Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Stiff – Mary Roach

Stiff is “a book about the notable achievements of the dead”. Not in the sense of dead white guys, not even in the sense of zombies – but in the sense of literal dead bodies. It turns out a lot of human knowledge is only possible thanks to the contributions of cadavers. It takes a certain kind of mind to even come up with that as a book topic, and have the stomach to research and write it – seven blessings to Mary Roach, is all I’m saying.

Stiff - Mary Roach - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Stiff is a non-fiction book with a few memoir-y touches. Roach mostly sticks to describing the history of using cadavers to advance scientific knowledge, but occasionally diverts into personal anecdotes of her experiences researching the book. Topics she covers include:

  • Using cadavers for medical training (anatomy classes, practicing surgical techniques, etc.)
  • Using cadavers for forensic pathology (studying how they decay, so we can better understand crime scenes)
  • Grave robbing and the early days of dissecting human bodies
  • Cadavers as crash test dummies
  • Organ donations from the brain dead
  • Alternatives to burial and cremation

And – believe it or not – lots more.

Roach doesn’t shy away from the grim history non-consent and disrespect shown to cadavers used for such purposes (especially the bodies of people from marginalised communities). That said, she describes this history in much the same matter-of-fact tone as she describes more palatable aspects of cadaver research. She strikes a good balance between recognising the gruesomeness of the subject, acknowledging the absurdity of it, and maintaining a respectful reverence for the people who make it possible (living and dead).

Stiff shows that the living people who work with cadavers are almost as interesting as the cadavers themselves. Roach speaks to people who chop up bodies so that medical students can use them to learn, people who leave bodies out in a paddock to see how they decompose, people who put cadavers in cars that are crashed at high speeds to test safety apparatus, people who compost bodies as an alternative to burial – can you imagine what any of these people say they do when they introduce themselves at dinner parties?

I found that I put Stiff down often, not because I was disgusted or disturbed but because I wanted to Google something that Roach had mentioned in passing. Other readers might appreciate Roach’s brevity, but I would’ve been happy with a book five times as long that explored all the rabbit holes.

The only time Stiff really showed its age (having been published 20 years ago) was in the chapter about organ donation. One of Roach’s interviewees, whom she spoke of quite highly, was none other than Mehmet Oz – aka Dr Oz, aka snake-oil salesman and failed Republican candidate. Also, trigger warnings weren’t as common back when Stiff was first published, so I’d imagine a lot of readers went in blind; heads up for death and medical research (obviously), but also a lot of animal experimentation. There have been a lot of stomach-turning things done to dogs in the name of research, and those are the only details in this book I could’ve done without.

On the whole, Stiff has held up well, and remains an excellent read for anyone who’s curious about the macabre (or simply has the stomach for the more gruesome aspects of medical history).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Stiff:

  • “After going through Roach’s unfortunate bestseller, one thing is sure, I am not giving my body to science. Had such a tasteless assemblage not been given birth, I might have.” – Marie-Jo Fortis
  • “Would not recommend to anyone. Kinda of an odd choice to recommend without friends thinking you are weird.” – Unie
  • “Bought this for my fiancee and then she decided I wasn’t good enough. She always treated me like I was worthless.” – Chris Gill
  • “Seven or so good chapters crammed into 12.” – Thomas Tomczak

The Woman In The Library – Sulari Gentill

I missed The Woman In The Library when it first came out in 2022, but I was thrilled to be invited to join the Ultimo Press readalong in the lead-up to the release of Sulari Gentill’s next novel (The Mystery Writer, out next month!).

I don’t want to overstate things, but I think The Woman In The Library is going to be one of the best books I read this year. It’s a meta-fictional mystery, a book-within-a-book, with two puzzles playing out on the page. This twisty and mischievous novel was a true delight to read.

Hannah Tigone is a crime writer, working on a novel that begins in the Boston Library. Four strangers get to talking after a woman’s scream in the next room breaks the silence. Later, they discover that the woman who screamed was murdered – could one of them be the killer?

Chapter by chapter, Hannah forwards her work-in-progress to her writer friend Leo, who is struggling to sell his own manuscript and hopes that providing feedback will stimulate his creative juices. As the story plays out, you’ll realise that Leo might not be exactly what he seems…

The Woman In The Library has whiffs of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man, but with an alchemy that seems entirely Gentill’s own. The big clang comes on page 132, and from there it’s a thrilling ride all the way to the finish. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough – and my breath could not be more bated for The Mystery Writer!

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Get The Woman In The Library on audiobook via here. (affiliate link)

10 Audiobooks That Will Make You Forget What You’re Doing

I find the easiest way to make time pass when I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing is to pump up an audiobook. Big pile of dishes? Audiobook. Long walk in disgusting humidity? Audiobook. Boring wait for an overdue appointment? Audiobook. All the better if the audiobook is so good that I’m completely immersed in it, rather than what’s going on around me. Here are ten audiobooks that will make you forget what you’re doing.

10 Audiobooks That Will Make You Forget What You're Doing - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Good Material by Dolly Alderton

Good Material - Dolly Alderton - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever read or heard something that made you stop and think “wow, I thought I was the only one who was crazy like that”? That’s the feeling you’ll get all through Good Material. Jen and Andy have just broken up, and Andy can’t for the life of him figure out why. He’s heartbroken, he’s homeless, and he’s struggling to get his fledgling comedy career off the ground while everyone around him seems to have grown up overnight. This is another fantastic millennial novel from the pen of Dolly Alderton, which manages to capture the frustration and bewilderment of approaching mid-life. You’ll drop what you’re doing to listen to Andy and realise, hey, maybe you’re not alone.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie - Courtney Summers - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If true crime podcasts aren’t hitting the spot the way they used to, you need to check out Sadie. Courtney Summers’ break-out novel is styled (at least in part) on your NPR staples, depicting the story of a teenage girl who vanished from a small town trailer park while searching for the man who murdered her younger sister. Half the story plays out from Sadie’s own perspective, the other from that of podcaster West McCray. In addition to the hair-raising storyline of Sadie’s search, you’ll be on the edge of your seat waiting for their two storylines to collide. Read my full review of Sadie here.

Big Swiss by Jen Beagin

Big Swiss - Jen Beagin - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyone who’s ever been in therapy knows the deal. It’s meant to be private. Like, seriously private. But what if a therapist is writing a book? What if he’s getting someone to transcribe audio recordings of someone’s sessions? And what if that transcriber were to… fall in love with the patient? That’s basically the premise of Big Swiss, and it’s definitely an audiobook that will make you forget what you’re doing. It’s weird, it’s traumatic (heads up!), and it’s got some of the most fucked-up characters ever put to the page – or to the earbud, as it were. Read my full review of Big Swiss here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such A Fun Age - Kiley Reid - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might download Such A Fun Age before your next holiday, thinking it looks like a delightful summer read. It won’t take you long to realise that behind the bright cover lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. A young (Black) woman is falsely accused of kidnapping her (white) baby-sitting charge by a supermarket security guard, and the whole incident goes viral online. She falls in love with the man who filmed the interaction, not realising that he and her boss share a past. This book ricochets from whip-sharp dialogue to penetrating insight so fast, you’ll be pumping up the volume to make sure you don’t miss a moment. Read my full review of Such A Fun Age here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

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

In January 2015, Miller was a 22-year-old graduate living in Palo Alto. One night, on a whim she decided to attend a Stanford campus party with her sister and friends. Within hours, Brock Turner sexually assaulted her, and she became “unconscious intoxicated woman” – Emily Doe. In Know My Name, her 2019 memoir, Chanel Miller reclaims her name and shares her story. You’ve never read an account of sexual assault so detailed, so depressing, and so empowering. You’ll never again wonder why a woman might not come forward. This is an audiobook that will make you forget what you’re doing, in the best and worst possible way simultaneously. Read my full review of Know My Name here.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Epistolary novels always feel more personal and intimate, and the audiobook format takes it to another level. An American Marriage unfolds through letters between Roy and Celestial, a middle-class Black couple torn apart when Roy is falsely accused and convicted of sexual assault, and others in their orbit. Tayari Jones zooms right in on the issue of incarceration rates in the Black community, making it tangible in the dissolution of one relationship that ripples out through a family network. It’s so compelling, you won’t be able to bring yourself to switch the audiobook off. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Die-hard fiction fans will be skeptical when I say that non-fiction books can be every bit as gripping and compelling, but I’ll simply direct them to download Empire Of Pain. Patrick Radden Keefe’s extraordinary work of investigative journalism unpacks the history of the Sackler family. You might not have heard of them before you press play, but you’ve definitely heard of their product: OxyContin, the drug that triggered an epidemic of opioid abuse that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. You’ll be so flabbergasted and enraged by what you hear in this audiobook, you’ll forget what you’re doing for sure. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness - Tana French - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You ever hear the premise of a book that’s just so outrageous, you drop everything else and download it immediately? That’s what will happen with The Likeness, a 2008 murder mystery by the reigning queen of Irish crime Tana French. Detective Cassie Maddox is trying to find her balance after a major trauma, when a murder victim who looks exactly like her is found. For very good(ish) reasons, the only way to find the murderer is for Cassie to take the dead girl’s place, and pretend she survived the attack that killed the dead girl. It’s a far-fetched doppelganger story, but damn if the audiobook won’t make you forget everything you’re doing with each twist and turn. Read my full review of The Likeness here.

Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski

Come As You Are - Emily Nagoski - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Self-help audiobooks are rarely so gripping they make you forget what you’re doing, but Come As You Are is something special. It’s not even self-help so much as it is a historically- and scientifically-informed guide to sexuality and pleasure. Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and researcher, and in this incredible book, she shares everything she wishes everyone with a vagina already knew. There’s no cheesy nonsense, no ridiculous euphemisms, and no frustrating puritanism. It’s a completely frank, no-holds-barred book that will transform your life, in and out of the bedroom. Just make sure you don’t accidentally hit play at full volume in public.

Big Duke Energy by Emma Hart

Big Duke Energy - Emma Hart - Audiobook - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s end on a light note, with an audiobook that will make you forget what you’re doing but won’t make you cry or rage. Big Duke Energy is a thoroughly charming grumpy/sunshine romance novel, about a best-selling romance author and her muse. Ellie is suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block, and she’s hoping that a lakeside getaway will cure her. That’s where she finds Max, the enigmatic Duke of Windermere, who gives her just the inspiration she needs. Will she be able to avoid the fate of her heroine, or will she fall in love with the duke against her better judgement? Seriously, this audiobook is so much fun, you won’t be able to resist pressing play at every opportunity.

The Fiancee Farce – Alexandria Bellefleur

The Fiancee Farce is a Sapphic marriage-of-convenience romance, between a bookstore owner and a book cover model-slash-publishing heiress. It’s like it was written for me personally! I sat down with it crossing my fingers for smut, to complete the trifecta.

The Fiancee Farce - Alexandria Bellefleur - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(No farce here: if you make a purchase through an affiliate link to support this site, I’ll marry you in my mind!)

The Fiancee Farce should come with a warning: the first chapter is off-the-hook, totally-and-completely bonkers. It goes from 0 to 100 on the very first page, you’ll be thrown back in your seat. Tansy has been “dating” a pretend girlfriend – romance book cover model, Gemma West – for six months. It’s a ruse she perpetuates to get out of dinner with her snobby step-family. She’s attending a wedding with said step-family when, lo and behold, Gemma comes strutting in.

Tansy thinks she’s busted, but without even the slightest heads up, Gemma goes along with it. It turns out, Gemma has her own reasons for needing a fake relationship as cover. It turns out she’s a publishing heiress, all set to inherit the family business, but for a clause in her grandfather’s will that stipulates she be married by the time of the board meeting that will transfer ownership.

So, Gemma promptly declares to all and sundry that she and her “girlfriend” Tansy are engaged. And so, The Fiancee Farce begins.

Tansy is disinclined to go along with the scheme at first. Then, she learns that her wicked step-mother plans to sell their own family business, the bookstore that Tansy has called home all her life. She figures out that if she marries Gemma, the merging of their financial assets will give her the funds she needs to buy the bookstore herself outright. So, Tansy and Gemma are set to be wed.

Of course, The Fiancee Farce is ridiculous – all the best romance novels are – but it’s great fun, and honestly, the genuine chemistry and compatibility between the leads makes up for the absurd plot. Despite having lived very different lives and having very different personalities, Gemma and Tansy are both black sheep. It gives them enough common ground to build a solid relationship (because of course they do, that’s hardly a spoiler, get a grip).

They fake affection in mixed company, only to find before long the sparks are flying for real. The only real impediment to making their marriage legit is the duplicitous scheming of Gemma’s family. It’s all very Succession-esque, with alliances and double-agents and reconnaissance and blackmail. So, the question at the heart of The Fiancee Farce isn’t so much whether they’re going to fall for each other for real as it is will they survive the ravages of the Van Dalen empire.

I really appreciated that there was no hand-wringing about queerness in The Fiancee Farce (I think there was maybe one vague mention of lifestyle choices in a family argument scene, but nothing memorable). There’s not a trace of all the gay tropes we’ve come to hate – no dead lesbians, no dramatic coming-out stories, no gay-related trauma. Of course, stories about the lived experience of homophobia (both societal and internalised) are important, but I’m just kind of tired of them in romance novels. This is a genre built on escapism, and life treating the queers poorly is just exhausting and all-too-real sometimes. It was a blessed relief to read a book where queerness wasn’t othered at all, and the marriage of two women was handled exactly the way any other coupling would be.

I made note of a very surprising 180 from Tansy’s step-mother towards the end, and a frustrating third-act break-up (boo! hiss!), but honestly, those flaws weren’t enough to detract from a wonderful reading experience. The Fiancee Farce is rollicking good fun all the way through, a pleasantly spicy romance written with great affection.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Fiancee Farce:

  • “Everything could have been better save for the lovely bookstore one of the characters owns.” – Emily Butler
  • “I laughed, I cringed (for the plot), I got all the tummy flutters and coochie clenches.” – A. D. Waltz
  • “Have you ever seen Atonement? You know that library scene? Yeah. It’s like that, but gay… and no children were traumatized. Blessed.” – Amazon Customer

Whenever You’re Ready – Trish Bolton

When I saw that Whenever You’re Ready was written as “a love letter to the lives of older women”, I jumped at the chance to read it. Books about the rich and varied interior lives of older women are all too rare – they’re usually depicted as objects of pity or lonely and miserable crones, rather than anything resembling reality. So, I was delighted when my friends at Allen & Unwin sent me a copy for review.

From the blurb: “An unexpected death finds Lizzie, Alice, and Margot at various crossroads in their lives, torn between looking back and moving on.” That makes Whenever You’re Ready sound very similar to one of my all-time favourite books, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, but my reading experience of them was poles apart.

Whenever You’re Ready is every bit as dramatic as novels about women in their 30s, with in-fighting and infidelity and shocking revelations galore. The characters get a bit muddled at first, so if you’re struggling to keep them straight as it all plays out, it’s not just you. It’s quite a wistful read, even with everything going on in the plot. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about romance and aging. It’s highly readable, but not particularly deep.

Before you pick it up, you should check the trigger warnings (especially for death/suicide and grief), as there are quite a few scenes in Whenever You’re Ready that are pretty heavy going. There was also a lot of inherent ableism that I found really concerning. It wasn’t a terrible read, but if I’m honest, I expected more from this “love letter” to post-menopausal life.

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