Girlfriend In A Coma

As I say in BBC NI's Read All About Book Week Series - WATCH IT HERE    I was slow to the loving of books. 

First it was Football Annuals and later books about The Beatles and Bob Dylan. I was around 30 when I moved to Dublin and due to lots of time on the DART I started reading novels. None of them were very memorable.

Enter David Dark. David and I met at Greenhill YMCA in Co Down and then a year later at Greenbelt. We discovered we'd actually likely met at the previous Greenbelt. We became firm friends sharing our love for music and faith and the interaction of the two. \

David was also an avid reader. He always had a book in his hand. Always. 

I'd been to South Africa to visit Janice who was there for 9 months. I found Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood in a charity shop in Durban. David was a fan so I read it. I enjoyed it but knew I was missing stuff. Back in Dublin, David and I were having coffee in Bewleys. He asked me what I read in South Africa. I said Wise Blood and he opened it up to me.

David then took me to a book shop in Bray where he put Douglas Coupland's Life After God in my hand. That might have been my conversion moment. Coupland had this spiritual layer that caught my soul. Next up was Coupland's Girlfriend In A Coma and I was off and running...


The novel that I have enjoyed the most, reflected on the most and quoted most in my sermons is Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend In A Coma from 1998. 

Growing up in West Vancouver Coupland says he little annoyed that his parents were so distant from any religion that he didn’t even have a choice to reject God. He suggests he has been trying to make up a belief system ever since.

I love books that give me insight into he times I live in and inspire me to live life in all its fulness. What Coupland creates in Girlfriend In A Coma is a fascinating social critique and full of prophetic hopefulness. 

This is a novel about the ills of modern society, the healing and redeeming of such and the saving of souls. Briefly Karen falls into a coma in her high school year. Before doing so she has an apocalyptic vision of the future. She tells her boyfriend, 

"It was just us, with our meaningless lives. Then I looked up close...and you all seemed normal, but your eyes were without souls". 

Karen becomes the girlfriend in the coma and misses seventeen years of her life before coming out of it. Though the book deals with the changes from the world she fell asleep in, in 1981, to the world she wakened up again in in 1998 (she misses out on Princess Diana entirely), it is about the lives of her friends and the fufilment of Karen's vision, when they become the only people left on planet earth. 

Another old friend who died in his early teens, Jared, appears as a friendly ghost, who reveals to them their "deep down inside" ills and redeems them. It is then he says that they can get the world back but only if they decide too. "You're going to have to lead another life soon; a different life.

"In your old life you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture...If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."

What inspirational words. "If you're not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world...then you're wasting your day." 

Those words make me want to rush out the door and go change the world? I want to rethinking the nature of things? I want to boil the carcass of the old order? These are words of rebuke, in that I feel as I read them that indeed I have been wasting my day, and yet the rebuke comes with a motivating sense of encouragement to just go and stop wasting anymore time. 

If I could inspire as much every Sunday morning I would be a very happy minister!



Man Who died Twice

I so enjoyed Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club. The man is so amiable, funny and clever on TV and he has transferred all of that to the art of the novel. I have been looking forward to the follow up since I turned the last page. It doesn’t disappoint.

More than not disappointing. The Man Who Died Twice has all the wonderful familiar characters of Osman’s debut but the second thriller is a step up again. If Spielberg thought he had a blockbusting movie when he bought the rights to The Thursday Murder Club I hope he included the sequel in the contract. 

Yes, Osman’s template here is similar to his debut but from a parochial murder or two and a bunch of septuagenarian amateur sleuths The Man Who Died Twice has us dealing with the mafia, drug dealers, 20 million pounds worth of diamonds, the return of a dead ex husband and of course a plethora of murders. 

The whole thing bursts with mystery and intrigue. It has you gripped with the plot twists and turns, surmising but rarely second guessing Osman’s cleverness.

So far we are in Tarantino and James Bond territory. What Osman does better than anyone else is to weave extraordinary crime with everyday ordinary and heaped spoonfuls of laughter. For props don’t expect any outrageous Q inventions but flap jacks and wool bracelets!

The heart of the book is our four residents of Cooper Chase, a rather comfortable retirement development. Elizabeth the former professional detective; Joyce, the former nurse who has a little Columbo about her, seemingly dim but sharp as a pin;  Ron Ritchie, who is all about West Ham and revolution; and a Egyptian psychiatrist called Ibrahim who gets mugged in this one and is confined to the Chase battling his insecurities. 

Add DCI Chris Hudson, his partner PC Donna De Freitas and fixer-man, in every which way to fix, Bogdan and you have the characters that gives Osman’s books heart. There is a great deal of fondness and foibles and quirks in this tight wee gang. You love them all and you find yourself involved in their rows, diets, memories, traumas, romances, ailments and everyday well being.

I say heart because if I was being critical there is very little soul in Osman's books. Humans seem something less than precious and can be discarded too easily. I know it is fiction and comedy too but a conscience seems lacking.

Osman is first and foremost a comedian, not slap stick but cover and subtle. In that regard, Joyce comes into her own this time around. Her diary peppers the plot line, seemingly naive and concentrated on the mundane while involved up to her perceptive neck in solving the crimes. 

As you read you wonder. Who plays who in that Spielberg film. Judy Dench… Helen Mirren…  Michael Caine… it is a shame that Billy Connolly’s dementia rules him out. He’d have fitted in perfectly.

Bring on those movies. Bring on a third in the trilogy. Apeirigon or Gentleman In Moscow this is not but for escapist fun black comedy there are few more enjoyable reads. 


Guard Your Heart


My good friend Tony Davidson recommended this and a Dig With It review by another good friend Shirley-Ann McMillan convinced me to give it a go. It was easily my favourite read of the summer, gripping and powerfully provocative in its deep sharp comment on our Northern Irish problems, particularly for the younger generation.




A wonderful page turner of wonder, mystery, geography, love and murder. Not flawless but over all high recommended.




I liked this one but maybe controversially didn’t love it. That might have been my state of mind when I read it. I wanted a real gripper and this one is a slow lazy beautifully written study of Russia and life. Overall, beautiful writing and great insight into politics, history and how humans might survive and thrive in whatever the circumstances.




I was struggling in my novel reading. I needed something light but not without weighty thoughtfulness. Reach for the Nick Hornby I bought last year and never got round to. The man knows his music and sport and writes about ordinary things with insight and flair. It was a good decision.  A funny look at a romance that crosses age and class boundaries. All set in a Brexit world and Hornby deals with that political conundrum in a fascinating way.



Was very much looking forward to this one but though it was an emotional study of male friendship over decades it didn’t over excite me. Set at a late 80s music festival in Manchester and then 30 years later as one of the gang gets very bad news, it looks at the the big issue of euthanasia in how it effects love and friendship. 


Gentleman In Moscow

Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow is a strange one. It is a strange one as a book and it is a strange one to review.

Let me start with the book. It came highly recommended. What is it? Well it is a beautifully written novel. Wonderful prose. Full of insights about history and politics and economics and class and love. 

At the heart of it all is Count Alexander Rostov. He is the gentleman and in 1922 is is given a life sentence by the incoming Bolsheviks, not to Siberia but to the Hotel Metropol just across from the Kremlin. He is almost a library and a sage who can turn his hand to anything, including parenthood in the strangest of ways. More than anything else he is a charming man. A gentleman. Easy to spend a book with.

Confining himself to one building, big as it might be, Amor Towles has done a great job to give us 462 pages over 31 years. He has filled a book with genres -  part history, part political, part philosophical, part romance, part espionage. 

It is, however, bereft of plot. That at times proved a hindrance to me fully loving the book. At times I wasn’t gripped.

I felt that in its scope - geographical, historical, political and relational - that it might be to my 2021 holiday what Colum McCann’s Apeirogon was to 2020. Sadly not. 

It was stimulating though. For the first time in my life I considered the geographical vastness of Russia and how little I know about it or the people who live in it.

Rostov was thought provoking. I guess the over riding idea is found in “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The Count certainly does master a hotel, communism and everything else thrown at him and that speaks of wisdom, resilience and imagination.

I was also taken by the battle with time. Towles has set this book in that century where values, ambitions and priorities were going through a bigger revolution than the Bolshevik one. “When the Count was a young man he prided himself on the fact that he was unmoved by the ticking of the clock.” In the early years of the 20th century it seems that people “generally spent their days in the pursuit of the second hand. Rostov had opted for “the life of the purposely unrushed.”  

I was also taken and challenged by “...what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.” 

It is almost like a book of Proverbs. I enjoyed them very much but there were times when I wasn’t excited about the paragraphs between the poetic wonders.

A Gentleman in Moscow might not be for everyone but maybe everyone will have to read it to find out if it for them or not. Strange!


Guard Your Heart

“Adults remembered our past. Would they ever remember our future? Smothering the frustration of it building in my gut was harder by the hour. Would our day ever come?” 

These are the thoughts of 18 year old Londonderry Protestant girl Iona as the Troubles, that she didn’t live one minute of, raise their sinister sectarian shadow to come between her and the love of her life Aidan from across all the boundaries of Derry/Londonderry/Doire - religion, culture, class and geography.

Iona and Aidan are the Romeo and Juliet of Sue Divin’s novel Guard Your Heart. It had me gripped, lured by its charm and its terror, its deep emotion and page turning tension. 

Within the Romeo and Juliet template Divin tells her tale with dramatic ebb and flow. It is believable on all levels. Even when it might seems that she has stretched to contrive, as in Aiden and Iona are both born on the day of the Good Friday Agreement, VAR would always give her the benefit of the doubt. The characters are authentic, the psycho-geography of Derry/Londonderry/Doire works a treat. 

Divin’s attention to detail is accurate even down to the “If it wasn’t for the influence of preachers and therapists on my parents , there’d have been champagne not Shloer in the glasses.” Loved that! And did I mention humour. She somehow sneaks in loads of that too.

There is a strong spiritual thread. The evangelical Protestant Iona (named after the Christian band that I once wrote a song with) and the Catholic Aidan living off Bible verses and spiritual wisdom left, often in Irish, by his late mother. The book’s title is found in one of those, from Proverbs 4:23. Aiden has a powerful conversation with a monk and this powerful challenge to Iona’s parents and us all:


“‘Sweetie, he’s not even a proper Christian’ Mum’s eyes pleaded with me.

‘Aye, just like that’s not sectarian’.”


It is one of the many many depth charges, political, cultural and spiritual, that could keep the Foyle rippling for years.

Back to the question at the top of this blog. It’s a question for more than a novel. It is a question that needs asked every time a leader in our wounded and wonderful island makes a decision. From politics to church to community to education to housing to economics to employment. Let us not smother the future of our gifted and wonderful youth in the old conflicts that had us do incomprehensible and reprehensible things to one another. 

Dabbling at the edges of reconciliation work, as I try to do, I became very aware of the forgotten children of, not The Troubles, but the post Agreement. Fr Martin and I spent a car journey going to speak at a school’s event about whether the under 30s have been left out of all our deliberating about the past and more importantly the future. At the event itself a young Sixth former vented her angst at having been left to work out the past for her self and how that impacts her identity in the present. It also leaves her out of the big conversations about HER future. I hope she finds this book.

So, let Aidan and Iona preach. Let them judge us. Let them teach us. Allow them to contribute their energy and wisdom to THEIR future.

Sue Divin works in peace making. In Guard Your Heart she makes a huge contribution. I utterly loved every single page.


Reads 21

So, I am getting ready for novel reading holidays. People suggest, now and again, that I am well read. I don't feel that I am. I read a book every 6 weeks at home. Slow. By the sea, however, I can get through a good few more. I'll in no way get through all of these but they are what I will be choosing from... unless one fo thee suggests another!



I have been looking forward to this since I heard about at late last year. Subtitled Harrison, Clapton and Other Assorted Love Songs it is about my favour era of music - 1968-1973. Womack and Kruppa look at Harrison's All Things Must Pass and Clapton's Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs and tell the Ballad of George and Eric. That the 50th Anniversary Edition of All Things Must Pass comes out in a couple of weeks helps even more! This one is first up!



Booker winner, this one should probably have been read last summer but it won't go away in friend's recommendations. I am expecting as much heartache as beauty but when the two blend perfectly it doesn't get much better and that is what friends are saying.



Of the most talked about this one caught my eye because it was about a friendship built on music getting rekindled years later. Music always attracts me. Album references etc. That both Colm Tóibin and Tracey Thorn endorse it fascinates too.



A teenage love affair across the boundaries in post Agreement Northern Ireland, Tony Davidson tipped me off on this as Sue grew up in his congregation. She has a Masters in Peace and Conflict so I am drawn by that too. In the current Dig With It Shirley-Anne McMillan bigs it up as "absolutely charming"



The wonderful, and missed every day, Lucia Quinney Mee introduced us to Lauren St. John way back when our girls were very young. That this one is dedicated to Lucia and that David, Rachel and Alice write in the back about organ donation draws me back. I gotta read this one in the place where  we miss her the very most. About surviving storms, it seems appropriate.



I like my books pretty much et in my day and more often than not where I am. This one is set in 1922 Moscow but I am down to the back cover comment, "Can a life without luxury be the richest of all". Recommended at a recent Fitzroy walk by Sheila McNeill and Moyna McCullough, they are always worth listening to!



Noticed this just as I finished Tracey Thorn's My Rock N Roll Friend and thought it would be a great kind of follow up. I also love biographies that take me to albums I missed. Not sure that this one does as it seems to only go up to 1983 and Magazine. Still, you simply need to know more about Rickie Lee Jones!



I love Sinéad's voice and work. Her life though seems a little anarchic and at times sad. I have followed her down the years and wonder if the biography can tell me more than I fear I know. I am not sure I can pluck up the courage but it needs to be there!



The back cover says:

"Do you believe in the human heart?
I don't mean simply the organ, obviously.
I'm speaking in the poetic sense
The human heart. Do you think there
is such a thing? Something that makes
each of us special and individual."
I gotta read that!














Crawdads Sing

Where The Crawdads Sing is something else. After a slow thirty pages or so Delia Owens, in her debut novel at 70 years of age, charms us and grabs our attention. With the most beautiful of fictional characters and gorgeousness of geographical locations we find ourselves captives to a page turner.

That central character Kya is a mesmerising. Reese Witherspoon is making this into a film and Kya will be a brilliant part for someone to play. Owens draws us in as this child watches her mum leave, no longer able to live with her drunken dad. The brothers and sisters leave. Dad eventually too. A child left in a swamp like a female Tarzan, making friends with gulls, marsh, sand and sea. How can we not love Marsh Girl? She even eventually becomes a published expert in her field - or should we say swamp!

Marsh Girl is what the local townsfolk call her. White trash is how the good living exclude her. There is a theme of prejudice. The difference between the posture of the white and black churches is glaring. Near the end, there’s an insightful sentence that can be applied to all of our particular prejudices - “Did we exclude Miss Clark because she was different, or was she different because we excluded her”. Challenging.

Alongside the almost pastoral coming of age story of Kya, we have running alongside it the murder mystery of a local Quarter back handsome hero, Chase. 

As we read we discover that Owens, who is a zoologist and has written non fiction about life in the Kalahari, is more at home in the telmatology of the swamplands of North Carolina and what it is to live an isolated life than she is at writing murder mysteries and, as the stories come together, court room dramas.

Owens’ grip is the zip and wonder of a young girl discovering herself on a boat through swampy inlets. Rejected by her entire family she flirts with two loves and again feels that they leave her. Love it seems is ever insecure. She can trust the birds.

Owens’ brilliance is her lyrical almost poetic prose that throws out quotable sentences like a Bob Dylan:


“I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”

“She laughed for his sake, something she’d never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have somebody else.”

“Here the bed loomed as the masterpiece, but the room didn’t look like love.”

“I guess somethings can’t be explained, only forgotten or not.”

“She feels the pulse of life, he thought, because there are no layers between her and the planet.”

“She closed her eyes at such easy acceptance. A deep pause in a lifetime of longing.”


As I have said there are quite a few things that just don’t ring true in the plot, particularly in the last third of the novel but you can still see why Reese Witherspoon is making it into a movie. It is a novel with everything and perhaps a script writer can repair the frays. 

Personally, I cannot wait for the film. I am so in love with Kya that I cannot wait to spend time with her again.. Whatever, Where The Crawdads Sing is a beauty of a summer read. 



Twenty years after her her book Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People, Susan McKay has done it again. She has interviewed Protestants across age ranges, vocations and locations giving us a panoramic view of the inner thoughts, fears and hopes of a demographic often dangerously confined to lazy PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist).

This book around we are not in the early dawn of the Good Friday Agreement wondering. Northern Protestants On Shifting Ground has us up to date in the a post Brexit uncertainty that has a lot of Unionists worrying. If many of the almost 100 interviewed articulate the shifting ground of the Union, the accumulative effect of the book is that, across Northern Ireland, Protestant views on the union, Unionist politicians and even the possibility of a United Ireland is shifting seismically.

This seems to be a book full of Protestants who are less attached to the United Kingdom, who are despairing of Unionist politicians and who have lost the orange and green binary caricature that has portrayed Northern Ireland for the most of its century in existence. 

Now let me push back on myself. Of course not everyone Susan McKay interviewed were apathetic to the Union but even some of those who said that they did not want or could not see a United Ireland suggested that it need to be considered.

For as long as I can remember Northern Ireland voted as our parents voted. Politicians who have relied on that inheritance need to read On Shifting Ground, if they haven’t already read recent electoral polls!

The DUP don’t come out well. Particularly among under 40s it is obvious that the party’s social conservatism is out of touch. Having red, white and blue across the manifestos and posters will no longer catch the imagination of the old, unionist with a small U, block. They are far more interested in pragmatic politics like health and education and infrastructure… and of course there are abortion and LGBT issues.  

Sinn Fein needn’t take a back seat and smile. The memory of the military campaign and the deep deep pain of so many funerals is still palpable. As Noah, an American student, once said to Fr Martin Magill and I, when we asked what he had most learned in a short trip to Northern Ireland, “The more violence the more time it takes to heal.” That campaign might still be the biggest stumbling block to the United Ireland it hoped to bring about.

I am wrong to pick out one interview but let me be wrong. Debbie Watters director of Northern Ireland Alternatives and vice chair of the Policing Board says that she believes the Union is safe but also suggests that Unionists need to think about twenty years down the road. “People need to start changing their psyche.” 

Debbie takes us back to that need for pragmatism in the shifting ground. It is not a time for Unionists to bury their heads the sands of old ideologies. It is time to look up and around. 

The church too. The church and particularly my own Presbyterian denomination takes some heavy critique and charges of irrelevance. Once again we can ignore it, claim that we are theologically correct and cannot waver to the shifting sands of society. Personally, I think that that would be pastorally and missionally short sighted. In these shifting sands as psyche’s shift the Church is very much needed. We need to hear the critique too.

Northern Protestants On Shifting Grounds is a fascinatingly good read for anyone seeking out the current Protestant psyche. Thank you Susan McKay for the contribution. Is there a Catholic one?


Shepherd's Hut

I have been a fan of Tim Winton for thirty years. 

A few pages into every novel I have asked myself why? They are often stories about bleak characters in bleak circumstances in bleak western Australian terrain.  

BUT… there is always little snippets of redemption. Like an Australian Flannery O’Connor - vivid, lyrical, earthy prose that are always God haunted. God is omnipresent.

And so The Shepherd’s Hut. Jaxie is a teenager that Winton describes as a ‘feral ratbag’. Taking off across the western Australian salt lands on foot without the equipment or experience needed we are gripped by this bad boy’s adventure. Place is like an extra character with Winton and never more so in this tall tale.

Eventually in this nowhere place Jaxie meets a nowhere man, Irish priest Fintan. We never know why he has been exiled out there but the two start the strangest of fractious relationships that eventually becomes a bond. 

The elderly educated Fintan is all words and song and books whereas Jaxie ain’t! In their strange conversations the spiritual is opened up. Religion. God. Prayer. Hope. Peace. Finding yourself an instrument of God.

As I said, utterly gripping with an almost wild west cowboy ending that I could not possibly spoil here. 

Back to why I love Tim Winton. His redemption is never simple testimony of sinner to saved. It is messy, realistic, incremental; ordinary broken humanity groping in a shadowy world for grace and peace and God… just a hem of the garment. Nobody does it better.

WINN COLLIERS - A BURNING IN MY BONES; The Authorised Biography of Eugene Peterson

A burning in my bones

Psychological relief. Page after page. Winn Collier’s biography on Eugene Peterson was like a retreat of soul healing for this near sixty year old minister.

For most of my 33 years ordained I have felt a little odd, eccentric, black sheep. I thought I was alone. That there was someone else out there like me was consoling in itself but that it happened to be Eugene Peterson made it utterly joyful. I was close to tearful during paragraphs.

Winn has done an amazing job with Eugene’s life. For those who somehow don’t know Eugene Peterson, he was a pastor, author and college Professor. He is perhaps most famous for his paraphrase/translation of the Bible that became known as The Message.

Winn Colliers was given permission by Eugene to trawl through his entire 86 years on the planet, with access to diaries and letters and whatever was available. He has somehow edited that to just over 300 pages and given a deep and wide story of a unique human being trying to follow God as best he could with all the grace gifted him.

Of course I was drawn to Peterson’s relationship with Bono though I feel that David Taylor’s short film about Bono and Eugene discussing The Psalms had given us a real feel for their friendship.

I was also delighted that included in the book was the story Eugene told the night he embarrassed me as his interviewer by not answering any of my questions in a sizeable tent full of people back in the 90s. Unable to get a word of Eugene, the main speaker at a Presbyterian Special Assembly, my friend David Montgomery rescued me from the piano stool and asked me to ask about the filling in reports for the New Church Development committee. Eugene lit up like a comedian. Read about that evening here - Surmising The Life Of Eugene Peterson

This was all good but it wasn’t what Eugene did as much as why he did it that most excited me. Winn tells us of a man who had no time for sectarianism among Christians, even suspicious of the evangelicalism label; he was more interested in the outworking of faith rather than the correctness of doctrine, quoting “Barth wasn’t indifferent to “getting it right” but his passion was in “getting it lived”; he saw the God-part of people and was short on judgementalism as a result; he saw holiness in his dad’s butcher’s shop and in the mountains and lakes of his childhood and later life Montana; he heard God speak in novels, even using novels to teach his theology; he always felt an outsider with no desire to join any broad movements; he loved the Scripture, not to debate as much as enter into and feel and learn and love.

I could go on and on. This is not your common or garden pastor and I needed to hear about him. I loved particularly an idea that he found in the works of Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz survived Communism in Poland by employing “Ketman” - “a stance of outer compliance but inner dissent”. “Ketman” could be my middle name over 40 years of ministry.

Another poet to give Eugene spiritual understanding or at least understanding of his own spiritual journey was Denise Levertov. Her picturing a dog following its nose caught the imagination of a man who grew up in love with dogs and animals and lakes and mountains. Winn writes, “His life and work had been more like tracing a scent than following a map”.

I have struggled my entire ministry with 5 year Church mission plans. I do not understand the language or idea. That doesn’t make me any less a visionary but my process echoes “tracing a scent” perfectly. I read the paragraph and my weirdo soul screamed ‘not mad’! At least the only one not mad!

No doubt the big talk about the book will be how Peterson wrestled with the LGBT debate. All of his sniffing scents and being a little suspicious of “some people who took themselves too seriously a were certain of ‘what God is doing’” led him to a place of pragmatic pastoral care that will no doubt ruffle many feathers. 

What Winn Collier has done is to give us the honesty and integrity of a life given over to follow and serve Jesus and to share the Scripture in word and pastoral care. It is the story of a human being consumed by something way bigger than himself or the mountains of his Montana childhood. It is the story of a man who had a “hunger for something radical - something so true that it burned in his bones.” 

I am thankful to have met Eugene Peterson, to know his work. My soul is leaping for joy at Eugene’s earthed, authentic sense of the transcendent. I am left yearning to sniff out the same holiness! Thank you Winn Collier for a wonderful biography.