Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

They Both Die At The End – Adam Silvera

We all know I love a book that does exactly what it says on the tin, and what you see is what you get in They Both Die At The End. This queer young adult novel – Silvera’s third – was first published back in 2017, but it’s had a recent resurgence in the best-seller list thanks to a spike in popularity on #BookTok.

They Both Die At The End - Adam Silvera - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get They Both Die At The End here.
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So, there are two main characters (the titular ones, who die at the end), both young men in their late teens. Mateo is a nervous wreck of a human, Rufus is a tough guy with a lot of baggage. They don’t know each other from bars of soap, but they’re about to spend their last day alive together.

In the world of They Both Die At The End, everyone gets a phone call on the day that they’ll die, letting them know it’s about to happen and, y’know, good luck. It’s a system called ‘Death-Cast’, and that’s pretty much all that Silvera tells us about it. Apparently, the prequel novel (The First To Die At The End, published in 2022) gives a bit more background as to how the system came into effect, but that didn’t really help me much going into this one. The only insight we get into Death-Cast and how it works is a couple of short chapters about phone operators who work there. I can see why Silvera wrote it that way, but I found it distracting in terms of the reading experience; I like to get the practicalities out of the way so I can focus on the story, but they were left dangling and distracting me all the way through.

But I digress! Mateo and Rufus each get this call, and they’re understandably bummed. Death-Cast only tells you that you will die, not how or why or anything useful. Mateo feels incredibly isolated by the news – his father is in a coma, his best friend is struggling to raise a young child on her own, and he feels as though he has no one with whom he can spend his last day. Rufus was in the middle of beating a guy up when the call came, and as he was gathering his family for last goodbyes, the cops showed up to arrest him. He had to do a runner to avoid spending his last day in jail, so he’s all on his lonesome, too.

In desperation, they both turn to an app called Last Friend, designed to pair people up for their last days. After a bit of back and forth, they meet and set about living as much life as they can with the time they have left.

They Both Die At The End is easy to read in terms of prose style, but it’s still a huge bummer. The title isn’t ironic, and it’s no bait-and-switch. Mateo and Rufus both die, so the growth they experience and the joy they find on their last day is all bittersweet, for them and for the reader. Silvera is very clever in that way, subverting our narrative expectations.

It’s also wonderful to see queer characters of colour represented so positively in young adult fiction, especially in the current climate of book banning. It’s never been more important for kids to have access to all kinds of characters in the books that they read, especially in the notoriously white and heteronormative worlds of speculative fiction. So, hats off to Silvera for that!

Still, I couldn’t help wanting more from They Both Die At The End: more detail in the world-building, more hope for the characters (I know, they’re destined to die and that’s The Point, but still!), and more depth to it all than just a doomed love affair between two young guys who are doing their best. I can see why it did big numbers on #BookTok, but it left me feeling a bit bereft.

My favourite Amazon reviews of They Both Die At The End:

  • “‘m sorry, but what’s the point of this book beside to leave readers with a feeling of complete and utter hopelessness, and a belief that we will all in fact die miserable and alone? My depressed mind was already convinced of this fact, but hey, thanks for validating it.” – Katie Irwin
  • “It’s a good thing these two are dying because their useless and meaningless lives contribute nothing to the world or people around them. The worst part of it is is that they are FICTIONAL. They’re not even REAL and you couldn’t even make them interesting or worth caring about.” – Brandon B
  • “It is not readily apparent, but this book has strong homosexual themes.” – David Aloha
  • “So many 5 star reviews – there must be an awful lot of young, gay/bi-curious American readers… “They both die at the end” – I just wished it happened 350 pages earlier.” – Mike707

It Takes A Town – Aoife Clifford

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Buy It Takes A Town here.
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You’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a kid – but did you know that it takes a town to solve a murder? That’s the idea at the heart of It Takes A Town, the new crime novel by Aoife Clifford, kindly sent to me for review by the fine folks at Ultimo Press.

Vanessa Walton was the shining star of her hometown of Welcome (a fictional town with a truly excellent name). When she’s found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home, her funeral is one of the best-attended in living memory. And yet, she rubbed plenty of people in Welcome the wrong way – that might be why she was receiving threatening letters before she died. Was her death really an accident, or was it something more nefarious?

All signs are pointing to an accident, until a local teen goes missing. The same teen who was making noise about Vanessa’s death being suspicious. Solving the mystery of Vanessa’s final moments, and identifying her killer, might be the only way to get her home safe.

It Takes A Town is a standard small-town crime novel, complete with the blow-in detective from the big city. I definitely didn’t pick the baddie from the beginning, so it’s a well-plotted mystery in that regard. The thing is, it’s a bit hard to keep all the players straight. There are a lot of characters, their ages and characterstics are vague, and given that their relationships to each other are central to understanding the plot, it makes for quite a chaotic read.

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Read It Takes A Town on audiobook via here. (affiliate link)

13 Well Plotted Mysteries

Have you ever thought about how hard it must be to plot a mystery novel? The author has to know who did it, why they did it, how they did it – and they’ve got to figure out how to tell the reader all of that, without going too fast or too slow, and keeping them entertained all the while. It’s no mean feat, and it’s all the more impressive when an author does it particularly well. Here are thirteen well plotted mysteries that will keep you intrigued all the way through to perfectly crafted solutions.

13 Well Plotted Mysteries - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

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I happened to watch The Cry as a television mini-series before I read the book, but let me tell you: it’s one of the most well plotted mysteries you’ll experience, no matter the format. The central mystery revolves around a missing child, an infant who disappears from under his parents nose. The media flocks to the scene, the parents make tearful appeals – but all is not as it seems. There’s a reveal at the mid-point of this one that will knock your socks off, and you’ll barely have a chance to pull them on before they’re knocked off once more. Read my full review of The Cry here.

Kill Your Husbands by Jack Heath

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Jack Heath is a remarkably prolific writer, with over forty titles to his name across multiple genres, so he’s got a well-practiced hand when it comes to writing well plotted mysteries. Kill Your Husbands is a sharp and funny mystery-thriller about a couple’s weekend gone wrong – like, really wrong. Three couples rent an isolated house on a mountaintop, and decide to spice things up with some partner-swapping. It’s all fun and games until one of the husbands turns up dead, and then another, and then one of the wives goes missing. Read my full review of Kill Your Husbands here.

Remember Me by Charity Norman

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Are some secrets best left buried? That’s the question at the heart of Remember Me, a wonderfully suspenseful novel about a young woman who went missing twenty-five years ago, and the clues to her fate coming from an unlikely source. Through the mists of her father’s failing memory, Emily gets glimpses of the past, and what might have happened to Leah Patara. But does she really want to know? It’s a family drama wrapped around a crime mystery, and it will keep you hooked to the very last page. Read my full review of Remember Me here.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

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You might know Liane Moriarty best for Big Little Lies, the best-selling novel turned HBO series starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, but if you’re after well plotted mysteries, it’s well worth exploring further into her catalogue. Apples Never Fall is perfectly paced and totally readable, with town gossip and parallel timelines that keep you guessing. There’s a cast of characters bound together, but each harbouring their own secrets – secrets a nosy detective is determined to uncover. If you’re a fan of town gossip and barely-founded assumptions, this is the mystery novel for you. Read my full review of Apples Never Fall here.

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

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Is it too soon for a COVID-19 murder mystery? Not when it’s as well plotted as this one! 56 Days is Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest high-concept crime thriller, set in Dublin in the early days of the city’s first lock-down. The main characters are a couple who barely know each other, forced into the pressure cooker situation of living with each other during the pandemic, so the reader gets two (or more?) very different perspectives on the same events. It’s well written, well paced, with tantalising clues and a couple of truly excellent fake-out twists. Read my full review of 56 Days here.

The Likeness by Tana French

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Tana French has been called the reining queen of Irish crime, with good reason: her Dublin Murder Squad series is wall-to-wall well plotted mysteries. The Likeness is my favourite, the one with a premise so bonkers that I simply had to read it. Detective Cassie Maddox is trying to find her balance after a major trauma on a previous case when a murder victim shows up who looks identical to her. That’s weird, but it gets weirder when they learn that the victim was living under an alias that Maddox once used while undercover. None of the victim’s friends know that she’s dead, so Maddox’s boss has her pose as the dead girl, pretending to recover from her injuries in the hopes of luring the murderer out of the woodwork. It’s insane, but will it work? Read my full review of The Likeness here.

I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers

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I Saw A Man isn’t a thriller, but it’s every bit as tense and gripping. It’s a literary mystery, one that penetrates far more deeply than your standard paint-by-numbers airport novel. Owen Sheers uses two terrible tragedies to interrogate the psychology of trauma, the capriciousness of chance, the weight of grief, and the morality of complicit silence, all the while keeping the reader glued to the page by the mysterious moral dilemma that changes the life of every character. Read my full review of I Saw A Man 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

Regular readers of Keeping Up With The Penguins might be sick of me recommending Big Lies In A Small Town, but I can’t help it! It’s one of the most well plotted mysteries I’ve read, all the better for the fact that I simply wasn’t expecting it at all based on the cover and blurb. The story centers around 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. Will she uncover the truth with the layers of paint and grime? Read my full review of Big Lies In A Small Town here.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble - Taffy Brodesser-Akner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You probably won’t find Fleishman Is In Trouble shelved with the mysteries at your local independent bookstore, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the most well plotted mysteries of recent years. It looks like your stock-standard New York divorce novel, with a privileged couple – he’s a doctor, she’s a talent agent/manager – sniping at each other and using their kids like battering rams in the dissolution of their marriage. But by the end of the first chapter, you’ll realise that this is something very different. Read my full review of Fleishman Is In Trouble here.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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It’s so meta: one of the most well plotted mystery is a book about a well plotted mystery. How about that? The Plot is “a psychologically suspenseful novel about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it”. A creative writing student sadly dies tragically young, and his professor decides to take the plot he planned to use for his debut novel. Who would notice, who would care? It turns out someone does, and they care a lot. Enough to put the author’s life at risk, not to mention his career and reputation. Read my full review of The Plot here.

The Woman In The Library by Sulari Gentill

The Woman In The Library - Sulari Gentill - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Woman In The Library is an underrated gem, a well plotted metafictional mystery that will keep you turning pages way past your bed time. 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 this work-in-progress to her writer friend Leo, but slowly his responses reveal he might not be the trusty correspondent he seems. Read my full review of The Woman In The Library here.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

With just a few well plotted mysteries, Gillian Flynn has changed the game. She reached mainstream popular appeal with her best-seller Gone Girl, but her debut novel Sharp Objects is the one with the truly masterful plot. The follows Camille, a journalist for a small Chicago newspaper, as she’s drawn back to her hometown to report on the abduction and murder of two young girls. At first, she doesn’t seem particularly unusual – sure, she’s a bit of a drinker, and she clearly has some unresolved issues with her family, but who doesn’t? Soon, you’ll realise how dark she really is, and why those issues with her mother and her hometown might never be untangled. Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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Of course, it’s not a list of well plotted mysteries without an Agatha Christie novel. And, even though it’s kind of an obvious choice, we really can’t go past And Then There Were None. It’s a Christie classic, a locked-room mystery with a ticking clock, featuring ten strangers trapped on an isolated island. All were brought there under similar false pretenses, and all of them are destined to die. But who would draw them there? Why are they being killed off, one by one? How can the murderer operate undetected? Christie will tell you when she’s good and ready, but you’ll realise that the clues there all along. Read my full review of And Then There Were None here.

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck – Mark Manson

One of the most widely discussed and bemoaned book trends of the past decade has been “books with swears in the title” – and it all started (well, mostly) with The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck. It’s a self-help book by ‘superstar blogger’ Mark Manson (who, granted, most people had never heard of before this book hit the best-seller list). Aside from the title, its other big drawcard is that heartthrob Chris Hemsworth describes it as “a good kick in the arse”, which is one of the best blurbs I’ve come across.

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck here.
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I don’t often read or review self-help books, but it’s just as well. Manson positions this book as the anti-self-help manifesto, a counter-point to the mindless positivity he alleges is peddled in other books of the genre. He believes that life’s struggles give it meaning (no light with out the dark, yin-yang, the whole bit) and blithely smiling our way through it or trying to find a way to live a life without struggle is missing the point and only makes things worse. Thus, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck.

It’s a surprisingly anti-capitalist stance, actually, which was the first tick in the ‘pro’ column for me. “Giving a fuck about more stuff is good for business,” as Manson says on page 5. If we’re all worried about being too fat or too short or too poor or too boring, we’ll spend money to buy products that promise us our problems will be solved. Deciding that we care about more meaningful things, and that we don’t need to buy stuff to make ourselves feel good, will bring the system to its knees.

Unfortunately, Manson does run out of creative ways to say ‘give a fuck’ by about page 12, so it starts to wear thin. That was the first tick in the ‘con’ column.

Basically, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck is a provocative title for a book that simply emphasises the importance of knowing what really matters to you, and encourages you to act in accordance with that. In the old parlance, we might’ve once said ‘don’t sweat the small shit’, but Manson repackages that adage and sells it as ‘give fewer fucks’ (so maybe he’s not the anti-capitalist king that was foretold after all).

Mostly, Manson dilutes key concepts from psychology and philosophy (also anthropology at times, and even stretching over into evolutionary biology now and again), and boils them up together into a profanity-laden concoction that’s very easy to swallow. It’s not particularly revelatory to say that we grow from pain and suffering, or that you’re responsible for how you respond to a situation, but it sounds profound if you say it in your TED Talk voice.

What worries me is that I can see some of the key concepts of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck being applied in a gross way by certain segments of the community. The straight white men who feel oppressed by the existence of diversity and inclusion programs, for instance. You can practically hear them salivating over the idea that we shouldn’t give a fuck about how our decisions make others feel and we’re all responsible for what we do with the cards we’re dealt in life – as though the deck isn’t stacked and we shouldn’t ask for a fresh one. Manson doesn’t seem to have really accounted for this possible reading – or, if he has, he doesn’t address it or try too hard to head it off.

As of 2019, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck had sold over eight million copies (not to mention the sequels and journals and other accoutrements of any popular self-help title), so it’s definitely resonated widely. As far as I’m concerned, you could pick worse from the self-help session. It’s easy enough to read, you can knock it over in a single sitting, and it’s ultimately a positive message: find out what you care about, care about it a lot, and disregard the stuff that doesn’t serve you. We could all benefit from doing that a bit more, probably.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck:

  • “The worst part is that I bought the Kindle edition, because if I had gotten a hard copy at least I’d have a good coaster to set my drink on.” – Amazon98
  • “You could get the same quality of advice off of any bathroom wall.” – Marie Jakowski
  • “Completely unhelpful. A book equivalent of someone saying ” Hey, you should just stop worrying about stuff”.” – John Travis Wheeling
  • “This should be called “the subtle art of wasting your money” bc that’s all it is.” – Carla

Sociopath – Patric Gagne

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Buy Sociopath here.
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I’ve always thought ‘sociopath’ was an overused word, and yet it’s extremely rare to hear someone self-identify that way in earnest. That makes Sociopath an unusual read if nothing else – the honest-to-goodness memoir of a 21st century sociopath, and Pan Macmillan Australia sent me a copy for review.

According to Gagne, there are an estimated 15 million sociopaths currently living in the United States, but it’s a label that eludes clear definition. I learned in my psychology undergrad – as did Gagne – that it’s not an “official” term, in the sense that it’s not a diagnosis listed in the DSM-IV or DSM-5. Rather, people we would colloquially call ‘sociopaths’ are lumped in under the diagnosis of ASPD (Anti-Social Personality Disorder), with the psychopaths and the others that act in ways that make us feel icky without remorse.

Gagne rejects this erasure, and identifies – loudly and proudly, by the end of her memoir – as a sociopath. She writes this book because, she says, “the lived experience of sociopathy deserves to be illustrated”.

Of course, this lived experience means that Sociopath can’t be considered an objective or impartial account. Readers probably can’t even rely on its veracity, given the nature of Gagne’s condition and the emotive nature of the subject matter. There are definitely some questions being raised about her qualifications and background, in the wake of the book’s release.

Still, skepticism about the science and its source aside, Sociopath is a gripping read. I would caution against taking it as gospel, but it’s certainly interesting and a powerful exercise in expanding our horizons for empathy.

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Read Sociopath on audiobook via here. (affiliate link)

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