Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper

I know we live in an increasingly fast-paced world (the news tells me that every twenty seconds), but sometimes I still find myself wondering if a book is “too soon”. It’s been ten years since the Black Saturday fires here in Australia, but when I picked up Chloe Hooper’s book, The Arsonist, I couldn’t help but shudder. At the start of this year, we saw the worst bushfire season on record with blazes incinerating half of the country, and it proved that the wounds are still very raw. I’m still not sure, even now, that Australia is ready for this story.

Black Saturday would be familiar to all Australian readers, but for the benefit of my international Keeper Upperers, here’s a recap: the Black Saturday bushfires burned across the southern state of Victoria on Saturday 7 June 2009, fueled by extreme weather conditions, mismanagement, and (as the title of this book would suggest) arson. It was among Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters (and we’ve had plenty of them, so that’s saying something), resulting in Australia’s highest-ever bushfire-related loss of life – 180 recorded human fatalities – and an accommodation crisis for the countless communities ravaged by the flames, with over 3,500 homes destroyed. I wasn’t living in Victoria at the time of the fires, but I remember the wall-to-wall news coverage that went on for weeks, and I’ve lived there in the intervening years. Black Saturday is burned (for lack of a more appropriate idiom) into every Victorian’s memory. Hooper does give what (I hope) would be enough background information in the book itself for any reader, local or otherwise, to understand what happened that weekend.

“Soon it would be known as Black Saturday: four hundred separate fires had burned in Victoria, giving off the equivalent of 80,000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs.”

Page 37

The Arsonist focuses on two specific fires in the Latrobe Valley (though, as per the excerpt above, there were many more): how they started, the investigation, the trial, and the verdict. Hooper has described Latrobe Valley as “the forgotten fire”. At the time, most of the news coverage focused on the larger fires at Kinglake and Marysville; later, the restrictions on news coverage of the trial meant that the public didn’t hear much about it until all was said and done. I guess this is Hooper’s way of correcting the record.

The blurb sets out her purpose: “What kind of person would deliberately set a firestorm? What kind of mind?”





I can only imagine that the first pages were the most difficult to write, the ones where Hooper describes the fire and the initial police investigation into its causes. The details are horrifying: “even when brand-new toilets were flushed, the water was black” (page 35). I was in tears before 40 pages had passed: this is not a book for the sensitive or squeamish. (Seriously, even if you’re thinking “oh, but I’m normally fine with true crime”, don’t assume that you’re prepared for the awful power of fire, and the way that Hooper unravels this story.) She balances these descriptions, though, with more general and historical information – not sugar to help the medicine go down, exactly, but room to breathe between the scenes.

Hooper acknowledges the Indigenous history of using fire as a cultivation tool in the bush, which was a pleasant surprise, and she touches on that history repeatedly throughout. She also describes the DSM definition of pyromania, provides contextual statistics about unemployment in the Valley, and so on. She provides an account of the police arson chemist, George Xydias (who also investigated the Bali Bombings), following the trail of clues that led the police to suspect arson, to the witness reports of a strange man wandering around carrying his dog. That man was Brendan Sokaluk, the man who would (eventually) be charged and tried for the crime.

The Arsonist is divided into sections, each giving a different perspective on what happened that day and in the months that followed: the detectives, the lawyers, and so forth. The opening section, about the fire itself and the initial police investigation, might seem a bit one-eyed at first, as though Hooper is simply saying “here’s a creepy guy who set fire to a beloved area and killed a bunch of people”. But if you keep reading, through to the section with the barrister’s perspective, Hooper starts to claw some of the balance back, bringing in a counterpoint: “here’s a maligned man with intellectual disabilities, who doesn’t understand the gravity of what’s happening, who watches Thomas The Tank Engine, who just wants to see his dog”. Sokaluk is far from a sympathetic character, but Hooper at least makes him multi-dimensional.





Hooper draws from court transcripts and other documents to provide the reader with as much detail and context as possible, in a mostly-linear timeline. She doesn’t offer conclusions or judgements; in fact, Hooper is barely present in the book at all. She writes from a detached third-person perspective (until the final chapter, her coda, where she describes the process of researching and writing the book, and her attempts to reach Sokaluk for an interview). It’s the same approach, the same “vibe”, as the Netflix series Making A Murderer (actually, if you liked that show, this is definitely the book for you!).

While The Arsonist is ostensibly about Sokaluk and his trial, it has broader significance. It’s about the struggles of regional and rural Australians, especially those living in coal mining towns. It’s about poverty. It’s about climate change. It’s about our understanding of mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders, and how they’re handled in our educational, medical, and judicial systems. And, of course, it’s about arson. Hooper taught me a lot about the nature of this type of crime – not just the person who commits it, but how it is investigated and prosecuted. Very few bushfire arsonists are ever “caught” – around 1% is the best estimate. Given that 37% of the many bushfires in this country are deemed “suspicious”, that number seems jaw-droppingly low.

While The Arsonist is meticulous and detailed, it’s not necessarily comprehensive. The subsequent Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires is mentioned a couple of times, but not covered in depth. Hooper ends the book with Sokaluk’s imprisonment, and the reactions of his family and community to his conviction. Don’t come to The Arsonist expecting “answers”. It’s not a thrilling police procedural where the bad guy is hunted down by the good guys and gets what’s coming to him. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who was found guilty of a horrendous crime, with many questions left lingering as to how, why, and even whether.

I recommend The Arsonist to true crime fans who worry that they’re completely numb after endless accounts of grisly serial murders. And, of course, I recommend it to all Australians who remember that day – but only if you think you can stomach it. (Seriously, trigger warning for fire and general horror!) Perhaps it’s too soon, perhaps not, but either way I’m grateful to Hooper for her attention and dedication in recounting this story and recording it for posterity.

If you want to know more about the Black Saturday fires and Brendan Sokaluk, I highly. recommend Brendan Sokaluk: Inside The Mind Of An Arsonist from the ABC, and The Burning Question, an episode of Australian Story.


Worst Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List

Last week, I shared a wonderful round-up of my best reads from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list… but let’s be real: I know you all come here for my snark. This project has led me to some incredible books that immediately became life-long favourites, but it’s also led me to some real stinkers. It seems only fair that I also share this companion round-up: the absolute worst of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.

The Worst Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List - Text Overlaid on Mosaic Tiles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

I think I might be the only person alive who didn’t have to read this book in high-school. I’m not sure how that happened, but it did, which meant I came to The Great Gatsby for Keeping Up With The Penguins with a weight of expectation. It’s the “definitive Jazz Age novel”, a “beautiful” story about the “decline of the American Dream”… hooey! Nick Carraway thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Owning a fancy fast car will come back to bite you in the arse. Blah, blah, blah. I fail to understand why this is a staple on every high-school English syllabus when there are other great books out there that would offer much better insight (and would be way more fun to read, into the bargain). Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent - Veronica Roth - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I think back to Divergent, there are two things I remember (neither of them flattering). The first is that it felt like Veronica Roth just took the idea of the sorting into Houses from Harry Potter, mixed it with the teen girl protagonist who has to save the world from The Hunger Games, and spat out the flimsiest house-of-cards excuse for a dystopia in the history of fiction. The second thing I remember is the single worst sentence I encountered in this entire project: “I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery”. (Or maybe I should say it was the best sentence I encountered, because it made me snort so hard my nose still hurts.) I do not recommend this book, not even for the teenager in your life that’s teetering on the edge of becoming angsty. Read my full review of Divergent here.

The Golden Bowl by Henry James

The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a dirty finisher. A completionist. I hate to put a book down before I’ve turned the final page (and I certainly can’t bring myself to review a book I haven’t finished reading). The Golden Bowl put all that to the test. I can’t recall another instance where I came so close to abandoning a book in this entire project. I hated it! The Turn Of The Screw wasn’t so bad, and as far as plot goes, The Golden Bowl’s is alright (a love quadrangle complete with extramarital affairs and step-parents)… but DAMN, James needed to CALM DOWN. To say that his writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. It was basically impenetrable – I had to resort to looking up chapter summaries online just to figure out what the fuck he was trying to say with ALL THOSE WORDS and ALL THOSE COMMAS. Henry James and I are done. Finished. Kaput. On pure principle, I will never pick up another book of his as long as I live. Read my full review of The Golden Bowl here.


The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might seem strange that I’m including The Fault In Our Stars here, given that I’ve certainly referenced elsewhere as a book you should read before you die. I stand by that: so many teens have read and fallen in love with this book, I don’t doubt that many of them will end up paramedics, doctors, and palliative care nurses as a result. But let’s be clear: that’s the only reason to read this book, as far as I can tell. I want to have something to talk about with the doctor or nurse that takes care of me in a nursing home someday. As for the book itself? Trite nonsense, transparently designed to try and pull on my heartstrings. The “love interest”, Augustus? He was such a pretentious cockwomble! “Oh, I put cigarettes in my mouth but never light them because it’s a metaphor!” = get in the fucking bin, mate. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

The Call Of The Wild by Jack London

The Call Of The Wild - Jack London - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever I see The Call Of The Wild shelved in the children’s section of any bookstore, I leave immediately. To call this a “children’s book” is the most sick, twisted, fucked-up thing I can imagine. I thought it was going to be the story of a dog who went camping in the woods. Do you know what I got? Dog-napping and death. Seriously! Humans killing dogs. Dogs killing humans. Dogs killing each other. I couldn’t stand it! I don’t care if all the trauma was interspersed with beautiful place writing about the Klondike, I don’t care if Jack London had some grand point to make about humanity and nature: this book was traumatic in the extreme and I would strongly urge any dog-lover (really, any person with a feeling bone and a beating heart in their bodies) to STAY AWAY from it, for their own good. Read my full review of The Call Of The Wild here.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know, as far as 18th century novels go, Gulliver’s Travels wasn’t bad. It was certainly more readable than Robinson Crusoe or The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I could totally get behind some of Swift’s sociopolitical commentary: the ridiculousness of the Lilliputians at war over the correct way to crack an egg was genius. The thing is, I just could not get past what an absolute arsehole Gulliver was to his wife. Seriously! He just keeps gallivanting off on these doomed adventures, leaving her at home alone raising their kids for years at a time, never knowing whether she’ll ever see him again, whether he’s even alive or dead. Then, when he does come home for good, do you know what he does? He tells her she smells (I’m not being facetious, literally her odor was now “offensive” to him), and spends the rest of his life living in the stables, ankle-deep in horse shit. Occasionally, he’ll deign to dine with her, as long as she sits at the other end of the table and doesn’t speak too much. Gulliver is a dickwad, and I care not a dot for his stupid travels, thank you very much. Read my full review of Gulliver’s Travels here.

American Sniper by Chris Kyle

American Sniper - Chris Kyle - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

American Sniper, where to start? Whenever I share my feelings about this book, someone somewhere pops up to smack me down for them. Chris Kyle was a “true patriot”, apparently, and I’m “disrespecting his sacrifice” by calling his book a steaming turd. But you know what? I stand by that description (though it may be a little too kind). It’s not just that it was badly written – it really was, even with two ghost writers on the payroll. It’s that the worldview it espoused was horrific. Kyle was the “most lethal sniper” in the history of the U.S. military, and it would seem that he became that way by developing a sickening obsession with guns and violence from a very early age, and unquestioningly accepting the propaganda of American cultural imperialism. He never once conceded that he was shooting actual human beings in Iraq: they were reduced to “targets”, “bad guys”, “savages”, “motherfuckers”. He actually said, with pride, that he “didn’t shoot everyone holding a Koran – he’d like to, but he didn’t”. I’d shelve this book next to Mein Kampf, and any other manifesto written to inspire hatred. I’m not sure I could even justify recommending it under the guise of “know your enemy”. Read my full review of American Sniper here.

Whew! That was cathartic! What do you reckon – have I been too harsh? Are there any I should give a second chance? Or are there some huge stinkers I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Less – Andrew Sean Greer

On my journey out of the post-Ulysses haze, I found myself unsurprisingly in the mood for some “light” reading. Big Little Lies was a page turner, don’t get me wrong, but there weren’t a whole lot of laughs to be had amidst all the rape, abuse, and manslaughter. Browsing my shelves, I happened upon a little light blue spine: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It piqued my interest, as I knew it to be a unicorn: an #ownvoices comedy that had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

You might wonder how I knew it was a comedy, #ownvoices or otherwise, and to answer that I’ll give you a short excerpt from an event I attended at the Sydney Writer’s Festival that year, Andrew Sean Greer in conversation with local legend David Marr:

Marr: “Look, I don’t know how familiar you are with Australian English. Do you know the meaning of the word ‘fuckwit’?”

[audience laughs]

Greer: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that.”

Marr: “It means ‘fool’. It’s a vivid local piece of patois to mean ‘fool’.”

Greer: “Wonderful! ‘Fuckwit’?”

Marr: “Yes, fuckwit. Because the hero of your book is, it appears, for a good deal of the book, a complete fuckwit.”

And with that, I was formally introduced to the protagonist, Arthur Less – the one that David Marr described as a fuckwit, in tones of great affection (as Australians are wont to do). On that basis alone, I was inclined to give Less a go. I also noticed that one of the highly complimentary blurbs on my edition came from none other than my girl, Karen Joy Fowler. That settled it: I had to read this book.

Arthur Less worries that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old” (which made me laugh… until I thought about the heavier connotations, “old” gays being the only ones who survived the AIDS crisis, not so funny). He finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time fuck-buddy dumps him to marry a far more eligible (and age appropriate) bachelor. Arthur Less decides that he must act. He can’t RSVP “no” to the nuptials and admit defeat, but he couldn’t possibly attend either, especially with his own 50th birthday looming… so, he proceeds to accept every half-baked invitation he’s received to literary events around the world, and sends his ex his regrets, citing “unfortunate” prior engagements.

And there we have it: this fuckwit is relatable as all hell. Planning a round-the-world trip on the spur of the moment to avoid an awkward social encounter? Big mood!





This premise gives Greer the opportunity to absolutely tear shreds off the literary world through satire. He never misses an opportunity to lampoon the self-reverential ridiculousness of it all. Arthur Less is “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”. His first stop is New York, where he chairs an event for a wildly successful and seriously overrated sci-fi writer (Less suspects he was the only author desperate enough to do the gig for free). Then, he joins a panel at a festival in Mexico, only to learn that all the preeminent guests are dead. In Italy, a generous translation of his debut novel wins an award, judged by a committee of high school students. On and on it goes…

The episodic structure also allows Greer to parade a series of colourful characters through Arthur Less’s voyage of self-discovery, BUT – I hasten to add – this isn’t your standard white-guy-sees-the-world-and-comes-home-transformed narrative. Greer is very careful not to fetishise the “exotic locals”. Arthur Less, the fuckwit, is always the butt of the joke. And his “self-discovery” seems almost accidental. He didn’t set out with any intention of transformation, he just wanted to avoid his ex’s wedding, and his personal growth is just a side-effect of his bumbling adventures.

My favourite part: Arthur Less accepts a visiting professor post at a university in Germany. He teaches a class called “Read Like A Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein”. It becomes immediately clear to the reader and everyone else that Arthur Less’s insistence that he is “fluent” in German is a complete delusion. Hilarious!





The narration feels very personal, a conversational third-person perspective, or so we think. In a Vanity Fair-esque twist, we learn towards the end that the story is being told by… shall we say, a friend of Arthur Less (for once, I won’t give spoilers – I don’t want to ruin the fun!). I think that’s the key, that’s what makes Less work. Arthur Less is so lovelorn, so self-pitying, such a sad sack, that Less would not have worked if told from his own point of view. It would have been morose and miserable and flat-out annoying. As it stands, though, Less is a very literary comedy. Even when the humour is slapstick, Greer manages to write it in a clever and challenging way. This is a book that could work equally well as a beach read and a citation in your thesis.

That was the whole idea, of course. Greer said that he began writing Less as a “very serious” novel, but he soon figured out that the only way to write about the miseries of an ageing, gay writer (as an ageing, gay writer) was to make it funny. This is a realisation that Arthur Less has himself in the book, too. I really dig this determinedly self-deprecating approach. It lets Greer parody all the priviliged-white-American-abroad tropes, to my great delight.

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, Less also spent an unbelievably long time on the New York Times Best Seller List, and even won the 2019 Australian Book Industry Award for International Book Of The Year. All of this is to say that Less is both a critical and a popular success. Greer has certainly won a fan in me! I highly recommend this book, particularly to fans of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, or anyone in need of a chuckle and a little heart-warming.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Less:

  • “I was expecting more.” – Peter Boyd
  • “My whole book club did not like this book. I liked the writing about the different cities.” – Elaine M. Bloom
  • “I never write book reviews but good god, what a complete dump of a book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I read it. It was a book.” – M D White
  • “Some humorous lines, but not worthy of such praise. I really don’t get all the accolades… guess I am less understanding.” – Nance T Lodge
  • “Less less less less less less less
    Lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser
    Least least least least least least least.” – Mike F.
  • “I am an avid reader . I usually love Pulitzer Prize winners. I did not think this book was very special.” – Maria G. Fitzpatrick
  • “Love the ending. [SPOILER ALERT] it’s basically the gay, prose version of Taylor Swift’s “How You Get The Girl”” – Joyce Reneau


Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List

Long before I even thought of starting this blog, I sat down and made a list: a hundred-and-nine books I felt I “should” have read already. A lot of them were classics, some were more contemporary best-sellers, all of them were pretty much unknown quantities. I took notes as I read about what I liked and what I didn’t, and those notes became reviews, and those reviews became Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now that I’ve finished reading my way through that original list (never fear, the blog will continue and more reviews are coming!) I’m feeling all nostalgic and shit. I thought I’d take a look back at my greatest hits: the best of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.

The Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List - Text Overlaid on Mosaic Tiles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

Even after I read all the blurbs and the accolades, I had no idea what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was going to be about when I sat down to start reading it. Turns out, there’s a very good reason for that. This book had the mother-of-all twists that came seventy pages in, one that completely turns the story on its head. It has set the standard for all plot twists in every book I’ve read since (and very few have lived up to it). But that’s not the only reason to read this book: it’s funny, it’s touching, and I swear it made me a better person. Whenever I’m asked to give a book recommendation for a complete stranger, this is the first one I suggest. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by 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 Everything wasn’t a completely unknown quantity. I’d read Bill Bryson’s Down Under years ago, and loved it – it’s hard not to be charmed by his folksy style, his wry humour, and his insightful anecdotes. Still, A Short History Of Nearly Everything is in a league of its own. It’s practically a masterclass on how to write about complex topics for the everyday reader. Somehow, Bryson managed to make the most intricate jargon-y scientific and historical knowledge of humankind accessible, understandable, and – most importantly of all – fun! I know it’s a few years out of date now (my edition still says Pluto is a planet, whoops!), but I still use fun facts from this book on a daily basis. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

When I was putting together my original reading list, I knew I had to include Dickens. He was my late grandfather’s favourite author, and I always regretted not having read any of his work while Granddad was still alive; I know we would have had incredible discussions about it. I went with David Copperfield because I read that Dickens had said it was his personal favourite, and who am I to question the author? It totally held up to all of my expectations – exceeded them, even, high as they were! It’s a long, long book, but it didn’t feel like it. I devoured it like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a true crime junkie, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I listen to the podcasts, and follow the breaking news on cold cases. And now, having read it, I can see why In Cold Blood is considered essential reading, the foundational text, of the true crime genre. Capote spent six years investigating the Clutter murders, taking over eight thousand pages of notes (helped by his best buddy, Harper Lee, don’t forget), and whittled them down into this incredible book, the “first true crime novel” as he called it. And, before you say it, I know he took some liberties with the truth. I bloody know, alright? Make what you will of the ethics of it, but when the book is this good, I’m willing to overlook a bit of creative license. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

My Brilliant Friend taught me more about the art of translation than any other book on my list. It was originally written in Italian by an anonymous author (Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume, and I don’t care what some dickhead with an algorithm thinks he figured out, her true identity has never been revealed), and translated into English by Ann Goldstein. I was so impressed with the way Goldstein managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian that I started to do a bit of digging, which ended up being a rabbit hole into the world of books in translation. Not only is My Brilliant Friend an incredible read, it’s also a testament to the power of language, and the importance of the #namethetranslator movement. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Do you ever read a book and wonder why on earth everyone isn’t talking about it already? That’s how I felt with Cold Comfort Farm. It had a strange cover that kind of put me off, but in deference to the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I ploughed ahead anyway, and I am SO glad I did. Stella Gibbons is a criminally underrated comic author, and Cold Comfort Farm is a work of hilarious genius. It’s like a satirical Mary Poppins, with a cast of characters so eccentric and bizarre they’ll have your eyes wide when they don’t have you in stitches. What’s more, I found out later that Gibbons remains relatively unknown because she refused to play the game and suck up to the literary giants of her day. I say let’s not let her fall into obscurity because she didn’t enjoy networking! Read my full review of Cold Comfort Farm here.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of underrated kick-arse women writers: did you know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a book, long before it was a Marilyn Monroe film? I didn’t until I was putting my reading list together, and I was curious enough to give it a try. Anita Loos should be a household name. She was the first salaried scriptwriter to work with major Hollywood studios. She crafted characters that felt so real you could almost reach out and touch them (the protagonist in this book, Lorelei Lee, being a case in point). Loos was observant, brilliant, and funny as hell. Unfortunately, she fell in love with an arsehole, who lived off her profits and cut her down whenever he felt threatened. So, screw him, I say, and while we’re at it, screw anyone who says The Great Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. It’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all the way, baby! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

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

Before I started reading my way through this list, all I knew about Scandinavian writers was that they wrote crime. Good crime. Grisly crime. Hardened detectives in cold climates sussing out awful murders. But now, having read The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I’ve got to say I think that reputation is a damn shame. This is one of the most delightful, charming, and uplifting books I’ve ever read. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief for a minute or two, but it’s worth it: it’s so worth it. It’s a European Forrest Gump, but better. My edition was translated into English by Rod Bradbury (#namethetranslator!). Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever I get into an argument with someone about whether to bother reading the introduction to a classic book (so many people just skip straight to chapter one!), I always whip out Little Women and beat them over the head with it. This book was written off for centuries as light, sentimental fluff – it was a book “for girls”, and never taken seriously as part of the American literary canon. I might’ve come away from it with the same impression had I not read the introduction, which gave me some context about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the way she came to write her best-known work. This is an incredible book, but you have to be paying close attention and know what to look for. Read my full review of Little Women here.


The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever read a book so good it just made you angry? When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, when I put the book down on my lap and tried to catch my breath after that sucker-punch of a final scene, I found myself irrationally angry at every person in my life who had ever read this book. Why hadn’t they warned me? I’m not sure I even liked it very much at first because I was so startled by it. It’s the story of a family migrating from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, but it’s alarmingly analogous to current events as a result of climate change. I was so moved, and so wrecked, by this book that I needed to put myself in a time-out before I put a hole in a wall. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

I have no idea how Crime And Punishment ended up on my reading list. I was dreading it, to say the least. I eschewed Anna Karenina and War And Peace for the same reason: it’s a Russian classic, which – I was sure – meant it was going to be dense, dull, and depressing. How wrong I was, reader! How wrong I was! This edition – translated into English by David McDuff (name! the! translator!) – was well loved before it fell into my hands, as the tattered cover shows, and I can see why. I never thought I would laugh with, cry for, or relate so hard to a literal axe murderer… and yet, here we are. Seriously, don’t sleep on this one, folks, and never let a book’s reputation decide for you whether it’s to your tastes. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Do you know that The Bell Jar is one of the most difficult classic books to find in secondhand stores? There’s a reason for that: no one ever wants to part with their copy. I checked my local secondhand bookstore on an almost-daily basis for months, and never found one. I was about to give up hope and buy it new when a friend stopped by that very same bookstore on her way to visit me and saw this beautiful Faber edition on display – it had come in that very day. She bought it for me, and I loved it. Loved it. The prose is every bit as beautiful as the cover. It’s one of the first things I would save in a fire. Sylvia Plath’s true-life (and death) story is heart-breaking of course, but I’m so, so glad and grateful that she was able to bring this book into the world before she passed. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

It’s been one heck of a ride, hasn’t it? And it’s not over yet! What have been your favourites from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list? Any new favourites that I should read and review ASAP? Let me know in the comments below!


Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

Even when I’m working my way through a set reading list, I’m still, at my core, a mood reader. When I’m down, I want a book that’s going to cheer me up. When I’m on top of the world, I want a book that’s going to challenge me. And after Ulysses, I was in the mood for some F.U.N. I didn’t want anything literary or high-minded or complex – I wanted a page-turner, dammit, and I wanted it NOW! So, where to turn but to Liane Moriarty’s ubiquitous smash hit, Big Little Lies? I was worried that I was the last person left in the world who hadn’t read this book. Honestly, how I managed to avoid any spoilers is beyond me… (this review is going to be chock-full of them, by the way, so if it turns out I wasn’t in fact the last person ever to read it, you might want to look away now.)

I had some idea of what I was getting into: I read and reviewed Moriarty’s fifth novel, The Husband’s Secret, last year. Big Little Lies, published in 2014, was her follow-up. It looks like she knew she’d stumbled onto a winning formula (three women-centric stories woven together in a domestic-thriller-type set-up), and figured she’d stick with it. Good call, on her part!

So, let’s meet the ladies. We’ve got Jane, the single mother who moves to Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her son, Ziggy. She enrolls him at the local Pirriwee Public School (entirely fictional, for those of you playing overseas). There, she meets Madeline, who has a daughter Ziggy’s age, and Celeste, who has twin boys that age, too. The three of them strike up a friendship – more of an alliance, really, to protect themselves in the political battles with other factions of school mums.

Each of them, naturally, has their own set of problems. Jane is dealing with the aftermath of the sexual assault in which Ziggy was conceived. Madeline is hella jealous that her teenage daughter from a previous marriage is growing close to her ex-husband’s new hippie wife, Bonnie. Celeste’s relationship with her wealthy, charismatic husband, Perry, is abusive and toxic (to say the least). So, clearly, it’s massive trigger warnings all ’round, for all types of violence against women (even sex slavery gets a look in, via the passion project of Madeline’s teenage daughter). The point, it seems, is that men are garbage – but at least the women in Big Little Lies have more agency than any of the women in The Husband’s Secret. It’s a far more enjoyable read for that reason alone!





As the story unfolds, each chapter is punctuated with extracts from witness interviews with a journalist, just to keep the lure dangling and really exaggerate the characterisation. See, something went down at a school trivia night, someone is dead, and these little snippets are like banner ads from Moriarty every few pages: SUBURBIA IS A LIE! SOMEONE WAS MURDERED! DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO, AND HOW? KEEP READING! It’s not subtle. I must say, I heaved a sigh of relief when she revealed, about a hundred pages in, that it was a parent who died; I mean, that’s not great news, but at least we were spared any particularly-gruesome child murders.

After the three women have grown quite close, Jane reveals the details of the sexual assault that’s got her all messed up. She says the man’s name was Saxon Banks. That raises a red flag for Celeste and Madeline, because that’s the name of Perry’s cousin. Celeste actually knows him, from family barbecues and whatnot. They decide to keep that little nugget of information to themselves, though, right until the very end. Perry also busts Celeste setting up her own apartment, and figures out that she’s planning to leave him – if you know anything at all about domestic violence, you know that this is Bad News. His violence towards her escalates accordingly.

And let’s not forget all the kiddie drama that’s playing out at the same time! Ziggy is accused of bullying another child at Pirriwee, and the mothers tear one another apart like lionesses fighting over a warthog carcass. It takes a while, but eventually Jane and Celeste work out that it’s actually one of Celeste’s sons doing the bullying, apparently taking after his violent father.

It all comes to a head at the Pirriwee Public Trivia Night fundraiser. All the parents get together, get drunk, and the titular big little lies come unravelled. This is what all the witness statements have been hinting at throughout the book. Perry is revealed to be Jane’s rapist; he used his cousin’s name, the way he used to as a kid, to get out of trouble. When Celeste calls him out (“hello, excuse me, yes, you’re the absolute worst”), he backhands her. Unbeknownst to him, Bonnie – remember her? Madeline’s ex-husband’s new hippie wife – was the child of a violent relationship, and seeing Perry hit Celeste causes her to freak the fuck out. She ends up pushing Perry over the balcony, to his death.





Yes, it’s all a little neat, a little convenient, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I much preferred the structure of Big Little Lies to The Husband’s Secret. The relationships between characters seemed much clearer (if you’re struggling to follow in this review, the fault is entirely mine!), as did the chronology of events. It was just a far better effort overall. Moriarty didn’t even have to resort to a saccharine explains-it-all epilogue. Big Little Lies didn’t have the most realistic ending, but it was certainly a satisfying one.

I was surprised at how dark it was, really, even though it managed to make me chuckle now and then. A New York Times book review said: “A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality”, which is spot on. There are laughs to be had, sure, but they’re ornaments on pretty heavy and disturbing subject matter. I hope everyone who picks this one up does so with eyes open…

The TV miniseries, produced by HBO in 2017 (starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley) won eight Emmy Awards. The second season, based on a follow-up novella by Moriarty, brought in Meryl Streep(!). I haven’t watched either of them yet, but I checked out the trailers on YouTube; it looks like they’ve moved the setting to the States (boo!), but that’s the nature of the beast, I guess.

At the end of the day, Big Little Lies isn’t a “literary” read, but it lived up to the hype as far as I’m concerned. It was just what I needed after the brain-draining monster that was Ulysses! Moriarty’s writing was compelling, perfectly page-turner-y, and reminded me of how much fun reading can be. I would sum up Big Little Lies as being The Slap meets House Husbands, with a female cast and a murder mystery at its heart.

P.S. In her acknowledgements, Moriarty says: “Now seems like a good time to make clear that the parents at the lovely school where my children currently attend are nothing like the parents at Pirriwee Public, and are disappointingly well behaved at school functions.” = LOL!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Big Little Lies:

  • “Maybe little long ?” – Antoinette Ritacco
  • “Too many lies!” – Sissel Kran
  • “Book club torture” – Muffy McGuffin
  • “By the end of the book I didn’t care who did what to whom” – Lynn R
  • SPOILERS shallow self-absorbed helicopter moms and their tedious offspring completely overshadow the underlying tale of infidelity and manslaughter. Schadenfreude and black comedy can be entertaining, but when paired with the serious themes of rape and domestic violence it felt tone deaf and distasteful.” – Weaslgrl


My To-Be-Read List: What’s Next on Keeping Up With The Penguins

This week, I polished off the last of my original reading list for Keeping Up With The Penguins with a review of Ulysses. That, of course, begs the question: what’s next? I’ve accumulated some 250+ additional books since I started this project, and I’ve cobbled them together into a list of sorts, BUT this time around, I plan on giving myself a little more flexibility. Rather than sticking rigidly to a list, I’m just going to go wherever the bookish winds blow me. Never fear: you’ll still get your weekly review here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, plus extra reviews of hot new releases for Keeper Upperers (have you subscribed yet? You should, the perks are awesome – just whack in your email address!). Here’s a sneak peek of what’s coming up soon…

My To Be Read List - What's Up Next On Keeping Up With The Penguins - Text Overlaid on Image of Notebooks and Pen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I feel like I might be the last person – definitely the last Australian woman – alive who hasn’t read Big Little Lies yet. I reviewed Liane Moriarty’s earlier novel, The Husband’s Secret, last year, and I’m curious to see what this one is like. It’s the book that shot Moriarty into the stratosphere of bookish stardom, and it had a wildly successful HBO adaptation with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. I think it’ll make for a great palette cleanser, a good gripping page-turner to get things rolling…

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I wasn’t actually planning to pick this one up, until I heard David Marr interview Andrew Sean Greer at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Greer was so disarming, and so charming, and spoke so eloquently about how he came to write Less that I went out and bought it immediately. He said that he worked out the only way to write about one’s own miseries was to make them funny, and so he did. A funny book about an ageing gay man travelling the world to escape his ex-lover’s wedding? Yes, please!

Sanditon by Jane Austen

Sanditon - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With the Penguins

Sanditon is Jane Austen’s final novel, incomplete at the time of her death. The fine folks at Oxford World Classics were kind enough to send me a copy of their new edition for review last year. I read and reviewed it for Keeper Upperers (*cough*subscribe!*cough*), but I still have SO MUCH MORE to say about it! And about Austen in general… So, I’m going to read this one again, and bring you a more comprehensive review later in the year. Maybe for Austen in August, whaddaya reckon?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s a peek behind the book blogging curtain for you: I’ve actually already read The Handmaid’s Tale. Hehe! I hadn’t when I started this project, but when it came time to review The Testaments over on Primer, I thought I’d best read the original first, to make sure I had a handle on what was going on. I squeezed it in around my other reading commitments, and filed away my notes so that I could bring you a full review once my original reading list was done. So, keep your eyes peeled, it’s coming soon!

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguin

I told just about every person I know this past year that The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is my new ultimate cheer-up read. A whole bunch of them responded “Oh, if you like that, you simply MUST read A Man Called Ove“. Opinion seems to be divided on some of Backman’s other novels, but as best I can tell this one is basically universally adored. If it’s anything like The One Hundred Year Old Man, I’m going to join the chorus. I’m saving it for a moment when I need a book that feels like a hug! (Pssst: does anyone know how to actually pronounce “Ove”?)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is another one that I feel like EVERYONE has read except for me! An American Marriage has been highly recommended by everyone from Oprah to Barack Obama. It also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year. If that’s not enough, I just cannot resist the gorgeous cover art! Inside, there’s a story of a young black couple, cruelly separated early in their marriage when Roy, the husband, is falsely accused of sexual assault and incarcerated for several years. I feel like this one is going to be a heavier read, but a vital one.

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Because I alphebatise by bookshelves by author surname, Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name has been in the #1 spot for a long, long time. I’ve not seen the film, but I’ve heard it’s fantastic, and the book it’s based on even better. As I understand, it’s about a young man’s infatuation with an older house guest, and the love affair that blooms. It sounds to me like it’s already a contemporary classic of queer literature, so I’m really looking forward to giving it a go. Plus, there’s a sequel!

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m hoping to branch out in a bunch of different ways with my next to-be-read list, and this is one of them: collections of short stories. There weren’t enough of them on my original reading list, so now’s my chance to get into more! Her Body And Other Parties is one of the most popular ones that has been released in recent years, by American author Carmen Maria Machado. I’m particularly curious about the SVU-themed story that I heard her talk about in an interview; after surgery on her wisdom teeth (or something like that), she streamed seasons of Law & Order SVU as she recovered and, in her pain-killer-and-fever-induced fugue state, it inspired a weird story based on episode summaries. I’m here for it!

And, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, there’ll be HEAPS more! As well as branching out with formats (plays, poetry), I’m really excited to read more women, more POC, more writers with disability, more LGBTIQ+ writers… it’s going to be awesome! Are there any books you’re particularly eager for me to read and review? Drop your recommendations in the comments below!

Ulysses – James Joyce

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I thought I’d ever read 109 well-known books and publish a review of each and every one on a blog of my own creation, I would’ve said I seriously doubted it. If you’d told me the hundred-and-ninth book would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, I would’ve straight-up laughed in your face. This is the book that has scared and intimidated me more than any other, on any shelf in all the world. I’d heard that it was practically unreadable for the recreational bookworm, best left to the ivory-tower types, so I figured it was Not For Me. That’s why I left it ’til last. It sat on my to-be-read shelf for so long that the pages literally gathered cobwebs. But guess what, Keeper Upperers? “Last” finally came. It’s time to review Ulysses.

I want to say a couple of things right at the outset: firstly, thank you for all of your encouragement and tips on my Bloomsday Instagram post last year. I referred back to it before I began, and your support made all the difference! I also got lots of background information and guidance as I read from the Ulysses Guide. Unfortunately, it was still a work in progress at the time, so I could only follow it up to about the half-way point, then I had to switch to another online guide that wasn’t quite as good. Still, it served me well, and I highly recommend it!

Publication History

Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, one of “a large family described by his father as ‘sixteen or seventeen children'”, according to the author bio. It should come as no surprise, then, that Joyce was deeply Irish, and his books are steeped in that literary tradition. Reading some Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and John McGahern first was a good idea, a way of easing myself into this way of seeing the world and writing about it.

Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, and had the early chapters ready to go by the end of 1917 (yes, he was a slow writer, among other things). He offered them to Harriet Shaw Weaver, then editor of The Egotist, thinking that she might want to serialise them as she had done with A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. She was happy to do so, but she couldn’t find a printer willing to do the job. Ulysses, by the standards of the day, was so smutty that any printer or publisher who touched it risked imprisonment.

Joyce convinced an American paper to print the chapters in 1918, but he was immediately subjected to extensive legal action for doing so. The US publishers were fined, and further installments were suppressed for a long time. It was a long row to hoe, but eventually Ulysses was published in full by Sylvia Beach, of the ever-popular Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co, in 1922. There have been at least eighteen editions published since then, and each one has introduced new errors and variations. The first alone was said to contain up to two thousand errors, but it is still widely considered to be the “most accurate” to Joyce’s authorial intent. The publication history of Ulysses is long and complex, but for the most salient parts, I highly recommend this episode of the podcast Annotated from Book Riot.



Ulysses is now generally considered to be one of the (if not, the) most important works of modernist literature. (For beginners: “modernism” was a post-WWI literary movement that tried to rebel against traditional forms of creative expression and representation – I’m sorry, I can’t be any more specific than that, because academics are still arguing over what constitutes a “modernist” book). When readers call it one of the greatest books in history, they usually refer to a few key things: Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique, the structure, the experimental prose, the puns and parodies, the allusions, and the rich characterisation. Yes, Ulysses is a hot mix of very literary stuff.

One thing I wish I’d known before I started is that most editions don’t mark the sections or “episodes” clearly. I don’t quite understand why, and it means it’s a little tricky to read Ulysses alongside an external guide, given that there are no markers to make sure you start/stop in the equivalent spots. So, if you’re going to pick up a copy, make sure you’ve got one that’s marked up clearly, if you need it, or an annotated edition with the reference text built-in.

Being able to follow the structure matters. Joyce very deliberately split the book into eighteen episodes, across three “books” or sections, in a way that roughly corresponds with the 24 episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. And that’s just the start of the parallels with the classic poem: Ulysses is, among other things, pretty much a direct adaptation, mapping the journey of Odysseus onto a day in the life of a man living in Dublin.

Plot Summary

(I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can, but I won’t blame you if you skip. ahead to the end for my final verdict…)

The story begins at 8AM on 16 June 1904, when Stephen Dedalus wakes up (yes, we don’t begin with the protagonist, but if that’s enough to irk you, you’re in for a rough ride – strap in). Stephen’s come back to Ireland after some time abroad, to be with his mother when she passed away. He now lives in Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan (an ambitious, blasphemous medical student), and Haines (a well-meaning Brit). Mulligan has been talking shit about Stephen’s dead Mum, so things are a bit tense in the share-house. They all chat and snipe at one another over breakfast, and perform the morning ablutions. Mulligan hits Stephen up for a loan, causing Stephen to throw a tanty. He says he won’t come home tonight, as Mulligan – “the usurper” – has taken over the tower. He has a flair for the dramatic, ol’ Stephen, and he storms out.

He heads over to a school in Dalkey, where he teaches a class, but he doesn’t have a real good time doing it. When he goes to pick up his pay cheque, the headmaster lectures him about not pissing it all away. He then asks Stephen for a favour (seriously! these people!), to get a letter published in the local paper. Stephen’s all “yeah, okay”, and leaves to catch his tram.

Here’s where we first encounter some real Ulysses weirdness: Stephen starts monologuing about all kinds of weird shit, to no one in particular. He decides he can’t be bothered dropping by his aunt’s place like he’d planned, he picks his nose, he writes some poetry. In the end, he gives up, and finds a nice rock to sit on and has a good mope (he can’t go home, after his tantrum – besides, Mulligan has the keys).

These three episodes make up the first “section”. After reading them, I was thinking: hey, Ulysses doesn’t seem so bad! Even with some funky punctuation and grammatical choices, I could still follow the dialogue and the movements of the characters. The third episode, the monologue-y one, read more like poetry than prose, but it wasn’t as impenetrable as I was expecting. I managed to take in at least some of it (not the bits that were in French), so I was feeling confident. Full steam ahead!



In the fourth episode, the day starts again, at 8AM (yep, Ulysses is very non-linear, but at least we stay within a single day for the most part). This time, we see the story from Leopold Bloom’s perspective – finally, our protagonist emerges! He talks to his cat, buys a kidney from the butcher, fries it up and eats it for breakfast (the kidney, not the cat). He also makes tea and toast for his wife, all the while musing about how they’re both having affairs. Molly – the wife – gets a bad rap in a lot of the criticism of this book, but I’m going to say here and now that she’s my girl. I love her. She calls Leopold “Poldy”, which I thought was just fucking adorable (especially after I learned from the reading guide that this was Joyce’s way of showing us how she “delionises” her husband, reminding him who’s boss). I liked Poldy, too, even though he was a bit of a perv – his episodes were, generally speaking, a lot more readable than Stephen’s. Anyway, after a bit of a chat with the missus, Leopold gets dressed and heads off to a funeral.

The next thirty pages or so are very fragmentary and kind of disjointed. Each paragraph is preceded by a news headline, which my guide said “simultaneously interrupted and framed the prose”. Um, okay? I did manage to piece together that Leopold is 38 years old, works as a newspaper canvasser, and after the funeral he heads over to place an advertisement for the House Of Keys Tea Shop in the Evening Telegraph. There’s a bit of wheeling and dealing, then he’s sent off in search of an image to use for the ad. Throughout these professional and social encounters, people treat poor Leopold pretty badly – they’ll flat out ignore him, bully him, and speak carelessly in front of him. A lot of it seems to have to do with the fact that he’s Jewish (yikes).

Leopold goes from the newspaper office down to Grafton Street, the posh shopping district, and stops for a light lunch at Davy Byrne’s Pub. His mind wanders, so we wander with it: he goes from thinking about how much it stinks that Catholics can’t use contraception (forcing them to have large families, which keeps them in poverty), to thinking about how Molly’s probably going to be meeting her lover at 4PM. It’s only 1PM by this point, but Poldy’s trying not to watch the clock. He runs into an ex-girlfriend as he leaves the pub, and he muses on how smooth he is with women (told you he’s a perv!). Then, when he heads to the library to get the image for the ad logo, he spots Molly’s lover – Boylan, we’ll talk more about him soon – and looks the other way to avoid him.

Joyce then switches back to Stephen’s POV at this point: he’s delivering a lecture on Hamlet in the library, which was pretty much just an excuse for Joyce to show off how many Shakespeare references he could cram into every page. Leopold drops in briefly, looking for his logo thing. When all is said and doneth, Stephen and Buck Mulligan head down to the pub. The animosity from the morning show-down still simmers, but Buck knows Stephen has just been paid, so he’ll be good to shout a few beers.

The next episode is written as a series of vignettes and – if I understood them correctly – they all take place at the exact same time, in different parts of Dublin. Kind of like taking a panoramic photo, then looking at it inch by inch. The most notable ones include Leopold buying Molly. a book (a good, smutty one), and Boylan being infuriatingly charming, a real dapper rogue.



Once we slide back into a narrative (or what passes for a narrative in Joyce’s writing, anyway), things start to turn all musical and lyrical. There’s a lot of onomatopoeia, refrains, funny syntax. Leopold is back in the pub (he’s Irish!), flirting with some barmaids, when Boylan walks in. This causes Leopold to check the time, and he notices it’s 4PM – which means Boylan is late for his bonk appointment with Molly (awkward!). Bloom concludes: “Too late. She longed to go. That’s why. Woman. As easy stop the sea. Yes: all is lost.”

Next, we shift perspective (again!), this time to an anonymous working-class Dubliner who tells stories to “earn” his drinks. Sounds like a good gig if you can get it, sign me up! This episode bounces around a lot, and gets interrupted countless times – just like (you guessed it!) stories told in a pub. No shame in getting a bit lost in this part, I know I did! Basically, through this storyteller (drunk and unreliable as he may be), we see Leopold turn down the offer of a drink, because he knows he can’t afford to stand his round, and get into an argument with an Irish nationalist. It seems there’s a lot of rumours about Leopold around town, and he’s none too popular (which explains why everyone acts so shittily towards him). Unfortunately, this is where all the really dark anti-Semitism rears its head, and my heart really broke for the poor man. He leaves, under the guise of going to look for his friend, who (of course) shows up moments later, looking for Leopold in turn. Everyone talks shit about Leopold after he leaves. When he doubles back around, he and his mate finally get together and take off, just as another argument erupts.

Later, Leopold decides to have a bit of a sit-down at the beach, and just so happens to pick a spot near three teenage girls. Gerty is the “beautiful one”, and she is described in intimate detail. She has her eye on Leopold too, apparently (ugh). And here’s where our darling Poldy hits peak perv: he has a wank, right there on the beach, while everyone (including Gerty) watches some fireworks. Ick!

Let’s not linger on that nasty visual. Shortly thereafter, Leopold realises that his watch has stopped, and he starts to wonder whether Molly has finished bonking Boylan yet. He lays down to have a little nap before heading home.

Now, here’s where Joyce starts really showing off: the next episode is pretty much unintelligible. This was the first time while reading Ulysses that I truly had no idea what the fuck was going on, even with my trusty reading guide. If not for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and my dirty completionist heart, I would’ve given up right here. Example:

““For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtrending lutulent reality or on the contrary anyone so is there illuminated as to not perceive that as no nature’s boon can contend against the bounty of increase so it behoves ever most just citizen to become the exhortatory and admonisher of his semblables and to tremble lest what had in the past been by the nation excellently commenced might be in the future not with similar excellence accomplished if an inverecund habit shall have gradually traduced the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs to that tither of profundity that that one was audacious excessively who would have the hardihood to rise affirming that no more odious offence can for anyone be than to oblivious neglect to consign that evangel simultaneously command and promise which on all mortals with prophecy of abundance or with diminution’s menace that exalted of reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined?”

Page 381 (I know they’re english words, but what the fuck does this “sentence” even mean???)

Apparently, throughout this episode, Joyce was trying to represent “the gestation of the English language”, by replicating and parodying the prose styles of different time periods in chronological order. Ugh, whatever.

Moving on: Leopold checks in on a woman who’s been in labour for a horrifyingly long time. He sits around and chats with a group of doctors and medical students, all of whom appear to be drinking on the job. Buck Mulligan and his mate show up looking for condoms. All these men get down to discussing birth and motherhood, every fathomable aspect of it (finally, a group of men offer their perspective! just what we’ve been missing!). Once the woman finally drops her shorty, they all head down to the pub to party on.

The next bit is written and formatted like a script, with stage directions, character labels on the dialogue, etc., but it depicts very little actual action. Most of it takes place in subconscious drunken hallucinations, and as far as trips go, this is a bad one. Leopold dreams of getting yelled at by his parents, interrogated by police, put on trial for being (among other things) a cuckold, leading his own country (Bloomusalem), being a woman, and giving birth to eight children. When he comes back to earth for a second, he follows Stephen and his mate into a brothel, then the hallucinations start a new, getting dirtier and more outlandish. Joyce deliberately blurs the lines between what is “really” happening and what is only happening in Pervy Poldy’s head, so – once again – no shame if you get a bit lost and confused. Oh, and Stephen has a few hallucinations of his own, and they all criss-cross over one another – it’s all very strange.



Leopold eventually comes to and straightens himself up, but Stephen is still drunk as all heck (give-all-my-money-to-strangers-on-the-street drunk). Leopold hustles him away and tries to sober him up. Stephen can’t go home (he’s still got beef with Buck Mulligan, and no keys!), so they stop at a diner to get some coffee and food into him. They meet a chatty sailor, and try not to indulge in gossip about how the innkeeper was involved in a local murder. But then, somehow, the conversation shifts to England and Ireland and Christianity and Judaism – all very safe topics among drunk Irishmen, and it all goes super well! Leopold ends up having to literally drag Stephen out of the bar and half-carry him home. What a day, I tell ya…

But Joyce isn’t done! He switches things up again, this time narrating an entire episode in the form of a Q&A. There are 309 questions, all with detailed answers that depict the action. Stephen sobers up enough to carry on a conversation about music and politics, as he and Leopold walk the rest of the way home. Leopold has to break into his own house because he forgot to put his keys in his funeral pants. Inside, they find a bunch of Boylan’s stuff lying around (awkward!), and this makes Leopold understandably cranky. He and Stephen sit down, drink some cocoa, swap stories, and argue about religion. Leopold offers to let Stephen stay the night, but he politely declines. They do a wee together in the front yard, Stephen heads off, and Leopold climbs into bed with Molly. He gives her a kiss on the bum, and she starts thinking about the fact that they haven’t had sex in ten years (no wonder she’s taken a lover, get yours girl!).

Now, here we go, the big crescendo: Ulysses ends with an episode consisting of eight whopping great long un-punctuated sentences, all from Molly’s perspective. She thinks about their respective affairs, and their courtship. She worries about money, wishing she had more of it so she could buy pretty things. She reminisces about her youth in Gibraltar, old friends and so forth. She decides she likes love letters, and hates “silly” girl singers. She thinks about her daughter. She gets her period. She decides it’d be great if we overthrew the patriarchy and let women run things (preach!). All these thoughts lead her back to her memory of Leopold’s proposal, and her enthusiastic response – thus, the immortal closing line, “yes I said yes I will Yes”.

Verdict

Ulysses was probably never going to be my favourite book of all time. I don’t think that’ll be any great shock to anyone. But, I must say… it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Like, nowhere near as bad. It’s got a hell of a reputation, and sure, some parts drove me up the wall, but I got so much more out of it than I would have dreamed possible.

Joyce’s writing doesn’t read like the writing that most contemporary recreational readers expect and enjoy, but don’t confuse unfamiliarity with dislike. I don’t think we talk enough about what Joyce was trying to do: represent the natural flow of human thought, feeling, mood, and memory. He did such a good job of it that the rhythm of Ulysses feels natural, like letting yourself drift along the currents of a river.

Even for all his faults, I really liked Leopold. He was relatable in a way that most writers hope their flawed protagonists will be. But the real star of the show, the one who won my heart, was Molly. I can’t think of any of Joyce’s contemporaries who crafted a female character as wonderfully nuanced and intriguing as she. Of course, her complexity and authenticity meant that most early (*cough*sexist*cough*) readers thought she was a “whore”. Their word, not mine. She was uneducated, opinionated, sexual – all things that women weren’t (and still aren’t) “allowed” to be. My favourite characters in literature are almost always women who do things they “shouldn’t”, so Molly had it in the bag.

What surprised me most of all was that I *whispers* liked it better than Mrs Dalloway. I’m deeply concerned that this makes me a bad feminist, but so be it. Virginia Woolf famously declined to publish Ulysses through her own Hogarth Press, saying that “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, and Mrs Dalloway was written largely in an attempt to one-up Joyce and show him how it should be done. I’d really like to re-visit them both in a few years, and see if my opinion changes over time. But, for now, Joyce is the winner in my own personal Ulysses v Dalloway show-down.

I’m not going to call Ulysses a recommended read here on the blog. It’s not for everyone, and I respect that. I’m not even sure that I’d say I “liked” it. What I would say is that, once again, it proved to me that a book’s reputation means sweet fuck-all. Crime And Punishment was a pleasant surprise in much the same way. If you’ve decided not to try and read Ulysses on the basis that everyone says it’s unreadable, maybe you should reconsider. It might be better than you think, it might not, but the only way to know for sure is to give it a go. Be sure to hurry back here and tell me what you think… 😉

Keeper Upperers, you might be worried that finishing my original reading list with Ulysses means that this will be the end of my book reviews – it most certainly is not! I’ve cooked up a whole new reading list, and I’ll be reviewing them one-by-one each week as I have done for the last 109. Take a sneak peek at what’s to come here, and thank you for all of your continued support.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Ulysses:

  • “Good condition except there was a bad smell to the book” – Tiffany Thai
  • “did not read bored in 10 sec” – David G Johnston
  • “This book does not need a review.” – KB
  • “For psychological masochists only.” – Robert Belilovsky
  • “the worst book you’ll ever read, if you ever finish it.” – Amazon Customer
  • “ulysses sucks. hence, this book sucks.” – Amaon Customer
  • “Nice guide to Dublin. A bit brief.” – Charmaine Babineau
  • “I enjoyed this. It’s long but if it starts to drag you can skip over parts and not lose much. It’s more a narrative of life than, say, a detective story where you can’t miss a trick. The best part is the ending soliloquy by the girl, ten pages without a punctuation mark. I’d buy the book for that.
    yes I will yes” – William J. Fallon
  • “Could not get through it. Forced myself to stay with it, but gave up after 50 pagers or so. I would rather read a tech manual, at least that has a purpose.” – Mags Dad
  • “Dear lord, this nonsense is supposed to be great literature? Simply horrid. A book should be able to communicate the clarity of its prose and not try to impress others by obscurity.

    This sucker has no clothes.
    There, I said it.” – Kevin M. Fries


Books With Girl In The Title

There have been a lot of publishing trends since Gutenberg first put his press to work. We see them play out in real time now, thanks to the internet: there was the spate of Dan Brown rip-offs after the success of The Da Vinci Code, then Twilight heralded the age of the teen vampire love story… but there’s one in particular that really gets my goat. It’s books with “girl” in the title. Where the titular character is, in fact, a girl (defined as “a female child”), it’s not so bad, but when that descriptor is applied to grown woman, it feels reductive, infantilising, and all-around shitty. I took a look over my shelves and decided to implement a system: YAY (for when the title refers to an actual “girl”) and NAY (for when it should refer to a woman or person). Here are the results…

Books With Girl In The Title - Text Overlaid on Close Up Image of Woman's Eye - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the first one that springs to mind for most people when you mention the “girl in the title” trend. Gone Girl was released in 2012 and fast became a must-read, spawning years of unreliable-female-narrator-psychological-thriller knock offs. The “girl” of the title is Amy, one of the protagonists, and she’s old enough to be married, pregnant, and caring for elderly in-laws.

Verdict: NAY

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

And this is the second one that comes up when you mention books with girl in the title: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. It was released a few years after Gone Girl, and – rightly or wrongly – the two have been compared to death. The story revolves around three main characters, one of whom is “the girl on the train”. Rachel is in her mid-thirties, recently divorced, infertile, and an alcoholic. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

Verdict: NAY

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Girl, Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Long before girls were gone or on trains, there was Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. This is her memoir of her time spent in a psychiatric institution, having been admitted when she was 18 years old. The title references a Dutch painting called Girl Interrupted At Her Music. That, plus the fact that the title was a product of self-determination and a non-fiction account, swayed my verdict.

Verdict: YAY

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, back to more recent history: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell draws upon “fangirl culture”, specifically the creation of fan-fiction and the communities that develop around fandoms online. The titular character, Cath, is in her first year at university, struggling to adjust. This one is borderline (“young woman” would probably be most accurate), but Cath is very immature in her thinking and approach to life, and again the cultural reference sways it for me. Read my full review of Fangirl here.

Verdict: YAY

City Of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City Of Girls - Elizabeth Gilbert - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Last year saw the release of Elizabeth Gilbert’s long-awaited return to fiction, City Of Girls. The story is set in the 1940s, when 19 year old Vivian Morris has been kicked out of university and sent to live with her aunt in New York. There, she tumbles down the rabbit hole of glamour, sex, and adventure. I want to give Gilbert the benefit of the doubt – maybe she was trying to allude to the “showgirls” Vivian encounters – but ultimately, given the adult themes and growth of the main character, this one gets a womp-womp.

Verdict: NAY

Girl by Edna O’Brien

Girl - Edna O'Brien - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Also last year: Girl by Edna O’Brien. As far as books with girl in the title go, this one is the most straightforward. The story imagines the experience of one of the abductees of Boko Haram, in northeastern Nigeria. There are a few different ways in which this novel is problematic, but the title ain’t one of ’em. The titular character is most definitely a girl, and what happens to her is awful and traumatic and devastating.

Verdict: YAY

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls - Emma Cline - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Girls was Emma Cline’s debut novel, and it had a bold premise: a fictional story “inspired by” and very strongly reminiscent of the Manson family cult and the murders they committed. The “girls” of the title are the teenagers recruited to a ranch by their leader, Russell. The protagonist, Evie, was just 14 years old at the time; although the story is told as middle-aged Evie’s recollection, the primary action takes place when she was that age. Plus, this is a story about the fragility of innocence in girlhood, so for me, the title makes sense.

Verdict: YAY

Girl Online by Zoe Sugg

Girl Online - Zoe Sugg - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you’re a YouTube superstar, and you have squillions of followers, you can call your book pretty much any damn thing you want, and people will still buy it. I’m still a bit baffled as to why Zoe Sugg went with Girl Online, though. The story centers around an adolescent girl with an anonymous blog, who goes unexpectedly viral when she unknowingly starts dating a pop-star. Girl Online is just such a terrible domain name! But, I’ll give this one to Sugg: the title is relevant, and accurately depicts the nature off her protagonist. Read my full review of Girl Online here.

Verdict: YAY

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone - Felicity McLean - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone lands pretty much smack-bang in the middle of The Virgin Suicides and Picnic At Hanging Rock. The central character, Tikka, recounts the summer when she was eleven years old (and one sixth), when the three titular Van Apfel sisters vanish during a school concert. The search for the girls unites the community, but the mystery persists. At first, I was skeptical about the use of “girls” – surely “sisters” or just “the Van Apfels” would have worked just as well? – but by my own criteria, I think I’ve got to give this one the thumbs up, too.

Verdict: YAY

Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford

Fight Like A Girl - Clementine Ford - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know how much international Keeper Upperers know about Clementine Ford, but here in Australia she’s one of the most divisive feminist commentators we’ve got. It seems everyone has an opinion about her opinions, and scrolling through her mentions on Twitter is horrifying. Fight Like A Girl is her debut book, a feminist manifesto, a “call to arms”. This is one of the few instances of books that use girl in the title that I actually like and support, rather than just accept or outright hate. I feel like it was Ford’s way of using the language of the oppressor – the schoolyard taunt “you fight like a girl!” – and turning it on its head. Plus, her follow up was called Boys Will Be Boys, so she’s clearly even handed in her approach.

Verdict: YAY

Well, in the end, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting: more YAYs than NAYs on my shelves. That said, I’m familiar with a bunch of other books with girl in the title – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Other Boleyn Girl, Girl With A Pearl Earring – that I don’t happen to own, and remain skeptical about. Would you give them yays or nays? Am I the only one bugged by this? Let me know in the comments below…

Girl Online – Zoe Sugg

With reading – as with most things, I guess – timing is everything. I saved this bit of fluff to give my bookish brain a break between Sybil and Ulysses. Girl Online is the debut novel from the young “beauty, fashion, and lifestyle vlogger” Zoe Sugg. I’ll confess right now that I’d never heard of her before picking up this book, but her author bio says she has millions of subscribers on YouTube, so clearly she’s killing it.

Girl Online was first published in 2014, becoming a New York Times Bestseller in the Young Adult category, and the fastest-selling book of that year. It also broke the record for highest first-week sales for a debut author. Not bad, eh? I guess that’s the magic of being an internet celebrity: you’ve got a built-in audience, ready and willing.

But, as always, popularity and sales aren’t always the best indicators of quality. Girl Online is hardly a literary tour de force. It’s the story of Penny Porter, a fifteen-year-old girl from Brighton (where Sugg currently lives, funnily enough), whose anonymous blog goes unexpectedly viral.

Penny mostly uses her blog to vent about her typical teen problems: school, friends, family, boys, and so on. Then, a video of an embarrassing incident at her high-school play makes the rounds on YouTube, causing her great distress… so, her parents take a convenient week-long trip to New York (why is it always New York? Why is it never Wagga Wagga or Woop Woop?). They decide to take Penny and her gay-best-friend Elliot along with them. Naturally.

I could tell straight away that Girl Online isn’t going to age well. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references that already feel outdated: Justin Bieber? What’s he done lately? And I’ll try my best not to sound like a blogging snob here, but it must be said: Girl Online is a terrible domain name! It’s so vague! Penny really needs to work on her SEO. There, that’s all I’ll say on that, but you should know that the romantic sepia-toned version of blogging depicted throughout this book drove me nuts, all the way.



Immediately upon arriving in New York, Penny meets Noah, a mysterious teenage musician (again: why? Why are they always musicians?). She falls in love with him in a New York minute, of course. Alas, her parents cruelly separate them – i.e., they take her home when their holiday/job is over, instead of suggesting that she stay there on the other side of the world with the teenage boy she just met. Noah gives her a CD with a song he wrote for her on it before she leaves (vomit).

When Penny gets home, Noah’s “big secret” is revealed (this doesn’t even warrant a spoiler warning, because it’s so bleeding obvious): he’s actually a huge YouTube sensation, with two million followers or something like that. He’s about to release his first album. He didn’t tell Penny about his “big secret” because it was so nice to be treated “normally” for once (puh-lease). Oh, and he’s supposedly dating some other big-time pop star.

Penny’s all “see ya!”, which is an uncharacteristically good call on her part. Unfortunately, she’d already blogged about the whole romantic drama in real time. A former-BFF mean girl from school manages to join the dots, and she outs Penny’s identity as Girl Online, lover of the YouTube superstar. As a result, the blog goes “viral”, garnering lots of attention (the nasty kind) very quickly. Oh, and she has a fight with Elliot, too, so it’s a rough few days for her.

Cue many, many teenage melodramatics from Penny… only they transition alarmingly quickly into genuinely severe symptoms of an anxiety disorder. And here’s what really got under my girdle: no one, not even the parents, suggested therapy or a psychological evaluation for the hyperventilating teenager. I found it deeply disturbing how nonchalant they all were about it.



Don’t worry: in the last 50 pages, Penny and Elliot make up, the mean girl cops a milkshake to the face (a shameless rip-off of that pivotal moment in The Princess Diaries), and Penny gets an avalanche of suddenly-positive blog comments. Noah shows up to apologise, and says he was never really dating the pop star, it was all a show for publicity (yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say). The song he wrote for Penny is going to be the lead single from his first album, which is just, like, totally the most like, romantic thing evahhh.

Yes, it’s a super predictable ending, but I guess it could’ve been worse. In fact, on the whole, Girl Online was not as cringey as it could have been (and probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be here). It’s far from the worst young adult book I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins: that gong would have to go to Divergent, or maybe The Maze Runner. Girl Online is definitely better than either of those. Thirteen-year-old me might’ve even enjoyed it.

There are, however, a couple of things that would hold me back from recommending it to the teens of today. Firstly, as I said, it’s very firmly anchored in the early 2010s, so with the pace of technology and culture today, it’s going to feel very dated very soon. Snapchat doesn’t even rate a mention! And secondly, again as I’ve said, I was deeply concerned by the implied messages that teenagers can treat and cure their own anxiety disorders through… deep breathing? Sheer force of will? Positive thinking? Just… honestly, where the fuck are the grown-ups here? It has the potential to be really damaging.



Sugg has said, repeatedly, that the book is “in no way autobiographical”… which just has to be a deliberate ploy to fuel the speculation that it is, in fact, autobiographical. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that, even if none of it is “real” so to speak, a lot off Girl Online draws heavily on Sugg’s own romantic fantasies. There’s a strong whiff of wish-fulfillment with the turn of every page.

And that brings us to the other elephant in the room: the nature of Sugg’s “authorship” is… controversial, to say the least. I don’t doubt for a second that Girl Online was ghost-written, but neither Sugg nor Penguin (the publishers) are willing to officially confirm it. Penguin’s only public statement has been to say that Sugg “worked with an expert editorial team to help bring to life her characters and experiences in a heartwarming and compelling story”. Surely even the most wide-eyed naive fan can read between those lines.

Sugg knows marketing, though, which is another reason the book saw such huge sales. The US and UK covers each feature different images provided by Sugg’s fans (I’m assuming for free), selected via a competition she ran on her Instagram page. What Sugg lacks in literary chops, she makes up for in market savvy! She also published a sequel the following year, Girl Online: On Tour, and another the year after that, Girl Online: Going Solo. Based on the titles, and the trajectory of Girl Online, I’m guessing that Penny goes on tour with Noah until fame tears them apart, and then she forges a new life for herself as a fabulous single girl, before either getting back together with him or falling in love with someone even better. Whether I’m right or wrong, I doubt I’ll find out for myself. Still, I’m grateful to Zoe Sugg for this easily-digestible fairy floss snack between two canonical binges…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Girl Online:

  • “Good book if you follow her online.” – david potter
  • “Ok, too much emphasis on her clumsiness” – Kindle Customer
  • “I gave it as a gift to an ex-friend. She truly liked it a lot too bad I don’t like her anymore.” – Lonya Leonard
  • “This story is so lit fam I literally can’t even like omg zoella huge reds to you girl yassss wow” – Bella
  • “Did she even write the book?” – emily
  • “O-M-G this book was a RIP OFF so BAD so terrible i HATED it i’m being REALLY nice boy rating it a three i wanted to rip the pages out of this BAD BOOK if you want to stay healthy and alive DON’T READ!” – Ashrey Cannonier
  • “amateur” – Amazon Customer

7 Books That Changed The World

When you think about it, books are just ink pressed onto the skins of trees and bound together with glue and cardboard. How is it possible that such small objects wield such incredible power? All booklovers carry inside them a handful of books that changed their world, the way they live and see their lives, but what about books that actually changed the whole world? What about the books that nudged the course of history in a different direction? I’ve rounded up some of my favourites here today in this list of seven books that changed the world.

7 Books That Changed The World - Text Overlaid on Cropped Image of Earth from Space - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale Of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Technically speaking, books wouldn’t be able to change the world if there were no books, right? (The horror!) So, it makes sense to start this list with the first novel ever written – that’s right, the very first one, in the form that we understand today – back in the 11th century, The Tale Of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Court, and (believe it or not) that was actually a pretty dull life. A lot of sitting around and, y’know, waiting. So, she picked up a pen and started writing, just to fill in the time. Her book doesn’t have a plot per se, but it does have a cast of characters and many of the other elements we recognise as defining the modern novel. It shaped Japanese culture for hundreds of years, and paved the way for all written literature that has come since.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was kind of awesome. She was a middle-aged, middle class white lady, living in the mid-1800s in what we now call the United States (which is pretty much her doing, as you’ll see). She took a look around her and went “You know what? Slavery is fucked. God would not be down with this at all. I’m gonna write a book about it.” So, she sat down and wrote a powerful abolitionist novel about Uncle Tom – a heroic slave who won’t be kept down by the forces that oppress him – and other slaves who suffered under the system. It was so popular (selling 300,000 copies in its first year, no mean feat, even by today’s standards!) that it is now credited with fueling the fire of the abolitionist movement that became the Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln, when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, said: “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book who started this great war.” Today, it is widely recognised as having turned the tide of public opinion against slavery, and still manages to reveal new insights to people about the oppression that continues – such is the power of fiction.

See also: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maybe George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t pivot the course of history as directly or immediately as some of the other books on this list, but given its ongoing resonance and how frequently we refer to it in today’s political discourse, I’d say it definitely counts as one of the books that changed the world. Even though it was written in 1949, and set in a totally imagined dystopian future, every time I pick it up I still learn something new about the real world that we live in today: state surveillance, acts of resistance, power and control, and collective action. We use Orwell’s language – “Big Brother”, “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime” – every day, and cite this book frequently in our attempts to quash totalitarian regimes. This is one of the defining books of the dystopian genre, a treatise in defense of human rights, and a powerful call to arms, all in one. Oh, yeah, and there’s kind-of a love story, too…

Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank has become synonymous with our understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII. It is the very definition of the political made personal, and I defy anyone to read this book and not become a more empathic, compassionate, humane person as a result. It has also become a symbol of hope in the face of atrocity, and a testament to both the cruelty and resilience of humanity. I think this book changed the world in the sense that it finally gave us a universally relatable human face to put on the devastating impact on war.

See also: No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani – I was struck, in the most horrifying way, by the parallels between Anne Frank’s experience of living through the Holocaust and Behrouz Boochani’s account of torturous off-shore imprisonment by the Australian government. Perhaps the world has not changed as much as we might have hoped…

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I won’t deny that feminism has evolved and changed dramatically since Betty Friedan’s time, and there were views and opinions held at that time that we can recognise as deeply problematic today. Still, I think it’s important that we also acknowledge the foundational texts – The Feminine Mystique being one of them – for the revolutionary, ground-breaking, world-changing works they were. The Feminine Mystique effectively sparked the second wave of the feminist movement; where the first had focused on suffrage and property rights, Friedan pushed feminists to think more broadly about domestic labour, reproductive rights, and access to the workplace. In this book, we can see the germinating seeds of the later movements that are more in line with our values today. Friedan’s obituary, printed in the New York Times, said that this book “permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States” – and those effects rippled out through the rest of the world.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, I’m not going to lie: I didn’t love Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I came in expecting all kinds of smut, and aside from a couple of heaving bosoms and c-bombs, there was none to be found. Disappointing! Still, even I can acknowledge the important impact that this book has had on our access to literature and the right to read. It was widely censored and banned – completely prohibited in the UK for many decades – because of its supposedly-explicit sexual content. The brave souls at Penguin forged ahead and published the book anyway in 1960, leading to a major trial about whether they had contravened the laws against obscenity. In the end, the publishers won, which established a precedent that continues to govern our access to literature (especially the smutty stuff) today. A publisher’s note in my edition dedicates the book to the twelve jurors that declared them not guilty. Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

See also: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, and pretty much any other “dirty” book that has been subject to challenges and censorship around the world.

Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s almost difficult to count the ways in which the Harry Potter series has changed the world. What started as a daydream on a delayed train for Rowling has become an international sensation, a cultural touchstone, and a beacon of children’s literacy. Many kids who would not otherwise be interested in reading have discovered their love of books through Harry Potter. People who feel isolated and alone still turn to them for comfort and nostalgia. The readers my age, the ones who grew up with these books as they were being released, are now having kids of their own and re-discovering Harry Potter along with them. The New York Times had to create a whole new Best Seller List (for Children), because Rowling’s books had dominated the regular list for so long. Rowling has donated millions from her Harry Potter profits to charitable organisations that do vital work (yes, I’m deliberately ignoring some of her more problematic politics that have come to light in recent years, because I want to end on a happy note). No matter which way you slice it, Harry Potter has been a force for good, a series of books that changed the world for the better.

Can you think of any other books that changed the world? Add them to the list in the comments below!

« Older posts