Books I read (or re-read) in 2017

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2017, in the order in which they were read:

Stephen King: On Writing
Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air
Rowan Williams: Being Disciples
Mark Ireland & Mike Chew: How to Do Mission Action Planning
Elma Schemenauer: Consider the Sunflowers
Mark Ireland and Mike Booker: Making New Disciples
C.S. Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms
Harry Mowvley: 1 & 2 Samuel (People’s Bible Commentary)
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William Paul Young: The Shack
Duane Pederson: Larger than Ourselves
Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People
Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mary Oliver: Blue Horses
Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987
Seamus Heaney: Human Chains
Timothy Keller: Preaching
Michael Harvey: Unlocking the Growth
Barbara Tuchmann: The Guns of August
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Michael Frost: Surprise the World
Alan Hirsch: The Forgotten Ways
W.O. Mitchell: Roses are Difficult Here
Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking
Jennifer Robison: Goodnight from London
Adam S. McHugh: Introverts in the Church
Clive James: Injury Time
Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent
Loveday Alexander: Acts (People’s Bible Commentary)
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows
remper Longman, Philips Long & Iain Provain: A Biblical History of Israel
Kate Rademacher: Following the Red Bird
Yuval Noah Harani: Sapiens
Justin Welby: Dethroning Mammon
Andrew Marr: A History of Modern Britain
Justin Brierley: Unbelievable?
Chaim Potok: The Chosen
Chaim Potok: The Promise
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner
Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev
C.S. Lewis: The Four Loves
Chaim Potok: In the Beginning
Ros Wynne-Jones: Something is Going to Fall Like Rain
Chaim Potok: The Book of Lights
Stephen Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
Melvyn Bragg: William Tyndale: A Brief History
Chaim Potok: Davita’s Harp
Siddhartha Mukharjee: The Emperor of All Maladies
Ursula K. LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
David Daniell: William Tyndale: A Biography
Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust
George Pitcher: A Dark Nativity
Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? Definitely Andrew Marr’s We British: The Poetry of a People. Marr is both a good historian and also a lover of poetry, and he manages to combine them both in this volume, which is part anthology, part history of English poetry, and part a social history of Britain and its people. Marci and I read it together and we hugely enjoyed it. And – here’s the rub – Marr introduced me to some poets I knew little about, but who I have since read more of and thoroughly enjoyed.

Honourable mention must go to Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, which not only helped me to understand myself better, but also made me think about the way we do church and what we ask of people – which may be less well suited to the introvert temperament – and how we might make it more inclusive of all temperaments.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. I read and enjoyed the first two books in the Hunger Games trilogy, but this third and final book just didn’t cut it for me. There was plenty of horror in the first two books, of course, but it was contained by the device of the Hunger Games. The third book, however, describes in horrifying detail an all-out war, in which child soldiers fight and commit acts that will give them (if they survive – most don’t) nightmares for the rest of their lives. Collins is a wonderfully skilled writer, but I thought she could have imagined a better and stronger ending to the trilogy than this.

I found myself comparing Katniss’s role in the war against the Capitol with Frodo’s in the War of the Ring. Like Katniss, Frodo is a small and seemingly insignificant person, and the major battles happen in places where he is not present, but in the end, because of the plot device of the Ring, he turns out to have the decisive role in the story. What a pity that Collins couldn’t have thought of a way to make Katniss – supposedly the heroine of the novel – the actual centre of the story! Most of the significant moments in the struggle for freedom actually seem to happen when she’s unconscious (she spends a rather large proportion of the book lying convalescing), and in the end, her role in the struggle seems rather peripheral – she’s the centre of the rebels’ P.R. efforts, but that’s about it.

Important discoveries:

Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air. I can’t say ‘His first book’, because there won’t be any more – he died of cancer before it was published. An amazingly honest account of what it feels like for a brilliant doctor to become a cancer patient himself. And while we’re talking about cancer, Siddhartha Mukharjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was a brilliant history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer from earliest times to the present day. I learned a huge amount from reading this book.

On a completely different subject, Michael Frost’s Surprise the World describes a simple rule of life for missional Christians based on the acronym ‘BELLS’: ‘Bless’ three people this week, ‘Eat’ with three people this week, ‘Listen’ to the Holy Spirit for one period this week, ‘Learn’ Christ for one period this week, and journal this week about the ways you have been ‘Sent’ in mission. I read it twice and then lead a book study on it in our church which was very well received. I highly recommend it.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns were both excellent reads. I’m a little late in discovering Hosseini; he is my first encounter with a country I knew almost nothing about – Afghanistan – and his books have given me a vivid picture of what life is actually like in that long-suffering country. They are not easy reads – they describe hard events in the lives of people – but they are powerfully written and I look forward to reading more from him.

Finally I should mention Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust which I read just before Christmas, and hugely enjoyed; it is certainly one of my favourite theological reads. I loved his description of the Christian life as learning to believe that God can be trusted. He covered some pretty basic theological themes – creation, incarnation etc. – but as my friend Clarke French remarked, over and over again as I was reading the book I found myself saying “Wow – it’s never been said quite as well as that before!”

And now – on to 2018!


Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-four years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.


On Being Happy

In one of the final chapters of his book ‘Sapiens‘, Yuval Noah Harari raises the issue of whether all the ‘progress’ the human race has made in the last few thousand years has actually increased the happiness of individual humans to any great degree (not to mention the happiness of the other sentient species on Earth).

I won’t give the game away by telling you his answer, but I would like to share a short reflection on one section of this chapter. In this section, Harari points out that happiness has a lot to do with body chemistry and temperament. Some of us just seem wired to be more cheerful than others. For example, one person might have a ‘happiness range’ (on a scale of 1-10) of 3-7, averaging out at a five. Another might have a range of 6-10, averaging out at an eight. There isn’t a great deal they can do about that, although of course upbringing and choices do have some impact on where we land up in the range.

I found this liberating.

I am well aware that I have been handed a somewhat melancholic temperament. It’s easy for me to see the dark side of any issue. I panic easily, I worry a lot, and I tend to make negative observations about situations and people.

Looking at my families of origin, I can understand this. It’s in our genes. It’s not something I need to feel guilty about.

However, I do have a choice about where in my ‘range’ (let’s call it a 3 – 7) I average out. And there are things I can do, choices I can make, habits I can form, that will increase my happiness. Gretchen Rubin wrote an excellent book on this subject called ‘The Happiness Project‘. No, I can’t flip a switch to change my emotions. But there are behaviours I can engage in which have a cheering effect on my disposition. I’m talking about things like doing acts of kindness to others, sticking with my diet and exercise disciplines and so on. I know that when I’m intentional about these things, I’m a happier guy.

And I’m also more pleasant to be around. Which is why making decisions that increase my happiness is not a selfish pursuit. Generally speaking, happier people lift up the people around them, while gloomy people drag others down. I want to lift others up.

I can’t do anything about my temperament, but I can do something about my actions. I’m going to try to remember to do that.


‘We British: the Poetry of a People’

29958072This book isn’t quite a history of British (i.e. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) poetry from Caedmon to the present day; it’s more a sort of annotated anthology, with poems and excerpts from poems giving a representative sample of each period. As such, it’s an excellent introduction for the person who enjoys poetry but isn’t well-informed about the history of the craft in the British Isles.

For me there were lots of old favourites here, but also many with whom I was unfamiliar (old and new). Like all poetry fans reading the book, I was ticked off by the omission of some of my favourites (John Masefield, R.S. Thomas), but a book of 640 pages attempting to introduce the reader to 1,350 years of British poetry is bound to offend in that way. Overall I thought the book was brilliant. And I’d give this one word of reading advice: read it aloud, and with a spouse or partner or friend if you can. Marci and I read it in coffee shops and we thoroughly enjoyed this treat for the ears as well as the eyes. Five stars, and well-deserved.

Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People (Fourth Estate, 2016).


You don’t need a Kindle or a Kobo to be able to read Kindle or Kobo e-books

kindleappLittle known fact: you don’t actually need to actually own a Kindle or Kobo to be able to read e-books for Kindle or Kobo.

You can download a Kindle or Kobo app for your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Then you can go to the Kindle, Kobo or Indigo stores, buy e-books, and read them on your device.

For, go to the Kindle store section of the website and then click on the linkunnamed ‘Free Reading Apps’. It will take you to this page, where you can download the app for your device (computer, iPad or other tablet, iPhone or other smartphone). On other Amazon sites, search for the appropriate tab. (You can also download the app directly from the Apple App store; I’m assuming you can do the same thing from the equivalent stores for apps for other platforms).

For Kobo, go to, and at the very top of the page you’ll see a link for ‘Apps and E-Readers’. Follow that link to download the appropriate app for your device. For Apple, it will direct you to a link in the iTunes store for iPhone and iPad, or on the Kobo site itself for desktop or laptop computers. There are similar links for other platforms.

meadowvalecover-smallOnce you’ve done that, your next step is to purchase Meadowvale for Kindle on or your own local Amazon site, or at Indigo or the Kobo store for Kobo! What could be better?!

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for owning a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle or Kobo. You’re not so distracted by the temptation to check your email or browse the web. And you don’t have to deal with backlit screens either, so they won’t keep you awake at night.

But if you already have a device and don’t want to fork out the extra cash for a dedicated e-reader, you don’t need to miss out on reading books that are only available as e-books – books like Meadowvale, that is!



Would you like to help me reach more people with my e-book?

Many thanks to the 24 people (so far) who have bought copies of ‘Meadowvale: a Novel‘ on Kindle or Kobo!

If you wouldn’t mind, here are three things you can do to help me reach another twenty four people!

1. When you have finished the e-book, go to the site you bought it from (Amazon, Indigo, Kobo etc.) and rate it out of five stars. Be honest – I don’t mind!

2. If you would take the time to write a short review, this would REALLY help. When it comes to books appearing in the algorithms, the number of reviews is really important. And if you wouldn’t mind copying your review to the other sites (Amazon, Kobo, Indigo, and – if you’re a member – Goodreads – that would also really be helpful.

3. Share the link to my e-book on your own Facebook page and/or blog, with a few words about what you thought of it.

Thanks very much! I really appreciate your help!

Just a reminder of where you can get the e-book: (if you’re not in Canada, search for it in your own Amazon stores – it’s in all of them).




‘Meadowvale’ on Kobo.

I’m pleased to announce that Meadowvale is now available in the Kobo store (link here) (At the moment it does not appear to be available in the Chapters/Indigo store).