Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

What The Smut? Books That Are Sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed the granddady of modern erotica, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I was (very) disappointed to report that it wasn’t anywhere near as dirty as it promised on the label. As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of literary smut. I think its poor reputation is a travesty, and I’ve never understood why books about violence are held in such high regard while books about sexuality are relegated to the status of gutter trash. I have way more fun tallying up how many euphemisms an author can find for “penis” and “vagina” than I do reading about white men shooting each other with big guns.

So, rather than rehashing the disappointments of Lady C, I want to celebrate literary smut by giving you some decent alternatives: here’s a list of books that are sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover (who knows, you might pick up some sexting tips to impress your next conquest).

Books That Are Sexier Than Lady Chatterley's Lover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Bride Stripped Bare – Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell)

This was one of the first dirty books that I ever got my hands on. I borrowed it from a friend, and read it in shameful secret. The Bride Stripped Bare was originally published anonymously in 2003, but Australian author Nikki Gemmell was quickly outed. It was the best-selling book by an Australian author that year. The story is told through the diary of a young wife, sexually frustrated by the boredom of marital obligation. She takes on a secret life, full of fellatio and other frisky exploits, including one particularly torrid hotel-room encounter with a group of taxi drivers. This one’s great for beginners, but aimed squarely at the ladies.

Fanny Hill: or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland)

Bear in mind that Cleland was in debtors’ prison as he wrote Fanny Hill, so you can imagine the kind of filth he came up with when he had that kind of time on his hands. Fanny Hill was first published in 1748, and is widely considered to be the first original English prose pornography. It is also one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history, which is unsurprising given its frank exploration of masturbation, lesbianism, voyeurism, and anal sex. The titular character is a rich, middle-aged English woman, writing to her unnamed friend (referred to only as “Madam”) about the scandalous adventures of her youth. It will definitely remind you that the 20th century didn’t invent smut.

The Story of O – Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos)

If you were looking for 50 Shades of Grey on this list, you might want to give up now. Think of this one as the gorgeous, intelligent, successful and all-round superior cousin of E.L. James’ clusterfuck of an erotic novel. The erotic Story of O was published in 1954 under the pen name Pauline Réage; the true author (Anne Desclos) did not reveal herself as such for over 40 years, so you know the book must be good. She later claimed she wrote it as a series of love letters to her lover Jean Paulhan. It is the tale of a Parisian woman (named, funnily enough, O) who explores her submissive tendencies by making herself constantly and completely sexually available for any man who belongs to the same secret society as her lover. There’s blindfolds, chains, whips, piercings, the works! Not for the faint of heart…

Delta of Venus – Anaïs Nin

Ah, Anaïs, the darling of sex-positive feminists everywhere! This book of fifteen short stories was only published (posthumously) in 1977, but it was originally conceived in the 1940s as a collection of erotica commissioned by a private collector. Yes, a wealthy man actually paid her to write smut for his own personal use. Even though he gave Anaïs strict instructions to focus on the filth and cut out all the poetic nonsense, she still managed to write with a literary flourish that maintains its beauty and relevance some eight decades later. This one is for the women who want to enjoy sex and rule the world.

Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer appears on every single list of literary books with dirty bits, and I’m proud to say it appears on The List here at Keeping Up With The Penguins as well (review coming soon!). Ostensibly, it’s a novel based on Miller’s own life as a struggling writer, but it is famous (or infamous?) for its many graphic passages that explicitly describe his many sexual encounters. In fact, the obscenity trials triggered by the publication of Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. challenged American pornography laws in such a way that it can be credited with at least partial responsibility for the freedom of speech they now enjoy. Reading Tropic of Cancer isn’t just titillating, it’s a political act! 😉

Some of the language is pretty full-on, and there’s some hints at homophobia, so reader beware if you’re looking to protect your delicate sensibilities. Still, Miller was famously the lover of the aforementioned darling Anaïs Nin, so he can’t have been all bad, eh?

Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos

And, finally, this list of sexy books wouldn’t be complete without an honourable mention to Dangerous Liasons (or Les Liaisons dangereuses, in the original French): the filth that launched a thousand homages. It is the story of two staunch rivals, former lovers, who weaponise their sexuality and seduce their acquaintances in order to gain social control. They revel in their exploitation of others, they take glee in their cruelty, and they boast endlessly about their respective talents. It’s sex and power, all day every day, and we can see the influence of de Laclos’s work in all manner of popular culture today.

And there you have it: a bunch of books sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover, all of which are guaranteed to make you blush (at least a little). Will you admit to your favourite literary smut? Go on, tell me in the comments below (or, if you’re really brave, leave a comment at KUWTP on Facebook!).




Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

With six books down in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I tell you what: I was ready to read some proper smut. I was fed up with Victorian censorship, and grisly murders, and age-appropriate young adult writing. Hell with it all, I wanted some dirty bits! So when I passed by the bargain bin of my favourite second-hand book store and spied a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the prototype of the explicit novel, marked down to just $5… well, that’s just fate, isn’t it?

Lady Chatterley's Lover - D H Lawrence - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was originally published in Italy in 1928, but the full text wasn’t available in other parts of the world until much later. In 1960, Penguin was actually prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for trying to publish the unexpurgated version… to no avail. A publisher’s note dedicates the book to the jurors that declared them not guilty. In fact, their victory in that case established a precedent that allowed for a far greater degree of freedom in publishing explicit content. So, three cheers for Penguin! Without them, we might have no smut to read at all… 😉

“Well,” I thought to myself, “if it caused that much of a stir, it must be good! Right?”.


Richard Hoggart gets it right in the first sentence of his introduction to this edition: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not a dirty book.” I didn’t lose all hope straight away, because he insisted that “dirty minds look for dirt”, so I was sure I’d be able to find some somewhere. After all, the premise is so promising: Lady C is trapped in a sexless marriage (Sir Hubby was been paralysed by a war wound, and we’re all just meant to accept that there’s no way a person with a disability could have sex, okay?), so she goes about finding other ways to keep herself entertained. Lawrence does his part to set the stage, skipping over all of their early lives together so the reader comes straight into (what you would assume is going to be) the action.

In fact, it’s Sir Hubby – fancying himself quite the progressive intellectual – that suggests Lady C find herself a meaningless shag on the side, and get herself knocked up. He wants a kid around to take care of all the trees he’s planted once he’s dead, which is as good a reason to procreate as any, I suppose? Lady C is keen on the idea, because this marriage is the worst: they’re both dead inside and basically indifferent to one another. Off she trots, and I rub my hands together in glee: bring on the smut!

Only I get to about a third of the way through, and it’s all still really hum-drum. Lady C’s life sucks. She mopes a lot about how much her life sucks. She finds a lover and fucks him, twice, but he turns out to be a bit of a dickhead (he has a cry about having to wait around and stay erect while she finishes – damn, masculinity is fragile). So, that doesn’t work out, and then Lady C’s life sucks so much that she basically wants to die. Sir Hubby throws a little bitch fit of his own, because Lady C wants to get a servant. There’s a lot of arguments about capitalism. Where. Is. The. Filth?

Lady C eventually finds a new lover in the form of the bogan gamekeeper, and that cheers her up for about a minute – but from then on, it’s just a downhill run of symbolism. “Oooh, the aristocrat is having an affair with a commoner, industrialisation is bad, capitalism is bad, the intellectuals have unfair dominion over the working classes!”, etc etc. God, there is so much whining! The dirty bits were really far too few and far between to hold my attention at all. What’s worse: they weren’t even that dirty, really. The most obscene thing I came across was the gamekeeper dropping a few c-bombs (and I can see how that might have been shocking pre-sexual revolution). Otherwise, it’s just a load of smack about being all aquiver and stirrings in her womb. Snore.

There’s a lot of Maury-esque drama, too. Lady C finally gets knocked up, but she runs away to Venice for a while so she can tell Sir Hubby that it was some Fabio over there that planted the seed (she’s worried he’ll take it into his head to fire the gamekeeper if he finds out he’s the one sticking it to his wife). Only, while she’s gone, the bogan gamekeeper’s bogan wife shows up and finds Lady C’s shit all over their bogan gamekeeper house. So, she throws a tanty and starts running her mouth off about what a cheating bastard he is to anyone who’ll listen. Word gets back to Sir Hubby, he puts two and two together, and Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper gets fired anyway. Lady C gets to go back to complaining about how much life sucks.

She does her best to salvage the situation – by roping her father and sister into a plot to convince Sir Hubby that the foetus is actually someone else’s, but that spectacularly flops. She has half an idea to marry Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper instead, but he’s not acting happy enough about the pregnancy. And this is pretty much where the novel ends: Lady C and Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper sitting around at opposite as the opposite ends of the country, waiting for divorces from their respective spouses. The ending is almost as anticlimactic as the sex scenes.

I had such high hopes, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover shat all over them. The only redeeming quality was a few cracking one-liners:

“They were just as good as the men themselves: only better, since they were women.”

“Oh, intellectually, I believe in having a good heart, a chirpy penis, a lively intelligence, and the courage to say ‘shit’ in front of a lady.”

“Sex and a cocktail: they both lasted about as long, had the same effect, and amounted to about the same thing.”

Overall, though, even the occasional lol wasn’t enough to save Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the $5 price now seems not such a bargain. After all, you can find better filth on the internet for free… or so I hear 😉

Buy it here (and part of your purchase will go to KUWTP, win-win!):

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

  • “It’s a story of a woman, written by a man. I find it silly, unbelievable, unreal. Lady Chat meets a man who, sneaks up to her room, and they immediately get naked. But then she hates him. Not realistic. The pages are filled with paragraphs describing her walk through the woods, describing the flowers? And describing people who, pages later, have died, so what was the point of blabbing about them? This is written to be a movie. Too many detailed conversations of no importance. I keep waiting to get to the “good part” but, there is no good parts in this silly book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Bought for wife! Read a long time ago! Thought it was racey back in the day and quite erotic! My wife wasn’t impressed!” – John S.
  • “Tedious, boring, pompous, distasteful characters, and crude… I only recommend this if you are having troubles getting to sleep, because this classic garbage works better than a pill.” – Holly





Why Do We Read True Crime?

Last week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we looked at some of the best villain downfalls in literature. We talked about the satisfaction we find in seeing the bad guys get caught, get punished, and get their karmic comeuppance. This week, I reviewed In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the true crime novel that launched a thousand true crime sub-genres. So, it makes sense that this week I ask the question: why do we read true crime?

Why Do We Read True Crime? Keeping Up With The Penguins

Popular opinion might have you believe that true crime started with Capote. In reality, he simply popularised a burgeoning style that had been around for centuries. One of the earliest examples of (ostensibly) true crime writing was John Reynolds’ The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinn of Murder. It was published in 1621, meaning that there has been a market for true crime for at least four centuries.

Why do we read true crime? The car-wreck theory

Have you ever noticed that when we talk about true crime, we’re almost always talking about murder? When was the last time you read a true crime novel about a car-jacking? Tax evasion? Jay-walking?

And we’re not satisfied with the run-of-the-mill one-off quiet murders, either. True crime stories usually depict the exotic, the bizarre, the twisted, and the most grisly realities. Why is that?

This gives rise to what I call the car-wreck theory. We humans are notoriously unable to look away from a spectacle. We slow down as we drive past car wrecks, trying to get a better view. It’s an inherent nosiness that glues our eyes to the misfortunes and mistakes of others. After all, what is the news but one extended edition of true crime television?

But is that really all there is to it?

Why do we read true crime? We’re adrenaline junkies

Our fascination is much more than simply not being able to look away. After all, we happen upon car wrecks, and we don’t control what’s on the news – not being able to look away is just a side effect of coming across a spectacle in our daily lives. Meanwhile, we actively seek out true crime reads; whole genres exist because of our macabre interest.

The fact is, witnessing (or reading about) terrible crimes gives us a jolt of adrenaline – maybe not on the same level as those who actually commit them, but those small jolts are addictive nonetheless. Reading true crime is a form of thrill seeking, like riding rollercoasters or visiting haunted houses. And yet, we keep our parachute on and we keep our eyes on the clearly-marked exits: true crime triggers adrenaline which we experience as fear, but we experience that fear in a safe, controlled environment.

Think about it: we get the thrill of the horror, but we view the events that trigger it through the lens of entertainment. We might be reading about a series of brutal murders, but we’re doing it tucked up under the covers, with the front door locked and a hot cup of tea on the nightstand. We can even be (fairly) confident that they catch the bad guy in the end, which allows us to psychologically reconcile the vicarious thrills we get from reading about the killer’s motivations. Reading true crime is the adult version of monster stories for children.

Why do we read true crime? To confirm our beliefs about the world

I mentioned a second ago that we can be (fairly) confident that the bad guy gets caught. This is the formula that basically all true crime books follow. Sure, there’s some variation, but usually it boils down to this: one or a series of horrific crimes, a few red herrings and dead-ends for the beleaguered investigators, a lead that points them in the right direction, and the eventual capture/prosecution/death of the perpetrator. Other genres have all kinds of deviations and exceptions to the norm, they like to challenge the reader’s expectations, but true crime sticks pretty faithfully to the standard narrative.

Why are we so invested in that story? One theory is that we have an inherent drive to seek out examples of victory and justice. It confirms our preconceived worldview: that violence and wrongdoing should not go unpunished. What’s more, there’s great comfort in the idea that the “good guys” (police officers, private investigators, plucky teenage detectives) out there will persist until the “bad guys” are caught. Ironically, reading about terrible true crimes actually makes us feel safer. We call this the just world hypothesis.

Even better, we often get to engage in a little detective work of our own. We theorise about how it’s all going to end based on clues in the narrative. When it turns out we’re right, we get the glory of feeling smart, and the relief of having picked it from the beginning. Or, to put it another way, the story confirms our preconceived ideas that we could be brilliant detectives if we wanted to be 😉

Does it matter if the story is “true”?

Well, yes and no. Fictional crime thrillers are also insanely popular in many mediums, and thousands more are churned out by the year. Our concern with the “truth” of the story comes down to whether we feel that we ourselves are being deceived. A fictional crime story marketed as such is fine by us, because we know it’s all made up. A couple of details fudged in a “true crime” novel, however, can make us fear that we’ve been lied to.

It is inevitable that every true crime story will have a few inaccuracies, whether as a result of the creative license of the author, or the inherent biases and limitations of the medium (eyewitnesses, on whom authors often rely, are notoriously unreliable, so it’s a flawed system). Yet, we still consume and enjoy them, and it is the very reality of the stories (fudged a little or not) that makes them so addictive to passionate true crime readers. And, as the saying goes, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

So, why do we read true crime? We are rubber-necking adrenaline junkies who want to believe that the world is just, and we demand that authors tell us all the gory details with 100% accuracy. What do you think? Why do you read true crime? Let me know in the comments below (or chat with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).





In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

OK, folks, let’s jump forward a century or so. My next Keeping Up With The Penguins undertaking was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966 – the first “novelistic true crime book”… probably.

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

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

No one could ever accuse Capote of not putting in the hours: the masochist spent six years researching and interviewing and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, taking literally 8,000 pages of notes, before finally sitting down to write In Cold Blood. Yeah, it’s one of the highest-selling true crime books in the history of publishing, and yeah, it’s bloody brilliant – but still. What an overachiever.

(His hard work didn’t exactly pay off as far as he was concerned. Despite an absolute avalanche of critical acclaim, Capote was reportedly hugely bummed that it never won a Pulitzer. He was desperate to top his buddy Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. Male egos, I tell ya!)

So, here’s the deal: Capote reads a piddly piece in The New Yorker about a well-liked Kansas family getting merked in this weirdly motiveless and clueless crime. He figures that’s a good enough basis on which to pack up and ship off to a country town you’ve never heard of – dragging Harper Lee with him, no less! – and figure out what the fuck went down.

He sets the story up in a really eerie way, with super-intimate descriptions of the lives of both the victims and the perps. You learn everything about their love lives and their pets and their phobias and how often they change their underpants. The story’s not a “whodunit” per se, in the sense that you know who dun it right from the outset – he weaves the stories of the killers and the victims together, and tells them side-by-side. You also kinda figure that the bad guys must get caught eventually (because it says so on the back of the book). I guess it’s more a “whydunit” (I call the trademark on that): why this family? How did they become the targets? What did the killers get out of it? Was it worth six lives?

You’d think the arrest would be the climax, but that comes in out of the blue only two-thirds of the way in. You get to watch the bad guys suffer through the prisoner’s dilemma, and finally divulge all of the gory details (tl;dr summary: they rocked up expecting to find a safe with ten grand inside, got pissed off when they couldn’t find it, argued about whether to rape the daughter, then neutralised all the witnesses by blowing their faces off with a shotgun, they scored about forty bucks for their trouble). Capote follows their imprisonment, their trial, their endless appeals and – ultimately – their executions.

You’ll really get out what you put in with In Cold Blood. It can be read as a conservative defence of capital punishment (taking the bad guys’ eyes, just like Jesus would do), or as a scathing leftie indictment of the U.S. incarceration system (every single criminal character is a recidivist of some sort, having left jail only to return a short time later). In that regard, it’s really artfully done. Unsurprisingly, though, you do kinda have to take off your journalistic-integrity hat. It doesn’t read anything like a non-fiction book: it reads as a novel. So, inevitably, there are endless questions as to its veracity, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that Capote was pretty liberal with the ol’ creative license.

I would wholeheartedly recommend In Cold Blood (as long as you’re not a kill-joy that takes things too seriously and gets mad when Capote takes some liberties with the truth). I’ll definitely read it again. Chilling, but fascinating!

Buy it here (and part of the proceeds will go to KUWTP, for which I am eternally grateful!):

My favourite Amazon reviews of In Cold Blood:

  • “It was a cold dud.” – Old Crow
  • “If you’ve already read it, you know how good it is. If you haven’t, I hate you for still getting to read it for the first time.” – Clint Pross
  • “Despite the fact that I bought this on the recommendation of a stupid jerk who acted like I hung the moon until one day he suddenly broke up with me the day after I’d been awake all night in the ER with a sick kid… OVER THE PHONE, NO LESS… WTF?!… it’s a really good book. You can’t blame Capote that there are terrible humans in the world, even if he did write about them really well. Maybe my boyfriend recommending a book about a gruesome family execution should have tipped me off. I dunno. You live, you learn. But yeah, good book.” – Jess






The Best Villain Downfalls in Literature

Authors put a lot of effort into creating villains that we love to hate. Think Wicked Witch of the West, Cruella de Vil, The Joker, Voldemort… villains that make us shudder, make us angry, make us scared, and make us cry. As much as it can be artistically beautiful to let these villains run amok, have the good guys lose a battle now and then, I think we can all agree that there is no greater satisfaction than seeing a villain’s downfall. To celebrate this collective schadenfreude, I’ve put together a Keeping Up With The Penguins list of the best villain downfalls in literature.

Best Villain Downfalls in Literature - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dracula (Dracula)

The recent popularity of vampire novels might make us a bit more sympathetic to the plight of the bloodsucking night-walker, but if you read Bram Stoker’s original novel, it’s hard to feel sorry for this creepy motherfucker. He kidnaps, assaults, spies on and out-smarts the protagonists at every turn… but in the end, he gets knifed, his powers are destroyed, and his vampire “sisters” don’t fare too well either. It’s a huge relief, tbh. (Check out my review of Dracula, coming soon!)

Alec Stoke-d’Urberville (Tess of the d’Urbervilles)

This one’s probably better known as a dirty book, but trust me: Alec has one of the best villain downfalls in literature. He knocks Tess up out of wedlock, blames her for his fall from Christian grace, manipulates her, and acts like an all-round lecherous prick. Tess gets him in the end though – she stabs him in a frenzy, and runs off chasing her one true love. (OK, fine, Tess ends up paying the price for her crime too, but her vengeance is still fucking awesome.)

Uriah Heep (David Copperfield)

I remember my grandfather telling me as a child that Charles Dickens was the most inventive and brutal writer in the English language when it came to writing villain downfalls. Uriah Heep is truly repulsive, writhing, sneaky, and awful. He protests that he is a “‘umble servant”, while exploiting the vulnerable and robbing everyone blind (not to mention that he still lives with his mother…). In the end, Mr Micawber outsmarts him, proving what a thieving bastard he is; Heep is forced to make reparations, he loses the position he connived to attain, and later he ends up in a god-awful Victorian prison. The whole downfall is, of course, beautifully written (my love letter to Dickens review of David Copperfield was published just this week – read it here!).

Humbert Humbert (Lolita)

Technically, in this case, the villain was also the protagonist, but it was still really satisfying to see the disgusting Humbert Humbert get what was coming to him. After obsessively manipulating and abusing Lolita throughout her teenage years, she runs off with another man, leaving Humbert heartbroken and devestated. His grief (sharpened by news of Lolita’s pregnancy to her new lover) leads him to seek out and kill the man he believes “took” Lolita from him, and that crime lands him in jail. He dies awaiting trial. A miserable end for a miserable man, and it feels so good!

The Officer (In The Penal Colony)

Perhaps not as well known as the others on this list, but certainly more brutal than any of them, is The Officer from one of Franz Kafka’s most popular short stories. The Officer is a strong advocate for the use of a punishment apparatus on his colony; wrong-doers (without trial or opportunity for defense) are slowly tortured by needles that pierce their skin with the words of the commandment they have violated. If that weren’t grotesque enough, the officer meets his end by climbing into the machine itself, only to have it malfunction and brutalise him to his death. Kafka’s never a cheery read, but he sure knew how to take down a bad guy!

Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock & Perry Edward Smith (In Cold Blood)

This might be a controversial inclusion, given that the villains in question weren’t fictional. Truman Capote’s true crime account may read like a novel, but the downfalls of murderers Hickock and Smith were very much real. Throughout Capote’s telling, you learn intimate details about their rather miserable lives, culminating in their heinous crime (where they brutally murdered a family of four), after which they are ultimately captured and put to death themselves. It’s a sad story, and raises all kinds of questions about the “justice” of the death penalty. (You can read my complete review of In Cold Blood here – it’s recommended reading from Keeping Up With The Penguins.)

Becky Sharp & Emma Sedley (Vanity Fair)

I couldn’t help myself, I had to include this one: a great villain downfall, but in reverse! In this case, I was super-glad that the boring Amelia Sedley (the “good” girl) had to live out a dull life of hum-drum struggle, while the fabulous Becky Sharp (who may have been immoral and shameless, but also great fun!) gets to run off with the life insurance money of the husband she murdered and live a life of adventure! I say it counts, because Vanity Fair is famously called the “novel without a hero”, so I can call boring Amelia the “villain” all I want. (This snarky entry might make more sense if you check out my full review of Vanity Fair here.)

Tom (The Girl on the Train)

Here’s a more recent example: seeing Tom get his comeuppance in Paula Hawkins’ novel will definitely have you heaving a sigh of relief. It’s much like a modern Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in that a gaslighting motherfucker gets called out on his bullshit, and the sisters are doing it for themselves. The Girl on the Train is also on The List; keep an eye out for that review coming soon as well!

So, if you’re at a point in your life where you’re feeling a bit disheartened, maybe it seems like the good guys always lose out or that karma never quite comes around, try giving one of these a go. Seeing the villains get what’s coming to them never fails to lift the spirits! 😉 What do you think is the best villain downfall? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).




David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended novel from The List. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather, who idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed. This gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from his collection, and I’m sure he would have been damn proud that I finally got around to reading it.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel (and, after the mess that was Vanity Fair, that alone was almost enough to put me off). The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism, either: it was written by J.B. Priestly (who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest), and he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though, because Dickens is a fucking God. I get it now. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. It’s precisely this chuck-a-bit-of-everything style that makes this such an incredible book.

The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth, to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch; Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it). Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away to find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s a basic bitch in the extreme, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon herself. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never once lose track of who they are or what they’re about.

In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. It’s fucking great!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really fucking loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of The List so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

Buy it here (Amazon will give KUWTP a cut if you do, consider it a gift for me AND you!):

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes





How To Finish A Book You Hate

A big part of the Keeping Up With The Penguins is forcing myself to read books I otherwise wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. See, I’m hard-core discerning when it comes to my book selection – I like to be damn sure I’m going to like what I’m getting before I sit down to read the first page. If my selection process fails, I inevitably become so bored or so angry that I abandon the book forever, and it languishes forever in a long-forgotten corner of the bookshelf. I don’t get to do that anymore, though: now that I’m Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve committed to reading 109 books that bypassed my usual selection process completely. This situation got me to thinking: what tips and tricks can I use to keep carrying on when I feel like I’d rather claw my eyes out? Here’s how to finish a book you hate…

How To Finish A Book You Hate - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Try listening to the audiobook.

The popularity of audiobooks has skyrocketed over the last five years, now that we all have computers in our pockets and air-pods in our ears every minute of the day. You might find that the book you’re having trouble with isn’t so difficult, depressing, or dull when you’re listening to it rather than reading it. For your brain, listening to an audiobook is not all that different from reading, and you have the added benefit of maximising that dead time you spend commuting or washing dishes. Amazon has literally thousands of books available via Audible audiobooks, which you can listen to on almost any device that plays audio.

2. Take notes as you go.

This might only work if you’re a massive nerd, but it’s worth a shot! The genesis of the Keeping Up With The Penguins blog was that my husband noticed I take extensive notes as I read (no matter what it is I’m reading); he suggested I put them to use, and here we are! It’s a habit that never quite left me after university. I find that writing down things that occur to me as I’m reading (whether it be direct quotes from the text, or something it reminds me of, or my thought about what’s happening) doesn’t just help me remember the story, but also understand it. Just keep a small notepad and pen handy when you’re reading, and see if it helps at all.

3. Look up how it ends.

Yes, this is absolutely cheating. You’d probably be shouted down at your book club if you admitted to doing this. But hell, if you really need to finish the book and you’re really hating it, knowing the end point is coming (and what it is) can make a big difference. In fact, it can even add an extra layer of interest: it can become like a game, seeing if you can piece together the plot and work out how the ending comes about as more is revealed.

4. Commit, set goals, and all that boring stuff.

I know this is the least-sexy advice ever, but the reason fitness professionals and corporate coaches recommend committing and setting goals is because it works. How annoying…

Decide how much you want to get out of the way each day, and commit to it. Maybe it’s 10 chapters. Maybe it’s 10 pages. Maybe you’ll think picking up the book at all is a win, because you hate it that much. Whatever it is: put it on your to-do list. Treat reading like any other daily task (clearing out your emails, flossing your teeth) that Absolutely Must Get Done, lest the problem get exponentially worse. You’ll be surprised how quickly the cumulative efforts over those days add up, and you’ll be done before you know it.

5. Take regular breaks (and don’t read in bed!).

This is particularly important if the book in question is putting you to sleep! Taking a break every 20 minutes or every 20 pages, to refresh your Instagram or make yourself a cup of tea, gives you the opportunity to shake it off and keep your mind sharp.

I often make the mistake of thinking “Oh, I”ll just read in bed for a while, I’m not that tired”… only to wake up 3 hours later with the book on my chest and only two pages deeper into the story. Treat reading this book you hate like you would any other task that needs your laser focus.

6. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Don’t forget you can reward yourself when you’re done! The easiest way to do this is promise yourself you can read something you’ll really enjoy next. I’ve tweaked the order in which I intend to read The List now and then, bringing forward something I’m eager to read as a reward for finishing something that bored me to tears. Dangle that carrot over your nose, and follow it all the way through to the last page.

7. Have a whinge to someone who knows the book.

If you have a friend or a family member (or me!) who’s read the book, chances are they’ll share – or at least understand – your grievances. Air it out with them. Tell them exactly what’s giving you such a hard time. Either they’ll agree completely, and you’ll feel vindicated, or they’ll be able to shed new light on some aspect of the book that you hadn’t considered, and maybe that will be enough to spur you on.

8. **Most Important** Ask yourself: do you really need to finish it?

Ultimately, you need to ask yourself why you’re pushing yourself to finish this particular book. Was it written by a friend? Is it something you thought you’d like but it’s not what you expected and you’re just too stubborn to give up? Are you only reading it because you think you “should”?

I can’t decide for you how important your reason is, but if the book is really causing you pain you should consider whether one outweighs the other. Life’s too short, carpe the diem, and all that.

Bonus tip: I once heard a librarian suggest that you should subtract your age from 100 (so 100 minus 27 years old would be… uh… 73!), and that will give you the number of pages you should read before you decide whether to finish a book or not. Seems fair to me!

If none of these tips work, you could always just start a blog to complain about all the awful books you read! It’s a really good motivator, as I can attest 😉 I have a 100% completion rate so far. What about you? Are you a finisher? Or are you more than happy to let books fall by the wayside? Let me know in the comments below (or join us over at KUWTP on Facebook)!







My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

I chose a considerably shorter and more recent local novel for my fourth Keeping Up With The Penguins read (I was gun-shy after the mammoth undertaking that was Vanity Fair). I was sure that My Brilliant Career would be knocked on the head far more easily, and I was right (as always).

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

Published in 1901, My Brilliant Career was written mostly for the enjoyment of Franklin’s friends – until she took a punt and sent it to Aussie literary giant Henry Lawson. He took such a fancy to the story that he added his own preface and forwarded it on to his publishers. That preface itself is notable in that he famously refused to comment on the “girlishly emotional” parts of the book – I mean, I think the story would have been hella boring without them, but I would think that, being an emotional girl and all… Anyway, Franklin ultimately withdrew it from publication until after her death. Apparently it bore just a little too much resemblance to her real life, and the ignorant bush peasants took offence to being described as such (can’t imagine why).

So, a 16-year-old girl living in the bush writes a story about a 16-year-old girl and the trials and tribulations of living in the bush: shocker. The opening chapters could be summarised as “I have no time for romance, and this book is all about me, so strap in, fuckers!”. Franklin captures the mind of a teenaged girl (Sybylla) perfectly, but that’s really no significant achievement, seeing as she was one at the time of writing.

Teenaged me would have hated this book. I would have found it condescending, and rolled my eyes at the well-meaning adult who handed it over saying they thought it would give me “perspective”. The thing is, angsty teenagers will automatically reject any intrusion on their belief that they are uniquely misunderstood little snowflakes, and Franklin’s book demonstrates pretty clearly that angsty teenagers are all the same and haven’t changed much over the last 100+ years. My Brilliant Career is full of dramatic hand-wringing and tear-soaked pillows and teenage strops. I’m actually kind of surprised I never had to read it in school; it seems right up the alley of an English teacher trying to provide “relatable content” on “teen issues” (à la The Breakfast Club, which we watched approximately four hundred and seventy two times).

Even though My Brilliant Career is determinedly not romantic, there’s a lot of flirting and teenage girl wish-fulfillment. Beecham, the primary love interest, is nice enough to be flattering without being creepy or boring, he doesn’t put up with Sybylla’s shit (but in a flirtatious way, not a main way), he’s persistent and charming despite falling on hard times, and he wants to marry her even though she’s ugly. Can you imagine? There are no truly dirty bits, but plenty of impassioned exchanges and a random BDSM scene where Sybylla goes all weak in the knees over bruises and horse whips. Never fear, there’s no sentimentality in the ending at all: Sybylla ultimately chooses a “brilliant career” over marriage, and ends up with neither. Franklin reportedly suggested the title as “My Brilliant(?) Career”, which is laughably more pat, but the publishers vetoed it.

“At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.”

– Sybylla, My Brilliant Career (oh, snap!)

The main highlights of My Brilliant Career are the language and Franklin’s turn of phrase, which often made me think of my grandmother (makes sense, given the shared time period and geography). On the whole, though, I found writing this review a little tricky, as I didn’t develop a strong feeling about the book one way or another. It’s okay. I probably won’t read it again, but I wouldn’t tell anyone else that they shouldn’t bother. Just avoid giving it to your 16-year-old daughter: she’ll hate you for it and go back to looking at memes on Tumblr.

Buy it here (remember, if you do, KUWTP earns a small commission from Amazon, which keeps the lights on at home!):

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Career:

  • “… I understand that at 16 we are all fairly self-absorbed although hopefully not quite so nasty. Nevertheless, while I can appreciate the beautiful writing I really got to the point where I was waiting for someone to take Sybylla over their knee and give her a corporal lesson in manners…” – Sharon Wilfong






An Apology: Why The List Is Mostly Straight, White Men

I did a very-bad, no-good thing when I first imagined the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. Today, I throw myself at your mercy, and ask for your forgiveness.

Eagle-eyed Keeping Up With The Penguins readers may have noticed something a little funky about The List (and, if you haven’t, I’m hoping the title of this post will tip you off). The authorship of The List is 68% male, 82% straight (give or take the 14% that are unconfirmed), and an astounding 92% white.

An Apology - Why The List is Mostly Straight White Men - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I am a very vocal champion of diversity in reading lists, diversity in awards season, diversity in publishing, and diversity in the literary question. I plan to discuss all of these issues in future on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but for now I need to answer the burning question: how the heck did I end up with a List so skewed?

In my experience, most cock-ups happen when otherwise well-meaning people – feminists, activists, and “SJWs” among them – take their eye off the ball. Losing track of yourself for just a second can lead to something that is Horribly Unwoke. That’s what happened to me here. One moment, I was having a casual chat with my husband about all the books I’d never read, and absent-mindedly pulling together a list that I could work my way through… Next thing I know, I’ve launched a blog where I’m publicly reading and discussing a list of works that doesn’t at all represent the diversity that I believe in. Where did I go wrong?

I’ll own my fuck-up: I stopped thinking critically about my sources. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The List in its current form is a jumbled-up combo plate of the Dymocks 101, the Guardian’s 100 Best Books Written in English, and a handful of recommendations from friends and family. Each of those sources is subject to their own biases, and I didn’t stop to consider that for even a second. D’oh!

On the whole, the community is doing a good job (if a slow one) at reinterpreting the literary canon. Work by queer people, people of colour, women and authors outside the gender binary – it’s all starting to get a look-in. I had an opportunity to ride that tide with The List, and I missed it.

So, what am I going to do about it?

I honestly considered changing The List, paring it back and building it up again so that it more accurately represented the diversity of authorship to which I aspire. But the more I thought about it, the more that seemed to defeat the purpose of this project altogether. The whole point of Keeping Up With The Penguins is to catch up on all those classics that everyone already talks about, to read a steady stream of books that I wouldn’t otherwise consider. I get an opportunity to mull over the relative merits of what we accept as “standard”, and look at the diversity issues within and around the texts that everyone accepts as read.

Plus, in the end, my reading life won’t end with The List. There’ll be the Next List, and the one after that, and the one after that. I think the best thing that I can do is make absolutely certain that each subsequent list prioritises diversity, and that I think critically about what books I select and why.

So, there you have it. Put me in the bin, if you must. But don’t think that I’ll be making this mistake again! Live and learn 😉 Let me know what you think in the comments below (or jump onto KUWTP on Facebook!).




Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins undoubtedly took the longest. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was one hell of a trudge.

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.

See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening (George Osbourne is dead! Fuck!).

By the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.

When you just need to hit that word count - Very Young Small Early Peas - Vanity Fair - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were mad jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book just sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without even taking her clothes off. This is the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!

Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.

The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can fuck anything else up. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily after than the rest of them.

So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog (albeit one where the author is getting paid by the word).

The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.

Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).

Buy it here (and if you do, KUWTP will get a small cut at no extra cost to you, which helps keep this project going!):

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:

  • “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry









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