“J.F. Riordan writes with a seductive immediacy which reveals the extraordinary in the lives of people we too carelessly think ordinary. A Small Earnest Question combines keen social observation, engaging characters, quiet humor, and a rich sense of place. Rewarding from first page to last.”

                      –Richard North Patterson, Best-selling author

Thoughtful, poignant, and funny–in the most relatable way–A Small Earnest Question is a marvelous tribute to everyday life, the richness of community, and the many facets of our hearts and minds.”

                       –Hillary Simpson Bolle, Playwright

“A seamlessly crafted story of lives protected by the surrounding sea, readers will delight in everything from goat yoga to a men’s bookclub that is eventually forced underground. A Small Earnest Question will have you turning the page in thoughtful pursuit of answers; some of which are revealed in a well-placed climactic scene…while others may come to you in the quiet of your own mind.”

                      –Tracey Barnes-Priestly, Author, PBS             producer and host

“…the wry circumspection of Jane Austen, and the narrative velocity of Agatha Christie… A dazzling debut novel.” 

-Roger Kimball, Editor & Publisher. The New Criterion

“Riordan has a knack for making you want to sit down with her characters and root for them or despise them or just wonder what will become of them. North of the Tension Line is the equivalent of latter-day Jane Austen, but with contemporary humor. It’s engrossing and poignant.”

-Mike Nichols, author of The Waking, and Just a Few Sleeps Away

“Fully engaging from beginning to end, North of the Tension Line is a terrific read…”

The Midwest Review of Books

“A gifted female writer — one with a nearly Austenian gift for observing human nature and describing the quirks and foibles of the entire cast of characters one finds in the human drama….”

-The National Review

What Readers are Saying

“I once read that a good book or movie takes you to a new place. It provides an experience that you would not have otherwise have had. J.F Riordan, in her first novel North of Tension Line, takes her readers to a new place. I am no geographer, but I recognize the importance of place. Riordan is very good at describing a place that tourists visit but few people understand.

Riordan provides rich descriptions of Door County, a beautiful peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin wedged between the shores of Lake Michigan and Green Bay. But, much of the story takes place on Washington Island, a minimally inhabited island north of the peninsula, Her words allow you to visualize the place – – beaches, plants, water, coast, insects, and shops in wonderful detail.
But the descriptions of the place are just the appetizers. The main course is the adventures of her characters. It is her depiction of the people who occupy the place that keeps you turning the pages.

The main story revolves around the unlikely scenario that Fiona, in a moment of questionable judgment, accepts a “dare” to spend the winter alone in an old home on Washington Island. This would be a daunting challenge to anyone who knows Wisconsin winters. And, it is all the more daunting given the isolation of Washington Island. But, it turns out to be an adventure of fulfillment and character building involving Fiona’s cast of characters – – Elisabeth, Roger, Champaign Man, Rocco, Robert and Stella who all add considerable spice and suspense to the story.

There’s more. Riordan provides deep insights into life in this small town. She notes how life is scary, satisfying, exciting, liberating, frustrating, deceitful, and stifling – – all at the same time. Her views of the folks who reside in this little hamlet are all too human and ring true.

The story has many twists and turns. While mostly serious and filled with important thoughts about how we live our lives, there are many moments of fun and humor. I mean, how can you miss the opportunity to learn what Rocco has on his mind, and meet a couple of ghosts and a talking goat to boot.

I ordinarily read a book over few days as time permits. Not this time. I literally could not put it down. So, my advice to readers is to start with North of the Tension Line then let’s all hope that Ms. Riordan soon produces another. That, however, is hard for me to imagine because I think she poured her whole soul into the writing of this one.”

-Mark Schug


Perfect book for curling up with a glass of wine (though lead character Fiona would prefer scotch!), and crossing over your own tension line to relaxation. It’s hard to find a novel today that is interesting and yet relaxing, but J. F. Riordan has done it right.”



I started reading this on an airplane, and had to laugh out loud several times, because I couldn’t help visualizing the scene — would make an entertaining movie!

The characterization is incisive, and the sense of place she creates is brilliant. It’s very absorbing, but not in an adrenalin-pumping way. My only complaint: it didn’t last long enough! Hope the author writes another.


North of the Tension Line was one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. The writing is excellent and J.F. Riordan is a great story teller. The story takes place in Door County, Wisconsin and on Washington Island which is off of the thumb of Door County. If you visualize Wisconsin as a mitten, the thumb is Door County.

The two main characters are Fiona and Elizabeth, a writer and an artist/gallery owner. One a long time resident and the other a move-in from the Chicago area. They are both in their thirties. The story takes place over a years time.

Riordan tells the story with the knowledge and cadence of a Wisconsinite, I could hear the Door way of speaking and the small town emotion or lack of… in every sentence. I was reminded of what Garrison Keillor’s, Prairie Home Companion is to Minnesota. North of the Tension Line a wonderful story which one has a hard time putting down.

Having grown up a few miles from Door County in Green Bay, I was quite familiar with the attitudes of the people in the Door, the tourism and the very closed society in the county. There are the long time residents, those who have moved in and the tourists. Now, myself, having moved into a small town in Wisconsin, I really appreciated the way the author was able to get the true feeling of a small town and how a new comer feels. Though the businesses and people were fictional, I recognized many of the places described in the book.

This book is a fun “slice of life” but more than that. I will not go into any real detail of the story since it was great fun getting to know the characters and I mean some of them were real “characters” and the turn of events. I’m a stickler for well written endings and this was a very good one.Though I fear this book will likely appeal more to women, I hope it will be read by men as well. I highly recommend this novel.

-Thomas P


This book is lovely, just in how it’s written. The story and the lives of the characters unfold like a beautiful unhurried day. In many ways it reminded me of A Good Year and Under the Tuscan sun in how the verse and the easy literary focus invites the reader to sit back and relax and take their time with this book to better enjoy it.

When Fiona moves to Washington Island, as the title implies she steps into a small town where the pace of life slows down, loneliness increases, yet the stress of bigger cities. What is kind of funny about this is the life she lived in Ephraim with her friends Elizabeth, Roger, terry and Mike was not really much different. She just moved into a smaller environment by going to Washington Island and finds that it is more difficult to make friends tho most islanders are polite and helpful if not a bit detached. Coming from a small town myself I can vouch for this, the turnover is so high for newcomers, particularly more urban ones their is no real point in getting attached….

Overall, I wound up falling into this book and the characters felt like real people I know. I liked Fiona very much and I laughed and appreciated her thoughts and wanted her to succeed in her new venture and be happy – whether she found Mr. Right or not. This is a particularly good novel to snuggle up with on a cool Fall/Winter afternoon, like many of the classics sited in this novel Ms. Riordan writes with a deep appreciation of good literature, Marcus Aurelius, Churchill and a decent bottle of Scotch.

-D. Matlack


For those who love when authors use words to create description and flavor without abusing that talent, this is a book for you. Riordan excellently captures (and makes me envious!) of small town life – of what real friendship means. This is a character driven book, which, I feel, takes a special author to make the story compelling and keep it moving.

Not only do characters shape the quote, but nature, its’ elements, and the nuances of a small town are also what makes North of the Tension Line an entertaining yet somewhat poetic and at many time humorous, read.


-Quirky Girl


My wife and I were recently on a cruise that left from Venice. I took The Audacity of Goats by J.F. Riordan along with me. It is the type of book I normally do not pick up but I loved it.
This is Riordan’s second novel which takes place on Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. The location is important. Its isolation and small town context make for close observations of the characters and their environment.

Goats has a nice, quick pace and engaging characters. You find you have smiles and concerns in equal amounts. Fiona and Elisabeth are the main ones to watch. They have great insights but they do have their blind sides as well which makes them all the more human. Roger, the coffee shop owner, is a unique character. He is aware of his own painful shortcomings but his solution is completely unexpected. And, then, there is the return of the often hilarious (if it wasn’t so serious) goat adventures.

The subplots are fun and engaging. Young Ben’s story was very poignant and loaded with insights. His conversation with Fiona and then his father were touching. Emily and Jason are a nice addition to the scene that holds some real promise for twists and turns in the future.

The humor – the hardware store scene and the Lutheran Prayer Club – reminded me of something out of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion.
None of this gets to the substance of the book, however. The author has deep insights about people and their surroundings. It is a satisfying and very uplifting book.

-Mark Schug


Recently I was invited to the Fond du Lac Fondue Festival for a book event held at Book World. There were over 15 Wisconsin authors there and I was lucky enough to share a table with newly published author, J.F. Riordan. Her novel had literally come hot off the press the day of the event and boy was she excited! The physical book itself is beautiful inside and out. The title has an interesting meaning in that there is a “peculiar spiritual renewal of life north of the tension line.”

One of the many elements about author Riordan’s tale that I enjoyed was the setting; small town, Ephraim, Wisconsin and then part of the story moves to Washington Island. The story is woven around two best girlfriends, both in their thirties and looking for life’s next adventure. Though there is some romance swirled into the mix, the focus is on community and the unpredictable ways we treat one another. Oh, and there’s a goat named Robert.

Fiona Campbell was by far my favorite of the two ladies. A perfect combination of overly curious and brazen to a fault. There was very little that she wouldn’t consider and when she is dared to live on Washington Island through a Wisconsin winter, off she goes. What keeps the story fresh is the way Riordan weaves her words together into beautiful sentences that perfectly conjure the island and all its quiet and magical and sometimes unpredictable beauty.

“The meadow grass, the scrub brush, the harvested fields with their long rows of stubble, the bare trees and even the sand and water seemed to have been infused with purple, and they glowed with it, even in overcast days. Fiona loved the raw quality of the bare landscape; it seemed purer, stripped to its essential shapes as if it had been drawn with a few sharp lines.”

And then there’s Stella. Great name for a nasty next door neighbor and man is this lady a piece of work. Loved her/hated her–wanted more of her. This particular neighbor not only plotted and planned against Fiona and her goat, but did her utmost dastardly darndest to squash any hopes Fiona may have attempted at enjoying a peaceful island life.

Her trust-fund girlfriend, Elizabeth, provides the novel with some much needed balance and harmony in a life full of just about every joy imaginable except someone to share it with. The yin and yang of their friendship serves the story well by showing that no matter how much cash you have in the bank, the richness of friends is the true wealth of a life well lived. There were a few scenes in which some minor head-hopping gave me pause (bouncing from one narrator to another) but then off the story unfolded and on we went!

Riordan left a few story-lines unfulfilled and I’m happy to report a sequel is in the works…If you enjoy a cozy read full of colorful characters and breezy sand beaches and pot-luck suppers, this is for you.

Pass the casserole and who brought the goat?

-Jay Gilbertson


Small town life, winter, slowly meandering along the way, with great writing and interesting characters. Depending on your tastes, you will either really like this, or find it boring or too slow moving. As a voracious reader, I found it an unexpected and surprisingly wonderful break from my usual breakneck speed reading of novels hard to put down, full of tension, etc.

Too life in a small town with a harsh winter, one must either be a hermit or lunatic. That’s basically what Fiona thought when she accepted a bet to spend a rough winter in the town, with only a fine single malt scotch and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Expecting a quiet and boring winter, she finds life in Ephraim Wisconsin is more than she expected.

Great small town characters, with all the charming eccentricities we small town people tend to have. While I wouldn’t exactly classify it as a mystery, there are interesting things going on that require Fiona to do some investigating. Lyrical writing with well drawn characters, it was a nice change from lots of the normal reading I do.

-Lauri Crumley Coates


Door County Wisconsin is one of my favorite places so of course picking up a story set in Ephraim and Washington Island Door County was a no brainer. And it was really really good!

Fiona Campbell takes on a dare to live in an old ramshackle house on Washington Island for a Wisconsin winter. She moves there expecting basically a dull winter in a small town, but soon learns that even small towns have their excitement. Now I’m from Chicago and to me Ephraim is really small and yes, Washington Island is smaller, but not that much smaller.

Fiona is a multi-layered character. I can’t say I was in love with the character; at times I didn’t care for her. My favorite character was actually Robert the goat.

I loved the author’s descriptions of the weather and the surroundings. I thought she wrote a bit like she was a British author–slow, descriptive and into details. I think if you like British lit you’ll like this book for sure. This is a nice solid story and a great first novel for the author.

-Deborah Verlen


I received this book as part of LT’s Early Reviewer program…and I loved it. North of the Tension Line took me a few chapters to become deeply engrossed, but this lyrical novel set in Wisconsin is a beautiful novel. Fiona takes a dare and moves to a rural island, discovering both a deep peace and facing challenges of making her way in a small, insular community. Fiona and her close friend, Elizabeth, are introspective characters, and some of that threw me off a bit…they are a bit too mature and self-knowing for women in their early 30s, yet they still kept me interested. North of the Tension Line is not a fast-paced, light hearted, beach read, but is a wonderful novel to enjoy and savor.

-Darlene M. Petri


I loved this book. … Maybe it’s the story line that I found so interesting and when I read a book I like to escape into the characters and places. I think the author did a great job of introducing us to all the characters and I found something to like in most of them. I think the descriptions of the landscapes in the story were excellent and made me (winter hater) want to visit Washington Island in winter! I’d love to read more from this author and I’d love this to become a series!



Terrific book – I read it in one day. Could not put it down.

Fiona is challenged to stay the winter on Washington Island in Wisconsin, and takes the challenge. She buys a house, endears herself to some of the islanders and annoys others, acquires a goat, and finds love.

I highly recommend this book! 



Awesome, awesome. I loved the setting, small island, with some really quirky characters. Brave Fiona to live on the island by herself through a harsh winter. The detail from landscape to coffee house, food and art made for an escaping read and you don’t want to put the book down.