What We're Reading

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Neil

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth (Vintage 1997)

Incredibly, this is the first Philip Roth I've read - aside from Portnoy's Complaint as a naive teenager, which I failed to get. I'd always had this belief that he's 'difficult'. I think that had put me off. Anyway, I'm pleased I've now read this superb, epic novel, which is extremely readable, while also being subtle, profound and moving. It tells the story of a successful businessman, good-looking, and thriving in post-war America, until his daughter commits a violent act of political terrorism, which destroys his family.

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Neil

A Mistake, by Carl Shuker (VUP March 2019)

Carl Shuker, a former editor at the British Medical Journal, knows his medical procedures, and the politics of New Zealand's medical profession. In pared back, precise prose, he tells the story of a fearsome surgeon, Elizabeth Taylor, who makes an error during an operation, and the consequences of that error. The opening sequence, in the operating theatre, is on of the most agonisingly tense scenes I've ever read. The rest of the novel retains that tension.

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Neil

The Valley at the Centre of the World, by Malachi Tallack (Canongate 2018)

This is a debut novel from a powerful new voice. Malachi Tallack is the author of two non-fiction titles, both a fusion of nature writing, history and memoir. This novel explores similar territory. Set in Shetland, it tells a story of crofting in a remote valley, the families that make their living there, their struggles and relationships. It is an intense, powerfully moving novel, in which the island and its climate are an intrinsic character. I loved it.

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Neil

Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg (Quercus 2011)

Island of Wings is a novel based on true events, set on the isolated island of St Kilda off the west coast of Scotland in the 1830s and 1840s. The novel focuses on the life of Lizzie MacKenzie, wife of the Reverend Neil MacKenzie, who was the priest on the small community from 1830 to 1844. He was responsible for modernising of the agricultural techniques on the island and the building of a new church, but the experiences of his wife are equally fascinating, as she struggles with privations, childbirth, language and social isolation.

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Neil

Any Ordinary Day, by Leigh Sales (Penguin Australia 2018)

An extraordinary book by the Australian journalist Leigh sales about what happens to people when they are struck by life-changing events, especially those that involve the intrusive glare of the media. She also condenses the latest research on the way the human mind processes grief, and finds courage where she expected to find broken lives.

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Neil

White Houses, by Amy Bloom (Granta 2018)

A fictionalised look at true events US in the 1930s, through the eyes of Lorena Hickok, a straight-talking journalist from South Dakota, this fascinating novel is full of White House intrigue. Hickok, known as Hick, apparently had a passionate relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, the idealistic First Lady and wife of Franklin Roosevelt. It's unclear if the actual relationship was ever physical, although it's clear from their many letters that it was passionate, but Amy Bloom imagines it as being physical, which would have been controversial in the 1930s.