The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

Edith, a famous pie baker at a Minnesota nursing home, doesn’t have a relationship with her younger sister Helen. Edith’s husband Stanley, a truck driver, and their granddaughter Diana are the center of her life. Helen, the brewer mentioned in the title, is ambitious but has settled. She married a classmate from her college chemistry class because he could help her run a commercial brewery, but their beer is nothing special. Edith can at least take pride in her pies. Diana gets in trouble breaking the law as an older teen but finds a second chance with a job at a small craft brewery. Of course Diana and Helen’s paths will eventually cross. Diana’s small brewery and the eclectic crew, including several grandmothers, are quite interesting, although I can’t tell gose from imperial stout. Readers who are familiar with craft beers will likely enjoy the brewing scenes even more than others, but it’s not essential.

A bittersweet family saga that makes for a pleasant read with an appealing Minnesota setting. I would have enjoyed more scenes with Edith and Stanley and had some questions about Diana’s motivations, but I quite enjoyed this novel overall.

Brenda

 

Meet Me at the Museum

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Tina lives on a farm in East Anglia where she cooks, does bookkeeping, and enjoys her young grandchildren. She writes a letter to the author of a book about  prehistoric Tollund Man. The author has died, but her letter is answered by Anders, a widowed Danish museum curator. Tina had always planned to visit the Tollund Man exhibit with her friend Bella. Life got in the way, and Bella has recently died. The pair continue to exchange letters, then emails, and the reader learns about their lives and recent losses. Bittersweet and utterly charming, I didn’t want this book to end. Readalikes include Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole and Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.

Brenda

The Whole Town’s Talking

fannie-flagg-jacketThe Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg

In 1889, Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom founds a small town in Missouri. Nordstrom is a dairy farmer and Elmwood Spring’s first mayor. In this appealing tale, the town ladies encourage Nordstrom to find a Swedish-American mail order bride, and they send her notes along with his letters. Over the decades the town grows and changes, with the progress overseen fondly by the residents of Still Meadows, the cemetery on a hill. Much to their surprise, the folks at Still Meadows can talk freely with each other, and even (silently) enjoy visits from their relatives. Quirky small town charm and plenty of nostalgia make for a quick, pleasant read.

Brenda

 

I Will Send Rain

rain-jacketI Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows

This book is set in Oklahoma, during the Dust Bowl. It should be depressing to read, but somehow isn’t, although some readers may feel differently. Annie and Samuel Bell migrated from Kansas to a homestead in the Oklahoma panhandle when they married. They have two children, Birdie, 15, and sweet Fred, 8, who is mute and carries a slate and chalk to communicate. Annie wants Birdie to move to a big city when she finishes school, but Birdie is restless and quite interested in farmer’s son Cy. Annie mourns lost baby Eleanor, and Samuel wonders if his recurrent dreams of abundant rain mean that he should build a boat, maybe even an ark. Other intriguing characters are the pastor, who tries to encourage the town, and mayor Jack Lily, a former Chicago journalist, who’s attracted to Birdie. Fred struggles with asthma as the dust storms arrive, and a few neighboring farmers suddenly move away. The setting reminds me of The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber, but this book has beautiful, almost lyrical writing, with quirky, richly drawn characters, and a tone that’s more melancholy and moving then  bleak. In the end, Annie and Samuel love and support each other, even as they deal with hardship and loss. A memorable historical novel.

The Excellent Lombards

excellent lombards jacketThe Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton

Growing up on a family apple orchard in Wisconsin, Mary Frances Lombard wants everything to stay the same. Her beloved father Jim and his cousin Sherwood will have big arguments twice a year, and their families will never get together at holidays. The scary Aunt May Hill will continue to fix the equipment and the hay will always get stacked in the barn before a storm comes. And most importantly, Mary Frances and her brother William, who loves video games and computers as well as harvesting apples, will run the orchard when they grow up. If her librarian mother makes her go to drama camp, she won’t speak to her, but will participate in the drill cart team. Mary Frances (or Frankie, Francie, Marlene, or M.F.) is quite dramatic enough without going to camp, especially when she competes with cousin Amanda in a geography bee. Readers of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries will enjoy getting to know Mary Frances. I liked getting to know the eccentric members of the Lombard family, but I wanted to read about what happens next for Mary Frances and the orchard. I listened to the audiobook, and enjoyed the different voices Erin Cottrell used for each character.

Brenda

At the Edge of the Orchard

orchard jacketAt the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

I was looking forward to reading this book because my book groups have discussed two of Chevalier’s historical novels, The Last Runaway and Remarkable Creatures. Also, a family-run apple orchard sounded like a pleasant setting. Surprisingly, the orchard, on the edge of the Black Swamp in mid-19th century Ohio, is a dark and violent place. James Goodenough and his wife Sadie moved from Connecticut, where no land was available. To prove their homestead claim in Ohio, they need to raise 50 apple trees. They have several children, but life is hard, with bone-shaking fevers (malaria) every year. Growing apple trees on the edge of the swamp is challenging, especially with harsh winter weather. James loves the sweet apples from his grafted trees, but Sadie prefers the natural “spitters”, apples for hard cider and the applejack John Chapman introduces her to. Unfortunately, Sadie is a mean drunk, and the family suffers. Youngest son Robert, who’s fascinated by the trees, leaves and ends up in California during the gold rush. A grove of giant sequoias fascinates him and leads to a job. Robert’s sister Martha eventually joins him, and he learns the sad history of the family he left behind. The California setting is quite appealing and the novel is compelling reading, but this wasn’t the book I was hoping to read.

Brenda

Early Warning

early warning jacketEarly Warning by Jane Smiley

At 476 pages, Early Warning is not a quick read. It is the sequel to Some Luck, a family saga about an Iowa farm family. Early Warning covers the years 1953 to 1986, as the Langdon family expands into the next generation. I think the first book is better, but the many characters in Early Warning are interesting company and the author is an excellent storyteller. Dialogue is very well done, and the complex interactions of the extended family are believable. Plot is not the strong point here, as there is some predictability. Topics covered include the Cold War, the baby boom, psychoanalysis, stay at home mothers, Vietnam War, breast cancer, social change in the sixties, working for the CIA, pursuit of wealth, coming out, a drawn-out divorce, sibling rivalry, and changes on the family farm. As the Langdon children become middle-aged they become more introspective about their lives and their family. I definite recommend starting with Some Luck, and I’m looking forward to the last book in the trilogy, not yet written.
Brenda