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Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Listen up, folks, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: If you’re going to read Little Women for the very first time, you need to find an edition – like this one, from Penguin Classics – with a decent introduction to the text. I know not everyone reads the introduction first, but I do, and if I hadn’t in this case, I would have completely missed the point. I was already pretty familiar with the story, because I loved the Winona Ryder film adaptation as a kid, but as far as literary critique goes I would have been completely adrift without a better understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s background and her motivations behind writing Little Women. (Of course, if an edition with a decent introduction isn’t forthcoming, you could always just read this review before you get started…)

Little Women was first published in 1868, and has historically been dismissed as moralising, sentimental guff. It’s “for girls”, you know? It’s only recently that Alcott’s magnum opus has been considered a valued component of the American literary canon. To fully appreciate the genius of this book, you really need to understand Alcott’s politics and the context in which the book was published. And, in addition to finding a copy with an introduction that breaks it down for you, I would strongly recommend finding a copy of the original text; there was a later edition, published in 1880, that smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges and, in so doing, refined a lot of the language and character descriptions to make them seem more “genteel”. Virtually all readers nowadays pick up the 1880 edition without realising what they’re missing out on – don’t be one of them!

So, onto all this background knowledge I keep telling you that you need: Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a “moral” book for young girls, with “wide appeal”. The story she came up with follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they transition into womanhood. Alcott herself was the second of four daughters, and – believe it or not – the similarities between her and Jo March don’t end there, so it’s pretty clear where she drew her inspiration. In fact, the story was so autobiographical that fans would write letters addressed to “Miss March”, and Alcott – being the good sport she was – would respond without correcting them. The first book was such a huge commercial success that readers (and Alcott’s publishers) immediately began clamouring for a sequel, so Alcott pumped out the follow-up “Good Wives” (though, it must be said, she was not a fan of that title, it was chosen by the publishers and she had no say at all). The two volumes are now sold together as a single edition, bearing the name Little Women.

Now, even though she seems like a good little woman herself, giving the publishers exactly what they wanted, Alcott is on record as having said that she would have much preferred to keep working on her own collection of short stories, which was very different in nature to the book for which she is most famous. So, why didn’t she? Well… she was hard up for cash. She wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” she said, but she hated writing it and referred to the process as “plodding away”.

She sought to address three major themes – domesticity, work, and true love – through this story of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott also effectively created the archetype of the “all-American girl”, embodying its different aspects in each of the March sisters: there’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic. The publishers wanted a story about good girls being good, but Alcott’s true message underlying the story is a little different: she’s clearly saying that virtue should be valued over wealth, and that women can overcome the constraints upon their gender through hard work and piety.

Yep, that’s right: Alcott was a feminist, and Little Women – despite its prima facie old-school values, and its controversial ending – is a deeply feminist novel. At the time of its publication, there were almost no models of non-traditional womanhood in popular media for young girls. So, Alcott took it upon herself to pitch many ideas of social change and progressive politics against the familiar backdrop of domestic life. Little Women paints a very familiar picture of the lives of girls in 19th century America, but it also legitimises their aspirations to grow beyond what is “expected” of them. So, three cheers for Alcott – way the fuck ahead of her time!

She gave the March sisters adventurous plots and storylines that had traditionally been coded as male. She wanted to normalise the ambition of women, and showcase alternatives to existing gender roles (which, at the time, were more restrictive than a damn corset). In particular, she addressed the idea that spinsters were “fringe” members of society, without power or influence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spinsters and unmarried women are actually strong, multi-dimensional characters, the true power brokers of the New England world that she created. Alcott shat all over the idea that you needed a husband and a family to be a “good” woman, and she did so from a great fucking height.


Now, everyone who’s read the book is currently screaming at me: “But Alcott ‘saved’ Jo in the end by marrying her off! That’s not feminist!”. To that, I say that the way in which Alcott did it was so clever and subversive, I don’t blame you for missing it on the first take. Alcott did, indeed, “marry off” her heroine… but not to the dashing, Prince Charming (Laurie), who had begged for her hand time and time again. Nope! Jo instead marries the much older (and poorer!) Professor Friederich Bhaer, a far less romantic ending and one that subverted the expectations of all the young readers who had, until then, never read a love story that didn’t involve a fairytale ending. Fuck yes, Alcott – fuck yes! People who criticise this ending don’t seem to understand the precarious position in which the author found herself. She was straddling the demands of her moneybags publishers – not to mention her very pious and conservative father – as well as her own determination to write a story that upheld her own feminist values. You can’t put a 20th century feminist head on a 19th century working woman’s shoulders, and I say she did a damn good job with what she had.

“For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord”, kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others, Little Women itself stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom.”

The book is full of sneaky little feminist asides. Of course, there are plenty of characters that represent the social status-quo, in keeping with the morals of the time, but the fact that Alcott managed to include her own agenda at all feels rebellious and awesome. In real life, Alcott was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement (yay!), and also the temperance movement (boo!), so she practiced what she preached, no matter what her Daddy said. If you need any more proof that she was fighting the good fight, the wonderful introduction to my Penguin Classics edition cites her influence on some of the founding mothers of feminism as we know it today: Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.


So, all told, I’m really glad I read the introduction and learned all of this before I started reading the book – otherwise, I could well have fallen into the trap of disregarding Little Women as fluff. As it was, I knew exactly what to look for in the story, and I found it really interesting and enjoyable. Little Women is basically the original YA novel – sure, it can be a bit saccharine and trite at times, but no more so than any other work published around the same time, and when you look closely there are some really valuable lessons hidden away there.

That said, even though I’m calling this a Recommended read(!), I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers. It’s much better suited to older readers, who have more developed critical thinking skills and can truly appreciate the masterful way that this simple story, about a very loving tight-knit group of sisters, makes some very important points about the role of women in society… points that we could do well to re-visit often.

Tl;dr? Make sure you look beneath the surface of Little Women, because that’s where you’ll find Alcott’s fighting feminist spirit. Onwards, ladies!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

  • “PLEASE NOTE THAT I DID NOT ORDER THIS ITEM” – SUE
  • “I would have given it five stars if the last few chapters hadn’t been some what disappointing. The majority of the book brought me immense pleasure and pain. Enjoy. It is worthwhile. Especially if you love Jesus.” – Blodwyn
  • “It was dumb. The women acted like 5 year olds more than half of the time and the mother who stressed the importance of resources, decided to give away food. Genius.” – Matthew
  • “If you are looking for a 400+ page children’s book narrated bu an unenthusiastic female robot… LOOK NO FURTHER… YOU HAVE FOUND IT!!!!” – Amazon Customer

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!).

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

After I finished Little Women, I couldn’t help but pick up John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was Louisa May Alcott’s father’s favourite book; he would read it aloud to his children, and encourage them to act it out, so it’s no surprise that she referenced it a lot in her work. Plus, its influence is clear in literature more generally: most notably, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is named for one of its settings. It also crops up in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and a bunch of others. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most significant works of English literature, widely billed as being the first English novel. It has been translated into over 200 languages, and it has never been out of print. So, are you convinced? I am!

The book’s full name is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is To Come. Bunyan began work on it while he was in the pokey; he was imprisoned for violating the Conventicle Act, which forbade people from gathering for religious services outside the Church of England in the 17th century. Bunyan, of course, did not give a shit, and he got busted preaching in a field. The first edition was published in 1678, while he was still locked up, and then the expanded edition came out after he was freed, in 1679. All up, there were twelve editions published in his lifetime, each with new revisions. This version, the Penguin English Library Edition, reproduces the original as closely as possible, with just a few slight tweaks to spelling and punctuation for the comfort of the contemporary reader.

It reads like a part-poem, part-play, part-story. The narrator recounts a dream that he had in jail about a pilgrim – Christian – who abandons his wife and children to hike to Heaven. Well, as best I can tell, he read the Bible and he freaked the fuck out (don’t all good pilgrimage stories start that way?). He’s weighed down by a “great burden” (the knowledge of his “sin”), and he convinces himself he’ll sink on down to Hell if he doesn’t get his shit together – so off he goes!

Then there’s a second part about his wife and children following him, which I thought was kind of nice. If only all authors had dedicated sequels to the forgotten wife!


Bunyan’s allegorical tale, the academics say, stands out above his predecessors because his language was simple and straightforward, making it easier for the every-man to understand. To put it more simply, it’s The Divine Comedy for dummies. Dante’s work, and the similarities between them, are so obvious it’s like a brick hitting you over the head. Bunyan’s prose is a lot simpler to be sure, but in my mind Inferno is still the clear winner – if nothing else, it’s a lot more exciting. Plus, The Pilgrim’s Progress just isn’t very funny! The only laughs I got were from things that probably weren’t meant to be funny, like:

“She is a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man.”

Talk! Imagine! What a strumpet!

There are no chapters in this edition (or any other, as far as I can tell), which is annoying – it’s just one big block of text. Normally, I use those pauses in the narrative to scribble down my notes, and think over what I’ve just read. Putting the book down to do all that, without a chapter break, feels like interrupting someone in the middle of a monologue. I suppose it’s forgivable, being that it was the first English language novel in history and no one had told Bunyan about chapters and all, but still… ugh.

At least it doesn’t require much background knowledge of religion. And all of the characters have helpfully-descriptive names like “Faithful” and “Talkative” – makes it pretty easy to keep them all straight. And Bunyan wasn’t entirely without humour in this regard; he was a Protestant, and not all that fussed with the Catholic Church, so he named the decrepit and harmless giant character “Pope”. Ha!


It’s impossible to deny Bunyan’s impact on English literature, and the respect afforded to him as a result of that. No one dares hanging any shit on him for using the “it was all a dream” trope – I mean, he’s probably the reason that trope exists to begin with! That said, I would only recommend The Pilgrim’s Progress to people who read the footnotes. You need to have a deep abiding curiosity about the tradition of literature, and/or God, to get much of it. If that doesn’t sound like you, give Dante’s Inferno a go instead, or skip the centuries-old religious allegories altogether.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

  • “Strange print style… great literature thouh. But the way it’s presented on paper is like a kids big coloring book. It’s like a picture book, but they forgot to add the pictures.” – orson orson
  • “The quality of the book exceeded my expectations.” Patricia M Nulf
  • “This book is about as far away from biblical salvation as you can be. The main character had to work for his salvation which is not what the bible teaches. John 6:47, Romans 4:5, Eph 2:8-9If you wish to confuse someone and see your friend or relative in hell, get them this book.” – Dave Nesbitt
  • “Tedious” – Amazon Customer9
  • “Like the names of the people.” – Amazon Customer
  • “this book has you lookin at your faith” – Debra Carroll
  • “This was a gift for my husband. I have not heard comments from him.” – SLC

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.

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend heavy non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds - text overlaid on an image of Barack Obama standing in front of an American flag - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. I took a crack at it here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. But that’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention. Barack Obama has recommended her later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protégé. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work.

Ulysses – James Joyce

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it comes highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence, so maybe I’m going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Oates does concede that it’s “not easy”, but apparently every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort – so there’s some hope yet!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of being called The Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class. And, not least of all by any means, I recommend it too

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. I didn’t mind it either, check out my review here 😉

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women, and I figure if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me! American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. And J.K. Rowling lists Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, as her favourite character in literature:

“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

J.K. Rowling

Bonus: as much as Rowling loved Jo March, she actually lists Jane Austen’s Emma as her favourite book of all time (check out my full review here), and says she has read it at least twenty times.

1984 – George Orwell

I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!

What do you think of these book recommendations? Have these brilliant minds missed any of your special favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

10 Movie Adaptations That Don’t Suck

I confess: in addition to being perpetually behind in my reading, I almost never watch movies. Sure, I have a few tried-and-true favourites that I turn to on nights in alone, but for the most part I never get around to actually watching something new. Any time I’m talking to a stranger and a movie comes up, I’m forced to admit that I’ve never seen it, and I spend the next twenty minutes listening to them list reasons that I “absolutely must” look it up on Netflix as soon as I get home. It’s not a fun way to live, guys! I bring this up because I’m reading my way through a list of classic and popular books, and many of them have (unsurprisingly) been adapted for the big screen. Before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I could have counted the number I’d seen on one hand. This week, all that changes! I carved out a few precious hours and finally dug into that Netflix queue, just so I could bring you this: my (probably incomplete but still valid) list of movie adaptations that don’t suck.

Movie Adaptations That Don't Suck - text alongside a laptop screen showing a Netflix homepage - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Dressmaker (2015)

I figured that the subject of this week’s review was as good a place to start as any. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham was published in 2000, a gothic novel set in a fictional Australian town of the 1950s. The film adaptation, starring Kate Winslet and Hugo Weaving, was released over a decade later, in 2015. I know it’s a cardinal sin for a book-lover to admit this, but I think that I liked the film better than the book. It was certainly more fun, more whimsical, and more comedic – all good things, as far as I’m concerned. They had to tweak some elements of the story for the translation to the big screen (the protagonist was struck down with a kind of trauma-induced amnesia, to allow for the “big reveal” of her dark secret about two thirds of the way through), but it was all done really smoothly. Plus, Winslet is absolutely fantastic, not to mention all the other Aussie acting royalty starring alongside her.

Still Alice (2014)

The story of Still Alice is every struggling writer’s dream: aspiring author Lisa Genova was struggling to get any interest in her heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s descent into dementia, so she self-published in 2007. Still Alice sold so well that it got the attention of the major publishing houses, and eventually Hollywood – the film adaptation, starring the incomparable Julianne Moore, was released in 2014. I will make no secret of the fact that I am a Julianne Moore fangirl. In my eyes, that woman can do no wrong, and Still Alice was no exception. I was gripped, the whole way through. I mean, the book was fine and everything, but it probably didn’t tug on my heart strings the way that Genova intended – it took Moore’s incredible performance to pull the thing right out of my damn chest.

The Hours (2003)

I meant it when I said I love Julianne Moore, and that’s probably why two of her films feature on this list. The Hours is not an “adaptation” of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway of course, but it’s about as close as you can get given that the original text is a crazy stream-of-consciousness modernist ramble. Technically, it’s actually an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, which was itself an adaptation of Woolf’s work… adapt-ception!

The Hours features not only my homegirl Moore, but also Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. That’s one heck of a formidable trio! Kidman is almost unrecognisable (that fake nose!) in her role as Virginia Woolf, writing Mrs Dalloway in 1920s England. Moore plays a pregnant 1950s housewife, living in California and reading Woolf’s book as she struggles with the confinement of her domestic life. Streep plays a modern New York woman, planning a party of her friend with late-stage AIDS in 2001. The stories of these three women weave together across the film, and it is absolutely stunning. I give them all 10/10.

Little Women (1994)

This is one of the very few film adaptations I had actually seen before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. Little Women was a childhood favourite of mine; I loved Winona Ryder’s Jo, who dreamed of becoming a writer and refused to be waylaid by silly boys and their ridiculous offers of marriage. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel has been adapted to film six times (and countless more times in television and other media). Of course, I’ve not seen any of the others, but how could they possibly top this one? Pre-shoplifting-scandal Ryder is joined by Susan Sarandon, a very young Claire Danes, and an even-younger Kirsten Dunst. When you’re watching it, you’ll probably have to work pretty hard to shut off the nagging intersectional-feminist voice in your head that points out all the problems, but once you do it will make for a truly enjoyable and touching film.

Wild (2014)

To be honest, what I love most about the 2014 film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is the story behind its creation. Reese Witherspoon optioned the rights to Wild before the book was even released. She had recently founded Pacific Standard, her own production company, with the goal of finding roles for women that were, y’know, actually good. Roles that were layered and complex and stretched further than the tropes to which she had been relegated for so long. So that, in itself, makes this a film – Pacific Standard’s first – worth watching.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, I really appreciated their refusal to blindly adhere to conventions of the film genre. The book did not present a neatly packaged story, there weren’t clearly delineated character arcs, it was chaotic in the way that intensely personal memoirs often are. All too often, books like Wild are re-packaged (see: bastardised) to fit this linear model of plot development that audiences have been trained to expect. But Wild bucked that trend. The filmmakers stayed true to the story of Strayed’s life, and her telling of it, which makes for a fascinating film-watching experience. I’m not sure the movie was “as good” as the book per se, but it certainly didn’t suck.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

Up ’til now, I could totally hear all the proper film aficionados rolling their eyes at me, so here’s one with which they can’t possible argue: the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Gregory Peck was breathtaking in his role as Atticus Finch – so much so that he and Lee became lifelong friends. He won an Oscar for Best Actor, and the film won two additional awards (for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Art Direction). It totally has the chops!

The only – only! – flaw in this otherwise-perfect film, as far as I’m concerned, is how the writers limited the role of Calpurnia (the Finch’s nanny, cook, cleaner, and all-round Good People). She had a very strong presence in the book (which I reviewed here, by the way), she really influenced Scout’s development (moral and otherwise), and she played a pivotal role in the Finchs’ relationship with the black community in their small Southern town. Unfortunately, in the film, she was downgraded to a mostly “yes sir, no sir” kind of role, possibly for reasons of scope and time but I was still disappointed. Nonetheless, I really hope that they never try to re-boot this particular adaptation; despite that one criticism, I am certain the original version cannot be topped.

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) / The Hunger Games (2012)

I’m throwing both of these films into the same category, because I like them for the same reason. The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games both feature teenaged female protagonists, with overwhelming odds to overcome and a complicated love life. The fact is, I’m not sure either of the adaptations constitute “great films” in and of themselves, but they share the same main benefit. In fact, all film adaptations with teenaged protagonists are better than the books (in my humble opinion), for the simple reason that I usually find the internal monologue of teenaged narrators – with all their self-deprecation and worrying and overwhelming emotional investments in questionable relationships – pretty damn annoying. The translation from book to big screen completely alleviates that!

Even where these films use a voice over, it’s used (relatively) sparingly. This allows the plot and the actual action to come to the fore. The story is allowed to speak for itself, without all of the yucky let’s-get-the-reader-to-emotionally-relate-to-this-troubled-teenager guff. So, for that reason, I count both The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games as movie adaptations that don’t suck. Plus, I’d much rather young women watch these than, say, Disney movies where the Prince always saves the Princess in the end. These ladies save themselves, which is a much better message!

Easy A (2010)

This is probably the millionth adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It came very much towards the end of the let’s-adapt-classic-literature-for-the-teen-market trend. Now, Easy A could never measure up to something like 10 Things I Hate About You (a classic of the genre, don’t even try to fight me on this), but Emma Stone is hella loveable, and the filmmakers did a less-clumsy job than many others in making the storyline of a classic novel accessible to a teenaged target market. Given that I didn’t exactly love The Scarlet Letter, it’s not hard to see why I preferred this version.

Capote (2005)

So, I watched the original adaptation of In Cold Blood (the one released just after the book, in 1967) – I must say, it wasn’t great, and I scrubbed it off the list for this post pretty quick. But then my husband suggested we watch Capote, the 2005 biopic about Truman Capote’s life during the period he was writing In Cold Blood and, I gotta say: it. was. fantastic! Once again, it’s not strictly an adaptation per se, but it was just so good that I had to include it here!

Phillip Seymour Hoffman does a truly awe-inspiring job in his role as Capote, it goes without saying (the man was a legend), but the bit that really impressed me was the role of Harper Lee’s character. Not a lot of people realise this, but Lee did a lot of work for Capote in the eight years that he spent preparing his manuscript; she was pretty much his research assistant, typist, witness liaison, editor, and emotional support person, all rolled into one. Unfortunately, most histories of Captoe’s life and work gloss over her contributions. This film gave her a much bigger role than I was expecting – granted, probably not quite as big a one as she played in real life, but still so much more than any of the others. If you have any curiosity about the story behind In Cold Blood, including Capote’s controversial friendship with the murderer Perry Smith, this is the film for you!

It would seem that the main ingredient for making a movie adaptation that doesn’t suck is securing a fantastic star – Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Gregory Peck, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were all mind-blowing. Their masterful performances put these movies a cut above all of the other crappy adaptations that are spewed out every year. Have I missed one of your favourites? I’m keen to see more (I’m on a roll!), so let me know in the comments (or give it a plug over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The List

By popular demand, here is the complete list of Books I’ve Never Read (But Really Should), all to be reviewed and discussed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Click through the links to check out my reviews as I knock them off, one by one…

  1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  3. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  4. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
  5. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  6. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
  7. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
  9. A Game Of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
  10. Divergent – Veronica Roth
  11. The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
  12. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
  13. All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
  14. Still Alice – Lisa Genova
  15. The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
  16. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
  17. The One Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
  18. The Lake House – Kate Morton
  19. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  20. The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
  21. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
  22. The Maze Runner – James Dashner
  23. The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do
  24. Paper Towns – John Green
  25. The Martian – Andy Weir
  26. If I Stay – Gayle Forman
  27. The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
  28. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
  29. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
  30. We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
  31. A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
  32. Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  33. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  34. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  35. Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  36. Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
  37. A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
  38. The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
  39. American Sniper – Chris Kyle
  40. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  41. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
  42. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  43. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
  44. Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
  45. The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
  46. Emma – Jane Austen
  47. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  48. Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli
  49. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
  50. Vanity Fair – William Thackeray
  51. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  52. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  53. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  54. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  55. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  56. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  57. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  58. The Picture Of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde
  59. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  60. Kim – Rudyard Kipling
  61. The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
  62. The Golden Bowl – Henry James
  63. The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  64. The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
  65. The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
  66. Ulysses – James Joyce
  67. A Passage To India – EM Forster
  68. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
  69. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  70. Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend
  71. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  72. The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
  73. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
  74. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  75. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  76. Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos
  77. Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
  78. Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
  79. Murphy – Samuel Beckett
  80. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  81. Party Going – Henry Green
  82. The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  83. All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  84. The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
  85. The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene
  86. The Catcher In The Rye – JD Salinger
  87. The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
  88. Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
  89. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  90. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  91. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
  92. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  93. A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
  94. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  95. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  96. Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
  97. Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis
  98. An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
  99. Amongst Women – John McGahern
  100. True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
  101. She Came To Stay – Simone De Beauvoir
  102. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
  103. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  104. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  105. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  106. The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
  107. The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
  108. The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James
  109. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence

I’ll be reviewing these books in the order I read them, which is no particular order at all. If you think I’ve made a glaring omission, suggest a book for The Next List here.

Anything else on your mind? Get in touch and subscribe to my mailing list below to stay up to date!

How To Read More Classic Books

Have you ever found yourself zoning out, nodding along blankly, as the person you’re with chats away about their favourite classic book? Maybe you read it once in high school and hated it (don’t worry, enforced reading isn’t fun for anyone, no judgement). Maybe you’ve heard of it and figure you know enough to pretend you’ve read it, even though you really haven’t. But, seeing as you’ve ended up here, I’m guessing you’ve decided now is the time to get caught up and make your way through some of literature’s greatest hits. That makes me your new best friend, because I’ve put together another amazing Keeping Up With The Penguins guide: how to read more classic books.

How To Read More Classic Books - Words Overlaid on Collage of Penguin Classics Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“What counts as a classic book, anyway?”

Say it with me, now: it depends who you ask.

Personally, I tend to consider the classics to be books that have endured over a hundred years with continued and ongoing resonance. That’s how I categorise them here on KUWTP. Italo Calvino once famously said that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”, and I think that’s spot-fucking-on. While I’m not alone in that opinion, a lot of people aren’t as hard-arse on the timeline, and consider books published much more recently to be “classics”, too. So, really, there are about as many answers to this question as there are readers of classic literature.

When we’re deciding which books “count” as classics, we can look at which books were “firsts” (to cross genre boundaries, for instance, or create a new tradition), or the books we used as yardsticks (the way, for example, we compare almost all vampire fiction to Dracula). We could take into consideration books that have taken readers by surprise and prompted social movements, or triggered significant change through controversial commentary. We’d be foolish to limit ourselves too strictly by time period, because, as I said, a “classic” book could be over 1,000 years old or released in the last decade depending whom you ask. It’s pretty reasonable to want or expect a classic book to stand the test of time, but it’s up to you how much time testing it really has to stand before it’s accepted behind the velvet rope.

Don’t forget that different genres also have different criteria for what constitutes a “classic”. Looking over a list of, say, sci-fi classics, you’ll see that they usually don’t have much in common with classic poetry, or the pre-war American canon. Heck, there are people who consider 50 Shades of Grey to be a classic of the romance genre, but you’d be hard pressed to find a literary fiction reader who’d use that book title and “classic” in the same sentence.

“Does a book have to be “good” to be a classic?”

You’d think the answer to that is obvious, but the problem is that what constitutes a “good” book is extremely subjective. Once again, it’s different for everyone. I think it’s generally fair to expect that books meet certain standards of “goodness” to be considered classic – they’re widely read and enjoyed, well-crafted, insightful, and interesting – but beyond that, there’s a wasteland of opinions and conjecture.

Now, let’s get something straight: you are under no obligation to read the classics, whether they’re “good” or not. You don’t have to agree with anyone else on what the “classics” are. You don’t have to read them in order to be a “real” or “serious” reader. So, if you’d rather poke your eye out with a rusty fork than pick up a classic book, you can quit right here. No one is holding you hostage, even if it feels like there’s a lot of pressure from classic-lovin’ bookworms, and there are plenty of contemporary and non-classic-y books out there that can’t wait to meet you. My advice from here on is strictly for those who are interested in reading the classics and expanding their world through the literary canon they haven’t yet explored – I’m not in the business of imposing literary elitism on anyone. 😉

Classic Books and Where to Find Them

I’ve lost count of how many times in the How To Read More series I’ve suggested checking out your local library, but I’m going to do it again here and now: check out your local library. Any library worth its salt will have a decent selection of classics across a variety of genres and time periods, and you can check them out (for free!) without any obligation. Heck yeah!

My advice doesn’t end there, though. One of the great things about getting into classic literature is that the copyright for a lot of these books and authors has lapsed, meaning that they are often (even usually) available for free in an eBook format, somewhere on the internet. Just look at the Amazon offering for Kindle – it’s bursting at the seams with literary classics, and so many are completely free! If you’re not an eBook reader, never fear: a lot of traditional publishers have capitalised on the opportunity that public domain work provides (to publish popular and enduring work without paying royalties, and no legal repercussions), releasing a bunch of very, very affordable versions in paperback.


And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout-out to Project Gutenberg, which – at last count – offers nearly 60,000 public domain books for free through their website. No eReader or smartphone required, you can read them right there in your browser if you want. It’ll be years before we fully understand the impact that the Project has had on global literacy, but for now you should take full advantage of the opportunity that it presents to you and say a silent prayer to the literature gods that it continues in perpetuity.

So, now you know where to find classic books, let’s lay out a plan to get you reading them.

Step One: Stop Being Scared of Classic Literature

Let’s start with a confession: I was scared of classic books for most of my life. I was convinced that I wasn’t smart enough to read them, or that I wasn’t educated enough to understand them. Even once I’d completed my degree, I figured I’d studied the “wrong thing” and classic books were reserved for the arts graduates that wore berets and pronounced Nietzsche correctly without even trying. This is the book-lover’s version of imposter syndrome; we convince ourselves that because we read a lot of YA, or we prefer prose to poetry, or we struggle with stilted language, that we “don’t belong” in the Classics section, and if we even try to read them everyone will find out we’re a big fat fraud.

So, let’s call bullshit on all of that right now. The classics are for everyone. A classic doesn’t become a classic without a lot of people reading it and loving it for a long time (see above), and statistically at least some of those people must have had the same tastes, education, and interests as you.

Bonus tip: make it easier on yourself. Start small. You wouldn’t start playing a video game on Level 20, would you? If you dive into the deep-end with Shakespeare’s collected works or The Odyssey, you’re setting yourself up to fail. There will be a bunch of unfamiliar references buried in a mountain of obscure language that goes right over your head, and you won’t have a hope of relating or engaging to the text. So, find a novel that will ease you in. Victorian classics are usually good choices, because the language isn’t all that different and you’ll be familiar enough with the cultural references already (and if you’re not, they’re usually easy enough to piece together anyway). Jane Eyre is one that I personally recommend, or David Copperfield – I read them early on in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, and they put me in great stead to build on my relationship with the classics. If I can do it, you can do it. Promise.

Step Two: Find A Classic Book That Suits You

The most fundamental mistake you’ll make in your endeavour to read more classic books is picking one purely because it’s a “classic” that you’ve seen on lots of Buzzfeed lists or Pinterest graphics. There are better ways to go about it!

Take a look at the books you’ve enjoyed in the past, your preferred genres and formats, and try to find classics that are similar to those. Maybe the genres have advanced or changed over time, but you’ll be able to find something that feels a little familiar in terms of themes, characters, settings, and so on.

Here’s the easiest way to do it: chances are, you’ve already read an adaptation or two in your time (in fact, some would argue that all contemporary books owe a debt to the classics in one way or another). Consider going back to the original text, whatever it is. You’ll already have some familiarity with the story, which will make it easier to follow and enjoy. Make a list of all the books you’ve loved that are adapted from or related to classic literature. If you loved The Hours, for instance, go back and read Mrs Dalloway, or try Pride And Prejudice if you loved Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Step Three: Get Some Context For What You’re Reading

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s always a good idea to find an edition with a decent introduction. I know people don’t always read them, but if you’re just beginning your foray into the classics it’s well worth it. The introduction (well, a good one) will give you all the background information you need before reading your classic book: the life and inspiration of the author, the political context of their work, our contemporary understanding of what they were trying to say, the popularity of their work over time, how the work changed between editions, language quirks, and more.

To give you an idea of how important this is, check out my review of Little Women. Without reading the introduction first, I would have read the book completely differently. In fact, I probably would have written it off as sentimental, moralising guff – I would have disregarded it entirely – if I didn’t have that foundation of knowledge about Lousia May Alcott’s politics and motivations.

If an edition with a good introduction isn’t easily accessible (sometimes they’re difficult to find, sometimes they’re super expensive, sometimes the introductions are too academic and stuffy to be of any use), just do some research online. I mean, you have a device in your pocket – you’re probably looking at it right now! – that allows you to access the entire breadth and depth of human knowledge. So, chances are someone somewhere has written down what you need to know about the book you’re about to read. Check out the author’s Wikipedia page to get an idea of when and where they lived, and how their life circumstances influenced their work. Look at recent reviews and book blogger posts about the book, because they’re sure to have some interesting tid-bits about the nature of the work. Sure, you risk encountering some spoilers with this method, but honestly the benefit you’ll get out of a contextual understanding far outweighs the detriment of knowing that the baby-daddy dies in the end of The Scarlet Letter.

Step Four: Start Reading!

It’s as simple as picking up the book and getting down to business. For more suggestions on how to do it, check out the first installment of this series, which was packed with tips on how to carve time out of your day and stay focused on reading.

Bonus tip: take it slow! And don’t be concerned if you’re taking longer than usual to read. You might need extra time to look up antiquated language, or revisit chapter summaries and make sure you’re following everything that’s going on. Even if you’re not taking those additional breaks, your brain might just need a little longer to process what you’re taking in. That’s okay! It takes me a lot longer to read a Victorian or Russian classic than it does to read a dystopian YA best-seller, so you’re definitely not alone.

Step Five: Expand Your Classic Horizons

OK, once you’ve read a few classics – and enjoyed them! – you’re ready to level up. If you read last week’s post, you already know how important diversity in reading is to me (as it should be to everyone, to be honest). Because of the patriarchy and cultural imperialism and the way the damn world works, in the present and in the past, chances are good that the classic(s) you pick up were written by straight white men (or, in a pinch, straight white women, and even then probably only the wealthy ones). The sad fact is that these are the classics that have received the most attention over literary history… but that’s not to say that classics by people of colour or LGBTIQ+ writers or writers with disabilities don’t exist. They certainly do! Once you’ve started to get comfortable with reading classics, you’re ready to seek them out if you haven’t already, and add an extra dimension to your classics-reading life. Here’s an entree platter to get you started:

Bonus Tips: How To Read (Even More!) Classics

Have a go at re-reading the classics that you didn’t like initially, or gave up on long ago. You know, the ones you were forced to read in high-school, or the ones that you tried and abandoned in your early twenties. You’ll probably be reluctant to revisit them at first, but I’m in it with you: I’m walking the walk, and circling back around to try Pride and Prejudice again for Keeping Up With The Penguins (having started, and abandoned, it no fewer than half-a-dozen times in the past). One of my favourite sayings is “you don’t read the book, the book reads you”, and it holds true with the classics most of all. You change and grow over the years, and you never know: you might just change and grow into a person that loves your currently-most-hated classic book. 😉

Another great piece of advice is the one my husband gave to me when I was tackling Moby Dick: let go of the idea that you’re going to understand every single world, or fully comprehend the author’s meaning. In fact, let go of the idea that you’ll understand even most of it. Focus on getting into the flow of the book, and ride the author’s wave. You’ll get the gist, at least, and that will be enough for now. Save the in-depth understanding for future re-reads, because it takes the pressure off and lets you enjoy the book without tearing your hair out. (Fun fact: the only book for which this strategy hasn’t worked was The Golden Bowl, and that’s a pretty good strike rate given how many classics I’ve tackled for KUWTP!).

And, finally, if you pick up a book and you’re giving it a red-hot go and you’re trying to get into the flow but it’s just not working… give it up! The fact is there are dozens – probably hundreds – of other classic books out there that you will enjoy and relate to. Don’t be afraid to ditch one half-way through, or a quarter of the way through, or even less if it really sucks. Your time is better spent on classic books that enrich your world and bring you joy.


Are you going to commit to reading more classic books this year? Which classics are you looking forward to reading? Which ones are you nervous about? Let me know in the comments (or drop it in the comments over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Best Fathers in Literature

Literature is littered with examples of poor parenting, particularly when it comes to fathers. All too often, fathers are dead (as was the case with the Reverend in Jane Eyre), or otherwise absent (like Chaplain March in Little Women). Sometimes they’re completely ineffectual (like Emma’s Mr Woodhouse), and other times they outright suck at the fatherhood gig (see Pap Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), to the point of being dangerous and extremely damaging (who could forget Lolita’s Humbert Humbert?). It all makes for pretty depressing reading, but you know what? Father’s Day is coming up, and it’s time that we spread a little joy to counteract all this misery. Let’s take a look at some of the often-overlooked best fathers in literature.

The Best Fathers In Literature - Black Text Above Image of Man Holding Child on Jetty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

My love for Dickens knows no bounds, but even I can acknowledge that he didn’t write a whole lot of present, supportive father figures. That makes A Christmas Carol’s Bob Cratchit all the more special! Bob is hardly flawless – he’s a little earnest, and a bit of a martyr – but dammit, he saves Christmas! And he provides the perfect counterpoint to Ebenezer Scrooge’s misanthropy. Bob Cratchit will make you believe in fatherly love again, so pick this one up when you’re losing faith.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

Family isn’t always about blood. Hans Hubermann is a forster father to Liesel in The Book Thief, her biological parents having been persecuted for being communists in Nazi Germany. While it would have been easy for a lesser man to simply ignore Liesel (given everything else he had going on), or punish her for stealing books, Hans instead teaches her to read at night by candlelight, and role models the kind of empathy and compassion that saves lives in such dire circumstances. Make no mistake, he can dole out the tough love when it’s needed (Liesel makes the potentially deadly mistake of saying she hates Hitler in public, and Hans smacks her down), but it always comes from a place of genuine fatherly love. If only all fictional displaced children had a man like Hans to care for them…

Thomas Schell (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer)

Thomas actually dies before the story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even begins, a victim of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. And yet, the reader is immediately and abundantly aware of his love for his son. The story is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Oskar, as he chases clues to his father’s secret all over New York City. Their father-son bond is well and truly alive, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close serves as a great reminder that good parenting transcends mortality.

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

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

It would seem that there’s a certain controversy involved in calling Mr Bennet one of the best fathers in literature. He is, after all, a bit weak-willed and bewildered (especially when it comes to financial planning). But in fairness, five daughters (especially ones that live for the drama, like the Bennet girls) and a high-strung wife is a lot to cope with, and one can hardly blame the man for backing down from a fight now and then.

What is not up for debate is his love and support for all of the girls, especially the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, his darling Lizzy. He refuses to entertain the notion of a marriage to a man he sees as undeserving of her (even though it would have been a financially savvy match), but he backs Lizzy 100% when she tells him she loves Mr Darcy. “I could not have parted with you, my LIzzy,” he says, “to anyone less worthy”. Recognising the intelligence and agency of his daughters made him a man ahead of his time, and – in my opinion – well-worthy of inclusion in this list of the best fathers in literature.

Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

And, finally, we come to Atticus – arguably the best father in literature, the numero uno, the grand poobah of fatherhood… (as long as you don’t count the ugliness that came to light with the release of Go Set A Watchman). In truth, any list of the best fathers in literature is woefully incomplete without mention of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. He is a widower, raising two children alone against a backdrop of Southern poverty and racism. And yet, he upholds the values of acceptance, gratitude, empathy, and respect like no other literary icon has before or since. His influence is so great that it inspired the foundation of The Atticus Finch Society, a real-life organisation founded to serve the very population that the fictional Atticus sought to defend. Plus, if his bravery and moral fortitude in the face of an unfair world weren’t enough, the man is endlessly quotable:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

And you can read my complete love letter to Atticus Finch here (yes, believe it or not, I’ve got more to say).

And there we have it: a collection of the best fathers in literature you can read to celebrate this Father’s Day. Have you got a favourite that I’ve missed? Make sure you let me know in the comments below (or give them a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).