Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Under The Dome – Stephen King

Here’s another book review that’s been in the works for far too long. Back in the days when Keeping Up With The Penguins was still a seed of an idea, I was talking over my to-read list with a friend at a bar. As the night wore on, and the drinks went down, I pulled out my phone and created a new list – the next to-read list – and promised my friend that Under The Dome would be the first book on it. It was her personal favourite, and I swore to her that I’d review it just as soon as I was done with the original 109 books on my list. Well, I’m a couple months late and a dollar short, but I’m finally making good on that promise!

Really, the only reason that I put off reading Under The Dome is that I’m a big chicken. All I knew about Stephen King books is that they’re scary. Also, they’re (usually) huge – this one comes in at a whopping 880 pages. But, as with all fears, it turned out mine were (mostly) unfounded. Sure, it took a little longer to read than your standard 250-page novel, and there were a few spooky elements, but nothing that kept me up at night. So, that’s my first hot tip about Under The Dome: don’t be chicken!

The story starts on 21 October, when a small (fictional) town in Maine is completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large invisible dome that appears seemingly out of nowhere. A plane crashes right into it, killing two pilots (and one unfortunate woodchuck). The dome is unyielding, and pretty much impenetrable – some sound, light, and radio waves can travel through, but nothing with corporeal form (so no one in, no one out). So, as you can imagine, it throws everyone – under the dome, and outside of it – into a bit of a tizz.

As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. “Captain Barbie”, an ex-military man who was attempting to hitchhike his way out of the town on Dome Day, is charged with figuring out what the fuck is going on (the military is called in straight away, naturally, because America). Luckily, he’s got the keen-eyed flinty-cored local newspaper reporter, Julia Shumway, on his side.



Under The Dome is big in scope. I’m talking huge. I’m talking epic. At first, I couldn’t really see what the big deal was going to be; the map of the town in the front of the book included a book store, and the character list included “Dogs of Note”, so I figured I’d get by just fine in that situation, what could the problem possibly be? But then I was introduced to the town councilman, James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as one big opportunity to make a power play that will allow him to take over the whole town. He carefully orchestrates and encourages unease among the townsfolk, using that as a springboard to expand the powers of the police force and silence any troublemakers. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil.

Now, your standard good-guy-Barbie-versus-bad-guy-Jim story would wear out real quick over the course of a book this size; they’re the main contenders in the conflict, sure, but there’s all kinds of other battles and romances and whatnot going on all around them, and King gives each their due. Under The Dome has a huge cast, and pretty much everyone’s point-of-view gets a look in at least once or twice.

The story isn’t exactly a laugh riot (in case you couldn’t tell), but some of the small-town slang and dark humour throughout made me literally laugh out loud. It was good of King to occasionally break the tension for us – believe me, there’s plenty of it. Oppressive religious mores, corrupt town council, dwindling supplies, toxic masculinity run rampant, widespread substance abuse problems, a kid with migraines and a penchant for killing women who annoy him… By putting a small town under a dome, sticking all the residents in a Lord Of The Flies-type scenario, King really lets us zoom in on the fallacy of the American Dream. In fact, King is quoted as saying that he took a lot of the same issues that he addressed in another of his books, The Stand, and used them in Under The Dome but dealt with them in a more allegorical way, taking big-world problems and putting them on a much smaller scale so we could look at them differently. After all, Anywhere, USA has a lot of dirty secrets.



As for the scary bits: well, Under The Dome isn’t horror, but holy heck, some parts are horrifying. Not just psychologically, either – I’m talking visceral, physical violence. It’s not quite supernatural or science-fictional, either. There are some spooky/other-worldly elements, but they’re not the focus or the key driver of the book. I’d shelve this one as more of a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale, with some genre-bending towards the end.

I can see why they made Under The Dome into a TV series (2013-2015); it’s got that strong small-town big-cast vibe that would be perfect for fans of Lost, or any other broad-woven light-sci-fi stories. The characters were quite well fleshed-out and three-dimensional for the most part, which was surprising given how many of them there are (and how many die). The sheer number of them, in the book version at least, allows King to tantalise the reader and reveal information really slowly, BUT the constant changes in perspective make the story FEEL pacy and compelling, regardless.

It was actually really refreshing to read a contemporary epic – not a multi-generational saga set across a century, but an event playing out over just days (a fortnight, tops) with close and intimate attention paid to every detail. Yes, it makes for a hella-long book, but it’s probably as short as King could have possibly made it without sacrificing the multiplicity of perspectives, and without those, the story would have needed a lot of long, boring monologue-y exposition from one or two key characters, anyway. No, thank you, please! Not for a story as complex as this one! I’d be happy to call Under The Dome a long book worth your time, and I must concede my friend was right in drunkenly insisting I read it (apologies, again, for taking so long to finally make good on my word – I’ll do better next time, I swear!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Dome:

  • “Never finished, conned a friend into taking it off my hands.” – Michael A. Swaney
  • “The story is entertaining though much of this book and the voice performance is really great (baaaarbie), but Stephen Kings loony left bias just pops it’s ugly head up way too often. It’s distracting and takes a lot away from the story. Really. Every white male christian is an evil crack addicted psychopath Nazi rapist and every journalist is like a cherub from heaven? Come on dude. I know this is fiction, but these old cliches are not only unbelievable they are boooooooring. If I knew it would have been like this I would not have purchased this audio book.” – Dorian
  • “I know this is blasphemy but I was disappointed with this effort of Stephen King. The baddies are bad. The goodies are good. Smut and flying body parts couldn’t hid a boring read. Sorry, there it is.” – Bod Parr
  • “Good until the ending as usual. 2 1/2 stars.” – L. M.

What’s The Difference Between Literary Fiction And Popular Fiction?

Alrighty, Keeper Upperers: today, we’re going to tackle one of the trickiest debates in the bookish world. What’s the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction? In my “real” life, in addition to Keeping Up With The Penguins, I work in a bookstore and I’ve just completed my Masters of Creative Writing, so I’ve had a lot of cause to think about this question over the couple of years. I can’t promise you I’ve got THE answer (anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something), but I’ve got some thoughts…

What's The Difference Between Literary Fiction And Popular Fiction? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For most of my reading life, I considered “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” to be miscellaneous No-Man’s-Lands, the places I mentally sent every book that didn’t fit neatly into a “genre” category. If it had magic and dragons, it’s fantasy. If it had marriage proposals and sexy bits, it’s romance. If it had spaceships and robots, it’s science fiction. But when a book had none of those qualities, or too many of them, it ended up going “over there” to general fiction territory. I decided which side of the border each book landed on – “literary fiction” or “popular fiction” – using a kind of sliding scale between “likely to win a major literary prize, like the Booker” and “likely to be purchased for $4.99 in an airport”.

And now, let’s look at a few of the (almost innumerable) problems with that line of thinking:

  • All of these judgements are pretty subjective, not to mention arbitrary. You can buy just about any book in an airport nowadays, and major awards have been given to some real stinkers. Just look at what happened with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; it was widely heralded as a critical success, but the Granddaddy of literary criticism James Wood wrote it off as “hysterical fiction” and many airport loungers complained that they “didn’t get it”.
  • These judgements are based on external factors – what others think of the book, what the publisher’s marketing budget is, where the book is sold, what it looks like – rather than the content of the book itself. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers.
  • There’s an inherent elitism in this divide that’s impossible to ignore: “literary fiction” is for intellectuals and grown-ups, while “popular fiction” is for slobs.



It’s that last point that I want to hone in on here. If Keeping Up With The Penguins had a slogan, I’m pretty sure it would be “elitism stinks”. The whole point of this project and this blog was to break down the barriers (or at least lob a brick or two in their direction) between “good” books and “bad” books, between “classics” and “potboilers”, between the “literary” and the “popular”. I’d always worried that I wasn’t “smart” enough to read or understand literary fiction and classic literature, and it’s because of the very elitism that underwrites this divide.

David Foster Wallace said in one of his essays that “Low Art” is the sort of art that has to please people in order to make money. Now, he was talking about television at the time, but I think we can apply the same philosophy to “popular fiction”. Popular fiction needs to be – you guessed it – popular, in order to be successful. Lots of people need to buy it. And the best way to get people to buy your thing is to give them what they want: whether it be dragons, or sexy bits, or space ships, or just a laugh.

“High Art”, on the other hand (according to David Foster Wallace, and this analogy, anyway) needn’t concern itself with popularity. “Literary fiction”, the die-hard adherents would have you believe, is about Artistic Endeavour and Creative Expression and has no concern with popularity or sales. Except, of course, that’s complete bullshit. Even literary geniuses have to feed themselves. What good is writing a brilliant work of literary fiction if it doesn’t pay the rent? Indeed, how could anyone write a brilliant work of literary fiction if they can’t afford to feed themselves? (Yes, classism and elitism are kissing cousins.)



My suspicion is, deep down, that we all know this divide between “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” is a lie. Every criterion we use to judge them is retrofitted to our gut-feelings. When we read a book, we just “feel” like it’s one or the other – which is why booklovers argue themselves hoarse about the differences between them. No book will “feel” the same to every reader, which means every reader will make their own assessment as to its popularity versus literariness. (Yes, even popularity is subjective – the false consensus effect is an unavoidable cognitive bias that leads us to believe most people agree with us, so if we think a book is good we are inclined to believe that others will/do think the same.)

I see this play out time and time again, in many areas of my bookish life: whether I’m shelving books at work, discussing books in class, or figuring out how to tag them on this blog and on #bookstagram. Diane Chamberlain is a good example: a first-glance at the cover of Big Lies In A Small Town had me convinced that it was going to be formulaic popular fiction seasoned with thriller tropes, but reading it I found a really astonishing and quite literary story about art and race. Even so, I think I’d have a tough time convincing my lecturers to let me write an academic essay about it. Or we could look at a book like An American Marriage, which seems to tick all the boxes on both sides of the page: an Oprah book club pick AND a literary prize winner, a best-seller AND a critical success. What on earth would we call that? Popular literary fiction? Literary popular fiction?

I told you I wouldn’t have THE answer, and – yes, I spoiled it for you – I don’t. I’d really love to see us do away with labels like “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” altogether, but I can see how that’s not practical. These labels act like marketing shorthand, and make it much easier for a lot of people to choose what they’re going to read next. It’s just a shame that, I suspect, they’re going to miss out on some great choices because of these arbitrary, subjective, and elitist distinctions. Ah, well – at least you can always rely on me, here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, to give it to you straight, wherever the book is shelved.


An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

Here’s another book that’s been on my to-read list forever: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I had a copy on my shelves, but I kept saving it for “the right moment”. Well, given everything that’s happened in the U.S. over the past couple of months, that moment is now. This is the book that Oprah says has “redefined the traditional American love story”.

An American Marriage is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, but it’s truly her “break-out” book – the one that brought her international attention and acclaim. I love the story of how the idea came to her, which she relates in a letter to the reader in the front of my edition:

An American Marriage is a love story I found in the mall, of all places. Sitting in the food court, I overheard a young couple arguing in hushed tones. She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He looked puzzled and then replied, ‘This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’

Tayari Jones, An american Marriage

From that spark of inspiration came this story of Roy and Celestial, a middle-class African American couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman.

Now, An American Marriage is not a did-he-or-didn’t-he story. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. Fortunately, Jones also sidesteps describing or interrogating the nature of the assault that did actually take place (so there’s no fuel to fire any false-allegation readings) – she presents this as a case of mistaken identity, with the weight of hundreds of years of systemic racism behind it. A black man was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid the price: convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.



Of course, given the premise, this book is about the incarceration of black men in America (56% of all incarcerated people in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic, and Black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men; source) but that’s not all it’s about. Jones has taken the maxim of writing about “people and their problems” (as opposed to simply problems personified) seriously. Roy and Celestial, and the characters on the periphery of their relationship, are complex, fleshed-out, “real”. As much as this novel addresses very timely social issues, it also looks at what it takes to make or break a marriage, the sliding doors moments that affect all our lives. I think what it shows best of all (to borrow and mix a couple of metaphors, forgive me) is that there is no one straw that breaks a camel’s back, and no marriage exists in a vacuum.

Some sections are epistolary, told in letters sent back and forth between Roy and Celestial. They’re essentially existing on different timelines; “real life” has stopped for Roy, and he has little to do but think about his marriage, but everything continues for Celestial on the outside. Jones is really clever in how much she “shows” the reader about these characters, and how they change, through their letters. For the first few years, they’re writing frequently and emphatically, but there’s a noticeable shift as Celestial’s life begins to progress and Roy feels frustrated at being “left behind”. It’s a unique window into the ebbs and flows of a relationship where each character takes the time to articulate their thoughts on paper, directly to the other, with nothing said in haste and no performance for onlookers.

Then, there are other sections that are internal narratives, told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre (a vested third party in their marriage). This is another deft stroke from Jones (gosh, she’s clever), as it lets each character speak for themselves and gives them each an opportunity to win us over (or piss us off). There really is no “hero” in this story, no one character that you’re really rooting for at the expense of the others. You’ll be lured into loving and resenting all of these characters, all simultaneously. Some might find that annoying, but I actually really appreciated the shades of grey, and being able to see things from all sides. It’s the most realistic kind of love story. And, besides, at the heart of it all, there’s one common enemy, for the characters and for us: the racism at the core of the U.S. “justice” system. That’s not a focus of the novel, per se, but it’s the backdrop against which the love story plays out.



Anyway, back to the plot: three years into Roy’s sentence, Celestial tells him she no longer wishes to be his wife, which pisses him off (obviously). He refuses to see her or accept her letters for the following two years. Then, his case is overturned on appeal, and he is released. He optimistically reaches out to Celestial, hoping that their marriage could be rekindled (as she never formally divorced him), naively forgetting that he’s coming “home” to a marriage that existed mostly in his mind.

Normally, this is where I’d just go ahead and dissect the ending for you too, but I reckon this’ll be one of my very few spoiler-free reviews (okay, fine, Roy’s early release is probably technically a spoiler if you’re going to get all persnickety about it, but that only comes about half-way through the book, so there’s still a whole lotta twists and turns that I’m not ruining for you, suck it up). What I will say is that Roy and Celestial’s story, the way it unfolds, is heartbreaking and infuriating – all the more for the fact that it’s such a common and devastating reality for so many American families.

I worry about pushing that angle too hard, though, lest An American Marriage get pigeonholed in your mind as an “issue novel”. It’s truly not. It’s based on realistic “issues”, yes, but it’s ultimately about loyalty, how much we owe and to whom. It’s about marriage, and what we can reasonably expect from our spouses and ourselves. And, best of all, it’s so readable (stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable), and so emotive (make-sure-you’ve-got-tissues-handy emotive). If you’ve been putting off reading this one because of all the hype, stop doing that and get on it right now – An American Marriage totally lives up.

My favourite Amazon reviews of An American Marriage:

  • “I bought the audible version – I liked this book but it’s probably not going to end the way the reader wants it to – life is like that.” – Theresa V
  • “Ex-wife purchased dumb book” – Mr. Bill
  • “Why all the fuss? Not only is it unrealistic, it puts some truly unlikable characters centre stage. Reading the reviews was more interesting.” – Antonio C

Mid-Year Round Up: Best Books of 2020 (So Far!)

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a long, long year… and it’s only nearly half-way done! Really, one of the (very) few upsides is that we’ve had the chance to pick up some great new books, and catch up on some older ones we missed the first time around. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d do a little interim round-up of the best books I’ve read in 2020 so far. Here’s to getting back on track in the second half!

Mid-Year Round Up - The Best Books of 2020 So Far - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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

Arthur Less finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time booty-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. I highly recommend this heartwarming adventure of self-discovery to anyone in need of a chuckle. Read my full review of Less here.

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

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as popular as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado has done it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. It’s a must-read, and destined to become a pillar of the queer literary canon.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically a young-adult novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed as such. Riley, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy living in Trope Town, has been acting out and upsetting the authors of the books in which he plays a purely-supporting role. He’s sent to therapy with all the other defective Manic Pixies, and that’s when things start to go really awry. This literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately. Read my full review of The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project here.

Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

Throat - Ellen Van Neerven - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Van Neerven’s new poetry collection, Throat, is at times sarcastic, at others simply searing, but always in the most deeply satisfying way. They never shy away from the political (“This country is a haunted house, governments still playing cat chasing marsupial mouse”) or the personal (“The Only Blak Queer In The World” is a heart-wrenching insight into the isolation of intersectionality, and the search for community and solace). The cities that ate Australia is particular perfection, as is Politicians having long showers on stolen land, and all are incredibly timely with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining traction around the world. I devoured Throat in a single sitting, and I’m sure I will savour it again over many more.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

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

When I first read Rabbits For Food back in January, I was worried that I’d peaked too soon, that I’d already found my favourite book of the year. Six months on, I’m still worried! The main character, Bunny, lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. The book is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them – and I think we could all do with a few more of those. I’d love to recommend it as a book club read, but I think I’m late to the party; everyone seems to have read it and loved it already! I’m glad I finally got around to it in 2020. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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

That’s right: Carmen Maria Machado is a double-header in my round-up of the best books of 2020 so far! Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. This is a story about a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Don’t sleep on it, folks!

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair by Ali Whitelock

the lactic acid in the calves of your despiar - Ali Whitelock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, cards on the table: Ali Whitelock is a dear friend of mine… BUT I keep my objectivity hat on at all times for you, Keeper Upperers! Besides, I fell in love with her poetry long before she and I fell in together, and I read and reviewed the lactic acid in the calves of your despair all of my own accord. I never cease to be amazed by her incredible talent to tickle, tantalise, delight, and devastate. Personal favourite from this collection has to be NOTES from the six week course entitled: ‘a beginner’s guide to writing poetry’, but an honourable mention must go to if you have no eyes where do the tears go?, and (of course) the poem that became a viral sensation during the Australian bush fires earlier this year, this is coal don’t be afraid. Ali Whitelock continues to give ’em hell, and it’s an honour to watch her do it.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean Mckay

The Animals In That Country - Laura Jean Mckay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few authors would consider themselves lucky to be releasing a book in the midst of a global pandemic. Laura Jean McKay might be the only exception. Her new novel The Animals In That Country revolves around the outbreak of a highly infections sub-type of influenza that threatens the very fabric of society – sound familiar? It’s an eerily prescient premise, right down to the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and the government ads that encourage people to “keep calm and stay indoors”. McKay is a masterful storyteller, and her talent truly shines in this story of family and belonging. Read my full review of The Animals In That Country on Primer here.


What have been your best reads of 2020 so far? Let me know in the comments below!

Finding Nevo – Nevo Zisin

Nevo Zisin finds the concept of “coming out” – the idea that someone is straight until proven otherwise – really bothersome. They should know, they’ve had to do it a lot. Over the course of their young life, they’ve “come out” as bisexual, lesbian, queer, trans, non-binary, and polyamorous. But they’ve done a lot of other stuff too. Nevo is an activist, writer, and public speaker, focusing on issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. Finding Nevo is their first book, a “memoir of becoming”.

Nevo sums it up best when they say, about halfway through Finding Nevo: “There is no single trans narrative. This is my experience, and my experience alone.” But even bearing that in mind, for people unfamiliar with real-life trans and non-binary stories, this book is a bit of a crash course in a lot of the personal and political aspects of a life outside the cis-gender binary. Nevo introduces and describes subjects like changing pronouns, “passing”, seeking medical care, accessibility in public spaces, and there’s a really helpful glossary and resource guide in the back – but Finding Nevo never reads like a textbook, nor does it read like high-minded literature. Nevo uses language that is accessible to anyone. They don’t assume any pre-existing knowledge, just an open mind.

Nevo was born into a Jewish family, part of Melbourne’s very tight-knit Jewish community, which gives them unique insight into the intersection of culture, social mores, and religion in the LGBTIQ+ community. Nevo was assigned female at birth, and their mother desperately wanted a girl. So, for much of Nevo’s early years, femininity was enforced: dresses and skirts, pink toys, the whole she-bang. Nevo describes their childhood as being very lonely, and the more they tried to conform to others’ expectations, the less they felt they “fit in”.

Over the course of their childhood and adolescence, Nevo struggled to find which “version” of themselves felt most authentic. They are frank about the shifts and iterations they went through with their identity over time, and – crucially – the impact that their realisations and decisions had on their relationships (especially with their family members).





What Finding Nevo ultimately depicts and advocates is a process of “unlearning”: not just our ideas about the gender binary, but other restrictive expectations and assumptions, too. Nevo rejects the dominant narrative that all trans and non-binary people were “born in the wrong body”. However well-intentioned that explanation may seem (indeed, a lot of trans people use it themselves), Nevo resists the idea that their body is “wrong”. They also learned (the hard way!) that identities aren’t rigid, and it’s okay for them to change and evolve over time. It’s okay not to know and to go with what feels “right” at the moment. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

Given that Finding Nevo is only about 200 pages long, it covers a remarkable amount of ground. Nevo talks about many aspects of identity and transformation: the physical realities of life in a trans/non-binary body, negotiating the divide between their sexuality/gender and their religious faith, and all of the good, bad, and ugly emotions that have come with every step. Nevo describes great pain, joyful optimism, crippling anxiety, bewildering dysphoria, and – ultimately – determined hope. And they were only twenty years old at the time of writing! Incredible!

It’s a quick read, with straightforward language, and it’s appropriate for pretty much all ages (I’d say if a kid is old enough to ask questions about this book’s content, they’re old enough to read it and, maybe with a little help, understand). In fact, it won the Australian Family Therapists’ Book Of The Year Award in 2018. It’s a really useful resource and learning tool for queer folk and straight/cis-gendered readers. For people who are struggling with their own identity, Finding Nevo will hopefully be a source of comfort and reassurance. For others, it will be an opportunity to learn, to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes, and come closer to understanding a life that is different to their own.





For me, this was a really timely read – not just because it’s Pride, not just because reviewing Frankissstein last week had me confronting my own blind spots, but also because while there’s never a “bad” time to learn and to empathise, the current moment seems particularly good for it. Reading it re-enforced the importance of amplifying #ownvoices non-fiction, as well as fictional depictions of diverse characters. I really admire Nevo’s generosity in sharing their experience, so candidly, in a way that could help so many others. Finding Nevo is a heart-felt, thoughtful, and constructive memoir – do the world a favour and buy it for the TERF in your life today!


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