The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

When Edith was feeling low like this, baking a pie had never failed to make her happy. Like how some people talk about yoga or mountain climbing or music, it was how she lost herself and touched something else. It was her church away from church. It wouldn’t solve any problems, but it might make her and a few people forget them for a while, and that was something.

She stocked up on ingredients at Cub Foods. She took out the last of the canned rhubarb from Lucy, and used the fancy lard from Block’s Provisions, that expensive and tiny store on Hennepin. She felt the dry flour between her fingers, and thought about being a great-grandmother. She thought about it like how a tree in winter thinks about its leaves. She rolled this thought over the dough, and pressed it into its edges. The sun fell outside, and she didn’t reach for the lights. The pie baked in the dark, and she sat in her quiet kitchen and waited. She was good at that. She was seventy-seven years old, and she had all the time in the world.

51a2My+6uGLI’ve found my leading contender so far for favorite book of the year. I know there’s a lot of year left, so I’m leaving the door open for something else to come in and touch me more than J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. But it had better be darn good, because I’d give this book more stars if Goodreads would let me.

Lager Queen is about sisters and pie, and yes, beer. It alternates points of view between three characters: sisters Edith and Helen, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana. Helen is an unlikely sort of young woman in the 1960s, who figures out that she wants to make beer, and she knows she’d be good at it. Her older sister Edith is the settled one, the dependable one, the one who Helen says “putting cake frosting on a bran muffin” is her idea of fun. When their father gives all the money from the sale of the family farm to Helen to help start her beer making venture, Edith and her sister stop talking, and the silence only gets louder and louder over fifty years. Year later, Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, who Edith has to help finish raising after a terrible accident, exhibits both Helen’s fiery spirit and her grandmother’s practicality. But after getting caught making some very questionable choices, she is given a new opportunity to find something she’s good at, and it’s closer to her great-aunt’s path than she could ever guess.

This book just hummed with authentic characters and believable dialogue, two of my criteria for good fiction. J.Ryan Stradal has a gift for creating characters the reader cares about, people who aren’t perfect but are fully dimensional and whose actions are credible. And just like his first book, Kitchen of the Great Midwest (which I loved,) featured some killer foodie scenes, this one is filled with interesting and zingy writing about beer. I’m not a beer drinker but I almost wish I was reading these sentences.

The four examples of IPAs were meant to break Diana’s brain open about the possibilities of what an IPA can do, but these beers were too far beyond her comprehension.

Her first, second, and third impression of each IPA steamrolled her ignorant palate; drinking them was like losing a boxing match to become a better boxer. It’s unfair, she thought, that whatever the hell she’d made would be called beer, on a planet where these beers existed. They her feel terminally bewildered.

Other sentences I loved:

“Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places.”

“It was like a man to scratch his name on the banister of history, but Helen had come to believe that it was better to be the stairs.”

All three women go through a lot over the course of the book, which feels like real life too, with loss, disappointments, and victories big and small over the years. By the time the end comes around you can feel all the threads coming together, only you’re not sure if it’s all going to end the way you want it to. I’ll say this: it’s one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time, and I totally bawled. It’s the kind of book I’m tempted to immediately read again, but I can’t because it’s a library copy and people are waiting on it! And then I had the thought that I need to buy Kitchens of the Great Midwest and read that again. So I guess I’m a J. Ryan Stradal-head now. This is one of those books that I am sure I can’t do justice to in a review, so I’ll just say that I wholeheartedly loved it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

 

21 thoughts on “The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

  1. YES! If we were in the same book club, you and I would be gushing all over this book and likely not let anyone else talk! Or maybe, that last part would be me… I finished the book and immediately looked up the author to see if he would be traveling out my way to do a book tour and then I stalked him on Twitter. Hoping he can swing a New England stop in the next year. (Maybe I should hound his publisher.)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I mostly loved it, but I’m still scratching my head over Diana being allowed to brew beer in a commercial brewery at age 19 when the law then, as now, is minimum age 21. Stradal clearly researched so much to get things right, but that was a big oops.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve been wondering about this book because of the Minnesota angle, wondering if it was all foam and no beer, so to speak. Glad to hear it is good! I will have to add my name to the very long holds queue 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. See, this is one of those cases when I would argue that women’s fiction isn’t written specifically by or for women. The author is a man, who wrote women’s fiction, and given the cross-over appeal of beer, could make a lot of male AND female readers quite happy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I loved this book as well! I especially appreciated that he didn’t wrap it up with a neat bow, making everything end perfectly. Edith’s life was unbearably hard, but she just kept going. She felt like so many of the people all around us that we never really see.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sounds great – I love when a book makes you feel enthusiastic about something you never expected to be interested in, like beer! I remember when I was young being dragged regularly to a “real ale” pub by a beer enthusiast, who tried hard to educate my palate. He failed but I used to enjoy watching all these people take their beer-drinking so seriously… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love your enthusiasm! I added it to my list after seeing your rating on GR. I had no idea it was the same author as Kitchens of the Great Midwest until I read your review. I remember a lot of people loving that one, as well. I own Kitchens but haven’t read it yet. Now I have two to look forward to! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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