Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Here Be Leviathans – Chris Flynn

I loved, loved, loved Chris Flynn’s last book, Mammoth – it was one of the best books I read in 2020, and one of the few things that made me laugh in that cluster-fuck of a year. So, when I saw he had a new book coming out, I sat up straight and said “yes, please!” in my polite voice. The wonderful team at UQP Books came through and sent me a copy of Here Be Leviathans for review.

Here Be Leviathans is a collection of nine short stories, narrated by animals, places, objects, and even the (very) odd human. A grizzly bear on the run, a plane seat in a terrifying crash, a genetically modified platypus with the power of speech – each and every one, bizarre and brilliant.

Flynn really pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from perspective. It takes a special, rare writing talent to pull it off. I mean, a hotel room that tells the story of a marriage plagued by fertility issues? Who even comes up with stuff like that, let alone manages to actually write it, let alone makes it one of the most beautiful and moving stories you’ll ever read?

Here Be Leviathans does warrant a heads-up, though. The story The Strait of Magellan, about a pandemic outbreak, might be TOO SOON and a bit triggering for some readers. It’s also kind of gross. And very creepy.

It’s impossible to pick a favourite story in Here Be Leviathans – they’ve all stuck in my brain, for one reason or another – so I’m going to cheat and say that my favourite part is the brilliant Afterword. (Or, to use the title Flynn gives it, AFTERWORD / ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS / BLAME APPORTIONED.) He offers insight into his inspiration and process for developing each story – it was a marvellous behind-the-scenes peek, and I wish more writers wrote them. Don’t skip it!

BOOK CREDIT: Here Be Leviathans by Chris Flynn (University of Queensland Press $32.99)

18 Uplifting Memoirs

Some memoirs just leave you feeling better than you did before you read them. Even when the author describes going through terrible times, their voice and their attitude turns the worst of times into the best of reads. Here are eighteen uplifting memoirs to turn to when you need a boost.

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Becoming by Michelle Obama

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Becoming is surely one of the best-selling uplifting memoirs of recent years. Michelle Obama – the first Black First Lady of the United States, the engine behind the Let’s Move campaign, and one-time Grammy winner (for Best Spoken Word Album, 2020) – has become the poster child for ‘being the change you want to see in the world’ (or, at least, in the White House). Tracing her childhood (comfortable, but not perfect), her early life in corporate law, her marriage and her time at the most famous address in America, Obama’s tone is affirming and encouraging throughout. You’ll finish this one inspired to get your hands dirty and fix the problem in front of you. Read my full review of Becoming here.

This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

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The title of this uplifting memoir – This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch – begs the question, ‘what the heck is it about, then?’. Well, it’s about women reclaiming their identities, and what happens to our various passions and interests as the generic domestic responsibilities of life pile up around us. As per the blurb, Carvan’s thesis is that “there’s true, untapped power in finding your “thing” (even if that thing happens to be a  British-born Marvel superhero) and loving it like your life depends on it”. Read this one when you need to feel better about your intense compulsion to binge-watch ’90s rom-coms.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

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Nothing changes your life (or makes better fodder for an uplifting memoir) like a brush with death. Maggie O’Farrell has had seventeen of them. In I Am, I Am, I Am, she describes each of the near-death experiences that she has faced, and how they’ve come to define her life. The childhood illness, the could-have-been psycho killer, the teenage mishap… It seems strange that a memoir about death (or, almost-death) could leave you feeling good, but O’Farrell manages to use these terrifying ordeals to highlight the beauty and mystery of the time that we do have on this mortal coil.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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You’re probably already familiar with Cheryl Strayed’s story – traumatised after the death of her mother in the mid-90s, she undertook a crazy 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. You’ve seen the movie, or the Oprah interview, so you might figure you don’t need to read Wild. That’s a mistake. You’re missing out on one of the most wildly (ha!) uplifting memoirs of recent years. Strayed set out on this grueling trek almost entirely unprepared; she had essentially no prior hiking experience, and while she didn’t exactly have a ‘good’ time, she sure learned a hell of a lot – and she’s very generous in sharing it with her reader. Pick this one up when you feel a little lost and need some direction from someone who’s been there. Read my full review of Wild here.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

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Caitlin Moran has a way of taking the trauma of womanhood, forcing it through her wry filter, and somehow making it feel funny and uplifting – if nothing else, you’ll find something in her writing to relate to. How To Be A Woman is really a memoir-slash-manifesto, laying out Moran’s case for feminism in the modern world. Covering everything from the workplace, to strip clubs, to love, to fat, to abortion, to popular entertainment, to children, not much escapes Moran’s keen eye and sharp wit. Even though books about womanhood and feminism don’t tend to age well with the rapid progression of social norms, this one is still worth a read ten years after publication.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Everyone who has ever found solace in books needs to read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Angelou was dealt a more difficult hand than most. She was abandoned by her parents, raised by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, which (as a young bookish Black girl) was not always the safest or easiest place to be. When she was reunited with her mother, she was subjected to horrific sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend. She faced an uphill battle, overcoming that trauma, then continuing her education when the world expected her to enter a lifetime career of domestic service. Despite all of this, her memoir is relentlessly positive, and Angelou’s perspective on everything that has happened to her will inspire you to view your own troubles in a similar light.

Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

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As a show-runner for multiple Big Time Mega Hit Must-Watch shows, and a single mother to three kids, no one ever doubted Shonda Rhimes when she said she was “too busy” to take something on. But the truth was, actually, she was too afraid. She used “no” to hide from things that scared her, but in Year Of Yes, she deliberately flipped that on its head. She began saying “yes” to things that made her sweaty, things that made her nervous, things that seemed impossible – and her life changed as a result. She discovered that the things that made her scared were also the things that made her feel alive. If you’re stuck in a rut, this is the uplifting memoir that will get you out of it. Read my full review of Year Of Yes here.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

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Remember those theater kids from high school or uni, the ones who made themselves laugh ’til they cried doing improv scenes? Maybe you were one of them, maybe you avoided them, whatever the case: they were onto something with the whole “yes, and” rule. Amy Poehler puts her own twist on it in her memoir Yes Please. She parlayed her skills as a improv star into a career in comedic acting, leading the charge on shows like Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation. She talks about that journey in her uplifting memoir, while sharing sage advice – like “treat your career like a bad boyfriend” and “do great things before you’re ready”. Read my full review of Yes Please here.

My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem

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There are few feminists as iconic as Gloria Steinem. You’d think that, after decades of beating the drum and marching for equality, she would be exhausted (especially given the current state of, y’know, everything). But she remains upbeat and energised, and in My Life On The Road, she explains how she does it. In her own words: “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts,”.

The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

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Anh Do is one of those “boat people” our government has been trying to make us fear for the last decade or so. I’ll tell you right now that I want to shove a copy of this book into the hands of everyone who has ever purchased a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” sticker. Despite his inauspicious arrival in Australia, Do has gone on to become one of our most-loved comedians and artists. He details this journey in The Happiest Refugee, one of the most uplifting memoirs I’ve read from my homeland. After you’ve read it, you’ll feel like you’ve just had a particularly inspiring conversation with a stranger in a bar – one who always stood his round and was never short a smile and a kind word. Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life by Georgia Pritchett

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Well, first off, Georgia Pritchett gets an A+ for her book title: My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life. Isn’t that brilliant? Haven’t we all felt that exact way, at one point or another? The contents of her uplifting memoir absolutely live up to the high expectation it sets, too. This is her story – told in “gloriously comic vignettes” – about learning to live, even thrive, with anxiety. Her short, sharp anecdotes are like particularly hilarious and insightful contributions to a conversation over cocktails. This is a funny read, but a reassuring one too, that shares the warts-and-all highs-and-lows truth of a life lived on the cliff face of your own mental health. Read my full review of My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life here.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

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Magda Szubanski has been making Australians laugh for decades – most often as her alter ego, Sharon Karen Strzelecki. None of us imagined, until we read her memoir Reckoning, how much was going on behind the jokes and jibes. Szubanski’s childhood looked like your average suburban nightmare, except that her family was haunted by the demons of her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland. Szubanski looked like your average Joe actress, but her queerness was one of the community’s worst-kept secrets. This is one of the best uplifting memoirs to read when you’re sick of putting on a front, and ready to figure out your whole self in the world’s harsh spotlight.

Pilgrimage To Dollywood by Helen Morales

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Dolly Parton is basically a living saint, so it makes sense that a memoir about tracing Dolly-related landmarks in Tennessee will be uplifting. In Pilgrimage To Dollywood, Helen Morales does just that. She’s a bigger Dolly fan than most (if you can imagine). She narrates her journey through Parton’s Tennessee – with her partner and daughter in tow – while looking for the “essential connections between country music, the land, and a way of life”. As per the blurb: “This celebration of Dolly and Americana is for anyone with an old country soul who relies on music to help understand the world, and it is guaranteed to make a Dolly Parton fan of anyone who has not yet fallen for her music or charisma.”

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

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Alright, alright, alright! Greenlights is actor Matthew McConaughey’s “love letter to life”, drawn from thirty-five years of diaries and notes. He calls it “a guide to catching more greenlights—and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green too,” (thus, the title). Far from your standard celebrity-anecdote name-drop style of memoir, this uplifting read is more about mistakes made and lessons learned. McConaughey is generous in sharing his hard-won wisdom, and encouraging the reader to find a path to a better life for themselves (whether it looks like the one he took or not). Sure, it might get a bit hippie-dippie for some, but that’s part of the fun when it comes to McConaughey, isn’t it?

Unbreakable by Jelena Dokic

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Most of us only know Jelena Dokic as the pretty blonde who was pretty damn good at tennis for a while there. It turns out there is a whole other side to her story: one much darker, sure, but also uplifting for the steely nerve and determination it has taken for her to overcome it all. In Unbreakable, she describes her harrowing journey as a refugee (twice!), her experience of poverty, and the horrific abuses she experienced at the hands of the stage-parent from hell – her own father. Triggers abound in this jaw-clenching read, but if you can manage those, you’ll find a remarkably inspirational story that will come to mind any time you face an obstacle on your own path to greatness.

How To Fail by Elizabeth Day

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How could a memoir about failure be uplifting? Well, it turns out, failing isn’t the worst thing in the world. In How To Fail, Elizabeth Day – author, journalist, and broadcaster – offers a holistic view of “everything she’s learned from things going wrong”. She explains the fruit that failure has borne for her in all areas of life, including dating, work, sport, babies, families, anger and friendship. Her thesis is that understanding why we fail ultimately helps us evolve, and makes us stronger (not exactly revolutionary, I’ll grant you, but it’s still motivating when Day explains it!). The book is based on her podcast of the same name, by the way, if you want a taste test.

Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

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Clare Bowditch was a pretty anxious kid. Even when she ‘grew up’ and became a popular musician and performer, she did so against the express desires of her harsh inner critic. Your Own Kind Of Girl is “the story [she] promised myself, aged twenty-one, that [she] would one day be brave enough – and well enough – to write”. Her talent for storytelling nearly stymied her, when the stories she told herself (that you must be thin and beautiful to start your ‘real life’, that good things belong to older people) became damaging. This is a beautiful, heart-felt book that every former anxious-kid will relate to, one of the most uplifting memoirs to come out of the Australian music scene.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

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Before you watch the TV series, you must read Everything I Know About Love – an uplifting memoir told the way only Dolly Alderton can. When it comes to ‘growing up’, she has seen and tried it all. She’s been gainfully employed and she’s been flat broke, she’s been in love and she’s been dumped, she’s been drunk and she’s been hungover, and – most importantly – she’s been through it all with her best friends. This is a real-life Bridget Jones’s Diary, a testament to the fact that you can ‘become an adult’ and still come out the other side with your glittering wit and your playful heart. Pick this one up if you’re struggling with early adulthood, and wondering if your friends will ever speak to you again after last night’s drunken shenanigans (yes, they will, it’ll all be okay).

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Does this book really need an introduction? I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou’s iconic 1969 autobiography, describing her youth and upbringing. The title comes from the third stanza of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (which is well worth reading in full, if you’ve got a moment). It’s one of the most acclaimed autobiographies in the history of literature, and with good reason.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.
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By the way, a note on choosing your edition: mine is gorgeous, but it doesn’t have the foreword by Oprah. If I had my time again, I’d prioritise that over prettiness.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings traces Angelou’s life from age three to seventeen, artfully recreating the perspective of the child while retaining the wisdom of the adult narrator. She and her older brother, Bailey, were abandoned by their parents and sent to live with their grandmother (whom they call Momma) in Stamps, Arkansas. Several years later, Angelou’s father unexpectedly appears and takes the children to live with their mother in St Louis. There, aged just eight years, Maya is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. This horrifying event has ongoing ramifications throughout her young life (obviously).

The traumatised Angelou proves too much for her mother and St Louis family to handle, so she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps. There they remain until after Angelou graduates eighth grade, a watershed moment in her young life. Momma then decides that the children are ready to return to their mother, who was by then living in California.

Angelou attends high school while living with her mother (whom she adores, despite the earlier traumatic experience in her St Louis home). Before she even graduates, Angelou becomes the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She relishes the independence and responsibility that comes with entering the workforce, but she still experiences the usual confusion and angst that comes with adolescence. In a moment of desperation, to prove to herself that she “isn’t a lesbian”, she sleeps with a local teenage boy and becomes pregnant.

She manages to hide the pregnancy from her family for eight months, until she graduates high-school, and at seventeen years of age, she gives birth to her son. It’s remarkably not a particularly traumatic experience for her, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings ends on a positive and hopeful note as Angelou embarks on motherhood.

So, as that potted summary might indicate, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings depicts a radical transformation, from a nervous young girl subjected to racism and abuse to a self-possessed young woman with hope and determination. At many critical junctures, books and literature provide solace to Angelou, and it’s through the power of the written word that she reclaims her own agency and makes sense of her bewildering world. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story, especially for fellow bookworms, and it’s impossible to read this one without feeling uplifted in some way (despite the traumatic content).

It reads like a novel (even though, obviously, it’s not) – beautifully, lyrically, with rich and inviting prose. It would seem that’s very much by design; Angelou wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in response to a challenge issued by her friend James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis, to “write an autobiography that was also a piece of literature”. She later said that she felt “tricked” into writing the book (she initially refused, as she thought of herself as a poet rather than a memoirist, but couldn’t resist the challenge), but given the result, I think we can forgive Baldwin and Loomis the manipulation.

The literary feeling isn’t just a “vibe”. Many fancy-pants literature critics have commented on it, categorising I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as “autobiographical fiction” rather than straight narrative non-fiction. But Angelou herself resolutely called this and her subsequent books autobiographies, and thematically they align very neatly with other autobiographies by Black women. Basically, let’s not punish Angelou for writing so damn well that we can’t believe it’s real.

If I had to offer a criticism – like, under pain of death – I would say that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings slows down a bit in the second half. Plus, the content is definitely going to be tough for some readers to handle (trigger warnings for racism, sexual abuse, and violence). But it’s just so beautifully written! I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.”

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings:

  • “I get that this book is an autobiography so of course I knew it was going to be somewhat boring. But what I didn’t know was how boring.” – Amy Lee
  • “Should be required reading in high school except that too many school boards will probably disapprove.” – Allen Hunter
  • “I wanted the book with the title that included CRAWDAD not caged bird sings…my mistake” – Sheldon Rudolph
  • “This has to be the worst book ever written! I am reading thisfor english right now and I can’t read two pages without fallingasleep. She goes on and on about things that don’t pretain to the topic. I remember toward the begining of the book she spent half of a page on how she didn’t steal a can of pinapples when she had the chance. So what! I don’t steal stuff every day, and I don’t write about it and bore people with it. What ever you do, don’t buy this book.” – Wesley Detweller

Her Fidelity – Katharine Pollock

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I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Her Fidelity at the iconic Gleebooks venue, and Katharine Pollock was kind enough to sign my copy (that I was delighted to receive from Penguin Books Australia for review). The conversation that night with Louise Carter, a brilliant local poet, really wet my whistle and I was keen to jump into this debut novel as soon as I got home.

Her Fidelity – as the title would suggest – looks at the ‘glamorous’ world of slinging rock’n’roll records, through a female lens. It’s based on Pollock’s own experience working in record stores and what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry, lending it a ring of authenticity you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

Take, for instance, the opening pages, where she bemoans the most frequently-asked questions of any record store employee, culminating with: isn’t it just like working at Empire Records? Her answer: “there are more female staff members in Empire Records than you would ever see in a real-life record shop”.

Kathy, the protagonist of Her Fidelity, is rapidly approaching 30 and she’s been working at Dusty’s Records – Brisbane’s premier (fictional) music store – for literally half her life. The industry has changed, but Kathy hasn’t… much. Can she keep this up forever?

Her Fidelity is a sharp but charming book that I devoured in a single sitting. It was unexpectedly delightful to read a book about someone my age, from my actual home state, in a similar line of work – is there a word that goes beyond relatable?

I really admire the way that Pollock tackled some really lofty themes and issues in an accessible, relatable way, and showcased the reality of a ‘fun’ job without destroying the dream entirely. Hats off to her, and to Her Fidelity – I can’t wait to read whatever comes next!

11 Books About Moral Dilemmas

The easiest way to get me to pick up your book is to force me into a brain-bending ethical quagmire. Seriously! Force me to choose between two (or more!) awful outcomes, and I’m in heaven. Put a character through actual hell by crafting a dire no-win situation? Shut up and take my money. Here are eleven of my favourite books about moral dilemmas.

11 Books About Moral Dilemmas - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
There’s no moral dilemma about affiliate links: when you use them to purchase books, I get a tiny commission at no cost to you.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

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Pretty much every Jodi Picoult book has a moral dilemma at its heart. It’s kind of her schtick. But My Sister’s Keeper is the one for which she’s most famous. This best-seller speaks to family, autonomy, law, and obligation. Anna is a 13-year-old girl who was conceived by her parents as a genetic match for her terminally ill older sister. Basically, they want to farm her body for parts in the hopes of a cure for Kate. Anna turns the tables on them by suing for medical emancipation. There’s no winning here: if Anna loses the case, she’ll be forced to donate organs and cells in perpetuity (or until Kate dies, or until she turns eighteen), but if she wins, a thirteen-year-old will get to decide whether her sister lives.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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A young, newly-married black man is falsely accused of a horrible crime, found guilty and sent to jail. No dilemma there, obviously it’s a hideous miscarriage of justice. That’s where Tayari Jones is brilliant: she leads us to look, instead, at the choice facing his wife. In An American Marriage, Celestial must navigate the murky waters of her marriage during her husband’s incarceration. Is she obliged to wait for him for over a decade, putting her life on hold, until he is released? Or should she be free to seek comfort, joy, and companionship elsewhere? The mind-bending moral dilemmas in this book will bounce around in your head for hours. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

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The Husband’s Secret is one of those books that stacks moral dilemmas on moral dilemmas – which really gets my motor running! First, Cecilia finds a letter buried in a long-forgotten box. The envelope reads, in her husband’s handwriting: “For my wife, only to be opened in the event of my death”. So, should she open it? This is a Liane Moriarty book, of course she does. The contents of the envelope reveal that he murdered his girlfriend when he was seventeen. This is the proverbial cat among the pigeons, to be sure! Should Cecilia dob her husband in? What will his inevitable incarceration and public shaming mean for her kids? Are some secrets better left buried? Read my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Little Fires Everywhere is what you should reach for when you want books about moral dilemmas that are every bit as compelling as a high-octane thriller but every bit as literary as a dusty classic. It interrogates many of the ethical pitfalls of motherhood, and it makes for a very emotive read. Does biology or bond make a mother? What should we do when those competing claims collide? Plus, Ng deftly weaves race into the equation: do white, affluent adoptive parents exploit their privilege in taking children from women of colour? It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position, a best-seller that actually lives up to the hype. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

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As far as books about moral dilemmas go, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a strange one – if only for the fact that the moral dilemma is sure to be explored far more thoroughly by the reader than by any of the characters. It boils down to the question of free will. Henry is a mature (well, adult) man when he travels through time and encounters Clare, a child with all the accompanying credulity. He tells her they will fall in love and marry when she grows up. So, does she have a choice in the matter? Has Henry robbed her of her agency? The time travel element will stretch your thinking meat a bit, but it’s a fun thought exercise all the same.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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If you found out your sibling had murdered someone, would you dob them in? Or would you help them hide the body? What about if it was multiple someones? What if they had their sights set on your workplace crush next? All of these moral dilemmas – and more! – are tackled in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, The Serial Killer. Korede is a nurse who finds herself in the unenviable situation of scrubbing the blood of her sister’s victims off the floor. Braithwaite demonstrates a talent for writing far beyond her years and experience, and this clever mix of crime, romance, and family saga belies her early-career status. Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

Time And Tide In Sarajevo by Bronwyn Birdsall

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The moral dilemma in Time And Tide In Sarajevo is compounded by generations of conflict, trauma, and politics in the Balkans. Evelyn has been teaching English to scholarship students in Sarajevo for a couple of years, and she’s made the best friends she’s ever had in the strange yet welcoming city. All of that shifts when a teenage boy is murdered in the streets, and Evelyn comes into possession of video evidence of the crime. Should she release the footage, regardless of the wider ramifications for safety in the city? Or should she let tensions simmer down, respect her position as an outsider and let a murderer walk free?

Remember Me by Charity Norman

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Are some secrets best left buried? That’s the question at the heart of Charity Norman’s novel, Remember Me. Leah Patara vanished off the face of the earth. That was twenty-five years ago, but new clues about the fate of the missing woman are coming from an unlikely source. Emily Kirkland’s father is descending into Alzheimer’s and through the mists of his failing memory, he reveals he might know what happened to Leah. But does Emily really want to know? What should she do – what can she do – with information that might prove her father is a murderer? Can there be justice when the man who used to be her father has all but disappeared? Read my full review of Remember Me here.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

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Okay, imagine this: you leave your husband in your hotel room when you pop out for an afternoon stroll. You stumble across a rock that seems to be making a funny noise, and as you approach it… whoosh! You’re pulled back through time, two hundred years, into a situation scarier and stranger than any you’ve ever known. All that happens to Claire Beauchamp in the first hundred pages of Outlander. Where’s the moral dilemma, you might be wondering? Well, in order to keep herself safe in the Scottish Highlands, Englishwoman Claire must marry one of the clansmen. Can she ethically marry another man – fall in love with him, even – when she’s already married? Even if her husband won’t be born for another couple of hundred years? Read my full review of Outlander here.

If Cats Disappeared From The World by Genki Kawamura

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A young man, estranged from his family and living alone with his cat, is rocked to the core by a terminal diagnosis from his doctor. That is, until the Devil appears to offer him a Faustian pact of sorts. The narrator can live one extra day, in exchange for making something else disappear from the earth forever. And thus, the moral dilemma at the heart of If Cats Disappeared From The World is unveiled. What makes life worth living? What are you willing to exchange for twenty-four more hours? Over the course of just one week, this young man has to reckon with the deepest questions about what our lives are worth, and what we owe to each other.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act - Ian McEwan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In The Children Act, a High Court judge is called to rule on the case of a 17-year-old boy refusing life-saving medical treatment on religious grounds. As far as books about moral dilemmas go, that’s a slam dunk! The boy, Adam, and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, which means no blood products. They refuse to consent to a transfusion for Adam, despite the fact that doing so will cause his death. If Adam were legally an adult, there wouldn’t be anything his doctors could do to contest the decision, but seeing as he’s a few months shy of his 18th birthday, they appeal to the Family Court, putting the decision in one judge’s hands. Read my full review of The Children Act here.

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