BOOK REVIEWS

The Reverend RICHARD COLES - MURDER BEFORE EVENSONG

Champton

As the summer Facebook pages are clogged up with holiday snaps from all around the world there are some of my friends who have spent their well earned weeks off in those little quaint villages, scattered all over England. Those caressing little streets with beautiful houses, maybe a thatch, a pub, a post office and a more modern cafe to catch the tourist! Some even have the big house, like High Clair where Downton was filmed (sorry Janice, maybe next time!).

It is very idyllic and picture perfect particularly on a sunny day. Step out of your classrooms, offices, shop floors and big city schedules, go back in time a little and chill. Rev Richard Coles has created such a beautiful spot for his new Canon Clement Mystery Series. It is a relaxed summer read.

You’ll surely know Rev Richard Coles’. The Number 1 pop star with the Communards in the 80s, become Anglican vicar, become TV celebrity (including Strictly Come Dancing), and now broadcaster and murder mystery novelist! 

Coles is the Ed Sheehan of vicars - loved by all! Although he has in fact resigned from the clergy to pursue writing and other things.

Murder Before Evensong is the first in Coles’ new life. He sprinkles all kinds of things across his idyllic village of Champton, on the edge of a big house run by the de Floures, where Canon Daniel Clement is Rector of St. Mary’s.

The sprinkles? Well parish politics is first up. The idea of putting toilets into the Church has split the parish. Then murder. Is it linked to the possibility of toilets and pews being removed! There is nothing new under the sun and if there is - kill!

This opens up the intrigue of the past, everybody’s broken story needing aired in the search for a killer who soon, in best Midsomer Murders’ tradition, kills again. 

Canon Clement will rightfully be compared with Grantchester vicars Chambers and Davenport in that TV series or Fr Brown in GK Chesterson’s series of novels. Clement seems a perfect blending of them all.

Champton is full of characters, from aristocracy to gypsies superbly developed by Coles. Canon Clement living with his mother and two dogs fit right in. My only fear is that if the series lasts for 4 books there will not be many still alive!

There are other sprinkles. The Bible is used quite beautifully both for issues like death and murder. It is also applied to lessons for everyday living and solving of mysteries. I love how he uses the prophecies of Isaiah about Jesus as an illustration of how much he has a knowledge of who the murderer is but not quite yet.

I thoroughly enjoyed his pastoral nugget sprinkles; in his own study, other people’s homes and from the pulpit.

There is a comedic thread of course too, which brings comparisons with the Vicar of Dibley. It is not as slap stick as Dibley, more gentle English village as we said at the start of this review. 

I don’t think it quite reaches the quality of Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series, to which it will be immediately compared. Or, maybe not yet! The investigation is less intense, at times I wondered if there was an investigation at all.

Yet, for a summer read, particularly if you are of a Church going persuasion, you’ll get a lot of gentle enjoyment out of the life and death of Champton. Bring on the next in the series quickly.


DAVE THOMPSON - YELLOW

Yellow

Dave Thompson is a mate and when I started reading Yellow he invited me to take my gloves off in the review. So, turn your face here mate…  

Yellow is an interesting debut novel. Set in the world of Big Events stewarding it had me grinning at a recent Deacon Blue concert because I sensed I knew pretty much what was involved in all of the stewarding jobs and had me wondering whether stewards around me were happy with their particular station and who might fancy who!

In some ways Big Events management is to Dave’s book what newspaper delivery and bread vans were to Tony Macauley’s first couple of books, Breadboy and Paperboy. However though Thompson has experienced the life of a rock concert steward, line dancing in Ballyclare and food festivals in Hillsborough, he has chosen not to go the memoir route. 

We are immediately introduced to the fictional Robbie McKittrick and in his acknowledgements Dave thanks his fellow stewards saying that none of them actually appear in the fiction but a wee piece of all of them does! 

I have to say that early on my gloves were coming off. I found the beginning a little bit slow… I was maybe learning too much about event stewarding and not enough about the plot… but then…

I got drawn in and set the gloves down. Thompson seems to have coined his style. His voice is about giving voice to the voices around him. He is so strong on conversations. He makes them every day believable and gives them a Northern Irish lilt. Throw in warmth and a huge dollops of humour and is hard not to like

In real life Dave fancies himself as a funny guy and this is comedy and it is funny. I have a bizarre disability when it comes to laughing at humour in print. It appears I need to see and hear. Yet, this had me laughing out loud.

The comedy might be enough but there is a lot of tenderness and serious insight in this story too. When McKittrick gets involved in very personal chats, particularly the one with his alienated daughter, then there is a sensitive depth. 

There are divorces and break ups and grief and all sorts of life stuff going on around McKittrick and his stewarding colleagues and family. Through the humour Thompson drops in some pragmatic sense.

Beyond this there is a soundtrack running through. I tried to work out distances by how far through Springsteen’s Born In The USA CD, perpetually on Robbie’s car stereo, was. I was even more delighted that Elton John’s early albums were given the respect they too often are robbed of. Mona Lisas and Madhatters as the main song - tasteful!

If I needed a gloves off punch I’d suggest  that this isn’t the best book by a Northern Irish writer that I will read this summer though, even with Rev Richard Coles’ first murder mystery following it, it might just be the funniest. 

Slipping the gloves back on again I don’t think that this is Dave Thompson’s best book either. I would love to see what a publishing house could do with the raw independent talent that has surely done more than enough here to seek their attention. 


STOCKI'S SUMMER READING PILE 2022

Lucy Caldwell These days

I always head off on summer vacation with a big pile of books, seeking which will grab my attention over weeks of rest. I'll not get to read them all but this is my pile!

 

LUCY CALDWELL - THESE DAYS

Recognised as one of Northern Ireland’s finest new writers, and there are many, I am excited to read how she recreates my home city during the Blitz.

 

BRIAN MCGILLOWAY - THE EMPTY ROOM

Stumbled by chance on Blood Ties earlier in the year. Loved it. A Strabane crime novelist who can really write. 

 

AMOR FOWLES - THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

I read A Gentleman In Moscow last summer and look forward to a car trip across America with him this summer… as I sit in Ballycastle!

 

RICKY ROSS - WALKING BACK HOME

Deacon Blue frontman Ricky Ross has his memoir due for August. Cannot wait. 

 

DAVE THOMPSON - YELLOW

My mate’s romantic comedy about love between a fan and a steward in a hi vis jacket.

 

MICHELLE GALLEN - FACTORY GIRLS

A novel about our small towns in Northern Ireland and yes the sectarianism. Roddy Doyle calls it, “Vital, bang on and seriously funny”. 

 

DECLAN O’ROURKE - THE PAWN BROKERS REWARD

I am a little fascinated by The Irish Famine and Declan O’Rourke, one of my favourite songwriters, has written an astonishing album about it. This is his novel.

 

HENRIETTA MCKERVEY - VIOLET HILL

So we found out that one of the knitters at the Fitzroy knitting group has a novel writing daughter. Let’s give her work a lash in this. Joseph O’Connor is a big fan.

 

NEEMA SHAH - KOLOLO HILL 

We haven’t been to Uganda for a few years because of Covid. So I might read this one set on a street where I once spent a happy hour in a Kampala traffic jam.  

 

ANTHONY DOER - FOUR SEASONS IN ROME

Wanted to read this while I was in Rome but I had to come home too soon. Maybe I'll get back to it.


DAVID PARK - SPIES IN CANAAN

David Park Spies...

David Park is without doubt my favourite novelist. A humble quiet man from County Down he writes with poetic flare and always engages me with his characters, his storylines and the questions lying underneath. 

Park usually sets his stories here in Northern Ireland but not this time. Though he does drop into Northern Ireland briefly with Bill Clinton’s famous peace-bringing visit of Christmas 1995, the most of the short Spies In Canaan is set in post war Vietnam and the contemporary American Mexican border. 

A couple of depth charges had me surmising. How difficult it is to hold to our personal values when we are caught up in the communal or national. Even more if violence and war are involved. Michael Miller our main man in the script finds himself caught up in deception and hard decisions in Vietnam. 

Decades later Ignatius Donavan, the man who drew Michael into such dilemmas of conscience, sends the by now retired Miller a package that has him adventuring into the desert where Donavan raises more dilemmas. Could he be after all those compromises and their implications be seeking atonement? 

Can those who did despicable things in times of conflict become the protagonists of the goodness later in life? Leopards changing spots and all of that. A question that has ricocheted around our own wee territory.

So too, the thoughts of the old military protagonists wrestling with their memories, their guilt and regret. How do they deal with what they did or were forced to do. Is there a redemption day? 


SURMISING THE DERRY GIRLS FINALE

Derry Girls

The Derry Girls. What a phenomenon. It is easy to see it as a lovely wee funny show about 4 quirky Irish girls and a their English cousin. 

Maybe that was the intention at the outset but by the time we got to the big one hour long finale at the end of series 3 this has turned into something so much bigger.

The production, the staging, the writing and the guest stars. It was an epic show. Yes there was that near slap stick conversational humour but somehow alongside it writer Lisa McGee worked the personal and the national into something magnificent, almost prophetic.

Derry Girls was always about teenagers coming of age. The genius that finally came to ultimate fulfilment was setting it in the 90s. The nostalgia of Catholic and Protestant school kids going on overnights to meet and understand each other sounds uninviting but McGhee wrote it well. 

So, the big finale. It is easy to understand teenage girls falling out. No contriving needed there. To link their reconciliation, compromise and forgiveness with the Referendum over the Good Friday Agreement lit a spark.

To make such a seismic political moment into comedy could have all gone very very awry but again McGee created it beautifully. 

In the midst of the laugh out loud - Ardal O’Hanlon! - the questions were asked about amnesty for those who murdered, the bitterness that needed swallowed and all the what ifs it went wrong.

In the end though there was a positivity about the vote as there was about the Derry Girls coming of age. As they find the maturity of compromise in their own friendships McGee is suggesting that perhaps our society might grow up too. 

The finale of Derry Girls leaves us with an amazing potential of a so much better future. It left me laughing, sad that it was all over and wondering if almost 25 years after the events acted out if we have made the most of the positivity of ’98. There's still work to do.


LOUISE KENNEDY - TRESPASSES

Trespasses

Trespasses is another fabulous novel from yet another new, if not young, voice in Northern Irish fiction. Louise Kennedy has been a chef for 30 years and suddenly arrives among us as this very assured, poetic writer of compulsive fiction.

Trespasses is just that. A compulsive read. It’s another love story across Catholic Protestant lines. Yet, as you read you could be forgiven for thinking that you had never read anything like it. Kennedy gives it this unique twist and an intriguing web of relationships and plots.

Cushla is the centre of the yarn. A 24 year old teacher, living with a drinking mother and helping her brother in the family owned pub. They are Catholics but the drinkers are mainly Protestant. She’s lovely in every way, particularly in how she looks after a pupil Davy who needs a little help particularly when his dad gets beaten up.

Cushla’s weakness is an affair with Michael Agnew, an older man, a barrister and married. It all takes a tragic Northern Irish moment, one of those morning headlines and the aftermath is sad and messy and again utterly compelling.

Enough spoilers! Kennedy has arrived 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!

It’s hard to not make comparisons with Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Perhaps a film version could be called Holywood, Co Down! It’s six year after Branagh’s. Northern Ireland is less romantic in every way. So there is much more realism. 

There’s also Kennedy’s priest Fr Slattery who seems the equivalent of Branagh’s Presbyterian preacher. Both have make fleeting appearances but somehow don’t give a good impression of the church’s contribution at helping our wee place as we went through those dark dark days.  


MARC CUSHMAN - LONG DISTANCE VOYAGERS; THE STORY OF THE MOODY BLUES - VOL 2 1980-2018

LDV Cushman

Soul Surmise readers know how much I enjoy a good rock biography. I particularly love memoirs. Elvis Costello, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen, Mary Gauthier, Mikel Jollet and Brandi Carlile have excelled at such a genre in recent years.

Of those I would still like to see published Justin Hayward would be high on my list. As I Have shared before as a 15 year old in an English essay I unpacked why if I could be someone else it would be Justin Hayward and not George Harrison! Quite a thought for a Beatles’ fanatic!

The reason was that it seem that Hayward had all the fame but not so much of the recognition. I was pretty sure that as Justin Hayward I could walk down a street pretty much unrecognised. As George Harrison I’d be hiding away behind the gates of Friar Park!

This of course is the reason that there will be no Justin Hayward memoir. He has kept his life out of the tabloids. He has done all his talking in the music. Forty five years after I became a fan I know very little about who Justin Hayward is.

In the absence of memoirs or even biographies on Hayward or all the rest of the Moody Blues Marc Cushman’s grand epic is what we can almost happily settle for.

As it says on the cover this is Long Distance Voyagers Volume 2. Volume 1 was 800 pages and took us from the beginning through the classic, second phase of the band, Days Of Future Past to Octave. A perfect fulcrum as Mike Ponder leaves and Patrick Moraz joins.

This was a fulcrum for me too. The last Moody Blues album I bought when it came out was Octave. I paid no attention to Long Distance Voyager and The Present and only really revisited anything post 1980 in the last five years.

That was the difference in Volume 1 and 2 for me. Volume 1 I was reflecting back on records I knew and loved well. Volume 2 was me discovering the records as I read about them.

If you are on such a journey then Cushman’s style is perfect. It is more almanac than traditional biography. He takes you through the making of each album, the songs, the reception and the tour thereafter. It is full of fascinating information and reviews, maybe too many reviews. Yet, I could read and listen along. Not only to the Moody Blues records but to the solo efforts even those of Mike Pinder’s sons!

It all begins with Mike Pinder leaving and the revival in fortunes that Long Distance Voyager brought the band and ends perfectly with them almost all together, including Pinder and even Denny Laine, at the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2018. 

Outside the albums and tours there are a few snippets of information. Law suits and issues with Moraz about his membership and Pinder about the sue of the name. Yet, do we know any more about the members of this band at the end of it all - not much. Information of the band’s life partners, children or whereabouts is vague. Which is of course back to why my 15 year old self rather than a Beatle.

As I bask in their overdue membership of the Hall Of Fame I glance back across the second tome of the Cushman series and see myself enjoy Strange Times and Sur La Mer more than I ever dreamed I could. I also have Justin Hayward’s solo albums View From a Hill and Moving Mountains on heavier rotation. I loved Songwriter but hadn’t given these their worth.

I am also surmising the concept of of faith in the Moody Blues. Like the rest of their private lives but throughout Long Distance Voyagers Volume 2 faith appears more often than I’d have thought. I am thinking of John Lodge and Justin Hayward’s growing up in Church structures and watching its influence throughout a wonderful long distance voyage of music and song. 

For Moody Blues fans essential! 

My Review Of Long Distance Voyagers Vol 1 HERE


PAUL SALLEY - LITTLE WING: THE JIMMY McCULLOCH STORY

JMcC

I have waited four and a half decades for this book. 

In the 70s I loved Jimmy McCulloch. Oh aye, it was then other McCullough Henry who was from Portstewart. I would get to him later. When I fell in love with all things Beatles in the summer of 1976 it Wings At The Speed Of Sound and then, from Santa, Wings Over America. 

Wings were everywhere that long hot summer of ’76. Silly Love Songs and Let ‘Em In were big hits and all over the radio. Wings as a band were solid. There had been no changes in two years and wouldn’t be for two more. Jimmy McCulloch was the young guitar hero in that classic line-up. 

In my teens I needed to know the lineup of bands the way I knew the line ups of my favourite football teams. I knew McCulloch was young and had been in his teens when his then band Thunderclap Newman reached number 1 with Something In The Air. 

When he left Wings after recording much of London Town but before its release I was as gutted as if my favourite player had transferred to another team. I followed him from Small faces to The Dukes to a very tragic early death at just 26 years of age.

McCulloch lingered warmly in my nostalgia for those Wings records but the tea time television show, The Repair Room reawakened my interested. Jimmy’s cousin Margaret Chambers brought his platinum discs to Jay Blades to be restored from a sorry state caused by a leaking roof. Jimmy was of interest again. 

Then as if my serendipity I discovered this book. Little Wing is a thoroughly research book by Paul Salley that trebles up as a photograph album and newspaper scrapbook. Jimmy’s mum it seems kept everything and that has no doubt helped Salley’s writing but also the visuals. 

That might be why it is so darn expensive BUT if you are like me and a Paul McCartney nut then this is such a brilliant side alley. I was intrigued by just how young he was playing in bands. He was like a guitar hero Osmond. It also struck me again how young he was when he died but also how much he had packed in to a life so young. Yet what a tragic loss.

I of course loved the Wings years the best. I took a new interest in Junior’s Farm which is the only time McCartney ever gives a name check in studio recordings. I went searching with more intent to the One Hand Clapping sessions to see what he added particularly to the band On the Run songs. Geoff Britten the drummer at the time called it ‘low end’. Rock power.

That classic Wings band from 74-78 gave in my opinion McCartney’s best post Beatles sound until he teamed up with Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray and Abe Laboriel Jr around the turn of the millennium. Crucial to that sound was Jimmy McCulloch.

I had no idea about all of McCulloch’s rock star friends and who he played with. Pete Townsend was a mentor early on. He played with River Daltery, Steve Marriott and John Mayall. Apparently he was even friends with David Cassidy.  

I recommend, maybe as a birthday present - Little Wing. It is a magnificent tribute to a child prodigy, gifted musician and generally friendly chap! 

Worth the wait!


MARY GAUTHIER - SAVED BY A SONG

Saved by A Song

Mary Gauthier has led quite a life. This book is quite the read as a result.

It begins with a police patrol car stopping Mary for drink driving and throwing her in prison. Later in the book she is in an addiction unit trying to work out how she can only maintain relationships for two years. In another place we catch on to why she ends up in such places when she visits the place in New Orleans where she was taken from her mother at birth and adopted.

Mary Gauthier has led quite a life.

Yet, this is not a book about her life as much as it is about her songs. Mary was 28 when she stopped drinking and she still hadn’t written a song yet.

In the Prologue, Gauthier quotes Bruce Springsteen, “Music is a repair shop. I’m basically a repair man.” What Saved By A Song is all about is how songs became the healing energy at the centre of her broken life.

What is unique about the book is that we get to hear about the craft of writing these songs and we also get to see a redeemed life in their writing.

Gauthier takes thirteen songs, eleven of which are hers plus John Lennon’s Mother and John Prine’s Sam Stone and as well as unpacking the art of the writing shares a harrowing but saved life.

God is all over it but not in the traditional sense. I am finding more and more of that. God is alive and well outside of the worn out structures of the traditional form of church. I saw it also in Brandi Carlile’s Broken Horses.

Gauthier sees songs, like so many musicians, as gifts that arrive from beyond - “my work is to be a receiver.” My favourite lines in the book are when she is so happy with a song that she says, “Jesus Christ himself could have come down from above to tell me the chorus needed editing, and I would have had to tell him, “I love you Lord, but I’m not touching it.” 

Maybe Mary Gauthier’s greatest artistic and healing achievement is when she worked with army veterans and their families using songwriting as catharsis. They shared their stories of Iraq and Mary sang them back. It became an astonishing record called Rifles and Rosary Beads. Two get dealt with here, that title track and the very very moving Still On The Ride. 

Saved By A Song is up there with my very favourite music memoirs. It shares what I believe about the art form and is full of Theo-musicology! 

If you are a songwriting fan then you’ll get a lot from Saved My A Song. Gauthier quotes little nuggets from other writers as she shares the secrets of her craft.

If you are fan of Mary Gauthier and particular songs I Drink, Mercy Now, Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars, Goodbye and Oh Soul then you’ll love the inside story even more.

 

 


JAN CARSON - THE RAPTURES

The Raptures

Jan Carson lived in our QUB Chaplaincy community at Derryvolgie Hall. Jan often talked about being a novelist. I spent a lot of time around an array of artists and know how difficult it is to make it.

Jan certainly had the desire. For sure she has worked hard at it. The Raptures is her third novel among a clatter of other books and the first thing I surmise is that she must surely have become one of our very best literary writers. 

Her writing has this ability to lilt along, all conversational. The writing seems to have been easy but is thoroughly crafted. She has this way of putting words on a page that you can actually hear them. That lilt in Ballylack, where The Raptures is set, has a very definite rural country Antrim accent!

On top of this seeming writers ease she can throw original metaphors, catch you out with laugh out loud funnies in places that you don’t expect and create very authentic ordinary people in very ordinary places that feel very very familiar. 

Now, Jan does fancy herself as a magic realist. She blames it on a year long preaching series on Revelation in her Church when she was about 8! In The Raptures that cooky part come out in children visiting our main protagonist Hannah Adger after they have died. They appear in her bath, her bedroom, when she is on the toilet! 

The children dying is the central story of the book, which is neither light or humorous but somehow without eradicating the sadness and sorrow never becomes too heavy. Carson has empathy.

The deaths start as a mystery as one by one the children in the same Primary School class pass away. The book is almost a mystery that turns thriller. Yet, it all happens in this rural village, the interactions of which are more the point of the book than the whodunnit and what’ll happen next.

Jan Carson has some issues with growing up in a Protestant village and particularly in a conservative evangelical home. The role of women in home, church and society gets a constant poking.

With the village I think she does a good job of showing the positives and the negatives. A community where everyone knows everyone can stand together when tragedies like this one happen. On the other side a community that knows each other too well can be fractious and judgementally gossipy. As for Maganda a Philippino wife…

It’s Maganda’s son Ben or Bayani, as is his real name, who nails the issue of Ballylack and any other small parochial place or narrow Church group. “You’re afraid of anything that’s different. You’re afraid of things changing. You’re afraid of everything staying the same. You’re afraid of upsetting people around you by drawing attention to yourself. You’re afraid of being honest about what you’re really like. Basically, you’re afraid of yourselves.” I wonder how long Jan Carson has had that paragraph welling up inside of her.

Fear is very much a root of the problem in the evangelical Christian psyche. Even with the best intentions of withdrawal from life and those people and things that might be spiritually dangerous can lead to arrogance, hypocrisy, exclusivity and a lack of love while over indulging in damning everything outside yourselves. Hannah’s dad’s feuds with her loving Granda Pete is the best illustration here. 

I utterly resonated with the scene when Pastor Bill was in the hospital ward with Hannah and wants to use a pastoral prayer as a conduit to preach to everyone else in the ward. This is not what a pastoral prayer is for. It is an abuse of ministry. So I love the line - "Sinead McConville Nil by Mouth gives him the finger and then adding insult to injury, swiftly crosses herself”. LOL!

Yet, Jan knows there is some good in there. I find Hannah’s honest wrestling with faith and God and prayer a good thing. I am obviously not against church leaders praying for Hannah. There are moments though where I think the prayer ministry can become a circus rather than a compassionate focus on the one being prayed for. 

Which is when Hannah’s mother, like all women in Ballylack submissive to their husbands until now, stands up to her husband and throws the great Belfast healer out of the house to simply be with her daughter in what might be her time of dying. Indeed, does God heal when a sense of justice and love has won and the circus of religion has had their tables turned over? 

It is a fascinating twist to the seemingly constant suspicion of belief and prayer that a miracle does happen. At the end of the book, having exposed many of the short falls of narrow faith communities, the cynical secular are also exposed. When the crisis management officer assigned to the village during the tragedy is summing up he has a major issue - the ‘miracle’ word. 

“He keeps the details loose and thin. He’s been told to stick to medical terms - full recovery, cured, prognosis - avoid all mention of holy shenanigans.” 

A mystery one might call it and that is what Jan named at the 4 Corners Festival as one of her biggest frustrations with the modern church.

There is so much more in this book. There are Carson loves throughout - a wee bit of Casualty here, a smidgen of Poirot there, the influence of Flannery O’Connor and Anna Burns everywhere and a beautiful Bob Dylan throwaway - “5 believers” - obviously!

I haven’t even got to the dead kids who remain in another Ballylack repeating the divisions and fractions of their parents! 

Which might lead us to some nihilist hopelessness but do not let it because the book’s first and last lines are paraphrases of a Lyra McKee quote - “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.”