Saturday, April 11, 2015

A woman's quest for independence in medieval England: Karen Brooks' The Brewer's Tale

Karen Brooks’ The Brewer’s Tale will be a treasure for readers who appreciate an accurately rendered medieval setting and characters who reflect the era. The time frame (the later years of Henry IV’s reign) isn’t one often showcased in historical fiction, especially from a tradeswoman’s perspective.

All of the details on the production of ale and beer in early 15th-century England are fascinating to read – from the collection of ingredients to the actual brewing, the quality testing by officials called ale-conners, and the regulations covering sales and distribution.

On the other hand, the novel’s heroine meets with almost every possible calamity. While the fluid prose is compulsively readable, the periods of uneven plotting made for a bumpy experience. Rarely have I read a novel that provoked such a mixed reaction on my part.

After her father’s death at sea, and upon learning that her home and wealth no longer belong to her family, Anneke Sheldrake takes an unusual step. Using knowledge passed down from her Dutch mother, she decides to start a brewery business to provide for herself, her orphaned siblings, and the servants who depend on them.

But Anneke is a single woman from a respected merchant family, and her decision is greeted with disbelief and shock. Her going into trade herself means deliberately lowering her social status, which is incomprehensible to those around her. “It’s like a sackcloth you can never shuck,” her steward, Adam, tells her. “Once you step in this direction, you can never go back.” Brooks deserves credit for faithfully depicting the social strictures faced by her courageous protagonist.

Anneke’s journey toward independence meets with great success in some avenues – with her secret recipes, her brews are a huge hit – but it’s fraught with difficulties. Monks from the nearby friary have their own competing brew and aren’t afraid to play dirty. Anneke’s cousin becomes more spiteful than ever. And that’s just the beginning. I understand her life isn’t meant to be easy, but some episodes felt so over-the-top dramatic that I put the book down at several points, not sure if I wanted to continue. In the end, I’m glad I persisted.

In addition to the realistic late medieval atmosphere, other highlights include Anneke’s relationships with the people who support her, including Adam, a servant-turned-friend and father figure; an older businesswoman, Alyson, who was plucked right out of Chaucer’s world; and a man who becomes an unexpected love interest.

“You’ve endured more than anyone has a right,” Anneke is told at one point, after yet another period of misfortune. I can’t help but agree. She’s a character desperately in need of a satisfying ending – and this lengthy, entertaining, and sometimes frustrating book provides one at last.

The Brewer's Tale was published by Harlequin MIRA Australia in October 2014 (trade pb, 582pp, Au$32.99).  For those outside Australia, it's available at Fishpond for US$24.97, postpaid. The paperback's not listed at Amazon.com, but the Audible version is.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a NetGalley widget.

16 comments:

  1. I'd have thought the title should be The Brewster's Tale!

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    1. An observant comment. I'm guessing they went with Brewer in the title so that modern readers would have a better idea of what the book was about! "Brewster" is used within the text.

      I did find this interesting online article about Brewer vs. Brewster and how it often reflects geography and ethnic origin more than gender. The early parts of the book are set in a village based on King's Lynn in Norfolk.

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    2. Thank you for that link. Fascinating. And it certainly corrects a misperception on my part.

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  2. Hello Sarah.

    Your opening paragraph made me stop and think of other novels set during the reign of Henry IV. Edith Pargeter's A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury and a couple from Jean Plaidy's Plantagenet Saga sprang to mind, but these are more about the man himself. There were quite a few rebellions during his short reign which would make interesting backgrounds for novels.

    The Brewer's Tale is on my wish list. I didn't realise it was nearly 600 pages long: a challenging read, but your review suggests well worth the effort. I'm intrigued by this novel's foray into a major part of medieval life from the perspective of a single woman. I love the other titles for this profession: alewife, brewess and, of course, brewster.

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    1. Hi Yvonne,

      I've read that Anne O'Brien's next novel will be about Joanna of Navarre, so that's another one. Medieval novels about fictional characters seem to be few and far between, too, one reason this one interests me so much. If Karen Brooks will be writing other medieval-set novels, I'll definitely read them.

      At over 8600 lines, The Brewer's Tale is the longest book I've ever read on Kindle. I didn't realize the print page count until I looked up that information at the publisher's site.

      The term "alewife" (which I love also) is used in the book from time to time, too. Interestingly, that term can also refer to a type of fish - it's also a subway stop (Alewife Station) in the Boston area near where I used to live.

      In the author's note, Brooks mentions that she doesn't drink beer. I don't either, but the novel made me wish I had a taste for it!

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  3. Thank you for your review. This one has been on my wish list for a few months. I wish it was a bit easier to purchase in the U.S. I'm still intrigued though, because it sounds different and I like reading historical fiction set in a time period and setting that has not been overdone.

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    1. I wish it was available at least as an ebook in the US - other novels from this publisher are, so I don't know why this one isn't... but maybe that will change later. The setting is a strong point. It's worth reading for the setting and authentic characters alone.

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  4. I love the premise of this book - I'm all for stories about regular folks. Historical resources that go beyond the ruling classes are so scant in many periods that it takes some courage to attempt it. I don't know the period so I don't know how challenging it was to dig into brewing at this level of detail. But it sounds like Ms. Brooks managed to put that part of the story together well.

    I also like stories from more obscure periods. They aren't obscure to the people living through them! Hopefully, Ms. Brooks will continue to to hone her craft and not buy the current "wisdom" that constant external drama is needed to tell a great story. Thanks for your review and insight.

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    1. Going by the author's list of sources at the end, there is a fair amount of information out there about female brewers/brewsters... thanks to modern historians interested in the merchant classes and "women's work" who took the time to delve into primary sources. Here's just one of the books mentioned, which has parts browsable online via Amazon.

      That's a great point, of course, about obscure periods of history! Thanks for your comments.

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  5. Now that's an interesting subject of women, and being interested in history, I admire the research involved.

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    1. The book does do an outstanding job of weaving the research into the story - it's not overdone or forced.

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  6. Clearly a Herculean effort to do the Medieval research for such a story! I suppose it is possible to mistake the forest for the trees, plot-wise, as a result. I'm looking forward to discovering how the story proceeds. Thank you for the insights, Sarah.

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    1. This type of research is the kind I'd love to do, learning about different aspects of the daily lives of so-called ordinary people from the past.

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  7. That book cover reminds me of Sting's most beautiful song, "Fields of Gold."

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  8. What a pretty cover. I love the way the color in the fields is a lighter shade of her hair color. That cover makes me want to pick the book up and look inside.

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    1. It is a beautiful cover, and it reflects the heroine's physical appearance, too.

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