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.




Demon 5

Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead has become one of my favourite literary characters. The book of his name is about him, no surprises. Apparently he is inspired by Dickens’ David Copperfield. Indeed, I am hearing that it took Kingsolver to be sat at Charles Dickens’ desk in Broadstairs, England for her to catch the muse.

Well, I know nothing about David Copperfield but Demon’s is quite the story. Kingsolver tells the tale as Demon’s very personal journey of an orphan who lives a poor life and faces with all kinds of hits, finally into prescription drugs. 

Behind it though she is exposing the pharmaceutical companies who have caused drug addiction in particular areas across America. For Demon and those of Lee County in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia prescription drugs have become the daily experience.

Kingsolver is a magnificent writer and conjures believable characters, full of foibles and quirks but most of them all at some points precious and loveable. Human.

She also has this ability to conjure scenes of light, utter joy, fun, insight, sadness and utter darkness. Around all of that she throws out little secrets to living. Marylinne Robinson-esque in the spiritual wisdom she throws.

As said above, she deals with the objective and subjective. Objectively she asks questions about the prejudice of race and class, highlighting the built in prejudice towards the poor and less fortunate. The difference of living in the city or the country is an intriguing study throughout. 

Demon and the recurring but eventual love of his life Angel, perfectly named, somehow against all the odds make it through a book of death, most drug induced and misadventure. None of their friends make it. They rub against malevolent presences as well as those bring who grace. 

Though set in Virginia I was constantly thinking of areas of Belfast. The Shankill and The Falls have places where drugs and violence and suicide are ripping young people and communities apart. Lack of investment in jobs, education attainment and drugs legal and illegal. Michael Magee’s Close To Home touches on some of these issues. The balance of dignity and pity is always tricky in the story's telling. People will judge how Kingsolver did with that.

Demon Copperhead, though at times very funny, is a heartbreaking read. I didn’t find it the page turner others did. I felt we could have done without some of the repetitive detail of sex and drugs. Barbara needs an editor? There were parts where I trudged through.

In the end I am so glad to have finished it, so glad to have journeyed to the far end of Demon Copperhead’s resilience. I came to feel I knew him and was rooting for him. Brandon Flowers from the Killers shouted Helen Keller’s “The world is full of suffering but the world is also filled with the over coming of suffering” into my neighbourhood sky the week I finished the novel. This is full of both.


Warren Zanes Nowhere

Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. I remember it coming out. Buying it quickly. Loving it particularly. 

You see I was a Bruce fan but before Nebraska only loved The River. I don’t like clutter or heavy sounds. Nebraska I got immediately. Just voice and guitar. Powerful songs. I think I had just watched Badlands on late night TV.

Warren Zanes new book about this amazing record has almost convinced me that it is Springsteen most important albums. 

Zanes has all the qualifications. He was in the Del Fuegos and came across Springsteen as a peer, well a follow musician at least. He has become a great writer, I particularly love his biography of Tom Petty. He is now an academic and that means research and boy has he done the research here. He even gets to go with Springsteen himself into the very bedroom in Colts Neck, New Jersey where Springsteen mumbled the songs into a 4 track recorder.

Zanes gives us everything that we need to think about for the making of Nebraska - Springsteen’s career trajectory at the time, his personal fragility, how the songs came out, where, with what equipment and their failure to be improved upon when taken into a studio. The aftermath is deciphered too - the response to it commercially and by other artists and Springsteen’s next move… oh my what a move.

My favourite moment in the book and therefore in the creation of Nebraska is when Springsteen is in the studio with his producers trying every which way to make these bleak damned moody songs sound better and he releases that the best sounding version of them that he is going to get are the ones captured on a cassette in his shirt pocket. 

I found the few days that I spent in Zanes’ book riveting. It helped me to  lift Nebraska out of Springsteen’s catalogue and begin to really appreciate it for what I probably already knew that it was.

It is a unique and near eccentric recording in the historical time frame of its making. Springsteen had been the future of rock n roll since then journalist and now his manager, Jon Landau, quipped those words in the mid 70s.

Hungry Heart of the previous record The River hit the top 10 and if all had gone in the pop star plan his next record would have blown The Boss into a rock star stratosphere like the one after Nebraska did.

Nebraska’s follow up Born In The USA did just that. Seven singles. MASSIVE! Indeed it was massive with stadium tours filled with 40,000 fans who had never heard of Nebraska.I hated the lead off singles for Born In The USA, Dancing In The Dark and Cover Me. Sure fire hits they were not Bruce Springsteen. 

Nebraska was Bruce Springsteen. How thankful are so many of us that he had the artistic determination to finally release a record that he hadn’t recorded to release. 

Nebraska sits up and begs attention in the timeline of rock n roll. I might have thought that in the back of my mind but how thankful I am that Warren Zanes wrote this book and gave a great album its greatness back.


These Days

Thank you Lucy Caldwell for making my summer. A good novel often makes my summer… In recent years writers like Colum McCann, Sue Divin and Michelle Gallen have been the provocative and entertaining companions of my lazy days by the sea. 

In 2023 it is Lucy Caldwell. These Days is set in and around the Belfast Blitz. It works its way into and out from one middle class family, the Bells, and follows their very different love stories. 

BUT there is so much more. I listed:


The war commentary so well research and sending me off to find out more about 1941 in my home city.

The almost tangible feelings of suspense she creates in bombings and the aftermath of bombings on the streets… 

The feelings of suspense on the lips of kisses and the emotions of love in its fervour (Emma), lack of fervour (Audrey), loss and regret (Florence). 

The deep introspection of the inner heart alongside the universes biggest questions.

There is even room for some challenges about class differences too.


Indeed, I found it quite astonishing how much Caldwell had crammed in. The layers of threads she weaves into one short novel. With the most poetic of prose, stunningly beautiful at times, she creates the most convincing characters that you feel that you intimately and sets them in these vivid scenes that you feel that you are in whether the beauty of the Bells garden or the terror of a street just devastated by German incendiaries. 

With all this alive in your imagination, Lucy goes for the questions of heart. There are hard questions about what love really is. There are questions what life is all about and how to use it well. There are questions about how Belfast can ever recover from the trauma of the nights.

It had me looking back at the challenging events of our generation - The Troubles, Covid, Brexit and realising that those 100 years ahead of us had an island dividing that caused a civil war as well as two World Wars and the depression of the 30s. 

I found myself looking up and across our lounge at my wife’s father, Bryan. He lived through this as a 5 year old. Yes, he was on the Great Victoria Station platform as the children are in the book to be sent off to the safety of Portrush. But Bryan lived with his dad at the Harbour where his ad worked and the Germans must have been targeting. 

Bryan speaks of the reinforced bunker under the stairs and getting up the morning after the first night’s bombing to pick up the shrapnel. He remembers little else. I wonder was he just young enough or did his body make sure he didn’t remember. 

Caldwell’s describes the bombings as “something out of Dante” and “some irrefutable sort of hell.” Not easy to forget, even at 5.

Lucy has hooked me in. I want to know more about those nights, their aftermath and then how a city built itself up again. There is always a temptation for a decline into nihilism in these characters yet when the question of asked “How are we going to recover?” 

Mother, Florence Bell, the quiet unobtrusive oracle of the piece answers, “We just have to get through this bit.” “The bigger question,” she says later, “is how to make good use of my life.” For those with ears to hear Lucy Caldwell gives us many a clue to that in my novel of the summer of 2023.



Forgive me Sinead. I bought this book two years ago and it took your heart breaking and untimely death to get me to pick it up. Once I did, I couldn’t put it down. It is brilliant. Oh there are gaps that I will return to but I simply devoured your rememberings. I so wish there were going to be so many more.

Here are 10 of the many things that I learned: -


1. What a great writer she is. She wrote at the outset of wanting us to feel that she was speaking to us. She succeeded. Joseph’s brother indeed.


2. A frightening experience with her mother when she was young and how she sensed Jesus and the Holy Spirit there with her, “I never asked Him to come; He just arrived.”


3. The details of her mum and dad’s relationship and why her novelist writing brother Joseph might have avoided the problems that caused Sinead’s trauma and brokenness.


4. The short time that it was between a disturbed childhood ending up in a Magadalen Laundry and superstardom. No wonder she found it difficult to navigate.


5. Her seeing herself not as a pop singer, the road that Nothing Compares To Me sent her down against her will and seeming vocation. She always wanted to be a protest singer in the lineage of the Bob’s - Dylan and Marley.


6. The wider context and influences behind her ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. Fascinating.


7. How much prayer has been part of her life since she was very young. Her love of theology and willingness to discuss it to whoever would.


8. I came to respect her yearning for God if I was even more sure that she would have been a challenging member of the congregation! Four children, only one of which was with one of her four husbands. It did cause problems with customs at least one time. She coloured way outside the religious lines for sure!


9. Even as a megastar she some very ordinary, everyday escapades in different cities with different people. She wasn’t drawn to the famous. An evening where she is invited to Prince’s home and has to run away like a teenager is just one of the fascinating stories.


10. I came to appreciate even more her body of work as she gives a detailed run through all her records explaining their content and their wide array of genres. How they came about. Favourite songs. What inspired them. She is not extensive in this but it is insightful. It is a quality catalogue that sh has left us.


There are gaps. From 1992 and the Pope photo on she is less detailed. She says that the trauma of her life is the cause for not remembering.

I would love to have known how she blended and blurred her very obvious relationship with Jesus her latter years as a Muslim. I imagine that it would be far from orthodox but would have been very interesting. 

In the end among many great rock star memoirs in recent years - Brandi Carlile, Allison Moorer, Rickie Lee Jones, Lucinda Williams and Martha Wainright to name a few Sinead’s has its place, up there with the most intriguing and most devour-able. 



I am not the biggest fan of photographic books. I prefer the story than the image. It is probably an inability to read the images but that is how it is.

1964: Eyes Of The Storm is different. I really get this one. Paul McCartney’s few months of snapping in 1964 somehow captures not only a band on the cusp of legend BUT also a culture at the fulcrum of change. 

There’s an innocence about these photos. McCartney and his three mates have only a little idea of what they have started and where this musical journey is going to take them. Haircuts, caps, bikinis and even sunglasses are hints of a fashion revolution that with its Beatles’ soundtrack will literally change the world.

Though there have been endless photographic books about The Beatles, none have been so inside. Yes, other photographers got access but not 24/7 access and that means McCartney has caught a band and their entourage as their fame soars. 

The casual shots, those no other photographer might have like shots of John and his first wife Cynthia, George Martin’s girlfriend Judy Lockhart-Smith. The band and Jane Asher, Cilla Black and other contemporary bands often caught off guard. This is a camera lens looking out when everyone else were attempting to look in.

Best of all are The Beatles shots of the fans keen to get a photograph of them. There is a shot, my very favourite and maybe as a photographer the very best, on page 253 where one girl, who has just caught on who it is in front of her, expresses in her wide eyes and awestruck face what the entirety of Beatlemania was in just one human reaction. 

Not all the shots are photographically brilliant but those that aren’t are saying something about the story. Some shots on the other hand have the deft touch of a professional photographer, some portraits, some of young English boys exploring America, buildings, the police and swimming pools! Many are very excellent. If this guy hadn’t made it in music he might have done ok as a photographer!

Which makes one wonder how a man who would marry a photographer five years later could forget about the history and artistic quality of these photos. How it has remained hidden away for almost 60 years might be hard to explain until you flick through the book and get a very graphic feel of the mad, fast moving world Paul McCartney and his three mates were living at the time.

For the fans - essential! 


Kill The Devil

I have spent a lot of time in East Africa. Not in Rwanda but Uganda next door. I can therefore sense the beauty of the opening scenes of Kill The Devil. The edge of a lake under an African sunset, Truly beautiful.

Lake Kivu is a long way from where the first five of Tony Macauley’s books have been set, the streets of a polarised Belfast but this one is a co-write with Rwandan Juvens Nsabimana. Juvens is a script writer which explains the wider horizons. 

Those opening pages might be scenically stunning but Patricia, the novel’s leading lady leading lady has tragic intensions. The victim of 1994’s genocide in which she was lost her husband and children in the most violently horrific way she has had enough and wants to end it all. A few unwary fishermen save her and Patricia’s story of redemption begins.

Not quickly. Patricia is full of anger and revenge take time to unfold.

Alongside that Damascene is the childhood friend of her and her husband who betrayed her and became their killer. Patricia wasn’t to kill the devil, Damascene.

Damascene is all torn up in his soul because of what he has done. He yearns for forgiveness but knows he doesn’t deserve it.

Kill The Devil is a page turning story of them both. It is tough reading at times and ends up challenging, then full of hope for any of us caught up in a violent conflict and its aftermath.

Macauley as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland is obviously down to stories of reconciliation in Rwanda and the novel is made up of true stories that he has listened to in that country over recent years. These are stories that he says are filled with extreme forgiveness.

For those of us reading in Northern Ireland there are questions to ask. How can Rwandans find it in their hearts to forgive the must brutal of killings while we cannot same to make first steps. 

Off we went to Africa to show them what civilisation means. I wonder if the things of roads and government etc are as important as the things of the heart and relationship. Perhaps the Africans need to come and bring this extreme humanity to us to teach us how they can not just forgive but fall in love with those who have murdered their loved ones.

Kill The Devil is much more than a gripping novel. It is a lesson in humanity. 

Come and hear Tony read from Kill The Devil and talk to Christophe Mbonyingabo about this forgiveness at Fitzroy on Sunday June 18th at 7.00



Already on social media I am seeing messages asking advice on books for holiday reading. Here are ten novels that I highly recommend. All but Kill The Devil has. quote from my reviews, over this past year.



“preaching from outside the walls of the church, and indeed at the hypocrisy inside it”




"Michael Magee has gifted us a direct journey into the heart of a community and the soul of one young man’s attempt to get over the hurdles in his way to a life fulfilled."




"Factory Girls? Where do I start? What is it? Comedy? Troubles Literature? Social commentary? Political? The truth is that it is everything and more."




"Forgiveness might be the most important word, the most vital key, to what gives us resolution, healing and peace in our personal souls and across societies. O’Connor throws in a profound tuppence worth!"




"No spoilers but plot unfolds in the difficulties that Tara and Faith have to deal with in their own souls, their weird relationship and in their families and communities. There are revelations within that we all need to take stock of."




"Mortimer doing the tall tale well and making it very funny is no surprise. What is more impressive is how he weaves the plot, mysteriously building, ever intriguing and, by the end, page turning gripping."




"Kennedy has arrived fully formed as a gifted writer. She sets it in 1975 with a real eye for detail. That detail is in every scene in every page of every swing and turn. There is a feeling that you are there, involved wanting to give an opinion, whisper advice, scream!"




"Towles is kinda an old school novelist with a modern way with his script."




Killing the Devil is a good thing but before you do you need to be sure who the devil is. A book about love verses revenge, universally applicable across our world.



"Osman’s most ginormous genius, maybe even as huge as himself, is the way he weaves underground crimes, kidnappings, guns and death threats into a foundation of comfort, humour and warmth."




“… was there any point in being alive without helping one another?”

I love novels that ask questions. Few ask them quite as sharply as Claire Keegan in Small Things Like These.

Keegan sets her beautifully and economically written “long short story” in the small Irish town of New Ross in 1985. Money is hard to come by. There is a thin line between survival and not. 

Our main man Bill Furlong owns a coal business and has a wife and five children to keep happy. He’s economically comfortable but only just and for how long. When the lorry’s engine gives a worrying sound he thinks of all that his family might go without.

Furlong is a good man. He treats his family well. He treats his staff well. He treats his customers well. He is the nice coal man that every small town needs! 

Furlong’s goodness seems to be traced back to a fatherless childhood where his mother is his hero and a Protestant woman of wealth took them in and looked after them. There are a lot of women around Furlong in this narrative. 

I have a friend, the late wonderful songwriter Rich Mullins, who would say that the devil would settle for good.

As the book nears its short end Furlong has a spiritual awakening towards something far superior to good. At the Convent at the edge of town, a Convent that seems to be a foundation under the town as well, he discovers a young teenage girl being treated badly. How could that be? Furlong refrains from Mass as his views of the Church takes a hit. 

Furlong has stumbled upon something kept from many like him. The Magdalene Laundries of which Joni Mitchell sang:

Prostitutes and destitutes

And temptresses like me

Fallen women

Sentenced into dreamless drudgery

Why do they call this heartless place

Our Lady of Charity?

As the crisis of Catholic faith rises for Furlong so his courage to do the right thing. He returns to the Convent to free the young woman and to bring her home.

It is Christmas and as they make their escape. As they walk through town they pass right beside the nativity crib. The Jesus in that crib as a baby would grown up to suggest that those who are connected with God are those who take care of “the least of these”. It would be beyond miracle if “Small Things Like These” is not intended to echo Jesus.

Keegan ends with a powerful epilogue for any time of year:

“Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?”

As I read the final pages of Small Things Like These I couldn’t help hearing a real Christ-like figure, Bill Furlough, preaching from outside the walls of the church, and indeed at the hypocrisy inside it, to call us back to the vocation of our humanity to turn upside what is wrong into what is good. 

That is face of the Christian that should be looking back in the mirror. My friend Rich would suggest that this is better than good, that this being God’s conduit, to help others. 

Furlong, the outsider preacher, is turning over the tables of the hypocritical insiders. Faith is not where we think it should be but in a coal man who has made his decision at whatever cost to stand against injustice because of real faith - “his fear more than outweighed every other feeling but in his fools heart he not only hoped but legitimately believed that they would mange”.


Michael Magee

I am gloriously fed up repeating myself - here is another brilliant new novelist coming out of my wee place. 

Michael Magee has gifted us a direct journey into the heart of a community and the soul of one young man’s attempt to get over the hurdles in his way to a life fulfilled. 

Magee has a great geographical understanding of Belfast. Well, actually West Belfast, South Belfast and the city centre. I love books that hint at places I know. Magee has you on street corners, outside cafes, sitting on steps and inside shops that you know. 

He has also a deep understand of the psyche of a West Belfast man in his twenties. All the hopes and the plethora of issues that dash those hopes are navigated with raw honesty. 

Written through the soul of Sean whose side we are on from the start. Whether he decks that South Belfast student or not we feel that he’s a good one undeserving of his 200 hours of community service.

There begins a tale of the class division in Belfast, mostly lost beneath the sectarian one. As someone who helps organise the 4 Corners Festival I am so aware that there could be an Andy in East Belfast totally relating to Sean’s danger of getting stuck but no one in South Belfast might understand.

So, Sean, after returning with his degree from Liverpool is trying to escape home, at least the drugs and drink and thieving and poverty and trauma both personal and societal past. In a game of Snakes and Ladders we watch in hope and despair.

Magee is a gifted writer, every character is believable and he has Belfast to a tee. The narrative is gripping and the gift for the reader is that he takes us into homes and bars and lives that we might never get into. We feel how people are struggling with just a mile or two from where we read it. He also challenges that classism that the Good Friday Agreement has widened the gap between those who have and those have not. 

In the end it comes down to choices. Choices that might seem like a betrayal of your family and friends. A choice to put yourself in an environment that might set you free rather than keep you captive. If Sean had been 10 years older he would have been quoting Oasis - “Bound with all the weight of all the words he tried to say/Chained to all the places that he never wished to stay.”  

A stunning debut!