Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Studio Girls – Lisa Ireland

It’s a tale as old as time, revisited in Lisa Ireland’s new novel The Studio Girls. Four ambitious young women head for Hollywood, in the hopes of making it big on the silver screen, only to discover upon their arrival that there’s darkness below Tinsel Town’s sparkle. The fine folks at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Ireland says that The Studio Girls was inspired by research she did for her previous novel, The One And Only Dolly Jamieson. The Hollywood Studio Club was a real place, inhabited by household names like Marilyn Monroe and plenty more who didn’t quite make it. It was basically a sorority for aspiring actresses, to give them space to hone their craft and keep them safe from the underbelly’s clutches until they either made it big or headed home with their heads hung low.

The story is set in the latter half of the 1950s, when screen stars were made by powerful men in big offices who smoked cigars and smacked their secretaries on the bum whenever they walked past. Ireland does acknowledge some of these darker aspects of Hollywood’s Golden Era, notably insidious racism and prejudice regarding interracial relationships, but stops short of anything truly horrifying. That story plays out as the four women reconvene for a reunion in 1999, and reckon with the fallout of the scandal that separated them decades ago.

Some of the dialogue in The Studio Girls is a little laboured, and a few plot points seem a bit of a stretch, but on the whole it’s a sweet and nostalgic read with some glitz and glam to lure you in.

Buy The Studio Girls on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)
Read The Studio Girls on audiobook via Libro.fm here. (affiliate link)

11 Books About Stalking

One of the scariest things about the crime of stalking is how close it feels: we could all become the object of obsession, or ourselves become obsessed. It’s the kind of crime that seems to happen by degrees. Does the person we see at the park every day have their own reasons for being there, or are they following us? Is checking our ex’s Instagram every day just part of the break-up process, or is it the gateway to more dangerous behaviour? Here are eleven books about stalking that will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing right up.

11 Books About Stalking - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Affiliate links aren’t stalking you, I promise! But there are a few on this page and when you make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.

Milkman by Anna Burns

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The narrator of Milkman is an unnamed 18-year-old who is being stalked by an older man, a paramilitary honcho, in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. Despite her rebuffing his offers of “lifts” and “talks”, and her quasi-relationship with a more age-appropriate man, rumours start to spread around the insular community that she and the milkman are having a torrid affair. Everything is heightened, everything is politicised, and everything is prone to being extrapolated upon by the community. It’s a complex book about the culture of violence and silence, at the interpersonal level and writ large across society. Read my full review of Milkman here.

Big Swiss by Jen Beagin

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Anyone who’s ever been in therapy knows the deal. It’s meant to be private. Like, seriously private. But what if a therapist is writing a book? What if he’s getting someone to transcribe audio recordings of someone’s sessions? And what if that transcriber were to… fall in love with the patient? That’s basically the premise of Big Swiss. It would be one thing if Greta simply fell in love with a voice on the tapes she transcribes, but she takes it one step further, and then another, and then another. Gradually, her life intertwines with that of the woman whose deepest, darkest secrets she already knows. Read my full review of Big Swiss here.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

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You’ll probably be drawn to The Silent Patient for the central mystery: why does the institutionalised woman who shot her husband refuse to speak? Can the psychotherapist obsessed with her case end her six-year silence? But as the story progresses, you’ll realise the two central characters have something in common: they were both victimised by a nameless, faceless man. For Alicia, it was her stalker. For Theo, it was his wife’s lover. As the man gets closer to each of them, the tension rises to almost unbearable heights. Is it just therapeutic countertransference between Alicia and Theo? Or are they actually connected? Read my full review of The Silent Patient here.

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

The Nothing Man - Catherine Ryan Howard - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pick up The Nothing Man when you’re looking for an intricately-plotted, meta-fictional, pulse-racing thriller that will have you asking towards the end: who’s stalking who? The title is the moniker given to the man who assaulted and murdered a series of people in the early 2000s; they called him that because the Gardaí had “nothing” on him. The serial killer who terrorised Cork for years is now a security guard at a supermarket, and one day he shows up at work to discover a memoir by his only surviving victim on the shelves. As he reads more about his crimes and the girl who got away, he realises she might be closer to discovering his true identity than he thought. Read my full review of The Nothing Man here.

You by Caroline Kepnes

You - Caroline Kepnes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You is not only one of the best-selling books about stalking in the past decade, it’s also the one that will hit closest to home for booklovers. A beautiful, aspiring writer visits a bookstore in the East Village one day, not realising that she’s catching the eye of the man behind the counter. Joe is captivated by the customer, and Googles the name on her credit card – and finds everything he needs to know to mastermind another ‘chance’ encounter with her. He goes on to orchestrate a series of events that will drive her into his open arms. An obsessive stalker turned loving boyfriend – what could go wrong?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might be surprised to see The Great Gatsby in a list of books about stalking, but it really does belong here. If we didn’t all get so caught up in the Jazz Age glitz and glamour, and the apparently romantic tragedy of the disintegrating American Dream, we’d see this ‘classic’ for what it is. Gatsby uses his wealth and privilege to draw the woman he’s loved from afar (read: stalked) for years into his arms, despite the fact that she’s married to someone else and dealing with her own problems. We’re supposed to think it’s charming, not creepy, because he’s rich and persistent – but it should really set off all of the #MeToo alarm bells. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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Look, there’s a lot going on in Eileen. You could make the argument that a little stalking is the least of the titular character’s character flaws, and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, that in itself is an interesting commentary on the nature of stalking as a crime – it rarely occurs in isolation. Eileen is miserable in all aspects of her life, from caring for her alcoholic father in their squalid home to her dreary job as a secretary in a prison. Her stalking behaviours are an escape from the horrors of her day-to-day life, and in that light they become almost understandable, though not quite forgiveable.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

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

People-watching is a harmless pastime for most of us – but when does it cross the line into something more sinister? For the protagonist in The Girl On The Train, it happens around the time she notices something amiss between the couple she’s christened Jess and Jason in her mind. She watches them from the window of the train, more often than not in a drunken haze. She might be the only one who’s noticed something terrible has happened – but can she trust her own perspective? The only way to know for sure is to find out more, and that’s when lines start being crossed. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller

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It’s hard to believe that the teacher who ‘has an affair’ (read: grooms and abuses) an adolescent student isn’t the creepiest character in Notes On A Scandal, but here we are. The story is narrated by Barbara, a veteran teacher at a London school who (to put it mildly) has trouble making friends. She’s captivated by the new art teacher, Sheba, and slowly integrates herself into the woman’s life, insisting they’re BFFs (despite all evidence to the contrary). However, the closer she gets to Sheba, the more she learns about Sheba’s secrets, and the more dangerous their strange friendship becomes. Read my full review of Notes On A Scandal here.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

The Sanatorium - Sarah Pearse - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A story set in a remote renovated mental asylum is creepy enough, but with the addition of a stalker? The Sanatorium will have you shitting your pants, for sure. Traumatised detective Elin arrives at the new themed hotel at the invitation of her estranged brother, to celebrate his engagement. When his fiancee mysteriously disappears, and a sudden storm cuts off all access to the rest of the world, all of Elin’s bad gut feelings are confirmed. Someone is lurking in the shadows, getting closer each time she gets nearer to uncovering the truth. Read my full review of The Sanatorium here.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I'm Thinking Of Ending Things - Iain Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most editions of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things are published with no blurb, so you truly go in blind, which really ratchets up the tension. The story begins with a nameless narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, in a car en route to visit Jake’s parents for the first time. She’s thinking of ending things between them, but Jake doesn’t know that yet. The narrator is also being stalked by The Caller, a man who leaves her cryptic voicemails, somehow calling her from her own number. “How do we know when something is menacing? What cues us that something is not innocent?” she asks on page 17. “Instinct always trumps reason.” Read my full review of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things here.

The Roommate – Rosie Danan

I’ll be honest: I picked up The Roommate because #Bookstagram promised me it’s “super spicy”. I’d like to pretend it takes more than that to pique my interest, but it really doesn’t. I’m a simple creature, and books about good-looking people gettin’ it on are always going to grab my attention.

The Roommate - Rosie Danan - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Roommate here.
(My roommate and I will be forever grateful if you purchase a book through one of the affiliate links on this page.)

The female lead, Clara, is a straight-laced old-money girl from Connecticut. She’s been pining after a guy who’s Just Not That Into Her for fourteen years. When The Roommate begins, she’s just picked up her life and moved across the country to Los Angeles to stay with him a while. Only, she learns upon arrival that he’s actually ditching her for the summer to go on tour with his band. What a guy!

He tells Clara not to worry, though, because he’s sub-let the second bedroom in his house to “a guy from Craigslist”. (Seriously, no red flags at all, this is fine.)

Clara is shocked to discover pretty early on that this “guy from Craigslist” is, in fact, a porn star. (Ahem, sorry, adult entertainer.) And he’s not a skeevy porn star who relies heavily on performance enhancing drugs, either. He’s a traditionally good-looking, hetrosexual adult performer who doesn’t use any drugs or do any hardcore scenes, and he’s got so much ‘mainstream appeal’ that they publish profiles of him in GQ and Buzzfeed. You know, one of those porn stars, there’s heaps of them around! (In this fantasy land…)

This is Josh, and despite having sex for a living, he’s just as turned on by Clara as she is by him. He’s going to open Clara’s eyes to a world of pleasure and turn all her preconceived notions on their heads. In turn, she’ll finance his new pornography-adjacent business venture and give him a lot of boners.

It takes a minute for Danan to find her pace and settle into her characters, but once she does, hold onto your hat. The Roommate is, indeed, super spicy, and a lot more sex-positive than your stock-standard romantic comedy. The sex, steamy as it might be, is also essential to the plot and character development for both Clara and Josh, keeping this book firmly out of gratuitous erotica territory. The sexy stuff is also nicely balanced by some real romance and sweet moments between the two leads.

I feel like I should be more critical of how the porn industry is portrayed in The Roommate, as it’s hardly realistic, but it’s hard to be too harsh when (a) this book is just so much fun to read, and (b) Danan does so much more than any other romance author I’ve read to bring the industry into the light. So, I guess I’ll settle for recommending that you treat this one as what it is: a romantic fantasy, a rose-coloured fairytale version of working in porn. You won’t get any more insight into the realities of adult entertainment than you would getting a feel for what it’s like to be a journalist from How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days.

I read The Roommate in one sitting. In fact, I stayed up past my (admittedly, already quite late) bedtime to get to the end. It’s exactly the kind of rom-com I love, spicy and seasoned with wish-fulfillment. It’s definitely one for more open-minded readers, so I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who prefers their romances replete with chaste kisses and closed doors, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Roommate:

  • “This book was not for me and I will be returning it as it’s simply an embarrassment to have in my possession.” – A
  • “The characters were too obnoxious to be charming.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There were much steamier sex scenes in The Kiss Quotient. Michael was a male prostitute and he KNEW what he was doing in the bedroom. I was left horny for dayssssss after reading it. I’ve reread that book so many times, even bookmarked the steamy scenes for future consumption lol. I got my money’s worth with that book. This book? Will never be read again.” – I am the stranger leaping into your photos!

Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea – Rebecca Thorne

Haven’t we all dreamed, at one time or another, of running away from it all with our one true love to open a quiet bookshop with cozy armchairs and hot tea? Rebecca Thorne shows prodigious skill in tapping into our idle daydreams in Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea, her “cozy fantasy steeped in love”. Cozy fantasy isn’t usually my thing, but seeing as this one is set in a bookshop, I couldn’t resist picking up the copy that Macmillan Australia sent for review.

The dedication gives you a clear read of the Vibes: “For anyone who really needs a cup of tea and a nice book. Take a break. You’ve earned it.”

The story follows Reyna, a dissatisfied private guard for a cruel Queen, and Kianthe, an all-powerful elemental mage. They’re deeply in love, and decide to throw all caution to the wind by leaving their bosses and all-consuming jobs behind to open a bookshop (that also serves tea and baked goods) in a tiny backwater town occasionally beset by dragons.

It’s a lovely book to read, an escapist Sapphic fantasy with occasional moments of mortal peril. I’m particularly impressed with how Thorne balanced exposition and action (always especially tricky in fantasy). She leaves a lot of doors open in the plot, clearly intending Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea as the first in a series that explores her world and its characters further. I probably won’t rush out to buy any of the other books, but it was still a perfectly pleasant reading experience.

Buy Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)
Read Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea on audiobook via Libro.fm here. (affiliate link)

15 Books That Will Make You Feel Like You’re On Vacation

A change is as good as a holiday, and sometimes a book is too. When a real-world holiday isn’t possible, you can turn to these fictional worlds to take you away. Here are fifteen books that will make you feel like you’re on vacation.

15 Books That Will Make You Feel Like You're On Vacation - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Help top up a book reviewer’s holiday fund by making a purchase through one of the affiliate links on this page.

Beach Read by Emily Henry

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The title is apt, and Beach Read is definitely fit-for-purpose. Emily Henry is a modern queen of books that will make you feel like you’re on vacation, and this is the shining jewel in her crown. Plus, it’s a good one for booklovers, as the two main players are authors. One is a romance writer who no longer believes in love, the other a writer of literary fiction who finds himself stuck in a rut. They find themselves holidaying in neighbouring beach houses and challenge each other to write themselves out of their respective blocks. It’s a rom-com, so you can probably guess what happens next…

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

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If you want a book that will take you back to the heady summer vacations of your youth, you can pick up Call Me By Your Name. It’s a story of young (and not-so-young, yikes) love, the obsessive kind that threatens to suffocate you and everyone in your company. In a cliffside mansion on the Italian Riviera, 17-year-old Elio Perlman meets 24-year-old visiting scholar Oliver and quickly falls head-over-heels. The story is told in retrospect, with grown-up Elio recalling the events of that fateful summer, and it’s a deeply evocative tale. Read my full review of Call Me By Your Name here.

Calypso by David Sedaris

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As per the blurb, Calypso is “beach reading for people who detest beaches”. When David Sedaris buys a beach house on the Carolina coast (that he names the Sea Section, naturally), he’s envisaging long sun-soaked vacations with his loved ones and relaxing holiday pastimes. Of course, reality doesn’t even come close to his hopes and dreams. Not many non-fiction books will make you feel like you’re on vacation, but this one does – vacation with your hilarious, snarky cousin who can’t help but comment on everything that irks them. Read my full review of Calypso here.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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If you suffer from any social anxieties, Less is going to be one of the best books you can read to make you feel like you’re on vacation. Arthur Less is a middle-age mid-career author, already struggling to keep it together when he receives an invitation to his ex’s wedding to a more age-appropriate suitor. In desperation, he accepts a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world, and sets off on a working holiday that’s both humbling and rejuvenating. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel will take you around the world, and make you fall just a little bit in love with Arthur Less. Read my full review of Less here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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Not all holidays are fun, frolic-on-the-beach types of getaways. You might find yourself, like Cheryl Strayed, desperate to escape your ‘real’ life and grasping at the only opportunity to do so. Wild is more of a pilgrimage than a vacation, really – an account of her grueling solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Her thousand-mile journey (literally!) takes her from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State, and along the way she finds the clarity she’s been seeking since the death of her mother in her early 20s. Read my full review of Wild here.

The Concierge by Abby Corson

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If you’re a traveller who loves a sneak-peek behind-the-scenes, you’ll love The Concierge. The main characters in this murder mystery aren’t on vacation themselves, but they’re the workers who make our vacations (real and fictional) possible. Hector Harrow has worked at Cavengreen Hotel for his entire adult life. He’s the hotel concierge, which means he sees everything and says nothing… until now. He’s finally ready to spill the beans about what happened the night of the murder. Read my full review of The Concierge here.

Reputation by Lex Croucher

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Were you ever sent away to stay with relatives over the holidays as a kid? Did you find yourself bored out of your brains, desperate for friends and entertainment? Then you’ll definitely relate to Georgiana, the main character of Regency-era rom-com Reputation. Her parents have deposited her with her well-meaning but stuffy aunt and uncle, and they’ve just about driven her all the way around the bend when she meets the enigmatic and charming Frances Campbell. Suddenly, she’s thrust into a world of high-society debauchery, and she couldn’t be more thrilled… until she learns that all that high living comes at a high price.

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

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

Allan Karlsson really needs a holiday – and, at a hundred years old, surely he’s earned it. Rather than face a depressing excuse for a birthday party in his retirement home, he seizes the day and jumps out the window. So begins an epic adventure, a ’round-the-world romp that conveniently aligns with Allan’s larger-than-life backstory. The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is not only delightful to read, it’s a wonderful reminder that there’s no age limit on adventures. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah

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Imagine this: you’re over-worked, stressed to the breaking point, and you finally manage a blessed escape to a five-star resort. Sounds like heaven, right? Well, it would be, except that you accidentally stumble into the wrong room and see someone, the most famous murder victim in the country, alive and well. Did You See Melody? is a book that will make you feel like you’re on vacation, but the kind of vacation where things go about as wrong as they can possibly go. You’ll be relieved to be home again by the time you’re done.

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

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At first, it’s a bit hard to feel sorry for Christopher Johnson McCandless. He was born into privilege, and had the kind of savings account that most of us can only dream about. How, then, did he end up a decomposing body, undiscovered for four months in the Alaskan wilderness? He left behind just a few notes in a journal to tell us. Jon Krakauer became obsessed with the mystery of McCandless’s life and death, and thus he wrote Into The Wild. It’s an unsentimental but passionate account of what it really means to go off the map, and the impact on those who are left behind.

The Catch by Amy Lea

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When a floundering fashion influencer discovers that her all-expenses-paid vacation at a Canadian resort isn’t booked for the week she arrived, she has no choice but to take up residence at the only AirBNB available in a small fishing village nearby. Of course, this being a vacation rom-com, there she meets a gruff and grumpy proprietor who will become her fake fiance just days later. Soon enough, the sparks that fly between them become real, but can this romance last all the way home? The Catch is the perfect combination of swoony and spicy, a romantic comedy that will let you escape without insulting your intelligence. Read my full review of The Catch here.

The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

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A road-trip vacation sounds delightful to most of us, but to Mercy Blain, the protagonist of The Other Side Of Beautiful, it’s a panic-inducing prospect. Mercy hasn’t been outside her own home in two years, but she has no other choice when it burns to the ground. Relegated to living out of the back of a cult classic campervan, she and her trusty sausage dog sidekick hit the road, driving the length of Australia from south to north. This is a surprising, heartwarming, and insightful story about an odyssey undertaken by the most unlikely adventurers. Read my full review of The Other Side Of Beautiful here.

The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald

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The Nancys will awaken the nostalgia and tickle the funny-bone of anyone who read Nancy Drew mysteries over school holidays as a kid. When Tippy Chan’s mother wins a two-week cruise holiday, her non-traditional family expands to include her Uncle Pike (who bears a startling resemblance to Santa Claus) and his fabulous boyfriend, Devon, fresh off the plane from Sydney. Together, they form a group dedicated to solving the mystery of a local school teacher’s murder (and they do makeovers, on the side). Only they can stop the killer before Tippy’s mother returns and real life starts again.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

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Tranquillum House is one of those retreats that offers everything you need: escape, relaxation, mindfulness, and a little pampering. Nine people gather at the remote retreat, each in search of their own solution to life’s problems. But is Tranquillum House really offering answers? Or is there a nefarious scheme afoot? Nine Perfect Strangers affirms the old maxim that, when it comes to vacations and getaways, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. No one writes a domestic thriller like Liane Moriarty, and this is her at the top of her game.

The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

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Lo Blacklock, a travel journalist, has just been given the plummest of assignments: writing a review of a week-long luxury cruise. She boards the Aurora ready to relax on the still waters of the North Sea, and everything is as picturesque as the press release promised. Only, as the cruise sails on, things start to turn: first the weather, then Lo’s own mind. She’s sure she saw a woman thrown overboard, but all of the passengers are accounted for. Why does nobody believe her? What really happened? The Woman In Cabin 10 will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, and you’ll definitely think twice before you book your next cruise vacation.

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