Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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7 Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

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

7 Books I Wish I'd Read Sooner - Text Overlaid on Dark Image of Hourglass Half-Spent with Green Sand - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

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

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

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

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

The White Mouse by Nancy Wake

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


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

The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

I had a devil of a time finding a copy of The Colour Of Magic in my usual secondhand bookstore haunts. Most Terry Pratchett books are like hen’s teeth, even though he was pretty prolific (he wrote and contributed to over 70 books over the course of his life). It would seem that he’s, well, rather popular. I ended up finding this copy at a probably-illegal lonely market stall, run from the side of the road in Newtown. A hippie bloke was selling off what appeared to be his entire personal library, bless his cotton socks. I didn’t realise until I got home and opened the book that this edition also includes the sequel, The Light Fantastic – it doesn’t mention it on the cover at all. Weird, eh?

The Colour Of Magic is a comic fantasy novel, the first in Pratchett’s Discworld series, published in 1983. The first print run of the British edition produced just 506 copies; I can only imagine the panic at the printers when they realised just how many more they’d need, because it achieved instant popularity. All I knew about the book going in, though, was that a friend of mine from university loved Pratchett, and his shelves were stuffed with books from this series. We’ve since lost touch, but if he’s out there and he stumbles upon this little blog, I hope he’s happy I finally got around to picking up his favourite 😉

The blurb opens with the tagline: “The funniest and most unorthodox fantasy in this or any other galaxy”, which sounded like a very deliberate and unsubtle dig at Douglas Adams. Indeed, The Colour Of Magic read very much like fantasy’s answer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and they’d probably make good companion reads if you’re into that kind of thing. This book, and the whole series after it, is set in a world that takes the form of a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the back of a giant turtle (the Great A’Tuin), floating through space. The inhabitants of the Discworld include wizards, dwarves, soldiers, beggars, vampires, witches, and all other manner of ghosties and ghoulies. The blurb hastened to reassure me, the reader, that the series can be read in any order, but it’s really best to start at the beginning, and enjoy them in the chronology that Pratchett originally intended. And so, I did…!


The Colour Of Magic follows the adventures of a failed wizard, and a wealthy (but rather naive) tourist, as they travel together through the Discworld. The story is split into “sections”, rather than chapters, so it reads almost like a group of short stories or novellas, as opposed to continuous novel-length prose. In the first, Rincewind (the wizard) is paid handsomely to guide Twoflower (the tourist) around the biggest city in the realm, his home of Ankh-Morpork. My first literal lol came when Rincewind described Twoflower thus:

“Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour shouting ‘All Gods are bastards’.”

The Colour of Magic

Initially, Rincewind accepts payment for his services in advance and tries to do a runner, but the leader of Ankh-Morpork stops him. The leadership team fears that if Twoflower gets lost or dies on his watch, the resulting PR disaster would cause his rich and vengeful hometown to invade. Of course, Twoflower is promptly kidnapped by a gang of thieves, and, with his leader’s warnings ringing in his ears, Rincewind has to stage a rescue, so their adventures begin…

Oh, and Twoflower has with him The Luggage, an apparently-indestructible enchanted sentient(!) chest. It’s the R2-D2 to their Luke and C3PO, really.


An important note: my reluctance to read fantasy novels mostly stems from my fear of not being able to keep all the names of people and places straight (as I said in my review of A Game Of Thrones). There were a few murky moments in The Colour Of Magic, but on the whole I realise now, writing it, that my summary will sound a lot more confusing than the book itself. So, if you’re of the same mind, take heart – any confusion you’re currently feeling can be attributed right back to me, because Pratchett did a very good job of making everything clear. The only thing I would highlight as a potential issue is that the whole book reads like it’s on fast forward, and you need to be prepared to jump from place to place and crisis to crisis very quickly. In fact, The Colour Of Magic is pretty much one long series of quick accidents that rocket Twoflower and Rincewind around the Discworld, so that Pratchett can show off his universe as quickly as possible. As long as you’re prepared to keep pace, you’ll be just fine.

Anyway, back to the story: along the way, they’re joined by a large, violent, and mostly-monosyllabic barbarian named Hrun, who carries a magical sword. He doesn’t hang around long, though. They visit the upside-down mountain of Wyrmberg, home of the dragon riders, and Hrun catches the eye of the potential-heiress Liessa. He’s roped into marrying her so that she may ascend to the throne, and Rincewind and Twoflower carry on without him. They don’t even stick around for the bachelor party!

Before long, disaster strikes again: they’re taken to the edge of the Discworld by ocean currents (every Flat Earther’s worst nightmare!), and nearly topple over the edge. They’re caught by the Circumfence (definitely Pratchett’s cleverest pun in the whole book), a huge net that was installed to catch anything that washed off the Discworld. A sea troll finds them and takes them in, before promptly handing them over to the Krullians. This new group is seeking to discover the sex of the Great A’Tuin (the turtle on whose back the whole Discworld rests, remember?). They’re very concerned about the possibility of the Great A’Tuin running into another giant space turtle, naturally, so they want to assess what the reaction of the turtle might be based on its sex (if it’s a boy turtle and it runs into another boy turtle, for instance, they might fight, spelling certain doom for everyone in the Discworld).


The Krullians are planning to launch a two-person capsule over the edge of the disc, and they decide to offer Rincewind and Twoflower to the God of Fate in sacrifice, to ensure the voyage’s success. In the end, however, Twoflower ends up joining the mission in the capsule, and Rincewind escapes… only to fall right over the edge, anyway.

The story quite neatly segues into the beginning of The Light Fantastic, so they can be read as a single novel, but I didn’t continue on with it – I’ve had enough fun for the moment! Nonetheless, I can definitely appreciate how well The Colour Of Magic sets up the Discworld series; Pratchett left a lot of interesting threads dangling, and I can understand the reader’s desperation to tug at them a little and see what happens. The series reached thirty-two installments, and sold over 20 million copies around the world, leading it to become one of the most popular and celebrated series in English literature. But what’s weird is that most die-hard Pratchett fans insist that The Colour Of Magic isn’t his finest work, and claim that it really undersells his talent. Perhaps I did myself a disservice by not reading on, but hey – there’s only so many hours in a day, and this gal has a whole list of great books to get through!

Pratchett said that The Colour Of Magic was “written in protest”, and he intended to satirise earlier fantasy novels. He loved fantasy, but found pre-1990s work contained “too many dark lords, too much lack of thought”. I’d say he was pretty successful in that endeavour; he made a lot of sharp jabs at cliches and tropes of the genre, like the stereotypical revealing outfits worn by female characters, the ridiculousness of attempting to ride a dragon, and – in a style quite reminiscent of Don Quixote – the unbelievable baseless “quests” of protagonists and their sidekicks. This has led some critics to argue that you really need to be a fan of fantasy to understand and fully appreciate The Colour Of Magic (while, in his later books, Pratchett satirised the real world, which was more accessible for readers outside the usual genre market). I would argue the opposite is true. I think The Colour Of Magic is perfect for people who are normally skeptical of fantasy, because it pokes fun of all the cliches that scare or annoy us. It’s like Pratchett is saying to us: “See? It’s not all bad!”.


Naturally, given its popularity, there’s a screen adaptation: a two-parter made for television that combines The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic. A few of the stars will be very familiar to fantasy fans, with Sean Austin (Samwise Gamgee from Lord Of The Rings) playing Twoflower, and Christopher Lee playing Death. Off-screen, the Discworld books have also been adapted into graphic novels and computer games, the perfect formats to capture a new generation of interested readers.

On the whole, I had much the same reaction to The Colour Of Magic as I did The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which is really not surprising given their similarities in form and tone. It was a fun little romp, a great read to take one’s mind off their troubles and the real world collapsing around our ears, a great moment of escapism with clever parody and satire thrown in to keep it sharp. I’d recommend you give this one a go if you’re not normally into fantasy and you want to give it a try without committing to a doorstop novel that will languish on your bedside table for months.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Colour Of Magic:

  • “When you need to laugh and enjoy the absurd. What better place than the back of a huge turtle? The elephants are also useful.” – Morris C. Johnson
  • “So much fun – it’s what you would get if Douglas Adams wrote Lord Of The Rings.” – Jeremy Parker
  • “I beseech thee. Please release the great Terry Pratchet so that he may delivery us from the stinking, fetid, over commercialized and over politicized, literature which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre has become. Please let Rincewind show the way to incompetent hero want-to-be thieves how to survive and escape. Please let the great Captain Sam show those who have aspirations of leading villages to become empires, how to lead people. Please let PreditaX show young teenage upstart witches with intelligence and wisdom years beyond them, the true colour of magic. Thank you for hearing my prayers.” – Reghu
  • “This book had words in it. Some, when in a particular order were very humorous.” – Chester J
  • “I ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT COLOR IT WAS!!!!!” – Lord Eagle Death Club
  • “Given that this book has spawned over three dozen sequels, I should have suspected it would be less Tolkien and more Piers Anthony. The stock review is that it’s what might happen if Douglas Adams had written fantasy. Except it’s not very funny, and not very good. Might I have enjoyed this had I read it as a teenager? Maybe. But I’m not. It starts out only slightly dumb, but gets worse with every page. And the ending is just terrible. Boring, unfunny, and utterly pointless. Seriously, seriously awful.” – Don.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murphy – Samuel Beckett

I’m getting closer and closer to the pointy end of my reading list, which makes it harder and harder to pick my next read! I decided to do something different this time, and let my husband pick for me. He chose Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, because (in his exact words): “It’s exceptionally weird, and he was mates with [James] Joyce, so it’s the next best thing to forcing you to read Ulysses.” Isn’t that sweet? *eye roll*

The inscription in this pre-loved edition reads: “To Dad, Fathers’ Day 1973, from No. 1 Son”. Whoever Dad is, he apparently enjoyed Murphy, because it’s very well worn – I had to tape the back cover on to hold it together as I read.

Murphy was first published in 1938, the third work of fiction by Beckett (but the first one to be released). He wrote it painstakingly, by hand, in six small exercise books over the course of 1935 and 1936. He had a devil of a time getting it published; no one wanted in Europe wanted a bar of him, and he got no love in America either. Now and then, a publisher would offer to take it on if Beckett was willing to undergo a rigorous editing process, to make the book more marketable, but the smug prick turned them down every time, insisting the book was perfect as it was. In the end, he had to get his mate – the painter Jack Butler Yeates – to put it on the desk of a publisher friend at Routeledge. That’s how Murphy came to be another story in the file of Magical Nepotism.

Between the time of Routeledge accepting his manuscript as-is, and Murphy hitting the stores, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed while wandering the streets of Paris. Apparently, he’d refused a kind offer of companionship from a notorious local pimp, who had much the same attitude towards rejection that Beckett had himself. Beckett nearly died, and had to call on another friend, this time James Joyce (yep, the same one), to oversee (and pay for!) his medical treatment. He made the final amendments and approvals to the manuscript proofs from a French hospital bed. This is a very on-brand story for Beckett, which tells you everything you need to know about the man, really.



It’s got a cracker opening line, perhaps my favourite part of the whole book:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Murphy (Pg. 1)

Normally I’m not a fan of opening with the weather, but for a line so delightfully snarky, I can make an exception. Anyway, Murphy follows the story of a solipsist named (you guessed it) Murphy, who lives in a condemned apartment in West Brompton and later moves to London. Funnily enough, shortly before putting pen to paper, Beckett himself had moved from Dublin to London – the advice to “write what you know” pays off, once again! If we’re to believe, as has been reported, that Murphy draws heavily on Beckett’s real-life experiences, geographically and otherwise, then you’ll soon see that Beckett must have lived a very strange life indeed…

See, the story opens with Murphy sitting naked, tied to a chair, rocking back and forth in the dark, apparently having placed himself in that position. It’s his attempt to enter “a nonexistent state of being” (something akin to sensory deprivation, or deep meditation perhaps), and he finds this state particularly pleasurable. He has withdrawn from the world in gradual but increasing increments, in pursuit of these (shall we say) unconventional desires. Now, bear with me, I’m going to have trouble explaining what happens from then on because this book is, as my husband so eloquently described it, exceptionally weird. Just trust me: if you’re finding this hard to follow, you’re not the only one.



Even though he’s off his trolley, Murphy has at least one friend: Neary, whose party trick is stopping his own heart, a phenomenon he calls “apmonia”. Basically, he can induce cardiac arrest at will. WTAF? And Neary and Murphy sit around talking about their heart attacks and special-naked-rocking-chair-time, until the conversation eventually shifts around to their love lives. Murphy is engaged to one Miss Counihan, but in conversation with Neary, he decides – to hell with her – he’ll escape to London where he can have all the special-naked-rocking-chair-time he pleases, without her nagging him. Of course, he tells his wife-to-be that he’s taking off to find a respectable job, and she… just… believes him? Smh.

It’s not until after he’s been gone quite a while, without a word of correspondence, that Miss Counihan starts getting suss. She’s now shagging Neary (who has no qualms about cutting his mate’s grass), and they decide together to hire a bloke to track Murphy down. Miss Counihan is hoping that the dick, named Cooper (who, it must be said, is also a few pickles short of a party), will prove that Murphy is either dead or sleeping around, so that she can move on with her life guilt-free. Yeah, she’s a real peach; they deserved each other, to be honest.

That’s when the character of Celia Kelly is introduced: a sex worker, and Murphy’s concerned Friend-With-Benefits. I think Beckett invented her character purely for the opportunity to dig his elbow into the ribs of the censors. In describing her profession, he says: “This phrase is chosen with care; lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche”. Ha! But even so, you really feel for this girl, perhaps more than anyone else in Murphy, because she’s hopelessly in love with him even though he’s bonkers. He’s only slightly more than indifferent towards her, and yet she has enough powers of logical persuasion to convince him to get a job.



And what a job it is: Murphy begins working as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, finding a refuge from the strains and pains of the real world in a literal asylum. He befriends the long-institutionalised patients there, and figures if he hangs out with them long enough, he’ll find a way to send himself insane and escape reality altogether. He’s so happy in his new work that he ditches Celia, and promptly forgets all about her. What a guy!

Celia joins forces with Miss Counihan, Neary, Cooper, and some other blow-in called Wiley. They all hurry-up-and-wait for Murphy to snap out of it. I can’t even begin to fathom the delusion that went into deciding on this course of action, because Murphy has never done anything not weird. And just as you think the story is approaching some big confrontation or resolution, Murphy dies. Yep! He’s burned to death in his room due to some whoopsy-daisy with the gas line (or maybe he died by suicide and that was his chosen method, Beckett didn’t really make it clear). Either way, he’s dead, and his friends don’t waste a lot of time mourning. They charge Cooper with putting Murphy’s remains to rest, which he does by spilling the ashes during a bar-room brawl and just leaving them there, among “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”. So, a happy ending for all involved!

Reviews of Murphy were (very) mixed, and sales were (predictably) poor. Just 568 copies were sold upon its release in 1938. A further 23 were sold in 1939, 20 in 1940, and just 7 in 1941. By 1943, Murphy was out of print altogether. Beckett didn’t see any success or find any substantial audience until the release of Waiting For Godot, and since then Murphy has lived entirely in its shadows. I felt, reading Murphy, that Beckett was naturally more inclined towards being a playwright than a novelist, because his prose (bizarre as it was) read very theatrically – I could picture it being performed on a stage.



I’m sure there’s a lot of brilliant stuff in here – Beckett was obsessed with chess, for instance, and even I (a relative dummy) can see some of the ways he exploited the artistic possibilities of the game in Murphy – but damn, it’s a tough row to hoe. Normally I’m a fan of nihilistic black humour, but the way Beckett stewed it in absurdist existentialist ramblings just wasn’t to my taste. Luckily, there are plenty of people far smarter than me who are able to get more out of it, like the folks who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Murphy is a hard book to read, even being as short as it is (just 158 pages). I had to keep convincing myself to pick it back up; this is one I definitely would have abandoned if not for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s neither character-driven, nor plot-driven – in fact, I’d say it’s not “driven” at all. It’s just a weird meander in the dark through some dodgy parts of town. My ears picked up a bit when Murphy started working in the asylum, but my interest waned very quickly. On the whole, I was rather underwhelmed. Luckily, my husband anticipated this reaction, and laughed heartily when I told him what I thought. I think I’ll stick to picking my own reads from now on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murphy:

  • “I had to read this for class. The plot is all over the place and it is really boring. There is nothing memorable about this book and it as mundane as watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter…on second thought, watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter is like going to Disney World when you are 4 years old compared to reading this book. I had to read this for English 196 and I can’t wait to sell this back to the book store even though I got it on ebay…so in essence, selling it to the bookstore…..good riddance!!!” – M. R. Randall

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

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

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

What Does It Mean To Read Diversely?

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

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

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

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

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

Why Should We Read Diversely? Why Does It Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror Books and Window Books

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

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

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

Exercise for your thinking muscle

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

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

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

Countering Psychological Biases Through Reading

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

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

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

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

Read More, Read Better

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

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

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

My Favourite TED Talks on Diverse Reading and Storytelling

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

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story

Where To Start: A List of Diverse Books

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

Authors of Colour

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

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

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

Female, Trans, and Non-Binary Authors

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

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

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

Authors With Disabilities

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

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

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

Authors of Diverse Sexualities

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

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

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

Ready For More Diverse Books?

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

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

The Lake House – Kate Morton

Once again, I’ve reached a point where I’ve read too many dead white dudes back-to-back. I need to get back to lady business! It’s one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in the course of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: variety is really important to me in my reading life. If I read too many of the same kinds of books in a row, it makes me feel like a caged animal. So, this week, I turn to an Australian woman writer to break me out: Kate Morton, with her international best-seller The Lake House.

The Lake House is Morton’s sixth novel, published back in 2015 (The Clockmaker’s Daughter is her most recent offering, and it made a real splash at the end of last year). She is one of Australia’s biggest literary exports since Colleen McCullough, with international sales at ten million books and growing. Every single one of her titles has made the New York Times Best Seller List. She’s also, for some strange reason, really big in Canada. So, my expectations going into this one were pretty high.

Morton and I actually have quite a bit in common. She’s a fellow Queenslander-by-birth, and we both grew up loving Enid Blyton and dreaming about snowy England and adventures in moors and forests with the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. When she sat down to write The Lake House, she was based in Brisbane, but she decided to set the story in Cornwall as a kind of tourism-of-the-mind experiment.

Perhaps she got swept away with her life-long romanticisation of the English landscape, perhaps she’s just naturally wordy: either way, her writing in The Lake House was extremely descriptive right from the outset. In practically every sentence, she described a smell, a sight, a taste, or a sound. That doesn’t bother me at all – I’m more than happy to read a doorstop novel that describes every facet of a world (real or imaginary) – but I know it gets up some readers’ noses, so I thought I’d offer a warning straight-up.



What did bother me, though, was the bloody timeline(s)! There were three, for crying out loud! And all told from different perspectives! The 2003 timeline focuses on a detective called Sadie, the 1933 focuses on a young aspiring writer named Alice, and the 1914(ish) timeline focuses on Alice’s mother, Eleanor. And, if that’s not tricky enough, they all criss-cross and overlap, so you end up reading Alice’s 2003 story and Eleanor’s 1933 story as well. Oy! I understand why writers do this – they’re being very clever, drip-feeding the story to the reader, et cetera, et cetera – but having to triple-check the dates at the beginning of each chapter, and flip back-and-forth to piece together the chronology for myself, really takes me out of it. Hmph!

I’ll straighten out the timeline as best I can for the purposes of this review, but it ain’t easy. Also, spoilers abound, yadda yadda yadda – this book is recent enough to warrant at least a perfunctory warning.

Back in 1914, a young woman (Eleanor) fell in love with a bloke, married him, and popped out a few kids (one of them being Alice, the would-be writer). Hubby went away to war, came back a bit upset, but he seemed mostly okay. In 1933, when Alice was 16, they threw a “Midsummer Eve” party, but it all went to hell when their youngest child (Theo, an infant) disappeared while everyone was out having a good time. Yikes!



Alice, at the time, blamed herself for the disappearance. She was in love with the family’s gardener, and showed him a book she had written about how to kidnap a kid without getting caught. And, surprise surprise, the gardener goes missing at the same time as the kid. She never mentions any of this to the cops, though, and she spends her whole life trying to put it behind her by building a fabulously successful literary career.

The family home sits abandoned for decades, until 2003, when Sadie – a police detective on “enforced leave” for speaking to journos about a case she believed her department bungled – comes across it while out on a run. She does a little digging, and hears about the (still unsolved) case of the missing child. She starts asking questions, trying to figure out what the heck went down that night, and follows her nose through the whole mystery.

Yes, it’s a mystery novel, but one set outside the system of law enforcement. I appreciated that Sadie was, y’know, a lady, and not a gruff, cynical, end-of-his-career, whiskey-swilling male detective. That was the main basis of The Lake House‘s appeal, to be honest. Also, despite the sex-and-death stakes, this is actually a very “clean” read. All the dirty bits take place out of sight for the reader, so if that’s your preference in literature you’re onto a winner here.



Morton uses a third-person perspective the whole way through, but privileges each of the main characters in their own timeline, which really cleverly highlights the different perspectives each character has on the “truth” of the matter. It turns out Alice wasn’t the only one who blamed herself for Theo’s disappearance – both of her sisters also had reasons to believe they caused the kidnapping in some indirect way, and they all felt very differently about their mother’s behaviour (and Eleanor, of course, thinks of herself in much kinder terms than any of them). Morton weaves in various subplots and unspoken character motivations, which leads to her effectively braiding the three stories together (the story of a missing child, the story of an abandoned child, and the story of an adopted child). That’s in addition to the standard mystery-trope red herrings and big twists. So, I can concede that The Lake House wouldn’t have worked if Morton had tried to tell the story in any kind of chronological or linear style (but the jumpy timeline was still bloody annoying).

Morton has said that she long wanted to write a story about a child’s disappearance. Most readers would (reasonably) assume that she drew her inspiration from the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby (which also happened in 1933), but she has said she was actually thinking more of the case of the Beaumont children, who disappeared here in Australia in 1966. It’s clear that she had motherhood on her mind as she was writing; indeed, she was pregnant with her youngest child at the time, and it really comes across in the pages (and pages!) she devotes to the bond between mothers and infants. But that’s not to say that all of the mothers in The Lake House are Virgin Mary types, far from it! In fact, all of them are strong, but deeply flawed, and they spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves for various reasons.

The World Wars (both I and II) also play major roles in the narrative, and serve as turning points in the plot. When Alice’s father/Eleanor’s husband returned from WWI, he was actually far more “shell shocked” than he initially appeared, with attacks of grief and anxiety and anger that could turn violent. WWII, later in the story, kills one of Alice’s sisters, preventing her from revealing what she knows of Theo’s disappearance.



In fact, each of the sisters held one of the keys to the big mystery of Theo’s disappearance – if only they’d been capable of communicating like fucking grown-ups, the whole mess would have been sorted out long before Sadie came along. I’m going to give you a pared-down version of what happened (apologies to Morton). Deborah, the eldest sister, knew that her father was experiencing severe symptoms of shell shock that couldn’t be controlled and put all of the children at risk. Alice knew that the object of her affections, Ben Munro (the family gardener), was familiar with strategies for making a child disappear, had the means to make it happen, and coincidentally had a barren friend who desperately wanted a child. Clementine, the youngest sister, knew that Eleanor (their mother) was having an affair with Ben Munro The Gardener, and (once she grew up a bit) could have connected the dots and worked out that Theo was in fact Ben’s son, not their father’s. Yep, Eleanor was screwing the help, and it all ended in tears. If Clementine had lived long enough to tell Alice that part of the mystery, and Alice in turn had passed it on to Deborah, it all would have come to a head quite quickly.

Instead, it took an outsider with her own axe to grind sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. Most of The Lake House is iterations of Sadie trying to get the remaining sisters to spill their secrets and sorting through the red herrings. Oh my goodness, so many red herrings! There isn’t a single character Morton didn’t want the reader to think did it, at one point or another. In the end, Sadie gets to the truth of it: Eleanor and Ben “kidnapped” Theo, to save him from the wrath of Eleanor’s shell-shocked husband, whom they feared would hurt the kid in one of his turns. And it turns out (drumroll please) that Sadie’s own grandfather is the long-lost Theo. There you have it. Everyone’s a winner!

(Oh, and Morton totally ripped off my “whydunnit” phrase, which you’ll recall I trademarked back when I reviewed In Cold Blood. Either that, or I’m not as brilliant and unique a creative mind as I thought…)

I wouldn’t say the mystery of The Lake House gripped me – I was more mildly curious about how it would turn out. I wouldn’t have cancelled plans to stay at home reading, but I wasn’t ever inclined to abandon it either. The ending was satisfying, and I didn’t guess the “truth” of it a hundred pages in (and thank goodness for that, or forcing myself through the remaining five hundred pages would have been a real slog). I did find the big reveal to be a bit of a set-up, though, as though Morton was just wallopping the reader with a very heavy-handed reminder that all mothers deeply, truly, no-matter-what love their children, and blood is thicker than water and all of that. Still, the ending is very neat, and it ties up all of the loose ends. As nice as it was to vacation in Lady Land for a while, I’ll happily confess that my favourite character was actually Edwina, the golden retriever. She was the one I connected with most of all. Make of that what you will.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Lake House:

  • “This is asking too much from me. This is not something I want to do. I think it is silly for everyone to do it.” – Jessie
  • “Wait to long! To much description. Interesting” – Patricia Paez
  • “A LONDON COP OF LEAVE GOES TO VISIT HER GRANDFATHER AND FINDS AN OLD ABANDONED HOUSE. THE TWISTS AND TURNS WILL THRILL YOU AND THE ENDING WILL ALSO, I’LL BET YOU CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT, I COULDN’T EVEN THOUGH I TRIED.” – SUSAN F
  • “I love to read but I chose not to finish it and waste my time.” – Patricia Sheyka
  • “Is she serious with this ending??? Total crap. Cornier than Cornwall itself.” – Karen
  • “Slower than crap. Worst book ever.” – Jessica A. Stice
  • “No literary quality as hoped. My first (and, last) Kate Morton book. Thin broth, indeed.” – David A. Oxford
  • “Silly little Soap Opera. Expected Amelia Earhart to come out of the bushes as a long lost Great Aunt there at the end. It’s a good thing daughters are ignorant of household secrets and they don’t talk to each after the man event for seventy or so years. ;-)” – richard briddick

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head. Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I’ve changed my mind. I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (in fact, Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to take off your feminist-ideals hat to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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

Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down, and rolled up my sleeves, and dove in to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue and language don’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life, styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review here.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review here.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review here.


Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Well, well, well: wasn’t this a pleasant surprise? When I picked up this copy of The Grapes Of Wrath (another secondhand bargain, once belonging to a “William Lang” who was kind enough to keep it in pretty good nick for me), I didn’t have high hopes. I’d just read two white-men-talking-to-each-other-about-power stories back-to-back (reviews here and here), and I figured I’d be in for more of the same. But, once again, this project up-ends my expectations: I loved Steinbeck’s story, more than I could have imagined! I think it’s another happy coincidence, coming to a book at the right time; this story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world.

Steinbeck was no slouch in the writing game. The Grapes Of Wrath took home a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The story begins with Tom Joad, a recent parolee, returning home to Oklahoma. On his way, he runs into Jim Casy, a former preacher, and they decide to travel together. When they make it to Tom’s family home, they find the farm deserted, and an old neighbour tells them that the Joad clan has gone to stay at another farm nearby, the banks having evicted almost everyone in the area.

In fact, the Joads – who are pretty much penniless, the Dust Bowl having destroyed their crops – are loading up a truck they intend to drive to California. They’ve heard there’s work aplenty there, and the pay is decent, so it seems as good an idea as any (and, well, they ain’t got a lot of options). Even though leaving Oklahoma will violate his parole, Tom jumps in with them, and convinces Jim to come along for the ride.



I was particularly impressed with the way Steinbeck used dialect. It felt very readable, fluid, natural – and even though he was effectively writing about “hicks” and “rednecks”, to use the pejorative terms, he didn’t once condescend to Southerners or make a spectacle of them.

The Joads quickly learn that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. They encounter many migrant groups living in makeshift camps along their route, all with horrible stories about the true nature of the life and work on Californian farms. One-by-one, the Joads start to exit the story: Grandpa dies, then Grandma (with poor old Ma Joad riding with her corpse in the back of the truck for hours before alerting the others, to ensure they made it to California without delay), eldest son Noah leaves them, and then Connie bolts too (he’s the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon – and yes, that’s her real given name, but she’s most often referred to as “Rosasharn”). Oh, and the dog dies. The Grapes Of Wrath is a pretty traumatic read, on the whole.

You might be thinking that Tom Joad is the hero of this story, but you’d be wrong. Ma Joad is the star of the show. She’s now one of my favourite characters in all of American literature. It’s under her leadership that the Joad family continues to seek work and make the best of their shitty circumstances. Pa Joad, the “head of the house”, is completely demoralised and basically useless, so Ma Joad takes the reins and does a damn fine job. They would have been completely screwed without her (well, they were still pretty screwed, but less so for Ma Joad being an incredible kick-arse matriarch).



Anyway, when they make it to California, they find a very saturated labour market, meaning most families are forced to work for a pittance and exploited to the point of literal starvation. Steinbeck really went all-out, he shat on capitalism from a great height. Jim Casy takes it upon himself to unionise the workers, co-ordinating a strike, but it all ends in tears when a police confrontation turns violent (Steinbeck also hated cops, it would seem). Tom witnesses Casy’s fatal beating, and takes his vengeance, killing the cop. He winds up back on the run, a murderous fugitive once again.

Ma Joad doesn’t let a little thing like her son’s homicidal tendencies slow them down. She makes Tom promise that he will use his lucky break, having escaped arrest, to fight for workers’ rights and end the oppression that is quite literally killing the working class. The Joads continue on, finding more work at a cotton farm, but this is a things-go-from-bad-to-worse story, so strap in. George R.R. Martin ain’t got nothin’ on Steinbeck, honestly – Georgie has a high body count, sure, but Steinbeck tortures and starves his characters in the most twisted of ways.

Rose Of Sharon’s bun in the oven dings, and she labours for hours on the floor of the shack they’re calling home. Her baby, sadly, is stillborn. I had literal tears welling in my eyes; I’m normally a tough nut to crack, but these scenes were absolutely devastating. Ma Joad holds it together (because of course she does) and lucky she does, because an almighty storm blows up and floodwaters inundate the area. The family has to bail on the shack, and seek shelter in a barn up the road. There, they find a young boy and his father, also not in a good way. The young boy is dying, he hasn’t eaten in forever, and Rose of Sharon – at Ma Joad’s prompting – offers him her breastmilk, saving his life. It is truly one of the most haunting passages I have ever read. And also, it’s The End.



I felt like I’d been punched! The Grapes Of Wrath, with that fucking ending, was so damn good that I started getting angry. Why had no one in my life who had read it warned me what was coming?! Gah!

The only thing that soured my experience of reading this Great American Novel was finding out later that Steinbeck ripped off a woman (naturally). It would seem that he “borrowed” heavily from the notes of Farm Security Administration worker Sanora Babb, who was researching migrant families with a view to writing her own book in 1938. Her boss showed her work to Steinbeck, and the rest is why-do-women-keep-getting-screwed-over-and-over history. The publication and popularity of The Grapes Of Wrath scuppered any hopes that Babb had of getting her own work out there. Her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, and she died the following year.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Steinbeck also has his wife to thank for the book’s iconic title. He was struggling to come up with anything himself, then she suggested The Grapes Of Wrath, having read the phrase near the end of Chapter 25 where Steinbeck described the purposeful destruction of food to keep demand (and profits) high:

“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Chapter 25

And she nailed it: that line really captures what The Grapes Of Wrath is all about. It’s a story of the potential for a working class revolt, how the seeds of a revolution are sown. Steinbeck said that, in writing the novel, he wanted “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” (“this” being the Great Depression and its domino effect). That’s why the book has been so powerful and popular with supporters of the workers’ movement.



Its publication “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event”, later reports claimed. The Grapes Of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, and it was debated and discussed at length in all manner of public and private forums. Many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries attacked his social and political views as expressed through his story of the Joads, but he did not give one single fuck. All the controversy just led to more book sales.

The Grapes Of Wrath feels timeless, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can all find something familiar in a story about automation, and climate change, and the feelings of powerlessness and fear they inspire. Save for a few technological advancements, I would completely believe that this was a contemporary novel set in the present day. If you’re in the mood to say Fuck The Man! but also want to read a heart-wrenching and beautiful family story, you need to pick up a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath and get stuck in.

Note: The Grapes Of Wrath was SO GOOD that it made the cut for my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Grapes Of Wrath:

  • “My package arrived empty. I would like a refund, but have nothing to return.” – Amie Majerus
  • “I had to read this book in high school. I hope English teachers aren’t still forcing teenagers to read this book, but they probably are. I still think about the ending sometimes and wonder if there was something wrong with John Steinbeck.” – Janette
  • “Bought this book thinking I would learn how to make a nice bitter wine for a get together for me and my gal pals… But it’s just a book about people traveling in the depression. I was expecting some grapes being angry. Also there are no grapes in this book whatsoever!!” – Amazon Customer
  • “I have been reading books that won Pulitzer prizes. I’m very happy with most of them. This one is terrible. The author, John Steinbeck, commented “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Thanks for nothing. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags. And that’s why I give this book the lowest possible score.



    The point of the story is that rich bastards are bastards. Got it. Agreed. Bastards are bastards. Got it. I don’t want to go on this journey. It’s like the old Mr. Bill skits on Saturday Nite Live. Do you remember Mr. Bill? Everything horrible happens to Mr. Bill. That’s what this book is. Mr. Bill.

    

I will happily join your revolution but I will not read your book to the end. It’s too messed up. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags.” – LF

  • “One of the boringest published novels I’ve ever laid eyes on.” – C. Cross
  • “So, I’m only on page 478 of 619, but I’ve been disgusted at the amount of profanity. So far I’ve found more than 500 uses of profanity! On average every page (with relatively big writing, even) has more than one swear. Yikes!

    

I’m never going to read Grapes of Wrath again, and won’t be recommending it to anyone.

If you don’t like profanity, be careful.” – Jef4Jesus

  • “This book was 600 pages written purly about a bunch of hicks from Oklahoma starving. Thanks, but no thanks,” – M. Landis

P.S. Never forget this pearler of a tweet from publisher Antonio French during the Trump campaign:

I’m With The Banned: Celebrating The Best Banned Books

Banned Books Week is one of my favourite events in the bookish calendar each year. It’s the annual celebration of the Freedom To Read, endorsed and supported by just about every major literary and library organisation in the U.S., and its influence is spreading around the world. Banned Books Week began in 1983, in response to a surge of books being challenged and censored, especially in school libraries and reading lists. The leaders of the charge seek to advocate for free and open access to information, and the freedom to seek and express ideas, even if they’re unorthodox or unpopular. Last year, I put together a list of ridiculous (real!) reasons that beloved books have been banned. This time around, I thought I’d give you a list of the best banned books, with a heaping serve of encouragement that you check out any that pique your interest.

I'm With The Banned - Celebrating The Best Banned Books - Text Overlaid on Collage of Caution Signage - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

When this incredible Young Adult fiction offering was released in 2017, it made a huge splash. The Hate U Give won every award you can imagine, and it was the most searched-for book on Goodreads that year. Readers, young and adult alike, were captivated by the story of a 16-year-old black girls’ journey into activism, inspired by police violence perpetrated against her childhood friend. The themes are heavy and controversial, so of course it must be challenged and censored (blegh); it’s been accused of being “pervasively vulgar” for its depiction of drug use and profanity.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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The story of Atticus Finch, told through the eyes of his daughter Scout, defending a black man wrongly accused of a terrible crime is a beloved classic of American literature. Harper Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for her efforts, and her book continues to grow in popularity, circulating more and more widely each year. And yet, with To Kill A Mockingbird‘s widening reach comes ongoing and increasing challenges to its inclusions in school curricula, mostly on the basis of its violence and use of the N-word.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

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This 2003 novel was the first from Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner tells the story of a young Kabul boy, Amir, and it’s a multi-generational tale told over the fall of the Afghani monarchy, the Soviet military intervention, the rise of the Taliban, and the mass exodus of refugees from the country. It’s gripping stuff, right? Unfortunately, it has since been challenged and banned on the grounds that it depicts sexual violence, contains “offensive language”, could “lead to terrorism”, and “promotes Islam”. Proving, once again, that some people just hate what they can’t understand…

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime – Mark Haddon

The publisher’s website proudly proclaims that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime is one of the most talked-about books of the last decade; normally, we’d need to give the marketing people a pass for their liberal use of creative license, but in this case they’re probably not far off the truth. Mark Haddon’s best-selling book follows the story of 15-year-old Christopher as he investigates, with his photographic memory and scientific mind, the mysterious death of his neighbour’s dog. It’s warm, it’s charming, it’s funny – and it’s been challenged for “offensive language”, “profanity”, and “atheism” (of all things), which the concerned parties considered unsuitable for some age groups.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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The Catcher In The Rye is the definitive disaffected-youth story, and the grown-ups love nothing better than issuing angry adolescents a challenge! Holden Caulfield’s runaway weekend in New York apparently contains too much offensive language and explicit sexuality, making it unsuited to its teenage audience. Can you imagine missing the point of this novel so spectacularly that you actually put those complaints in writing? Smh…

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison has produced some of the best examples in living memory of literature that challenges the systemic and entrenched racism of American society, The Bluest Eye among them. The novel is set in Ohio, where young Pecola struggles under the weight of her inferiority complex, believing that her beauty as a black woman pales in comparison to that of her white-skinned blue-eyed classmates. It has been challenged for being “sexually explicit”, featuring “violence”, and (bafflingly) containing “controversial issues”. One of Morrison’s other novels, Beloved, is often challenged on the same grounds.

The Earth, My Butt, And Other Big Round Things – Carolyn Mackler

I remember loving The Earth, My Butt, And Other Big Round Things in high-school. I read it so many times, the spine on my copy started to fall apart; I tried desperately to find it when I was pulling this post together but, alas, it appears to be lost to the annals of my adolescence. I couldn’t quite believe Mackler’s iconic work was among the most banned books in America, but here we are. Apparently, it contains offensive language and it is “sexually explicit”. I don’t know about any of that, but I read it plenty, and I turned out fine! I would highly recommend gifting a copy to any unsettled teenage girls you know, regardless of what the haters and censors say.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games has been accused of just about everything you can imagine by those who would see it banned from our schools and libraries. When I read it, I could’ve sworn it was a story about a young woman rebelling against a malevolent dictator, and I thought that put it streets ahead of other YA novels in terms of feminism and encouraging young readers to think critically about the power structures in their own lives. Others, however, have called it “anti-ethnic”, “anti-family”, “insensitive”, and “offensive”. They take issue with its allegedly “promoting a religious viewpoint”, and (simultaneously) “depicting Satanism and the occult”. Heck, one of them even called it “sexually explicit”. They must’ve read an entirely different book, because I can’t recall anything along any of these lines…

My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To be honest, when I first saw My Sister’s Keeper in a list of banned books, I half-expected the reason for the challenges to be complaints about the notoriously-unpopular changes they made to the controversial ending for the movie version. But nope! Apparently, this story (about a young girl who sues her parents for control over the decision to donate a kidney to her sister) contains too much “homosexuality”, too much “offensive language”, a “religious viewpoint”, “violence”, and it is “too sexually explicit”. *eyeroll*

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning novel banned for having “offensive language” and being too (say it with me) “sexually explicit”. Do these people really think their kids are never going to hear the word “fuck” or learn about sex? Have they even heard of the internet? But I digress. The Color Purple is a beautiful heart-wrenching exploration of the lives of black women in the American South. Sure, there’s sexualised violence (because that very violence is a lived reality for many women of colour in the real world), but I can’t quite believe that we would deny students the opportunity to learn from Walker’s work on those grounds alone.

What will you be reading for Banned Books Week this year? Have any of your favourite reads been banned or challenged in the past? Tell me all about them below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

What do you know: here we have another staple of high-school reading lists that I somehow never encountered in the course of my own education. This very edition of Lord Of The Flies, in fact, once belonged to “James Wells Year 9”, according to the inside front cover. I’m sure he’s a swell kid, but his highlighting of key passages was really distracting (though it disappeared by about the half-way point so I’m guessing he never finished the book – hopefully, he found a love of literature elsewhere…).

Lord Of The Flies was William Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. It wasn’t an immediate success. It sold fewer than three thousand copies in the first year, and promptly went out of print entirely. Golding eventually found his audience and went on to have a glowing literary career, winning the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1983. He was also knighted, in 1988.

The introduction to this Faber “Educational Edition” makes some insightful remarks about the fact that Lord Of The Flies came so soon after WWII. The world had just seen previously-unimaginable atrocities, far removed from everyday life, and it had made everyone all-too aware of humanity’s true nature. “Ultimately, Mr Golding’s book is valuable to us,” the introduction says, “not because it tells us about the darkness of man’s heart, but because it shows it…” (pg. xii).

The story starts with a war-time evacuation, and a plane-full of British boys crashing on an isolated Pacific island. Golding really drops the reader right into the action; I’m not sure I would have had a damn clue what was going on if I wasn’t already familiar with the plot through the osmosis of pop-culture references. He quickly introduces two boys, the fair-haired take-charge hero Ralph and the overweight asthmatic Piggy. They find a conch, and Ralph uses it to summon all the other survivors. As far as I’m concerned, Piggy is more likeable than the rest of them put together; he insists that they “put first things first and act proper”, which made me chuckle.


The boys are a rag-tag assortment that includes a musical choir, already operating under the leadership of Jack Merridew. These boys don’t take too kindly to Ralph appointing himself head honcho. Ralph’s key policies are that they should have fun, survive, and maintain a smoke signal, apparently in that order (so he really needs to work on his priorities). The choir grumbles, but eventually submits to Ralph’s vision for life on the island; Jack decides they’ll take on the role of hunters, and they spend most of their time trying to kill animals for food. The group maintains a veneer of democracy (at first) by agreeing that whoever is holding the magical conch should be allowed to speak and receive the silent attention of the rest of the boys. I don’t know why everyone spends so much time talking about the pig’s head, when really Golding’s characters spent an inordinate amount of time arguing over that bloody shell…

They create a fire using Piggy’s glasses, a good start, but everything turns to shit pretty quickly. The boys start fighting among themselves, and let the fire languish while they hang out on the beach. Oh, and they imagine up a “beast” that they believe is stalking them from the woods. Jack Merridew lures the boys away from their “work” on the fire, with a view to hunting this supposed “creature”. The smoke signal dies out, duh, and they miss the opportunity for rescue by a passing ship.


Jack, fed up with Ralph’s pragmatism and Piggy’s whining, tries to start a new group. One by one, the boys abandon Ralph to join Jack, lured by the smell of sizzling pork (yes, they manage to kill a pig and cook it, but not one of them thinks to go fishing, for fuck’s sake). The members of the new tribe start doing weird shit, painting their faces and making sacrifices to the “beast”. Not sure what was in that pork, but it was nothin’ good. They end up beating a kid to death – Simon, the poor epileptic who had hallucinated the pig’s head talking to him in one iconic scene.

Jack’s New Tribe(TM) decide that Piggy’s glasses, the only means of creating fire on the island, are the real symbol of power. Finally, they’re thinking sensibly! They steal the glasses from Ralph and Piggy, the last hold-outs of the old group. When Ralph confronts Jack about the theft, a fight ensues, and everyone on Ralph’s side is crushed to death (RIP Piggy). The conch is also shattered in the confrontation, which is Golding’s heavy-handed attempt at symbolising the end of civility and the boys’ final transition to savagery. (Yeah, maybe scratch that thinking-sensibly part…)

Ralph manages to escape their clutches, so they hunt him through the woods, setting fire to everything in the process. He’s just about ready to give himself up for dead when he runs into a British naval officer, whose party had seen the smoke from the raging fire and come to investigate. The boys are “saved”, but they all start crying when they realise what they’ve become. The officer makes fun of them, he’s kind of a dick actually, for acting like they were at war… only to turn around and gaze at his own war ship (awkward!). Yep, Golding kept the heavy-handed symbolism going right to the bitter end.


I really didn’t enjoy Lord Of The Flies. In fact, I kind of resented it. Assigning it to school kids feels like force-feeding them a cautionary tale: “behave the way that the hypocritical adults tell you to, or look how you’ll end up!”. Really, could it be any more patronising? In the beginning, I wondered if maybe I was just coming to this book too late in life (like I did with Fahrenheit 451), but that’s not it: honestly, my anti-establishment tendencies have only softened with age. Had I been required to read this in school, I probably would have ended up sent to the principal’s office for accusing some poor English teacher, in all earnestness, of trying to brainwash us into accepting everything they said without question (yes, I was a bit of a handful). As it stands, Lord Of The Flies wasn’t a winner for me, and I doubt I’ll ever pick it up again. It’s definitely not a book I’d want with me on a desert island, even for the hilarious irony.

I think I might be the only one who’s down on it, though. Stephen King, in particular, is a very vocal fan, and has borrowed heavily from it in his own writing; he also penned an introduction to the 2011 edition, celebrating the centenary of Golding’s birth. And public interest in Lord Of The Flies has led to the release of two film adaptations (1963, 1990). Production of another adaptation, with an all-female cast, was announced by Warner Bros in 2017; before I read the book, I was all in favour of a woman-centric re-boot, but now I feel like the project will be a huge waste. The story of Lord Of The Flies is so deeply rooted in patriarchal bullshit, I’m not sure it can be saved, even if we make them all girls. I’d much rather see that film’s budget reallocated to producing and marketing a story written by women that reflects a genuinely female experience. Someday, when I run the world…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lord Of The Flies:

  • “It isn’t a story filled with hope. The human race is a disgrace.” – James Asherton
  • “‘Food for thought’, and I imagine that anyone who likes this book would also enjoy it if a restaurant hid razor blades in their dish. Like with real food, ‘food for thought’ should be enjoyable, healthy, and should not make you feel sick after consuming it. This book is garbage. It’s unhealthy, and it will likely make you feel sick. I do not recommend consuming this ‘food for thought’. I am not impressed. If someone wants to make a point in literature, there are better ways of going about it. This book is actually just malware for the brain. It’s best not to read it, but if you already did, sort it out the best you can. Good luck.” – S. DANIELSON
  • “The reviews on this book were more fun to read than the actual book itself.” – Lilian
  • “I HATED ALL OF IT. IT WAS THE WORST STINKIN BOOK I HAVE EVER READ. AND I LIKE BOOKS. @$&# PIECE A @$&$” – cat gilleland
  • “This book was only boring because it is not the type of book i like but it was interesting to read.” – jack gartner
  • “Hated it. If your looking for a book that describes the scenery 90 percent of the time. This book is for u.” – Joe Pena
  • “This book doesn’t deserve a review. With all due respect, Golding couldn’t write a good book to save his life. His writing is reminiscent of Tolkien’s; he comes up with a great story, and then ruins it with horrible writing….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I had to read this book for literature class I hated it. my teacher rattled on about the symbolizm in this book.It was so boring and kinda gory.plus no girls, wasnt they suposed to repopulate the world after nuclear war so not possible with only boys. The one thing i found interesting was how they acted like wild animals after they had been on the island a while.that was kinda cool.But it was to confusing” – Amazon Customer
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