Natural Wonders

Minnesota writers Jess Lourey and Sarah Stonich debut books

Popular Minnesota writers Jess Lourey and Sarah Stonich debut new novels this week, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Doerr launches a new season of Friends of the Hennepin County Library’s Pen Pals reading series.

“Litani” by Jess Lourey (Thomas & Mercer, $15.95)

Litani was danger, pure and simple.
In Litani, the devil lived right out in the open, and there was no one to save you. It didn’t matter if you were a kid. In fact, they preferred it that way.

Litani is a small town in Minnesota, where 14-year-old Francesca — Frankie — is sent to live with her mother in the 1980s after the death of her gentle biologist father. Frankie’s secret is that she thinks she killed her dad when he refused to go to the hospital and she gave him a plant-based concoction shortly before he died.

On her first day in Litani, Frankie is beat up by three scruffy little girls who know how to fight. And she meets good-looking, quiet Chad, who’s dropped out of school. Her mom, a hard-charging attorney, warns her to stay away from other adults and never go in the woods. But Frankie keeps hearing rumors of The Game and she believes the evil lies in the trailer park where Chad lives.

Jess Lourey (Courtesy of the author)

Lourey, who writes young adult adventure, magical realism and nonfiction, is most interested in true crime, she writes her the author’s note in “Litani.” This novel is based on the sex scandal in Jordan, Minn., where prosecutor Kathleen Morris made news by charging 25 residents with abuse of dozens of children, two of whom talked about a sex ring and that some children had been murdered and thrown in the nearby Minnesota River.

The whole thing ended in anti-climax when Morris dropped all the untried Jordan sexual abuse charges except those against a trash hauler, James Rud, who confessed to molesting a 9-year-old girl.

Lourey writes that most of the stories about sex scandals that rocked the country in the ’80s were about the adults whose lives were destroyed by allegedly false accusations.

“(As) a writer, and a woman who grew up in a home and a community where the unspeakable regularly happened, I’m struck by the voices notably missing from the witch hunt narrative: the children who lived through this terrifying time,” she writes. “Theirs is the story that interests me.”

Lourey has given us a believable and likable protagonist in Frankie, who’s grieving for her father and has never understood her mother, who is gone much of the time. Her lifeline is The Book, a journal she began with her dad in which she draws people as plants (illustrated on several pages). Lonely and missing her best friend, she hides a kitten in her room, knowing her mother doesn’t want animals, while she roams the town. She hears about The Game from the tough little girls and listens to talk of the Satanic activity that has returned to the area.

Frankie soon learns that her mother is a driving force in trying to bring justice to the children, but is she driven by sympathy or by the spotlight in the news media? When Frankie discovers a dozen children are being kept in a big Victorian mansion for their own safety, she and Chad decide to figure out who is playing The Game.

Looming over the town is the old closed brewery where Frankie finally meets pure evil.

“Litani” also beautifully explores Frankie’s relationship with her kind father, and her mixed emotions about her mom.

In the end, and this is not a spoiler, Lourey’s compassion for Frankie and the other children is clear:

We weren’t only laughing at the kitten We were laughing because we’d survived something no kid should have to. Our hard-won strength and understanding were now our blood, bone, and armor, and they made us into something more.”

“Litani” shows that the real terror is not ghosts, but human monsters.

Lourey will participate in a Halloween mystery authors signing at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., joined by fellow writers Shannon Baker, Lori Rader-Day, Susanna Calkins, Erica Ruth Neubauer, Jessie Chandler and Marcie Rendon. The official launch party will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30, at Once Upon a Crime, 604 W. 26th St., Mpls., where Lourey and other authors will sign copies of their latest books. There will be champagne, Halloween treats and other fun stuff.

“Reeling” by Sarah Stonich (University of Minnesota Press, $15.95)

In the twinkling between casting her damsel nymph forth and its alighting on the water, the world falls away. Go, Dot, Go. The extraneous noise of the present recedes for the moment — all that’s been weighing her down — not just the pressure of her every move being filmed, but all the rest of it: the undulating grief; the shift work of worry over the family; Rory, the dog she’s supposed to be providing a forever home to, regardless of rarely being in it; the anxiety over the daily news cycle; the uncertainty of hosting the show — a task she is uniquely unqualified for.

When first we met RayAnne Dahl in “Fishing with RayAnne,” she had been made permanent host of a public television show featuring women who fish. To the surprise of this 34-year-old who spent 10 years on the professional fishing circuit, she is good at doing interviews because she shuts up and lets her guests talk.

She’s dealing with her alcoholic father, Big Rick, and her out-there mother is often gone, leading tours for post-menopausal women.  RayAnne’s beloved grandmother, Dot, who she considers her conscience, is living in Florida. And she has to keep her hunky sponsor, Hal, away from her odd family.

Sarah Stonich (Courtesy of Shelly Mosman / via Sarah Stonich)

Sarah Stonich, author of popular novels such as “Vacationland, “The Ice Chorus,” and “Laurentian Divide,” wrote “Fishing with RayAnne” in 2015 under the pen name Ava Finch.

In “Reeling,” it’s a year later and things are better and worse for RayAnne in this touching/funny novel by an author who grew up in Proctor, Duluth and Minneapolis.

Ray and her friend and producer Cassi have shaped the fishing show so well the bosses give them a big budget to travel to New Zealand to interview women who fish. She and Hal are involved, but she can’t bring herself to tell him she loves him, although she can say it to her dog, Rory.

Most of all, RayAnne is grieving the death of Dot, who tried to killed herself so she wouldn’t linger with cancer. She did die eventually but RayAnne keeps seeing her — and talking to her — even in New Zealand. Dot explains that’s because Ray put a few of Dot’s ashes in a cosmetic jar to scatter in the beautiful little country so Dot followed her there, often giving her advice by showing up on the car’s screen or other odd places.

There isn’t a whole lot of fishing in this book but that’s OK because its really about family love and the characters are wonderful. Big Rick, her dad, has stopped drinking now that he’s with his rich girlfriend who’s into religion. Her brother, Kyle, is distraught because his wife’s cousin is nanny for the couple’s terrible twins and she has the hots for Ky.

RayAnne is, by turns, a blubbery mess of grief, an interviewer who makes her guests look good, and a lover of the natural wonders of New Zealand. Their kind photographers and tech guys are Rongo and Rangi, Maori twins, and a motherly guy named Chris. Cassi and Ray learn that “New Zealand is to Australia what Canada is to the U.S. … Like the buddy in a buddy film. The little brother, the sort of pretty friend.”

Besides dead Dot’s frequent appearances, there are other strange things going on here. Cassi has a one-night stand with Bylbo Baggyns, who lives in a reproduction of the village in “Lord of the Rings.” And for sheer hilarity, don’t miss the scene in which Hal’s mother walks in on him and RayAnne having quality time on the computer — mostly naked. There’s also a weird visit to a dog training facility where owners have to live like their dogs, including bathroom duties behind haybales and games on the ground holding toys in their teeth. But the crew gets great footage of a dog who fishes with its mouth.

The women RayAnne interviews are interesting too: a captain of a tuna boat who navigates sexism in her trade, a fashion designer who believes in quality clothes and not fast fashion made by exploitative companies. The most interesting is a Maori octogenarian who ties fishing flies for famous people.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the trip is cut short as news makes it to New Zealand that an epidemic is beginning. RayAnne and her crew head home before the lockdown, with Ray wiser and stronger through a combination of listening to dead Dot and new experiences. But, she still hasn’t decided what to do about Hal. Do we see another book coming?

Stonich will present “Reeling” at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27, at Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, $30)

While I am sure you will doubt the truth of the outlandish events they relate, my dear niece, in my transcription, I do not leave out a word. Maybe in the old days men did walk the earth as beasts, and a city of birds floated in the heavens between the realms of men and gods. Or maybe, like all lunatics, the shepherd made his own truth, and so for him, truth it was. 

Anthony Doerr, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “All the Light We Cannot See,” tells three stories connected by a book in this sprawling, 570-page, multi-layered and luscious novel that you will not be be able to put down.

In 15th century Constantinople, 13-year-old Anna, who lives with women who embroider, finds an old book in a ruined monastery where she steals moldy books to sell to dealers. The book is Diogenes’ story of the adventures of Aethon, a shepherd who longs to be turned into a bird so he can fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land, but instead he gets turned into a donkey and then a fish.

Outside the city’s fortified walls, Omeir, a village boy with a deformed mouth, cares for his huge oxen who help drag the fearsome cannons that the Ottoman Empire will use to lay siege in 1453 to the walls of the city that has stood for a thousand years as the last remnant of the Roman Empire

Five hundred years later, in present-day Idaho, some children are re-enacting Aethon’s adventures with the help of Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war. But downstairs is Seymour, a troubled man who can’t forgive those who took away owl habitat for houses. He has planted bombs on a bookshelf between Fiction and Nonfiction. Another siege — cops, Seymour, Zeno and the children.

And in the near future, Konstance is aboard the interstellar ship Argos, which is taking colonists to a far-distant planet. When she is 10 years old she learns, like the other children on that birthday, that it will take 500 years to reach their destination and nobody on board the spaceship will live to see the new planet. When a deadly illness strikes the ship, Aethon’s adventure, scraps of which Konstance pieces together, sustain her when she is locked in her chamber and doesn’t know if anyone else is left alive.

Doerr will launch Friends of the Hennepin County Library’s 25th Pen Pals reading series with a personal appearance (with virtual backup for those who prefer to stay home) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26, and 11 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27, at Hopkins Center for the Arts, 1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins. Individual tickets are $45-$55. Purchase at: or call 612-543-8112.

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