Best novels of the 2000s – according to US critics

The Guardian is carrying an report on a BBC Culture survey recently among US literary critics on what they considered the top novels of the 21st century so far. I’ve a read a few and haven’t heard of some!

Their top twelve are:

1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
2. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003)
3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)
4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)
6. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
7. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)
8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)
10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)
12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

My take on those I’ve read:

Wolf Hall was one I really struggled through. It was only my stubborness that kept me going. I liked the gist of the story, in my mind at half or two thirds the length it would have been much better.

Gilead is one many of my friends like Jayber raved about. I enjoyed it, although it didn’t blow me away. I may need to reread it.

A Visit from the Goon Squad – another one I struggled with and really wasn’t impressed by.

Atonement – the first on their list that I agree with – brilliant and poignant.

Half a Yellow Sun – again this is a fantastic book – I’m a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah – one of my best novels/reads of 2014 makes number 13 on the critics list.

What do you make of the critics choices?

Five best non-fiction reads of 2014

Following on from my top fiction reads of 2014 and top reads from Jayber, Robin and Gemma I’ve tried to distill my best non-fiction reads of last year.

The Governor – John Lonergan

A fascinating insight into life in the prison service and the Irish penal system. Some legal friends seem a bit sceptical of him. I found this hard to put down and kept reading bits out to whoever was near me – doing their heads in no doubt.

Falling Upward – Richard Rohr

My first encounter with Richard Rohr. As my thirties have entered their latter stages much of this book about the two stages of life really resonated with me and, reflecting back I feel I need to go and dip back in.

French Children Don’t Throw Food – Pamela Druckerman

Funny and practical, this was one of only two books I read on parenting before the arrival of Colm. This is a great read – honest, amusing and fascinating. This book resonated with us particularly as my wife spent part of her childhood growing up in Belgium. Pamela is an American journalist married to a Brit living in France, observing the differences between ‘Anglo’ parenting and French parenting. As about to be parents I’d thoroughly recommend it!

Leaders Eat Last – Simon Sinek

Given my day job I read a lot on leadership and this was the standout from 2014. Originally rooted in observations on leadership in the military, Sinek reminds us of the servant nature of leadership. Using a combination of anecdotal examples and brain science this is a manifesto for recovering leadership from ego and profit.

Nothing to Envy (Real Lives in North Korea) – Barbara Demick

Harrowing at times I struggled to put down these compelling stories of life in North Korea. Gleaned from escapees into South Korea, journalist Demick unveils the disturbing reality of life under the ‘great leader’.


Special shout outs too to the wonderful Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Sorry For Your Troubles (listen to him read some here – the best way to hear his poetry! ) and The Anatomy of Peace – Resolving the Heart of Conflict from the Arbinger institute.

What were yours? (and I can load up my reading list for this year!)

Best reads of 2014: fiction

One huge advantage of a kindle (apart from portability) is that with it I read more. This does not equal reading more good books but reading more average novels/easy reads, unable to resist a free or 99p deal of the day. Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks series and Greg Isle’s Penn Cage series were some of the more enjoyable cheap reads.

I did still manage some decent books and my top five in no particular order are:

An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris

State corruption, whistle blowing, wrongful imprisonment. The story of French army officer Richard Dreyfus at the end of the 19th century. Harris at his best.

The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan

Ireland after the crash through the eyes of the inhabitants of a small town brilliantly demonstrating the human (and moral) cost of the boom times going bust.

Americanah- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Loved this tale of identity and belonging,  of emigration and return.

The Son – Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo does crime fiction/thriller like no other.

The Truth Commissioner – David Park

This had been on my list for a while and didn’t disappoint. Weaving together several characters and their past into an imagined future of a truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland.


What were your top fiction reads of 2014?


Next up – non-fiction reads of 2014.

Around the web the last couple of weeks

Some of the articles that I found provocative, really got me thinking or inspired me from the last couple of weeks:


Brilliant – 11 Film Posters Improved By Mark Kermode’s Scathing Reviews


Two helpful pieces from Vox relaying transcripts of what happened- with some commentary.

Officer Darren Wilson’s story is unbelievable. Literally.

Michael Brown spent his last day with his friend Dorian Johnson. Here’s what Johnson saw.

Darren Wilson, perfect and sweet vs. the big black demonic super monster


Stop Trying to Save the World – Big ideas are destroying international development

Must read on development and for anyone who supports development charities.


The Guardian has been doing some great articles on cities over the last few weeks. The first is inspiring.

The Liverpool locals who took control of their long-neglected streets

If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like?

How to build a fairer city

Not forgetting the poo bus…

All aboard the Number Two bus that runs on human poop


What about you? Top articles?

Around the web this week

A few things that have got me thinking and musing this week.

Justice and phones
What’s your phone got to do with a war?

Via Robin Peake

One of a few helpful pieces from Tearfund Rhythms on phones and conflict minerals. One of the reasons why I bought a Fairphone – topic of a future blog!


Breaking news: Fifa say Hell will host 2026 World Cup

Via Gary Lineker

Great piece from the Telegraph on the farce that is FIFA.


Experiments show this is the best way to win campaigns. But is anyone actually doing it?

Via Tom Baker

From the US – What is the most effective form of political campaigning and why is it not used as it should be? I resonated with this in terms of my likelihood to vote for candidates I have the opportunity to engage with on the doorstep.

Thank heavens for Justin Welby

Via Pete Greig

How Lambeth Palace is worth listening to again and Justin Welby’s taking on of Wonga and payday loan companies by providing an alternative.

Sweden’s Prostitution Solution: Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?

How the Swedes have tackled traficking with incredible results.


Young people, riots and character
The New Politics of Character

Via Robin Peake

The results of a study into young people participating in riots in London revealed that the key factor was not lack of money or lack of morality but lack of character. What follows is an interesting discussion on defining and developing character in young people.

For the sake of our cities, it’s time to make town planning cool again

On the need for visionary planner more passionate about flourishing than bowing to the whims of developers.

Leadership, change and church
“The Top Ten Reasons This will Never Work”: On Leading Change in the Church

Via David Fitch

Despite my not being a fan of numbered lists there is some helpful stuff in here on  leading change in churches and some of the many objections…

A quote

And finally a couple of tunes for the weekend…

Leonard Cohen – Did I Ever Love You?

And Springsteen from Dublin back in 2006 – When the Saints Go Marching In



Rediscovering my justice mojo part one: visible clothing

Those who have known me a long time can relate many stories of Sam’s justice crusades and rants. From that life-changing four weeks in Tanzania with Tearfund back in 1998, being chained to the QUB railings as part of Jubilee 2000, to countless campaigns and rants over injustice.

I’ve always held a strong sense of justice and realised a few years ago unsurprisingly that it is one of my values. I’m not sure what happened but it feels like it dulled (or changed) over the last few years. I guess life happens. Moving city, country. Stress. Conflict. Changing jobs. Starting something. Death and grief. Marriage. Living. Maybe losing a community of people also passionate about those things…


Fear not. The justice mojo is returning. Timed perfectly with the advent of parenthood. Inspired by some friends who in the face of tragedy and the reality of sweatshops decided not to sit still but do something constructive. Andy and Andy decided to give away their wardrobe and replace it with clothes they knew were made by people who were treated fairly. Documenting their journey and reviewing their clothes at Who Made My Wardrobe (with a great website too) inspired me again that taking small actions adds up and I can make a difference. As a result my next t-shirt purchases were from Rapanui (right). they make some great t-shirts – the bamboo ones being amazingly soft.

At the end of their journey Andy and Andy realised that the ethical clothing market was still very small. Some ethical clothing is,  let’s be honest not exactly cool, and some almost prohibitively expensive.

And so they decided to set up their own label. Visible clothing was born off the back of a successful crowdfunding campaign. Taking part in that and sharing parts of their journey on social media was a significant step in helping remind me that I could make a difference.

Watch their story here

Andy and Andy inspired me and reminded me of a few things

  • it is possible to do something – we don’t have to feel overwhelmed
  • my buying choices make a difference
  • the importance of community – sharing their story reminded me i’m not alone in wanting to engage on these issues, and without their example and inspiration I’d still be living in conflict with my values. (I’m thankful too for Robin who has also been blogging and acting on this stuff).
  • you never know what will happen when you take a risk and start small

I’m thankful to Andy and Andy for helping reignite my passion to act and live more justly. I want to do my best to make sure the people who make what I wear/eat/consume are paid fairly and treated justly. I’m excited to see where the Visible journey will go and am committed to making more ethical decisions when it comes to purchasing clothes.

And maybe little Colm will become a justice crusader too… Best get him started young. Now ethical baby/children’s clothing – there is another discussion/blog post…2014-08-11 17.53.12




On language, and Vinoth Ramachandra on the use of ‘terrorist’

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties from conservatives to anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. (George Orwell)

I read Vinoth Ramachandra’s wonderful and provocative book ‘Subverting Global Myths’ a few years ago. Some of what he has written on terrorism I have found profoundly challenging.  It’s certainly relevant at the moment although this may not be the best time to post this!

For most of the nineteenth century, however the word terrorist came to refer to all revolutionaries who threatened the monarchies of Europe… was after World War 2, when the British and French empires found themselves vulnerable to nationalist agitation in their colonies that terrorism came to be used exclusively of acts of political violence committed by nonstate actors. The newly independent states of Asia and Africa took over this definition of terrorism and applied it in subsequent years to all those militant guerrilla organisations that challenged state authority. The use of force for political ends, whether in the context of declared war or otherwise, is inextricably bound up with terror… [he goes on to cite examples in Algeria and his homeland of Sri Lanka]

Unless we proscribe to the naive belief that governments do not engage in acts of terror against their own citizens, let alone the civilian populations of other nations, the one-sided use of terrorism by the world’s media is baffling. Violent actions by the Israeli army or Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians are never described as ‘terrorist’ but the term is routinely used in large sections of the Western media for violent acts undertaken against Israelis. Surely journalistic integrity requires that the term terrorism should either be dropped for its vagueness or used even-handedly to embrace all organised acts of terror, including those by governments. The terms militant, guerrilla or insurgent do not carry the same connotations of evil that terrorist does; and hence the hijacking of that term by governments who want to scapegoat those who challenge their legitimacy. ‘Terrorism’ is always what our enemies do….

Many of us who live in societies that have been traumatised by decades of terrorist and counter-terrorist violence slowly become desensitised to it. We are tempted  to justify brutal retaliation by the police and military whenever their our own security is shattered by a bomb attack. We have seen how ‘terrorist’ suspects in most countries are treated neither as prisoners of war nor as criminals. In either case they would come under protective judicial procedures. The category to which they are reduced is that of the subhuman, and so they can be tortured and executed without qualm. This is an affront to the inherent human dignity tat they share with us.

The language that we use is powerful in making those who are different from us into the ‘other’. I know this only too well from my upbringing in Northern Ireland. Even a comment today made in a Facebook debate on Gaza (referring to Hamas) reinforces this:

they don’t value human life we do


Subtext – ‘we’ are better than ‘them’ or in personal cases ‘I’ am better than ‘you’.

In conflict it is only too easy to demonise the other ‘other side’ and forget they too are people of dignity created in the image of God. Vinoth’s words remind me of the importance of trying to pause and be careful about my language, whether it be conflict on an interpersonal level or an international one.

musing more than ranting these days


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