The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas by David F Ross

VespasThe Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas transports us back to 1980’s Ayrshire and it is good to be back. This is the second novel in the Disco Days trilogy by David Ross and although it does not pick up directly from The Last Days of Disco it does overlap, this time delving deeper into the lives of the local criminal element, whilst also charting the magical journey to immortality of a local band and their erratic manager.

Whilst Bobby Cassidy merely skirts around the edges of this latest tale, the key elements of David Ross’s writing remain to the fore. The novel is very much character driven and Ross continues to paint colourful, messy pictures with the people who populate his books. Perhaps messiest of them all is Max Mojo, the alter ego of gangster’s son Dale Wishart, and the driving force behind the Vespas.

High as a kite throughout the book, from prescribed as well as recreational drugs, as he recovers from a severe beating dished out in the last instalment, Mojo sets out to chase his dreams as a manager. The sheer force of his nature takes others with him including the genuinely talented Grant Delgado. It’s an unpredictable and hilarious ride as the teenage Mojo curses his way through the local and national music industry in a surprisingly endearing manner.

Meanwhile Kilmarnock is emerging as the location for a turf war. Notorious gangster Malachy McLarty is looking to spread his influence beyond Glasgow and the three main local families, along with the chief of police, are getting ready for trouble. The genius of Ross is that he can tread the lines between some pretty gritty realism, laugh out loud humour and emotional empathy. It really shouldn’t be possible to laugh during a scene in which a man is killed with a crossbow but somehow a smile creeps onto your face (maybe I shouldn’t have said that out loud).

As with Disco, all of the characters have a depth that means they cannot be put in a box. The way that Fat Franny Duncan cares for his dementia suffering mum may at first glance seem like a gangster cliche, but without wanting to give anything away, it leads to a beautifully poignant postscript to the story of a local criminal overlord. Whilst in a book full of nostalgic musical nods, the band’s emotionally scarred drummer, Maggie, brings to my mind a more modern reference point in Frank Turner’s Tell Tale Signs and the tenderness of her relationship with Grant is soaked in warm compassion.

In my review of his debut I wrote that David Ross “demonstrates a gift for expressing life that surely has more to give” and it is good to have that prediction come true in his second offering. You don’t have to have read Last Days in order to enjoy the Vespas but you really don’t want to miss out on either of them and I recommend you get them both read before the final part of this charming trilogy is released. Boy George might be unaware of the part he played in the rise of the Miraculous Vespas but he is surely poorer for that.

Interview with author Yusuf Toropov

jihadiI am absolutely delighted to be hosting day 2 of the blog tour for Jihadi A Love Story, written by Yusuf Toropov and published by Orenda Books, and it is a privilege to be doing so with an interview with the author himself.

I have to admit that this is a conversation that could have gone on and on, I loved the novel which is both thought provoking and entertaining, and have enjoyed discussing it with Yusuf himself.

Hopefully what follows will enhance your own enjoyment of the book and also give you a small insight into the man who wrote it.

What do you like to read yourself for entertainment or for learning?

I may be reading five or six books at any time. At the moment, I’m really enjoying Mari Hannah’s thriller THE SILENT ROOM, and a collection of superb American short stories called CONTEMPORARY FICTION, and Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, and Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES. I also read the Quran every day.

toropov 120215 copyWhich writers would you say influence your work the most and how?

There are a lot of books from great writers that served as master classes for me. Some of them are: Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, which plays with time and with questions about morality and destiny in a seemingly humorous way, but which has serious things to say about the dehumanizing effect of war; Nabokov’s PALE FIRE and LOLITA, which are masterpieces that defy description so I won’t try to describe them; and Hugo’s LES MISERABLES, which is basically a 1400-page reminder of what Hemingway said about not trying to write an epic if you really want to write an epic.  He was warning writers about the importance of mastering the art of painting little pictures before you try to paint big pictures. You need the little pictures if you want the big pictures to work.

Jihadi is a complex novel that is rooted in real events that we have lived through from different perspectives (and continue to). How do you go about writing such a novel and making it authentic?

Every time the book pushed me to write about an area I didn’t know about – and there were lots of those — I would go looking for information online.  I kept looking until I found something that happened to pull me in. The Raymond Davis affair was one of those stories. He was the American held in prison by the Pakistanis after killing a couple of people in broad daylight. I started asking myself questions like, “Okay, here’s a guy who is not well disposed toward Islam — what would make someone like that decide to eventually become a Muslim?” And then I had something to write about. So I used real events as writing prompts to get closer to the characters, to figure out what they were up to, what they were thinking, what their obstacles were.

The subject matter is potentially quite controversial and I imagine that people will project all sorts of interpretations onto it. Is there a key message you are trying to put across or were you just trying to write a great thriller?

I think it’s a little dangerous for a fiction writer to start trying to tell people about the message behind the book. It takes the focus off the book and puts attention on some little soapbox speech that the author wants to make after having finished it. Once I’ve said that, though, I can say this. It’s been obvious enough to me and to any Muslim who happens to live in the United States that we’ve had a very strange time of it over the past decade and a half as citizens of the country leading the so-called “war on terror,” and that strangeness was definitely one of the topics that presented itself.

Is it hard to write a character in a way that refuses to dehumanise them no matter what they do?

There were a couple of characters for whom I didn’t particularly want to do any transcribing. But I had to. I went on the theory that the solution was going to come to me if I listened to what the characters wanted to do and say, even if I didn’t like them very much. It was a little schizophrenic, and I’m not entirely sure why it worked, but it did.

The public debate around the whole mass of issues surrounding the “war on terror” and offshoots from it has been monopolised by very black and white extremes of “them and us”, which seem designed to ensure division rather than reconciliation.  In the novel these two extremes are represented but there is also a strong core of what I took to be your expression of true Islam. Is that a fair interpretation?

Absolutely. I make no apologies for writing the novel from the perspective of a Muslim, because that’s who I am, and I don’t apologize for presenting Islam in the way I believe it is meant to be conveyed. I think it’s a little odd that people would be taken aback by that, which some definitely have been. I think some people are threatened by the very existence of an Islamic perspective. Nonetheless, most people accept that writers who come from an atheistic perspective or a Jewish perspective or a Christian perspective can be valued and important and worth celebrating. In my beloved LES MISERABLES, the protagonist is quite obviously constructed in such a way as to mirror exemplary Christian values. Not only that, that he goes on a journey that strongly evokes the Christian conception of Jesus Christ, peace be upon him. And it’s brilliant.

 Thinking about the “strange time” that you mentioned earlier, a friend of mine once said to me that with everything that is happening in the world perhaps the most radical thing that we can do is be a good neighbour. Is that ultimately how we break down the barriers that others would have us build?

Any practicing Muslim would have to agree with you. This is Islam 101: Be a good neighbour. We need to be better neighbours, and we need to be more visible and make better contributions to our local communities.

Whilst Jihadi clearly raises some major themes of both current affairs and philosophy, it is also a beautifully written novel that shows you to be an adept author. Can we look forward to reading more novels from you in the future?

You’re very kind. The next novel is called Freed, and I’ve got about 120,000 words in the can, half of which I really like. That’s pretty much how the first novel started. I’m hoping this one doesn’t take eight years to finish. But you never can tell.

Thank you for your time Yusuf and for your thoughtful answers to my questions.

You can read my review of the book by following this link: Jihadi A Love Story Review, and you can continue to follow the blog tour by using the guide below.

JIHADI Blog tour Banner

 

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn

Beer and WhiskeyThe tagline for this history of the formation of baseball’s American Association reads “How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game” and the book contains all of the colour, fascination and anticipation that the pitch suggests. The story is all brought together through the 1883 pennant race which goes right to the wire as an astonishing cast of characters combine to save a distrusted game ravaged by cheats and gamblers.

Behind it all are of course enterprising men trying to make money, but they are also passionate sports fans and driven to save the game from its past reputation, as well as bring success to their respective cities and money to their own pockets. The combination of personal stories of triumph and pain, broader social history and the excitement of a competitive season of play is a heady mix that educates and entertains in equal measure. The reader quickly builds relationships with the owners, players and teams of this upstart association and delights at their efforts to bring home the prize.

The only sour touch comes from the appalling racism which cast a shadow over the period and is shocking in its ignorance and pervasiveness. It was another 60 years before Jackie Robinson bravely crossed the colour line and the book does not shirk the unpleasant truths of open abuse and discrimination. But in this way it ensures that we get a full and authentic view of the game at the time and the book does that exceptionally well. Baseball is America’s game but it might not have been without the passion and energy of these remarkable men. Achorn has paid them a memorable tribute in this well researched and captivating work.