Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 10)

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

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

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

Gifts For Book Lovers: Books

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

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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

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

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

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

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

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

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

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

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

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

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

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Dark Emu - Bruce Pascoe - Book Cover - Magabala Books

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

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

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

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

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

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

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

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

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

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

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

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

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

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

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

Gifts For Book Lovers That Aren’t Books

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

Literary Mugs

Mug With Literary Cat Quotes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

Bookish Calendars

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

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

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

Reading Journal

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

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

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

Bookish Apparel

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

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

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

Bookends

Gothic Dragon Book Ends - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

Bookish Home Decor

A Compendium Of Flowers Vase - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

Bookmarks

Metal Feather Book Marks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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


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


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

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

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

Read Instead: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

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

Read Instead: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

Don’t Read: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Read Instead: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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

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

Read Instead: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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

Don’t Read: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read Instead: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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

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

Read Instead: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Don’t Read: The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Read Instead: Literally anything else.

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


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

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

5 Of The Worst Book Endings… Ever!

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

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

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

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

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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

(As suggested by @syarahsyazanaghazali)

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

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

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(As suggested by @i_left_my_heart_in_sf)

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

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

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

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

5 Books You Should Have Read In High School

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

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

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

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

Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

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

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

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

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

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


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

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


13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors

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

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

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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

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

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

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

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

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

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

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

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

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

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

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

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

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

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

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

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

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

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

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington

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

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

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

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

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

Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

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

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

No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

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

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

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

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

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

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

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

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

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

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

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

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

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

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

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

The Dry by Jane Harper

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

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


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

The A-Z of Classic Books: A Classic Read For Every Letter of the Alphabet

I recently bought two huge bookshelves, and I’ve spent the last couple weeks mired in the task of stocking them (bye-bye, random-piles-of-books-in-every-corner-of-my-house!). I had a stab at a few different organisational systems; I salivate over the gorgeous rainbow arrangements I see on bookstagram, but ultimately I had to stick with alphabetical by author surname. The ways of a library-lover never really leave us! Still, the process got me wondering, in my organisational fugue state, whether I could pull together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet, by title.

It was a fun little challenge that niggled at the back of my mind until I sat down and gave it a go. I couldn’t even cheat by searching the gorgeous Penguin Drop Caps editions, because they’re all coded by author. I found the first fifteen or so quite easy, but it got harder and harder after I locked in all the “easy” letters. Finding the last three were absolute torture! But I got there in the end, and that’s what matters. Here’s the final result, an A-Z list of classic books: a classic read for every letter of the alphabet!

The A-Z of Classic Books - Text Overlaid on Image of Wooden Dice with Letters Printed on The Sides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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

Why not start off with some lighthearted fun? Most people my age are familiar with the Disney cartoon version, but I highly recommend checking out the original book. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is full of really clever wordplay that you can only truly appreciate when you see it on the page. Plus, the nostalgic kick you’ll get out of it is second to none!

B: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Now, let’s plunge into some classic dystopian fiction. Brave New World depicts Huxley’s imagined future, where the world population is separated into castes, controlled with drugs and sex, and one man tries to break free… with tragic results. Dystopian fiction is really having A Moment, so it’s a great time to revisit this one!

C: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Clarissa - Samuel Richardson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In its full form, Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady is literally one of the longest novels in the English language (going by estimated word-count). Luckily, I managed to pick up an abridged edition to read for Keeping Up With The Penguins (my review coming soon!). Phew! From what I know so far, it’s an epistolary novel about a young heroine and her rotten family.

D: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula - Bram Stoker - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This letter is another epistolary novel, but one significantly more spooky! Stoker didn’t write the first vampire novel, but Dracula is definitely the most enduring of the genre. In it, a young doctor finds himself the house-guest-slash-prisoner of a creepy count, and he has to gather a band of friends to save his wife from falling into the guy’s evil clutches…

E: Emma by Jane Austen

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Austen referred to Emma as her heroine that no one but her would like very much, but she didn’t count on the subsequent generations of fans who love and adore this subtle social satire. Emma was rich, beautiful, and a touch self-absorbed, but she also loved her friends and family, and she didn’t succumb to the social pressure to marry until she was sure she found the right bloke. Sounds like an admirable heroine to me!

F: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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Frankenstein is the grand-daddy of science fiction, the first novel where the “monster” was not born of fantasy but of man’s own scientific experiments. And, of course, the story behind the story is perhaps the best part: Mary Shelley was on holiday with her husband and Lord Byron, and she wanted to win a bet by coming up with the scariest story. She was just a teenager at the time!

G: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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Don’t let the movie adaptations fool you, Gulliver’s Travels is hardly for kids! It’s actually a searing social commentary, and a deeply complex and layered one at that. Swift covers everything from religion to politics to economics to philosophy, and it was very controversial in its time for the bleak conclusion he reached about the nature of humanity.

H: Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heidi’s original subtitle described it as a book “for children, and those who love children” – turns out there are plenty of those! It has gone on to become one of the best-selling books ever written. It’s certainly one of the best-known works of Swiss literature. It’s the heart-warming story of a young girl who lives with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.

I: In Search Of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

You could probably spend a lifetime studying In Search Of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance Of Things Past, which is a prettier title, but I already had a book for “R”), and still struggle to summarise its seven volumes into just a sentence or two… so I won’t even try. Rest assured, Proust can be a bummer, but this magnum opus is comprehensive and life-changing and at least worth a look.

J: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For a while, Charlotte was the shining jewel in the Brontë family crown. She was described as the “first historian of personal consciousness” for her incredible talent in depicting a character’s internal world, particularly that of Jane Eyre. While poor Charlotte has fallen a little out of favour, now often overlooked for her also-wildly-talented sisters, I still count this classic book among my all-time favourite reads.

K: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

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While Kipling is probably better known for his poetry and his children’s stories (like The Jungle Book), he also painted an incredible portrait of India in Kim. Against that stunning backdrop, he tells the story of a young orphan boy who follows a spiritual master, but somehow finds himself swept up in a world of military espionage, and has to extricate himself to pursue his spiritual life.

L: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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“A moral book for girls”, Alcott’s publishers demanded of her, and she delivered… but not without her own cleverly-veiled barbs and controversial life lessons contained therein. Little Women, for too long, was excluded from the American literary canon, written off as schmaltzy crap, but it’s finally getting its moment in the sun and the recognition it deserves. A brilliant book!

M: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

This book is, ironically, many a reader’s white whale. Like its titular leviathan, it is huge, it is unwieldy, and you must follow it to places you’d never expect or imagine. While I completely understand it’s a slog to get through, there’s also a certain magical quality about Moby Dick for me. Being as long and as complex as it is, you’ll find something new and different inside every time you pick it up. Be brave, give it a go, and maybe it won’t be as bad as you think (or, at least, the slog will be worth it!).

N: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is an incredible mid-19th century memoir by former slave Frederick Douglass, generally held to be the most famous such work of that period. It serves as an incredible treatise on abolition as well as a beautiful account of an enslaved man’s ambitions for freedom.

O: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens - Book Laid Open On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A typically-cheerful Dickens novel, Oliver Twist is about the life of a young boy, born in a workhouse and sold into an apprenticeship with an undertaker. When he reaches London, he falls in with a gang of juvenile delinquents, and that’s where his adventures really begin… It was Dickens’s second novel, and it’s wonderful to see his signature style emerge through these pages.

P: Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

Yes, Austen features twice in this list, because if there’s a book that’s synonymous with the words “classic English literature” in the minds of most readers, it’s this one: Pride And Prejudice. The romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy has become so pervasive in pop-culture that it’s now considered archetypal, and even those who haven’t (yet!) read this book can recognise its features.

Q: Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey

This is the original and definitive biography of one of Britain’s longest-serving monarchs. Queen Victoria probably had more influence on our lives today than you and I would know, were it not for classic portraits of her life and rule, like this one. She’s been an object of fascination for a long time (since her birth, really, in 1819), and many books have been written about her, but almost all of them inevitably refer back to this one as a source text.

R: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

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Have you ever dreamed of sailing away to a desert island, and living out the rest of your life alone with the beach views? Well, try living vicariously through Robinson Crusoe and you’ll soon think twice: that castaway life ain’t all beer and skittles! This is widely considered to be one of the first – if not the first – novels of the English language, and it’s still in heavy circulation today.

S: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, Stevenson deliberately omitted the preposition (“The”) from the original book title, which means technically this one counts for S! Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the prototype for the niche-sub-genre of “doppelgänger lit”, and while it’s short, it packs one hell of a punch. It’s worth picking this one up if only to find out where the idiom of being a “Jekyll and Hyde character” comes from… (and you can read about more literary origins of idioms here, too!).

Fine, if you’re going to insist that it doesn’t count, because most contemporary editions include the preposition, how about Sandition by Jane Austen?

T: Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess Of The D'Urburvilles - Thomas Hardy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another classic that was underappreciated in its time (I swear, they all were, almost!). Tess of the D’urbervilles wasn’t published in full for many years; the first editions that appeared in the late 1800s were highly sanitised and censored. Luckily, today we get to enjoy it in its full filthy glory, the story of a young woman forced (by poverty) to seek out her rich relatives and try to stake a claim on part of their fortune.

U: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

President Abraham Lincoln once met Harriet Beecher Stowe, and asked her if she was the “little lady” who had “caused so much trouble”. He was referring, of course, to this incredible book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which fanned the fires of the abolitionist movement in American, and (ultimately) the Civil War that ended legally-sanctioned slavery in the South.

V: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“A novel without a hero” proclaims the cover page, and indeed, there are very few likeable characters in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. While rambling and meandering at times, it mostly follows the lives of two dichotomous young women, the saintly martyr-slash-doormat Amelia Sedley, and the mischievous calculating Becky Sharp. Guess whose side I’m on…!

W: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If all you know of the love story of Cathy and Heathcliff has been drawn from the Kate Bush song, you’re missing out! Wuthering Heights is dark, weird, gothic, and confronting, but also incredibly layered and scarily realistic at times. Come for the “great romance” of the love song, stay for the stark Brontë vision of the darkness that stirs within us all…

X: Xantippe and Other Verse by Amy Levy

They said it couldn’t be done, but I did it! I found a classic book for “X”! It’s perhaps not as well known as the others on this list, it’s barely in circulation, and technically Xantippe is a poetry collection, but it counts! The title poem, Xantippe, is an imagined monologue from Socrates’ wife as she lay on her death bed. It’s the star of the show, and well worth checking out for that reason alone…

Y: Yeşil Gece by Reşat Nuri Güntekin

Yeşil Gece is a story told against the backdrop of the Turkish War of Independence, and the formation of the Turkish Republic, a beautifully evocative setting. A devoutly Muslim man sends his son, Şahin (the protagonist), to a nearby Islamic school, where he starts causing trouble and openly rebelling, spouting secularist ideals. It’s a startlingly relevant read, nearly a hundred years after its initial publication.

Z: Zaynab by Muhammad Husayn Haykal

Zaynab was first published in 1913, and is now widely considered to be the first modern Egyptian novel. A beautiful young peasant girl, Zaynab, is the object of three different men’s affections: a plantation owner’s son, a peasant foreman, and the man destined to become her groom in an arranged marriage. As I’m sure you can imagine, romantic misadventures abound…


Are there any you’d like to add? Let’s see if we can get up to two per letter! Drop your suggestions in the comments below (or share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Are you a chronic alphabetiser, too? Find out what that says about you in my post on bookshelves as personality types.

My Favourite Fiction and Non-Fiction Book Pairings

A couple weeks back, I posted a list of read-alike book recommendations, and had a lot of fun doing it! So, I thought it would be fun to do the same again this week, but with a twist. This time around, I’ll be recommending books in fiction/non-fiction pairs. I’ve tried to pick books that approach the same topic or theme, but from different directions. And these recommendations are coming to you in just the nick of time for Non-Fiction November! Here are my favourite fiction and non-fiction book pairings…

My Favourite Fiction and Non-Fiction Book Pairings - Text Overlaid on Distorted Greyscale Image of Library Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Fiction) should be paired with I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (Non-Fiction)

Let’s start with the big stakes, right up front: these books both deal with the fragility of life, the ever-looming spectre of death, and how the smallest moments in our lives can have very big consequences. Life After Life is a novel that tells the life stories of one young woman growing up in the 20th century. Every time she dies, her life begins anew, and her decisions lead to different versions of her life each time. How could that possibly be paired with a non-fiction book? Well, I Am, I Am, I Am is the memoir of Maggie O’Farrell, and it details seventeen (count ’em!) close brushes she’s had with death, each focusing on a different part of the body.

Read my full review of Life After Life here.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova (Fiction) should be paired with The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (Non-Fiction)

These two books offer two very different perspectives on our brains, how they work, and what happens when they stop working the way that they should. Lisa Genova’s break-out novel, Still Alice, tells the story of a successful, happy woman who is diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and details her slow descent into a horrible fate. Genova really cleverly shows the reader the way that the disease affects perspective and eats memories – bring tissues! The Brain That Changes Itself, on the other hand, is an accessible but clinical look at the way our brains adapt to trauma and damage, revealing the untold potential of our thinking meat if we learn how to train it properly.

Read my full review of Still Alice here, and The Brain That Changes Itself here.

Bonus book recommendation: I really took issue with the way that Doidge described animal research in The Brain That Changes Itself. For an alternative perspective on that subject in fiction, you should pick up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Fiction) should be paired with A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold (Non-Fiction)

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t, at one time or another, been moved to tears by news of another mass shooting in America. It’s an ever-present threat to the lives and safety of children in that country, and it has been approached a number of different ways in literature. Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is a fictional take on a mother’s relationship with a school shooter, and the various ways that family relationships can become tangled with terrible results. A Mother’s Reckoning is the real-life story of the mother of a Columbine shooter, Sue Klebold. She talks with heart-wrenching honesty about living in the aftermath of the tragedy, and her struggle to piece together what happened.

Bonus book recommendations: If you enjoyed Shriver’s fictional take on this subject, try Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. If you want to learn more about the real-life events of Columbine, check out Columbine by Dave Cullen, who uncovered some horrific truths.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Fiction) should be paired with Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Non-Fiction)

The Hate U Give was the young-adult read of 2017. It put racism in today’s America, particularly in terms of police violence, on the agenda for many a reader who might not have otherwise considered the issue in their daily lives. Just Mercy will take your understanding of this issue to another level; it follows the story of a young lawyer defending a black man of a heinous crime, a la Atticus Finch, and in so doing it highlights issues of race within the criminal justice system. You will find both of these books challenging and confronting, but in the best possible ways.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Fiction) should be paired with The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (?)

OK, fine. Technically The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a fictionalised story… but(!) it is very firmly rooted in the real-life experiences of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, Holocaust survivor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist. So, I say it counts! Morris spent hundreds of hours interviewing this incredible man and researching minute details, originally envisaging a screenplay about his life but in the end writing a book, thinly veiled as fiction. It’s a great accompaniment to Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, a fully-fictional story about a young French girl and a German orphan boy, and how their lives weave together over the course of the Second World War.

Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Fiction) should be paired with One Summer by Bill Bryson (Non-Fiction)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really, really didn’t enjoy The Great Gatsby, and I happen to think it is one of the most over-rated books in the world… but, for better or worse, it’s held up as the defining novel of the Jazz Age in America, and people continue to read it in their hundreds and thousands each year. While I’d prefer to recommend Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as an alternative, it is fiction, so if you’re looking for a more factual version of events from that era you should check out Bill Bryson’s One Summer. Even though he sets out to describe one specific summer from that period (thus, the title), in his trademark folksy style Bryson manages to work in a lot of fun facts and interesting anecdotes from across the 1920s.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Fiction) should be paired with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Non-Fiction)

These two go together like bread and butter. Like wine and cheese. Like books and shelves. You really can’t have one without the other. Both The Color Purple and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings take place in the segregated American South of the 1930s, and both are written by incredible black American women. The former is a fictional epistolary novel about the bonds of sisterhood, while the latter is an autobiographical account of overcoming trauma and racism through strength of character (and a love of literature). Both very worthwhile reads, whatever your bent!

Looking back over this list of recommended fiction and non-fiction book pairings, I realise they’re all incredibly heavy and emotional. So, let’s end on a happier note, shall we? Just for fun, try pairing The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy with A Brief History Of Time. The true nature of our universe, as described by Stephen Hawking in the best-selling popular science book of all time, will blow your mind in wonder. And then, just when you find yourself in need of a laugh, you can turn to Arthur Dent’s misadventures through space and time in Douglas Adams’ hilarious novel. You can find my reviews of Hitchhiker’s Guide here, and A Brief History Of Time here.

Wondering which ones to start with? Check out this post I pulled together about what I call the “literature wars”: fiction versus non-fiction, which is better? If you’ve got another good pairing to suggest, please leave it in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

If I’m being honest, the whole Keeping Up With The Penguins project is founded on the idea of reading all the books I wish I’d read sooner. This post could just be the full list of 109 books I’ve challenged myself to read, and we could all go home happy. Still, as I work my way through them, I realise there are a handful that, for one reason or another, I especially wish I’d come to earlier in life, books I should have read long before I finally got around to them. So, here’s my highlights reel of books I wish I’d read sooner.

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Now that I’ve read The Book Thief, I feel like I see it everywhere. Granted, there’s probably a little confirmation bias at play there, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. My Instagram and Pinterest feeds are filled with gushing, adoring reviews from (mostly) teenage fans. I think, for a lot of them, this is the first WWII story they’ve emotionally connected with, the first one to truly show them the human impact of military conflict. Had I read The Book Thief as a young teen, before encountering Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, I likely would have had the same reaction. I wish I’d read it then, before I engaged with numerous harrowing real-life stories of the Second World War. As it stands, with The Book Thief and historical WWII fiction in general, I’m a bit cynical and often find that for me they don’t stand up to the true accounts. Read my full review here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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Long-time Keeper-Upperers are probably sick of hearing me talk about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but I don’t care: I’ll be recommending this book with my very last breath. I can’t believe I’d never even heard of it before beginning the KUWTP project, despite it having been shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It’s a wonderful story of family, secrets, and humanity, that in my mind sets the standard for contemporary fiction. I dearly wish I’d read it sooner, so that I could have started recommending it sooner, and sold more people on it! I guess I’ll just have to do my best to make up for lost time… Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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I’ve had a long and fraught relationship with Pride And Prejudice. The first time I picked it up, I think I was in high-school, and I abandoned it about 30 pages in. Between then and now, I can recall at least five additional attempts, all of which ended much the same way. It’s only very recently that I’ve managed to finish the whole thing, and I have no idea why I put it off for so long, or why I struggled so much with it! It was wonderful! I really enjoyed it, and found the love story really comfortingly familiar, full of what we now recognise as archetypes of English literature. I wish I’d copped onto myself sooner and just forced myself to persist with it, because it has informed a lot of my reading and critical analysis ever since. Read my full review here.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

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Fahrenheit 451 is another one I wish I’d got to in high-school, back when I first started getting interest in politics, government, power, surveillance, and control. It probably would have felt like a revelation back then, especially if I’d read it alongside my now-all-time-favourite Nineteen Eighty-Four. I know a lot of teenagers are forced to read Fahrenheit 451 for English classes, but somehow I escaped that particular rite of passage, and as such I didn’t come to it until very recently. It really didn’t evoke any strong feelings from me, aside from a sense of let-down after hearing it hyped up for so long. I felt very similarly upon my first reading of Lord Of The Flies. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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My reason for this one is a little self-indulgent, but I couldn’t put this post together without including it (forgive me!): I dearly wish I’d read David Copperfield, or any other Dickens, while my grandfather was alive. He was a huge fan of Dickens, he worshipped every word the man wrote, and even though I wouldn’t have got as much out of it personally had I read it back then, I would have loved the opportunity to talk it over with him. We had many long, wonderful conversation about other books and literature in general, and even though he never outright pressured me to pick up anything from Dickens, I know he would have loved to share his thoughts with me. So, here’s my heartfelt suggestion for all of you: if an older person in your life has a favourite book, read it now so you can discuss it with them, and share that memory, before they pass on! Read my full review here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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Here’s another book I shamelessly plug at any opportunity: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I wish I’d read it sooner so I could have brought it up in every god-awful conversation I’ve ever had about The Great Gatsby. I’ve listened to so many people opine about Fitzgerald’s supposed genius, and spent hours of my life I’ll never get back hearing all about how he definitively captured life in the Jazz Age. Ugh! Had I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sooner, I would have had a counterpoint ready to offer. It’s a far superior book, and as far as I’m concerned it should be required reading on at least the same scale as stinkin’ Gatsby. This is another one I’ll be recommending with my dying breath. Read my full review here.

The White Mouse by Nancy Wake

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The White Mouse was a quiet little book, not one that many readers have heard of, but it’s the autobiography of a truly incredible woman. It lives in the shadow of a far longer, more detailed, more “literary” history of her life and exploits, written by Peter Fitzsimons, which is also a great read. But for me, nothing quite compares to reading someone’s story in their own words, even if they’re not a naturally talented writer. I wish I’d read The White Mouse while Nancy Wake was still alive, firstly so that she would have received a little royalty cheque from my purchase, but secondly so that I could have had the chance to lobby the Australian government on her behalf to pay her the pension I feel she was well and truly owed by our country. That said, I feel lucky to have read it at all. Read my full review here.


If you’ve not yet read any of these, take it from me: you want to get on them a.s.a.p., before it’s too late! Are there any books you wish you’d read sooner? Drop your recommendations in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

If You Like This, Then Try That: 10 Read-Alike Book Recommendations

Have you ever read a book so good you didn’t want it to end? Has it left you wondering what to read next? Allow me to introduce you to the world of read-alikes: book recommendations based on books you already know you love. The book blogging world is full of people suggesting read-alikes, so I thought today I’d try my hand at it. Some of these are a little obvious, I’ll grant you, but others I like to think are a bit different, suggestions you wouldn’t normally consider for yourself. Here are my ten read-alike book recommendations…

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If you liked Paper Towns by John Green, then try… Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

John Green is a YA juggernaut, and I don’t know a single reader in that genre who hasn’t picked up at least one of his books. Rainbow Rowell is perhaps a lesser-known alternative, but if you liked Paper Towns, then Fangirl will probably be right up your alley. Fangirl is the story of Cath, a recent high-school graduate headed to university and trying to find her place in the world. She struggles with whether her passion for fanfiction is “legitimate”, but has to set her own anxieties aside when dealing with her family members’ mental health issues.

Read my full review for Paper Towns here, and for Fangirl here.

If you liked To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, then try… I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

To Kill A Mockingbird is beloved by millions of readers, young and old alike. Even though it deals with some really tough subject matter – violence, racism, and injustice – there’s a river of hope that runs throughout. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a coming-of-age autobiography that deals with many of these same issues in a similar setting, and with an equally optimistic promise – with inner strength (and a love of literature) you can overcome terrible hardship.

Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here, and my review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is coming soon!

If you liked The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins, then try… We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

It wasn’t long ago that you’d see the dark cover of The Girl On The Train everywhere you turned, and its presence only doubled with the release of the popular film adaptation. Alongside Gone Girl, it sparked a huge trend in thriller stories of violence and manipulation told by unreliable female narrators. Now, you might have heard that We Were Liars is a young-adult book and assumed it couldn’t possibly be as dark or gripping as Hawkins’ break-out novel, but check yourself! The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking back to The Girl On The Train and how similar I found them, so it’s worth giving it a try.

Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here, and We Were Liars here.

If you liked The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, then try… All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is one of those “obvious” pairings I was talking about in the beginning, but I’m still surprised how often I come across someone who has read one but not the other. If you read and loved The Book Thief when it first came out a decade ago (perhaps you were part of the teenage target market at the time), consider All The Light We Cannot See your level-up adult alternative. It, too, tells the story of a young girl in the midst of WWII, but it intertwines with the story of a young German orphan who finds himself playing a key role for the Nazis. Plus, Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 2015, so you know it’s got the literary chops.

Read my full review of The Book Thief here, and All The Light We Cannot See here.

If you liked The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, then try… Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Lovers of The Alchemist tend to be the type to seek out literature that will help them grow and improve. That makes Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance a must-read for them! Like Coelho’s book, it’s not self-help per se, but it’s a fascinating fictionalised autobiography that explores the Metaphysics of Quality. It’s powerful, it’s penetrating, and it will teach you a lot about how to live.

Read my full review of The Alchemist here, and my review of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is coming soon!

If you liked As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, then try… The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Even die-hard Faulkner fans have to admit that As I Lay Dying is a weird book. When I read it, I had to map out a little genealogical table for myself to keep all the different narrators straight! But weird as it may be, it’s also a beautiful depiction of life for a poor family living in the rural American South, as is The Grapes Of Wrath. Steinbeck’s prose is a lot more straightforward and accessible than Faulkner’s, but that doesn’t make it a simple book to read. In fact, it’s an emotional gut-punch that will stay with you long after you turn the final pages.

Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here (genealogical table included, if you think it would help you!), and The Grapes Of Wrath here.

If you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams, then try… The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett

In my view, this is the most logical pairing of this post, despite the long-standing rivalry between science-fiction and fantasy readers. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a hilarious satirical romp through space, very similar in tone and approach to the adventures through the fantasy Discworld found in The Colour Of Magic. And, best of all, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s the first in a long series of books, so if you love it you’ll have plenty more to keep you going for a while!

Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here, and The Colour Of Magic here.

If you liked Emma by Jane Austen, then try… Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Austen is one of the most recognisable names in English literature, and Emma is often cited as her best and most-loved novel. Stella Gibbons, on the other hand, is a relative unknown, but I was delighted to discover that Cold Comfort Farm could more than hold its own. Like Emma, it’s a social satire, told through the eyes of a young woman, only in Gibbons’ story she goes to live with her impoverished relatives with a view to being their Mary Poppins slash Henry Higgins. The humour is a little less subtle, perhaps, and there’s less lovey-dovey business, but I’m sure even the most devoted Austen fans will find many hearty laughs and knowing nods in this one.

Read my full review of Emma here, and Cold Comfort Farm here.

If you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, then try… Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

The Rosie Project, the story of eccentric Don Tillman’s unconventional quest for love and happiness, won the hearts of millions of readers around the world, despite his somewhat odd behaviours and his unique approach to managing relationships. If stories about people who see the world differently appeal to you, then you should definitely pick up Instructions For A Heatwave. I’m thinking specifically of the character Aoife, who has managed to build a successful life for herself in New York City while hiding a terrible secret…

Read my full review of The Rosie Project here, and stay tuned for my review of Instructions For A Heatwave.

If you liked In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, then try… Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

On paper, it might seem like Capote and Safran are worlds apart: different time periods, different religious backgrounds, different countries, different sexualities… and yet I love them both for very similar reasons, namely their irreverence and their talent for storytelling. In Cold Blood was a triumph, an absolute must-read for fans of true crime, and it revolutionised the genre. Decades later, Safran followed in Capote’s footsteps, travelling to the American South to investigate another murder, this one even more intriguing and fraught with danger. From him, we get Murder In Mississippi (US title: God’ll Cut You Down), the perfect contemporary complement.

Read my full review of In Cold Blood here, and keep your eyes peeled for my review of Murder In Mississippi.

Are you going to give any of these pairings a go? Please do, because I’d love to hear what you think! Leave your feedback in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

In Search Of Diverse Books: Why We Should All Have A Diverse Reading List

My main motivation for reviewing The Lake House this week was having spent weeks before that reading only books written by straight white men back-to-back. My inner bookworm was protesting, clambering for a book by or about a woman who wasn’t just put there to prop up a male ego. It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered time and again as I read my way through the Keeping Up With The Penguins list, which is mostly books by and about straight white men (read my explanation of how that happened here). When I find myself feeling this way, it always prompts me to think about the importance of diversity in our reading lists. “Diversity” as an idea is usually associated with books for children or young adults, and books assigned as required reading in schools and universities. Today, I want to take a look at why it’s important for everyone – even adult recreational readers – to seek and find diversity in their reading lives.

In Search Of Diverse Books - Why We Need Diversity In Our Personal Reading Lists - Text Overlaid on Image of Book Stack - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What Does It Mean To Read Diversely?

I’ve covered this before on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but here’s a recap: there are a lot of different opinions about what makes a reading list “diverse”, but my preferred definition is the inclusion of books by and about people who look and live differently to you.

For me, that means including books by people of colour, people with disabilities, people with diverse sexualities, and people with different gender identities in my reading life.

When I look back over the books I was assigned to read over the course of my education, I realise they were almost all written by (surprise, surprise) straight white cis-men. And most of those straight white cis-men did not have a disability, they lived comfortable middle-to-upper-class lives, and they held positions of relative privilege in their societies.

All too often, books by people who didn’t match that identity were relegated to “optional” or “background” reading. At best, there would be a token effort to include one woman or person of colour in a reading list. When it came to books I chose for myself, before I started this project, they were mostly books written by and about white women – people who looked like me. I think I did better than most at finding some diversity in books, but there was definitely much room for improvement.

Now and then, when there are calls to feminise or decolonise or queer an “official” reading list, it’s met with a backlash and hyperbolic accusations of “knocking Shakespeare off the syllabus” or “indoctrinating kids in political correctness instead of teaching them the classics”. So, let’s be clear: the focus is always (in my past experience, and here today) on inclusive diversity. No good will come from pushing new groups to the front and others to the back. There’s no need to necessarily exclude anything from your reading life, and reading diversely will in fact expand your options. Think of it like food: trying Thai cuisine or Indian curry doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy steak and chips.

Why Should We Read Diversely? Why Does It Matter?

I know I said I wanted to expand the conversation about diverse reading to include adult recreational readers outside the academic world, but unfortunately there’s not much research available on the effects of diversity in personal reading. Much of what we know comes from looking at children and teenagers and people in the educational system. That said, I think a lot of the research can be extrapolated to apply to everyone, so I’m going to give it a go…

If we don’t support diverse books, publishers won’t publish them

It shouldn’t come as any news to you that there needs to be a viable market for a product in order for it to be produced in the capitalist hellscape, and books are no exception. If more people purchase books written by marginalised authors, publishers will acknowledge that a demand for these books exist. They’ll seek to serve it (read: make money) by publishing more of those books, which, in turn, will offer us more choice and diversity in the books that are available to read. The power of the consumer dollar is one that is, ironically, often forgotten by those who hold it (us!).

Buying diverse books is honestly the easiest way to not only diversify our own reading, but to ensure that they keep getting published. And we desperately need to take action on that front! In 2013, out of 3,200 children’s books published in the U.S., only 93 of them featured African American characters. No, I didn’t miss a digit, that’s not a percentage: literally only 2.9% of them!

And what’s worse is that this rate actually represents a drop from the last study, in 1965, which had 6.7% of books featuring a black character. What this tells us is that, as recently as six years ago, the publishing industry considered diverse children’s books a losing bet.

Luckily, we’re seeing more and more focus on providing children with reading material that reflects the real world (which, despite what some would have us believe, is not straight, white, and male by default). If children grow up with diverse books, they’ll grow up to demand equivalent age-appropriate books as they become teenagers, and then adults. So, as much as we’ve struggled with this in the past, the future looks bright.

Mirror Books and Window Books

The idea of books being “windows” or “mirrors” comes from an amazing article by Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, back in 1990. Window books are those that allow you to see into another world that doesn’t look like your own, while in mirror books you see your own life and experiences reflected back at you. Ideally, a diverse reading list would contain a mix of both. Unfortunately, marginalised readers are usually provided with endless windows, while privileged readers see only mirrors. That ain’t good!

Looking at the world through only windows, or only mirrors, will give you a distorted perspective. If you can’t see the diverse world around you, you’ll struggle to connect with it or empathise with others in any meaningful way. You’ll miss out on opportunities to learn how to develop relationships with people who live differently to you, or how to manage tough topics that don’t affect you personally (such as racially-biased law enforcement). Reading diverse books gives you the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus Finch would say, and discover just how much you actually have in common with “different” people.

Plus, by increasing the number of mirror books for marginalised groups (through the power of the consumer dollar, as I mentioned just before), we’ll actually increase rates of literacy and engagement with books. People are, naturally, more enthusiastic about reading when they see themselves and their lives reflected in at least some of the pages, and that’s a tendency that we see play out in children and adults alike.

Exercise for your thinking muscle

Learning to read, and the act of practicing that skill, literally changes the structure of your brain. Yes, I’m saying that reading is a physical activity, even if it feels like you’re just sitting on your bum staring at words on a page. The act of reading improves just about every measure of brain health we have: the strength of connections between different regions, how quickly parts of the brain communicate with one another, and so on.

Those physical transformations equate, in psychological terms, to improved overall cognitive and emotional health. Voracious readers, especially those who read varied and diverse books, demonstrate much higher levels of emotional health, empathy, and resilience. These are the buzzwords, people, I know you’ve all heard them, and I’m telling you that reading lots of books, particularly diverse books, is how they go from hypothetical nice-to-haves to actual real-world benefits for your career and personal life.

Think about it: wouldn’t you rather work with or live with the emotionally resilient person who shows great empathy (and can give you endless great book recommendations)? Thought so!

Countering Psychological Biases Through Reading

You may not realise it, but what you read affects the way your brain identifies patterns and makes associations in the real world. Even if you’re Woke(TM), changes are your reactions – if tested – would show what’s called “implicit bias”, meaning you’re more likely to behave in a certain way (in line with stereotypes) when confronted with a person or situation. The most common example of this is the shooter bias test, which shows that even people who score low on measures of prejudice are more likely to shoot at black men than white men in a computer game (black male subjects show this bias, too).

Another example is the “stereotype threat”, which you might be more familiar with as the concept of “you’ve got to see it to be it”. If, say, the stereotype of a doctor is a white non-disabled male, people who don’t fit that description are likely to underperform in medical school (because they subconsciously believe that they don’t fit the stereotype of what a doctor “should” be). Plus, their patients are more likely to anticipate under-performance from them. It hardly seems fair, eh?

The good news is that a diverse reading life helps counter both of these psychological biases, and many others. Books written about the experiences of people of colour, people with disabilities, people of diverse sexualities, and so on, all serve to counteract the stereotypes that lead to the development of these biases in the first place. Plus, the presence of diverse books on our shelves and on our reading lists sends a message to young marginalised writers: you belong here, and there’s room in the stereotype of “author” or “artist” for you.

Like it or not, in the 21st century, we are all global citizens and global participants. We should take responsibility for ensuring that we approach each encounter with someone who looks and lives differently to us in a way that is fair, just, and unbiased.

Read More, Read Better

This is one of my favourite ways that reading diversely, and thinking more about diversity in my reading life, has benefited me personally: it’s made me better at reading all those canonical straight-white-male books! Reading more diversely gives me new “lenses” through which I examine those texts, and ways of thinking about them that wouldn’t otherwise have crossed my mind.

Take, for instance, the way I experienced Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. On its face, it’s an early kind of monster/science-fiction story, which is fine… but I enjoyed it so much more when I considered a queer reading, looking at how the story could be a metaphor for life as a gay man in Victorian England. Cool, eh?

Reading diverse books fine-tunes your radar for looking at all books, including the classics. You’ll start to identify the stories that are silenced or misrepresented. You’ll think more critically about, say Mr Rochester’s decision to keep his Creole wife locked in the attic, or Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg and Ahab. Once you start diversifying your reading life, it will pretty much double (even triple) your catalogue of books, because you’ll start seeing all your old favourites in a whole new light.

My Favourite TED Talks on Diverse Reading and Storytelling

Did you just scroll down past that big block of text? I don’t blame you! It’s a lot to take in. Some people learn better by watching and listening, so check out two of my favourite TED talks on diverse reading and representative storytelling:

Ann Morgan: My year reading a book from every country in the world

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story

Where To Start: A List of Diverse Books

So, now that (I’m sure) you’re convinced you should diversify your reading list, I’ve put together a few book recommendations to get you started. You’ll notice that there’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, because both of them have value in terms of learning and growing through diversity. That said, it’s important to note that taking a list like this one, and reading everything on it, shouldn’t end with you thinking “Yep, I’m done, I can check ‘reading diversely’ off my to-do list!”. This is just a primer to get you started on intentionally incorporating diversity into your reading life. Just like going to the gym a few times in January won’t turn you into a bodybuilder, reading a couple books by non-white or non-male authors and then scurrying right back to Hemingway won’t make you a diverse reader.

Authors of Colour

An Artist of the Floating World: A novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, set in post-WWII Japan. An ageing painter, Masuji Ono, must come to terms with his past role in the war effort and the way it affects his family’s position in the world. Read my full review here.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: The autobiography of American poet and writer Maya Angelou, who came of age in the U.S. in the ’30s and ’40s. Through this incredible book, she shows us how strength and love can combat racism and trauma.

The Kite Runner: The first novel from Afghan-American author Kahled Hosseini. It’s set in Kabul, and it follows the story of a young boy growing up through the Soviet military intervention and the rise of the Taliban.

Female, Trans, and Non-Binary Authors

The Bell Jar: A haunting (and largely autobiographical) novel, the only one written by Sylvia Plath. It depicts a young woman’s descent into mental illness, and her struggle to regain her health through treatment. Read my full review here.

Chelsea Girls: Eileen Myles‘ best-known work, an inventive and vivid novel about the hard realities of life as a young queer artist in ’70s and ’80s New York City.

The Trauma Cleaner: The compelling and fascinating real-life story of Sandra Pankhurst (written by Australian author Sarah Krasnostein), a trauma cleaner, gender-reassignment surgery recipient, and former sex worker living and working in Melbourne.

Authors With Disabilities

Sick: A Memoir: Porochista Khakpour‘s memoir about her life with chronic illness, and the colossal impact it has had on her body, her relationships, and her experiences.

Say Hello: Australian disability activist Carly Findlay‘s new memoir about life with a facial difference. In it, she challenges the ingrained idea that people who look different are “villains”.

Look Me In The Eye: A moving, dark, and sometimes funny true story of John Elder Robinson‘s life with Asperger’s, highlighting the challenges he faced before and after diagnosis.

Authors of Diverse Sexualities

The Picture Of Dorian Gray: One of the pillars of queer literature, Oscar Wilde‘s short novel tells the story of a young man who doesn’t age, but his portrait in the attic does… with startling new resonance in the age of Instagram narcissism. Read my full review here.

Less: Arthur Sean Greer‘s self-deprecating and hilarious epic, following the adventures of Arthur Less, a hapless author and “the only homosexual to ever grow old”. A Pulitzer Prize winner!

Her Body And Other Parties: An incredible short story collection from Carmen Maria Machado, that straddles the borders between genres. It contains elements of magical realism, science fiction, comedy, horror, and fantasy, with delightful twists on the tropes and stories you already know so well.

Ready For More Diverse Books?

One of the best resources on the internet is We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit grassroots organisation promoting diverse literature that represents all lived experiences. Their focus is primarily on children’s books, but their Where To Find Diverse Books page will also point you towards publishers of works marketed to adults and prizes for diverse literature for all ages.

I also wrote a post at the beginning of 2019 on How To Read More Diversely, as part of my How To Read More series. There’s more recommended reads in there, and if you drop a request in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!) I’ll do my best to find a book that’s right for you.

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