Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

My Kondo 30

Remember when Marie Kondo suggested that adherents to her minimalist lifestyle keep “no more than 30 books” and we all collectively lost our goddamn minds? It wasn’t all that long ago (though it feels like decades, with everything that’s happened since). With my city in lockdown this month, I half-heartedly considered a spring-clean project, but rather than actually do anything like that, I decided to make this list instead. If I had to, under pain of KonMari, could I narrow down my book collection (800+ and counting)? Here’s my Kondo 30.

My Kondo 30 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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1. and my heart crumples like a coke can by Ali Whitelock

and my heart crumples like a coke can - Ali Whitelock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ali Whitelock is a poet and a darling friend of mine (she was kind enough to invite me to MC her local poetry night). and my heart crumples like a coke can is her first poetry collection, and even though I’ll admit I’m biased, it’s the one I thrust into people’s hands when they try to tell me that they “don’t like poetry”. This copy that I have is inscribed with a personal message from Ali, and I hold it very close to my heart. It also contains some of the best poetry I’ve ever had the privilege to read, the kind that led local author Mark Tredennick to describe Ali as “Bukowski with a Glaswegian accent”.

2. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have developed a bit of an addiction to off-centre literature by Japanese women, and the gateway drug was Convenience Store Woman. I’m still flabbergasted that this was the first of Sayaka Murata’s ten novels to be translated into English. It’s a slim little book, with a gorgeous cover design (the kind that makes you want to fist pump). That in itself is enough to make me want to save it from Kondo’s ravages, but I have another reason: I also read and loved her follow-up novel, Earthlings… and I loved it so much that I made the mistake of lending it to a friend. I’ll never get it back, which makes me all the more determined to hang on to this one. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

Yes, Charles Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature (reason enough to want to keep him on the shelves), but for me he’s also inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather. Granddad idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. This gorgeous two-volume set of David Copperfield (maybe a little worse for wear but still readable) was plucked from my grandparents’ collection, and I’m sure Granddad would have been damn proud that I finally read it, and loved it, and included it here in my Kondo 30. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

4. Depends What You Mean By Extremist by John Safran

Depends What You Mean By Extremist - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not to be a basic bitch about it, but John Safran is my celebrity crush. I’m not sure what it is about him: his cheekiness? His wonderful (now defunct) radio show, co-hosted by Father Bob? His willingness to thumb his nose at authority? Whatever it is, it worked! Well enough for me to drag my poor husband along to the launch of Depends What You Mean By Extremist – and make him wait patiently, taking photos, as Safran personally inscribed and signed my copy. I could never bring myself to part with this book, if only for the memories of being so close to a gentleman who makes my heart beat quick.

5. Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know the saying “to live in one’s head rent-free”? (You’re forgiven if the answer is “no” and you’re over the age of 30.) Everywhere I Look lives in my head rent-free; rare is the day that I don’t think back to some gem of wisdom that Garner shared with us in this essay collection. Of course, she’s better known for her auto-fiction (like Monkey Grip) and true crime (like This House Of Grief), but for me, this collection of miscellaneous musings will always be the definitive Garner. I refer back to it constantly, and you (ahem, Marie Kondo) couldn’t convince me to part with it for all the money in the world.

6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

It’s impossible for me to have a conversation about The Great Gatsby without bringing up this, its (in my view, perfect) counterpoint: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. No shade if you didn’t realise, before now, that it was a book before it was a Marilyn Monroe film – I didn’t realise, either, until I read it! This is the definitive Jazz Age novel, as far as I’m concerned, with all the glitz and glamour you could want, with a heaping side serve of social critique and feminist ideals. I have a hard time convincing some readers that the protagonist, ditzy blonde Lorelai Lee, is a feminist icon – but I’d have an even harder time of it if I didn’t have a copy to hand to quote from! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

7. Good Talk by Mira Jacobs

Good Talk - Mira Jacob - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Graphic novels aren’t “my thing”… or, at least, they weren’t until I read Good Talk and it completely up-ended my expectation of what a graphic novel could be. This is a memoir, of sorts, from Mira Jacobs, a woman of colour who has thoughtfully transcribed and illustrated a series of conversations from her life about racism and how to live with it. It all starts with a seemingly-innocent line of questioning from her son about Michael Jackson, and guides the reader through everything from job interviews to parenting. This graphic novel is so good, I’ve pulled it out at parties to show friends my favourite bits. If I parted with it, I’d risk finding myself at a loss the next time party conversation turned to white privilege. Read my full review of Good Talk here.

8. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

I Love Dick - Chris Kraus - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Love it or hate it, I Love Dick is a great conversation starter. Even for people who have never read it, never heard of Chris Kraus, have no opinion on autofiction or psychosexual obsession – the title is enough to keep the chat going. Failing that, it will put the bores off enough that you’ll never have to see them again. This is the kind of book I love to read on public transport, just to see how other people react. I couldn’t bring myself to part with it!

9. In My Skin by Kate Holden

In My Skin - Kate Holden - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t remember where exactly I picked up my copy of In My Skin, or what drew me to it, but I remember how old I was (peak-teen-angst years) and all the dank boarding-school rooms in which I pored over it. I read it again, and again, and again. Holden’s memoir of her years as a heroin addict and sex worker weren’t exactly “relatable” to me in my regional-Queensland teen life, but I found something captivating in those pages, and they opened my eyes to a whole other view of the world we live in. Every time I re-read this book, my heart and mind are captured in the very same way, all over again. I couldn’t possibly part with it.

10. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There are a lot of great books out there, but very few of them literally change the way you think about what a book can be. In The Dream House is one of those rare gems, a book that completely upended my expectations of all memoirs to follow. Machado unravels the knot of a formative romantic relationship she had with a woman who abused her. Each chapter borrows a well-worn trope – the haunted house, the bildungsroman, the happily ever after – to tell a story that has all-too-often been overlooked in literature. I could no more let go of this book than a religious scholar could let go of a holy text.

11. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This copy of Lolita, if I recall correctly, belonged to my husband before me met… but what’s his is ours, now, and I’m claiming it for my own. It’s a book that tends to elicit a lot of strong opinions, but in my experience those who feel negatively about it are mostly responding to the cultural myth surrounding the story, rather than the book itself. The fact that Nabokov wrote this book in his second language, an impeccable masterpiece of madness, is astounding to me. I’d give anything to have a tenth of his linguistic talent in my native tongue. I suppose that makes the book itself a totem of inspiration, or aspiration, or something – whatever it is, I love it and I must keep it.

12. Mad About The Boy by Maggie Alderson

Mad About The Boy - Maggie Alderson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I turn to Mad About The Boy every time I need unadulterated, delightful fun – that’s why my copy looks so well-loved, it has been! It surprises me how few people seem to have heard of this brilliant book. For me, it’s up there with the popular-fiction classics – think Lauren Weisberger, Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes. It’s a comedy that stems from tragedy; a British transplant to Sydney finds herself suddenly single when her otherwise-perfect husband comes out of the closet. With the help of a martial arts guru, her indefatigable son, and a fabulous visiting Uncle, she finds herself and a whole lot of fun along the way.

13. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Madame Bovary has been translated into English a bunch of times, but this version is my absolute favourite. I read it and loved it, but when I looked for the name of the person who had worked so hard on the translation, I couldn’t see it anywhere. Not on the cover, not in the prefatory materials, not even on the publisher’s website. My favourite line – “In certain moods, she needed little encouragement to go quite wild. One day she maintained against her husband that she could drink a tumbler of brandy, and as Charles was foolish enough to dare her to it, she drained it to the last drop.” – doesn’t actually appear in any translation other than this anonymous one. That alone earns it a spot in my Kondo 30.

14. Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman - Anna Burns - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I started reviewing books in earnest, and thus paying attention to who won the Booker Prize, the same year that Anna Burns won for Milkman. On a lark, I entered a competition run by a beloved local bookstore (Better Read Than Dead), a giveaway of the entire 2018 Booker Prize shortlist, including the winner. I actually won, and picking up this stack of brand-new buzzy books was better than Christmas. I felt like the luckiest booklover in the world – still do, to be honest! It would be silly to take up near half of my Kondo 30 with the whole shortlist, but I had to keep just one, if just to hold onto the feeling of winning. So, the winner seemed apt!

15. My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Do I bang on about this book too much? Well, so be it, I bang on about this book too much. I don’t think it’s possible to over-hype My Year Of Rest And Relaxation, though. Moshfegh’s book has it all: a despicable but compelling narrator, a kooky supporting cast, an impossibly intriguing premise (deciding to sleep for a whole year), and a setting that will send chills up your spine (New York, through most of 2001…). I don’t think I could part with this book, purely for the number of times I refer back to it – in conversation, and here on this blog!

16. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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

Nineteen Eighty-Four is like the ever-giving tree, the always-alarmingly-resonant dystopia that seems plucked from the day’s headlines, no matter when you read it. I’m particularly attached to this copy, which my father gifted to me at the tender age of thirteen. I credit this book with my political awakening, with my interest in domestic politics, and my personal investment in holding government to account. Sales of this book spiked during the Trump era, and it’s little wonder why; Orwell was disturbingly prescient, and forewarned is forearmed after all. Still, it’s more than a catch-phrase or a collation of clever ideas – it’s also a damn good read!

17. No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australia’s treatment of refugees is a source of constant shame (to those of us with a conscience, anyway). Behrouz Boochani is happily and safely settled in New Zealand now, but at the time of writing No Friend But The Mountains (entirely via WhatsApp messages, on a smuggled smart phone, to his translator Omid Tofighian) he was detained on Manus Island, an “offshore detention centre” (i.e., prison) for refugees who come to Australia by boat. It was my immense honour and privilege to hear Boochani and Tofighian speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Boochani by video link), and Tofighian was kind enough to speak with me and sign this book afterwards. My copy of No Friend But The Mountains is a crucial reminder of the best and worst of humanity.

18. On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In my household, which consists of two adults of the literary bent with four-and-a-half university degrees between us, books about writing are a given. We’ve got the swanky Cambridge ones and the stalwarts of James Wood and his ilk, but to my mind, the most wonderfully accessible and re-readable is On Writing by Stephen King. The other books might teach me never to end a sentence with a preposition, and never end a short story with “but it was all a dream”, but it’s King’s memoir-slash-manual that motivates me to actually put my bum in the chair and write. It’s full of advice, insight, and even reading recommendations – a must for my Kondo 30 library.

19. Parenthetical Bodies by Alex Gallagher

Parenthetical Bodies - Alex Gallagher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alex Gallagher was one of the first poets I saw read live when I started attending poetry events in Sydney. I still remember the poky little gallery we gathered in (remember gatherings? weren’t they fun??) and I remember their little wry smile as they read surfs up, a poem I later saw them describe on Twitter as a “filler piece” they wrote for the collection Paranthetical Bodies. If their “filler” is good enough to persuade me to purchase their whole collection, just imagine how good their good shit is! These are the poems that will make you laugh and cry and scratch your head, all at the same time.

20. Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There are few books I gush about as much as I gush about Rabbits For Food. I have thrust it into the hands of just about everyone I know. It was one of my best reads of the shitstorm of a year that was 2020. Kirshenbaum’s sense of humour slots in with mine like two jigsaw pieces: dark, sharp, and (at times) unnerving. You wouldn’t think that a book about a mental collapse and time spent in a psychiatric facility could have me howling with laughter, weeping tears of mirth, but here we are. I’d want to keep this book for two main reasons: so that it’s in reach whenever I need a laugh, and to remind me that even in the shittiest years, you can always find a really great book.

21. She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I first picked up She Said, by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, I thought I already knew the Harvey Weinstein story. I’d followed it on Twitter and the major mastheads like everybody else. I’d scrolled through the names of actresses and assistants who had come forward, and shook my head about how dreadful it all was. This book showed me just how little I thought I knew, and how much deeper it all goes. The lengths that Weinstein and his team (let alone the damn patriarchy) went to keep it under wraps are jaw-dropping. This is the book that, for me, defines the #MeToo movement, and warrants regular re-visiting even as “times change”.

22. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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

Here’s a little-known fun fact: The Bell Jar is almost impossible to find in secondhand bookstores (in my neck of the woods, anyway). You’d think that such stores would be teeming with pre-loved copies of this enduring modern classic, but no – hen’s teeth! It would seem that readers love Plath’s novel so much that they refuse to part with their copies, and I understand the impulse. I certainly wouldn’t part with mine! Not only is it gorgeous (a beautiful Faber hard-back with embossed gold cover), but it was a thank you gift from dear friends of mine for some long-forgotten favour. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

23. The Fabulous Girl’s Guide To Decorum by Kim Izzo & Ceri Marsh

The Fabulous Girl's Guide To Decorum - Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t care if it makes me a basic bitch: The Fabulous Girl’s Guide To Decorum has answered (almost) all of my questions about adulting. Admittedly, it’s perhaps a little dated now – written back in the day when text messaging was the peak of the technological communication revolution – but (almost) all of its lessons still ring true. When you crash in someone’s spare room for a night, what’s the polite way to thank them? How much should you tip when you’re in a foreign country? When you accidentally drink too much at the office Christmas party, how can you reassume your dignity and keep your job? Sure, you could probably Google the answers to all of these questions, but I appreciate having them all in one place on my bookshelf, right where I can see ’em.

24. The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)

The Odyssey - Homer - trans Emily Wilson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m still wading into the world of really old poems, but even I know about The Odyssey – Homer’s epic tale of war and love, wealth and poverty, travel and homecoming. I’d never read it, but I’d got the gist. Then, I heard an interview with Emily Wilson, and I just knew that I wanted her version to be the one to pop my cherry. In the millennia since it was first written, Wilson’s is the first translation from the original Greek to contemporary English completed and published by a woman. Can you believe that? How could we have let the blokes run the show for so long? I searched long and hard for this particular edition, and eventually treated myself to a brand new copy – and I won’t be parting with it any time soon.

25. The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll admit, I didn’t love my last foray into Hemingway’s work, and you’re welcome to take my copy of The Sun Also Rises and do what you will with it. That said, I’m not ready to give up on Papa just yet. I’d been curious about his last novel, The Old Man In The Sea, notoriously short and weird, for a long time, but never found a copy that was pretty enough to feature on my #bookstagram. Then, when I visited my family (remember when we could visit family? how great was that?!), I was charged with looking through my now-passed grandparents’ book collection and picking out anything of interest. There it was, the Hemingway I’d been looking for, a gorgeous vintage hardback that will now stay in the family forever.

26. 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

Speaking of old men: there’s one who captured my heart a long time ago – Allan Karlsson, the vodka-swilling centenarian Swede from Jonas Jonasson’s The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared. This is my ultimate cheer-up read, the book I pass to friends who are having a hard time, the one I pick up myself when things get rough. Never have I encountered a character so endearing, undertaking adventures that are simulatneously unreal and totally believable, as I have in this beautiful book. It would make me cry to part with it, which in turn would make me think I need cheering up and I would automatically reach for it… you get my drift. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

27. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Fredrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this book changed my life. It was the first book my (now) husband ever loaned me. When we first started dating, we didn’t have a whole lot in common: he was a bartender, I was working for a bank, he was chronically late, I was always early, he rarely left his neighbourhood, I flew back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for work… and yet, what we always shared was a love of books, and an inclination to talk about them in depth. It all began with his loaning me this tattered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I must keep this book, if only to keep the memories of that early courtship fresh when I’m sick of picking up his dirty socks and listening to his shitty music.

28. 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

Sometimes, a book sets the bar so high it seems impossible any other could ever top it. That’s the case with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and plot twists. This was the first book for which I ever offered a proper spoiler warning here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I just couldn’t bring myself to ruin the genuine shock and awe that comes around page 70. It makes it hard to talk about this book, but damn if I don’t give it a red-hot go. I’ve recommended this book every which way I can, and you’ll pry my copy from my cold dead hands. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

29. American Sniper by Chris Kyle

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

Ugh. I hated American Sniper. One star. If I could give no stars, I would. I cannot recall a single redeeming quality about it. So… why on earth would I keep it? Well, technically, technically, I borrowed it from a friend of mine, about five years ago. He’s never asked for it back, and he lives 870km away (that’s about 540 miles for you American Keeper Upperers), so opportunities to offer to give it back have been slim. Still, if he ever asked for it back, I must have it to hand to give to him. Throwing out your own books is one thing, but throwing out a borrowed book is an unforgivable offence. Read my full review of American Sniper here.

30. 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

Alright, one last sappy one to round out my Kondo 30: The Girl On The Train. It was okay, I didn’t love it, but I do love the memory of how I bought it – at a poky little secondhand bookshop I discovered while desperately searching for a public bathroom on my honeymoon. It was one of those wonderful coincidences, stumbling across an English-language secondhand bookshop in the middle of nowhere, that are unlikely to come around more than once or twice in a lifetime. I still remember jiggling my leg in a gotta-pee dance while scanning the shelves for titles of interest, sure that if we left without buying anything we’d never be able to find it again. Ah, memories! Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

Which books would you keep for your Kondo 30? What do you think of my choices? Let me know in the comments!

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other is Bernardine Evaristo’s eighth novel, her “break-out” novel, the one that catapulted her to international fame. It tells the stories of twelve people – “mostly women, mostly black” – who live in Britain and vary greatly in circumstances. It’s not a linear narrative, more like a series of connected biographical vignettes that span decades and multiple geographies.

Girl Woman Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Girl, Woman, Other here.
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Each “episode” in Girl, Woman, Other is connected to another in some way, Love Actually-style. Some of the characters are mother/daughter pairs, some are friends, some don’t even realise that they’re connected. It can be a little tricky to keep it all straight, if you’re reading the book in stolen moments, so I’ve made one of my trademark character maps. Note that this only shows the major relationships between characters, not the incidental acquaintances (e.g., Bummi is briefly employed as Penelope’s cleaner, and Yazz follows Morgan on Twitter) – the complexity of a complete map is beyond even my powers.

Girl, Woman, Other Character Map - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Evaristo’s entire oeuvre explores the all facets of the African diaspora, and Girl, Woman, Other is no exception. The characters are well-fleshed out, but they’re also undeniably devices to discuss the intersectionality of racism, sexism, feminism, and all the other -isms that impact the lives of black women. Each character faces their own unique challenges, fighting their way up from under the covers of colonialism, politics, poverty, and patriarchy. The “other” of the title doesn’t just allude to the non-binary expression of gender (personified in Morgan’s character), but also the ways in which the characters “other” each other. “I might be a woman, but I’m not one of those women”, “I might be black, but I’m not one of those black people”, so on and so forth.

Evaristo uses very strange line breaks (though perhaps not that strange, given her history of writing verse novels) to emphasise and elucidate her points. It’s not quite prose as you know it, but it’s not poetry either. She doesn’t seem to use any strict formula for grammar, punctuation, or formatting. Normally, I’d find this super-annoying, but in Girl, Woman, Other I barely noticed. It was surprisingly readable, and all of the stories flowed very naturally. So, if that’s normally your bug-bear, you needn’t worry.

Now, I can’t not mention the Booker Prize controversy. Evaristo was the co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, sharing it with Margaret Atwood (for The Testaments). The Booker Prize overlords had implemented a rule, back in the ’90s, that was supposed to prevent the judges from splitting the prize… but that year, the judges flipped the bird and did it anyway. It might not have been such a big deal if Evaristo wasn’t the first black woman to win the Booker (in fact, only four black women had even been shortlisted in the award’s history, prior to Evaristo’s win). Splitting the prize, and the controversy it invited, detracted from that milestone – and Evaristo had to split the cash, into the bargain. Still, perhaps it worked out well in the sense that the controversy had everyone talking about Evaristo and her work for a year, where otherwise her win might have been briefly exciting and then fallen from the headlines.

And besides, Girl, Woman, Other attracted plenty of other attention all on its own. It received over 30 Book Of The Year/Decade honours, and Barack Obama picked it as one of his best reads of the year. You might think that’s too much hype for any one book to withstand, but I’m here to tell you that it totally holds up. Girl, Woman, Other is a strange book (and thus, difficult to review), but if you take anything away from this little ramble, I hope it’s that Girl, Woman, Other is well worth a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Girl, Woman, Other:

  • “Too many people, too many “other” sexualities, I did not enjoy it.” – SRath
  • “This book began to wear on me at 30% complete. It is really a collection of short stories; but not really, because each is entirely too superficial to stand on it’s own. I gave it 2 stars because it seems rude to give a prize-winner 1 star.” – NadineR
  • “Her best since “Person, Camera, TV.”” – B. Hobson

7 Book Characters Who Are Only Children

After my post on siblings in literature, one of my amazing Keeper Upperers (looking at you, Paula Vince!) suggested I do a similar round-up of only children in literature. I’m an only child myself, but for some reason it’s rare that I see my experience actually reflected in the books I read. I had to dig pretty deep in my Goodreads history, but eventually I managed to dust off seven book characters who are only children.

7 Book Characters Who Are Only Children - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Don’t feel too sorry for the lonely only – if you use an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission to keep me company!

Lanny

Lanny - Max Porter - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Lanny by Max Porter

The titular character of Max Porter’s sophomore novel, Lanny, is an every-child, with all the oddity and gnomic wisdom we expect from these miniature humans. He’s curious, he’s tactile, and it’s through his keen intuition and active imagination this bizarre story comes to life. He is characterised through the eyes of the grown-ups in the story, as idiosyncratic, silly, and sometimes wise beyond his years. He builds things, talks to trees, and baffles just about every grown-up he encounters. His lack of siblings doesn’t seem to do him any harm at all. Read my full review of Lanny here.

Germaine

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From The Helpline by Katherine Collette

The fact that she’s an only child is probably the least interesting thing about the main character of The Helpline, Germaine. Germaine is in her late thirties, she’s very good with numbers, she loves Soduku (more than most people, she attends conventions), and she very recently lost her job as senior mathematician at Wallace Insurance. Her mother, Sharon, is hardly the nurturing type, and full of useless suggestions, which is why Germaine makes a point of seeing her as little as possible. In fact, she avoids most people. She’d rather be analysing spreadsheet data than engaging in pointless conversation. Read my full review of The Helpline here.

Simon

Bridgerton - The Duke and I - Julia Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Bridgerton: The Duke And I by Julia Quinn

The fact that Bridgerton‘s titular Duke, Simon, is an only child is actually a central facet of his character. His mother died due to complications of childbirth, and his father, while chuffed at first to have a son (i.e., heir), was an abusive son-of-a-bitch. So terrible was his treatment of Simon that our hero decided early in his life never to marry or bear a son of his own. In the absence of any brothers to sire offspring, the Hastings name and title would die with him. The plan was working perfectly, until he met the beautiful and feisty Daphne Bridgerton… Read my full review of Bridgerton: The Duke And I here.

Pearl

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Pearl is the teenage daughter of Mia, single mother and artist, in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The circumstances of her conception and birth are unusual (to say any more would be spoiler-y, sorry!), and her life follows that same pattern. She and her mother are closely bonded, and nomadic; often, they pick up sticks and shift to a brand new town with only each other for company and support. Fun fact: she is named for Pearl from The Scarlet Letter, also an only child born to strange circumstances, and Ng mentions this specifically as part of Mia’s backstory. But Hawthorne’s Pearl was an annoying little shit, so I prefer Ng’s version. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.

Christopher

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time - Mark Haddon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Fifteen-year-old Christopher sees the world differently to most people. When his neighbour’s dog dies (sob!) under mysterious circumstances, he decides to set about an investigation and record it in the style of his favourite detective novels – thus, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. His family circumstances are far from ideal, he’s far closer to his school support worker than he is to either of his parents, and perhaps a sibling might have helped him manage his various challenges in a more effective way. That said, he does alright on his own. Read my full review of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

Hazel

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

From The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

It’s hard to blame the parents of The Fault In Our Stars for not expanding their brood past their only child, Hazel – she, and they, have had a tough row to hoe. Hazel lives with cancer, has come close to dying and, if the experimental treatment that has recently stabilised her doesn’t work long-term, she’ll topple over the edge sooner rather than later. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, but hers seem to (mostly) handle it with grace. They allow Hazel her freedom, letting her jet across the world with her boyfriend to make a wish come true even, so that she can make the most of what life she has left. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

Ziggy

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

From Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

The dramas of the kindergartners in Big Little Lies are kind of overshadowed by all the stuff their parents have going on… but Ziggy, the son of young single mother Jane, seems to be a good egg. He cops it when he’s wrongly accused of bullying, but stands his ground to keep his friend’s secret (the true identity of the bully), even when it makes his life difficult. If he had an older sister or brother, maybe they could have looked out for him, but Ziggy forges ahead and makes a family of his own out of very close friends – as many only children do. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel, the one that catapulted her to book club stardom. It was famously endorsed by Reese Witherspoon, who said: “It’s a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection,”. It also made her cry, so. There’s that.

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Little Fires Everywhere here.
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The story starts in 1998, in the “placid, progressive suburb” of Shaker Heights, Ohio (where, it turns out, Ng herself grew up). Elena Richardson, and three of her four children, gather in the driveway and watch their house burn down. This was no wayward candle or cigarette accident, the firefighters tell them; several small fires, using an accelerant, were lit on each of their beds. This seems to be the natural climax of some very inflamed tensions.

Ng then takes the reader back to 1997, when Elena Richardson rented out her investment property to Mia Warren, an artist and a single mother to teenager Pearl. Previously, they’d lived all over the States, picking up and leaving town at the drop of a hat when the muses moved Mia to do so. But it seems they’re ready to settle now, in Shaker Heights, and quickly enmesh themselves in the lives of the Richardson family.

Pearl becomes particularly close – and quick! – to the second-youngest Richardson kid, Moody. They share a love of teenage angst and manic Pixie adventures. The eldest Richardson kid, Lexie, also takes Pearl under her wing, showing her how to wear cool clothes and eyeshadow and stuff. Trip, the middle Richardson brother, is Pearl’s forbidden fruit; she knows Moody has a crush on her, but the jockish hunk of teen-man-meat that is Trip proves too tasty to resist. Izzy, the youngest Richardson, just tramps in and out being mad at the world; she and Pearl don’t really spend much time together, but she is drawn to Mia, the artist who actually takes her seriously (a powerful spell to cast on a teen girl with a lot of misdirected rage).

The adults – Elena and Mia – watch their kids become close with some concern. Elena thinks she’s Mother Theresa for offering Mia a job as the Richardson’s housekeeper, for “pocket money” while she’s doing her little art projects. Mia accepts, if only to keep an eye on Pearl and the Richardson kids, making sure they’re not getting up to too much trouble (which, of course, they do). As a debate sparks in the community about whether an adopted Chinese-American infant should be returned to her birth mother, Mia’s disregard for “the rules” becomes a sore point between them all, and Elena’s charity reaches its limits.

Ng manages to weave together multiple perspectives and time periods throughout Little Fires Everywhere, but she does so very naturally. There are no abrupt jumps backwards or forwards; in fact, you’ll barely notice it happening, unless you pause to take stock of what you’ve just read.

Everyone in this story has their own secrets and motivations, but not in a schlocky way. This is closer to An American Marriage than it is to Big Little Lies (both of which I’ve seen floated as comparison titles, the former more accurately, in my opinion).

In case it’s not clear, I’ll spell it out: I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK. Little Fires Everywhere is masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family, lots of little dramas unfolding in each of their lives. Little Fires Everywhere is one of those rare much-hyped novels that actually lives up.

I haven’t seen the mini-series adaptation (produced by, and starring, the book’s biggest advocate, Reese Witherspoon), but I once I finished the book I watched the trailer on YouTube. It seems to make the story a lot FLASHIER, a lot more DRAMATIC, with lots of shouting and violins. I hope they were just hamming it up for the trailer cut, because that would seem to betray the subtlety that makes this book genius.

Ng has definitely won a fan in me – immediately after I finished Little Fires Everywhere, I added her debut – Everything I Never Told You – to my wishlist, and I’ll eagerly await anything else she writes from now on.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Fires Everywhere:

  • “I did not read this book I watched the show and then I bought the book for my mom when she asked for my Hulu password so she could watch the show. She needs to read a book.” – Marina Oglesby
  • “Burning ball of mommy issues!” – Molly Koeneman (she / her)
  • “The men do not get much space in this book. The author focuses mostly on the mother-daughter relationship. It is a very good read.” – L FischbachAmazon Customer
  • “Was somewhat like reading War andPeace….in Chinese” – janeeyrehead

7 Contemporary Miles Franklin Award Winners

The Miles Franklin Literary Award is Australia’s highest literary honour, bestowed each year upon a book the judges deem to be “of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. The cash prize is drawn from the estate of Miles Franklin, the iconic Australian author who was passionate about developing Australian literature and… well, let’s leave it at that (because some of her other stuff was problematic as heck). The prize hasn’t always been held in high esteem by readers like me, because it has historically been awarded nearly exclusively to cis white men, but in recent years it has undertaken to expand and incorporate the kinds of books and authors that better represent Australia as it actually is. Here are seven contemporary Miles Franklin Award winners that demonstrate this new focus and direction…

7 Contemporary Miles Franklin Award Winners - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you use an affiliate link on this page to buy any of these books, I’ll earn a small commission.

All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (2014)

All The Birds Singing - Evie Wyld - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the Judges’ Comments: “In this powerful road-movie-in-reverse, Jake Whyte flees the blazing humiliations of teen trauma to find herself confronting a beast of more gothic proportions. Saturated with menace, the novel’s upside-down pastoral elegy traces with great subtlety the alienation felt by this youthful outsider. In Darwin and also in remote outback Australia, Jake has sold herself all too cheaply, and her flight from an ever-present past builds narrative momentum into a vivid and unforgettable moral fable. Replete with adrenalin-fuelled escapades, Evie Wyld’s heart-stopping second novel opens with a mocking row of Hitchcockian crows as they strut and caw over one of Jake’s recently mutilated sheep. Exiled on a bleak and windy, rain-driven island at the end of the world, she finds herself with only her so-called Dog for company and then an enigmatic stranger who impinges on her solitude.”

The Eye Of The Sheep by Sofie Laguna (2015)

The Eye Of The Sheep - Sophie Laguna - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the Judges’ Comments: The Eye of the Sheep impressively examines domestic violence through Jimmy’s non-judgmental perceptions. Hints of his parents’ challenging upbringings adds to the gravity of the story of these working-class people trying their hardest to build a family, capable of both proud love and sickening violence. Gavin’s battle with alcohol, and Paula’s with her health, are related through Jimmy’s skewed interpretations. The power of this finely crafted novel lies in its coruscating language, inventive and imaginative, reflecting Jimmy’s vivid inner world of light and connections and pulsing energy. Laguna has a true ear for the rhythms of everyday dialogue, and her compassionate rendering of the frustrations – and compensations – of dealing with a child of sideways abilities, makes this novel an impressively eloquent achievement.”

Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric (2016)

Black Rock White City - AS Patric - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the Judges’ Comments: “A fresh and powerful exploration of the immigrant experience and Australian life, Black Rock White City explores the damages of war, the constraints of choice, the possibility of redemptive love and social isolation amid suburbia. In language as crisp and pungent as the chemicals Jovan uses to erase the graffiti, Black Rock White City submerges the reader in its unapologetic intimacy.  It is at times brutal, and frequently challenging, yet a deft poetry underlies its cinematic reach. Patric’s idiosyncratic awareness and sometimes disconcerting vision inhabits the margins between realism and fable as the novel’s invigorating vitality, astute wit and adroit observations on the links between language and identity gives us a roller-coaster read that pins the immigrant – and the wider Australian  – experience with an eye that is unflinchingly, and unforgettably, honest.”

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson (2017)

Extinctions - Josephine Wilson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the Judges’ Comments: “In Extinctions, a compassionate and unapologetically intelligent novel, Josephine Wilson explores ageing, adoption, grief and remorse, empathy and self-centredness. Fred Lothian is a man in denial: a brilliant engineer, now retired and widowed. He knows that ‘for an engineer there was a bridge for every situation’; but solutions for the complexity of human problems elude him. So he looks away from his son’s tragic injury, his adopted Aboriginal daughter’s cultural loss: his only intimacy is with his collection of high design modernist objects. Only the intervention of his spirited next-door neighbour at his retirement village, Jan Venturi, forces him out of his carapace of self-absorption long enough to bring both comedy and recognition into his life, and some degree of redemption. The novel is also a meditation on survival: on what people carry, on how they cope, and on why they might, after so much putting their head in the sand, come to the decision to engage, and even change.”

The Life To Come by Michelle de Kretser (2018)

The Life To Come - Michelle de Kretser - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the Judges’ Comments: “Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come is a powerful novel that effortlessly blends sharp satire of the literary world with deeply compassionate portraits of lonely people and their strategies for survival. It keenly skewers certain contemporary ways of being such as our obsession with food, use of social media and modes of political activism. But it is, at its heart, a novel about character: it probes to expose foibles but also to understand and, ultimately, sympathise. Sydney is the principal setting – its weather, light, seasons and urban geography are vividly evoked – and the multiple stories detour to Paris and Sri Lanka as well. Sentence-by-sentence, it is elegant, full of life and funny. With her characteristic wit and style Michelle de Kretser dissects the way Australians see ourselves, and reflects on the ways other parts of the world see us.”

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (2019)

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the Judges’ Comments:Too Much Lip is a novel of celebratory defiance. Set in Bundjalung country, this fast-paced, hard-hitting narrative confronts political corruption, poverty, intergenerational trauma and various forms of violence and abuse, with humour, wit and fury. Lucashenko’s Goorie characters wrestle with personal wounds and long-held grievances. They exist on the margins: of power, the law, small-town society and, often, personal responsibility. Yet they know the stories passed down from their grandmothers. They remain connected to Country. When Granny Ava’s Island is under threat of development the Salter mob come into their own. Country must not and cannot be taken away.” Read my full review of Too Much Lip here.

The Yield by Tara June Winch (2020)

The Yield - Tara June Winch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From the Judges’ Comments: “Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch’s The Yield explores the gap between white and Indigenous cultures as well as the intersections between the contemporary and the colonial. There are three narrators – a young woman returning home for her grandfather’s funeral after a decade in self-imposed exile on the other side of the world; a grandfather whose dying days are spent compiling an anecdotal dictionary of reclaimed words and cultural values; and a 19th-century missionary whose despairing letters detail “deeds of infamy”. The Yield illustrates how Indigenous history carries forward pain and sorrow yet also allows compassion, resilience, dignity, humour and humanity to flourish. Haunting and accomplished, the novel does not gloss over the realities of dysfunction in enunciating what was and what remains yet it gifts its readers an elegant exposure to Indigenous language and speaks of the endurance of family ties and a redemptive hope for the future.” Read my full review of The Yield here.

Read the Judges’ Comments in full, for these and all other Miles Franklin Award winners, on the Miles Franklin Award website. You can also find out more about the 2021 winner, announced just yesterday: Amanda Lohrey for The Labyrinth!

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