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Jen Jen

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The Secret History
Donna Tartt

Somehow, the Beagle Women’s book group ended up picking The Secret History to discuss. This isn’t a new book; it was first released in 1992 under the title The God of Illusions. I’m glad it didn’t get away from me—wow, is Tartt a good writer! (If that name sounds familiar, she won the Pulitzer in 2014 for The Goldfinch.) The Secret History is set in the 1980s on an elite college campus. One of its professors, “Julian,” only takes six or seven students per year, despite the protestations of the administration. Julian teaches the Classics, specializing in Greek. The Secret History is narrated by Richard, one of Julian’s chosen, and begins with “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation." From there, Richard recounts his college days, and how it came to be that his friend Bunny (nickname for Edmund) was murdered. The writing is exquisite; it almost has a Dickensian feel to it. This was a great book for discussion as the book includes themes of friendship, loyalty, societal expectations, the taboo, and most compelling, the slippery slope.

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The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
Peter Sis

One of the fun things about being a bookseller is discovering books I would never learn about on my own. Recently, a customer requested I find a book for him about the Czech Republic, and in researching books on that topic, I discovered that Peter Sis, an illustrator I admire, had written a graphic memoir! The format of the book looks like a picture book, and I suppose you could read it to a young child, but I think it's a read more appreciated by an older audience. Sis recounts his childhood growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. As expected, his illustrations are captivating—mostly black and white with splashes of red to highlight communism. Sis threads his own childhood in with what was happening in the world at large. In addition to the illustrations, Sis makes use of font in the text for emphasis (for example, the word "compulsory", which appears repeatedly, looks as though it's an official stamp.) As a bonus, Sis occasionally includes 2-page spreads labeled "My Journals" with short, dated personal clips from the past. Surrounding these entries are artwork and photographs of Sis's childhood. This is one of those books in which you can discover something new every time you read it. I enjoyed it so much that I passed it on to other staff to enjoy it as well, and we all heartily recommend it!

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All Adults Here
Emma Straub

I listened to this on and it's such a great read/listen! This novel follows the lives of the Strick family—Astrid, the mother/grandmother/widow, her two very different sons Elliot (eldest) and Nicky (youngest), daughter Porter (middle child), granddaughter Cecelia, and her friend August. The book opens with Astrid witnessing the car accident that kills a woman she has known for years but doesn't particularly like. Straub rotates through the Strick family members and we learn of each member's struggles. Porter has a bad habit of sleeping with her high school sweetheart, even though he is now married and has a family; Elliot struggles with business decisions; Cecelia is a middle schooler navigating the struggles of being among other middle schoolers and friendships. Themes of the book include family, friendship, gender roles, and more. By the end of the novel, Straub has created a complex, rich story, but she rotates through the family members so skillfully, revealing bits at a time, that the reader will have no trouble keeping straight a number of characters. This would make such a great book for a book group discussion!

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The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls
Ursula Hegi

This latest historical novel from Ursula Hegi is a true gem. Set near the North Sea in Germany, Hegi weaves together a tale of likely and unlikely characters struggling with life's all-so-universal problems. How does a couple deal with tragedy that takes away most of their children? What's the best way for a mother to plan for the future of her grown daughter with mental capacity issues? What will life be like for a pregnant teenager after giving birth and having the baby taken away? Despite the story being set in a time just out of reach and using characters whose likeness we might not have met in our own lives, the reader will connect to it all. Hegi weaves these stories and characters in a truly unique way. The prose in this novel is exquisite. Hegi is truly an expert word-wrangler/soul-toucher.

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Vesper Flights
Helen MacDonald

Vesper Flights, Helen MacDonald's collection of essays, is absolutely breathtaking. Reading these essays is akin to eating cream—you have to savor it. MacDonald writes about the intersections of wildlife and human life, with occasional strolls into politics. The prose is so beautifully written that at times, I was teary-eyed. From the day I picked up this book, I read from it every day until I was done—I would read until I felt so filled with MacDonald's writing that I had to just let it sink/soak in. This meant I sometimes only read one essay in a sitting, and never more than three. Unlike H is for Hawk, MacDonald’s earlier book, the writing in this collection is broader than writing about birds, but still includes plenty about birds for bird-lovers. There's also been some distance since the death of MacDonald's dad in H is for Hawk and this book. In Vesper Flights, there's an essay near the end of the book, quite short, about her dad and goats and I laughed out loud while reading it. This collection of essays is an absolute treasure.

Helen MacDonald and company, holding her books.
Helen McDonald (third from right) with a group of booksellers, including Jen (second from right) and Sally (second from left) following a talk about her first book, H is for Hawk.

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Memorial Drive
Natasha Trethewey

This is one of those "I'm changed forever" books, and having the author, poet Natasha Trethewey, read it makes it reverberate in the soul even more. The writing of this memoir is exquisite and the construction of the prose is perfect. The heartbreak and honesty of the author will stay with me. I can't wait to hear back from those I've recommended it to, they're in for a special experience. I listened to the book on


Sally Sally  

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The Island of Sea Women
Lisa See

The common thread through Lisa See’s books is an exploration of women’s friendships. In The Island of Sea Women, Young-Sook and Mi-ja meet as young girls on the island of Jeju, sixty miles off the coast of what is now South Korea. They become fast friends, and train with a collective of female divers called haenyeo. Their story is one focus of the book. Another concerns the socio-political events on Jeju during the period from 1938-2008. The third focus is the matrilinear society of Jeju, where the women are hard-working providers and men, regarded as the weaker sex, care for children. Reading the book is enriched by watching one of the many Youtube videos about the haenyeo. The Sister Wolf book group recently had a lively discussion of the book.

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The Exiles
Christina Baker Kline

Most dystopian novels, such as The Giver, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Fahrenheit 451, are set in the future. Master storyteller Christina Baker Kline’s new novel, The Exiles, is historical fiction set in England and Australia from 1840 to 1868. The world of the book is dystopian. Kline focuses on three females. Mathinna was a Palawa child, exiled with her Aboriginal people to a small portion of Flinders Island, off the mainland of Australia. Evangeline and Hazel were young women, one from England, one from Scotland, who were sentenced to be transported to Australia, which at that time was a penal colony.

Mathinna caught the eye of the wife of the Governor of Australia. The couple were collectors of native culture, and blithely added her to their collection, considering her to be less than human.

Evangeline and Hazel experienced wretched conditions while imprisoned in Newgate Prison in London while waiting to board the ship which would take them to Australia. The ocean journey was grueling, and prison in Australia was worse.

These characters lived in conditions which were designed to grind them down and rob them of their humanity. And yet, some of them found friendship, and a measure of hope. The novel is powerful and calls the reader to consider the history of both women and native people. This theme is particularly important at this time, as our country is being forced to confront systemic wrongs in our society.

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Charlotte McConaghy

This is the most beautifully written book I have read in a long time. It’s set in the near future, and the natural world is contracting from the stresses humankind has created. Franny, the narrator, is a wanderer, as was her mother before her. As the book opens, she is in Greenland, intent on finding a ship to take her to Antarctica, so she can track the final migration of the Arctic Tern. Ennis, captain of the Saghani, agrees, against his better judgment. As the journey begins, it is clear that Franny is a woman with many secrets. These are slowly revealed throughout the book. In a sense, Migrations is two stories—that of the natural world and that of Franny, and while separate, the stories intertwine. The book is heartbreaking and yet hopeful. You’ll be thinking about this book a long time after you finish it.


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The Vanishing Half
Brit Bennett

The Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, were born in the fictional Black community of Mallard, where people prided themselves on how light their skin was. Feeling stifled in the small town and haunted by the memory of their father’s lynching, at 16 they ran away from home to New Orleans. Later, Stella disappeared again, passed as white, married a white man, and always hid the secret of her origins. Desiree eventually returned to Mallard with her daughter, whose very dark skin resulted in her never being accepted in the small community. For years, Desiree continued to search for her twin.

The timely story spans several generations of the Vignes family. The power of the story pulled me into situations, issues, and prejudices outside my experience. The compelling story kept me reading and reflecting.

I listened to the audiobook on, and found the voices to be a wonderful match to each character.

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The Indomitable Florence Finch
Robert Mrazek

This book, which is non-fiction, takes place primarily in the Philippines during World War II. Florence, the daughter of an American man and a Filipina woman, had been primarily on her own since the age of 7. Without the support of a stable home and family, she became educated and acquired the skills which allowed her to work as a bookkeeper and clerk. She was independent, intelligent, compassionate, and resourceful. She married an American naval intelligence agent shortly before World War II. Six months later, WWII had begun and Florence’s husband had been killed in battle. Concealing that and her American citizenship, she found employment at the Philippine Liquid Fuel Distribution Union. She became a part of the Resistance Movement, and was able to divert fuel, sell it, and use the funds to smuggle food and medicine to American POWs imprisoned in the Philippines. The book sets Florence’s story within the context of the war in the Philippines, and also follows the stories of her friends and colleagues. Florence’s story, while harrowing at times, is inspiring. I discovered a small connection to the book, which increased its interest for me. My father was on board the destroyer the David W. Taylor during the battle of Leyte, which is described in the book.

I listened to this book on



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The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost its Way
David Lindley

I’ll be up-front about this. This book is not a coffee-table book. It’s not big (right at 200 pages) with virtually no pictures or diagrams. Having said that, it is a fascinating read….but maybe for a smaller audience. The author is an English, PhD astrophysicist with several interesting (i.e. non textbook) books to his credit. This book is a little like the books I read in my History of Science course (50 years ago??) only without the detail and the derivations, so it certainly drew me in. It’s my style, when I first receive a book, to read a few pages in the beginning (or maybe somewhere in the middle) to see if I like the writing style. I picked up this book to scan and when I set it down, I had read 50 pages.

The Dream Universe starts in about the 16th century and runs through today, discussing what “scientists” of each era knew, what they had to work with, their similarities and differences. As I alluded to above, the book is interesting and well written, drawing on the many influences of the times, including one of the bigger ones, the Church. I found the influences of a single scientist on others to follow as being particularly noteworthy. You don’t need to be a scientist to read or appreciate this book, but I think it will have greatest appeal to scientists and engineers.



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Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions
Sheila O’Connor

This book was a recent Sister Wolf Women book group pick that I picked up after people raved about it in the store. I flew through the book in just a couple sittings and have advised my mother this should be her next read. This book is put together through a fantastic mix of the case files of O’Connor’s grandmother, historical documents, and missing pieces of information which O’Connor filled with her imagination. Only referred to as “V”, O’Connor’s biological grandmother, whom she has never met and is a well-kept family secret, was incarcerated for “immorality” (getting pregnant at 15 in the 1930s) and sent to a Minnesota state school to learn how to be a housewife. Not much else is known of V, but the story O’Connor weaves of her life before incarceration and experience at the state school feels shockingly real. 

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The Testaments
Margaret Atwood

I listened to this as an audiobook, thanks to Jen, and loved it in this format. The multiple narrators were each orated by a different person and Aunt Lydia was voiced by the actress that played her in the series on Hulu. This is a true sequel that takes place after the events of the first book and chronicles the plot Mayday orchestrates to overthrow Gilead. For anyone wanting more after watching the show or reading The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a great place to watch Gilead crumble by the hands of women. 


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How to Be an Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi

Next on my quest to educate myself on past and present racial issues in America came this book. If you are looking for an academic and thorough look at the many facets of racism through a Black man’s perspective, look no further. This book is part memoir, part history, and part facts and statistics. The way the information is presented historically and in Kendi’s personal experience made the issues feel human and gave them a more personal impact. Take this book a chapter at a time. It covers some heavy but very necessary topics of conversation. I’m looking forward to seeing what others thought of this book at the Current Events book club meeting in August.

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The Sleeper and the Spindle
Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

Don’t expect a man on a white horse to save the maiden in this one. It is a tale that mixes the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White together, taking generous liberties on both accounts. This is a book for the older fairy tale lover, full of lush illustrations and a darker plot closer in tone to the original stories they were based upon. Gaiman can do no wrong in my eyes, this book being no exception.

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Where the Crawdads Sing
Delia Owens

If you suggest something to me enough times, I will read it, as is the case with this widely praised novel. Honestly, I was not expecting to like this book, but just after page 50 I was hooked. Owens has beautiful prose and her descriptions of the marsh lands our protagonist, Kya, presides in are magical. Good for a nature lover, someone who enjoys a period novel, or a casual mystery reader. This book has widespread appeal and for good reason.



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Minnesota Trivia
Brett Ortler

This is a little book with a tremendous amount of facts about Minnesota: shipwrecks on Lake Superior, largest fish caught in Minnesota and the only month we haven't seen snow. Also, there are lots of pictures. This is a great little book to have on your coffee table so when a question comes up the answer is right there.

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A Fall of Marigolds
Susan Meissner

A beautiful yellow scarf passed down through generations connects two women in this story. Nurse Clara Wood loses the man she loves in the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist Fire in New York and Taryn Michaels loses her husband in 2011 when the World Trade Center Towers collapse. How the scarf figures in the lives of these two women as they find love again is a beautiful story with a mystery that adds a twist in the end. It’s one of the best books I've read in a long time.

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The Library Book
Susan Orlean

The title of this book is somewhat misleading as the subject is the Los Angeles Public Library instead of one book. On April 28 1986, a fire broke out in the library, which was disastrous. It burned for more than seven hours, reaching temperatures of 2000 degrees. By the time it was extinguished, the fire had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Years later the mystery remains. Did someone set the fire and if so, who? There were some very unusual characters in the book and unforgettable stories, including both patrons and librarians. The book also talks about other libraries that have been lost by fire and wars which has been devastating though the years. This was a fascinating book and the author keeps your interest throughout. For book lovers everywhere.



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Last Trial
Scott Turow (a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders)

I came late to discovering Turow’s many courtroom novels, but every one of them includes attorney Sandy Stern, sometimes as the main character. Stern has aged over the years: in this book he’s quite elderly, and knows this will be his last trial. The client is a friend, a scientist who has developed a remarkable cancer treatment. Unfortunately, sudden deaths were covered up in the medication’s trials. The client is accused of fraud, insider trading, and murder. These issues are fascinating, especially with the COVID vaccine being developed at “Warp Speed.” 

Turow is a practicing attorney, so the courtroom experience and the preparations attorneys make are authentic. Anyone who’s ever been on a jury will enjoy reading about these. However, I was most taken with getting into the mind of a powerful, successful man who is no longer able to be the dominant figure he is accustomed to being. He is approaching the end of his life and coming to terms with it. Turow is always very readable. This is my favorite of his books so far, and makes me want to search out earlier Sandy Stern books.

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Geek Love
Katherine Dunn

The owner of a fading carnival hires a Boston socialite as a geek (someone who bites the heads off chickens in a circus or carnival), and then marries her. They decide that the way to save the carnival is for her to take massive levels of drugs when pregnant so that they will have children special enough to be sideshow stars. The book’s narrator is a smart, albino, hunchbacked dwarf with fierce loyalties and a big heart. She is too normal to be a star, so she is taught to use her beautiful voice to persuade “norms” to buy tickets. This novel reminds me of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Geek Love is just as inventive and well-written, and even stranger. It’s very strange. Very, very strange.

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The Bookman’s Tale
Charlie Lovett

Last month I reviewed First Impressions, a must-read novel for lovers of Jane Austen and those intrigued by bibliophiles. The Bookman’s Tale is a similar book, this time about Shakespeare and the possibility of unearthing a 16th century bookthat could settle once and for all who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. There’s a sweet description of repairing and putting a fine new leather binding on a damaged book a man wants to present to his lover (are you listening, Jen?). These books have everything: romance, mystery, history, danger, suspense. I see there’s another in the series, The Lost Book of the Grail. This is definitely going on my list.

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Death in a Tenured Position
Amanda Cross

This little mystery from 1981 is newly interesting in this time of exploring white privilege and systemic racism. The issue is sexism instead of racism. Harvard’s English department is forced to hire a female professor, and the old boys don’t like it. They make life miserable for the woman they hire. Amanda Cross’s sleuth, Kate Fansler, ends up spending a semester at Harvard trying to help out. Cross, an English professor herself, takes us into the academic world in a time of internal conflict. It’s a thoughtful take on both the difficulty and the importance of change.

Note: this book is out of print, but we’re happy to track down a used copy.




The Warehouse
Rob Hart

Cloud is the biggest company in the world with 30 million employees. They have successfully run most companies out of business by employing predatory pricing and delivery by drone within hours of ordering. The outside world is almost uninhabitable with scarce resources and unbearable heat. The only option people have is to move to a climate controlled "company city" built by Cloud. There they are given a place to live, a job, and limited free time. This story is told from the viewpoints of three characters, a business owner driven out of business by Cloud, a private investigator looking for ugly truth behind Cloud’s existence, and the owner and founder of Cloud himself. The plot moves quickly and the narrative is wholly immersive and engaging, with a feverish finale that will keep you up in the wee hours to read one more page. This book was so frightening in that unlike many dystopian thrillers, it hits way too close to home. It feels like a near-future premonitory warning. We are already potentially on our way to a reality such as this without a concerted effort to stop it. The convenience of one click shopping has a price and Rob Hart captured it perfectly.

Note: the paperback of this book will release
on August 25.




The Three Daughters of Madame Liang
Pearl S. Buck

Madame Liang runs a famous restaurant, renowned for its lavish cuisine and service. She has three daughters, whom she has sent to the U.S. for their education. Meanwhile, China has begun to slide into the Communist Cultural Revolution, and Madame Liang finds herself in the triple-bind of trying to source luxury foodstuffs for her restaurant, walking the tightrope of political intrigue as she courts the patronage of well-heeled Communist Party Officials who are under fire as “Enemies of the Proletariat,” and lastly, having three daughters studying in the Capitalist West. Madame Liang is in a tough spot as the government is pressing hard for the girls to return to China, threatening serious consequences if they don’t. This is further complicated by her daughters, who have definite opinions about their own lives and how that might relate to China, and their mother’s wish that they stay safe in the U.S. If you have any experience with Pearl Buck’s writing, you’ll know she has the gift of making the exoticism of China understandable and very real. At present, in this time of isolation due to the pandemic, I found the “foreignness” of the story’s local a relief from my isolation. Buck’s silky smooth prose made the trip effortless.

Note: this book is out of print, but we’re happy to track down a used copy.



Winter in Madrid
C.J. Sansom

In previous reviews I’ve mentioned my interest in the Spanish Civil War. If you have an interest in pre-WWII European politics and would like to indulge in the topic while being entertained by a good story with great characters, give this book a chance. The primary characters, all English Nationals, are in Spain, just after the Franco victory. One is a prisoner who was captured as a member of the International Brigade (foreign fighters who come to Spain to fight against fascism). Second is a businessman, looking to make money on a dangerous scam to defraud the new Fascist government. Third, the businessman’s girlfriend, previously the lover of the prisoner. And yet another, a survivor of Dunkirk, suffering from PTSD, school chum of the businessman, come to Spain as a spy for the English government. As you can readily see, the stage is set for a cleverly interlocking series of personal dramas, all set against the background of post war Spain, with the greater drama of World War II unfolding just beyond the Spanish border.



Guest Review by Elaine


The Jane Austen Society
Natalie Jenner

Just when you think you have read Jane Austen, about Jane Austen, and analysis of Jane Austen enough times, along comes The Jane Austen Society, which will send you back to Jane Austen. This debut novel is set in 1945 in England with its attendant problems from World War II and follows several villagers from Chawton and an actress from Hollywood. For Jane Austen fans there are quotes, allusions, and conversations between characters about who is best: Emma or Elizabeth Bennett. For other readers there is the story of people wounded by events or disappointed in life and these people come together because of a desire to save Jane Austen’s cottage and legacy. It is true that Jane Austen lived in Chawton and her cottage is preserved as a museum, but this is a novel about what could have happened and how the diverse characters form a group that ultimately helps each of them heal. Jane Austen fan or not, this is an enjoyable book.



Guest Reviews by Rachel

These reviews were adapted from an article which recently appeared in the Park Rapids Enterprise and are printed here with the permission of the author.



The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100
Dan Buettner

First some background on “the blue zones.” Author Dan Buettner discovered the five places in the world where people live the longest. The Blue Zones include the Barbagia region of Sardinia, Ikaria (Greece), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), Okinawa (Japan), and Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda (California). The nine common denominators among these particular places which confer longevity include: moderate regular physical activity, sense of purpose, routines to shed stress, 80% rule (no overeating/moderate food consumption), plant-based diet, moderate wine consumption (1 to 2 servings per day), faith, emphasis on family life, community.

This book vies for a position on your coffee table or other home display area—it is filled with awesome photos. The book has five chapters highlighting the cuisine from each Blue Zone (BZ). The introduction includes the following tips for eating to 100 years old: add cruciferous vegetables, use fewer ingredients (BZ diets tend to use the same 20 or so ingredients), make beans tasty, finish dishes with olive oil, supplement with fresh herbs and spices, fiber, enjoy your meals with red wine. The intro also includes BZ guidelines: 90+% plant based, retreat from meat, limit fish, reduce dairy and eggs, daily beans, slash sugar, nuts as snacks, sourdough bread, whole foods, drink water. The book ends by summarizing the top longevity ingredients from each region.



The Keto Diet: The Complete Guide to a High-Fat Diet
Leanne Vogel

I was not completely sold on this extreme dietary modification with its emphasis on 80% fat intake and many anecdotes of copious amounts of dairy fat. I am happy to report that I have found an invaluable resource with this thorough guide on implementing the keto diet with minimal dairy fat and fewer limitations on low starch vegetables. Vogel lists five separate fat fueled profiles: classic keto, pumped keto, full keto, adapted fat burner, and daily fat burner with guidance on how to determine which profile matches individual health goals. This program is certainly not ideal for individuals with nut and/or avocado food allergies as many of the recipes call for coconut or almond. Leanne Vogel does list alternate suggestions for those with almond allergies, but some of the recipes might still be difficult to incorporate. She provides 437 pages of solid guidance on why and how to implement her variation on the keto diet. There are more than 125 recipes and she includes photos with each recipe, which I find helpful to envision what the finished product should look like.


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

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