The Brewer’s Tale by William Bostwick

The influence of beer in history, and the more and less delicious forms it’s taken along the way.

brewers tale

In The Brewer’s Tale, homebrewer William Bostwick (Beer Craft) examines beer in history and the history in beer, brewing as he goes.

Bostwick follows the progression of human history, starting with primitive Mesopotamian bread and its immediate companion (rudimentary ale) and moving through the early European shamans who used beer (sometimes laced with hallucinogens) in their practices to the monks whose influence persists in abbey and Trappist ales. He visits the farmer who brewed with his leftover produce, and members of the London working class who passionately consumed the porters that were named after them. With each stop on this tour, Bostwick gives equal play to the past and to characters who maintain or rejuvenate these historic styles. He also attempts his own brews, with mixed results. Through grogs and meads; farmhouse ales like lambics, sours and saisons; porters, stouts and pales; and finally light (and lite) lagers, The Brewer’s Tale reminds us that beer is not only the stuff of frat parties or snifter-poured snobbery; it can be experimental, fresh and fun, and has always been at the heart of the human experience.

Bostwick runs a little heavy on symbolism, but his subject is heady and intoxicating, so why not the metaphor as well? The initiate will be well served, but even a well-read beer geek can be excited anew by these reflections, and the homebrewer may well be inspired to fresh projects. The Brewer’s Tale is history, a joyful celebration and a call to appetizing action in an easygoing, conversational tone.


This review originally ran in the October 21, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 caves.

Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer by Margaret Webb

An amiable and instructive memoir about achieving and maintaining competitive fitness at any age.

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Margaret Webb (Apples to Oysters) was a successful young athlete and an active adult, but never suspected she might be a marathoner. Staring down her 50th birthday, she became curious about what she could accomplish. She knew there were competitive women runners several decades her senior; could she join their ranks? Older, Faster, Stronger covers what Webb calls her “super-fit year.” And as her subtitle states, the lessons she shares are valuable for men and women of all ages, in any sport.

With the luxury of being able to devote her time and energy primarily to training, Webb engages expert nutritionists, personal trainers, coaches, sports psychologists, aging specialists, physiologists and laboratory researchers. She has her maximal oxygen consumption tested (twice); adds cross-training, gym time and track workouts to her running schedule; travels; and brunches with world champion septua-, octo- and nonagenarian women. She sets goals: to qualify for the Boston Marathon under the fastest women’s standard (the qualifying time for 18-to-34-year-old women) and to be competitive in the half-marathon at the World Masters Games.

Webb is meticulous in applying her results stringently to her own life and documenting them for her readers. Her research appears thorough, although the more fastidious reader may be frustrated by the absence of citations. Older, Faster, Stronger is packed with statistics and studies, but is well explained, so the reader will find the science easily digestible. Athletes of any sex, age and discipline can benefit from–and be entertained by–Webb’s approachable investigation of becoming faster and stronger into advance age.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 minutes.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

A terrifying, enigmatic and ever-accelerating story about the power of imagination.

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Jack Peter Keenan has always been an odd boy. Even before the accident three years ago, he was not exactly normal. Now almost 11 years old, he doesn’t go outside, ever. As Christmas approaches, there are strange happenings afoot: things that go bump in the night, apparitions in the snowy roadway, screams of people who aren’t there. Jack has begun drawing monsters. His parents, Holly and Tim, are increasingly worried.

Holly renews her relationship with the church; when she seeks answers, the local priest and his Japanese housekeeper pelt her with tales of shipwrecks and spirits. Tim resolves to work harder with his son. The parents of Jack’s one friend, Nick, take off for the holiday, leaving him to stay with the Keenans in their remote Maine beachside home, in the snow and bitter cold. As Jack’s drawings multiply and the howls outside grow louder, readers will wonder if he’s withdrawing, abandoning reality (and pulling Nick and the Keenans along with him), or if somehow his interior landscape is populating the outside world.

Multiple mysteries enliven the terror of The Boy Who Drew Monsters, which becomes ever more disturbing as the source of danger comes gradually into focus. In his sensitive, incisive treatment of Jack’s behavior and its effect on his family, Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) explores the challenges of mental disorders, but suspense and a bright thread of terror evoke the very best of the horror genre. Just as a Maine winter chills the bones, this singular little boy provides a satisfyingly frightening story.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 steps outside.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.

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As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de si├Ęcle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–“it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.


This review originally ran in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 10 cherries.

The Lodger by Louisa Treger

In a lively debut novel, H.G. Wells takes a back seat to his lover, the rebellious Dorothy Richardson, a literary figure deserving of the spotlight.

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Louisa Treger’s debut novel, The Lodger, opens in 1906. Family tragedy has landed Dorothy Richardson in a boarding house in a less-than-savory part of London, working at a dentist’s office for a pittance and living hand-to-mouth. She is relieved when Jane, an old friend, extends an invitation to visit her country estate for a weekend of relaxation. Jane has recently married an up-and-coming writer, H.G. Wells. Bertie, as he is called, turns out to be a strong personality: “He was like a volcano, continually bubbling over with urgent thoughts and incandescent ideas.” Dorothy is not sure at first whether she is attracted or repelled; his lively eyes and magnetic intensity are marred by zealous and sometimes off-putting opinions. The comfort of an intellectual who listens seriously to her ideas, however, proves irresistible, and between arguing about science and admiring Bertie’s writing, Dorothy finds herself helplessly falling for the husband of her best and oldest friend.

Bertie assures Dorothy that he and Jane have an agreement that allows for extramarital relationships, although this arrangement is as emotionally complex and problematic as it sounds. Having fallen headlong into an affair, Dorothy is then torn between her hard-won independence, which she feels is worth even the high price of poverty, and her love for a man who needs more of her than she can give. When a strikingly beautiful suffragette named Veronica Leslie-Jones moves into Dorothy’s boarding house in London and becomes a singular new friend, Dorothy’s energies and loyalties are still more divided. Writing becomes the outlet for her pain; Bertie has long encouraged her to make such an effort but, fittingly, Dorothy discovers this outlet, and her talent, on her own terms and schedule.

The Lodger is based on the real life of Dorothy Richardson, a groundbreaking but little-known author of the early 20th century. Treger’s taut evocation of Dorothy’s life and emotional struggles is gripping from the very first page, and readers are thrust into Bertie’s overwhelming presence just as helplessly and thoroughly as Dorothy is. While an unflattering light is shed on her famous lover–H.G. Wells comes off as obnoxiously self-centered–Dorothy herself is undoubtedly the star. She is a sensitive, passionate woman wrestling with the conventions of her time, and even while she experiences several traumas, Dorothy is a source of inspiration–for Treger, for those around her and for the contemporary reader as well.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 hot London attics.

We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers by Sean Lewis

Anecdotes and observations of American craft brewing that will make readers thirsty.

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Sean Lewis was working as a sportswriter in 2010 when he got his first writing assignment from Beer Advocate–a profile of the infant Blue Hills Brewery in Canton, Mass. He worked there as an unpaid intern, learning the brewing ropes, and admired what he calls “the Tao of the brewmaster.” Many brewery tours and interviews later, in We Make Beer, he relates the “spirit and artistry” of craft brewers from coast to coast, from garages and barns to the largest brewhouses in the nation.

Lewis visits with major players (Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada, Stone), younger, smaller efforts (Nebraska, Jackalope), brewpubs and production breweries, and explores various approaches to the concept of growth. For example, Sheepscot Valley Brewing Company has chosen to stay local to Whitefield, Maine, and the community has repaid that effort, while West Coasters Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas have recently opened East Coast locations to serve their expanding markets. In language that will make readers thirst for a well-crafted pint, and with graceful transitions between topics, Lewis undertakes what is clearly a labor of love–much like the businesses he writes about. His celebration of the women and men of craft brewing is both accessible to the novice (see his one-page appendix on the brewing process, and explanation of the pronunciation of “wort”) and thoroughly rewarding for the beer aficionado. A comment about a collaboration between three breweries is equally applicable to the larger concept of Lewis’s book: “It just seemed like a fun thing to do.”


This review originally ran in the September 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 pints, naturally.

Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw

An impassioned view of insect evolution and the awesome implications of bugs for all life on earth.

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Scott Richard Shaw has been collecting bugs since he was four. Now a professor of entomology at the University of Wyoming, he shares his passion for these creatures and their cosmological significance in Planet of the Bugs.

The scope of this work is immense. Shaw begins with the Cambrian period, more than half a billion years ago, by examining the sea-dwelling arthropods that first developed body armor and mobility, and then follows them through prehistory and into the modern day. He argues for the predominance of insects, as they are Earth’s most diverse and adaptive animals and thus the best survivors over time. The dinosaurs were impressive, and we like to emphasize the importance of our own human species in earth’s history–he criticizes this human-centrism throughout–but Shaw makes an excellent case that insects “literally rule the planet.”

Planet of the Bugs is packed with intriguing trivia. Parasitic flies feed in turn on the blood of vampire bats; caddisflies are “nature’s most adept architect,” building portable, protective cases for themselves using the natural materials around them; the griffinflies of the Carboniferous period (which looked something like huge versions of the modern dragonfly) had wingspans of two to three feet; female sawflies and wasps choose the sex of their offspring.

Shaw boggles the reader with his enthusiasm and expertise, and reveals a playful side. Among his many encyclopedic turns, he waxes philosophical and indulges in metaphor and even humor, resulting in a surprisingly accessible and entertaining read. A love of bugs is not required.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 old wings.
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