Monday, 14 August 2017

Guest review by Caroline Pitcher: THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire





Caroline Pitcher loves writing stories. It’s like living lots of lives, not just one.

Her books include The Winter Dragon, Lord of the Forest, The Littlest Owl, Please Don’t eat my Sister, Diamond (Kathleen Fidler Award), Kevin the Blue (Independent Story of the Year),The Shaman Boy (East Midlands Arts Award for Cloud Cat),The Gods are Watching, Eleven o’clock Chocolate Cake, Mine, Silkscreen (Arts Council Award), and short stories such as Tam the Eldest, The Dolphin Bracelet and Our Lady of the Iguanas. 


Caroline has just ordered expensive new glasses ready to begin that novel that’s been in her mind all summer. See also her website.


Behold the man. Henry Drax, harpooner, smelling and sucking his fingers after readjusting his crotch, murdering a stranger and raping a boy in the very first chapter. You have been warned.

Drax is the wild, unholy engineer of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations. Even when he disappears into the vast indifference of the Arctic Circle, you’ll sense him out there, waiting. He’ll burst back into the story like an acid attack. No unhappy childhood or abuse excuse for Henry Drax. He is beyond reason, a morally null thing.

In the port of Hull in the eighteen fifties, Drax joins the crew of the Volunteer, a whaling ship owned by the rich and ruthless Baxter, who now has other plans for it. Baxter has hired Brownlee as captain, an odd appointment seeing as Brownlee’s last vessel was crushed to matchwood by a berg. Brownlee must appoint a ship’s doctor, and he thinks that Patrick Sumner, a shortarse hopalong, will do, because he is cheap and seems easy-going. Unlikely as it may seem, it is the Homer-reading Sumner who will stand up to Henry Drax. When first they meet, Drax stares at him for a moment as if deciding who he is and what he might be good for.

Sumner boards the claustrophobic, faintly faecal-smelling Volunteer. He is a disgraced army surgeon with a reputation in tatters, no explanation given yet. Every evening he takes twenty-one grains of opium to blur his past and after a concoction mixed with rum he dreams of wandering over the ice fields, seeing unicorn, sea-leopards, walrus, storm petrels, albatross - and polar bears.

Sumner is isolated from the crew as the ship slumps and pitches amid the seething hillocks of an adamantine sea. This is a world of harsh beauty and horror. Think mythic Melville, but also Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, and the Old Testament fierceness of Cormac McCarthy. Any women writers here?

Sometimes I had to snap the book shut to keep Drax and the savagery inside, but not for long. The suspense was too much to bear. The story gripped me. It was a while before I noticed it’s told in the present tense, which can irritate. Not here.

The scenes of seal-killing and whale-hunting are inevitably violent, almost too much for a veggie Greenpeace reader. I wonder if there’ll be co-editions in Japan, Norway and Iceland... There’s shock after cruel shock, blood, pus, shit, rape, murder, odd sex and non-stop swearing, but there are rare rays of beauty to light the desolation; the sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration. There’s also sly humour. When a priest woos the Esquimaux with crucifix, candles and Jesus, they find it secretly amusing, a form of exotic entertainment in the otherwise dull expanses of winter.

This is McGuire’s second novel and it won the RSL Encore award. He has recreated a lost world. He grew up near Hull, my distant hometown. My father worked in High Street, a few doors up from William Wilberforce House, so I loved the Hull setting with the cobblestones, Queen’s Dock, Bowlalley Lane, the Turkish Baths, the De La Pole Tavern and the Tabernacle, Charterhouse Lane, and yes! Caroline Street, but my favourite street, the Land of Green Ginger, is much too magical to feature here.

The narrative plunges like a roller-coaster built on ice. Sumner the surgeon sinks lower, even lower than you could imagine. There is some kind of redemption, and the ending has a scene of profound loneliness which has haunted me since I first read The North Water last year.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Guest review by Chitra Soundar: DAILY RITUALS - HOW GREAT MINDS MAKE TIME, FIND INSPIRATION, AND GET TO WORK by Mason Currey


Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and author of children’s books, based in London. When not writing stories or not visiting schools, Chitra fills her well with her nephews, taking photos of flowers and birds, going to museums and attending dancing classes. Find out more at www.chitrasoundar.com or follow her on twitter via @csoundar.

I was constantly moaning on Facebook about not writing enough. The truth was that I was writing a lot – but I wasn’t spending enough time ruminating on the characters and the plot. An artist friend who watched me whinge and moan suggested I read Daily Rituals – a book put together by Mason Currey, which actually started as a blog.

In his introduction, Currey says, “My underlying concerns in the book are issues I struggle with in my own life. How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?”

I was bogged down by the same questions – can you do creative work, write the next best British Asian middle grade novel if you’re working to a deadline? Can you do good work if you spend three days a week at a day-job and hardly have time to think about anything else? Can a modern writer who still has to pay the mortgage, bills and an occasional treat claim their place on the artistic pedestal?

I’ve often blogged about my writing process, the preoccupation with time, filling the well, spending time between writing and thinking.

So someone suggesting this book to me felt like a gift. It was unsolicited advice from the universe to let go of the how and just focus on the what – because if anything this book tells me there is no one way to do the “art”. What works for a writer in France in the 1800s might not work for Stephen King in a park trailer.

When I started reading Daily Rituals, I was amused and awed by the genius, pettiness and even the arrogance of many. While many respected the writing, some dreaded it and others could operate only in excesses.

Currey has chosen a wide range of writers, musicians and artists across generations, continents and some cultural diversity. Many of the accounts have been scoured from interviews, memoirs, newspaper clippings and such. But the short accounts from each artist reads like a story. A little glimpse through the window of a famous artist who we admire and would love to emulate.

Not sure if I can drink and dine out every evening like Francis Bacon or write in the family sitting room like Jane Austen surrounded by the noises of siblings, but I did find a kindred soul in Henry Miller. Like him I prefer to write from dawn to noon and anything I write after that is counterproductive to the work in progress.

P G Wodehouse and Stephen King have different rituals but they did solid work and had goals for each day. One writer I would have liked to see is Alexander McCall Smith whose rituals have been published widely. He is also a musician (apart from being a medical law professor) and he talks about his writing rituals here and here.

Writing places also seem to vary – from sheds to basement to a desk in the corner of a bedroom to writing with the company of snails. While some wrote after a coffee, others needed a stiff drink. Each of their muses seemed to ask for different things.

Did it stop my clamouring? Did it make me more confident of my methods? While any of these rituals cannot guarantee genius, it was reassuring to know that there is no way to approach it. There is no formula, there is no secret code that you get to find out only if you’re inducted into the hall of fame. There is just YOU. By that I mean ME. What works for me is surely only what works for me. I have to reflect on my own habits and discern the things that work and follow those rituals.

When we find that magic ritual – we should hold on to it. I know; it does cause huge amount of stress within our families.

o “I will not write until the genie appears out of this eco-lamp!”

o “I need to lock myself in the family bathroom for four hours in the morning to write.”

o “I can only write in cocktail bars between 6 pm and 9 pm and this entire table is taken for my enormous antique typewriter.”

Just kidding. Mine are much more sensible – I just live in a different country from my family or chloroform them until I’m done in the morning.

I wanted to share this book with all of you because we all wonder about the muse at some point – especially when there is a deadline and the words are stuck and wouldn’t flow down. Or we overwork – draining our creativity on to page and suffer from anti-social thoughts like – why do I have a family? Why do I have to take a shower today? What is the meal between breakfast and lunch? We feel guilty on days we don’t work, we get an idea during a holiday and we abandon our companions to the sharks in the ocean and hide in a dry corner with a notebook or a laptop.

So if you’re a regular output no-nonsense writer or I-write-when-I-want writer, this book will interest you. If not anything else it will give you the courage that whatever your method, there were more crazy ones out there!

Daily Rituals is published by Picador.