Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Nancy Wake ever since a friend told me about her a couple of years ago. She was one of the most highly decorated women of WWII, and the stories of her exploits in resisting the Gestapo are legendary. That’s why I added this book in particular to The List. Peter FitzSimons wrote a far more popular biography (which I would also like to read some day), but I really wanted to hear the story of this incredible woman in her own words. The White Mouse wasn’t hugely popular upon release, and it didn’t have a massive print-run, so I thought I had sweet fuck-all chance of finding it in a secondhand bookstore. I always checked the biography section just in case, never expecting much… until one day I ducked into my local while I was waiting for a bus, and there it was! To this day, I can’t believe my luck.

OK, it turns out that Nancy Wake was actually born in New Zealand, even though we claim her as an Aussie (we will claim any decent Kiwi as our own without blinking an eye, it never ceases to amaze). In The White Mouse, she only gives us a page or two about her early life, though; she speeds right ahead to the ascendancy of Hitler and the beginning of WWII. She was living in Marseilles with her French husband at the time, and she found increasingly inventive ways to help the French efforts resisting the Germans, helping sneak refugees out of France when the Occupation began. She went on to become a leading figure in the Resistance, using her “native cunning and beauty” to overcome the suspicions of German guards and get through checkpoints. Yep, she literally flirted her way through the war, all the while killing German soldiers with her bare hands. That’s girl power, folks.

The Special Operations Executive training reports say that she was “a very good and fast shot”, noted for “put[ting] men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character”. She also won a lot of drinking contests. By 1943, there was a 5-million franc price on her head. The Gestapo took to calling her “the White Mouse”, referring to her ability to elude capture – thus, the book title.


Her story is incredible, but the editing is shithouse, which is a real shame. There’s more than a few typos, and a lot of repetition; I quickly lost track of the number of times she described something as “extraordinary”. Little things like that could have been easily (and quickly!) fixed, and that would have made for a much more engaging read. We can hardly fault Wake herself for that; she was a bad-ass assassin spy, not a writer. And the level of detail she manages to recall is unbelievable – she must have kept really meticulous journals.

“For weeks now I had been subjected to more than my fair share of drama. I had been forced to flee from home, separated from my beloved husband and my darling [dog] Picon, made six fruitless journeys to the Pyrenees, been thrown in prison and kicked around, jumped out of a moving train, been fired at by a machine gun, sprinted to the top of a mountain, lost my jewellery, walked for five nights, been starved for eight days, and infected with scabies. There was no way I was going to let the little matter of a password deter me…. I crossed the road, went up to the front door and knocked. A man opened it and immediately I said, ‘I am Nancy Fiocca, you are in charge of our guides, I work for O’Leary, so do you, I want to go to Spain, I’ve had enough trouble getting here so don’t give me any crap.’”

So, yeah, as you can tell, Wake had a really matter-of-fact voice, and she talks really nonchalantly about the most terrifying of circumstances. Her affect doesn’t change between describing a dinner party and a major Resistance operation. I get the feeling she was much like that in real life as well.

Unfortunately, after the war, she didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after. Her first husband, Henri Fiocca, had stayed behind in France after she was forced to flee, and he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo when he refused to give them her location. Wake, however, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war ended. Her dog survived, and the story of their reunion in peace-time was one of the most heart-warming anecdotes I have ever heard.

She was also denied a medal by the Australian government for over five decades (shame!), on the grounds that she was “not fighting in any of the Australian services” during the war (double shame!). Indeed, from what I can tell, the Australian government treated her like shit in all other regards as well. When her second husband died in 1997, she was deemed ineligible for any pensions or benefits, and she had no children or family to support her. She ended up having to sell her war medals to support herself in her advancing years. Even so, she hardly seemed bitter; she said “There was no point in keeping them [the medals], I’ll probably go to Hell and they’d melt anyway”. She died in 2011, aged 98, of a chest infection.


Reading The White Mouse, I had to examine my own biases really closely. Why was I so enamoured with Nancy Wake, I kept asking myself, when I was so repulsed by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper”? In the end, I think it came down to the fact that Nancy seemed far more grounded in reality, and far more self-aware. While she (self-admittedly) “loathed” the Gestapo, she came across as someone who had quite natural biases and constantly re-evaluated the evidence at hand. She watched the Nazis sack a city that she had lived in and loved for most of her life, first hand. Kyle, on the other hand, came across as someone who had been brainwashed into hating brown people and loving guns, and had never thought to question it.

Nancy Wake’s autobiography isn’t a romantic narrative, so if you’ve come here looking for a non-fiction version of The Book Thief or All The Light We Cannot See, you can move right along. The White Mouse is not a work of art, it’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s deeply – unavoidably! – charming. It’s a story of incredible bravery and hardship, told without any sentimentality or self-effacing bullshit. Imagine if you got your no-nonsense grandma drunk, and found out she’d spent most of her life killing enemy combatants and doing courier runs for an underground resistance movement: that’s what reading The White Mouse is like. I fail to understand our collective obsession with fictionalised WWII narratives when there are books and stories like this out there (and they go out of print due to low sales). I can’t recommend The White Mouse on its artistic merit, but I think that you should read it anyway, and pay your respects to this incredible woman who probably could have won the war single-handedly if she’d needed to.

5 Books That Will Take Your Breath Away

You might think you know what you’re going to find on this list of “books that will take your breath away”, but I’m making it my personal mission to up-end your expectations today, Keeper-Upperers. This week, I reviewed The Bell Jar, and if I were wearing socks it would’ve knocked them right off. It took my breath away literally, at times, and it got me to thinking about the books that do that, and the varying reasons why. So, here’s a list of five books that will take your breath away (and not always for the reasons you’d expect).

5 Books That Will Take Your Breath Away - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Holding Open Book - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Breathtakingly Beautiful Prose: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elena Ferrante is not here to play, people. I’m not (currently) capable of reading My Brilliant Friend in the original Italian, but I can only assume it’s at least as breathtaking as Ann Goldstein’s fantastic English translation. My Brilliant Friend is, at times, toe-curling and stomach-churning. The titular character, the brilliant friend, is sometimes chilling and calculating and cruel… and, yet, Ferrante’s writing is always, always, always just fucking beautiful. If you asked me, apropos of nothing, to name a book of incredible prose, this is the first book I’d recommend.

Breathtakingly Bad: American Sniper (Chris Kyle)

American Sniper - Chris Kyle - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Breathtaking” is not always a good thing: just ask anyone who’s ever had a panic attack, or listened to a really awkward eulogy, or witnessed a car crash. I am still haunted by American Sniper, and Chris Kyle’s truly stunning lack of self-awareness. He’s amused by his own inhumanity, he’s dismissive of his wife and children, he’s remarkably lacking in empathy for people who don’t look like him or worship the same god, and he’s got a massive, throbbing boner for his gun. I hold American Sniper up as the worst example of just about everything, and it is, without a doubt, breathtakingly bad.

Laugh ‘Til You Can’t Breathe: Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might never have heard of Cold Comfort Farm, and that’s okay; heck, I hadn’t, until I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. I don’t mind telling you, though, it’s a travesty that this one is so often overlooked, because Gibbons had a brilliant comedic mind. Cold Comfort Farm is the funniest classic I’ve ever read. An Austen-esque protagonist, finding herself unexpectedly orphaned and ill-equipped for any type of gainful employment, cheerfully imposes upon her long-lost relatives, hell-bent on civilising them through sheer force of will. Do not read any extracts online (indeed, skip the introduction, even), because they won’t seem half as funny out of context and they’ll give you the wrong idea. Trust me on this. I have an excellent sense of humour.

Honourable mentions: The Martian, and Portnoy’s Complaint – both extremely funny in very different ways.

Breathtakingly Sad: The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll concede, this must be the least surprising inclusion on this list. You can get more details from my review this week, but basically it was an alarmingly autobiographical story of a young woman’s descent into deep depression. The life of Esther Greenwood (the protagonist) mirrored the real life of writer Sylvia Plath in almost every way – except that Esther got an almost-happy ending. Plath, sadly, died by suicide just weeks after The Bell Jar’s publication. It is, of course, beautifully written – at least on par with My Brilliant Friend, in my humble opinion – but it is excruciatingly sad, and not for the faint of heart or easily triggered.

Honourable mention: Still Alice – the prose doesn’t compare in terms of mastery, but Lisa Genova’s story of a middle-aged woman’s descent into Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease is still incredibly heartbreaking.

Hold Your Breath ‘Til It’s Over: Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

I’ve never quite reconciled my love of Lolita. Nabokov’s writing is awe-inspiring, the beauty of the language almost incomparable, and yet the subject matter… it’s haunting, horrifying, and hypnotic, in equal measures. Humbert Humbert is truly despicable, and reading the entire story from his perspective (the voice of his victim, the young Lolita, is completely silenced) is too much for some readers. It’s a book often abandoned and it’s not hard to see why. But I loved it in a way that, like I said, I can’t quite reconcile. I insist that everyone at least gives it a go (somewhat selfishly, I’ll admit – I just hope I won’t be the only one who sees its beauty!).

Honourable mention: A Clockwork Orange – Burgess depicted the most gut-churning gore and violence (both criminal and state-sanctioned) in a nonsense language (Nasdat) of his own devising, and yet the imagery was crystal clear.

What weird reason has a book taken your breath away? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I’ve been looking forward to The Bell Jar for a long, long time. Unfortunately, it’s another book that’s practically impossible to find in secondhand bookstores. No one – and I mean no one – seems to want to part with their copy! I checked in every secondhand store, market stall, and charity shop I passed for over a year, with no luck… and then (get this), one day, a dear friend was searching manically for a last-minute gift for me, and she managed to find a copy in the secondhand book store closest to my house. It had come in that very day. She got this gorgeous Faber edition for a song, and it is honestly one of the best presents I have ever received. Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes?

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published just weeks before her suicide – and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the tone of the book. I know trigger warnings are controversial, but surely we can all agree that if there’s any book in the world that deserves one, it’s The Bell Jar? It’s such a stark depiction of depression and suicidality, it could really bring up some stuff for you if you’re not prepared. Readers also widely regard it as a roman à clef, because the main character’s descent into mental illness so closely mirrors Plath’s own struggles. She pretty much just changed the names of people and places (not unlike Jack Kerouac’s On The Road… well, in that regard only).

The story is set in 1953. It opens with a young woman – Esther Greenwood – completing a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City, exactly as Plath did (I’m not going to point out every similarity though, because that would get very old very quickly – just trust me that Esther = Sylvia, kay?). Esther had high hopes for the internship, but it’s been nothing like what she expected, and she’s more perplexed than enamoured with the glamourous big-city lifestyle. She returns home, in low spirits, and her mother piles on, telling her that she was rejected by the prestigious writing program she’d set her sights on entering.

So, Esther can’t figure out what the fuck to do with herself. She tries to read Finnegan’s Wake, but gives up on that quick smart. She thinks about marriage and motherhood, but decides she’d rather throw up in her mouth and swallow it. She looks into all of the socially-acceptable “woman jobs” available to her (like stenography), but they bore the pants off her. Given her options, it’s hardly a surprise that she winds up extremely depressed.


Her mother takes her to see a psychiatrist, who apparently got his education from one half-hearted read of One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest. He gives her a horrific round of ECT, and she (quite rightly) refuses to return. His “treatment” makes everything worse instead of better, culminating in a suicide attempt. Esther survives… barely.

Her mother has her committed, and she finally receives some actual therapy from a non-idiot, including properly-administered ECT, after which her condition greatly improves. She takes many steps towards rebuilding her life and her mental health, and she says she feels as though the “bell jar” of her depression has been lifted (thus, the title). The book ends with her talking about her fear that the bell jar would again descend one day – it’s kind of ambiguous, but also beautiful.

I had such high expectations of The Bell Jar, after years of hearing how fantastic it was, and I was convinced there was no way it could possibly live up to the hype… but, of course, it fucking did. The prose was so damn beautiful, I was almost angry. I started wondering why I should bother writing or reading anything else in the world, when something this good already exists. I wanted to throw my gorgeous Faber edition across the room… but, of course, I couldn’t, because I was clutching it so hard.

The Bell Jar touches on many major themes and issues, but not in a way that feels Loftily Literary(TM) – it all just emerges naturally from the story. Take, for instance, the questions Plath raises about the role of women in society, and the constraints of gender roles for women in mid-20th century America. Esther feels the usual pressure to be a “good girl” and become both self-sufficient and married with children, but she lacks the resources and opportunities to become truly independent. Then, on top of that, Plath has a lot to say about mental health treatment – especially for women – in that era, showing us the good, the bad, and the ugly of how it could all unfold.


Unfortunately, Plath’s real-life story has a much more tragic end; she died by suicide barely a month after publication of The Bell Jar in the U.K. It wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1971, as per the wishes of her husband and mother. I think her death is all the more tragic for how it’s impacted our reading of her work. We’re so obsessed by the autobiographical nature of it, especially in light of her death, that we seem to overlook the artistic triumph of this (ultimately fictional) book. We miss the proverbial wood for the trees, or whatever.

I read one review that said Plath’s suicide so soon after publication meant that there have been “few innocent readings” of The Bell Jar, which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it. It’s practically impossible to read this book without, on some level, searching for insights into Plath’s real life and death. Still, for the sake of art, we should really try.

Even though The Bell Jar was her only novel, there’s still plenty more Plath in my future; she’s widely credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry, more than any of her contemporaries, so I’ll be seeking out her collections, not to mention her diaries and letters. Her work is hardly a barrel of laughs, but if you’re in a mentally stable place and equipped to cope with what it brings up for you, it is so, so worth it. I one-hundred-percent recommend The Bell Jar, one of the few books I’ve ever read that truly exceeds the hype.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bell Jar:

  • “Every girl should love this by age 15 and be embarrassed that they did by age 35.” – Jonathan AW Edwards
  • “What light-hearted fun this was! A comedy romp from beginning to end. Highly recommended if you need cheering up.” – Katie Krackers
  • “There was sticky brown stuff all over the book including on the inside.” – Lilian
  • “Does what it says on the tin.” – Carl Sanders
  • “Noice” – Jacob Bradley
  • “Overly sensitive privileged white girl rejects a guy, doesn’t get into the writing course she wants. Tries to read James Joyce, thinks about death, tries to kill herself. Has a bunch of shock treatment.
    Maybe you have to be young and angsty to appreciate it.
    I am not young, and successfully medicated. Even it my most angsty, this would have been a drag.
    Bonus points for language usage.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It was a good 47 minutes” – Amazon Customer

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand (And My Best Tips To Track Them Down!)

Hi, my name is Sheree, and I’m a second-hand book addict. If you’ve been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you’ll know that I’m a regular fixture in all my local stores, scouring the shelves for books on The List. In fact, I’ve managed to find the majority of them this way (the subject of this week’s review, Fangirl, being the exception). Sometimes, I muse on how easy it would be to simply buy them all brand new with the click of a button… but where’s the fun in that? It’s all about the thrill of the chase! To save you some of my heartache, I thought I’d write a post about the longest and most difficult chases, and give you some tips to make it all a little easier. Here’s 7 books that are hard to find second hand (and my best tips for tracking them down!).

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand - Book Covers and Text - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett

When my hunt for books on The List first started, I didn’t anticipate Terry Pratchett being a problem. After all, he’s so popular, and so prolific(!), I figured that every secondhand book store would be simply groaning under the weight of his entire collection. Plus, I was sure I’d seen stacks of his books in other stores before, so surely it wouldn’t be that hard. Turns out, I was dead wrong! Maybe I’m just in the wrong (geographical) area, maybe all fantasy books just blur together in my mind, but whatever it is: The Colour of Magic was nowhere to be found! When I did see a small handful of Terry Pratchett’s offerings on the shelves (which wasn’t often at all, by the way), this particular book – the first in his Discworld series – was never among them. I ended up finding it while I was wandering through a neighbouring suburb on a Saturday afternoon. Some long-suffering hippie had set up a trestle table, and he was selling off his personal book collection; he had half a dozen Pratchett books, and I finally hit pay-dirt.

Tip Number 1: Don’t limit your search to stores! Often, the best bargains are to be found at markets and other stall-type set-ups, where people are just selling off their own stuff (thank you, Marie Kondo!). They’re just happy to be rid of it, de-cluttering and all that being good for the soul, and you can score a hard-to-find book at a fraction of what you’d pay in the store (where the seller would know exactly how hard it is to find, and how much it’s worth!).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

I had one secondhand book store staff member LITERALLY LAUGH IN MY FACE when I asked if they had a copy. If that doesn’t convince you that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is hard to find second hand, I don’t know what will! The problem is that this beloved classic of the sci-fi genre is a comfort read; people pull it out when they want something familiar and calming, re-reading it dozens of times over, and so they never want to part with it.

Still, joke’s on that giggly store clerk: I grabbed the first copy I found, without even looking at the price (a modest $9, thank goodness!), and it turns out it’s a freaking first edition! It’ll be worth a quid one day, believe you me…

Tip Number 2: Don’t give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And before you donate or sell any book of your own, always double check the publication date and whether there’s any significance to that edition. Make sure you’re armed with information, and you know its worth before you pass it on!

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

Now, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Clarissa was tough to find second hand: not only is it one of the lesser-known classics (compared to something like Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield), but it’s also fucking loooooooong! It runs to over 1,500 pages, meaning that it’s not that popular with contemporary readers. And when people aren’t buying it new, your chances of finding it second hand decrease dramatically (duh). So, I was keeping my eyes peeled for a big-ass book… Imagine my surprise when I found a modestly-sized abridged version at a closing-down sale, running to just 500 pages! Now, I’m not saying I’d turn down a copy of the full text if I came across one, but in the meantime I’m happy to consider it checked off my to-buy list.

Tip Number 3: Don’t get tunnel vision! I find having a to-buy list really enhances my second-hand book buying experience, and it stops me from feeling overwhelmed. Without it, I’d probably want to take home every single book I see, and end up with a hundred copies of everything. But if I stayed hell-bent on only buying “pretty” editions, or full texts, or print-runs from Penguin, or whatever, I’d have missed out on some great deals and books I’ve come to love very much. So, a list is a good idea, but don’t let it hem you in!

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend

I’ve searched for Lolly Willowes one long and hard, and it’s even tougher than most of the others on this list, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve got to check for two different titles (it’s usually called “Lolly Willowes”, but some editions go under “The Loving Huntsman”). And, if that’s not enough, I’ve also got to check under two different author names (she’s alternately called Sylvia Townsend, and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Luckily, T and W are pretty close together in the alphabet, so I normally don’t have to search too far if the shelves are arranged alphabetically…

Tip Number 4: If there’s something in particular you’re searching for, make sure you know everything there is to know about it. Does it have an alternative title? Did the author use a nom de plume at first, or switch to a married name, or choose a new name after coming out? You’ll kick yourself forever if you figure out that you could’ve found a copy, if only you’d known where to look!

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Speaking of alternate titles: The Sun Also Rises was also sometimes printed with the title “Fiesta”. There’s a fun fact for you! But even knowing that, I still had a really tough time finding it, and I couldn’t understand why. I mean, I saw A Farewell To Arms, and The Old Man and The Sea, in almost every store I entered – but never the Hemingway I actually wanted. I was bitching about this situation (indeed, rather loudly) in my favourite second-hand book store one day, when a lovely young woman gently tapped me on the shoulder, and held out to me the copy she’d just pulled off the shelf.

Of course, this all happened on the very day when I had no cash on me and I’d left my card at home. But I wasn’t completely out of luck: I was in the company of a very dear friend (when I’m with friends, “let’s go for a wander!” is almost always code for “let’s go find a bookstore to browse!”), and he was kind enough to buy it for me. Not all heroes wear capes!

Tip Number 5: If you’re going to forget your wallet, make sure your friend brings his! And make sure you name them as a sponsor of your book blog and show them lots of love and gratitude 😉 Ha! On a more serious note, don’t be afraid to ask the store assistants if you’re looking for something in particular. Sure, now and then, you’ll encounter one that will laugh in your face (ahem!), but for the most part they are incredibly kind and helpful. And the patrons are too, come to that (the young lady who helped me was not an aberration – I’ve helped out fellow patrons a time or two myself!). Sometimes, the store will have a “wait” list of sorts, and the staff will add your name and call you if the book comes in. They’re so grateful for your custom, they’ll go above and beyond to make sure you keep coming back!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I must admit, I actually have no idea why this one was so difficult to find. It was one of my top priorities in my search, having heard that it was excellent, and I dutifully checked every single store I passed in my travels. I came across dozens of regular bookstores that stocked brand-new copies of the tri-band Penguin edition, but I never came across it second-hand. It wasn’t too long to be popular, like Clarissa, or genre-defining, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it was just… hard to find! Luckily, I eventually found a copy at a market stall, buried among stacks of Vintage classics and coffee-table books.

Tip Number 6: Keep your eyes peeled, at all times, always! Even when you’re browsing the markets for a gift, or looking for a bathroom in Tel Aviv, or even just hanging out at a mate’s place – I’ve had more than one generous friend offer to permanently lend me a book from their collection, for the purposes of this blog. You just never know where you’ll find gold!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I have it on very good authority (i.e., several booksellers and #bookstagrammers have told me) that no one ever, ever, ever wants to part with their copy of The Bell Jar. And I can see why! Having read it for the first time recently (my review coming soon!), I can already tell that it’s a book I’ll read over and over again, and you’ll have to pry my gorgeous Faber edition from my cold dead hands. Seriously, it’s beautiful! It’s matte black embossed with shiny gold, and it has the most beautiful inscription from a friend of mine. (Yeah, funny story: she knew I’d been searching long and hard for a copy, and she was looking for a last-minute gift for me, so she stopped in the secondhand book store closest to my house and said “I know you probably don’t have it, because my friend is in here looking for it all the time, but is there any chance you’ve got a copy of The Bell Jar?”. Sure enough, they’d had one come in that very day. Sometimes, life just works out!)

Tip Number 7: Make sure your friends and family know what it is you’re after. That’s not to say you should expect them to buy everything they see for you, of course, but they can give you a heads up when they spot a hard-to-find book in their local second-hand store. And they’ll know exactly what to get you for Christmas!

Bonus tip: Never bother buying any Charles Dickens, or D.H. Lawrence, or Grahame Greene brand new. Every single second-hand store I have ever entered has STACKS of them, and at least a few of those are unread, as-new copies. The same also goes for the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and the Harry Potter books. Plus, if you’re not precious about movie tie-in editions (I’m not, but some booklovers are), you’ll find STACKS of them in secondhand stores, too. If you’re after a book that has been turned into a film in the last 2-3 years, you’re almost guaranteed to find it (and probably in pristine condition, too!).

Bonus bonus tip: Young Adult is a mixed bag, on the whole. Some of them (like Fangirl, and If I Stay) are tough to find right now. In general, you’ve got the best hope of finding the specific YA read you’re after in a secondhand store that has a dedicated YA section (if they’re lumped in with general fiction, you’re going to have a hard time – not sure why that is, it just is, I don’t make the rules). And you usually have to wait about 5-10 years after the initial release, once the target market has outgrown them and moved out of home (either they’ll sell them off, or their parents will, either way…).

Do you buy your books second hand? Why/why not? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

As you’re all well aware by this point, I rarely buy books brand-new. In fact, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is the very first brand-new book I’ve purchased for Keeping Up With The Penguins. I received a birthday gift voucher for a bookstore chain last year, and seeing as Fangirl has proved impossible to find in secondhand bookstores thus far, I bit the bullet and treated myself to a virgin copy, all shiny and new.

Fangirl was released a few years ago now, back in 2013, and yet I still see it all over #bookstagram every single day. It has a fairly standard young adult plot in that it’s a story about university students, written for high-school students. There’s an extremely earnest protagonist, Cath, who would be totally annoying except that she’s also quite socially anxious, which I found to be quite endearing and relatable. She’s nowhere near as irritating as Katniss from The Hunger Games, anyway…

Cath is a freshman student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has a sister (Wren) who is far more outgoing and sociable, but prefers to stay holed up in her room writing fan-fiction about Simon Snow, her favourite young-boy-magician-saves-the-world series (*cough*Harry Potter*cough*). Yes, people, there’s a story within a story (groan).

She has quite a bit to contend with, on the whole: her bipolar father has a full-on collapse, her twin sister has a burgeoning drinking problem, her mother has a whole new life (having abandoned the family when the girls were eight), and her primary love interest is her snarky room-mate’s ex-boyfriend. So, her anxiety is kind of understandable, really.

Still, there are a lot of unrealistic elements to the story that I found really jarring. First off, I can’t see Cath amassing a large following for her fan-fiction (she mentions frequently that she has 10,000 readers). She just doesn’t work all that hard at it, as far as I can tell. I mean, sure, it could happen… but it just seems so unlikely when she doesn’t seem to put any time or effort into developing an online presence or marketing her work. Just ask any self-published author: readers don’t materialise out of thin air, no matter how good you are.


And secondly, Cath finds a mentor of sorts in her creative writing lecturer, and I just cannot believe that a professor would invest so much personal time and effort into a student who’s so resistant (once again, no matter how talented they are). University lecturers are strapped for time as it is; they have dozens of students clamouring for their support and guidance – ones that are desperate to write and improve, no less, and don’t need to be coaxed into it the way that Cath does. Why would a professor waste her time with a student that doesn’t even seem to want to try?

Honestly, the most realistic part of Fangirl was the self-absorbed self-indulgent white guy in Cath’s creative writing class. He writes the same Manic Pixie Dream Girl character over and over again, until he starts ripping off Cath’s work and goes on to find massive success passing it off as his own. I strongly suspect that Rowell has encountered more than one of these arseholes over the course of her career, because she absolutely nailed that particular character.

I also took issue with the ending, which felt pretty anti-climactic. I’d been expecting the resolutions to all the various plot lines to be a little more clear and explicit and… well, resolute. That said, I bitched about that very style of ending when I reviewed Paper Towns, so maybe I’m just being difficult. I haven’t read a whole tonne of young adult fiction (even when I was a young adult), but I’ve read enough now to know that very neat endings are kind of a convention of the genre, and that expectation just isn’t met in this one. I found out later that Fangirl is a NaNoWriMo novel, meaning it was written in a single month in 2012, which maybe explains why the pacing was a bit funky and the ending a bit rushed and unclear. Still, shouldn’t that have been corrected in the editing process? I’m not shitting on NaNoWriMo novels by any means, but writers can hardly spend the time needed to fix structural issues and plot holes when they’re vomiting up an entire novel in a single month.



Even though the pieces didn’t click together for me personally, the critical reception of Fangirl was pretty positive, and a lot of people have praised Rowell for her realistic portrayal of fangirl-ing culture. In fact, the book was so popular that Rowell later (in 2015) published Carry On, which is technically a stand-alone story but is also the fan-fiction story that Cath was writing throughout Fangirl. I’ve seen that one all over #bookstagram too, so it clearly found an audience, perhaps even more so than the original book. I’m glad to have read Fangirl, but as I’m sure you can tell by now I wasn’t exactly a fan(girl), so I don’t think I’ll be seeking out Carry On for The Next List. Sorry. 😐

I feel a bit shit, like I’m being too harsh; Fangirl is super-popular and has clearly struck a chord for a lot of readers. I suspect it’s great for people who really love young adult books and have already read (and enjoyed!) widely within that particular genre. If you struggle with young adult, or it’s not your usual preference, Fangirl is probably not the one to start with. The good news is that Rowell has also written for adults (Attachments, and Landline), and those books actually sound pretty good, even by my tough standards. Even though I didn’t love Fangirl exactly, I didn’t hate it so much that I wouldn’t give Rowell’s grown-up books a try. And hey, this ain’t the worst review I’ve ever given, by a long shot 😉


My favourite Amazon reviews of Fangirl:

  • “…. Rowell is very good with scene-setting and with dialogue, she does great dialogue, and the narrative flows very nicely — though I could have done with less of the homophile adventures of Simon Snow, which is (obviously) a pastiche of Harry Potter — which means Cath is writing a pastiche of a pastiche.” – Michael K. Smith
  • “A story about a story with no ending. Don’t waste your time.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I like the story butthe thing I hate about is, when your almost there and suddenly the author make a bunch of scenes to make you read more which I found so boring” – Melanie Anne Duque

 

The Best Books I’ve Read… So Far!

Ohhhh, we’re half-way there! (And if you’re half the eighties rock fan I am, you sang that line in your head.) I am officially halfway through my reading list: 55 books down, 54 books to go. It seems incredible to me that what started as a half-hearted joke with my husband about how much literature I was missing out on has become this huge project, and I’ve managed to make it halfway through (relatively) unscathed. What’s a girl to do but write a celebratory list post of the highlights? Here are the best books I’ve read so far, at this point, halfway to my ultimate goal of Keeping Up With The Penguins.

The Best Books I've Read... So Far! - Book Covers in Collage and Text in Black and Red - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The First Book I Loved: David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I always knew Charles Dickens was the Grand Poobah of English literature, but I had no idea I was going to discover a book I loved so much, so early in this project. I was only a few books in, and this one bowled me right the fuck over. You can read my full review here, but suffice to say that I devoured David Copperfield like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion is beautifully rendered. Critics have hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what they call “supermarket” writing; novels were the primary source of family entertainment back then (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to weave a bit of everything into his stories to keep the everyone happy. Critics be damned, I think it’s precisely this “just chuck it all in the pot and give it a stir” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book. Buy it here.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I’ve Read: In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I realise that, given the creative liberties that Truman Capote took with the story of the Clutter murders, calling In Cold Blood “non-fiction” might be a bit rich… but I stand by it. I’ve read some great pop-science books, of course (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything gets an honourable mention), but In Cold Blood was definitely the most beautiful and readable non-fiction offering from The List. I hate the term “page-turner”, but there’s really no other way to describe it. I was fucking gripped, with white knuckles, the whole way through. Read my full review here, and buy Capote’s magnum opus here.

The Most Underrated Book I’ve Read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m still not over my shock that I hadn’t heard of (let alone read) this incredible book before I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a travesty, I tell you – a criminal oversight of the book-loving community. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is also one of the very, very few books that gets an actual spoiler warning in my review, which should be testament enough to the strength of the plot-twist. If you ask me for a book recommendation these days, it’s almost inevitable that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be top of my list; even if you tell me you’ve already read it, I’ll tell you to read it again. Buy it here, if you haven’t already (and read it before you read my review!).

The Best Classic Book I’ve Read: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bearing in mind that I usually define a classic as a book that has lasted over a hundred years and maintained a level of popularity and interest, my favourite so far has to have been Jane Eyre. In fact, I clutched this book to my chest and smiled so often I started to look like a woman in a bad infomercial. I know Wuthering Heights gets most of the love and attention, but to me Jane Eyre is clearly superior (and it’s on that basis that I declared Charlotte to be the best Brontë). I’ve crammed my review full of fun facts about Charlotte and this book, and you can learn even more from the introduction to this fantastic Penguin Classics edition.

The Most Fun Book To Read: The Adventures of Sherlock Homes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes isn’t typically billed as a “funny” book, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it: it was just really fun to read! Sherlock’s adventures are presented as a series of short stories, and I was blown away by Doyle’s economy of language – how he managed to cram so much into so few words is still beyond me (it takes me longer to describe what happens in one of the cases than it does for Doyle to tell the whole story). It’s good, clean fun, too, which is not usually my kind of thing, but it’s great for anyone looking for a classic that the whole family can enjoy. Read my full review here, and buy the collection here.

The Book That Lived Up To The Hype: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know it’s super-weird that I hadn’t read this one prior to Keeping Up With The Penguins, given that it’s a staple of high-school required reading lists… but somehow I squirmed out of that particular rite of passage. So, I came to it later in life, cynical enough to think there was no way that Harper Lee’s only true novel could live up to the hype. Imagine my surprise when it did! In fact, it exceeded it. To Kill A Mockingbird is a stunning read, no matter when you come to it. It’s not without its issues, of course (which I address, very briefly, in my review), and the release of Go Set A Watchman was controversial at best (and a disgusting violation at worst), but I hate to think that any of that detracts from our appreciation of Lee’s masterful writing. If you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird yet, there’s no shame, just get a copy here – right now!

The Most Beautifully Written Book: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend is so wonderful, I was actually nervous about posting my review; I didn’t think there was any way that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s beautiful writing justice. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read in my entire life. Of course, credit doesn’t go only to Ferrante – there’s also her translator, Ann Goldstein, who somehow retained the beautiful rolling lyricism of the original Italian without the slightest hint that the work was not originally written in English. Luckily, My Brilliant Friend is just the first in the series of Neapolitan novels, so there’s plenty more Ferrante to sustain you once you’re done – get them all here.

The Biggest Surprise: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Crime and Punishment ended up on The List almost as a joke: my husband suggested it, never believing for a second that I would actually read it. In fact, I didn’t even believe that I would actually read it! I thought this Russian classic was for pretentious losers who name-drop at parties and wear fedoras inside. And then I had to eat my fucking words, because I did read it and I loved it! Raskolnikov is (and I know I probably shouldn’t say this about a literal axe-murderer, but whatever) so damn relatable, a bundle of nerves slowly unravelling in 19th century St Petersburg, and it’s so readable I would have totally believed it was a contemporary historical novel. I said as much in my review. Don’t believe me? Get it and see for yourself.


And there we have it! Of course, many thanks go to all of you who have stuck with me for the last year and a bit; I can’t wait to see what adventures we go on as we cruise through to the finish 😉 And my question for all of you today: what have been YOUR favourites so far in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

The blurb on the back of this edition of Portnoy’s Complaint proclaims thus: “Portnoy’s Complaint must surely be the funniest book about sex ever written”. It was released to a storm of controversy, the pearl-clutchers taking issue with his explicit descriptions of sex and masturbation using various props (including, believe it or not, a piece of liver that the protagonist’s mother later cooked and served for dinner). All of this is to say that Portnoy’s Complaint sounded very, very promising to me. 😉

This is Philip Roth’s trademark novel, the “humorous monologue of a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, focusing on themes of sexual desire and frustration, full to the brim with comedic prose and self-conscious literariness. I actually started reading it the very same week that Philip Roth died, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. Portnoy’s Complaint turned Roth into a literary celebrity of sorts, and he went on to win pretty much every major award there is. I actually read a New York Times article in the weeks following his death that described how he would wait by the phone before each Nobel announcement, waiting on the call to say he’d finally won… and his devastation every time the phone didn’t ring. It was an odd combination of endearing and heartbreaking.

His literary brilliance and desperation for critical acclaim aside, I’m not sure Roth was all that endearing as a person. I read, for instance, that his progress in writing Portnoy’s Complaint was very slow – he claimed to be suffering from writer’s block, which he attributed to his ex-wife and the “unpleasant notion” that any royalties earned from the novel would have to be shared with her. As if that weren’t gross enough, she was killed in a car accident in 1968, and Roth’s writer’s block magically lifted. Immediately after the funeral, he made a beeline for a writer’s retreat, and promptly completed the manuscript. Ew. That story makes me want to shake him and shout “STOP BLAMING WOMEN FOR YOUR BULLSHIT!”… but I digress.


Portnoy’s Complaint, the very one that gave the book its title, Roth defines as “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”. Surely, we can all relate 😉 The book is presented as a monologue as told to a psychiatrist, and I think it was very clever on Roth’s part to position it that way. Had it read as a simple conversation with a generic “reader”, or a diary entry or some such nonsense, Portnoy’s pontificating would have been much harder to stomach. In Roth’s own words, the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by “the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation” which would “permit [him] to bring into [his] fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that […] in another fictional environment would have struck [him] as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene.” So, yeah. The dude knew what he was doing.

The blurb promises, as I mentioned, a comedy about sex – and yes, there is a lot of wanking (which is, in itself, very funny), but mostly Portnoy’s Complaint is about the narrator’s parents and growing up Jewish in mid-20th century America. The monologue darts back and forth through the various stages of his life, describing scenes and experiences that all relate back to his “complaint” (as it were): his inability to let loose and properly enjoy sex, no matter how creative and, erm, kinky he gets. But really, the thrust of his problem is that his mother did a real number on him, and the Jews have had a rough trot in general. I guess there’s probably a greater point in that, about how we experience our problems and what we think are our problems aren’t our real problems, or something… but I’m not here to dissect all that. Honestly, I read Portnoy’s Complaint for the lols, and Roth has plenty of those to offer.



(And the ending is so good! I’d imagine there are a lot of readers who have rolled their eyes and groaned, but I say: boo to them! It effectively turns the whole book into the set-up for a joke, the final words being the punchline. And if that doesn’t convince you to pick up Portnoy’s Complaint and give it a go, I don’t know what will!)

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, given the above, that Portnoy’s Complaint has a glorious history of being banned and challenged across the reading world. In 1969, it was declared a “prohibited import” in Australia. Penguin Books circumvented the ban by having copies printed in Sydney, and storing them in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws. Attempts to prosecute the publishers for this literary subterfuge were successful in some states, but not in others. Eventually, in 1971, Roth’s work was removed from the federal banned content list, but not before “the Portnoy matter” (as it was known) became a watershed in Australian censorship law. It marks the last occasion on which the censorship of a literary publication came before the courts.

My tl;dr summary of Portnoy’s Complaint: a repressed Jewish guy whacks his psychiatrist over the head (repeatedly!) with his Oedipal complex. It’s funny, engaging, and charming – perhaps a little too dirty for some folks, but that’s how I like ’em. Reading Portnoy’s Complaint is like eating apple pie and ice cream for dinner: you could make an argument that there’s some nutritional value in doing it, but ultimately it’s just indulgent and fun for grown-ups.


My favourite Amazon reviews of Portnoy’s Complaint:

  • “I don’t know why I find this surprising given the title of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but there sure is a lot more complaining in this book than I’m used to reading. Also, I guess bagging on one’s family and coming up with 200 euphemisms for masturbation was revolutionary in 1967, but 40 years on and it’s beyond “quaint”. Perhaps our present day society has caught up with and surpassed this level of “lurid?” Regardless, I couldn’t finish it.” – Warren Ernst
  • “great if you like Roth” – jane
  • “Ugh. I don’t get why people like this. Funny, sure, but it reads like a more scatological version of a Woody Allen movie.” – JessiPlaysJazz
  • “I think I can see what the author was trying to tell, but as a gay man I found all the detailed descriptions of hetero sex to be off-putting.” – T. Dreiling
  • “If you like books that are just about masturbation, this is for you.” – J.F. -Lackey
  • “After hearing a lot of good reviews of the book ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ I checked out the internet and fount the book for sale on ‘Amazon’.
    Whilst I wouldn’t rate the book itself as highly as others I was very happy with the transaction.” – Flexi

 

Why Are Adults Reading YA Books?

You might have noticed this very trend and likewise asked yourself: why are adults reading YA books? And, to be clear, I’m not talking about young adults (the target market) – I’m talking about adult adults. Ones who pay their own bills and have grown-up jobs and maybe even mini-adults of their own running around their house. Why are they, in increasing numbers, turning to literature marketed and targeted at people decades younger than them? That’s what we’re here to figure out!

Why Are Adults Reading YA Books? Words in Purple and White Over a Collage of YA Book Covers and Pink Background - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Definition of Young Adult Literature

First, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page (a little literary humour, get it?). What exactly is a “young adult” novel? As with any other genre or category of books, it can be hard to nail it down in a way that pleases everybody, but let’s give it a shot.

The emergence of “young adult” as a genre occurred side by side with the emergence of “adolescence” or “teenage” as a stage of life. Once upon a time, there was just a neat dividing line between childhood and adulthood, and once you jumped the fence, that was that! Books were divided along much the same lines: fairy and adventure stories for kids, serious literature for grown-ups, and a few “supermarket” novels for family to enjoy together. When we started to understand more about adolescence as a transition stage between childhood and adulthood, writers started pumping out books for that newly-defined age group, too. The term “young adult books” entered the lexicon with the Young Adult Library Services Association, and has been used ever since.

So, it starts with age. For the most part, young adult books are written for 12- to 17-year-olds (but the boundaries are fuzzy, and you’ll find literary critics and commentators that say the market stretches up to 30-year-olds). As such, the protagonists are usually within that age range, mostly teenagers and sometimes university students or other people in their early twenties.

And as much as it’s a relatively new genre, most young adult literature has a centuries-old theme: the bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age story. The tradition dates back to 17th century Germany, as far as Goethe and his buddies, who wrote stories about young protagonists undertaking some kind of journey towards maturity. Most YA novels at least touch on this theme; their main characters undergo some kind of major development or change that propels them towards adulthood. They come of age, as we all do (albeit under different circumstances).


Unfortunately, there’s not much else that ties all young adult books together (because young adult literature straddles every imaginable sub-genre, but more on that in a minute). There’s a school of thought that suggests, structurally, young adult books tend to have a satisfying and resolute ending. There’s not much ambiguity in how they finish, and plot points are usually wrapped up in neat little bows, giving you that “ahhh!” feeling when you turn the final page. But this argument is hotly contested, and most young adult readers don’t struggle at all to provide a list of examples that defy the cliche. So, like I said, there’s not a lot that defines the genre, beside the age of the readers/protagonists and the coming-of-age journey.

In the end, we need to remember that the designation of “young adult” is about one thing, and one thing only: marketing. It’s a label that publishers slap on the spine, making a book easier to define and sell. How else would booksellers know which section they should unpack the box in? I’d imagine it’s quite rare that a writer sits down and says to themselves “I’m going to write a young adult book”, unless an editor is poking them in the ribs and demanding a best seller. Instead, they’re thinking about the characters and the story, world-building… and that brings us to the next important distinction.

YA Sub-genres

Young adult books can be found in just about every genre you can imagine. We’re all quite familiar by now, I’d think, with young adult fantasy (Twilight being the first that springs to mind for most people), and dystopian young adult (you’re lying if you say you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games), and realistic young adult fiction (along the lines of The Fault In Our Stars). But there are also young adult mysteries, young adult romance, young adult thrillers, young adult sci-fi, Christian young adult, LGBTIQ+ young adult, historical young adult fiction, non-fiction targeted at young adults… basically, take any genre you can think of, and cram “young adult” in the name somewhere, and I guarantee you there’s a shelf for it on Goodreads.

And it’s not just the big ones: young adult sub-genres get super niche! There are young adult novels-in-verse, young adult epistolary novels (books written in letters, text messages, emails, even Tweets), young adult graphic novels, and so on. Don’t even get me started on cross-sub-genres! If you’re looking for a young adult fantasy thriller written as a book within a book with a protagonist who identifies as trans, it’s out there – in fact, it’s probably a whole series.

How Many Adults Read YA Books?

So, now we know what young adult is, and we know there’s plenty of it out there: how many adults are actually reading it? I’ll tell you in a word: lots!

A 2012 survey found that 55% of YA readers are adults. In fact, the largest (and growing!) segment in the market for YA literature are adults aged between 30 and 44 years (which accounts for 28% of all sales). Of course, one could make the argument that it’s not all that many in real terms – less than 30% of American adults reported reading 11 or more books the previous year, so they’re starting from a pretty low base – but the market has grown exponentially, so those proportions and numbers are definitely headed up, despite the downward trend in other literary pursuits.

Even if adults aren’t reading young adult books themselves, chances are they’re consuming young adult media in some other form. The film franchises – Divergent, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games – have raked in billions at the box office. Standalone films – The Fault In Our Stars, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Love Simon – do pretty damn well, too. The TV adaptations – Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl – continue to reach audiences of millions, and the Netflix/Amazon robots are snapping up more production rights than you can poke a stick at. Plus, the die-hard fans have become content producers themselves: blogs, fan Twitter accounts, Instagram feeds, and YouTube channels dominate the online sphere. Young adult fiction is now a multi-media industry, in keeping with the growing media literacy of the target market, so its incursion on the screens and feeds of grown-ups seems inevitable. The question may not be “why are adults reading YA books?” but rather “is it even possible to avoid them?”.

Why are adults reading YA books?

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

C.S. Lewis

Young adult fiction has always had some level of cross-over appeal, if for no other reason than parents want to read what their kids are reading, so they can talk to them about it. But this natural tendency exploded into a phenomenon with the release of Harry Potter. Yep, like almost every other discussion of contemporary fiction and literacy, it all comes back to Rowling. Harry Potter appealed to a broad base of readers on a scale never seen before: children, young adults, adult-adults, old-adults, you name it, everyone loved the Boy Who Lived. The themes of friendship, identity, discrimination, fear, politics, and family gave Harry Potter universal appeal. Publishers catered to everyone by releasing two different covers: one for “kids”, with colourful illustrations, and a more subtle and sedate one for adults. Not everyone who picked up a Harry Potter book went on to dive headfirst into the world of YA, of course, but it was a gateway drug for a lot of adult readers.

This leads us to a major, and perhaps kind of obvious, reason to read young adult books (especially the books we remember from our own adolescence): nostalgia, and simple escapism. There’s comfort to be found in reading beautiful (but uncomplicated) prose, depicting straightforward and sometimes-predictable storylines, watching characters for whom we feel deep affection grow, and overcome their obstacles. Young adult books often remind older readers of their own teenage years, so there’s an instant familiarity: every “coming of age” story is relatable in some way, because we’ve all “come of age” ourselves at one time or another. The difference is that, in our real adult lives, coming of age doesn’t stop at The End, and our own stories continue to tangle and new complications arise and we’re constantly challenged. In young adult stories, for the most part, there’s a happy ending: the monster is defeated, the government is overthrown, the young couple winds up together, the student gets her dream job, and the mystery is solved. There is a satisfaction and a sense of relief that comes with a happily-ever-after, and it makes for a wonderful holiday from troubled times in the real world.

(Plus, I’ve seen many adult readers online comment to the effect that they really enjoy that YA is, for the most part, clean. For whatever reason – and I struggle to relate to this, but to each his own – they find too many adult-adult books stray into the pornographic and ultraviolent, whereas books written for teenagers deal with an age-appropriately sanitised version of real life, with which they are more comfortable.)


Of course, many readers reject this notion of “escapism” in their reading habits, and with good reason. Even in the case of a clean book with a happy ending (once again, Harry Potter is the best and most obvious example), young adult literature tends to get into some pretty heavy stuff: evil, in all its forms. Popular young adult books from recent years (even in sub-genres like fantasy and sci-fi) have covered everything from police brutality to homophobia to suicide to political oppression. Young adult certainly doesn’t shy away from these serious issues, but it does perhaps tackle them in a more hopeful way – balancing the good with the bad, and giving characters opportunities for redemption and recovery. Even in the most tragic stories, there’s a glimmer of hope to be found, with beloved characters learning important life lessons that set them in good stead for their imagined futures. So, it’s different to escapism in the sense that this type of adult reader doesn’t seek to forget their real-life worries, but rather find more optimistic ways to understand them through YA literature.

This is made much easier with the ever-increasing diversity and representation we find in new young adult book releases, far more so than in any other category of literature. Young adult books with characters that are black, brown, displaced, disaffected, victimised, multilingual, trans, gay, living with disability, terminally ill, orphaned, and unintentionally pregnant are finding massive audiences around the world. This could be one reason that young adult has emerged over the past decade as one of the (if not the absolute) most profitable segment of the publishing industry. Book buyers are repeatedly showing that they seek diversity and representation in literature, and they vote in favour of books that give it to them using their consumer dollar.

So, YA books are almost universally relatable (especially with their track record of representation for marginalised people), they provide comfort through nostalgia and escapism, they deal with difficult real-life issues in a hopeful way, and – never forget! – they are often shorter, easier to read, and cheaper than adult-adult books. Given all that: why are there adults who don’t read YA?

 Best YA Books For Adults

Now that you’re convinced – YA is where it’s at! – I’m sure you’re wanting some guidance on where to start. Just like any other category of literature, not all YA is brilliant. In fact, some of it is straight-up shithouse. But there’s an argument to be made that you’re more likely to find high-quality writing on the YA shelf, because these books are written and structured to grab (and keep!) the attention of teenagers – no mean feat in an age where they have an entire world of information, friends, and dopamine-stimulating games at their fingertips. This list is a combination of the cream of the crop – incredible works of literature in their own right – and YA books that are just so damn popular, you’ll have to read them just to catch up with the rest of the world.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

Read my full review of We Were Liars here.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

*Though, really, you could substitute this for just about any other John Green book and achieve the same result in terms of a well-rounded YA education. I have reviewed The Fault In Our Stars here, and Paper Towns here.

The Hunger Games (Series) – Suzanne Collins

Read my review of the first book in the series (The Hunger Games) here.

The Chronicles of Narnia (Series) – C.S. Lewis

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Read my full review of The Book Thief here

If you’re not sold on the idea of young adult fiction per se, never fear! I’ve got some suggestions for you too. You could try some contemporary literary fiction (for grown-ups) with teenage protagonists – Call Me By Your Name, My Brilliant Friend, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are excellent options. You could also try revisiting some books you read in high-school when you were coming of age yourself – think The Catcher In The Rye, or To Kill A Mockingbird. And for a personal account from an adult who changed her perspective on reading YA, you’ve got to check out this amazing post from the fabulous What Jane Read Next – she was once a skeptic, too! 😉

What do you think about YA? Are you an adult-adult convert? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

It’s a compelling title, isn’t it? We Were Liars. Hats off to Lockhart and her marketing team for that one! It’s all the more enticing for the blurb on the back, which reads: “We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense that will leave you reeling. Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just lie.”

We Were Liars was published in 2014, debuting at #6 on the New York Times Best Seller List in the Young Adult category (spending 13 weeks in the top ten), and it went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction. Most impressively, in my mind, it achieved massive cross-over appeal. In fact, I struggle to think of this as a Young Adult novel at all, because even though it ticks all the right boxes and it was marketed that way, most of the people I know who have read and loved it are adult-adults. Grown ups. “Old”. It’s probably the best example, in my mind, of the way in which Young Adult fiction has infiltrated the book-buying world to become a genre and a movement in its own right.

Anyway, We Were Liars is the story of the wealthy, seemingly-perfect Sinclair family. And I mean “wealthy”, as in 1%-every-summer-they-gather-for-a-holiday-on-their-private-island-like-that’s-normal welathy. Stories about rich kids aren’t new, and they have wide appeal – think Gossip Girl, and The OC, and Beverley Hills 90210 (I’m assuming, I’m a bit young to have seen that last one the first time around). What makes We Were Liars differently is that it seems to treat issues of class and race a lot more critically than the rich teenager stories of yore, which was really refreshing. The Sinclairs appear wealthy, and they certainly have the trappings of wealth, but the irony is that none of them are actually able to support themselves without family money. The wealth, and the power it supposedly affords them, is an illusion. It’s the kids, the teenagers, the protagonists, who see through it all. It’s very zeitgeist-y, in a world where kids are leading the revolution.

So, the supposedly-wealthy white-bread Sinclairs gather on this island near Martha’s Vineyard every year… until one summer when Cadence, the narrator, is found seriously injured in the water. She suffers severe migraines and some kind of trauma-induced amnesia; she is completely unable to remember the circumstances leading up to her injury. Her mother refuses to tell her what happened, and packs her off to Europe the next summer… but then, two years later, Cadence returns to the island and begins to piece her memories back together.

The whole “Liars” thing was a bit clumsy, if you ask me. Like I said, it makes for a compelling title, and you’d think that’d be enough, but Lockhart has parlayed it into this Famous Five-esque relationship between the Sinclair cousins. Their family, unironically, calls them collectively “the Liars”, but it’s not 100% clear why until it (kind of) plays into the big shock reveal at the end… and, just, eugh. I wasn’t a fan. It seemed a reach.

Still, the relationships themselves are interesting and well-crafted. Lockhart has said she was inspired by her own fantasies of having a close group of friends growing up, and her curiosity about the potential consequences of those bonds. In fact, We Were Liars‘s appeal to adult readers is probably rooted in nostalgia for the days of childhood friendship, and a new perspective on how those children and teenagers interact with adults we know to be imperfect.

Amy Bender, from the Los Angeles Times, said that We Were Liars was “a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help”, and I don’t think I can say it better myself. The metaphor of Cadence’s amnesia was masterfully done (it mirrors the WASP-y family tradition of denial), and I haven’t seen that kind of complexity in many other Young Adult novels to date. All told, I’d say this is a good one to start with if you’re an adult-adult who’s curious as to why so many readers your age are turning to Young Adult fiction (and I’ll be writing more about that later this week). It’s definitely right up your alley if you liked The Girl On The Train, and don’t mind your female protagonists young, waify, and unreliable.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Were Liars:

  • “Meh, more teen drama than I thought it would be.” – T. Lenahan
  • “GREAT BOOK FAST DELIVERY” – Rachael
  • “Suspenseful. I identified with the central character….don’t know why. Perhaps it was the pain of growing up. Teen years are so hard.” – AvidReader
  • “Was very disappointed with this book. Enjoyed it until the end.” – Jen L
  • “The ending really makes no sense unless the characters are extremely stupid and have no common sense. Very disappointing, would not recommend.” – Juan Blanco
  • “I’m emotionally dead inside but that’s okay because it was very ver very well written” – brandi e huskey

14 Great Bookstagram Accounts You Should Really Be Following

Guess what, Keeper-Upperers? Not only is Keeping Up With The Penguins one year old now, but so is the Keeping Up With The Penguins Instagram! When I started this blog, I’d heard about the #bookstagram phenomenon, but I had no idea what a wonderful, warm, and welcoming community I’d find there. I set up an account, and started posting photos of the books I was reading and reviewing, and it fast became one of my favourite parts of this project. I’m no great shakes at photography, I don’t go All-Out Extra with props and fairylights and all that business, but that’s the beauty of #bookstagram – it’s not about the bells and whistles, it’s about the books! I’ve “met” some truly fantastic people over the last year through the platform, and I thought today I’d share a short list of some of the best bookstagram accounts you really should be following.

14 Great Bookstagrammers You Really Should Be Following - Text Overlaid on Image of Phone with Instagram Logo on Screen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

@alexs.bookgram

Alex describes herself as an “amateur book reviewer” in her bio, but her feed shows she is a definite pro! She’s got gorgeous bookish photos in all kinds of locations, and every time I scroll through I find something new to add to my TBR. You can check out her account here, and her book blog here.

@jane.read.next

I “met” Jane in the early days of sharing on Instagram, and her feed fast became one of my all-time favourites. She’s a fellow Aussie, a veteran of the publishing industry, and there’s a lot of crossover in our tastes! I’ve loved many of the books she recommended. Also, now and then, she’ll share photos of her gorgeous doggos – the easiest way to win me over! Check out her account here, and her book blog here.

@yumyumicecream

Her guardian angel is Jack Kerouac with a recent assist from Lorrie Moore. She would love to put the novels of John Darnielle into the hands of anyone who has ever ached or cried from loneliness. And she’s one of my favourite bookstagrammers! Her feed is filled with gorgeous books, almost always accompanied by a coffee that makes my mouth water or some other delicious treat. Check out her account here.

@bookkissed

Aysha is a literature student, and it shows in her feed: a gorgeous varied collection of books from every genre and period (though I do notice she has a particular affinity for Stephen King and Agatha Christie, they feature often!). She posts beautiful and creative book stacks and snaps of what (and where) she’s reading – always a joy to see! Check out her account here.

@sasha_hawkins

Sasha loves reading all kinds of books, and at the moment she’s focused on the classics. She wants to spread the word that there’s a classic for everyone, and that our options go beyond the white male-dominated literary canon (a girl after my own heart!). She’s a sucker for beautiful books – but aren’t we all? I love her collection. Check out her account here and follow her on Goodreads here.

@reading.the.classics

Helena is one impressive lady! She’s a homeschool mum of six (count ’em! including a newborn!), living in Northern Ireland, reading stacks of books, doing the #ElizabethGaskell2019 challenge, and still she finds time to share gorgeous photos of the classics (mostly) on Instagram. I drool over her collection, it’s absolutely stunning. Check out her account here.

@rooreads

Stephanie Berg is a Chicago-based bookstagrammer with a feed that slays! I’ve discovered lots of new literary fiction and gorgeous editions (seriously spectacular cover art, where does she find them?!) through her account. She’s currently a @pageonebooks ambassador, and you can find her account here, and follow her on Goodreads here.

@classicsandcaffeine

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My #bestnine of 2018 is dominated by Orwell, Conrad, and Hardy. And i’m happy to say i’m far from done reading these incredible authors. Their writings have had great impacts on me. George Orwell reminded me that my political rights is important and how i use them can very much affect my personal life, and that i must never let my fear overrule compassion and justice. Thomas Hardy has fascinated me ever since i first read Tess at least 10 years ago. I think Hardy understood women and his writing was subtly (or maybe not so subtly?) critical of patriarchy. And Joseph Conrad. Oh Conrad, easily my new favourite author. Heart of Darkness is a tale that will never finish what it’s saying. ☕️ I don’t have any specific target/goal for my reading life for the new year, but i’d love to hear yours. Do share what you’re up to reading wise for 2019. #bestninebookstagram #georgeorwell #1984 #thomashardy #thewoodlanders #josephconrad #heartofdarkness #edithwharton #theageofinnocence #charlesdickens #olivertwist #classicliterature #literature #penguinenglishlibrary #oxfordworldsclassics #wordsworthclassics #bookstagram #bookstagrammer #bookstagramindonesia #bookreview #igreads #readersofinstagram

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I’ll bet you can tell from her handle – classics AND caffeine! – that Ester is truly awesome. She’s based in Indonesia, and she shares a lot of classics and modern classics worth reading. She’s on a little hiatus at the moment, hopefully she’ll be back soon to share more bookish goodness with us! You can still check out her account here.

@book_trails

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"Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it." . . An overwhelming and intriguing story. I like how original the concept of this story and let's be honest the cover is really gorgeous it's one of my favorite book cover ever! So this novel is about Grenouille who is an orphan, he's obsessed with perfumes and it's ability to control people. His obsession led to murder as he experiment with different scents. I won't elaborate more cuz I know some of you haven't read this novel and I don't want to spoil the story. . . QOTD: Do you read books by german or any foreign authors? I love reading books by different foreign authors, I have some of French, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, German and Arab authors. If you want to recommend me some of your favorite foreign author then please do!😍

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Fattyma loves books and photography, so bookstagram is her true home! And we are so lucky to have her, my eyeballs turn into hearts whenever I look at her posts. She reads all kinds of books – classics, best sellers, fantasy, mystery, young adult, and more – and her photos are incredible. Check out her account here and follow her on Goodreads here.

@spinesvines

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#MeetTheBookstagrammer⁣ 10 Things About Me⁣ ⁣ Well let me begin by stating the obvious— I love books (spines) & wine (vines). This is doesn’t count towards the ten because it’s a well known fact. ⁣😊 ⁣ ✨ I’m usually reading three books at once in three different ways — an audiobook for my commute, a book on my kindle which I keep in my bag and a physical book on my nightstand. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I created the #diversespines hashtag to shine the light on women authors of color. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m the co-founder/co-moderator of @litonhst bookclub⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m a major foodie! I love to eat 😋⁣ ⁣ ✨ I love to travel (no cruises for me🙅🏽‍♀️) especially outside of the U.S. Some of my favorite places are France, England, Italy, Greece, Jamaica and Turks & Caicos. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ When I’m not reading, I’m watching NCIS, Chicago P.D., Blue Bloods & re-runs of Law & Order Criminal Intent. I love a good crime drama. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I grew up a proud military brat living in many places but the highlights were Japan and Hawaii. I actually spent my freshman and sophomore years of high school in Hawaii. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m a proud graduate of The University of Tennessee, Knoxville ⁣#VFL ⁣ ✨ IRL I’m a project manager for the federal government and one my greatest accomplishments was being the Chief of Staff to the 2016 Federal Transition Coordinator. What does that mean— we oversee and provide support for presidential elections and facilitate the peaceful transition of authority between the incoming and outgoing administrations. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ Last but not least, I’m a MOM! I have two young adults, a 24 year old daughter & a 22 year old son. ⁣ .⁣ .⁣ 📸 credit: @msbszenlife .⁣ .⁣ 📚🍷⁣ #spinesvines #books #wine #bookstagrammer #diversebooks #blogger #booklover #bibliophile #ilovebooks #ilovewine

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I must admit, I’m a little bit a lot in awe of Jamise. She’s taken her passion for books (spines) and wine (vines), and turned it into not only this beautiful bookstagram account, but also @diversespines – a book club initiative that highlights women writers of colour and encourages us all to read more diversely. She’s doing incredible work, and I love it! Check out her account here, and more of her stuff here.

@the.imperfect.library

Ally is another fantastic Aussie bookstagrammer, and I love seeing what she’s reading (in hard copy and in audio) in her bio. She’s focused on the classics, women’s literature, and mental health – a trifecta of awesomeness in her feed! She also has a very adorable new kitty… Check out her account here.

@bookish.behavior

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Happy #ReadABookDay everyone! Thought I’d start this post with the quote below. . . “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” — Jean Rhys . Whether you’re reading a book about someone in a different part of your own state, your own country, or another country altogether, reading has a capacity to showcase how something that looks different, might not be all that different after all. . Part of what’s driven my diverse reading these past few years, is how often I find myself either relating to the story or gaining an understanding I didn’t know I needed. The world becomes smaller. The capacity for understanding increases. . Pictured are a few books that span an experience different from mine, but ones that I can’t wait to read! (Minus Erotic Stories – which I’ve already read and is AMAZE – and everyone should read!) . . 🌎 Next Year In Havana – a love story set within the political unrest in Cuba 🌍 Americanah – 2 Nigerians making their way in the US/UK after leaving military-ruled Nigeria 🌏 An Unrestored Woman – short stories about the establishment of the India/Pakistan borders and the ensuing refugee crisis 🌎 Educated – memoir of a girl who was kept out of school by her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD 🌏 Pachinko – a sweeping tale of an exiled Korean family fighting to make their way in Japan . Have you read any of these? What are some books that have stuck with you long after you read it? Let’s chat!

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If I’m ever worried that I’m missing out on some amazing diverse reads, I head straight for Poonam’s feed, because it is chockers with amazing recommendations and gorgeous photos! The reviews in her captions always give amazing insights into what’s worth reading and why, she is a must-follow for every booklover. Check out her account here.

@happinessisreading

What is it about the combination of books and coffee that makes for such great bookstagram feeds? Ritika is another caffeinated booklover, and she shares her incredible collection of literary fiction, non-fiction, modern classics, and more. I’ve spotted so many of my favourites in her gorgeous photographs. Check out her account here.

@vincereview

I actually came to Paula’s bookstagram through her blog, where she posts amazing and insightful reviews of books old and new, but whichever way you find her, you’re going to want to mash that follow button! She’s a former author and English student, and (like me!) she’s seeking to read classics, best sellers, and other books to discover for herself what they’re like, instead of relying on the opinions of self-professed experts. Her reviews are no-frills straight-talkin’ brilliance, and her enthusiasm is definitely contagious! Check out her account here, and her blog here.

So, if this incredible assortment of readers doesn’t convince you to check out #bookstagram, I don’t know what will! You can, of course, find little ol’ me here too. Are you a bookstagrammer? Drop your handle in the comments so we can all see your stuff (or share it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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