Bookclub Reads The North Water by Ian McGuire

Last night – yes, this is a last minute post! – my Toronto book club discussed Ian McGuire’s The North Water. The novel has been highly acclaimed – named a Best Book of the Year by Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, New Statesman, Publishers Weekly, and Chicago Public Library – and long or short-listed for many awards including the Man-Booker prize.

It’s a story about whaling in the 1850s. “With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire’s The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.”

Almost everyone loved it. I was the exception.

McGuire’s writing is superb. Each sentence carefully constructed for maximum impact. The plot builds and builds, one crisis after another, to create a compelling story, the group said. Readers are transported in time and space – gritty streets of England, the horror of the siege of Delhi (which the main character experienced before signing up as ship’s surgeon), the grime, toil, terror, and chaos of conditions on board a whaling ship, the unsavoury characters who chose that life. McGuire selects words like a poet. He builds not just a story but an experience.

What then was my problem?

My problem was its excessively vile descriptions – based on last night, these appealed to the rest of the group but for me they detracted from the story. A few examples:

“He takes a piece of lint padding and presses it against the wound, then makes a brief incision with the lancet. A green-pink mixture of blood and pus spills out and soaks into the padding. Sumner presses harder and the wound exudes yet more of the foul liquid.”

“He stops, groans, then leans over and vomits out gobbets of half-digested seal meat onto the frozen snow beneath. He feels a sharp pain like a lance jabbing in his stomach and releases an involuntary squirt of shit into his trousers … his beard is packed now with saliva and bile and fragments of tooth-ground meat.”

“In the night the priest has a fierce bout of diarrhea. Sumner is woken by the sounds of loud groans and splattering. The cabin air is dense with the velvet reek of liquid feces.”

“As soon as he pierces the cavity wall, a pint or more of foul and flocculent pus, turbid and pinkish grey, squirts unhindered out of the newly made breach, spattering across the table and coating Sumner’s hands and forearms. The roaring stench of excrement and decay instantly fills the cabin.”

Sumner has just tracked and killed a bear in the frozen north. He has gutted it and drunk from a “hot pool of black liquid – blood, urine, bile” inside the cavity. “His beard is stiff with ursine gore, both hands are dyed dark red, and the arms of his peacoat are soaked up toe the elbows. His mouth, teeth, and throat are caked with blood, both animal and human. The tip of his tongue is missing.”

Five examples. The novel contains many, many more. For me, it was too much. I would have preferred McGuire to have left more to my imagination, to be less “in my face”.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Soldier’s Farewell – a review by Sarah Zama

A few weeks ago, author Sarah Zama whose blog is called The Old Shelter reviewed Maisie Dobbs – and today she’s back with a review of The Soldier’s Farewell, a novel by Alan Monaghan. Many thanks for contributing to the blog, Sarah!

9780230763166The Soldier-s Farewell_4The Soldier’s Farewell by Alan Monaghan

The Easter Rising is a well-known part of Irish history, the apex of Ireland’s fight for her freedom. Not as well-known is the time that came after, which is all but a heroic history. That was a time of a fierce civil war that put brother against brother, bloodied Ireland and destroyed Dublin. It was the time when Ireland lost Ulster and the feeling of betrayal was the constant companion of many Irish.

This is when this book is set, a very intense time in Irish history as seen from within.

Stephen is a interesting character and a good example of the unresolved conflict of that time. A veteran of WWI, a loyal follower of Michael Collins, he is the man in the middle: the man who fought WWI in the British Army, but fought alongside one of the fiercer fighters for Ireland’s independence too. Like many others, Stephen had to decide whose side he wanted to stand on when Collins signed the Treaty with Britain, and by choosing, he ended up on the opposite side from his own brother, who regarded him as a betrayer.

The subject matter is clearly hot and relevant, still I had quite a hard time feeling involved in the story. Although these characters act and react to the historical events, they never seem to have a personal goal to pursue. Mostly, they don’t go after a personal achievement, but merely follow history’s flow, which didn’t truly allow me to care for their predicaments. But even when they pursue for a personal goal, it feels as if those are different stories and never truly connect to the overall matter of the novel.

This is the case of Lillian’s arc. She’s Stephen soon-to-be-wife, a mathematician like him. They pursue the academic life together, before Stephen chooses to answer the Nation’s call for fighting men. As a woman, Lillian has a very hard life inside Trinity College and part of the story follows her struggle to see her merits recognized against a male colleague. Although interesting in itself, this part of story is so detached from the main matter of the civil war that I found it more distracting than enriching. And unfortunately this is only one of quite a few threads that really lead nowhere.

It is a shame, because there is much to love in this novel. Stephen comes in contact with many historical figures and is always in the thick of the action. In a time when nobody trusts their own brother and where fighters execute their comrades of yesterday, Stephen was in the right place as a character to convey the tragedy of a nation.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen.

This is a novel I could have loved, but which I just enjoyed.

The Soldier’s Farewell is the third novel in a trilogy, but it stands on its own well enough that I could read it without ever feeling I missed pieces of the story.

Many thanks for the thoughtful review, Sarah. I look forward to reading more.

Sarah Zama was born, raised and still lives near Verona (Italy), though she worked for a time in Dublin. Sarah started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today she’s a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into her own dieselpunk stories.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Maisie Dobbs – a review by Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama has followed A Writer of History for some time now and a few months ago mentioned some historical fiction she’d been reading, so I invited her to write a book review for the blog. In today’s post she’s reviewing Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (she also has a review on her blog, The Old Shelter). Take it away, Sarah.

Maisie-Dobbs-by-Jacqueline-WinspearMAISIE DOBBS by Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs #1) – reviewed by Sarah Zama

Jacqueline Winspear has written twelve mystery novels in a series with Maisie Dobbs as protagonist. This novel is the first in the series.

The setting is London, 1929. Maisie Dobbs sets up her own investigation agency and she is quite a unique investigator, who cares for the truth and for the feeling of all people involved in an investigation. This first case involves WWI veterans, which forces Maisie to look into her own war experience and the unresolved matters she has tried to leave behind.

I have very contrasting feelings toward this book. It starts out as a mystery, but I’m a bit hesitant to actually define it as such. The central part of the story – and it’s a good half of the entire book – is really Maisie’s backstory, which suggests an introductory book with a mystery as an afterthought. While the backstory where characters are introduced and relationships explained is interesting, its connection to the mystery is not very strong nor very pertinent. The story of how Maisie went from childhood to university student and from being the pupil of a doctor and detective to being a nurse during WWI is really a story in itself, and didn’t need the distraction of a mystery. Indeed, the mystery could have worked without the reader needing to know anything about Maisie’s past. Connecting the two felt contrived.

In my opinion, the conclusion of the mystery is lame and a little unrealistic. A great effort is made to make it relevant to Maisie’s past experiences, but personally, I didn’t find it to work particularly well.

And still, I enjoyed the book because the characters are so well drawn and all relatable in their own way. (I’ve also learned that most of them will appear in subsequent books of the series). Winspear has a gift for creating quirky and intriguing characters. She also has a gift for writing amusing and moving vignettes. It’s a shame that this first novel in the Maisie Dobbs series lacks a compelling plot.

I enjoyed reading of the effects of World War I on ordinary people. All the characters in the book have to cope with the war, one way or another, a horrible, global war like no other before.

In summary, the book has much to offer – enough for me to set aside the story’s shortcomings.

Many thanks, Sarah. I too enjoyed Maisie Dobbs – my first introduction to Jacqueline Winspear. And thought her WWI novel, The Care and Management of Lies – was truly exceptional.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.