Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

It’s hard to believe that The Rosie Project was Graeme Simsion’s debut novel. Shortly after Text Publishing released it, in 2013, it won both the ABIA Book Of The Year award and their General Fiction Book Of The Year award. International sales have topped 3.5 million copies. A couple of years ago, when I first had the idea for The List, this book was everywhere! It hardly seems fair that a debut novelist has that much success that quickly.

The main character is a genetics professor, Don Tillman. He’s never had much “luck” with women, which will come as no surprise when I tell you that his proposed solution to that problem is to create a questionnaire to assess the suitability of each “potential mate”.

Tillman doesn’t fit in particularly well anywhere, really – there’s a lot of very heavy-handed hints that he has undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. That in and of itself would be fine, but there’s something about his character that makes me feel… well, icky. Simsion pushes the socially-awkward-adult-male-nerd angle very hard, to the point where it started to evoke for me a salivating, entitled, MRA/incel keyboard-hero fucknuckle. Tillman seems to believe that he is an “ideal mate” for any woman, given his intelligence, physical health, financial success, and social status. I mean, doesn’t that sound just a little bit entitled and misogynistic? Plus, he says stuff like this:

“… but I immediately recognised Julie, the convenor, from Gene’s description: ‘blonde with big tits’. In fact, her breasts were probably no more than one and a half standard deviations from the mean size for her body weight, and hardly a remarkable identifying feature…” – page 7

I got used to it after a while. In fact, I even came to appreciate (a little) how Simsion managed to communicate to the reader a more objective perspective on Tillman’s beahviour without the character being consciously aware of it, which is quite tricky to do when the book is narrated in the first-person. But I still couldn’t help but wish his portrayal of Tillman’s symptoms had been written more carefully. Based on that alone, I knew that The Rosie Project could never be one of my favourites, or a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.


Anyway, this socially-awkward guy meets a fun-loving girl with Daddy issues (Rosie, natch), and she spectacularly fails his questionnaire. Yet (steel yourselves!) he finds himself drawn to her. He winds up helping this “unsuitable” bartender hunt down her biological father. Is Rosie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Well, kinda. I think she gets afforded more depth than MPDGs normally do, with the Daddy issues and all, but her character doesn’t actually “develop” all that much. Her entire presence in The Rosie Project is pretty much predicated on (1) finding her father, and (2) letting Don love her.

The real upside of the story is that it ends up inverting the much-maligned Grease storyline: the man is the one who ends up changing to win the girl, instead of the other way around. That’s something, at least!

I hope I haven’t warded you off The Rosie Project completely, because plenty of other people love it and highly recommend it, so maybe you should take my garbage opinion with a grain of salt. Bill Gates included The Rosie Project on his list of “Six Books I’d Recommend”, and it’s hard to argue with one of the world’s most brilliant minds, eh? (And you can check out more surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds here, if you’re curious.)




Simsion pumped out a sequel pretty quickly, with The Rosie Effect being published in 2014. A sequel to the sequel, The Rosie Result, will be released any minute now. And a film adaptation of The Rosie Project is also in the works, but it’s hit a few roadblocks. The script is written, apparently, but Jennifer Lawrence (who was slated to play Rosie) pulled out, and directors have been playing pass-the-parcel with it ever since. I think it would translate particularly well to the big screen, so fingers crossed it finds a home eventually.

The Rosie Project is another book that you can burn through pretty quickly (a la Still Alice or The Book Thief), but I didn’t love it. I seem to be pretty alone in that opinion, though, so the only way to work out whether I’m right or wrong is to give it a go yourself… 😉


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Rosie Project:

  • “Good argument, perfect development!
    This is a good book and I Was Entertainmented by the first person describing his life perceptions.” – elianasantos
  • “Absolutely love these socks. They fit beautifully and stay odor free for a long time.” – Magster
  • “I had the good fortune to discuss this book with someone who actually has Asberger’s. They said it was quite accurate except for where it needed to serve the plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Big Bang Theory wannabe” – Amazon Customer
  • “If your interested in a pregnancy b ook, then this is your book. No interest to me, sadly it went on a bit.” – Melissa
  • “Not again.” – Mark walker
  • “Story interesting and writing poor.” – Seattle Native

How To Read More Diversely

This is part three of my How To Read More bootcamp series (you can read part one here, and part two here), and this week I’m focusing on a subject very close to my heart: how to read more diversely. The idea of diverse reading is probably one you’ve encountered a lot in recent years, and that is a Very Good Thing. However, the downside of “diversity” being the buzzword du jour is that now people tend to switch off when you start talking about it… but I’m here to say switch back on, right now, because this is important. A little while back, I found a great explanation of the importance of diverse books in a letter from a primary school student to Scholastic:

“Diverse characters matter because if you were black and you just saw books with white people it is going to be boring! You will want mirror books and also window books at the same time.”

(Read the full article from Ruben Brosbe, including this letter and others, here.)

Chances are, if you’re a person of privilege, you haven’t thought much lately about whether the books you’re reading are “window” books or “mirror” books. Most books are probably mirror books for you. Most books won’t force you to peer into another person’s world, because historically the publishing industry has been dominated by people who look and sound like you. Even if you “don’t care” or “never notice” whether an author comes from a different background to you, you should recognise that not noticing in itself is a form of privilege, and that all things aren’t equal. So, I’m here to help: consider this your beginner’s guide to reading more diversely (and the good news is you can start today).

How To Read More Diversely - Text Overlaid on Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“What does diverse reading even mean?”

Officially, a “diverse book” is one written by or about a person of colour, an LGBTIQ+ person, a person with a disability, and/or a person of a marginalised cultural/religious/socioeconomic background. You could also include books from countries outside of the U.S. and U.K, and/or books translated from languages other than English. Personally, though, I prefer to think of a “diverse book” as one being written by or about someone who looks, sounds, and lives different to me.

And why do diverse books matter? Well, there’s scientific evidence abound to suggest that reading these types of books improves your empathy, teaches more adaptive social behaviours, breaks down stereotypes, and increases cultural awareness and sensitivity. I think we can all agree that these are all Very Good Things, too, right? Reading diverse books gives you endless opportunities to become aware of your own privilege, challenge your own biases and prejudices, and understand more about the types of systemic oppression that don’t personally affect you. If nothing else, you might just be surprised at how well you connect with plots and protagonists that don’t look or sound familiar.

If you’re already thinking it’s “too hard” to read more diversely, or you “don’t have time”, or this “doesn’t affect you”, I say: suck it up. I swear to you, honest to goodness, that it won’t be as difficult or unsettling as you think – and, even if it is, the benefits still outweigh the costs. Here’s how to do it…

Step One: Buy Books Written By Diverse Authors

See what I mean? It’s as easy as that.

Take a look at your bookshelves: if everything you find there is written by someone who looks like you and lives like you, you’re not reading diversely. And you can’t really be expected to read more diversely if you don’t have the books you need to hand. So, the solution? Buy some!

The benefit is actually twofold, because not only are you giving yourself the option of reading more diversely, you’re using your vote – in the form of your consumer dollars – to tell publishers and booksellers that books written by people of colour, LGBTIQ+ authors, writers with disabilities, and so on, are worthwhile. That they’re a safe bet. That they’re moneymakers. It’s a cynical train of thought, I know, but that’s capitalism. Even if you never actually open the book, just by buying it you are supporting the creators of these works and making sure that there’s more opportunities for them in the future (and you get bonus points if you make the purchase at a local independent or secondhand bookstore that needs your support).

If you can’t afford the outlay – which is a completely understandable problem, and heck, I can relate! – use your local library. If librarians see an uptick in the number of diverse books being borrowed by their patrons, they’ll buy more of them and promote them on their shelves. If your local library doesn’t have the type of diverse book you’re looking for, request it. The staff are obligated to seek it out for you. Plus, if you’re in Australia or Canada or the U.K. or any other country with a lending rights program, the author will still get the royalties they’ve earned even though you can borrow the book for free.

Step Two: Buy Tickets To Events That Feature Diverse Authors (And Show Up!)

Look at the events programs for your local library, bookstores, and any writers festivals in your area. Buy tickets to events that feature diverse authors, even when (especially when!) the theme of the event or panel has nothing to do with “diversity”. When you buy tickets and show up, just like when you buy the books themselves, you send a message that these authors are highly valued by their readers and they’re a safe bet for publishers and agents.

What’s more, you’ll get to learn – something they say will surely pique your interest or challenge you to think about something differently. They’ll probably tell you things about their work that you wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to hear, and it might entice you to check out their back catalogue or keep an eye out for their new releases. They might recommend other writers, who are diverse themselves or write diversity in a way that is respectful and engaging.

Plus, if nothing else, it makes the author feel good. There ain’t nothing worse than reading to an empty room.

Step Three: Share And Engage On Social Media

You might not be an “influencer”, but if your post or Tweet convinces just one person to check out a book from a woman of colour or a non-binary writer or a writer who uses a wheelchair, that’s another score in their column, and it will mean the world to them. Not only are these writers too-often overlooked by the publishing world, once their books are out there they’re likely to be underrepresented in marketing and publicity materials, not to mention by selection panels for literary awards. So, we turn to people power!

Leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Share pictures of their work on Instagram. Tag publishers and bookstores in anything you post, make sure they see it! Your voice, however small, will join with others to make a groundswell of people clamouring for more diversity in reading lists and new releases.

Bonus benefit: when your friends and followers see that you’re interested in diverse books, it’s likely that some of them will reach out to share their own favourite diverse writers and stories with you. Check out my Pride 2018 post on Instagram, using books to make a rainbow flag – I had a bunch of readers and followers reach out to suggest LGBTIQ+ stories and authors for The Next List after that, because they saw that post and realised that I was interested in reading about diverse sexualities.

 

It’s been wonderful seeing so many #pride posts all over #bookstagram this month… I saved this, my first attempt at a rainbow #bookstack, for today – the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I give my thanks and pay my respects to the LGBTIQ+ elders who paved the way for the liberation. Your sacrifices were never in vain 🌈 . On a lighter note, it was surprisingly bloody difficult to cobble together a rainbow from my book collection! 😂 I have a lot of white, black, and orange spines… and not much else! I guess it’s a sign I should be buying more books 😏 . Signal boost your favourite LGBTIQ+ authors and bookstagrammers by tagging them in the comments, I’ll show each and every one some love!

A post shared by Keeping Up With The Penguins (@keepingupwiththepenguinsonline) on

While you’re there, make sure you follow and subscribe to diverse authors, bloggers, bookstagrammers and booktubers. Writers often need to show publishing houses that they have a decent following on social media when their next book is under consideration, and every additional click and “like” helps! And diverse book bloggers (on every platform) are more likely to recommend and talk about diverse books, maybe even bringing some new ones to your attention. You should definitely check out browngirlsreadtoo and twirlingpages and violettereads who are all slaying it on Instagram, and search the #diversebookbloggers tag to find more. Twitter is also a fantastic place to find new diverse voices: search #weneeddiversebooks, #ownvoices, #1000blackgirlsbooks and #lgbtbooks to get started.

Step For: Look For Alternatives When You Need To

Now and then, you’re going to read an ostensibly-diverse book that falls short in one way or another. Maybe it relies too much on tropes and cliches about the marginalised group it seeks to represent. Maybe it relegates diverse characters to the role of sidekick or exotic love interest. This happens often, so don’t beat yourself up for making a “bad” choice. Think of it instead as an opportunity to seek out an alternative that does it better.

How can you tell when the representation isn’t “good” or accurate, if it’s not your own lived experience? Google the book title and look at reviews from members of the community that the book seeks to represent. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly whether something is “off” (or, at least, controversial).

A real-life example: I wasn’t a huge fan of how The Rosie Project represented Asperger Syndrome. It’s not a terrible book, but I hate to think that anyone would consider it an accurate or realistic portrayal of life with Asperger’s. When I looked at the Amazon reviews section, it was clear that I’m not alone in my concerns, and many readers on the spectrum have taken issue with Simsion’s efforts. So, I started looking for books written by and about people with Asperger Syndrome, and found plenty of alternatives: there’s Look me In The Eye by John Elder Robison, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, and Julie Brown even wrote a book about writers on the spectrum. I’m swimming in alternatives!

If you feel really strongly about a book’s failings in this area, you can contact the publisher directly to let them know about the problem (but for the love of all that is holy, don’t contact the author directly on social media! that’s just asking for trouble…). The publisher might not be aware of problems in the work, unless they employ “sensitivity readers”, because most of their reviewers and editors are likely straight, white, able-bodied, and of relatively good socioeconomic standing. It sucks, but it’s the current state of play, and the more often that we campaign for better representation – in the fictional world and the real one – the closer we’ll get to it.

Step Five: Set A Goal, Create A Checklist, And Stick To It

If this has got you fired up and ready to start reading more diversely, subscribe here to get an exclusive Keeping Up With The Penguins diverse reading checklist:

Subscribe here and get a free Diverse Reading Checklist


The first step to getting anything done is setting a goal, after all. Maybe you’re ready to commit to reading one book by a person of colour for every book you read by a white author, or balancing out your male/female/non-binary protagonist balance. Maybe you want to stretch yourself, and commit to an entire year of only reading women of colour, or writers with disabilities. Whatever you have in mind, set it in stone and go from there. Use my list (seriously, get it, it’s great!), or create your own – whatever will get you all the way to your goal.

If you need a little more inspiration, there are dozens of diverse reading challenges available online (especially at the beginning of the year, when we all make resolutions). Try searching your preferred social media platform for #diversitybingo and #diversityreadingchallenge, or other combinations – you’ll find a challenge that matches your goals and reading capacity, and probably also a community that wants to share in the experience with you.

Bonus points for bloggers and social media users who share a review, or leave a rating, every time they finish a diverse book (see Step Three!).

Some Final Thoughts on Reading More Diversely

I know I’m a bit of a hard-arse and these How To Read More guides are full of tough-love… but at the end of the day, reading more diversely should be fun! Don’t approach it like you’re eating a big plate of plain broccoli. Find a way to work diversity into your current reading life. If you’re a romance reader, pull up a few bodice-rippers written by (or about!) people with disabilities. If you love sci-fi, find some stories with protagonists that are people of colour. If you’re a die-hard YA fan, you’re in luck – there are a lot of fantastic diverse books published in your preferred genre right now (we’ve almost reached the point where it’s no longer “alternative” to have a main character from the LGBTIQ+ community or experiencing a mental health issue, which is just fucking awesome).

If you have friends and loved ones from marginalised communities, you’re probably more attuned to the importance of reading more diversely already. Have you tried asking them about their favourite books and writers? You might just discover something new that helps you empathise with their experience more, and find better ways to support them in fighting the good fight.

When you feel your reading world expanding and you’re ready to take the next step, seek out ways to support organisations that promote diversity in books. Check out We Need Diverse Books for starters. Ask at your local library (I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s really the best resource!) what you can do to encourage them to stock and promote diverse books. If you’re a student, look up your school’s policy on representation, and talk or write to faculty supervisors suggesting they add more diverse books to their reading lists. Check out literary awards that have strict diversity criteria, and boycott the ones that don’t. I’m pretty sure you’ll find, as I have, the more you prime yourself to see issues with diversity in your reading, the more you’ll notice them and the more you’ll notice ways to battle them, too!

Think I’m being hypocritical? You’re right, The List is mostly straight white males. Read my explanation here.


What are you doing to read more diversely this year? Do you have any more tips for supporting diverse authors and books? Let me know in the comments (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

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

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

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

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



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

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

Talk! Imagine! What a strumpet!

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

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


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


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

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

 

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone

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

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

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

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

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

“But other genres are for losers!”

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

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

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

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

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

You will.

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

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

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

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

Well, stop it.

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

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

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

Step Two: Read A Book That Crosses Genre Boundaries

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

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

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

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

Step Three: Try Alternating Books You Read

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

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

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

Step Four: Focus on Authors, Instead of Genres

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

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

More Quick Tips for Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

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


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

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

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

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

How To Read More

It’s that time of year again, the one where we all resolve to change our lives in some fundamental way. Don’t worry, I’m sure next month we’ll all be back on our collective bullshit, but for now I’m here to help. One of the most common New Years resolutions is to read more – it’s right up there with exercising and eating “right”. Whether you say you want to read more, make time to read more, motivate yourself to read more, however you put it, it all boils down to the same thing. I’m dedicating this entire month to helping you do just that, in a variety of ways. And you should steel yourselves, because I don’t play: I’m going to give it to you straight. Welcome to part one of the Keeping Up With The Penguins How To Read More series (slash bootcamp), where I will crush every single excuse you’ve got for not having your nose in a book.

How To Read More - A Guide from Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I Don’t Have Time To Read”

Yes, you do.

You “have time” for the things you make time for. You have time to work, don’t you? You have time to sleep, shower, take care of your kids, have dinner with your in-laws, whatever. You have twenty-four hours in the day, and you decide how you use them, just like the rest of us. It’s up to you how much you value reading, and whether that’s more or less important than everything else you decide to spend your time doing.

So, once you’ve decided that you want to use more of your time for reading (and for a good reason, more on that in a minute), here are some tips to make it easier:

  • Put reading on your to-do list, just like you would exercise or any other “habit” that you’re trying to form. If you’re a list junkie, like me, that nagging feeling of an unchecked item will give you the nudge you need to pick up a book.
  • Don’t shoot for the moon. If you try and carve two and a half hours out of every day for reading straight off the bat, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Keep your goals small and do-able. Set a target of, say, reading a few pages before bed, or reading for the duration of your commute instead of scrolling through Buzzfeed listicles. Goals that feel small and achievable are the easiest to reach.
  • And, on that note, you can make it easier on yourself by incorporating reading into your existing habits. When you’re sitting on the couch with your family after dinner, try reading together instead of watching TV. Turn off Spotify, and listen to audiobooks during your daily walks instead (yes, that counts). Keep your books within easy reach – carry them in your handbag, make a stack on your bedside table, make sure they’re always an arm’s length away. Your brain will always take the path of least resistance, and if the books are handy and the habits are already there… well, you get the idea.

“Reading Is Boring”

No, it’s not.

You’re reading the wrong book.

Seriously, that’s the real problem. The right book is the one that captures your interest and keeps it. When you find that book, you won’t find the act of sitting down to read “boring” at all – in fact, you’ll look forward to it, and find excuses to get back to it when maybe you should be doing other things.

This advice holds true for the equally-common excuse “I’m too easily distracted by my phone/computer/television”. When you’re reading the right book, you’ll find yourself so immersed in it that it won’t even occur to you to check your notifications or go searching for the remote.

So, how do you find the “right” book? Easy: try them all. It can be an expensive exercise if you’re buying them, because you’ll probably burn through a lot before you get your money’s worth. If that’s a problem, look into a library membership or check out the selection of cheap/free eBooks available through Amazon. Give every book a go, and never let yourself forget that you are under no obligation to continue with one that’s not holding your interest. (Of course, there can be value in doing that sometimes, but if boredom is what’s keeping you from reading, you need to focus on that for now.)

Even if you go through a dozen and still don’t find one that takes your fancy, keep going. Gobble up bite-sized chunks of books until you find one so delicious that you can’t help but devour the whole thing.

“Reading Is Hard For Me”

OK, there’s no tough-love advice for this one: it’s a completely legitimate problem… but it doesn’t mean that you can’t get any value out of books at all.

Have you tried large print books? Have you tried reading on an e-reader instead of a paper book? Have you tried audiobooks? My grandmother has a fairly severe vision impairment, but she still gets a great deal of enjoyment out of audiobooks, and she’s always excited to get started on the next one.

Whatever the hurdle, it can be crossed, I promise you – just keep investigating your options, and don’t get hung up on the notion that if it’s not ink on paper it “doesn’t count”.

If you feel that reading is inaccessible to you for financial reasons, you’ve got options too! Try your local library as the first point of call. Even if you struggle to read paper books, they probably have electronic and audio options available to you, all for free. Even if the building is a long way away, they probably have some kind of program that allows books to be delivered or mailed to you. If they really can’t offer you anything that works for you, write to your local government council and tell them what services you need. After all, it’s up to them to provide resources to the community that funds them – and that includes you!

“I Don’t Know What To Read”

Well, subscribe to Keeping Up With The Penguins, for starters. Do it right now:

OK, that was a bit cheeky, I know 😉 But in all seriousness, start looking at reviews and recommendations from book-lovers online. They’re bound to suggest at least one or two that appeal to you. You could also try looking over the recommended reading lists of people you admire; not all of them will be winners, of course, but it’s a good place to start.

Sometimes figuring out what to read can be as simple as coming up with a list of things that you like and enjoy – road trips, taxidermy, 1960s fashion, Renaissance art, soccer, chemistry, whatever – and searching Google (or a site like Keeping Up With The Penguins) for “books about X”. Think of it as a super-easy shortcut for cobbling together a shortlist of books – usually a good combination of fiction and non-fiction, too – on a subject that you already know interests you.

Bonus tip: you can start going back through the archives and re-reading some of your favourites from childhood or high-school. That nostalgic kick you get from books you remember well can’t be beat!

“I Need More Easy, Practical Tips To Read More”

I’ve got you covered:

  • Try joining a book club. Whether it’s one that meets in person or an online forum (there are a lot of Facebook groups for this!), it’ll work. Not only do you get to chat about what you’re reading with other people, you’ll probably find friends with similar reading tastes who can recommend other books to you. If nothing else, the social pressure of knowing that your book club meeting is coming up will get your butt in a chair and your nose in a book.
  • Set specific goals. Not to sound like a corporate wanker, but specific goals are important. Whether it’s a number of books, a specific timeframe, or a list of books (like mine here on KUWTP), giving yourself a measurable outcome that you can track as you go is super-motivating.
  • Get on Goodreads (friend me!) and #bookstagram (follow me!). Seeing all those book-lovers sharing their favourite reads and book hauls will really get you in the mood to pick one up for yourself!
  • Try going to literary events in your area: check out book launches, writers festivals, author readings, and other kinds of gatherings. You’d be surprised how much more interested you are in a book after hearing an author speak about their work. I’ve discovered a bunch of incredible books and authors myself this way!
  • Look up the books your favourite movies were based on. I’ve got a whole category of books that were made into movies here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, and its not hard to find them all online. Sometimes, being familiar with the story and the setting and the characters already can make it much easier to get into a book. If it works, you can build on it by looking into other books that were based on the same story. So, for example, say you love 10 Things I Hate About You: it was based on The Taming of the Shrew, as were the novels Taming Of The Drew by Stephanie Kate Strohm, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, and Wise Children by Angela Carter. That’s plenty to get you started!

“It’s Not Working, I Still Don’t Read Enough!”

Before you wave the white flag and go back to a life without books, I want you to make sure that you’re not getting hung up on reading “fast”, or even on reading “efficiently”. For some reason, a lot of “experts” lately have been pushing their followers to read as much as they can as fast as they can… for no discernible bloody reason, as far as I can tell. You don’t get anywhere near as much enjoyment or value out of a meal that you wolf down in a couple of bites, as you do a meal that you savour slowly – the same goes for books.

I also want you to check that you’re not pushing yourself to only read the “right” kind of books – by which I mean the type of books you think you “should” be reading. The books you think you “should” read almost never match the type of book you actually enjoy. Pushing yourself to read Victorian classics when you’d rather be reading dystopian young-adult novels is a recipe for disaster. Why torture yourself with dry business strategy books when you’d rather be reading Harlequin romances? Take no shame in enjoying whatever the fuck you enjoy, ladies and gents! Literary elitism stinks, and I don’t want to hear that any of you are putting yourselves under pressure of that sort, okay?

Finally, to find the winning strategy and truly get into the habit of reading more, you need to know why you’re doing it. This is the most important thing you’ll get from this series, and I’m giving it away up front. Are you looking for new knowledge or skills for work? Do you really want a better understanding of a particular subject that interests you? Maybe you’re hoping reading will give you access to different perspectives and viewpoints more generally? Is it helping you learn a new language? Heck, maybe you want to read more for the simple fun and pleasure of it. Whatever the case, once you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re in a much better position to figure out how best to go about doing it.


The good news is this: the “trick” to reading more… is to read more. That’s it. The more you do it, the more you’ll do it. Reading (and enjoying reading) is a vicious cycle, and once you’re in it’s bloody hard to pull yourself out. It ain’t rocket surgery…

Are you committing to reading more this year? Or have you set some other bookish goal? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook) – I want to keep you on track and cheer you on!

Check out the next installment of this series – How To Read More Out Of Your Comfort Zone – here.

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

How’s this: I’m reviewing a #1 book on the #1 day of the year! Cute, eh? I’ve been meaning to read All The Light We Cannot See ever since it topped the Dymocks 101 back in 2017 (and it was only just pipped at the post by Harry Potter on the 2018 list, too). So, this seems as good a time as any!

All The Light We Cannot See was written by American author Anthony Doerr, and published by Scribner in 2014. It went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Plus, it spent nearly 120 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List for Hardcover Fiction. Long story short, a lot of really smart people really liked it… but that was all I knew about it going in.

Now, I’ve struggled to find a way to say this sensitively (diplomacy is not my talent), so I’m just going to go for it: I was kind of disappointed to find that it was a(nother) fictionalised account of WWII. Will we never tire of them? I mean, these stories are getting so much air time of late, and for me they’re starting to wear a bit thin. The real-life WWII narratives we have are so compelling (see: Diary of a Young Girl, or The White Mouse), and there are so many other conflicts that we could examine, from all across the world, some still ongoing… I’m not saying WWII should be forgotten about altogether (I’m not a monster!), but I’m ready for something else to get a look-in.

Anyway, to the review (and consider this my timely reminder that I do not give a shit about spoilers, so read this review – and all others on Keeping Up With The Penguins – at your own peril): All The Light We Cannot See is set in occupied France. It centers on two primary characters, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths eventually cross. It’s basically The Book Thief for grown-ups.

It took a few chapters for me to fall into Doerr’s rhythm. Every chapter follows a different character than the previous one, and the time-line jumps all around. It’s all done very carefully and deliberately, though, to reveal the story at exactly the right pace. I did settle into it after a while, and it’s totally possible for readers to stay with it as long as they keep their wits about them, so don’t let that put you off.


Straightened out, the chronology goes something like this: we begin in 1934, where the blind six-year-old Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, while the eight-year-old Werner lives in a German orphanage with his sister. No one’s having fun. Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, and there’s a rumour of a priceless – but cursed (oooh!) – diamond, buried somewhere in the bowels of the collection. The story goes that whoever holds the “Sea of Flames” jewel cannot die, but their loved ones would be stricken with unending misfortune as long as they have it. Sounds like a rip-off of the Harry Potter resurrection stone to me, but I’ll go with it 😉

In 1940, Germany sets about invading France, and Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father. Unbeknownst to her, his boss charged him with transporting and protecting the cursed diamond, and they are being pursued by a Nazi gemologist who will stop at nothing to get his greedy hands on it. They hide out in the home of Marie-Laure’s great-uncle (who’s bonkers, by the way), but the father is (inevitably) arrested by the Germans. He conceals the magic diamond in the model of the town that he built for his daughter, keeping it out of sight. Marie-Laure, her great-uncle, and their maid find ways to help the Resistance, at great personal risk. I noted down, reading all of this, that Doerr did a great job of capturing the additional layer of terror experienced in this kind of situation by a person with a vision impairment, but he did so in a way that didn’t read as exploitative or “inspiration porn”-y. So, that’s one in his column!


Meanwhile, Werner (back in the German orphanage) has shown a real gift for radio mechanics, and it draws the attention of the Nazi recruiters. They take him to a “school” (and I’m sure you can guess what it was like for him), and when his skills are sufficiently honed, their HR department adjusts the record of his age to make him 18, which means they can send him out into the field. He and his fellow soldiers trace radio transmissions, and do/witness some sickening shit (well, they’re Nazis, so it’s a given).

Then, in 1944, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths converge. The Nazis have traced a resistance radio transmission to the city of Saint-Marlo, where it is, indeed, broadcasting from Marie-Laure’s attic. What links the two of them and brings them together is that Werner used to listen to those same transmissions in the orphanage with his sister. The Nazis bomb the city within an inch of its life, but Werner decides not to reveal the location of the broadcast to his comrades (he’s a Nazi with a heart, I guess). He ends up seeking out Marie-Laure’s house for himself, and he kills the Nazi gemologist who has been ransacking the place (looking for that ol’ cursed diamond), effectively saving Marie-Laure’s life. When the bombing stops, Marie-Laure takes Werner to a hidden grotto, where she throws the diamond into the ocean (gasp!).

Britney Spears Oops I Did It Again Gif - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Werner then drops Marie-Laure off at a refugee camp, and stumbles off to a field hospital. He meets a pretty sticky end, actually – in his delirium, he steps on a land mine. Kaboom!

Then the story skips ahead to 1974, and speeds up considerably (this is the “big conclusion” that’s supposed to tie up all the loose ends). Werner’s former army boss tracks down his sister from the orphanage, and returns all of his personal effects to her – including the model of Marie-Laure’s house that once contained the cursed diamond. She, in turn, tracks down Marie-Laure, and returns the model to her. Marie-Laure’s father was never found, even after all the POWs were freed, and her great-uncle is dead. Everyone’s super-traumatised by this series of events, but they all try to pretend that they aren’t – it’s super-healthy.

The story ends in 2014. Marie-Laure is walking the streets of Paris with her grandson, still blind, and marvelling at how the internet works.


All The Light We Cannot See is readable enough, but I had to Google Translate a few bits and pieces (from French and from German). It’s billed as a “touching story”, but I don’t think it really told me anything new about WWII. Plus, I’m really not sure how I feel about the depiction of a Nazi soldier “saving” a person with a disability. I think I understand what Doerr was trying to get at, but it’s a very sympathetic depiction of Nazis on the whole, and that extra layer of Marie-Laure having a vision impairment was just a bit on the nose…

Tl;dr? Well, as I said, All The Light We Cannot See is basically The Book Thief for grown-ups. It’s worth reading as an academic exercise, to keep current with the landscape of literary fiction and all that. But if you’re looking for a revelatory WWII novel that completely changes your perspective, you can move right along, there’s nothing for you here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The Light We Cannot See:

  • “This story pulls the reader into the life of a special girl. I am a man, so this is not at all a girl’s book. It is transcendant. You will not be disappointed.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Eloquent writing, lame plot, shallow ending” – Yiannis F.
  • “Why was she blind” – Dev Mac the conqueror
  • “The linguistic and grammatical clumsiness, even in the sample, is unbearable. Talk about turgid prose. It was like walking on an inviting beach that turns out to be covered in sharp pebbles.” – Serious Reader
  • “Was never able to read this book. Ordered it, but received Fifty Shades of Grey instead.” – MDWFORD

Year In Review: Keeping Up With The Penguins Recommended Reads

With the year drawing to a close, I figured I should go ahead and do the traditional book blogger Year In Review post. In 2018, I reviewed 46 books across over two dozen genres and categories, with publication dates stretching over seven centuries. I’ve read Victorian classics, contemporary best sellers, religious allegorical poetry, true crime narratives, non-fiction popular science, 20th century award winners, and everything in between. And, believe it or not, I’m not even half-way through The List! So there’s plenty more good stuff to come in 2019, folks, trust me 😉

I set the bar for my Recommended reads pretty damn high. Higher than Oprah’s Book Club. Higher than Reese’s Hello Sunshine. Higher than your bookstore’s best seller shelf. My minimum criterion is the question: “Is this a book I would recommend to absolutely anyone, even if I know nothing about their reading tastes?”. And, so far, only nine books have made the cut. Here they are: the Keeping Up With The Penguins Recommended Reads of 2018.

Year In Review - Recommended Reads - David Copperfield, In Cold Blood, Jane Eyre, To Kill A Mockingbird, and more - Keeping Up With The Penguins

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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

Dickens once said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a sprawling biographical novel following the Cindarella-esque rise of David, a forlorn child who grows through hardship to achieve his dreams. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is fantastic, so you should give that a go.) Read my full review of David Copperfield.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

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

In 1959, Truman Capote read a piddly little piece in The New Yorker about the murder of a well-liked Kansas family. Over half a century later, here I am: recommending his novelistic true-crime book to anyone who will listen. Capote takes a few liberties with the truth in In Cold Blood, sure, so it’s no fun if you’re a kill-joy and you take it all too seriously… but you should read it, nonetheless. I’ll definitely read this chilling, but enthralling(!), book again. Read my full review of In Cold Blood.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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

This is literally the most under-rated, overlooked recommended read that I’ve encountered thus far. I really drank the Kool-Aid with this one – I started recommending We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to people I barely know, before I’d even finished it! But it is crucial that you don’t read my review before you read the book in full for yourself. You’ll kick yourself later if you spoil the “shocking plot twist”!

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is perfect for anyone who finds themselves in desperate need of a few fun facts that can be delivered smugly, perhaps over a water cooler or during knock-off bears. Sure, some of the science is a little outdated, but I think we can forgive Bryson for calling Pluto a planet over a decade ago. This book is accessible, engaging, and I can guarantee it’s the most fun you’ll ever have reading about science. Read my full review of A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Eyre was the first book from The List to truly take my breath away. It is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints of the 19th century, as experienced by a clever, funny woman who was way beyond her years. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it – Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and a highly recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. Read my full review of Jane Eyre.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Doyle once said that The Adventures of the Speckled Band, from this very collection, was his favourite Sherlock Holmes story. I, personally, couldn’t narrow it down to just one! I loved A Scandal In Bohemia (featuring the enigmatic Irene Adler), The Red-Headed League, and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Ultimately, though, the entire collection is highly readable, endlessly entertaining, and will definitely leave you wanting more. Read my full review of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

It might be cliche to cite this as one of your favourite books of all time… but I don’t give a damn. I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity. Read it for the cultural capital. Read it for the nostalgic kicks. Read it for the questions it raises. Read it for its timeliness and resonance. Whatever your reason, just read it! It is accessible, appropriate, and engaging for all readers – of any age – anywhere in the world. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

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

More than any other contemporary read for Keeping Up With The Penguins, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend lives up to the hype. In fact, it exceeds it! I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page (even if they didn’t ask). My recommendation goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking for Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we think of Austen or the Brontës today. Get in early, and read it! Right now! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend.

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

This is definitely the most unexpected Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. I went in expecting a really dense and heavy read, a real slog to get through… and found, instead, a hilarious, engaging, and relatable (!) story that has stuck with me ever since. I strongly recommend getting your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations published since Dostoyevsky’s death, but I can’t vouch for any of those – the art of translation can really make or break your enjoyment of a book. I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go; if you keep an open mind, I’m sure you’ll ultimately feel the same! Read my full review of Crime and Punishment.

What are your top recommended reads of 2018? Make sure you submit them for consideration in the compilation of The Next List! (Or you can share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There’s nothing better than reading winners back-to-back! Last week, I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and this week I had the pleasure of getting swept away by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I didn’t have high hopes: I mean, Russian literature is supposed to be super long and heavy and hard to read… plus, my copy was, well, a little worse for wear (another “pre-loved” edition lifted from my husband’s collection).

The introduction didn’t help matters, either. It was a little hard to follow, not having read Crime and Punishment (or, indeed, any of Dostoyevsky’s other works) before. Some parts were pretty salient, though:

“Few works of fiction have attracted so many widely diverging interpretations as Crime and Punishment. It has been seen as a detective novel, an attack on radical youth, a study in ‘alienation’ and criminal psychopathology, a work of prophecy (the attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II by the nihilist student Dmitry Karakozov took place while the book was at the printer’s, and some even saw the Tsar’s murder in 1881 as a fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s warning), an indictment of urban social conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, a religious epic and a proto-Nietzchean analysis of the ‘will to power’. It is, of course, all of these things – but it is more.”

Introduction (Crime And Punishment)

The fact is Crime and Punishment has been super-popular ever since the first installments were published in The Russian Messenger in 1866. No one seems to doubt its significance – but academics argue themselves hoarse about what Dostoyevsky was actually getting at. It’s a reasonable basis for my concerns, but I shouldn’t have been worried – I was hooked from the very first page. It just goes to show, not only should you not judge a book by its cover (especially when that cover is falling apart), but you also shouldn’t pay much mind to its reputation. The book you worry is going to be really dense and boring to read actually turns out to be… well, fan-fucking-tastic!

Let’s start with the premise, because it is wild: Crime and Punishment follows the story of ex-student Rodin Raskolnikov, living on a shoestring in St Petersburg. He formulates a plan to stop his sister marrying a rich man (whom she does not love) in order to support the family – he sees that as a kind of prostitution, so how to prevent such a crime? Well, kill a crotchety old pawn-broker and steal her cash, obviously!

Yes, it’s a super-flawed plan, and that makes for fantastic reading. Dostoyevsky employed a really revolutionary narrative technique (for the time), writing from a third-person perspective but focusing almost exclusively on the internal monologue of the protagonist. Raskolnikov is a bundle of nerves and anxiety, which makes him – and I know I shouldn’t say this, given that he is a literal axe murderer, but I don’t care – totally relatable! Crime and Punishment follows his moral dilemmas leading up to the murder(s), and his complete psychological denouement afterwards. It’s compelling stuff! Most of it is told through Raskolnikov talking to himself, but it still seems fast-paced and action-packed. That takes real talent, eh?

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over other organisms.”

p. 242

Apparently, Dostoyevsky wrote his original drafts with a focus on “the present question of drunkness… all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances”, and the original title was The Drunkards (well, he is Russian). But as he started to develop the character of Raskolnikov, and fleshed out the nature of his crime, the story took a turn. Dostoyevsky’s masterful narrative technique only emerged in the final draft, where he switched to third-person narration, and basically re-wrote the whole thing. I can only imagine what a slow and laborious process that must have been in the days before word processors… but all his hard work damn sure paid off.

Crime and Punishment is written in six parts, and it’s around Part Three that Dostoyevsky starts getting philosophical, sharing with us (through his characters) his thoughts on… well, crime and punishment, funnily enough. He picks apart all of the disastrous consequences of Raskolnikov’s “moral” murder. You could spend a lifetime analysing the philosophical questions raised by Crime and Punishment, but I think I’ll leave that up to the professors – KUWTP is hardly the place to dissect Dostoyevsky’s position on nihilism 😉

Even without the philosophical analysis, it’s impossible to write a simple plot summary that is both succinct and complete, because the novel is so deeply complex. But don’t let that fool you! That does not make it heavy, boring, or hard-to-follow (I’m now kicking myself for letting all those pre-conceived ideas put me off reading it for so long). The only valid forewarning I feel I need to give you is that this book is really 600 pages of “crime”, and only an epilogue or so of “punishment”. Whatever the title might have you believe, Dostoyevsky didn’t so much write about formal punishment of crime (in terms of the justice system and so forth), but rather the internal “punishment” stemming from Raskolnikov’s own conscience.

But enough heavy stuff! What I really want to impress upon you is how much fun this book is! It’s not at all what you’d expect.

“The companion who was the object of these reproaches was sitting on a chair and had the look of a man who badly wanted to sneeze, but could not for the life of him do so.”

p. 601

Crime and Punishment is officially a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. If you’re looking to delve deeper into Russian literature as some kind of project, you might want to start with Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (as Dostoyevsky said himself, “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat”), but if you’re simply curious and not put off by its bad reputation, pick it up today! As beat-up as this copy looks, I strongly recommend trying to get your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations but I can’t vouch for any of those, because the art of translation can make or break your enjoyment of a book. On top of that, the footnotes in this edition are great – helpful without going over the top. All in all, I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go – and I’m sure you will be too!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crime and Punishment:

  • “If this book doesn’t drive you to drink nothing will. I haven’t encountered this many melodramatic people in my entire life. Really, truly, one after another is dropping dead of guilt or shooting himself or going insane, or hating and loathing his friends and family and sweethearts, or,
    When all is copacetic, just drinking himself stupid. Let me do you a favour and save you a few hours: Man kills 2 women and then proceeds to feel guilty for 600 pages. If I could have killed him myself I would have!” – Geezer & Wife
  • “Can’t eat a classic” – Keith B Cruise
  • “This book was P to the double O P don’t waste your hard earned money on this piece of total and complete crap.” – Cecily
  • “This book manifest a many-eyed demon in your soul, who will proceed to tear the blindfold off your inner child’s face, exposing him to the blinding light of truth as he falls headlong into the abyss while madly clawing at the smoking pits that were one his pure, innocent eyes.” – Amazon Customer
  • I was determined to finish it because it is a classic. My question for the author would be “Were you determined to bore us to tears by constantly using 500 words when 100 would have sufficed?” Get thee to a gulag!” – Amazon Customer

Best Of: Keeping Up With The Penguins tl;dr Reviews

If there’s one thing I pride myself on here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, it’s my tl;dr reviews of classic and popular literature. I aim to tell you everything you need to know about a book in a single sentence, summing up the entire plot and my reaction to it. This past year, I’ve reviewed a stack of wonderful books, and I think it’s high time we revisit some of them – the tl;dr version 😉

P.S. If you’re feeling a little out of the loop, “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read”. It’s frequently used across the internet to indicate a very brief summary of a very long preceding ramble…

tl;dr Reviews of Classic Literature - Text on Blue Background with Images of Book Covers - The Divine Comedy, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Turn Of The Screw

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. All the characters talk and act like self-indulgent teenagers – it’s basically an old-timey version of The OC.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.

Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Tl;dr? Wild is Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor. I would recommend it to mid-20s fuck-ups like me, who don’t mind clumsy metaphors.

Read my full review of Wild here.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any personal emotional turmoil going on, go for it.

Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is a good one to talk about at parties, but if it’s tl;dr, just picture an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

My tl;dr review: Faulkner drunk texts the death and burial of a Southern woman with a crazy family.

Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

My tl;dr summary would be this: a barren, drunk, stalker “girl” witnesses what could be a clue to what could be a crime, and you’ve got to swim through some very choppy waters to get yourself back on solid ground after that. If you’re a thriller aficionado you might find it cliche, and if you’re in a dark place it might trigger some stuff for you: you’ve been warned.

Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

My tl;dr summary of The Divine Comedy overall is this: Inferno is hilarious and great, Purgatorio is just okay, Paradiso is a heap of shit. Read Inferno, and don’t bother with the rest (unless you need a sleep aid).

Read my full review of The Divine Comedy here.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

My tl;dr review of The Sun Also Rises would be this: it’s a self-indulgent story about drunk Americans and Brits trying to fuck one another and ignore their existential crises in Spain, whinging all the while and bruised male egos galore. Proceed with caution.

Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

My tl;dr review: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.

Read my full review of American Sniper here.

Paper Towns – John Green

My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. It’s great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.

Read my full review of Paper Towns here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Tl;dr? A governess goes bonkers and starts seeking ghosts (that may or may not be real, no one can figure it out), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense but told in the wordiest possible way.

Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

A tl;dr review of The Picture of Dorian Gray: imagine giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth, and and endless supply of drugs and alcohol.

Read my full review of The Picture Of Dorian Gray here.

Can you give me a tl;dr summary of your favourite read this year? Drop it in the comments below (or share it over at KUWTP on Facebook!)

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