Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Stranger Beside Me – Ann Rule

There are a few serial killers so notorious that their names have become synonymous with their crimes. Ask any stranger on the street to name a serial killer, and chances are Ted Bundy will be the name they give you. I normally shy away from the twisted fandom that grows around killers like Bundy; so much has been written, recorded, and filmed about him, it’s hard to escape him let alone choose one version as the “definitive” Ted Bundy story… but The Stranger Beside Me is such an enduring book of true crime, up there with In Cold Blood, that I felt I simply had to read it.

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The Stranger Beside Me is unique in that it is both biographical and autobiographical, existing in the weird gray area between journalism and memoir. See, Rule wasn’t just any crime writer who picked up the Bundy story: she was his friend, before his crimes came to light. She met Bundy in 1971, when he was a psychology student at the University of Washington, and they volunteered together manning the phones of a suicide crisis line.

To write a book about an anonymous murder suspect is one thing. To write such a book about someone you have known and cared for for ten years is quite another… Ted Bundy’s story must be told, and it must be told inn its entirety if any good can evolve from the terrible years: 1974-1980.

The Stranger Beside Me (Preface)

When they first got to know each other, Bundy seemed to Rule a “kind, solicitous, and empathetic” person. The incongruity of a serial killer working to save the lives of desperate callers to a suicide hotline is really difficult to deal with, for Rule and the reader. “Ted Bundy took lives [but] he also saved lives,” she says on page 28. “I know he did, because I was there when he did it.”

Even though you “know” the Bundy story, as I do, I’m quite sure The Stranger Beside Me will still have a few unexpected twists and turns for you. For instance, about a hundred pages in (in 1974, the early days of Bundy’s killing career, in the book’s timeline), Rule shares something I did NOT see coming: she recognised the description of her friend Ted in a witness statement, and reported the similarities to police. I actually wrote in my notes as I was reading: “HOLY FUCK! SHE TIPPED OFF THE COPS! IN 1974!”. Unfortunately, Rule’s tip was one of thousands, and Bundy’s name was buried beneath the hundreds of other “more likely” suspects.

And, in addition to the jaw-drop moments, there are heart-pounding ones, too: like when Rule meets Bundy for lunch after he is released on bail for an early kidnapping charge. She tries to ask him, diplomatically, whether there was any truth to the charges and rumours. Can you imagine sitting across the table from a close colleague and trying to ask them whether they’d abducted and killed a few women? It makes my knees knock just to think about it.

No one could accuse Rule of not openly admitting her potential bias in her friendship with Bundy, and interrogating it for and with the reader in The Stranger Beside Me. Constant doubt gnaws at Rule throughout the book, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing her personal feelings about both Bundy and his crimes, even when those feelings are contradictory and confusing. Thankfully, she was never in love with Bundy (as so many of the women who surrounded him were), so there’s no mushiness or lust-induced blind-spots in her telling. She even acknowledges the dark stroke of “luck” that saw her, a mid-career crime writer, befriending a man who turned out to be one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century. It seems, to me, a very ethical way of writing true crime – one I’d like to see more writers in the genre adopt.

I felt a chill. Not even a television script could make it believable that a crime writer could sign a contract to write a book about a killer, and then have the suspect turn out to be her close friend. It wouldn’t wash.

The Stranger Beside Me (Page 148)

I doubt you’d have even clicked on this review if you’re sensitive to sexualised violence against women, but the trigger warnings bear mentioning anyway. The Stranger Beside Me contains fairly graphic detail about Bundy’s crimes, but the descriptions aren’t gratuitous. Rule isn’t trying to titillate you, or make a spectacle of the violence; she only discloses as much as she needs to to impress upon you the horror that Bundy wrought, to tell the Bundy story in its entirety, as she set out to do. The lives of Bundy’s victims are described in detail, where possible, and the women are spoken of with great respect – they’re not just tally marks next to Bundy’s name.

Because Ted murdered so many, many women, he did more than rob them of their lives. He robbed them of their specialness, too. It is too easy, and expedient, to present them as a list of names; it is impossible to tell each victim’s story within the confines of one book. All those bright, pretty, beloved young women became, of necessity, ‘Bundy victims’. And only Ted stayed in the spotlight.

The Stranger Beside Me (page 507)

Rule highlights that, and many of the other ways that media coverage of serial killers and the public’s thirst to know are problematic – a particularly interesting position for a true crime writer to take. At several points throughout The Stranger Beside Me, newspaper reporting stymies the investigation, and Rule alludes to the possibility that media coverage spurs on killers with designs on infamy.

She tried to mitigate that ethical problem, however, by only publishing The Stranger Beside Me once Bundy had been tried and convicted, knowing he would never again be a free man and his reign of terror was over. The boook went on to become her first best-seller (and she had 34 more after). The thing is, the original text of The Stranger Beside Me ended before, well, The End. It wraps up when Bundy is sentenced to death a third time, for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but a death sentence is never really the end of a story like this one.

So, Rule has appended updates in subsequent editions, covering Bundy’s response to her book (first, he demanded money, then he froze her out, then he “forgave” her – what a guy), his endless appeals, the signing of his death warrant(s), the waxing and waning media attention, his surreptitious fathering of a child from Death Row, and his final confessions before his execution. Really, there’s just as much story in the afterwords as there is in the book proper.

At first, I really enjoyed The Stranger Beside Me as a chilling, spooky read… but as the end grew closer, and the true impact of Bundy’s crimes became more tangible, it was no longer spooky so much as desperately sad. It’s a mind-blowing excellent read, but it made me Feel A Lot Of Things (which is a testament, really, to its excellence, and Rule’s skill as a true crime writer). I scoured my notes looking for a criticism, and could only find this: there were quite a few odd typos and misprints, which seemed strange in a book that has circulated so widely and been re-published so many times. So, on the whole, it’s a great read, even if you’re sick to death of hearing about Ted Bundy.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Stranger Beside Me:

  • “I thought this book was boring and poorly written. I’m sorry the author is dead, but she really wasn’t very talented. I’ve yet to read an intriguing account of Ted Bundy.” – Lisa
  • “I’m not sure why this is so important to me but did anyone else notice she lies about her age? In the preface she says she was 35 in 1971 and claims a “10 year” age difference with Bundy. She actually turned 40 in 1971 and was almost exactly 15 years his senior. Was it just vanity?” – A Reader
  • “Couldn’t be happier! I purchased a signed copy of my favorite book, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. It arrived quickly and in the condition promised. Maybe a bit unconventional, but my fiancé and I are using it for part of the centerpiece at our sweetheart table on our upcoming wedding day, so needless to say I’m completely happy with the whole experience.” – Lindsay
  • “While reading this, I kept saying in my head, “Just die already”. Thank God that he was stupid enough to head to Florida where those types of evil monstrosities were simply not tolerated, unlike some other states that seriously messed up.” – Little Miss Fun

7 Thrillers Without Dead Girls

If you read contemporary crime thrillers or horror fiction, you’ve probably noticed a problem that ranges from mildly annoying to downright disturbing: nearly every “victim” that kicks things off is a dead, dying, or missing girl. These girls are blonde, thin, white, sometimes angels, sometimes “troubled”, and they’re almost always completely interchangeable. You could write an entire thesis on the reason for this (some brilliant academics have, and even Edgar Allen Poe took a shot). Sure, sometimes thrillers subvert this trope and turn it on its head (hello, Gone Girl), but even so, it’s nice to stumble upon a thriller without a dead girl as an inciting incident. Here’s my list of seven thrillers without dead girls.

7 Thrillers Without Dead Girls - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Hiding Place by Jenny Quintana

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I didn’t realise how relieved I was to finally pick up a thriller without a dead girl until I read Jenny Quintana’s The Hiding Place. Also notably (blessedly!) absent: hard-boiled heavy-drinking detectives with a dark past, ticking time bombs, and ex-boyfriends with a knack for coercive control. The story centers on Marina’s search for the truth surrounding the circumstances of her birth. As an infant, she was found wrapped in a blue shawl in the doorway of 24 Harrington Gardens, in a quiet London suburb. Now, as an adult, she can’t resist the allure of one of the apartment at that address for let, and the opportunity to find out what exactly happened to her birth mother. This is a compelling page-turner without the tired tropes.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Even though the victim of the crime at the center of Big Little Lies is a mystery for most of the novel, I hope it doesn’t spoil it too much to say that, in the end, it is a pleasant surprise to discover it is not one of the three women protagonists. Liane Moriarty has worked up quite a back-list of books, most of which do not center on dead, dying, or missing girls. Granted, this one still features prominent themes of sexualised violence against women, but the crime at the heart of the novel isn’t the one you’d expect. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.

Bonus: Moriarty’s most recent novel, Apples Never Fall, is also a cracking thriller without a dead girl. The matriarch of the family is missing, sure, but Moriarty uses her mysterious absence to point to the flawed assumptions we’re all guilty of making in such a scenario.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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My Sister, The Serial Killer is not a traditional thriller by any stretch, but it has a serial killer on the loose with a reluctant accomplice, so I say it counts – and all the victims are men. When Korede’s beautiful butter-wouldn’t-melt sister, Ayoola, forms a nasty habit of bumping off boyfriends who displease her, it’s Korede’s job to cover up her crimes… until Ayoola sets her sights on the man Korede has been secretly crushing on for months. It lands on the literary end of the crime thriller spectrum, but it’s one of the best thrillers without dead girls I’ve read so far, with impeccably drawn characters against a bustling Nigerian backdrop. Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

Under The Skin by Michel Faber

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For a thriller with a science-fiction bent and without dead girls, look no further than Under The Skin. In this strange, seductive story, Isserley cruises the Scottish highlands, picking up hitchhikers off the side of the winding roads. All of them are male, and she appraises them carefully, making sure they’ll be suitable for her purpose. And that purpose might be… well, you’ll have to read on to find out. Suffice to say here, Isserley is not your standard criminal, and these aren’t the kind of crimes you see splashed across the morning news headlines. This is a hypnotic and entrancing read.

The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

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I first encountered The Cry via the brilliant can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head-for-days ABC/BBC television adaptation that first aired a couple of years ago. Seriously, it’s SO GOOD! How thrilled was I to discover that the story also exists in novel form, the book by Helen Fitzgerald five years prior. In this gripping, still-can’t-shake-it-off read, an infant goes missing shortly after his British parents bring him to Australia, sparking an international search and unprecedented media attention. When no trace of the child is found, the parents, Joanne and Alistair, slowly turn on one another, making for an incredibly affective and effective psychological thriller.

Misery by Stephen King

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The premise of Misery is so twisted, it could only have come from the mind of the King of Horror. He’s normally not shy about writing thrillers with dead girls, but he comes at this one from a very different angle. In it, a forty-something writer, with shelves of lowest-common-denominator best-sellers to his name, finally types The End on his literary triumph, only to find himself badly injured in a horrific car crash. “Luckily”, he is “rescued” by his “Number One Fan” – Annie Wilkes. This axe-wielding former nurse might be demonstrably insane, but she has a steady supply of painkillers, an at-home recuperation set-up, and only one demand: that the author write one more book, a very special book, just for her. Read my full review of Misery here.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michealides

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To round out this list of thrillers without dead girls, let’s look at The Silent Patient. The “girl” (ahem-woman!-ahem) at the centre of this story is the kind of “troubled” character you’d expect to be bumped off in the first few pages, except in Michaelide’s version she’s the one wielding the weapon. Alicia Berenson seemed to have the perfect life, right up until she shot her husband five times. Why? Well, she’s not saying; she hasn’t spoken a word since she got trigger-happy. The mystery captivates the world, especially forensic psycotherapist Theo Faber. He’s determined to get Alica to talk. But will that do more harm than good?

Misery – Stephen King

Can you imagine a writer so twisted that they write a best-selling book about a writer who is kidnapped, abused, and forced to write a novel by an axe-wielding villain? Such an idea could only come from the mind of the King of Horror, Stephen King! Misery is his 1987 psychological horror novel with that exact premise.

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The main character, Paul Sheldon, is a 42-year-old author. He has recently published the final installment of his best-selling Victorian romance series, much to his relief; finally, he’ll be able to focus on his more Serious Literary(TM) novels. Unfortunately, Paul also likes a drink, a bit too much. He gets plastered to celebrate his success and winds up totalling his car. He’s pulled from the wreck by Annie Wilkes.

Ah, yes, Annie Wilkes – even if you’ve never read Misery or seen the movie adaptation, you’ve probably heard her name in hushed whispers as one of the most horrifying villains in fiction. She’s a former nurse with a healthy home-stash of medication “samples”, and she’s a big fan of Paul’s romance novels. She’s also very, very unhappy about his decision to kill off his protagonist in the final book.

So, here we have a severely-injured writer, “fortuitously” discovered by his number-one fan who’d do anything to have him continue writing. What’s a girl like Annie Wilkes to do… but take him hostage in her guest room, set his broken legs, get him hooked on painkillers, and plonk a typewriter down in front of him? That’s right, she forces him to write the story she feels Misery (the character for whom King’s novel gets its title) deserves.

When King first had the idea for the story of Misery, he envisaged a 30,000 word manuscript that he would call The Annie Wilkes Edition. In that parallel-universe version, Paul finishes the story Annie forces him to write, and Annie kills him, in order to bind that special, final book in his skin. Ultimately, though, he decided to go with a much longer version (four times as long) and a different ending (which I won’t spoil completely here, but…). When asked why the change, he said:

… it would have made a pretty good story (not such a good novel, however; no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him), but that wasn’t the way things eventually went. Paul Sheldon turned out to be a good deal more resourceful than I initially thought.

Stephen King (on Misery)

Misery moves a lot faster than the other Stephen King novel I’ve read (Under The Dome), but that’s not surprising really, given that it’s a third of the length and only has two central characters. Unfortunately, despite having a narrower focus, King really doesn’t flesh out his characters as fully as you’d hope. Maybe I’m jaded from reading too many more recent and more intricate thrillers, but everything in Misery just seemed a bit two-dimensional. Annie Wilkes had no depth, no complexity – she was like a cut-out of a “psychopath”. Paul Sheldon was a mess of convenient realisations and insights; by way of example, he kept having dreams that would point him in the right direction or “reveal” how he truly felt. The “shocking twists” were just small bumps in the road, overcome by Paul thinking really hard about them for a bit. It’s paint-by-numbers intro-to-Psychology “show, don’t tell” stuff, and I honestly expected more from King.

Maybe he was blinded by how deeply personal and autobiographical Misery was for him. It’s not just the emphasis he puts on the importance of dreams (he has said, IRL, that the character of Annie Wilkes came from a dream of his own). King’s personal struggles, and the at-times destructive passion he feels for books and writing, feel encoded into Misery‘s DNA. Firstly, you can see the way King sees his books (and himself, come to that) hinted at in the way he describes his main character:

He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers.

Misery (Page 7)

But the larger, overwhelming metaphor is that of addiction. Misery is like King’s come-to-Jesus moment about his own addiction(s) manifest. Paul Sheldon becomes addicted to the painkillers that Annie Wilkes forces him to take, and his days come to revolve around her dispensing his medication, more than food, water, or his bedpan; even when he contemplates escape, he wonders and worries about cutting off his supply. So, you’ve got a murderous captor holding the writer hostage, getting him high and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, until he almost loses himself completely – honestly, if Misery isn’t handed out at AA meetings, it should be. To his credit, King doesn’t deny the connection.

I wrote [Misery] when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave.

Stephen King (On Misery)

He stops short, however, of admitting that Paul is some kind of cathartic Mary Sue; he concedes that “certain parts of him are [me]”, but qualifies that “I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you”.

(Maybe he spoke too soon. In a strange twist of life imitating art, King himself was in a serious car crash similar to his character Paul Sheldon’s, in 1999. Luckily, no one took him hostage and forced him to write anything afterwards… as far as we know.)

After publication, Misery won the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Novel, and critical reception was generally positive, despite disgruntled voices from fans who resented King for steering away from his prior fiction’s supernatural/fantasy elements. Personally, I preferred the realism of Misery, but it still fell a bit short for me in other ways (see above). I might check out the movie adaptation at some point, just to see if the story translates better to the screen (though if they do any cheesy dream sequences, I may actually vomit). All told, Misery is a middle-of-the-road horror novel, made more interesting for its parallels to King’s personal life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Misery:

  • “I bought it as a present for myself and wasn’t disappointed. Reading Misery on New Year’s Eve was relaxing, soothing, and good. It was like my mind had a vacation on its own.” – Sofia Petrovna
  • “The book was really good I like misery” – bina shrestha
  • “I couldn’t even feel for Paul much. He seemed wimpy. After his legs healed from his accident, he could have escaped, but didn’t.

    King also had too many coincidences in his storyline. It’s enough to make your eyes roll.

    Instead of taking the axe to Paul’s leg, King should have did it to the book instead. This would have saved me the “misery” of reading it!” – MJ
  • “True misery is reading this novel. By the time he’d written this, King had succumbed to the “my every word is golden” delusion, so the thing is much larger than it needed to be. After reading this because I promised a friend I’d do it (oh, what we do for pretty women)I decided that even 180 pages would’ve been too long. The conclusion is unsatisfactory because some of the cast of characters survive.” – James K. Burk
  • “By the time I was halfway through I wanted one of them to die. It didn’t matter which one it was.” – Pharoah 12
  • “I order “misery” by Stephen King and received a diet book. Granted, both are thrillers but I was really looking forward to stimulating my imagination and I really don’t like losing weight” – enobong essien

15 Compelling Titular Characters

Some star characters shine so bright, they eclipse all other characters and the book is named after them. Sometimes they’re the narrator, sometimes they’re the villain, but either way they’re always very memorable. Here are fifteen compelling titular characters that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page…

15 Compelling Titular Characters - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens once said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. He’s rumoured to be the most autobiographical of Dickens’ characters (though that’s not really true, as best the experts can tell), but that’s not why. David Copperfield persists through all kinds of rotten luck – an abusive step-father, a hellish boarding school experience, shitty jobs, romances gone wrong – to reach a comfortable and happy late middle-age. Plus, he just seems like a decent bloke. His saga is every bit as compelling as you’d hope for a 19th century serial. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant, the titular character of best-seller Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, is the kind of quirky oddball protagonist that seemed destined to win hearts and minds all around the world. Her social skills lack polish (to put it mildly), and she finds it easiest to stick to a regimented life of work, vodka, and frozen pizza. That is, until circumstances throw her into the path of Raymond, the bumbling-but-big-hearted IT guy who shows her that maybe she can aim for more in life than just “fine”. Eleanor would probably be a prickly friend, but she’s a compelling character you can’t help but root for.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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A Man Called Ove is – you guessed it – the story of a man called Ove, a crotchety old-before-his-time widower who doesn’t feel he has much life left to live. This curmudgeonly character is (eventually) begrudgingly charmed by his larger-than-life new next-door neighbours, and they help him find his way out of the darkness. I loved this book, loved-loved-loved it; it’s the perfect combination of hilarious and heart-breaking. Ove is one of those titular characters you wish you could have a coffee with (even though you know he’d complain all the while). Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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Here’s a titular character who isn’t the narrator – in fact, she doesn’t appear in the novel at all – but Rebecca’s presence looms large over everything. The narrator of Rebecca is the second Mrs de Winter, having been swept off her feet by the enigmatic Mr de Winter in sunny Monte Carlo. When she moves into his grand estate at Manderley as his wife, she finds she cannot escape the memory of Rebecca, the wife that came before. She seems to lurk in every shadow, around every corner, and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers seems determined to keep her memory alive at any cost. But why? What made Rebecca so special? And will the second Mrs de Winter ever be able to shake the woman’s ghost? Read my full review of Rebecca here.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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You can understand Eva Khatchadourian’s desperation to talk about her son, Kevin, in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. After all, the kid is responsible for a heinous act of mass murder, a school shooting. Through a mother’s desperate plea, we try to understand the titular character, and what drove him to attack his fellow students and school staff. This haunting novel is an interrogation of nature versus nurture, the burden of caregiving unduly weighted towards mothers, and the futility of trying to make sense out of personal tragedy.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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Beloved is an adjective (“greatly loved; dear to the heart”), a noun (“a person who is greatly loved”), and the moniker adopted by the looming specter at the heart of Toni Morrison’s heart-wrenching novel. Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman, buried the body of her unnamed child under a tombstone engraved with one of the only words she could recall from the funeral service. Years later, haunted years in a Cincinnati home that seems to be under attack from a malevolent spirit, Sethe’s past manifests in the form of a young woman, Beloved. This name – of the character and the book – is steeped with multiple meanings and deep significance. Read my full review of Beloved here.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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Arthur Less, the titular character of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is a bit of a sad sack. He believes himself to be “the first homosexual to ever grow old”. When his much-younger ex-lover invites him to his wedding (to a more age-appropriate beau), Arthur Less seeks any reasonable excuse to not attend. Over the course of Less, he accepts every half-baked invitation to every poorly planned literary event around the world, and hits the road hard. Yes, Arthur Less is a bit of a fuck-wit, prone to pity parties, but it’s endearing somehow. He’s one of my all-time favourite titular characters. Read my full review of Less here.

Emma by Jane Austen

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Jane Austen herself described the titular character of her novel Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Not to contradict the queen of English literature, but I liked Emma very much. Yes, she was annoyingly wealthy and beautiful, and a chronic sticky beak, but she was also determinedly independent and capable of learning from her mistakes – which puts her a head above a lot of fictional heroines of her era. Even though she’s the titular character, the novel isn’t really about her, per se; it’s actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance. Read my full review of Emma here.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

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Alice, the character at the heart of Still Alice, is a fifty-something year-old woman facing a terrible fate by the end of the novel. Though it begins with her as an active professional with a full and busy life, the inciting incident sees her diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Slowly, she begins to lose the things she holds most dear: her memories, her cognitive function, her capacity to understand and engage with the world around her. Deep down, though, she is (as the title suggests) still Alice. This is a very touching story about one woman’s battle with an awful and insidious illness. Read my full review of Still Alice here.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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Did you know that in the original draft of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote the titular character as an ugly woman? As the story developed, however, he found that it was actually beauty that made her more unappealing. The character at the centre of this classic of Russian literature is a divisive one, to say the least. Some readers see her as a tragic heroine at the centre of a doomed love story, a victim of her circumstances, while others see her as a villain who brings her own unfortunate end upon herself. If you want to make up your own mind about her, you’re going to read all of the 800+ pages of the final, finished work.

Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Technically, there are seven titular characters in Daisy Jones And The Six (count ’em!), but the one that counts the most is the one who gets star billing. Daisy Jones has your typical tragic beautiful-rich-girl backstory: she was born to parents more interested in society than her, she spent her youth bouncing from bad decision to bad decision but indulged by everyone around her, and she holds simultaneous-if-contradictory unshakeable self-belief (she can be a world-famous singer without training or hard work) and deep self-loathing (which she numbs with drugs and alcohol). Daisy Jones is a train-wreck that will captivate you. Read my full review of Daisy Jones And The Six here.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Stoker didn’t write the first vampire novel (Dracula was published in 1897, and there were at least a handful of others that appeared before that), but his titular character has certainly been the most enduring. The creepy undead vampire villain has haunted the nightmares of countless readers for well over a century now, and he doesn’t seem destined to fade from popular consciousness any time soon. Granted, these days he seems a bit more camp than creepy – we’re all very familiar with the concept of vampirism and The Dracul, which drains some of his power to spook – but his name remains synonymous with the scary blood-sucking creature that might enter your home if you’re fool enough to invite him in. Read my full review of Dracula here.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë has been called “the first historian of private consciousness”. She revolutionised the art of first-person fiction with the titular character of Jane Eyre. Jane is an intensely emotional young woman, and through her we are immersed in her world. She’s a character that manifests the frustrations of women of the time, making the novel a blatant proto-feminist call-to-arms. And, as though Brontë foresaw the shortened attention spans and impatience of today’s readers, Jane’s intensity and determination is counterbalanced with a perfectly sharp wit, drier than a good martini. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Rodham - Curtis Sittenfeld - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Rodham is a particularly interesting one on this list, because the titular character is also a real-life one. Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel imagines the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton had she never married the man who would go on to become president, Bill Clinton, an alternative history that reveals “what could have been”. The New Yorker, reviewing the book, accused Sittenfeld of presenting a “less controversial Hillary” than her real-life counterpart, but even if that’s the case, there’s more than enough gossip juice in this book and readers gulp it down. It’s an incredible premise for a novel, and a well-timed antidote to the bin fire of politics and pandemics in 2020.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And here, we have TWO interesting titular characters for the price of one – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell! Set in 19th century England, this speculative historical novel posits that magic once existed but vanished from the world, until it returned with these two gentlemen. They represent a binary of sorts: teacher/pupil, studious/wild, practiced/improvisational… both are compelling in equal measure. This is one of those books that you wish more people would take the time to read; it’s an undertaking, but it’s worth it(!), and you’ll be desperate to talk it over with someone once you’re finished.

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, who described it herself in a letter to her publisher as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. I went in knowing the “twist” ending, but still excited to read it, as I’d heard nothing but glowing recommendations from other readers whose tastes don’t deviate much from mine. So, I won’t be hiding any spoilers in this review (don’t @ me).

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The opening chapter frames the story to follow: an unnamed narrator living abroad, reflecting on the strange circumstances that led her to that point in her life. It begins with the immortal opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Aside from that, the most important thing you need to know at the outset is that the narrator is never named, not even in dialogue.

When the flashback starts, the narrator is a naïve young woman working as a paid companion, holidaying with her employer in sunny Monte Carlo. She’s so passionately extra, I couldn’t help but laugh at her – a mild scene of social awkwardness over coffee becomes a test of her ability “to endure the frequent agonies of youth”. She is the antithesis of a Cool Girl, she has no chill at all. She constantly imagines the worst – whole scenarios and conversations – and reacts emotionally as though it’s actually happened.

It’s masterful psychological profiling by du Maurier (and annoyingly relatable), but it also gets a bit tiring to read without respite. Consider this your heads-up that Rebecca is not a book to be read in a single sitting; space it out a bit in order to enjoy it properly.

When your girl meets the handsome and enigmatic English widower holidaying in the same hotel, Mr de Winter, she freaks out so hard I desperately wanted her to have a Valium and a lie down. He’s wealthy and wife-less and, against all odds, romantically interested in this nervous little creature who’s paid to fold another woman’s underpants. After a fortnight of courting her, he all but demands that she marry him, and – of course – she agrees.

Now, I get that Maxim de Winter is meant to be the bad guy (that much is abundantly obvious, even in the earliest chapters), but like Mr Rochester before him, I’m hot for it. He’s charming and funny (when it suits him), and there’s something undeniably charismatic about him (despite his tendency to bump off wives when they annoy him – told you there’d be spoilers!).

Anyway, after the wedding and honeymoon, the de Winters return to their grand estate in Cornwall, Manderley (the one from the dream, remember?). There, the narrator meets Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper who remains steadfastly devoted to the first Mrs de Winter (that’d be the titular character, Rebecca), despite her untimely death in a boating accident the year before. Mrs Danvers is a truly chilling villain, capable of gaslighting even the reader – the whole way through Rebecca, she retains just enough plausible deniability to make you really wonder whether her constant attempts to psychologically undermine the narrator are all in the girl’s silly head.

So, the narrator is thrown into the lavish world of Manderley that doesn’t seem ready to accept her, and she hates it, despite loving Maxim. That’s a very strong start to a novel. Unfortunately, the plot then drags a little. The narrator obsesses over Rebecca, her new friends and household staff are cagey when she asks them questions, on and on it goes for a hundred pages or so. You might be tempted to write Rebecca off at this point – but don’t! It’s worth it in the end, I promise.

Things heat back up again when the narrator convinces herself, finally, that Maxim is still in love with his dead wife and there’s nothing she can do to ever truly win his heart. Mrs Danvers catches her at this (in)opportune moment, and tries to convince the narrator to commit suicide (yikes). Just as the narrator is making up her mind to jump, the shout goes up: a ship has wrecked just off the shore!

Not just that, but the divers who went down to try and free the ship’s hull from the reef found something disturbing: Rebecca’s capsized boat, with a body inside. That means that Maxim “identified” the wrong body that washed ashore after Rebecca’s disappearance. Oops!

And then it all really comes crashing down. Maxim is backed into a corner, forcing him to confess to his lovely new wife that he actually killed Rebecca. According to him, she was a cruel and unfaithful wife who managed to charm everyone but him with her beautiful facade (yeah, but mate, you would say that, wouldn’t you?). When she intimated to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he shot her – as you do…?

Almost unbelievably, the narrator accepts all of this without question. The prevailing opinion in the room is “Yeah! Rebecca! What a bitch!”. She doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation in helping Maxim cover up his crime. I can only surmise she was so willing to accept her murderous husband’s version of events because it conveniently and completely allayed every fear she’d had about his true allegiance and affections.

An inquest into the discovery of Rebecca’s (actual) body ends with a verdict of suicide. That’s when Jack Favell shows up and starts making trouble. He was Rebecca’s first cousin and lover, and he tries to blackmail Maxim, claiming to have “proof” that Rebecca would not have taken her own life – in the form of a note she sent to him the night that she died, asking him to come meet her.

NOW, this is where I will poke one important hole in an otherwise-fantastic story climax: why did no one consider Favell a suspect in Rebecca’s murder? Here’s this bloke who’s constantly drunk and highly emotional, who was having an affair with a married woman. He shows up with a note from her that shows they were to meet on the evening she died, a note that he failed to turn over to authorities for over a year… I mean, obviously he didn’t do it, but I kept waiting for SOMEONE to say “Mate, you look suspicious AF!”. No one did, though.

Anyway, I’ll try to speed through to the end here: it turns out that Rebecca wasn’t pregnant, but she was terminally ill, and Maxim manages to blame that on her too (“oh, she must have WANTED me to kill her, to save her a painful death, what a bitch!”). He escapes any trouble with the law, BUT the de Winters still have a karmic price to pay for his crime. Mrs Danvers burns the whole damn house down, and effectively forces them into exile.

Seriously, that final scene, that final page with the flames blazing on the horizon, it’s like a bomb going off. It stops abruptly, and leaves your ears ringing and your knees shaking. A chef’s-kiss A+ ending to Rebecca.

My edition includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, written in 2002. According to Beauman: “The plot of Rebecca may be as unlikely as the plot of a fairytale, but that does not alter the novel’s mythic resonance and psychological truth,” (page 437). No one really saw that at the time of publication. Reviewers called Rebecca “nothing beyond the novelette”, a book that “would be here today and gone tomorrow” – a far cry from the dissection of power and gender roles that du Maurier was getting at.

But, time told, after all; Rebecca has never been out of print. It is perennially popular, and has been adapted a bunch of times for both stage and screen (most recently, the 2020 remake for Netflix). I think it’s enduring appeal is due to the fact that it’s a deeply multi-layered literary novel, disguised as romantic fiction. You come for the spooky Gothic love story, but you stay for the evergreen interrogation of women’s subservience to (and subversion of) the rule of men. I’m pleased to report that, one or two quibbles aside, Rebecca lived up to all of its recommendations – and then some.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Rebecca:

  • “I forced myself to slog through this “classic” of gothic fiction and what a waste of time it was. 300 of the overwrought (and very DATED) 400 pages are mind-numbingly boring descriptions of Downton Abbey style tea parties, and the “story,” such as it was, all transpired in the last 80 pages, which themselves could have been edited down to 30.” – White Rabbit
  • “It was a slow and mildly interesting book.” – MRS M SWART
  • “Hated this story..too gloomy” – Sheryl Walsh
  • ” One of the most boring books I have ever read. This frequently makes ‘scariest books’ lists and the only thing scary about it is the narrator’s mother.” – K. P. Klima
  • “This book is, without question, the most boring peace of literature ever written. It makes the technical manual to my VCR look like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In fact, it’s so boring that I recommend a new synonym for boring, “Rebecca”. The book is about people who have disgustingly unbelievable personalities, who do really boring things, and make up mysteries about killing people that aren’t even in the story, then insist on telling you about it. The main character/narrator is the most overly emotional and sappy person in all of fiction, and could never ever be a real person, even in the 1920s when this book takes place. She insists on telling you about all of her problems, and how she can never “feel right” at Manderly, even though no sane person could EVER care. It’s enough to make you sick. The story really wasn’t that bad but it could have easily been told in about 1/10 of the amount of time. It’s like Dickens description without everything that makes Dickens good. Even after the thousands of atrocities committed by Hitler, I still consider him to be a great man, for burning THIS book. It’s that bad.” – person
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