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The Best Books I Read In 2019: Year In Review

Another year is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for another obligatory year-in-review post, a round-up of all the best books I read in 2019. This year, I reviewed 51 books (though a 52nd will squeeze in just after Christmas, before the new year ticks over), and once again they spanned centuries and categories like you wouldn’t believe. That’s one of my favourite things about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: the variety! I’ve covered everything from Pulitzer Prize winners (old and new) to little-known autobiographies, from Great American Novels to books in translation from Sweden, from hilarious Jazz Age social commentary to re-imaginings of Australian folklore. Here’s the best of what I’ve read this year, from start to finish…

Year In Review - The Best Books I Read in 2019 - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image Of Open Day Calendar - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

Like almost everyone, I think, I sat down with my copy of Little Women carrying a heavy burden of skepticism. I assumed it was going to be fluffy, saccharine, a relic of the days before feminism taught the world that women were powerful. How lucky I was to pick up this edition, with its incredible introduction that detailed for me the life and politics of Louisa May Alcott. It really opened my eyes to what she was trying to do with this book, and how she cleverly – but subtly – subverted the weight of expectation that was thrust upon her. Read my full review here.

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 I never thought I’d be including in a list of my best reads of the year. Portnoy’s Complaint, by all accounts, was a self-indulgent romp through the mind of an upper-middle-class Jewish American man, obsessed with sex and his mother (naturally). There was no way, I thought, I could possibly relate to, let alone laugh at, his neurotic monologue. Once again, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me eating my words: this book was hilarious! I cackled over poor Portnoy’s complaints, his childhood anecdotes, and his unbelievable knack for getting in his own way. Read my full review here.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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

Alright, here’s one I knew I’d love: I just had no idea how much. I saved up reading The Bell Jar for the moment I thought I needed it, and I’m so glad I did. It was searing, it was heart-breaking, it was gut-churning, it was tear-jerking, it was breath-taking. It’s a modern classic for a reason, Keeper Upperers, and it was so good I almost gave up reading and writing altogether when I finished it. Why bother, when something so beautiful already exists in the world? Trigger warnings aplenty, however – you’ve been warned. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Age Of Innocence is a lot like one of those boggy marshes with hidden patches of quicksand (I know, it’s not an elegant metaphor, but bear with me): it looks plain, maybe a little boring, but if you don’t keep your wits about you as you wander through, you could find yourself sinking and struggling to get free. Wharton’s prose is deceptively simple. What appears to be a description of a carriage or a house actually contains crucial commentary about the world her characters lived in and the way it worked. If you let your mind drift, you’ll miss it, and have to track back through the pages to pick it up again. Wharton was a trailblazer for 20th century female authors in America, and The Age Of Innocence totally holds up. Read my full review here.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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

Poor Stella Gibbons. I’d never heard of her, nor Cold Comfort Farm (her best-known work, which isn’t saying much) before I put together my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. In fact, it would seem that most people – outside of the very well-read English Literature elite – have never heard of her. She wrote dozens of books, and yet it took me a year to track down any of them. Why is she so underappreciated? Well, it would seem she had the audacity to parody D.H. Lawrence, the beloved grand-daddy of horny male writers in her time (and now, come to that), and she pissed off Virginia Woolf into the bargain. Essentially, Gibbons refused to play by the rules, and as a result, those in the powerful literary cliques sought to pull her from our shelves. I’d say that makes reading Cold Comfort Farm a political act. Read my full review here.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

Mark Twain’s books are divisive, I won’t deny it. I can certainly see the problems in his treatment of race in America, problems that have seen his books banned from many school libraries and removed from many a syllabus. But I really enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in spite of myself. I loved the way he used dialect, the way he crafted his characters’ speech to tell the reader as much about them as what they were saying. The writing was brilliant, masterful, immersive, and compelling. I wasn’t as sold on Tom Sawyer, but they can’t all be winners. Read my full review – of both! – here.

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

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

Are you tired of me explaining all the ways in which my preconceived ideas have been kicked in the bum this year? I hope not, because here comes another one. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel laureate, getting the gong for literature back in 2017. I assumed, coming to his work knowing that, that it would be Very Literary(TM). To put it bluntly, I thought it would be dense, bleak, boring, and written for people far smarter than me. I was surprised, when I finally came across a copy of An Artist Of The Floating World, to see how slim it was, and even more surprised by how quickly I powered through it. I’ve talked before about how I’ve largely gone off WWII historical fiction, but this is one I can get behind. It’s set in Japan shortly after the conflict ended, and it follows a few days in the life of an artist who is not only “of the floating world”, but also created propaganda posters for the government. Read my full review here.

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 finished reading The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I knew I’d found my go-to cheer-up read for many years to come. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of an old bloke who jumped out of his nursing home window to avoid a birthday party, and the role his life’s adventures play in what unfolds after that. It stretches far past the bounds of believability, but it’s so fun and so funny that all is forgiven. This is the book I thrust into a friend’s hands if they’re having a down day. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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

I must admit, even if I hadn’t enjoyed Pride And Prejudice, it would be getting a spot on this round-up of the best books I read this year, purely for the fact that I finished it! Long-time Keeper Upperers will know that I’ve been engaged in a brutal stand-off with this book for many years. I’ve picked it up no fewer than six times, only to quickly abandon it and move on to something else shortly thereafter. But now, I can proudly declare that I have read Jane Austen’s beloved prototypical romance, and I finally understand what all the fuss is about. My experience(s) with Pride And Prejudice just go to prove, once again, that it is crucial – crucial! – that a book comes to you at the right time in your reading life. Read my full review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, by a long way, the book I have recommended most often and most vehemently this year, to anyone who’ll listen (and even to those who won’t). I was completely knocked off my feet by this charming little tome, stylised as a series of diary entries chronicling the adventures of society darling Lorelei Lee. If you’ve seen the movie and figured that you didn’t need to read the book (or if you didn’t even know there was a book, no judgement!), you’re dead wrong. This is the most astute, insightful, and witty take on gender roles in the Jazz Age (and all subsequent ages) that I have ever read. Forget about Gatsby (ugh): leave your copy at a local Little Library, and curl up instead with this absolute gem. Read my review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

Have you ever read a book that was so good it made you angry? That’s what happened to me when I read The Grapes Of Wrath. I was nonsensically angry with every single person in my life who had read it and hadn’t (a) recommended it to me immediately, and (b) warned me about how gut-punchingly good it was. I didn’t want to like it. Steinbeck shamelessly ripped off years of work, that of a woman who history has all but forgotten. But the story of the Joads, their migration across America to seek their fortunes (i.e., survive), moved me in ways I can barely describe. It’s all the more incredible, too, for its startling relevance in a climate that is rapidly changing… Read my full review here.

True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Upon reflection, this might be my year of reading (and loving!) dialect, because – like with Huck Finn, and a few others on this list – what drew me in most to Carey’s reimagining of an Australian folk “hero” was the way he represented an early Irish-Australian accent on the page. True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve ever read that has, in my expert-by-virtue-of-living-here opinion, accurately and beautifully represented Australian speech in a way that doesn’t make the reader want to claw their own eyeballs out. And if that doesn’t sell you on it, consider this: Carey imagines an internal world for Kelly that few have considered before reading this work, but simultaneously allows the reader room to make up their own mind about his morality or lack thereof. A must-read Australian novel! Read my full review here.

And there we have it, Keeper Upperers – an even dozen! What do you think of the best books I read this year? What were the best books YOU read this year? Add your recommendations to the comments below, or tell me on the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If you want to check out more of my best-of recommended reads, try this list of the best books I’ve read so far, earlier in the year.

Amongst Women – John McGahern

This slim, unassuming volume actually marks a very important discovery in my reading life: I purchased it on my first trip to a local charity shop’s book section. Before that fateful day, I’d almost exclusively haunted secondhand bookstores and book fairs. Discovering that charity shops also had amazing book selections – and so cheap! – was a revelation! I’d been looking for a copy of Amongst Women since I began the Keeping Up With The Penguins project a year and a half ago, so I was more than happy to hand over $3 for this pristine Faber edition.

Right, enough personal stories – this isn’t a recipe blog! Let’s get down to business. Amongst Women is the best-known novel of Irish writer John McGahern. It is widely considered to be his masterpiece, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release (1990). That was pretty much all I knew about it going in. From the blurb, I thought it might be similar to An Artist Of The Floating World, in that they’re both stories of aging men trying to outrun the fallout from their role in a war in the mid-20th Century. On the face of it, that assumption was technically correct, but the protagonists are very different, and as such their stories go in very different directions…

Michael Moran is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. He’s known to his community as a respectable and devout Catholic, but behind closed doors it’s a different story. He’s super bitter about the “small minded gangsters” that now run his country, and he refuses to accept the government’s solider pension, because he feels they have betrayed the ideals he fought for (yeah, let ’em keep their money, that’ll show ’em!). Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. He’s positively tyrannical in his personal life, cruel and brutal with his wife and children, and controlling in the extreme. So, consider this a trigger warning if those kinds of family dynamics don’t sit well with you: you’re going to want to give Amongst Women a miss.



Amongst Women begins in the Moran family home, in the rural midlands of Ireland. Moran is elderly, weakened by illness and age, and suffering a bout of depression his family fears will kill him. His adult daughters have decided to re-create an annual event of their childhood, Monaghan Day, in an effort to lift the old man’s spirits. From there, the family’s history is told through flashbacks as the Moran women remember their shared past, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (thank goodness!). It’s more like a chronological story that circles back around on itself. In fact, I’d say the opening scene really just serves as an unofficial prologue, setting up the story.

These grown daughters are: Maggie, who moves to London to become a nurse and marries a fashionable drunk; Mona, the family beauty who returns home most often, holds a civil service job in Dublin; and Shelia, who wanted to go to university but ol’ Daddy Moran talked her out of it (boo!). Shelia is the most defiant of the three, and a lot of her motivation comes from wanting to keep her own children away from the poisonous Moran patriarch. He’s a real bastard, no doubt about that. He lacks any sense of self-awareness, he has an explosive temper, he’s frustrated by his own obsolescence… it’s a deadly combination, one that makes him very unpredictable.

So, the flashback takes us back to when Moran – then a widower – re-married a local woman called Rose. His children were already teenagers, but she still became a mother figure to them, and she was often called upon to mediate disputes. She’s disturbingly tolerant of Moran’s mood swings and abuse. In fact, all of the Moran women are. Like many victims of such cruelty, they become extremely grateful for any expression of tenderness or goodwill, and they wind up willing to overlook his behaviour and his unapologetic attitude. This is, really, the crux of the story; there’s not a lot of plot, just the normal highs and lows of family life, and trying to work out why on earth all these women are so gentle with such an arsehole.



As the children leave home, one by one, Moran grows increasingly panicked. He can’t handle no longer being the center of their worlds, so what does he do? He devolves into a clingy, needy, hot mess, demanding their attention (and thus drawing them back to him), even when it disturbs the lives they’re trying to build for themselves. He finds his sons particularly threatening, as they “need” him the least (i.e., they’re less inclined to indulge his every whim).

Ah, yes, the sons! There’s two of them: Luke, the eldest, who escapes to London early on, unable to cope with his father’s overbearing authority; and Michael, the youngest, who hides in Rose’s skirts until he’s old enough to escape, too. It’s a dynamic that plays out with every single one of the Moran children, boys and girls alike: the only power they can exert in their relationship with their father is to leave him. Moran talks a lot of smack about how blood-is-thicker-than-water and family solidarity is the most important value and all of that, so the act of leaving him for the Big Smoke is the ultimate kick in the guts. And, yet, they all find themselves suckered back in to his vortex of manipulation and cruelty – all except Luke, who returns to Ireland only once, to attend Sheila’s wedding.

Moran dies in the end, of course. He’s buried under a yew tree and everyone grieves, but McGahern goes out of his way to make it abundantly clear that this is not the end of that bastard’s influence in their lives:

“… now, as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”

Amongst Women, pg. 183

I kept waiting for the “clang” that never really came. Perhaps McGahern intended for Moran’s death to be that moment, but it seemed a foregone conclusion: what other ending could he give such a terrible person? Amongst Women was, in short, the story of a traumatised veteran abusing and manipulating his whole family until the day he died. All the women he was amongst just made excuses for him and cleaned up after him, keeping the peace instead of calling him out on his bullshit. It’s a heart-breakingly familiar and relatable narrative, but in that sense it’s also really frustrating. What good is mirroring these unhealthy family relationships back at us through fiction, if the story doesn’t teach us anything other than… these families exist? I mean, we knew that. Arseholes die but people remember their arseholery? We knew that, too. Trauma is passed down through generations? Yep, we’re all across it. Amongst Women is not a satisfactory story, it’s just a depressing window into a dysfunctional family in a small Irish town.



Perhaps McGahern was trying to make some greater point about why the women in Moran’s life remained so devoted to him, even after they established independent lives of their own, but I couldn’t see it. I read later, in other reviews, that McGahern “asks whether exile offers the only hope for freedom and individuality” in post-colonial Catholic rural Ireland, and “exposes the insecurities and inexpressiveness of Irish masculinity”. I guess I can kind-of see both of those elements, but only after they were pointed out for me in a For-Dummies kind of way, so I don’t blame you if you missed them too.

I do like the title, though, and it has a clever dual meaning. Firstly, the Moran household is mostly female, so Moran is literally “amongst women”. Secondly, it refers to a line from the Hail Mary prayer (which I only learned reading this book, I’m a big ol’ heathen) – “blessed art thou amongst women”. The Moran family says a lot of Hail Marys, it’s a daily ritual for them, so it’s repeated often enough that you get the point.

Given the level of detail McGahern gave about the emotional brutality of these relationships, it came as no surprise to me that Amongst Women is (at least somewhat) autobiographical. These pages were clearly written by someone with inside knowledge of what a Moran-type household is like. McGahern’s beloved mother, Susan, died when he was a child, leaving he and his siblings in the care of his authoritarian IRA-veteran father. My heart breaks for McGahern; it must have been a deeply traumatic childhood (and adulthood, if his relationship with his real-life father bore out the way the fictional ones did), but I found myself frustrated on that point, too. When Louisa May Alcott mined her own childhood and family life for a novel, it was called “sentimental” and “schmaltzy” and excluded from the canon for years. When McGahern did it, it was heralded as a literary triumph, and the Booker Prize came a’knocking. Hardly seems fair, eh?

But I can see how I’m perhaps being a little hard on McGahern here, so I’ll let him have the last word of this review. He said of his novel: “The whole country is made up of families, each family a kind of independent republic. In Amongst Women, the family is a kind of half-way house between the individual and society.” And I think he’s spot on, there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Amongst Women:

  • “I didn’t care about anyone in this family.” – Jayfred
  • “For some reason I expected the book. Instead I rec the literary review which was actually better tha the actual book.” – Lisa L Smith


The A-Z of Classic Books: A Classic Read For Every Letter of the Alphabet

I recently bought two huge bookshelves, and I’ve spent the last couple weeks mired in the task of stocking them (bye-bye, random-piles-of-books-in-every-corner-of-my-house!). I had a stab at a few different organisational systems; I salivate over the gorgeous rainbow arrangements I see on bookstagram, but ultimately I had to stick with alphabetical by author surname. The ways of a library-lover never really leave us! Still, the process got me wondering, in my organisational fugue state, whether I could pull together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet, by title.

It was a fun little challenge that niggled at the back of my mind until I sat down and gave it a go. I couldn’t even cheat by searching the gorgeous Penguin Drop Caps editions, because they’re all coded by author. I found the first fifteen or so quite easy, but it got harder and harder after I locked in all the “easy” letters. Finding the last three were absolute torture! But I got there in the end, and that’s what matters. Here’s the final result, an A-Z list of classic books: a classic read for every letter of the alphabet!

The A-Z of Classic Books - Text Overlaid on Image of Wooden Dice with Letters Printed on The Sides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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

Why not start off with some lighthearted fun? Most people my age are familiar with the Disney cartoon version, but I highly recommend checking out the original book. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is full of really clever wordplay that you can only truly appreciate when you see it on the page. Plus, the nostalgic kick you’ll get out of it is second to none!

B: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Now, let’s plunge into some classic dystopian fiction. Brave New World depicts Huxley’s imagined future, where the world population is separated into castes, controlled with drugs and sex, and one man tries to break free… with tragic results. Dystopian fiction is really having A Moment, so it’s a great time to revisit this one!

C: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Clarissa - Samuel Richardson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In its full form, Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady is literally one of the longest novels in the English language (going by estimated word-count). Luckily, I managed to pick up an abridged edition to read for Keeping Up With The Penguins (my review coming soon!). Phew! From what I know so far, it’s an epistolary novel about a young heroine and her rotten family.

D: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula - Bram Stoker - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This letter is another epistolary novel, but one significantly more spooky! Stoker didn’t write the first vampire novel, but Dracula is definitely the most enduring of the genre. In it, a young doctor finds himself the house-guest-slash-prisoner of a creepy count, and he has to gather a band of friends to save his wife from falling into the guy’s evil clutches…

E: Emma by Jane Austen

Emma - Jane Austen - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Austen referred to Emma as her heroine that no one but her would like very much, but she didn’t count on the subsequent generations of fans who love and adore this subtle social satire. Emma was rich, beautiful, and a touch self-absorbed, but she also loved her friends and family, and she didn’t succumb to the social pressure to marry until she was sure she found the right bloke. Sounds like an admirable heroine to me!

F: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Frankenstein is the grand-daddy of science fiction, the first novel where the “monster” was not born of fantasy but of man’s own scientific experiments. And, of course, the story behind the story is perhaps the best part: Mary Shelley was on holiday with her husband and Lord Byron, and she wanted to win a bet by coming up with the scariest story. She was just a teenager at the time!

G: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t let the movie adaptations fool you, Gulliver’s Travels is hardly for kids! It’s actually a searing social commentary, and a deeply complex and layered one at that. Swift covers everything from religion to politics to economics to philosophy, and it was very controversial in its time for the bleak conclusion he reached about the nature of humanity.

H: Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heidi’s original subtitle described it as a book “for children, and those who love children” – turns out there are plenty of those! It has gone on to become one of the best-selling books ever written. It’s certainly one of the best-known works of Swiss literature. It’s the heart-warming story of a young girl who lives with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.

I: In Search Of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

You could probably spend a lifetime studying In Search Of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance Of Things Past, which is a prettier title, but I already had a book for “R”), and still struggle to summarise its seven volumes into just a sentence or two… so I won’t even try. Rest assured, Proust can be a bummer, but this magnum opus is comprehensive and life-changing and at least worth a look.

J: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For a while, Charlotte was the shining jewel in the Brontë family crown. She was described as the “first historian of personal consciousness” for her incredible talent in depicting a character’s internal world, particularly that of Jane Eyre. While poor Charlotte has fallen a little out of favour, now often overlooked for her also-wildly-talented sisters, I still count this classic book among my all-time favourite reads.

K: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Kim - Rudyard Kipling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

While Kipling is probably better known for his poetry and his children’s stories (like The Jungle Book), he also painted an incredible portrait of India in Kim. Against that stunning backdrop, he tells the story of a young orphan boy who follows a spiritual master, but somehow finds himself swept up in a world of military espionage, and has to extricate himself to pursue his spiritual life.

L: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

“A moral book for girls”, Alcott’s publishers demanded of her, and she delivered… but not without her own cleverly-veiled barbs and controversial life lessons contained therein. Little Women, for too long, was excluded from the American literary canon, written off as schmaltzy crap, but it’s finally getting its moment in the sun and the recognition it deserves. A brilliant book!

M: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

This book is, ironically, many a reader’s white whale. Like its titular leviathan, it is huge, it is unwieldy, and you must follow it to places you’d never expect or imagine. While I completely understand it’s a slog to get through, there’s also a certain magical quality about Moby Dick for me. Being as long and as complex as it is, you’ll find something new and different inside every time you pick it up. Be brave, give it a go, and maybe it won’t be as bad as you think (or, at least, the slog will be worth it!).

N: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is an incredible mid-19th century memoir by former slave Frederick Douglass, generally held to be the most famous such work of that period. It serves as an incredible treatise on abolition as well as a beautiful account of an enslaved man’s ambitions for freedom.

O: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens - Book Laid Open On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A typically-cheerful Dickens novel, Oliver Twist is about the life of a young boy, born in a workhouse and sold into an apprenticeship with an undertaker. When he reaches London, he falls in with a gang of juvenile delinquents, and that’s where his adventures really begin… It was Dickens’s second novel, and it’s wonderful to see his signature style emerge through these pages.

P: Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

Yes, Austen features twice in this list, because if there’s a book that’s synonymous with the words “classic English literature” in the minds of most readers, it’s this one: Pride And Prejudice. The romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy has become so pervasive in pop-culture that it’s now considered archetypal, and even those who haven’t (yet!) read this book can recognise its features.

Q: Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey

This is the original and definitive biography of one of Britain’s longest-serving monarchs. Queen Victoria probably had more influence on our lives today than you and I would know, were it not for classic portraits of her life and rule, like this one. She’s been an object of fascination for a long time (since her birth, really, in 1819), and many books have been written about her, but almost all of them inevitably refer back to this one as a source text.

R: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe - Daniel DeFoe - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever dreamed of sailing away to a desert island, and living out the rest of your life alone with the beach views? Well, try living vicariously through Robinson Crusoe and you’ll soon think twice: that castaway life ain’t all beer and skittles! This is widely considered to be one of the first – if not the first – novels of the English language, and it’s still in heavy circulation today.

S: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, Stevenson deliberately omitted the preposition (“The”) from the original book title, which means technically this one counts for S! Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the prototype for the niche-sub-genre of “doppelgänger lit”, and while it’s short, it packs one hell of a punch. It’s worth picking this one up if only to find out where the idiom of being a “Jekyll and Hyde character” comes from… (and you can read about more literary origins of idioms here, too!).

Fine, if you’re going to insist that it doesn’t count, because most contemporary editions include the preposition, how about Sandition by Jane Austen?

T: Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess Of The D'Urburvilles - Thomas Hardy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another classic that was underappreciated in its time (I swear, they all were, almost!). Tess of the D’urbervilles wasn’t published in full for many years; the first editions that appeared in the late 1800s were highly sanitised and censored. Luckily, today we get to enjoy it in its full filthy glory, the story of a young woman forced (by poverty) to seek out her rich relatives and try to stake a claim on part of their fortune.

U: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

President Abraham Lincoln once met Harriet Beecher Stowe, and asked her if she was the “little lady” who had “caused so much trouble”. He was referring, of course, to this incredible book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which fanned the fires of the abolitionist movement in American, and (ultimately) the Civil War that ended legally-sanctioned slavery in the South.

V: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“A novel without a hero” proclaims the cover page, and indeed, there are very few likeable characters in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. While rambling and meandering at times, it mostly follows the lives of two dichotomous young women, the saintly martyr-slash-doormat Amelia Sedley, and the mischievous calculating Becky Sharp. Guess whose side I’m on…!

W: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If all you know of the love story of Cathy and Heathcliff has been drawn from the Kate Bush song, you’re missing out! Wuthering Heights is dark, weird, gothic, and confronting, but also incredibly layered and scarily realistic at times. Come for the “great romance” of the love song, stay for the stark Brontë vision of the darkness that stirs within us all…

X: Xantippe and Other Verse by Amy Levy

They said it couldn’t be done, but I did it! I found a classic book for “X”! It’s perhaps not as well known as the others on this list, it’s barely in circulation, and technically Xantippe is a poetry collection, but it counts! The title poem, Xantippe, is an imagined monologue from Socrates’ wife as she lay on her death bed. It’s the star of the show, and well worth checking out for that reason alone…

Y: Yeşil Gece by Reşat Nuri Güntekin

Yeşil Gece is a story told against the backdrop of the Turkish War of Independence, and the formation of the Turkish Republic, a beautifully evocative setting. A devoutly Muslim man sends his son, Şahin (the protagonist), to a nearby Islamic school, where he starts causing trouble and openly rebelling, spouting secularist ideals. It’s a startlingly relevant read, nearly a hundred years after its initial publication.

Z: Zaynab by Muhammad Husayn Haykal

Zaynab was first published in 1913, and is now widely considered to be the first modern Egyptian novel. A beautiful young peasant girl, Zaynab, is the object of three different men’s affections: a plantation owner’s son, a peasant foreman, and the man destined to become her groom in an arranged marriage. As I’m sure you can imagine, romantic misadventures abound…



Are there any you’d like to add? Let’s see if we can get up to two per letter! Drop your suggestions in the comments below (or share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Are you a chronic alphabetiser, too? Find out what that says about you in my post on bookshelves as personality types.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

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

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

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

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

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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

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

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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

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

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

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

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

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

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

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

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

My Reading List Page Count: 109 Classic and Best Seller Books From Shortest to Longest

I’m becoming a bit obsessed with looking at my reading list for this project from different angles. I’ve created a bookish timeline to see what period I’m covering, and a world map to look at all the different places I’m travelling, through the magic of the written word. And here’s a peek behind the book blogger curtain for you: I can actually see what searches people use to find Keeping Up With The Penguins, and it would seem that a lot of you are curious about the page counts of classic and best seller books. So today, I’m going to arrange my entire TBR from longest to shortest by page count.

My Reading List Page Count - 109 Classic and Best Seller Books from Shortest to Longest - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Book on Grass and Leaves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Note: these are the page lengths of the actual editions I own, so it might differ from what Wikipedia says or the copy you have at home.)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: 138 pages
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: 150 pages
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: 152 pages
Murphy by Samuel Beckett: 158 pages
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 160 pages
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 161 pages
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: 167 pages
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: 172 pages
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Dougals Adams: 180 pages
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 184 pages
Amongst Women by John MaGahern: 184 pages
The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame: 192 pages
The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene: 192 pages
Party Going by Henry Green: 192 pages



The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet: 201 pages
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: 201 pages
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: 206 pages
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 208 pages
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: 222 pages
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh: 222 pages
If I Stay by Gayle Forman: 224 pages
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: 224 pages
The White Mouse by Nancy Wake: 224 pages
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 227 pages
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 227 pages
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger: 230 pages
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do: 232 pages
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin: 232 pages
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 233 pages
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 234 pages
A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking: 241 pages
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos: 243 pages (*also contains But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which I also read.)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: 247 pages
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: 248 pages
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: 250 pages



The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James: 272 pages (*also contains The Aspen Papers, which I definitely did not read. I’ve had my fill of Henry James.)
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: 274 pages
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding: 285 pages
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: 286 pages
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 288 pages
The Call Of The Wild by Jack London: 288 pages (*also includes White Fang, which I didn’t read. Too much puppy torture!)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 292 pages
Still Alice by Lisa Genova: 293 pages
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham: 296 pages
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 301 pages
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 309 pages
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: 310 pages
A Passage To India by E.M. Forster: 312 pages
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 314 pages
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: 315 pages
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: 316 pages



Kim by Rudyard Kipling: 322 page
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: 323 pages
Yes Please by Amy Poehler: 329 pages
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: 331 pages
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: 334 pages
Paper Towns by John Green: 336 pages
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller: 336 pages
The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen: 336 pages
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: 336 pages
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: 336 pages
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: 343 pages
Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: 344 pages
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: 352 pages
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: 354 pages
The Martian by Andy Weir: 369 pages
The Maze Runner by James Dashner: 371 pages
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: 373 pages
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: 374 pages



The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: 384 pages
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis: 394 pages
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen: 398 pages
Dracula by Bram Stoker: 400 pages
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: 406 pages
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli: 412 pages
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 416 pages
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir: 416 pages
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 416 pages (*also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I did read, too)
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: 432 pages
American Sniper by Chris Kyle: 448 pages
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: 459 pages
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan: 467 pages
Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos: 469 pages
Emma by Jane Austen: 474 pages
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: 478 pages



Divergent by Veronica Roth: 489 pages
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson: 516 pages (*but this is an abridged edition, the full version is literally one of the longest books ever written.)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: 519 pages
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: 531 pages
The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow: 536 pages
The Golden Bowl by Henry James: 547 pages
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett: 569 pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: 584 pages
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: 588 pages
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: 590 pages
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: 596 pages
The Lake House by Kate Morton: 608 pages
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: 622 pages
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: 656 pages
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 656 pages
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 672 pages (*note: also contains other stories)



All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: 672 pages
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: 687 pages
Ulysses by James Joyce: 719 pages
Moby Dick by Herman Melville: 720 pages
A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: 864 pages
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: 883 pages
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: 1056 pages
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 1057 pages

The strangest thing I noticed: page length has very little to do with how long a book feels. Mrs Dalloway felt like a much longer read than My Brilliant Friend, and yet the latter is nearly twice as long in page count. It also felt like a much longer read than The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but in reality they’re about the same length. Weird, eh? Really, you can’t tell much from a book’s page count at all. Some of the classic books, which we all assume will be long and meaty, have the fewest pages, while some of the most-recent best-sellers are doorstops.

So, here’s my total (I know you’re all dying to know): accounting for a few pages of notes skipped here and there and a couple of combination editions where I didn’t read the second book, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me reading 40,700 pages. Not bad! And, of course, you can find links to every single review here (I update the list with the new one published each week). If you’re curious about how many pages are in your TBR, you can find page counts for most editions of most books on Goodreads (and you can friend me while you’re there!). How many pages is your current read? Add to the list in the comments below (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Most Heartbreaking Deaths In Literature

I’m not going to sugar-coat it (when do I ever?): authors are sadists. They get their jollies crafting wonderful characters that we adore and cherish, only to kill them in the most brutal and gut-wrenching ways. Every booklover has at least one or two character deaths that have left them scarred and reaching for the tissues. If you’ve read any of these books, I’m very sorry for your loss and for triggering those traumatic memories. If you’ve not picked them up yet, consider this an impassioned warning of what lies ahead. Here are the seven most heartbreaking deaths in literature.

7 Most Heartbreaking Deaths In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Holding Sad Child - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ted (The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham)

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll confess, I didn’t love everything about The Dressmaker, but the death of Ted is one of the cruellest I’ve ever read (and that’s coming from a book littered with corpses and all manner of cruelty). Tilly, the protagonist, overcomes her trauma and opens herself up to love, only to have her leading man, the kind-hearted and dreamy Ted, meet a very sudden and unfortunate end. As a joke, he jumps into a silo, as he used to do when he was a kid, believing it to be filled with wheat… only it was actually filled with light sorghum that couldn’t support his weight. He suffocated as he sunk down, never to be seen again, as Tilly watched helpless from the top. Gahhhh! Read my full review of The Dressmaker here.

Lady (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)

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

George R.R. Martin is famous (or infamous) for his fictional death toll, and A Game Of Thrones has more dead bodies than you can poke a stick at, but the one that truly broke me was that of Lady. Each of the Stark children has been given a direwolf of their own, to keep as a pet, and it’s a wonderful arrangement until Arya’s direwolf attacks the prince. Arya is clever enough to send her beloved pet off into the woods to hide, but Queen Cersei’s vengeful wrath demands satisfaction. She insists that Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, be killed in its place. And Ned Stark offers to be the one to do it, saving the gorgeous animal any unnecessary pain. The death of an innocent at the hands of a loving father! *sobs* Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

Sirius Black (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling)

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Good one, James!” Sirius shouts, mistaking his beloved godson for his departed friend, right as Bellatrix Lestrange fires off a curse that sends him into that good night. His body falls through a strange portal, never to be seen again. J.K. Rowling is a cruel, cruel woman! You know what, pretty much every death in the Harry Potter series is heartbreaking: Dumbledore, Lupin and Tonks, Fred, Hedwig, Dobby… I’ll accept any answer except for Snape. That guy caused so much trouble just because he was butt-hurt that Lily didn’t love him back, I have no sympathy. Anyway, at least Rowling is kind enough to apologise for one death per year on Twitter.

Tom Robinson (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

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

To Kill A Mockingbird is all about the loss of innocence, and Tom Robinson’s death is just that: the literal death of an innocent man, wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. So disheartened by his guilty verdict, and its racial overtones (Tom being a black man, accused of raping a white woman), he tries to escape prison, only to be shot by the guards. It’s the one time we see Atticus Finch truly shaken, so heartbroken is he that Tom didn’t live to see out the appeals process and his exoneration. Tom’s death had to happen, so that readers could fully understand the consequences of injustice, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

The “Goldens” Prince Philip and Fatima (We Were Liars – E. Lockhart)

We Were Liars - E Lockhart - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There are five beautiful golden retrievers in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, and I am emotionally traumatised by the needless death of two of them, Prince Philip and Fatima. They were lovable goofballs, treasured pets of the Sinclair grandparents. They ate starfish from the beach, only to vomit them up on the fancy carpet later, and adored tennis balls. Yes, they’re a metaphor for the pretty-but-vapid Sinclair sisters, but I was truly heartbroken by their deaths. They were sacrificed in the Liars’ foolish and futile attempt to destroy family privilege with an act of petty vandalism. What terrible waste! Read my full review of We Were Liars here.

Beth March (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)

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

You’d be hard-pressed to find a booklover who doesn’t list Beth’s death in Little Women as one of the most heartbreaking deaths in literature. Beth was the sweet one, the innocent one, the one who sought only to spread joy and care for others… so, of course, she had to bite the dust. In fact, her kindness is the very reason she died; she contracted scarlet fever while caring for a neighbour’s sick child. She died curled up next to Jo, satisfied that for once she would be the first of her sisters to do something. If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider Joey in that episode of Friends, who was so distressed he had to hide the book in the freezer… Read my full review of Little Women here.

John Thornton and All. Of. The. Dogs. (The Call Of The Wild – Jack London)

The Call Of The Wild - Jack London - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In just 84 pages, Jack London managed to cram in more heartbreaking deaths than the rest of this list put together. So many dogs died in The Call Of The Wild – some killed by humans, some killed by their fellows, some killed by the sheer exhaustion of their work i n the gold rush. What’s more, the only nice human in the whole book, John Thornton, the only damn one who shows these animals the kindness and respect they deserve, goes and gets himself killed by a Native American tribe. He is avenged, of course, but still! I can’t fathom the depths of London’s cruelty. Read my full review of The Call Of The Wild here.



As you can see, I’m of the firm belief that dog deaths are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature, and I’m not even sorry for crowding this list with them. Humans, at least, usually deserve what’s coming to them, and can defend themselves; our best friends with four legs, on the other hand… *reaches for tissues*. Which do you think are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature? If you can work through the pain, tell me in the comments (or share your grief over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Best Mothers In Literature

Last year, I did a post on the best fathers in literature, and I think it’s high time the ladies got a look in. That’s just, like, the rules of feminism! William Ross Wallace, U.S. lawyer and poet, said back in the 19th century that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”, and it’s just as true today, but don’t be fooled! The best mothers in literature aren’t all gentle, maternal wallflowers. Here’s a list of my favourites…

The Best Mothers In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Mother and Son - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Marmee (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)

I figured we’d get the obvious pick out of the way straight up: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of the best mothers in literature that doesn’t feature Marmee, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Everyone comes for the all-American-girl archetypes of the March sisters, but Marmee is the real star of the show. She runs a huge household on the smell of an oily rag, with her husband off at war, all the while still prioritising generosity and charity, and yet she doesn’t seem to be a martyr. Marmee has an incredible sense for exactly what each of her daughters need, be it tough love or gentle comfort, and she dishes it out accordingly. Imagine if she and Atticus Finch got together, they’d probably fix the world… Read my full review of Little Women here.

Úrsula Iguarán (One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez)

One Hundred Years Of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If life-span were the criterion by which we judged the best mothers in literature, Úrsula from One Hundred Years Of Solitude would surely get the gong. She lives to be over 150 years old, all the while caring for three subsequent generations of her family. And that’s not all! She rolls up her sleeves and renovates her whole house herself (more than once!), runs a business, and keeps all the plates spinning with enviable aplomb. She keeps the whole family in check, and acts as a touchstone for rationality and practicality in Márquez’s whirlwind multi-generational epic.

Catelyn Stark (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)

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

I know the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, but Catelyn Stark, in my mind, is a damn lioness. She’s fiercely protective: just try looking at one of her kids a bit funny, and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of some serious wrath! Catelyn shows us that being a good mother doesn’t always mean being warm and gentle – or even present. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your kids is storm off across the country and raise hell on their behalf. And before you say it, I can forgive her for being a bit rough on Jon Snow; it can’t have been easy raising the kid you believe is the living, breathing evidence of your otherwise-wonderful husband’s infidelity… Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

Sunyan Woo (The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan)

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Joy Luck Club‘s founder, Sunyan Woo, isn’t one to wallow. Instead of getting rightfully depressed about her very shitty life circumstances, she cops on with it, basically manifesting the happiness she so desperately wishes for her family. She makes some heartbreaking sacrifices, even knowing all the while that her daughters will never truly understand the choices she makes, but believing firmly in what is best for them. We usually think of “good” mothers as giving their kids everything they want, and the kids smiling and thanking them endlessly, but there’s another side to it in real life. Sunyan Woo is a wonderful example of that type of good motherhood.

Addie Bundren (As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner)

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, I’m well aware that this is a controversial inclusion in a list of the best mothers in literature, but I stand by it. Addie dies pretty early on in As I Lay Dying – hope I didn’t spoil that for you, but heck, the title is a pretty big clue – and there’s really only one chapter written from her perspective. And yet, Faulkner still manages to tell us so much about her! I feel like I know her personally. Through her reflections, and those of her family, we know that Addie did pretty well to plan the hand she was dealt in life… but she reveals to us that she didn’t lose touch with who she truly was, someone who didn’t wish to be a mother, and didn’t relish the job, despite all the social pressure to feel differently. She cared deeply for her family, but she was also movingly honest about not quite fitting the mould her life had cut for her. I found it refreshing and incredibly endearing. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

Molly Weasley (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is the Marmee for this generation. Sure, everyone goes ga-ga over Lily Potter’s big “sacrifice”, but in our heart of hearts we all know we’d rather be mothered by the hard-arse matriarch of the Weasley family. She cares deeply and tenderly for all of her children, taking in Harry and Hermione as her own as well, but she’s never a soft touch and she doesn’t hesitate to dole out the discipline as required (which, given that she raised two identical-twin pranksters, is pretty often). I challenge you to read her immortal line – “Not my daughter, you bitch!” – and tell me to my face you don’t get chills.

Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck)

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

Another American classic, another incredible matriarch – what is it in the water on that side of the world that helps them write the best mothers in literature? Ma Joad is the true hero of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and that’s a hill I’m happy to die on if you want to argue the point. She whips up meals out of thin air, miraculously keeping starvation at bay for the whole family. She shields the still-warm corpse of her own mother from the rest of them to ensure they reach California safely. She calms the nerves of her pregnant daughter, and delivers the baby herself when the time comes. I could give a hundred other examples, but I’m sure by now you’re as convinced as I am that she is the backbone of the Joad family. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Miss Honey (Matilda – Roald Dahl)

Miss Honey is proof that motherhood is not to be found only in blood or biology. Matilda‘s birth parents are all kinds of awful (Dahl did have a real knack for writing shitty guardians), but in Miss Honey this young girl finds the love and support she needs. Like any other mother, Miss Honey sees Matilda’s special talents and incredible intelligence, and goes above and beyond to protect and nurture her. In each other, Matilda and Miss Honey find their real family, and it’s so touching – far more than you’d expect from a children’s book!

Helen Graham (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The best mothers in literature haven’t always been recognised as such. In fact, Helen Graham – the titular Tenant of Wildfell Hall – was so shocking, so controversial, so blatantly feminist that Charlotte Brontë forbid the book’s republication after Anne’s death. The notion that a woman(!) would think for herself, and escape her philandering drunk of a husband to start a new life with her adored son instead of just, y’know, putting up with it, was not only confronting to rigid Victorian sensibilities – it was literally illegal. Thankfully, we can now recognise Helen Graham as the brave feminist icon she is, and admire her incredible commitment to taking care of her child, flying in the face of all social expectations.



Who do you think are the best mothers in literature? I would love some more examples of wonderful WOC and LGBTIQ+ mothers – they’ve historically been so underrepresented in books, and we need to redress that balance! Drop some suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Emma – Jane Austen

Emma - Jane Austen - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

To All The Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

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

Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

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

Dark Matter – Blake Crouch

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

Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined To Meet

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

One Day – David Nicholls

One Day - David Nicholls - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert

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

The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis

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

Love: A History – Simon May

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



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

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

After I finished Little Women, I couldn’t help but pick up John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was Louisa May Alcott’s father’s favourite book; he would read it aloud to his children, and encourage them to act it out, so it’s no surprise that she referenced it a lot in her work. Plus, its influence is clear in literature more generally: most notably, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is named for one of its settings. It also crops up in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and a bunch of others. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most significant works of English literature, widely billed as being the first English novel. It has been translated into over 200 languages, and it has never been out of print. So, are you convinced? I am!

The book’s full name is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is To Come. Bunyan began work on it while he was in the pokey; he was imprisoned for violating the Conventicle Act, which forbade people from gathering for religious services outside the Church of England in the 17th century. Bunyan, of course, did not give a shit, and he got busted preaching in a field. The first edition was published in 1678, while he was still locked up, and then the expanded edition came out after he was freed, in 1679. All up, there were twelve editions published in his lifetime, each with new revisions. This version, the Penguin English Library Edition, reproduces the original as closely as possible, with just a few slight tweaks to spelling and punctuation for the comfort of the contemporary reader.

It reads like a part-poem, part-play, part-story. The narrator recounts a dream that he had in jail about a pilgrim – Christian – who abandons his wife and children to hike to Heaven. Well, as best I can tell, he read the Bible and he freaked the fuck out (don’t all good pilgrimage stories start that way?). He’s weighed down by a “great burden” (the knowledge of his “sin”), and he convinces himself he’ll sink on down to Hell if he doesn’t get his shit together – so off he goes!

Then there’s a second part about his wife and children following him, which I thought was kind of nice. If only all authors had dedicated sequels to the forgotten wife!



Bunyan’s allegorical tale, the academics say, stands out above his predecessors because his language was simple and straightforward, making it easier for the every-man to understand. To put it more simply, it’s The Divine Comedy for dummies. Dante’s work, and the similarities between them, are so obvious it’s like a brick hitting you over the head. Bunyan’s prose is a lot simpler to be sure, but in my mind Inferno is still the clear winner – if nothing else, it’s a lot more exciting. Plus, The Pilgrim’s Progress just isn’t very funny! The only laughs I got were from things that probably weren’t meant to be funny, like:

“She is a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man.”

Talk! Imagine! What a strumpet!

There are no chapters in this edition (or any other, as far as I can tell), which is annoying – it’s just one big block of text. Normally, I use those pauses in the narrative to scribble down my notes, and think over what I’ve just read. Putting the book down to do all that, without a chapter break, feels like interrupting someone in the middle of a monologue. I suppose it’s forgivable, being that it was the first English language novel in history and no one had told Bunyan about chapters and all, but still… ugh.

At least it doesn’t require much background knowledge of religion. And all of the characters have helpfully-descriptive names like “Faithful” and “Talkative” – makes it pretty easy to keep them all straight. And Bunyan wasn’t entirely without humour in this regard; he was a Protestant, and not all that fussed with the Catholic Church, so he named the decrepit and harmless giant character “Pope”. Ha!



It’s impossible to deny Bunyan’s impact on English literature, and the respect afforded to him as a result of that. No one dares hanging any shit on him for using the “it was all a dream” trope – I mean, he’s probably the reason that trope exists to begin with! That said, I would only recommend The Pilgrim’s Progress to people who read the footnotes. You need to have a deep abiding curiosity about the tradition of literature, and/or God, to get much of it. If that doesn’t sound like you, give Dante’s Inferno a go instead, or skip the centuries-old religious allegories altogether.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

  • “Strange print style… great literature thouh. But the way it’s presented on paper is like a kids big coloring book. It’s like a picture book, but they forgot to add the pictures.” – orson orson
  • “The quality of the book exceeded my expectations.” Patricia M Nulf
  • “This book is about as far away from biblical salvation as you can be. The main character had to work for his salvation which is not what the bible teaches. John 6:47, Romans 4:5, Eph 2:8-9If you wish to confuse someone and see your friend or relative in hell, get them this book.” – Dave Nesbitt
  • “Tedious” – Amazon Customer9
  • “Like the names of the people.” – Amazon Customer
  • “this book has you lookin at your faith” – Debra Carroll
  • “This was a gift for my husband. I have not heard comments from him.” – SLC


How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone

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

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

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

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

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

“But other genres are for losers!”

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

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

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

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

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

You will.

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

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

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

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

Well, stop it.

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

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

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

Step Two: Read A Book That Crosses Genre Boundaries

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

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

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

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

Step Three: Try Alternating Books You Read

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

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

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

Step Four: Focus on Authors, Instead of Genres

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

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

More Quick Tips for Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

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



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


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

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