Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Naked Ambition – Robert Gott

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Even people who aren’t particularly Arty™️ get into the Archibald. It’s Australia’s premiere art prize, awarded to “the best portrait… painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the [due] date”. It’s also central to Robert Gott’s new novel, Naked Ambition – kindly sent to me for review by my friends at Scribe.

This isn’t an art heist novel, though, or a literary exposé of the art world. Naked Ambition is a hilarious satire of Australian politics, skewering the egos of the privileged career politicians making decisions about our lives (while making messes of their own).

Gregory is an up-and-coming junior State minister, and (it goes without saying) a bit of a buffoon. He’s “constitutionally incapable of grasping the idea that anyone could dislike him” (page 4), according to his wife. He poses for a full-length nude portrait, and supports the eccentric artist’s decision to enter the painting in the Archibald.

He’s convinced everyone – the Premier, his mother, and his wife, included – will agree with this decision and admire his bold foray into the World of Art.

He’s wrong.

Naked Ambition had me howling with laughter. I’m particularly partial to Australian political satire, so I can’t promise everyone will find it as funny as I do – but it’s surely worth a try. With lines like “Australians don’t like their politicians with their clothes on, taking them off isn’t going to win you any votes,” (page 14), and “The scrotum is not a vote winner” (page 22), how could you not find the funny?

This short, sharp story takes place mostly in one room – Gregory’s living room, where the nude portrait is displayed in all its glory. That, with the snappy dialogue, would make Naked Ambition an excellent (and hilarious) play, in my humble opinion. Australian playwrights, I call on you to make it happen, immediately. I’ll be there in the front row on opening night! In the meantime, I can’t recommend Naked Ambition highly enough, especially to fans of Oscar Wilde.

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20 Books Set In The Deep South

The American Deep South captivates us in fiction, for many reasons. I think it’s the combination of sunshine and dark history that draws us in. Even all the way on the other side of the world (Sydney, Australia), I find myself tearing through books set in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina and feeling absolutely transported. Here are twenty books set in the Deep South that y’all should really read (see what I did there?).

20 Books Set In The Deep South - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Harper Lee was an Alabama native, so it’s no surprise she chose the rural town of Maycomb, AL for her only true novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. This is one of the classic books set in the Deep South, read across the world and loved by people of all ages and backgrounds. Many of the events Lee depicts in this novel resemble things that actually happened in her hometown (Monroeville), and the “boy next door” character was based on her own childhood friend, Truman Capote. And, of course, it’s impossible to ignore that many of the themes in this book reflect the ugly history of racism and oppression in the Deep South. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” – isn’t that a cracker of an opening line? Even though it doesn’t explicitly reveal that The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is set in the Deep South, it definitely hints at the haunting nature of the story set in a small Georgian mill town. Or, really, it’s multiple stories, of characters yearning to escape – especially Mick Kelly, an avatar of sorts for McCullers, a young girl who rejects gender norms and dreams of playing the piano. This Oprah’s Book Club pick will transport you, moving you in more ways than one.

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

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Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil is one of the most iconic books set in the Deep South, as well as a classic of the true crime genre. John Berendt truly immerses himself (and the reader) in the scene of the crime, stretching far beyond the details of a murder to craft careful portraits of the Savannah residents tangentially linked to it. This book showcases the diversity to be found in the South if you care enough to look closely: drag queens, society ladies, antiques dealers, rednecks, voodoo priestesses… all of them with plenty of dirty laundry that Berendt is just dying to air out.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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How’s this for a(nother) great opening line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Chills, right? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful book, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a story told largely through letters to God, from a black woman named Celie who grows up in Georgia. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship. While life has historically sucked for black women in the Deep South, Celie’s is particularly tough – but through her relationships with other women, and her inner reserves of strength, she comes out the other side. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

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The Vanishing Half begins in Mallard, a small Southern town primarily populated by light-skinned black Americans “who would never be white but refused to be treated like Negroes”. It’s the hometown of twin girls who grow up together, but whose lives diverge in surprising and significant ways. One grows up to “pass” as white, while the other marries a dark-skinned man and has a dark-skinned daughter. Through this multi-generational family saga, Brit Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels, and the echoing impact of internalised racism across generations. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

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South Carolina might seem like an unlikely setting for a supernatural teenage romp concluding with a literal exorcism, but in Grady Hendrix’s hands, My Best Friend’s Exorcism just works. It turns out demonic possession makes for a fascinating metaphor, and you can read a lot of meanings into it. It’s about coming-of-age, obviously, but also the frustrations of living in a small Southern town, the widening wealth divide between the working and middle classes, and the double standards when it comes to sex and gender. Hendrix makes Deep South suburbia every bit as terrifying as the darkest urban paranormal horror story.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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Jesmyn Ward has written several books set in the Deep South – she’s definitely one of the most powerful contemporary author voices to come out of Mississippi in the past while. The one for which she’s best known, at this point in her career, is Sing, Unburied, Sing. The story starts with thirteen-year-old Jojo, figuring out what it means to be a man. His role models are his dignified Black grandfather and his absent white father – coupled with the inconsistent presence of his mother, Leonie, in his life, it’s a confusing mix. Ward’s third novel is dark and compelling, exploring race, gender, and inherited trauma across generations through an odyssey across rural Mississippi.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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William Faulkner’s writing often sounds a lot like drunk texting, but he won the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1949, so clearly there’s more to it than confused rambling. As I Lay Dying is the story of a Southern woman’s death, and a perverse kind of funeral procession as her family transports her coffin across the Deep South so that she can be buried in her hometown. It’s narrated by no fewer than fifteen characters, and all of them have something a bit crazy going on, aside from the matriarch’s death. It’s a challenging read, but it’s also one of the defining books set in the Deep South, so it’s worth checking out. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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An American Marriage is the book that Oprah says “redefined the traditional American love story”. It’s about Roy and Celestial, a middle-class Black couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman. He’s sent to prison, and Celestial is forced to confront a life very different to the one she had envisaged for them. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell


Ah, Gone With The Wind. If your feelings about this one are complicated, you’re not alone. It’s a white-washed, rose-coloured caricature of a very dark period in America’s history, one that skips over anything uncomfortable or unpleasant about slavery and plantation life in favour of lovely dresses and romantic embraces and spunky (white) anti-heroes. And yet, it’s been so widely-read and made such a huge cultural impact that any list of books set in the Deep South is incomplete without it. Read it for the epic that it is, but take everything it represents about Southern life during the Civil War with the bitterest grain of salt.

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

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Anne Rice combines the best of the Deep South setting with classic gothic/paranormal horror in Interview With The Vampire – and it’s strangely sexy. Louis de Pointe du Lac was once a young Louisiana plantation owner, before he was driven mad with grief after the loss of his brother. In the throes of angst, he encountered Lestat de Lioncourt, a vampire who offers Louis companionship and eternal life. 200 years later, Louis tells his life story to a reporter, thus the book’s title. Follow Louis and his bretheren from Louisiana to New Orleans, across Austria and Transylvania, through Paris and into the darkest recesses of our basest impulses.

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

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Bree is 38 years old, she uses canvas bags, she’s a former board member of several charities, and she’s a doting mother to two teenage daughters and a “surprise” infant son. Her perfect life in suburbia is shattered when she looks away for just a moment, and her son is taken. Then, the phone rings: “Go home. Tell no one. Do not call the police. Do not call your husband. Be at your house by 5:15pm or he’s gone for good.” It’s a fairly standard (if horrifying) opening for a high-octane mystery, but Jackson has a few surprises in store for readers of Mother May I. This is one of the most chilling and thought-provoking thriller books set in the Deep South. Read my full review of Mother May I here.

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

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In Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, the character Willie Stark bears striking resemblance to the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that it was “never intended to be a book about politics” (which makes Deep South politics a strange choice of subject matter). Read my full review of All The King’s Men here.

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

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Murder In Mississippi is actually titled God’ll Cut You Down for U.S. editions. John Safran explained that, while “Murder In Mississippi” sounds very exotic and interesting to us Aussies, for Americans it’s the equivalent of calling a book “Murder in New South Wales”. Whatever it’s called, this is a fascinating true crime story told by one of Australia’s most notorious pranksters. Safran fancied himself a Capote-style newshound, following the news of a white supremacist’s murder by a black man all the way to Mississippi. He thought he was going EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

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Casey McQuiston is a bit of a storytelling chameleon, blending stories seamlessly into any setting. In their debut, it was the White House. In their follow-up, it was New York City. And now, in I Kissed Shara Wheeler, it’s a Catholic high school in Alabama – quite the change(s) of pace, don’t you think? Chloe Green has a hard time with her family’s relocation from California to the Deep South, but she channels her fears and frustrations into her quest to become valedictorian of her new school. Shara Wheeler is her main competition – until Shara kisses Chloe, and promptly disappears. This is a fun and hilarious rom-com, all the better for the queer desire at its heart and its Southern setting.

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

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Most people don’t even realise that Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda – the beloved queer YA romance novel – is actually set in the Deep South. So, here’s your FYI: the story takes place in mid-2010s suburban Atlanta. Understanding that actually makes the story richer, once you know the “big reveal”. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a cracker! Simon is a closeted teen who begins an anonymous pen-pal friendship with another secretly-gay student at his high-school. The identity house of cards could all come tumbling down, though, when a bully blackmails Simon by threatening to out him and his new friend – who Simon is developing feelings for, and he thinks the feeling is mutual, as long as their secrets stay safe.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

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Maybe the pageant scene isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Deep South, but it’s a captivating spectacle all the same. Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ takes that scene for its setting, a small Texas town where Willowdean Dixon is determined to take the crown as Miss Clover City. She doesn’t take after her former-beauty-queen mother when it comes to body size, but she’s determined to feel at home in her own skin. Alongside a cast of other unlikely characters, she faces down her fear in order to show the town (and herself) that she belongs on that stage just as much as anyone else. This is a beautiful, body-positive tale with a strong message for young adult readers.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book set in the Deep South about a woman’s search for respect, disguised as a woman’s search for love. Janie finds love and freedom with a poor man, in stark contrast to what is “expected” of her (not to mention available to her) in her rural Florida town. Her first two husbands offer her stability, which is comfort of a kind, but expected that she be defined by her marriage to them – in Tea Cake, she finds a man who wants her to have and be anything she chooses, and supports her regardless of his own role in her life. It’s a beautiful story of both love and devastation, connections and divides within the Black community. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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Of all the books set in the Deep South that expose injustices and brutal racism, The Nickel Boys is the one sure to turn your stomach the most. The Pulitzer Prize judges called it “ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption” when they awarded him the 2020 Prize for Fiction (his second win, making him only the fourth writer to get the gong twice). The story begins with an investigation into the by-then defunct Nickel Academy, a “reform school” with a horrifying history. Bodies are found in unmarked graves, and former “students” slowly, tentatively, come forward to tell the truth of what happened to them there. This is a painfully accurate account of what happened to many children in some chapters of Deep South history. Read my full review of The Nickel Boys here.

Bonus: check out my full review of Colson Whitehead’s earlier novel, The Underground Railroad, here. It’s set (partially) in the Deep South, too!

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

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Susan Orlean has a knack for sniffing out delightfully niche true crime stories and spinning them into fascinating tales. In 1998, she published The Orchid Thief, “a true story of beauty and obsession” she found on the southern edge of Florida. It revolves around notorious horticulturalist John Laroche, and the illegal poaching of rare orchids – a much bigger trade than you’d think! Laroche found a legal loophole that he thought might let him get away with it, one “that he claimed allowed the Seminole natives to remove endangered species from the swamp”. But this story ends up stretching far beyond the bounds of the Deep South, where Laroche’s claims can’t protect him.

The Vagina Monologues – Eve Ensler

Until recently, I only knew The Vagina Monologues as cultural shorthand for strident feminism. It turns out, it has an interesting history, and an impressive legacy often unknown to those who write it off as bitches bitching.

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Here are the basics: The Vagina Monologues is an episodic play, developed and performed by Eve Ensler in 1996. As the title suggests, it explores everything vagina-related, especially those topics that might make us squeamish: sex, body image, genital mutilation, reproduction, menstruation, sex work… Gloria Steinem says in her foreword to my edition: “On every page, there is the power of saying the unsayable,” (page xvi).

Ensler spoke to over two hundred women about their vaginas, and formed monologues (some composite) out of their experiences. The interviews began as casual conversations with friends, then expanded to stories about friends-of-friends, then a continuing chain of referrals to people willing to talk about their most intimate body part. “Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas,” Ensler says (page 5).

What surprised me was the diversity of the women she spoke to and stories she featured – surprisingly progressive for a mid-90s piece. These were women of all ages, races and ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities. She’s revised the content a few times since its initial run, but the guts of it was all there in the beginning. Naturally, it’s been criticised for excluding some groups, or for reducing women to oversimplified biology (“more like a Second Wave consciousness-raising group than a ground-breaking inter-sectional Third Wave cornerstone”), but I give it credit for its progressiveness in context all the same.

Ensler has said that she doesn’t actually remember writing The Vagina Monologues. The idea found her, and the power of the material these women shared with her flowed of its own accord. The play opened at the HERE Arts Centre in New York City on 3 October 1996; it was originally scheduled to mid-November, but that run was quickly extended to the end of December. Most performances were sold out, media coverage was glowing, and word-of-mouth was powerful. The play has since been performed in over 20 countries, including those we wouldn’t necessarily think of as progressive or accepting (like Turkey and China).

Women call up for tickets to ‘the Monologues’… The punk ticket seller tells women that if they can’t say it, they can’t come.

The Vagina Monologues (page xxx)

This edition, the V-Day Edition, is almost as much about what came after The Vagina Monolgoues as it is about The Vagina Monologues itself. Though she originally wrote the play to “celebrate the vagina”, Ensler had a bit of an epiphany and changed tack a couple of years after its debut. She decided to harness the power of the piece to start a movement, to stop violence against women. V-Day is a non-profit movement to raise funds and support for existing local and grassroots organisations. Through performances and protests, V-Day has raised over $100 million for shelters, crisis lines, and legal aid.

The Vagina Monologues is maybe a bit of an artifact now – could Ensler ever have conceived of WAP in the early ’90s? – but many of the issues it addresses remain unresolved, and the goal of V-Day (to end violence against women) remains unmet. New issues have arisen, and old issues have re-emerged, since Ensler first started performing her play Off-Off-Broadway. You couldn’t have an equivalent today without specifically addressing, for instance, the transgender experience, or recent backwards steps in access to reproductive healthcare in the United States.

That’s not to say that Ensler hasn’t done anything to progress alongside community standards, or that her play has no ongoing relevance or resonance. In 2004, for instance, an all-trans cast performed The Vagina Monologues for the first time, a production documented in Beautiful Daughters. Ensler herself writes a new monologue to add to the original text, highlighting another issue affecting people with vaginas – that same year, 2004, she wrote one called They Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy… Or So They Tried after interviewing women whose gender identity didn’t matched that they were assigned at birth. Unfortunately, that addition isn’t included in the V-Day edition, but there are versions available online.

All told, I found The Vagina Monologues interesting on multiple levels: as cultural artifact, as feminist literature, as relatable content. My personal favourite of the monologues? I Was Twelve When My Mother Slapped Me, a composite account of first periods. Hilarious, and insightful!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Vagina Monologues:

  • “I am a man and I learned a lot about women from this unique book. Although, I thought it would be better.” – Darron Vanman
  • “A masterpiece that lets you appreciate and love your wife, your mother, your grandmother and your mother-in-law in a whole new way.” – Amazon Customer
  • “For those sane women who threw this obsenity down before the end, don’t let it bother you. When the disgusted leave only the disgusting remains.” – Hosehead
  • “to call this moronic is an insult to morons everywhere. It’s sub-moronic.” – R. Pichlik
  • “Hard to believe this was a ‘live show’, and was put into a book. That women would discuss their vaginas is one thing, but to discuss on how to dress it, what it would say, etc was pretty much outrageous and needless to say disgusting.” – S. Gratz

Dear Prudence – Daniel M Lavery

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If you loved Tiny Beautiful Things, or pored over Agony Aunt articles in your mother’s magazines as a kid, you’re going to want to read Dear Prudence, a collection of the best and wildest letters and responses from’s advice column. The wonderful folks at Scribe were kind enough to send me a copy for review, and I dove in with glee.

First, the philosopher behind the pen: “Prudence”, in this collection, is Daniel M. Lavery (author of the brilliantly-titled Something That May Shock And Discredit You). He wrote the Dear Prudence advice column from 2016-2021, so he covered a lot of juicy years in terms of personal crises for readers.

“Nothing in particular qualified me for the job outside of a general interest in advice-column history,” he says in the introduction. He points out that it’s not exactly a job you can train for, but it’s an endlessly fascinating one for the right type of person. It’s the same fascination that draws us to read a collection like Dear Prudence: “the quiet, private gratification of gawking at someone else’s problems without having to commit a vulgarity like eavesdropping or going through their mail” (the same reason so many AITA posts go viral).

The letters and responses – with Lavery’s additional commentary – are arranged in thematic chapters, with titles like “Can I break up with him without hurting his feelings?”, “Wait – am I in the wrong here?”, and “My kids are growing up. Can someone please stop this?” Given that many letters and responses were written at the height of COVID-19, there’s also a whole lockdown-themed chapter (which you might find triggering, if it’s all a bit too fresh).

I loved the letters, Lavery’s responses, and Lavery’s approach to Dear Prudence overall. He’s open to admitting when, in retrospect, he gave bad advice, and offers us a version of what he could have said instead. It shouldn’t be refreshing to see someone admit, in print, that they got something wrong – but it is!

My favourite letter in Dear Prudence (and I suspect it’s Lavery’s too) came from a woman who had been putting her husband’s toenail clippings in his coffee. You wouldn’t think anyone could be Team Wife in that scenario, but context is everything!

My only quibble with this collection is that it ends kind of abruptly. I was expecting a bit of an outro, or maybe a summary of the advice that Lavery had dispensed throughout Dear Prudence, but it just ends with no parting words of wisdom. So, let me sum it up as best I can for you: assume the best in others, assert your boundaries with others, and see a therapist.

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13 Must-Read Books By AAPI Authors

I saw the acronym AAPI around a lot before I finally learned what it meant: Asian American Pacific Islander. (Being that I’m on the other side of the world, I think it’s kind of fair enough that I didn’t clock it sooner.) A proposed alternative – APIDA, or Asian Pacific Islander Desi American – has been floating around, but AAPI is still the standard parlance, as in AAPI Heritage Month (May). Looking over my shelves, I realised I had a lot of books by AAPI authors, so I thought I’d put together a list of some of the best. Here are 13 must-read books by AAPI authors for anyone looking to expand their literary horizons in that direction.

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The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

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The Heart Principle has all the hallmarks of a Hoang classic: a diverse cast of characters and a lot of no-holds-barred open-door lust. It’s a little unrealistic (the first bloke that Anna matches with on Tinder is the winner – really?), but all the best romance novels are. What really sets it above Hoang’s earlier novels, though, is the dark turn the story takes at the end of Part One; Anna receives a devastating phone call that changes everything. It made for an all-too-real jarring contrast between sex and sadness. This is one of the best books by AAPI authors for romance fans. Read my full review of The Heart Principle here.

Bonus: check out my review of Helen Hoang’s debut novel, The Kiss Quotient, here.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

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Good Talk is “a memoir in conversations”, promises the blurb, “a bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us”. Jacob’s six-year-old son began asking tricky questions about race, identity, and politics, which led Jacob to re-evaluate her own life experiences and conversations from her past. She reproduces those memories in this illustrated memoir, from her parents’ migration to the United States to the election of Donald Trump. Jacob’s recollections, images, and dialogue are deceptive in their simplicity (and, let me be clear, I mean that in the best possible way). Read my full review of Good Talk here.

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers by Jesse Q Sutanto

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Jesse Q Sutanto has written some of the most delightful and engaging books by AAPI authors of the past few years – and the good news is, she is prolific! Even though she’s probably best known for her best-selling Dial A For Aunties, but I get most excited for Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers. First off, it’s got a great title! And the story is heaps of fun too: a “little old lady” who lives in Chinatown discovers the body of a dead man in the middle of her tea shop. In his hand is a flash-drive, and Vera Wong suspects knows that she’ll do a better job of tracking down the person who’d kill for it than the police ever could.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

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You might be tired of essay writers being hailed as “the voice of a generation”, but it’s kind of understandable when you read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. This collection is a “trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives”. Looking at cultural prisms in turn – the advent of social media, the rise of the scamming ethos, the scourge of optimisation under capitalism – Tolentino examines all the ways in which we deceive ourselves, and the truths we work hard to avoid. This is one of the most insightful and searing books by AAPI authors you’ll find on the New York Times Best-Seller List.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel, the one that catapulted her to book club stardom – it’s probably one of the most widely-read books by AAPI authors today. It was famously endorsed by Reese Witherspoon, who said: “It’s a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection,”. Plus, it’s just masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.

Bonus: read my full review of Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, here.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

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For a fluffy young-adult rom-com, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a spine-chilling premise. Lara Jean has written a letter to every boy she’s ever loved (five total), letters that were supposed to be for her eyes only… until one day, under mysterious circumstances, the letters are mailed to the boys in question. It’s every teen girl’s worst nightmare, but don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read. Along with the Netflix series, this book has gone a long way for improving AAPI representation in young adult media. Read my full review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before here.

In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order To Live - Yeonmi Park - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Any list of books by AAPI authors is incomplete without an incredible story of resilience in seeking refuge from oppression. That’s what you’ll get in In Order To Live, Yeonmi Park’s true account of how she escaped the most brutal totalitarian regime in the world. Against the odds, Park has gone on to become an advocate for human rights and support for victims of human trafficking; her memoir has drawn attention to the horrors that take place away from the media spotlight. Above and beyond what Park sacrificed to make it to freedom, she faces execution as a “defector” (one with a very public face, no less) if she ever returns to North Korea. Read my full review of In Order To Live here.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Tale For The Time Being has a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. The story itself actually lives up to the high bar the blurb sets. It takes some weird detours into metaphysics and philosophy, but it still comes to a satisfying (though pleasingly not saccharine) conclusion. Read my full review of A Tale For The Time Being here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In 2016, the name Brock Turner made headlines around the world. He was sentenced to just six months in jail after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman on the Stanford campus in California. His victim, identified then only as Emily Doe, wrote an impact statement which was shared online; it went viral, and reached millions around the world within days. Three years later, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of the man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle. Read my full review of Know My Name here.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Trust Exercise - Susan Choi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Theater kids are a real “type”, aren’t they? The ones in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise are no exception. There they are, back in the ’80s, pursuing their dreams in the high-stakes competitive environment of a private performing arts school. Two freshmen students, David and Sarah, fall in love, the passionate teenage kind that we all recognise (if not remember). There wouldn’t be anything remarkable about that, but there’s a day of reckoning coming, for David and Sarah and their teachers and friends. The protective bubble of their insular world is about to pop, and the fall-out won’t spare any of them.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl - Jean Kyoung Frazier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pizza Girl is one of those broadly underrated books by AAPI authors that has a small but very dedicated fan base. The story revolves around an eighteen-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with the stay-at-home mother who phones in a desperate order. The main character is equal parts pitiable and frustrating. She just can’t seem to hold it together, and she makes terrible decisions – again and again – that will make you want to clip her ear. But she’s also strangely heroic, staring down the barrel of a life she doesn’t want and doing her best to find a way out of it. Read my full review of Pizza Girl here.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel - Alexander Chee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Doing the rounds of writers festivals and book talks, Alexander Chee kept getting the same question over and over: “how much of your fiction is autobiographical?”. Setting aside the ridiculousness of asking that question of a gay Korean American in the 21st century when his last book was about a 19th century soprano singer living in Paris, the idea stuck in his head and ended up becoming this collection of essays. How To Write An Autobiographical Novel grapples with changing identities, the transformative power of drag, the loss of a parent, and the changing political landscape of Donald Trump’s America.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

The Farm - Joanne Ramos - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Farm is a dystopian novel – but it doesn’t necessarily seem that way at first (isn’t that the way all the best ones begin?). The luxury Golden Oaks retreat, hidden in the Hudson Valley, seems like a dream come true: every amenity, every luxury, all of it provided at your whim and, best of all, you don’t pay a cent. In fact, you’re paid to be there! So what’s the catch? Well, you’ll be cut off from all your friends and family, for one. And you’ll be growing a baby for somebody else, for another. It’s hardly a surprise that it attracts desperate women, and one of them – Jane, from the Philippines – is about to learn what happens when you break the rules of the Farm.

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