Blog Tour: House of Spines by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he
discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who it seems has been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up.

Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman…

A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the Gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly…”

So, here we are with the latest novel from Michael J Malone and, I’ll be honest, after getting into House of Spines I did have to double check that this is the same Michael J Malone who wrote last year’s A Suitable Lie for Malone – as one glance at the man’s ‘cv’ will attest – is a very talented chameleonic writer clearly with “over 200 published poems, two poetry collections, six novels, countless articles and one work of non-fiction” to his name.

Whereas A Suitable Lie was something of a domestic-noir thriller with a twist on spousal abuse, House of Spines is very much a psychological thriller with heavy horror overtones and mystery that brings to mind the likes of Rebecca. Its setting in an old, practically empty and isolated manor really upping the opportunity to give Ran and the reader a real sense of the willies with the jarring jolts between Ran’s seclusion in the house and visits back to the modern world in the local village lending a further sense of disconnect between the ‘real world’ and the events back at Newtown Hall.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and well played mystery by Malone too, so thoroughly absorbing that’s impossible not to get caught up in and it’s impossible to express how so without given away a tiny bit of the plot so I’m gonna have to say that the next paragraph contains a SPOILER ALERT.

They say that if you’re only exposed to one narrative for so long you’ll eventually try and find ways to identify with it and find a sort of kinship (a sort of literary Stockholm perhaps) and this is true of House of Spines and Ranald. You get completely caught up in his viewpoint (even though it’s not told first-person) and, thus, in his struggles between distinguishing reality from fantasy and feeling completely in the dark on so many key points. For in the same way that his cousin has lead him a merry dance and played on Ran’s mental state so, too, is the reader left uncertain as to what is reality and what is the effect of Ran’s own mental state with so many puzzle pieces kept from view or merely hinted at with other characters holding on to key facts or leaving me exasperatingly frustrated at their seeming vow of silence on them. I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to take a character and shake em by the lapels and scream “just sodding well tell him what the hell you know!”

I didn’t seen the final reveal coming, any of them for this is a mystery of many facets, and that’s always a good thing and the final sentence – in true horror style, managed to give me a chill. But then there’s so much going on for such a relatively novel it’s a wonder that it does all get resolved. From Ran’s own parental background, Newtown Hall and his Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick’s history to the current cousin-related concerns and it’s to Malone’s credit that the novel never feels over-stretched and these story lines are not only given all the space and to breath and come to fruition but are so ably wrapped up within the novel’s pages without feeling in the least bit rushed.

House of Spines is a cracking read that combines a real mystery with a genuinely touching and emotionally affecting story that, at times, makes you really feel for Ranald (and others without wanting to give anything else away) and one that I thoroughly recommend.

My thanks again to Orenda Books for my copy and inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

 

 

 

There’s ghosts in the towers, smearing honey on the lawns

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To say I love music would be an understatement. I’d bring up that Nietzsche quote but it’s been overused. I also love good fiction and the impossible quest to get my fill of both means storage is becoming an increasing problem. But the two very rarely mix well. There are precious few strong novels about music. It could well be because the reality would be considered too unbelievable as fiction (have you read Keith Richards’ Life?) and capturing the magic and power in making music without coming across heavy on the cliché can be tricky. For every Almost Famous and Great Jones Street there’s a Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star.

However; The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas can now be added to that short list of great books about music.

Taking us back to Kilmarnock in the early 80’s, David F Ross presents the story of The Miraculous Vespas, a band formed and driven by their manager, Max Mojo, who – via some hard graft, a great song and couple of crucial run-ins with Boy George (though it’s still hard to believe there was a time when he wasn’t simply another ‘celebrity DJ’/talent-show judge with a highly questionable head tattoo) – manage to crack the top of the charts with their song It’s A Miracle (Thank You), taking us along for their ride to the almost-top.

However, this is more than a bitingly funny account of a young band’s quest for immortality –  there’s also the gang-war that’s running alongside as local gangs work to pull a fast-one over a big Glasgow crime family and come away clean. As every bit as compelling as the fortunes of The Miraculous Vespas, the McLarty storyline is a gripping and, at times, brutally violent and thrilling slab of gangster rivalry that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Bob Hoskins film (here I’m talking The Long Good Friday rather than the one with the cartoon rabbit).

Told with the occasional retrospective interjection from a modern-day Max Mojo, The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is an absolute belter of a book that’s populated by an amazing array of characters. There’s a couple of familiar faces from The Last Days of Disco including Fat Franny Duncan (of whom this installment paints a softer image and, surprisingly, has one of the novel’s most genuinely touching scenes) but you’re never given to think there’s too many characters as Ross balances the story expertly amongst the cast as their roles, the rise of the Vespas and the McLarty saga come together into a brilliantly thought out and well executed – not to mention bloody funny – conclusion.

Chief amongst these new characters is the aforementioned Max Mojo. A heady blend of hair dye, a passion for music, lithium compounds and a dermination to live the Malcolm McLaren quote, that sits on the books jacket, that Rock ‘n’ Roll is “… that question of trying to be immortal”. If only he could get control of the voice in his head. Mojo is one of the most original and brilliant characters I’ve seen in fiction for some time and has probably given me more laughs than many.

Much like his first book, The Last Days of Disco, David F Ross paints a fond picture of this time despite the obvious shafting the region (where didn’t?) was taking under Thatcher. Times are tough – especially for the crooks – yet there’s an optimism shot through this time and you can’t help but shake the feeling that – for some – that fabled ship may just be about to come in. Ross does a great job of painting a truly encompassing picture of the era – the impending Miner’s Strike, the end of the Falklands Conflict and racism all help set the scene – while his use of regional dialect places the reader firmly in place as well as making for some of the funniest insults and dialougue I’ve read.

If I had a quid for every time this book sent me to Spotify to play a track I’d have… well, I’d probably have about £20 but the fact is that with references to tracks by Orange Juice, The Clash, Big Star and, of course, Paul Weller, The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas has got one of the best soundtracks you’ll find in fiction .

Social commentary, gang war, relationship ups and downs, interband relationships, Spinal Tap moments, humour and heartbreak and the power of music; it’s all here. There’s a lot going on in this book and David F Ross, an author to watch, injects it all with an genuine passion for music, an  unquestionable talent as both a writer and storyteller and, above all, a wicked sense of humour; The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is uproariously funny. So many times I had to stop as I was laughing so hard I was turning into the annoying commuter in Mr Bean. Just the prologue, the creation of Max Mojo if you will, had me in stitches ( “…hands absolutely bastart achin’ fae they nails”). And as for the assumption that Hairy was Hairy Doug’s first name and the consequences for his partner…. well. If this book doesn’t make you laugh then, frankly, there’s something wrong with you.

David F Ross’ The Disco Days trilogy is due to be wrapped up with The Man Who Loved Islands. I for one can’t wait to get my hands on that.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and getting me onto the Blogtour, check out the other stops, and get hold of The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas as soon as you can.

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This high blood pressure’s got a hold on me…

IMG_4025Powerful things, dreams. David F. Ross’ The Last Days of Disco is bookended by two – the teenage fantasy of Bobby Cassidy racing around Monaco and the disturbed nightmares suffered by older brother Gary following his time in the Falklands War.

Quite the juxtaposition, but then an awful lot happens between the two points as we follow the lives (and dreams) of the Cassidy boys in early-80s Kilmarnock. Bobby – don’t ask to see his tattoos – and his best mate Joey Miller aim at avoiding the dole, school and the army by setting themselves up as the new kings of the mobile disco scene, becoming caught up in conflict with the local party-entertainment-mafia kingpin. Gary, meanwhile, pursues a career in the Army (in an attempt to make his father proud), eventually being caught up in the Falklands Conflict.

I was born in 1980. As such there is zero chance that I was politically aware (or aware of The Jam) at any point during Thatcher’s reign. I do, though, have many a memory of the TV news containing phrases such as “strikes”, of the threat of the IRA and not knowing what Gerry Adams’ voice sounded like, of Simon Weston appearing on various television shows and of the image of the Iron Lady herself holding court.

Accordingly, I’m often fascinated to see and read portrayals of those times that served as a backdrop to my own childhood that fill in the blanks, as it were. To learn that it wasn’t all He-Man, Trap Door or Roland Rat on TV and that the god-awful music on Top of the Pops, and that which Bruno Brookes played on a Sunday Evening, wasn’t the only kind being listened to.

Along with plenty of references to ‘proper’ music, Ross evokes a vivid portrait of urban blight under Thatcher rule: a family of seven (soon to be eight) “all living in a three-bedroomed, mid-block council flat….. the only flat in a block of six that didn’t have the windows boarded up”, interspersed with transcripts from TV interviews and newspaper reports for increased context.

But context is really all that such ‘grey’ is for as this is no sad-sack, misery-guts, woe-is-life under the Tory Battle-Axe read. Far from it.

The Last Days of Disco is a thoroughly enjoyable, uplifting and bloody hilarious book that’s shot through with a clear and knowledgeable devotion to music (“the beauty and power of the 45rpm” as the PR summary so succinctly puts it) and a wicked, wicked sense of humour.

I come close to choking on my coffee when Hamish picked up the microphone to speak only for “a bang. A blue flash. A high-pitched shriek. And then the still unamplified but now perfectly audible ‘Ah! Ya fuckin’ bastart hoor, ye!’” Not to mention his abduction-at-urinal-point (seriously; poor Hamish comes in for such a drumming I did start to wonder if the author had something against him at times). Nor to mention the laughs I had imagining Mr King’s repeated rants of barely-repressed anger at each play of Shakin’ Stevens… “Ah’m fuckin’ agreein‘ wi’ him an’ he calls me “a cheeky wee cunt”.'”

Throughout, Ross demonstrates a real skill when it comes to rendering situations life-like, be it the brilliantly-funny first encounter with Hairy Doug and the disarray he and his ‘python’ live in to the disturbing nightmares that haunt Gary following his experience in the Falklands –

 …he saw the crudely shaped limbs of what appeared to be tailors’ dummies sticking out of the marshes and the mud as he advanced – bayonet out – towards them.

As he got to them, they weren’t mannequins but real people; kids barely out of their teens just like him, crying for their mums. It was Gary’s job to silence them. As he stabbed at them they didn’t just fall and die like they did in The Longest Day. They grabbed desperately at the blade…. it took ten thrusts to silence the desperate screams of the third. All of them were so close to Gary he could feel their hot breath on his face.

A real talent with words is at work in these pages.

Location is a key character in many a novel and The Last Days of Disco is no exception. Small-town life in Ayrshire is wonderfully described with dialogue delivered in Kilmarnock vernacular adding to both sense of place and the general hilarity: “Ah’m Franny fuckin’ Duncan. Noo whit dae ye want. Ah’m in ma fuckin’ scratcher.'”

DSC_5361 David Ross 2010The main story arc is beautifully bolstered by a strong cast of supporting characters. From dubious party entertainers making phallic balloon animals and hapless van drivers to local gangsters (Fat Franny Duncan is one of those woefully unaware self-styled master villains so comedically-inept as to almost warrant his own novel), each with any number of laugh-out-loud moments.

Seemingly minor plot lines intersperse into one and eventually meet that of the main in a thoroughly unexpected and compelling way with Ross deftly blending together the build up of conflict in the Falklands with that of the Ayrshire mobile disco scene.

In all honesty, I did not expect a novel that started out with young Bobby Cassidy dreaming of Sally McLoy’s “tits jiggling away like jellies in an earthquake” to slowly and surely become such a multi-layered social / political-commentary with so many plot twists and turns nor for it to do so with such skill and depth, but bugger me if that’s not what it did.

In his first novel, David F. Ross has given us a heady blend of social realism, tragedy, humour and Paul Weller. There’s not a dull moment in these pages and I wholeheartedly recommend getting your hands on a copy pronto.

Check out the previous stop in the book tour for The Last Days of Disco at Euro Drama and keep an eye on Literature for Lads for tomorrow’s.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for sending me another cracking read and Liz Barnsley for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

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While a lot of my favourite bands got started in the 80’s, the term “80’s music” to me still brings back nightmare like images of Duran Duran or Spandau-fecking-Ballet on Top of the Pops (not to mention the horror of Bros). Thankfully David F. Ross put together a quality (The Human League aside) playlist of those songs that brought about the book, you can check it out here: http://t.co/Pi5ReU5V16