Review | The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

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J. Ryan Stradal won my heart with the novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest (read my review here) by weaving together a story of family, tragedy, strength, and food.

In his upcoming release The Lager Queen of Minnesota, readers once again journey to the midwest and this time we follow the lives of three women determined to succeed, though their definitions of success are wildly different based on their values.

Sisters Edith and Helen haven’t spoken in years.  Their father left the family farm to Helen who used the profits to turn her husband’s family business into the top brewery in the state.  Helen planned to share half of the farm’s profits with Edith once the brewery became a success but somehow she never got around to it.

Meanwhile, Edith has been living a quiet life with her husband.  She’s raised two children and worked at a local nursing home for forty years baking pies that become famous in the Twin Cities.  When a hipster magazine names her pies the third-best in the state, suddenly people are lining up for the chance to eat dinner at St. Anthony-Waterside Nursing Home!

Life throws a curveball when Edith’s husband becomes ill and retires but Edith finds a fresh start with a new job and they move closer to the city and their children.

After some devastating events, Edith finds herself raising her only grandchild, Diana, alone.
While Edith should be enjoying retirement, she’s working two jobs at Arby’s and Kohl’s to support them.

Diana is struggling to help her grandmother as best she can, working part-time when she’s not in school.  When life throws another unexpected hardship at them, Diana finds a new way to earn fast cash by stealing expensive tools from wealthy neighborhoods.  She thinks her life is over when she’s caught but really it’s the beginning of a bright future.
Instead of an arest, Diana is given the opportunity to pay back her debt by working at a local brewery where she finds an unexpected passion for brewing.

We follow Edith, Helen, and Diana across decades through their success and hardships that eventually lead them together.

It’s a heartbreakingly realistic story of scraping by to barely make ends meet while finding your passion and your purpose.  This is another fantastic story by Stradal who has created a signature style of storytelling with a focus on family, values, and strong women overcoming the odds.

While Kitchens focused on food with stunning detail, Lager Queen obviously focuses on beer and includes fascinating detail on the history of craft beer and the brewing process.  Both are heart warming, poignant, and genuine with the comfort of food/beer making it all the more relatable for readers.

I adore this author and both of his novels and highly recommend them to readers who appreciate realistic family sagas with strong and relatable/quirky characters!

Thanks to Pamela Dorman Books and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for my honest review.  The Lager Queen of Minnesota is scheduled for release on July 23, 2019.

 

 

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Review | The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis

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“Memory and history are bound up with one another. Where does one end and the other begin?” *

Miss Judith Kratt has spent her entire seventy five years in the small town of Bound, South Carolina.  She lives in her childhood home which was once a grand symbol of Bound’s strong economy, owed largely to her father who owned the cotton gins and the general store.  Her childhood friend Olva, who was abandoned as a baby on her aunt’s doorstep, lives with her.

As a child, Judith didn’t understand that Daddy Kratt built his wealth on hard work and blackmail.  Her brother Quincy was his ears, collecting the secrets of everyone in town to use when it would benefit him the most.  Her sister Rosemarie was always quiet on the periphery because she realized how dangerous secrets could be.

On a fateful night in 1929, Quincy was shot and killed.  Rosemarie left town that night and hasn’t returned since.

Sixty years later, Judith has received a postcard with one sentence: Sister, I am coming home.

The postcard stirs up her memories of the year her brother died and as she looks around her home, still full of heirlooms attached with memories, Judith decides to begin an inventory of items.

“It is important to know that Rosemarie has never been bound by any sense of responsibility to our family. You see, Quincy gathered secrets, but Rosemarie’s impulse was to scatter them to the wind. And my sister believes I killed Quincy. Well now. It was time to get my inventory underway.” *

As Judith begins an inventory of the items and her sister Rosemarie returns after a sixty year absence, secrets of the the past are revealed that will change a family and a town forever.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is a beautifully written novel that examines family secrets, memory, and love.  Judith’s narration in alternating timelines is well-executed with the naivete of youth in the past and the solemn introspection that comes with age in the present.  I loved the different versions of the truth that unfolded and how each version shifted the perspective of each character involved.

This is definitely one to stack for fans of historical fiction and mystery that focuses on familial bonds and secrets!

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review.  The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is scheduled for release on July 9, 2019.

*Quotes included are from a digital advanced reader’s copy and are subject to change upon final publication.

Review | The Ghost Clause

The Ghost Clause by Howard Norman

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Newlyweds Zachary and Muriel have recently moved into a beautiful farmhouse in Vermont.  Muriel has successfully defended her dissertation and earned her PhD and Zachary is settling in as the local rookie private detective with the Green Mountain Agency.

Their home security system is driving them mad because a sensor in their library keeps setting off the alarm.  What they don’t know is that it isn’t a system error but in fact a ghost.

Widow Lorca Pell sold the farmhouse to the couple after the death of her husband, author Simon Inescort.
Simon, however, still feels right at home, spending much of his time in the library as he observes the lives of Zachary and Muriel and muses on his own life and marriage.

Zachary’s first case is a dramatic one for the tight-knit community as he searches for a local eleven-year-old missing girl named Corrine Moore.  The stress of the case puts a strain on his marriage as the months pass and hope for Corrine’s safe return begins to fade.

The Ghost Clause is a contemplative portrait of two marriages within a ghost story that contains a mystery.
While I appreciated Simon’s sharp introspection and was curious about the mystery of the missing girl, the book never fully came together for me.  It felt like separate books were mixed together, making the storytelling uneven and I never knew where to focus my attention.  The characters were all quirky and extremely self aware but in a two-dimensional way that kept me distanced from them.

I wish I’d been able to appreciate this book more.  If you’re an avid reader of introspective literary fiction, you may enjoy it more than I did!

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for my honest review.  The Ghost Clause is scheduled for release on July 2, 2019.

 

Review | Say Say Say

Say Say Say by Lila Savage

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A beautifully written story on empathy and compassion, Say Say Say follows Ella, a home caregiver hired to care for Jill, a woman in steady decline from brain damage after a tragic car accident years before.

Ella’s life is not what she expected it to be:  she lost her faith in God, dropped out of graduate school, and fell into a career of caregiving.
She finds herself on the edge of constant tragedy, watching people succumb to the inevitable, but maintains a polite distance from the families she is hired to help.

“She drew people out with the skill of a reporter, the difference being that she wasn’t trying to get any particular dirt. Instead, she was feeling her way toward the stories that most wanted to be told, and when people allowed themselves to sink into the telling, it was with pleasure, and relief, and almost a feeling of moral affirmation.” *

As Ella nears thirty, she is reflecting on her life decisions when she’s hired by Bryn to care for his wife Jill.  Jill suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident and can no longer communicate effectively.  She wanders her home at all hours and only utters short words or phrases, repeats random tasks like turning faucets on, and fights efforts made to change her clothes, bathe, or brush her hair and teeth.

“It was so strange, how the end could precede death by years, by decades.” *

Ella is touched by Bryn’s devotion to his wife.  She witnesses the tenderness and patience he has with Jill though she’s a ghost of her former self.
In Ella’s short time with the couple she feels she becomes part of the family, experiencing the heartache and frustrations of tragedy with them and yet still holding them at arm’s length.  All the while, she’s examining relationships– both personal and professional, romantic and familial.

The experience changes Ella in unexpected ways as she realizes how profound human connection is.

“I don’t want to be the sort of person who does what’s safe. I want to do what’s kind.” *

Say Say Say is a short novel (under 200 pages) that manages to be insightful, reflective, and unflinchingly honest and it gave me all the feelings!  I was captivated by Ella’s experience, honesty and growth.

This is a lovely piece of literary fiction for readers who appreciate a candid look at human connection.

Thanks to Knopf and the Penguin First to Read program for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review.  Say Say Say is scheduled for release on July 9, 2019.

*Quotes included are from a digital advanced reader’s copy and are subject to change upon final publication.

Review | Wanderers

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

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I’ve been hearing buzz about Wanderers for several months now and was thrilled to have Memorial Day weekend to curl up and read it!

Shana Stewart wakes up one morning on her family farm and notices her sister Nessie wandering down the road.  When Shana catches up with Nessie, she believes her sister is sleepwalking.
As Nessie walks through town, seemingly unaware of her own actions and unable to be awakened, another person soon joins her.

Shana doesn’t know where her sister and the growing number of sleepwalkers are headed but they are slowly making their way across the country with an intense determination and their number is climbing steadily. The group becomes known as the flock and the friends/family who follow and protect them known as shepherds.

America is soon divided about the meaning of the sleepwalkers.  Is it a terrorist attack?  The beginning of Armageddon?  A disease?

Along their journey, readers meet a vibrant cast of characters, including an aging rock star, a preacher whose family and faith are in crisis, a wealthy businessman trying to escape the shadow of his family’s legacy, and a group of scientists with the CDC; including the disgraced Dr. Benjamin Ray whose involvement is sanctioned by a mysterious piece of artificial intelligence known as Black Swan.

When Black Swan alerts Dr. Ray and his team to a body discovered in the Everglades, it appears at first to be entirely unrelated to the sleepwalkers until an epidemic sweeps the country and everything from government to religion crumbles in the chaos, the only constant being the sleepwalkers steadily moving toward their unknown destination.

It’s up to Dr. Ray, his team, and the shepherds to protect the flock from a violent militia that preys on people’s fear and faith and discover how everything connects before the world as they know it ends.

Wanderers is an epic saga that covers everything from politics, science, religion, good vs. evil, and the power of technology with a rich cast of characters that add to the story sometimes in superficial and other times vital ways.

This book will certainly be compared to Stephen King’s The Stand but it manages to hold its own with a modern message and by focusing on the actual apocalypse rather than its aftermath.

Now for the negatives:
At 800 pages, there is of course a lot of build-up; we’re introduced to so many characters who shape the entire story and that takes time.
Readers are completely in the dark for the entire first half of the book; we know the events but not how or why they’re connected so it can be frustrating to wade through almost 400 pages without any real movement on the plot itself.
The ending. Oh the ending.  All that carefully crafted build-up for a mediocre showdown (which was coincidentally my main complaint with The Stand). Everything has been building toward this moment and readers get a few pages of limited action.  It just wasn’t enough after that long journey.  Annnnnnnd then readers are given a rushed “five years later” catch-up that concludes with an open ending.
I need closure, Mr. Wendig!

All that said, it’s a fantastic journey that I was completely invested in, personally.  The plot is heavy but entertaining, the questions raised are both compelling and thought-provoking, and most of the characters are well-developed.

If you enjoyed The Stand, odds are that you’ll enjoy this novel also.
If this 800 page behemoth seems daunting, it’s a coin toss to recommend:  on the one hand, it was a highly entertaining saga of an apocalyptic epidemic and I enjoyed the long journey, but on the other hand, the pay-off wasn’t completely satisfying with a rushed finale and frustrating open ending.

Thanks to Del Rey Books and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review.  Wanderers is scheduled for release on July 2, 2019.

Review | Southern Smoke

Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today by Matthew Register

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Southern Smoke begins by giving readers a brief introduction to the basics of barbecue: from selecting a grill or smoker, the type of fuel you’ll use, and a brief guide to the most common woods used for smoking to how to set up your grill and get smoking! There’s also some handy lists of useful items, guidelines, and tips and tricks.

From there, the recipes are divided into chapters: North Carolina, The Low Country, Memphis and the Delta, and The Southern Bakery. Each chapter shares dishes and traditions from that region with clear and easy to follow instructions.

There are several classic Southern staple recipes for buttermilk fried chicken, fried skillet cornbread, mac and cheese, low country boil, and Brunswick stew included throughout as well as plenty of fried or pickled foods. I liked the small collection of supper menus at the end of the book included for inspiration.
There are recipes for smoked Boston butt, ribs, tenderloin, chicken quarters, turkey, and shrimp to fire up your smoker.

I gauge a cookbook by the end result so I’ve used this Memorial Day weekend to test some of the recipes and can safely say the Memphis dry-rub ribs and chocolate chess pie with pecans are both incredible!

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I’m looking forward to making the okra fries with comeback sauce this summer and have enough strawberries left to make the sweet buttermilk biscuits with strawberries. I’m also excited to try collard chowder, fried catfish with dill pickle aioli, and James Island Shrimp Pie.

Overall, I love the layout and design of this book: from the helpful information shared in the introduction to the recipes divided into chapters with ingredients that are fairly accessible in most grocery stores and instructions that are easy to follow.

Thanks to Quarto Publishing Group – Harvard Common Press and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review. Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today was released on May 7, 2019.

Review | The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

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“We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song.” *

In the summer of 1992, a quiet suburb in Australia is stunned when the three Van Apfel sisters – Hannah, Cordelia, and Ruth – disappear.  Suddenly the news is no longer focused on the infamous Azaria Chamberlain case and the community is searching the valley for any sign of the girls.

Tikka Malloy was eleven the summer her friends disappeared.  It was a confusing time for the precocious girl and now that twenty years have passed, she is just beginning to understand the significance of some of the events she witnessed in the weeks leading up to the disappeance of the girls.

Tikka is back in Australia to visit with her older sister Laura, who has just been diagnosed with cancer.  As Tikka takes readers back to the summer of 1992 and describes what transpired, we learn in the present that Tikka and Laura have a secret:  they knew that their friends were planning to run away.

The narration of eleven-year-old Tikka was completely endearing; both amusing at times and utterly heartbreaking.  She shares the truth with readers without truly understanding it herself and her innocence makes the story atmospheric and poignant.

“We thought we’d seen the worst when those girls disappeared. But seeing and not seeing is a funny old thing. Even now I don’t know which is crueller in the end.” *

In present day, Tikka struggles with the secret she’s kept all these years and with the realization that many adults were aware of the events she didn’t fully understand at the time and yet did nothing.

While the disappearance of the Van Apfel girls remains unsolved (readers are left with two highly compelling possibilities), Tikka grieves most the fact that her three friends could’ve been saved if only one person had been willing to speak up.

There were several layers to this story:  the disappeance of three sisters as told by an innocent young girl, the opportunity to also see things from her adult perspective and uncover more secrets, and the slow burn mystery at the heart of it all; combined, it makes for an atmospheric and compulsively readable novel!

I enjoyed that some major clues are revealed but we’re left with more questions than answers about the girls’ fate.  The book is described as The Virgin Suicides meets Picnic at Hanging Rock and I can say there’s definitely similar vibes so if you’re a fan of either of those books, a coming of age meets slow burn mystery, this is a book to add to your stack.

Thanks to Algonquin Books and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for my honest review.  The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is scheduled for release in the U.S. on June 25, 2019.

*Quotes included are from a digital advanced reader’s copy and are subject to change upon final publication.

Review | The Moment of Lift

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

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I’ve known for years that Melinda Gates is an inspiring philanthropist who has worked mostly behind the scenes. This book brings her into the spotlight and focuses on her investment in women across the globe; giving them access to contraceptives and education while lifting their voices to create equality and opportunities to advance their lives.

Gates strongly believes in a woman’s choice to decide whether and when to have children and even speaks candidly about her own use of contraception to space out the growth of her family.  As a devoted Catholic, she has received major backlash from the church for her contraception advocacy.

The book covers many heated topics surrounding women’s rights around the world and discusses brutal topics like female genital mutilation, sex work, and child marriage with the powerful stories of women Gates met in her travels to educate herself on the issues.

Gates doesn’t sit in a room and look at the numbers and statistics and throw money at them; she travels to locations around the world to listen to the stories and find out what these women need to flourish.

The word “abortion” has triggered so many strong reactions, especially in recent weeks, and I loved that this book does not at any point debate abortion but instead focuses on the issues that directly effect the debate, especially access to contraceptives, medical facilities, and education.  Gates offers compelling stories, statistics, and evidence that a woman’s ability to make choices, especially those that directly effect her body and her family dynamic, impact everyone in positive ways.

Gates has a strong voice and she is using it to break down barriers and change the conversation to focus on the real issues.  I appreciate her compassion and determination to change lives.
While there are some statistics listed throughout to drive home a point, this book primarily focuses on the personal stories of women in several countries and offers rational insight into the cause and effects of the topics discussed.

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World is a thoughtful and engaging look at Gates’s work to promote equality with a few candid stories to share her own growth.  The message here is powerful and presented in an uplifting way.

Review | The Gone Dead

The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz

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Billie James returns to the Mississippi Delta after a thirty year absence.  She’s inherited her father’s old home that has set vacant for so long it’s little more than a shack.  All that Billie knows is that when she was four years old her father Cliff was found dead in his front yard.  The police claim Cliff was intoxicated and died from a fall.  In 1970’s Mississippi, that was as far as the investigation into a black man’s death would go.

Billie has taken a short leave from work in Philadelphia to try to fix up the old house and reconnect with her past, especially her father’s family.

When she meets Jerry Hopsen, a man who knew her father, the conversation eventually turns to Cliff’s death and Jerry mentions Billie’s disappearance that night.

This news come as a complete surprise to Billie, who had no idea she was with her father on the night he died, let alone that she was missing for a time.
How long exactly was she missing?  Where was she and who was she with during that time?  No one seems willing to answer these questions, including her Uncle Dee, who waves it off as a simple misunderstanding.

When Billie finds what appears to be one chapter out of a full manuscript of her father’s, she calls in a scholar who has been researching Cliff’s life for a biography to help her investigate.

Searching for the rest of the manuscript and asking questions about Cliff’s death stirs unrest in a small town that would rather forget the past and Billie finds the closer she gets to the truth, the more danger she is in.

The Gone Dead is a great combination of literary fiction and mystery.  It covers the effects of racism in past and present, family secrets, and the motivations for both seeking truth and letting the past stay buried through the narration of several characters.
The story was a slow burn that builds up a few plot points but the climax felt rushed, making the storytelling uneven and unfocused at times.  That said, it was still an intriguing read.

Thanks to Ecco and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for my honest review.  The Gone Dead is scheduled for release on June 25, 2019.

Review | Fake Like Me

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland

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A young un-named painter with potential is poised to make waves in the art community with her collection of seven billboard-size paintings.  When her apartment goes up in flames and decimates the entire collection, she lies to her gallery and says that six have been safely crated and stored; only the final painting she was still working on has been destroyed.
The gallery decides it’s in their best interest to have her to re-create the final piece, which has already been sold, in total secrecy.

Now homeless and without a single piece for her show, she searches frantically for a studio available on short notice where she can re-create all seven pieces in their entirety in just three months.

The artist is in awe when an acquaintance gets her a spot at the exclusive artist retreat known as Pine City in upstate New York. Pine City isn’t just a resort, it’s also the name of the collective of five artists who own it.

Carey Logan was a member of Pine City, and the idol of our main character.  Carey’s work was brilliant and her life ended far too soon when she purposefully stepped into a lake and drowned.

When our no-name artist arrives at Pine City, she finds it’s full of secrets. The retreat is shadowed by Carey’s presence and yet none of the dead artist’s friends will speak about her; she has been removed from every photo on the grounds, and none of the remaining collective will share their work.

Across the lake is Max, our MC’s childhood friend who has been famous most of her life for being wealthy and then earned fame with her photography skills.  Max swears total secrecy when she learns that her friend is re-creating her entire show but soon it appears Max has motives for keeping her secret.

Carey Logan not only designed the home Max now lives in, but she was represented by Max’s husband, Charlie.

The MC learns that Charlie’s gallery is in a legal battle with Pine City over a rumored final piece of art by Carey Logan.
What was the final piece?  Why is Pine City so secretive about their work and the legacy of Carey Logan?

Fake Like Me fits solidly into the women’s fiction genre but it also surprised me by being a dark satire as well as a thriller set in the glamorous contemporary art scene.
The characters are overwhelmingly pretentious and take themselves far too seriously, but as in all good satires, it was incredibly entertaining.
I wasn’t expecting the mystery surrounding Carey Logan to be so compelling; I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to uncover the truth.

Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review.  Fake Like Me is scheduled for release on June 18, 2019.