Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Search results: "austen" (page 2 of 4)

New Releases

Get the latest and greatest book releases! Whenever you make a purchase through one of these links, Keeping Up With The Penguins gets a small cut at no extra cost to you – you’re helping to keep us keeping up, thank you!

Extended reviews of these books are available exclusively to subscribers: sign up now to get them!

January 2020

Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher

Shark Arm - Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely true crime stories in recorded Australian history, and this new book turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. Though it’s presented in classic true crime fashion, complete with glossy photograph inserts, Shark Arm is the perfect read for Aussie history buffs, particularly those with a keen interest in law enforcement bungles.

Aussie readers can get Shark Arm here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such A Fun Age - Kiley Reid - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Such A Fun Age is the debut novel from American author Kiley Reid. It might look like a sweet summer read, but underneath lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. The fine folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Emira is a young woman still struggling to find her feet. As she stumbles through her twenties, she makes ends meet with a baby-sitting job, employed by the feminist advocate and “personal brand” Alix. One night, at a supermarket, Emira is pulled up by security, suspected of kidnapping the young (white) child in her charge. The whole incident is filmed by a witness, Kelley, but he swears to Emira that he’ll never release the footage. As love blooms between Emira and Kelley, she discovers that he and Alix are connected in a way she never could have predicted. Each has their own account of their history, and their own opinions about what’s best for Emira’s future…

Aussie readers can get Such A Fun Age here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bunny lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. Rabbits For Food is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me this edition from Serpent’s Tail for review.

Bunny is flawed, no doubt about it, but she is also wry, sarcastic, and extremely endearing. I’m almost certain I’ve already found one of my best reads of the year. Before I was halfway through Rabbits For Food, I knew I wanted to press it into the hands of all of my friends. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.

Aussie readers can get Rabbits For Food here.
Everyone else can get it here.


December 2019

The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale

The Strangers We Know - Pip Drysdale - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Strangers We Know is the new domestic drama-slash-thriller by Pip Drysdale. Simon & Schuster were kind enough to provide a copy for review, and it was just the ticket for taking my mind off this stifling summer heat!

Charlie and Oliver had the perfect meet cute, a whirlwind romance, and a happy marriage… until one night, Charlie joins her single friends for a girl’s night out, and the unthinkable happens: they’re swiping through her best friend’s Tinder matches, and Oliver’s profile comes up. The story quickly spirals into a world of DIY detective work, danger and intrigue. I really loved how Drysdale showed that the kind of forensic online investigation so commonplace in 21st century relationships isn’t all that different to tracking down a criminal. This is the perfect thriller for readers who generally prefer rom-coms.

Aussie readers can get The Strangers We Know here.
Everyone else can get it here.

A Tall History Of Sugar by Curdella Forbes

A Tall History Of Sugar - Curdella Forbes - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the late 1950s, shortly before Jamaica seizes independence from colonial rule, an infertile couple finds an infant in a basket made of reeds, among a tangle of sea grape trees by the water. They name the child Moshe (Moses), and A Tall History Of Sugar tells his story, an epic romance that sweeps generations and continents. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This book – the fifth work of fiction from Jamaican writer and professor of Caribbean literature Curdella Forbes – interrogates what it means to be “other”. The narrative is a game of snakes and ladders, and the seemingly-omniscient narrator’s interest in Moshe’s story is revealed as the story moves two steps forward, one step back. A Tall History Of Sugar would be a great pick for fans of Elena Ferrante or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or anyone else seeking a slow-burn love story to see them through the holidays.

Aussie readers can get A Tall History Of Sugar here.
Everyone else can get it here.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From my review on Primer: Erin Morgenstern has been off the grid for years. After the tremendous success of her debut novel, The Night Circus in 2011, she withdrew to the woods of the Berkshires with no internet access. There, beyond the reach of her dedicated fans and demanding critics, she set about writing her follow-up novel: The Starless Sea

Morgenstern’s self-imposed exile has produced a book that is as singular in style as her first, a novel that is set in the contemporary world but branches off into the realms of the mythical and magical. She offers a modern twist on classic fantasy, an elaborate quest narrative for the 21st century.

Aussie readers can get The Starless Sea here.
Everyone else can get it here.


November 2019

Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Damascus - Christos Tsiolkas - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I loved Christos Tsiolkas’s 2008 novel The Slap (so much so that I named it one of my must-read books by Aussie authors), but I knew just looking at the blurb of Damascus that it was going to be very different: “a work of immense power and epic scope, taking as its subject nothing less than the events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church”. Allen & Unwin sent me a copy for review, and I was happy to take a giant leap out of my comfort zone.

I’m a big ol’ heathen, so I didn’t have a lot of religious context for what was happening. To me, it almost read like a historic dystopia. But I think that made it all the better, for me to appreciate the poetic language and visceral imagery and raw emotion that Tsiolkas used to depict this world. What I’m saying is you don’t need to be a Christian, or familiar with the historical aspects of Christianity, to read Damascus (and it might actually be better if you aren’t).

Aussie readers can get Damascus here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Island On The Edge Of The World by Deborah Rodriguez

Island On The Edge Of The World - Deborah Rodriguez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Island On The Edge Of The World is just as bright and colourful as its cover! In it, four very different women come together to do the impossible: find a lost child, and a missing mother, in Haiti. My radar is set to ping at anything that smells like a white-saviour story, but Rodriguez does the work to show a multitude of perspectives and emphasise the importance of self-determination and respect for countries and people in need. I’m really impressed with the way that Deborah Rodriguez managed to take some really heavy themes and issues and turn them into a fun summer read.

The fine folks at Bantam Books were kind enough to send me a copy of this one for review, and I think it would be a great book club pick – especially because this edition includes discussion questions, Haitian recipes, and a guide to ethically helping Haitian people in the back.

Aussie readers can get Island On The Edge Of The World here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Beauty by Bri Lee

Beauty - Bri Lee - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you were to stand naked in front of a mirror right now, in full fluorescent lighting, what would run through your mind? Would you be brave enough to put those thoughts on a page, and send that page out into the world? That’s what Bri Lee has done in Beauty—a literary essay (longer than a think-piece, shorter than a book), and the fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

In the first half, Lee gives a candid account of her experience of disordered eating (and, by extension, her disordered thinking about food and body). She details the money she spends on various beautification endeavours, and her difficulty to reconcile the idea of self-improvement without self-loathing. Then, in the second half, she looks at how thinness has become an ethical imperative, she starts to explore the racial intersectionality of the beauty ideal, and she takes aim at the hypocrisy of women’s media and their symbiotic industries. I am HERE FOR IT!

This is an intimate and laudably honest account of what it means to strive for a beauty (read as thinness) ideal. I devoured it in a single sitting.

Aussie readers can get Beauty here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Find Me by Andre Aciman

Find Me - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We all know that happily-ever-afters aren’t realistic… that doesn’t stop us demanding sequels when authors leave us hanging on an ambiguous ending! Find Me is the continuation of Oliver and Elio’s romance as depicted in Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name. The fine folks at Faber Books were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The story picks up ten years after the original ended. Aciman’s writing is still dripping with passion, the emotions of the characters are still intensely felt and rendered, but it’s not quite as suffocating as Elio’s youthful infatuation. This is more of an extended epilogue to Call Me By Your Name than an actual sequel, and I’m not sure how it would read as a stand-alone, but Aciman still manages to weave a beautiful story (or, really, stories) of all-consuming love. And there are no loose ends dangling at the end of this one – the story is done!

Aussie readers can get Find Me here.
Everyone else can get it here.



October 2019

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

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

No matter what they say about our shortened attention spans, the days of the sweeping multigenerational epic are not over. The proof is in the pudding: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili recounts a crucial period in history, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, through the lives of one exceptional family with a magical recipe for hot chocolate. Scribe has published the English translation for the first time in Australia, and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This translation is the fine work of Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (#namethetranslator!). Most reviewers liken Haratischvili to none other than the master of the epic, Leo Tolstoy. I must agree; in fact, I’d say her writing falls smack bang in the middle of the Venn diagram between Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Elena Ferrante. I couldn’t honestly call The Eighth Life an “easy” read in any sense, but it is a deeply worthwhile one. Your heart will swell, get torn to pieces, then stitched back together again; you’ll feel part of the Jashi family, with all the joy and devastation that entails.

Australian readers can get The Eighth Life here.
Everyone else can get it here.

If the chocolate-y elements are what draws you in, you might want to check out my round-up of the best books for chocolate lovers here.

Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni

Guest House For Young Widows - Azadeh Moaveni - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The wives, widows, and children of IS fighters are currently languishing in refugee camps; we’ve all seen the footage on the evening news. That’s what makes Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni a particularly timely read, and Scribe was kind enough to send me an early copy for review. In it, a seasoned Middle East reporter explores the questions at the heart of the crisis: what would make a woman leave a cosmopolitan life to become an ISIS bride? Where do we draw the line between victim and conspirator? Is it possible to empathise without being complicit?

Guest House For Young Widows challenges you to see these women as humans, not monsters, subject to the same foils and foibles as the rest of us. They reside in the shades of grey between “good” and “evil”, the liminal space that it’s more convenient for us to forget. Their stories are unique, and yet, strangely relatable.

So many of the young people in this book were frustrated by broken promises of radical change. Are there lessons we can learn here, say, for the Climate Strikers that aged politicians have failed to mollify? Perhaps. I suggest you read it and find out for yourself.

Australian readers can get Guest House For Young Widows here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Girl by Edna O’Brien

Girl - Edna O'Brien - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Girl is a fictionalised account of the experiences of one of the young women captured and held by Boko Haram in Nigeria. O’Brien imagines the events of 2014 through the eyes of her narrator, Maryam. She dedicates the book to the mothers and daughters of North East Nigeria, and according to her acknowledgements, she spent quite some time in the area, researching and developing this novel in consultation with their communities. Faber Books sent me a copy for review.

The prose is blunt and staccato, and at times seems detached; perhaps this is a deliberate attempt on O’Brien’s part to echo a dissociative traumatic response, along with strange shifts of tense and point-of-view within chapters, sometimes within paragraphs. The story’s conclusion shows that escape, rescue, and homecoming weren’t necessarily the happy affairs that the media might have had us believe. Still, I struggled to get past the friction of a privileged older white woman writing the story of a young woman of colour, particularly a story so emotionally and politically charged. It is an interesting read side-by-side with other #ownvoices and non-fiction accounts, but perhaps not one to be read in isolation.

Australian readers can get Girl here.
Everyone else can get it here.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend - Charlotte Wood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Weekend is the hotly-anticipated follow-up to Charlotte Wood’s 2016 Stella Prize-winning The Natural Way Of Things, and Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review. The story is set on one Christmas weekend, but it’s far from a cozy Christmas read. Four women—Wendy (the academic), Jude (the perfectionist), Adele (the bohemian), and Sylvie (the peacekeeper)—have been friends for decades. But now, Sylvie is dead, and the remaining three are charged with cleaning out her holiday house and readying it for sale.

It’s wonderful to see the complex interior worlds of older women reflected in contemporary fiction, to see the lives of women in their seventies represented as something other than simply “over”. This would be a great book club pick! It will inevitably bring up a Sex And The City-style debate: “which one are you?”. (I like to think I’m a Wendy, but I worry that I’m a Jude at heart.) A must-read for the fast approaching Aussie summer…

Australian readers can get The Weekend here.
Everyone else can pre-order it here.

Bruny by Heather Rose

Bruny - Heather Rose - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Set in a too-near future, Bruny is part political thriller, part family drama, part love story. The protagonist, Dr Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is a UN conflict resolution expert, called back to her homeland of Tasmania to sort out some brouhaha about a bridge. Okay, that might be understating it a bit: the state and federal governments have combined forces to build a bridge between Tasmania and the tiny offshore island of Bruny, a $2 billion project, and someone has just blown part of it up. Yikes.

This is Rose’s fifth adult book, and it’s very (very!) different to her last, The Museum Of Modern Love, which won the Stella Prize in 2017. It’s not a straight mystery thriller, in that Rose isn’t following the formula of a hard-boiled detective chasing up clues and red herrings, but it’s not a highbrow literary offering either. It sits where the political and the personal intersect, and meditates mostly on the wheeling and dealing of politics, the complexity of modern life. Rose leaves no stone unturned, she covers it all: agriculture, economics, stability, jobs and growth, environmentalism, family, loyalty, betrayal, corruption, power…

Australian readers can get Bruny here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Act Of Grace by Anna Krien

Act Of Grace - Anna Krien - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb: “These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant story of fear and sacrifice, trauma and survival, and what people will do to outrun the shadows. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and cultural reconciliation, Act Of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation bestows upon the next, and the potential for transformation.” Full review forthcoming on Keeping Up With The Penguins!

Australian readers can get Act Of Grace here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Bone China - Laura Purcell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb: “Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken. But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home. Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Moroven House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last…”

Australian readers can get Bone China here.
Everyone else can get it here.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

From my review on Primer: She Said is the “untold story” of what it takes to bring accusations against powerful men to light, and the revelations that forever changed the way we understand power and harassment in the #metoo era. Kantor and Twohey don’t simply paint a portrait of Harvey Weinstein as a monster (though they have plenty of evidence to do just that). They know you know that story. You’ve read the details over and over: the bathrobes, the hotel rooms, the massages, the potted plants. Instead, they examine the social mechanisms—the company policies and the power-brokers and the “boy’s club”—that enabled a monster to thrive, unrestrained and without consequences, for decades. “Must-read” doesn’t even begin to cover it…

Australian readers can get She Said here.
Everyone else can get it here.


September 2019

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

Never Have I Ever - Joshilyn Jackson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Never Have I Ever is set in Pensacola, Florida, where Amy Whey hosts a monthly book club. She’s exactly what you’d expect in a “suburban mom” protagonist, and she loves her sweet-and-wholesome family more than anything. Her perfectly normal life of simple pleasures is all up-ended, however, when a Cher-lookalike stranger, Roux, shows up to book club, and a modified game of Never Have I Ever opens a can of worms. Raven Books (Bloomsbury) was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This is one for the Liane Moriarty fans. It felt very The Husband’s Secret-esque, just not quite as compelling. Don’t come in expecting a lot of bookish chat; that part of the plot is over and done with quite quickly, and you’ll learn more about scuba diving than you will about running a book club.

Australian readers can get Never Have I Ever here.
Everyone else can get it here.

The Breeding Season – Amanda Niehaus

The Breeding Season - Amanda Niehaus - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When a scientist turns to writing poetry and fiction, I can’t help but sit up and pay attention: the merging of oil and milk is too fascinating to resist. Amanda Niehaus, author of The Breeding Season, reconciles her two worlds in this literary debut (kindly sent to me by Allen & Unwin for review). It is a story of all-encompassing grief, intensely poetic and full of natural imagery and metaphor. Niehaus brings together all kinds of binaries: art and science, grief and hope, birth and death.

I’m worried that The Breeding Season will be pigeonholed as “women’s” literature (vomit), because it deals with the grief of losing a child and relationship rifts. Let me tell you, it investigates the male role and experience just as much as the female one—it just so happens that the author is a woman. Fight the patriarchy, and buy this book for a man in your life for Christmas.

Australian readers can get The Breeding Season here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Pain And Prejudice – Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Women’s anger is felt, understood, and reflected in this jaw-dropping new book from Gabrielle Jackson, Pain And Prejudice. Braiding together memoir and science, she explores the ways in which social structures—particularly the medical system—have under-served and oppressed women, keeping them sick and in pain, for far too long. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Jackson is a journalist; in 2001, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and then, in 2015, adenomyosis. She has spent years researching these conditions, and the broader medical system in which they are studied and treated. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. “Women are socialised to believe their pain is normal,” she says, and she wrote Pain And Prejudice to give voice to the silent suffering of centuries.

You can read an extract from Pain And Prejudice here.

Australian readers can get Pain And Prejudice here.
Everyone else can get it here.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

The Testaments - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table with Bookmark - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From my review on Primer: “It’s no understatement to call The Testaments the most anticipated book of the year, perhaps even the decade. Not since Harry Potter have we seen such fervour. The Testaments begins 15 years after Offred’s final scene in The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead is no longer a burgeoning state, finding its feet. Now, an entire generation of children raised under its strict established regime, with no memory of the old world, are coming of age. A compelling must-read (and must-re-read) celebration of resistance.”

Australians can get The Testaments here.
Everyone else can get it here.

The Dutch House – Anne Patchett

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb (Bloomsbury): “Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.”

Australian readers can get The Dutch House here.
Everyone else can get it here.

You Daughters Of Freedom – Clare Wright

You Daughters Of Freedom - Clare Wright - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You Daughters Of Freedom is out now in paperback! From the blurb (Text Publishing): “For the ten years from 1902, when Australia’s suffrage campaigners won the vote for white women, the world looked to this trailblazing young democracy for inspiration. Clare Wright’s epic new history tells the story of that victory—and of Australia’s role in the subsequent international struggle—through the eyes of five remarkable players…”

Australian readers can get You Daughters Of Freedom here.
Everyone else can get it here.

The Man That Got Away – Lynne Truss

The Man That Got Away - Lynne Truss - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb (Bloomsbury): “It is summer in Brighton and the Brighton Belles are on hand to answer any holiday-maker’s queries, no matter how big or small. The quickest way to the station, how many pebbles are on the beach and what exactly has happened to that young man lying in the deckchair with blood dripping from him? Our incomparable team of detectives are back for another outing in the new instalment of Lynne Truss’s joyfully quirky crime series.”

Australian readers can get The Man That Got Away here.
Everyone else can get it here.

The Unforgiving City – Maggie Joel

The Unforgiving City - Maggie Joel - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the blurb (Allen & Unwin): “Colonial Sydney in the final weeks of the nineteenth century: a city striving for union and nationhood but dogged by divisions so deep they threaten to derail, not just the Federation, but the colony itself. There are chasms opening too when a clandestine note reaches the wrong hands in the well-to-do household of aspiring politician Alasdair Dunlevy and his wife Eleanor. Below stairs, their maid Alice faces a desperate situation with her wayward sister.”

Australian readers can get The Unforgiving City here.
Everyone else can get it here.


August 2019

The Turn Of The Key - Ruth Ware - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware

I’d seen The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware billed as a modern-day Turn Of The Screw. Now, I’m not a Henry James fan (far from it!), but that description drew me in: it’s a story ripe for adaptation! A governess alone with weird children in an isolated house, complete with bitter housekeeper, mysterious caretaker, and unexplained bumps in the night? Yes, please! Penguin Random House Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

It’s a very contemporary take, but the supernatural elements keep it in Turn Of The Screw territory, away from your Girl On The Trains and your Gone Girls. It was chilling, more than outright scary, and the twists kept coming right up until the final page. I’m not one for the supernatural or the paranormal—I find the natural, normal world to be quite enough to deal with, thank you—but I still found myself creeped out.

Australian readers can get The Turn Of The Key here.
Everyone everywhere else can get it here.

The Mosquito - Timothy C Winegard - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

If you like your non-fiction niche, but comprehensive, I’ve got the book for you! Text Publishing was kind enough to send me a copy of The Mosquito, by Timothy C. Winegard, for review. I wish they’d sent a reminder to warn everyone in my life that they were about to get hit with a barrage of mosquito-related fun facts.

Only female mosquitos bite. Of the 108 billion people who have ever lived on this planet, mosquitoes (or, more accurately, the viruses and parasites they carry) have killed nearly half—52 billion. Do you know how elephants defend themselves against the mosquito’s bite? You’ll find the answer in Chapter 1, and it will surprise you.

Australian readers can get The Mosquito here.
Everyone everywhere else can get it here.

The Gap - Benjamin Gilmour - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Gap by Benjamin Gilmour

The front cover of The Gap by Benjamin Gilmour promises the story of “a paramedic’s summer on the edge”, and it delivers! See, The Gap is the name of a notorious suicide spot, a clifftop at Sydney’s Watson’s Bay, and for the summer of 2008, Gilmour worked as a paramedic based out of the nearest ambulance station. This is his memoir, and Penguin Random House Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Again and again, he circles back around to The Gap, where 50+ people die by suicide each year. The paramedic’s job is usually to talk them down, sometimes to help with retrieving a body, or informing loved ones. Gilmour wrote this book, from his detailed notes and diaries, at the urging of fellow paramedics, who want to open a conversation about suicide and mental health in this country.

Australian readers can get The Gap here.
Everyone everywhere else can get it here.

Sanditon - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sanditon by Jane Austen

It might sound strange to call a book written in 1817 a “new release”, but this new edition definitely casts a different light on Sanditon and Jane Austen’s body of work leading up to this final, unfinished, manuscript. Oxford University Press was kind enough to send me a copy for review. Evidence abounds of the attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Oxford World Classics: a well-researched author bio, high production values, a note on the text, a full chronology of Austen’s life and work, and generous explanatory notes. All told, this is a wonderful, fresh take on Austen’s most experimental and poignant work.

Australian readers can get Sanditon here.
Everyone everywhere else can get it here.



Want to support Keeping Up With The Penguins? Drop your spare change in the tip jar – however much you like! – by clicking the banner below:

Movie Review: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Welcome, one and all, to the first in a new blog series for Keeping Up With The Penguins! All month long, I’ll be reviewing movie adaptations alongside the classic and best-seller books that inspired them. This week, I reviewed Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, and I was pretty spoiled for choice when it came to screen adaptations. It is, after all, one of the best-loved books in English literature, and we can’t help but translate it to the screen as often as possible. In the end, it was a toss-up between reviewing the classic BBC mini-series or the more recent movie version. I ended up going for Pride & Prejudice (2005), mostly out of laziness – a 129 minute film sucks up a lot less of your day than six hour-long episodes.

Pride & Prejudice stars Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, and Matthew Macfayden as the romantic lead Mr Darcy. I can see how Colin Firth would have made a better Darcy, but in my view Knightley was a practically-perfect Lizzie, exactly as I’d imagined her in the book. Plus, she was fresh off the back of the success of Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates Of The Caribbean. Director Joe Wright said that’s pretty much why he chose her; her star-power allowed him to cast a relative unknown as the male lead, and kept the marketing team happy. I can’t work out whether that’s a compliment or an insult to all involved…

And an important note at the outset: I know this is a historical film, but I refuse to nit-pick matters of period accuracy. Reviews that get stuck into “but the soldiers wouldn’t have had yellow embroidery on their jackets that year!” or “but that type of flower wasn’t introduced until 50 years later!” are boring as heck, and I won’t be one of them.

That said, as much as historical accuracy is off the table, story accuracy remains the centerpiece. When you’re adapting, as I said, one of the best-loved books in English literature, the stakes for remaining faithful to the original material while simultaneously making a great film for modern audiences get super-high. That happy duty fell to screenwriter Deborah Moggach (with a little help from her friend, the incredible Emma Thompson). At first, she tried to stay as faithful to Austen as possible, and she really put in the work, writing ten drafts over the course of two years. She focused in particular on trying to keep as much of the original dialogue as she could. When Wright came on board as director, he gently cajoled her into making a few small changes: adding a couple scenes from perspectives other than Lizzie’s, for instance, and tweaking the timeline. It was a pretty bold move on his part, given that he hadn’t actually read Pride And Prejudice before he saw one of the script’s early iterations…



Anyway, this version, Pride & Prejudice, is set in 1797, a bit earlier than most other adaptations (that usually place it in 1813, the year that the book was first published). From what I can tell, that decision was based almost purely on the fact that Wright hated nineteenth-century fashion. He also wanted this film to look a bit more earthy and rural, so there’s a lot of mud on hems and farm animals wandering about. Those factors combined helped Pride & Prejudice stand out among the slew of Austen adaptations in the ’90s and ’00s, which had presented much cleaner and more refined versions of the period drama.

I found that the movie skipped over a lot of the subtleties of the various political negotiations that took place in the marriage market, but perhaps to be expected in the medium of film. Wright had a lot less time to work with than the BBC adaptation, which was three times as long; he once said that Pride & Prejudice is “about Elizabeth and Darcy, following them, and anything that detracts or diverts you from that story is what you have to cut”. This means that the film really emphasises the romantic and comedic elements, and downplays Austen’s social commentary – whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing I suppose depends on which aspect of her work you like the best. They did have to take the time to do things like explain in the dialogue what an “entailed estate” means, because films don’t have footnotes, and that made me laugh.

I know Knightley is the star, with her sassy forthright iteration of Lizzie Bennet, but it was really the supporting cast that stole the show. Kelly Reilly abso-fucking-lutely nailed Miss Bingley! She’s snarky, she’s nasty, she’s snobby, all to great effect – even I found her intimidating, from the comfort of my own 21st century couch. And Tom Hollander as Mr Collins had me in hysterics! Again, his character was exaggerated – he was more awkward, more oblivious, more snivelling than he came across in writing – but he did it so bloody well. Hats off to both of them!



Actually, every character was exaggerated, almost a caricature of their book-selves. Lydia, in particular, seemed a lot more childish. I mean, in the book she was hardly a calculating femme fatale, but she was definitely a bit more worldly than Movie Lydia who got swept away in the illusion of a fairytale romance, giggling all the while. The irony is that Jena Malone, who played Lydia, was actually older than Knightley and most of the other Bennet sisters at the time of filming – movie magic strikes again! And, of course, I can’t neglect to mention Judi Dench’s stunning performance as the indomitable Lady Catherine de Bourgh; apparently, Wright convinced her to join the cast by writing her a letter that said “I love it when you play a bitch. Please come and be a bitch for me.” And she delivered!

On the whole, it was a very theatrical retelling of Austen’s best-known novel, but it stayed quite faithful to her story. They changed the “feel”, for lack of a better term, but not what actually happened in the narrative. For time and convenience, sure, they cut a few scenes and some minor characters, but none of the major plot points were altered. Quite a feat, as far as I’m concerned!

That’s not to say I didn’t have a few quibbles. My favourite line in the whole novel, where Darcy offers a distressed Lizzie a wine, didn’t end up in Pride & Prejudice, which I consider to be a huge oversight. And their first dance featured a bit of camera trickery whereby everyone else in the room literally disappeared, which I thought was a bit heavy-handed. Those minor cock-ups, however, pale in comparison to Lizzie’s horrible line in the big romantic climax, when she meets Darcy in the mist:

Your Hands Are Cold - Pride & Prejudice 2005 - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Your hands are cold” she bleats, ugh! It’s an abomination, an insult to Austen, and no matter how good the rest of the movie was, all involved in bringing that line to life should be made to sit in the time-out corner and think about what they’ve done.

And thank goodness I saw the U.K. version, where the final scene shows Mr Bennet giving his consent to Lizzie and Darcy’s marriage. Apparently, the U.S. release added an extra “and they lived happily ever after” husband-and-wife-smoochy-smoochy shot after that, and I literally would have thrown up in my mouth. Such a shame to end an otherwise good film on bum notes…



But let’s not linger on such unpleasant matters! Pride & Prejudice was made on a (relative shoestring) budget of $28 million. It wound up raking in approximately $121 million total. Its success was hardly surprising, given the trend set by Romeo + Juliet and Shakespeare In Love, and other extremely popular Austen adaptations. There was a push for an Austen Revival at the time, and Pride & Prejudice rode that wave, trying to capture a younger audience; in fact, it was marketed as “brought to you by the produces of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually“, before Austen’s name was even mentioned.

The film was released in fifty-nine countries in 2005-06, and became the 41st highest-grossing film internationally that year. Its appeal went beyond the popular, too, and it earned four Academy Award nominations (including Best Actress for Knightley). Despite the fact that Austen adaptations will always ignite strong feelings regarding accuracy and faithfulness, this one was undoubtedly a success on all fronts.

So, which was better, the movie or the book?

Through gritted teeth, I’ll say the book. The movie was great, and I really enjoyed it, but really the best part of Austen for me is her political and social commentary, and that’s something the movie really skates over. If you enjoy Austen for the romance, this movie should be a winner for you!

But probably no one will ever enjoy it as much as the woman in Chile who, Netflix reported, watched the film 278 times over the course of a single year. That’s a true fan, right there…



7 Best Book Dedications

Here’s a history lesson for you: the tradition of book dedications dates back centuries, to when authors would use the opportunity to suck-up to their patrons or elicit money from wealthy supporters of the arts by placing a few kind words alongside their name in the front of every copy of their book. Virgil dedicated some of his works to his patron, Maecenas. Jane Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, because she’d been a bit too critical of him in the public forum and one of his circle “suggested” she best make it up to him. Using a book dedication for a personal expression of love or gratitude is a relatively recent idea (as is the boring cliche of using codes, initials, or in-jokes to mask the message’s true meaning). Luckily, lots of brilliant writers have found fun ways to make the convention their own. Heck, sometimes the dedications are better than the book! Here are seven of the best book dedications I’ve found…

7 Best Book Dedications - Text Over Image of Stack of Old Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Steel Tsar – Michael Moorcock

“To my creditors, who remain a permanent source of inspiration.”

The Steel Tsar (Michael Moorcock)

In the tradition of those writers centuries ago, who created dedications to honour their patrons (without whom they surely would have starved), Michael Moorcock offered a contemporary twist in the front of his book The Steel Tsar. I think every struggling artist can appreciate this pithy one-liner, and the way it captures the ever-pressing drive to create fuelled by a need to simply pay the bills.

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

“To Frank O’Connor and Nathaniel Branden.”

Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)

Ayn Rand gets the gong for the most courageous dedication: she devoted Atlas Shrugged to her husband, and her lover – two different men! In her author bio, she added that her husband (Frank O’Connor) had the values of character she sought in a man, while her lover (Nathaniel Branden) was her “intellectual heir”, an ideal reader with as rational and independent a mind as she could conceive of, whom she met through a fan letter he sent her. In later editions, after 1968, Nathaniel’s name and the sentence describing him were removed. He must’ve fucked up big-time (or Frank finally called her out on her bullshit)…

Honourable Mention: Elizabeth Rees-Williams managed to deftly avoid such dramas by dedicating her autobiography to “RH”. Her first husband was Richard Harris, and her second was Rex Harrison. Points for diplomacy!

No Thanks – E.E. Cummings

“TO

Farrar & Rinehart

Simon & Schuster

Coward-McCann

Limited Editions

Harcourt, Brace

Random House

Equinox Press

Smith & Haas

Viking Press

Knopf

Dutton

Harper’s

Scribner’s

Covici-Friede”

No Thanks (E.E. Cummings)

It’s too bad that the formatting of this blog won’t let me lay out this dedication in its original shape. E.E. Cummings is the king of sass. His collection, originally titled “70 Poems”, was rejected fourteen times, leaving him a little disheartened. So, he hit up his mother, she loaned him $300, and he published the collection himself under its new title: No Thanks. This dedication is the name of each publisher who rejected him, laid out in the shape of a funeral urn.

A Storm Of Swords – George R.R. Martin

“For Phyllis, who made me put the dragons in.”

A Storm Of Swords (George R.R. Martin)

If his book dedication is to be believed, then George R.R. Martin owes this Phyllis a few bucks. What would the Song Of Ice And Fire series be without dragons? “Mother of Cats” or “Mother of Horses” just doesn’t have the same ring to it…

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis

“To Lucy Barfield

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,

C.S. Lewis”

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis

Oh, my heart! Have you ever read anything so pure in your life? C.S. Lewis dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to Lucy Barfield, the adopted daughter of his long-time friend Owen. Not only that, he named the heroine of his story after her. Clearly, his goddaughter made quite an impression on him! She has a heart-wrenching life story herself, diagnosed with MS in her 20s and continuing to write poetry up until her death in 2003 (this beautiful Guardian article about her had me in tears), but apparently she took great delight in letters from fans around the world who believed her to be the real-life Narnia-adventuring Lucy.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

“Sixty million and more.”

Beloved (Toni Morrison)

It might take a minute for the full horror and beauty of the dedication in Toni Morrison’s Beloved to sink in: the sixty-million to whom she refers are the black men and women who died in the Atlantic slave trade. The novel itself speaks volumes to the after-effects of slavery, its ongoing impact and the suffering that continues to this day, thus “and more”.

Messenger Of Fear – Michael Grant

“I normally dedicate my books to Katherine, Jake, and Julia. Not this time.

For Julia, Jake, and Katherine.

Because Julia is tired of always being named last just because she’s the youngest.”

Messenger Of Fear (Michael Grant)

I had to end on a lighter note, and thinking of all the years of nagging that went into this dedication for Messenger Of Fear makes me giggle! Poor Michael Grant! I hope Julia finally feels she’s been appropriately acknowledged.



And a final word: pour some out for those incredibly prolific authors who are forced to get increasingly creative with their dedications as their back-catalogue grows. Poor Agatha Christie had to do it seventy-four times over! She dedicated the first to her mother (The Mysterious Affair At Styles), then a later effort “to all those who lead monotonous lives” (The Secret Adversary), and another to her dog Peter (Dumb Witness), and – my personal favourite – one to her friends “Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene of a murder” (The Hollow). Ha! Have you come across any great book recommendations? Share them in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Stamps In My Book Passport

It was fun looking at how far I’ve travelled through time in my books, so I figured why not look at where in the world they’re taking me, too? I was also inspired by an amazing TED talk by Ann Morgan, who committed a year of her life to reading a book from every single country in the world. I’ve talked before about how my current reading list isn’t great from a diversity perspective, so I knew that my book passport wouldn’t have that many stamps, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting. Take a look…!

Stamps In My Book Passport - Text Overlaid on Image of Passports Laying On Top Of Map - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Unsurprisingly, given that I’m reading English-language books and I’m based in Australia, the most frequently-visited countries are Australia (The Dressmaker, The Rosie Project, and so on), the U.K. (Austen, Dickens, and so forth), and the U.S.A. (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Age Of Innocence, etc.). However, it would seem I’m also doing frequent trips to France, which I hadn’t realised before now (Tropic of Cancer, The White Mouse, and others).

I’ve also been to India a couple of times (A Passage To India, Kim), and to Spain (The Alchemist, Don Quixote), and to Germany (The Book Thief, All The Light We Cannot See). I put together this map, for a visual representation:

World Map Shaded By Settings of Books Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of course, by necessity, this tally excludes trips to apocalyptic futures (The Hunger Games, A Clockwork Orange, and the like), and fantasy worlds (A Game of Thrones, Gulliver’s Travels, and similar), and space (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Martian, and more).

I’d really love to spend some more time in Africa, so that will be one focus when I put together my next reading list. I’m also surprised that I haven’t yet “been” to Canada or New Zealand! It’s been such a useful exercise to look at my reading this way, I think I’ll keep checking in and (hopefully) someday this map will be a sea of green.


Aren’t books magical? It would take me years to plan, save for, and undertake a trip to all of these places, but through books I can visit them all in a day or two. Where have your books taken you lately? Share your travels in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I managed to score this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at a market stall, for the princely sum of just $5. I’d been searching for it for so long, I’d happily have paid four times that. According to the author bio, Muriel Spark was pretty damn prolific, and yet this is the only book of hers that I’ve ever come across – and it was bloody hard to find! It’s definitely the best-known of her works, first published in The New Yorker, and then as a book by Macmillan, in 1961. The introduction promises: “… a sublimely funny book. It is also very short and has much to say about sex.” Honey, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling.

It opens in 1930s Edinburgh. The titular Miss Jean Brodie – who is, indeed, in her prime, and doesn’t waste a chance to remind you of that fact – is a teacher at a school for girls. She has selected for herself six ten-year-old students, her special favourites, the “Brodie set”. It was a funny change of pace going from The Thirty-Nine Steps, which had an almost entirely male cast, to The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which (by nature of its setting and its story) is almost entirely female.

Under Miss Brodie’s mentorship, these six girls (Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice) learn all about world travels, love, and fascism. Yep, apparently that’s the new reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and it’s one heck of a combo! Miss Brodie finds herself entangled in a dramatic love triangle with her colleagues: the singing teacher, Mr Gordon Lowther, and the handsome one-armed (married!) war veteran, Mr Teddy Lloyd. It’s Lloyd that really gets Miss Brodie’s motor running, but ultimately she turns him down. He is married, after all, and she has some self-respect. She embarks on an affair with Lowther instead, probably closing her eyes and thinking of her one-armed Teddy all the while…

Anyway, the girls grow up (as kids are wont to do), but they maintain the close bonds they formed under Miss Brodie’s tutelage, and she keeps having them all around for tea and whatnot. The headmistress at the school, Miss Mackay, is not a fan of Miss Brodie’s teaching methods and the course this is all taking (hard to imagine why), so she starts throwing a few tea parties of her own, trying to gather dirt from the girls that would give her grounds for dismissal. Sudden unemployment sure does put a quick end to a woman’s “prime”, eh?





Now, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie does have a jumpy timeline, which normally I’m not inclined to enjoy, but I actually didn’t mind it so much in this case. One of the “flash forwards” in the story reveals that one of the Brodie set will ultimately (gasp!) betray their patroness, dobbing her in to the headmistress… but doesn’t show the reader which one. It was really cleverly done by Spark, and added an extra air of mystery and suspicion to the whole thing.

Anyway, back in the regular timeline, poor Teddy is still lusting after Miss Brodie, and (prepare yourself for an avalanche of creepy) he starts having the girls from the Brodie set come around and pose for his portraits. He ends up drawing all of their faces as his lady love *vomit*. Let me say that one more time for the cheap seats in the back: this teacher literally paints Miss Jean Brodie’s primey head onto the bodies of her pubescent students. Isn’t that the grossest thing you’ve ever fucking heard?! And yet, they all seem like they’re cool with it! Miss Brodie’s pretty damn flattered, even. She pulls a few strings, trying to egg Rose on to having an affair with the creepy old guy, figuring the young girl would be an adequate distraction from all of her prime-ness… but Teddy ends up sticking it to plain ol’ Sandy, instead, much to everyone’s surprise. Oh, and while all this is going on, Lowther dumps Miss Brodie. Pretty understandable really, given everything.

And this is where Miss Brodie really fucks up: she accepts a new member to the Brodie set, Joyce Emily. This newbie seems open to the whole fascism thing, so Brodie fans the flames, encouraging her to run away and fight in the Spanish Civil War on the nationalist side. Of course, Joyce Emily follows the suggestion… and is promptly killed en route. Yikes!





Sandy has become Miss Brodie’s confidante, so she gets all the inside scoop on this turn of events, all the while still fucking the teacher that paints his lover’s heads on students bodies (I’m sorry, I can’t get over that, it’s just so icky, and NONE OF THEM SEEM TO CARE! WHY?!). Sandy’s interest in Teddy wanes over time, but her Swimfan-y obsession with Miss Brodie reaches boiling point. She winds up approaching the headmistress, giving her all the dirt she has on Miss Brodie, which (it turns out) is enough to get her fired. Then the little betrayer converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun, Miss Brodie dies never knowing that Sandy ratted her out, the end.

Now, maybe I’ve been at this reading-and-reviewing-the-classics game a little too long, but I couldn’t help reading this as a religious allegory. I mean, I don’t know dick about religion, so I could be way off-base, but hear me out: Miss Jean Brodie is Jesus (right?), and she gathers all these disciples (students) around her, and goes about preaching an alternate worldview, until Judas (Sandy) betrays her. That’s about right, isn’t it?

Even if it isn’t, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is ultimately a story about loyalty. You can tell, because Sandy keeps on repeating “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due”, which is an interesting moral philosophy in and of itself. It’s also a funny book, in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma was funny: I didn’t laugh out loud, but I appreciated how it was witty and clever. And damn, Spark manages to cram a whole lotta story into very few words: this review is about as long as the book!





If you haven’t already had your fill of creepy for the day, here’s the final serve: Miss Jean Brodie is based on a real person! Christina Kay was Spark’s teacher for two years at James Gillespie’s School For Girls, and Spark credited her with encouraging her burgeoning talent for writing. Spark, like Sandy, also later converted to Catholicism. No word on whether the perverted painting and underhanded betrayal parts are true-to-life, but they do say “write what you know”…

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie will give you a lot to chew on; don’t be fooled by how short it is! It’s definitely worth a read. It’s unlikely to become your special all-time favourite, but it will stick with you for a while. I’m selfishly hoping you’ll all read it and be creeped out as I am, if for no other reason than to validate my feelings! It can’t just be me… right?

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie:

  • “Good story no real purpose though. Well written.” – Courtney McFeters
  • “Muriel Spark, to me, is one of the greatest writers of her time. Each book is a gem, but of course, this one really sparkles.” – Sally
  • “I consider myself a fairly inteligent high school student who is eager to be challenged mentally. The problems with this book are several fold. It jumps around like a five-year on a jolt cola bender. The characters are unimpressive and serve somehow or another to emulate each other and form some sort of omni-character – which i dont care to figure out. The plot is about as unsubstantial and insignificant as an ant taking a dump. [note: the reason i am so profane is due to my hating the book and having to analyze the non-existent humor in it for my AP literature class, apologies around] THIS BOOK IS THE ATTEMPT BY MURIEL SPARK TO ACADEMICLLY POSTURE HERSELF INTO A POSITION OF PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL AUTHORITY AND DISPLAY HER COMPLEX AND INSIGNIFICANT FICTION FORMAT. MAKE NO MISTAKE, THIS BOOK IS ONE PRETENSTIOUS(sic) PAGE AFTER ANOTHER.
a mad millburn lit student (2002-2003)” – nozama woleb
  • “I just wanted to say that this book made me wish that theyd legalise hand guns in the UK. It is the kind of book that makes little children cry. I have read more interesting stuff on the bake of crisp packets. In conclusion 9/10 phycopathic maniacs recomend reading The Pride of MJB before going on a random killing spree.” – Mr Cook’s Favourite Pupil


The Best Classics For Your Beach Bag

Picture this: you’re relaxing on a beach, in the sunshine, sipping something delicious, the scent of salt and sunscreen in the air. You reach over to your beach bag to pull out a good book. Is it a classic? Probably not. Most people don’t associate the classics with light vacation reading. I think these books get a bad rap for being too heavy, too dense, too difficult – but don’t fall victim to it! Sure, some of them aren’t ever going to be quick reads, but some of them would suit a lazy beach holiday better than you’d think. Plus, there’s hundreds of years of back-catalogue to choose from, so you can be sure there’s something for everyone! Here’s my definitive list of the best classics for your beach bag.

The Best Classics For Your Beach Bag - Text Overlaid on Image of Red Bag on a Beach - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Like Romance? Try Pride And Prejudice (Jane Austen)

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

It’s not exactly a bodice-ripper, but Pride And Prejudice has all of the sexual tension and happily-ever-afters a romance reader could hope for. Austen’s classic novel follows the lives and loves of the Bennet sisters, with more than one inheritance hanging in the balance. There’s scandal, there’s snogging, there’s love letters, and there’s longing. I was skeptical at first, and it took me a few goes to get on board with P&P, but I’m so glad I persisted! Plus, if nothing else, it’ll feel good to tick this classic off your list and put the days of pretending to have read it behind you. Read my full review here.

Like Mystery? Try The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

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

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you need something that you can dip in and out of without losing track, short story collections are just what you need. And this one is a classic! Light, funny, and with just enough spooky mystery, a summer holiday is the perfect time to re-acquaint yourself with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Always accompanied by his trusty side-kick Dr Watson, this world-famous detective battles everything from jealous husbands to the Ku Klux Klan. And Doyle’s economy of language is truly masterful; it’ll take you longer to describe one of the stories to someone than it does for you to read them! Read my full review here.

Like Children’s Books? Try Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

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

If you think you can tick this one off your list because you saw the Disney movie, think again! So much of the comedy and cleverness of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland comes from Carroll’s brilliant wordplay, and the only way to fully appreciate it is to read it for yourself. Plus, if you’re looking to steer clear of anything too dark or emotional, you can’t do better than this absurdist children’s tale. Down the rabbit hole you go! Read my full review here.


Like Adventure? Try The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)

The Thirty Nine Steps - John Buchan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This slim tome will fit in even the most crammed of beach bags – so that’s a good start! The Thirty-Nine Steps is the definitive spy thriller; you’ll recognise its archetypes from every action movie you’ve ever seen. The hero, Richard Hannay, has a miraculous ability to squeeze out of tight spots, and you’ll be gripping the pages trying to figure out how he’ll manage it next! Read my full review here.

Like Comedy? Try Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos)

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

Forget The Great Gatsby: this is the best book to transport you back to the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes alternates laugh-out-loud observational comedy with biting social commentary, all told from the journals of fictional socialite Lorelei Lee. Follow her across the world, as she and her best friend make fools of the wealthy men who think they’re in control. Read my full review here.

Honourable mention: if the heat is getting to you, try Cold Comfort Farm instead. Another classic often overlooked for its male-authored contemporaries, this charming satire is set in chilly England, the perfect antidote to heatstroke in summer. Read my full review here.

Like True Crime? Try In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can’t call yourself a true crime aficionado without having read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book that revolutionised the genre. He might have skipped a couple of journalistic integrity lessons, but this novelistic re-telling of the Clutter family’s murder is as enthralling as it is beautifully told. It’s hardly a light read, given the subject matter, but it’s a highly recommended read here on KUWTP nonetheless. This is one of the best classics for your beach bag when you’ve got the day to yourself and you crave something that’ll get your cogs turning. Read my full review here.




What classic will you be putting in your beach bag this summer? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

What Makes A Book A Classic?

What makes a book a classic? There are about as many answers to that question as there are booklovers. When I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, my goal was to catch up on all the classic books that everyone else seemed to have already read, even though I only had the most nebulous idea of what that actually meant. In categorising my reviews, I’ve used the rough guesstimation that books over 100 years old that are still in circulation must be classics, but over time I’ve come to realise that this might not be the only measure. So, let’s take a look at this eternal question and answer it for ourselves: what makes a book a classic? 

What Makes A Book A Classic? - Text Overlaid on Collage of Penguin Classics Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Is “Classic” Even The Right Word To Use?

First off, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Classic books are those we hold up as being exemplary or noteworthy in some fashion (more on that in a minute). Whether or not a book is considered a “classic” will change over time, between readers, and so forth. It’s a floating target, unlike related concepts like “the canon”.

The canon is more like a specific list of books that are considered “essential” in our understanding of a period, area, or group. That’s why you might hear reference to the “Western canon” (which would include books like David Copperfield, The Divine Comedy, and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn), or the “African American canon” (which would include books like Beloved, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God). The canon is usually presented as a reading list, by a university or publisher. Consider it the cousin that comes to your classic books barbecue wearing an Armani suit.

Is every classic book written by a dead, white man?

Let’s address the big, hairy problem right up front: too often, when we talk about “classic” books, we’re talking about the ones written by dead white men. Straight men, non-disabled men, and men of wealth and power. There are exceptions, of course – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, or the works of the Brontë sisters – but for the most part, it’s privileged white dudes all the way down.

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who honestly believes that those men are the only ones who wrote books worthy of being designated as classics, so why are writers of other identities so often overlooked? Reasons abound, to be honest, and I could probably write a thesis on the topic. For now, suffice to say, I think it’s a combination of a few factors: historically, white men were the only ones who had the opportunity to write (by virtue of their wealth and power) and the networks to disseminate their stories; the stories they published reflected a prevailing worldview, which made them popular; and the ivory towers were mostly staffed by more white men, who felt most comfortable teaching their students books written by people who looked like them (meaning students of that particular identity were more likely to take up a pen, see-it-to-be-it and all). On and on the cycle goes…





So, we must do what we can to redress the balance. Make sure that the criteria you choose to judge for yourself what makes a book a “classic” isn’t exclusionary. When you find yourself perusing shelves of classics, look for the works by women, by people of colour, by people with disabilities, by LGBTIQ+ people – any work from a perspective that has been marginalised in the past. Request those books, review them, recommend them, and make sure they get the recognition they deserve. By the magic of the internet, these works are now reaching previously-unimaginable audiences, and the publishers and gatekeepers are hearing the demands of readers to expand their catalogue. Keep fighting the good fight!

Criteria to Consider When Defining Classic Books

Let’s get to the fun stuff! How do we decide whether a book should be called a “classic”?

Age

This is the most common, and most obvious, criterion: age. Or, put another way, we can be fairly confident that a book that has endured for decades or centuries – that has “stood the test of time”, if you will – is a classic. It’s a great idea because it’s easily quantifiable; there’s nothing subjective about how many years a book has been around, which means fewer arguments. But how old does a book have to be to be a “classic”, exactly? I used the nice round figure of 100 years, for simplicity, but that (of course) shifts year-by-year, and it’s a little long in some people’s estimation. Some experts suggest “generations”, rather than an exact number of years, because books that endure past those who were alive when it was first published must have something good going on. It’s an idea.

Of course, either yardstick would exclude books that many booklovers consider to be classics regardless: think To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Grapes of Wrath. That’s why some have suggested the creation of a new category, the “modern classic”, for those books that aren’t quite old enough to be considered classics proper, but are well on their way.



Literary Merit

I think we can all agree that simply being old isn’t enough: what else makes a book a classic? The next most obvious criterion is whether or not it’s any good. An old book can hang around for lots of reasons, but in order for us to consider it a “classic” it should probably pass some test of merit. I’m sure you can see why this is problematic, though; gauging the quality of a book is deeply subjective (just ask anyone who’s been to a book club!).

A comprehensive discussion on how to determine literary merit is probably a bit beyond me and my scope here on my lil’ blog. What I will say is that I think it’s important to recognise that “good” doesn’t necessarily mean “readable”. For instance, I can acknowledge that The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has a lot of literary merit, while also simultaneously believing that it sucked from a contemporary reader’s standpoint. A book’s literary merit and whether it is fun to read are two completely separate matters. And, failing a final ruling from an all-powerful dictator, it’s probably going to be up to each of us to decide for ourselves what constitutes “literary merit” and whether a book has it or not (for the time being).

Cultural Contribution, Significance, and Popularity

Books don’t exist in a vacuum: they affect the world around them, and in turn take on new meanings when the world around them changes. Take, for instance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. His themes and imagery of surveillance, censorship, misinformation and government control are constantly evoked in political debates, and his work has taken on scary new resonance over the last few years. There are others, too, like Catch-22 or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that are so pervasive they actually become part of our cultural lexicon. We continue to read and reflect on these books because they’ve made such significant contributions to our world; they’ve become, in effect, household names.

Within literature itself, the significance and popularity of a book is often marked by its influence on other, subsequent works. Sometimes this as obvious as a direct adaptation (look at how many contemporary takes we have on Pride And Prejudice, for example, and Little Women). Often, though, it’s much more subtle, with recent works calling upon or emulating styles and themes of classic books. I think it’s only fair that we consider these kinds of literary and cultural contributions when deciding what makes a book a classic, as they make it possible for a book to a book to retain its popularity over time.



Historical Record and Influence

One of the most wonderful things about the written word is the way that it endures, and what it can tell us about the past. Even though, as we’ve acknowledged, perspectives on the past have all to often come from privileged white men with their own inherent biases, they still managed to record details that might have otherwise been lost, and we’re better able now than ever before to think critically about them as sources of historical record. Consider classic books such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which has taught us so much about the Middle Ages, or more recently the works of Dickens and the Brontës, which have given us a multi-layered understanding of the mores of Victorian England.

Some classic books take it one step further, and actually influence the course of history. The best example of that has to be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, often called The Great American Novel, and credited – by Abraham Lincoln, no less! – with prompting the American civil war and the crusade to end slavery. It’s a high bar, no doubt, but this kind of historical influence is surely at least part of what makes a book a classic.

How Italo Calvino Defined Classic Books

Unsurprisingly, writers have thought a lot about this question (because, really, it concerns them most of all). Italo Calvino, a beautiful Italian author, wrote a whole book on the subject – Why Read The Classics? – and gave us a list of definitions that he felt, considered as a whole, would bring us closer to understanding what makes a book a classic. I’ve reproduced a few of my favourites here:

“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”

“A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.”

“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”

“Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.”

“‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”

Italo Calvino, “Why Read The Classics?”

He concludes that a universal definition of a classic book is basically impossible, and “there is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics”.





So, what makes a book a classic? I’m with Calvino, it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide for ourselves. That said, I think age, literary merit, cultural contribution, and historical influence are all good factors to consider. I think it’s also important that we do everything we can to ensure that we don’t end up lost in the cock forest (as Benjamin Law once so delightfully put it). We need to make a determined effort to include classic books written by women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. What do you think makes a book a classic? Tell me in the comments (or share your thoughts over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature: Answered!

One of the occupational hazards of being a book reviewer and blogger is that all your friends assume that you are a literary expert, and you’ll be able to handle all the bookish questions at pub trivia. Don’t get me wrong: I normally do pretty well, but I’ll never forget the soul-crushing shame of totally blanking on the question “Who wrote the American classic Gone With The Wind?” (it was Margaret Mitchell, by the way – I’ll never forget again!). To save you all the same embarrassment, I thought I’d put together a list of some common and interesting trivia questions about books and literature, alongside the correct answers (although, as you’ll soon see, “correct” is a relative concept and it almost always depends who you ask…).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature Answered - Text Overlaid on Image of Pub Wall and Booths - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Firsts

What was the first novel ever written?

The Tale of Genji is, as far as we know, the world’s first full-length novel. It was written in 1008 by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu.

What was the first book published by movable type?

Johann Gutenberg, who invented movable type in 1440, printed the first book, a Latin Bible (now called the Gutenberg Bible) in 1445.

What was Stephen King’s first published novel?

Carrie. Although it wasn’t technically the first book he wrote, it was the first one picked up and published (by Doubleday, in 1974).

When was the New York Review Of Books first published?

1 February 1963. The Review, which begot the New York Times Best Seller List, sold out of its first print run (100,000 copies), and its editors received over 1,000 letters from readers asking that they continue.

When was the first Harry Potter book published?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. on 26 June 1997.

 Biggests and Bests

What is the most expensive book in the world?

This depends who you ask, what measure you use, and how you define… well, “book”.

Most recently, in 2017, the printer’s manuscript of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon sold for $35 million. That’s a fair chunk of change, but purists will debate whether a printer’s manuscript counts as a “book”.

Likewise, in 1994, Bill Gates purchased the Codex Leicester, the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (the original, and the only copy) for $30.8 million, which adjusted to today’s money comes to about $50.9 million – an even bigger chunk of change. But, once again, people will argue that a hand-written notebook doesn’t really count as a “book” by today’s standards.

There are a handful of other religious and hand-written texts that are “books” by some measure and have sold for similar amounts. However, the most widely accepted answer to this trivia question is The Birds Of America by John James Audubon. One of only 119 printed and bound copies known to exist sold at auction in 2010 for $11.5 million (which comes to about $12.9 million now).

What is the best-selling book of all time?

Once again, it depends on how you define “book”, how fastidious you are about the accuracy of calculations, and whether you want to take into account the time period over which the total number of books were sold (as most best-seller lists today do).

Typically, the Holy Bible is considered to be the best-selling book of all time, with an estimated 2.5 billion copies sold since 1815 (and 2,200 language and dialect translations to boot). However, as I’m sure you can imagine, the records of sales over that length of time are patchy at best, many copies of the Bible are distributed for free (as opposed to “sold” in the traditional sense), and as such the estimation of total sales is very rough.

The Lord Of The Rings is the next most common answer, though some people dispute its inclusion for consideration as it is a series (rather than an individual “book”). It’s estimated to have sold approximately 150 million copies since it was first published in 1954, and those figures are comparatively very accurate. The Hobbit, too, has sold some 100 million copies in its own right.

The biggest total sales figure I could find for an individual, stand-alone book (that no one could dispute), with the most accurate numbers possible, is that of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), first published in French in 1943. It has sold 140 million copies since then. However, the most recognisable answer (and the one your quizmaster would likely be looking for at pub trivia) is Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, which has sold 120 million copies since 1997 (meaning it has sold far better over a much shorter period of time, which is usually a factor in the calculation of best-sellers).

Who is the best-selling fiction author of all time?

Are you sick of me saying “it depends” yet? 😉

The most commonly accepted answer is Agatha Christie; she personally authored 85 novels, and has sold well over 2 billion of them (and those figures are relatively reliable). However, William Shakespeare is estimated to have sold approximately the same number of copies across his 42 published plays and poems, though the figures are a little more sketchy and over a much longer time period – it’s up to you whether he “counts”.

J.K. Rowling is the worlds richest author (having claimed the title from James Patterson a few years ago), so she’s considered the “best selling” in terms of profit from her creation.

There are also a number of extremely popular authors (including Jane Austen, Miguel de Cervantes, and Arthur Conan Doyle) for whom no accurate figures on book sales can be found, so theoretically it could also be any of them.

In the end, this question is pretty much unanswerable, so you’ll just have to take a stab as to which answer you think the quizmaster is after, as opposed to which one is technically “correct”.

What is the best-selling children’s book of all time?

Ah, now we’re back on solid ground! Publisher’s Weekly ran a very helpful study of this topic back in 2000, and they determined that the best-selling hard-cover children’s book of all time is The Poky Little Puppy, and the best-selling paperback children’s book of all time is Charlotte’s Web.

Now, we could start to quibble about what counts as a “children’s book” and how PW reached their conclusions, but why make things harder on ourselves?

What is the biggest/longest book of all time?

There are two primary ways to determine the size or length of a book: word count, and page count. The latter is a bit controversial, because it’s so dependent on formatting, but it’s also a lot easier to calculate.

The winner on both fronts, technically, is Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, published in the 17th century. It comes in at a whopping 13,095 pages (published over ten volumes, because obviously), or 1,954,300 words.

However, the “official” Guinness World Record holder (and thus the most commonly accepted answer) is À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust. It boasts 3,031 pages over seven volumes, or 1,267,069 words.

Whichever answer you prefer, it’s clear that the French are the wordiest writers!

Literary Awards

What year were the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded?

1917. The awards were established by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born American newspaper publisher, thus their focus on journalism.

Which British prime minister was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Winston Churchill. He got the gong in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Which American science-fiction and fantasy writer has won the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel three years running (2016, 2017, 2018)?

N.K. Jemisin. She won for The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky, respectively in each year.

When did the Booker Prize change its name to the Man Booker Prize, and why?

This award was called the Booker Prize from 1969 to 2001. In 2002, the Man Group PLC came on board as a sponsor, and that year the name was changed accordingly. But earlier this year, the Man Group announced they would no longer be providing sponsorship; a charitable foundation called Crankstart has taken the reins now, but the name will revert to simply the Booker Prize (which I think is a shame, because the Crankstart-Booker has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?).

Bonus points: Yann Martel was the first winner of the newly re-named Man Booker Prize in 2002, for his book Life Of Pi.

What is the main criterion for the Miles Franklin Award?

The Miles Franklin Award winner each year must be “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”.

Titles And Text

Opening lines make for really popular trivia questions, because they’re easy to write and score. Check out my list of great opening lines in literature here, and my list of even more great opening lines in literature here.

Where does the book Fahrenheit 451 get its name?

The book’s tagline explains its title: “Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”.

Bonus points: Bradbury chose the title after asking an expert regarding the temperature at which book paper will burn, but he may have been slightly misinformed. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is actually the auto-ignition point of paper, the temperature at which it will catch fire without being exposed to an external flame, and even that number varies depending on the experimental conditions under which it is tested.

Fill in the blanks of this Shakespeare quote: “All the world’s a stage, And all the ___ and _____ merely _______.”

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

Bonus points: The line is taken from As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII).

True or false: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes never actually used the now-famous line “Elementary, my dear Watson”.

True. Holmes would, now and then, refer to things as being “elementary”, and he did also call his sidekick “my dear Watson”, but he never once used the two together. He did, however, say “Exactly, my dear fellow” relatively often.

What title did Jane Austen originally give to the book that was eventually published as Pride and Prejudice?

First Impressions.

Which American classic was published in Swedish with the translated title “A Man Without Scruples” (“En Man Utan Skrupler”)?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bonus points: Fitzgerald actually considered multiple alternate titles for his most-famous work, his favourite reportedly being “Under The Red, White, and Blue” (which his wife, Zelda, hated).

Characters

What names did Charles Dickens consider for his character in A Christmas Carol before settling on “Tiny Tim”?

“Small Sam” and “Puny Pete” – they both sound ridiculous, but I swear I’m not making it up!

Which fictional book character has featured as a major character in more films than any other?

Sherlock Holmes – the fictional detective has featured in 223 movies.

Bonus points: second place goes to Dracula, who has featured in 217.

What is the shared birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings?

22 September. The two central characters were  born on the same day, but in different years: Bilbo in the year of 2890, and Frodo in the year 2968, of the Third Age.

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to which superstition does Huck attribute most of his bad luck?

Touching a rattlesnake skin. He was warned not to do so by his travelling companion, Jim the runaway slave, but disregarded his advice.

Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy formed a love triangle with the titular character of which 1996 British best-seller?

Bridget Jones of Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.

Bonus points: the book is actually a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Daniel Cleaver bearing some resemblance to Mr Wickham, Mark Darcy to Mr Darcy (duh), and Bridget Jones to Elizabeth Bennet.

Plots

Which classic book chronicles the history of the French invasion of Russia through the stories of five aristocratic families?

War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy).

Which book is set in Airstrip One, a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war and government surveillance?

1984 (George Orwell).

Bonus points: Airstrip One is the new name given to Britain in Orwell’s dystopia.

In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, what was the enchanted dessert that the White Witch gave to Edmund?

Turkish Delight.

Early in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks down to a very small size and then has to swim through a river of what?

Her own tears.

What is the name of the virtual utopia that teenager Wade Watts explores in Ernest Cline’s novel futuristic novel, Ready Player One?

OASIS.

Authors

Jim Grant was born in England in 1954, and has published many popular crime thrillers. By which pen name is he better known?

Lee Child.

Which author, best known for his books for children, is credited with popularising the words “gremlin” and “scrumdiddlyumptious”?

Roald Dahl.

Name the four Jane Austen novels that were published during her lifetime.

Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815).

Bonus points: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Lady Susan were all published posthumously. The Watsons and Sandition were unfinished manuscripts.

By which names are Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell now better known?

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. They chose androgynous pen names because they suspected (quite rightly, as it turns out) that books by women would not be given fair treatment by publishers and the public.

Who Am I? I was born in Australia in 1966. I worked in advertising and marketing at a legal publishing company, and published my first book in 2003. My fifth book, The Husband’s Secret, was published in 2013 and garnered worldwide attention. My next book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, making me the first Australian author to do so. It has since been adapted into a television series by HBO, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Liane Moriarty.


Of course, there are thousands of potential questions in each of these categories: bookish trivia is the gift that keeps on giving! What’s your favourite book trivia question? Ask us in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

I don’t think that funny books get enough attention. We give awards to sweeping epics about wars, we send books about children in mortal peril straight to the top of the best-seller list, and we spend decades critiquing classics about dysfunctional families and ghosts. Meanwhile, books that make you laugh – and books about sex, too, but that’s a matter for another day – tend to be shrugged off. They’re not considered Serious Books For Grown Ups(TM), and I think that’s a real shame! The world is depressing enough; sometimes, curling up with a book that will make you chuckle is just the thing you need to take your mind off it. So this week I’m giving you full permission to indulge your desire to giggle: here are eight books that will make you laugh out loud.

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman in White Shirt and Red Pants Laughing - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – 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

When I told my mother the title of this book, she literally snorted, so I think that’s a pretty good sign. The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is written in a dead-pan, nonchalant style that only becomes more and more hilarious as the circumstances of the old man in question become more and more ridiculous. The stark contrast between the matter-of-fact storytelling and the multiple murders and car-jackings will definitely tickle your funny bone. I hope it’s equally as funny in the original Swedish… (and, I’m sorry, but the movie was nowhere near as funny. Stick to the book if you’re after a chuckle!)

The Martian – Andy Weir

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

A situation this dire – a man abandoned, trapped, alone on the red planet, dozens of years and thousands of miles away from any hope of help – shouldn’t be funny… but the voice that Weir creates for his hero, Mark Watney, in The Martian is so strong and so believable that you’re completely swept away in his unfailing sense of humour and optimism. He had me literally laughing out loud from the very first page. Plus, there are lots of swears (take that as a recommendation or warning, whatever your preference). And once again, the book is way funnier than the movie!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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

I’m sure all long-time Keeper-Upperers are well and truly sick of me recommending this book at every opportunity, but people: I PROMISE, it’s THAT GOOD! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a “funny” novel in the sense that it’s actually a really heart-wrenching story, but I guess my sense of humour just aligns with the protagonist’s perfectly because I was laughing out loud the whole way through. Rosemary narrates a scene of a couple breaking up in a university cafeteria in the opening pages, and I was cracking up so hard my husband could hear me from the other end of the house.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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

I can hear your skeptical groans: how could a popular science book be funny? Suspend your disbelief, people, because A Short History Of Nearly Everything totally is! Set aside your preconceived notions, forget all about trying to read A Brief History of Time and falling asleep: Bill Bryson has the chops as a comic writer, and manages to communicate all the science-y concepts and jargon with his trademark folksy style. And he’s not afraid to shy away from poo jokes, which is surely huge points in his column! If you’re not convinced, you can check out my full review here, or pick up any of his others and you’ll see what I mean – I also highly recommend his hilarious book Down Under, about his travels through Australia.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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

It really saddens me that Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t feature more often in lists of funny books, so I’m doing what I can to redress the balance here. I must stress that you shouldn’t read extracts from the book or passages in isolation, even if you really want to get a feel for it before you plunge in. The introduction to my edition included a few “funny bits”, and I was scratching my head; I seriously thought the writer must have broken her funny bone because they made no sense at all on their own. The humour of the book, and its brilliance, really comes from reading it in full because a lot of the comedy relies on context. I really recommend this one if you’re already familiar with Austen or the Brontës or D.H. Lawrence and his cronies – really, any of the English lit classics of the early 19th and 20th centuries, because this book satirises the heck out of all of them, to great effect! Read my full review here.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know I was hanging shit on heavy, bleak military stories a minute ago, and Catch-22 forces me to admit that they can be funny… just not often. That said, I really don’t think you need to be into military fiction to enjoy Heller’s magnum opus: the humour of Catch-22 comes from the fact that it is so damn relatable for anyone who has any experience at all with bureaucracy (so, basically everyone). It’s a dark satire, sure, but it offers comic relief at its finest. Most of the jokes come within the first 200 pages or so, and Heller just pretty much repeats them from there on out (as I mentioned in my review), but they’re REALLY funny jokes so I think we can forgive him.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth - Penguin Australia Edition Laid Flat On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another one that’s hilarious because it’s just so damn believable! Sure, not everyone can relate directly to the trials and tribulations of a Jewish boy growing up in mid-20th century America, but Roth’s characterisation is so superb that you would totally believe, if you hadn’t seen the cover, that Portnoy’s Complaint was just an alarmingly honest and frank memoir. Everyone – myself included – makes a meal of that one scene that features the narrator doing something unspeakable with a piece of liver that his mother then cooks for the family dinner, but the humour can be far more subtle and far-reaching than that. Plus, the salacious side of essentially listening in to a psychotherapy session about sex and mothers is just too good to resist!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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

So, I must admit, I’m including this sci-fi classic mostly because I feel like I would be subjected to a hailstorm of hate mail if I didn’t. People who love The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy feel really passionately about it, even if they’re not usually sci-fi readers. The story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, a befuddled Englishman who finds himself rescued from Planet Earth’s destruction by a kind-hearted alien. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s light-hearted – I probably didn’t LOL as often as I did with some of the other books on this list, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. Ultimately, I think it’s a great comfort read, and most of the joy comes from knowing the punchlines before you read them.


Please join me in sharing the love for books that will make you laugh out loud! What books give you the giggles? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but let the booklover who is without sin cast the first stone. This cover of Cold Comfort Farm looked really cute when I first pulled it from the shelf, but when I examined it closely… I didn’t get it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It seemed to be a series of in-joke caricatures that made no sense to me whatsoever. Then, the introduction kept calling Cold Comfort Farm a “comic” novel and it included all of these excerpts… but none of them were funny? Apparently, Gibbons sought to parody the “rural” genre, which I’ve never heard of, let alone read. None of this boded well.

Now, I’m going to assume that most of you have never heard of Cold Comfort Farm either. I certainly hadn’t before I pulled together my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. Stella Gibbons seems to be the poor cousin of early 20th century authors, ignored by academics and readers alike. Cold Comfort Farm was her first book, published in 1932, and she went on to write 23 additional novels in her lifetime but this is the only one that remains in print. Speaking of her first book, she once said:

“[Cold Comfort Farm is like] some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore; skipping about, and reminding you of the days when you were a bright young thing. To him, and his admirers, you have never grown up… The old monster has also overlain all my other books, and if I do happen to glance at him occasionally, I am filled by an incredulous wonder that I could have once been so light-hearted.”

Stella Gibbons

So, yeah, she was pretty over it, like a would-be rockstar that only ever had one hit song and was forced to play it ad infinitim for the rest of her career. Most people who have heard of Stella Gibbons don’t even realise that she wrote anything else.

Even in her own time, she wasn’t all that popular with her contemporaries. Virginia Woolf once wrote to Elizabeth Bowen, after Gibbons won a literary prize:

“I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”

Virginia Woolf

BURN! But the disdain was mutual: Gibbons refused to join literary circles and cliques, knowing full well that she wasn’t making any friends for herself when she satirised their work. She just didn’t give a fuck at all, tbh. As per the introduction:

“To satirise the sexual values of DH Lawrence at this time was to outlaw oneself deliberately from any intellectual elite. Intellectuals were enslaved to Lawrence – especially the men, of course, for whom his gospel of sexual freedom chimed very nicely with what they actually wanted to do.”

I think you can see what I’m working up to here: Stella Gibbons was a bad bitch who called ’em how she saw ’em, and she wrote Cold Comfort Farm with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. Spoiler alert: it is actually funny! I’d say it lands somewhere between Jane Austen and Fawlty Towers. I really enjoyed it, in spite of myself (and its cover – maybe there is something to that whole “not-judging-a-book” business after all…).



To the story: it is set in some unspecified future time period, shortly after “the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of 1946” (bear in mind that Gibbons was writing in the early 1930s, and had no idea what was coming world-war-wise). The book’s heroine, Flora Poste, finishes school only to find herself suddenly orphaned at the ripe old age of 19 years. She has no means of supporting herself, being as she says “possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living”. What’s a girl to do? Find a rich relative and mooch off them until she can secure a satisfactory husband, of course!

“No limits are set, either by society or one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives.”

Flora Poste (Cold Comfort Farm)

She turns down offers of bed and board from several well-to-do cousins, for one reason or another, and eventually settles on “visiting” her (very) distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm (some way outside the fictional village Howling, Sussex). They agree to take her in so that they may atone for some unspecified wrong they wrought upon her father years ago. On the farm lives the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, the whole extended family of the Starkadders, and their stuff – and they are all BAT. SHIT. CRAZY.

Flora, not one to muck around, sets about civilising them all and teaching them about sponges and contraception and other modern conveniences that would make their farm less of a hell-hole (and them a little more… presentable). She’s basically Mary Poppins, bringing metropolitan values and comforts to the sticks.

It’s not a straightforward story to read, for a few reasons. The story goes in bursts and starts, takes weird turns, and never really provides a satisfactory ending. In fact, it’s kind of like someone telling you their dream at times (but a funny one, not one that bores the pants off you). You also have to translate some of the fake idioms and slang, which Gibbons used to parody the novelists that used phonics to portray accents and local dialects (looking at you, DH Lawrence!). An example: “mollocking” is Seth’s favourite activity, and Gibbons never tells you exactly what it is… except that it always seems to precede the pregnancy of a maid (HA!). But don’t let the threat of made-up vernacular put you off: it’s still infinitely more readable than the modernist novels published around the same time (*cough*Mrs Dalloway*cough*).



Gibbons tried to capitalise on what little momentum Cold Comfort Farm generated; she published a collection of short stories – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1940, and then another – Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1949, but neither of them made much of a ripple. Still, the original novel continued on its merry way, and it has been adapted for the screen several times (including twice by the BBC). It hasn’t shaken the world: I’d probably call it one of the best classics you’ve never heard of.

So, yes, I must concede, my initial impressions were totally inaccurate. Cold Comfort Farm is fucking hilarious. It’s clever and sarcastic and satirical, but I’m hesitant to provide you with many (any!) excerpts to back up my claims, because the introduction tried to do that and failed so spectacularly. Cold Comfort Farm’s humour is entirely contextual; the only way to really “get it” is to read the book in its entirety. I completely agree, however, with the handful of fans out there who say that it is criminally underrated (much like one of my other favourites), and my not having encountered it before now seems an absolute travesty. It’s definitely worth a look if you can find a copy – tell a friend!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

  • “I just am not in the mood for so much drama” – Ursula Guevara
  • “Bored me to tears…too long and meaningless. A young girl with nothing to do with her life takes over others. There’s a secret in her family’s past that is not revealed by the end of the story” – Monica
  • “Not that great” – margaret murphy
  • “If you are a fan of Cold Comfort Farm, you will like this book.” – Ms Lauri Gillam
  • “Sadly, no explicit sex, but terrific humor” – Francis Assaf
« Older posts Newer posts »