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Jen Jen



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Crow Mary

Kathleen Grissom

The Beagle Women’s Book Group selected this for discussion and WOW, what a great book for discussion!

While visiting her parents in Saskatchewan, author Kathleen Grissom went to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills and learned of “Crow Mary” (the name given to her when married by a white minister), a Crow woman who at age 16 married a white fur trader (he was looking for someone to communicate with other Indigenous traders.) Not long after they married, a drunken brawl broke out between whites and Nakoda that escalated into a massacre. When Mary learned that some of the Nakoda women were being assaulted by white men, she grabbed her guns and broke up the party (against her husband’s instructions not to do so) and prevented the women from being murdered. Who wouldn’t be inspired to learn more and write a book??  

With the green light from Crow Mary’s descendants and Crow elders, author Kathleen Grissom has created a rich novel about Crow Mary. Following the massacre, Mary’s husband, Abe Farwell, insisted on pursuing justice for the Nakoda through the American and then Canadian court systems. The results had lasting consequences for Abe, Mary and their family. I learned a lot about Crow culture, in particular the different way women are raised than in white culture (who needs a man to build a tipi??) The issues/themes of this book include white/native relations, alcoholism, family, justice, and so much more.

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Martin Cruz Smith

I’m still working my way through the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith. Currently, I’m on book #8, Tatiana

In this installment, a feisty political reporter has supposedly jumped to her death from the 6th floor balcony of her apartment. Suicide doesn’t seem likely to Renko and the more he looks into things, the more sure he is that was homicide. As usual, books in this series are steeped in Russian politics that I find fascinating. For fans of the character Anya, there’s more Anya in this book and of course, Zhenya is giving Renko all the grief that a teenager would give any parent. For audio book listeners, I recommend this one with Henry Strozier narrating.

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Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist
Jennifer Wright

Madame Restell came out in paperback last month. In a nutshell, this is women’s history that most probably don’t know about. A hard-to-like (but important) figure in history, Madame Restell was an abortionist in 19th century New York. For readers who enjoyed The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore, I recommend you read Madame Restell next! If you’re an audiobook listener, this is a good one!

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Sally Sally

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I Cheerfully Refuse

Leif Enger

Once again, Leif Enger (Virgil Wander) brings us the tale of a quest by an unlikely hero.

Rainy is bear of a man, a musician in a dystopian United States in the near future. We never learn how this dystopia came to be, but we don’t really need to know, either. Rainy and his wife, Lark, who has a bookstore, are loveable and loving counter-cultural folks who somehow have been able to live under the radar of the powers that be. That is, until Lark brings a traveling stranger, Kellan, home from the bookstore one day. 

The ensuing events leave Lark dead and Rainy on a boat on Lake Superior, searching for a trace of her. Rainy, by the way, is an inexperienced sailor who hates being on the boat. Gradually, his skills improve as he sails further into the lake and into encounters with more and more desperate people.

This is Enger at his storytelling finest. His beautifully crafted writing carries the reader along, torn between wanting to savor every word and wanting to race through the book to learn what comes next.

Give yourself the gift of time to savor this book, and the world Enger has created for us.

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Margaret Verble

In Park Rapids, a great deal of attention has recently been paid to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs.) These are traumatic events occurring in childhood which, if untreated, can lead to mental or physical health problems in adulthood. Karen (Kit) Crockett, the narrator of Stealing, has experienced a number of ACEs. And yet, she is intelligent, thoughtful, resourceful, and spunky. I don’t want to reveal spoilers, but when Kit is placed in a boarding school against the wishes of her family, she secretly keeps a journal which tells the story of what led to her placement and the experiences she has had at the school. She plans a way out which will reunite her with her family.Much has been stolen from Kit, but she has a great deal of resilience. The story will wrench your heart but is an important one for us to encounter. The deadline of this newsletter is before the Sister Wolf Group meets to discuss this book, but I anticipate a lively conversation.


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Small Things Like These
Claire Keegan

We’re often asked how we discover books. One of our favorite ways is when our customers tell us about books we haven’t encountered yet. That happened recently when a number of different people asked us to order books by Claire Keegan, and highly recommended them to us. Keegan is an Irish writer known for her short stories and novellas. Small Things Like These focuses on the life of Bill Furlong, who rose from a humble beginning to become a merchant in his small town, married to a woman from a middle-class family and the father of five lively daughters. When he unwillingly recognizes an injustice in his town, he is torn by conflicting desires to keep his head down or do what he can to remedy the situation—but at a cost to himself and his family. The book is beautifully written, and Furlong’s dilemma will stay with you for a long time.



Since the last newsletter I have read several disappointing novels, none of which I can recommend. It has been a disappointing reading month. So, I decided to look back on the many 5-star books I’ve read in the past and give a sampling of my perennial favorites. 

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Elise Hurst

Neil Gaiman never steers me wrong, and this work is by far my favorite book from his repertoire. I have a copy of the illustrated edition and it is a dreamy feast for the eyes in terms of both pictures and prose. 

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In the Dream House
Carmen Maria Machado 

This is my favorite memoir, so much so that after listening to the audiobook (narrated by the author herself which is always a bonus), I decided I needed to buy a physical copy for my personal library. I always enjoy books that blend genres, and this book takes the abuse Machado experienced at the hands of her girlfriend and frames it through the lens of horror tropes, like a haunted house. 

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong

Novels written by poets seem to always strike a chord with me and this is no exception. This deeply personal story is written as a letter from a son to his mother who will never read it and tackles themes of race, migration, and sexuality in some of the most stunning prose I have ever read. 

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Benjamin Alire Saenz

I cannot believe I put off reading this YA novel from 2012 for so many years. It is my favorite book intended for teens and it holds the rare distinction of books that caused me to shed tears, both happy and sad. This coming-of-age story feels timeless, and I love how it focuses primarily on friendships instead of romantic relationships.  

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Susanna Clarke

We again have a story that transcends perfect genre categorization, mixing the lovely writing of literary fiction with a plot that is closer to a fantastical mystery. This is a slow burn read where the reader knows everything the main character does (which isn’t much) and is taken along for the ride as the protagonist explores the endless house they inhabit and the mysteries within. 




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Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real About the End
Alua Arthur

Memoir is not my genre of choice, but this book was highly recommended by my nephew and I’m so glad I followed his advice!

Alue Arthur was born in Ghana and international travel was part of her life from a very early age. Her family fled Ghana after a government coup, and she moved to the United States as a child. Born into a family with high expectations for their children, she attended law school. Being from a family always called to service, she became a Legal Aid attorney, a job she hated because of the soul-crushing injustices. She escaped with solitary travels, including a trip to Cuba while in the throes of a dark depression.

It was during this trip that she became fascinated with death. She met a woman who had pancreatic cancer, and Arthur instinctively asked the questions her companion needed to hear.  This experience and advocating for her brother-in-law at the end of his life, led her down the path to becoming a death doula. She learned the questions to ask, the business to take care of and most importantly, the emotional work to do around our deaths while we are still alive.

I listened to this book on Libro FM. Arthur narrates it, and she has “an unapologetic lisp,”  which makes the book especially personal.




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Until August
Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez is the Nobel Prize winning author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. He suffered from dementia in his last years and died in 2014. He worked on Until August as his memory deteriorated. In the end he decided the novel didn’t make sense and asked that it not be published.

After 10 years his sons picked up the manuscript. They were impressed by it and decided that it wasn’t that the novel is badly flawed, but that Márquez was unable to comprehend it because of his dementia. They consulted one of Márquez’s respectful editors, who worked hard to sort through notations on several versions of the manuscript, and to ensure the book is accurate in references and is internally consistent.

The story is about a middle-aged woman who has for years visited her mother’s island grave to bring gladioli, clean off the headstone, and talk about the year her family has enjoyed. She takes a ferry to the island on August 16 every year and stays one night. It’s always the same… until one year she has an adventure.

This is a small novel, a quick read. However, it has a big impact. Publishing it was an excellent decision.

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Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng

This novel is about life in the ideal American community of Shaker Heights, near Cleveland. The town was originally modeled on Shaker ideals of order; rules and standards that are to lead to harmony, integrity, and the good life. But there are little cracks in the foundation of this structured existence.

Mia and her daughter Pearl are nomads who move into a small home in Shaker Heights. Mia is an artist who earns enough to scrape by with menial jobs. They feel like they have finally found a home they can stay in. However, Pearl gets deeply involved with a prosperous family led by a mother who is insufferably smug. (She has no idea what her teenage kids are up to.)

A subplot in Little Fires raises issues about whether a stable home trumps biological maternity when the birth mother is of a different race and regrets having given up her infant. Layers on layers. 

Celeste Ng has done it again. 

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Carrie Soto Is Back
Taylor Jenkins Reid

Reid, master of celebrity novels like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, brings us the story of a tennis star who comes out of retirement to try to protect her title. I didn’t think I’d like this as much as I’m more interested in movies than sports. However, it was fascinating finding out what goes on in a tennis tournament, the physical and mental strains involved. And of course, with Reid there are reporters and personal relationships shaping everything. It might be fun to read this and juxtapose it with the current movie Challengers.

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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Haruki Murakami

What a mind Murakami (author of 1Q84) has. This 1991 novel alternates between two realities. In the Hard-Boiled Wonderland, the protagonist works for the System as a Calcutec, the ultimate data processor. He takes in immense amounts of data and then “shuffles” it without ever knowing what it is. In the beginning of the novel, he is in an elevator that moves so slowly that he cannot tell if it is going up or down. It has no buttons or floor indicators. Something is off. His story is full of danger and adventure that he didn’t sign up for. 

The protagonist in the End of the World is just entering a walled town. The Gatekeeper describes his duties: he is to be a Dream Reader (using unicorn skulls.) The Gatekeeper then wounds the newcomer’s eyes and severs his shadow with an axe. No shadows are allowed in the town.

The two stories gradually merge, but not really. The ending took me by surprise. 

This is a book about what it is to be a conscious human in an imperfect world, about what it means to be aware, and to be connected to others. 



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Where Rivers Part
Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang has already demonstrated her tremendous skill as a memoirist with The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and The Song Poet. In this book, she uses her talents to tell the story of her mother, Tswb, who was born in Laos in 1961. This may well be her best memoir yet and is great reading for everyone.
The Laotian Civil War was waged between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government from 1959 to 1975. The American’s “Secret War” in Laos threw the country into further violent turmoil. The Hmong had worked with the Americans, but after the Americans left Southeast Asia and the Pathet Lao came fully into power in 1975, the Pathet Lao vowed that the Hmong people would be exterminated "to the last root.”

To escape this genocide, the people fled into the jungle. Many of the survivors were captured, “re-educated,” and remained in Laos. Even so, tens of thousands fled to refugee camps in Thailand. From1975 to 1982, over 50,000 Hmong and other highland Laotian refugees were resettled in the United States and thousands more in other countries.

This memoir is a story of family, love, and survival. The poverty, racism, and grueling labor that Tswb and her husband faced after their escape from Laos was daunting. No, it was horrific. And yet they were able to persevere.
People who wish to slam the doors on refugees should take the time to read this book and perhaps consider the possibility that this is not an exceptional story but one that is lived out by thousands of families each day.  

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The Borrowed Hills
Scott Preston

This is a spectacular debut novel set in Cumbria in northwest England. The Cumbrian mountains, or fells, are the highest peaks in England, with at least a couple dozen ranging in height from 1500–3200 feet. They provide rocky grazing lands above the timberline, and this is the setting for the novel.

William and Steven (the narrator) are sheep farmers. William is the more successful, but both flocks are struck with hoof and mouth disease. The two resort to rustling, beginning a downward spiral where outlaws and unchecked violence enter their world. And all of that is added to dirty, back-breaking work that lasts from before sunrise to after sundown.

As a complication, Steven has a fascination for William’s wife… a woman who would use silverware even if her hands were clean. (How great is that line?)

This is a wonderful book, very much in the vein of Cormac McCarthy, dealing with brutality in a hostile world, where “rugged individualism” seems more like hopeless isolation.

Note: this book will be released June 4.

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Swift River
Essie J. Chambers

Diamond Newberry is the child of a white mother and a Black father. In the town of Swift River, her Pop was the only Black and his family’s history stretched back to the time before “The Leaving.” Through Diamond’s narrative and the letters she receives from an estranged aunt who was once close to her father, we see a multi-generational view of the poverty, prejudice, and abandonment that torments her family.

As a bi-racial and overweight teen in a town noted for its intolerance, Diamond struggles. I kept hoping that Diamond could find a friend and a place to be herself, that her mother could find peace, and that the worst people in Swift River would turn to dirt.

I suspect this book will end up categorized as young adult because the main character is a teenager. I don’t mean that as a negative comment, but I think it deserves a wider readership because it looks so carefully at how our histories shape each of us.

Note: this book will be released June 4.

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Fire Exit
Morgan Talty

Morgan Talty’s first book was Night of the Living Rez, an award-winning collection of stories about life on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. I absolutely loved it! Fire Exit, his debut novel, is equally great. (By the way, I would argue that his first book was a novel-in-stories.)

Charles Lamosway is the narrator. He spends much of his free time sitting outside his small home just across the river from the Penobscot Reservation, watching Roger and Mary raise Elizabeth, their only child.

Charles is trying to keep everything together. He is not native, so he has been excluded from the people and culture he knew growing up. His mother, Louise, is sliding into dementia. His stepfather’s death continues to haunt him. His best friend is Bobby, an alcoholic who will do anything for Charles, but who also requires a fair amount of attention. And Elizabeth seems to be struggling.

Note: this book will be released June 4



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Death on Disappointment Mountain
Jeff Krogstad

On a cold day in late winter, Brad Swenson walks into Kim Norby's office and informs her that her boss, Mac, is dead. He hands her a sealed manila envelope before explaining that Mac died by suicide during a solo trip to the Boundary Waters. The contents of the envelope send Kim on a journey that forces her on a quest for the truth, including her own past, and plans for the future.

If you like William Kent Krueger's books, I'd encourage you to give this book a read. Jeff Krogstad's novel is set in many of the same places as WKK's, but instead of detectives and law enforcement investigating, this book centers on two people whose search includes their own personal and profound grief. Their own thoughts and their conversations make this book as much about the grieving process as about the unanswered questions surrounding Mac's death.

Note: Jeff Krogstad will be at Author Fest on June 15!

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Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone
Benjamin Stevenson

Everyone in Ernest Cunningham's family has killed someone, including him, so it perhaps shouldn't have been a surprise when another body turns up at a family reunion. But Ernie's a writer—he writes books about how to write books – and chooses to be a “reliable narrator” in the telling of this whodunit. 

All the spoilers you could ever want are in the prologue, and there are more along the way, and while you might expect that to have taken away from the reading of this book, I'm not sure I've ever had so much fun reading a mystery. The twists and turns are clever and the delivery made me laugh out loud. If you love Richard Osman's Thursday Murder Club series, I suspect you'll enjoy this one, too!



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The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen

 I came to this book without any expectations. I knew there had been a good deal of buzz about it, but I didn't pay much attention, my stack of 'to be read' books already being dangerously tall. My book group (TED) chose it for this month's discussion and, I confess to being a little chagrined to be diverted from the bookpath I've been following. Roughly speaking, that's focused on Historical Commentary, Fictionalized History, and the lurking question: What exactly is history? Imagine my surprise to find that's exactly where Nguyen, is working in The Sympathizer. He explores the still raw trauma of the Vietnam War. I can almost feel you wince at the mention of this topic, Gentle Reader, and turning your mind away, as if a raw wound had been touched by even the mention of that event. My reaction too!! But it's time we begin to consider the various after-effects of that conflict. Sympathy, in its various forms and meanings is used in the body of this work, to access our own calcified misinterpretations and self-deceptions surrounding this historical event. Let me suggest this is a seriously good story of fiction, in and of itself and if you invest a bit of yourself in it, it will repay your efforts ten times over.

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The Years of Rice and Salt
Kin Stanley Robinson

 Imagine an alternate history where the Black Death swept through Europe, and instead of killing something like 20% of the population, 95% had died. That's where Years of Rice and Salt begins. Told from the perspective of characters living in mostly China, and the Middle East, the narrative is one of how Earth's population constructs a History, through time, coming to terms with that event. Robinson, weaves his story both through the religious philosophy of these groups, as they try to understand what's happened to their world, and through time. He does this by assuming 'reincarnation' as a working principle. By that I mean, he follows his characters through the sequential chain of their reincarnated lives. And it's magnificently done!! The reader begins to understand History, in such a different manner, that when the book is read and put down, you (the reader) are gifted with a wider, richer, and perhaps more cosmic understanding of the Universe as it unfolds. Yes, I'm perfectly aware that sounds like what some will judge as 'Hippy nonsense', but that doesn't alter the possibilities…



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