Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

7 Books Based On True Stories

Art imitates life, as the saying goes, and it’s not always accidental. Some of the most amazing fiction books are based on true stories. Props to the authors who are forthright about it, and don’t hide behind disclaimers about resemblances being “coincidental”. Sure, sometimes it can be controversial to rip off the real world, even downright problematic, but I reckon as long as the book is shelved as fiction and the author is honest about what inspired them and what they made up, it’s all fair game. Here are some of my favourite fiction books based on true stories…

7 Fiction Books Based On True Stories - Keeping Up With The Penguins
It’s true: if you buy a book through a link on this site, I get a tiny commission at no cost to you.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We all know the rhyme: Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. Of course, as with all crimes that pass in to lore, that’s not quite what happened (in fact, we might never know the truth of what happened to Lizzie Borden’s parents, given that she was acquitted of their murder and everyone involved is long gone). Still, it’s good material put to good use in See What I Have Done. Schmidt reaches her own conclusions about who Lizzie whacked, and with what, and why, but more so than any other adaptation of this story, she delves in to the strange psychology that underlies this tale.

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls - Emma Cline - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“I looked up because of the laughter,” Evie’s story begins, “and kept looking because of the girls,”. From that, the title of The Girls – Emma Cline’s debut novel – is derived. She’s taken a lash at the Manson cult and the murder of Sharon Tate, but instead of focusing on the charismatic leader or the gory details, she focuses on (you guessed it) the girls who followed him. All of the people involved have undergone a name change, and a lot of the details don’t quite match up – but this is fiction, after all, and Cline has been quite clear about that. Still, it’s undeniably inspired by the crime that defined California in the late ’60s.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room - Emma Donoghue - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Josef Fritzl is a world-wide household name, for the very worst reason. In 2008, it emerged that he had kept his daughter, Elisabeth, captive in a secret basement for twenty four years. The details of the case are sickening, truly the stuff of nightmares, but Emma Donoghue has translated the story into a fascinating and compelling work of fiction, Room. I think the masterstroke is telling the story through the eyes of Jack, a child born in captivity, and rather than focusing on the horrific crime and the man behind it, turning the focus instead to the bond between mother and son.

At The Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino

At The Wolf's Table - Rosella Postorino - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I first heard Rosella Postorino talking about At The Wolf’s Table on the radio, I didn’t actually realise she was talking about her own book. It was such a fascinating true story, that of the conscripted women who were food tasters for Hitler, that I was completely hooked without even knowing I could read more about it. Postorino was inspired by Margot Wölk, a woman who didn’t reveal until very late in her life that she had been one of Hitler’s food tasters. Sadly, she passed soon after sharing her story, so we have lost the opportunity to learn more about what that life was like, but we can be glad that Postorino has found a way to tell a version of her story to the world.

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History Of Seven Killings - Marlon James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, I’m not as across the history of reggae music – or the history of Jamaica, for that matter – as I should be. I’m hoping I’ll learn more from A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It uses a single event, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (even I know who he is), to tell the stories of dozens of characters across decades. A quick Google search has led me to a few interesting articles about the attempted murder (gunmen attacked Marley at his house, and though he sustained injuries, he went on to play a full 90-minute set at the Smile Jamaica Concert, attended by over 80,000 people), and I’m sure the novelisation will be just as fascinating.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Unless you’ve already read Burial Rites, you probably don’t know the name Agnes Magnusdottir. She was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, in 1829, beheaded with a broad axe at just 34 years of age. She was convicted of the brutal murders of two men (one of whom was known to be her lover), and an attempt to cover up the crime by arson. It would make for a great true crime read all on its own, but Hannah Kent has done something special in weaving it into fiction, allowing us to more closely examine the power of rumour and fear and dignity in the face of it all.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist Of Auschwitz - Heather Morris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s one of the more controversial ones: The Tattooist Of Auschwitz was an international best-seller, its fire surely fuelled by author Heather Morris’s repeated assurances that the story was as factually accurate as possible, with some details added or altered by “dramatic license”. The book is based on the real-life love story of Lali Sokolov and the woman he fell for while tattooing her at Auschwitz. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, it has been subject to extensive criticism, with many – book reviewers and Holocaust historians alike – calling into doubt its veracity. For her part, though, Morris insists that “the book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians,”. Fair enough, I say, but of course it’s up to each reader to decide for themselves.

Sadie – Courtney Summers

Well, Keeper Upperers, last year I asked Santa for a big stack of books – and boy, did he deliver! Sadie by Courtney Summers came via my wonderful and dear friend Cathal, right into my hot little hands. This one has been near the top of my wishlist for ages, so I couldn’t bring myself to wait another minute before tearing in to it.

Sadie - Courtney Summers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Sadie here.
(If you do, you’ll keep Santa’s love coming my way, in the form of a tiny commission – thank you!)

Sadie is Courtney Summer’s break-out novel. She’s written several other books prior, but this is the one that catapulted her to international attention and #bookstagram fame. What brought it to my attention was the killer premise: a modern twist on a murder mystery, partly styled as a podcast transcript.

The story begins with the discovery of a body, that of 13-year-old Mattie Southern, in a small run-down town in the middle of nowhere. She is survived by her 19-year-old sister, Sadie. Right off the bat, I liked the way that Summers was thumbing her nose at the tropes by naming her book after the living protagonist. When was the last time you read a crime novel with a titular girl who wasn’t dead?

That’s your first hint that Sadie is cleverer than it might first appear. Summers also lampoons the true-crime trend of middle-class butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths white blonde victims. Mattie and Sadie are from the wrong side of the tracks, their fathers are long gone, and their mother decided she preferred drugs to home-cooked dinners. Sadie and Mattie have had to forge their own way, living in a trailer with only their landlady for any kind of support.

West McCray – a radio journalist – overhears the tragic news of Mattie’s death while he’s working on another story nearby. At first, he doesn’t think much of it (another dead girl? that’s sad, but it’s hardly a story). Then, he hears from their landlady: Sadie has gone missing, just months after Mattie’s death. That’s the impetus for his podcast investigation, what hooks him (and us, the readers): what happened to the girls?

So, one side of the story is told by West, as he investigates – through interviews and sticking his nose everywhere it doesn’t belong – and the other side is told by Sadie herself. It’s a really interesting way of piecing the story together: each protagonist knows things the other doesn’t, and even without the high-stakes plot, you’ll find yourself desperate to find out what happens when their stories catch up to one another and intersect.

Summers also nails the podcast transcript, I must say. It’s very clearly modelled off cultural staples like Serial and This American Life. As I read, I couldn’t help but “hear” most of it in the soothing tones of Ira Glass. It got a little trite towards the end, maybe a little “neat”, but overall it holds up. I read in another review that apparently there are actual recorded episodes out there, which I’m curious to track down.

I think it’s also really powerful that Sadie is given her own voice, the opportunity to tell the reader her own story. Had the whole lot been narrated by West and the people he interviews, a lot of the complexity and intimacy would have been lost. She reveals pretty early on where exactly she’s gone “missing” to: she’s on the hunt for the man she believes killed Mattie, and she plans to give him a taste of his own medicine. She also has a stutter, which makes her internal monologue particularly powerful; what she’s not able to physically say out loud, she can share with us.

Being a crime novel, styled as a true crime podcast, there’s obviously some pretty gruesome stuff (if you’re not a true crime junkie, it’s probably worse than you’d imagine). So, here’s a content warning for violence (duh) and child abuse. Though Courtney Summers’ books are classed as Young Adult, I really feel that Sadie could have been published and marketed as adult crime fiction without raising an eyebrow.

The ending isn’t exactly happy, though it does provide enough resolution that the story feels finished. I knocked it over in a single afternoon. I’d say it’s the perfect book for fans of Veronica Mars.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sadie:

  • “It was pretty ok!” – Lauren A Woods
  • “Wtf” – User

How Do You Decide What To Read Next?

Like every other book-lover I know, I have a huge collection of books I’ve never read. My to-be-read list seems like an infinite loop; for every book I read, I seem to accumulate at least three more. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hoarding books for vanity’s sake, I really do want to read them! But in the face of such an overwhelming number of options, how do you decide what to read next?

How Do You Decide What To Read Next? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Random Selection

This is the most truly utilitarian way to decide what to read next: entering all of the contenders into a random selector, or putting them all on slips of paper and drawing them out of the hat. Of course, this takes all of the work out of deciding what to read next, which is a big upside for the (ahem) slightly lazy reader, but you do risk ending up with something you don’t “feel” like reading.

Chronologically by Deadline

If you’re a library user, or a reviewer of new releases, you’re lucky: the books you choose come with built-in deadlines. If you’ve got one book due for return or review in a week, and another due in a month, you can simply pick up the most urgent title. This method comes with a heavy hit of obligation, though, not to mention some gnawing guilt if you don’t quite make it.

A Book Bracket

This is probably the most fun way to decide what to read next! Say you have eight contenders, eight books you just can’t wait to read: put them in to a bracket and play them off against one another, until you find a winner. If it’s, say, Convenience Store Woman up against Daisy Jones And The Six, Convenience Store Woman comes out on top and proceeds to the next round to do battle with the winner of The Handmaid’s Tale and A Man Called Ove. Hey, if it’s good enough for sports tournaments, it’s good enough for bookworms!

Peer Pressure

If you decide to join a book club, participate in a read-along, or agree to a buddy read, there’s no need to decide what to read next – your choice is made for you! Yes, it’s peer pressure, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing (despite what your high school health teacher might have taught you). It will lift the weight of decision-making off your shoulders, at least until your choice for book club rolls around…

Bonus: you could go by the calendar to choose what to read next. Pick up books by black authors during Black History Month, a book by a woman for International Women’s Day, queer reads for Pride – it’s a great way to feel connected to what’s going on in the world!

Shaking Things Up

I’m quite partial of deciding what to read next this way: deliberately choosing something completely different to your last read. If I’ve just finished something intensely literary, like Mrs Dalloway, I’m going to turn to something more fun, like The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project. If I’ve just sped through a great memoir, like Me Talk Pretty One Day, I’ll choose something next that I can take my time with, like Crime And Punishment. Choosing what to read next this way ensures you’ll never get bored, and never end up in a re-reading rut.

Book Flights

Okay, this is pretty much the complete opposite to the last suggestion, so pick whichever works best for you. A book flight involves reading a whole lot of books in a row on a similar topic or theme. So if you were, say, really “feeling” true crime at the moment, you might read The Arsonist, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, In Cold Blood, and Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered back-to-back. This method is probably best suited to the obsessive reader, the ones who love to grab on to an idea and not let it go until they’ve shaken it to death.

Go With “The Vibe”

Alright, this is probably the most popular – and most logical, for normal people – way to decide what to read next. Simply check your gut for what you “feel like” reading, and choose a book based on its vibe. I do this from time to time (granted, I scroll through my highly-organised spreadsheet until a title jumps out at me, it’s not exactly loosey-goosey), and it always seems to work out. If you truly don’t know what you feel like reading, then resort to one of the other ways of choosing what to read next, but if you have a strong instinct, you should go with it. You won’t regret it!

How do YOU choose what to read next? Let me know in the comments!

Atonement – Ian McEwan

Atonement was first published in 2001, making this year the 20th anniversary of its release. This is the novel for which Ian McEwan is best known (by me, anyway). It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release, TIME named it one of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923, and it was made into a remarkably successful film starring Keira Knightley. I went in blind, though, having never seen the movie and knowing nothing more about it than I read on the back cover.

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Atonement here.
(If you do, I’ll get a small commission, and you’ll get my eternal gratitude!)

Atonement is set across three time periods: England just before the Second World War, France during it, and back to England in the present day. That should’ve been my first red flag; I’m still quite tired of WWII historical fiction (as though there’s not any other conflicts or time periods we could write and read about), but I persisted on the promise that it wasn’t really about-about the war, it was about the domestic drama playing out in one tiny corner of it.

It starts off with Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl, kicking up a big stink. She had planned to put on a play to celebrate her much older brother’s return to the family’s country estate, but her young cousins lack the acting chops to bring her vision to life. Her point of view alternates with that of Cecilia, her older sister, who recently graduated from Cambridge (with a “humiliating third”), and Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son (who got a first from Cambridge, despite his humble beginnings).

McEwan seems hell-bent on making mountains out of molehills in this first part, but I’ll try and sum it up as best I can. Basically, Cecilia and Robbie have a few moments of heady flirtation, followed by a passionate – ahem – embrace in the library room. Briony, being a nosy parker with a tendency to the dramatic, witnesses all of this and decides that Robbie is some kind of sexual predator hell-bent on devouring every virgin in his path.

Of course, he’s nothing of the sort. He’s just a young bloke with a hard-on for the rich girl in the pretty green dress. There’s a dinner party, and he spends most of it trying to pretend he’s not staring. Mid-way through, the two youngest children – cousins of Cecilia and Briony – decide to “run away”, and the family sets out to search for them. Lola – another cousin – is attacked in the dark, by a man Briony decides must have been Robbie.

This is the key moment, the pivotal point of the whole novel. Lola is unable, or unwilling, to identify her attacker, but Briony declares with some certainty that it was Robbie (“knowing”, as she does, that he’s a sexual predator). She identifies him to the police as the rapist, and any time she wavers, the adults bully her back into certainty. They are, after all, eager to solve the crime – and Robbie is, after all, just the housekeeper’s son.

Naturally, everything turns to shit after that. Robbie is convicted and sent to prison. He gets out early, on the condition that he serve in the military, and World War II promptly breaks out. The second part of the novel follows him as he tries to bid retreat from France, thinking all the while of Cecilia. She stood by him through the accusation and the trial and the imprisonment, becoming completely estranged from her family in the process.

Eventually, Robbie makes it back to England, and back to Cecilia – not exactly unscathed, but in one piece, at least. The third part takes us to Briony as a young woman, training to become a nurse and still musing over her lie(?), mistake(?), total fuck up(?) that ruined Robbie’s life. She tries again and again to get in touch with Cecilia, eventually showing up on her doorstep. There, Briony and Robbie meet for the first time since that fateful night, and pretty much nothing is resolved. Briony is finally ready to confess, admit that she was wrong in a court of law if it comes to it, and Cecilia and Robbie are all “Well, that’s great and everything, but you still fucked up our lives, so thanks.”

Atonement ends with what can be called either a short fourth part, or a long epilogue. It’s set in London, 1999, and narrated by Briony in the form of a diary entry. In the intervening years, she’s forged a successful career as a writer. However, she has recently been diagnosed with dementia, and knows her mental decline is imminent. So, she’s written her story, to atone (see? you geddit?) for destroying two lives. She also reveals one final clanger: Robbie and Cecilia are dead, both killed a short time after she went to see them.

McEwan’s writing is very Literary(TM). Atonement actually has an interesting story, and I can see how it would make for a good movie, but it’s just buried underneath McEwan’s turgid prose. It was so overwrought at times I burst out laughing; weed isn’t just weed, it’s a “cigarette that drives young men of a bohemian inclination across the borders of insanity”. Briony being an aspiring writer also gave McEwan ample opportunity to slip into annoyingly meta- territory. He may as well have left notes in the margin for the reader: “SEE WHAT I’M DOING HERE, AREN’T I CLEVER?”.

I can easily imagine that, had a woman written Atonement, it would have been called sentimental, or wistful, and shelved as “women’s fiction”. The centrality of women in the narrative, and how much time they spent Thinking About Their Choices And Their Roles led me to the conclusion that McEwan was trying way too hard to prove that he wasn’t one of “those” male writers. He went above and beyond to show us that he “understands women” and can write from their perspective. Doing so with a novel about a false rape allegation is a truly bizarre choice – I know it was pre-#MeToo, but sheesh. The military stuff from Robbie’s point of view was marginally more compelling, as though it came to McEwan more naturally. Of course, that could be purely my own bias, but that’s how it seemed to me…

I also can’t ignore the controversy around Atonement‘s origins and “inspiration”. In 2006, Lucilla Andrews came forward and accused McEwan of borrowing too heavily from her 1977 wartime nursing autobiography, No Time For Romance. McEwan, of course, protested his innocence (and continues to do so, to this day), and a bunch of other authors – Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, and even Thomas Pynchon – came to his defense. As far as I know, the matter remains unresolved, and Andrews got nothing more out of it than a line in the acknowledgements.

So, in case you can’t tell, Atonement wasn’t to my taste. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of Richard Flanagan, stylistically and thematically they feel really similar and I’m sure they’d enjoy it, but it was not for me at all. I’ll give McEwan a couple more chances – I’ve got copies of Machines Like Me and The Children Act waiting for me on my to-be-read shelf, and they sound really good. I just hope they’re not buried under the same avalanche of bullshit as this one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Atonement:

  • “I lost the book, haven’t read it, but its a great movie” – Emily
  • “For some reason I just can’t stand this well-respected and well-loved writer.” – Amazin’ S. Hopper
  • “great seller….

    silly book” – kenmnyc

A-Z Reading Challenges: Read More in 2021

It’s almost a cliche to start a reading challenge in a new year. It’s the bookish equivalent of joining a gym, or a subscription service for frozen green smoothie delivery. But it’s also lots of fun! Nothing beats the aspirational feeling of finding a list of books that you are absolutely, definitely going to read this year – and all the better if there are others doing it with you.

Even if you don’t actually get to all the books you set out to (no one does, don’t worry!), it’s a great way to get you back into the rhythm of reading after the holidays and get you out of your reading comfort zone. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a new year to roll around to start a reading challenge: the best ones (in my view) let you take it at your own pace!

I’ve designed a few of my own with that in mind, just for you Keeper Upperers. Because I’m obsessed with organising my books alphabetically (see here, and here, and even here), it made sense to theme my reading challenges that way.

Every challenge includes a Free Space, which you can fill with whatever the heck you want. I want to pretend that’s because it’s a reminder to leave a little room for whimsy and spontaneity in this coming year, but really… X is just a very tricky letter, even for expert alphabetisers like myself.

First up, the A-Z Reading Challenge by book title

A-Z Reading Challenge by Book Title - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Click here to get a printable PDF, on the house!

Or, if you want to level-up, here’s an A-Z reading challenge by author surname

A-Z Reading Challenge by Author Surname - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Want another printable PDF? Click here!

But if you want to have a little more fun with it, get a little crazy, here’s a hybrid BINGO! version, just for you…

You guessed it, for a printable PDF, click here.

If you’re going to have a crack at one of these, please do comment below with a link or tag me wherever you share it – I’d love to see how you get on!

« Older posts