BOOK REVIEWS

PAUL LYNCH - PROPHET SONG

Prophet Song

Was it Bono who said, “We Irish don’t build huge bridges or send people into space but boy can we tell stories.” Five years after Anna Burns and Paul Lynch brings another Booker Prize home to our wee island. It suggests that whoever said it wasn’t kidding. 

The Booker is absolutely deserved, though I haven’t read all those nominated! Prophet Song is a remarkable work and hits with a serious thud of impact, not just in its entirety but on every single line. The sense of darkness as a weight weighing down on your chest. How can someone create that kinda of feeling with words on a page?

In Prophet Song the darkness swamps the nation? It covers the streets of the neighbourhood. It fills one single family house with its heaviness. It burrows into one woman’s brain, heart and soul. It is all consuming.

Lynch makes this happen with a suffocating writing style. There are no paragraph breaks or speech commas. The book is dense. There is no let up.

All of this falls on Eilish. Living in Dublin as a far right National Alliance Party clamps down, her husband Larry is quickly picked up. Gone. Eilish has to hold the family together as the nation disintegrates. Her eldest son Mark is soon gone too, maybe fighting with the rebels.

Very quickly we realise that though this might be futuristic in that Ireland seems a safe democracy, what is happening to Eilish and her family is what is happening across Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan and many other places. This brutality that families have to live in is NOW. As we read these sentences, people are suffering what we are reading. 

Every refugee you have met, staying in hotels near you have been through this. As a Church, Fitzroy has connected with Eilishs from everywhere. The book has helped me understand what they have been through. It has hiked my empathy, sympathy and compassion.

Of course, cleverly set in Dublin, Lynch is speaking to us on the island. He is quelling our prejudices as we read. Attempting to Eradicate our racism. Hoping to send us towards justice and love.

It should be posted into everybody’s letterbox.

For me, there was a horrible moment near the end. I thought that Eilish and her beleaguered family had made it into Northern Ireland. I had a second or two of joy and relief and then I had maybe my saddest moment. 

Oh no. After all that. We put them into hotels. Move them into houses far from where that hotel was. We graffiti their walls asking them to leave. We threaten some with planes to Rwanda for goodness sake. As if they have not suffered enough we are short in our compassionate response.

And Eilish hadn’t made it. There was one more corner of hell…

Prophet Song is not for that few days that you take away to rest and chill out. In such need, open a bottle and read Richard Osman instead but at some other time make sure you take the time for Paul Lynch’s classic. Good for its writing, its style and good with its message too.  


DAVID A. DUNLOP - WHEN THE LIGHT GETS IN

Dunlop 2

With authentic characters and a gently gripping plot, David A Dunlop shines a light on the golden calves of sectarianism and church legalism in rural Northern Ireland. Where I am from When the Light Gets In is an important book. Culturally insightful. Personally cathartic. Spiritually prophetic. 

The Shaw family are a common as fertile soil northern Northern Irish family. Isaac is a missionary in India, twins Joseph and Sarah are actually adopted and the intriguing oldest, Jack. 

Jack. It all begins at his funeral. He’s that old bachelor in the family. Many of us in this part of the world had them. I think of my own Great Uncle Tommy. Where my Tommy was big into church though, Jack was not. A mysterious something had come between him and God.

We are not long into the book before we sense the usual dividing lines in the small settled community. Sectarianism is innocuous but its still sectarian. The Protestant side on which the Shaws are to be found is spiritually legalistic. The rumour is that that Jack might have had issues with these lines.

The story is then an unravelling of both the lines. It is about how in one family these lines we make between us and the thran ways that we keep them can cause trauma and not scars but open wounds decades later. When we reduce relationships to mathematics and right answers we injure and hurt the very heart of our humanity. 

Before the light gets in, it is exiled. In the name of God real love is squeezed out of shape by ways to live that are written on slabs of stone and hung on our backs to keep us down. To make sure the neighbour doesn't think bad of us. To keep us right when it is doing anything but. Who said that religion is what is left when God is no longer in it. 

Dunlop tells it beautifully. The suspicion. The surprise. The shock. The sadness. The little bit of salvation. It is all set up so ordinary. Then quite suddenly it becomes a page turner. Could it be. No. Oh my. Can there be repair. The light gets in slowly, everyone hurt as they squint to see.

For me, the saddest part of reading the book was that as I was doing so I bumped into three friends from a few decades ago who shared with me how that mathematical religion had hurt them or sent them off wondering what on earth this God thing was about.  

Our Northern Irish society is coming down with people who have been spiritually abused, who have left the faith over a legalism that was judgemental and exiling. I would love to think that even now there is redemption. 

I would like to think that David Dunlop’s novel would be catharsis for such. I know that it has inspired and refuelled my own ministry to go after the hurting sheep, lost not by their own decisions but by wayward shepherds. 

When the Light Gets In is a book that needs read, heard and where possible its victims repaired!


CARA DILLON - COMING HOME

Cara

I love it when an artist stretches him or herself. Cara Dillon has done it most wonderfully on Coming Home.

Cara Dillon the poet. It begins there. Covid lockdown had many side benefits alongside the negatives we tend to be drawn to first. Artists who doodled and found something or even more exciting, something else. Dillon used the time to write poetry about home.

It all found its way onto this spoken word record that occasionally breaks to song. Dillon’s long time hubby and musical companion, Sam of the dynasty of Lakeman, then adds rolling piano and finger picking guitar, never garish - just right.

Like all such experiments, it could have tumbled down around them but quite the opposite - it lands in near perfection.

And there is more… not only an immaculately adorned album with beautiful photographs but also a hard back book that goes deeper still into each and every track and a few extras. Dillon has mastered the prose as well.

If I spoke of an artist finding her voice then it would be a perfect lead into Dillon’s north east of Northern Ireland’s accent. She’s a country girl Ms Dillon and we get it loud and clear. Of course being from just 40 miles east of her, in another accent betrayed place, I am loving it. 

Once I had heard the record I found myself hearing the prose in that voice. All about people and place, particularly family and Dungiven at the foothills of the Sperrins. Her mother is all over this and family going back in time, family around her still and family looking forward. Being Northern Irish it is very near my experience but just that wee bit different too. It all made me want to go deep diving among my own people and place.

It could be seen as a goodbye to innocence, Dillon seeing her own life through the age of her own children. It's about having a refuge when all is lonely or hurt or broken. During Covid a very needed and romantic place. Maybe heightened in our memories as such.

Yet, not all is safe. The poem Inishowen is a reminder that we all were touched by those decades of The Troubles. She tells this part of our upbringing well.

Over all I am really taken with this. I have made a spoken word record myself. Over 20 years ago I recorded an album withs singer songwriter Sam Hill Jr. We tried to keep my spoken word pieces in the discipline of the verse which Cara doesn’t often do. It makes me think there is more here. With these new strings to her bow Cara can take the writing in even more directions. 

Until then... this is an artist fulfilling her vocation. 


ROISIN MAGUIRE - NIGHTSWIMMERS

Nightswimmers

It hasn’t been the easiest six weeks for the Stockmans and so when we got away for a few days it was important what I chose as a novel. Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, with its Booker Prize and Ireland in the future focus, was a strong pull but I needed something warmer.

My prejudice made me buy Roisin Maguire’s Night Swimming. You see when I read that it was set in eastern N. Ireland I had completely dismissed that there is an east coast below Belfast and was so excited about a novel set around Waterfoot. Forgive me County Down.

Now, to be fair Ballybrady could be anywhere on the amazing coast around the entire island and Nightswimming was exactly the book I needed to be reading. There is enough grief, vocational angst and questions of the meaning of life in these pages but the emphasis is on human nature’s strengths.

In the little seaside villages full of quirks and eccentric loners, love lingers in the bay, the sea, the sand and the head land.

Evan is our townie needing away as a result of a deteriorating marriage as the result of a baby lost to sudden infant death syndrome. Then he gets caught in Covid lockdown and has to stay longer than the week he's booked in for. Many, many more weeks indeed! You are drawn immediately to his pain and vulnerability.

Our seashore culchie is Grace (well named) who is living the life of a recluse, portraying herself a little mad in the head in order to keep her privacy after a traumatic experience many many years before in London. Against all the odds of her ill mannered crabbitness you gotta love her.  

Anyway, Evan’s 8 year old deaf son Luca and Grace’s 20 year old niece Abbie with a fleeting late appearance by Evan’s wife Lorna are the main characters in the book. All are enveloped in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone’s crazy foibles. 

That part so reminded this clergyman, seeking time away from his job, of Church. This menagerie of well familiar folk meeting in the pub against lockdown laws, whose short comings are too well known but who are all loving and sticking together as genuine family when the hard times hit. 

So, I chose the gentler read. I felt warm and fuzzy so many times and not in a sweet sentimental way. The other strong character is the landscape. The wee traits of tide and the life around rock pools, the sun's light, the moon's reflections. Swimming at night, naked of worries. 

As I basked in the beauty and wonder and now as I leave it down it is filled subtlety and subversiveness about life’s important values.

Where do I point my priorities? Who or what is shaping me? How do I change to find a place of worth and contribution, to make a real contribution to the humans around me and not just some wealth generating system? 

Roisin Maguire throws herself among our growing crowd of great Northern Irish woman writers and, wherever Ballybrady is in her mind, has written something so beautiful… and utterly helpful for me at this particular time.


RICHARD OSMAN - THE LAST DEVIL TO DIE

The Last Devil To Die

I so loved the first three episodes of Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club that I took this fourth one slowly. Rationing myself to about 20 pages a day (those little chapters make that so easy) I was able to move into Cooper’s Chase Retirement Village and hang with our favourite gang of 70 something vigilantes - Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron - for nearly two weeks.

After four novels Richard Osman has his Thursday Murder Club down to a T. You feel that you might be sitting on the set of his House Of Games or an old Pointless. The big lad with that laid back humour. So likeable. He brings it all to the pace and feel of his novels. It’s like he’s just there chatting with us.

Speaking at the 4 Corners Festival the writers of last year’s television police drama success Blue Lights spoke of how characters need to develop. “You can tell a good story by it,” said Declan and Adam. Well, if that is the case then this series of novels is a huge success because boy have these characters developed.

They develop to the point that as well as the murder and drug theft at hand we are now emotionally involved in the lives of our lovable characters. No spoilers but there are tears within these pages.

We are not done there. Osman has this way with him. On what seems to be your common and every day whodunit, he adds ethical dilemmas. He has a gentle roll of storytelling but don’t be fooled. He can write. He can write a good story.

Indeed, though I was rationing my time with my Cooper’s Chase buddies I had to read the last 80 pages in one sitting. I needed to see where it would take us, our characters and our stories. Like the old fruit pastel advertisement I couldn’t just suck. I needed to chew. 

I hope we find ourselves in Cooper’s Chase again one day. It seems that Osman is taking a break and giving us new characters and scenarios. We maybe need it but these were four books that I enjoyed at least as much as a guest appearance of Osman on Would I Lie To You.

Thoroughly enjoyable. 


KENNETH WOMACK - LIVING THE BEATLES LEGEND; The Mal Evans Story

Mal Evans

I almost want to say that I wanted to read this book from before I wanted to read this book. I am Irish!

Mal Evans was like a 5th Beatle. Never in the band he was omnipresent around the stage and in many occasions on it. 

I imagine that I came across Mal through The Beatles Book, their monthly magazine. They started republishing them in the summer of 1976 when I had just fallen in love with the band. I never remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Mal.

The thing is that Mal Evans had been shot by the LAPD about 6 months before all of this. It seems that at a very low ebb he contrived a suicide by cop scenario at the age of just 40. 

I have been reading Beatles’ biographies since 1976. I could read nothing else if there were enough good books. Evans was so close to the band that I knew his take would be a fascinating perspective. It did not let me down.

Mal’s diaries, and the stories of him by his friends, have us on stage, back stage, in getaway vans, aeroplanes, studios, hotel rooms, clubs and ashrams and their houses and back gardens. 

Mal is there at the first gigs across the UK right through to the break up in 1970. Post break up he races across the Atlantic being personal assistant to which ever Beatle was on the phone. 

It is everything I knew it would be but it is even more.

I was unaware of personal life of Mal. He was married to Lily the entire Beatles’ time with a young son Gary and Julie who arrived in 1966. His life, and this book, is one long dilemma of how he chose the Beatles and the addiction of being around celebrity and fame above his family. Not that he didn’t utterly love his wife and children but he couldn’t let go of the phenomenon and would be a way for weeks at a time.

Mal doesn’t let his beloved Beatles down by in any way tainting their legacy in his account of those mad years. He loved them. However, it is astounding to find that someone without doubt necessary for them to do what they did and so committed in an 24/7 way was paid so miserably. 

His family gained very little from The Beatles’ wealth and many of the tensions between him and Lily were financial. Zak Starkey as a 7 year old is calling his friend Gary Evans poor. It is a question that I would like to ask Paul McCartney about. An injustice for sure.

Though Mal continued to devote himself to the four Beatles after their broke up, indeed quite like a spouse, he spent the last five years of his life seeking something more. 

He attempted being a producer with Badfinger, being a reason they reached the charts and that Nilsson had a hit with Without You. He tried to be a songwriter with a co-write You and Me (Babe) with George Harrison on Ringo’s album Ringo and Lonely Man on a Splinter album.

Eventually, now with a lover in California that he would, in his naïve way of sorting his dilemma, like to have split 6 months with to six months with Lily, he wrote his memoir that after his death languished in cold storage for a over a decade.

We are thankful that Mal’s son Gary was determined to get his dad’s story out. He eventually asked Beatles’ expert Kenneth Womack to write it. Womack is thorough in research if not the most exciting writer but this time Mal’s life was exciting enough to overcome that weakness.

I have spent a couple of weeks in Mal’s life and have loved being around The Beatles but also will feel bereft to not have Mal in my life tomorrow. I hope that Lily, Gary, Julie and even Fran and her daughter will feel proud of a man that everybody loved but more who loved this band so much that it almost cost him his own life in the end. We all benefited from the life of Mal Evans.

Great read.


STOCKI'S FAV 5 ROCK MUSIC BOOKS OF 2023

Zanes 2

Here are my five best rock music books. I have to add that I haven’t got round to the one on Nick Drake, Kenneth Womack’s one on Mal Evans or Stuart Bailie’s on Terri Hooley…

 

5. BERNIE TAUPIN - SCATTERSHOT; LIFE, MUSIC, ELTON & ME

Always loved the lyricist, as I have been to Sam Hill and others in the past so Bernie fascinated me. Here we get all the amazing people he met by chance or intention, and the cowboy life he led (who knew) as much as we hear about the hits… but a fascinating life for a boy from Lincolnshire. 

 

4. SINEAD O’CONNOR - REMEMBERINGS

Sadly took Sinead’s death to get me to read this one. Honest and vulnerable and creative.

 

3. PAUL CHARLES - ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

A boy from Maghreaflet lives all our dreams as promotor, agent and manager of some of the best there ever was… Rory Gallagher, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Gerry Rafferty and others… 

 

2. LUCINDA WILLIAMS - DON’T TELL ANYONE THE SECRETS I TOLD YOU

Lucinda gives us the real insight into the influences and the young life that created the star and plenty on the work itself.

 

1. WARREN ZANES - DELIVER ME FROM NOWHERE; THE MAKING OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN'S NEBRASKA

Not of this year BUT it memorised my summer as I re-engaged with Soringteen’s Nebraska album, the songs themselves, the “luck” of the production and where they sit in Bruces’s career. Brilliant!

 


STOCKI'S 5 FAVOURITE NOVELS OF 2023

Close To Home 1

As I worked through this year's novels, cutting them down to my favourite five, I realised that actually all five could in any other year be a Book Of The Year.

I don't read loads and so the ones I choose or am encouraged or peer pressured into reading can be hit or miss, never guaranteed to be good. Well 2023 is a classic year. These are all brilliant and I couldn't differentiate so in alphabetical order Stockman's NOVELS of 2023 are:

 

LUCY CALDWELL - THESE DAYS

Set in the streets of Belfast during the Blitz Caldwell has given us a beautiful novel of love and loss, family and community in the midst of war. 

READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE

 

CLAIRE KEEGAN - SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE

Keegan writes short economical books full of emotion and wonder. Small Things Like These was for me like a prophet outside the church damning the church before reminding it what Jesus was really all about.

READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE

 

BARBARA KINGSOLVER - DEMON COPPERHEAD

The only non Irish writer here, Barbara Kingsolver is not economic with words so I spent a long time with her contemporary take on David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead and even in a tough read I loved that boy’s compassion, commitment, coming of age and ultimate redemption.

READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE

 

MICHAEL MAGEE - CLOSE TO HOME

Magee’s debut is the best book about the psycho-geography of Belfast, particularly in his case West Belfast, since Anna Burns’ Milkman. 

READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE

 

JOSEPH O’CONNOR - MY FATHER’S HOUSE

Sinead’s literary brother tells a gripping tale of a true story about Fr Hugh O’Flaherty the Schindler of the Vatican during World War 2 and an intrepid thrilling escape across Nazi lines in Rome. 

READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE


PAUL CHARLES - ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

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Here’s a wee hidden gem of a rock memoir to buy the discerning rock fan for Christmas. As everyone heads towards Bernie Taupin, George Harrison, Lucinda Williams, Leon Russell and Nick Drake here’s one at the bottom of the big pile but one that might be as intriguing and enlightening as any of the rest or so called best.

With respect to Mid-Ulster but few great rock music memoirs begin once upon a time in Magherafelt. Well, this fascinating read by Paul Charles’ does. 

Paul Charles was best known to me as a promotor but he was also been a manager and producer. He has covered every genre and somewhere along his life path has interacted with any one who has been anyone in the music scene. 

For me I was most excited by his work and writing on Van Morrison, Jackson Browne, Rory Gallagher, The Roches, Gerry Rafftery and Tom Waits but there are loads more and Charles has given us lovely little snippets of them all.

The books not so much written as a linear memoir as a series of essays on the artists and the moments of an amazing life. In it all Charles comes across as the boy next door from mid Ulster. As you read it you feel that we all have our guy on the inside, telling us the story from the back stage, the hotels and the tour bus. Like when he tells us about Van leading the singing on the tour bus. 

As he puts it himself in a moment in 1994 in a car behind a restaurant in California with Tom Waits and Tom’s wife Kathleen playing him their new album Real Gone:  

“Listening to the album in that way, on what was a gorgeous California evening, enjoying the new music that’s recently created, was the kind of once in a lifetime special treat that it would have been utterly impossible for the boy from Magherafelt to even begin to imagine when he set off for London”

Adventures In Wonderland is well named. The boy from Magherafelt got himself engaged on the edges of the music industry and six decades later he is looking back at music history he has lived through, becoming a successful agent, manager of Van Morrison, Gerry Rafferty, launcher of Tanita Tikaram as well as trying to bring John & Yoko to Britain before Lennon’s horrible murder and helping Michael Eves create Glastonbury. 

It is magical. It is captivating. It is hard to believe and yet its secret is to make the unbelievable history of rock music ordinary and very believable. 


COLIN NEILL - INSIDE HOLY HEADS AND HEARTS - MY FOREWORD

Colin Neill 2

I highly recommend this book so much that I wrote the Foreword. It is a gift to you, unless you wish to give a donation to Release International. I have spent lot of money written about the Scriptures that have had nothing like the imagination or insight of this. 

 

Back in the 1990s a Scottish band called Lies Damned Lies recorded a rock record called Lamentations. It was a musical and artistic take on that Old Testament book that can sometimes seem difficult to penetrate. The soundscapes and songs of the record took me into the book in ways that I hadn’t felt before.

It made me wonder. Why are theologians opening up literature to us? We have laid the poetry, prose, proverbs songs, prophecies and stories of the Bible at the mercy of scientific and mathematical interpretation. I began to long for artists who could go under and over and imagine what went on round the corner of the text. I wanted my sermons to be higher, wider and deeper.

Those who know me will know that I am a fan of the Irish band U2. I have spent an awful lot of time reading everything about the band and their work, particularly the theology within. I know so much about them that on the one occasion that I met their singer Bono he had nothing to tell me that I didn’t know. I could have finished his sentences. I was sharing this with a friend who said, “Ah, you know all the facts Steve but do you know how he feels”. 

Could that be said of our Bible knowledge. We’ve read it all. We know it. Well, we know the facts. We have systemised a theology. We’ve laid down a code of behaviour. That is all good but it can be a little cold and calculated. All those characters in the variety of vignettes of brokenness and redemption strewn across the canon. Do we know how they feel? Do we know how God feels? How Jesus feels? Do we know how those feelings might engage with our own emotions - our holy hearts as well as heads!

Colin Neill has a passion to help us engage with the Scriptures in fresh ways. He brings to that a pastoral heart. He has taken time, an incredible amount of time, to get inside the Bible stories, stay true to the text but imagine more and get into the psyche of the main players. Colin then takes his research and uses his fertile imagination and creative writing skills to set us down gently into the lives of no less than 75 stories. He unpacks not only what is written about the characters but also what isn’t. We talk a lot about Bible characters but I wonder if we actually know their character.

Inside Holy Heads and Hearts is an incredible gift to all of us who are seeking to engage with the Scriptures, whether in our personal spiritual development or attempting to teach and preach it to others. This is a book in which an artist opens up the art of the Bible. I will use it in my own personal devotions. I am already finding it a rich resource to crack the codes of texts and contexts as I prepare to preach every week. 

Thank you so much my friend.

 

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