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Emma – Jane Austen

Chris Kyle filled up my tolerance bucket to overflowing. By the time I was done with American Sniper, I was desperate to get back to literature that didn’t offend every moral fiber of my being. In my hour of need, I turned to one of the most recognisable female writers of the English language. My sum total experience of Austen beforehand was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually (it’s also on The List), but baby steps are the name of the game. So, I decided to start with Emma.

Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her £450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!

Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’t dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!). The book isn’t even really about her, per se; Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.

Clueless - You're a virgin who can't drive - Emma - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder? Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.

I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.




 

The most interesting and likeable character in Emma was the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility. Good on her, I say!

Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.


Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens. In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.

My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss. Fingers crossed Pride and Prejudice will give me a bit more to chew on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

  • “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
  • “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
  • “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
  • “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I managed to score this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at a market stall, for the princely sum of just $5. I’d been searching for it for so long, I’d happily have paid four times that. According to the author bio, Muriel Spark was pretty damn prolific, and yet this is the only book of hers that I’ve ever come across – and it was bloody hard to find! It’s definitely the best-known of her works, first published in The New Yorker, and then as a book by Macmillan, in 1961. The introduction promises: “… a sublimely funny book. It is also very short and has much to say about sex.” Honey, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling.

It opens in 1930s Edinburgh. The titular Miss Jean Brodie – who is, indeed, in her prime, and doesn’t waste a chance to remind you of that fact – is a teacher at a school for girls. She has selected for herself six ten-year-old students, her special favourites, the “Brodie set”. It was a funny change of pace going from The Thirty-Nine Steps, which had an almost entirely male cast, to The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which (by nature of its setting and its story) is almost entirely female.

Under Miss Brodie’s mentorship, these six girls (Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice) learn all about world travels, love, and fascism. Yep, apparently that’s the new reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and it’s one heck of a combo! Miss Brodie finds herself entangled in a dramatic love triangle with her colleagues: the singing teacher, Mr Gordon Lowther, and the handsome one-armed (married!) war veteran, Mr Teddy Lloyd. It’s Lloyd that really gets Miss Brodie’s motor running, but ultimately she turns him down. He is married, after all, and she has some self-respect. She embarks on an affair with Lowther instead, probably closing her eyes and thinking of her one-armed Teddy all the while…

Anyway, the girls grow up (as kids are wont to do), but they maintain the close bonds they formed under Miss Brodie’s tutelage, and she keeps having them all around for tea and whatnot. The headmistress at the school, Miss Mackay, is not a fan of Miss Brodie’s teaching methods and the course this is all taking (hard to imagine why), so she starts throwing a few tea parties of her own, trying to gather dirt from the girls that would give her grounds for dismissal. Sudden unemployment sure does put a quick end to a woman’s “prime”, eh?





Now, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie does have a jumpy timeline, which normally I’m not inclined to enjoy, but I actually didn’t mind it so much in this case. One of the “flash forwards” in the story reveals that one of the Brodie set will ultimately (gasp!) betray their patroness, dobbing her in to the headmistress… but doesn’t show the reader which one. It was really cleverly done by Spark, and added an extra air of mystery and suspicion to the whole thing.

Anyway, back in the regular timeline, poor Teddy is still lusting after Miss Brodie, and (prepare yourself for an avalanche of creepy) he starts having the girls from the Brodie set come around and pose for his portraits. He ends up drawing all of their faces as his paramour *vomit*. Let me say that one more time for the cheap seats in the back: this teacher pains Miss Jean Brodie’s primey head onto the bodies of her pubescent students. Isn’t that the grossest thing you’ve ever fucking heard?! And yet, they all seem like they’re cool with it! Miss Brodie’s pretty damn flattered, even. She pulls a few strings, trying to egg Rose on to having an affair with the creepy old guy, figuring the young girl would be an adequate distraction from all of her prime-ness… but Teddy ends up sticking it to plain ol’ Sandy, instead, much to everyone’s surprise. Oh, and while all this is going on, Lowther dumps Miss Brodie. Pretty understandable really, given everything.

And this is where Miss Brodie really fucks up: she accepts a new member to the Brodie set, Joyce Emily. This newbie seems open to the whole fascism thing, so Brodie fans the flames, encouraging her to run away and fight in the Spanish Civil War on the nationalist side. Of course, Joyce Emily follows the suggestion… and is promptly killed en route. Yikes!





Sandy has become Miss Brodie’s confidante, so she gets all the inside scoop on this turn of events, all the while still fucking the teacher that paints his lover’s heads on students bodies (I’m sorry, I can’t get over that, it’s just so icky, and NONE OF THEM SEEM TO CARE! WHY?!). Sandy’s interest in Teddy wanes over time, but her Swimfan-y obsession with Miss Brodie reaches boiling point. She winds up approaching the headmistress, giving her all the dirt she has on Miss Brodie, which (it turns out) is enough to get her fired. Then the little betrayer converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun, Miss Brodie dies never knowing that Sandy ratted her out, the end.

Now, maybe I’ve been at this reading-and-reviewing-the-classics game a little too long, but I couldn’t help reading this as a religious allegory. I mean, I don’t know dick about religion, so I could be way off-base, but hear me out: Miss Jean Brodie is Jesus (right?), and she gathers all these disciples (students) around her, and goes about preaching an alternate worldview, until Judas (Sandy) betrays her. That’s about right, isn’t it?

Even if it isn’t, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is ultimately a story about loyalty. You can tell, because Sandy keeps on repeating “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due”, which is an interesting moral philosophy in and of itself. It’s also a funny book, in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma was funny: I didn’t laugh out loud, but I appreciated how it was witty and clever. And damn, Spark manages to cram a whole lotta story into very few words: this review is about as long as the book!





If you haven’t already had your fill of creepy for the day, here’s the final serve: Miss Jean Brodie is based on a real person! Christina Kay was Spark’s teacher for two years at James Gillespie’s School For Girls, and Spark credited her with encouraging her burgeoning talent for writing. Spark, like Sandy, also later converted to Catholicism. No word on whether the perverted painting and underhanded betrayal parts are true-to-life, but they do say “write what you know”…

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie will give you a lot to chew on; don’t be fooled by how short it is! It’s definitely worth a read. It’s unlikely to become your special all-time favourite, but it will stick with you for a while. I’m selfishly hoping you’ll all read it and be creeped out as I am, if for no other reason than to validate my feelings! It can’t just be me… right?

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie:

  • “Good story no real purpose though. Well written.” – Courtney McFeters
  • “Muriel Spark, to me, is one of the greatest writers of her time. Each book is a gem, but of course, this one really sparkles.” – Sally
  • “I consider myself a fairly inteligent high school student who is eager to be challenged mentally. The problems with this book are several fold. It jumps around like a five-year on a jolt cola bender. The characters are unimpressive and serve somehow or another to emulate each other and form some sort of omni-character – which i dont care to figure out. The plot is about as unsubstantial and insignificant as an ant taking a dump. [note: the reason i am so profane is due to my hating the book and having to analyze the non-existent humor in it for my AP literature class, apologies around] THIS BOOK IS THE ATTEMPT BY MURIEL SPARK TO ACADEMICLLY POSTURE HERSELF INTO A POSITION OF PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL AUTHORITY AND DISPLAY HER COMPLEX AND INSIGNIFICANT FICTION FORMAT. MAKE NO MISTAKE, THIS BOOK IS ONE PRETENSTIOUS(sic) PAGE AFTER ANOTHER.
a mad millburn lit student (2002-2003)” – nozama woleb
  • “I just wanted to say that this book made me wish that theyd legalise hand guns in the UK. It is the kind of book that makes little children cry. I have read more interesting stuff on the bake of crisp packets. In conclusion 9/10 phycopathic maniacs recomend reading The Pride of MJB before going on a random killing spree.” – Mr Cook’s Favourite Pupil


The Best Classics For Your Beach Bag

Picture this: you’re relaxing on a beach, in the sunshine, sipping something delicious, the scent of salt and sunscreen in the air. You reach over to your beach bag to pull out a good book. Is it a classic? Probably not. Most people don’t associate the classics with light vacation reading. I think these books get a bad rap for being too heavy, too dense, too difficult – but don’t fall victim to it! Sure, some of them aren’t ever going to be quick reads, but some of them would suit a lazy beach holiday better than you’d think. Plus, there’s hundreds of years of back-catalogue to choose from, so you can be sure there’s something for everyone! Here’s my definitive list of the best classics for your beach bag.

The Best Classics For Your Beach Bag - Text Overlaid on Image of Red Bag on a Beach - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Like Romance? Try Pride And Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s not exactly a bodice-ripper, but Pride And Prejudice has all of the sexual tension and happily-ever-afters a romance reader could hope for. Austen’s classic novel follows the lives and loves of the Bennet sisters, with more than one inheritance hanging in the balance. There’s scandal, there’s snogging, there’s love letters, and there’s longing. I was skeptical at first, and it took me a few goes to get on board with P&P, but I’m so glad I persisted! Plus, if nothing else, it’ll feel good to tick this classic off your list and put the days of pretending to have read it behind you.

Like Mystery? Try The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

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

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you need something that you can dip in and out of without losing track, short story collections are just what you need. And this one is a classic! Light, funny, and with just enough spooky mystery, a summer holiday is the perfect time to re-acquaint yourself with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Always accompanied by his trusty side-kick Dr Watson, this world-famous detective battles everything from jealous husbands to the Ku Klux Klan. And Doyle’s economy of language is truly masterful; it’ll take you longer to describe one of the stories to someone than it does for you to read them!

Like Children’s Books? Try Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you think you can tick this one off your list because you saw the Disney movie, think again! So much of the comedy and cleverness of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland comes from Carroll’s brilliant wordplay, and the only way to fully appreciate it is to read it for yourself. Plus, if you’re looking to steer clear of anything too dark or emotional, you can’t do better than this absurdist children’s tale. Down the rabbit hole you go!


Like Adventure? Try The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)

The Thirty Nine Steps - John Buchan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This slim tome will fit in even the most crammed of beach bags – so that’s a good start! The Thirty-Nine Steps is the definitive spy thriller; you’ll recognise its archetypes from every action movie you’ve ever seen. The hero, Richard Hannay, has a miraculous ability to squeeze out of tight spots, and you’ll be gripping the pages trying to figure out how he’ll manage it next!

Like Comedy? Try Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos)

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

Forget The Great Gatsby: this is the best book to transport you back to the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes alternates laugh-out-loud observational comedy with biting social commentary, all told from the journals of fictional socialite Lorelei Lee. Follow her across the world, as she and her best friend make fools of the wealthy men who think they’re in control.

Honourable mention: if the heat is getting to you, try Cold Comfort Farm instead. Another classic often overlooked for its male-authored contemporaries, this charming satire is set in chilly England, the perfect antidote to heatstroke in summer. Read my full review here.

Like True Crime? Try In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can’t call yourself a true crime aficionado without having read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book that revolutionised the genre. He might have skipped a couple of journalistic integrity lessons, but this novelistic re-telling of the Clutter family’s murder is as enthralling as it is beautifully told. It’s hardly a light read, given the subject matter, but it’s a highly recommended read here on KUWTP nonetheless. This is one of the best classics for your beach bag when you’ve got the day to yourself and you crave something that’ll get your cogs turning.




What classic will you be putting in your beach bag this summer? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature: Answered!

One of the occupational hazards of being a book reviewer and blogger is that all your friends assume that you are a literary expert, and you’ll be able to handle all the bookish questions at pub trivia. Don’t get me wrong: I normally do pretty well, but I’ll never forget the soul-crushing shame of totally blanking on the question “Who wrote the American classic Gone With The Wind?” (it was Margaret Mitchell, by the way – I’ll never forget again!). To save you all the same embarrassment, I thought I’d put together a list of some common and interesting trivia questions about books and literature, alongside the correct answers (although, as you’ll soon see, “correct” is a relative concept and it almost always depends who you ask…).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature Answered - Text Overlaid on Image of Pub Wall and Booths - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Firsts

What was the first novel ever written?

The Tale of Genji is, as far as we know, the world’s first full-length novel. It was written in 1008 by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu.

What was the first book published by movable type?

Johann Gutenberg, who invented movable type in 1440, printed the first book, a Latin Bible (now called the Gutenberg Bible) in 1445.

What was Stephen King’s first published novel?

Carrie. Although it wasn’t technically the first book he wrote, it was the first one picked up and published (by Doubleday, in 1974).

When was the New York Review Of Books first published?

1 February 1963. The Review, which begot the New York Times Best Seller List, sold out of its first print run (100,000 copies), and its editors received over 1,000 letters from readers asking that they continue.

When was the first Harry Potter book published?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. on 26 June 1997.

 Biggests and Bests

What is the most expensive book in the world?

This depends who you ask, what measure you use, and how you define… well, “book”.

Most recently, in 2017, the printer’s manuscript of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon sold for $35 million. That’s a fair chunk of change, but purists will debate whether a printer’s manuscript counts as a “book”.

Likewise, in 1994, Bill Gates purchased the Codex Leicester, the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (the original, and the only copy) for $30.8 million, which adjusted to today’s money comes to about $50.9 million – an even bigger chunk of change. But, once again, people will argue that a hand-written notebook doesn’t really count as a “book” by today’s standards.

There are a handful of other religious and hand-written texts that are “books” by some measure and have sold for similar amounts. However, the most widely accepted answer to this trivia question is The Birds Of America by John James Audubon. One of only 119 printed and bound copies known to exist sold at auction in 2010 for $11.5 million (which comes to about $12.9 million now).

What is the best-selling book of all time?

Once again, it depends on how you define “book”, how fastidious you are about the accuracy of calculations, and whether you want to take into account the time period over which the total number of books were sold (as most best-seller lists today do).

Typically, the Holy Bible is considered to be the best-selling book of all time, with an estimated 2.5 billion copies sold since 1815 (and 2,200 language and dialect translations to boot). However, as I’m sure you can imagine, the records of sales over that length of time are patchy at best, many copies of the Bible are distributed for free (as opposed to “sold” in the traditional sense), and as such the estimation of total sales is very rough.

The Lord Of The Rings is the next most common answer, though some people dispute its inclusion for consideration as it is a series (rather than an individual “book”). It’s estimated to have sold approximately 150 million copies since it was first published in 1954, and those figures are comparatively very accurate. The Hobbit, too, has sold some 100 million copies in its own right.

The biggest total sales figure I could find for an individual, stand-alone book (that no one could dispute), with the most accurate numbers possible, is that of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), first published in French in 1943. It has sold 140 million copies since then. However, the most recognisable answer (and the one your quizmaster would likely be looking for at pub trivia) is Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, which has sold 120 million copies since 1997 (meaning it has sold far better over a much shorter period of time, which is usually a factor in the calculation of best-sellers).

Who is the best-selling fiction author of all time?

Are you sick of me saying “it depends” yet? 😉

The most commonly accepted answer is Agatha Christie; she personally authored 85 novels, and has sold well over 2 billion of them (and those figures are relatively reliable). However, William Shakespeare is estimated to have sold approximately the same number of copies across his 42 published plays and poems, though the figures are a little more sketchy and over a much longer time period – it’s up to you whether he “counts”.

J.K. Rowling is the worlds richest author (having claimed the title from James Patterson a few years ago), so she’s considered the “best selling” in terms of profit from her creation.

There are also a number of extremely popular authors (including Jane Austen, Miguel de Cervantes, and Arthur Conan Doyle) for whom no accurate figures on book sales can be found, so theoretically it could also be any of them.

In the end, this question is pretty much unanswerable, so you’ll just have to take a stab as to which answer you think the quizmaster is after, as opposed to which one is technically “correct”.

What is the best-selling children’s book of all time?

Ah, now we’re back on solid ground! Publisher’s Weekly ran a very helpful study of this topic back in 2000, and they determined that the best-selling hard-cover children’s book of all time is The Poky Little Puppy, and the best-selling paperback children’s book of all time is Charlotte’s Web.

Now, we could start to quibble about what counts as a “children’s book” and how PW reached their conclusions, but why make things harder on ourselves?

What is the biggest/longest book of all time?

There are two primary ways to determine the size or length of a book: word count, and page count. The latter is a bit controversial, because it’s so dependent on formatting, but it’s also a lot easier to calculate.

The winner on both fronts, technically, is Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, published in the 17th century. It comes in at a whopping 13,095 pages (published over ten volumes, because obviously), or 1,954,300 words.

However, the “official” Guinness World Record holder (and thus the most commonly accepted answer) is À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust. It boasts 3,031 pages over seven volumes, or 1,267,069 words.

Whichever answer you prefer, it’s clear that the French are the wordiest writers!

Literary Awards

What year were the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded?

1917. The awards were established by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born American newspaper publisher, thus their focus on journalism.

Which British prime minister was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Winston Churchill. He got the gong in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Which American science-fiction and fantasy writer has won the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel three years running (2016, 2017, 2018)?

N.K. Jemisin. She won for The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky, respectively in each year.

When did the Booker Prize change its name to the Man Booker Prize, and why?

This award was called the Booker Prize from 1969 to 2001. In 2002, the Man Group PLC came on board as a sponsor, and that year the name was changed accordingly. But earlier this year, the Man Group announced they would no longer be providing sponsorship; a charitable foundation called Crankstart has taken the reins now, but the name will revert to simply the Booker Prize (which I think is a shame, because the Crankstart-Booker has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?).

Bonus points: Yann Martel was the first winner of the newly re-named Man Booker Prize in 2002, for his book Life Of Pi.

What is the main criterion for the Miles Franklin Award?

The Miles Franklin Award winner each year must be “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”.

Titles And Text

Opening lines make for really popular trivia questions, because they’re easy to write and score. Check out my list of great opening lines in literature here, and my list of even more great opening lines in literature here.

Where does the book Fahrenheit 451 get its name?

The book’s tagline explains its title: “Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”.

Bonus points: Bradbury chose the title after asking an expert regarding the temperature at which book paper will burn, but he may have been slightly misinformed. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is actually the auto-ignition point of paper, the temperature at which it will catch fire without being exposed to an external flame, and even that number varies depending on the experimental conditions under which it is tested.

Fill in the blanks of this Shakespeare quote: “All the world’s a stage, And all the ___ and _____ merely _______.”

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

Bonus points: The line is taken from As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII).

True or false: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes never actually used the now-famous line “Elementary, my dear Watson”.

True. Holmes would, now and then, refer to things as being “elementary”, and he did also call his sidekick “my dear Watson”, but he never once used the two together. He did, however, say “Exactly, my dear fellow” relatively often.

What title did Jane Austen originally give to the book that was eventually published as Pride and Prejudice?

First Impressions.

Which American classic was published in Swedish with the translated title “A Man Without Scruples” (“En Man Utan Skrupler”)?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bonus points: Fitzgerald actually considered multiple alternate titles for his most-famous work, his favourite reportedly being “Under The Red, White, and Blue” (which his wife, Zelda, hated).

Characters

What names did Charles Dickens consider for his character in A Christmas Carol before settling on “Tiny Tim”?

“Small Sam” and “Puny Pete” – they both sound ridiculous, but I swear I’m not making it up!

Which fictional book character has featured as a major character in more films than any other?

Sherlock Holmes – the fictional detective has featured in 223 movies.

Bonus points: second place goes to Dracula, who has featured in 217.

What is the shared birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings?

22 September. The two central characters were  born on the same day, but in different years: Bilbo in the year of 2890, and Frodo in the year 2968, of the Third Age.

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to which superstition does Huck attribute most of his bad luck?

Touching a rattlesnake skin. He was warned not to do so by his travelling companion, Jim the runaway slave, but disregarded his advice.

Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy formed a love triangle with the titular character of which 1996 British best-seller?

Bridget Jones of Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.

Bonus points: the book is actually a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Daniel Cleaver bearing some resemblance to Mr Wickham, Mark Darcy to Mr Darcy (duh), and Bridget Jones to Elizabeth Bennet.

Plots

Which classic book chronicles the history of the French invasion of Russia through the stories of five aristocratic families?

War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy).

Which book is set in Airstrip One, a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war and government surveillance?

1984 (George Orwell).

Bonus points: Airstrip One is the new name given to Britain in Orwell’s dystopia.

In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, what was the enchanted dessert that the White Witch gave to Edmund?

Turkish Delight.

Early in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks down to a very small size and then has to swim through a river of what?

Her own tears.

What is the name of the virtual utopia that teenager Wade Watts explores in Ernest Cline’s novel futuristic novel, Ready Player One?

OASIS.

Authors

Jim Grant was born in England in 1954, and has published many popular crime thrillers. By which pen name is he better known?

Lee Child.

Which author, best known for his books for children, is credited with popularising the words “gremlin” and “scrumdiddlyumptious”?

Roald Dahl.

Name the four Jane Austen novels that were published during her lifetime.

Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815).

Bonus points: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Lady Susan were all published posthumously. The Watsons and Sandition were unfinished manuscripts.

By which names are Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell now better known?

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. They chose androgynous pen names because they suspected (quite rightly, as it turns out) that books by women would not be given fair treatment by publishers and the public.

Who Am I? I was born in Australia in 1966. I worked in advertising and marketing at a legal publishing company, and published my first book in 2003. My fifth book, The Husband’s Secret, was published in 2013 and garnered worldwide attention. My next book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, making me the first Australian author to do so. It has since been adapted into a television series by HBO, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Liane Moriarty.


Of course, there are thousands of potential questions in each of these categories: bookish trivia is the gift that keeps on giving! What’s your favourite book trivia question? Ask us in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but let the booklover who is without sin cast the first stone. This cover of Cold Comfort Farm looked really cute when I first pulled it from the shelf, but when I examined it closely… I didn’t get it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It seemed to be a series of in-joke caricatures that made no sense to me whatsoever. Then, the introduction kept calling Cold Comfort Farm a “comic” novel and it included all of these excerpts… but none of them were funny? Apparently, Gibbons sought to parody the “rural” genre, which I’ve never heard of, let alone read. None of this boded well.

Now, I’m going to assume that most of you have never heard of Cold Comfort Farm either. I certainly hadn’t before I pulled together The List. Stella Gibbons seems to be the poor cousin of early 20th century authors, ignored by academics and readers alike. Cold Comfort Farm was her first book, published in 1932, and she went on to write 23 additional novels in her lifetime but this is the only one that remains in print. Speaking of her first book, she once said:

“[Cold Comfort Farm is like] some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore; skipping about, and reminding you of the days when you were a bright young thing. To him, and his admirers, you have never grown up… The old monster has also overlain all my other books, and if I do happen to glance at him occasionally, I am filled by an incredulous wonder that I could have once been so light-hearted.”

So, yeah, she was pretty over it, like a would-be rockstar that only ever had one hit song and was forced to play it ad infinitim for the rest of his career. Most people who have heard of Stella Gibbons don’t even realise that she wrote anything else.

Even in her own time, she wasn’t all that popular with her contemporaries. Virginia Woolf once wrote to Elizabeth Bowen, after Gibbons won a literary prize:

“I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”

BURN! But the disdain was mutual: Gibbons refused to join literary circles and cliques, knowing full well that she wasn’t making any friends for herself when she satirised their work. She just didn’t give a fuck at all, tbh. As per the introduction:

“To satirise the sexual values of DH Lawrence at this time was to outlaw oneself deliberately from any intellectual elite. Intellectuals were enslaved to Lawrence – especially the men, of course, for whom his gospel of sexual freedom chimed very nicely with what they actually wanted to do.”

I think you can see what I’m working up to here: Stella Gibbons was a bad bitch who called ’em how she saw ’em, and she wrote Cold Comfort Farm with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. Spoiler alert: it is actually funny! I’d say it lands somewhere between Jane Austen and Fawlty Towers. I really enjoyed it, in spite of myself (and its cover – maybe there is something to that whole “not-judging-a-book” business after all…).


To the story: it is set in some unspecified future time period, shortly after “the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of 1946” (bear in mind that Gibbons was writing in the early 1930s, and had no idea what was coming world-war-wise). The book’s heroine, Flora Poste, finishes school only to find herself suddenly orphaned at the ripe old age of 19 years. She has no means of supporting herself, being as she says “possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living”. What’s a girl to do? Find a rich relative and mooch off them until she can secure a satisfactory husband, of course!

“No limits are set, either by society or one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives.” – Flora Poste (Cold Comfort Farm)

She turns down offers of bed and board from several well-to-do cousins, for one reason or another, and eventually settles on “visiting” her (very) distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm (some way outside the fictional village Howling, Sussex). They agree to take her in so that they may atone for some unspecified wrong they wrought upon her father years ago. On the farm lives the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, the whole extended family of the Starkadders, and their stuff – and they are all BAT. SHIT. CRAZY.

Flora, not one to muck around, sets about civilising them all and teaching them about sponges and contraception and other modern conveniences that would make their farm less of a hell-hole (and them a little more… presentable). She’s basically Mary Poppins, bringing metropolitan values and comforts to the sticks.

It’s not a straightforward story to read, for a few reasons. The story goes in bursts and starts, takes weird turns, and never really provides a satisfactory ending. In fact, it’s kind of like someone telling you their dream at times (but a funny one, not one that bores the pants off you). You also have to translate some of the fake idioms and slang, which Gibbons used to parody the novelists that used phonics to portray accents and local dialects (looking at you, DH Lawrence!). An example: “mollocking” is Seth’s favourite activity, and Gibbons never tells you exactly what it is… except that it always seems to precede the pregnancy of a maid (HA!). But don’t let the threat of made-up vernacular put you off: it’s still infinitely more readable than the modernist novels published around the same time (*cough*Mrs Dalloway*cough*).


Gibbons tried to capitalise on what little momentum Cold Comfort Farm generated; she published a collection of short stories – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1940, and then another – Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1949, but neither of them made much of a ripple. Still, the original novel continued on its merry way, and it has been adapted for the screen several times (including twice by the BBC). It hasn’t shaken the world: I’d probably call it one of the best classics you’ve never heard of.

So, yes, I must concede, my initial impressions were totally inaccurate. Cold Comfort Farm is fucking hilarious. It’s clever and sarcastic and satirical, but I’m hesitant to provide you with many (any!) excerpts to back up my claims, because the introduction tried to do that and failed so spectacularly. Cold Comfort Farm’s humour is entirely contextual; the only way to really “get it” is to read the book in its entirety. I completely agree, however, with the handful of fans out there who say that it is criminally underrated (much like one of my other favourites), and my not having encountered it before now seems an absolute travesty. It’s definitely worth a look if you can find a copy – tell a friend!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

  • “I just am not in the mood for so much drama” – Ursula Guevara
  • “Bored me to tears…too long and meaningless. A young girl with nothing to do with her life takes over others. There’s a secret in her family’s past that is not revealed by the end of the story” – Monica
  • “Not that great” – margaret murphy
  • “If you are a fan of Cold Comfort Farm, you will like this book.” – Ms Lauri Gillam
  • “Sadly, no explicit sex, but terrific humor” – Francis Assaf

What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 for 2019?

It’s that time of year again! Members of the Dymocks Booklovers club (over 11,000 of them!) have cast their votes, and the Australian bookseller chain has announced the winners: their Top 101 books for 2019. I really appreciate that Dymocks goes to the effort of asking their loyal customers what they think (instead of just relying on the figures of the current best selling books in Australia), and I love looking through this list each year and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted among my fellow booklovers. As always, there are a bunch of old favourites, plenty of new entries, and many from my own bookshelves. Here’s what I reckon about the Dymocks 101 for 2019…

Dymocks Top 101 Books 2019 - Text in Speech Bubble Overlaid on Image of Bookstore Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

#1 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

BAM! I knew this book was popular – I’ve seen it all over #bookstagram for months – but I had no idea it was THAT popular! Either I underestimated its power, or Gail Honeyman has secret powers to mobilise a formidable army of loyal Australian readers to vote Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine into the top spot. I recently picked up this one in a fit of (probably only perceived) peer pressure; I feel like I’m the only booklover left who hasn’t read it! It sounds a lot like a female-led The Rosie Project, so I’m cautiously curious.

#2 Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford

Fight Like A Girl - Clementine Ford - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And BAM – another surprise! Clementine Ford is a very divisive figure in Australia, in feminism and in the media more broadly. Fight Like A Girl is her treatise, a call to arms, for her unapologetically angry, at times confronting, at times challenging, always impressive, sociopolitical philosophy. If you’d asked me before the Dymocks Top 101 list was released, I would have said there was no way such a controversial book – non-fiction and female-authored, come to that – would crack the top twenty… but here we are! (Boys Will Be Boys, Ford’s follow-up to Fight Like A Girl, also made the list, coming in at #12.)

#3 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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

Ah, now we’re back on more predictable ground: All The Light We Cannot See was #2 in the Dymocks list last year, so it’s roughly maintained its spot. I’d imagine we’ll see it hanging around in the Top 101 for a while yet. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction novel (and they’re so hot right now!) that follows the lives of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths cross over the course of the conflict. Read my full review here.

#4 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Two remarkably similar (in premise, if not tone) historical WWII fiction novels, with female child protagonists, back-to-back in the Dymocks 101: clearly, there’s a deep interest in these kinds of stories, and they have a loyal fan base! The Book Thief was published back in 2005, and it’s featured in the list since then. It was #1 in 2017, the year that I put my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list together (which is how I found myself picking it up to begin with). Clearly, it’s got some serious staying power! This is another one I’m sure we’ll be seeing in the Top 101 for many years yet… Read my full review here.

#6 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic tale of racism and loyalty in the American South, has nudged up a few spots this year (from #10 back in 2018). I think it might make its way even higher over the next couple of years, as the Trump presidency plays itself out and the world tries to claw its way back. This remains a canonical text for our understandings of how the personal is political (and, indeed, how the political is personal). It’s not without its flaws of course, but I loved it. Read my full review here.

#7 Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Again, no surprises here: Pride And Prejudice is right where we left it last year, in the #7 spot of the Dymocks Top 101. It is popularly considered the most loved of Austen’s works, and it’s probably the best known (if not the best flat-out) English-language novel of the 19th century. I’d be gob-smacked if it dropped out of the top ten any time soon! In fact, I challenge you to find any list of “100 best books” that doesn’t include this classic.

#9 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s taken a while, but The Handmaid’s Tale is finally getting the worldwide recognition and adulation it deserves – buoyed no doubt by the incredibly popular television series, and the countless hours and pages of commentary it spawned. Like all good dystopian fiction, Atwood’s Republic of Gilead has ever-startling resonance for our real-world struggles with gender, class, and exploitation.

#10 The Dry by Jane Harper

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

Isn’t it great to see so many Australian women writers making good this year? The Dry is actually the second of Harper’s novels to make the Dymocks Top 101 Books this year (her more recent offering, The Lost Man, came in at #8). I’m yet to read any of her books, but The Dry is going to be my first – it’s calling me from my to-be-read shelf! As I understand from the blurb, it’s a crime drama set in the hometown of a fictional AFP investigator, Aaron Falk, where he reluctantly investigates the murder of a local family while simultaneously confronting the community that cruelly rejected him decades prior.

#15 Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of Australian women writers, here’s another! Hannah Kent has become somewhat of a darling of Australian literature the last few years, and this is perhaps the best-loved of the books she’s written so far. Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was the last woman put to death in Iceland; she was convicted of murdering two men, including her employer, and this is Kent’s reimagining of her final days. Stay tuned for my review (and also for the film adaptation, which will reportedly star Jennifer Lawrence in the lead!).

#18 Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Good thing I didn’t turn “Australian women writers in the Dymocks 101” into a drinking game, because we’d be out of wine by now! Liane Moriarty is an incredible home-grown commercial fiction success story. She was growing in popularity in her own right, but the HBO adaptation of her sixth book, Big Little Lies, has shot her into the stratosphere of literary stardom. I’ve not yet read this one, but I did read her previous novel, The Husband’s Secret (review coming soon!), and it came in on this same list at #78. Her most recent release, Nine Perfect Strangers, came in a bit below this one at #24, but I expect we’ll see it climb higher over the next year or two.

#25 The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ll permit me to get a little sappy-slash-political for a minute: I think it’s really wonderful that, in this era of fear-mongering and misinformation, Australian booklovers are still supporting a refugee memoir. Forget what you’ve been told about “boat people” or “illegals” – Anh Do turns all the stereotypes on their head in The Happiest Refugee. After I read it, I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s not sure where they fall on the issue of refugees coming to our country. It’s vital that we continue to share and celebrate these stories, not just because they’re amazing but also to counterbalance the powerful forces that would see us all divided (in their own interest, of course). Read my full review here.

#27 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Once Bill Gates recommends your book, chances are it’s going to be selling like hot-cakes for a while. And that’s exactly what’s happened to Graeme Simsion with The Rosie Project. He’s managed to parlay his success with this comic novel about the eccentric scientist Don Tillman’s search for love into an entire trilogy, following it up with The Rosie Effect and, just this year, The Rosie Result. I couldn’t help but take issue with some of Simsion’s (mis)representations of life on the autism spectrum, but I can’t deny that this is a wonderful light-hearted read – one to reach for when you need a reminder that the whole world isn’t shit. Also, Graeme Simsion actually re-tweeted my quote of a particularly harsh review, so he’s clearly a good sport! Read my full review here.

#29 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On its face, A Little Life doesn’t have much going for it. It’s a loooooong book, for one – my edition runs some 720 pages! Its author, Hanya Yanaghiara, is a woman of colour, a group too-often underrepresented in lists of best books. And holy heck, it is not an easy read! If you decide to give this one a go, be prepared for long and detailed descriptions of intense and horrific childhood trauma, as well as addiction, relationship breakdown, and all other manner of dark shit. The fact that A Little Life ranked so highly in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2019 is nothing short of a miracle, as far as I’m concerned. It just goes to show: Australian booklovers really are the bravest and the strongest of them all!

#32 The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart - Holly Ringland - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, I wasn’t entirely sold on The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart when I first encountered it. The cover art is, as you can see, incredibly beautiful… but a book about flowers? Pass! And then I heard an interview with Holly Ringland. I couldn’t help myself, she had me! Hook, line, and sinker! In this wonderful book, an intense family tragedy sees a young girl, Alice, move in with her estranged grandmother on a native flower farm. Her story spans two decades and says much about the traumas we fear to speak out loud, and the secrets that grow around them. (Oh, and it’s another Australian woman writer – everybody drink!)

#33 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t think the importance of this book – and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, which came in at #77 – can be overstated. Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, delightful and fun and flashy, but it’s also an incredible case study in the impact of good, honest representation. The film adaptation was hugely popular, and I think it was Sandra Oh who said that she cried as she watched it because finally – finally! – there was a film full of people who looked like her. The Asian characters aren’t jokes or side-kicks, but the stars of the show. So, heck yes for Crazy Rich Asians making the Dymocks 101, and here’s hoping it’s a sign of more great #ownvoices success stories to come!

#45 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think my thoughts on this inclusion in the Dymocks 101 list can be almost entirely summed up in a single word: ugh. I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I think The Great Gatsby stinks. It’s just so boring and hackneyed! A moody white guy discovers that it’s fun to party with pretty girls, then his rich friend dies and no one comes to the funeral. Like… so what? And yet, it appears on this list year after year (though, I do note happily that it’s down a bit from its rank of #27 in 2018). I just don’t understand its enduring appeal! Trust me, read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes instead – it’s a much more fun and interesting take on the Jazz Age in American. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

#46 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Back to the good stuff: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is now one of my favourite all-time books, having read it back in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It’s amazing, but unsurprising, that Charlotte’s masterful rendering of the inner consciousness of a young, scared girl is still so popular centuries later. Here’s another controversial opinion for you: even though she was kind of the bitchy sister, in my estimation Charlotte was the best of the Brontës. (You can fight me on that in the comments if you like!) Read my full review here.

#47 Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As soon as I saw this book, and that incredible cover art, I just knew it would be wonderful. Normal People kind of exploded after it was placed on the long-list for the 2018 Booker Prize, and I’m still surprised it didn’t make it any further in the process, given its immense popularity and numerous literary commendations. Ostensibly, it’s a story about two Irish girls who study together in Dublin and the relationship they forge between them, but it’s also a deeply political novel that will melt even the hardest of hearts.

#50 A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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

The popularity of the HBO series pretty much guarantees that A Game Of Thrones will appear in the Dymocks Top 101 list for years to come. I know it’s sacrilegious to admit this, but I’m actually really glad that I watched the TV adaptation before I sat down to read the book. Fantasy stories with dozens of place names and characters and complicated made-up languages drive me up the wall, so having it all straight in my head before I began really helped me properly enjoy Martin’s intricate story of love and war. Read my full review here.

#52 The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Along with Gone Girl (which came in at #37), this book launched the international publishing trend of Books With “Girl” In The Title. We saw “girls” everywhere: on trains, in windows, being good, being bad, coming, going… The widespread infantilisation of female characters really bothered me, and I’m so glad to see we’re finally at the tail end of it, but The Girl On The Train remains popular enough to earn its spot in the Top 101 (albeit considerably further down than last year, when it reached #14). Read my full review here.

#55 The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have no idea how or why The Narrow Road To The Deep North has risen some twenty spots since last year’s Dymocks book list, but it has! As far as I know, no film adaptation has been announced, no new release has got Flanagan’s name back in the spotlight, no new awards have been given… apparently, booklovers this year just enjoyed it more than last. Strange, eh? I finally got around to reading it recently – my first-ever Booker prize winner! – and I was strangely impressed. As much as I’ve gone off historical WWII fiction (I usually prefer real-life accounts, which I find more impactful), I really appreciated the way that Flanagan didn’t shy away from the gritty, awful realities of war. Read my full review here.

#58 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As long as we have hippies on their quest for spiritual awakening, we will have The Alchemist in the Dymocks 101. I can’t honestly say, having read it, that it changed my life or made me look at the world any differently. That said, it was an easy read – almost like a child’s fairytale – and I can see that there’s plenty of fodder to treat it as a sacred text. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to bother reading it, but maybe temper your expectations in terms of its ability to open up your mind to a higher power. Read my full review here.

#61 The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Really, the only surprise here is that The Subtle Art Of Giving A Fuck is so far down the list! This book, with its striking orange cover and its shameless profanity (of which I’m fully in favour), was everywhere in 2018. Perhaps the Dymocks Booklovers are a self-assured literary lot who don’t need self-help gurus to sort out their messy lives? Probably. But I’ll admit, the hype lured me in; I picked up a copy of this one a little while back and I know I’ll have to read it eventually, just to see what all the fuss is about.

#62 The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I cannot recall a single year, in all my time following the Dymocks Booklovers Top 101, where The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy hasn’t featured somewhere. It got a much higher rank last year (#19), but it’s always guaranteed a spot – a testament to its enduring popularity. This book is beloved, not just in the sci-fi community but in the broader general readership. In fact, I had a devil of a time trying to find it secondhand, because no one ever wants to part with their copy! Eventually, I did pick one up, and I’m glad I persisted because it’s an actual honest-to-goodness first edition – it’ll be worth a quid someday! Read my full review here.

#64 Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reckoning is the memoir of Australia’s beloved comedian and activist Magda Szubanski. I’ll never forget my overwhelming feeling of joy and relief the day that Australia voted Yes to marriage equality, and I got to see Magda address the gathered crowd in celebration. She is inextricably linked to that campaign in my mind, and I’m eternally grateful for her faith and persistence in changing Australia for the better. Her account of coming to terms with her family history, her sexuality, and her place in the world is truly captivating, a must-read!

#68 The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Andy Weir has one of those overnight-success stories that was years in the making. He slogged away writing The Martian, fielding rejections left and right, until – fed up – he published the whole thing for free on his own website. Now, here he is, eight years later, with millions of book sales under his belt, a major film adaptation starring Matt Damon, a follow-up book on the shelves (and another one in the works, as I understand it), and another year running in the Dymocks 101. See? Persistence pays! Read my full review here.

#84 The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner is such a remarkable book on so many fronts that I don’t quite know where to begin in describing it. For one, the subject – Sandra Pankhurst – is a trans woman, and (off the back of International Transgender Day of Visibility last week) I think it’s amazing that so many people are connecting with her story, allowing it to resonate, and learning through it. She is also a former sex worker, drag queen, husband – she’s lived one heck of a life! The occupation of “trauma cleaner” is a fascinating, terrifying, and at-times literally unbelievable one; this account will leave your mouth hanging open at the end of every passage.

#88 Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was really surprised to see that the news of a sequel – for the book, and the film – to Aciman’s juggernaut Call Me By Your Name didn’t give it more of a boost in the Dymocks Top 101 rankings this year. Still, I’m happy to see it here at all! Calling it “one of the great love stories of our time” might be a bit of a stretch, but not a big one. The book depicts a beautiful love affair that blossoms between a confused teenager and an older grad student, against the stunning backdrop of a family home in Italy. The follow-up is sure to be a runaway best-seller, so make sure you get in on this one now (if you haven’t already)

#91 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If my vote was the only one that counted, My Brilliant Friend would probably come in at #1 in every Dymocks 101 for the next twenty years or so. As it stands, I’ll have to settle for it coming in here towards the end… for now. Elena Ferrante’s book – the first of her Neapolitan Novels – is quite frankly one of the best I have ever read. The way she weaves the story of two girls growing up, a tenuous and torrid friendship ebbing and flowing between them, in mid-20th century Naples is just… breathtaking. Truly! I’m starting my campaign to get her a ranking she deserves in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2020 right now! Read my full review here.


Notable Exclusions: I think the fine folks at Dymocks are taking some editorial license and cutting out cook books and other gimmicky options. This Top 101 is light on self-help, and non-fiction across the board (just eighteen non-fiction books, by my count). I’m really surprised that Wuthering Heights wasn’t included (especially after Jane Eyre made the cut!), and there were relatively few classics on the whole, too (only nine included this year).

You might have noticed a generally positive and up-beat tone to a lot of the books on the list. Kate Maynor from Dymocks has confirmed they’re seeing a trend towards what she called “UpLit” – stories in which protagonists have to go through a level of darkness to reach an ultimately redeeming end. That’s hardly a new premise in literature, but I can see why it’s having a resurgence; given the dark times in which we live and work, a little “up” with our lit is a welcome respite.

It’s a shame that Tracker didn’t make the list, and there’s a disturbing (ongoing) trend of under-representation of Indigenous Australian storytelling. It’s great to see more Australian authors on the list each year, but the fact that so few of them are from our Indigenous community really sours it for me.

Dymocks Booklovers have made huge strides in terms of gender equality – the 2019 Top 101 list has reached rough parity – but there’s still a way to go in terms of other intersectional identities. I’ve got my fingers crossed that more marginalised authors make the cut next year; I think disability activist Carly Findlay’s new book, Say Hello, is a strong contender!

What do you think of the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2019? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Check out what I thought of last year’s Dymocks Top 101 list here!

Award Winning Books Worth Reading

Booklovers take their book-loving seriously, and their opinions vary – widely. So any award that picks one book as the “best” of a given year or genre is always going to be controversial. Literary awards honour the great authors of our time, and winning a major one pretty much guarantees that a book will fly off the shelves as people to scramble to see whether it’s worthy. It’s a high-stakes game, this literary award business! Today on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we take a look at some of the major awards and ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question: are there any award winning books that are worth your time?

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time - Text Overlaid on Image of Trophy and Sparkly Lights - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Major Literary Awards

Let’s take a quick look at some of those major awards and prizes, shall we?

  • The Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best original novel, written in English, that’s had a print run in the U.K.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author (supposedly from any country, but more on that in a minute), who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recognises a distinguished work of fiction by an American writer (usually themed around American life) published in the preceding calendar year.
  • The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback (founder of revolutionary sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories); they recognise the best science-fiction and fantasy works of the preceding year.
  • The Miles Franklin Literary Award is awarded each year to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. (The Stella Prize is also awarded each year to a female writer, in response to a perceived gender bias in the selection of Miles Franklin winners. Both awards are named after legendary Australian author [Stella] Miles Franklin.)
  • The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually to American authors of fiction who have produced the year’s “best” works. The organisation claims it to be the “largest peer-juried award in America”.
  • The National Book Awards are presented each year by the National Book Foundation in the U.S., and traditionally includes two lifetime achievement awards.
  • The Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.

This is, obviously, a very, very small sample of a rather large pool of major literary prizes. There are dozens of others in every country, and across every conceivable genre and market.

Booker Award Controversies

Controversy plagues every literary award, in one way or another, and the sniping only grows bigger and uglier as the award becomes more prestigious. If we’re going to look at some examples, we might as well start right at the top, with the Man Booker.

Take, for instance, the great Trainspotting drama of 1993. Two judges threatened to quit the Booker committee after Irvine Welsh’s “vulgar” novel was named on the long-list that year. The book offended their feminist sensitivities, so much so that it was subsequently pulled from the short-list. Welsh didn’t respond well (even by my low standards); he called the prize imperialist, and said that “any claim that it’s an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”.

The shit-slinging doesn’t stop there. In 2001, A.L. Kennedy said that the Booker is “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Her experiences on the committee in the ’90s had convinced her that the winner was determined only by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. She also claimed to be the only judge who had read all 300 novels under consideration – yikes.


The same year that Kennedy called bullshit, there was an unrelated whoops-y in the announcement of the winner. Life Of Pi had pretty long odds, until the prize’s website accidentally announced it as the winner a week before the official decision. I’d imagine the originator of that particular fuck-up had to go into some kind of witness protection, because bookies have been known to take baseball bats to kneecaps and they had to pay out all of the bets when the leak later proved to be correct.

The most recent revelations about more Booker scandals (oh yeah, there’s plenty more!) can be found here.

And, lest you get the impression that the Booker is the worst of the lot, let me tack on a couple of Nobel disasters. The Swedish award has long been the target of accusations of political bias and Eurocentrism in their selection process. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkov never got the gong, oversights that have been widely attributed to Sweden’s long-held antipathy towards Russia. On multiple occasions, other authors from outside of Europe have also been controversially and bafflingly snubbed; in 1974, Grahame Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were all over-looked in favour of a joint award to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who (to this day!) remain relatively unknown outside their home country. (And you should know, they were both Nobel judges themselves – a pure coincidence, I’m sure, but…)



It’s all enough to make you wonder whether the awards mean anything at all. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that merit clearly isn’t the only criteria at play in picking the winners. But, despite the drama, now and then these committees pick a winner that is, y’know, actually a winner. Let’s take a look at some of the award winning books that are worth your time…

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1921)

Leading the charge, we’ve got The Age of Innocence (and you can check out my full review for the run-down). The committee almost overlooked this early 20th century gem, but in the end Wharton’s competition was disqualified on political grounds. And that’s the story of how she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction *fist pump*. Now, this isn’t to say that gender equality was achieved as of that moment – it was one very small step, and one could perhaps even question its ongoing relevance given the way that women have been overlooked for literary awards in the century since – but you never forget the first 😉 And if that’s not reason enough to invest your eyeballs, the story’s pretty damn good! Buy it here.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Hugo Award (2016)

Not all award winners are lofty works of literary fiction, only comprehensible to English majors 😉 The Martian scored a Hugo Award, and went on to become one of the biggest break-through sci-fi novels of the past decade. I was pretty hesitant when I first picked it up, because sci-fi isn’t my go-to genre and I’m skeptical of any film adaptation starring Matt Damon, but goshdarn it was funny! I cackled out loud on every other page (check out my full review); Weir’s characterisation and voice is strong and direct and hilarious. Plus, the premise is pretty compelling – a lone man abandoned on a planet, forced to find a way to survive on meager rations until help arrives – and it forces the reader to confront the terrifying thought of what they’d do in that situation. Buy it here.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

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

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1961)

Forty years after Edith Wharton got the gong, Harper Lee was called up – for her first (and only) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s one of the only books I’ve read that’s truly exceeded the hype, and I’m not sure I can recommend it more highly than that (I mean, the hype is considerable). I completely understand if you take issue with some of the racial politics of the book, especially given that it has been so widely and consistently lauded with nary a mention of some of its more problematic elements, but the writing is exquisite, so I’d say it’s worth a look regardless (check out my review here to see why). Plus, it’s had many tangible real-world impacts since its release – consider the formation of the Atticus Finch Legal Society, for instance – so reading it will get you up to speed on that front, too. Buy it here.

The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)

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

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2009) (and the ABIA Book Of The Year, and the ABA Book Of The Year, and a bunch more)

Christos Tsiolkas won nearly every major literary award in Australia – except the biggie, the Miles Franklin (for which he was short-listed) – with The Slap. I read it a few years ago, and I don’t mind confessing: I had to take a few runs at it. I bought a copy in a fit of unbridled optimism about my future reading life (it’s a long book), only to pick it up once every couple of months, and then abandon it after a few pages. It followed me, languishing in the bottom of a suitcase, as I moved up and down the country. When I finally got around to finishing it, I was so glad I’d persisted! The catalyst of a slap at a family barbecue sets off a chain of reactions, sucking multiple characters and families into a vortex. This one would be particularly good for readers overseas who still think of Australia as the home of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee; Tsiolkas’ treatment of Australian suburbia and community is searing, confronting, and insightful. Buy it here.

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

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2014)

I know, I know, I squeeze this one in with just about every list of recommended books I write here on the blog: I make no apologies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves definitely deserves its place here. I wouldn’t recommend reading my review until after you’ve read the book; the plot twist is just so damn good, don’t let anything ruin it for you! I’m this book’s biggest advocate and proponent now, and I think its relatively understated popularity is infuriating. And, let’s be honest, I’m still bitter that it lost out to The Narrow Road To The Deep North for the Booker Prize in 2014; luckily, the folks judging the PEN/Faulkner saw sense. Buy it here.

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais (1933)

Stella Gibbons was snubbed by the literary world for the most part, so she makes it into this list by the skin of her teeth. Her crime was satirising D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries, making fun of their horniness-masquerading-as-moral-philosophy and their attempts to write vernacular. Luckily, she still managed to score a gong or two, and in all honesty Cold Comfort Farm deserved a lot more. It’s really the only novel for which Gibbons is remembered (also a shame, because she was pretty damn prolific), and even then it’s not all that widely read, not even in academia. It’s a snarkier, sassier, more modern Jane Austen – a great one to read when you need a good laugh! Buy it here.

I’m actually pretty behind in reading the award winners, so there’s every chance I’ve missed some fantastic worthy inclusions here – please give me your suggestions in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

You know what’s more valuable to me than that Nobel money? Any change you could spare to help Keeping Up With The Penguins keep on keeping up! Donate here:



The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton


The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.

The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.


Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

 

Romantic Reads For Valentine’s Day (That Won’t Make You Throw Up In Your Mouth)

Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Valentine’s Day. Don’t bother rushing to the comments to remind me that it’s a capitalist conspiracy to make us spend our hard-earned pineapples on chocolates and cards and flowers once a year – I am well aware. Be all that as it may, I think it’s as good a time as any to dig out a few romantic reads.

I didn’t realise until I started trying to put this post together how few “romantic” books I actually read. I don’t have any kind of deep-seated opposition to them or anything; there just aren’t that many of them on The List or on my bookshelves. I think it’s because perhaps I’m a bit too cynical to put up with any schmaltzy crap in literature. So, this is a list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day… that won’t make you throw up in your mouth.

Romantic Reads For Valentines Day - White Words in Love Heart Overlaid on Collage of Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue – Mackenzi Lee

Valentine’s Day is for everyone, of all ages, so let’s start with a young adult book that can be enjoyed by teenagers and adult-adults alike: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. It ticks every box: hedonism, adventure, history, wealth, and (most importantly) romance. It’s fast-paced, it’s witty, and it touches on a bunch of really topical issues (including racism, sexuality, mental health, class, and more). A fun read!

Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

Tropic Of Cancer is considerably more “adult” – in fact, it’s not even that romantic, just very smutty. If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, this is the perfect erotic tome to get your motor running. That said, Miller’s brand of literotica is not to everyone’s tastes; if you prefer your smut with a more lady-like bent, try some Anaïs Nin instead. I reviewed Tropic of Cancer for KWUTP just this week – it’s a cracker!

Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman

Speaking of smut: Call Me By Your Name has a scene with a peach that… well, you’ll have to read it for yourself 😉 but that’s not all there is to be found in these pages! Aciman has written a beautiful romantic story of the budding relationship between 17-year-old Elio Perlman and a 24-year-old scholar named Oliver, both Jewish men trying to find their place in the world. Call Me By Your Name follows their romance and the subsequent decades, all against a beautiful Italian backdrop.

Emma – Jane Austen

It wouldn’t feel right to make a list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day without including any Austen. I refuse to indulge the Elizabeth Bennet/Mr Darcy fandom (as we all know, Pride and Prejudice has been a tough row for me to hoe – review coming soon!), so I’ve gone with a slightly less traditional choice: Emma. It took me a little while to understand its understated brilliance, but this tale of a wealthy, beautiful, self-indulgent match-maker is a great Valentine’s Day read (as long as you don’t need your stories to be action-packed to hold your interest). Check out my full review of Emma here.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

While we’re in the 19th century, we should also consider Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Now, maybe it will make you throw up in your mouth, just a little bit, but bear with me. It’s definitely a problematic love story, what with the whole wife-locked-in-the-attic thing… but I loved it anyway! And that’s what makes me think it will warm the cockles of even the most hardened cynic this Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect combination of romance, mystery, and coming-of-age, with a bad-ass female protagonist at its heart. I highly recommend it!

Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez

The romance is right there in the title: this is the story of Love In The Time Of Cholera. Now, don’t be scared off by Márquez’s reputation! It’s actually an extremely readable story, with that classic South American magical realism we associate with our favourite romantic reads. It’s passionate, it’s lusty, and it examines the way we understand love and what keeps it alive across generations. It’s long, but stick with it: it’s worth it in the end (if nothing else, proud singletons will find it keeps them distracted and helps them work on their patience in this trying time of Valentine’s propaganda!).

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

Now, to something a little more fun! To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a terrifying, but compelling, premise: what if everyone you’d ever admired from afar found out how you felt about them? What if they all found out at the exact same time? Yikes! That’s what happens to protagonist Lara Jean Song, whose secret love letters to her teenage crushes are mysteriously mailed to their recipients. I think that’s enough to instill fear in the heart of anyone who was once a teenage girl…

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Don’t you roll your eyes at me! If you approach Little Women with the right perspective, it makes for a damn find romantic read on Valentine’s Day. Alcott has an unfair reputation for being “sentimental” and “girly”, but I pulled that shit to shreds in my review. The story of Little Women seems a lot more brave and adventurous when you understand more about Alcott’s politics and her motivations for writing. As to the romance, I know Alcott was pilloried by her publishers and her fans for the “unromantic” ending: headstrong Jo March turns down Prince Charming’s proposal, and instead chooses to marry the poor (old!) Professor Bhaer… but I loved it! It was realistic, which makes it lovely. I challenge you to give this American classic another go and see what you find this Valentine’s Day!

Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

And while we’re on romantic endings that aren’t exactly “happy”, if that’s your thing you’re really going to want to read Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping American epic Gone With The Wind. Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara connives and conspires her way through the Civil War, falling in and out of love with both the charming Rhett Butler and her best friend’s husband (sometimes at the same time). Sure, there’s also some gross romanticisation of slavery in the South, but it’s worth a read this Valentine’s Day nonetheless.

Dark Matter – Blake Crouch

Changing tack once again: you didn’t think this list was going to be all classic love stories and historical fiction, did you? Believe it or not, there are alternatives that are still Valentine’s-y! Take Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch – a “mind-blowing sci-fi romance thriller”. What a genre-bending combination! It’s a love story, at its heart, about a husband’s unbreakable bond with his wife – but it’s wrapped up in a truly compelling sci-fi premise. A great one to pick up if you’re in the mood for something different this Valentine’s Day…

Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined To Meet

It’s not a list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day without at least a little cutesy shit. So, here’s my offer: Meet Cute is a concept-based collection of short stories from some of today’s most accomplished Young Adult authors, all zooming in on the rom-com trope. Don’t be fooled, though, this is hardly a compilation of bouncy blonde manic-pixie-dream-girls meeting brooding bad boys: diversity is the order of the day! The anthology tackles everything from gender identity to family dynamics, and in every story are the seeds of a great romance. If you’re getting over a break-up (the worst time of year for it, big virtual hugs to you!) this collection will give you hope that new love is just around the corner.

One Day – David Nicholls

If the “concept” appeals to you, try this one on for size: One Day tells the story of two college friends, through the tiny window of a certain day in their lives. Through that one day (see what he did there?), Nicholas explores the importance of timing, the changing nature of relationships, and – much like Márquez in Love In The Time Of Cholera – the need for patience when it comes to love. It may make you a little nauseated at times, but hopefully Nicholls’s humour and mastery of the craft will keep the vomit where it belongs.

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert

We’ve covered nearly every genre on this list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day… except non-fiction. So here it is! I know there’s a legion of people out there who scoff at the juggernaut that was Eat Pray Love, but even if you’re one of them, you’ll find something very different in Liz Gilbert’s Committed. It picks up where her story ended in her bestselling memoir, her relationship with Felipe forced to progress under the auspices of the American immigration office. Throughout Committed, Gilbert works through her fears and anxieties about love and marriage, and how our traditions contribute to our understanding of fidelity, companionship, and commitment. A great one for engaged couples this Valentine’s Day, especially if you can feel your feet getting a little chilly…

The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis

In the alternative, maybe a literary giant’s personal reflections on love might be more your speed. C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for his children’s books (The Chronicles of Narnia), but he was also quite the smarty-pants. In this book, The Four Loves, he looks at four (duh) specific types of love: romantic love, love between friends, love for family, and love born of charity and religion. He reaches a trite conclusion that, sickly sweet as it may be, seems apt in this season: love makes all things possible. Awwww….

Love: A History – Simon May

If memoir and personal essays really aren’t your thing, maybe a more straightforward non-fiction look at love is what you’re after. Love: A History gives us an in-depth and critical perspective on the very notion of romantic love, through the lenses of culture, philosophy, literature, religion, modernity, and more. How has our understanding of love changed over time, and (more importantly) why does it change? May turns over every stone to get you some answers for Valentine’s Day.


And there you have it: surely, every type of lover can find a romantic read for Valentine’s Day on this broad and varied list (if I do say so myself). What will you be reading? Do you have any more suggestions? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone

This month, we are getting our butts in gear and reading more – actually reading more, not just resolving to do it because it’s a new year. You can check out part one of my How To Read More series here: it has a bunch of excuse-busting advice on everything, from making time to read to making it more affordable. This week, we’ll focus on something we all need from time to time: how to read more outside your comfort zone. More specifically, how to get out of the rut of your favourite genre, or time period, or author, or subject, or format. Given that the whole Keeping Up With The Penguins project was created in service of this goal, I think I’m in a pretty good position to give you some hot tips. So, here we go!

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“But why do I have to get out of my reading comfort zone? It’s comfortable!”

There’s nothing wrong with having a favourite or preferred genre. I’m sure you also have a favourite food, and a favourite colour, and a favourite item of clothing. But if you eat nothing but hamburgers and paint your whole house pink and wear that one pair of jeans every single damn day… well, you’re going to end up malnourished and smelly in a house that looks like a unicorn fart. The same goes for reading.

Reading is the easiest (and cheapest) way to expand your world. You can travel to any geography, and any time period, without leaving that comfortable butt-groove on your couch. It forces you to walk in the shoes of people from different religions and cultural backgrounds, people who grew up without your privileges, people facing challenges you can’t even imagine, and people so unfamiliar to you they may as well be from a different planet (indeed, sometimes they are). Think of sampling new genres like you would trying a new cuisine, or painting your house a new colour, or buying a new pair of jeans. Sometimes change feels good, doesn’t it?

“But other genres are for losers!”

Admit it: there’s a tiny part of you that thinks romance novels are for saps, or sci-fi books are for nerds, or fiction books are for hippies. That’s okay! The stink of literary elitism sticks to all of us, even when we try our darnedest to get away from it. Somewhere along the way, some of it inevitably seeps in. The “literary fiction versus commercial fiction” divide is the classic example, and it’s been around since Gutenberg. (And there’s a great discussion of book snobbery from Girl With Her Head in a book here.)

I’ll make a confession here: I’m not perfect (*gasps from crowd*), and I’ve fallen into this trap a time or two myself. Poetry books are for people smarter than me, I thought. Romance books are for old women with no excitement in their lives. Young Adult novels are for people who never grew up. But guess what: the best thing about starting Keeping Up With The Penguins is that it forced me to overcome all of those prejudices and it levelled out my reading-playing field.

It turns out, I am smart enough to read and understand The Divine Comedy. The Dressmaker, which I thought was going to be a light rom-com best suited to ladies who would save their Singer sewing machine in a house fire, actually turned out to be a really gothic Australian story with a really twisted ending. There’s a lot of value to be found in The Book Thief, and The Hunger Games, and We Were Liars, even if you’re a decade older than the target market.

So, get off your high horse, like I had to, and you’ll be surprised what you find.

“But I won’t enjoy reading different genres, I know I won’t!”

You will.

Seriously, stop fighting me on this! Look what happened to me when I read Portnoy’s Complaint: I was very sure that there was no way a self-indulgent monologue from a privileged straight man in 20th century America could tickle my fancy. It was totally outside of my usual tastes, and I just knew I would find it annoying and frustrating and boring… except that I ended up laughing out loud dozens of times, and chewed through the book at the speed of light. It might be “off brand” for me, it might be problematic in a number of ways, but damn it: I had fun.

That’s the thing about having fun while reading: it sneaks up on you when you least expect. And, to be honest, if you’re a voracious enough reader to have a strong feeling about your favourite genre (or author, or time period, or whatever), you can stomach a book or two that doesn’t have you leaping for joy. It won’t kill you to suffer through a tome that you don’t love now and then. This is advice specifically for people who love to read one particular type of thing: if you’re struggling to read anything at all, by all means stick with your favourites until you’re back in your reading groove. But everyone else: stay with me!

Step One: Read A Book Recommended By A Friend Or Loved One

We’ve all got one: a book that a cousin or co-worker has been bugging us to read. We put them off because it just doesn’t sound like our kind of thing. We try to be polite about it, but we come up with every excuse under the sun: I’m not reading much right now, I’m in the middle of a series, my to-be-read pile is huge…

Well, stop it.

Give it a go! They’ll probably even loan you their copy, if you’re reluctant to shell out on one of you rown. The pressure of someone knowing that you’re reading their special favourite, and the risk of them asking you how its going, will be enough to push you out of your comfort zone and into a brand new book world.

Proof, meet pudding: this is actually how I discovered Harry Potter. A friend of mine from school had read it and loved it, and one night I was sleeping over at her house and she forced it into my hands. The rest is history!

Bonus tip: If you’re competitive (or really desperate), introduce a quid pro quo: tell them you’ll read their special favourite if they’ll read yours.

Step Two: Read A Book That Crosses Genre Boundaries

Let’s be real: there aren’t many books published nowadays that fit neatly into one genre or another. In fact, a lot of them end up in the miscellaneous grab-bag of “literary fiction”, which is applied so widely as to be pretty much meaningless. So, make like a mother that blends spinach into a kid’s hamburgers. Find a book that crosses a new genre with something that’s familiar to you.

If you’re normally a romance reader, try reading a sci-fi book with a love story. If you’re a true-crime junkie, look into detective classics like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Think of it as a half-way bet: you don’t need to jump completely in the deep end, but you’re dipping your toe in the shallows outside your comfort zone.

My real-life example: I’m not really a fantasy reader. I usually find it too hard to keep track of eight hundred different characters spread across four different made-up countries, especially because they all usually have practically the same unpronounceable name… but I am a politics junkie. So, A Game of Thrones was perfect for me! It has all of the political intrigue, plus the fantasy elements to keep it fresh.

If nothing else, undertaking this exercise will give you a better understanding of what it is specifically that you enjoy in books, and that will open you up to new and different books that feature those elements.

Step Three: Try Alternating Books You Read

It’s not rocket surgery: for every one of your preferred genre that you read, you have to read something different.

This strategy is super-easy for people who fall firmly into either the Fiction or Non-Fiction camp. If you normally read all fiction, think about the subject of your last fictional read (WWII France, a dystopian future, whatever) and find a non-fiction book on that topic. This works in reverse, too – if you just read Wild, try reading The Call Of The Wild or another adventurous fiction story, for example.

If you need a little more inspiration, you could try joining a Goodreads challenge, or hooking up with a group that are doing some kind of book bingo (I love fellow book blogger Theresa Smith Writes for these!). There are also a bunch of book challenges and book checklists that you can “tick off” (virtually, or literally) over on Pinterest.

Step Four: Focus on Authors, Instead of Genres

If you can’t quite bring yourself to peruse the Romance section, or wade through a sea of sci-fi/fantasy novels, you could try finding new authors that interest you instead. Commit to reading their books regardless of the subject or format.

Try searching for popular authors from a country that you’ve never read (bonus points if their books are in translation, like Elena Ferrante), or authors who are experts in a field that interests you (like Lisa Genova, the neuroscientist who wrote the best-seller Still Alice). This trick will work for almost any author that comes from a different walk of life to you, and it has the bonus side-effect of prompting you to read more diversely too!

More Quick Tips for Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

  • If you’re not normally a biography/autobiography reader, try finding one written by or about someone you admire. That way, you get outside your comfort zone without feeling like you are (which is the best way to do it sometimes).
  • Take a look at the New and Noteworthy section of your local library, or independent bookstore – heck, you can even try the Amazon homepage. This is where you’ll often find debut novels from first-time authors, and other books that have a bit of a “buzz” about them.
  • Read a book about a place you’re going, or a place you’ve been. Nothing will get you excited for your upcoming trip to Spain more than a book set there, or nostalgic for your time road-tripping the U.S. than a book about those travels.
  • Find a book set in a time period you’ve never read before. Whether it’s 300 years ago or 300 years into the future, it’ll force you to look beyond your current bookshelf and further afield.
  • Look for a list of authors that inspired your favourites. You’d think this wouldn’t help at all, but you’ll be surprised! J.K. Rowling has said she is inspired by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Louisa May Alcott. Roxane Gay reaches for Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence when she needs inspiration. Ernest Hemingway loved Emily Brontë (among others). As you can see, this is a deep well!
  • If you really want to shake things up, force yourself to look outside your usual format, too! This move ain’t for beginners, but it’s damn effective. If you normally read novels, try picking up a play or a poetry collection. If you prefer short stories, give a graphic novel a go. This is probably the trickiest way to go about getting out of your reading comfort zone, because it can take you a little while to adjust, but if you stick with it you’ll reap a lot of benefits (and probably discover a few new favourites!).


In the end, there’s nothing wrong with having a favourite genre (or author, or time period, or whatever). If what you’ve got is working for you, by all means stick to it… but if, for whatever reason, you’re curious about broadening your horizons, give any one of these tips a go and see where it gets you (spoiler alert: it’ll be somewhere good!). Have you tried stepping outside of your reading comfort zone lately? Have any of these tips worked for you in the past? Let me know in the comments (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


Check out the next installment of this series – How To Read More Diversely – here.

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