Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee

The title of Bri Lee’s debut memoir, Eggshell Skull, is taken from an old legal doctrine. It’s the principle that a defendant cannot use a victim’s unknown weakness as a defence in a criminal trial. If you punch a guy, you can’t use the fact that you had no way of knowing his skull was made of eggshell as an excuse for killing him. The phrase takes on new meaning over the course of Lee’s story, as the man who abused her has to reckon with her unknown strength.

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Eggshell Skull begins with Lee as a law graduate, commencing a highly-coveted position as a judge’s associate in the District Court of Queensland. She knows it’s going to be a tough gig, with overwhelming responsibility for keeping the cogs of justice turning. What she doesn’t know – but finds out very soon – is that the cases her judge will hear are almost exclusively those that involve sexual violence, harassment, and abuse of women and children.

Day after day, all around the state, Lee sits in court and listens to women and children testify about the horrific trauma they have experienced, and – most of the time – watches the (aLlEdGeD) perpetrator walk free. Of course it’s difficult for her, as it would be for anyone, but especially so because it evokes memories of the abuse that Lee herself experienced as a child.

If people didn’t believe these women, why would they believe me?

Eggshell Skull (page 29)

The details of the abuse are revealed gradually, as Lee herself comes to terms with the emotional impact of recovering feelings and memories she has long repressed. She’s faced with a barrage of others’ emotional trauma at work, and then her own demons at home. She’s “lucky”, as she herself acknowledges, as a victim in that she has a strong support system (in the form of her long-term boyfriend and her loving family) and the relative privilege of being white, educated, and articulate. That’s not enough to shield her, though, from the mental and emotional fall-out of both her work and her past (CW: suicidality, substance abuse, self-harm, disordered eating).

The crux of Eggshell Skull comes two years into Lee’s job, when she decides to bring forward her own case against Samuel, the family friend who abused her. That’s the point where the memoir truly shines, as Lee transitions from observer to warrior doing battle in the system herself. The retraumatisation of her experience seeking justice – even with her legal education and career, even with her father being a cop – is heart-wrenching and eye-opening.

Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is, I think, the reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She’s won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths.

I will say, though, that this is one of the rare times when the quality of the writing (very, very high) makes the book difficult to read. I had visceral, physical reactions to reading it. At various points, my stomach churned and my heart rate skyrocketed. In the final chapters of Eggshell Skull, I unwittingly gave myself a headache because I didn’t realise I’d been clenching my teeth.

It’s not just the abuse that Lee experienced, or that she saw on the job, that’s so distressing (though, of course, both are awful). It’s the frustration of the failure of our “justice” system to support and protect victims in the most intensely vulnerable moments of their lives.

The more I learned of the huge, ‘blind’ justice system, the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.

Eggshell Skull (page 33)

So, Eggshell Skull falls into the category of an incredibly good book that it’s incredibly difficult to recommend to anyone – I’d certainly say to take great care reading it, even if you think that you’re unlikely to feel triggered. It will be a five-star read for anyone who enjoyed Roxane Gay’s Hunger. It will be a rude shock for anyone who’s ever asked why a victim would “wait so long” to come forward.

Borderland – Graham Akhurst

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Graduating from high school is always a fraught time. You’re taking your first steps out into the real world, trying to figure out where you want to go and what you want to do. It’s especially difficult for Jono, the protagonist in Graham Akhurst’s new novel Borderland. He’s not sure where he’s going, and he’s not sure where he’s coming from, either.

Jono is a city-born Indigenous teenager, but he and his mother have long since lost their connection with Country and community. Jono tries his best to shake off lingering questions about his heritage by throwing himself head-first into creative arts college. He’s quickly “discovered”, and shoved in front of the camera to film a “documentary” film (i.e. propaganda) about a mining project planned for sacred land. Every step he takes, Jono is haunted – and not in the metaphorical sense.

Borderland is an intense speculative eco-horror YA novel. It felt oddly dissonant to me in that the content is fairly mature, but the language/prose skews a little young. The pacing is also a bit odd; it has a slow build, then a rapid-fire resolution.

As for the story itself, I really liked how Akhurst depicted differences and division within the First Nations community. It’s a (very timely) reminder that the Indigenous population is not a monolith, and there’s no unanimity about issues that impact them. Also, the “monsters” of Borderland are pure nightmare fuel, all the scarier for the fact that Jono (and, therefore, the reader) can’t trust his perceptions of them.

Borderland is an interesting debut, and a contribution to the Australian gothic that will surely fuel a lot of conversations and commentary. Many thanks to UWAP for sending me a copy for review.

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10 Books About Enduring Friendships

Most book characters have friends, of some kind. Of course, you get your occasional oddball loner like Eleanor Oliphant, but even they usually end up with a buddy or two by the end. But an interesting sub-section of books feature friendships that last over years, decades, across countries and continents. Often, they’re more interesting than the romantic relationships that usually get the most attention. Here are ten books about enduring friendships that will make you want to call your own bestie.

10 Books About Enduring Friendships - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

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Not only is The Weekend one of my favourite books about enduring friendships, it’s also one of the best books about older women on my shelves. Too often, older women in fiction are depicted as objects of pity, sad sacks who live in isolation or only care about their grandchildren. Charlotte Wood does a fantastic job of depicting older women who lead full and rich lives – and have complex and rewarding friendships. The four women at the heart of this story have been through it all together, and yet there’s still more surprises in store for them. Read my full review of The Weekend here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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One of the most beloved and acclaimed contemporary books about enduring friendships is My Brilliant Friend, the first in Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels. It lays the groundwork for an epic friendship between two girls who grow up in mid-century Naples. Their families are poor, the local politics is bloody, and each of them have to fight tooth and nail to forge their own path. Their friendship isn’t sweet or simple – it’s dark and complex and full of the strange affection and envy that seems unique to young women. Ferrante’s incredible Italian prose is beautifully translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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Anyone who knows anything at all about A Little Life knows that it’s a deeply traumatic read, certainly not one for the faint of heart. The novel’s traumatic content has been talked to death, but what’s received comparatively scant attention is the power of the enduring friendships between the four primary characters. Jude’s “little life” is impossibly difficult and filled with tragedy and cruelty, but his friendships are what empower and uplift him as he endures it. Not every tear you cry as you read this book will be a sad one, as the power of friendship is every bit as moving. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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It would be easy to glance at the premise of The Color Purple and think that it’s yet another book about how terrible life is for Black women in America – but if you take a closer look, it’s actually one of the most uplifting books about enduring friendship from the Black canon. Celie is forced to grow up far too fast, subjected to abuse as a child and married to a man she doesn’t love. But it is her friendships with the strong women around her that allow her to fight back, to forge a path to a life that’s more like the one she dreamed for herself. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club is one of the books about enduring friendship that reflect an oft-overlooked reality: that the strongest and most enduring friendships are often forged through shared experiences of struggle. Suyuan Woo was forced to flee her Kweilin home during WWII and abandon her twin daughters along the way. In her new home, San Francisco, she invited three women from her church to join her at a standing appointment to play mahjong and eat delicious food. In so doing, she forged a connection that endured hardships and lasted generations. Read my full review of The Joy Luck Club here.

Sula by Toni Morrison

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Books about enduring friendships are rarely simple, but Sula is more complex than most. Two girls grow up in The Bottom, a Black neighbourhood with a ghastly history. Nel’s home life is stable and rigid, while Sula’s is eccentric and loose. Despite their differences, they become close, and their fierce attachment is bolstered rather than broken by a shared traumatic experience. Their paths diverge after adolescence, but the bond between them never truly breaks. The burden of their dreadful secret follows them into adulthood, a friendship that endures distance, gossip, and betrayal.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dystopian futures might seem like odd settings for books about enduring friendships, but in Never Let Me Go, it just makes sense. The story begins like a dark academia novel, with children at a boarding school, isolated from the trials and tribulations of the “real” world. Kazuo Ishiguro masterfully teases out the “big reveal”, the reason that these children are being so carefully cared for and selectively educated. As the truth dawns on the reader, the closeness of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy begins to make a new kind of sense – and their inevitable end will break your heart. Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

What’s a Sherlock without his Watson? The enduring friendship at the heart of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is so iconic, it’s slipped into cultural shorthand. Watson is more than a sidekick to Holmes; he’s a sounding board, a drinking buddy, a chronicler, and a sanity-check. Watson tends to recede into the background, as he narrates Holmes’s cases, but if you remind yourself to read between the lines, you’ll find hints at the adorable mutual affection these two men share. Maybe it nudges at the line between friendship and something more, eh? (Don’t say that too loud, though, the Holmes purists will get mad.) Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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There are so many criss-crossing friendships and other relationships in Girl, Woman, Other that you’ll probably need a map to make track. Each character is connected Love Actually-style, but there are a couple of enduring friendships that are worth closer attention. Dominique and Amma in particular are the heart of the novel, young friends who founded a theater company together after finding themselves typecast and marginalised in mainstream productions. Their friendship persists even as their lives go in very different directions, through fundamental disagreements and across continents, culminating in a heartfelt reunion at the end of the novel. Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

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One of the cruel realities of life is that our reward for maintaining friendships over decades is often losing our cognitive grasp of them. Emma Healey confronts that reality in Elizabeth Is Missing, a “heartbreakingly honest meditation on memory, identity, and aging”. The protagonist, Maud, is slowly losing her memory as she descends into dementia, but she remembers something essential: her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing. How can she convince others around her to believe her and to help? She begins writing notes to herself, in the hopes of discovering the truth and save her beloved bestie.

All The Things We Never Said – Yasmin Rahman

Young Adult books have never shied away from the tough topics, but it’s become even more noticeable over the last decade or two. Case in point: All The Things We Never Said, a young adult novel about an online suicide pact. Steel yourself, because this is going to get dark.

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All The Things We Never Said is prefaced by an Author’s Note. Yasmin Rahman generously reveals that she – like her main character – experienced depression in her teenage years, and grew up in a very traditional Bengali Muslim family. It’s a kind heads-up for the reader about the content of the book, and includes directions to resources for help if needed.

There are three main characters. Mehreen is the one at the fore: she’s sixteen years old, and experiencing depression with a side of panic attacks. She calls it the ‘Chaos’, the feelings that take over her mind and body. She’s finding it difficult to function, and even more difficult to ask for help. So, she joins MementoMori, a website that promises to match people who wish to die by suicide with “partners”. The site provides a date and a “method” of death, and a set of instructions for preparatory tasks. (Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.)

Mehreen is matched with Cara and Olivia, two girls of roughly the same age who have their own stuff going on. Cara was inured in a car accident ten months prior to the start of All The Things We Never Said, and now has to use a wheelchair to get around. That doesn’t bum her out as much as her mother’s constant hovering and refusal to talk about the accident (which also took the life of Cara’s father). Olivia’s chapters are written in a free verse style, which gives her a very different voice to Cara and Mehreen. Olivia’s life looks perfect from the outside, with more wealth and privilege than you could poke a stick at, but she’s being abused by her mother’s boyfriend and she can’t see a way out.

The three girls begin meeting, as instructed by MementoMori, to plan for their deaths and make arrangements. They bond quickly, of course, but in an ironic twist, their new supportive friendships alleviate a lot of their distress and have them re-thinking their plans to die. Unfortunately, MementoMori won’t “let” them back out of the pact, and sends them increasingly harassing messages and emails, encouraging them to “follow through”. (YUCK!)

There’s a lot of very teenage logic and behaviour in All The Things We Never Said, so it feels realistic in that regard, if not very relatable to an adult-adult reader. The tunnel vision of the characters’ adolescence is clearly amplified by their mental health struggles. The adults in their life are shown to be fairly clueless, and it’s understandable why Mehreen and co. wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching them for help. So, it’s pretty convincing emotionally, if frustrating in an old-head-on-young-shoulders way.

It should be clear by now, but just in case: anyone picking up All The Things We Never Said should know ahead of time that it contains 13 Reasons Why-style explicit exposition of suicidality, self-harm, and sexual abuse. It’s very dark, especially for the Young Adult category. The attempts at comic relief didn’t quite land, though it did have a neat and hopeful ending (so it didn’t end on too depressing a note, I guess).

I thought All The Things We Never Said would be more of a thriller, a la A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, with plucky teen protagonists teaming up to bring down the evil genius behind the MementoMori website. It’s nothing along those lines. It’s more of a cautionary tale with A Message(TM), about the importance of friendship and support for teenagers dealing with depression and anxiety. Whether or not it’s worth reading I suppose depends on what exactly you’re looking for, and what you can handle in terms of triggers.

Bound To Happen – Jonathon Shannon

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Have you ever browsed the Missed Connections section in your local paper? (Do they even still have those anymore? Am I showing my age here?) If your interest is piqued by all the near-misses and could’ve-been meet cutes, you’ll want to march straight down to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Bound To Happen.

My copy was sent to me by my good friends at Ultimo Press – very kind of them, of course, but this could be my own missed meet cute. Who knows who I could’ve met browsing the New Releases shelves…

Bound To Happen is like a contemporary You’ve Got Mail. Sophie is a PhD student at the University Of Sydney, working her way towards a career with NASA. Tom is an arts student in a toxic relationship with a budding indie popstar. Sophie and Tom’s paths almost cross on many, many occasions: in bars, on the street, catching Uber Pools… Unbeknownst to them, they’re connected, but they just keep missing each other.

It’s a sweet opposites-attract romance, with fun arts versus science content, but honestly what I enjoyed most about Bound To Happen was its familiarity. Jonathon Shannon clearly lives in my neighbourhood, because that’s where he’s set his debut novel. Tom and Sophie go to so many places I know, and drink at so many bars I’ve frequented, it was like talking to someone I know IRL about how they met their soulmate.

Bound To Happen ends a little abruptly (which was surprising, given the inevitability of its conclusion), but it was still all-around a delightful read.

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