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Jen Jen



In October, the store hosted two identical reading retreats. While the books we read for each were the same, the discussions were definitely not the same! I love the opportunity to discuss the same books with different groups for just this reason. We read and discussed:

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Bloomsbury Girls
Natalie Jenner

This charming novel is set in 1950s England. Bloomsbury Books is primarily run by men and their rules. Three protagonists/Bloomsbury Books staff drive the story: Vivien, a young single woman with ambitions to be a writer, a tough exterior, and so many ideas; Grace, a wife and mother in a terrible marriage; and Evie, a recent Cambridge grad who is a bit adrift. Each chapter begins with one of the bookshop's rules (and there are so many) and by the end of the chapter, that rule has been bent, broken, or completely disregarded. When the shop's manager has a medical episode that leaves him at home convalescing for an extended period of time, the rest of the staff must make some shifts to keep the shop running. This means the women are finally granted some real responsibility. Interwoven in the story are the customers of the shop (spoiler: the Americans live up to the "Ugly Americans" reputation), authors, and the rest of the staff. My favorite author appearance was that of Daphne duMaurier, author of Rebecca, which I recently read for the Beagle Women’s Book Group and thoroughly enjoyed. There is a lot of toxic masculinity, but there are also some very honorable and loveable men in this story as well (looking at you Ash Ramaswamy (a struggling-to-fit-in man from India). If/when you're looking for a feminist feel-good tale, I recommend Bloomsbury Girls.

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The Unbreakable Heart of Oliva Denaro
Viola Ardone 

This novel is based on the real-life landmark case of Franca Viola, a young Sicilian woman who refused to marry her rapist as cultural norms dictated (a law existed in which the "punishment" for a rapist was to make things right by marrying his victim.) This novel was written in Italian and translated beautifully by Clarissa Botsford. My standard for a good translation is, would I know it was translated if not told? Absolutely not in this case, but I mention it because there's an interesting piece in the back of the book by the translator that is well worth the read. This fictional account is set in the 1960s, but in fact this antiquated Sicilian law was not overturned until 1981 - yes, nineteen EIGHTY-one. While some retreaters found this book hard to read at times, it's definitely a worthwhile read. The spirit of Oliva will swell your heart with pride and compassion.


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Lastly, we read:

The Woman They Could Not Silence
Kate Moore 

This amazing, nonfiction account of Elizabeth Packard has been one of my favorite reads of 2023. Once upon a time, in the 1860s, a minister had a wife of intellect and speech who dared to say things that were inconvenient for his ministry. So, he committed her to an insane asylum. Actually, scratch "once upon a time", because that makes it sound like fiction and this is absolutely NON fiction. Elizabeth Packard, wife and mother of six, was committed to an insane asylum by her husband. She was in fact not insane. Once committed, Elizabeth cared for other patients at the asylum. For example, she came up with a rotation to bathe every patient. The rotation took about 3 weeks, and then she'd start over again. She was instrumental in securing rights for patients, such as receiving mail, and she wrote volumes about what was happening at the asylum, even when she was punished by being denied paper and pen. Don't look now, but Elizabeth's hat seems to keep growing in size wink wink​. Believe it or not, this fat book of non-fiction has been hard to keep in stock at the bookstore. Readers tell us over and over again how much they (often to their surprise) enjoyed the read. It may be the only work of non-fiction I've read that includes chapter-ending cliffhangers, which I always thought was reserved for mystery writers.

The author of The Woman They Could Not Silence is Kate Moore, who also wrote The Radium Girls. I enjoyed Radium Girls so much it inspired me to produce a stage production of a play with the same name, and yet, I found The Woman They Could Not Silence a much better read.

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Lessons in Chemistry
Bonnie Garmus

"Don't judge a book by its cover" couldn't be more apt than with Lessons in Chemistry. I'll be honest, if I stumbled on it in a bookstore, I wouldn't pick it up because it looks so fluffy. There's nothing wrong with fluffy books, of course, they’re just not my first choice in reading. Lessons in Chemistry is a book with a lot of depth. Elizabeth Zott is hardwired to be a scientist, more specifically a chemist. But she's living during a time when women are not only discouraged from being in science, but often chased out of the field. Elizabeth is made of sterner stuff. Despite both professional and personal setbacks, including the death of her soulmate, (this is not a spoiler, the book opens after he's already died and we don't get to know him until the author goes back in time) Elizabeth winds up, of all places, on a TV show called Supper at Six. It's a cooking show, but a cooking show with an emphasis on science and the belief that women, including and especially housewives, are capable of (and interested in!) learning the science behind cooking. This is one of those rare books that everyone who attended book group thoroughly loved and yet we still had a great discussion because there's so much meat to this book. Assuming I wasn't the very last person to read this gem, get yourself a copy and share it with a friend. You won't be sorry.

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Wild Grace
Chelan Harkin

Do you have that friend that sincerely tells you, no matter how much you've screwed up, that you are loved and perfect as you are? Everyone needs that friend, but if you haven't found them, reading Wild Grace by Chelan Harkin will fill you with the same sense of gratitude, humility, and wildness. Harkin's poems are spiritual, nurturing, freeing, and feminist. She's more likely than not to refer to God as She. I inhaled this collection at the end of a day that marked a difficult anniversary, and I went to bed feeling better, loved, and lighter.

By the way, if you do have "that friend.” you need to buy this book of poetry for them as a huge thank you.

Note: this book will be released November 14.



Sally Sally

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A Song Over Miskwaa Rapids
Linda Legarde Grover

The song of robins fills the air both in the morning and the evening at Mozhay Point, Grover’s fictional Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. The beauty of the natural setting belies the human activity going on there. Several stories are intertwined. Margie Robineau is preparing to appear before the tribal council, fighting to keep the allotment long held by her family. When a rock is dislodged from a slope, a fifty-year-old secret is revealed, threatening the life Dale Ann has built for herself. Watching over it all is a group of spirit women, serving as a chorus on their webbed lawn chairs. As they drink coffee, they reflect on both the past and what they see in the present. They eat nearly inedible cookies and just might have influenced the present by nudging that rock from the hillside. The past and present are linked throughout the book. Like life itself, there is no final resolution, but an ongoing flow of human activity, accompanied by the song of the robins.

Note: this book will be released November 7.

See more of Sally’s reviews in Youth Yak.
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The Comfort of Crows
Margaret Renkl

book coverI’ve been a huge fan of Margaret Renkl since reading her first book, Late Migrations, several years ago. I like her sensibility, and the ways in which she reflects on the natural world, the human world, and the meanings of their intersections.

Her new book, The Comfort of Crows is structured like a devotional: There’s a section for each week, and it’s meant to be read over time rather than all at once. It’s a year in Margaret’s backyard, week by week, with the plants, animals, and birds she loves and closely observes. Once again, Margaret’s brother, the artist Billy Renkl, has produced stunning artwork to accompany her text.
Reading this book is a gift to myself at the end of the day. I am going to read it over time, but I’m cheating a bit, reading two sections a night instead of one section every week. I’m that eager to spend time with Margaret and Billy.

Here’s a YouTube link that lets me spend a bit more time with her.

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Power & Light
Will Weaver

Do not read this book at night, unless you’re able to sleep in the next morning! “Just one more chapter,” you may say to yourself, but the end of each chapter demands that you read the next, and the next, and the next.
Will Weaver lives in Bemidji, but he grew up in the Park Rapids area, and people here feel connected to him. I’ve been stopped on the sidewalk in front of the store to talk about the book, and in Bella Caffé, the coffee shop next door.

What’s the buzz? Will has drawn on a family story, spoken about only in whispers; on the experiences of Scandinavian immigrants familiar to so many; on life in small towns and farms also familiar to our area; and created a family of four siblings, orphaned after their family emigrated to North Dakota from Norway. Each of the four is memorable, but the youngest, Jenny, is the most willing to embrace change, challenge the system, and bring her siblings along with her.

Power & Light is the first book in a projected two-book series. I just finished it, but I can’t wait for the next—I have questions which need to be answered!





Read Ann’s reviews in Youth Yak.


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At the Hour Between Dog & Wolf
Tara Ison

Entre chien et loup is a French expression: “between dog and wolf,” that is, twilight or dusk.

In the fall of 1940, twelve-year-old Danielle Marton still takes long walks in Paris with her father, a University professor, who one lovely evening tells his daughter to watch the beautiful colors of the sky changing before them. To notice the shading, always changing in the twilight as the night approaches, “We’re at entre chein et loup now, can you tell the exact moment when the day changes into night?” She never really could point to that exact time.

The Germans had invaded France and marched into Paris. For a while, life changed imperceptibly, then swiftly when her father was shot by the Germans and shortly after her mother bustled Danielle onto a train with her in the dark of night as they fled to the countryside, where at the end of a long exhausting trip on foot, they came to the farm home of tante Berthe and tonton Claude. A distraught Danielle then watches her mother leave, promising to return for her when it was safe.

Danielle soon has time to thoroughly experience the sequence of “entre chein et loup” as she struggles to adjust to the lies she must live in her new life as the recently orphaned Marie-Jean Chantier, whose parents died in a tragic car accident, leaving her now to live with her aunt and uncle and cousin. Suppressing her life as a Jewish girl, becoming a Catholic farm girl immersed in church and school overtakes her sense of self and by the time of the Allied invasion, she has morphed imperceptibly into a German collaborator.

The author uses a familiar World War II setting in this story as she provides a framework for readers to reflect on the situation we all may face, where daylight shifts into darkness. This may be personal, political, or global, and such an occurrence seems to present itself with alarming frequency in our contemporary lives.



After I finished writing my reviews for this month, I realized that I’ve been reading a lot of books with very similar themes. So please enjoy these recommendations for fantasy novels revolving around women in academia despite all the magical and real-world obstacles they face in the process.

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The Poppy War
R.F. Kuang

I have been devouring this series; Kuang is an author who never misses for me. Rin is a war orphan who grows up in poverty, facing constant abuse and the threat of an arranged marriage at the hands of her guardians. In a desperate attempt to leave her circumstances behind, Rin throws herself into her studies and manages to do something almost no one of her low status has accomplished–a perfect score on a notoriously hard exam that guarantees her a spot in the most prestigious military training school in the country, Sinegard. Rin’s uphill battle is far from over; she is a poor, dark-skinned girl where most of her classmates are rich, pale, and male, and no one will let her forget these differences and perceived disadvantages. Rin is unfairly banned from an essential class and thinks that her time at Sinegard is over. However, by becoming the protegee of another professor along with her dedication to her studies, she perseveres and discovers that she has the gift of shamanism. Rin can commune with the gods and channel them to do incredible things, but such immense power comes with great ability to harm. In the heat of battle, can Rin hold onto her humanity despite a raging god working through her?

This is merely a synopsis of the first book. The series progresses with Rin, who is neither antagonist nor protagonist, as she grapples with the morality of war and how to choose sides when civilian lives are at stake, no matter the victor. What makes these books even more interesting to me (other than the stellar writing and clearly described fantasy world) are the connections they share with the history, culture, and conflicts that occurred in Eastern Asian countries during the mid-20th century.

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A Study in Drowning
Ava Reid

This low fantasy novel inspired by Welsh mythology follows the life of first-year architecture student Effy as she tries to pursue higher education as the only woman in her program. Effy struggles with anxiety and her lifelong visions of a devious Fairy King who wants to steal her away while being bombarded by advances from her lecherous advisor. She is presented with the perfect escape when she finds a poster advertising a search for an architect to visit and restore the house of the recently deceased Emrys Myraddin, who was the national author and her favorite novelist. After her application is approved, Effy hastily travels to the remote southernmost part of the country only to find that Hiraeth Manor is crumbling into the sea, beyond repair. Expectations shattered, Effy is vexed further to learn that a literature student named Preston is also staying in the house, gathering information to prove that Myraddin did not write his beloved works. Effy’s loyalty and reality are tested as she tries to reckon with the secrets Myraddin kept hidden and her increasingly frequent hallucinations. This is a dark academic romance that draws heavily on folklore to create a gothic fantasy setting and is perfect for the older side of the YA audience.



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Dear Committee Members
Julie Schumacher

I picked up this older book in an effort to corral the looming pile of TBR (to be read) books threatening to cause structural damage to my bedside table.

This epistolary novel not only had me reaching for my dictionary, but it also had me laughing out loud. The book is a series of LORs (letters of recommendation) sent on behalf of students and colleagues, some of whom Professor Jason Fitger hardly knows. He has written an astonishing 1300 such letters. He keeps careful records and uses the opportunity to comment on everything from the squalid department space he works in and deteriorating funding the English Department receives to his love life, past life, and professional life. The book covers a year, and his letters chronicle the events of the year with poignancy and wit.

I highly recommend this book. I wish I had read it during the period of my life when I was called upon to write LORs, I think they would have been more enjoyable to write. And read!

Note: Dear Committee Members is the first in a trilogy of books.

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Elif Batuman

Last month I recommended The Idiot, about an unusual Harvard freshman girl. This sequel is at least as good. Selin’s sophomore year makes me miss late night college bull sessions, which would be amazing with Selin in the mix as she has such an original mind. In discussing the college catalog: “Why were the different branches of literature categorized by geography and language, while sciences were categorized by the level of abstraction, or by the size of the object of study? Why wasn‘t literature classified by word count? Why wasn’t science classified by country? ... Why were the most important subjects addressed only indirectly? Why was there no department of love?”

After the school year, Selin goes off to Turkey, a trip funded by writing reviews for Let’s Go, a travel guide for students. She finally gets over Ivan (her freshman year crush) and has adventures that left me shaking my head. But her mind is still a great place to explore. “There are many countries, but there is only one civilization. For a nation to progress, it needs to join in this one and only civilization.” In these troubled times I’ve heard people talk about the current need to wage war against barbarism around the globe. The idea of one civilization and one barbarism works for me, although they are clearly intermixed in every country. 

In short, this book both amuses and makes you think.

The last words in Either/Or are about Selin having the sense that she “finally stepped outside the script.” I do hope Batuman brings us Selin’s junior year soon.

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The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

Greek mythology is all about human traits writ large: passion, hubris, jealousy, grief. This story told from the perspective of Achilles’s lover has all of that to be sure. But for me the most impactful aspect of the book is the description of the war. I suppose I must have known at some point that it went on for 10 years, but I had forgotten. The army, which sailed in more than a thousand ships, were first invaders, but then became occupiers of the land outside of the city of Troy. And when their fleet was threatened with fire, they faced the possibility of becoming refugees. Their walled camp became a community, with babies born to the women they kidnapped. Many men were lost to their families in a war they thought would bring triumph in short time.

I was surprised by the way Achilles dies. I googled it, and the story we all know didn’t appear in literature until the first century AD. There are conflicting reports on just what happened. In historic fiction an author gets to make choices, writing about many things that may not have happened. This ending works and is more likely than a fatal wound in a heel. So why not? 

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Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Gabrielle Zevin

This novel is sure to delight readers who also love gaming. It traces the lives and careers of complex, brilliant Sam and Sadie who design games that sweep the nation. 

Sam and Sadie meet as kids. Sam lost his mother in a car accident that crushed his foot and hasn’t said a word to anyone in the weeks since it happened. Sadie’s sister has leukemia, and sometimes during visits Sadie has time to kill. Sadie finds Sam in a room with video games, and they play together and become friends. Their friendship is exploded when Sam finds out Sadie is getting community service credits for her visits, although that’s not really why she keeps coming back. He won’t forgive her until they accidentally meet in a subway station when both are in college in Boston. She gives him a copy of the outrageous game she designed for a class.

Marx, Sam’s roommate, acts as their producer as they undertake designing a game. The story provides a wealth of accessible descriptions of what goes into creating computerized games. And the deeper the novel goes, the more you see that Sam’s and Sadie’s world view is colored by the possibilities they experience in games. Why not reset when you are defeated? But if you can’t, maybe find a portal to another reality? Why not?



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North Woods
Daniel Mason

Two young lovers bolt from a Puritan Colony in Massachusetts and build a small cabin in the woods.

Over the following centuries, there is a succession of residents who come to the house and land. They encounter the wonder of the place, but they also discover both physical and transcendental links to the past.

The dozen or so stories that are interwoven and linked to the land are interesting, touching on an array of topics: mental illness, the nature of art, slavery, grief, and more. It is Nature, though, that binds this all together. The author gives us beautiful, detailed depictions of nature, even as changes are brought on by natural progression or by human intervention.

This is definitely one of my favorite novels of 2023.



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Reaching Past the Wire

Deanna Germain

My book group chose this book, and we were lucky enough to have the author, Deanna, present for our discussion. This is one of the benefits of a small Independent Bookstore scheduling these sorts of events, but also having the author as an area resident. Deanna Germain is a retired Army nurse and was called to serve during the US incursion into Iraq. She was assigned to Abu Graib, the notorious prison established by Saddam Hussain and repurposed by the United States Military to detain prisoners taken by US forces. The facility’s hospital served both US personnel injured, but also prison detainees. Deanna served in the hospital. I was curious about the logistics of serving the injured combatants from both sides of the conflict. How was it managed? What sort of precautions were necessary? How even-handed was the care, actually? And most interesting, what sort of a personal toll did it exact from/on those who were doing the work? These were exactly the sort of questions that having the author present allowed to be answered in the most personal and effective way. Whether your inclination is for or against the war in Iraq, or whatever your feelings are about whether the US, should or shouldn’t have become involved, it is interesting to have firsthand accounts of what was done, by the people who did it. I have nothing but admiration for the service of our veterans during this troubled conflict.



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Every Season is Soup Season
Shelly Westerhausen Worcel

Last month, I had the privilege of attending Heartland Fall Forum, our trade association’s trade show. While there, I kept seeing a cookbook called Every Season is Soup Season. When I finally got a chance to look at it: Wow! It’s filled with brilliant color pictures, fun recipes, and it's SOUP! I love to make soup! If you’re like me, you make a pot of soup and eat it for a week.....and there's still soup left. The further I looked at this cookbook, the more it revealed: not only is it a soup cookbook but includes how to make other dishes with the leftovers! I’m looking forward to trying some of the recipes in this cookbook! 


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

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