do. I’ve been making masks for my family and the local hospital and working jig saw puzzles, and an audio book has been a pleasant companion.

I’m always eager to read a new book by Anne Tyler! The main character is this one is a man in his 40’s named Micah. He has a very small life, lived within a rigid routine. Somehow, he never quite connects with other people. One day, a young man shows up at Micah’s home, convinced Micah is his dad (he’s not.) About the same time, Micah’s lady friend (he won’t call her his girl friend because she’s in her thirties) is afraid she’s going to be evicted from her apartment. The story is off and running from there, with Tyler’s signature humor and compassion toward her characters. Slowly, Micah is nudged toward seeing the world in a new way. By the way, the redhead by the side of the road is a fire hydrant!

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The Girl He Used to Know
Tracy Garvis Graves

This book is a charming and romantic love story. Annika and Jonathan met at a chess club meeting in college. She is intelligent and beautiful, but very unsure of herself in social situations, often unable to read cues and respond appropriately. She is drawn to books, and pursues first a degree in English, then one in library science. Jonathan draws her out, appreciates her for herself, and they begin to plan a future together. They part after a painful occurrence, meeting by chance ten years later. Slowly and tentatively, they move towards reconnecting. The chapters alternate between Annika and Jonathan, and the reader for Annika is perfect for that character. The book was a lovely escape from the reality of living under a stay at home order!

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Love, Death & Rare Books
Robert Hellenga

book coverYears ago, I read a book called The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga. In it, a book conservator went to Florence, Italy to help save books after a disastrous flood. I think. I don’t remember the details, but I remember loving the book.

For some reason, I’ve never read another book by Hellenga, although he’s written several. But Love, Death & Rare Books called to me, and I wasn’t disappointed. What’s not to love about characters whose lives are all about books? People who read books, talk about books and ideas, and work with books.

Gabe Johnson was the third generation in a family of booksellers, but when he took over the family business, the world of selling books had drastically changed. Book sales were online, and the new owner of the building where the family store had been for years wanted to do something else with the space. Gabe restarted his life, moving the shop from Chicago to a small town on Lake Michigan.

And the love promised in the title of the book? Gabe’s college girl friend drifted in and out of his life, as elusive as the mother who had abandoned the family when he was a child.

Love, Death & Rare Books is a satisfying read by a master storyteller.


Ann Ann  

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Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions

Sheila O’Connor

When author Sheila O’Connor was a teenager, she discovered the existence of her maternal grandmother, V. Until then, V’s existence was a well-kept family secret. Thus begins the author’s quest to learn all that she can about her grandmother. Her mother was raised by an aunt and uncle whom she considered her parents. What O’Connor learned was that in the mid 1930’s, her then fifteen-year-old grandmother became pregnant. As a result, she was sentenced to six years at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre. Despite extensive research, there are many gaps in the information available on V’s life. However, the fruits of O’Connor’s research combined with the facts that she learned about her grandmother create a book that is truly written in fragments, facts, and fictions. Girls were sentenced to the Minnesota Home School for Girls and similar homes for offenses such as “incorrigibility” and “immorality.” Treatment of the girls was generally harsh and often cruel. Evidence of V is a heartbreaking and disturbing story. That being said, it is extremely well written and informative. Evidence of V sheds light on events that are important to citizens both personally and historically.

Note: this book is on the summer reading list for the Sister Wolf Book Group.

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American Dirt
Jeanine Cummins

Journalist Sebastian Delgado lives in Acapulco with his wife Lydia and his son Luca. When Delgado ignores warnings to stop writing about the local cartels, retaliation is swift. A shooting spree at a family gathering results in the deaths of Sebastian and much of his extended family. Lydia manages to hide from the intruders, along with Luca. She knows that the only way that they will be able to survive is to escape across the border and into the United States. Their journey is harrowing and filled with obstacles. American Dirt is fast paced, intense, and eye opening. The characters represent the best and worst of human nature. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down.



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Network Effect

Martha Wells

If you are into Sci-Fi, you are in for a treat. Martha Wells has developed a series of “Murderbot Dairies” that I’ve just gotten into and I am hooked. Not only am I taken with her writing, her series has gotten Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction. I think you are going to like this.

I’m reviewing her fifth book in the series about an android bodyguard called a Murderbot. This is no ordinary bodyguard, this is a bodyguard on steroids. He (?) walks into a situation and immediately sizes up the people (or other androids), notes the weaponry they have by searching his database for weapon type, capability, common users, etc. He is also in contact with (actually by hacking into) their security system and making friends with their computer operating system. He does all this while catching up on network shows he has downloaded for viewing in his “free” time. And what is really great is that he has opinions that the author lets you know by providing his thoughts as he is careening about dodging bullets and saving his charges from danger. This is one of the most human A.I. bots I have ever read about. There is one passage I love about half-way through the book. The Murderbot says, “But then an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Or past absence. Whatever, you know what I mean.”

The action is great and it keeps on coming so buckle your seat-belts and prepare for a lot of fun.

Note: Network Effect will be released May 5 and may be preordered from our website.



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The Chilbury Ladies Choir

Jennifer Ryan

It's World War II in Chilbury, England. The Nazis are becoming nearer and nearer. The choir has been disbanded because there are no men; they are away fighting. The ladies decide they will organize the Chilbury Ladies Choir, something that never has been done before. Sounds like a nice cozy story until you read the 2nd chapter! Brigadier Winthrop approaches the midwife and says he'll pay her a large sum of money if she makes sure that the baby his wife is about to have is a boy. He needs a boy to continue the family line. Thus begins a story of mystery and intrigue, including spies and black marketers. Through it all, the women manage to keep the village together, even when the bombs begin to fall.

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Free the Children
Craig Kielbarger

One morning, 12 year-old Craig Kielburger read a headline in the newspaper: Child Labor, boy 12 murdered. Craig was deeply moved. He decided to go into action. This was the beginning of Free the Children, an organization started and run by children Craig's age. As Craig learned more about child labor in the world (outlawed but ignored by countries around the world), he convinced his parents to let him travel to South Asia so he could talk to the children himself. The book tells the story of his travels and how he was transformed. Subsequently, Free the Children has built more than 650 schools, educating over 55,000 children in third world countries. Craig encourages all of us to become informed and take action to eliminate child labor throughout the world. A tremendous story. 

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In the Midst of Winter
Isabelle Allende

Isabelle Allende is a truly masterful storyteller. I am writing this review before I finish the book. I have just a few pages left and am wondering how she will tie up the loose ends for a happy and satisfying finish--or will she leave us hanging to find our own way? There are three main characters: Richard, a lonely university professor in his 60's, Lucia, a fellow academic from Chile, and Evelyn, an undocumented immigrant. During a huge winter storm. Richard hits the back of the car Evelyn is driving, which belongs to her employer. She is mildly hurt. Richard asks Lucia for help. When they find out who the owner of the car is and what he may do to Evelyn, they decide they must get rid of the car, especially when they see what's in the trunk! Allende is a prolific and bestselling author. In 2014 President Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor.




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Elizabeth McCracken

Bowlaway hit me differently than I expected. Jen’s review in the February newsletter does a fine job of describing it, but in this time of Covid the quirky, entertaining aspects of the novel that I thought would be light escapism were less important to me than the sudden losses. Bizarre, awful things happen after a little foreshadowing. Sound familiar? Some things change forever, not always for the better, but the beat goes on. Some things stay.

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Escape Clause
John Sandford

This murder mystery is the perfect follow-up to the popular Netflix series The Tiger King! I don’t want to say why because it might ruin a surprise, but I’m sure you’ll agree. Virgil Flowers is a likable cop. The book is set in Minnesota, in a small town outside the Twin Cities. It starts and ends with Virgil and his lady friend Frankie at her farm, with a swimming hole, a dog, and a warm summer day. Multiple murders and other excitement happen in between.

book coverI liked Escape Clause so much I went right on to the next Virgil Flowers mystery, Deep Freeze. It takes place in a different small town, in the dead of a snowy, bitterly cold Minnesota winter. (Remember when snow seemed like a huge problem?) The plot includes a body drifting under the ice in a river, Barbie dolls that have been turned into sex toys, and assault by pizza. These books are so much fun!

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The Immortalists
Chloe Benjamin

Four kids, brothers and sisters, sneak a visit to a scary old woman who tells each child, privately, the date he or she is going to die. What would it mean to hear that? Would you believe it? Would it affect how you live? Might it bring about the predicted event? And how would it work on the relationships among the impressionable siblings who shared this experience? There are four outcomes, four intertwined stories, that start with San Francisco in the 1980s and end, well, read the book and you’ll enjoy finding that out!

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Isaac Asimov

When I was a teenager, two of my favorite books were by Asimov: Caves of Steel and The End of Eternity. These novels use characters I love and suspenseful plots to talk about ideas that challenge one’s attitudes toward technology and the human condition. I knew that the Foundation trilogy is considered his masterwork: in 1966 it beat out The Lord of the Rings to win Hugo award as the Best All-Time Series. I can’t say that I agree with that assessment, but Foundation certainly is unique. It’s a sort of science fiction version of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Asimov had read twice when he thought up Foundation. In it, a genius uses psychohistory to determine that the galactic empire is decaying, doomed to fall to barbarism, and that forming a Foundation to preserve all knowledge in an encyclopedia will allow a second galactic empire to arise a millennia sooner. The stories in Foundation are like stones skipping across a lake: they touch down in a time long enough to introduce a key character showing how things are developing, but they don’t stay long enough to build a relationship with the characters. So this is a series for people who like to read about big ideas.

One more thing: it’s always fun to read old books about the future. Asimov predicted hand-held computers, but not touch screens. The devices have buttons.

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M.C. Higgins, the Great
Virginia Hamilton

The communities of original people in M.C. Higgins, the Great amazed me, while my brother found the father/son struggles compelling. This is the first book to win the Newberry, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. 

M.C. Higgins, the Great is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it as an adult, but it’s highly rated for several age groups. I first reviewed this book for Youth Yak, and I say more about it there. But Sally said I could include it on this page as well. There are often books written for young adults that are great reads for adults, so you may miss out on lots of intriguing titles if you skip the Youth Yaks page!





Tin Man
Sarah Winman

Often a book I'm reading exposes me to a life I feel is so unlike my own, that I wince from the rawness of the encounter. If you, like me, surrender yourself at the beginning of a story in a way that might be unthinkable, unwise, maybe unsafe in "real life,” then, you also know we sometimes expose ourselves to life experiences we'd hopefully never encounter. Such exposure can be chosen to suit a favored taste: sweet, salty, sour; might be likened to: romance, adventure, horror. You get the idea. The skill of the writer/chef determines the success of the dish/story, by the process of blending her ingredients. Raw bitterness, (the least explored of flavors) slowly reveals itself to be a rich savoriness, as Sarah Winman, simmers her book Tin Man, and at the end, you're embarrassed to find you've licked your plate clean. 



The Eighth Life
Nino Haratischvili

I’m a sucker for books that are written by unknown (to me) foreign writers. The Eighth Life is written by a young Georgain writer, Nino Haratischvili, and is simply a wonder. It also came to me at the perfect time. Here we are, Sheltering in Place due to this virus, and what could be better than to find a monster of a book to transport you to somewhere exotic, and present you with a panorama of a story, through several generations of a family, starting before the Russian Revolution, and continuing through 2007? Not only that! All through it, there’s the thread of a secret family recipe for a magical chocolate drink that’s cursed. For me chocolate is pretty much magical, even on off days, so the thought of a chocolate recipe that’s irresistible, secret and cursed, pretty much pushes all the buttons for me. Chapters also begin with aphorisms, poems, revolutionary slogans or quotes from famous writers, that remind me of writers like Walter Scott… a little something extra, a gift, that kind of tees you up for what’s coming in the next little bit of the story. This book is in the near league of epic stories, like those of Tolstoy, Mitchener, Pasternak…. And from such a young writer. You have the time now, give this book a chance.



Guest Review by Ray



The Twenty-ninth Day
Alex Messenger

Everyone thinks this when they go into the wilderness: What will my creation encounters be? Most are pleasant—birds, flowers, fish, blue skies. Some, however, are challenging or even dangerous. Alex Messenger has experiences of both kinds while on a canoeing expedition to the Canadian sub-arctic region. Much of the trip is routine; then on day twenty-nine Alex is attacked by a grizzly bear. The leaders and group must make the difficult decision whether or not to extract Alex from the Nunavut wilderness. When that decision is made, they must use their skills and ingenuity to get Alex to safety. This book will be of interest to outdoor enthusiasts and those who enjoy a good adventure story.




Guest Review by Lee


The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel

This new novel by Emily St. John Mandel, the author of Station Eleven, is outstanding and I recommend it. A Madoff-like Ponzi scheme is at the center, but the story is in the characters. In fact, there is almost no real explanation of the details of the scheme or how it operated, and the focus is on the characters who propagate the scheme, those who are victimized, and those who are pulled into the whirlpool. And there are ghosts. Or apparitions. Or maybe just aspirational or guilty psychoses. There is quite enough room for whatever the reader may choose.

The main character is Vincent, who is "struck sometimes by a truly unsettling sense that there were other versions of her life being lived without her, other Vincents engaged in different events." And Vincent does, herself, lead many different versions of her life. Her brother Paul is the other important character. He resents Vincent because of her seemingly good fortune, yet he does much to ensure that he cannot enjoy good fortune.

The novel is amazingly timely in that it examines how different people have their own ways of coping with worlds that are quite suddenly turned upside down.


Guest Review by Karen


The Jane Austen Society
Natalie Jenner

This review must begin with a warning: if you have not read Jane Austen’s six novels and if you are not intimately acquainted with her six heroines and their suitors, you may find this novel frustrating because it is like reading a seventh Austen novel created from the pages of the original six. With direct quotes from Austen’s’ characters on almost every page, this debut author has reached back a hundred years to capture Austen-like characters: a solicitor, a scullery maid, a country doctor, an old maid, a school marm, a bachelor farmer, and a fey auctioneer. The setting also transports the reader back in time to thatched cottages nestled in a quaint sleepy village, dotted with grazing sheep surrounded by hedgerows. And, of course, there’s the drama around the archaic notion that an heiress with no male sibling cannot inherit her father’s property, the dreaded “Entail.” A small group of proper English villagers who, with the help of several wealthy outsiders, including an American movie star, are intent on preserving Austen’s beloved ancestral home as well as her literary legacy and, like Austen’s own noble characters, doing so without causing harm to man or beast. It all ends well in Austen fashion (no spoilers) and if you not a lover of JA, this charming tale might persuade you to become intimately acquainted with one of her novels—I would recommend you start with Pride and Prejudice, a favorite.

Note: the book will be released May 26, and may be preordered from our website.


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

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