Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

John Carreyrou is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story behind Theranos, the Silicon Valley biotech startup he revealed to be a multi-billion dollar fraud. The story of Theranos, and its charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes, has reached mythic proportions in popular culture. Bad Blood is the riveting true story told in full, straight from the source, so if you’ve only heard it in snippets and memes, this is the book for you.

Bad Blood - John Carreyrou - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Bad Blood is a true crime book about corporate fraud – an particularly rich untapped vein in that genre, if you ask me. This story has got it all: the gold-rush mentality of Silicon Valley, a brilliant idea, secrets and lies, a house of cards, a cat-and-mouse game with reporters… it all unfolds like a high-octane thriller, but better, for being real.

Holmes started Theranos as a 19-year-old college drop-out. She had incredible vision and admirable goals – making health care accessible and affordable, effecting a shift in the power dynamic between doctors and patients. You know, information is power, and all of that. She imagined a device in people’s homes that would allow them to diagnose dozens – no hundreds – no thousands of diseases with a single finger prick, a far cry from long lines at the pathologist to have vials of blood drawn at a time.

The amounts of money that she was able to attract with this idea are astronomical. Most of the people involved aren’t household names (with the exception of Rupert Murdoch), but the brands that got on board – Walgreens, Safeway – sure are.

Unfortunately for them all, Holmes’s ambition was coupled with complete delusion about her capacity to achieve and deliver on what she promised. She had all the hallmarks of a cult leader: a charismatic recruiter with a peculiar talent for pitting people against each other while keeping them on her side.

For over a decade, as Carreyrou depicts in Bad Blood, Holmes systematically drove away dozens of people who could have actually helped her, tarring them as nay-sayers and small-minded critics. The extreme lengths that Holmes and her lawyers and devotees went to prevent their fraud being made public brings to mind Harvey Weinstein and the story that unfolded in She Said (Holmes and Weinstein even used the same lawyer).

Holmes channeled [the] fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery.

Bad blood (page 296)

Carreyrou himself doesn’t appear in the story until Chapter 19. He conducted hundreds of interviews investigating the story of Theranos and preparing it for the public – first for the Wall Street Journal, and then for Bad Blood. He managed to track down no fewer than sixty former Theranos employees, convincing them to set aside their fears of retaliation and legal ramifications. Holmes herself declined to participate (hard to imagine why…).

It all allowed him to paint a completely convincing picture of what life inside Holmes’s web was like, but it also led to him becoming personally invested in the story and a target of Holmes’s wrath. He does come off as slightly defensive towards the very end of Bad Blood (did we really need to know about the ‘fuck you, Carreyrou’ chant the Theranos employees did at a gathering?), but I suppose it’s understandable, given what they put him through.

Bill Gates said that “Bad Blood tackles some serious ethical questions, but it is ultimately a thriller with a tragic ending. It’s a fun read full of bizarre details that will make you gasp out loud,”. It also serves as a testament to the power and importance of unbiased investigative journalism. Bad Blood had my jaw dropping and my tongue wagging for days, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a true crime read without blood.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Blood:

  • “Bought the book for several of my employees.” – buy amazon buy
  • “Bought Bad Blood while I was watching The Dropout on Hulu. Here’s the thing: my copy of Bad Blood is a total dropout in that the pages drop out and the binding is unbound! I’m trying to get through but seriously…My copy is like the subject of L’il Wayne’s “How to Love.” For a second the pages of my copy are over here. Now they are over there.” – Karen
  • “This book is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing more than a recount of an entitled brat, her evil spouse, and hundreds of people getting screwed over in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure why I listened as long as I did. With the rave reviews, I was expecting something better, but the book just seems so repetitive. The overarching theme of the book is 1) Make crappy product that doesn’t work. 2) Scam person into thinking it does. 3) Rinse and repeat” – Austin

Infamous – Lex Croucher

Infamous - Lex Croucher - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Lex Croucher’s latest, Infamous, is billed as “Bridgerton‘s wild little sister”. As I read it, though, I’d call it more a Gen Z rom-com take on Mary Shelley’s lost summer with Percy and Lord Byron. Either way, it sounds like fabulous fun, doesn’t it? Zaffre (via Allen & Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Brazen Eddie has been BFFs with kind Rose since they were young girls. The first cracks don’t appear in their bosom friendship until they both come out to society. Rose expresses interest in actually marrying – much to Eddie’s horror.

Eddie has very little interest in society or men at all, preferring to stick her nose in a book than into the marriage business. That is, until Nash Nicholson comes along, the captivating and unorthodox poet. Eddie worships him, for both his writing and his bohemian lifestyle. Rose feels she has no choice but to tag along when Nash invites Eddie to his remote country house, to ensure her friend doesn’t lose herself in his wake.

Infamous is a delightfully diverse and queer rom-com. It’s got a historical setting with a contemporary sensibility that will really resonate with a lot of readers (myself included). Plus, it’s funny!

Is that why you were so fixated on kissing? You’re planning on kissing this… this dessicated prune of a man?

Infamous (Page 22)

Pick up Infamous if you’re in the mood for a young, fun read with corsets and covert desire.

10 Books About Road Trips

The last few years, I haven’t been travelling much (for… obvious reasons). Now that travel is feeling like a reality again, I realise my perception of it has changed. The idea of spending thousands of dollars to stick myself in a metal tube with hundreds of strangers for 10+ hours seems unappealing, especially when I’d have to leave Fyodor Dogstoyevsky at home. I’d much rather jump in a car, with my canine sidekick, and start our adventure straight away – plus, spend our precious tourist dollars closer to home, in communities that have been ravaged by climate emergencies. I went looking for literary inspiration, and turned up these ten books about road trips.

10 Books About Road Trips - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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On The Road by Jack Kerouac

On The Road - Jack Kerouac - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every list of books about road trips begins with On The Road – it’s truly iconic. This classic of the Beat generation is based on 20-something Kerouac’s travels across the United States in the years following WWII. In fact, it’s more than “based on”: it’s basically a true story with a bunch of fake names to protect the guilty. From New York to San Francisco and back again, Virginia to New Orleans, Denver to Chicago and Detroit, across Texas and down into Mexico, Kerouac (ahem, I mean “Sal”) and his friends criss-cross the country in a hodge-podge fashion, always seeking adventure and finding trouble. I’m not sure it’s one I’d like to emulate exactly, but it’s certainly romantic in theory. Read my full review of On The Road here.

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a pop psychology/philosophy book, masquerading as one of the classic books about road trips. A father and son undertake a summer trip on motorcycles, forcing them to confront the ‘confusion of existence’. They discover how to reconcile the silences between them and between their spiritual lives through (you guessed it) motorcycle maintenance, an unfortunate reality of motorcycle journeys turned beautiful metaphor. This book also holds the dubious honour of being (officially!) the most-often rejected best-seller, having been turned down an astonishing 121 times before it found a publisher and went on to sell over five million copies.

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

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Of all the books about road trips, this is my favourite example of one gone wrong. I first became familiar with the story of Christopher McCandless when my husband encouraged (read: forced) me to sit and watch the film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book Into The Wild. Whichever medium you choose to learn the story, it’s the same. A privileged white boy takes it into his head that he needs to escape his suffocating life of comfort, and takes off across the country completely unprepared. In a display of hubris the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Greek tragedies, McCandless takes a break from hitchhiking and civilisation to hike off into the wildnerness, never to be seen alive again. This is a frustrating read about a feckless young man, and an excellent example of what not to do.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

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One of the more bizarre books about road trips is Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel’s vision of a post-pandemic world with a travelling troupe performing Shakespeare for the remainders of humanity. This one kind of picks up where Fahrenheit 451 leaves off, a small band of true believers dedicating what’s left of their lives to keeping the arts alive in the wake of disaster. The story jumps back and forth, between the pre- and post-pandemic years, so it can be a little confusing – not to mention triggering for those of us still living it. But it’s a rich and fascinating book, one that shows the desire to hit the road never really dies.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road - Cormac McCarthy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopian books about road trips, you can’t go past The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s most widely-read novel. The father-son motif features in this one, as well. A father and son (maybe? kind of? it’s never really clear) follow the road through the landscape of a ravaged America, hoping to reach the coast (again, for reasons not really known). They face danger at every turn, as if the perilous climate weren’t risk enough, and all they have to sustain them is each other. This isn’t exactly an uplifting read, but it does interrogate the depths of our connections with one another. It was enough for Oprah to select it as an unlikely Book Club pick, anyhow!

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As I Lay Dying is one of the books about road trips for bummer reasons (as opposed to the devil-may-care let’s-adventure have-fun variety). Addie, the matriarch of a disadvantaged Southern family, ails and dies in the opening chapter, laying on her bed and listening to her family chop wood for her coffin outside her bedroom window. Her final wish is to be laid to rest in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. So, her family gathers their meager resources and hoist the coffin onto their shoulders, and make their way across the American South. It’s a fraught journey, with family drama playing out at every turn, and the hardships of the journey intensifying it all. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, strictly speaking, Wild isn’t so much one of the books about road trips as it is one of the books about hiking trails – but Strayed spends considerable time in cars, and a road’s a road’s a road, isn’t it? She set out on a grueling trek (1,100 miles!) along the Pacific Crest Trail almost entirely unprepared, with an overstuffed backpack and zero training. Along the way, she loses a shoe, grieves her mother, runs out of money, reads poetry, and learns a whole heck of a lot real fast. It’s basically Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor, one that will make you think about what you’re really looking for next time the road calls to you. Read my full review of Wild here.

Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns - John Green - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paper Towns requires you to suspend your disbelief a bit. The nerdy, underappreciated boy-next-door (Quentin “Q” Jacobsen) “loves” Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for years. She is (surprise, surprise) beautiful, mysterious, and edgy. Margo goes missing, and Quentin goes looking for her, following her trail of clues. I mean, I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught. Still, it’s what John Green went with, and it’s one of the most popular young adult books about road trips, so I’m hardly in a position to turn my nose up. Read my full review of Paper Towns here.

(John Green wrote another popular young adult book about a road trip, too: An Abundance Of Katherines.)

The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful - Kim Lock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes, you pick up a book and its premise resonates in a way neither you nor the author anticipated. That’s what happened for me with The Other Side Of Beautiful. It opens with a really tight first chapter, one that will grab you and not let go: Mercy watches her house burn down, forcing her out into the world that her agoraphobia has kept her from for years. She finds herself in a camper van, with her ever-faithful sausage dog Wasabi (my absolute hands-down favourite character) by her side, driving the length of Australia, from Adelaide to Darwin. I feel so lucky to have found a book about my dream road trip – canine companion included! Read my full review of The Other Side Of Beautiful here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

This story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. The Grapes Of Wrath is another one of the iconic American books about road trips, this time featuring the impoverished Joad family and their pursuit of the American dream (you know, having enough money to feed themselves). They pile into a truck and drive from Oklahoma to California, where they’ve heard there’s jobs aplenty, only to discover that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Hunger – Roxane Gay

“The story of my body is not a triumph,” Roxane Gay writes in the opening pages of her 2017 memoir, Hunger. “This is not a weight-loss memoir… Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.”

Hunger - Roxane Gay - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In short, vignette-like chapters, Gay describes her rapid weight gain in the wake of a devastating trauma (to say the least), and her life lived in a fat body. Take this as your trigger warning: Hunger includes detailed descriptions of sexual assault and disordered eating – and this review is going to cover them, too.

The story Gay tells in Hunger is not one we often hear in discussions about weight as it relates to health, or food as it relates to weight. It’s one we’re not comfortable hearing, but one as essential to understanding the subject as understanding that the BMI is bullshit.

[The BMI is a measure] that allows the medical establishment to try and bring a sense of discipline to unruly bodies

Hunger (Page 9)

Gay is not ‘voluptuous’ or ‘pleasantly plump’. She isn’t even obese, or morbidly obese. She is, she tells us in Hunger, ‘super morbidly obese’. She is completely frank in describing her shame about her body’s size, and her desire to be thin or ‘normal’. She sees her body as a “cage of her own making”, one that has certain benefits (more on those in a minute) but overwhelming downsides.

She brilliantly articulates the conflict and contradiction of living in a fat body. She ‘knows’ that we ‘should’ love our bodies as they are, for what they can do, and feed them with fuel while rejecting diet culture… but that knowledge doesn’t (always) correspond with her feelings. It’s possible to know all the body-positive catch-phrases, but not to feel the way they say we should, when we exist in a world that is so pervasively and inherently anti-fat.

But Hunger is not just one long confession about self-loathing and body image. Gay delves deep, deeper than we could ever hope or expect, into the reasons she has the body she does. As a tween, Gay was the victim (her preferred nomenclature, though she respects the use of ‘survivor’ by those who choose) of a violent sexual assault, perpetrated by a boy she believed to be her boyfriend and his friends. She was gang raped, and she told no one. It’s horrifying and heart-breaking and horrendous.

That experience was defining, in that Gay began to eat as a means to self-soothe after that event, and as a means to become physically repulsive to men. Her body is a rejection of the male gaze made manifest, the only way a young Gay could see to protect herself from further violation.

Hunger is a study in contradictions. Physical heft bought Gay personal space and a layer of protection, but it also made her body public property – the subject of opinions and input from complete strangers, uninvited. She is encouraged at every turn to ‘get healthy’, to ‘lose weight through diet and exercise’, without any consideration for the cause of her weight gain to begin with (not to mention the impossibility of finding active wear that will fit her). And, as I mentioned a second ago, Gay interrogates the conflict between the way the body positivity movement says she ‘should’ feel about her body, waging constant war against every other message (internal and external) she receives about the way she looks.

Throughout Hunger, Gay addresses clothes, diets, bulimia, public spaces, doctors, food – all the aspects of her life that her size touches. If you are of average size yourself, or even close to it, it will be revelatory the ways in which weight can stymie your capacity to simply go about your business.

Gay has described Hunger as “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write”, and it’s not hard to see why. I cannot fathom the bravery and strength it took for her to simply put these words on a page, let alone share them with the world in a best-selling memoir. I’m in awe of her, honestly, and I’m sure after reading Hunger you will be, too.

Want more? Read my full review of Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hunger:

  • “I wanted to relate to her as I am also obese but most of the time I didn’t. I’m what she calls “Lane Bryant fat” in the book because I can still buy clothes there. It’s a decent read if you like memoirs and struggle with weight even if you are “Lane Bryant fat” because we can still be pretty big, too.” – Jessie Tyler
  • “I felt I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two long-time intimate adversaries: Roxane Gay and her body.” – Laurasaridavis
  • “The best thing about the book is its cover: a clever, almost abstract photograph of fork tines. Sorry I wasted my time on such an inferior, whiny memoir.” – Elizabeth
  • “The book description needs to be more clear as to what this book is about. It is not about the life of an obese woman, the trials she faces and how she rises above. It’s about self pity and a little bit of Liberal politics.” E.A.S.

Demon Copperhead – Barbara Kingsolver

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A boy born to harrowing circumstances, abused by his stepfather, orphaned, put to work while still a child, battling poverty and demons at every turn, with a wide cast of curious and captivating characters. Is this Dickens’s classic David Copperfield, or Barbara Kingsolver’s new epic, Demon Copperhead? Believe it or not, it’s both!

The wonderful team at Faber Books (via Allen & Unwin) sent me a copy of Demon Copperhead for review. It’s beautifully designed, with rich blues and shimmering gold, reflecting the ups and downs of the story itself. I will warn you, though, it’s deceptive.

It doesn’t look that long – certainly it doesn’t have the heft of its source material – but it’s a saga, and time consuming to read. It doesn’t drag, but it’s looooooong. Set aside as much time as you’d need to read Dickens, that’s my first tip!

Kingsolver does an incredible job, finding parallels between Dickens and a boy’s life in her homelands, the Southern Appalachian mountains of Virginia, that wouldn’t be obvious at a glance. She even manages to craft a Uriah Heep character every bit as smarmy and repellent as the original!

Demon Copperfield follows the (quasi) titular character through foster care, derelict schools, athletic success, opioid addiction, great love and devastating loss. The content of the story is a bummer (to say the least), but Damon’s scrappy determination and personable narration compensates, to stop it feeling like a misery parade.

Naturally, Demon Copperhead warrants quite a few trigger warnings: domestic abuse, childhood neglect, addiction (including overdose), poverty, and a devastating dog death towards the end.

All told, though, Demon Copperhead is a worthwhile undertaking, if you’ve got the time and stomach for it. It’s destined to become a contemporary classic, an essential component of the burgeoning canon of books about the generation of lost boys in 21st century America. Kingsolver has done it again!

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