Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

10 Books I Picked For The Title

We all know that we’re not meant to judge a book by its cover… but judging it by its title should be fine, right? Along with the cover, a book’s title is the most important attention-grabber. A title that stands out on the shelves, or sticks in a reader’s mind, gets the author most of the way towards having their book read. Here’s a list of ten books I picked for the title.

10 Books I Picked For The Title - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If any of these book titles grab you and you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission 🙂

How To Lose Friends And Alienate People by Toby Young

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How To Win Friends And Influence People is the O.G. self-help book, chock-full of useful advice like “remember people’s names” and “make them feel good when you’re around them”. It works, but it’s cliche as all heck. That’s why my eyes were drawn to How To Lose Friends And Alienate People – a dark satirical take on one of the best-selling smarmy-charm books of all time? Yes, please! This is one of the first books I picked for the title, and also one of the books I picked up because I enjoyed the movie.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

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Anyone who has ever felt like they don’t quite fit in will surely relate to the title of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. The tone of the title changes depending on how you read it. When I first saw it (which made this one of the books I picked for the title), I thought it was a funny, wry take on “being yourself”. But the content of the book reveals that it’s darker and more serious than that. A bit of a bait-and-switch, but that’s what happens when you make snap judgements about books and their titles/covers!

I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf by Grant Snider

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Of all the books I picked for the title, this is the one that all booklovers will understand: Grant Snider’s I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf. It’s a slightly-snarky but otherwise-innocuous sentence that will resonate with anyone who has ever had a perve at the shelves of a new friend. Or anyone who spent the whole pandemic squinting to see the spines in someone’s Zoom background. The contents will make bibliophiles Feel Seen, too. It’s a collection of Snider’s comics about bookishness in all its forms and the love of reading.

They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera

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Avoiding spoilers is basically a full-time job. If there’s something popular you want to watch or read without knowing the ending, you have to avoid the news, your emails, all forms of social media… which is why They Both Die At The End is one of the books I picked for the title. Silvera is my hero for thumbing his nose at the convention of secrecy and giving it all away up front. This profound novel proves that even if we “know” the ending, there’s still joy and wonder to be found along the way (or something less sappy than that).

My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life by Georgia Pritchett

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My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life – haven’t we all felt that way at one point or another? If you’re some kind of incredible superpowered unicorn that has never fumbled their words when overly anxious, you might not understand why this is one of the books I picked for the title, but the rest of you mere mortals will get it. Pritchett is a TV writer and producer by trade, and this is her memoir – told in “gloriously comic vignettes” – about learning to live, even thrive, with anxiety. The title perfectly captures her refreshingly honest and humourous approach. Read my full review of My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life here.

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson

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Remember that delightful trend of self-help books with profanity in the title? It kind of gave way when the pandemic happened and self-help wasn’t cutting it for any of us, but if you cast your mind back you’ll recall it all began with The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck. Mark Manson posits that we should reject the culture of toxic positivity that has given us all the mistaken impression that we can fix our lives with happy thoughts. It’s a compelling thesis, but it’s the book’s title that really grabbed the world’s attention and made the book a best-seller.

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

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I Love Dick is one of those books I picked for the title because, no matter where you read it or who’s around you, someone will raise their eyebrows and/or get weird about it. And it’s hilarious, every damn time! In fact, a while back I even decided that I Love Dick would make My Kondo 30 (the 30 books I would keep if I were to go minimalist) because just having it on your shelves is such a great conversation starter. Even for people who have never read it, never heard of Chris Kraus, have no opinion on autofiction or psychosexual obsession – the title is enough to keep the chat going.

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

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In much the same spirit, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is an amazing conversation starter, as far as book titles go. Surprisingly, the title isn’t just for shock factor: the story it contains is actually about erotic stories for Punjabi widows. The daughter of Indian immigrants falls on hard times, and takes a job teaching “creative writing” at a community centre to make ends meet. When one of her students shares a book of sexy stories with the rest of the class, a whole lot of new stories are revealed. I picked this book for the title because it sounded like fun, and it delivers!

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

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I knew nothing about Samantha Irby – I hadn’t read either of her previous books, or her blog – when I first saw Wow, No Thank You, but based on the title alone I knew I had to have it. In those four little words, this book title communicates a certain frankness, a wry honesty to which I aspire in my life. How often do we say “yes please” when we’d really rather say “wow, no thank you”? This is a collection of essays about being in your forties and turning down things you “should” jump at (also about bodily fluids, awkwardness, and making the most of a shit sandwich). Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.

You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead by Marieke Hardy

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If you never said anything along the lines of You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead as an angsty teenager, then we probably don’t have a lot in common. Marieke Hardy is living the dream, though – she’s grown out of her angsty teenage years and actually named her memoir for the lament! This book is “a chronicle of broken hearts, fervid pursuits, passionate friendships, deranged letter-writing, the allure of the bottle, the singular charms of musicians, the lost song of youth, and three very awkward evenings with varying prostitutes-exactly zero percent of which the author’s parents will want to read”.

Wow, No Thank You – Samantha Irby

As soon as I heard the title of this book – Wow, No Thank You – I knew I had to read it, whatever it was. I didn’t know anything about Samantha Irby, I’d never read her blog, but I could tell she and I would get along. That feeling was only reinforced by the dedication – “This book is dedicated to Wellbutrin” – which gave me the first of many literal lols.

Wow No Thank You - Samantha Irby - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Wow, No Thank You here.
(If you use one of the affiliate links on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission – wow, THANK YOU!)

So, here’s what I learned from Wow, No Thank You: Irby is 40, and not entirely comfortable with that. She describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. If that doesn’t sound like the kind of person you immediately want to befriend, perhaps Wow, No Thank You isn’t for you.

It’s a collection of essays about… stuff. Life. Ridiculous jobs. Trying to make friends as an adult. The lost art of making a mix-tape. Living in a place where most people don’t share your politics. Getting your period and bleeding all over the sheets of your Airbnb. Trying to remember why you ever found nightclubs fun. There’s even a whole essay of “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever…” jokes (the format might mystify you if you’re not on Twitter, but it’s hilarious).

Hung Up! is one of my particular favourites from this collection, a brilliant defence of time spent on our phones. Irby presents the remarkable thesis that our phones are better than real life, if only for the fact that you can block people who bug you.

Are You Familiar With My Work? is surely the most memorable essay in this collection, if only for the intensity of the butt-clenching second-hand embarrassment. I laughed so hard my dog refused to stay on the couch with me as I read on.

Country Crock is another essay worthy of note, for different reasons. It’s a surprisingly moving piece about being a fat, black, queer woman (married to a white woman, no less) in Trump’s rural heartland. It’s a different vibe to the other essays in Wow, No Thank You, but it seems to fit right in and demonstrates Irby has range beyond poo jokes.

It would seem that Irby’s schtick is to be confrontationally honest about the kinds of things most of us would rather die than talk about. Sure, plenty of people find her essays “gross” or “too much information”, but for those of us who find her honesty refreshing, she’s a marvel. She unearths hilarious particulars of her life and manages to make them relatable. Who among us hasn’t had a hypercritical inner monologue running as we navigate the choppy waters of making a new friend? Desperately searched for a bathroom? Procrastinated as the pile of work we Really Should Be Doing grew higher and higher?

Maybe the context of having read Irby’s earlier essay collections (Meaty and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life) or her blog might’ve made Wow, No Thank You even better, but I enjoyed it thoroughly coming in cold. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it sure is for me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wow, No Thank You:

  • “The rabbit on the cover is nice, the content not so much.” – Brittany
  • “my wife and I were very excited to read “Wow, No Thank You” and that is effectively our reaction to it.” – R. Foshee

Lapvona – Ottessa Moshfegh

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In Lapvona, the much-anticipated new novel from Ottessa Moshfegh, a disabled shepherd boy living in a medieval fiefdom finds himself an unlikely replacement for the murdered son of a tyrannical lord, but it’s not enough to replace the love he imagines for his mutilated mother (whom he was told died in childbirth).

So, yeah, it’s Moshfegh’s usual lighthearted fare. A rom-com romp guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Seriously, folks, if you pick up Lapvona just because you enjoyed My Year Of Rest And Relaxation and you recognised Moshfegh’s name, you’re in for a rude shock. This is a guttural story about the most grim and grotesque aspects of human nature.

One review of Lapvona went viral a few weeks ago (in #bookstagram networks, anyway), describing it as “[a] new novel of medieval brutality [that] aims for the Marquis de Sade but ends up closer to Shrek“. That’s a spectacular roast, but it just made me all the more eager to read it (and all the more grateful to Penguin Books Australia for sending through a copy for review).

It’s every bit as horrifying as it sounds (and then some), with moments of insight so searing and quotable it’s like looking into the sun.

Marek guessed that Villiam could use his wealth to influence God’s will. That was the way things worked, Marek thought. If you didn’t have money, you had to be good.

Lapvona (page 53)

A comprehensive trigger warning would be longer than your arm, but of particular note: animal cruelty (there was one specific incident with a dog that made me put the book down and cuddle my own), abuses of power, sadism, self-harm, cannibalism…

Lapvona is masterful and revolting. I’m glad to have read it, and glad that it’s over. I’d imagine that’s exactly what Moshfegh was going for.

(Bonus: I loved this Vulture piece about – among other things – Moshfegh’s apparent obsession with the scatological.)

12 Wonderful Queer Love Stories

For too long, queer love stories were miserable and tragic. Queer lovers died, or were torn apart by time and circumstance, or were forced to keep their love hidden due to the prevailing social mores. Thankfully, we’re moving on, and allowing queer love stories – real and fictional – to be celebrated, loud and proud. Here are twelve wonderful queer love stories to pick up before the end of Pride.

12 Wonderful Queer Love Stories - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be my one true love if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page (I’ll earn a small commission).

Meet Cute Club by Jack Harbon

Where better to start for a list of queer love stories than one with a book club at its heart? The romantic leads of Meet Cute Club are Jordan – founder of the fledgling titular club – and Rex – a “frustratingly obnoxious and breathtakingly handsome” bookseller who makes fun of Jordan for buying books “meant for grandmas”. Naturally, they’re destined to be together. This is a wonderfully sweet rom-com with relatable characters, and an important message about (forgive me) not judging a book by its cover.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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One Last Stop is, quite frankly, one of the most delightful queer love stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The central character, August, is new to New York City, but she’s already got the cynicism down. That is, until she meets Jane – a beautiful stranger on a train, with a bewitching smile and a leather jacket. How was August to know that Jane had come unstuck in time, from her home in the 1970s, and falling in love with her would cause all kinds of trouble? Yes, it’s a queer romance with a time-travel element, and it’s snort-laugh funny to boot! Read my full review of One Last Stop here.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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The Argonauts is a pillar of the contemporary queer canon, so frequently invoked that it’s practically become cliche. It’s been so thoroughly read, analysed, and critiqued that it’s hard to believe that there’s any stone remaining unturned… but I really think that the queer love story at its heart deserves more attention. Nelson’s love for her partner, Harry, absolutely shines on every page. Even when they disagree, even when they’re scared, even when things are awful. Even if a lot of the academic auto-theory goes over your head, The Argonauts is worth reading for that alone. Read my full review of The Argonauts here.

Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

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In Only Mostly Devastated, summer loving had Ollie ablast… but not even queer love stories are immune to the keen sting of summer’s end. When his holiday dreamboat Will Tavares ghosts him, Ollie regretfully lets him go. Until, that is, a family emergency sees Ollie uprooted and moved across the country, and he finds none other than Will Tavares at his new high-school. Will isn’t “out” at school – he isn’t even nice. This is a boy-meets-boy spin on the Grease storyline, and it’s a must-read for anyone who ever pined for their first love.

Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee

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Noah Ramirez has painted himself into a bit of a corner. His blog – Meet Cute Diary – is a collection of real queer love stories and trans happy-ever-afters… only they’re all fake. Noah has made them all up. “What started as the fantasies of a trans boy afraid to step out of the closet has grown into a beacon of hope for trans readers across the globe”, and now a troll has exposed the truth. There are a number of logical, rational ways to handle this disaster, so naturally Noah chooses to start fake-dating Drew, a “real” queer romance to convince his followers that it is possible. What could go wrong?

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

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You can see the evolution of queer love stories across the three generations depicted in The Hours. Virginia Woolf (yes, based on the real-life writer) is forced to keep her Sapphic feelings hidden, barely daring to express them in private let alone in public. Then there’s Laura, a 1940s housewife for whom a clandestine expression of her true desires represents escape from her stifling life of domesticity. And finally, there’s Clarissa, who lives a full and open life in love with her partner in 1990s New York. Really, though, the true queer love story in The Hours is that of Clarissa and her best friend, Richard – they could have been lovers (sexuality being fluid and all), but instead they prioritised their bond of friendship, which lasted a lifetime. Read my full review of The Hours here.

Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

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Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda is one of Gen Z’s most iconic queer love stories. Simon reaches out to an anonymous poster on his high school’s Tumblr page (yes, times have changed), and they begin exchanging emails. When Simon is blackmailed, with a bully threatening to out him and his still-anonymous online pen pal, Simon has to figure out what’s most important, getting what he wants or keeping others from getting hurt. The identity of Simon’s crush will keep you guessing right up until the end, but there’s no doubt as to the heady passion of their youthful first-love.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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Arthur Less is sure that he is “the first homosexual to ever grow old”. He finds himself suddenly single, dumped by his long-time (much-younger) fuck-buddy for a more age-appropriate suitor. And now they’re getting married. And they’ve invited Arthur to the wedding. What’s Arthur to do? Concoct a scheme to avoid attending, of course! Arthur doesn’t intend to find himself in his trip around the world, but of course he does – and he finds true love, too. (Bonus: Less is one of the few queer love stories I’ve found that won a Pulitzer Prize!) Read my full review of Less here.

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

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In The Charm Offensive, “disgraced tech wunderkind” Charlie Winshaw needs to rehabilitate his image. How better than to re-make himself as Prince Charming for the millions of viewers of reality dating show Ever After? He’s relying on producer Dev Deshpande to make him look good – though that’s easier said than done. On screen, Charlie is stiff, awkward, and clearly a fish out of water among the female contestants. Off screen, sparks are flying between him and Dev. This sweet romantic comedy is great fun, and also prompts us to think about when and how queer love stories are told.

Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters

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Detransition Baby is certainly one of the more complex queer love stories on this list – but if you can follow, it’s so, so worth it! Reese believes she’s on the cusp of living the kind of life generations of trans women have only dreamed about: decent job, New York apartment, and the love of her life… until her girlfriend decides to detransition, and return to life as Ames. Oh, and he knocks up his (cis) boss, into the bargain. Can the three of them figure out how to make a family out of this mess? This is a truly beautiful story about family, commitment, and rolling with the punches.

Love, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery

Love, Hate & Clickbait - Liz Bowery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thom is a political consultant: suave, manipulative, and calculating. Clay is a data analyst, and basically the complete opposite: awkward, lanky, and new to politicking. In Love, Hate & Clickbait, their boss – a California governor and future presidential candidate – forces them to pretend for the cameras that they’re dating, to cover for her own homophobic gaffe. You’ll think you can see where this one is going, but this queer love story has some surprises still in store for you! Read my full review of Love, Hate & Clickbait here.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

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Here’s one of the wonderful queer love stories you’ve definitely seen all over #Bookstagram: Red, White & Royal Blue. Imagine if American’s First Son fell in love with the Prince of Wales – what could possibly go wrong? In McQuiston’s debut, Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry find out (spoiler: a whole hell of a lot can go wrong, but it’s definitely worth it). These two heartthrobs, despite their shaky start, seem made for each other. Their cute banter and quiet yearnings are a true delight to read. Pick this one up when your faith in love (or politics) has been shaken, and you’ll find it restored quick smart! Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales? It’s a killer premise for Casey McQuiston’s debut novel (and #Bookstagram darling) Red, White & Royal Blue. They’ve quickly become one of my auto-buy authors – I loved One Last Stop, and I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy of I Kissed Shara Wheeler – so it was great to go back and see where it all began for them back in 2019.

Red White And Royal Blue - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Red, White & Royal Blue here.
(And I’ll be tickled pink if you use an affiliate link on this page – when you make a purchase, I earn a tiny commission!)

McQuiston, unsurprisingly, came up for the idea for Red, White & Royal Blue – a romance between the heirs to two of the world’s most powerful families – during the 2016 American presidential election. They’ve also cited the TV show Veep, the Hilary Clinton biography A Woman In Charge, and royal romance The Royal We as sources of inspiration.

It makes for a delightful escapist read. Alex Claremont-Diaz, one of the romantic leads, is the First Son of America’s first woman president. He’s had a few encounters with Britain’s Prince Henry, none of them good. Their mutual dislike bubbles over at a royal wedding, when a little argy-bargy sends them careening into an extravagant wedding cake – a moment unfortunately captured by photographers.

So, it’s time for damage control! Their handlers concoct a plan for Henry and Alex to make a public show of friendship, to alleviate the risk of any further diplomatic incidents. Red, White & Royal Blue isn’t so much a fake-dating romance book as it is a fake-friendship-turns-into-real-dating romance book – a welcome twist on the trope.

Alex and Henry’s forced proximity really keeps the tension high, and propels the plot forward. Their burgeoning love affair is paced just right – not so quick as to be completely unbelievable, not so slow as to become boring, and with just the right amount of angst. The sociopolitical complexities of coming out are addressed as significant obstacles, but not overwhelming ones.

The only flaw in Red, White & Royal Blue‘s story, as far as I could see, was that one of the plot points (re: the emails, no spoilers but IYKYK) was so blatantly foreseeable! I felt like I spent two-thirds of the book waiting for that particular shoe to drop. Hot tip: if you EVER want to keep ANYTHING secret, NEVER put it in writing – especially in a romance novel!

That was forgivable, though, given how FUN this novel was. It’s hard to believe McQuiston was a debut writer. The tone was consistently youthful (without being either annoying or condescending), wry, and self-aware.

He’s unsure of the dress code for inviting your sworn-enemy-turned-fake-best-friend to your room to have sex with you, especially when that room is in the White House, and especially when that person is a guy, and especially when that guy is the Prince of England.

Red, White & Royal Blue (page 134)

I did get a weird pang towards the end, looking at the dates. The timeline of Red, White & Royal Blue clearly stretched in the future at the time McQuiston was writing; they (understandably) had no idea that absolutely everything would change in 2020. It makes for a heart-wrenchingly sweet parallel universe where a left-wing woman could be President and none of us ever did a birthday party via Zoom.

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing, and/or anyone who’s just particularly burned out by The State Of The World and looking for some starry-eyed optimism.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Red, White & Royal Blue:

  • “Alex is sad. He looks at Henry. Their eyes meet. Henry smiles for once. That makes Alex smile. Alex says “OMG LOL WE ARE CRAZY” then Henry says “we ARE crazy” then they both turn on their heels and head to another room. Sex happens. Sky is blue. Grass is green.” – Amazon Customer
  • “If you want to read chapter after chapter of vulgar language explicitly describing homosexual sex, then this is the book for you.” – goldie
  • “Written for adolescent girls with the reading difficulties.” – Kneale Grainger
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