Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sybil:

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

8 Most Overrated Books Of All Time

A few weeks ago, I put together a list of underrated books, ones that haven’t received the attention or acclaim that I think they deserve. Now, I know literary appreciation isn’t a zero sum game, but it got me thinking: it stands to reason that, if there are books out there that aren’t feeling enough of the love, there must be some that are feeling too much of it. Right? So, here, I present a counterpoint: 8 of the most overrated books of all time, as determined by me.

8 Most Overrated Books Of All Time - Text Overlaid on Image of Jeering Crowd - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pssst: this is not to say that these books are “bad” necessarily, or that they’re not worth reading. I’m just saying that they get TOO MUCH hype, at the expense of other great books that deserve a bit of that limelight. So, y’know, don’t @ me.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This might be my most controversial choice, so I’m getting it out of the way early: The Great Gatsby. Why, oh why, do we hold this story of a wealthy borderline stalker in such high esteem? It’s not as though there aren’t other great Jazz Age novels out there (there are). And yet, this is the one that we force teenagers to read and analyse in high school, and salivate over in creative writing courses. Reader, it’s not that great. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The premise and setting of The Narrow Road To The Deep North aren’t bad. The unflinching account of the life of a surgeon in a POW camp is admirable, even jaw-dropping in parts. But damn, if this wasn’t one of the most overwritten books I’ve ever read! Flanagan’s editor really needed to have a stern word: he could’ve cut off the whole first third of the book, like a gangrenous limb, and it would’ve been a much better read. I still can’t quite believe that it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Booker Prize in 2014… Read my full review of The Narrow Road To The Deep North here.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even now, fifteen years after its release, I still feel like every time I turn around I bump into someone saying that The Book Thief is AMAZING, that it is HEARTBREAKING, that it will CHANGE MY PERSPECTIVE on WWII… piffle. It’s narrated by Death, which is a pretty cool way. of telling a story, but other than that…? The main message is that Nazis are bad and literacy is good. I thought we could take that as read! The same goes for All The Light We Cannot See, too. The recent boom in WWII historical fiction really irks me. It feels like they’re only rehashing what has already been beautifully accounted in books like Diary Of A Young Girl. The Book Thief would be a fine read for teenagers who are just starting to learn about this chapter in history, but it got way too much hype overall. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In my experience, every single reader who lists Fahrenheit 451 as their favourite book read it for the first time as a teenager. Everyone who, like me, read it as an adult had much the same reaction as I did: a huge feeling of underwhelm. This book is like dystopian-lite: dystopian fiction for people who haven’t read much (or any) dystopian fiction. The idea of firefighters who burn books is a good one, but there’s better-imagined and better-written books out there now that are far more worthy of our time and attention. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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

Let me sum up The Sun Also Rises for you: a guy with a malfunctioning doodle convinces himself that he has no hope of happiness or sexual satisfaction, so he traipses across Europe with his drunk friends feeling sorry for himself. Ugh! It’s so woefully repressed (and grossly colonial in places). It’s not even a good example of Hemingway’s whole “show, don’t tell” fly-on-the-wall writing ethos. Papa was a brilliant short story writer, but I wish I could forget all about this novel entirely. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I actually quite liked Don Quixote. It was a whopping great book, but I read it slowly, bit by bit, and found it quite enjoyable. I think it’s overrated as a comic novel, though, and that’s why I include it here in this list of the most overrated books of all time. Everyone kept telling me “Oooh, Don Quixote! It’s so funny! It’s so funny!”. Yeah, except that it’s the story of a man with a severe, undiagnosed, and untreated delusional disorder. No one tries to help him, no one steps in when he’s clearly a danger to himself and others – they treat him like a circus attraction. My heart broke for Don Quixote, and I barely got a chuckle out of this book. “Comic” my arse… Read my full review of Don Quixote here.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

John Green might’ve won himself a legion of fans with his stories of teenage love and melodrama, but come on. The Fault In Our Stars was just a blatant attempt to make me cry, and I reject that outright. It was so transparent, I found myself rolling my eyes at every plot point. The “love interest”, Augustus, is so high on his own fumes, it was infuriating. If the protagonist, Hazel, had been just a few years older and just a little less sheltered, she would have kicked him to the curb long before any of the rest of it. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has the distinction of being one of the most banned, censored, and challenged books of fiction in the history of English literature. On that basis, I naturally expected it to be very smutty. I’m sorry to report that there was barely any filth at all! A couple of heaving bosoms, a few c-bombs, and that’s it! I have no idea what all the fuss was about… Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

And there we have it, my list of the most overrated books of all time. All of them are hills I’m willing to die on, so give it your best shot 😉 And don’t forget to add your suggestions in the comments below!

The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Here’s the whole truth: I didn’t feel optimistic going into The Maze Runner. My husband had seen the movie, and he told me it was terrible (I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its movie, but still!). Plus, some ugly accusations about Dashner surfaced in 2018 as part of the #MeToo movement. But the book was already on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, so I figured I may as well go ahead. If nothing else, I suspected it would be over quickly…

… and I was right. On all counts.

The Maze Runner was first published in 2009, the first book in a young adult dystopian series of the same name. Well, it’s the “first” in the sense that it was the first to be published, but it’s actually third in narrative order (so there have been two prequels and three sequels, if that makes sense).

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a stark metal elevator. He has no memory of who he is (other than his first name), or how he came to be in that situation. Right away, I started poking holes in the premise. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right that he could remember his first name but not his last, or anything else – right? I tried to tell myself not to be such a cynical snot, but the whole premise was just so flimsy, right from the outset, that I couldn’t help myself.

The elevator brings Thomas to the Glade, a large courtyard full of boys roughly his age (we’re told later that Thomas “looks” to be about sixteen, but he talks and acts like he’s twelve). He learns that a new boy arrives each month in the same way that he did, and in the same condition (with the memory loss and everything). The elevator also brings them supplies, but no, they can’t use it to escape – they’ve already tried. Thomas’s new home is surrounded by four high concrete walls, forming a square in which the boys are held. Outside the walls, they tell him, is the Maze. They send “runners” out into the maze every day to try and map its pattern and find a way out, but the pattern changes every night. They don’t stay out there after dark, because that’s when the “Grievers” emerge. Thomas is intrigued.

Yep, this is the ol’ newbie-has-to-save-the-day trope.

The “Grievers” are spoken about a lot, and even encountered a few times, but they were really hard to visualise based on the descriptions Dashner used: slimy, but mechanic; lurching, but fast… like villainous monsters designed by committee. And while we’re all rolling our eyes (you’re with me on this, right?), let’s throw something else on top of the shit heap: the boys that live in the Glade have developed their own nonsense slang, a very obvious and very lame attempt by Dashner to give the impression that his characters are very cool and swear-y, without using any actual profanity that would offend the delicate sensibilities of school boards and over-protective parents. It’s completely transparent, nothing like the masterful effort in, say, A Clockwork Orange. On the whole, The Maze Runner had very strong Lord Of The Flies vibes, right down to the bumbling, chubby best friend.

Anyway, the day after Thomas’s arrival, the elevator comes cranking up again. This time, it deposits a girl named Teresa. She carries a note saying that she’s the “last one”, and promptly lapses into a coma. The elevator stops bringing supplies, the skies turn grey, and the doors to the Maze stop closing at night (leaving everyone in the Glade vulnerable to the Grievers). Teresa remains steadfastly unconscious for about half the book. When she finally wakes up, she and Thomas decide that they “feel” like they already know each other. Oh, and they can communicate telepathically.

RANT ALERT: this telepathy thing is the worst! It’s some of the laziest hack writing I’ve encountered in all my reading life. I suspect Dashner just retro-fitted some Special Significance(TM) to it elsewhere in the series, but I’m just going to die without ever finding out and I’m okay with that. For The Maze Runner, it seemed like a deus ex machina cop-out to allow him to have his two central characters communicate privately whenever the plot needed them to. Booooo!

Anyway, I need to charge ahead with this plot summary before my eyes start to hurt from all the rolling. Thomas manages to figure out that the Maze walls move to spell out a super-special secret code. He also figures out how and where the Grievers get in and out off the Maze. He draws the logical conclusion that the easiest way for the boys to escape is to follow them. He also gets himself “stung” by one of the Grievers, on purpose, so that he can go through “The Changing” (I’m biting my tongue, I’m biting my tongue…), because it is rumoured to bring back memories of the victim’s pre-Glade life. Sure enough, he remembers the crucial bits and pieces that allow him to put a plan together. How convenient.

And away they go, down the Griever hole. Thomas, Teresa, and Chuck (the bumbling, chubby sidekick) find a computer at the bottom, and they punch in the Maze code. Hey, presto: the rest of the boys from the Glade appear. They all learn that they are part of a WICKED experiment. No, I’m not suddenly being enthusiastic with the adjective; it stands for World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department (and if that acronym wasn’t backwards-engineered, I’ll eat my hat).

Chuck bites it, like Piggy and all other chubby sidekicks before him. In fact, he does a Dobby, throwing himself in front of the knife that was intended for Thomas. All the surviving Glade boys figure out that these WICKED government guys are bad news, and just as their cogs are turning, another team of grown ups shows up to “rescue” them.

Their saviours whisk them away to safety, which gives Dashner the chance for a whole stream of exposition to explain what the heck is going on (and set up the next book, conveniently enough). Apparently, a bunch of sun flares have ruined Earth, somehow. The world is a wasteland now, and there’s a disease (called “The Flare” – Dashner’s creative hits just keep on rolling) that’s got half the population all fucked up. The Glade boys are taken to a safe house, fed a decent meal, and they’re happy enough with that.

Then, an epilogue reveals that this apparent-rescue and supposed-safe-house are all an extension of the Maze experiment, set up by those WICKED people. *ominous chord* The End.

Ugh. I’m so glad to be done with this book – even writing this review made my eye twitch.

Here’s what I can say for it: the chapters are short. The story moves pretty quickly. Well, it has the illusion of doing so, at least. You could call it “fast paced”. But that’s all I’ve got, folks. The Maze Runner is a real stinker.

I’ve seen it compared to The Hunger Games, and although that wasn’t my favourite book of all time, it was streets ahead of The Maze Runner. In fact, the only way that Dashner bested Collins, in my view, was that he started working in the set-up for the sequel about seventy pages before the end, instead of cramming it into the final chapter. That tells me he’d always envisaged the book as part of a series arc, which is something, I suppose.

As I mentioned up top, there was a film adaptation released in 2014. I watched the trailer on YouTube, and it’s exactly as terrible as you’d expect. All in all, I’d say don’t bother, with the movie or the book. Don’t even bother buying it for the tweens and teens in your life. They’d be better off with almost any other young adult book out there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maze Runner:

  • “my mummy likess this book and me. she thought that it was wonderful. i recommend u read it. Ya yeet.” – Ms Samantha M Thomson
  • “Very disappointing. Just a lot of action. Almost like he’s trying to get a movie deal.” – consumer scientist
  • “If you like terrible prose, a dumb plot, and unrealistic dialogue, this book is for you!” – W V S
  • “All the violence and hate of the Hunger Games without the pesky storyline or plot. I kept hoping the story would develope, but no. Left disappointed.” – John
  • “Yuck, I think I’d rather have a root canal than read another book of this series.” – Amazon Customer
  • “DO NOT READ! Boring, tedious. We bought this for a multi-hour car trip and had to stop the audiobook because silence was better than this story.” – Judy-Lynn Benjamin
  • “I didn’t order this book, so I don’t know why it asked me to rate it . And my name is not Dylan .” – Dylan Chilano
  • “I utterly HATE this book no reason.” – Amazon Customer

10 Long Books Worth Reading

Long books often get a bad rap, and it’s not without reason. Sometimes, you just look at an 800-page doorstop and think… yeah, nah. Reading three or four shorter books seems so much easier. I’ve written before about how quick reads are great for busy people, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their inclination for a shorter tome. But, as with everything, one doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of the other. When I read Don Quixote, I made sure to clear my reading schedule for a good four weeks, to allow myself time to fully immerse myself in Cervantes’ world and take in his episodic plot bit by bit – and I’m so glad I did! If we eschew all long books because we’re intimidated or we assume they’ll bore us, we’re going to miss out on some great reads. So, if you decide the time is right to full invest yourself in one long (long!) book, you want to make sure it’s a good one, right? I’ve got your back: here are ten long books worth reading.

A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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

801 pages

Fantasy books tend to be doorstops, more so than other genres, and I’m pretty sure there’s a fantasy reader or two out there looking at A Game Of Thrones and thinking “pffft, that’s not long!”. Well, for regular readers, it is! And I’m not normally one for fantasy books. I get lost in the names of characters and places and magical stuff, and find myself having to double back a lot to keep it all straight. The great thing about A Game Of Thrones is that we’re all already familiar with the plot (or, at least, the basic premise) having seen the HBO adaptation. That makes it much easier – and quicker! – to read than coming to it completely cold. The other reason this long book is worth reading? When snobs say “Oh, I haven’t seen the TV series, I read the book”, you can say “Yeah, me too!”, and watch them pout. Hehehe! Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghiara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

720 pages

There’s nothing little about A Little Life (I think I could use my paperback edition to do deadlifts, I can’t imagine what the hardcover would be like!), but it’s one of those long books worth reading just to see what all the fuss is about. Trigger warnings aplenty: most readers call this one “devastating”, and that’s understating it. But this searing examination of life in New York, the riveting realities of trauma, and the heartbreaking intensity of love and loyalty is totally worth it when you’ve got the time and mental stability for it. It was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, if that makes any difference to you.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

The Eighth Life - Nino Haratschvili - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

934 pages

When Scribe reached out to me last year and said they had a new book for me to read, about a family cursed by a secret chocolate recipe, my response was something along the lines of: HECK YEAH! When a huge package arrived in the post a couple days later, I didn’t connect the dots – I thought someone had mailed me a brick as a prank. But no, it was The Eighth Life (translated into English by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin). The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are not over, friends! This one follows the Jashi family over the course of a century, as they survive the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. You get to see how world politics plays out on a personal level (and, yes, there is magical cursed chocolate).

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

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576 pages

The Golden Notebook is, technically, the shortest on this list of long books worth reading – but if you’re not used to reading long books, it won’t feel that way! I suppose, if we’re being technical, it’s more like five books in one. Doris Lessing has written a story that could stand alone (“Free Women”), and then weaved in four separate “notebook” narratives, written by her protagonist. This book is unique in its structure and form, and it has a lot to say about the nature of identity, relationships, and womanhood. I can guarantee you’ve never read anything else like it. Read my full review of The Golden Notebook here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

686 pages

The title says it all, really: A Short History Of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson is, as always, concise and funny and warm and whimsical, but even a “short” history of “nearly everything” is going to make for a damn long book. Luckily, Bryson has had a lot of practice at writing about lofty topics for the everyday reader, so he makes 680+ pages of physics, biology, history, sociology, and mathematics incredibly engaging and compulsively readable. Even though it’s perhaps a little out of date now (my edition still says Pluto is a planet, whoops!), it will still give you a lot of fun facts for the next time you’re stuck for words around the water cooler. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

Under The Dome by Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

880 pages

Stephen King is known for writing long books – real long! – and Under The Dome is no exception. The good news is that it was his 58th book, so he had plenty of practice under his belt and knew just how to keep the reader interested in his doorstop book. Using multiple perspectives (to keep things fresh), he tells the story of a town suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by a large, invisible barrier (the titular “dome”). It’s not as horror-y as some of his other offerings (no mass slaughters at high schools or cursed dogs here!), but it is still as chilling and spooky as you’d hope from the master.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

671 pages

DON’T STOP READING! I know you must be feeling super cynical about seeing Crime And Punishment – a dreary, depressing Russian classic – on a list off long books worth reading. I understand that you might be thinking “ugh, if I’m going to spend that much time on one book, it’d better be something that brings me joy”. I know all of your preconceived ideas because I had the same ones, and I am happy to report that I was completely wrong. Crime And Punishment is not dreary or depressing at all! In fact, my edition (the translation to English by David McDuff) made me laugh ’til I cried, and I found myself totally relating to and rooting for a literal axe murderer. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

629 pages

If you feel like you need some likeable characters (some axe murderers you can root for, perhaps), The Secret History is probably not the best long book to start with. That said, it’s still compelling and compulsive, in a way that only Donna Tartt can be. This book follows a group of college students who are studying the classics, and the… shall we say, bizarre, twisted, fucked-up mess they make for themselves. It’s a fascinating character study, but with enough mystery and action to keep you flicking through hundreds of pages.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

1057 pages

Here it is: the big daddy, the grand poobah, of long books – and yet, it’s one I almost forgot to include. See, I don’t even really think of David Copperfield as a long book. Maybe that’s partly because my edition was split into two volumes, about five hundred pages a piece, but I think it’s mostly because it just didn’t feel like a long book. I read it so fast, I was so gripped and entertained the whole way through the protagonist’s life story, I pumped through it as quickly as I would any standard-length contemporary novel. This is the perfect pick for readers who normally enjoy history or biography, because it has the incomparable benefit of not having to stick to the rigid rules of the “truth” 😉 Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

784 pages

Yes, yes, it’s another Russian classic, but any list of long books worth reading is incomplete without Anna Karenina. If nothing else, it’s worth picking up just for the immortal opening line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Surely, that alone is enough to draw you in! It actually shares a lot in common with many of the other books on this list: the characters aren’t (necessarily) likeable and they do horrible things to one another, it’s a rich world drawn in great detail, it’s indulgent, it’s tragic… Consider this your option for “levelling up” your long-book-reading game.

All told, this list comes to 7738 pages – surely that’s enough to keep you going for a while! No? Add your recommendations for long books worth reading in the comments below!

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

I feel oddly guilty about picking up an abridged version of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. I know I shouldn’t, but I do! I would’ve preferred, of course, to read and review the full text (I’m a dirty completionist at heart), but they’re surprisingly hard to come by. I’m getting to the pointy end of my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list now – there’s no time left to waste searching further afield! Plus, Clarissa is literally one of the longest books in the history of the English language, over one million words long! Even my “abridged” copy runs to 500+ pages. So, I grit my teeth, and went ahead with it. This is Clarissa, as abridged by George Sherburn.

I mention Sherburn specifically to acknowledge his fine work, but also because, as he mentions in his note on the text, no two versions of Clarissa – abridged or otherwise – are exactly the same. The original edition (Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady) was first published in 1747-48. Each subsequent edition has introduced its own errors, oversights, changes, and mis-prints. So, don’t hate on me for any discrepancies between what I say here and what you’ve read for yourself!

Clarissa is an epistolary novel, but Richardson said that he intended it for it to be read as an instructional text, not merely as entertainment. Because I don’t give a shit about spoilers, I’m going to give you the key lessons right up front: parents, don’t meddle in your kids marriages. And girls, pick better husbands. That’s the tl;dr version.

It all starts with the Harlowes, a family of new money who are completely obsessed with improving their social standing. Their eldest daughter, Arabella, catches the eye of Captain Lovelace, a rich but roguish bachelor. Arabella is flattered, but she rebuffs his advances. Then, for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear (to me, anyway), Lovelace and Arabella’s brother, James, end up in a duel. James comes off second-best, and Lovelace is promptly made persona non grata at Casa de Harlowe.

Lovelace gives no fucks at all. He sets his sights on the younger Harlowe sister, our girl Clarissa. He makes her repeated offers of marriage. The family should have been falling all over themselves for her to accept, given that they want to better their position and all, but they’re kind of hung up on how he stabbed James that one time, so they tell her to tell him to fuck off. They arrange for a different bloke – Mr Holmes – to marry Clarissa instead.

And how does Clarissa feel about all this? She’s not that fussed on either of them, to be honest. She’d be happy enough to stay at home, being a dutiful daughter and writing long letters to her BFF Miss Howe. She refuses to marry Holmes, and she’s all “I’m not going to marry Lovelace either, but what’s so bad about him? I could do worse!”.

Daddy Harlowe is not pleased. Not at all. In fact, he locks Clarissa in her room until she agrees to do as he says. He also fires her favourite servant, just to show her he means business.

Important note: ALL OF THIS happens in the first seventy pages! Clarissa might be a long book, even in its abridged form, but DAMN! It builds up to a rollicking pace, very quickly!

Anyway, poor Clarissa ends up locked in her room for weeks on end. Her family insist that she must secretly have the hots for Lovelace if she won’t marry Holmes, and she’s all “Umm, no? I just think I should be able to choose my own husband, ya dig?”. They don’t dig.

Meanwhile, Lovelace keeps finding ways to send Clarissa secret love notes. He begs her to run away with him, which – to be fair – looks like a more and more attractive prospect, the longer this locked-in-her-room business carries on.

The thing is, when we finally start to hear a bit more about Lovelace’s side of the story, we learn that he is a TOTAL NARCISSISTIC PSYCHOPATH. He’s hell bent on getting exactly what he wants, whatever the cost. He concocts a scheme to trick Clarissa into running away with him, and the bastard actually pulls it off. Never mind that it does irreparable damage to her relationship with her family, and causes a huge scandal – Lovelace is just happy to have “won” his “prize”. Ugh.

“You are all too rich to be happy.”

Page 19

Clarissa’s “freedom” is short-lived, and she becomes Lovelace’s prisoner in effect. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for our girl. Her family refuse her requests for forgiveness. They won’t let her come home, or even send over her stuff. Lovelace drags her up and down the country to various “safe” houses. He even hides her in a brothel at one point; that might not sound so bad to contemporary readers, but at the time, living in a house of “ill repute” meant saying buh-bye to any chance you had for a good reputation and a good life. Poor Clarissa!

Our girl isn’t backing down, though. She still refuses to marry Lovelace, and it drives him bonkers. She manages to escape at one point, but alas, he catches her and cons her into coming back.

By every standard we hold today, Lovelace was an abuser. Let’s be clear about that. He’s not a “romantic lead”. He cuts Clarissa off from her family. He controls her finances. He emotionally manipulates her within an inch of her life. And, of course, support systems for victims of domestic violence back then weren’t what they are today (ahem). All Clarissa has going for her is her friend, Miss Howe, and her advice pretty much amounts to “marry Lovelace to shut him up, and fingers crossed he dies young”. Not helpful!

In between proposals, Lovelace keeps trying to get into Clarissa’s pants – and (hopefully) I don’t need to explain why pre-marital hanky-panky was a big no-no back then. She turns him down every time. Fed up with rejection, the abhorrent creep drugs and rapes her, and this has (to say the least) a severe impact on Clarissa’s physical and mental health.

Like all abusers, Lovelace comes to her with the I’m-so-sorrys and the I’ll-do-betters and the please-marry-me-anyways. He just WILL. NOT. STOP. PROPOSING. (mostly because, it would seem, he’d rather bone a more enthusiastic participant). Our amazing girl, even in the death-grip of PTSD, still tells him to go directly to hell.

After a couple more failed attempts, Clarissa FINALLY manages to escape for good. She finds sanctuary with a nice married couple who live above a shop, but she lives in constant fear that Lovelace will find her. He sends his friend, John Belford, to try and lure her back, but that plan totally backfires when Belford takes pity on Clarissa and they become friends.

Clarissa is dangerously ill at this point – mostly due to stress – and she starts preparing for her death. She appoints Belford the executor of her will, and he’s super-impressed by how mature she’s being about the whole thing. That’s when Richardson throws in a lot of Christian God talk; it’s up to you whether that’s fine or bothersome.

Clarissa’s cousin, Morden, shows up, just in time to see her before she shuffles off the coil. The rest of her family have a change of heart about the whole ostracising-her-for-eternity thing, but they’re about a minute too late. Clarissa dies before anyone can make amends. In an iconic act of passive-aggression, she leaves them a bunch of really good stuff in her will, so they feel extra-bad about how they treated her.

Lovelace is apparently super-bummed about his victim’s death (yeah, boohoo). Belford convinces him that it would be an opportune time to take a holiday, because Cousin Morden wants to beat the shit out of him. He takes off, but Morden tracks him down anyway, and Lovelace comes a cropper. The End.

Richardson concludes with a summary of what happens to all the other characters afterwards (along the lines of that awful Harry Potter epilogue), and throws in a little more moralising to round things out. Just to reiterate, the take-home messages are: parents, don’t interfere in your kids’ plans (or otherwise) for marriage. Ladies, friends don’t let friends marry arseholes. And fellas, no means no. You got that?

Clarissa was well-received upon publication, but a lot of readers got all mad that Clarissa and Lovelace didn’t get a happily-ever-after (seriously!). Some even wrote their own alternative endings, which I guess would constitute the original fan-fic. Richarson worried, with all the brouhaha, that his actual message, the morals of it all, hadn’t cut through. All his readers were too hung up on this supposed “love story”. So, in later editions, he made changes to paint the Clarissa character in a “purer” (more sympathetic) light, while making Lovelace more sinister and evil.

I was really impressed with how Sherburn handled the abridgement. It would seem, from his notes, that he only omitted one noticeable plot point (the death of a minor character); and, even then, he gave enough of an explanation in-text that I didn’t feel like I missed much.

On the whole, Clarissa wasn’t as difficult a read as I was expecting. It had a Pride And Prejudice vibe to it, but written in the epistolary fashion of Dracula and a bit long-winded like Tristram Shandy. In fact, I reckon if Austen, Stoker, and Sterne had a creative three-way, Clarissa would be the resultant love-child. If two out of three of those appeal, this is the book for you!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Clarissa:

  • “Longer than “War and Peace”, this account of virtue chased and trashed is the novel’s version of continuous cricket: mad in detail, slow in execution, passionately related. Told in letters, the correspondents spend what seems a year recalling a year but a crowded year. Take this book to a desert island; it will endure and also make a crackling blaze.” – Peter Jakobsen
  • “Well, it took me two years to read it, but Miss Harlowe did change my life for the better. The book can be quite psychological and gripping, but my favorite parts are the communiques, in turns sweet and chastising, between Clarissa and her BFF, Miss Howe. Of course, the ending’s a bummer.” – A. Johnson
  • “What a group of despicable characters! By page 500, I was hoping every character would be put to the rack. By page 1000, I was hoping for a mass hanging. By page 1500, I was willing to grant clemency to a few.

    Dozens of times I nearly relegated this book to the pile of books to be sent to an enemy – BUT – each time would pick it up again because I had to know if my hopes would be realized.

    Should you read Clarissa? By all means; if for no other reason than to serve as penance for all past sins of omission or commission wreaked on others.” – Tanstaafl
  • “I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far this is one of the best books ever. I just know things will turn out well for Clarissa. She’s the best. I bet she’ll get married to some foreign king and live in a Swedish castle with him. Lovelace is okay, but she can do better. I bet you she dumps him at the end of the book. I can see it now. She’ll probably say: “Don’t go there Lovelace” and walk out the door. I can’t wait to see what this book has in store for Clarissa Harlowe. Best character ever! Best book ever!” – misterb1020
  • “Okay, the book came in tip-top shape, and the story is a masterpiece, totally five stars. By the way, if you’ve read it, I must congratulate you…it’s one of the longest novels ever written in the world.

    Anyway, Clarissa’s character at first was lovely. I enjoyed her, but after awhile, I started to hate her. I really did. Granted, I know she went through that ordeal and all, but then hundreds and hundreds of pages following that ordeal, I got soooo sick of her self-pity and, “I’m a poor creature” this, and “I’m a poor creature,” that, and, “I’m the most abandoned person in the world, poor creature me, me, me,” and I very literally wished she would just shut the hell up and die already. She was as much of a narcissist, in my opinion, as Lovelace. I mean, she just kept wallowing, with her stupid uplifted hands and eyes, her kerchief perpetually to her face, whimpering about herself and lousy life when there were so many opportunities for a happy ending. She was always talking about her fame and what a great person she was, and how could such a famous, pious creature as herself be brought so low? She literally committed suicide by starvation, and just LOVED talking about how ill she was and the way she was dying. I mean, she really loved talking about her pending death, and made such a huge display of it among her new acquaintances. And excepting her immediate family, she she had so many friends around her willing to help: Anna, Mr. Belford, Mr. Hickman, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Smith, etc., yet, she kept lamenting how alone she was, that she was friendless and abandoned. It’s like, she enjoyed this negativity. Instead of becoming a strong, powerful character after her experience, she became a self-pitying, egomaniac. Ugh. I do love this story because it really got a reaction out of me! If a story can do that, then the author did something right.” – Stimpy

10 Books To Read After A Break-Up

Even the most wide-eyed optimist must concede that heartbreak is an inevitable byproduct of romance. If you put your heart out there, you’ve got to expect some wear and tear – better to have loved and lost, and all that. Where better for a bookworm to seek solace than in the pages of a book? If your Valentine’s Day didn’t exactly work out as you’d hoped – or if you just thought my post last week was way too schmaltzy – here’s your cure: 10 books to read after a break-up.

10 Best Books To Read After A Break Up - Text Below Image of Paper Heart Torn In Two On A String - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s no shame in needing a little earnest positivity when you’re heartbroken! The simple fable of The Alchemist won’t be too taxing to read, and you’ll find it to be a story of overcoming obstacles, persisting through dark times, and remaining true to one’s self. There’s a reason it’s a long-time favourite of hippie-dippie types! Read my full review here.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re entering into the snarky phase of grief, The Husband’s Secret is the book for you! The key takeaway is this: it’s probably a good thing it didn’t work out with your lover, because if they’d stuck around, you’d probably find out they were a secret murderer or having an affair with your cousin or something. You’re far better off without them, really! Read my full review here.

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is my ultimate cheer-up read. It’s the perfect book to read after a break-up, because romance barely rates a mention. The protagonist is a centenarian virgin, after all! I don’t want to call it “escapist”, because I think that’s a super-loaded term, but this is a book that will help you escape your troubles for an hour or two. Read my full review here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re struggling to focus for long enough to follow a whole novel, try Her Body And Other Parties instead. Machado is wickedly clever, incredibly insightful, and – of course – a kick-arse feminist. Her stories are spooky, strange, and sure to distract you from your dreadful ex. Plus, this is a collection of short stories you can sip slowly, instead of having to drink it all in at once.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re not ready to laugh just yet, why not take your mind off your break-up with a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence? A Clockwork Orange will leave you horrified, and silently glad you didn’t head out that night with a baseball bat to take your rage out on your ex’s windshield (come on, you know you were tempted, but that shit is a slippery slope). Read my full review here.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Life After Life will help you work through any of your lingering Sliding Doors fantasies. You know, the ones where you wonder how your relationship might had turned out if you’d just done one small thing differently… To put things in perspective, Atkinson’s protagonist has much higher stakes, with her repeated deaths and the fate of WWII hanging overhead. Plus, it’s so long, this book will keep you busy until long after the sting of your break-up has faded. Read my full review here.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Has your break-up got you feeling like you just want to get away from it all? Maybe read The Martian before you start googling how to buy a Space X ticket. Mark Watney ends up cut off from the world, and he comes pants-shittingly close to never reconnecting – it’s not as much fun as it sounds right now, trust me! Plus, Watney is such a witty and wry narrator, you’ll end up laughing in spite of yourself. Read my full review here.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’re not the only sad-sack lovelorn protagonist out there, I promise! Just look at Arthur Less, the bumbling fool who stumbles from one literary event to another, looking for love in all the wrong places. Less is the perfect book to read after a break-up, especially if you’ve just found out your ex is getting married and you’re wondering what the heck to do with your invitation… Read my full review here.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

If you’ve always thought you should “get around” to reading Moby Dick one day, now’s your chance! You’ve got a whole lot of recently-cleared brain space, and now there’s no pesky partner making entirely reasonable demands on your time. All those free evenings in your calendar will make it much easier to finally finish this whale of a novel. Read my full review here.

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark

Stay Sexy And Don't Get Murdered - Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, it’d be weird if I didn’t include something at least a little self-helpy in this list of books to read after a break-up – but make the most of it, because this is as close as I’m going to get! Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered isn’t a list of rules or a new religion or anything gross like that. It’s more like a memoir of life experiences, with some key learned-the-hard-way lessons thrown in. You’ll feel like you’ve just sat down to a great group therapy session with your best girlfriends.

What books would you recommend someone reach for after a break-up? Add your recommendations in the comments below!

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

I had a really tough time getting my hands on a copy of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I ended up having my local independent bookstore special-order a copy from the UK for me, which makes it officially the furthest I’ve ever gone to track down a book for this project. That said, I can kind of see why, having read it, there aren’t many copies in circulation. The premise and the writing are… shall we say, esoteric. But Sarah Waters, who wrote the introduction to this edition, insists that Townsend Warner is “certainly one of the most shamefully under-read great British authors of the past hundred years”. How could I resist?

Lolly Willowes (alternative title: The Loving Huntsman) was Townsend Warner’s first novel. It was published in 1926 and billed as an “early feminist classic”. Even by today’s standards, it’s a leftie book. The author was open and frank about her commitment to radical left-wing causes (like, y’know, social justice and women having rights and stuff like that). She gets an A+ from me for the way she translated her political leanings into a plot. Lolly Willowes is the story of a mild-mannered spinster who moves to a country village to escape her pain-in-the-arse family; there, she turns to witchcraft, and sells her soul to the devil.

Now, don’t even TELL me you don’t find that at least a LITTLE bit relatable! I mean, who among us hasn’t, on some occasion, been just slightly tempted…

Meet our titular protagonist: Laura Willowes, “Lolly” being the affectionate nickname given by her family (one she secretly hates). After her father dies, she moves to London to live with her brother Henry and his family. Her own home (Lady Place – Townsend wasn’t mucking around with these feminist symbols) is passed to her other brother, James… only James kicks the bucket pretty quickly thereafter, too, and the house ends up rented out to strangers. There’s a lot of family politicking going on for the first half of the novel. The part I found most infuriating was the fact that they owned a brewery – i.e., they were living the dream! – but they just kind of let it fall by the wayside. I mean, come on! Where are their priorities?

The most important thing to bear in mind if you’re thinking of picking up Lolly Willowes is that there’s very little dialogue. Almost all of this plays out in the narrative. So, if you’re one of the “show, don’t tell” types, this is definitely not the book for you.

Anyway, meek and mild Lolly spends twenty-odd years just kind of… hanging around. She never marries, and never causes any trouble. She just raises Henry’s kids for him, and (understandably) gets pretty bored.

Once she finally decides she’s had a gut-full, she declares her intention to move to the charmingly-named town of Great Mop. If she were a man, she would’ve just married a twenty-two-year-old blonde and bought it a sports car and called it a day, but here we are. She then learns that Henry, who has been “managing her affairs” while she lived under his roof, has lost all her money. He tells her this in the hopes that she’ll stick around (she is, after all, his unpaid househould help), but she gives not a single fuck. She forges ahead with her move to Great Mop, and figures she’ll just live more frugally than she originally envisaged. Lolly Willowes is meek and mild no more, y’all!

Once she’s settled, she gets really into hiking. Lolly becomes obsessed with the views of the chalk hills and the beech wood trees. At times, these passages read more like nature writing than fictional prose. When she’s not traipsing around the woods, she makes friends with her landlady, hangs out with a poultry farmer, and tries not to wonder about the weird noises she hears at night…

Then, terrible news: Titus, her nephew (son of James, the brother who died), takes it into his head that he should move to Great Mop, too. He’s going to live with Lolly and “be a writer”. She doesn’t even get a chance to object; he just storms in and takes over. That means she’s back to a life of darning someone else’s socks and cooking someone else’s meals and all the other crap that comes with a privileged white man’s presence. Hmph!

Lolly has really had it now, guys. On her next wilderness walk, she calls upon Satan – yes, the same one – to ask that he release her from the shackles of domestic duty. For freminism!

When she gets home, she finds a kitten (aw!), whom she believes to be Satan’s emissary (oh…). She names him Vinegar, and adopts him as her familiar. That’s when shit gets witchy. I mean, it’s unlike any witchcraft with which I’m familiar, but that’s not saying much. And it’s around this time that Lolly starts calling Satan her “loving huntsman” (thus, the subtitle).

To seal the deal with the devil, Lolly tags along with her landlady to a local Witches’ Sabbath, attended by just about every woman in Great Mop. Apparently, this “normal” town is populated exclusively by women who want to dismantle the patriarchy. They work some magic, and that’s when things start going south for Titus. He’s plagued by all kinds of bad luck: his milk always curdles, he falls into a wasp’s nest, the usual. He winds up proposing to the woman who treats his wasp stings, and they fuck off back to London together to escape the curse – good riddance!

Lolly is relieved of her duties, and so glad to be finally free of them. She calls up her new buddy Satan, and (this is my favourite bit) tells him that women are like sticks of dynamite, ready to explode. They’re all witches, apparently, “even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!” (PREACH). The book ends with Lolly making peace with the fact that she sold her soul to the devil for a bit of peace and quiet. She’s okay with it.

Now, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t know dick about witchcraft… but from what I do know, I’m fairly confident that most of the women who identify as witches would be horrified/disgusted/angry at yet another literary representation linking their identities to “Satan”. Various witchcraft-based religions are ancient and have nothing to do with Christian representations of good, evil, or anything else. So, let’s just make that clear: this isn’t an accurate representation of real-world witchcraft, and to claim it is would be highly offensive.

That said, I don’t think Lolly Willowes was meant to be representative or accurate. Townsend Warner was Doing A Thing(TM). I think she deliberately invoked the image of Satan to symbolically fuck with the power structures (including religion) that oppress women. This is a fantastical novel in many ways, and a satirical one; I don’t think Townsend Warner wanted to sign on to represent any particular group. She just wanted to shit on whiny entitled white dudes, sucks to be them.

Lolly Willowes was published a year after Mrs Dalloway, and it’s got a very similar vibe: the search for a room of one’s own, women’s post-war liberation, the roles and responsibilities of widows and spinsters… If you liked Woolf, chances are you’ll dig this one, too.

Upon publication, Lolly Willowes was critically acclaimed in the UK, but didn’t make much of a splash with the general public. Townsend Warner eventually found her audience in the US, where Lolly Willowes was selected as the inaugural Book Of The Month title. Her affinity with American readers continued until her death; she was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and other American publications.

So, what did I think of it? Well, it’s hard to say. If I was asked for a brief description of Lolly Willowes, I think all I could say is “it’s weird”. Good weird, yes, but weird nonetheless. It’s a book of interest, a book worth reading, but not a gripping page-turner for most people. It’s unlikely to show up in any “best classic books” lists, but I’m glad I read it all the same.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lolly Willowes:

  • “Lolly moves in with relatives. Lolly seeks independence. Lolly gets mixed up with the Devil. I must have missed something.” – J. Rodeck
  • “Help. I did not order this. Have been hacked!” – Martha R Zimiles

7 Best Fictional Couples

I’m not afraid to admit it: I love a good love story, especially around this time of year. The problem is I seem to read so few of them! I don’t generally go for “kissing books”, and when I do, I find most of the men in cis-het romances are covered head-to-toe in red flags. It’s hard to emotionally invest in a fictional couple when every fiber of my feminist being is screaming “RUN, GIRL! RUN!”. But I’ve put my thinking hat on, and come up with a list of the best fictional couples from literature (as determined by my cold, dead heart).

7 Best Fictional Couples - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer

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

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott copped a lot of hate for this fictional couple, but I’m glad she stuck with them, because it is my all-time favourite pairing. Readers of Little Women at the time felt very strongly that Jo March should end up with Laurie, the heavy-drinking playboy who threw a huge tanty when she said she wouldn’t marry him (and proceeded to borderline-stalk her younger sister, no less). Life with Laurie would’ve been no fun for Jo at all! The man is a walking red flag! With Professor Bhaer, on the other hand, Jo can look forward to a long and interesting marriage full of books, politics, and stimulating conversation. I could not imagine a more perfect ending for our bookish heroine! Read my full review of Little Women here.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy

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

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

It’s a cliche for a reason, Keeper Upperers! This fictional couple is so iconic that the characters have become archetypes, the story of Pride And Prejudice a template for all romance novels and love stories that followed. I think what I like most about this pairing is that it’s not about two jigsaw pieces fitting together perfectly and “completing” each other. Rather, two imperfect souls seek to better themselves, and help the other to do the same – a man changes his manners and a woman changes her mind, as the saying goes. The fact that Darcy is also hot and rich and saves the Bennet family from destitution is just gravy, really. Also, he offers Lizzie wine when she’s freaking out, and that’s the exact quality I look for in a man. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Honourable Mention: Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy of Bridget Jones’s Diary. They’re based so closely on Lizzie and Darcy that I could hardly list them separately, but I still think they rate a mention.

Lupin and Tonks

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

This is a less-conventional choice from the Harry Potter universe, I know. Everyone’s here for Ron and Hermione, I know, but spare me! Ron was an emotionally stunted nit-wit for most of the series, and Hermione could’ve done so much better…! Lupin and Tonks, on the other hand, are starting at the same gun. They’re outcasts and oddballs, and yet they make their mature and adult relationship work under very dire circumstances. Plus, they had Molly Weasley’s seal of approval – if they’re good enough for Molly, they’re good enough for me!

Ifemelu and Obinze

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you feel yourself flagging in a long-distance relationship or post-break-up, Ifemelu and Obinze from Americanah might be the fictional couple that restores your faith. They, too, are torn apart by circumstance, and they go their separate ways, dating other people… only to come back together years later, because they were right for each other. The time apart, with all its opportunities for personal growth and life experience, only intensified their love and strengthened their bond. Never give up, if you love it set it free, etc.

Allie and Noah

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks has been pretty much cancelled, I know, but I can’t shake my enduring affection for his most-recognisable fictional couple. In fact, this is one of the rare instances where I think the movie was better than the book, purely because Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling had such sizzling hot chemistry on-screen. I read and watched The Notebook for the first time in high school, which means my attachment to them is nostalgic, as well. Theirs is a beautiful (if tragic) story of enduring love.

Cathy and Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Let me be clear: Cathy and Heathcliff should NOT be an aspirational fictional couple for you. At all. If you find yourself wanting a relationship like theirs, you might want to contact a therapist and talk some shit out. But they are, in my mind, the perfect example of two rotten eggs, fully deserving of each other, and ending up together (albeit in the afterlife). Actually, it’s probably a good thing that they never hooked up properly in Wuthering Heights; can you imagine the drama we’d have had to endure? Between Cathy’s histrionics and Heathcliff’s brooding, ugh. No thank you, please. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

Ennis and Jack

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

It’s such a shame that Brokeback Mountain has become a bit of a punchline (Annie Proulx has said herself that she’s sick of talking about it), because the love story of Ennis and Jack is truly beautiful. Their romance is fraught, dangerous, and forbidden—and yet, they persist, coming back together like moths to the proverbial flame. Normally, I outright reject the collection of tropes I think of as the “gay misery parade” (why must we write as though all queer lives are slow-motion tragedies?), but in this case, I make an exception. Each time, I secretly hope Ennis and Jack get their happy ending, but (of course) they never do. As much as this fictional couple will break your heart, you’ll be glad of having had it broken.

And I can’t bring myself to end on that bum note, so how about another honourable mention: Ms Lolly Willowes, of Lolly Willowes, who happily enters into a life long relationship with Satan in order to get her pesky relatives out of her hair. Good on you, doll! Read my full review of Lolly Willowes here.

I’d really love to add more non-problematic couples to this list—especially queer romances with happy endings!—so if you’ve got any recommendations, please drop them in the comments below.

Want more? I’ve got plenty of romantic recommended reads for Valentine’s Day here – enjoy, lovers!

The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heat Of The Day:

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

10 Underrated Books Worth Reading

There’s something both satisfying and frustrating about discovering a really good underrated book. That sounds contradictory, I know, but it’s true! On the one hand, it’s wonderful to find unexpected joy and take the opportunity to press it into other readers’ hands. On the other hand, it can be a bit disheartening to realise how many great books don’t get the fanfare they deserve. Through Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve come across a whole bunch of great books that I think need more time in the spotlight, so here’s a reading list for you: ten underrated books worth reading.

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

All the long-time Keeper Upperers out there knew that this was going to be my number one! I’m still incensed that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves missed out on the Booker Prize (and lost to the misery-fest that was The Narrow Road To The Deep North, no less!). This is one of my all-time favourite books: it’s funny, it’s provoking, it’s heart-felt, and it’s got hands-down the best plot twist I’ve ever read. Perhaps that’s why more people don’t talk about it, they don’t want to spoil it for others… but I have no such compunction! Read my full review here.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think the reason Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t get more attention is purely political. In her day, Stella Gibbons was a forthright woman, and she didn’t hesitate to mock and satirise other authors – even the popular and powerful ones. She had the audacity to win awards that they were hoping to win themselves, and she thought “networking” and “nepotism” were bullshit. That’s how she invoked the ire of literary giants like D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf: she refused to play the game, so the ranks closed against her. Reading Cold Comfort Farm is not only a delightful romp in a rich world of satire, it’s also a way to thumb your nose to the establishment. Fight the power! Read my full review here.

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Everyone my age – and plenty on either side – knows Melina Marchetta for her young adult classic, Looking For Alibrandi. It’s a wonderful book and I’ve recommended it highly elsewhere, but today I’m here to spruik for one of her other YA offerings: Saving Francesca. Marchetta’s true talent lies in writing beautifully believable, flawed and fierce teenage heroines. Francesca is one of them, perhaps the best of them. This is a book that will stay with you, even if young adult books aren’t normally “your thing”.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

Everything I’d heard about this book before I read it for myself was decidedly negative. It’s long, they said, and it’s dense and it’s dull. I’m here to set the record straight: Crime And Punishment is actually none of those things! I’m not sure where along the way Dostoyevsky got his bad reputation, but it’s a real shame, for him and for us as readers. I read the McDuff translation (I can’t attest to the others), and it was one of the funniest and most relatable classic books I’ve ever picked up. Read my full review here.

Rules Of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules Of Civility - Amor Towles - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As with many of the other books on this list, Rules Of Civility sadly lives in a rather large shadow. Amor Towles is much better known for his later book, A Gentleman In Moscow. I didn’t even realise that he’d written other books prior to that one, until I heard about this gem on Anne Bogel’s podcast. I was drawn in by the parallels to Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and I stayed for the glamour and romance of a young woman’s life journey in mid-20th century Manhattan.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

You might be skeptical about me calling this an underrated book: after all, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most frequently used characters in all of English literature. But how many of us have actually read Arthur Conan Doyle’s original collection of short stories, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes? The problem with our continuous re-tellings and interpretations of the Sherlock character is that we come to feel like we know him and his stories already. I can tell you that this original collection is better than anything subsequent I’ve read or seen. Doyle was the master of economy in language, and he packs incredibly clever and complex cases into just a few pages. Read my full review here.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Isherwood is best-known for books like Goodbye To Berlin, which drew heavily on his experiences teaching English in Germany and watching the Nazis rise to power. Yet he called this book, A Single Man, his “masterpiece” – and I reckon he was right about that. It’s a smaller story, in the sense that it follows a single day in the life of a grieving gay widower living in Los Angeles in the ’50s. It’s so cooly related, so darkly comic, so deceivingly complex – hands down his best work! Read my full review here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m sorry to say that Anita Loos is something like a cautionary tale. Despite her many accomplishments in her life-long career (she was the first-ever staff scriptwriter in Hollywood, for instance; she wrote dozens of incredible films and many stars of the screen owe her their careers), she was mercilessly bullied and meticulously controlled by her arsehole husband. As a result of hiding her light under his stupid bushel, she seems to have largely fallen from memory. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sold out its entire print run on the first day of sales, but few people have even heard of it now. Well, they’ve heard of the movie, of course, but not the incredible comic novel on which it was based. Read my full review here.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Kazuo Ishiguro is hardly an underrated author. He’s won the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize, he was even knighted! But An Artist Of The Floating World is definitely his most underrated book. I think the popularity of his other books, like Never Let Me Go, has been spurred by their successful film adaptations. Unfortunately, this story of an ageing Japanese artist’s reflections on his role in WWII doesn’t translate so easily to the big screen, and no director has attempted it (yet). While we wait, be sure to check out the book itself – I promise it’ll be a pleasant surprise! Read my full review here.

The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

Look, this list could’ve been made up entirely of poetry books. Poetry in general is hugely underrated. But, for the sake of fairness, I narrowed it down to just this one: The Monkey’s Mask (but please take it as read that any poetry is going to be underrated, at least in some measure). In relative terms, Porter did pretty well for herself: throughout the ’90s, this was the best-selling book of poetry in Australia since WWII. Still, I don’t think it got quite the acclaim it deserved. Even if you don’t normally read poetry, this is a good book to try, because it’s actually a novel told in verse – a plot unfolds through a series of poems, and it’s a cohesive, gripping thriller plot at that!

Which underrated book(s) would YOU like to nudge into the spotlight? Add your suggestions in the comments below!

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