Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 2 of 7)

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand (And My Best Tips To Track Them Down!)

Hi, my name is Sheree, and I’m a second-hand book addict. If you’ve been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you’ll know that I’m a regular fixture in all my local stores, scouring the shelves for books on The List. In fact, I’ve managed to find the majority of them this way (the subject of this week’s review, Fangirl, being the exception). Sometimes, I muse on how easy it would be to simply buy them all brand new with the click of a button… but where’s the fun in that? It’s all about the thrill of the chase! To save you some of my heartache, I thought I’d write a post about the longest and most difficult chases, and give you some tips to make it all a little easier. Here’s 7 books that are hard to find second hand (and my best tips for tracking them down!).

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand - Book Covers and Text - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett

The Colour Of Magic - Terry Pratchett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When my hunt for books on The List first started, I didn’t anticipate Terry Pratchett being a problem. After all, he’s so popular, and so prolific(!), I figured that every secondhand book store would be simply groaning under the weight of his entire collection. Plus, I was sure I’d seen stacks of his books in other stores before, so surely it wouldn’t be that hard. Turns out, I was dead wrong! Maybe I’m just in the wrong (geographical) area, maybe all fantasy books just blur together in my mind, but whatever it is: The Colour of Magic was nowhere to be found! When I did see a small handful of Terry Pratchett’s offerings on the shelves (which wasn’t often at all, by the way), this particular book – the first in his Discworld series – was never among them. I ended up finding it while I was wandering through a neighbouring suburb on a Saturday afternoon. Some long-suffering hippie had set up a trestle table, and he was selling off his personal book collection; he had half a dozen Pratchett books, and I finally hit pay-dirt.

Tip Number 1: Don’t limit your search to stores! Often, the best bargains are to be found at markets and other stall-type set-ups, where people are just selling off their own stuff (thank you, Marie Kondo!). They’re just happy to be rid of it, de-cluttering and all that being good for the soul, and you can score a hard-to-find book at a fraction of what you’d pay in the store (where the seller would know exactly how hard it is to find, and how much it’s worth!).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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

I had one secondhand book store staff member LITERALLY LAUGH IN MY FACE when I asked if they had a copy. If that doesn’t convince you that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is hard to find second hand, I don’t know what will! The problem is that this beloved classic of the sci-fi genre is a comfort read; people pull it out when they want something familiar and calming, re-reading it dozens of times over, and so they never want to part with it.

Still, joke’s on that giggly store clerk: I grabbed the first copy I found, without even looking at the price (a modest $9, thank goodness!), and it turns out it’s a freaking first edition! It’ll be worth a quid one day, believe you me…

Tip Number 2: Don’t give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And before you donate or sell any book of your own, always double check the publication date and whether there’s any significance to that edition. Make sure you’re armed with information, and you know its worth before you pass it on!

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

Now, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Clarissa was tough to find second hand: not only is it one of the lesser-known classics (compared to something like Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield), but it’s also fucking loooooooong! It runs to over 1,500 pages, meaning that it’s not that popular with contemporary readers. And when people aren’t buying it new, your chances of finding it second hand decrease dramatically (duh). So, I was keeping my eyes peeled for a big-ass book… Imagine my surprise when I found a modestly-sized abridged version at a closing-down sale, running to just 500 pages! Now, I’m not saying I’d turn down a copy of the full text if I came across one, but in the meantime I’m happy to consider it checked off my to-buy list.

Tip Number 3: Don’t get tunnel vision! I find having a to-buy list really enhances my second-hand book buying experience, and it stops me from feeling overwhelmed. Without it, I’d probably want to take home every single book I see, and end up with a hundred copies of everything. But if I stayed hell-bent on only buying “pretty” editions, or full texts, or print-runs from Penguin, or whatever, I’d have missed out on some great deals and books I’ve come to love very much. So, a list is a good idea, but don’t let it hem you in!

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend

I’ve searched for Lolly Willowes one long and hard, and it’s even tougher than most of the others on this list, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve got to check for two different titles (it’s usually called “Lolly Willowes”, but some editions go under “The Loving Huntsman”). And, if that’s not enough, I’ve also got to check under two different author names (she’s alternately called Sylvia Townsend, and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Luckily, T and W are pretty close together in the alphabet, so I normally don’t have to search too far if the shelves are arranged alphabetically…

Tip Number 4: If there’s something in particular you’re searching for, make sure you know everything there is to know about it. Does it have an alternative title? Did the author use a nom de plume at first, or switch to a married name, or choose a new name after coming out? You’ll kick yourself forever if you figure out that you could’ve found a copy, if only you’d known where to look!

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of alternate titles: The Sun Also Rises was also sometimes printed with the title “Fiesta”. There’s a fun fact for you! But even knowing that, I still had a really tough time finding it, and I couldn’t understand why. I mean, I saw A Farewell To Arms, and The Old Man and The Sea, in almost every store I entered – but never the Hemingway I actually wanted. I was bitching about this situation (indeed, rather loudly) in my favourite second-hand book store one day, when a lovely young woman gently tapped me on the shoulder, and held out to me the copy she’d just pulled off the shelf.

Of course, this all happened on the very day when I had no cash on me and I’d left my card at home. But I wasn’t completely out of luck: I was in the company of a very dear friend (when I’m with friends, “let’s go for a wander!” is almost always code for “let’s go find a bookstore to browse!”), and he was kind enough to buy it for me. Not all heroes wear capes!

Tip Number 5: If you’re going to forget your wallet, make sure your friend brings his! And make sure you name them as a sponsor of your book blog and show them lots of love and gratitude 😉 Ha! On a more serious note, don’t be afraid to ask the store assistants if you’re looking for something in particular. Sure, now and then, you’ll encounter one that will laugh in your face (ahem!), but for the most part they are incredibly kind and helpful. And the patrons are too, come to that (the young lady who helped me was not an aberration – I’ve helped out fellow patrons a time or two myself!). Sometimes, the store will have a “wait” list of sorts, and the staff will add your name and call you if the book comes in. They’re so grateful for your custom, they’ll go above and beyond to make sure you keep coming back!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, I actually have no idea why this one was so difficult to find. It was one of my top priorities in my search, having heard that it was excellent, and I dutifully checked every single store I passed in my travels. I came across dozens of regular bookstores that stocked brand-new copies of the tri-band Penguin edition, but I never came across it second-hand. It wasn’t too long to be popular, like Clarissa, or genre-defining, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it was just… hard to find! Luckily, I eventually found a copy at a market stall, buried among stacks of Vintage classics and coffee-table books.

Tip Number 6: Keep your eyes peeled, at all times, always! Even when you’re browsing the markets for a gift, or looking for a bathroom in Tel Aviv, or even just hanging out at a mate’s place – I’ve had more than one generous friend offer to permanently lend me a book from their collection, for the purposes of this blog. You just never know where you’ll find gold!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have it on very good authority (i.e., several booksellers and #bookstagrammers have told me) that no one ever, ever, ever wants to part with their copy of The Bell Jar. And I can see why! Having read it for the first time recently (my review here), I can already tell that it’s a book I’ll read over and over again, and you’ll have to pry my gorgeous Faber edition from my cold dead hands. Seriously, it’s beautiful! It’s matte black embossed with shiny gold, and it has the most beautiful inscription from a friend of mine. (Yeah, funny story: she knew I’d been searching long and hard for a copy, and she was looking for a last-minute gift for me, so she stopped in the secondhand book store closest to my house and said “I know you probably don’t have it, because my friend is in here looking for it all the time, but is there any chance you’ve got a copy of The Bell Jar?”. Sure enough, they’d had one come in that very day. Sometimes, life just works out!)

Tip Number 7: Make sure your friends and family know what it is you’re after. That’s not to say you should expect them to buy everything they see for you, of course, but they can give you a heads up when they spot a hard-to-find book in their local second-hand store. And they’ll know exactly what to get you for Christmas!

Bonus tip: Never bother buying any Charles Dickens, or D.H. Lawrence, or Grahame Greene brand new. Every single second-hand store I have ever entered has STACKS of them, and at least a few of those are unread, as-new copies. The same also goes for the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and the Harry Potter books. Plus, if you’re not precious about movie tie-in editions (I’m not, but some booklovers are), you’ll find STACKS of them in secondhand stores, too. If you’re after a book that has been turned into a film in the last 2-3 years, you’re almost guaranteed to find it (and probably in pristine condition, too!).

Bonus bonus tip: Young Adult is a mixed bag, on the whole. Some of them (like Fangirl, and If I Stay) are tough to find right now. In general, you’ve got the best hope of finding the specific YA read you’re after in a secondhand store that has a dedicated YA section (if they’re lumped in with general fiction, you’re going to have a hard time – not sure why that is, it just is, I don’t make the rules). And you usually have to wait about 5-10 years after the initial release, once the target market has outgrown them and moved out of home (either they’ll sell them off, or their parents will, either way…).


Do you buy your books second hand? Why/why not? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

The Best Books I’ve Read… So Far!

Ohhhh, we’re half-way there! (And if you’re half the eighties rock fan I am, you sang that line in your head.) I am officially halfway through my reading list: 55 books down, 54 books to go. It seems incredible to me that what started as a half-hearted joke with my husband about how much literature I was missing out on has become this huge project, and I’ve managed to make it halfway through (relatively) unscathed. What’s a girl to do but write a celebratory list post of the highlights? Here are the best books I’ve read so far, at this point, halfway to my ultimate goal of Keeping Up With The Penguins.

The Best Books I've Read... So Far! - Book Covers in Collage and Text in Black and Red - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The First Book I Loved: David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I always knew Charles Dickens was the Grand Poobah of English literature, but I had no idea I was going to discover a book I loved so much, so early in this project. I was only a few books in, and this one bowled me right the fuck over. You can read my full review here, but suffice to say that I devoured David Copperfield like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion is beautifully rendered. Critics have hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what they call “supermarket” writing; novels were the primary source of family entertainment back then (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to weave a bit of everything into his stories to keep the everyone happy. Critics be damned, I think it’s precisely this “just chuck it all in the pot and give it a stir” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book. Buy it here.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I’ve Read: In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I realise that, given the creative liberties that Truman Capote took with the story of the Clutter murders, calling In Cold Blood “non-fiction” might be a bit rich… but I stand by it. I’ve read some great pop-science books, of course (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything gets an honourable mention), but In Cold Blood was definitely the most beautiful and readable non-fiction offering from The List. I hate the term “page-turner”, but there’s really no other way to describe it. I was fucking gripped, with white knuckles, the whole way through. Read my full review here, and buy Capote’s magnum opus here.

The Most Underrated Book I’ve Read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

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

I’m still not over my shock that I hadn’t heard of (let alone read) this incredible book before I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a travesty, I tell you – a criminal oversight of the book-loving community. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is also one of the very, very few books that gets an actual spoiler warning in my review, which should be testament enough to the strength of the plot-twist. If you ask me for a book recommendation these days, it’s almost inevitable that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be top of my list; even if you tell me you’ve already read it, I’ll tell you to read it again. Buy it here, if you haven’t already (and read it before you read my review!).

The Best Classic Book I’ve Read: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bearing in mind that I usually define a classic as a book that has lasted over a hundred years and maintained a level of popularity and interest, my favourite so far has to have been Jane Eyre. In fact, I clutched this book to my chest and smiled so often I started to look like a woman in a bad infomercial. I know Wuthering Heights gets most of the love and attention, but to me Jane Eyre is clearly superior (and it’s on that basis that I declared Charlotte to be the best Brontë). I’ve crammed my review full of fun facts about Charlotte and this book, and you can learn even more from the introduction to this fantastic Penguin Classics edition.

The Most Fun Book To Read: The Adventures of Sherlock Homes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

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

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes isn’t typically billed as a “funny” book, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it: it was just really fun to read! Sherlock’s adventures are presented as a series of short stories, and I was blown away by Doyle’s economy of language – how he managed to cram so much into so few words is still beyond me (it takes me longer to describe what happens in one of the cases than it does for Doyle to tell the whole story). It’s good, clean fun, too, which is not usually my kind of thing, but it’s great for anyone looking for a classic that the whole family can enjoy. Read my full review here, and buy the collection here.

The Book That Lived Up To The Hype: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

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

I know it’s super-weird that I hadn’t read this one prior to Keeping Up With The Penguins, given that it’s a staple of high-school required reading lists… but somehow I squirmed out of that particular rite of passage. So, I came to it later in life, cynical enough to think there was no way that Harper Lee’s only true novel could live up to the hype. Imagine my surprise when it did! In fact, it exceeded it. To Kill A Mockingbird is a stunning read, no matter when you come to it. It’s not without its issues, of course (which I address, very briefly, in my review), and the release of Go Set A Watchman was controversial at best (and a disgusting violation at worst), but I hate to think that any of that detracts from our appreciation of Lee’s masterful writing. If you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird yet, there’s no shame, just get a copy here – right now!

The Most Beautifully Written Book: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

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

My Brilliant Friend is so wonderful, I was actually nervous about posting my review; I didn’t think there was any way that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s beautiful writing justice. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read in my entire life. Of course, credit doesn’t go only to Ferrante – there’s also her translator, Ann Goldstein, who somehow retained the beautiful rolling lyricism of the original Italian without the slightest hint that the work was not originally written in English. Luckily, My Brilliant Friend is just the first in the series of Neapolitan novels, so there’s plenty more Ferrante to sustain you once you’re done – get them all here.

The Biggest Surprise: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Crime and Punishment ended up on The List almost as a joke: my husband suggested it, never believing for a second that I would actually read it. In fact, I didn’t even believe that I would actually read it! I thought this Russian classic was for pretentious losers who name-drop at parties and wear fedoras inside. And then I had to eat my fucking words, because I did read it and I loved it! Raskolnikov is (and I know I probably shouldn’t say this about a literal axe-murderer, but whatever) so damn relatable, a bundle of nerves slowly unravelling in 19th century St Petersburg, and it’s so readable I would have totally believed it was a contemporary historical novel. I said as much in my review. Don’t believe me? Get it and see for yourself.


And there we have it! Of course, many thanks go to all of you who have stuck with me for the last year and a bit; I can’t wait to see what adventures we go on as we cruise through to the finish 😉 And my question for all of you today: what have been YOUR favourites so far in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

Why Are Adults Reading YA Books?

You might have noticed this very trend and likewise asked yourself: why are adults reading YA books? And, to be clear, I’m not talking about young adults (the target market) – I’m talking about adult adults. Ones who pay their own bills and have grown-up jobs and maybe even mini-adults of their own running around their house. Why are they, in increasing numbers, turning to literature marketed and targeted at people decades younger than them? That’s what we’re here to figure out!

Why Are Adults Reading YA Books? Words in Purple and White Over a Collage of YA Book Covers and Pink Background - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Definition of Young Adult Literature

First, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page (a little literary humour, get it?). What exactly is a “young adult” novel? As with any other genre or category of books, it can be hard to nail it down in a way that pleases everybody, but let’s give it a shot.

The emergence of “young adult” as a genre occurred side by side with the emergence of “adolescence” or “teenage” as a stage of life. Once upon a time, there was just a neat dividing line between childhood and adulthood, and once you jumped the fence, that was that! Books were divided along much the same lines: fairy and adventure stories for kids, serious literature for grown-ups, and a few “supermarket” novels for family to enjoy together. When we started to understand more about adolescence as a transition stage between childhood and adulthood, writers started pumping out books for that newly-defined age group, too. The term “young adult books” entered the lexicon with the Young Adult Library Services Association, and has been used ever since.

So, it starts with age. For the most part, young adult books are written for 12- to 17-year-olds (but the boundaries are fuzzy, and you’ll find literary critics and commentators that say the market stretches up to 30-year-olds). As such, the protagonists are usually within that age range, mostly teenagers and sometimes university students or other people in their early twenties.

And as much as it’s a relatively new genre, most young adult literature has a centuries-old theme: the bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age story. The tradition dates back to 17th century Germany, as far as Goethe and his buddies, who wrote stories about young protagonists undertaking some kind of journey towards maturity. Most YA novels at least touch on this theme; their main characters undergo some kind of major development or change that propels them towards adulthood. They come of age, as we all do (albeit under different circumstances).


Unfortunately, there’s not much else that ties all young adult books together (because young adult literature straddles every imaginable sub-genre, but more on that in a minute). There’s a school of thought that suggests, structurally, young adult books tend to have a satisfying and resolute ending. There’s not much ambiguity in how they finish, and plot points are usually wrapped up in neat little bows, giving you that “ahhh!” feeling when you turn the final page. But this argument is hotly contested, and most young adult readers don’t struggle at all to provide a list of examples that defy the cliche. So, like I said, there’s not a lot that defines the genre, beside the age of the readers/protagonists and the coming-of-age journey.

In the end, we need to remember that the designation of “young adult” is about one thing, and one thing only: marketing. It’s a label that publishers slap on the spine, making a book easier to define and sell. How else would booksellers know which section they should unpack the box in? I’d imagine it’s quite rare that a writer sits down and says to themselves “I’m going to write a young adult book”, unless an editor is poking them in the ribs and demanding a best seller. Instead, they’re thinking about the characters and the story, world-building… and that brings us to the next important distinction.

YA Sub-genres

Young adult books can be found in just about every genre you can imagine. We’re all quite familiar by now, I’d think, with young adult fantasy (Twilight being the first that springs to mind for most people), and dystopian young adult (you’re lying if you say you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games), and realistic young adult fiction (along the lines of The Fault In Our Stars). But there are also young adult mysteries, young adult romance, young adult thrillers, young adult sci-fi, Christian young adult, LGBTIQ+ young adult, historical young adult fiction, non-fiction targeted at young adults… basically, take any genre you can think of, and cram “young adult” in the name somewhere, and I guarantee you there’s a shelf for it on Goodreads.

And it’s not just the big ones: young adult sub-genres get super niche! There are young adult novels-in-verse, young adult epistolary novels (books written in letters, text messages, emails, even Tweets), young adult graphic novels, and so on. Don’t even get me started on cross-sub-genres! If you’re looking for a young adult fantasy thriller written as a book within a book with a protagonist who identifies as trans, it’s out there – in fact, it’s probably a whole series.

How Many Adults Read YA Books?

So, now we know what young adult is, and we know there’s plenty of it out there: how many adults are actually reading it? I’ll tell you in a word: lots!

A 2012 survey found that 55% of YA readers are adults. In fact, the largest (and growing!) segment in the market for YA literature are adults aged between 30 and 44 years (which accounts for 28% of all sales). Of course, one could make the argument that it’s not all that many in real terms – less than 30% of American adults reported reading 11 or more books the previous year, so they’re starting from a pretty low base – but the market has grown exponentially, so those proportions and numbers are definitely headed up, despite the downward trend in other literary pursuits.

Even if adults aren’t reading young adult books themselves, chances are they’re consuming young adult media in some other form. The film franchises – Divergent, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games – have raked in billions at the box office. Standalone films – The Fault In Our Stars, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Love Simon – do pretty damn well, too. The TV adaptations – Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl – continue to reach audiences of millions, and the Netflix/Amazon robots are snapping up more production rights than you can poke a stick at. Plus, the die-hard fans have become content producers themselves: blogs, fan Twitter accounts, Instagram feeds, and YouTube channels dominate the online sphere. Young adult fiction is now a multi-media industry, in keeping with the growing media literacy of the target market, so its incursion on the screens and feeds of grown-ups seems inevitable. The question may not be “why are adults reading YA books?” but rather “is it even possible to avoid them?”.

Why are adults reading YA books?

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

C.S. Lewis

Young adult fiction has always had some level of cross-over appeal, if for no other reason than parents want to read what their kids are reading, so they can talk to them about it. But this natural tendency exploded into a phenomenon with the release of Harry Potter. Yep, like almost every other discussion of contemporary fiction and literacy, it all comes back to Rowling. Harry Potter appealed to a broad base of readers on a scale never seen before: children, young adults, adult-adults, old-adults, you name it, everyone loved the Boy Who Lived. The themes of friendship, identity, discrimination, fear, politics, and family gave Harry Potter universal appeal. Publishers catered to everyone by releasing two different covers: one for “kids”, with colourful illustrations, and a more subtle and sedate one for adults. Not everyone who picked up a Harry Potter book went on to dive headfirst into the world of YA, of course, but it was a gateway drug for a lot of adult readers.

This leads us to a major, and perhaps kind of obvious, reason to read young adult books (especially the books we remember from our own adolescence): nostalgia, and simple escapism. There’s comfort to be found in reading beautiful (but uncomplicated) prose, depicting straightforward and sometimes-predictable storylines, watching characters for whom we feel deep affection grow, and overcome their obstacles. Young adult books often remind older readers of their own teenage years, so there’s an instant familiarity: every “coming of age” story is relatable in some way, because we’ve all “come of age” ourselves at one time or another. The difference is that, in our real adult lives, coming of age doesn’t stop at The End, and our own stories continue to tangle and new complications arise and we’re constantly challenged. In young adult stories, for the most part, there’s a happy ending: the monster is defeated, the government is overthrown, the young couple winds up together, the student gets her dream job, and the mystery is solved. There is a satisfaction and a sense of relief that comes with a happily-ever-after, and it makes for a wonderful holiday from troubled times in the real world.

(Plus, I’ve seen many adult readers online comment to the effect that they really enjoy that YA is, for the most part, clean. For whatever reason – and I struggle to relate to this, but to each his own – they find too many adult-adult books stray into the pornographic and ultraviolent, whereas books written for teenagers deal with an age-appropriately sanitised version of real life, with which they are more comfortable.)


Of course, many readers reject this notion of “escapism” in their reading habits, and with good reason. Even in the case of a clean book with a happy ending (once again, Harry Potter is the best and most obvious example), young adult literature tends to get into some pretty heavy stuff: evil, in all its forms. Popular young adult books from recent years (even in sub-genres like fantasy and sci-fi) have covered everything from police brutality to homophobia to suicide to political oppression. Young adult certainly doesn’t shy away from these serious issues, but it does perhaps tackle them in a more hopeful way – balancing the good with the bad, and giving characters opportunities for redemption and recovery. Even in the most tragic stories, there’s a glimmer of hope to be found, with beloved characters learning important life lessons that set them in good stead for their imagined futures. So, it’s different to escapism in the sense that this type of adult reader doesn’t seek to forget their real-life worries, but rather find more optimistic ways to understand them through YA literature.

This is made much easier with the ever-increasing diversity and representation we find in new young adult book releases, far more so than in any other category of literature. Young adult books with characters that are black, brown, displaced, disaffected, victimised, multilingual, trans, gay, living with disability, terminally ill, orphaned, and unintentionally pregnant are finding massive audiences around the world. This could be one reason that young adult has emerged over the past decade as one of the (if not the absolute) most profitable segment of the publishing industry. Book buyers are repeatedly showing that they seek diversity and representation in literature, and they vote in favour of books that give it to them using their consumer dollar.

So, YA books are almost universally relatable (especially with their track record of representation for marginalised people), they provide comfort through nostalgia and escapism, they deal with difficult real-life issues in a hopeful way, and – never forget! – they are often shorter, easier to read, and cheaper than adult-adult books. Given all that: why are there adults who don’t read YA?

 Best YA Books For Adults

Now that you’re convinced – YA is where it’s at! – I’m sure you’re wanting some guidance on where to start. Just like any other category of literature, not all YA is brilliant. In fact, some of it is straight-up shithouse. But there’s an argument to be made that you’re more likely to find high-quality writing on the YA shelf, because these books are written and structured to grab (and keep!) the attention of teenagers – no mean feat in an age where they have an entire world of information, friends, and dopamine-stimulating games at their fingertips. This list is a combination of the cream of the crop – incredible works of literature in their own right – and YA books that are just so damn popular, you’ll have to read them just to catch up with the rest of the world.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

Read my full review of We Were Liars here.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

*Though, really, you could substitute this for just about any other John Green book and achieve the same result in terms of a well-rounded YA education. I have reviewed The Fault In Our Stars here, and Paper Towns here.

The Hunger Games (Series) – Suzanne Collins

Read my review of the first book in the series (The Hunger Games) here.

The Chronicles of Narnia (Series) – C.S. Lewis

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Read my full review of The Book Thief here

If you’re not sold on the idea of young adult fiction per se, never fear! I’ve got some suggestions for you too. You could try some contemporary literary fiction (for grown-ups) with teenage protagonists – Call Me By Your Name, My Brilliant Friend, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are excellent options. You could also try revisiting some books you read in high-school when you were coming of age yourself – think The Catcher In The Rye, or To Kill A Mockingbird. And for a personal account from an adult who changed her perspective on reading YA, you’ve got to check out this amazing post from the fabulous What Jane Read Next – she was once a skeptic, too! 😉

What do you think about YA? Are you an adult-adult convert? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

14 Great Bookstagram Accounts You Should Really Be Following

Guess what, Keeper-Upperers? Not only is Keeping Up With The Penguins one year old now, but so is the Keeping Up With The Penguins Instagram! When I started this blog, I’d heard about the #bookstagram phenomenon, but I had no idea what a wonderful, warm, and welcoming community I’d find there. I set up an account, and started posting photos of the books I was reading and reviewing, and it fast became one of my favourite parts of this project. I’m no great shakes at photography, I don’t go All-Out Extra with props and fairylights and all that business, but that’s the beauty of #bookstagram – it’s not about the bells and whistles, it’s about the books! I’ve “met” some truly fantastic people over the last year through the platform, and I thought today I’d share a short list of some of the best bookstagram accounts you really should be following.

14 Great Bookstagrammers You Really Should Be Following - Text Overlaid on Image of Phone with Instagram Logo on Screen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

@alexs.bookgram

Alex describes herself as an “amateur book reviewer” in her bio, but her feed shows she is a definite pro! She’s got gorgeous bookish photos in all kinds of locations, and every time I scroll through I find something new to add to my TBR. You can check out her account here, and her book blog here.

@jane.read.next

I “met” Jane in the early days of sharing on Instagram, and her feed fast became one of my all-time favourites. She’s a fellow Aussie, a veteran of the publishing industry, and there’s a lot of crossover in our tastes! I’ve loved many of the books she recommended. Also, now and then, she’ll share photos of her gorgeous doggos – the easiest way to win me over! Check out her account here, and her book blog here.

@yumyumicecream

Her guardian angel is Jack Kerouac with a recent assist from Lorrie Moore. She would love to put the novels of John Darnielle into the hands of anyone who has ever ached or cried from loneliness. And she’s one of my favourite bookstagrammers! Her feed is filled with gorgeous books, almost always accompanied by a coffee that makes my mouth water or some other delicious treat. Check out her account here.

@bookkissed

Aysha is a literature student, and it shows in her feed: a gorgeous varied collection of books from every genre and period (though I do notice she has a particular affinity for Stephen King and Agatha Christie, they feature often!). She posts beautiful and creative book stacks and snaps of what (and where) she’s reading – always a joy to see! Check out her account here.

@sasha_hawkins

Sasha loves reading all kinds of books, and at the moment she’s focused on the classics. She wants to spread the word that there’s a classic for everyone, and that our options go beyond the white male-dominated literary canon (a girl after my own heart!). She’s a sucker for beautiful books – but aren’t we all? I love her collection. Check out her account here and follow her on Goodreads here.

@reading.the.classics

Helena is one impressive lady! She’s a homeschool mum of six (count ’em! including a newborn!), living in Northern Ireland, reading stacks of books, doing the #ElizabethGaskell2019 challenge, and still she finds time to share gorgeous photos of the classics (mostly) on Instagram. I drool over her collection, it’s absolutely stunning. Check out her account here.

@rooreads

Stephanie Berg is a Chicago-based bookstagrammer with a feed that slays! I’ve discovered lots of new literary fiction and gorgeous editions (seriously spectacular cover art, where does she find them?!) through her account. She’s currently a @pageonebooks ambassador, and you can find her account here, and follow her on Goodreads here.

@classicsandcaffeine

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My #bestnine of 2018 is dominated by Orwell, Conrad, and Hardy. And i’m happy to say i’m far from done reading these incredible authors. Their writings have had great impacts on me. George Orwell reminded me that my political rights is important and how i use them can very much affect my personal life, and that i must never let my fear overrule compassion and justice. Thomas Hardy has fascinated me ever since i first read Tess at least 10 years ago. I think Hardy understood women and his writing was subtly (or maybe not so subtly?) critical of patriarchy. And Joseph Conrad. Oh Conrad, easily my new favourite author. Heart of Darkness is a tale that will never finish what it’s saying. ☕️ I don’t have any specific target/goal for my reading life for the new year, but i’d love to hear yours. Do share what you’re up to reading wise for 2019. #bestninebookstagram #georgeorwell #1984 #thomashardy #thewoodlanders #josephconrad #heartofdarkness #edithwharton #theageofinnocence #charlesdickens #olivertwist #classicliterature #literature #penguinenglishlibrary #oxfordworldsclassics #wordsworthclassics #bookstagram #bookstagrammer #bookstagramindonesia #bookreview #igreads #readersofinstagram

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I’ll bet you can tell from her handle – classics AND caffeine! – that Ester is truly awesome. She’s based in Indonesia, and she shares a lot of classics and modern classics worth reading. She’s on a little hiatus at the moment, hopefully she’ll be back soon to share more bookish goodness with us! You can still check out her account here.

@book_trails

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"Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it." . . An overwhelming and intriguing story. I like how original the concept of this story and let's be honest the cover is really gorgeous it's one of my favorite book cover ever! So this novel is about Grenouille who is an orphan, he's obsessed with perfumes and it's ability to control people. His obsession led to murder as he experiment with different scents. I won't elaborate more cuz I know some of you haven't read this novel and I don't want to spoil the story. . . QOTD: Do you read books by german or any foreign authors? I love reading books by different foreign authors, I have some of French, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, German and Arab authors. If you want to recommend me some of your favorite foreign author then please do!😍

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Fattyma loves books and photography, so bookstagram is her true home! And we are so lucky to have her, my eyeballs turn into hearts whenever I look at her posts. She reads all kinds of books – classics, best sellers, fantasy, mystery, young adult, and more – and her photos are incredible. Check out her account here and follow her on Goodreads here.

@spinesvines

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#MeetTheBookstagrammer⁣ 10 Things About Me⁣ ⁣ Well let me begin by stating the obvious— I love books (spines) & wine (vines). This is doesn’t count towards the ten because it’s a well known fact. ⁣😊 ⁣ ✨ I’m usually reading three books at once in three different ways — an audiobook for my commute, a book on my kindle which I keep in my bag and a physical book on my nightstand. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I created the #diversespines hashtag to shine the light on women authors of color. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m the co-founder/co-moderator of @litonhst bookclub⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m a major foodie! I love to eat 😋⁣ ⁣ ✨ I love to travel (no cruises for me🙅🏽‍♀️) especially outside of the U.S. Some of my favorite places are France, England, Italy, Greece, Jamaica and Turks & Caicos. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ When I’m not reading, I’m watching NCIS, Chicago P.D., Blue Bloods & re-runs of Law & Order Criminal Intent. I love a good crime drama. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I grew up a proud military brat living in many places but the highlights were Japan and Hawaii. I actually spent my freshman and sophomore years of high school in Hawaii. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m a proud graduate of The University of Tennessee, Knoxville ⁣#VFL ⁣ ✨ IRL I’m a project manager for the federal government and one my greatest accomplishments was being the Chief of Staff to the 2016 Federal Transition Coordinator. What does that mean— we oversee and provide support for presidential elections and facilitate the peaceful transition of authority between the incoming and outgoing administrations. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ Last but not least, I’m a MOM! I have two young adults, a 24 year old daughter & a 22 year old son. ⁣ .⁣ .⁣ 📸 credit: @msbszenlife .⁣ .⁣ 📚🍷⁣ #spinesvines #books #wine #bookstagrammer #diversebooks #blogger #booklover #bibliophile #ilovebooks #ilovewine

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I must admit, I’m a little bit a lot in awe of Jamise. She’s taken her passion for books (spines) and wine (vines), and turned it into not only this beautiful bookstagram account, but also @diversespines – a book club initiative that highlights women writers of colour and encourages us all to read more diversely. She’s doing incredible work, and I love it! Check out her account here, and more of her stuff here.

@the.imperfect.library

Ally is another fantastic Aussie bookstagrammer, and I love seeing what she’s reading (in hard copy and in audio) in her bio. She’s focused on the classics, women’s literature, and mental health – a trifecta of awesomeness in her feed! She also has a very adorable new kitty… Check out her account here.

@bookish.behavior

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Happy #ReadABookDay everyone! Thought I’d start this post with the quote below. . . “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” — Jean Rhys . Whether you’re reading a book about someone in a different part of your own state, your own country, or another country altogether, reading has a capacity to showcase how something that looks different, might not be all that different after all. . Part of what’s driven my diverse reading these past few years, is how often I find myself either relating to the story or gaining an understanding I didn’t know I needed. The world becomes smaller. The capacity for understanding increases. . Pictured are a few books that span an experience different from mine, but ones that I can’t wait to read! (Minus Erotic Stories – which I’ve already read and is AMAZE – and everyone should read!) . . 🌎 Next Year In Havana – a love story set within the political unrest in Cuba 🌍 Americanah – 2 Nigerians making their way in the US/UK after leaving military-ruled Nigeria 🌏 An Unrestored Woman – short stories about the establishment of the India/Pakistan borders and the ensuing refugee crisis 🌎 Educated – memoir of a girl who was kept out of school by her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD 🌏 Pachinko – a sweeping tale of an exiled Korean family fighting to make their way in Japan . Have you read any of these? What are some books that have stuck with you long after you read it? Let’s chat!

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If I’m ever worried that I’m missing out on some amazing diverse reads, I head straight for Poonam’s feed, because it is chockers with amazing recommendations and gorgeous photos! The reviews in her captions always give amazing insights into what’s worth reading and why, she is a must-follow for every booklover. Check out her account here.

@happinessisreading

What is it about the combination of books and coffee that makes for such great bookstagram feeds? Ritika is another caffeinated booklover, and she shares her incredible collection of literary fiction, non-fiction, modern classics, and more. I’ve spotted so many of my favourites in her gorgeous photographs. Check out her account here.

@vincereview

I actually came to Paula’s bookstagram through her blog, where she posts amazing and insightful reviews of books old and new, but whichever way you find her, you’re going to want to mash that follow button! She’s a former author and English student, and (like me!) she’s seeking to read classics, best sellers, and other books to discover for herself what they’re like, instead of relying on the opinions of self-professed experts. Her reviews are no-frills straight-talkin’ brilliance, and her enthusiasm is definitely contagious! Check out her account here, and her blog here.

So, if this incredible assortment of readers doesn’t convince you to check out #bookstagram, I don’t know what will! You can, of course, find little ol’ me here too. Are you a bookstagrammer? Drop your handle in the comments so we can all see your stuff (or share it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

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

Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman

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

Emma – Jane Austen

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

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

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

Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez

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

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

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

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

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

Dark Matter – Blake Crouch

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

Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined To Meet

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

One Day – David Nicholls

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

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert

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

The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis

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

Love: A History – Simon May

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


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

More Of The Best Opening Lines In Literature

This time last year, Keeping Up With The Penguins launched with a best-of list: the best opening lines in literature. It was an auspicious start, and it seems so long ago now! So, to celebrate KUWTP’s first anniversary, I’m going back to the beginning and bringing you another list: more of the best opening lines in literature.

More of The Best Opening Lines In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Book Open In Front of Beach Horizon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Innumerable questions are raised by this opening line: why is the Colonel facing the firing squad? What does he mean by “discovering ice”? Why is that the memory that comes to mind, given his circumstances? The only way to find out is to read One Hundred Years Of Solitude (damn clever).

2. The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

This is the perfect introduction to The Catcher In The Rye’s whiney teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield, and his stream-of-consciousness style. You can read my full review of Salinger’s magnum opus here (and my review of David Copperfield here, too, come to that).

3. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – Italo Calvino

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

Nope, I didn’t pull up the first line of the foreword by accident: that’s how If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler starts. This opening line is a baptism by fire into the truly odd and brilliant perspective of Calvino’s novel.

4. The Outsider – Albert Camus

“Mother died today.”

BAM. Cop that! It’s a straight-shooting opener, one of the best. Think of all the different ways Camus (or, more accurately, Camus’s translator) could have phrased it: “My mother died today”, or “Mummy died today”, or “Mother passed away today”. In fact, there’s a lot of debate about the choice of these particular words in the translation of The Outsider (you can get the full story from The New Yorker here).

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

It’s a beautiful metaphor, one that reads more like an idiom than an opening line, and one that stands strong with no context at all… but be that as it may, it’s well worth reading the rest of Their Eyes Were Watching God, there’s plenty more brilliance to be found in those pages.

6. Alphabetical Africa – Walter Abish

“Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement… anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.”

This one is just so damn clever, it makes me angry. And Walter Abish keeps it up the whole time: each chapter of Alphabetical Africa contains only words beginning with a subsequent letter of the alphabet (first chapter is A, second chapter is B, third chapter is C, and so on). If that doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will.

7. The Luck Of The Bodkins – P.G, Wodehouse

“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

Well, it’s hilarious, and that alone justifies the inclusion of The Luck Of The Bodkins‘ opening line in this list. But I also love the way it covers everything – setting, character, conflict – and, without actually describing any specific features of the face, Wodehouse manages to conjure in the mind of the reader the exact expression to which he is referring. That, people, is fucking mastery.

8. The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

Kafka is the king of starting a story in the middle, as all the writing experts say you should, and the opening line of The Metamorphosis is probably his finest example of that.

9. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.”

OK, I’m probably biased (but it’s my blog and I’ll be biased if I want to), because I loved Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend so damn much… But come on! This line hooks you, right from the get go, and I think it’s mostly that final word: “gone”. Gone how?? Rino’s mother isn’t “dead”, she isn’t “missing”, she hasn’t “lost her mind” – she’s gone, and I found that so fascinating I had to devour the book as quickly as possible to piece together what happened. (You can read the rest of my love letter to My Brilliant Friend here, and reviews of the rest of the Neapolitan novels are coming soon!).

10. Opium – Colin Falconer

“Noelle thought she would have noticed him even if he hadn’t driven his Packard through the front bar of the Hotel Constellation.”

This is another opening line I love for its dry humour. It takes such a hard-left turn mid-way through the sentence, I can’t help but chuckle every time! And you can find much more of this comic timing throughout the rest of Colin Falconer’s Opium.

11. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

I had to include at least one childhood favourite, didn’t I? Fern’s question at the very beginning of Charlotte’s Web betrays such innocence, and in so doing effectively sets the stage for the rest of the novel.

Reading my way through The List this past year, I’ve learned a lot about opening lines, why they work, and why they don’t. For instance, I’m increasingly bored by opening lines that describe the weather (the only exceptions being 1984, and perhaps Jane Eyre). And it’s not just me: Elmore Leonard listed “never open a book with the weather” as his first piece of advice to writers. Most of the best opening lines in literature, I’ve noticed, rather than just “setting the scene” in a geographical sense, find clever ways to position both the reader and the narrator, using very few words. By the end of that very first sentence, you know exactly who you are, and who the narrator is, and the relationship between you. I particularly like it when the impact of the opening line doesn’t hit you until later, perhaps not until you’ve finished the book and meditated on it a little.

What do you think? What makes for a good opening line? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

How To Read More Classic Books

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

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

“What counts as a classic book, anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Books and Where to Find Them

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

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


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

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

Step One: Stop Being Scared of Classic Literature

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

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

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

Step Two: Find A Classic Book That Suits You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Four: Start Reading!

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

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

Step Five: Expand Your Classic Horizons

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

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

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

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

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


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

How To Read More Diversely

This is part three of my How To Read More bootcamp series (you can read part one here, and part two here), and this week I’m focusing on a subject very close to my heart: how to read more diversely. The idea of diverse reading is probably one you’ve encountered a lot in recent years, and that is a Very Good Thing. However, the downside of “diversity” being the buzzword du jour is that now people tend to switch off when you start talking about it… but I’m here to say switch back on, right now, because this is important. A little while back, I found a great explanation of the importance of diverse books in a letter from a primary school student to Scholastic:

“Diverse characters matter because if you were black and you just saw books with white people it is going to be boring! You will want mirror books and also window books at the same time.”

(Read the full article from Ruben Brosbe, including this letter and others, here.)

Chances are, if you’re a person of privilege, you haven’t thought much lately about whether the books you’re reading are “window” books or “mirror” books. Most books are probably mirror books for you. Most books won’t force you to peer into another person’s world, because historically the publishing industry has been dominated by people who look and sound like you. Even if you “don’t care” or “never notice” whether an author comes from a different background to you, you should recognise that not noticing in itself is a form of privilege, and that all things aren’t equal. So, I’m here to help: consider this your beginner’s guide to reading more diversely (and the good news is you can start today).

How To Read More Diversely - Text Overlaid on Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“What does diverse reading even mean?”

Officially, a “diverse book” is one written by or about a person of colour, an LGBTIQ+ person, a person with a disability, and/or a person of a marginalised cultural/religious/socioeconomic background. You could also include books from countries outside of the U.S. and U.K, and/or books translated from languages other than English. Personally, though, I prefer to think of a “diverse book” as one being written by or about someone who looks, sounds, and lives different to me.

And why do diverse books matter? Well, there’s scientific evidence abound to suggest that reading these types of books improves your empathy, teaches more adaptive social behaviours, breaks down stereotypes, and increases cultural awareness and sensitivity. I think we can all agree that these are all Very Good Things, too, right? Reading diverse books gives you endless opportunities to become aware of your own privilege, challenge your own biases and prejudices, and understand more about the types of systemic oppression that don’t personally affect you. If nothing else, you might just be surprised at how well you connect with plots and protagonists that don’t look or sound familiar.

If you’re already thinking it’s “too hard” to read more diversely, or you “don’t have time”, or this “doesn’t affect you”, I say: suck it up. I swear to you, honest to goodness, that it won’t be as difficult or unsettling as you think – and, even if it is, the benefits still outweigh the costs. Here’s how to do it…

Step One: Buy Books Written By Diverse Authors

See what I mean? It’s as easy as that.

Take a look at your bookshelves: if everything you find there is written by someone who looks like you and lives like you, you’re not reading diversely. And you can’t really be expected to read more diversely if you don’t have the books you need to hand. So, the solution? Buy some!

The benefit is actually twofold, because not only are you giving yourself the option of reading more diversely, you’re using your vote – in the form of your consumer dollars – to tell publishers and booksellers that books written by people of colour, LGBTIQ+ authors, writers with disabilities, and so on, are worthwhile. That they’re a safe bet. That they’re moneymakers. It’s a cynical train of thought, I know, but that’s capitalism. Even if you never actually open the book, just by buying it you are supporting the creators of these works and making sure that there’s more opportunities for them in the future (and you get bonus points if you make the purchase at a local independent or secondhand bookstore that needs your support).

If you can’t afford the outlay – which is a completely understandable problem, and heck, I can relate! – use your local library. If librarians see an uptick in the number of diverse books being borrowed by their patrons, they’ll buy more of them and promote them on their shelves. If your local library doesn’t have the type of diverse book you’re looking for, request it. The staff are obligated to seek it out for you. Plus, if you’re in Australia or Canada or the U.K. or any other country with a lending rights program, the author will still get the royalties they’ve earned even though you can borrow the book for free.

Step Two: Buy Tickets To Events That Feature Diverse Authors (And Show Up!)

Look at the events programs for your local library, bookstores, and any writers festivals in your area. Buy tickets to events that feature diverse authors, even when (especially when!) the theme of the event or panel has nothing to do with “diversity”. When you buy tickets and show up, just like when you buy the books themselves, you send a message that these authors are highly valued by their readers and they’re a safe bet for publishers and agents.

What’s more, you’ll get to learn – something they say will surely pique your interest or challenge you to think about something differently. They’ll probably tell you things about their work that you wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to hear, and it might entice you to check out their back catalogue or keep an eye out for their new releases. They might recommend other writers, who are diverse themselves or write diversity in a way that is respectful and engaging.

Plus, if nothing else, it makes the author feel good. There ain’t nothing worse than reading to an empty room.

Step Three: Share And Engage On Social Media

You might not be an “influencer”, but if your post or Tweet convinces just one person to check out a book from a woman of colour or a non-binary writer or a writer who uses a wheelchair, that’s another score in their column, and it will mean the world to them. Not only are these writers too-often overlooked by the publishing world, once their books are out there they’re likely to be underrepresented in marketing and publicity materials, not to mention by selection panels for literary awards. So, we turn to people power!

Leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Share pictures of their work on Instagram. Tag publishers and bookstores in anything you post, make sure they see it! Your voice, however small, will join with others to make a groundswell of people clamouring for more diversity in reading lists and new releases.

Bonus benefit: when your friends and followers see that you’re interested in diverse books, it’s likely that some of them will reach out to share their own favourite diverse writers and stories with you. Check out my Pride 2018 post on Instagram, using books to make a rainbow flag – I had a bunch of readers and followers reach out to suggest LGBTIQ+ stories and authors for The Next List after that, because they saw that post and realised that I was interested in reading about diverse sexualities.

 

It’s been wonderful seeing so many #pride posts all over #bookstagram this month… I saved this, my first attempt at a rainbow #bookstack, for today – the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I give my thanks and pay my respects to the LGBTIQ+ elders who paved the way for the liberation. Your sacrifices were never in vain 🌈 . On a lighter note, it was surprisingly bloody difficult to cobble together a rainbow from my book collection! 😂 I have a lot of white, black, and orange spines… and not much else! I guess it’s a sign I should be buying more books 😏 . Signal boost your favourite LGBTIQ+ authors and bookstagrammers by tagging them in the comments, I’ll show each and every one some love!

A post shared by Keeping Up With The Penguins (@keepingupwiththepenguinsonline) on

While you’re there, make sure you follow and subscribe to diverse authors, bloggers, bookstagrammers and booktubers. Writers often need to show publishing houses that they have a decent following on social media when their next book is under consideration, and every additional click and “like” helps! And diverse book bloggers (on every platform) are more likely to recommend and talk about diverse books, maybe even bringing some new ones to your attention. You should definitely check out browngirlsreadtoo and twirlingpages and violettereads who are all slaying it on Instagram, and search the #diversebookbloggers tag to find more. Twitter is also a fantastic place to find new diverse voices: search #weneeddiversebooks, #ownvoices, #1000blackgirlsbooks and #lgbtbooks to get started.

Step Four: Look For Alternatives When You Need To

Now and then, you’re going to read an ostensibly-diverse book that falls short in one way or another. Maybe it relies too much on tropes and cliches about the marginalised group it seeks to represent. Maybe it relegates diverse characters to the role of sidekick or exotic love interest. This happens often, so don’t beat yourself up for making a “bad” choice. Think of it instead as an opportunity to seek out an alternative that does it better.

How can you tell when the representation isn’t “good” or accurate, if it’s not your own lived experience? Google the book title and look at reviews from members of the community that the book seeks to represent. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly whether something is “off” (or, at least, controversial).

A real-life example: I wasn’t a huge fan of how The Rosie Project represented Asperger Syndrome. It’s not a terrible book, but I hate to think that anyone would consider it an accurate or realistic portrayal of life with Asperger’s. When I looked at the Amazon reviews section, it was clear that I’m not alone in my concerns, and many readers on the spectrum have taken issue with Simsion’s efforts. So, I started looking for books written by and about people with Asperger Syndrome, and found plenty of alternatives: there’s Look me In The Eye by John Elder Robison, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, and Julie Brown even wrote a book about writers on the spectrum. I’m swimming in alternatives!

If you feel really strongly about a book’s failings in this area, you can contact the publisher directly to let them know about the problem (but for the love of all that is holy, don’t contact the author directly on social media! that’s just asking for trouble…). The publisher might not be aware of problems in the work, unless they employ “sensitivity readers”, because most of their reviewers and editors are likely straight, white, able-bodied, and of relatively good socioeconomic standing. It sucks, but it’s the current state of play, and the more often that we campaign for better representation – in the fictional world and the real one – the closer we’ll get to it.

Step Five: Set A Goal, Create A Checklist, And Stick To It

If this has got you fired up and ready to start reading more diversely, subscribe here to get an exclusive Keeping Up With The Penguins diverse reading checklist:

Subscribe here and get a free Diverse Reading Checklist


The first step to getting anything done is setting a goal, after all. Maybe you’re ready to commit to reading one book by a person of colour for every book you read by a white author, or balancing out your male/female/non-binary protagonist balance. Maybe you want to stretch yourself, and commit to an entire year of only reading women of colour, or writers with disabilities. Whatever you have in mind, set it in stone and go from there. Use my list (seriously, get it, it’s great!), or create your own – whatever will get you all the way to your goal.

If you need a little more inspiration, there are dozens of diverse reading challenges available online (especially at the beginning of the year, when we all make resolutions). Try searching your preferred social media platform for #diversitybingo and #diversityreadingchallenge, or other combinations – you’ll find a challenge that matches your goals and reading capacity, and probably also a community that wants to share in the experience with you.

Bonus points for bloggers and social media users who share a review, or leave a rating, every time they finish a diverse book (see Step Three!).

Some Final Thoughts on Reading More Diversely

I know I’m a bit of a hard-arse and these How To Read More guides are full of tough-love… but at the end of the day, reading more diversely should be fun! Don’t approach it like you’re eating a big plate of plain broccoli. Find a way to work diversity into your current reading life. If you’re a romance reader, pull up a few bodice-rippers written by (or about!) people with disabilities. If you love sci-fi, find some stories with protagonists that are people of colour. If you’re a die-hard YA fan, you’re in luck – there are a lot of fantastic diverse books published in your preferred genre right now (we’ve almost reached the point where it’s no longer “alternative” to have a main character from the LGBTIQ+ community or experiencing a mental health issue, which is just fucking awesome).

If you have friends and loved ones from marginalised communities, you’re probably more attuned to the importance of reading more diversely already. Have you tried asking them about their favourite books and writers? You might just discover something new that helps you empathise with their experience more, and find better ways to support them in fighting the good fight.

When you feel your reading world expanding and you’re ready to take the next step, seek out ways to support organisations that promote diversity in books. Check out We Need Diverse Books for starters. Ask at your local library (I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s really the best resource!) what you can do to encourage them to stock and promote diverse books. If you’re a student, look up your school’s policy on representation, and talk or write to faculty supervisors suggesting they add more diverse books to their reading lists. Check out literary awards that have strict diversity criteria, and boycott the ones that don’t. I’m pretty sure you’ll find, as I have, the more you prime yourself to see issues with diversity in your reading, the more you’ll notice them and the more you’ll notice ways to battle them, too!

Think I’m being hypocritical? You’re right, The List is mostly straight white males. Read my explanation here.


What are you doing to read more diversely this year? Do you have any more tips for supporting diverse authors and books? Let me know in the comments (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Check out the final installment in my How To Read More series – How To Read More Classic Books – here.

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone

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

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

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

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

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

“But other genres are for losers!”

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

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

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

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

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

You will.

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

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

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

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

Well, stop it.

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

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

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

Step Two: Read A Book That Crosses Genre Boundaries

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

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

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

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

Step Three: Try Alternating Books You Read

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

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

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

Step Four: Focus on Authors, Instead of Genres

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

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

More Quick Tips for Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

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


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

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

How To Read More

It’s that time of year again, the one where we all resolve to change our lives in some fundamental way. Don’t worry, I’m sure next month we’ll all be back on our collective bullshit, but for now I’m here to help. One of the most common New Years resolutions is to read more – it’s right up there with exercising and eating “right”. Whether you say you want to read more, make time to read more, motivate yourself to read more, however you put it, it all boils down to the same thing. I’m dedicating this entire month to helping you do just that, in a variety of ways. And you should steel yourselves, because I don’t play: I’m going to give it to you straight. Welcome to part one of the Keeping Up With The Penguins How To Read More series (slash bootcamp), where I will crush every single excuse you’ve got for not having your nose in a book.

How To Read More - A Guide from Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I Don’t Have Time To Read”

Yes, you do.

You “have time” for the things you make time for. You have time to work, don’t you? You have time to sleep, shower, take care of your kids, have dinner with your in-laws, whatever. You have twenty-four hours in the day, and you decide how you use them, just like the rest of us. It’s up to you how much you value reading, and whether that’s more or less important than everything else you decide to spend your time doing.

So, once you’ve decided that you want to use more of your time for reading (and for a good reason, more on that in a minute), here are some tips to make it easier:

  • Put reading on your to-do list, just like you would exercise or any other “habit” that you’re trying to form. If you’re a list junkie, like me, that nagging feeling of an unchecked item will give you the nudge you need to pick up a book.
  • Don’t shoot for the moon. If you try and carve two and a half hours out of every day for reading straight off the bat, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Keep your goals small and do-able. Set a target of, say, reading a few pages before bed, or reading for the duration of your commute instead of scrolling through Buzzfeed listicles. Goals that feel small and achievable are the easiest to reach.
  • And, on that note, you can make it easier on yourself by incorporating reading into your existing habits. When you’re sitting on the couch with your family after dinner, try reading together instead of watching TV. Turn off Spotify, and listen to audiobooks during your daily walks instead (yes, that counts). Keep your books within easy reach – carry them in your handbag, make a stack on your bedside table, make sure they’re always an arm’s length away. Your brain will always take the path of least resistance, and if the books are handy and the habits are already there… well, you get the idea.

“Reading Is Boring”

No, it’s not.

You’re reading the wrong book.

Seriously, that’s the real problem. The right book is the one that captures your interest and keeps it. When you find that book, you won’t find the act of sitting down to read “boring” at all – in fact, you’ll look forward to it, and find excuses to get back to it when maybe you should be doing other things.

This advice holds true for the equally-common excuse “I’m too easily distracted by my phone/computer/television”. When you’re reading the right book, you’ll find yourself so immersed in it that it won’t even occur to you to check your notifications or go searching for the remote.

So, how do you find the “right” book? Easy: try them all. It can be an expensive exercise if you’re buying them, because you’ll probably burn through a lot before you get your money’s worth. If that’s a problem, look into a library membership or check out the selection of cheap/free eBooks available through Amazon. Give every book a go, and never let yourself forget that you are under no obligation to continue with one that’s not holding your interest. (Of course, there can be value in doing that sometimes, but if boredom is what’s keeping you from reading, you need to focus on that for now.)

Even if you go through a dozen and still don’t find one that takes your fancy, keep going. Gobble up bite-sized chunks of books until you find one so delicious that you can’t help but devour the whole thing.

“Reading Is Hard For Me”

OK, there’s no tough-love advice for this one: it’s a completely legitimate problem… but it doesn’t mean that you can’t get any value out of books at all.

Have you tried large print books? Have you tried reading on an e-reader instead of a paper book? Have you tried audiobooks? My grandmother has a fairly severe vision impairment, but she still gets a great deal of enjoyment out of audiobooks, and she’s always excited to get started on the next one.

Whatever the hurdle, it can be crossed, I promise you – just keep investigating your options, and don’t get hung up on the notion that if it’s not ink on paper it “doesn’t count”.

If you feel that reading is inaccessible to you for financial reasons, you’ve got options too! Try your local library as the first point of call. Even if you struggle to read paper books, they probably have electronic and audio options available to you, all for free. Even if the building is a long way away, they probably have some kind of program that allows books to be delivered or mailed to you. If they really can’t offer you anything that works for you, write to your local government council and tell them what services you need. After all, it’s up to them to provide resources to the community that funds them – and that includes you!

“I Don’t Know What To Read”

Well, subscribe to Keeping Up With The Penguins, for starters. Do it right now:

OK, that was a bit cheeky, I know 😉 But in all seriousness, start looking at reviews and recommendations from book-lovers online. They’re bound to suggest at least one or two that appeal to you. You could also try looking over the recommended reading lists of people you admire; not all of them will be winners, of course, but it’s a good place to start.

Sometimes figuring out what to read can be as simple as coming up with a list of things that you like and enjoy – road trips, taxidermy, 1960s fashion, Renaissance art, soccer, chemistry, whatever – and searching Google (or a site like Keeping Up With The Penguins) for “books about X”. Think of it as a super-easy shortcut for cobbling together a shortlist of books – usually a good combination of fiction and non-fiction, too – on a subject that you already know interests you.

Bonus tip: you can start going back through the archives and re-reading some of your favourites from childhood or high-school. That nostalgic kick you get from books you remember well can’t be beat!

“I Need More Easy, Practical Tips To Read More”

I’ve got you covered:

  • Try joining a book club. Whether it’s one that meets in person or an online forum (there are a lot of Facebook groups for this!), it’ll work. Not only do you get to chat about what you’re reading with other people, you’ll probably find friends with similar reading tastes who can recommend other books to you. If nothing else, the social pressure of knowing that your book club meeting is coming up will get your butt in a chair and your nose in a book.
  • Set specific goals. Not to sound like a corporate wanker, but specific goals are important. Whether it’s a number of books, a specific timeframe, or a list of books (like mine here on KUWTP), giving yourself a measurable outcome that you can track as you go is super-motivating.
  • Get on Goodreads (friend me!) and #bookstagram (follow me!). Seeing all those book-lovers sharing their favourite reads and book hauls will really get you in the mood to pick one up for yourself!
  • Try going to literary events in your area: check out book launches, writers festivals, author readings, and other kinds of gatherings. You’d be surprised how much more interested you are in a book after hearing an author speak about their work. I’ve discovered a bunch of incredible books and authors myself this way!
  • Look up the books your favourite movies were based on. I’ve got a whole category of books that were made into movies here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, and its not hard to find them all online. Sometimes, being familiar with the story and the setting and the characters already can make it much easier to get into a book. If it works, you can build on it by looking into other books that were based on the same story. So, for example, say you love 10 Things I Hate About You: it was based on The Taming of the Shrew, as were the novels Taming Of The Drew by Stephanie Kate Strohm, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, and Wise Children by Angela Carter. That’s plenty to get you started!

“It’s Not Working, I Still Don’t Read Enough!”

Before you wave the white flag and go back to a life without books, I want you to make sure that you’re not getting hung up on reading “fast”, or even on reading “efficiently”. For some reason, a lot of “experts” lately have been pushing their followers to read as much as they can as fast as they can… for no discernible bloody reason, as far as I can tell. You don’t get anywhere near as much enjoyment or value out of a meal that you wolf down in a couple of bites, as you do a meal that you savour slowly – the same goes for books.

I also want you to check that you’re not pushing yourself to only read the “right” kind of books – by which I mean the type of books you think you “should” be reading. The books you think you “should” read almost never match the type of book you actually enjoy. Pushing yourself to read Victorian classics when you’d rather be reading dystopian young-adult novels is a recipe for disaster. Why torture yourself with dry business strategy books when you’d rather be reading Harlequin romances? Take no shame in enjoying whatever the fuck you enjoy, ladies and gents! Literary elitism stinks, and I don’t want to hear that any of you are putting yourselves under pressure of that sort, okay?

Finally, to find the winning strategy and truly get into the habit of reading more, you need to know why you’re doing it. This is the most important thing you’ll get from this series, and I’m giving it away up front. Are you looking for new knowledge or skills for work? Do you really want a better understanding of a particular subject that interests you? Maybe you’re hoping reading will give you access to different perspectives and viewpoints more generally? Is it helping you learn a new language? Heck, maybe you want to read more for the simple fun and pleasure of it. Whatever the case, once you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re in a much better position to figure out how best to go about doing it.


The good news is this: the “trick” to reading more… is to read more. That’s it. The more you do it, the more you’ll do it. Reading (and enjoying reading) is a vicious cycle, and once you’re in it’s bloody hard to pull yourself out. It ain’t rocket surgery…

Are you committing to reading more this year? Or have you set some other bookish goal? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook) – I want to keep you on track and cheer you on!

Check out the next installment of this series – How To Read More Out Of Your Comfort Zone – here.

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