Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 1 of 2)

Girl Online – Zoe Sugg

With reading – as with most things, I guess – timing is everything. I saved this bit of fluff to give my bookish brain a break between Sybil and Ulysses. Girl Online is the debut novel from the young “beauty, fashion, and lifestyle vlogger” Zoe Sugg. I’ll confess right now that I’d never heard of her before picking up this book, but her author bio says she has millions of subscribers on YouTube, so clearly she’s killing it.

Girl Online was first published in 2014, becoming a New York Times Bestseller in the Young Adult category, and the fastest-selling book of that year. It also broke the record for highest first-week sales for a debut author. Not bad, eh? I guess that’s the magic of being an internet celebrity: you’ve got a built-in audience, ready and willing.

But, as always, popularity and sales aren’t always the best indicators of quality. Girl Online is hardly a literary tour de force. It’s the story of Penny Porter, a fifteen-year-old girl from Brighton (where Sugg currently lives, funnily enough), whose anonymous blog goes unexpectedly viral.

Penny mostly uses her blog to vent about her typical teen problems: school, friends, family, boys, and so on. Then, a video of an embarrassing incident at her high-school play makes the rounds on YouTube, causing her great distress… so, her parents take a convenient week-long trip to New York (why is it always New York? Why is it never Wagga Wagga or Woop Woop?). They decide to take Penny and her gay-best-friend Elliot along with them. Naturally.

I could tell straight away that Girl Online isn’t going to age well. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references that already feel outdated: Justin Bieber? What’s he done lately? And I’ll try my best not to sound like a blogging snob here, but it must be said: Girl Online is a terrible domain name! It’s so vague! Penny really needs to work on her SEO. There, that’s all I’ll say on that, but you should know that the romantic sepia-toned version of blogging depicted throughout this book drove me nuts, all the way.



Immediately upon arriving in New York, Penny meets Noah, a mysterious teenage musician (again: why? Why are they always musicians?). She falls in love with him in a New York minute, of course. Alas, her parents cruelly separate them – i.e., they take her home when their holiday/job is over, instead of suggesting that she stay there on the other side of the world with the teenage boy she just met. Noah gives her a CD with a song he wrote for her on it before she leaves (vomit).

When Penny gets home, Noah’s “big secret” is revealed (this doesn’t even warrant a spoiler warning, because it’s so bleeding obvious): he’s actually a huge YouTube sensation, with two million followers or something like that. He’s about to release his first album. He didn’t tell Penny about his “big secret” because it was so nice to be treated “normally” for once (puh-lease). Oh, and he’s supposedly dating some other big-time pop star.

Penny’s all “see ya!”, which is an uncharacteristically good call on her part. Unfortunately, she’d already blogged about the whole romantic drama in real time. A former-BFF mean girl from school manages to join the dots, and she outs Penny’s identity as Girl Online, lover of the YouTube superstar. As a result, the blog goes “viral”, garnering lots of attention (the nasty kind) very quickly. Oh, and she has a fight with Elliot, too, so it’s a rough few days for her.

Cue many, many teenage melodramatics from Penny… only they transition alarmingly quickly into genuinely severe symptoms of an anxiety disorder. And here’s what really got under my girdle: no one, not even the parents, suggested therapy or a psychological evaluation for the hyperventilating teenager. I found it deeply disturbing how nonchalant they all were about it.



Don’t worry: in the last 50 pages, Penny and Elliot make up, the mean girl cops a milkshake to the face (a shameless rip-off of that pivotal moment in The Princess Diaries), and Penny gets an avalanche of suddenly-positive blog comments. Noah shows up to apologise, and says he was never really dating the pop star, it was all a show for publicity (yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say). The song he wrote for Penny is going to be the lead single from his first album, which is just, like, totally the most like, romantic thing evahhh.

Yes, it’s a super predictable ending, but I guess it could’ve been worse. In fact, on the whole, Girl Online was not as cringey as it could have been (and probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be here). It’s far from the worst young adult book I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins: that gong would have to go to Divergent, or maybe The Maze Runner. Girl Online is definitely better than either of those. Thirteen-year-old me might’ve even enjoyed it.

There are, however, a couple of things that would hold me back from recommending it to the teens of today. Firstly, as I said, it’s very firmly anchored in the early 2010s, so with the pace of technology and culture today, it’s going to feel very dated very soon. Snapchat doesn’t even rate a mention! And secondly, again as I’ve said, I was deeply concerned by the implied messages that teenagers can treat and cure their own anxiety disorders through… deep breathing? Sheer force of will? Positive thinking? Just… honestly, where the fuck are the grown-ups here? It has the potential to be really damaging.



Sugg has said, repeatedly, that the book is “in no way autobiographical”… which just has to be a deliberate ploy to fuel the speculation that it is, in fact, autobiographical. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that, even if none of it is “real” so to speak, a lot off Girl Online draws heavily on Sugg’s own romantic fantasies. There’s a strong whiff of wish-fulfillment with the turn of every page.

And that brings us to the other elephant in the room: the nature of Sugg’s “authorship” is… controversial, to say the least. I don’t doubt for a second that Girl Online was ghost-written, but neither Sugg nor Penguin (the publishers) are willing to officially confirm it. Penguin’s only public statement has been to say that Sugg “worked with an expert editorial team to help bring to life her characters and experiences in a heartwarming and compelling story”. Surely even the most wide-eyed naive fan can read between those lines.

Sugg knows marketing, though, which is another reason the book saw such huge sales. The US and UK covers each feature different images provided by Sugg’s fans (I’m assuming for free), selected via a competition she ran on her Instagram page. What Sugg lacks in literary chops, she makes up for in market savvy! She also published a sequel the following year, Girl Online: On Tour, and another the year after that, Girl Online: Going Solo. Based on the titles, and the trajectory of Girl Online, I’m guessing that Penny goes on tour with Noah until fame tears them apart, and then she forges a new life for herself as a fabulous single girl, before either getting back together with him or falling in love with someone even better. Whether I’m right or wrong, I doubt I’ll find out for myself. Still, I’m grateful to Zoe Sugg for this easily-digestible fairy floss snack between two canonical binges…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Girl Online:

  • “Good book if you follow her online.” – david potter
  • “Ok, too much emphasis on her clumsiness” – Kindle Customer
  • “I gave it as a gift to an ex-friend. She truly liked it a lot too bad I don’t like her anymore.” – Lonya Leonard
  • “This story is so lit fam I literally can’t even like omg zoella huge reds to you girl yassss wow” – Bella
  • “Did she even write the book?” – emily
  • “O-M-G this book was a RIP OFF so BAD so terrible i HATED it i’m being REALLY nice boy rating it a three i wanted to rip the pages out of this BAD BOOK if you want to stay healthy and alive DON’T READ!” – Ashrey Cannonier
  • “amateur” – Amazon Customer

Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

You might know Benjamin Disraeli from his time as a conservative Prime Minister of the UK. He became a Tory MP in 1837, then Prime Minister in 1868. You might find it hard to believe that he also squeezed out a decent writing career – not just before, or after, but actually during his time in office. Yep, that’s right, he was running the country and writing and publishing books all the while. And today, I’m reviewing one of them: Sybil, or The Two Nations.

As far as legacies of politicians go, Sybil is a pretty good one. First, it’s where we get the political concept of “one nation”, frequently cited (and misused, *cough*Pauline Hanson*cough*) by politicians today. It alludes to the bitter divide between the “two nations” of England in Disraeli’s time: the aristocratic landowners lived lives of luxury, while the workers and underclasses lived in horrific conditions and extreme poverty. Disraeli was making A Point, you see, that we should aspire to be “one nation”: a government that represents and rules for all, not just a privileged few. Oh, and Sybil also gave us the trope of a villain stroking a white cat. So, there you go.

Sybil was first published in 1845, the same year as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition Of The Working Class In England. Both books sought to draw attention to the plight of the poor, just in different ways. Disraeli wasn’t shy about shamelessly ripping off the ideas and research of others. In fact, a lot of the background information for Sybil was drawn directly from official government reports, to which he had access by virtue of his job. Disraeli wanted to make his political and philosophical points more palatable by shoe-horning them into a love story: “a tender love story linked to a gripping detective plot”, according to the blurb on this edition. That makes Sybil a “roman à thèse”, a fancy way of saying it’s a fictional book about an idea, a novel with a thesis. But don’t be fooled: the “love story” is the flimsiest excuse for a premise that I’ve ever encountered, and Sybil is a blatant critique of capitalism and industralisation.

Look, I’m all about political reform and uplifting the working classes. I can totally get behind Disraeli’s points about representative democracy and equality. But I must say, when it came to crafting a fictional story to make those points, Disraeli made a real pig’s ear of it. Sybil reads like he sat down with a checklist of everything that should be included in an “industrial novel”, and wrote until he checked off all of them, one by one: someone tours a factory and is horrified by the workers’ conditions, the workers go on strike, all the rich people panic, the characters have political arguments, someone tries to start a union…



The “story”, if we can call it that, follows Charles Egremont, a new conservative party MP (whose rich family basically bought him the election). His brother wants him to marry an heiress, Lady Joan, but Charles is ambivalent about that union (to say the least). While he’s trying to worm his way out of it, he runs into a bloke named Gerard, and overhears his daughter – Sybil – singing. And just like that, Charles is a goner! Just from hearing her voice, he falls head-over-clacker in love. Lady Joan be damned!

It sounds somewhat romantic, but bear in mind that it takes a lot of meandering chapters to get to this point – weird hybrids of character histories, and critical essays about British politics and monarchy rule. The book is set around the time of Queen Victoria’s ascendance to the throne, but Disraeli rambles on and on about hundreds of years of history before that. So, y’know, don’t get too excited.

Once he’s “fallen in love”, Charles Egremont starts hanging out with Gerard, trying to get a whiff of his daughter, and sticking his nose in everywhere it doesn’t belong. Charles tells himself he’s just trying to find out first-hand what the life of the working classes is actually like. And reader, it is grim. He is astounded that it’s so different to his life as a member off the aristocracy (imagine!), with all the starvation and disease and general misery. After a big blow-up argument with his brother about cancelling the wedding planner, Charles decides to move into a house up the road from Gerard for a while. All the better to continue with his new hobbies: spying on the poor, and jerking it to Sybil.

This gives Disraeli ample opportunity to air ALL of his grievances with capitalism. He likens the exploitation of the working classes to serfdom. What a revelation! *eye roll* Okay, fine, at the time, it probably was a revelation, but reading this “groundbreaking” critique two hundred years later, I was just sitting there like… yeah, no shit, mate.



Ultimately, as Charles watches on, the working classes mobilise (yeah, boys!). They’re fed up with all the workplace deaths and no tea in the break room, so they go on strike. It looks like it’s working, but things start to go awry when the protestors turn into an angry mob, and groupthink takes over. They decide they’re going to lay siege to Marney Castle. But don’t worry, Sybil and Charles get away safely, and live happily ever after.

Ah, yes, Sybil, we haven’t said much about her yet – mostly because there’s not much to say. She was so two-dimensional, she was almost see-through (even by the extra-low standard I set for privileged male writers of that period). Her main job was to stand around being beautiful and believing in social justice, while wealthy white men like Charles made all the decisions and did all the politicking. She eventually hooks up with Charles, of course, but that’s about all she does throughout the whole book named for her. Sad.

The introduction to this edition promised me that “Sybil is, in large part, a novel about what it feels like to be in love with someone who disapproves of you”, but – as I’m sure you can tell by now – I really wasn’t feeling that. Sybil is far grittier than, say, David Copperfield or Vanity Fair. It’s not as plot-driven, and it’s far more academic. That might be because, unlike Dickens and Thackeray, Disraeli’s work was never published in serial form, so he didn’t have to keep it pacy and punchy to keep the readers coming back week-to-week.

I think I only soaked in about 10% of what Disraeli was pouring out. Sybil is probably better suited to readers who are already deeply familiar with the system of British government and the monarchy, and/or people who have a keen interest and some background knowledge of 18th and 19th century British history. Having an at-best rudimentary understanding of both, this book didn’t do much for me. I appreciated Disraeli’s ideas, but I wasn’t a fan of his execution.

There was only one part that stuck with me, my favourite line:

“I rather like bad wine,” said Mr Mountchesney, “one gets so bored with good wine.”

That’s drawn from the opening scene and, to be frank, I wouldn’t recommend reading much further than that. The beginning was the best and most interesting part of the whole book, which isn’t saying much, sadly.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sybil:

  • “Could have done without icky sweet Sybil. Very powerful images of social inequities of the times. Are we heading this way?” – Quotarian
  • “I have only read the first bit, didn’t really grab my attention and hold it so the jury is still out” – TieDye Kid
  • “Benjamin Disraeli writes, “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In Sybil, Disraeli attempts to explain the struggle of the Victorian working class. He spends a great deal of time justifying himself which is boring to read. The story itself is told by an obvious elitist masquerading as suffragette. Though it has many quotable sentences, I did not enjoy this book in its entirety.” – Ali


The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat Of The Day, by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, was first published in 1948. It focuses on the interwoven lives and relationships of three main characters, and their political roles, in the years following The Blitz. I know I’ve told you all that I’m a bit “over” fictionalised accounts of WWII, but I’ve had a bit of a break from them now, so I can come at this one with a fresh eye. Plus, The Heat Of The Day was written so close to the conflict, I suspected it might have a different approach (and I was right, as always).

My edition doesn’t have an introduction, or any prefatory material; even the blurb and the author bio are surprisingly bland. I only mention this because Penguin editions almost always offer up some delicious tid-bit that I faithfully relay back to you. I’m not sure why they didn’t bother in this case?

So, straight to the story, then: our female lead is Stella, a divorced middle-aged woman (though she is “young looking”, readers are repeatedly assured). She lives alone in London, and holds – shall we say – some deeply ingrained class prejudice. She has a lover, Robert, who was wounded in Dunkirk, but he basically only limps when he feels like it so everyone knows he’s having them on. Stella also has a son, Roderick, who’s off at some soldier training school, or whatever they call it. He signed up for the Army purely because it seemed to be the “done thing”, so he’s pretty loosey-goosey with his patriotism. He also seems to be in love with his comrade Fred, but no one says that out loud.

There’s also Harrison, a British intelligence agent, and let’s just go ahead and call him the source of all conflict in this novel (aside from, y’know, the war). He’s got a huge boner for Stella, and also – conveniently enough – believes her lover Robert to be a German spy. Harrison takes any chance he gets to worm his way between them. He tells Stella outright of his suspicions. When she doesn’t believe him (and fall instantly into his arms), he says he’ll hold off on reporting Robert to the authorities if she ends their relationship (and, he implies, gets her kit off). She declines that kind offer… but she thinks about it for a minute first.

Roderick comes home to visit Stella on leave, and finds out that he’s inherited Mount Morris – an Irish estate that formerly belonged to his father’s cousin. He’s got his hands full with this army business, though, so he sends Stella over there to take care of affairs for him (good on you, Mum). Her time in the Isle gets her all nostalgic, reminiscing about her youth and her first marriage, to Roderick’s father. She decides that when she gets home, she’ll just ask Robert straight to his face whether he’s a German spy. Good plan!



Naturally, Robert vehemently denies the accusation, and he throws her plan all off-kilter with a proposal of marriage. I think it was around that time that The Heat Of The Day devolved into a super-weird side plot, an argument where Roderick demands to know the truth of his parents’ divorce. For years, Stella has let everyone believe that she was cheating on Roderick’s father, because she found it less shameful than the fact that he actually left her, for an army nurse. Roderick seems satisfied with that new explanation, and then… we just return to the regularly scheduled programming? Weird!

Anyway, Harrison tells Stella off for giving Robert the heads up. She offers herself up as a bribe, in exchange for Robert’s life and freedom, but Harrison’s over her (or he just puts his love for Queen and country first, whatever). He tells Stella to bugger off.

Things are looking pretty bad for Robert by this point. He goes ahead and makes things worse for himself by confessing to Stella that he did spy for the Germans, at some point. After she offered herself up like a leg of Christmas ham, and everything! She’s (rightly) cranky, and kicks Robert out of the house. He sure shows her, though: he proceeds immediately to her roof, and jumps off of it, killing himself.

Now that the action has come to a head, Bowen seems to get bored of her own story. She gives us a rushed overview of what happens for each of the characters over the next few years, just to wrap things up neatly. Roderick moves to Mount Morris after the war, and decides not to look for his father. Harrison visits Stella and starts hitting on her again, but she knocks him back – still, the reader can’t be sure whether they wind up together or not. And, finally, a side character that was barely mentioned throughout the book has a love-child and runs away to the country. The end!



I feel like The Heat Of The Day would quote beautifully. Pluck any random sentence from any random page, and it would sound fucking profound. At a sentence level, Bowen’s writing craft was exquisite. But the book, as a whole, was a little Henry James-y. In fact, Raymond Chandler once said that The Heat Of The Day was a “screaming parody” of James. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but the story was really hard to follow. For me, James represents the epitome of getting high off your own fumes, thinking more about what you can do with language than the story you’re trying to tell – anything that resembles that is going to get me off-side, guaranteed.

I guess what I liked about the book was that it seemed, for the most part, a lot more realistic than most contemporary WWII fiction. No one was trying to kill Hitler (ahem, Life After Life). No one was shielding a priceless jewel from the Nazis (ahem, All The Light We Cannot See). It wasn’t narrated by Death as he tried to bump children off the mortal coil (ahem, The Book Thief). The war was present in The Heat Of The Day, but in the background, while the regular romantic and familial dramas played out in the foreground. The violence of the conflict was mostly removed from the narration. It’s a circumstance of the story, not the focus of it. Bowen does describe the London bombings, but really only in passing. You can see and feel the effects of the war, in food rations and black-out curtains and the suspicion of strangers, but life goes on: real life, everyday life, as it did for many who lived through that era. Anthony Burgess was once quoted as saying that no other novel has better captured the true atmosphere of London in WWII, and I totally believe that. I commend Bowen for the way she depicted the gnawing desperation of those times, and the cruel irony of loving someone who (it turned out) was on the side of the fascists, without getting gimmicky or overblown. Stella is just trying to keep calm and carry on (ha!), while the men around her play their own ridiculous game of Spy Vs Spy.

Still, The Heat Of The Day was a slog to read. I didn’t really care all that much about any of the characters, truth be told. I even found it hard to keep them straight at times. I’d say it’s comparable to E.M. Forster and Henry Green (as well as James, as mentioned) – I didn’t particularly love either of them, either, so it makes sense that this one didn’t start my engines. If you’re a historical fiction devotee looking for something different, a more realistic take on WWII, give it a go. Otherwise, save your eyeballs.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heat Of The Day:

  • “A hard slog to get to an interesting story.” – Granny
  • “Can not recommend. Book is stated as a thrilling story. Not! Verbose.” – Phyllis

She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

This week’s selection from my reading list is a little treat for myself – it’s been a long year! And I’ve been wanting to read She Came To Stay for ages. It’s been sitting on my shelf tempting me, like a bottle of fine wine. I guess I was just waiting for The Right Moment(TM) to properly enjoy it, and as the year draws to a close, I can happily announce that the moment has finally come.

I was fairly confident that I’d find something of interest in She Came To Stay (or, in the original French, L’Invitée). It was renowned feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, published in 1943, a fictional account of her and Jean-Paul Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakievicz (to whom the book is dedicated). This will hardly come as a shock, but it turns out de Beauvoir had some hard feelings about the 17-year-old who “came between” her and Sartre, the love of her life, and in many ways She Came To Stay is her act of revenge. So, it’s already ticking a few boxes: feminism, thinly veiled autobiographical plot, and a tumultuous polygamous relationship. Goodie!

My only quibble with this edition is that it’s a bit of a #namethetranslator fail. The only information I could find was printed, in teeny tiny font, on the Copyright page: “This translation was first published by Secker & Warburg and Lindsay Drummond in 1949”, but as best I can tell, from what’s Google-able, the actual work of translation was done by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse. Do better, Harper Perennial!

But on with the story: She Came To Stay is set in Paris, around the time of WWII. A young, naive couple – Francoise and Pierre – are very proudly bohemian. They write, they’re in The Theater, and they have an “open” relationship (though it’s “unthinkable that they should ever tire of each other”). All of that is put to the test when Xaviere comes flouncing in. Basically, She Came To Stay is a cautionary tale about the dangers of poorly-planned polyamory, especially if you’re French and the teenager you take on as a third is a hot mess.



The character motivations are really complex, and hard to wrap your head around at times. Xaviere seemed like a real chore, to put it mildly – I struggled to understand why they kept her around at all. I’m guessing she was really-really-really-ridiculously-good-looking, but de Beauvoir doesn’t actually describe her physicality all that much, one of the many perks of reading books about women by women! I’m still not entirely sure I ever figured them out. Francoise and Pierre’s relationship is hardly healthy to begin with, but when Xaviere joins them, it goes from bad to worse. They’re exploitative, they’re voyeuristic, and they seem to really get off on emotionally abusing one another – it’s all very confronting.

There’s some timelessness to the broader themes, though. True to her reputation, de Beauvoir explored all kinds of existentialist philosophy, ideas of freedom, dependence, sexuality, and “the other”. If you’re not across your existentialist philosophising (hey, no judgement – it’d been a while for me, too!), it’s all about finding the self and the meaning of life through exploring the bounds of free will and personal responsibility. If those ideas grab you, then you’re going to want to give this book a go, because it’s got them all in spades.

de Beauvoir went to great lengths to impress upon the reader that Francoise always came second, in Pierre’s mind, to Xaviere – even though Francoise didn’t seem to realise it herself. The poor lamb falls into the trap of trying to be the “cool girl”, as most modern women do at some point in their lives. She lets his work take precedence, his sexual desires dominate, and she doesn’t dare tell him off (even when he’s being a huge prick). It’s not simple subservience, though. This notion of being “free”, being “open minded”, is a central tenant of Francoise’s identity. She’s not willing to sacrifice that for a silly little thing like emotional security.



Xaviere is unspeakably manipulative, so it’s a testament to Francoise’s strength of will that she’s able to put up with her for longer than five minutes. The teenage strumpet goes above and beyond to drive a wedge between Francoise and Pierre, and for a good two-thirds of the novel she has them dancing on her strings.

By all accounts, these relationship dynamics are the same as those that played out in de Beauvoir’s real-life ménage à trois. She and Sartre purported to value freedom and openness above all else, but clearly that didn’t work out, because she ended up writing She Came To Stay as a way of “dealing with” (her words!) the trauma of Sartre’s affair. This book is basically her equivalent of Taylor Swift’s reputation album.

I really wanted to like it. I was expecting another Jane Eyre or The Bell Jar. But, for the most part, She Came To Stay was just good. Not rush-out-into-the-street-and-shout-about-it good, just good enough to keep going. I felt like it was a bit too long; after just 150 pages, I was wondering where on earth it could possibly go, so the final sections dragged a bit. And the “shock twist ending” was kind of lost on me, I’m sorry to say. In a rare moment of fancy-pants literary high-mindedness, I assumed Francoise was being metaphorical when she (SPOILER ALERT!) described killing Xaviere. You know, I assumed it was a flight of fancy, killing the idea of Xaviere, rather than actually doing it. Not so, it turns out, and I only learned that later, reading up on the book to write this review. Whoops!



In some ways, though, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Francoise finishes off Xaviere to reclaim her own power, and to prove she’s no one’s second choice. In real life, de Beauvoir wrote this book to prove that she shouldn’t come second, either. Right? Maybe I’m stretching. The real-life story has a much happier ending, anyway, you’ll be pleased to know. de Beauvoir and Sartre stuck it out through the Olga years; they remained lovers, companions, and mutual editors until he passed away in 1980. de Beauvoir is now buried alongside him in Montparnasse, where they lived together for most of their lives. And she had a little fun of her own on the side, too; she had a long-running affair with American writer Nelson Algren, but her loyalty to Sartre, and her refusal to leave him, was the cause of its breakdown.

She Came To Stay isn’t Simone de Beauvoir’s best-known work, but I’m glad it was the one I started with. I’ll be reviewing her magnum opus, The Second Sex, here on Keeping Up With The Penguins soon: it’s a hugely-influential account of the status and nature of women in the mid-20th century, and it’s pretty much the reason we remember de Beauvoir as a pioneer of post-war feminism. And, for balance, I’ll be reviewing a collection of Sartre’s essays, too. Stay tuned…!

My favourite Amazon reviews of She Came To Stay:

  • “Nice reading, pages run quickly for a mediocre reader.” – 17a8m9a
  • “Book about pretentious Parisian snobs which somehow works out to be a most enjoyable and engaging read! Highly recommended. Loved the ending” – Petrarch’sGirl


Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here we are, Keeper-Upperers: face-to-face with my reading challenge white whale. Anyone who’s been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while knows the story of how I’ve started and abandoned Pride And Prejudice no fewer than six times. Never again! I finally sat down with Austen’s romantic novel, one of the most popular books in English literature, and I’m pleased to say we’ve worked out our issues and reconciled. Woohoo!

Pride And Prejudice (original working title First Impressions) was first published on 28 January 1813. Since then, it’s sold over 20 million copies, and saturated our public consciousness to the point that it’s now considered the origin story for many common archetypes that we still see in fiction today. In 2003, nearly two centuries after its release, the BBC conducted a poll to determine the UK’s “best-loved book”, and Pride And Prejudice came in second (it lost out to Lord Of The Rings). More locally, a poll of over 15,000 Australian readers in 2008 saw them vote it into first place on a list of the 101 best books ever written. So, yeah, it’s still got some currency.

The introduction to this edition is long – over 40 pages! I considered skipping it, but I persevered. Some of it was interesting, some of it wasn’t, so I guess it all comes out in the wash. The highlights for me were learning that Charlotte Brontë wasn’t a fan of Austen’s work (good trivia!), and this little gem of a summary:

“It is indeed possible to call its relevance to the society of the time into question, for during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind.”

Introduction, Pride And Prejudice (page 7)

Also, I might be coming around to the idea of ignoring the footnotes. It pains me to admit it (because my husband is a strong advocate for skipping them, and I hate it when he’s right), but here we are. There are basically none in this edition of Pride And Prejudice, so I tried reading it without them and I felt like I didn’t miss anything I couldn’t pick up from context clues. Plus, the reading is all the more enjoyable for not having to flick back and forth all the time. Gosh, if only I’d come around to this way of thinking before now, maybe one of those earlier attempts might have worked out…



So, Pride And Prejudice begins with fuss-pot matriarch Mrs Bennet trying to persuade her husband to visit Mr Bingley, a rich and eligible bachelor who has just moved in up the road. Thus, the famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. After a bit of to-and-fro, Mr Bennet makes the visit, and it’s followed by an invitation for the family to attend a ball.

This family, one of the most famous in literature, consists of Mr & Mrs Bennet and their five daughters: Jane (the beauty), Lizzie (the smarty-pants), Mary (the plain loner), Kitty (the impressionable one), and Lydia (the… worldly one). They all trot off to this ball, and Mr Bingley is every bit as wonderful as they’d imagined. He takes a special interest in Jane, which sends everyone aflutter, and they start planning the wedding (that’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think).

Mr Bingley’s wingman, Mr Darcy, is a whole other story. He’s twice as rich, but not half as nice. He negs Lizzie at this party, and then at another, and then again at another. Pride And Prejudice is basically the story of how a pick-up artist meets a feminist and falls in love. In fact, I think it might be the origin of the reformed-bad-boy trope, and by rights I should be rolling my eyes in disgust… but, like with Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the hidden sappy side of me took over for a minute and I let myself enjoy it.

(Also, spoiler alert: Darcy is the “proud” one, and Lizzie is the “prejudiced” one, but really neither of them are perfect in either regard.)



Anyway, some time later, Jane goes to visit Mr Bingley’s sister, under the guise of making new friends. In reality, she just wants to get a glimpse of her new man, pulling the old “Oh, I didn’t even know you’d be here!” trick. By her mother’s design, she gets caught in the rain and develops a rotten cold (why did all Victorian ladies have such terrible immune systems?), forcing her to stay a few days. Then, a whole lotta drama plays out: Lizzie visits the Bingleys’, Darcy gets a boner, Miss Bingley gets jealous, and Jane drags out this convenient cold as long as she can to stay closer to the object of her affections.

Then, Mr Collins (heir to the estate on which the Bennets live) pays a visit. The property is “entailed”, which I took to mean none of the Bennet girls could inherit unless one of them married this dude. And he’s well aware of their desperation (gross). He figures he can take his pick of the young ladies, and they won’t have a choice if they want to keep the family home (super-gross). He crosses Jane off the list, even though she’s the hot one, because he doesn’t want to cut Mr Bingley’s grass (yes, a man’s supposed ownership of a woman is to be respected more than her own autonomy, HELLO PATRIARCHY MY OLD FRIEND). Mr Collins sets his sights on Lizzie, and she (quite rightly) tells him to fuck off. He gets super butt-hurt, and runs away to marry someone else, which means as soon as Mr Bennet dies he can dump them all out on the street and take the house for himself. What a guy!

Anyway, while all this is going on, Lizzie makes a new friend in Mr Wickham. He’s dashing, and charming, but kind of a hound dog. He has a big ol’ cry about how Mr Darcy has caused him “hardship”, and Lizzie just falls for it hook, line, and sinker (yes, for the “smart one”, she can be surprisingly dumb). Lizzie decides she doesn’t want a bar of Darcy anymore, which pleases Wickham to no end.



Then, out of the blue, the Bingleys skip town and Jane is devo. She tries following them to London, thinking she could reignite the spark and lure her lover back (all the while I’m screaming bitch-don’t-chase-a-man!) but his sister snubs her and she’s cut off from them entirely. When Lizzie visits Mr Collins and his new wife, they shed some light on the situation: apparently, Mr Darcy convinced Mr Bingley not to marry Jane because her family was poor (and kind of bogan, or whatever the old-timey equivalent of bogan is). And, in another case of terrible timing, Mr Darcy picks this very moment to show up and declare his love for Lizzie. Of course, she tells him to fuck right off.

You’d think that’s a pretty irreparably damaged relationship right there, but Mr Darcy writes a letter with a Very Good Explanation for everything, and Lizzie’s all “Oh, okay then!”. The next time they meet, she’s all set to open her heart to love… but she’s promptly distracted by her younger sister, Lydia, running off with Mr Wickham, that dastardly hound-dog, and (wait for it) they’re not married! Clutch my pearls! There’s a lot of hand-wringing at the prospect of Lydia losing her virginity out of wedlock. Mr Collins literally said she’d be better off dead, which I thought was a bit much. But this piece of “terrible” news actually gave rise to my favourite line in all of Pride And Prejudice:

“On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill, that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, ‘Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? – A glass of wine; – shall I get you one? – You are very ill!”

Pride And Prejudice (page 294)

I mean, bringing me a glass of wine would definitely be the way to win me over, so I can see why Lizzie went for him.

Anyway, Lizzie figures that Lydia’s supposed-disgrace means she’ll never see Mr Darcy again. I mean, if having a poor family was enough to put him off the idea of a marriage, having a harlot for a little sister has got to be some kind of romance death knell. But, to everyone’s surprise, Darcy steps the fuck up! He convinces Wickham to marry Lydia, “saving” her reputation, and pays off all his outstanding debts. Consider the day saved!



Bingley and Darcy come back to the ‘hood. Bingley’s seen the light, he proposes to Jane, and there is much rejoicing. Then, Darcy’s rich aunt starts sticking her nose in, worried that her favourite nephew is going to do something silly like marry a poor girl as well. Lizzie – as is her habit, by now – tells her to fuck off. Darcy proposes, she accepts, and everyone’s married and rich by the end. Happily ever after!

So, what did I think? Well, many things. Based on her reputation, I’d kind of expected Lizzie Bennet to be a bit more like Emma: disinterested in boys and marriage, bookish, strong-willed, self-determining. She is all of those things, I suppose, or almost, but not to the degree that I’d expected. I think my favourite Bennet was actually Lydia: the young, loud-mouthed, boy-crazy one. I feel like she would have been a dynamite sex-positive feminist on Twitter these days.

Austen was the master of hiding really heavy themes in plain sight, cloaking them in the social mores of her time. For instance, she presented all the parents as symbolically powerful but ultimately ineffectual (Emma’s Dad was a whiny hypochondriac, and Mr & Mrs Bennet were messy drama queens who played favourites with their offspring). She also poked holes in the idea that wealth and social standing were desirable qualities (Emma’s kindest and most wonderful friends were the poorest social outcasts; Collins and Wickham, despite their good reputations and prospects, were both revealed to be pretty rotten in the end). Plus, she carefully breaks down the social/economic complexities of courtship and marriage in a way that really impresses me. There’s very little in her books about romantic love, really, but a lot about politics, power, class, and community.



Her treatment of marriage is actually less gendered than I’d initially assumed it would be, too. Many of her men do, in fact, find themselves in want of a wife, and for the same reasons of poverty and disadvantage that led women to seek husbands. Look at how, say, Wickham needs to marry a woman of means and respectability to cover his own debts and excuse his past misdeeds. I mean, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that women’s financial security was wholly dependent on men at that time (most women didn’t have independent legal rights or access to the inheritance laws that had benefited only men until the end of the 19th century), but Austen found other ways to give women agency and power in her stories.

So, having written this intricate and complex novel, what did Austen do next? Well, she made some dumb decisions (not to be mean, but seriously). She sold the copyright to Thomas Egerton for £110. She wanted £150, but he bargained her down. In owning the copyright, Egerton owned all of the risk of publication (a notoriously money-losing venture) but he also owned all of the profit when Pride And Prejudice went gangbusters. Jan Fergus did some clever maths a few years back, and she worked out that Egerton raked in £450 from the first two editions alone, while Austen got not a penny. It seems incredible that one of the most recognisable authors in the English language earned so little from her most popular work, and I think it’s an important cautionary tale for all the incredible women writers out there – own your shit, ladies!



Now, this is where I’d typically list any adaptations of note, but for Pride And Prejudice there are just too damn many! And there are more released every single year. The enduring popularity of this story knows no bounds. A couple of my favourites include Bridget Jones’s Diary, which places the story in contemporary London, and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which is an unbelievably popular Austen-zombie-cannibal-ninja-ultraviolence mash-up. And, not satisfied to let the creatives have all the fun, scientists have got in on some Pride And Prejudice homages too. In 2010, a pheromone found in mouse urine was named “darcin”, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females (what an honour… kind of). And in 2016, a whole article in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases was dedicated to speculating as to the possible medical reasons the Bennets didn’t have any male children.

On the whole, I’m extremely glad I persisted with this classic. I think it’s another fine example of needing a book to come to you at the right time. I ended up enjoying Pride And Prejudice far more than I thought I would, and it’s one I’ll definitely re-read and re-visit in the future. I never thought I’d see myself say that out loud, let alone in writing, but there you have it: life isn’t always what you’d expect, and neither are books.

Note: in the end, I enjoyed Pride And Prejudice so much that it made the cut for my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Pride And Prejudice:

  • “Elizabeth Bennet is my spirit animal.” – Mary Hammond
  • “No thanks no review, this is stupid I don’t need to review a classic and I resent being held hostage to a review” – Jennifer Jones
  • “Y’all, errybody need to check out Lydia’s FINSTA. NSFW.” – Rebeca Reynolds
  • “Old nd good” – scott patterson
  • “Perfect gift for married co-worker” – KG
  • “Haven’t read it for 40 years, thought I’d try again. Still pretty good.” – Kindle Customer
  • “If you want to read a classic then this is for you but I wasn’t a fan. I’m not really big on romance and this seems heavy on romance a nd girl hates boy but then likes boy relationship centered.” – Mirashan Gregory
  • “This is the quintessential Day Time Soap Opera. 2 seasons or more neatly placed between the cover of a classic novel.” – Karen Marie review
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen rocks.” – Erin S.
  • “Pride and Prejudice is a very tiresome book. Much dialogue and very little action. Too much love and not enough Jesus.” – D
  • “Almost 400 pages of girls talking about which guy has more money and who they danced with. Not worth the paper it is written on.” – Amazon Customer
  • “A story of spoiled sisters and their attempts to be the bestest of the best in a time when how much money you had
matters more than love or morality.
 Seriously, the moral of the story seems to be, if a rich uncle comes calling, you best throw your daughters
at him until one sticks. Just a miserable, long story of some young women trying to find the right man to take care of them.” – JD Wohlever
  • “oh, this book is just awful. The author even insults her own people inside of this. There were several references to the British military that were insults back then; I forget what the are exactly. The characters themselves are never really developed in my opinion. The whole plot is this: girl sees rich guy and hates him because he is socially awKward. Rich guy actually loves girl and tries to tell her that. Girl mistreats the man because she’s blind to everything. Guy eventually has to spend money to get her to like him. They get married. End of story. This book is about a gold digger in all reality. It lacks anything that would make a book a classic. If you want to be driven insane, read this book.” – Not Trans Kieran


Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

This is it, people: the one we’ve all been waiting for! Get yourselves a glass of wine and strap in, because after dozens and dozens of books, after a year of searching, I have finally found it: some decent literary smut! If that’s not your thing, look away now, because I tell you what – Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer had me clutching my pearls.

To understand Tropic Of Cancer, you really need to understand the life and times of Henry Miller. See, Tropic of Cancer, much like The Sun Also Rises, and On The Road, is what we call a roman-à-clef (which is a fancy way of saying that Miller wrote a diary and just changed a few names before he published it). Miller grew up in the States, born in 1891 to German-speaking parents and only learning to speak English fluently during his school years. As an adult, he had – shall we say – a complicated romantic life. By way of example, at one point he had an affair with his first wife’s mother. He supported himself through a string of odd-jobs until his second wife took him to Paris. There, she encouraged him to begin writing, and he threw himself whole-heartedly into a life of bohemian squalor. Paris was the place for it, after all; the city was chockers full of debauched artistic types (Hemingway, Joyce, and Beckett all hung out there during the same period), so he had plenty of company.

As he was writing Tropic Of Cancer, his first book, he began a torrid affair with Anaïs Nin (and it was her diaries, published later, that made celebrities of them both). Then, a plot twist: Miller’s wife began an affair with Nin as well. Unsurprisingly, they divorced in 1934, the same year that Tropic Of Cancer was published.



It was an interesting conflation of circumstances that led Tropic Of Cancer to even see the light of day. Firstly, it was the editorial support of Nin – not to mention her financial backing – that got the manuscript to a publishable standard. But even with her guidance and injection of cash, there was the matter of finding a publishing house that would take it on. That’s where the legendary laissez-faire attitude of the French saved the day. See, British and American publishers were constrained by tight obscenity laws and unwilling to take risks on “dirty books”, while the French – predictably – did not give a shit. As such, Tropic Of Cancer was published in Paris for the first time in 1934, but it did not reach the English-speaking world until 1961, after many lengthy legal battles.

I bet you think I’m overstating it. How could a book possibly be so filthy that it warranted 30 years of controversy? Consider the opinion of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, who said that Tropic Of Cancer is “… not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

Given that that’s the case, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I fucking loved it!

“It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Tropic of Cancer (pG 1)

Tropic Of Cancer isn’t a stream of consciousness, but it’s something adjacent to it. It is set in France during the late 1920s and 30s, focusing on Miller’s life as a starving artist. There’s no real linear narrative, and Miller fluctuates fluidly through the past and the present and his philosophical musings on life. It’s basically a string of anecdotes about his friends, lovers, work, life, and neighbourhood, with the occasional epiphany and some fun facts thrown in.

“The physiology of love. The whale with his six-foot penis, in repose. The bat-penis libre. Animals with a bone in the penis. Hence, a bone on… ‘Happily,’ says Gourmont, ‘the bony structure is lost in man’. Happily? Yes, happily. Think of the human race walking around with a bone on. The kangaroo has a double penis – one for week-days and one for holidays.”

Tropic of Cancer (Pg 2-3)

And, yes, there is a lot of filth. I can see why the conservatives kicked up such a stink (which is unusual for me – usually, I’m left wondering what could possibly have caused such offence). I did notice, though, that Miller really writes more about hunger and food than he does about sex. I assume that’s because, well, most bohemians were homeless and starving. Nin once observed to Miller that “in Tropic Of Cancer you were only sex and a stomach”, and that is probably the best assessment of this book that anyone has ever made.

The sex and debauchery that he does describe seems more angry than lustful. It’s abundantly clear that he was trying to make a point, moreso than titillate the reader (not that he was opposed to a bit of titillation, mind you – he and Nin both made their pocket money writing erotica to order, mostly for private collectors). I read some commentators say that the pornographic passages “no longer shock” the modern reader, but I’ll happily stick up my hand and say that references to inserting reptiles and rodents into a woman’s rectum were still pretty damn confronting for me.

There’s also a lot of quibbling among the various readers and critics as to whether Miller was a misogynist, and whether Tropic Of Cancer was a misogynistic book. I’m sure he was, to an extent, but to me most of the woman-hate-y passages read as so tongue-in-cheek that I couldn’t imagine even Miller himself taking them seriously. Plus, the men in the book were hardly a picnic. I keep coming around to the same question: does it matter? Whether Miller hated women seems to be largely beside the point. What matters more is whether today’s reader can think critically about his misogynistic portrayal – real or imagined – in a contemporary context. I’d hate to think that some incel fuck-knuckle would read this book and use it to justify his hatred of women, but I’m also a firm believer in “you don’t read the book, the book reads you”. Misogynists will find misogyny in anything they read, regardless of the author’s intent, and that’s that.



There is a sequel, Tropic of Capricorn, published five years after Tropic Of Cancer, and it too was banned in all English-speaking countries for nearly 30 years. It actually covers an earlier period in Miller’s life, so I guess that makes it a “prequel” more than anything. When the two books finally reached the English speaking world, together, Miller became a household name. He was hailed by the Sixties counter-culture as a “prophet of freedom and sexual revolution”. Or, in my own words, Miller did what Kerouac did, but better than Kerouac did it, while Kerouac was still in grade school.

I couldn’t possibly recommend this book blindly. It’s too smutty, and Miller makes liberal use of the c-bomb and all other manner of creative profanity. Tropic Of Cancer is artistic and esoteric, in the extreme. So, if the appeal of Paris for you is strolling the Champs E’lysses and taking in high fashion and fine art while munching on croissants, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, the idea of filth, hunger, homelessness, squalor, and despair gets your motor running, and dying in a Parisian gutter of venereal disease sounds romantic, then Tropic Of Cancer is probably just your speed. Guess which camp I fall into… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Tropic Of Cancer:

  • “Lordy what a waste of ink and paper.” – C. Richter
  • “I hated this book. About as erotic as a software manual.” – Golindrina
  • “This is an easy read if you’re an English Lit. fellow at Princeton.” – Rob Wallace
  • “This book reminds me of sitting out on my back porch listening to my drunken neighbor telling dirty lies…sometimes funny and sometimes annoying. It is a definite rambler but entertaining at times. The book was good enough to finish” – Stephen F. Brecht
  • “Beautifully offensive” – Jorge
  • “Wife seems very happy with the books ;-)” – Mark D
  • “If you want to improve your vocabulary and have a rollicking good time doing it, the sexist pig Miller is your best bet! TREMENDOUS VITALITY!” – Richard Stark


The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

The End Of The Affair was published in 1951. It is the fourth (and last) in a series of explicitly Catholic novels written by British author Graham Greene… but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the first half. After all, it kicks off with a highly illicit adulterous affair. Hardly the stuff of great Catholic morality tales, eh?

So, let’s get all the salacious details out of the way: yes, The End Of The Affair is based on an affair of Greene’s own (authors just never tire of writing what they know, do they?). He was sticking it to one Lady Catherine Walston, and it ended badly, as the lover affairs that inspire great art often do. The British edition of the novel was dedicated to “C”, but over the pond, a little further from home, the American edition was dedicated to “Catherine”. That’s one way to make your mark on history, I suppose…

Greene based the protagonist, Bendrix, on himself, and Lady C was represented by the character Sarah. They met through Bendrix’s friend (and Sarah’s husband), Henry Miles. The fact that Bendrix is cutting his mate’s grass tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. Being, as it is, The End Of The Affair, you get relatively few details about the affair itself – it’s over before the story even begins. Sarah had suddenly and unexpectedly broken off her affair with Bendrix some time before, but he is still racked with jealousy and rage. So, he hires a private investigator (as you do, ahem!) to figure out what the fuck happened. Bendrix is basically stalking his ex by proxy, and it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds.



Through flashbacks and vignettes, we learn that Bendrix and Sarah fell in love quickly – it was the kind of affair that burns bright and fast – and he was increasingly frustrated by her refusal to divorce her husband (an impotent and amiable civil servant). Bendrix and Sarah were engaging in a little afternoon delight when a bomb went off (oh, yeah, there was a whole world war going on in the background, by the way), and it was shortly after that incident that she left him. The private dick reads Sarah’s diary from that day – ew, gross, I hate him – and reports to Bendrix that, in the moment of the bomb blast, Sarah made a vow to God that she would cut off her adulterous affair if He would let Bendrix survive the incident. That’s where things start to get religious-y, and the story takes some weird turns.

Sarah, unsurprisingly, has a lot of internal conflict over the whole situation. She checks out a few churches, and tries real hard to get her shit together… but then she quickly dies of a lung infection. And then all this miracle-y stuff happens. I told you it takes some weird turns! The most twisted part, in my humble opinion, is that when the adultress dies, her lover moves in with her husband. Greene explains that like it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it really creeped me out. The rest of The End Of The Affair is just Bendrix trying to reconcile Sarah’s death and her supposed faith, trying to figure out whether there really is a God, yadda yadda yadda. It’s heavy stuff, but the book is really short, so there’s not a lot of time for exposition: he just has a few revelations, but stays mad. The end.



Yes, The End Of The Affair is super-short. In fact, it reads more like a long short-story than a novel. Greene did his best to address major questions about faith, religion, obsession, jealousy, and the obligations placed upon men and women in hetero relationships, in as few words as possible. It really reminded me of that TED talk about jealousy in literature, which is well worth checking out.

My tl;dr summary: The End Of The Affair is a short novel about a scorned lover’s creepy pursuit of his best mate’s wife, who dies mid-way through her conversion to Catholicism. If I had to sum the book up in a single word, I would choose “bitter”: it sounds bitter, it feels bitter, it tastes bitter on your tongue as you read it. It’s not a romantic read, and probably not one to pick up if you’re looking to restore your faith in God (or humanity, come to that), but it’s certainly an interesting cautionary tale: never dump a writer without telling him why, or chances are you’ll find yourself a character in a book like this one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The End Of The Affair:

  • “My third time out with Greene. The guy’s a bore. The End of the Affair is  like having the Watchtower shoved at you by a Jehovah’s Witness with a really high opinion of himself.” – Fintan Ryan
  • “A boring book about people who don’t like each other very much but had an affair anyway,
    Another story of English men and women who were unable to confront their desires realistically. This is one of the reasons that I read non-fiction.” – Gordon R. Flygare
  • “I listened to this book on tape on a drive from Connecticut to Boston and tired of the man and woman constantly fighting. There was just too much drama in the car that day. I couldn’t take anymore. I haven’t fought that much with my husband over 33 years as took place within 3 hours of that car trip. Never was I so glad to get to my destination and tell the couple not to take themselves and their relationship, so seriously. Would not recommend this book on a car trip. Maybe it’s a better read.” – L. M. Keefer
  • “A woman goes to church like once and has some vague emotional experience. According to Graham Greene, this makes her a Catholic, a true religious woman. I’ve had orgasms with more depth than this novel.” – Lincott


The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

It’s hard to believe that The Rosie Project was Graeme Simsion’s debut novel. Shortly after Text Publishing released it, in 2013, it won both the ABIA Book Of The Year award and their General Fiction Book Of The Year award. International sales have topped 3.5 million copies. A couple of years ago, when I started putting together my reading list for this blog, it was everywhere! It hardly seems fair that a debut novelist has that much success that quickly, eh?

The main character is a genetics professor, Don Tillman. He’s never had much “luck” with women, which will come as no surprise when I tell you that his proposed solution to that problem is to create a questionnaire to assess the suitability of each “potential mate”.

Tillman doesn’t fit in particularly well anywhere, really – there’s a lot of very heavy-handed hints that he has undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. That in and of itself would be fine, but there’s something about his character that makes me feel… well, icky. Simsion pushes the socially-awkward-adult-male-nerd angle very hard, to the point where it started to evoke for me a salivating, entitled, MRA/incel keyboard-hero fucknuckle. Tillman seems to believe that he is an “ideal mate” for any woman, given his intelligence, physical health, financial success, and social status. I mean, doesn’t that sound just a little bit entitled and misogynistic? Plus, he says stuff like this:

“… but I immediately recognised Julie, the convenor, from Gene’s description: ‘blonde with big tits’. In fact, her breasts were probably no more than one and a half standard deviations from the mean size for her body weight, and hardly a remarkable identifying feature…”

Page 7

I got used to it after a while. In fact, I even came to appreciate (a little) how Simsion managed to communicate to the reader a more objective perspective on Tillman’s beahviour without the character being consciously aware of it, which is quite tricky to do when the book is narrated in the first-person. But I still couldn’t help but wish his portrayal of Tillman’s symptoms had been written more carefully. Based on that alone, I knew that The Rosie Project could never be one of my favourites, or a recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.



Anyway, this socially-awkward guy meets a fun-loving girl with Daddy issues (Rosie, natch), and she spectacularly fails his questionnaire. Yet (steel yourselves!) he finds himself drawn to her. He winds up helping this “unsuitable” bartender hunt down her biological father. Is Rosie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Well, kinda. I think she gets afforded more depth than MPDGs normally do, with the Daddy issues and all, but her character doesn’t actually “develop” all that much. Her entire presence in The Rosie Project is pretty much predicated on (1) finding her father, and (2) letting Don love her.

The real upside of the story is that it ends up inverting the much-maligned Grease storyline: the man is the one who ends up changing to win the girl, instead of the other way around. That’s something, at least!

I hope I haven’t put you off The Rosie Project completely, because plenty of other people love it and highly recommend it, so maybe you should take my garbage opinion with a grain of salt. Bill Gates included The Rosie Project on his list of “Six Books I’d Recommend”, and it’s hard to argue with one of the world’s most brilliant minds, eh? (And you can check out more surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds here, if you’re curious.)



Simsion pumped out a sequel pretty quickly, with The Rosie Effect being published in 2014. A sequel to the sequel, The Rosie Result, will be released any minute now. And a film adaptation of The Rosie Project is also in the works, but it’s hit a few roadblocks. The script is written, apparently, but Jennifer Lawrence (who was slated to play Rosie) pulled out, and directors have been playing pass-the-parcel with it ever since. I think it would translate particularly well to the big screen, so fingers crossed it finds a home eventually.

The Rosie Project is another book that you can burn through pretty quickly (a la Still Alice or The Book Thief), but I didn’t love it. I seem to be pretty alone in that opinion, though, so the only way to work out whether I’m right or wrong is to give it a go yourself… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Rosie Project:

  • “Good argument, perfect development!
    This is a good book and I Was Entertainmented by the first person describing his life perceptions.” – elianasantos
  • “Absolutely love these socks. They fit beautifully and stay odor free for a long time.” – Magster
  • “I had the good fortune to discuss this book with someone who actually has Asberger’s. They said it was quite accurate except for where it needed to serve the plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Big Bang Theory wannabe” – Amazon Customer
  • “If your interested in a pregnancy b ook, then this is your book. No interest to me, sadly it went on a bit.” – Melissa
  • “Not again.” – Mark walker
  • “Story interesting and writing poor.” – Seattle Native


The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

I’ve got to be honest: my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list doesn’t feature as many Australian authors as I’d like. If you have a favourite, please do let me know so I can review it in future! In the meantime, I’ve picked up one of the ones that made it past the keeper: The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

Believe it or not, The Dressmaker is actually Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000, and it was adapted into a major motion picture (starring Kate Winslet!) in 2015. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”: it’s the product of participating in an RMIT creative writing course that she had never actually intended to join. She just showed up and started spitting fire, inspired by her mother’s life as a dressmaker in a small country town. Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cop who likes wearing dresses (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. She also has a bit of a flirt now and then with a poor bloke who lives in a caravan up the road.

It takes Ham a couple hundred pages (full of veiled references and allusions) to reveal Tilly’s “dark secret”: the locals blame her for the death of a boy who was bullying her when they were children. That’s pretty heavy, I suppose, but then Ham goes and kills off Tilly’s love interest in the same breath, so it’s a fair wallop for the reader. What’s more, he has the most ridiculous death ever – he jumps into a silo (of all things), believing it to be filled with wheat, when it is actually filled with sorghum. The sorghum can’t support his weight, he sinks and suffocates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men are stupid.





Anyway, this second death really sets the locals off, and Tilly is forced to do dressmaking work for people from neighbouring towns. They’re the only ones who don’t care about her small-town scandal(s), and they actually pay her on time, which is very nice of them. This goes on until the community decides to put on a play, and they come to Tilly – hats in hands – asking her to make their costumes. She agrees to do so on the condition that they pay her in full, up-front (fair enough). They pay her using the funds they had saved to insure all the town buildings. Can you see where this is going?

It’s probably a darker ending than you’re imagining (spoiler alert, etc. etc.): Tilly makes the costumes, waits until the whole town has left to perform the play in the next town over… then she burns the whole damn place to the ground. Every single building. All personal effects – even the dresses belonging to her friend the cross-dressing cop – up in flames. Whoosh! The end.

It’s pretty much what we’ve all dreamed of doing (“I’ll show them! I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have my revenge!”), only none of us are crazy enough to actually do it. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a feral version of Sea Change”, which is pretty much spot on. Despite the dark ending, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments. The humour is deeply Australian, though, so I’m not sure how it would translate for an international audience.





Now, when you’re reading The Dressmaker, you can skip over a lot of the seamstress and fashion lingo, if you want. You won’t miss anything as long as you don’t care about being able to picture all her outfits with 100% accuracy. I didn’t bother looking any of it up, and I’m pretty sure I still got the gist. There are a lot of really obvious sewing and clothing similes (“the fog resting around the veranda moved like the frills on a skirt”), but for those an intimate knowledge of dressmaking isn’t required.

Side note: Ham starts to run out of those metaphors and similes about half way through, and has to start using clumsy imagery like this:

“… his toupee had washed off and lay like a discarded scrotum on the grass by his bald head…”

(This was, without parallel, my favourite line from the entire book.)

I took the liberty of watching the film trailer after I’d finished the book. Judging by that alone, the film is a lot more upbeat, and the Tilly character is much more expressive and likeable. Almost every review I’ve read of The Dressmaker says the same thing. So, although it was nice to read a homegrown book for once, I’d probably recommend you give it a pass and check out the movie instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dressmaker:

  • “An absolute steaming pile of rubbish. The author lives up to her surname as she hams it up for the novel. There is a multitude of characters that I didn’t connect with or care about, it might translate well to the big screen but don’t let that tempt you into reading this.” – James Motgomery
  • “I suppose this book is supposed to be humorous, but I found it disgusting. After reading about ninety pages, I was sick of the lurid vignettes of perverts, so I stopped reading. I had expected a story about a young woman who earns her living with her Singer sewing machine. Perhaps that comes further along than I managed to read.” – Linda Appleton
  • “This has to be some kind of satire on life as the characters were totally unbelievable. I give this no stars and think it should be tossed in a fire. Since I have to Star rate it I give it a negative 1.” – Psyched!
  • “No not my type of book. Kept waiting for something nice to happen. Never did.” – diane bradley

Emma – Jane Austen

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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





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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

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

Want to know how I got on with Pride And Prejudice? Read my full review here.

« Older posts