Readers and writers: 3 fiction choices from Minnesota authors

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We have fiction today by experienced Minnesota authors. We have a beach read about four friends that is generating good buzz, as well as an atmospheric story reminiscent of “Rosemary’s Baby” set in far northern Minnesota, and a teen grieving for her father through memories of their mutual love for professional wrestling. Two of them will be launched in separate programs this month.

“Tired Ladies Take a Stand”: by Gretchen Anthony (Park Row Books, $18.99)

In one of the essays, Fern, Andi, Carolina, and Emma hold a tea party while wearing wedding dresses, a celebration of sorts for Emma, who’d just ended her engagement. — from “Tired Ladies Take a Stand”

A quartet of best friends — Andi, Fern, Emma and Carolina — meet in their 20s when everything seems possible. They are young, college-educated, happy and ready to take on the world, vowing to say “yes” to everything, from inventing a game based on getting strangers to buy them drinks, to falling in and out of love. Their lives are so much fun (including once dancing in public in their underwear) that Fern wrote a book of essays about them titled “Smart Girls Say Yes.”

Fast forward 20-plus years and things have changed. Carolina, an athlete and runner, is worried about losing her top corporate job. Andi travels too much as a human-rights lawyer and feels guilty because her teen son needs her. Divorcee Emma, in the midst of planning her daughter’s wedding, has to deal with her daughter’s future mother-in-law from hell. Fern, a writer barely making a living, is surprised when a new generation discovers her old book and a producer wants to turn it into a film.

Mostly, these women are tired and instead of the “yes” of their young years they’re ready to start saying “no” to new commitments. What they do about life in their 50s makes this a juicy read that toggles back and forth between their early years and the present.

Although the friends have stuck together through good and bad times in their lives, including sharing a secret involving a sleazy guy now running for political office, the news that Fern’s book is going to expose what they did decades earlier brings out the cracks in their relationships. When Fern, Carolina and Andi accidentally miss Emma’s toast to her daughter, Emma is furious. She needed her friends there and feels they betrayed her. Besides, she doesn’t like the idea of Fern’s book bringing them all to life as part of the generation of girls influenced by the glamour of the TV series “Sex and the City.”

Cruel words are exchanged that cut deep, but their long friendship brings them together in forgiveness.

Anthony does a wonderful job with dialogue. You can easily picture the foursome lounging around with wine in their glasses, gossiping and supporting Emma as she jumps from wedding crisis to crisis. The author also perfectly captures the times when the women were young and carefree and their contemporary lives when, as one of them points out, she used to be able to run for blocks in high heels and now she has to have a shot between her toes every so often.

The author, who lives in Maple Grove, made her debut in 2018 with “Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners,” a best books pick by Amazon, BookBub, PopSugar and the New York Post. That was followed in 2021 by “The Kids Are Gonna Ask,” winner of an American Library Association award for best adult book that appeals to teen audiences. In 2022 she published the popular “The Book Haters’ Club.”

Anthony will launch her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., in conversation with Minnesota fiction writer Kathleen West.

“Annika Rose”: by Cheri Johnson (Red Hen Press, $18.50)

She was growing into something. At the same time, it seemed she’d never known she was young. — from “Annika Rose”

Set near Lake of the Woods in far northern Minnesota, this unsettling story is one of the highlights of the local spring season. Part mystery, part coming-of-age, it has a near-mystical quality of unseen evil in the story of 17-year-old Annika Rose, who has lived in an isolated farm with her father, Wes, after her mother died.

A very short, pale girl who has to buy overalls in the boys’ department at Hardware Hank’s, Annika is teased by the town bullies at school. She has no friends until Tina and her musician husband, Jesse, move into a nearby house. Annika is captivated by Tina’s tall, strong body and wonders about the relationship between Tina and Jesse, who thought moving to the wilderness would give him time to write his music. Now he’s not so sure. He spends most of his time with Haas, former school principal and himself a musician with contacts in the recording industry.

The publisher describes this book as a feminist twist on “Rosemary’s Baby,” although it is more subtle than that popular book and film. There is a pregnancy in “Annika Rose,” which sets off a guilt trip for Annika and worry for her dad, who cares about Tina but isn’t sure how much to interfere in her life. Moving in and out of the story is a homeless woman who tells Annika something is going on at Tina’s house, leading to a tragedy that will affect all of the vividly drawn characters.

Annika is hard to figure out, a blend of toughness and vulnerability. Although she’s small she helps her dad bring in hay bales, builds fences, plants and tends the garden, and cans the produce. But she’s socially awkward and given to doing odd things, such as coming on to Jesse (he rejects her) and digging a body-sized trench in the muddy pasture to lie in, even though she could be stepped on by a cow. When her frustration and anger at Jesse reaches a boiling point, everyone in the story is affected.

This is Cheri Johnson’s first novel using her own name. Her previous book, “The Girl in Duluth,” was written as Sigrid Brown and won a Midwest Book award. Johnson was raised in Lake of the Woods County and studied writing at the University of Minnesota, Augsburg University and Hollins University in Virginia. She’s written two series of nonfiction books for young readers as well as “Crocus Hill: A Ghost Story,” a literary performance project. Her fiction and other work has been published in national literary journals.

Johnson will launch “Annika Rose” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, at Eat My Words bookstore, 214 13th Ave. N.E., Mpls.

“Dispatches from Parts Unknown”: by Bryan Bliss (Greenwillow Books, $19.99)

Wrestling, for me at least, had always been a source of vulnerability. I didn’t go around asking people to list their favorite mid-continental champions or anything. And while the list, of course, started with the Nashville Stud, I also wasn’t sure if it should be the sole basis of my personality. — from “Dispatches from Parts Unknown”

You know this is going to be an intriguing story when the first pages of this young adult novel are devoted to “A Professional Wrestling Glossary for Candy-Ass Jabronis.” “Jabroni” means idiot, and it’s a favorite word of the Masked Man, a pro wrestler who lives in the head of Julie, still grieving for her dad three years after his death. Julie and her Dad were committed wrestling fans who watched matches every week with Julie’s best fried Max, a nice kid who works at the Orange Julius stand at the Mall of America. Bonding over the brightly colored drinks, the two friends tease one another but also have deep discussions.

Julie, a high school senior, has a lot going on in her life. She’s trying to write an essay about the reality of pro wrestling that uses the word “kayfabe,” which means the willing suspension of disbelief in wrestling and in real life. The Masked Man provides a running commentary, sometimes scornful but sometimes sympathetic. When a teacher insists Julie join the prom committee to expand her social circle, she meets Bri, a rich girl who falls for Max, much to Julie’s delight. Julie, meanwhile, meets skateboarders Leg and God, who squirm their way into the prom committee and change the theme from gardens to “Top Gun,” much to the delight of the students. And Julie’s mother, who seems to be coming out of her grief, is dating a cheerful guy Julie tries to like but doesn’t quite make it. Soon Leg becomes a big part of Julie’s life.

You don’t need kayfabe while reading this heartfelt book, because it is all so real; the conversations between Julie and Leg, as they become attracted to one another, Julie’s devotion to her mother, dialogue between Julie and her favorite teacher, the fun of visiting the mall late at night, and moments when Julie crawls into her parents’ closet because her dad’s clothing still smells like him, or when she hauls out vintage tapes of wrestling matches they watched together.

Slowly, as Julie comes out of her years-long fog of grief with typical teen activities, she begins to move forward and maybe she doesn’t need the Masked Man in her head anymore.

Bliss, who lives in St. Paul, is an Episcopal priest and creative-writing teacher who holds master’s degrees in theology and fiction. His novel “We’ll Fly Away” was a National Book Award finalist. He’s also the author of “Thoughts & Prayers,” “Meet Me Here” and “No Parking at the End Times.”

“Dispatches from Parts Unknown” received a starred review from Booklist: “The engaging tone of this terrific novel is spot on, while Bliss demonstrates a welcome gift for dialogue … the feel-good novel of the year.”

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