Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Golden Bowl – Henry James

This is the first time I’ve reviewed two books by the same author back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five… turns out, it wasn’t just a quirk of his storytelling exclusive to The Turn of the Screw. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.


A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She convinces him to marry her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte sure enough it it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, what a cuck!). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James seems to be the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


I ended up having to look up chapter summaries online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems)… but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on my reading list because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

Learn from my mistake: book recommendations from friends aren’t always the gold you’d hope they’d be! Check out the five mistakes you probably make when you’re picking your next read here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on The List). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.


The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!


It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

One of James’s more readable passages, from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

Party Going – Henry Green

I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.

Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.

“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”

Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction

There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.



The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.

Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.

There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Party Going:

  • “Short on wit.” – uncle tom
  • “John Updike is one of my favorite writers, but I found reading Henry Green like reading Upstairs, Downstairs in ultra-slow motion.” – J.M. Walker



Book Reviews By Title

A

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
American Sniper – Chris Kyle
Amongst Women – John McGahern
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

B

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

C

The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

D

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Divergent – Veronica Roth
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

E

Emma – Jane Austen
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

F

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

G

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg – Coming Soon!
The Golden Bowl – Henry James
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

H

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

I

If I Stay – Gayle Forman
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

J

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

K

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
The Lake House – Kate Morton
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

M

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Maze Runner – James Dashner – Coming Soon!
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Money – Martin Amis
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

N

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos

O

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

P

Paper Towns – John Green
Party Going – Henry Green
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Q

R

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

S

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli – Coming Soon!

T

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

U

Ulysses – James Joyce – Coming Soon!

V

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

W

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

X

Y

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Z

Book Reviews By Author

A

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Money – Martin Amis
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Emma – Jane Austen
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

B

She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

C

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

D

The Divine Comedy – Dante
The Maze Runner – James Dashner – Coming Soon!
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli – Coming Soon!
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

E

F

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

G

Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Party Going – Henry Green
Paper Towns – John Green
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

H

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

I

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

J

The Golden Bowl – Henry James
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
Ulysses – James Joyce – Coming Soon!

K

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Kim – Rudyard Kipling
American Sniper – Chris Kyle

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

M

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Amongst Women – John McGahern
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
The Lake House – Kate Morton

N

O

P

Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Yes Please – Amy Poehler
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

Q

R

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

S

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg – Coming Soon!
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

T

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

U

V

W

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Picture Of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

X

Y

Z

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat Of The Day, by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, was first published in 1948. It focuses on the interwoven lives and relationships of three main characters, and their political roles, in the years following The Blitz. I know I’ve told you all that I’m a bit “over” fictionalised accounts of WWII, but I’ve had a bit of a break from them now, so I can come at this one with a fresh eye. Plus, The Heat Of The Day was written so close to the conflict, I suspected it might have a different approach (and I was right, as always).

My edition doesn’t have an introduction, or any prefatory material; even the blurb and the author bio are surprisingly bland. I only mention this because Penguin editions almost always offer up some delicious tid-bit that I faithfully relay back to you. I’m not sure why they didn’t bother in this case?

So, straight to the story, then: our female lead is Stella, a divorced middle-aged woman (though she is “young looking”, readers are repeatedly assured). She lives alone in London, and holds – shall we say – some deeply ingrained class prejudice. She has a lover, Robert, who was wounded in Dunkirk, but he basically only limps when he feels like it so everyone knows he’s having them on. Stella also has a son, Roderick, who’s off at some soldier training school, or whatever they call it. He signed up for the Army purely because it seemed to be the “done thing”, so he’s pretty loosey-goosey with his patriotism. He also seems to be in love with his comrade Fred, but no one says that out loud.

There’s also Harrison, a British intelligence agent, and let’s just go ahead and call him the source of all conflict in this novel (aside from, y’know, the war). He’s got a huge boner for Stella, and also – conveniently enough – believes her lover Robert to be a German spy. Harrison takes any chance he gets to worm his way between them. He tells Stella outright of his suspicions. When she doesn’t believe him (and fall instantly into his arms), he says he’ll hold off on reporting Robert to the authorities if she ends their relationship (and, he implies, gets her kit off). She declines that kind offer… but she thinks about it for a minute first.

Roderick comes home to visit Stella on leave, and finds out that he’s inherited Mount Morris – an Irish estate that formerly belonged to his father’s cousin. He’s got his hands full with this army business, though, so he sends Stella over there to take care of affairs for him (good on you, Mum). Her time in the Isle gets her all nostalgic, reminiscing about her youth and her first marriage, to Roderick’s father. She decides that when she gets home, she’ll just ask Robert straight to his face whether he’s a German spy. Good plan!



Naturally, Robert vehemently denies the accusation, and he throws her plan all off-kilter with a proposal of marriage. I think it was around that time that The Heat Of The Day devolved into a super-weird side plot, an argument where Roderick demands to know the truth of his parents’ divorce. For years, Stella has let everyone believe that she was cheating on Roderick’s father, because she found it less shameful than the fact that he actually left her, for an army nurse. Roderick seems satisfied with that new explanation, and then… we just return to the regularly scheduled programming? Weird!

Anyway, Harrison tells Stella off for giving Robert the heads up. She offers herself up as a bribe, in exchange for Robert’s life and freedom, but Harrison’s over her (or he just puts his love for Queen and country first, whatever). He tells Stella to bugger off.

Things are looking pretty bad for Robert by this point. He goes ahead and makes things worse for himself by confessing to Stella that he did spy for the Germans, at some point. After she offered herself up like a leg of Christmas ham, and everything! She’s (rightly) cranky, and kicks Robert out of the house. He sure shows her, though: he proceeds immediately to her roof, and jumps off of it, killing himself.

Now that the action has come to a head, Bowen seems to get bored of her own story. She gives us a rushed overview of what happens for each of the characters over the next few years, just to wrap things up neatly. Roderick moves to Mount Morris after the war, and decides not to look for his father. Harrison visits Stella and starts hitting on her again, but she knocks him back – still, the reader can’t be sure whether they wind up together or not. And, finally, a side character that was barely mentioned throughout the book has a love-child and runs away to the country. The end!



I feel like The Heat Of The Day would quote beautifully. Pluck any random sentence from any random page, and it would sound fucking profound. At a sentence level, Bowen’s writing craft was exquisite. But the book, as a whole, was a little Henry James-y. In fact, Raymond Chandler once said that The Heat Of The Day was a “screaming parody” of James. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but the story was really hard to follow. For me, James represents the epitome of getting high off your own fumes, thinking more about what you can do with language than the story you’re trying to tell – anything that resembles that is going to get me off-side, guaranteed.

I guess what I liked about the book was that it seemed, for the most part, a lot more realistic than most contemporary WWII fiction. No one was trying to kill Hitler (ahem, Life After Life). No one was shielding a priceless jewel from the Nazis (ahem, All The Light We Cannot See). It wasn’t narrated by Death as he tried to bump children off the mortal coil (ahem, The Book Thief). The war was present in The Heat Of The Day, but in the background, while the regular romantic and familial dramas played out in the foreground. The violence of the conflict was mostly removed from the narration. It’s a circumstance of the story, not the focus of it. Bowen does describe the London bombings, but really only in passing. You can see and feel the effects of the war, in food rations and black-out curtains and the suspicion of strangers, but life goes on: real life, everyday life, as it did for many who lived through that era. Anthony Burgess was once quoted as saying that no other novel has better captured the true atmosphere of London in WWII, and I totally believe that. I commend Bowen for the way she depicted the gnawing desperation of those times, and the cruel irony of loving someone who (it turned out) was on the side of the fascists, without getting gimmicky or overblown. Stella is just trying to keep calm and carry on (ha!), while the men around her play their own ridiculous game of Spy Vs Spy.

Still, The Heat Of The Day was a slog to read. I didn’t really care all that much about any of the characters, truth be told. I even found it hard to keep them straight at times. I’d say it’s comparable to E.M. Forster and Henry Green (as well as James, as mentioned) – I didn’t particularly love either of them, either, so it makes sense that this one didn’t start my engines. If you’re a historical fiction devotee looking for something different, a more realistic take on WWII, give it a go. Otherwise, save your eyeballs.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heat Of The Day:

  • “A hard slog to get to an interesting story.” – Granny
  • “Can not recommend. Book is stated as a thrilling story. Not! Verbose.” – Phyllis

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).

7-Classic-Books-You-Can-Skip-Reading-And-What-To-Read-Instead-Text-Overlaid-on-Background-Image-of-Woman-Considering-Bookshelves-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

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.

My Reading List Page Count: 109 Classic and Best Seller Books From Shortest to Longest

I’m becoming a bit obsessed with looking at my reading list for this project from different angles. I’ve created a bookish timeline to see what period I’m covering, and a world map to look at all the different places I’m travelling, through the magic of the written word. And here’s a peek behind the book blogger curtain for you: I can actually see what searches people use to find Keeping Up With The Penguins, and it would seem that a lot of you are curious about the page counts of classic and best seller books. So today, I’m going to arrange my entire TBR from longest to shortest by page count.

My Reading List Page Count - 109 Classic and Best Seller Books from Shortest to Longest - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Book on Grass and Leaves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Note: these are the page lengths of the actual editions I own, so it might differ from what Wikipedia says or the copy you have at home.)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: 138 pages
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: 150 pages
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: 152 pages
Murphy by Samuel Beckett: 158 pages
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 160 pages
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 161 pages
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: 167 pages
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: 172 pages
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Dougals Adams: 180 pages
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 184 pages
Amongst Women by John MaGahern: 184 pages
The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame: 192 pages
The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene: 192 pages
Party Going by Henry Green: 192 pages



The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet: 201 pages
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: 201 pages
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: 206 pages
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 208 pages
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: 222 pages
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh: 222 pages
If I Stay by Gayle Forman: 224 pages
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: 224 pages
The White Mouse by Nancy Wake: 224 pages
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 227 pages
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 227 pages
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger: 230 pages
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do: 232 pages
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin: 232 pages
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 233 pages
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 234 pages
A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking: 241 pages
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos: 243 pages (*also contains But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which I also read.)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: 247 pages
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: 248 pages
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: 250 pages



The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James: 272 pages (*also contains The Aspen Papers, which I definitely did not read. I’ve had my fill of Henry James.)
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: 274 pages
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding: 285 pages
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: 286 pages
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 288 pages
The Call Of The Wild by Jack London: 288 pages (*also includes White Fang, which I didn’t read. Too much puppy torture!)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 292 pages
Still Alice by Lisa Genova: 293 pages
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham: 296 pages
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 301 pages
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 309 pages
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: 310 pages
A Passage To India by E.M. Forster: 312 pages
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 314 pages
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: 315 pages
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: 316 pages



Kim by Rudyard Kipling: 322 page
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: 323 pages
Yes Please by Amy Poehler: 329 pages
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: 331 pages
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: 334 pages
Paper Towns by John Green: 336 pages
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller: 336 pages
The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen: 336 pages
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: 336 pages
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: 336 pages
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: 343 pages
Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: 344 pages
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: 352 pages
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: 354 pages
The Martian by Andy Weir: 369 pages
The Maze Runner by James Dashner: 371 pages
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: 373 pages
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: 374 pages



The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: 384 pages
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis: 394 pages
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen: 398 pages
Dracula by Bram Stoker: 400 pages
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: 406 pages
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli: 412 pages
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 416 pages
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir: 416 pages
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 416 pages (*also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I did read, too)
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: 432 pages
American Sniper by Chris Kyle: 448 pages
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: 459 pages
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan: 467 pages
Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos: 469 pages
Emma by Jane Austen: 474 pages
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: 478 pages



Divergent by Veronica Roth: 489 pages
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson: 516 pages (*but this is an abridged edition, the full version is literally one of the longest books ever written.)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: 519 pages
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: 531 pages
The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow: 536 pages
The Golden Bowl by Henry James: 547 pages
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett: 569 pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: 584 pages
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: 588 pages
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: 590 pages
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: 596 pages
The Lake House by Kate Morton: 608 pages
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: 622 pages
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: 656 pages
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 656 pages
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 672 pages (*note: also contains other stories)



All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: 672 pages
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: 687 pages
Ulysses by James Joyce: 719 pages
Moby Dick by Herman Melville: 720 pages
A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: 864 pages
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: 883 pages
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: 1056 pages
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 1057 pages

The strangest thing I noticed: page length has very little to do with how long a book feels. Mrs Dalloway felt like a much longer read than My Brilliant Friend, and yet the latter is nearly twice as long in page count. It also felt like a much longer read than The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but in reality they’re about the same length. Weird, eh? Really, you can’t tell much from a book’s page count at all. Some of the classic books, which we all assume will be long and meaty, have the fewest pages, while some of the most-recent best-sellers are doorstops.



So, here’s my total (I know you’re all dying to know): accounting for a few pages of notes skipped here and there and a couple of combination editions where I didn’t read the second book, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me reading 40,700 pages. Not bad! And, of course, you can find links to every single review here (I update the list with the new one published each week). If you’re curious about how many pages are in your TBR, you can find page counts for most editions of most books on Goodreads (and you can friend me while you’re there!). How many pages is your current read? Add to the list in the comments below (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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February 2020

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

I Choose Elena - Lucia Osborne-Crowley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every book lover I know, at some time or another, has sought solace in a book. I Choose Elena, a long-form literary essay from Lucia Osborne-Crowley, explores that impulse at its very extreme. For over a decade, Osborne-Crowley suffered horrific, debilitating symptoms stemming back to a sexual assault in her teens. Now, she expands upon her struggle to come to a place where she could choose what defines her: the actions of a violent man, the illness of her body, or the joy and wonder she found in the works of writers like Elena Ferrante. As the title might suggest, she chooses Elena. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

You don’t need to be familiar with Ferrante (or any other of the dozens of writers Osborne-Crowley references) to find yourself deeply immersed and irrevocably moved by this story. It’s not often that a book will bring me to tears, even less so a literary essay, but this one did (more than once): tears of anguish, tears of fury, tears of gratitude. I Choose Elena is a must-read for fans of Fiona Wright, Gabrielle Jackson, and Bri Lee.

Get I Choose Elena here.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

The Bass Rock - Evie Wyld - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Evie Wyld’s new novel, The Bass Rock, stretches across centuries to examine the various forms of violence visited upon women by men. There are three protagonists: Sarah, in the 1700s, accused of being a witch and forced to flee into the woods; Ruth, navigating a new home, a new husband, and a new family in the wake of WWII; and Viv, in the present day, forced to reckon with the weight of inter-generational trauma and dysfunction. In their shared setting, the west coast of Scotland, their connections emerge gradually and deftly, like the weaving of a spider’s web. The fine folks at Penguin (Vintage Books) Australia were kind enough to send me this copy for review.

It’s hardly an easy read, disturbing at times, in line with Wyld’s comment that she “writes around things that scare her”. The shifts in perspective are disorienting by design, and each scene is painted so vividly that one can practically smell the salty sea air. Unsettling, uncanny, and unforgiving, there is an eerie timelessness to this story that will stick with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Get The Bass Rock here.

Jane In Love by Rebecca Givney

Jane In Love - Rebecca Givney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A romantic comedy for book lovers, and just in time for Valentine’s Day! Imagine that Jane Austen travelled through time to the present day, and fell in love. Would she stay, knowing that choosing love meant erasing herself from literary history? Or would she go back, knowing that it meant missing her chance at a happily-ever-after? That’s the premise of Jane In Love, the debut novel of Sydney screenwriter and filmmaker Rebecca Givney. The fine folks at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This probably isn’t one for the Austen purists. I mean, I’m only a casual fan, and even I was a bit perturbed by Austen as the boy-crazy love-hearts-for-eyes type of heroine, and also by the relative absence of her sister, Cassandra, from the narrative (given her importance in Austen’s “real” life). Still, this was a delightful, warm, and easy read that seamlessly merged the 19th and 21st centuries – definitely a great bookish gift for your historical-fiction-loving Valentine.

Get Jane In Love here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as saturated as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado has done it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. I am extremely grateful to the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail and Allen & Unwin for sending me this copy to review.

This is a Rubik’s cube of a book, examining the subject from every possible angle, twisting and turning upon itself until all the edges line up. Some of the chapters are fragments, some are longer recollections, some mine the depths of pop culture and literature and art and critical theory in search of representation. I gulped this book down greedily, like a strong drink at the end of a particularly hard day.

Get In The Dream House here.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From my review on Primer: American Dirt is already shaping up to be the most divisive book of the year. On the one hand, it’s been heralded as The Grapes Of Wrath for the 21st century. It’s Oprah’s first book club pick of 2020, and Ann Patchett has said she’ll “never stop thinking about it”. On the other hand, critics have derided the author, Jeanine Cummins, for misrepresenting cultures and experiences that are not her own, and proliferating “trauma porn”. So, which is it? A masterpiece, or a mangled mess of misappropriation?

Get American Dirt here.


January 2020

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. Lies are the new Girls in book titles, after all. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. Many thanks to the fine folks at Macmillan for sending me this copy for review, and inadvertently keeping me humble…

The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Big Lies In A Small Town is fictional, but the town of Edenton and the themes Chamberlain explores (race, privilege, and opportunity) are very real. Don’t skip past this one at the airport – it’s worth it!

Pssst: Christine at The Uncorked Librarian featured my write-up of Big Lies In A Small Town in her fantastic round-up of books set in North Carolina here!

Get Big Lies In A Small Town here.

Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher

Shark Arm - Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely true crime stories in recorded Australian history, and this new book turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. Though it’s presented in classic true crime fashion, complete with glossy photograph inserts, Shark Arm is the perfect read for Aussie history buffs, particularly those with a keen interest in law enforcement bungles.

Get Shark Arm here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such A Fun Age - Kiley Reid - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Such A Fun Age is the debut novel from American author Kiley Reid. It might look like a sweet summer read, but underneath lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. The fine folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Emira is a young woman still struggling to find her feet. As she stumbles through her twenties, she makes ends meet with a baby-sitting job, employed by the feminist advocate and “personal brand” Alix. One night, at a supermarket, Emira is pulled up by security, suspected of kidnapping the young (white) child in her charge. The whole incident is filmed by a witness, Kelley, but he swears to Emira that he’ll never release the footage. As love blooms between Emira and Kelley, she discovers that he and Alix are connected in a way she never could have predicted. Each has their own account of their history, and their own opinions about what’s best for Emira’s future…

Get Such A Fun Age here.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bunny lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. Rabbits For Food is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me this edition from Serpent’s Tail for review.

Bunny is flawed, no doubt about it, but she is also wry, sarcastic, and extremely endearing. I’m almost certain I’ve already found one of my best reads of the year. Before I was halfway through Rabbits For Food, I knew I wanted to press it into the hands of all of my friends. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.

Get Rabbits For Food here.


December 2019

The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale

The Strangers We Know - Pip Drysdale - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Strangers We Know is the new domestic drama-slash-thriller by Pip Drysdale. Simon & Schuster were kind enough to provide a copy for review, and it was just the ticket for taking my mind off this stifling summer heat!

Charlie and Oliver had the perfect meet cute, a whirlwind romance, and a happy marriage… until one night, Charlie joins her single friends for a girl’s night out, and the unthinkable happens: they’re swiping through her best friend’s Tinder matches, and Oliver’s profile comes up. The story quickly spirals into a world of DIY detective work, danger and intrigue. I really loved how Drysdale showed that the kind of forensic online investigation so commonplace in 21st century relationships isn’t all that different to tracking down a criminal. This is the perfect thriller for readers who generally prefer rom-coms.

Get The Strangers We Know here.

A Tall History Of Sugar by Curdella Forbes

A Tall History Of Sugar - Curdella Forbes - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the late 1950s, shortly before Jamaica seizes independence from colonial rule, an infertile couple finds an infant in a basket made of reeds, among a tangle of sea grape trees by the water. They name the child Moshe (Moses), and A Tall History Of Sugar tells his story, an epic romance that sweeps generations and continents. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This book – the fifth work of fiction from Jamaican writer and professor of Caribbean literature Curdella Forbes – interrogates what it means to be “other”. The narrative is a game of snakes and ladders, and the seemingly-omniscient narrator’s interest in Moshe’s story is revealed as the story moves two steps forward, one step back. A Tall History Of Sugar would be a great pick for fans of Elena Ferrante or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or anyone else seeking a slow-burn love story to see them through the holidays.

Get A Tall History Of Sugar here.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

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From my review on Primer: Erin Morgenstern has been off the grid for years. After the tremendous success of her debut novel, The Night Circus in 2011, she withdrew to the woods of the Berkshires with no internet access. There, beyond the reach of her dedicated fans and demanding critics, she set about writing her follow-up novel: The Starless Sea

Morgenstern’s self-imposed exile has produced a book that is as singular in style as her first, a novel that is set in the contemporary world but branches off into the realms of the mythical and magical. She offers a modern twist on classic fantasy, an elaborate quest narrative for the 21st century.

Get The Starless Sea here.


November 2019

Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

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I loved Christos Tsiolkas’s 2008 novel The Slap (so much so that I named it one of my must-read books by Aussie authors), but I knew just looking at the blurb of Damascus that it was going to be very different: “a work of immense power and epic scope, taking as its subject nothing less than the events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church”. Allen & Unwin sent me a copy for review, and I was happy to take a giant leap out of my comfort zone.

I’m a big ol’ heathen, so I didn’t have a lot of religious context for what was happening. To me, it almost read like a historic dystopia. But I think that made it all the better, for me to appreciate the poetic language and visceral imagery and raw emotion that Tsiolkas used to depict this world. What I’m saying is you don’t need to be a Christian, or familiar with the historical aspects of Christianity, to read Damascus (and it might actually be better if you aren’t).

Get Damascus here.

Island On The Edge Of The World by Deborah Rodriguez

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Island On The Edge Of The World is just as bright and colourful as its cover! In it, four very different women come together to do the impossible: find a lost child, and a missing mother, in Haiti. My radar is set to ping at anything that smells like a white-saviour story, but Rodriguez does the work to show a multitude of perspectives and emphasise the importance of self-determination and respect for countries and people in need. I’m really impressed with the way that Deborah Rodriguez managed to take some really heavy themes and issues and turn them into a fun summer read.

The fine folks at Bantam Books were kind enough to send me a copy of this one for review, and I think it would be a great book club pick – especially because this edition includes discussion questions, Haitian recipes, and a guide to ethically helping Haitian people in the back.

Get Island On The Edge Of The World here.

Beauty by Bri Lee

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If you were to stand naked in front of a mirror right now, in full fluorescent lighting, what would run through your mind? Would you be brave enough to put those thoughts on a page, and send that page out into the world? That’s what Bri Lee has done in Beauty—a literary essay (longer than a think-piece, shorter than a book), and the fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

In the first half, Lee gives a candid account of her experience of disordered eating (and, by extension, her disordered thinking about food and body). She details the money she spends on various beautification endeavours, and her difficulty to reconcile the idea of self-improvement without self-loathing. Then, in the second half, she looks at how thinness has become an ethical imperative, she starts to explore the racial intersectionality of the beauty ideal, and she takes aim at the hypocrisy of women’s media and their symbiotic industries. I am HERE FOR IT!

This is an intimate and laudably honest account of what it means to strive for a beauty (read as thinness) ideal. I devoured it in a single sitting.

Get Beauty here.

Find Me by Andre Aciman

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We all know that happily-ever-afters aren’t realistic… that doesn’t stop us demanding sequels when authors leave us hanging on an ambiguous ending! Find Me is the continuation of Oliver and Elio’s romance as depicted in Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name. The fine folks at Faber Books were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The story picks up ten years after the original ended. Aciman’s writing is still dripping with passion, the emotions of the characters are still intensely felt and rendered, but it’s not quite as suffocating as Elio’s youthful infatuation. This is more of an extended epilogue to Call Me By Your Name than an actual sequel, and I’m not sure how it would read as a stand-alone, but Aciman still manages to weave a beautiful story (or, really, stories) of all-consuming love. And there are no loose ends dangling at the end of this one – the story is done!

Get Find Me here.



October 2019

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

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No matter what they say about our shortened attention spans, the days of the sweeping multigenerational epic are not over. The proof is in the pudding: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili recounts a crucial period in history, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, through the lives of one exceptional family with a magical recipe for hot chocolate. Scribe has published the English translation for the first time in Australia, and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This translation is the fine work of Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (#namethetranslator!). Most reviewers liken Haratischvili to none other than the master of the epic, Leo Tolstoy. I must agree; in fact, I’d say her writing falls smack bang in the middle of the Venn diagram between Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Elena Ferrante. I couldn’t honestly call The Eighth Life an “easy” read in any sense, but it is a deeply worthwhile one. Your heart will swell, get torn to pieces, then stitched back together again; you’ll feel part of the Jashi family, with all the joy and devastation that entails.

Get The Eighth Life here.

If the chocolate-y elements are what draws you in, you might want to check out my round-up of the best books for chocolate lovers here.

Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni

Guest House For Young Widows - Azadeh Moaveni - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The wives, widows, and children of IS fighters are currently languishing in refugee camps; we’ve all seen the footage on the evening news. That’s what makes Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni a particularly timely read, and Scribe was kind enough to send me an early copy for review. In it, a seasoned Middle East reporter explores the questions at the heart of the crisis: what would make a woman leave a cosmopolitan life to become an ISIS bride? Where do we draw the line between victim and conspirator? Is it possible to empathise without being complicit?

Guest House For Young Widows challenges you to see these women as humans, not monsters, subject to the same foils and foibles as the rest of us. They reside in the shades of grey between “good” and “evil”, the liminal space that it’s more convenient for us to forget. Their stories are unique, and yet, strangely relatable.

So many of the young people in this book were frustrated by broken promises of radical change. Are there lessons we can learn here, say, for the Climate Strikers that aged politicians have failed to mollify? Perhaps. I suggest you read it and find out for yourself.

Get Guest House For Young Widows here.

Girl by Edna O’Brien

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Girl is a fictionalised account of the experiences of one of the young women captured and held by Boko Haram in Nigeria. O’Brien imagines the events of 2014 through the eyes of her narrator, Maryam. She dedicates the book to the mothers and daughters of North East Nigeria, and according to her acknowledgements, she spent quite some time in the area, researching and developing this novel in consultation with their communities. Faber Books sent me a copy for review.

The prose is blunt and staccato, and at times seems detached; perhaps this is a deliberate attempt on O’Brien’s part to echo a dissociative traumatic response, along with strange shifts of tense and point-of-view within chapters, sometimes within paragraphs. The story’s conclusion shows that escape, rescue, and homecoming weren’t necessarily the happy affairs that the media might have had us believe. Still, I struggled to get past the friction of a privileged older white woman writing the story of a young woman of colour, particularly a story so emotionally and politically charged. It is an interesting read side-by-side with other #ownvoices and non-fiction accounts, but perhaps not one to be read in isolation.

Get Girl here.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

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The Weekend is the hotly-anticipated follow-up to Charlotte Wood’s 2016 Stella Prize-winning The Natural Way Of Things, and Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review. The story is set on one Christmas weekend, but it’s far from a cozy Christmas read. Four women—Wendy (the academic), Jude (the perfectionist), Adele (the bohemian), and Sylvie (the peacekeeper)—have been friends for decades. But now, Sylvie is dead, and the remaining three are charged with cleaning out her holiday house and readying it for sale.

It’s wonderful to see the complex interior worlds of older women reflected in contemporary fiction, to see the lives of women in their seventies represented as something other than simply “over”. This would be a great book club pick! It will inevitably bring up a Sex And The City-style debate: “which one are you?”. (I like to think I’m a Wendy, but I worry that I’m a Jude at heart.) A must-read for the fast approaching Aussie summer…

Get The Weekend here.

Bruny by Heather Rose

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Set in a too-near future, Bruny is part political thriller, part family drama, part love story. The protagonist, Dr Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is a UN conflict resolution expert, called back to her homeland of Tasmania to sort out some brouhaha about a bridge. Okay, that might be understating it a bit: the state and federal governments have combined forces to build a bridge between Tasmania and the tiny offshore island of Bruny, a $2 billion project, and someone has just blown part of it up. Yikes.

This is Rose’s fifth adult book, and it’s very (very!) different to her last, The Museum Of Modern Love, which won the Stella Prize in 2017. It’s not a straight mystery thriller, in that Rose isn’t following the formula of a hard-boiled detective chasing up clues and red herrings, but it’s not a highbrow literary offering either. It sits where the political and the personal intersect, and meditates mostly on the wheeling and dealing of politics, the complexity of modern life. Rose leaves no stone unturned, she covers it all: agriculture, economics, stability, jobs and growth, environmentalism, family, loyalty, betrayal, corruption, power…

Get Bruny here.

Act Of Grace by Anna Krien

Act Of Grace - Anna Krien - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb: “These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant story of fear and sacrifice, trauma and survival, and what people will do to outrun the shadows. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and cultural reconciliation, Act Of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation bestows upon the next, and the potential for transformation.” Full review forthcoming on Keeping Up With The Penguins!

Get Act Of Grace here.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Bone China - Laura Purcell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb: “Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken. But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home. Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Moroven House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last…”

Get Bone China here.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

From my review on Primer: She Said is the “untold story” of what it takes to bring accusations against powerful men to light, and the revelations that forever changed the way we understand power and harassment in the #metoo era. Kantor and Twohey don’t simply paint a portrait of Harvey Weinstein as a monster (though they have plenty of evidence to do just that). They know you know that story. You’ve read the details over and over: the bathrobes, the hotel rooms, the massages, the potted plants. Instead, they examine the social mechanisms—the company policies and the power-brokers and the “boy’s club”—that enabled a monster to thrive, unrestrained and without consequences, for decades. “Must-read” doesn’t even begin to cover it…

Get She Said here.


September 2019

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

Never Have I Ever - Joshilyn Jackson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Never Have I Ever is set in Pensacola, Florida, where Amy Whey hosts a monthly book club. She’s exactly what you’d expect in a “suburban mom” protagonist, and she loves her sweet-and-wholesome family more than anything. Her perfectly normal life of simple pleasures is all up-ended, however, when a Cher-lookalike stranger, Roux, shows up to book club, and a modified game of Never Have I Ever opens a can of worms. Raven Books (Bloomsbury) was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This is one for the Liane Moriarty fans. It felt very The Husband’s Secret-esque, just not quite as compelling. Don’t come in expecting a lot of bookish chat; that part of the plot is over and done with quite quickly, and you’ll learn more about scuba diving than you will about running a book club.

Get Never Have I Ever here.

The Breeding Season – Amanda Niehaus

The Breeding Season - Amanda Niehaus - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When a scientist turns to writing poetry and fiction, I can’t help but sit up and pay attention: the merging of oil and milk is too fascinating to resist. Amanda Niehaus, author of The Breeding Season, reconciles her two worlds in this literary debut (kindly sent to me by Allen & Unwin for review). It is a story of all-encompassing grief, intensely poetic and full of natural imagery and metaphor. Niehaus brings together all kinds of binaries: art and science, grief and hope, birth and death.

I’m worried that The Breeding Season will be pigeonholed as “women’s” literature (vomit), because it deals with the grief of losing a child and relationship rifts. Let me tell you, it investigates the male role and experience just as much as the female one—it just so happens that the author is a woman. Fight the patriarchy, and buy this book for a man in your life for Christmas.

Get The Breeding Season here.

Pain And Prejudice – Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Women’s anger is felt, understood, and reflected in this jaw-dropping new book from Gabrielle Jackson, Pain And Prejudice. Braiding together memoir and science, she 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. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Jackson is a journalist; in 2001, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and then, in 2015, adenomyosis. She has spent years researching these conditions, and the broader medical system in which they are studied and treated. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. “Women are socialised to believe their pain is normal,” she says, and she wrote Pain And Prejudice to give voice to the silent suffering of centuries.

You can read an extract from Pain And Prejudice here.

Get Pain And Prejudice here.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

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From my review on Primer: “It’s no understatement to call The Testaments the most anticipated book of the year, perhaps even the decade. Not since Harry Potter have we seen such fervour. The Testaments begins 15 years after Offred’s final scene in The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead is no longer a burgeoning state, finding its feet. Now, an entire generation of children raised under its strict established regime, with no memory of the old world, are coming of age. A compelling must-read (and must-re-read) celebration of resistance.”

Get The Testaments here.

The Dutch House – Anne Patchett

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From the blurb (Bloomsbury): “Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.”

Get The Dutch House here.

You Daughters Of Freedom – Clare Wright

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You Daughters Of Freedom is out now in paperback! From the blurb (Text Publishing): “For the ten years from 1902, when Australia’s suffrage campaigners won the vote for white women, the world looked to this trailblazing young democracy for inspiration. Clare Wright’s epic new history tells the story of that victory—and of Australia’s role in the subsequent international struggle—through the eyes of five remarkable players…”

Get You Daughters Of Freedom here.

The Man That Got Away – Lynne Truss

The Man That Got Away - Lynne Truss - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb (Bloomsbury): “It is summer in Brighton and the Brighton Belles are on hand to answer any holiday-maker’s queries, no matter how big or small. The quickest way to the station, how many pebbles are on the beach and what exactly has happened to that young man lying in the deckchair with blood dripping from him? Our incomparable team of detectives are back for another outing in the new instalment of Lynne Truss’s joyfully quirky crime series.”

Get The Man That Got Away here.

The Unforgiving City – Maggie Joel

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From the blurb (Allen & Unwin): “Colonial Sydney in the final weeks of the nineteenth century: a city striving for union and nationhood but dogged by divisions so deep they threaten to derail, not just the Federation, but the colony itself. There are chasms opening too when a clandestine note reaches the wrong hands in the well-to-do household of aspiring politician Alasdair Dunlevy and his wife Eleanor. Below stairs, their maid Alice faces a desperate situation with her wayward sister.”

Get The Unforgiving City here.


August 2019

The Turn Of The Key - Ruth Ware - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware

I’d seen The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware billed as a modern-day Turn Of The Screw. Now, I’m not a Henry James fan (far from it!), but that description drew me in: it’s a story ripe for adaptation! A governess alone with weird children in an isolated house, complete with bitter housekeeper, mysterious caretaker, and unexplained bumps in the night? Yes, please! Penguin Random House Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

It’s a very contemporary take, but the supernatural elements keep it in Turn Of The Screw territory, away from your Girl On The Trains and your Gone Girls. It was chilling, more than outright scary, and the twists kept coming right up until the final page. I’m not one for the supernatural or the paranormal—I find the natural, normal world to be quite enough to deal with, thank you—but I still found myself creeped out.

Get The Turn Of The Screw here.

The Mosquito - Timothy C Winegard - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

If you like your non-fiction niche, but comprehensive, I’ve got the book for you! Text Publishing was kind enough to send me a copy of The Mosquito, by Timothy C. Winegard, for review. I wish they’d sent a reminder to warn everyone in my life that they were about to get hit with a barrage of mosquito-related fun facts.

Only female mosquitos bite. Of the 108 billion people who have ever lived on this planet, mosquitoes (or, more accurately, the viruses and parasites they carry) have killed nearly half—52 billion. Do you know how elephants defend themselves against the mosquito’s bite? You’ll find the answer in Chapter 1, and it will surprise you.

Get The Mosquito here.

The Gap - Benjamin Gilmour - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Gap by Benjamin Gilmour

The front cover of The Gap by Benjamin Gilmour promises the story of “a paramedic’s summer on the edge”, and it delivers! See, The Gap is the name of a notorious suicide spot, a clifftop at Sydney’s Watson’s Bay, and for the summer of 2008, Gilmour worked as a paramedic based out of the nearest ambulance station. This is his memoir, and Penguin Random House Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Again and again, he circles back around to The Gap, where 50+ people die by suicide each year. The paramedic’s job is usually to talk them down, sometimes to help with retrieving a body, or informing loved ones. Gilmour wrote this book, from his detailed notes and diaries, at the urging of fellow paramedics, who want to open a conversation about suicide and mental health in this country.

Get The Gap here here.

Sanditon - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sanditon by Jane Austen

It might sound strange to call a book written in 1817 a “new release”, but this new edition definitely casts a different light on Sanditon and Jane Austen’s body of work leading up to this final, unfinished, manuscript. Oxford University Press was kind enough to send me a copy for review. Evidence abounds of the attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Oxford World Classics: a well-researched author bio, high production values, a note on the text, a full chronology of Austen’s life and work, and generous explanatory notes. All told, this is a wonderful, fresh take on Austen’s most experimental and poignant work.

Get this new edition of Sanditon here.



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13 Books That Will Start Debate In Your Book Club

Nothing is more dreary than a book club where everyone agrees all the time. I mean, you don’t want punches thrown or anything, but a good-spirited lively debate is the dream. And for that kind of conversation, you need to pick the right kind of book. It’s not about having everyone like it, it’s about everyone having something to say about it, one way or the other. Choosing a controversial book not only livens up the night, but it forces everyone to actually read the damn thing (I’m looking at you, Susan!). If they haven’t, and they try to contribute to the conversation, it will become abundantly obvious very quickly, and they’ll be shamed into better book club behaviour in the future. Here are my suggestions to get the ball rolling: 13 books that will start debate in your book club.

13 Books Guaranteed To Start Debate In Your Book Club - Text Overlaid on Image of People Gathered and Reading - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the classic Pandora’s box story. In The Husband’s Secret, a woman finds an envelope written in her husband’s hand, that says she is only to open it in the event of his death… but he’s still alive. Would you open it, or would you let him keep his secrets? And, if you reached for the letter-opener, what would you do with its contents? You’ll be surprised how much you learn about your fellow book club members when you put these questions to them… Read my full review here.

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everyone will agree that something has gone terribly wrong in Eva’s family, but that’s probably where the consensus about We Need To Talk About Kevin will end. Is Eva a bad mother? Is Kevin a bad kid? Where do we draw the line between nature and nurture? Can one fix the other? It’s a confronting story, but it’s one that’s sure to get people talking.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Now, I’m famously hesitant to say too much about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, because I can’t bear the thought of spoiling the plot twist for the uninitiated. So, the first (safe) question I would ask is this: who saw it coming? (And I’m very sure anyone who says they did is lying!) Follow up: was it a good twist, or a bad one? And there are plenty of other questions raised by this Man Booker nominee, but to find them you’ll have to read it for yourself… 😉 Read my full review here.


Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

Make sure you stock up on tissues! Sophie’s Choice is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching read, guaranteed to elicit some strong feelings from even the stoniest-hearted members of your book club. Even though the title only offers the singular, in reality Sophie makes a number of choices along the way, which means you can ask the same question a dozen times and get different answers: would you have made the same choice?

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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The Age Of Innocence is a very subtle novel, and many people give up on it. For those who persist, however, it raises a lot of interesting questions about the roles of women, even in today’s society. Are you Team May Welland, or Team Countess Olenska? How has our perception of their behaviour changed since the book was first published? Read my full review here.

Honourable Mention: A lot of these same questions could be asked of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a quicker read, and much more light-hearted, if your book club is more inclined to those choices. Read my full review here.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

Speaking of gender roles… this is an evocative title to suggest for mixed company, so unless you’ve assembled an entirely woke and left-leaning book club, prepare for fireworks! In Men Explain Things To Me, Solnit explores through a series of comic essays the ways in which men and women speak to one another. It’s sure to elicit some amazing anecdotes from the other attendees, if nothing else!


A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Game Of Thrones is a longer book club would normally need, but (almost) everyone is already familiar with the story thanks to the hugely successful HBO adaptation, which makes it a much quicker read than other lengthy tomes. And there’s your first grenade: try asking whether anyone thinks the book is better than the show! If that doesn’t get things started (fat chance), ask: who deserves the Iron Throne?  And let the games begin! Read my full review here.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Fires Everywhere is a book with no minor characters. Everyone has a unique viewpoint, and all of them are a shade of grey. That means that everyone in your book club will relate to them differently, and will be able to mount a legitimate case for their preferred narrative. Who chose right, and who chose wrong? You’ll stay up all night hashing it out!

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth - Penguin Australia Edition Laid Flat On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This one is not for the faint of heart If members of your book club shy away from profanity, or smut, or even just crude comedy, they’re going to have a lot of strong opinions about Portnoy’s Complaint! But that’s the idea, remember? Enjoy debating the relative merits of Roth’s particular brand of comedy. Read my full review here.


The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists raises many interesting questions, but surely the most pressing (and the most interesting for your book club) is this: would you want to know the date of your own death? And, if you did, how would you choose to live? In Chloe Benjamin’s beautiful novel, four adolescents are faced with that very question, and each of them handle it very differently. Are you inclined to search for love? Security? Longevity? Everyone in your book club will have a different answer – that’s the fun!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Try taking everyone back to the books you read in high-school. It gives you the chance to ask the attendees questions like whether they like it more or less than they did back then. And do the first-timers feel differently to the re-readers? And even above and beyond the nostalgic elements, To Kill A Mockingbird ticks a lot of debate-starter boxes: social justice, race in America, you name it. Does it hold up? Or has it aged past relevance? And, if nothing else, the themed cocktails practically mix themselves. Read my full review here.

The Power  – Naomi Alderman

The Power - Naomi Alderman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Technically, this is a young adult novel, so that alone might make it a somewhat controversial choice for an adult book club. Make sure everyone holds fire on their opinions until they’ve read it, though – The Power could change a few hearts and mind. In this incredible book, women gain an incredible physical power that gives them, for the first time in history, a physical, political, and social advantage. How would that change the world? Is it for the better, or worse? Debate and decide for yourselves 😉

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s end on a fun note: a ghost story! The Turn Of The Screw is the perfect choice around Halloween. It’s short, but meaty, and it leaves just enough of a mystery dangling to start debate in your book club. Are ghosts real? Or is the governess who sees them just… crazy? What’s been lost in the translation of a story within a story? And why the heck was Henry James so wordy?? Read my full review here.

Bonus points: You could pair this one with the contemporary adaptation The Turn Of The Key, by Ruth Ware.



That should be enough to keep your book club meetings lively for the next year or so: my work here is done! What book has sparked debate in your book club? Add it to the list in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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