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Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Listen up, folks, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: If you’re going to read Little Women for the very first time, you need to find an edition – like this one, from Penguin Classics – with a decent introduction to the text. I know not everyone reads the introduction first, but I do, and if I hadn’t in this case, I would have completely missed the point. I was already pretty familiar with the story, because I loved the Winona Ryder film adaptation as a kid, but as far as literary critique goes I would have been completely adrift without a better understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s background and her motivations behind writing Little Women. (Of course, if an edition with a decent introduction isn’t forthcoming, you could always just read this review before you get started…)

Little Women was first published in 1868, and has historically been dismissed as moralising, sentimental guff. It’s “for girls”, you know? It’s only recently that Alcott’s magnum opus has been considered a valued component of the American literary canon. To fully appreciate the genius of this book, you really need to understand Alcott’s politics and the context in which the book was published. And, in addition to finding a copy with an introduction that breaks it down for you, I would strongly recommend finding a copy of the original text; there was a later edition, published in 1880, that smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges and, in so doing, refined a lot of the language and character descriptions to make them seem more “genteel”. Virtually all readers nowadays pick up the 1880 edition without realising what they’re missing out on – don’t be one of them!

So, onto all this background knowledge I keep telling you that you need: Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a “moral” book for young girls, with “wide appeal”. The story she came up with follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they transition into womanhood. Alcott herself was the second of four daughters, and – believe it or not – the similarities between her and Jo March don’t end there, so it’s pretty clear where she drew her inspiration. In fact, the story was so autobiographical that fans would write letters addressed to “Miss March”, and Alcott – being the good sport she was – would respond without correcting them. The first book was such a huge commercial success that readers (and Alcott’s publishers) immediately began clamouring for a sequel, so Alcott pumped out the follow-up “Good Wives” (though, it must be said, she was not a fan of that title, it was chosen by the publishers and she had no say at all). The two volumes are now sold together as a single edition, bearing the name Little Women.

Now, even though she seems like a good little woman herself, giving the publishers exactly what they wanted, Alcott is on record as having said that she would have much preferred to keep working on her own collection of short stories, which was very different in nature to the book for which she is most famous. So, why didn’t she? Well… she was hard up for cash. She wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” she said, but she hated writing it and referred to the process as “plodding away”.



She sought to address three major themes – domesticity, work, and true love – through this story of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott also effectively created the archetype of the “all-American girl”, embodying its different aspects in each of the March sisters: there’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic. The publishers wanted a story about good girls being good, but Alcott’s true message underlying the story is a little different: she’s clearly saying that virtue should be valued over wealth, and that women can overcome the constraints upon their gender through hard work and piety.

Yep, that’s right: Alcott was a feminist, and Little Women – despite its prima facie old-school values, and its controversial ending – is a deeply feminist novel. At the time of its publication, there were almost no models of non-traditional womanhood in popular media for young girls. So, Alcott took it upon herself to pitch many ideas of social change and progressive politics against the familiar backdrop of domestic life. Little Women paints a very familiar picture of the lives of girls in 19th century America, but it also legitimises their aspirations to grow beyond what is “expected” of them. So, three cheers for Alcott – way the fuck ahead of her time!

She gave the March sisters adventurous plots and storylines that had traditionally been coded as male. She wanted to normalise the ambition of women, and showcase alternatives to existing gender roles (which, at the time, were more restrictive than a damn corset). In particular, she addressed the idea that spinsters were “fringe” members of society, without power or influence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spinsters and unmarried women are actually strong, multi-dimensional characters, the true power brokers of the New England world that she created. Alcott shat all over the idea that you needed a husband and a family to be a “good” woman, and she did so from a great fucking height.



Now, everyone who’s read the book is currently screaming at me: “But Alcott ‘saved’ Jo in the end by marrying her off! That’s not feminist!”. To that, I say that the way in which Alcott did it was so clever and subversive, I don’t blame you for missing it on the first take. Alcott did, indeed, “marry off” her heroine… but not to the dashing, Prince Charming (Laurie), who had begged for her hand time and time again. Nope! Jo instead marries the much older (and poorer!) Professor Friederich Bhaer, a far less romantic ending and one that subverted the expectations of all the young readers who had, until then, never read a love story that didn’t involve a fairytale ending. Fuck yes, Alcott – fuck yes! People who criticise this ending don’t seem to understand the precarious position in which the author found herself. She was straddling the demands of her moneybags publishers – not to mention her very pious and conservative father – as well as her own determination to write a story that upheld her own feminist values. You can’t put a 20th century feminist head on a 19th century working woman’s shoulders, and I say she did a damn good job with what she had.

“For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord”, kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others, Little Women itself stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom.”

The book is full of sneaky little feminist asides. Of course, there are plenty of characters that represent the social status-quo, in keeping with the morals of the time, but the fact that Alcott managed to include her own agenda at all feels rebellious and awesome. In real life, Alcott was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement (yay!), and also the temperance movement (boo!), so she practiced what she preached, no matter what her Daddy said. If you need any more proof that she was fighting the good fight, the wonderful introduction to my Penguin Classics edition cites her influence on some of the founding mothers of feminism as we know it today: Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.



So, all told, I’m really glad I read the introduction and learned all of this before I started reading the book – otherwise, I could well have fallen into the trap of disregarding Little Women as fluff. As it was, I knew exactly what to look for in the story, and I found it really interesting and enjoyable. Little Women is basically the original YA novel – sure, it can be a bit saccharine and trite at times, but no more so than any other work published around the same time, and when you look closely there are some really valuable lessons hidden away there.

That said, even though I’m calling this a recommended read(!), I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers. It’s much better suited to older readers, who have more developed critical thinking skills and can truly appreciate the masterful way that this simple story, about a very loving tight-knit group of sisters, makes some very important points about the role of women in society… points that we could do well to re-visit often.

Tl;dr? Make sure you look beneath the surface of Little Women, because that’s where you’ll find Alcott’s fighting feminist spirit. Onwards, ladies!

Note: in the end, I enjoyed Little Women so much that I put it on my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

  • “PLEASE NOTE THAT I DID NOT ORDER THIS ITEM” – SUE
  • “I would have given it five stars if the last few chapters hadn’t been some what disappointing. The majority of the book brought me immense pleasure and pain. Enjoy. It is worthwhile. Especially if you love Jesus.” – Blodwyn
  • “It was dumb. The women acted like 5 year olds more than half of the time and the mother who stressed the importance of resources, decided to give away food. Genius.” – Matthew
  • “If you are looking for a 400+ page children’s book narrated bu an unenthusiastic female robot… LOOK NO FURTHER… YOU HAVE FOUND IT!!!!” – Amazon Customer


What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 Books For 2020?

It’s really comforting to know that, even in these uncertain times, there are certain things that a book lover can rely on, like the release of the Dymocks Top 101. Every year, thousands of Australian readers vote on their most beloved books, and those fine booksellers publish the results. I love leafing through this list each year, and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted – much more fun than plain-old same-old lists of best selling books and professional critic round-ups. This is bookish democracy at its finest! Plus, this year, there was a world first: a tie for first place! Here’s my take on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020…

Dymocks Top 101 Books 2020 - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookstore - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief - Books Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Two former number ones, both alike in dignity… turns out, Australia just couldn’t decide between them! It was a dead heat for the number one spot, so Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief tied for first. Eleanor Oliphant got the gong in the 2019 list, and The Book Thief has been lingering around the top 10 ever since it was first released thirteen years ago. Impressive, on both fronts! Zusak maybe has a slight edge, given that his recent follow-up, Bridge Of Clay, also made the list (number 47). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

3. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And here’s one that would come as no surprise to anyone at all. You couldn’t swing a bookmark in Australia these past twelve months without hitting a copy of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. Billed as equally heartbreaking and uplifting, this is a coming of age story that appeals to readers right across the spectrum. It’s got a bit of everything: romance, crime, adventure, humour, and family ties.

4. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another former number one (but fourth place is still very respectable!): All The Light We Cannot See. It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction that won hearts and minds across the world. In it, a German orphan and a blind French girl are destined to cross paths as they both try to play the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Oh, and there’s a precious jewel and a Nazi treasure hunter… Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

5. The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Harper is one of the most formidable crime writing talents to come out of Australia in the past decade. Her debut, The Dry, came in at number five, and her two follow ups – The Lost Man and Force Of Nature – also made the list, at 11 and 92 respectively. This is the book that introduced Aaron Falk, hard-boiled Australian Federal Police investigator. He reluctantly returns to his hometown to mourn the passing of a childhood friend, and (of course) finds himself drawn into a mystery, in the midst of the worst drought of the century… A feature film, starring Eric Bana, is slated for release later this year (corona-willing).

6. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

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

Okay, maybe it’s cheating to put an entire series in, but at least it frees up a few extra slots for other great reads in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020. I think we can safely say that Harry Potter is officially a classic now – and not one of those contemporary classics that we’ll all forget about eventually, but a classic-classic that we’ll be reading and enjoying for generations to come. I actually kind of look forward to the day that we see these books shelved alongside Dickens and Austen…

9. Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s almost a cliche, by this point, for anyone who has ever stepped foot in the White House to write a memoir (especially if they intend to return). Michelle Obama, however, managed to break the mold. Becoming is no whistle-blowing take-down of the upper echelons, nor is it a simpering testament to the magic of democracy. It’s a refreshing and compelling account of the experiences that shaped America’s first black First Lady. I almost held off picking up this one (it’s the contrarian nature in me), but the consistent, long-term hype wore me down.

13. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Look, I can’t deny that I’m overjoyed to see Dark Emu on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020… but I also can’t deny that I’m disappointed to see that it didn’t rank higher. In my view, Pascoe’s account of the true Indigenous agricultural history of this nation should be required reading for all Australians and all who come here. It was voted as the inaugural Parliamentary Book Club read, where constituents chose it as the book they most wanted their elected representatives to read, and shot back to the top of the best-seller list over Christmas as book lovers came out in droves to buy it for their loved ones.

14. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another one I’m really happy to see made the cut (again): The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. In fact, it seems to climb higher and higher in the Dymocks Top 101 list each year. This is a disarmingly honest account of one of Australia’s most beloved comedians and artists, and his family’s journey to reach our shores from Vietnam. It’s one of my favourites to recommend to anyone who expresses an opinion about “boat people” (ugh). Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

15. The Rosie Trilogy by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Rosie books have really captured the hearts and minds of a lot of Australians. It all started with The Rosie Project, where a neurodivergent man finds love with the titular Rosie. She’s nothing like he would have expected he’d find alluring – in fact, she’s a bit of a wreck, but those crazy kids make it work. I give Simsion props for kicking the rom-com cliches to the curb; not only did he invert the much-maligned Grease storyline, he didn’t settle for the “and then they lived happily ever after” ending either. The subsequent novels, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result, follow Don and Rosie as they travel around the world, settle into wedded bliss, and raise a child. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

17. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ever since the HBO adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t just surged in popularity; it’s become emblematic of the struggle to resist conservative governments around the world. Women have shown up wearing red Handmaid robes to protest the passage of legislation that would limit their right to access to health-care. But it’s not just the show: people are returning to the book again and again, and I think it’s safe to say we could now hold it on par with other dystopian classics like Nineteen Eighty Four. Plus, there was the sequel released last year, The Testaments, which came in on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 at number 32. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

26. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

I used to roll my eyes whenever I saw Pride And Prejudice in a best-of books list. I mean, what a cliche, right? Well, I’m a convert now – it’s a cliche for a reason, people! I had no fewer than half a dozen aborted attempts to read this classic of English literature, but I got there in the end and I’m SO glad I persisted. For the skeptics out there, let me reassure you that it’s not all gowns and marriage prospects and fluffing about. There’s serious social and political commentary here, and dashing men making foolish decisions and having the women in their lives dress them down for it. Oh, and there’s tea. Can’t have too much tea. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

28. A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin

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

I called it last year, folks: the A Song Of Ice And Fire series is going to be hanging around in the Dymocks Top 101 books for a long, long time, thanks to the unparalleled popularity of the HBO series (that finally concluded last year). Fantasy, particularly High Fantasy(TM), is not usually my thing – I get too lost and confused with all the made up place names and people names and languages and whatnot, even if there’s a helpful guide in the front. But, having watched the adaptation, I actually found A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series, quite easy to follow. I even (gasp) enjoyed it. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

31. Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tara Westover’s story is so incredible that her memoir, Educated, basically sells itself. She was born to a survivalist family, so isolated from society that there was no one around to ensure that she received any kind of proper schooling. She didn’t step foot into a classroom until she was seventeen years old. In this book, she recounts how she pursued her love of learning – all the way to Cambridge University, where she earned a PhD! – and reckoned with the “real” world, so different from that in which she was raised.

34. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m actually kind of shocked that Big Little Lies didn’t rank higher in the Dymocks Top 101 books for this year, but given the strength of the contenders, coming in the mid-thirties is still very respectable. That goes double when you take into account that this book was published six(!) years ago, and one of Liane Moriarty’s other best sellers, The Husband’s Secret, also made the cut (at number 89). I worried for a long time that I was going to be the last person left alive who hadn’t read this perennially popular domestic thriller, but I finally got around to it this year (and just in time to avoid spoilers from the TV show adaptation!). Read my full review of Big Little Lies here, and my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.

36. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australia has seen a whole slew of brilliant life-writing from women in the #MeToo era, bravely disclosing the details of various assaults and harassment that they have suffered in silence over many years. Eggshell Skull is one of the best, because Bri Lee offers a particularly interesting and unique perspective on the experiences of women who come forward. She trained as a lawyer, and worked as a judge’s associate on a regional court circuit for a year. That meant that she saw the system from the “inside”, how the trial and prosecution of people charged with sexual assaults actually works (or doesn’t), and the “outside”, as she herself comes forth as a victim. Hopefully, the inclusion of books such as hers on the Dymocks Top 101 represents a major shift in cultural attitudes towards believing women and paving the way for past injustices to be addressed.

38. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

This book is the little-engine-that-could of international best-sellers. On the face of it, A Little Life doesn’t have many points in its favour. It’s long (SUPER long, could-use-it-as-a-doorstop long). It’s depressing (most editions have a cover that features a close up of a man crying hysterically). Hanya Yanagihara is a woman of colour, a group embarrassingly under-represented in the upper echelons of publishing. And yet, here we are, five years after the release of this juggernaut, still singing its praises! That’s what you love to see…

39. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It would seem that no matter how few fucks you give, you could always give fewer. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck is well on its way to becoming a classic of the self-help genre – it spawned at least a dozen knock-offs, and sparked a trend in obscenity in book titles (which I, for one, wholeheartedly support). Of course, Manson has gone on to write a follow up, which also did well, but it’s the original that Dymocks booklovers voted into the Top 101 books for 2020.

40. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think, in a few decades or so, we’ll look back at Normal People as one of the defining Millennial(TM) novels. From what I’ve read, I don’t think Rooney would be particularly pleased to hear it described that way, but them’s the breaks – you can’t just go and be the voice of a generation and then let it get up your nose. This story of an extraordinarily complex emotional entanglement between two young adults has resonated with a lot of folks, and a BBC adaptation is coming later this month.

42. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another trend-setter: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn can surely be credited with the renewed interest in dark psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators. We’re positively drowning in them, now! I think this one was particularly popular because it came right on the cusp of the moment where we saw a serious shift, a new wave of critical attention to the power differential between men and women. Plus, it brought suspense and intrigue and violence into the hetero marriage, a normally-comfortable setting. Or, maybe this is all overreach – maybe it’s just a really pacy page-turner. Either way!

43. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

If you’re surprised to see this modern classic in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2020, you shouldn’t be. To Kill A Mockingbird has been in every Dymocks Top 101 that I can remember. I think the key is its wide appeal – everyone, from young teens to old crones, can enjoy it – and its timeless message regarding social justice. We’re probably a little more sensitive now to some of the harmful tropes employed by Lee to get her message across (the “white saviour” being the most prominent), but I don’t think that diminishes the comfort and inspiration we can take from her only (true) novel. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

48. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a shame that Scandinavian writers get so much attention for their crime noir thrillers when they’re pumping out heart-warming up-lifting books like A Man Called Ove. Fredrik Backman was a humble Swedish blogger who burst onto the literary scene, and into our hearts, when this book was translated into English back in 2013. It’s the story of a crotchety old man (called Ove, naturally) who’s fed up with just about everything, a condition only exacerbated by the arrival of his noisy, nosy new neighbours. Backman has been making us cry – happy tears, and sad ones – for years now, and will likely go on doing so for years yet.

49. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Gone Girl might have jockeyed ahead in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but The Girl On The Train is holding on strong! This domestic thriller follows the interweaving lives of three very different women: Rachel (the alcoholic with the history of fertility issues), Anna (the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, and stay-at-home mum to the infant Rachel might’ve had), and Megan (who lives a few doors down from Anna). Rachel sees no harm in peering into Anna and Megan’s lives from the window of her train as she passes every day, but then she witnesses something that might be a clue to what could be a crime… Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

50. The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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

I don’t mean to be rude, but I am truly baffled by the continuing popularity of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. (Maybe I’m just bitter because it beat out my favourite to win the Booker Prize, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, back in 2014.) Sure, I can appreciate Flanagan’s skill in depicting the harsh realities of war, specifically life for prisoners working on the Burma railway, but the whole “love story” was just so overwrought and unnecessary… But, clearly, I’ve been outvoted, Aussie book lovers are still enchanted by it. Read my full review of The Narrow Road To The Deep North here.

53. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

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

Every time I talk on the internet about The Fault In Our Stars, I live in fear of enraged teens hunting me down with buckets full of rotting tomatoes. But I can’t lie: it’s just not good. Reading it, I felt like John Green just made a list of every single thing that might pull on our heartstrings (star cross’d lovers, teen cancer, disappointing role models) and ticked them off one by one. That said, I’d still recommend that everyone reads it; there’s going to be a whole bunch of future doctors and nurses that came to their profession because they read this book, and we want to have something to talk to them about while they’re caring for us in our old age, don’t we? Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

54. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

I know I’m a big ol’ skeptic, and when I read The Alchemist I was a little snarky about it, but even I can’t begrudge Aussie book lovers for turning to an allegorical tale of faith and destiny in trying times. Plus, this is an easy read, not too tough to digest, and it might give you a little glimmer of hope when the news has filled you full of existential dread. It’s your standard hero’s journey, complete with buried treasure and a saccharine ending that tells us, once again, that sometimes even our biggest dreams lead us right back home. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.


56. Mythos by Stephen Fry

Mythos - Stephen Fry - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve got to admit, I’ve always felt particularly stupid (for many reasons, but one in particular is relevant here) for how little I know about the Greeks and Greek mythology. That’s why I feel particularly lucky – as do a lot of Dymocks readers, it would seem – that Stephen Fry put together this marvelously accessible re-telling of a selection of myths in Mythos. It’s funny, it’s readable, and it’ll at least give you some frame of reference next time someone starts talking Ovid at a party (also, you might want to start going to better parties).

61. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are certainly not over! There are several featured in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but my personal pick is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Over the course of three books, it charts the complex and fascinating history of Korea’s relationship with Japan, through the story of one Korean family who (eventually) migrates to Japan, and then across the world to America. It deconstructs their experiences of racism and power and, as the title would suggest, the symbolic power of the pachinko machines.

63. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Non-fiction doesn’t tend to feature as prominently in the Dymocks lists, but the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 had some strong contenders, including this one: Sapiens. It is a detailed survey of the history of human evolution, from the Stone Age right up to the 21st century. Setting aside some searing criticisms from academics in the field (what would those boffins know?), this book has been extremely popular, and it has introduced a slew of readers to the field of evolutionary biology, an area in which they might not otherwise have had any interest at all. A fascinating read, if nothing else!

65. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Jane Eyre – an oldie, but a goodie! Alongside other classics, like Pride And Prejudice, this seems to be a book that never goes out of style. Naturally, a lot of the more troubling elements have been roundly criticised of late (Mr Rochester is the very definition of a problematic fave – hello, Creole wife locked in the attic and gross exploitation of young female employees!), but that doesn’t negate the nostalgic attachment many readers feel for what is perhaps the coziest and most comforting of the Brontë books. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

67. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We are truly living in the golden age of young adult literature! No longer is it solely the domain of patronising and/or sentimental guff. In fact, it’s probably where some of the most exciting, diverse, and challenging writing is being done – case in point, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Despite being quite specific to the situation of racial injustice in policing in the United States (don’t get me wrong, we’ve got our own problems here, too!), it’s found a wide readership in Australia. I think that’s because, at its heart, it’s about the symbiotic relationship between fear and oppression, and the bravery it takes to smash down barriers.


72. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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

You know, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was always a great comfort read (which is why we see it in the Dymocks Top 101 books pretty much every year), but perhaps it’s got a new resonance this year because it’s chock-full of advice on how to survive the end of the world. Step one: DON’T PANIC! Step two: check on the dolphins. Step three: always pack a towel. If you’re not lucky enough to have befriended a nearby alien with a getaway-spaceship handy, at least you can make the most of the rest of Adams’ oddly prescient advice. Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

74. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

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

Erin Morgenstern burst onto the scene back in 2011 with her incredibly-popular debut novel, The Night Circus… and then she disappeared for years. Finally, she’s back, with The Starless Sea and fans have been frothing at the mouth for it (so no surprise to see it made the cut for the Dymocks Top 101). It’s dreamy, light-fantasy story, with underground cities and libraries and keys and honey and bees… oh my! Read my full review of The Starless Sea (for Primer) here.

78. The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover

The Land Before Avocado - Richard Glover - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’d long suspected that the misty-eyed nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” in Australia was a complete crock. Thankfully, Richard Glover has confirmed by theory in The Land Before Avocado – and its popularity proves to me that I’m not alone! He deconstructs all of the myths around the “simpler times” and the “lazy, hazy days”, and reminds us of what it was actually like growing up in the Australia of his childhood in his typically hilarious style. Would you REALLY want to return to the days where you couldn’t get smashed avo on toast at the local cafe? I didn’t think so!

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

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

Look, if I had it my way, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared would be in the top 10 of every Dymocks list from now until the end of time. It is my ultimate cheer-up read, my go-to gift for loved ones who need a laugh. Just these past couple of weeks, I’ve thrust it into many, many hands. It’s a delightful romp across the world, following a centenarian who – as the title suggests – jumps out the window of his nursing home to avoid a tedious birthday party, and goes on an adventure. I cannot fathom what kind of humourless nincompoop wouldn’t get a few decent belly laughs out of this charming tale. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

90. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

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

Personally, I wavered on reading Ann Patchett for years, mostly because I simply could not figure out where to start. Many trusted readers recommended I try Commonwealth to begin, while others said Bel Canto is her best, while still others insisted I read State Of Wonder. The release of The Dutch House last year seems to have changed all that, though – it’s unequivocally, democratically(!), now the most popular of all her books among Australian readers. So, that settled that!


93. The Martian by Andy Weir

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

Whenever someone tells me that they “don’t read sci-fi” (especially if they wrinkle their nose as they say it), The Martian is the book that I put in their hands. It’s THAT good. Set in a not-too-distant future, it imagines the story of an astronaut left stranded alone on Mars, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from help or even a simple “hello”. It sounds depressing as all heck, but the narrator, Mark Watney, is one of the funniest characters I’ve ever read in fiction. This one manages to be a science lesson, a page turner, and great fun, all at once! Read my full review of The Martian here.

95. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who could resist a delightfully satirical romantic comedy that sees Singapore’s most eligible bachelor married off to a fashion icon in the high-stakes “wedding of the year”? What I like most about Crazy Rich Asians is that, even though much has (rightfully) been made of its success in diversity and representation in a sadly whitewashed contemporary genre, it’s delightful and endearing and entertaining in its own right. This book is not a “diversity pick” or a box to check, it’s just a sparkling, witty, glorious read.

99. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Often, a true story is so incredible, you wouldn’t believe it if it were fiction. That’s what I think every time I see The Trauma Cleaner. Crime-scene and trauma clean-up is a fascinating and bizarre job in and of itself, but the life journey of the trauma cleaner in question, Sandra Pankhurst, takes this book to a whole new level. I don’t think I can say it better than the blurb: “Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…” I mean, come on! If that doesn’t pique your interest, seek help.

100. Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

Your Own Kind Of Girl - Clare Bowditch - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I first encountered Clare Bowditch in her recurring guest role on the beloved and much-missed Aussie TV show, Offspring. I figured she had some kind of musical background, given that her character was a singer and often performed. It turns out, there was a whoooole lot more that I didn’t know, and she revealed it all in Your Own Kind Of Girl. This is the kind of memoir that will have your jaw drop, purely for the incredible bravery it takes to be THAT honest about your life, your anxieties, and the monsters that hide under your bed. My hat goes off to Clare Bowditch for sharing her story, and I’m glad to see it here in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 – hopefully, that means it’s reached scores of other girls of their own kind, too.

101. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

Well, this Dymocks Top 101 list sure did save the biggest surprise for last! But, if I’m honest, I’m not sure what’s more surprising. Is it that Little Women wasn’t ranked higher, given the success of the most recent film adaptation? Or is it that Little Women ranked at all, given that SO many people (very, very wrongly) look down on this “sentimental” classic? Whatever the case, I’m happy to see it made the cut. I stand by my conviction that Little Women is actually a deeply subversive and feminist book, and that Louisa May Alcott doesn’t get NEARLY enough adulation, and it would seem that at least a handful of other Aussie book lovers are willing to back me up on it. Read my full review of Little Women here.

General Comments on the Dymocks Top 101 Books for 2020

Last year, Kate Maynor from Dymocks predicted a surge in the popularity of “uplit”, books that leave you feeling uplifted and energised. I think we’ve seen that play out here, with the inclusion of Eleanor Oliphant, Becoming, A Man Called Ove, and so on. I think it makes sense now, more than ever, that people are looking to “escape” the dreariness of the “real” world by diving into books that make them smile (and I’m especially glad that we might finally shake this elitist nonsense about looking down on “escapist” books once and for all!).

Notable exclusions: I’m really surprised that we didn’t see any Andre Aciman in this year’s list (Call Me By Your Name, or his recently-released sequel Find Me). I am freaking OVERJOYED, however, that we finally kicked The Great Gatsby off its stupid perch. And I would have loved to see one of my personal favourites from last year, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, make the cut. Ah well, there’s always next year!

All told, 37 of this year’s 101 books were written by Aussie authors – not bad, but I think we could do better! Reading local is the best way to keep our literary scene thriving, especially with the headwinds authors and publishers and booksellers are going to face over the next few months (even years). 64 of the books were written by women, which is an (awesome!) uptick on last year, and much better reflects the contribution that women are making to literature and the arts.



Check out what I thought of last year’s Dymocks Top 101 books here!

Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List

Long before I even thought of starting this blog, I sat down and made a list: a hundred-and-nine books I felt I “should” have read already. A lot of them were classics, some were more contemporary best-sellers, all of them were pretty much unknown quantities. I took notes as I read about what I liked and what I didn’t, and those notes became reviews, and those reviews became Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now that I’ve finished reading my way through that original list (never fear, the blog will continue and more reviews are coming!) I’m feeling all nostalgic and shit. I thought I’d take a look back at my greatest hits: the best of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.

The Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List - Text Overlaid on Mosaic Tiles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

Even after I read all the blurbs and the accolades, I had no idea what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was going to be about when I sat down to start reading it. Turns out, there’s a very good reason for that. This book had the mother-of-all twists that came seventy pages in, one that completely turns the story on its head. It has set the standard for all plot twists in every book I’ve read since (and very few have lived up to it). But that’s not the only reason to read this book: it’s funny, it’s touching, and I swear it made me a better person. Whenever I’m asked to give a book recommendation for a complete stranger, this is the first one I suggest. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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

A Short History Of Everything wasn’t a completely unknown quantity. I’d read Bill Bryson’s Down Under years ago, and loved it – it’s hard not to be charmed by his folksy style, his wry humour, and his insightful anecdotes. Still, A Short History Of Nearly Everything is in a league of its own. It’s practically a masterclass on how to write about complex topics for the everyday reader. Somehow, Bryson managed to make the most intricate jargon-y scientific and historical knowledge of humankind accessible, understandable, and – most importantly of all – fun! I know it’s a few years out of date now (my edition still says Pluto is a planet, whoops!), but I still use fun facts from this book on a daily basis. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

When I was putting together my original reading list, I knew I had to include Dickens. He was my late grandfather’s favourite author, and I always regretted not having read any of his work while Granddad was still alive; I know we would have had incredible discussions about it. I went with David Copperfield because I read that Dickens had said it was his personal favourite, and who am I to question the author? It totally held up to all of my expectations – exceeded them, even, high as they were! It’s a long, long book, but it didn’t feel like it. I devoured it like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a true crime junkie, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I listen to the podcasts, and follow the breaking news on cold cases. And now, having read it, I can see why In Cold Blood is considered essential reading, the foundational text, of the true crime genre. Capote spent six years investigating the Clutter murders, taking over eight thousand pages of notes (helped by his best buddy, Harper Lee, don’t forget), and whittled them down into this incredible book, the “first true crime novel” as he called it. And, before you say it, I know he took some liberties with the truth. I bloody know, alright? Make what you will of the ethics of it, but when the book is this good, I’m willing to overlook a bit of creative license. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend taught me more about the art of translation than any other book on my list. It was originally written in Italian by an anonymous author (Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume, and I don’t care what some dickhead with an algorithm thinks he figured out, her true identity has never been revealed), and translated into English by Ann Goldstein. I was so impressed with the way Goldstein managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian that I started to do a bit of digging, which ended up being a rabbit hole into the world of books in translation. Not only is My Brilliant Friend an incredible read, it’s also a testament to the power of language, and the importance of the #namethetranslator movement. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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

Do you ever read a book and wonder why on earth everyone isn’t talking about it already? That’s how I felt with Cold Comfort Farm. It had a strange cover that kind of put me off, but in deference to the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I ploughed ahead anyway, and I am SO glad I did. Stella Gibbons is a criminally underrated comic author, and Cold Comfort Farm is a work of hilarious genius. It’s like a satirical Mary Poppins, with a cast of characters so eccentric and bizarre they’ll have your eyes wide when they don’t have you in stitches. What’s more, I found out later that Gibbons remains relatively unknown because she refused to play the game and suck up to the literary giants of her day. I say let’s not let her fall into obscurity because she didn’t enjoy networking! Read my full review of Cold Comfort Farm here.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

Speaking of underrated kick-arse women writers: did you know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a book, long before it was a Marilyn Monroe film? I didn’t until I was putting my reading list together, and I was curious enough to give it a try. Anita Loos should be a household name. She was the first salaried scriptwriter to work with major Hollywood studios. She crafted characters that felt so real you could almost reach out and touch them (the protagonist in this book, Lorelei Lee, being a case in point). Loos was observant, brilliant, and funny as hell. Unfortunately, she fell in love with an arsehole, who lived off her profits and cut her down whenever he felt threatened. So, screw him, I say, and while we’re at it, screw anyone who says The Great Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. It’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all the way, baby! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

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

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

Before I started reading my way through this list, all I knew about Scandinavian writers was that they wrote crime. Good crime. Grisly crime. Hardened detectives in cold climates sussing out awful murders. But now, having read The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I’ve got to say I think that reputation is a damn shame. This is one of the most delightful, charming, and uplifting books I’ve ever read. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief for a minute or two, but it’s worth it: it’s so worth it. It’s a European Forrest Gump, but better. My edition was translated into English by Rod Bradbury (#namethetranslator!). Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

Whenever I get into an argument with someone about whether to bother reading the introduction to a classic book (so many people just skip straight to chapter one!), I always whip out Little Women and beat them over the head with it. This book was written off for centuries as light, sentimental fluff – it was a book “for girls”, and never taken seriously as part of the American literary canon. I might’ve come away from it with the same impression had I not read the introduction, which gave me some context about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the way she came to write her best-known work. This is an incredible book, but you have to be paying close attention and know what to look for. Read my full review of Little Women here.


The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Have you ever read a book so good it just made you angry? When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, when I put the book down on my lap and tried to catch my breath after that sucker-punch of a final scene, I found myself irrationally angry at every person in my life who had ever read this book. Why hadn’t they warned me? I’m not sure I even liked it very much at first because I was so startled by it. It’s the story of a family migrating from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, but it’s alarmingly analogous to current events as a result of climate change. I was so moved, and so wrecked, by this book that I needed to put myself in a time-out before I put a hole in a wall. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

I have no idea how Crime And Punishment ended up on my reading list. I was dreading it, to say the least. I eschewed Anna Karenina and War And Peace for the same reason: it’s a Russian classic, which – I was sure – meant it was going to be dense, dull, and depressing. How wrong I was, reader! How wrong I was! This edition – translated into English by David McDuff (name! the! translator!) – was well loved before it fell into my hands, as the tattered cover shows, and I can see why. I never thought I would laugh with, cry for, or relate so hard to a literal axe murderer… and yet, here we are. Seriously, don’t sleep on this one, folks, and never let a book’s reputation decide for you whether it’s to your tastes. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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

Do you know that The Bell Jar is one of the most difficult classic books to find in secondhand stores? There’s a reason for that: no one ever wants to part with their copy. I checked my local secondhand bookstore on an almost-daily basis for months, and never found one. I was about to give up hope and buy it new when a friend stopped by that very same bookstore on her way to visit me and saw this beautiful Faber edition on display – it had come in that very day. She bought it for me, and I loved it. Loved it. The prose is every bit as beautiful as the cover. It’s one of the first things I would save in a fire. Sylvia Plath’s true-life (and death) story is heart-breaking of course, but I’m so, so glad and grateful that she was able to bring this book into the world before she passed. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

It’s been one heck of a ride, hasn’t it? And it’s not over yet! What have been your favourites from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list? Any new favourites that I should read and review ASAP? Let me know in the comments below!


Book Reviews By Category

American

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones – Coming Soon!
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Australian

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

Books In Translation

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

Children’s

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Classic

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Emma – Jane Austen
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Sanditon – Jane Austen – Coming Soon!
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli
Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Fantasy

The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Horror

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Memoir & Autobiography

American Sniper – Chris Kyle
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Mystery & Thriller

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
The Lake House – Kate Morton
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan

Non-Fiction

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
Religion For Atheists – Alain de Botton
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

Poetry

The Divine Comedy – Dante

Russian

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Science Fiction

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Martian – Andy Weir

Short Stories

Her Body And Other Bodies – Carmen Maria Machado – Coming Soon!

True Crime

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper

Young Adult

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Paper Towns – John Green
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

Book Reviews By Title

A

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
American Sniper – Chris Kyle
Amongst Women – John McGahern
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones – Coming Soon!
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

B

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

C

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman – Coming Soon!
The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

D

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Divergent – Veronica Roth
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills

E

Emma – Jane Austen
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

F

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

G

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
The Golden Bowl – Henry James
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

H

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado – Coming Soon!
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

I

If I Stay – Gayle Forman
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

J

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

K

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
The Lake House – Kate Morton
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

M

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Money – Martin Amis
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

N

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos

O

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

P

Paper Towns – John Green
Party Going – Henry Green
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Q

R

Religion for Atheists – Alain de Botton
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

S

Sanditon – Jane Austen – Coming Soon!
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

T

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

U

Ulysses – James Joyce

V

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

W

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

X

Y

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Z

Book Reviews By Author

A

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman – Coming Soon!
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Money – Martin Amis
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Emma – Jane Austen
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
Sanditon – Jane Austen – Coming Soon!

B

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
Religion for Atheists – Alain de Botton
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

C

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

D

The Divine Comedy – Dante
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

E

F

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

G

Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Party Going – Henry Green
Paper Towns – John Green
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene
Less – Andrew Sean Greer

H

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

I

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

J

The Golden Bowl – Henry James
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones – Coming Soon!
Ulysses – James Joyce

K

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
Kim – Rudyard Kipling
American Sniper – Chris Kyle

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

M

Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado – Coming Soon!
A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Amongst Women – John McGahern
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills
Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
The Lake House – Kate Morton

N

O

P

Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Yes Please – Amy Poehler
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

Q

R

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

S

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

T

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

U

V

W

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Picture Of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

X

Y

Z

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Recommended Reads

This is a round-up of of every single book I recommend here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. You should know, though, that I set the bar for my book recommendations pretty high. You can be confident that every single one of the recommended reads I list on this page are books that I personally love, treasure, and adore so much that I will happily recommend them to anyone (regardless of their tastes and preferences).

Oh, and if you buy any of these books (I really hope you do!) through a link on this page, I’ll get a tiny cut at no extra cost to you – it helps me keep Keeping Up With The Penguins, and bringing you more recommended reads!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

When I first picked up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I had no earthly idea what it was about. It had stacks of rapturous blurbs on the cover and in the front pages, but none of them gave any specifics about the plot… and it turns out, there’s a very good reason for that. There’s a twist about 70 pages in that sets the bar for all future plot twists. I personally think it’s criminal that Fowler didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2014 (she was shortlisted, but the gong went to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North). I’ve made it my life’s mission to thrust this book into as many readers’ hands as possible. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Have you ever finished a book that was so good it made you positively furious?! That’s what happened to me with The Grapes Of Wrath. When I turned the final page, and read that gut-punch of an ending, I was immediately livid with everyone in my life who hadn’t warned me just how very good it was. Setting aside my qualms about Steinbeck ripping off a lot of his research, this story is scary in its timelessness, and has a new resonance in the era of climate change. A family migrates from the Dust Bowl, in search of work, and encounter hardships beyond imagining along the way. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House was the most hotly-anticipated memoir of 2020. When I received a copy for review from the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail, the accompanying press release promised that it would “revolutionise” my idea of what memoir and non-fiction writing could be. “Yeah, right,” I thought… and yeah, it WAS right. Machado’s white hot writing talent is one thing, but the way she has structured and presented this memoir is just truly mind-blowing. Not only does she write deftly, vulnerably, beautifully, and devastatingly, the story she tells is a crucial and timely one: a formative and abusive relationship with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. This book is destined for the queer canon, where it most certainly belongs.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

I, for one, will never understand why we hold The Great Gatsby up to be the “definitive Jazz Age novel” when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes exists. Most people only know it as the Marilyn Monroe film, which was wonderful of course, but the book is a true masterpiece. Flighty, self-absorbed Lorelei Lee takes it into her pretty little head to keep a diary, and there she records the most searing critique of class systems and gender oppression that I’ve read in American literature. I think, perhaps, Anita Loos has been neglected and forgotten because her arsehole of a husband sucked the life (and money) out of her, so I’m doing my part for the feminist cause and putting her front and centre, where she belongs. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

You might think you “know” the Harvey Weinstein story. You followed the news stories as they broke: the hotel rooms, the bathrobes, the potted plants… Trust me, until you’ve read She Said, you’ve got no idea what really happened. The fine folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy of this one for review, and it took my breath away. Not only are the details of Weinstein’s crimes horrific, but the lengths that he went to cover them up (and the number of people who enabled him along the way) are almost literally unbelievable. I’m so grateful to Kantor and Twohey for sharing with us the story behind the story, how they worked to break the sexual harassment story that changed the world – they’ll teach this in journalism classes for years to come. Read my full review of She Said on Primer.

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

Scandinavian authors are perhaps better known for their thrillers and crime noir best-sellers of recent years, but I think that’s a real shame: their comedy is what truly shines. The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is a delightful romp across the world and across a lifetime, following the adventures of a centenarian who (as the title suggests) jumps out the window of his dreary nursing home and goes on an adventure. It’s my ultimate go-to cheer-up read, a must-read for fans of A Man Called Ove, and the book I buy for any friend who’s having a hard time. It was written in the original Swedish by Jonas Jonasson, and my edition was translated into English by Rod Bradbury. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.



Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

It really alarms me the snobbery that still exists around Little Women. For centuries, now, people have written off this book and excluded it from the canon, calling it “sentimental”, “fluff”, “moralising”, a “book for girls”. Whenever I hear someone speak about it in those tones, all I can think is that they didn’t know enough about Louisa May Alcott, the political climate in which she lived her life, and the miraculous and clever approach she took to subverting the expectations placed upon her. Little Women requires a close reading, one informed by context: if you read it with a keen eye, you’ll find literary brilliance and searing critique worthy of the Great American Novel. Read my full review of Little Women here.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

I think I had every reason to be skeptical about Rabbits For Food: it’s a writer writing about a writer, it’s an introspective book about mental illness, it has a jumpy timeline, the protagonist’s name is Bunny… and even with all the hoops I gave it to jump through, this book STILL made its way into the very depths of my heart. It had a perfect balance of darkness and humour, the kind of bleak comedy that had me crying tears of laughter while my heart ached. I will be forever grateful to Serpent’s Tail for sending me a copy for review, and I have talked it up to every reader I’ve encountered ever since. It’s rare that a quiet new release becomes one of my all-time favourites after a single read, but Rabbits For Food has done it – that should tell you something.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

For the longest time, I thought Crime And Punishment – along with all the other dense, dull, dreary Russian classics – was a book that people only pretended to have read. If anyone had told me it was their favourite book, I would’ve rolled my eyes and inwardly called them a pretentious twat. Reader, I am now one of those unfairly-maligned pretentious twats. This book was nothing like I expected: it was heart-warming, it was hilarious, it was relatable… no mean feat for a book about a literal axe murderer! I read the edition translated into English by David McDuff, so I can’t speak to the others that are floating around, but anyone who writes this one off without trying it for themselves is missing the heck out. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I really struggled when I sat down to review My Brilliant Friend – and I’m struggling with this summary now – because I just don’t know how I can possibly do such a brilliant (forgive me) book justice. I think we spend too much time gossiping and theorising about Ferrante’s true identity (her name is a pseudonym, and she remains anonymous to this day), when we should be focusing on her incredible storytelling. This is the first installment of the Neapolitan Novels series, and covers the childhood and adolescence of Lena and Lila, two young girls growing up in the bleak environs of mid-20th century Naples. It is a testament to the ferocity of female friendships, and navigating the patriarchal waters. It is also beautifully translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock is one of the most-often represented characters recreated in film, television, and books. He has become synonymous with the genre of detective mysteries, and so we all feel like we already know his stories. Please, from the bottom of my heart, don’t let that stop you from reading the original collection of short stories, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle. Even though they were just potboilers to him, a way to make fast cash while he focused on the true artistic work of historical fiction, they are enduring and powerful and delightful in equal measure. His economy of language is what blew me away the most: it would take longer for me to explain to you the details of what happens in just one story than it would for you to read the collection in its entirety. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I know, I know, it’s almost cliche to be a true crime fan at this point: podcasts like Serial have exploded into the public consciousness, and brought new legitimacy to the genre that was written off as sensationalist garbage for decades. That said, I cannot overstate the importance of going back to where it all began, with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the “first true crime novel”. In 1959, the Clutter family was murdered in their Kansas farm home, and Capote read a short article about it in The New Yorker. He immediately packed his bags and headed out there to investigate. After six years, and eight thousand pages of notes, he produced In Cold Blood, the book that still defines the genre to this day. (And no, I don’t care that he took some liberties with the truth: it is such a gripping and compelling read that I’ll forgive any and all creative license.) Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.



The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood is perhaps best known for her widely-adored speculative fiction, The Natural Way Of Things, but (in my humble opinion) The Weekend is her best book yet. It delves deeply into the lives of four women: or, more accurately, three women, old friends, who are charged with cleaning out the beach house of the fourth, who has recently died. I have never read a book that better blended tenderness with brutality, radical honesty with shameful secrecy, and deep respect with unforgiveable transgression. Wood interrogates the ways in which friendships change, or change us, and the grooves we wear into ourselves as we proceed into later life. When I turned the final page, I wanted to physically applaud her: bravo, Charlotte Wood, for so beautifully and honestly depicting the complex lives of older women in fiction!

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

I’ve long said that funny books don’t get the praise they deserve: Less by Andrew Sean Greer is the wonderful exception to that rule. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, making it the first unabashedly comic novel to get the gong in my lifetime. Arthur Less, our sad-sack love-lorn protagonist, must find a way to avoid the wedding of his ex-lover to a new beau, so he decides to accept every invitation he receives to every half-baked literary event in every corner of the world. The book follows him as he travels, clinging desperately to any remnants of youthful vitality and self-respect he can scrounge up. And, though it might not sound it from this summary, it is HILARIOUS! Read my full review of Less here.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

It almost scares me how often I find myself referring back to The Library Book. On its face, its a twist on a true crime book: a retrospective investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986, with some memoir and social commentary thrown in. But I find myself, almost weekly, using a tid-bit I gleaned from it for something totally unrelated: a friend who needs advice on preserving wet books, the evolving role of libraries in the digital age, the burden of proof in collecting evidence for arson cases… I sat down expecting to read an account of a bunch of books burning (heart-wrenching, but simple enough, for any book lover), and I got much, much more than I bargained for.


7 Best Fictional Couples

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

7 Best Fictional Couples - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer

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

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy

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

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

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

Lupin and Tonks

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

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

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

Ifemelu and Obinze

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

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

Allie and Noah

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

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

Cathy and Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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

Ennis and Jack

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

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

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

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

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

7 Classic Books For People Who Don’t Read The Classics

Are you still searching for a bookish new year’s resolution? “Start reading the classics” might be a good one, but I wouldn’t blame you if you were feeling a bit intimidated. Classic books have a reputation for being long, dense, and difficult to understand. If you were forced to read a few in high school, that was probably enough to put you off them for life. The trick is to find a few that will ease you in. That’s why I’ve put together this list of classic books for people who don’t read classic books. I tried to pick classics that are easy to read, in terms of both language and content (no trigger warnings required, though there will always be some darker themes, can’t avoid those). These reads will get you into the rhythm, and hopefully help you develop a taste for classic books.

Classic-Books-For-People-Who-Dont-Read-The-Classics-Text-Overlaid-on-Image-of-Man-in-Hat-Sitting-at-Bottom-of-Flight-of-Stairs-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte Brontë has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”, which means she was one of the first writers to do first-person narration really, really well. Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman (named Jane Eyre, duh) coming of age in Victorian England. She’s a bit down on her luck, with dead parents and mean stepsisters and everything, but a position as a governess for a strange and alluring man could turn things all around for her… It’s the perfect classic to start with if you’ve got feminist leanings but you’re still a sucker for a good romance. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

You might think you’re already familiar with Sherlock Holmes – he is, after all, the world’s most famous fictional detective, and one of the most commonly used and adapted characters in English literature. All that familiarity and context will make Doyle’s original short story collection, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a fun and easy read. Even if you’ve been living under the world’s largest rock and know nothing about Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson, you’ll still find these stories are quick, clever, and rollicking good fun. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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

In addition to a classic book with an intricate love triangle, when you pick up The Age Of Innocence you’ll also get a piece of history. It’s written in remembrance of a long-lost time, that of Gilded Age New York, and it’s also the first book written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. That makes Wharton a trailblazer, as well as a teller of cracking yarns. You do need to keep your wits about you as you read this one, because she weaves all kinds of interesting comments and observations into passages as simple as the description of a house facade. If you want a classic book you can sink your teeth into, on a long flight perhaps, this is the one for you! Read my full review here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

I know I promised you some short and snappy classic reads, so I understand if you’re looking at a copy of David Copperfield right now and thinking I’ve led you up the garden path. The thing is, even though this is a long book in terms of page count, I was so enthralled by it and the pages flew by so fast that it felt like a regular-length novel. It’s written in the style of an autobiography, telling the life story of (you guessed it) a man called David Copperfield. Dickens was the master of writing something for everyone; he knew that his books were used for family entertainment, so he weaved in politics, romance, adventure, and intrigue, and seasoned it with humour and horror, to make sure readers of all ages and inclinations would enjoy his books. Read my full review here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

Little Women wasn’t even considered to be a “real” classic until very recently. It has historically been written off as sentimental fluff, and many critical readers have turned their noses up at it. Luckily, I’m here to testify the truth of the matter, just for you Keeper-Upperers: this book is brilliant. Yes, it’s easy to read, and yes, at face value it can come across a little earnest, but lurking below the surface are all manner of feminist principles and class commentary and Alcott’s trademark subversion of expectations. I’m glad to see it has claimed its rightful place in the American literary canon! This is the classic book to read when you want a cozy family story with an edge. Read my full review here.

Emma by Jane Austen

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

It took me a while, but I’m finally coming around to Austen, and to Emma in particular. I know most readers would probably recommend Pride And Prejudice for first-timers, but I actually found Emma to be a better introduction. It’s a gentle book, in the sense that most of the action takes place around bored wealthy white people visiting each other’s houses, but it’s also incredibly clever and witty and wise. Emma is a book that will marinate in your mind long after you’ve finished it. Pick it up if for no other reason than to find out what all the fuss is about. Read my full review here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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

Mary Shelley put pen to paper and created Frankenstein in order to win a bet, and with that the whole genre of science fiction was born. If you’re a sci-fi reader, you should read this one to see the origins of your preferred genre brought to life (much like the monster, ha!). It’s written in an epistolary style – in letters, and diary entries, and so forth – which means it’s easy enough to pick up and put down, great for reading when you’re likely to experience distractions. That said, you’ll never want to put it down, because it’s just so gripping! Read my full review here.

What classic books would you recommend to people who don’t normally read classic books? Add to this reading list in the comments below!

50 Books To Read Before You Die

It’s a new year, and that means it’s reading resolution time. I’ve written before about how to read more, how to read more classic books, and how to read more diversely, so you can check out those posts if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re setting a more general goal this year, or looking for a fun reading challenge, this is the list for you. I’ve pulled together this list of fifty books to read before you die.

Now, these aren’t necessarily the “best” books, they’re not even the books I enjoyed the most – heck, I haven’t even read a few of them myself (yet). I certainly wouldn’t say these are the only books you should read, or that reading this list will make you definitively “well read” somehow. These are simply fifty of the books I think are well worth reading, listed here (in no particular order) alongside the reason I think you should give them a go…

50 Books To Read Before You Die - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookshelves Leading To Heavens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Let’s ease into it with a children’s book, something swift and sweet. Even if you already read Charlotte’s Web as a child, it’s wonderful to revisit it as an adult. This book has much to teach us about friendship, diversity, and determination.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know Jane Eyre isn’t without it’s problems (there’s the Creole wife locked in the attic by the romantic lead, for starters), but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s compulsively readable, beautifully rendered, and this Brontë sister has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”. Reading this book will show you where masterful first-person narration truly began. Read my full review here.

3. How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Oi! If you’re scrolling past this one, thinking “I don’t read self-help books” with a smug smile, you stop right now! How To Win Friends And Influence People isn’t so much a self-help book as it is a guide to being more polite and nice to others in your day-to-day life. I think the world could do with a bit more politeness and niceness, don’t you?

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Cold Blood wasn’t the first true crime book, but it can (probably) claim the title of the first “non-fiction novel” without much contest. In Capote’s account of a mass murder in Kansas, we can see the origins of all contemporary true crime and investigative journalism. Set aside your qualms about his liberal creative license – it’s a cracking yarn! Read my full review here.

5. Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The first, and most obvious, reason to read Diary Of A Young Girl is an act of remembrance: the story of Anne Frank, and the countless others who perished and suffered alongside her, should be remembered by all who continue to populate this planet. I’d like to add a second, literary reason: I have yet to read a WWII historical fiction novel that comes even close to capturing the hope, horror, and heart-wrenching honesty of this young woman’s record of her experiences.

6. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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

Even if you’re not normally a fantasy reader – I’m certainly not! – A Game Of Thrones is a good one to start with, mostly due to the enduring popularity of the HBO series. If you’ve seen it (and probably even if you haven’t) you’ll find the plot and characters at least somewhat familiar. That makes the whole thing easier to follow. And, let’s be honest, the main reason to read this book before you die is so that you can look down your nose at the know-it-alls who claim they never watched the series because they read the books. Who are they kidding? Read my full review here.

7. A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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

Even if you don’t necessarily need to know, in your day-to-day life, the origins of our universe and everything in it… it can’t hurt to have some idea, can it? A Short History Of Nearly Everything will give you the beginner’s guide to answering some of the big scientific questions of our time. Bonus: it’s all written in a highly accessible, folksy style that lets the mind-boggling facts speak for themselves without bogging you down in academic jargon. Read my full review here.

8. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You could probably read Mrs Dalloway fifty times over before you die, to the exclusion of all else, and still not understand quite everything Woolf was trying to say. I found it tough to persist with it when I knew that so much was flying over my head, but I still think it was a book worth reading. Mrs Dalloway has much to teach us about gender, perspective, human relationships – and even if we finish it having understood only a little, we still come out ahead, right? Read my full review here.

9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

If you’ve seen her TED talk, you already know that Adichie is amazing, and her best known book – Americanah – will certainly give you a lot of food for thought. I realise that many of the books on this list are from the American literary tradition, so consider this book a kind of counterpoint to that. In it, Adichie examines the symbolism of America as a concept, and the ramifications of cultural imperialism across the world.

10. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Almost everyone was forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but it’s worth re-visiting (and definitely worth reading for the first time, if you managed to escape that particular rite of passage as I did). It’s a gritty coming-of-age novel, without the sparkle we’ve come to associate with hopeful young adult offerings of the 21st century. Plus, Holden Caulfield isn’t half as unlikeable as everyone makes out. Read my full review here.

11. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

This is the original collection of short stories that birthed a huge body of work around the world’s most famous fictional detective, and you should read it before you die on that basis alone. But if that’s not enough to lure you in, trust me when I say The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is a fun read! The stories aren’t particularly scary or spooky, but they’re always delightful and clever. It’s also a great example of how we can say a lot with a few words: Doyle was the master of economical use of language. Read my full review here.

12. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elena Ferrante, whomever she might be, is (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest writers of literary fiction in our time. Sure, it’s fun to venture down the rabbit-hole of sussing out her true identity, but the real reason to read My Brilliant Friend is bigger than that. These English editions are beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein (#namethetranslator), in a way that retains the rolling lyricism of the original Italian. They paint vivid pictures of life in mid-20th century Naples for two young girls growing into adulthood from poverty. A must-read before you die! Read my full review here.

13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the book that saw a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, forcing him into hiding for many years. And with a title like The Satanic Verses… come on, don’t you want to see what all the fuss was about?



14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the book that “activated” me as a teenager, the one that opened my eyes to the way my world could be manipulated and distorted by power structures beyond my young imagining. Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the pinnacle of dystopian fiction because it takes on startling new resonance every single year, with every crazy event of our increasingly mixed-up world.

15. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

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

Look, The Fault In Our Stars isn’t a great work of literature. I’m not sure it’s even a good work of contemporary young adult literature. But it is beloved by an entire generation of teens that are growing up fast. I think we should all read it now so that we’ll have something in common to discuss with the doctors who care for us in our nursing homes. Read my full review here.

16. 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

I know – I know – that even if you’ve never read this classic novella, you’ve used the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”, or heard it somewhere and (thought you) understood what it meant. I say you owe it to the English idiom to read its story of origin, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. For bonus points, you can check out Catch-22 as well! Read my full review here.

17. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

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

The trial(s) regarding the prohibition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were world-changing, in the sense that they provided a legal basis upon which we get to access ground-breaking and subversive literature today, even when governments and school boards would prefer that we didn’t. However, when you actually read this supposedly-erotic tome, it really serves as a good reminder that controversy sometimes amounts to no more than a storm in a tea cup. Read my full review here.

18. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

I can feel you rolling your eyes! And, believe me, I understand. Moby Dick is a six-hundred page book about whales. The size of whales. The smell of whales. The slew of artworks featuring whales. The stories of whales in religion. There’s only so many whales a reader can take! But I would suggest you give it a go, and stick with it for as long as you can. Melville experimented with form and style throughout, so some chapters and passages read completely differently to the last – there’s surely something for everyone (even if they’re not that big on whales). Read my full review here.

19. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a sad fact that at some point in life, each and every one of us will experience loss, grief, and mourning. The Year Of Magical Thinking is widely considered to be the epitome of memoirs on that experience, Joan Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband. It’s a must-read before you die, so that you might be a little better prepared for another’s death (or better understand a long-ago passing).

20. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

If you ask a random stranger on the street to name a “classic book”, with no other prompting, most of them will probably say Pride And Prejudice. It’s another one of those books that we all think we “should” read, and sometimes that kind of pressure is too much. I know I tried many times, and failed, until I finally picked it up at the right moment. Austen penned a brilliant and timeless tale of a man who changes his manners and a woman who changes her mind – stick with it until it sticks with you! Read my full review here.

21. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

Maybe it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: To Kill A Mockingbird is the poster-child of books you should read before you die. It was Harper Lee’s only true novel, and what a novel it was! It has shaped politics, legal thinking, and morality debates in America and around the world for decades now. Not to mention the legion of kids named Atticus, after the eternal patriarch and impassioned lawyer… Read my full review here.

22. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

This is a selfish inclusion on this reading list, I grant you, but I stand by it: I think everyone should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, if for no other reason than I want them to. There’s a huge plot twist about 70 pages in, and – desperate as I am to talk about this book – I live in constant fear of spoiling it for someone. I won’t stop recommending this book until every reader has read it, and I can have spoiler-y discussions to my heart’s content! Read my full review here.

23. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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

Most other lists of books to read before you die include Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude. It’s a great book, no contest here, but I think that Love In The Time of Cholera is a better one to start with, especially if you’re new to the literature of South America and the tradition of magical realism.

24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a miraculously poetic autobiography (well, perhaps not so miraculous, given that Angelou was, in fact, a poet). You will want to clutch this book to your chest and give it a great big hug. It’s tells the (true!) story of a young woman transformed, how she overcame indignity and prejudice to reach a place of self-possession and determination.

25. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

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

OK, this is technically seven books (making this a list of 56 books to read before you die, if you want to be a rule ninny), but who could pick just one from the series that changed the world? And, come to that, who hasn’t read at least one of the Harry Potter books yet? Come on! Get caught up with the rest of the world, if you haven’t already. This one’s a gimme.

26. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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

It’s a crying shame that more readers haven’t yet encountered Cold Comfort Farm. It lurks in the shadows of early 20th century classic literature, mostly because Stella Gibbons thumbed her nose at the “literati” (D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular). She refused to play by the rules of networking and deference, and her sales and reputation suffered for it. You should read this book before you die, just to make sure Gibbons’s comedic brilliance won’t be forgotten, no matter how much the literary giants wanted it to be. Read my full review here.

27. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A couple of blokes stand around, chatting, waiting for their mate – don’t you want to know if he ever shows up? It’s a tragi-comedy, sure to tickle the funny bone of all readers with a darker sense of humour. Plus, Waiting For Godot is a play, and that was definitely Beckett’s natural talent, the best way to experience his (at-times very esoteric) writing.

28. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

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

If you could use a little romance in your life (without all the naff cliches that are normally found in the pages of Harlequins, or Fabio clutching a buxom blonde on the cover), Call Me By Your Name is the salve for what ails you. Your heart will wrench, your toes will tingle, as you read this beautiful account of a clandestine love affair in 1980s Italy.

29. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

For too many years, Little Women was written off as foolish, simplistic, fluff “for girls”, and excluded from the literary canon. My challenge to all of you is this: find an edition with a decent introduction that describes Alcott’s life and politics, and then read this subtle but subversive story. You’ll see it in a whole new light, as I did! Read my full review here.

30. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record (literally, it’s in the Guiness book) for being – get this – the most-often rejected book that went on to be a best-seller. I can only imagine the strength of will and self-belief it took for Pirsig to persist after receiving his 121st rejection letter… all that zen thinking must have done wonders!

31. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, if we’re being honest (which, of course, we always are), the main reason to read this book before you die is to work out whether it’s worth giving Proust himself a go. In Search Of Lost Time is the longest book in circulation, too long to bind in a single edition, so let de Botton decide for you whether or not to pick it up. Hopefully, reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, you’ll get an idea of whether it’s worth it. It probably is, but even if not, it’s nice to know that Proust could change your life, at least.

32. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

The literary world has dedicated millions and millions of pages to accounts of the world wars, but there are other conflicts just as worthy of our attention. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is one such crucial account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which over one million people met their untimely violent deaths.

33. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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

Yes, I’m including yet another children’s book, because sometimes they have more to teach us than anything written for grown-ups. In this case, read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to experience and marvel at Carroll’s masterful word play – it just doesn’t quite translate in its full glory to the Disney screen adaptation (or any other!). Read my full review here.

34. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

It’s rare that a book is so good that it makes me angry: The Grapes Of Wrath is one on that short list. I was so gripped by the story of the Joads, a family attempting to escape the economic desolation of the Dust Bowl, that I found myself furious that no one had ever told me how damn good it was! Plus, this book will (sadly) have a recurring timeliness as we inch closer to a climate change doomsday… Read my full review here.

35. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Second-wave feminism has long been superseded, and it’s easy for us now to decry it for all its problems, but I think it still behoves us to examine its origins as we continue to beat a path towards gender equality. The Feminine Mystique is the book widely credited with kicking things off for the second wave, and it holds up surprisingly well compared to some other feminist texts of the time.

36. The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you can’t quite bring yourself to pick up Crime And Punishment (though you shouldn’t be afraid, it’s actually really good!), here’s a more accessible alternative. The Trial tells the story of a man who is arrested and put on (you guessed it) trial, answerable to a remote authority that we don’t quite understand, for supposed crimes that are never quite revealed to us.

37. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

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

Picking up a copy of Leaves Of Grass is kind of like opening a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Whitman first published it as a collection of twelve poems in 1855, but then spent many years re-writing and adding to it, so that the final compilation included well over four hundred pieces. Whichever edition you choose, you’ll find it to be a wonderfully sensual collection that straddles philosophies, movements and themes.

38. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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

Here’s another slim tome that we should all read for the pure fun of it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s ridiculous, satirical, and comforting all at once – not to mention hilarious! Plus, you’ll finally get to understand all those hip references to taking towels on holiday, and the number forty-two, and that constant refrain “don’t panic”… Read my full review here.

39. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Shetterley spent six years working on this biographical story, an account of the lives and works of three NASA mathematicians that history might otherwise have forgotten (thus, the title: Hidden Figures). If you’re asking yourself why their figures may have been hidden from view: well, they were women, for one thing, and women of colour at that, working in a field heavily dominated by men. Their contributions to the space race were invaluable, and this book seeks to set the record straight.

40. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

McEwan is pretty damn prolific, and yet somehow the premises of his stories are always jaw-droppers. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend starting with this one, his best-known book, Atonement. In it, one young girl’s mistake has spiralling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess.

41. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The God Of Small Things was Roy’s debut novel, and it made one heck of a splash – can you imagine winning the Booker Prize your first time out? Not only that, she did a Harper Lee, and stepped back from writing and publishing for twenty years! Her follow-up wasn’t published until 2017 (sophomore slump be damned!). But for a fine examination of how small things affect our lives in big ways, you’ve got to go back to the start with this one.

42. Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It seemed only right to include at least one foundational text, a story that has influenced literature in such a way that we still hear its echoes today, in this list of books to read before you die. I chose Inferno, the first of Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. It’s a narrative poem, depicting Dante’s descent through the circles of Hell. Reading it as a contemporary reader, you’ll appreciate how it illuminates the endurance of human nature. We really haven’t changed all that much since Dante dreamed up fitting punishments for our sins in the 14th century… Read my full review here.

43. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It never ceases to amaze me how the wowsers can completely miss the point when it comes to literature. The Color Purple has been consistently censored and banned in various ways ever since it was first published in 1982, usually on the grounds of its “explicit” depictions of violence. And yet, the whole point of the story was to reveal to an indifferent audience the violence wrought upon black women in the American South in the 1930s. Read this book before you die, and show the nay-sayers where they can stick their “concern” for your delicate sensibilities!

44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eugenides reportedly sat down to write Middlesex, an intersectional bildungsroman and family saga, after finding that other accounts of intersex lives and anatomies were insufficient in promoting understanding. In so doing, he’s woven together two intricate experiences: that of intersex people, and that of Greek immigrants, in 20th century America. It’s a lot to tackle all at once, but Eugenides got a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, and that ain’t no small thing.

45. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Remember the fifteen-year-old girl who was shot by the Taliban for standing her ground when it came to her right to an education? This is her story, I Am Malala. It plays out against the horrifying backdrop of the rise (and fall) of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan. This book is so detailed, so earnest and fierce, that it is still banned in many schools of that region – making it, in my eye, all the more essential reading.

46. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, but boy-howdy did it come into its own these past few years! I felt like I couldn’t take a step in any direction without running into Gilead-themed protests, the HBO adaptation, the sequel, or some other homage to Atwood’s dystopian story of ideology and control. Read my full review here.

47. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is an unimpeachable darling of the Australian literary community, and it’s tough to narrow down down this selection to just one book from her incredibly varied back-catalogue… but in the end, I went with This House Of Grief. It’s her account of the murder conviction of a man who drove his three children into a dam, killing them, in 2005. It is haunting in the extreme; you won’t be the same after reading it (just as Garner has said she was never the same after writing it).

48. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Did you know that Beloved is actually based on the real-life story of an African-American slave? Her name was Margaret Garner, and she escaped Kentucky in 1856. She fled to Ohio, by then a free state. Morrison, who by then was already regarded in some circles as America’s greatest novelist, came across Margaret’s story, and she was driven to write this imagined account of a former slave living in Ohio. She dedicated it to “sixty million and more” – the number of Africans, and their descendants, who died as a result of the slave trade.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

I will never, never, stop being bitter about the fact that The Great Gatsby is held up as the definitive Jazz Age novel, when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so much better! Why would you want to read about a miserable rich stalker throwing fancy parties, when you could instead read the fictional diaries of a woman willing to exploit the gender roles of 1920s America for all they’re worth? It’s hilarious, it’s brilliant, and it’s taught me more about that period than anything Fitzgerald ever scribbled down. Read my full review here.

50. Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes. It’s here. On this list. If I have to read Ulysses (and the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list dictates I must), then you have to read it. At least give it a go! I’m a firm believer that we should all read the books that intimidate us, like trying new foods or travelling someplace unfamiliar, and hey – it might not be as bad as we all think! Read my full review here.

And there we have it! How many of these books have you already read? What books do you think everyone should read before they die? Add your recommendations in the comments below!


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