Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Tampa – Alissa Nutting

In all honesty, I was originally drawn to Tampa for its cover art. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it’s just so eye-catching! An extreme close-up of the button hole on a light pink dress shirt, that at a glance looks like a much dirtier image. I give it 11/10, and I hope the cover designer got a big raise once it went to print.

Tampa - Alissa Nutting - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Tampa here.
(There are affiliate links on this page because you deserve an easy way to support sites you like – just click through and make a purchase.)

Once I drew my eyes away from the front cover, I had a look at the blurbs. They say Tampa has a “remorseless protagonist”, a “female Humbert” – Irvine Welsh called it “a provocative look at a taboo subject”, for crying out loud. Clearly, this book contains something intended to twist our guts.

If the Humbert allusion didn’t tip you off, here’s an early trigger warning (for both Tampa and this review): it’s a book about predatory sexual abuse, grooming, and statutory rape. Please be careful in considering whether to read on.

Why Alissa Nutting chose such a dark and dire subject for her debut novel, I’ll never know. She has said that she was inspired by Debra Lafave, a teacher (“coincidentally” from Tampa, FL) who was charged with raping one of her students in 2013. Nutting actually went to school with her, and seeing her old classmate charged with such a heinous crime got her creative gears rolling.

The story of Tampa doesn’t stray too far from what you’d expect, based on what I’ve told you so far. Celeste Price is a middle-school teacher who obsessively grooms and molests her fourteen-year-old male students. She’s unhappily married to an alcoholic police officer, staying with him for his family’s wealth and the convenient cover for her perversions that the marriage provides.

Celeste isn’t so much a character as she is predatory sexual desire manifest. She is very self-possessed and self-determined. She doesn’t stumble upon a strange state of arousal in the presence of a particular student one day and fall down a lust-filled rabbit hole. She knows, and has always known, exactly what she wants, and she makes detailed and devious plans to get it. She studied teaching and took on the middle-school teaching job with the explicit intention of finding vulnerable fourteen-year-old boys she could exploit.

Yes, fourteen-year-old boys – not thirteen, not fifteen, only fourteen. She is a seduction-preferential hebephile (yes, I had to google the terminology and typology, and yes, I have screwed up my search algorithms and probably put myself on a watch-list somewhere).

In my mind, besides the nature of their paraphilia, Celeste is nothing like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. In Tampa, she doesn’t entreat the reader to understand her or sympathise with her, as Humbert did. She actually has no interest at all in what anyone – real or fictional – thinks of her or knows about her, as long as it doesn’t affect her ability to keep doing what she wants (grooming and abusing boys). Of course, she’ll stop at nothing to keep her desires and crimes a secret, but purely because that’s the only way she can keep indulging in them.

I’d imagine that a lot of readers have abandoned Tampa in the first chapter. Nutting gives you nothing to endear you to Celeste, she doesn’t even give you a chance to warm up to the idea of a hebephile teacher before smacking you in the face with Celeste’s sick fantasies. It’s full throttle, right from the outset.

In fact, some bookstores have declined to stock Tampa due to its explicit depictions of child sexual abuse. I’m not sure keeping it off the shelves is the right way to go, but it definitely should come with some kind of warning for potential readers. It’s very, very uncomfortable reading – especially as it comes to a sickeningly inevitable conclusion.

I struggled to understand the “point” of Tampa, but reading it was an interesting intellectual exercise all the same, analysing my own visceral reactions to it. Proceed with caution. (Of course, if you’re anything like me, such a warning will only make you want to read it more – godspeed, but be careful!)

My favourite Amazon reviews of Tampa:

  • “Imagine thanking your husband in the acknowledgements of this book, lol.” – Sarah M
  • “Why is this trash named after my city? You could literally call it anything else.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Do you have a life? Then don’t bother wasting it on this book. You’ll literally hate the fact you took time out of your life to read this.” – Haven
  • “The author doesn’t seem to have gotten out of bed to write this, let alone explored her subject. She’s not Nabokov, she’s not Nin, she’s not even Judy Blume. Simply contrived rubbish that I wouldn’t spit my gum into. She’s wasted her time, yours, and probably her husband’s with this book… If it doesn’t ruin her career, she can always write for social media where everything is as terse and forgettable as this book.” – Go On Then

Women & Children – Tony Birch

Tony Birch is one of those novelists that the critics and literary insiders gush over. He writes intense and vivid literary fiction, the kind of stuff that is unlikely to rocket to the top of the best-seller list but will definitely win awards. His latest novel is Women & Children, and the team at UQP Books were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Women & Children is an inter-generational story of inherited trauma and violence, set in working-class suburbia circa 1965. Joe Cluny is surrounded by strong women: his single working mother, his strong-minded sister, and the terrifying nuns at his Catholic school. His Aunty Oona shows up on the family’s doorstep one night, completely distressed and in desperate need of help. Joe Cluny is about to see what happens when women work together to protect one of their own.

This is a quiet novel about big problems: rage, justice, powerlessness, and complicity. It has a strange and meandering point of view, sometimes zeroing in on Joe’s perspective, sometimes focusing on others (like his grandfather, who cares for Joe in the school holidays).

It’s hard to shake the suspicion that Women & Children is based on Birch’s own lived experience – it just has that Vibe. In his Author’s Note, he emphasises that the story is a work of fiction, simply inspired by Birch’s father’s “refusal to accept silence”, but I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that.

Women & Children is a surprisingly readable but terribly confronting novel, one that cements Birch as a strong voice in Australian fiction.

Buy Women & Children on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)
Read the Women & Children audiobook on here. (affiliate link)

My Unpopular Opinions About Popular Books

We all have them: unpopular opinions about popular books. Whether it’s a classic that just didn’t quite work for us, or a best-seller that made us roll our eyes, there are books we’d rather not admit we didn’t love in mixed company. Well, I’m ripping the bandage off our collective secret shame today by sharing my very own unpopular opinions about popular books. Have at it!

My Unpopular Opinions About Popular Books - Book Discussion - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be popular with me if you use an affiliate link on this page to buy a book – I’ll earn a small fee for referring you.

It Ends With Us actually does a good job of countering myths about domestic violence

Criticism of It Ends With Us – some of it from very authoritative sources – stems from the view that it “romanticises” domestic violence. As I read it, though, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way she depicted the insidiousness of violence in this kind of relationship.

People don’t fall in love with people who beat them or are cruel to them. They fall in love with someone who seems wonderful, who treats them well, and makes them feel loved and safe. It’s only later, often very gradually, that violence occurs.

To ignore the romance of relationships that turn violent is, ultimately, dangerous. If we’re only on alert for bad guys under the bed or behind the closet door, we’ll miss the danger that’s right in front of us.

Read more (with additional context and caveats) about domestic violence in It Ends With Us here.

The Sun Also Rises is heteronormative nonsense

I realise I’m hardly blowing your mind by proposing that Hemingway was a drunk misogynist – but the number of times I’ve expressed this opinion to shocked countenances warrants its inclusion.

The Sun Also Rises basically boils down to a veteran who got his dick blown off bemoaning the fact that he can never fuck the woman he loves (and, as such, can never make her love him).

And that’s how we know that Hemingway never went down on a single woman in his life.

Seriously, the notion that there is no way to fuck without a full and functioning penis is completely ridiculous – as is the idea, by extension, that a woman can’t return your romantic feelings if you can’t have sex with her.

For all his faults, Hemingway still managed to write some brilliant pieces. This just isn’t one of them.

Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

The Great Gatsby is not the definitive Jazz Age novel

If you’re a regular Keeper Upperer, you’re probably sick of hearing me bang on about this – so I’ll forgive you if you skip down the page. This unpopular opinion has become more of my personality than I care to admit.

The thing is, The Great Gatsby stinks. The prose is overwrought. The metaphors are clumsy. And the plot is just… ugh. A rich guy gets shot after the woman he’s been stalking for years commits vehicular homicide, then his mate has a sook that nobody comes to the funeral. The narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that drinking with pretty girls is fun. I mean, why do people like this novel?

Especially given that there is a much, much better alternative out there: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Most people don’t realise that it was a brilliant book before it was turned into an iconic film. I suspect that’s because Anita Loos wrote funny stories instead of tragic ones, irreverent stories instead of earnest ones, and interrogated the inner lives of women instead of men.

She deserves to be a household name, dammit – I won’t rest, etc etc.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Read my full review of (the far superior) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Ulysses is a better read than Mrs Dalloway

I suppose I have to hand in my feminist card for this one, but I stand by it. Even though it’s longer and whinier and more self-indulgent, Ulysses is a better read than Mrs Dalloway. I got more out of reading it, and think back to it more often. It had a much stronger sense of place, and much more ambition. Woolf basically just wanted to “top” Joyce anyway, because she thought Ulysses sucked, whereas Joyce’s motivations were a little more organic.

I’ll prove it: read the opening chapter of Mrs Dalloway alongside the final chapter of Ulysses (the best of each, in my view), and tell me which one is more powerful.

Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

Not every Dan Brown book is terrible

Everyone loves to shit on The Da Vinci Code, using it as short-hand for the pulpy mass-produced adventure thrillers that you buy in an airport for lack of better options – but that’s not all Dan Brown has written. It’s just his most “popular” book.

His earlier novels, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, are much better in my view, and I’ve got copies of both on my shelves (not in pride of place exactly, but still, they’re there). They’re not great works of literature, they probably wouldn’t stand up to intense critical scrutiny, but they’re cracking good reads that made me think. Is there really any more we can ask of them?

The Hunger Games movies are better than the books

I’m probably angering a legion of millennial young adult readers here, but so be it. I’ve read endless complaints about the Hunger Games films – that they cut out Peeta’s disability, they skipped important scenes, they added stuff that wasn’t necessary – and yet none of them have been able to convince me.

The thing is, the narration of the Hunger Games books is infuriating. The mind of a teenage girl isn’t a fun or interesting place to be when the writing isn’t sophisticated and superb. I lived through it once, I don’t need to do it again in fiction. Katniss Everdeen’s train of thought drove me nuts at times, and with the film format, I got to thoroughly enjoy Suzanne Collins’s dystopia without having to put up with the protagonist’s thoughts about it.

In fact, I enjoyed the films so much – not just the story, but the costumes! the staging! – that I’ve watched them multiple times. They’re comfort watches for me, the same way that the books are comfort reads for so many others my age.

Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Even though We Need To Talk About Kevin is fictional, its stark portrayal of a woman reeling after her son’s violent killing spree at his high-school has become a kind of cultural shorthand since its initial publication in 2003. I’d say that reading it is “timely”, but sadly, with the state of gun laws in the U.S., it’s never not.

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get We Need To Talk About Kevin here.
(We need to talk about affiliate links: when you make a purchase, you’ll be supporting this page by sending a small commission this way.)

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, a regretful mother resents her own child, and fears him despite his father’s insistence that he’s a “normal” boy. After he kills several of his classmates and staff at his school, she writes to her absent husband about what happened and where it all went wrong with Kevin.

None of this constitutes a “spoiler”, by the way – it’s all in the blurb.

The first letter is dated 8 November 2000, one year and eight months after the massacre (that the narrator, Eva, calls Thursday, lacking any better nomenclature). She tells the story of Kevin’s upbringing in roughly chronological order, with occasional shifts in timeline to better emphasise a given point. She was reluctant to step back from her flourishing career to birth and raise Kevin, and suspected from the start that something was “off” about her son. Her husband, Franklin, denied anything amiss, however, and insisted that the problems were all Eva’s, stemming from her own ambivalence about motherhood.

Shriver up-ends the ever-popular “Oh, I just couldn’t believe it, he’s the last one you’d expect would do something like this!” narrative. Kevin is never a sympathetic character, not even as an infant. Neither is his mother, come to that. It’s no surprise at all to the reader that he would do something terrible. Though Eva didn’t foresee his homicidal attack on his school, she can see in retrospect that it was entirely predictable. The “signs” were all there. But could she have done anything to prevent it?

And there we have the question at the heart of We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Eva’s letters to Franklin. Were Kevin’s actions inevitable? Was he “born this way”? How much of his murderous rage was innate, and how much was fostered by Eva’s parenting? It’s nature versus nurture, with the highest stakes.

It makes We Need To Talk About Kevin a truly chilling read. Not horror-movie jump-scare scary, but can’t-look-away feel-it-in-your-bones unnerving. I found myself totally gripped by it, even though the ending was a foregone conclusion. I “just-one-more-chapter”ed myself past bed-time more than once.

That speaks to Shriver’s unquestionable talent and mastery of the form. To have a story play out exactly as you’d expect, and yet still keep you on the edge of your seat? Incredible. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a very weighty and cerebral book, and yet it’s still highly readable, compelling to the very last.

The only parts that really jarred for me were some casual slurs and ugly points of view that I couldn’t be 100% sure were attributable only to Eva’s character. I really got the impression that Shriver’s own fatphobia and ableism seeped into the narrative without her realising, rather than her inserting it as a character trait to be read critically. This suspicion was backed up when, in the additional material in my edition of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver referred to one of her earlier less-popular novels as her “r***rd child”. Yuck. Shriver has expressed some problematic views in the past, so just be wary and read with a weather eye.

But back to the book: there are no neat answers in this story, not even when the denouement is over and Eva finally demands an explanation from Kevin. The ambiguity of the novel, coupled with the high-stakes subject matter, makes We Need To Talk About Kevin perfect for book club debates – with trigger warnings, naturally.

Oh, speaking of which: heads up for a truly sickening description of a horribly cruel and violent dog death, not quite halfway through. I had to put the book down and play with happy, healthy Fyodor Dogstoyevsky for a while to clear it from my mind.

I can only hope it’s been excluded from the film adaptation, which I’m eager to watch. Having read We Need To Talk About Kevin, I can see that Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller were perfectly cast in their roles as Eva and Kevin respectively. It’s a story that doesn’t lose anything from already knowing how it ends, and can only be enriched by compelling performances on screen, I suspect.

And – I’ve left this point until the very last paragraph, because I suppose it could be a kind of “spoiler”, so turn away now if you want – I need a moment to boast. As soon as Kevin’s little sister, Celia, was introduced, I had a sneaking suspicion that she and Franklin were dead at the time of Eva writing these letters. I totally called it! That almost never happens, so I’m very proud. Time to reward myself with another book!

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Need To Talk About Kevin:

  • “Save your money and your time:
    1. Kevin is bad.
    2. It’s his parents’ fault.” – trav86
  • “She writes a good sentence, but only a masochist would read the whole thing.” – A reader in Berkeley
  • “The mother is a narcissistic, immature, spoiled, cold, unmaternal, whiny, completely unlikable hag. No wonder her child is a psychopath.” – Am
  • “I was excited to read this after seeing all the reviews about how well written it is. Apparently well written just means the author owns a thesaurus.” – Pamela

Check & Mate – Ali Hazelwood

Check and Mate - Ali Hazelwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Check & Mate here
(affiliate link)

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending a picnic hosted by Hachette Australia x The Bookish Type, where they were distributing copies of #BookTok star Ali Hazelwood’s new novels. I scored a copy of Check & Mate, billed as a chess-themed rivals-to-lovers young adult novel. It sounded cute, so I dived in straight away!

The story is narrated by 18-year-old Mallory. The girl has the weight of the world on her shoulders. There’s some trauma with her dad, her mum is sick, and she has to work full-time instead of going to university to support her two younger sisters.

Mallory used to be a chess prodigy, but she gave it all up. The charity tournament she attends with her bossy bestie is the first game she’s played in years. And that’s where she meets Nolan, the “bad boy” Grand Master. Before she knows it, Mallory is swept back into the world of high-stakes competitive chess, and seems to be facing Nolan at every turn. Is he the arsehole she’s always assumed him to be? Or could he be the King to her Queen?

(Does that analogy even work? I don’t know, almost everything I know about chess I learned from Check & Mate, so if I’m getting it wrong, blame Ali Hazelwood.)

Even though Check & Mate will probably be shelved in the Young Adult section, I’d call it New Adult – and it’s definitely adult enough to interest older readers. It’s a well-paced romance novel, with enough sparks flying to keep the pages turning. I also loved the family relationships and the dialogue that plays out between Mallory and her loved ones – it felt very realistic, and kept Check & Mate out of talented-girl-makes-stupid-career-decisions-because-of-a-boy territory.

That’s not to say it all felt realistic; even knowing as little as I do about the world of competitive and professional chess, I doubt Mallory could go all the way to the World Championships on little more than raw talent and a bit of encouragement from her boss, but that’s the nature of the beast. Check & Mate was a fun read and a couple of plot and prose blips did nothing to take away from my enjoyment of it.

Buy Check & Mate on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)
Get the Check & Mate audiobook from here. (affiliate link)

« Older posts