I’m delighted to be closing the House of Spines blog tour by having Michael Malone in the Secret Library. A Suitable Lie was one of the best books I’ve read this year and House of Spines has been tearing it up among the community of readers. It’ll be covered on this blog in short order. Michael is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country, just a stone’s throw from the great man’s cottage in Ayr. Well, a stone thrown by a catapult. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. His career as a poet has also included a (very) brief stint as the Poet-In- Residence for an adult gift shop. His novels have won a bagful of prizes, and you can find him online at the Crimesquad site.
Here are his choices:
The Ballad of Lee Cotton by Christopher Wilson
If you had been anywhere near me in the summer of 2005 I would have worn your ears off talking about this book. I had an enthusiasm bordering on the obsessive and I would have tugged at your shirtsleeve until you picked the book up and bought it for yourself.
Lee Cotton, in his own words ‘gets himself born in November 18, 1950’ in Eureka, Mississippi at the same time as his mother’s neighbour, Jimmy Cooder’s Charolais bull finds itself dangling from a tree. This event causes a media storm ‘because bulls never show no natural enthusiasm or aptitude for tree-climbing’. And from the off you are aware that you are in the hands of a fascinating narrator.
Lee is a white child born to a black mother and in his early life learns to deal with the problems this presents. His Icelandic father, from whom Lee has inherited his ‘straw-blonde hair, buttermilk skin and blue eyes’ doesn’t hang around to offer explanation to the local populace for this misplaced child.
Wilson has littered this novel with ideas and surprises that are touching, dramatic and hilarious in turn. He takes great risks as he does so but in his winning narrator, the bold Lee himself, he has created a device that allows him to pull off everything he attempts. Lee Cotton is flighty, quirky, naive and fun and he and his actions are described in an energetic, inventive prose that never lets up for the duration of the ‘ballad’.
Beach Music by Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy, who died in 2016, was one of my favourite authors, and in an era before social media where authors are much more easily contacted, he was the one and only writer I ever wrote a fan letter to. That’s how high he was held in my regard.
Beach Music is about Jack McCall, a native of South Carolina who flees to Rome with his daughter after the suicide of his wife. A telegram from home summons him back to the US to spend time with his ailing mother before she dies. This journey home forces him to face his own demons, and to look into the truth behind the disappearance of an old school friend, a Vietnam protestor.
This was Conroy’s sixth book and he transports the reader from the rough cobbles of Italian streets to the creeks and moss-hung trees of the Deep South, and while he does so one can’t help but feel Conroy is once more addressing the difficult memories of his childhood. Sociopathic fathers are a common theme in Conroy’s books and once again he faces up to that in Beach Music.
The themes are heavy, and not for the faint of heart, but the writing is laced through with poetry and moments of humour to give the reader respite. How could you not love a writer who weaves words like this… ‘American men are allotted just as many tears as American women. But because we are forbidden to shed them, we die long before women do, with our hearts exploding or our blood pressure rising or our livers eaten away by alcohol because that lake of grief inside us has no outlet. We, men, die because our faces were not watered enough.’
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
It was a rainy evening on holiday, and I spotted a book on a shelf in the B&B I was staying in. Drawn in by the title and not knowing what I might expect I picked it up, dived in, and boy am I glad I did. She’s since became one of those –the authors whose new books you buy without investigating what the book’s about.
A young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt, the woman of the title, Esme Lennox, in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released. Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris’s questions. What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution? And how was it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family’s history?
The reader finds out that Esme, pregnant, the victim of a rape as a young woman was incarcerated in an asylum for her ‘crime’. It gives one room for pause, does it not, that this kind of thing happened to young women, and not that long ago, but happen it did, and in dealing with such a subject O’Farrell has written a moving, fascinating and haunting tale.
Thanks Michael for a fantastic selection. House of Spines is available here, and if you want to know more about it, just check out some of the other sites that have participated in the blog tour.