Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

So, I’m not particularly familiar with Raymond Chandler, but for crime fiction fans he’s basically God. Anthony Burgess once said: “Chandler is an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes“. That’s some mighty comparison! The Big Sleep is Chandler’s best-known novel, published in 1939, and it was the first to feature that immortal Sherlockian detective.

Everyone comes to The Big Sleep for Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles, and he was certainly an evocative place writer, but I personally loved his characterisations most of all. I got a lot of smirks out of descriptions like: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money” = brilliant! That said, Chandler was far from perfect when it came to plotting. The Big Sleep is complex, criss-crossing, and full of holes, like a hand-knitted jumper from a kindly arthritic grandma. So, bear with me as I try to explain…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is having a grand old life, being vaguely sexist and drinking a lot of hard liquor, when he gets a call from wealthy patriarch General Sternwood. Sternwood wants Marlowe to “deal with” a recent blackmail attempt on his daughter, Carmen. And Marlowe won’t have to work too hard, because they’ve already fingered the culprit: bookseller Arthur Geiger, whose bookselling operation is actually a front for his illegal pornography trade.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of Sternwood’s son-in-law, husband of his other daughter Vivian: Rusty Regan has disappeared off the face of the earth. Vivian puts the heavies on Marlowe herself, trying to figure out whether he’s on that case, too. But mostly, it’s the blackmailing thing. Sternwood tells Marlowe to deal with that as a priority.

So, off Marlowe trots to investigate this “bookseller” Geiger, starting with a good old-fashioned stakeout at his house. He sees Carmen walk in, but doesn’t follow her, figuring he’ll wait and see what happens… and then he hears gunshots, and screaming. He heads inside and finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged and naked, both sprawled out in front of an empty camera.

First thing’s first: he gets Carmen into a jacket and home safe. But, upon returning, he finds Geiger’s body has disappeared. Uh oh.



The next day, the coppers come around and tell Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ car was driven off a cliff with the chauffeur still inside (but he was whacked around the head before the car hit the water, so at least he didn’t suffer). They also grill Marlowe about whether he’s chasing after Regan. Seriously, every other minute someone’s pestering Marlowe about this missing Regan bloke – I can’t think of a single character that doesn’t ask him about it at some point.

Anyway, still on the blackmailing case, Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s bookstore and sees his porn stash being moved to the home of one Joe Brody. Before he can figure out what to do about that, Vivian hits him up, telling him Carmen is still being blackmailed, but now with nude photos from the night before. She also tells him, just casually, that she likes gambling at a casino belonging to Eddie Mars, whose wife (she suspects) ran off with Regan.

To his credit, Marlowe doesn’t take the bait straight away. He heads back to Geiger’s house first, and finds Carmen trying to break in. They search for the nudes together, with no luck, and she plays dumb about what happened the night before. Then Eddie Mars, the casino owner, coincidentally shows up. He says he’s Geiger’s landlord and he’s looking for him. He and Marlowe have a pissing contest.



Are you lost and confused yet? I hope not, because we’re not even halfway through! With all the crossing and double-crossing, it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what to whom. Plus, I’m not sure I quite buy how often Marlowe “just happened” to witness a murder, or arrive on the scene while the body’s still warm…

Next, Marlowe heads over to Joe Brody’s, where they’re stashing the porn. He works out Brody is in cahoots with Geiger’s clerk, Agnes. He tells them both the jig is up: he knows about the porn, he knows about the blackmail… but before he can finish them, Carmen breaks in and tries to shoot them both. Marlowe gets the gun off her, thank goodness (a strumpet with a temper and a firearm is not a good combination), and he tells her to head out, he’s got this.

Geiger was, in fact, the one initially blackmailing Carmen. The (now dead) chauffeur, Owen Taylor, didn’t like it much, because he had the hots for her. He snuck in and killed Geiger, and took the nudes out of the camera for safekeeping. Brody had also been staking out the house (how did he and Marlowe not run into each other?), and he followed Owen when he left. He knocked the driver out, stole the nudes, then decided to do a little blackmailing of his own.



Then – bam! Geiger’s lover shows up, and shoots Brody dead. He thought Brody was the one who killed Geiger, and wanted to get some revenge. Also, he admits, he was the one who hid Geiger’s body – he wanted to get all of his stuff out of the house before anyone figured out they were more than friends (this was the ’30s, after all).

So, case solved! Yay! All the blackmailers are dead, happy days. But Regan’s disappearance is still troubling Marlowe – probably because everyone around him won’t shut up about it. The cops aren’t that concerned though; they figure he just ran off with Mrs Mars, like Vivian said.

Now, we meet Henry Jones (yes, Chandler is still introducing new characters, and they all have super-generic names – ack!). He offers to sell Marlowe the location of Mrs Mars, but he doesn’t get the chance, because Eddie has him killed. The Big Sleep‘s death toll is now up to four. Luckily, Marlowe manages to squeeze the information out of Agnes instead. He finds Mrs Mars (killing Eddie’s henchman in the process – that’s five!), only for her to tell him that she hasn’t seen Regan in months. Dead end, after all that!

With hat in hand, Marlowe goes to see his client. But Sternwood ups the stakes, offering him $1,000 for Regan’s whereabouts. Marlowe quickly decides that this isn’t the moment to give up. On his way out the door, he returns Carmen’s gun to her, and she asks him to take her down the back paddock and teach her how to shoot. Fair enough, he thinks, but as soon as they get out there she decides to use him as the target.



But Marlowe, being a clever bugger, has loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen immediately falls into a (very convenient) seizure, which saves her from having to explain herself. He carries her up to the house, and he and Vivian finally piece it all together. A while back, Carmen came on to Regan and he rejected her, so she killed him (as she just tried to do with Marlowe). Eddie Mars, who had been an investor in Geiger’s little porno enterprise, had helped Vivian cover it up. He disposed of the body, and invented a cock-and-bull story about his wife running off with the dead guy. Vivian claims she did it all to keep her father from finding out his other daughter was a psychopath, and she promises to get Carmen locked up in a nice cozy mental institution.

So, to celebrate a job well done, Marlowe heads down the pub. He downs a few scotches, muses briefly on death, and tells the bartender he has the hots for Mrs Mars but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. The title, The Big Sleep, is Marlowe’s euphemism for death that he uses in those final pages.

The Big Sleep, like most of Marlowe’s novels, was written by what he called “cannibalising” his short stories. Chandler would take stories he had already published and rework them into a coherent novel. For The Big Sleep, he mashed together his short stories Killer In The Rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936). Although the stories were independent, and shared no characters, they ran along similar lines – an old powerful bloke whose daughter is stressing him out, basically.



As might be expected, all of this cannibalising sometimes produced a plot with a few loose ends. The famously unanswered question in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur, Owen? I mean, logic would suggest that it must have been Brody, but Chandler never confirmed it – in fact, when the question was put to him, he said he had no idea. To him, plot was less important than atmosphere and characterisation (and it shows). An ending that answered every question mattered less to Chandler than interesting characters, so bear that in mind when you pick this one up.

The Big Sleep is quite similar to one of my other recent reads, The Maltese Falcon, in a lot of ways, but I think I preferred Hammett’s style. If you’re a dedicated crime/detective mystery reader, though, The Big Sleep would be a good one for you – you’ll be well practiced at following the twists and turns, and it’s clearly a classic of the genre.

If you’re not sure, you can try before you buy. There have been a bunch of different adaptations into almost every format – most famously a 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart (naturally). I’m not sure I’ll read The Big Sleep again, but I’d be keen to give the movie a go – it reads like it would translate really well into film.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Big Sleep:

  • “Lime gimlets. What more do I need to say.” – AH Jones
  • “I read a great deal and have read nothing better. Frequently not as well crafted. Correct as to the time period. Yes I’m that old.” – cain paul the less than apostle
  • “a classic that doesnt dissapoint. named my cat marlowe.” – ssfn
  • “Book showed up good. Had pages and ever thing.” – Ken Johnson
  • “chandler like so many authors puts too many non essentials in his plots make them a little too much boring” – Astan papemazon Customer
  • “Descriptive wording. Love that.” – Lynne B.
  • “A good reader. Turnpager.” – Maycoon

Gifts For Book Lovers 2019: Our Bookish Wishlist This Holiday Season

Look, buying gifts for book lovers is tricky: “books” seems like the obvious choice, but which ones? What if they already have them? What are the other options? Luckily, pretty much every book blogger under the sun pulls together a “best gifts for book lovers” guide each year, and I’m no exception! I put a call out to my Keeper Upperers to see what was on their bookish wish-lists this year, and threw in a few of my own requests for Santa. So, here’s your 100% verified book-lover-approved bookish gift guide for the 2019 holiday season. You’re welcome!

Gift Guide For Book Lovers 2019 - Text Overlaid on Image of Wrapped Gift and Box with Scissors and Decorative Holiday Trinkets - Keeping Up. With The Penguins

Gifts For Book Lovers: Books

Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? I’m generally of the mind that, when it comes to buying books for book lovers as gifts, the more recent the better – chances are, they haven’t had a chance to get their hands on a copy for themselves yet. When I polled some of my Keeper Upperers, all of the books on their wish-lists this year were really recent releases. Check these out…

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble - Taffy BBrodesser-Akner - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The buzz for Fleishman Is In Trouble just keeps growing, even after it peaked on the New York Times Best Seller List earlier this year. It’s the story of a man in his mid-forties going through a bitter divorce, suddenly responsible for his children when his soon-to-be-ex wife disappears with nary more than a casual text-message… and yet, it’s so much more than that! The Guardian called it “a remarkable work of ventriloquism”. This is one to buy for your sharp, funny friend who’s not easily surprised.

Aussie readers can get Fleishman Is In Trouble here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is my personal pick for non-fiction book of the year: She Said, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s account of how they broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Y’know, the one that changed the world? It is every bit as gripping as a crime thriller, every bit as chilling as a detective mystery, and every bit as invigorating as a feminist call-to-arms. This is the book to buy your sister or colleague who has followed the #metoo movement with great interest, and loves an inside scoop and seeing justice done.

Aussie readers can get She Said here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Chain - Adrian McKinty - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the crime thriller for people who “don’t like” crime thrillers, so The Chain has become one of the sleeper hits of the year. Its premise is terrifying: a woman receives a phone call saying that her child has been kidnapped, and she must kidnap another child in order to secure her safe return. She’s swept up in the scheme, the chain, and she’ll have to go to unimaginable lengths to escape it. Put this one under the tree for anyone you think is in need of a great, gripping page turner!

Aussie readers can get The Chain here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Dark Emu - Bruce Pascoe - Book Cover - Magabala Books

Dark Emu is a few years old now, and yet it’s still making headlines. There is a push in the Australian literary community to get it to its (deserved) place in the best-seller list this holiday season, and I reckon we can do it! Bruce Pascoe reconsiders and refutes our understandings of pre-colonial Indigenous populations as “hunter gatherers”, and instead presents a meticulously researched history of agriculture and management that were conveniently forgotten by early dispossessers of the land. It is a must-read for every Australian, and even international readers will learn some important truths.

Aussie readers can get Dark Emu here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

And, if there’s a young person in your life that you think would love to learn more about our Indigenous past, you could give them Pascoe’s new edition Young Dark Emu, available here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Girl, Woman, Other was being lauded in literary circles, but didn’t achieve major circulation and recognition until it jointly won the 2019 Booker Prize. Setting aside that controversy, it has since been re-printed and re-published around the world, finally getting the widespread cut-through it deserves. In it, Evaristo depicts the lives and journeys of twelve characters over the course of a century in Great Britain. Pick this one up for anyone who read and enjoyed The Testaments already – make sure Girl, Woman, Other gets equal recognition for the Booker gong!

Aussie readers can get Girl, Woman, Other here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I read Pain And Prejudice earlier this year, and something strange happened: every time I mentioned it to someone, whatever their age or gender, they would nod enthusiastically and start sharing a story, their own or their loved one’s. Braiding together memoir and science, Jackson explores the ways in which social structures—particularly the medical system—have under-served and oppressed women, keeping them sick and in pain, for far too long. I worry, though, that given the subject matter, this one will be written off as a “women’s” book. Fight the power: buy this book for a MAN in your life!

Aussie readers can get Pain And Prejudice here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’d told me this time last year that the winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award would be an incredible dark-comic novel by one of our most brilliant Indigenous women writers, I probably wouldn’t have believed it… and yet, here we are. Too Much Lip defied all expectations. It brought deeply Australian experiences of class and race to the fore, in a way that was beguiling and touching in equal measure. Get this book for your aunt or godmother who just loves a wise-cracking female lead who’s not going to take anyone’s shit.

Aussie readers can get Too Much Lip here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Gifts For Book Lovers That Aren’t Books

Look, I get it: buying a book for a casual or recreational reader is fine, but buying a book for a truly obsessed book lover can be terrifying. They already own SO MANY BOOKS! And you might be reluctant to just slip a gift voucher in their card (while it is always appreciated, it is kind of the easy-way-out). Luckily, a huge cottage industry has been built around bookish swag and merchandise, so here are a few ideas for gifts for book lovers that aren’t books…

Literary Mugs

Mug With Literary Cat Quotes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d be hard-pressed to find a book lover who doesn’t believe that a book always reads best with a mug of tea or coffee in-hand. That’s why literary-themed mugs are always a great gift (particularly if you’re on a tight budget!). They never go to waste! I love this one in particular, because – let’s face it – the middle of the Venn diagram between book lovers and cat lovers is HUGE.

Aussies can get their literary cat mug here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Bookish Calendars

1000 Books To Read Before You Die 2020 Calendar - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know, I know, everyone has a calendar in their phone nowadays – but the sun has not quite set on fun desk calendars, particularly for folks that work in offices or have some other neutral daily workspace in need of a bit of spruceing! This one is particularly fun: based on the 1,000 Xs To Do/See/Hear/Read Before You Die series, this is a calendar of 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die with quotes, quizzes, recommendations, and more. It’s like a dose of daily bookish inspiration with just a hint of existential dread!

Aussies can get their bookish calendar here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Reading Journal

Read Harder Reading Log - Book Riot - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you have a bit of a scroll through #bookstagram, you’ll see that paper-and-pen reading journals have made a HUGE comeback. A lot of book lovers find it deeply satisfying to have a record of what they’ve read, what’s coming up, what they’ve loved and what they haven’t… And this particular reading journal comes from the experts over at Book Riot, as part of their ethos to READ HARDER every year.

Aussies can get the Read Harder journal here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Bookish Apparel

Out Of Print T-Shirt - A Word After A Word After A Word is Power - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a sucker for a good literary-themed tee, and I’m not the only one! Really, any kind of bookish fashion is going to be a winner as a gift. Scarves and socks are the safest bet if you’re not sure on sizing, but I’m particularly partial to the shirts from the fine folks at Out Of Print (not a sponsored name-drop, I just dig what they do). My favourite this year is their unisex Margaret Atwood quote tee: “A word after a word after a word is power.”

Aussies can get the t-shirt here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Bookends

Gothic Dragon Book Ends - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know a single book lover that hasn’t found themselves in need of a book end at some point or another: whether you’ve just bought new shelves and need something to fill in the gaps (until your next trip to the bookstore), or you’re using them for gorgeous props in your #bookstagram feed, they’ll always come in handy! These ones pictured would be PERFECT for the fantasy reader or Game Of Thrones fan in your Kris Kringle pool!

Aussies can get these bookends here.
Everyone else can get them here.

Bookish Home Decor

A Compendium Of Flowers Vase - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even when book lovers aren’t reading, they’re still all about that aesthetic of bookness! You can get bookish-looking anything nowadays: phone cases, wall hangings, curtains, quilts… I’m particularly partial to this Bibliophile’s Vase, a “compendium of flowers”. No one ever has a vase right when they need one, so for the book lover in your life, this gift will be a win-win!

Aussies can get the bibliophile vase here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Bookmarks

Metal Feather Book Marks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is another thing book lovers never have enough of: BOOKMARKS! Even though we get them for free sometimes from bookstores and publishers, they’re usually flimsy cardboard and disintegrate with our regular use. Why not treat the book lover in your life to a gorgeous set of metal bookmarks? They’re a lot more durable, and still really affordable (another great budget option if things are a bit tight this silly season!).

Aussies can get these bookmarks here.
Everyone else can get them here.


Well, I think that should cover something for just about everyone, don’t you? What do YOU want to find under your tree or in your stocking or wrapped in the hands of a loved one this year? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll see if I can get a word to the elves…


If I Stay – Gayle Forman

Well, after my adventures with Augie March, I was looking for something a little easier to digest. That’s how I came to If I Stay, a young adult novel by Gayle Forman published in 2009. But I’d forgotten something about YA literature: even though they tend to be easier to read in terms of language and style, they also tend to tackle some really heavy topics. This one centers around a car crash, and a girl’s decision about whether to stay in the land of the living or “move on” with her deceased family. So, yeah. Not a lot of laughs to be had here!

The story opens on a Norman Rockwell painting: a happy family of four, living in Anywhere USA, deciding one snowy day to go for a drive together. Then, there’s an immediate and violent tragedy: another car crashes into theirs. The two parents are killed immediately, and the kids are both unconscious, with severe injuries.

Mia – our 17-year-old protagonist – is not having a very good day.

She falls into a whacky out-of-body experience, standing over her lifeless skin suit and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. She follows herself, and her younger brother, in the ambulance back to the hospital. Her extended family rushes to be with them, and she starts to wonder why her boyfriend isn’t with them. Then, the flashbacks start, and her pre-coma life unfolds.

She grew up being the only classical music-lover in a house full of rock’n’rollers. Literally, her parents were punk before it was cool, and her little brother played the drums (or something, he wasn’t that memorable, to be honest). Mia also has a boyfriend, Adam, who is handsome and musically talented (duh), and – of course – he’s in a baaaaand. I swear, authors who write rock stars as romantic leads have never actually dated a musician in real life. They generally don’t make for stable and committed lovers. But Adam “loves” Mia, even though she’s “weird”, which makes the whole love story read like a tragic episode of wish-fulfillment. I mean, a quiet, plain girl with a rock-star boyfriend who loves her, even though they have nothing in common, and persists through her tantrums and shyness because he sees who she “really” is? Ugh.

Anyway, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about her boyfriend – fair enough, she is a teenager – and whether she should stick around in the mortal realm to be with him. By this point, her younger brother has succumbed to his injuries, so choosing Adam would also mean choosing a life of grief and poor-orphan-girl sympathy. Her grandparents are still alive, though, so she wouldn’t be entirely alone. Choices, choices…


If I were writing a high school book report, I would say that If I Stay is a book about choices. Live or die, stay or go, et cetera. Forman actually did a pretty good job of weaving in a series of smaller choices as well, in Mia’s flashbacks and reminisces, foreshadowing this big final call she has to make. Mia calls upon all these choices she’d made throughout her short life, and pretty much makes up her mind to shuffle off the mortal coil… but then, her boyfriend shows up, and has a normal human reaction to seeing one’s comatose girlfriend (i.e., he gets a bit upset), and she’s so moved by this “outpouring” of “true love” that she decides to stick around after all. Wonderful!

Some of the philosophising and musing on life and death was a bit trite, but in fairness I’m closer to thirty than twenty; I’ve had plenty of time to think a lot of this stuff through already. If I’d read this book as a 13- or 14-year-old, maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so cringey. It really started to drag a bit, especially towards the end, which is saying a lot because the timeline of the book only ran to a day.

(Oh, and there’s quite a bit of ableist language, too, which really surprised me. YA books tend to be pretty woke, so it was especially jarring, as I wasn’t expecting it. Steer clear if that stuff bothers you!)


Even though it was a bit much for cynical snots like me, If I Stay was well received, and sold gangbusters. Summit Entertainment bought the film rights straight away, but they chewed through a few different directors and lead actresses before they finally got it out. The film adaptation was released in 2014, starring Chloe Grace Mortez, and pulled in $78 million at the box office. Not bad.

And, not one to let go of a good thing, Forman also wrote a follow-up called Where She Went. It was published in April 2011, and it picks up the story a few years after Mia’s accident. She and Adam have broken up (good thing she “chose life” for this guy, eh?), and she’s moved to New York to attend Julliard School of Music. Side note: why is it always Julliard? Are there no other performance schools in the U.S.? Why don’t any of them ever come to NIDA?

Anyway, If I Stay wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t great, but it was an adequate literary palette cleanser. I can’t picture a situation where I’d be pressing this book into somebody’s hands and insisting they read it, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of it either. So, take it or leave it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of If I Stay:

  • “gave as a gift. was loved.” – Kate doyle
  • “Somewhat interesting book” – erika
  • “Aside from the bad language, plot was boring, unrealistic and the ending was lame.

    SPOILER: She’s watching her body in ICU but can’t walk through walls? Her boyfriend isn’t allowed to see her in ICU? Uh, no.” – Zarabbeth
  • “Wow. I love that the story is not linear. It bounced around. I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to read about death.” – Victoria M.
  • “The book was so boring and it just lacked interestingness.” – Madie Sue
  • “This book has language, alcohol use, and possible nudity. Overall rating R. This book is inappropriate for young girls named Teresa. She is in seventh grade. She does not need to know about boys that are older than her wearing skinny jeans. Boys go in a very hard stage in their life, advancing for boys to men. This is
    called puberty and girls named Teresa don’t need to know about boys wearing skinny jeans going through this stage.
    Disappointing.
    Inappropriate.
    Uncalled for.
    Terrible.” – Amazon Customer

7 Classic Books You Can Skip Reading (And What To Read Instead)

I don’t think anyone should read the classics just so they can say they’ve “read the classics”. Sometimes books are glorified and lionised for reasons other than readability. Take Moby Dick, for instance: it’s a fascinating book, one worth reading and understanding from an academic standpoint, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable reading experience for most booklovers. Earlier this year, I talked about how to read more classic books, and I still think that’s a laudable goal… but consider this post the counterpoint, a list of classic books you can skip reading (and some suggestions as to what you can read instead).

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Don’t Read: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Read Instead: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

If you’ve followed Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you had to know this would be the first cab off the rank. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hated The Great Gatsby, and if anything my distaste for it has only grown over time. I have no idea why it’s so popular, especially in high-school reading lists. A privileged white guy discovers it’s fun to have money and party with pretty girls, then his friend dies and nobody comes to the funeral – smh. Maybe it was a revelation for some, but certainly not for me. I found Gentlemen Prefer Blondes superior in just about every way. First, it was funny. Second, it was incredibly insightful. Third, it privileged the voices of characters that Fitzgerald mercilessly marginalised (i.e., women). Trust me, you’ll have way more fun reading about Lorelei’s adventures in love and high society than you will reading about Gatsby borderline-stalking his married ex-girlfriend.

Don’t Read: The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Read Instead: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

When I read The Adventures Of Augie March, I could tell straight away that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens in general, and to David Copperfield in particular. Bellow basically took Dickens’ style of storytelling and transplanted it into 1920s Chicago. I don’t think he did a great job of it, though. Augie is barely a character, he has no agency in his own life, and any other character you might actually care about only appears for a page or two. David Copperfield, on the other hand, was full of fun and intrigue and heartbreak and glory; Dickens was the master of writing books that had something for everyone, and writers like Bellow tackle that legacy at their own peril. When in doubt, go for the OG.

Don’t Read: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Read Instead: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I love the story of how Ray Bradbury came to write Fahrenheit 451. He found a library that would let him use a typewriter for 10c per hour, and he got to work, writing his magnum opus for the princely sum of about nine bucks. It’s a great story-behind-the-story, and I talk more about it in my review, but unfortunately a handful of speed-writing sessions in a library basement doesn’t a masterpiece of modern literature make. Fahrenheit 451 is a really short book, and it reads like a good first draft (which, basically, it is). I feel like almost everyone who loves it read it for the first time in high school, when the idea that a government might gain too much power and people would be forced to rebel was a game-changer. In my view, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the superior dystopian classic: it’s given us so much iconic imagery (Big Brother, the ubiquitous ever-watchful screen, etc.), the prose is straightforward but gripping, and Orwell has a lot more room to explore the ideas of his imagined future.

Don’t Read: The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Read Instead: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

OK, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the first full-length novels written in the form we recognise today, so I can’t be too hard on Laurence Sterne for not exactly nailing it. But don’t be fooled by the title, it’s a study in irony: there’s very little of Tristram Shandy’s life, or opinions, in this book. It’s mostly a meandering chat about philosophy, politics, and his father’s household staff. The language is really inaccessible for most contemporary readers, and I had trouble staying awake. Jane Eyre came later, yes, so Charlotte Brontë had more literary influences to draw upon and she took less of a risk creatively. Still, whichever way you slice it, Jane Eyre is still a far more engaging and readable story. It actually does what it says on the tin, for one thing, in telling Jane’s life story, and Charlotte Brontë has since been called the “first historian of the private consciousness” for her incredible rendering of her protagonist’s inner world.

Don’t Read: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read Instead: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I expected so much more of The Scarlet Letter, based on its reputation. I thought I was in for a treatise on the control of female sexuality, I wanted a take-down of the patriarchy, I hoped there might even be a few dirty bits. I was sorely disappointed, on all counts. Hawthorne sought to make a single point – that the Puritans sucked – and he made it again, and again, and again. The Age Of Innocence (another later book, but an infinitely better one) had a much more nuanced look at gender roles and societal pressure in America. It’s a lot more subtle, which means you have to play close attention, but I’d much rather that than the way that Hawthorne whacked you over the head with his symbolism…

Don’t Read: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Read Instead: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

If you’re going to have a stab at writing the Great American Novel, I think it’s cheating to set your story in Europe. I know, I know, Hemingway was “writing what he knew”, but what he knew was a bunch of drunk blokes and one token woman (whom they all wish to sleep with, natch) enjoying their time as spectators to animal cruelty and exhibiting some pretty gross xenophobia. Also, Hemingway was clearly a terrible lover, because not one of his characters in The Sun Also Rises seemed to realise there were alternatives to vanilla P-in-V sex. Snore. Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath was actually set in the States (point one!), and told what I think to be a far more important story about the lives of rural and impoverished Southerners during the Great Depression. Instead of dilly-dallying about feeling sorry for themselves, every character sacked up and shipped out to make the best of unimaginably shitty circumstances. It sounds like an uplifting read as I’m describing it here, and it was in part, but trust me: Steinbeck had perfected the art of the emotional gut-punch, so there’s plenty of those to be found here, too.

Don’t Read: The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Read Instead: Literally anything else.

I really am loath to tell anyone not to read a book. Even when it’s a book I hated, a book that made me want to pull my eyes out and soak them in water, I’ll usually tell people to give it go and decide for themselves. I never want to discourage anyone from reading, and even in my most negative reviews I try to find something positive to say about the book in question. But for The Golden Bowl, that was damn near impossible. I have never read a book more impenetrable! I had to resort to reading chapter summaries online as I went, to make sure I was actually following what was going on. James seemed hell-bent on confusing and frustrating the heck out of his reader. Maybe he had a nice turn of phrase or two on occasion, and the plot itself (or what I could decipher of it) wasn’t terrible, but reading The Golden Bowl was enough to make me swear off reading anything else he’s written for the rest of my goddamn life. I can’t really think of a comparable title to encourage you to read instead, I hated it that much. Do yourself a favour and pick up something completely different: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, or Little Women, or Cold Comfort Farm.


What classic book do you think you could have skipped reading? What would you say would be a good one to read instead? Drop your recommendations in the comments below, or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If it’s summer where you are (it’s certainly heating up here!), be sure to check out this guide to the best classics to put in your beach bag.

The Adventures Of Augie March – Saul Bellow

The blurb from Martin Amis on the back of this edition says: “The Adventures Of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” That’s a big call, but Amis is by no means the only one to make it. Since its publication in 1953, The Adventures Of Augie March has won the National Book Award for Fiction, it has been named in at least three best-novels-in-English lists (from Time Magazine, the Modern Library, and the Guardian), and Saul Bellow was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The committee cited the “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work” – whew! If I hadn’t included this one in my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, I would’ve felt like I was missing out.

The continued blurb below the pull-quote from Amis made The Adventures Of Augie March sound like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim meets J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, set in Chicago during the Great Depression. And the comparison titles don’t end there; the introduction to this edition compares it to The Great Gatsby, which immediately got me offside because my dislike of Fitzgerald’s work has only grown over time. (And not to get ahead of myself, but within a few pages I could see that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens via David Copperfield, and the influence of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was also abundantly clear. There! I’m done!)

Setting the Gatsby comparison aside, the introduction did give me a few fun facts about Bellow’s back-story and origins (which is why I always read the introduction, even at the risk of spoilers). Bellow was born in Quebec, and his parents smuggled him across the Great Lakes when he was an infant. He didn’t discover that he was an “illegal immigrant” until he signed up for the United States armed forces during the Second World War. I’d imagine that led to a rather awkward conversation at the next Bellow family Christmas!

As much as I enjoyed those insights, I must say I didn’t love this edition. It’s probably the first Penguin book with which I’ve found fault. The print has really tight spacing, with almost no white space on the page, which makes it really tough on the eyes (I’m not old, and I don’t wear glasses, so I feel pretty confident that I wasn’t imagining it). You should know going in that this review must be unavoidably coloured by my frustration with the actually practice of reading Augie’s adventures. As hard as I’ve tried to rise above it, I can’t deny that book design matters, and it will definitely impact a reader’s impression of a story…



So, the story follows Augie March’s teenage years and adulthood, starting with some very humble beginnings in 1920s Chicago. Augie, along with his brothers Simon and George, are raised by their mother and a crotchety boarder who fills a grandmother-type role in their lives. Their father is nowhere to be found, they’re broke as heck, and their mother’s eyesight is slowly failing, so it’s pretty shitty circumstances all ’round. It’s clear from the outset that Augie has very little agency in his own life; he pretty much just lets things happen to him and around him, and he doesn’t do much to push his life in any particular direction.

At one point, he is almost adopted by a wealthy couple who spoil him beyond measure. At another, he resorts to stealing books and re-selling them to make his living. His most unusual and unexpected adventure, by far, was the time he followed a wild and irrepressible young lady, Thea (for whom, it goes without saying, he has a huge boner), down to Mexico and fails in his efforts to help her set up a business catching lizards with a trained eagle. Hard to imagine where it all went wrong, eh? He has a lot of jobs, in a strange variety of fields: a dog groomer, a butler, a shoe salesman, a paint-seller, a coal miner, a union organiser… eventually, he settles into the merchant navy during WWII. And, believe it or not, all of Augie’s adventures are loosely based on Bellow’s own life experiences. What a life he led!

Fair warning: the story gets very heavy and quite graphic about mid-way through, when Augie helps his housemate through a botched back-alley abortion. I haven’t found many other reviews that bring this up, but I feel like those scenes and all their gory detail could be real triggering for some folks. So, bear that in mind!



Anyway, Augie seems pretty happy in the merchant navy, until his boat sinks and he finds himself trapped on a life-raft with a clown called Basteshaw. It’s a long and convoluted passage of the book, written in a quasi-surreal style, before Augie is rescued. Once he’s back on dry land, he returns to Stella – the woman he married before he sailed – and the story concludes with them cobbling together a very dubious existence in France. Augie gets involved in some shady business dealings, and Stella pursues her career as an actress. The end.

Yes, Augie and his women – the course of love runs anything but smooth. None of the ladies are particularly noteworthy: it seems like Bellow just put them in the story to prop up Augie’s development arc, with the exception of Thea. She’s the one that drags him to Mexico, and the only female character with any real backbone or agency. She dumps him when he gets kicked in the head by a horse and loans all his money to another woman (the two incidents are not as unrelated as they may appear, trust me).

It would seem that The Adventures of Augie March was Bellow’s attempt to subvert the tropes of the all-American hero. He gave Augie a fairly standard American hero backstory – comes from humble beginnings, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, sometimes acts outside the law – and he’s got all the typical heroic personality traits, like intelligence and compassion. But Augie never actually acts like a hero! He lets himself get pulled into the plans and schemes of others, and he watches those around him grow more and more successful in their own pursuits, while he just kicks around, jumping from one coattail to another. The critics have said that Bellow was Making A Point(TM): that intelligence and goodwill are of no value if their possessor has no self-awareness and no clear goal. It’s a good point, and it’s well made in the sense that the reader desperately wants Augie to get his shit together and is constantly frustrated in that desire. I’d say he’s probably one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever read, in that regard.



It’s a deeply American novel in that it’s all about the pursuit of happiness. Bellow explores a lot of extremes: alienation and belonging, poverty and wealth, disadvantage and privilege, failure and triumph. His influence on subsequent writers – Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Heller, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the OP fanboy Martin Amis – is clear.

All that said, I found The Adventures Of Augie March a real slog to read. I think that was partly due to the book’s design, as I said, and having to persist with it for so long (over six hundred pages of tiny text! gah!). But, mostly, I think it was the fact that I just couldn’t invest in it emotionally. The characters I cared about and enjoyed reading – for instance, Mimi, the victim of the botched abortion – were all bit-players. I could have happily put this one down mid-way through, never picked it up again, and lived a long happy life not knowing or caring what happened to Augie March. It’s a strange outcome, given that I loved so many of those comparison titles I listed at the beginning. The Adventures Of Augie March wasn’t particularly obtuse or pretentious, two elements of literature that really bug me, so on paper I should have really loved it… I just didn’t! I persisted ’til the end, just so I could bring you this review in good conscience. You’re welcome.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Augie March:

  • “American Novel. Period. Look no further. Doesn’t even matter that it was written by a liberal because the Democratic Party was actually relevant when Bellow was alive.” – Caddy
  • “Not the great American novel. Good, but not in the upper echelon of literature. You will, of course, disagree with me. I’ll read it again.” – Earnest
  • “Yes Ok the book deals well with relationships but to allude that Augie March had adventures is misleading. The most interesting part of the book is the “hero’s” name and the lizard. Yes Augie you “… may well be a flop”, that was the most relevant statement in the book and it came on page 536. I just wanted the book to get started and it was over.” – A Customer

5 Of The Worst Book Endings… Ever!

I’ve talked before about the importance of an opening line, but surely a book’s ending is just as – if not more! – crucial. It’s what the writer leaves the reader with, and what the reader will remember most clearly when they think back on the book later. Writers are well aware of the importance of getting it right: Hemingway famously re-wrote the final passage of A Farewell To Arms over forty times (and there are plenty of readers who say he still got it wrong).

I think a bad book ending feels like a betrayal, more so than other types of media. A movie with a bad ending, for instance, only feels like a waste of an hour or two. A book requires a much longer (and much more emotional) investment from the reader, so we demand some kind of pay-off. I’m not saying every book has to have a happy ending. I’m not even saying that every book needs “closure” in the final pages. What I’m saying is that the ending needs to feel satisfying, in some respect at least. If I’m suddenly chucked out of the story, if the ending is inconsistent or incomplete or overwrought or whatever the case may be, it’s going to sour my opinion of the whole book, even if it was brilliant up ’til then.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five of the worst book endings ever – as voted by me, and some of my darling Keeper-Upperers over on Instagram.

5 Of The Worst Book Endings... Ever! - Text Below Black and White Image of Dead End Road Sign - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Naturally, spoilers abound below, so proceed at your own risk…)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games was one of the very first books I read for the Keeping Up With The Penguins Project. On the whole, I didn’t mind it, but I got the distinct impression that it was written initially as a stand-alone. It wasn’t until the final couple of pages that Collins opened up a door to a second book, and all I could think was: “Clearly, an editor has forced her to do this, because they know there’s money to be made in a successful dystopian YA series”. The story of this first installment had a really natural arc that that flowed to a conclusion, and then BAM: more story to come! Ugh. Most fans of the book don’t seem to take issue with it, though; I might be the only one who noticed. Other Hunger Games readers seem to focus their rage on the end of the series as a whole (and, in fairness, they’re probably right to do so – it was pretty crap). Read my full review here.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Me Before You - Jojo Moyes - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(As suggested by @syarahsyazanaghazali)

It would seem there are about a million reasons to hate the ending of Me Before You: it’s too sad, it’s too corny, and so on and so forth. Personally, I took issue with the ableist overtones, through the book as a whole and the ending in particular. Moyes seemed to imply that there’s no way life as a wheelchair-user could be worthwhile – even when you have all of the privilege of wealth, and happy relationships. Being, as I am, a person who doesn’t live with a disability, it’s probably not my place to deconstruct the ways in which that is problematic, but I feel comfortable saying that it just didn’t sit right with me. This book is definitely polarising – a lot of people really love it, and a lot of people really dislike it, not a lot of in-between – but I think that we can all agree that the ending was, to put it mildly, terrible in multiple ways.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

All The Light We Cannot See won a Pulitzer prize, and it’s still selling in huge numbers across the world, even years after its release. So, I might be the only one who thinks this, but I’ve just gotta say it: I think the ending was pretty average. It’s a really sprawling epic story of two kids whose lives weave together over the course of WWII, and then… they just kind of find each other? Very briefly? And one of them dies? And then the other one meets the dead one’s sister later? And then she lives happily ever after? I’m including all of these question marks because I feel like it becomes increasingly mystifying, and it’s delivered in rapid-fire (unlike the story that preceded it, which was fairly evenly paced). Maybe it’s not the worst book ending of all time or anything, but it’s definitely one of those that springs to mind when asked. Read my full review here.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(As suggested by @i_left_my_heart_in_sf)

Hoo-boy! Jodi Picoult sure did set the cat among the pigeons with My Sister’s Keeper. In fact, you can’t google her name or the book’s title without at least one or two angry rants about the book’s ending (and the movie‘s ending!) cropping up in the top results. I saw one reviewer say she was so upset by it she wanted to through Picoult in the sewer. Another blamed Picoult for her trust issues. It’s a fraught and emotional story as it is – about a young girl’s fight to control her own body, and not farm her organs out to her ill sister – so the stakes for a satisfying ending are higher than they would be otherwise. I’m afraid to say that Picoult is almost universally considered to have failed that test, and this is unquestionably one of the worst book endings ever.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, J.K. is our Queen. I’m not coming after her. The Harry Potter series is probably a big reason that a lot of us are here and reading right now. All hail, etc. But I’m just going to say it: the epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is hands down one of the worst book endings ever. I struggle to think of an ending that confused, saddened, and disgusted me more than that one. If you’re reading Harry Potter for the first time – and I highly recommend that you do! – just stop when you get to the end of the last proper chapter in this book. If you read any further, you’ll find a really naff, super-corny ending where everyone has grown up and married their high-school sweethearts and had a bunch of kids that they named after the people who died. Vomit! It stitches the story together in the most hopelessly saccharine way, which does the whole series a huge disservice. I think it’s even worse for the reader given the emotional gut-punch of Harry’s death, and re-birth, in the chapters that preceded it, not to mention his trashing of the Elder Wand… I think Deathly Hallows would have been a perfect and fitting end for the series, if not for that stinkin’ epilogue. Grrr!

What do you think? Share your worst book endings ever in the comments below (or tell us all about your disappointments over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).

Amongst Women – John McGahern

This slim, unassuming volume actually marks a very important discovery in my reading life: I purchased it on my first trip to a local charity shop’s book section. Before that fateful day, I’d almost exclusively haunted secondhand bookstores and book fairs. Discovering that charity shops also had amazing book selections – and so cheap! – was a revelation! I’d been looking for a copy of Amongst Women since I began the Keeping Up With The Penguins project a year and a half ago, so I was more than happy to hand over $3 for this pristine Faber edition.

Right, enough personal stories – this isn’t a recipe blog! Let’s get down to business. Amongst Women is the best-known novel of Irish writer John McGahern. It is widely considered to be his masterpiece, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release (1990). That was pretty much all I knew about it going in. From the blurb, I thought it might be similar to An Artist Of The Floating World, in that they’re both stories of aging men trying to outrun the fallout from their role in a war in the mid-20th Century. On the face of it, that assumption was technically correct, but the protagonists are very different, and as such their stories go in very different directions…

Michael Moran is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. He’s known to his community as a respectable and devout Catholic, but behind closed doors it’s a different story. He’s super bitter about the “small minded gangsters” that now run his country, and he refuses to accept the government’s solider pension, because he feels they have betrayed the ideals he fought for (yeah, let ’em keep their money, that’ll show ’em!). Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. He’s positively tyrannical in his personal life, cruel and brutal with his wife and children, and controlling in the extreme. So, consider this a trigger warning if those kinds of family dynamics don’t sit well with you: you’re going to want to give Amongst Women a miss.



Amongst Women begins in the Moran family home, in the rural midlands of Ireland. Moran is elderly, weakened by illness and age, and suffering a bout of depression his family fears will kill him. His adult daughters have decided to re-create an annual event of their childhood, Monaghan Day, in an effort to lift the old man’s spirits. From there, the family’s history is told through flashbacks as the Moran women remember their shared past, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (thank goodness!). It’s more like a chronological story that circles back around on itself. In fact, I’d say the opening scene really just serves as an unofficial prologue, setting up the story.

These grown daughters are: Maggie, who moves to London to become a nurse and marries a fashionable drunk; Mona, the family beauty who returns home most often, holds a civil service job in Dublin; and Shelia, who wanted to go to university but ol’ Daddy Moran talked her out of it (boo!). Shelia is the most defiant of the three, and a lot of her motivation comes from wanting to keep her own children away from the poisonous Moran patriarch. He’s a real bastard, no doubt about that. He lacks any sense of self-awareness, he has an explosive temper, he’s frustrated by his own obsolescence… it’s a deadly combination, one that makes him very unpredictable.

So, the flashback takes us back to when Moran – then a widower – re-married a local woman called Rose. His children were already teenagers, but she still became a mother figure to them, and she was often called upon to mediate disputes. She’s disturbingly tolerant of Moran’s mood swings and abuse. In fact, all of the Moran women are. Like many victims of such cruelty, they become extremely grateful for any expression of tenderness or goodwill, and they wind up willing to overlook his behaviour and his unapologetic attitude. This is, really, the crux of the story; there’s not a lot of plot, just the normal highs and lows of family life, and trying to work out why on earth all these women are so gentle with such an arsehole.



As the children leave home, one by one, Moran grows increasingly panicked. He can’t handle no longer being the center of their worlds, so what does he do? He devolves into a clingy, needy, hot mess, demanding their attention (and thus drawing them back to him), even when it disturbs the lives they’re trying to build for themselves. He finds his sons particularly threatening, as they “need” him the least (i.e., they’re less inclined to indulge his every whim).

Ah, yes, the sons! There’s two of them: Luke, the eldest, who escapes to London early on, unable to cope with his father’s overbearing authority; and Michael, the youngest, who hides in Rose’s skirts until he’s old enough to escape, too. It’s a dynamic that plays out with every single one of the Moran children, boys and girls alike: the only power they can exert in their relationship with their father is to leave him. Moran talks a lot of smack about how blood-is-thicker-than-water and family solidarity is the most important value and all of that, so the act of leaving him for the Big Smoke is the ultimate kick in the guts. And, yet, they all find themselves suckered back in to his vortex of manipulation and cruelty – all except Luke, who returns to Ireland only once, to attend Sheila’s wedding.

Moran dies in the end, of course. He’s buried under a yew tree and everyone grieves, but McGahern goes out of his way to make it abundantly clear that this is not the end of that bastard’s influence in their lives:

“… now, as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”

Amongst Women, pg. 183

I kept waiting for the “clang” that never really came. Perhaps McGahern intended for Moran’s death to be that moment, but it seemed a foregone conclusion: what other ending could he give such a terrible person? Amongst Women was, in short, the story of a traumatised veteran abusing and manipulating his whole family until the day he died. All the women he was amongst just made excuses for him and cleaned up after him, keeping the peace instead of calling him out on his bullshit. It’s a heart-breakingly familiar and relatable narrative, but in that sense it’s also really frustrating. What good is mirroring these unhealthy family relationships back at us through fiction, if the story doesn’t teach us anything other than… these families exist? I mean, we knew that. Arseholes die but people remember their arseholery? We knew that, too. Trauma is passed down through generations? Yep, we’re all across it. Amongst Women is not a satisfactory story, it’s just a depressing window into a dysfunctional family in a small Irish town.



Perhaps McGahern was trying to make some greater point about why the women in Moran’s life remained so devoted to him, even after they established independent lives of their own, but I couldn’t see it. I read later, in other reviews, that McGahern “asks whether exile offers the only hope for freedom and individuality” in post-colonial Catholic rural Ireland, and “exposes the insecurities and inexpressiveness of Irish masculinity”. I guess I can kind-of see both of those elements, but only after they were pointed out for me in a For-Dummies kind of way, so I don’t blame you if you missed them too.

I do like the title, though, and it has a clever dual meaning. Firstly, the Moran household is mostly female, so Moran is literally “amongst women”. Secondly, it refers to a line from the Hail Mary prayer (which I only learned reading this book, I’m a big ol’ heathen) – “blessed art thou amongst women”. The Moran family says a lot of Hail Marys, it’s a daily ritual for them, so it’s repeated often enough that you get the point.

Given the level of detail McGahern gave about the emotional brutality of these relationships, it came as no surprise to me that Amongst Women is (at least somewhat) autobiographical. These pages were clearly written by someone with inside knowledge of what a Moran-type household is like. McGahern’s beloved mother, Susan, died when he was a child, leaving he and his siblings in the care of his authoritarian IRA-veteran father. My heart breaks for McGahern; it must have been a deeply traumatic childhood (and adulthood, if his relationship with his real-life father bore out the way the fictional ones did), but I found myself frustrated on that point, too. When Louisa May Alcott mined her own childhood and family life for a novel, it was called “sentimental” and “schmaltzy” and excluded from the canon for years. When McGahern did it, it was heralded as a literary triumph, and the Booker Prize came a’knocking. Hardly seems fair, eh?

But I can see how I’m perhaps being a little hard on McGahern here, so I’ll let him have the last word of this review. He said of his novel: “The whole country is made up of families, each family a kind of independent republic. In Amongst Women, the family is a kind of half-way house between the individual and society.” And I think he’s spot on, there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Amongst Women:

  • “I didn’t care about anyone in this family.” – Jayfred
  • “For some reason I expected the book. Instead I rec the literary review which was actually better tha the actual book.” – Lisa L Smith

5 Books You Should Have Read In High School

There are many books we first encounter as required reading in high-school. I think that’s a real shame, because we would get so much more out of them if we came to them later in life. I’m seeing that a lot with books from my original reading list that I never had to read before this blog (even though they’re high-school syllabus standards); The Catcher In The Rye is a good example. That said, I can concede there are some classic books that are perhaps best suited to high-school students.

I should say at the outset that I’m generally opposed to enforced reading. I think the best way to foster a true love and appreciation for reading and writing is to allow kids to read and write what interests them. If a kid wants to read poetry or sci-fi or graphic novels, and write book reports on their favourites, then we should let them. Who cares if other kids are reading something different? It’s school, not a book club. Still, if we’re going to insist on required reading, here are five books that I think you should read in high-school (or should have read in high school, if you’re of a certain age)…

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can already hear the shocked gasps: “But it’s all about sex! We can’t let kids read inappropriate things like that!”. And to that, I say this: The Great Gatsby, ubiquitous in high-schools, is all about conspicuous consumption, crime, and violence. Why are we so much more comfortable letting our kids read about someone getting shot than someone getting laid?

I thought The Great Gatsby sucked, and I’ve made no secret of that fact. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book. It’s funnier, it’s more insightful, it’s more clever in its use of language and dialect. Loos did far more interesting things with perspective in narration. It’s set in Jazz Age America, just like Gatsby, but it would give kids a much more nuanced view of that period and it would teach them more about life and literature (see above). Plus, it’s a lot more fun! Read my full review here.

Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

I read Diary Of A Young Girl for the first time in high-school, and I’m so, so glad I did. I think it was a key moment in my empathic development. Reading about a girl to whom I thought I could relate (roughly the same age, bookish, introspective), in the midst of such atrocity and fear, taught me a lot at a very pivotal time. Granted, it might be a bit much for some teenagers, especially those at the younger end of the age bracket, but if they can handle The Book Thief then they can handle Anne Frank’s real-life account. In fact, those two books would make for really good paired reads. It would generate some great in-class discussion about our different perspectives on WWII and what we can learn through both fictional and non-fictional accounts.

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

This is one I’d like to suggest in place of The Catcher In The Rye. As I mentioned earlier, I loved the Salinger book, but if we’re going to be assigning coming-of-age books to teenagers we need to make them representative. All too often, assigned high-school texts – Catcher among them – feature straight white teenage males, somewhere on the spectrum from middle-class to transitory poverty. Even though they’re so common in literature, those characters only reflect the lived experience of a relatively small segment of the population. Go Tell It On The Mountain is one of many, many alternatives to those stories, and it’s a good one (especially as it would seem James Baldwin is disappearing from classrooms – bring Baldwin back!). Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical bildungsroman tells the story of a young black man in 1930s Harlem, and it explores complex intersectional identities in race and religion.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Firstly, all current high-school students should read Fahrenheit 451 because it’s still disturbingly relevant. Forces of oppression are still working to keep us mollified, keep us sedated, and keep us quiet – and this book is a great vehicle to teach and discuss that reality. Secondly, given the depth and breadth of dystopian fiction out there, I worry that if they come to this one too late in life – as I did – it’ll be ruined for them. Fahrenheit 451 reads like an intro-to-dystopia book, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not as complex as other, later works that high-school students are likely to encounter as they enter adulthood. Heck, even some of the most recent young-adult offerings – like The Hunger Games – are far more weighty; Fahrenheit 451 is just too short to build a world as complex and multi-layered as a series that stretches over multiple books. Often, I’ve found, when someone says they love Fahrenehit 451, they read it for the first time in their teens and it blew their minds. I say let’s keep that tradition alive. Read my full review here.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories, so it won’t be particularly laborious for teens who find reading tough. Holmes is a pervasive pop-culture figure, so this book could be considered his “origin story”, a gateway to hundreds of other books and films that feature the tough-talking private detective. The mysteries that he investigates are fun, never too gory or terrifying. And it’s a particularly good book for would-be budding writers, because there’s a lot to be learned from Doyle’s economy of language and the way he sets up a twisty story. Even though I didn’t read this one in high-school myself, I’m sure if I had I would have loved it. Read my full review here.


I want to reiterate that I think it’s crucial kids be able to seek out and choose their own reading material. This post is not a list of commandments, and I wouldn’t expect that every teenager would love and appreciate all (or even any) of these books. Still, if I’m thinking back on my own reading life, and the books that I wish I’d read or books I’m glad I read in high school, these all rank really highly. What books do you think you should have read in high school? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).

And while we’re talking coulda-woulda-shoulda, why not check out this list of books that will help you sort out your life?


The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

If you’ve ever found yourself reading a detective mystery and wondering “but, wait, could that really happen to a reallife detective?”, The Maltese Falcon might be the book for you. Dashiell Hammett was an American writer, but before that he was an actual real-life detective. He’s now regarded as one of the masters of detective fiction, and The Maltese Falcon (first published in 1930) is perhaps his best-known work. He didn’t promise his readers that it would be a true-to-life story, but his background gives him a lot of credibility, don’t you think?

The first thing you need to know about The Maltese Falcon is that it is told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Hammett doesn’t describe (or even hint at) any of the characters’ internal worlds, thoughts, or feelings. It’s up to the reader to guess for themselves each character’s motivations and secrets, based purely on his descriptions of what they say and do. Hammett took this style of writing to a new post-Hemingway extreme, and I know this next comment might be controversial, but I stand by it: Hammett does it way better than Papa ever did.

Plus, it’s a really clever approach to writing a detective fiction novel when you think about it. Without too much effort on Hammett’s part, he’s able to keep the reader guessing, and he doesn’t have to tie himself up in knots to keep a character’s internal monologue from giving away the ending.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to offer a boilerplate spoiler warning, too; The Maltese Falcon is a mystery novel, after all. I find it practically impossible to properly discuss or review a book without spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out whodunnit.


There’s a lot of mini-mysteries within this book, a lot of red herrings and blind paths. Despite its paltry page count, it’s a rather intricate story of double- and triple-crossings. So, that makes it kind of hard to break down – I’ll do my darnedest!

The big dick is Sam Spade, a private detective working in San Francisco, with his business partner Miles Archer. And I do mean “big dick”, in every sense of the word; it’s the 1930s, he’s the boss, so it’s very old school with lots of calling secretaries in tight dresses “darling” and stuff like that.

Spade and Archer are going about their usual business when in comes one Miss Wonderly, and wants a guy followed. She says Floyd Thursby ran off with her sister, and she wants them to keep an eye on him. They take the job, and Archer takes the first shift on the guy’s tail.

Later that night, Archer is found dead, and shortly thereafter Thursby is found dead, too. Sam Spade becomes the prime suspect in both murders, as it turns out he was shagging Archer’s wife on the side, and Miss Wonderly wasn’t entirely honest about her reasons for wanting Thursby followed…

Miss Wonderly confesses that she’s using a fake name (no kidding). She’s actually an “acquisitive adventuress” by the name of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, She’s tied up in an international hunt for a treasure they call the Maltese Falcon (thus, the title).

Then, we get some back-story: in the 16th century, the knights of Malta made a statue of gold and jewels to present as a gift to the King of Spain, but it was intercepted and stolen by pirates. The statue passed from owner to owner over the years, and one of them covered it in black enamel to conceal its true value from would-be thieves. A man by the name of Casper Gutman had been tracing the history of the Maltese Falcon for years, and when he found out it was in the possession of a Russian exile living in Constantinople, he paid Brigid O’Shaughnessy to secure it for him.



Brigid worked with Thursby, and another bloke called Joel Cairo (who Hammett only ever describes as being Greek and gay, we don’t really learn anything else about him). They managed to get the falcon off the Russian, but Brigid’s no fool; she realised how much the thing was worth, and decided to cash in. She hid it on a ship that was setting sail for San Francisco, then she and Thursby went on ahead, planning to meet it there. Gutman, meanwhile, none too pleased with his prize being whipped out from under his nose like that, followed hot on their heels, and enlisted the services of a vicious gunman called Wilmer Cook.

It takes Sam Spade a while to piece this story together, especially seeing as he starts shagging Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she’s determined he find out as little as possible. Sex is a good way to stop a detective asking questions, I suppose, but it only works for so long. Plus, they’ve both got cops coming at them from all directions, because they know something smells funny with this whole deal (and there’s the unsolved murders of Thursby and Archer hanging over their heads).

The Maltese Falcon falls into Spade’s possession when a wounded ship captain stumbles into his office, hands it over, and promptly dies. It seems like a stroke of very good luck, and I think that’s the only way Hammett could think of to keep the story moving forward. Spade’s a real mensch, though, and he doesn’t seem at all tempted to keep the falcon for himself… but he’s not quite so high-and-mighty that he doesn’t use it to negotiate a good deal.

Spade outsmarts O’Shaughnessy, Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo at every turn. He ends up getting them to agree to pay him $10,000 for the falcon, and use Wilmer as the fall-guy into the bargain (seeing as, Spade explains, they’ll need someone to take the rap for all the murders, and Wilmer is a real arsehole so it might as well be him). Happy ending, right?



Wrong! The falcon, it turns out, is a fake! *Gasps*

Wilmer escapes, seeing no reason to hang around and take the fall for murders now. Gutman and Cairo decide to keep searching for the real falcon together, and off they trot. O’Shaughnessy starts planning a new life for herself with her new boyfriend Spade… only our big dick has put on his detective hat, and he’s worked out it was she who killed Archer and Thursby, back when this whole thing kicked off. He’s had a bloody gut-full of the lot of them, to be honest. He turns snitch, handing them all over to the cops, and wipes his hands clean. The story ends with Spade back in his office, back to normal, and Archer’s widow showing up to “talk”…

And there we have it: a twisty-turny detective mystery thriller, with a hint of the hunt for pirate treasure and a bare-bones love story to keep things interesting.

It’s a surprisingly Woke book (tight-dressed “darling” secretaries and reductive gay representation aside), given the time period in which it was written. The female characters were surprisingly complex, even if they were objectified at every turn. Hammett was a pretty cool dude, and he devoted much of his life to left-wing activism and anti-fascist movements. Those philosophies clearly seeped into his work, which is markedly absent the racism and brutal sexism of so many other books of that era.

Spade is an amalgamation of all those hard-nosed detective tropes we know and love: cold, detached, observant, ruthless, unsentimental, determined, with a keen sense of justice and a willingness to bend the rules to see it administered. There was endless speculation, upon release of The Maltese Falcon and a handful of lesser-known short stories also featuring the character, that Spade was based on a real-life detective that Hammett had encountered in his former work, but he vehemently denied it.

“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.”

Dashiell hammett

I only realised later that this book was the basis of the 1941 film noir classic of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart, which is perfect casting – as I was reading, I kept picturing Spade as a Bogart-esque figure. There have been a few other film adaptations made since then as well, but that one remains the best, according to basically every film critic ever.

The Maltese Falcon is formulaic, by today’s standards, but it’s also fast and fun to read. It’s not particularly challenging, but you do need to focus your attention, because it moves fast and it’s a short book to begin with. There’s not a lot of room for your mind to wander between plot points! Keep your wits about you, or you’ll lose track of what’s going on and where allegiances lie in the hunt for this golden bird statue…

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maltese Falcon:

  • “Awesome very different than the movie Bogart character was BLONDE!” – Debra Anderson
  • “Didn’t care for this book too much. Sam Spade is not a nice guy. Nuts to him.” – Phillip Marlowe
  • “classic af
    love living in San Francisco and I can literally visit the spots that are in the book. . .with this being said hire me someone! Marketing – is me at this time..” – Louis Quinteros
  • “Holy crap, if people were really this stupid in the early 20th century it’s surprising the human race has developed to the level it is in now. The characters are all dumb dumbs even the supposed bright private investigator is a dumb dumb. The book plays out like a boring episode of Scooby Doo if the characters were all victims of self inflicted anoxic brain injuries patients from trying to breath under waters.
    The ending which is supposed to be dramatic (I guess?..) is really dull and leaves me yelling at Sam the detective to shut up and call the police to arrest the woman already, but no it plays out like this: Semi-Spoiler Alert:

    Dumb detective: “I don’t know if I love you or not, sure we’ve known each other less than a week and may have banged once. Maybe that is love, maybe it isn’t. Don Draper from Mad Men isn’t alive yet to use creative marketing to tell us what love is. So like I said how can I know for sure if we’re in love?”
    Dumb Lady: “Oh Sam, I do love you, sure your contemplating calling the police because I straight up murdered your business partner and royally screwed over the other criminals I was working with but, I would never do that to you…”
    Dumb Detective: “That maybe, but I still don’t know if I can trust you. I think the best thing will be to still arrest you, maybe when you get out of jail, if you don’t get the death penalty, we can be a couple because that seems like the reasonable and responsible thing to do. Especially since I’ve known you for a week and you murdered my business partner and pretty much lied since we met.”
    Dumb Lady: “I guess.”

    The End” – Todd K.

13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors

As wonderful as it is to travel somewhere new in literature, there’s also something wonderfully comforting reading a home-grown tome. I love reading books by Australian authors, and novels set in Australia. It’s always interesting to see whether they jibe with my lived experience of my home country. Even when they don’t, it’s fun to pick apart the reasons why. Plus, I just really love supporting Australian writers and local publishers; we’ve grown some fantastic literary talent down here at the bottom of the Earth! Here’s a list of 13 must-read books by Australian authors (as composed by an Australian reader – me!).

13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors - Text Overlaid on Image of Urban Landscape with Australian Flag - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rock has one of the most compelling premises in all of Australian literature: in 1900, four school girls go for a picnic at (you guessed it!) Hanging Rock. Three of the girls, and their teacher, mysteriously vanish, into thin air. The remaining girl has no memory of what happened, and no one can work out what has become of those who are missing.

Theories abound, (abduction, assault, murder?) but no one, aside from author Joan Lindsay and her editor, knew for sure… until 1987. See, Lindsay wrote a final chapter solving the mystery, but her editor (quite rightly) pointed out that the book was far more powerful and intriguing without it. Lindsay sat on the chapter, tucked it away in her bottom drawer, until her death. Then it was released as The Secret Of Hanging Rock.

This book has a very dreamy quality, one that translated to the film version released in 1975. In these pages, you’ll also find a few laughs, and – of course – beautiful descriptions of the Australian bush.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Miles Franklin is synonymous, in the minds of most Australian readers, with literary accomplishment – not the least because our most prestigious literary award is named in her honour. A second reason, no less impressive, is that she wrote her best-known work, My Brilliant Career, when she was just sixteen years old. With an abundance of admittedly-naive youthful confidence, she sent it to Australian literary giant Henry Lawson, and he fancied it so much that he forwarded it to his own publishers.

Franklin quickly learned a tough lesson: you really need to obfuscate a few more details if you’re going to write autobiographical fiction. My Brilliant Career is the story of Sybylla, a young girl (obviously Franklin’s self-image) growing up in the Australian bush in the early 1900s, with burgeoning feminist ideals and passions. She’s surrounded by parochial chumps who want to keep her from her dreams of a literary career, and force her to settle down into a respectable marriage. Apparently, the real-life inspirations for these characters didn’t take too kindly to Franklin’s depictions of them, and she had to withdraw the book from sale until after her death to end the drama.

Still, we get to read it now, in its full unabashed glory. It has also been made into a film, starring the incomparable Judy Davis, released in 1979. Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Slap does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the story of a single slap, one man disciplining a child who is not his own at a suburban barbecue, and the repercussions of that one action that reverberate through the lives of all who were present. There are eight main characters, and you get to see a little of the story from each of their perspectives. Tsiolkas pieces these fragments together to form a beautiful, if gritty, whole.

If you’re more familiar with the Liane Moriarty brand of Australian literature, and you’re looking for a book that deals with similar settings and themes from perhaps a more literary bent, this is the book for you. It’s a really powerful exploration of family, domesticity, and loyalty in European-Australian suburbia.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There is perhaps no Australian figure more recognisable than the bushranger Ned Kelly. Every Australian child is forced to learn about Kelly ad nauseam over the course of their standard education. So, in this bold re-imagining of a folk hero’s (or should that be anti-hero?) life, Peter Carey gives a new voice to a deeply familiar character. True History Of The Kelly Gang – an ironic, cheeky title – purports to tell Kelly’s story in his own words, beginning with his birth and ending with the infamous shoot-out at Glenrowan and Kelly’s execution.

This book made a big splash on the international stage. It won the 2001 Booker Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year. I personally loved the stylistic choices that Carey made with expression and grammar; he styled it from the Jerilderie letter, the most famous authentic piece of Kelly’s own writing still in existence, and the similarities are uncanny. If you’re interested in books written in dialect, and not too fussy about (ahem) artistic choices in punctuation and language, then look no further. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River - Kate Grenville - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of my occasional bugbears with Australian literature is that it too-often shies away from our colonial past (and present!), obscuring the historical realities of the wrongs wrought upon our Indigenous population. The success of The Secret River is a small antidote to that horrible literary tradition. In this historical novel, a transported convict by the name of William Thornhill tries to build a life for himself on the Hawkesbury River, where he finds his world colliding with that of the Aboriginal people already living on that land.

Grenville drew inspiration from the stories of her real-life ancestors, and she has described this book as her own attempt to apologise to the Indigenous people of Australia. She certainly doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of the Europeans, and highlights that darkness can even be found in the hearts of people we think are fundamentally good. The Secret River was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2006, and it resonated for many audiences here and abroad. It’s also worth checking out her follow-up, Searching For The Secret River – an exegesis about the process of writing The Secret River and what she learned along the way.

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington

Of course, it’s absolutely critical that in examining Australia’s colonial past through literature, we push the voices of Indigenous Australians to the front. Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence is Doris Pilkington’s fictional account of a family’s experience as part of the Stolen Generation, including elements from the real lived experience of her own mother. For those of you who are not familiar, the Stolen Generation is the name we use for the forced removal of children from their Aboriginal families in Australia; this happened initially in the early 20th century and, in other ways, continues today.

In this incredible book, three young girls – Molly, Gracie, and Daisy – escape the Moore River Settlement and hike across hundreds of kilometers of desert in the hope of being reunited with their families in Jigalong. They follow the “rabbit proof fence”, a laughably disastrous pest-control effort by the Australian government. The fence stretched over 3,000km (that’s 2,000 miles), and the girls believed it would lead them home. This book was also adapted into a beautiful and devastating film, Rabbit Proof Fence, in 2002.

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

For a more contemporary Indigenous perspective, Blakwork by Alison Whittaker is a must-read. It was released just last year, but I’ve been following Whittaker’s work for a while and I can promise you she’s one of the most powerful voices against Indigenous oppression in this country.

Blakwork is part memoir, part journalism, part fiction, part satire, part legal document, part social commentary, and somehow more than all of those things combined in poetry. She divides the text into fifteen sections, most of which center around the theme of a specific type of work (thus, the collection’s name). She writes with piercing and unflinching honesty, raging at times, about the experience of a queer Gomeroi woman. She challenges the white Australian legacy, covering everything from the Stolen Generation to deaths in custody to hate crime to stereotypes of rural Indigenous communities. She attacks myths and power structures at every turn, and it’s incredible to witness. I challenge you to read this book and not feel overwhelmingly moved.

Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

I was asked recently which book spoke most to my own experience of living in Sydney and Australia, and this is the first one that came to mind. Granted, that’s probably because it’s the one I’ve read and re-read the most; my high-school copy of Looking For Alibrandi is so worn that the spine has all but fallen apart.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, so it covers all the Big Themes of love and loss and belonging, but above and beyond that it has a lot to say about the lives of migrant families and their children, and how racial and ethnic identities intersect with class. If you went to school in Australia, chances are you had to read this one at some point over the course of your secondary education; trust me, it’s worth pulling it up again and taking another look. For international readers, this is a great one to read if you want to get a feel for the experience of urban Australian teens in the ’90s.

No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not sure there has ever been such a controversial choice for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Earlier this year, Behrouz Boochani got the gong for his incredible book No Friend But The Mountains, and the criticism was swift (also completely unjust, and laughably out-of-touch).

If you’re not familiar with Behrouz’s work: he’s a Kurdish journalist who was detained on Manus Island for seeking asylum in Australia, where he remains (I highly recommend following him on Twitter for real-time updates). “He’s not Australian!” the critics cried when his book won a prestigious literary prize for Australian authors. Perhaps they’re right on a technicality, but he has been imprisoned on Manus at the whim of the Australian government for years. In my view, that makes this book perhaps the most important non-fiction Australian story of my generation. He wrote the entire thing via WhatsApp messages, a lyrical firsthand account of his indefinite (and ongoing!) imprisonment, translated by Omid Tofighian. It’s a must-read for all Australians, now and in the future (when, hopefully, our system of detention will be a sad relic of our past ignorance).

I also recommend another poetic account of life in detention by Mohammed Ali Maleki. He wrote his collection, Truth In The Cage, while detained on Manus. It was translated by fellow detainee Mansour Shoushtari, and published by an incredible local team at Verity La.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

The Hate Race - Maxine Beneba Clarke - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another one of my Twitter favourites, Maxine Beneba Clarke, is perhaps best-known for her wonderful poetry. That said, I personally consider her memoir, The Hate Race, to be essential reading. It’s an account – sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking – about growing up black, the child of black Afro-Caribbean immigrants, in white middle-class suburban Australia. One of the opening chapters, where she describes her parents arriving in their new country and reeling at the overtly racist place and product names (not to mention being directed towards the cask wine in the liquor shop), has stuck with me to this day. I hear this one is often assigned in high schools now, which is fantastic to see!

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

No More Boats - Felicity Castagna - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I love, love, love the premise of this book! No More Boats is set in 2001, around the time of the Tampa crisis (as we now call it), when 438 refugees were stranded on a boat off the Australian coast. It was a critical moment in Australia’s migrant history, one that continues to impact our policy and public discourse on the subject to this day (though at the time it was quickly overshadowed by the events of September 11).

Unfolding at the same time is the story of Antonio, a migrant man forced into early retirement after a terrible accident on his work site. His life unravels as the Tampa crisis intensifies. It’s a realistic historical fiction story, but history so recent it can’t help but echo in your brain when you think about what’s happening in Australia today. It really highlights our collective cognitive dissonance around refugees, in a way that is as emotive as a gut-punch.

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is the darling of Australian literature, and if you come across any list of best Australian books that doesn’t include her, you should disregard it because it is woefully incomplete. Really, any of her books could be rightfully included here, but because I’m a true-crime junkie I’ve chosen This House Of Grief.

The process of writing this book eerily mirrors that of Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood. Garner saw a breaking news update that a man had driven his children into a dam on Father’s Day. This led her to attend his seven-week trial, then to years of research, and ultimately to several drafts of a book documenting the entire sad tale. It’s a heart-wrenching account, and Garner has spoken often of how difficult it was for her to write, but I am eternally grateful that she persisted. This House Of Grief is a masterpiece of true crime, and of literary non-fiction more broadly.

The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To round out this list, let’s look at Jane Harper, one of the best-selling Australian novelists of the last few years. In an odd combination of many elements from other Australian books on this list, The Dry is a fictional story set in the bush, where a retired Australian Federal Police officer sets about trying to solve the murder of his childhood friend. The story unfolds against a vivid backdrop of drought and rural hardship, an all-too-familiar setting for many Australians. It’s twisty, it’s turny, it’s gripping, and it’s delightful. Harper has also since released a sequel, and a third (unrelated) book. I’m sure we’ll see much more from her in the years to come.


What are your favourite Australian books? Drop your suggestions in the comments below (or over on the Keeping Up With The Penguins Facebook page), so we can make this a real compendium of awesome Australian literature!

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