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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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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



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

7 Most Heartbreaking Deaths In Literature

I’m not going to sugar-coat it (when do I ever?): authors are sadists. They get their jollies crafting wonderful characters that we adore and cherish, only to kill them in the most brutal and gut-wrenching ways. Every booklover has at least one or two character deaths that have left them scarred and reaching for the tissues. If you’ve read any of these books, I’m very sorry for your loss and for triggering those traumatic memories. If you’ve not picked them up yet, consider this an impassioned warning of what lies ahead. Here are the seven most heartbreaking deaths in literature.

7 Most Heartbreaking Deaths In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Holding Sad Child - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ted (The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham)

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll confess, I didn’t love everything about The Dressmaker, but the death of Ted is one of the cruellest I’ve ever read (and that’s coming from a book littered with corpses and all manner of cruelty). Tilly, the protagonist, overcomes her trauma and opens herself up to love, only to have her leading man, the kind-hearted and dreamy Ted, meet a very sudden and unfortunate end. As a joke, he jumps into a silo, as he used to do when he was a kid, believing it to be filled with wheat… only it was actually filled with light sorghum that couldn’t support his weight. He suffocated as he sunk down, never to be seen again, as Tilly watched helpless from the top. Gahhhh!

Lady (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)

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

George R.R. Martin is famous (or infamous) for his fictional death toll, and A Game Of Thrones has more dead bodies than you can poke a stick at, but the one that truly broke me was that of Lady. Each of the Stark children has been given a direwolf of their own, to keep as a pet, and it’s a wonderful arrangement until Arya’s direwolf attacks the prince. Arya is clever enough to send her beloved pet off into the woods to hide, but Queen Cersei’s vengeful wrath demands satisfaction. She insists that Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, be killed in its place. And Ned Stark offers to be the one to do it, saving the gorgeous animal any unnecessary pain. The death of an innocent at the hands of a loving father! *sobs*

Sirius Black (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling)

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Good one, James!” Sirius shouts, mistaking his beloved godson for his departed friend, right as Bellatrix Lestrange fires off a curse that sends him into that good night. His body falls through a strange portal, never to be seen again. J.K. Rowling is a cruel, cruel woman! You know what, pretty much every death in the Harry Potter series is heartbreaking: Dumbledore, Lupin and Tonks, Fred, Hedwig, Dobby… I’ll accept any answer except for Snape. That guy caused so much trouble just because he was butt-hurt that Lily didn’t love him back, I have no sympathy. Anyway, at least Rowling is kind enough to apologise for one death per year on Twitter.

Tom Robinson (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

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

To Kill A Mockingbird is all about the loss of innocence, and Tom Robinson’s death is just that: the literal death of an innocent man, wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. So disheartened by his guilty verdict, and its racial overtones (Tom being a black man, accused of raping a white woman), he tries to escape prison, only to be shot by the guards. It’s the one time we see Atticus Finch truly shaken, so heartbroken is he that Tom didn’t live to see out the appeals process and his exoneration. Tom’s death had to happen, so that readers could fully understand the consequences of injustice, but that doesn’t make it any less sad.

The “Goldens” Prince Philip and Fatima (We Were Liars – E. Lockhart)

We Were Liars - E Lockhart - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There are five beautiful golden retrievers in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, and I am emotionally traumatised by the needless death of two of them, Prince Philip and Fatima. They were lovable goofballs, treasured pets of the Sinclair grandparents. They ate starfish from the beach, only to vomit them up on the fancy carpet later, and adored tennis balls. Yes, they’re a metaphor for the pretty-but-vapid Sinclair sisters, but I was truly heartbroken by their deaths. They were sacrificed in the Liars’ foolish and futile attempt to destroy family privilege with an act of petty vandalism. What terrible waste!

Beth March (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)

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

You’d be hard-pressed to find a booklover who doesn’t list Beth’s death in Little Women as one of the most heartbreaking deaths in literature. Beth was the sweet one, the innocent one, the one who sought only to spread joy and care for others… so, of course, she had to bite the dust. In fact, her kindness is the very reason she died; she contracted scarlet fever while caring for a neighbour’s sick child. She died curled up next to Jo, satisfied that for once she would be the first of her sisters to do something. If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider Joey in that episode of Friends, who was so distressed he had to hide the book in the freezer…

John Thornton and All. Of. The. Dogs. (The Call Of The Wild – Jack London)

The Call Of The Wild - Jack London - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In just 84 pages, Jack London managed to cram in more heartbreaking deaths than the rest of this list put together. So many dogs died in The Call Of The Wild – some killed by humans, some killed by their fellows, some killed by the sheer exhaustion of their work i n the gold rush. What’s more, the only nice human in the whole book, John Thornton, the only damn one who shows these animals the kindness and respect they deserve, goes and gets himself killed by a Native American tribe. He is avenged, of course, but still! I can’t fathom the depths of London’s cruelty.



As you can see, I’m of the firm belief that dog deaths are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature, and I’m not even sorry for crowding this list with them. Humans, at least, usually deserve what’s coming to them, and can defend themselves; our best friends with four legs, on the other hand… *reaches for tissues*. Which do you think are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature? If you can work through the pain, tell me in the comments (or share your grief over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Best Mothers In Literature

Last year, I did a post on the best fathers in literature, and I think it’s high time the ladies got a look in. That’s just, like, the rules of feminism! William Ross Wallace, U.S. lawyer and poet, said back in the 19th century that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”, and it’s just as true today, but don’t be fooled! The best mothers in literature aren’t all gentle, maternal wallflowers. Here’s a list of my favourites…

The Best Mothers In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Mother and Son - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Marmee (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)

I figured we’d get the obvious pick out of the way straight up: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of the best mothers in literature that doesn’t feature Marmee, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Everyone comes for the all-American-girl archetypes of the March sisters, but Marmee is the real star of the show. She runs a huge household on the smell of an oily rag, with her husband off at war, all the while still prioritising generosity and charity, and yet she doesn’t seem to be a martyr. Marmee has an incredible sense for exactly what each of her daughters need, be it tough love or gentle comfort, and she dishes it out accordingly. Imagine if she and Atticus Finch got together, they’d probably fix the world…

Úrsula Iguarán (One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez)

If life-span were the criterion by which we judged the best mothers in literature, Úrsula from One Hundred Years Of Solitude would surely get the gong. She lives to be over 150 years old, all the while caring for three subsequent generations of her family. And that’s not all! She rolls up her sleeves and renovates her whole house herself (more than once!), runs a business, and keeps all the plates spinning with enviable aplomb. She keeps the whole family in check, and acts as a touchstone for rationality and practicality in Márquez’s whirlwind multi-generational epic.

Catelyn Stark (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)

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

I know the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, but Catelyn Stark, in my mind, is a damn lioness. She’s fiercely protective: just try looking at one of her kids a bit funny, and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of some serious wrath! Catelyn shows us that being a good mother doesn’t always mean being warm and gentle – or even present. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your kids is storm off across the country and raise hell on their behalf. And before you say it, I can forgive her for being a bit rough on Jon Snow; it can’t have been easy raising the kid you believe is the living, breathing evidence of your otherwise-wonderful husband’s infidelity…

Sunyan Woo (The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan)

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Joy Luck Club‘s founder, Sunyan Woo, isn’t one to wallow. Instead of getting rightfully depressed about her very shitty life circumstances, she cops on with it, basically manifesting the happiness she so desperately wishes for her family. She makes some heartbreaking sacrifices, even knowing all the while that her daughters will never truly understand the choices she makes, but believing firmly in what is best for them. We usually think of “good” mothers as giving their kids everything they want, and the kids smiling and thanking them endlessly, but there’s another side to it in real life. Sunyan Woo is a wonderful example of that type of good motherhood.

Addie Bundren (As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner)

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, I’m well aware that this is a controversial inclusion in a list of the best mothers in literature, but I stand by it. Addie dies pretty early on in As I Lay Dying – hope I didn’t spoil that for you, but heck, the title is a pretty big clue – and there’s really only one chapter written from her perspective. And yet, Faulkner still manages to tell us so much about her! I feel like I know her personally. Through her reflections, and those of her family, we know that Addie did pretty well to plan the hand she was dealt in life… but she reveals to us that she didn’t lose touch with who she truly was, someone who didn’t wish to be a mother, and didn’t relish the job, despite all the social pressure to feel differently. She cared deeply for her family, but she was also movingly honest about not quite fitting the mould her life had cut for her. I found it refreshing and incredibly endearing.

Molly Weasley (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is the Marmee for this generation. Sure, everyone goes ga-ga over Lily Potter’s big “sacrifice”, but in our heart of hearts we all know we’d rather be mothered by the hard-arse matriarch of the Weasley family. She cares deeply and tenderly for all of her children, taking in Harry and Hermione as her own as well, but she’s never a soft touch and she doesn’t hesitate to dole out the discipline as required (which, given that she raised two identical-twin pranksters, is pretty often). I challenge you to read her immortal line – “Not my daughter, you bitch!” – and tell me to my face you don’t get chills.

Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck)

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another American classic, another incredible matriarch – what is it in the water on that side of the world that helps them write the best mothers in literature? Ma Joad is the true hero of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and that’s a hill I’m happy to die on if you want to argue the point. She whips up meals out of thin air, miraculously keeping starvation at bay for the whole family. She shields the still-warm corpse of her own mother from the rest of them to ensure they reach California safely. She calms the nerves of her pregnant daughter, and delivers the baby herself when the time comes. I could give a hundred other examples, but I’m sure by now you’re as convinced as I am that she is the backbone of the Joad family.

Miss Honey (Matilda – Roald Dahl)

Miss Honey is proof that motherhood is not to be found only in blood or biology. Matilda‘s birth parents are all kinds of awful (Dahl did have a real knack for writing shitty guardians), but in Miss Honey this young girl finds the love and support she needs. Like any other mother, Miss Honey sees Matilda’s special talents and incredible intelligence, and goes above and beyond to protect and nurture her. In each other, Matilda and Miss Honey find their real family, and it’s so touching – far more than you’d expect from a children’s book!

Helen Graham (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The best mothers in literature haven’t always been recognised as such. In fact, Helen Graham – the titular Tenant of Wildfell Hall – was so shocking, so controversial, so blatantly feminist that Charlotte Brontë forbid the book’s republication after Anne’s death. The notion that a woman(!) would think for herself, and escape her philandering drunk of a husband to start a new life with her adored son instead of just, y’know, putting up with it, was not only confronting to rigid Victorian sensibilities – it was literally illegal. Thankfully, we can now recognise Helen Graham as the brave feminist icon she is, and admire her incredible commitment to taking care of her child, flying in the face of all social expectations.

Who do you think are the best mothers in literature? I would love some more examples of wonderful WOC and LGBTIQ+ mothers – they’ve historically been so underrepresented in books, and we need to redress that balance! Drop some suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. Read my full review here.

Ulysses – James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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!).

Want more surprising book recommendations? Throw some change in the tip jar, so I can keep on Keeping Up With The Penguins and bring you more!



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 full 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 a future review here.

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