Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

7 Books With More Than One Title

Have you ever stumbled across a book recommendation on a podcast or on #bookstagram or on a page like this one, decided it sounded good, and Googled it… only to find that there’s a similar book by the same author, but the title is totally different? It’s weird, eh? The fact is that some books have more than one title, for any number of reasons. Here are seven books with more than one title, and the reason(s) why…

7 Books With More Than One Title - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

AKA God’ll Cut You Down

John Safran explained the reason for the name change himself, on his now-defunct Sunday Night Safran radio program. While Murder In Mississippi sounds all exotic and mysterious here in Australia, apparently in the U.S. it’s “just like saying Murder In New South Wales” – that is to say, a boring-as-heck book title. He and his publishers agreed to change it for the American market, using the Johnny Cash lyric that Safran had used for an epigraph (“Run on for a long time / sooner or later God’ll cut you down”). Given that sales in the American market can mean the difference between royalty cheques and the bread line for Australian writers, it’s an understandable change.

Bridgerton by Julia Quinn

Bridgerton - The Duke and I - Julia Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

AKA The Duke And I

While the most-watched Netflix series of all time focuses on the events of the first novel in Julia Quinn’s Regency romance series, The Duke And I, they used the name of the central family – Bridgerton – for the title instead. Even though the announcement of a second (and third, and fourth) series was treated like a huge surprise, the producers must have known they were on to a winner and that the plots of additional novels from the series would be featured in future. That, however, left Quinn’s publishers in a bit of a bind: because the series barely featured the title “The Duke And I” at all, fans were going into bookstores asking for Bridgerton and coming up empty handed. So, they’ve done a massive print run that features both on the cover, with Bridgerton being most prominent.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

The Recovery Of Rose Gold - Stephanie Wrobel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

AKA Darling Rose Gold

To be honest, I’m still a bit flummoxed by this one. It’s called The Recovery Of Rose Gold in the Commonwealth (well, the U.K. and Australia at least), but Darling Rose Gold in the U.S. I can’t quite work it out, and my review trawling on every available platform hasn’t turned up any answers. Does the word “darling” simply have more appeal to American readers than the word “recovery”? Do they have different meanings? Not that I can divine! I can tell you that more than one U.S. reader has taken to a comments section to complain that they assumed The Recovery Of Rose Gold was a sequel to the edition they had, and were disappointed to discover otherwise, so maybe it wasn’t the best idea to give this book more than one title.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart Turton - Keeping Up With The Penguins

AKA The Seven 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Sometimes, the success of a book is all about timing. Unfortunately for Stuart Turton, the release of The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle coincided with the release of the eerily-similar title The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, by acclaimed American author Taylor Jenkins Reid. Even more unfortunately, a bunch of review copies had already been sent out and the ball was well and truly rolling. Turton’s publishers came up with a solution: tweak the title just enough that it was distinct, but still recognisable. The only loser in the deal was Evelyn Hardcastle, who had to die an extra half-time.

The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart by Margarita Montimore

The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart - Margarita Montimore - Keeping Up With The Penguins

AKA Oona Out Of Order

Here’s another one that has different names in different regions: The Rearranged Life Of Oona Lockhart is sold under the title Oona Out Of Order in the U.S. The thing is, this time I actually get the change! The book is about Oona Lockhart (duh), who lives her life – you guessed it – out of order. Each year, she lives in a different chronology of her life: nineteen, then fifty-one, then… The “rearranged” title just doesn’t communicate it the same way! Plus, I’m a big fan of the alliteration of Oona Out Of Order, it rolls off the tongue beautifully.

The Stationery Shop of Tehran by Marjan Kamali

The Stationery Shop Of Tehran - Marjan Kamali - Keeping Up With The Penguins

AKA The Stationery Shop

This one’s truly weird: I really can’t figure out when or why the title of The Stationery Shop of Tehran changed! It was recommended to me by an American book blogger who definitely called it by its full title (I went back and checked my notes!), so presumably it wasn’t changed for the different region. Goodreads lists both titles as different editions of the same book, with no helpful explanation in the blurb or comments. The author’s website lists it as The Stationery Shop, and I’ve found online book retailers with both versions. The only potential reason I can come up with makes me feel a bit gross; maybe an alternate title was published to circumvent the racist connotations some might have with the Middle East? It’s yucky, but it’s all I have!

Death At Intervals by José Saramago

Death At Intervals - Jose Saramago - Keeping Up With The Penguins

AKA Death With Interruptions

Just one more different-name-in-different-regions book with more than one title, but this one has the additional layer of being a book in translation. Saramago wrote in Portugese, and Death At Intervals (or Death With Interruptions) was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa three years later. I assumed for a long time that there had been another, different translation (which would account for the different title)… but it would seem not. Costa is the only one who’s been brave enough to take it on. Still, I’d imagine there were some very liberal edits for the U.S. audience if the titles are anything to go by. If you’ve come across a comparison of editions, please do let me know in the comments!

Bridgerton: The Duke And I – Julia Quinn

Okay, fine, I’ll cop to it: I’m a basic bitch. I binged the Bridgerton series on Netflix. Twice. And when I saw the book on sale at KMart (with the basic-bitch movie cover, no less!) for twelve bucks, I snapped it up. For those of you who have been living under a particularly large rock, this is a Regency romance series based on the series of books by Julia Quinn. The Duke And I is the first book in the series, focusing on the marital prospects of the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne.

Bridgerton - The Duke and I - Julia Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Bridgerton: The Duke and I here.
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Julia Quinn has written over two dozen historical romances, with a writing career spanning decades. Originally, she envisioned the Bridgerton books as a trilogy, but the series grew and there are now eight full-length novels (one for each of the children in the fictional family), plus a few extra bits and pieces. She was always very popular among romance readers, but the Netflix adaptation has catapulted her into the mainstream. It premiered just six-ish months ago, and has already been watched by over 82 million households, making it the most-watched-ever series on the platform. Naturally, Quinn saw a corresponding boost in book sales, and her twenty-year-old Regency romance went skyrocketing up best-seller charts.

The Duke And I is set in 1813 (think Austen’s era), in London’s “ton” during “the season”. No shame if you don’t know what that means (I didn’t before I watched/read!): the “ton” was Britain’s high society during the late Regency, and once each year these high-falootin’ folks would gather in the city so that young ladies could make their debut into society (i.e., swan around looking pretty in an effort to snag a husband).

The Bridgertons are a powerful and well-liked family, and a big one at that. The patriarch has passed, but there’s still Mama and her eight (eight!) children, so the house is hardly empty. Their gimmick is that the kids are named in alphabetical order, from oldest to youngest: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. Daphne is the middle child, but the oldest girl, so the first to make her debut – much to the delight of the ton’s gossip mongers.

Quinn positions Daphne as your typical girl-next-door: beautiful, but “cool” and friends-with-all-the-boys, so none of them want her in the romantic sense. Of course, that’s a disaster, because money and prestige were all tied up in marriage at the time, and the rules of polite society dictate that Daphne must marry before any of her younger sisters can debut themselves. She’s well aware of the weight of expectation upon her slender shoulders, but she’s still got enough self-respect to be a bit choosy.

“[She] wasn’t holding out for a true love match… but was it really too much to hope for a husband for whom one had at least some affection?”

Bridgerton: The Duke And I (page 17)

Enter, the Duke: Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings and notorious rake. He has recently returned to London, but he has every intention of staying above the fray of the ton and living out his days as a confirmed bachelor. Of course, it wouldn’t be called The Duke And I unless there was a meet cute. Here it is: the Duke walks in on Daphne punching an overly-amorous would-be suitor.

They get to talking, and decide to forge ahead with the trope a plan that suits them both: a fake romance! If they appear to be in love and an engagement imminent, Daphne’s stock will rise (make-them-all-see-her-in-a-new-light-et-cetera) and the Duke will be left alone (because obviously all the ladies will be throwing themselves willy-nilly at a bloke with his looks and title, despite the fact that he’s actually a bit of a dick). It works a charm… at first.

All of the local gossip is communicated by the pseudonymously-authored Lady Whisteldown’s Society Papers. It’s a very clever narrative technique used to great effect by Quinn. As she explains herself in the author interview section at the end of my edition, the Papers give her the chance to explain context to reader without having to cram a whole bunch of exposition into the dialogue. Fun fact: in that same interview, she also reveals that she actually had no idea or plan for the true identity of Lady Whistledown when she first started writing the series!

And – I can’t help myself – here we come to the compare-and-contrast part of the review. Naturally, spoilers abound, so look away now if you care.

The Duke And I introduces the Duke’s father’s abuses far earlier than the Netflix series ever did. The latter treated it as a “reveal” later on, once we’d formed a bond with the characters, while Quinn put it all up front in the Prologue. It was a heart-wrenching way for a romance novel to begin, and set a very different tone.

The diversity and representation for which the Netflix series is famous isn’t as explicit in the novel, though. For instance, the Duke – played by Rege-Jean Page in the series, a British-Zimbabwean actor – is described as having “icy blue eyes” and presumably white skin. The sole exception is that of Lady Danbury, a side character who plays a much smaller role in the book, but her use of a cane for mobility is mentioned sensitively and often. (And if you’re going to come down in the comments and have a sook about the Netflix series not being “accurate” because there were people of colour among the gentry, save it. Black people didn’t miraculously appear in England sometime in the 20th century, they were there all along – read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Plus, if you’re coming to romance novels for “accuracy”, you have bigger problems.)

The Duke gets a lot more narrative time in The Duke And I than he did in the Bridgerton show (and he’d want to, being a titular character and all). The reader is privy to a lot more of his inner world and turmoil than the viewer ever was. That’s nice and all, but personally I kind of liked the element of mystery better – he is an enigmatic love interest, after all. Plus all that narrative space has to edge out something, and I’m sorry to say that Eloise and Penelope’s characters are completely submerged in the book, along with many other side characters and plots. I suppose they all come out in later books, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading that far to find out. As it stands, I missed them.

And, my biggest bug bear: The Duke And I is nowhere near as steamy as the show. I’m sure all the pearl-clutchers are happy about that, but it ticked me off. In the first hundred pages, there was just one reference to an erection. The story revolves around kids and marriage, without all the rooting that made the Netflix series fun. I threw an actual tantrum when – after 274 pages of build up – Quinn threw in a fade to black chapter break on the wedding night! She opened the door shortly after, but still, the momentum was totally lost.

Here’s the weirdest twist: the book leaves a lot more open-ended questions and unresolved plot points than the Bridgerton show (despite the fact that it’s been renewed for a second season, one that will undoubtedly disappoint given that the sexy Duke will not be returning, gah!). All told, I’d say The Duke And I was fine, but probably not worth the twelve bucks I splashed out on it. I haven’t read enough Regency romance to make a call on where it stands in the canon, but if you’re thinking of picking it up because the Bridgerton series hooked you the way it did me, I’d say don’t bother. Save your eyeballs for (yet another) re-watch instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bridgerton: The Duke And I:

  • “Quick reading very entertaining
    .will finish the whole series to see who is Lady Whistledow also the sex of Daphnes” – Xiomara E. Delgado
  • “With the production of the TV Bridgerton the book prices have gone up terribly. Just not fair!” – victoria belin-pauline
  • “I get that it’s problmetic, but it’s a romance book, though. But I wish you new show fans could chill just a little bit?” – Samo
  • “A very light read that may make you blush. Mrs Whistle down is the best part. Content is 18+ with some violence. Did not leave me feeling enlightened.” – CB

10 Books About Violence Against Women

1 in 3 Australian women (34.2%) has experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man since the age of 15. 1 in 4 Australian women (23.0%) has experienced physical or sexual violence by current or former intimate partner since age 15. Intimate partner violence is the third greatest health risk factor for women aged 25-44, with the first being childhood abuse and neglect. Based on 2015 analysis, violence against women in Australia is costing Australia $21.7 billion each year (source for all stats). Over the past few months, this issue has been front and center in our minds, with Grace Tame being named Australian Of The Year, and the March 4 Justice in major capital cities. As with every major issue of the day, I like to turn to books to help me understand an urgent, thorny, and multi-faceted issue. Here are ten books about violence against women that have informed my understanding…

10 Books About Violence Against Women - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Important note: Violence against First Nations people in this country is also a major issue, especially the horrifying rate of deaths in police custody. It’s one that deserves far more mainstream attention than it has received thus far. I do plan to address it in a separate post in future, once I’ve carefully reviewed and considered more books on the issue. For now, I’ll draw your attention to the fact to that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 32 times as likely to be hospitalised due to family violence assaults as non-Indigenous women, and 1 in 5 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women aged 15 and over has experienced physical violence in a 12-month period, a third of which occurs at the hands of an intimate partner (source).

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

See What You Made Me Do - Jess Hill - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The all-too-common refrain when it comes to domestic abuse is “why didn’t she leave?”. See What You Made Me Do is the first book I’ve read to turn that on its head. Jess Hill won the Stella Prize in 2020 for posing, instead, the questions “why did he hit her?” and “what ‘counts’ as violence against women?”. This book will turn your stomach – Hill doesn’t shy away from the sheer horror of lives lived in the shadow of domestic abuse, and the very worst of where and why it happens. That said, I’ve made it my personal mission in life to make sure more men read this book. I want “nice guys”, “good blokes”, “wonderful fathers”, and all the rest of them to read this one. Can you imagine what would happen if they did?

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eggshell Skull has never been more timely, more essential, than it is right now. In it, the scary-smart Bri Lee simultaneously reckons with the ways in which the Australian justice system works against survivors of sexual and gendered violence, and comes to terms with her own experience(s) of assault and harassment. It’s a unique perspective, one that brings closer together both sides of this issue: that of the victim, and that of the people charged with propping up the structures that fail to support them. The title is taken from a legal concept, whereby “the unexpected frailty of the injured person is not a valid defense to the seriousness of any injury caused to them”.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A New York Times book review called Big Little Lies: “A seemingly fluffy book [that] suddenly touches base with vicious reality”, which is spot on. It might look like a beach read, but it touches on some crucial and timely subjects. All of the women at the center of Moriarty’s domestic thriller have been affected by violence of one kind or another, and all of them are forced to reckon with the fallout. The upside of reading about violence against women in fiction is that there’s opportunity for retribution and resolution, which is all too often absent from the reality. Packaging this story about violence against women in a popular fiction book put it in the hands of many readers and book clubs who might not otherwise have engaged with it. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I will never, never, never tire of recommending this book. In In The Dream House, Machado draws on tropes from dozens of literary traditions – the ghost story, the Choose Your Own Adventure novel, the self-help best-seller, and more. It all works in concert to tell the most intimate and terrifying story many of us could imagine, that of being in love with an abusive partner. Plus, it sheds light on an aspect of this situation far too often overlooked, that of violence and abuse in same-sex relationships. This memoir is not an easy read, but it is an essential one, and so beautifully crafted that it’s impossible to look away, even when your eyes are full of tears.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, Lolita is probably not the book you’d expect to find on a list of books about violence against women, but in the interest of a well-rounded perspective, I argue it belongs. Humbert Humbert’s story, of grooming and abusing his step-daughter, is horrifying and stomach-turning, and yet it’s beautifully written and grossly compelling. We need to remember that abusers have their own narrative, their own story in which they are the hero, and as difficult as we may find it, walking a mile in their shoes could be the key to understanding – and, in the long run, preventing – abusive behaviour. Plus, Nabokov was such a singular writing talent, his work deserves to be read.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another one that probably didn’t jump to mind when you clicked through to a list of books about violence against women: Jane Eyre. Sure, we like to think of it as a romance, and Mr Rochester as a problematic fave, but let’s look at the facts. He marries a woman and, when she demands just a little too much of him (i.e., anything at all), he locks her in the attic and pretends she no longer exists. Then, he sexually harasses his employee, and gaslights her into believing herself to be in love with him. Yes, it takes the shine off the apple of this classic somewhat to look at it this way, but it’s important that we recognise these “romances” for what they are. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

For another perspective – possibly a more accurate one – be sure to check out Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which tells Bertha’s story (the wife in the attic).

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sandra Pankhurst’s life has been marked by violence of all kinds. She was horribly and sadistically abused by her parents throughout her childhood (as punishment, Krasnostein implies, for having been adopted – a surplus child supplanted by two subsequent biological children). She experienced the threat of violence, and actual violence, from clients and cops as a sex worker. She continues to experience the broader structural violence of moving through the world as a trans woman. And yet, The Trauma Cleaner is not a book about her misery. Instead, it’s a book about her incredible resilience, and the empathy she brings to her work in cleaning the homes of hoarders, and the victims of crime. Read my full review of The Trauma Cleaner here.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Handmaid’s Tale is a crucial pillar in the canon of dystopian literature, but it’s also an exploration of violence against women writ large. Atwood takes the existing systemic violence perpetrated against women in a patriarchal system, and amplifies it to draw our attention. Nothing that happens in her fictional world of Gilead hasn’t already happened – or isn’t already happening – to women somewhere in the real world. This forces us to consider violence against women as something bigger and broader than what happens in the home, behind closed doors. Plus, taken with the sequel The Testaments, it shows us that women can be complicit in this systemic violence, and any system propped up by the violent exploitation of women is inherently unstable. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

The Bass Rock - Evie Wyld - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Evie Wyld won the Stella Prize for The Bass Rock last month, in her acceptance speech she was kind enough to share with us the inspiration that led her to write this particular story. She came across journalist Sherele Moody’s Australian Femicide Map, which documents the deaths of women and children across the country. It led Wyld to think about the generations of women – hundreds and hundreds of them, stretching back millennia – who have suffered violence, often paying with their lives. She wondered what would happen if their stories were kept alive, if they were passed down in a more tangible way. The result is her book, which weaves together the stories of three women in a shared geography, all of whom are the victims of violence at the hands of men.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

She Said will change the way you think about the #MeToo movement. If you think you “already know” the story of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall from the grabs you saw on the news, think again. Kantor and Twohey are the New York Times journalists who worked tirelessly for months on end to outmaneuver Weinstein and his team, in order to bring you the unimpeachable story of his crimes. The lengths to which he went to hide the truth are truly astonishing, and serve as a timely reminder of the methods men in power have used for far too long to keep victims trapped in a vortex of silence and shame.

Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

I’ve had a copy of Murder In Mississippi on my shelves since I first heard John Safran talking about the process of writing it on the now-defunct Sunday Night Safran radio program (and it’s actually the second book I’ve reviewed on that basis, the first was Religion For Atheists). It was published in 2013, and later in the U.S. under the title God’ll Cut You Down (the Johnny Cash lyric, quoted in the book’s epigraph). I remember Safran saying on his show that the title changed because Murder In Mississippi sounds very exotic in Australia, but to a U.S. audience it sounds like “Murder In New South Wales” (I checked with an American friend, and she confirmed).

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Murder In Mississippi here.
(Or buy God’ll Cut You Down. Either way, if you use one of the affiliate links on this page, I’ll earn a little commission.)

The book’s subtitle is: “The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book”. So, even though it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for years, perhaps it’s a good thing I waited to read and review Murder In Mississippi – it’s only become more zeitgeist-y over time.

The author, John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. As he says himself, on page 2 of Murder In Mississippi: “I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie – like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.”

Murder In Mississippi starts when Safran – as a “bit” for a documentary – tried to join the Ku Klux Klan. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t overlook his Jewishness, and declined his application. As part of that endeavour, he spent a day in Mississippi with notorious white supremacist Richard Barrett. Barrett didn’t take kindly to being the butt of one of Safran’s jokes, and made sufficient legal threats to stop the footage ever going to air. A year and a half later, Safran learned that Barrett had been killed (allegedly) by a young black man.

Safran was spooked, and intrigued. Drawing his inspiration from classic true crime books (In Cold Blood, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and “a couple of less famous ones”), he decided he had to investigate and write the story. Doing so meant picking up sticks and plonking himself down in the American South with nothing more than a hunch and a penchant for asking nosy questions (seriously, Safran didn’t even have an advance or any publishing support when he decided to do this). That’s where the similarities between Safran and his predecessors end, however; he’s certainly a lot more frank with the reader about his trickery and creative license than Capote ever was. “All those true crime books were written before the internet,” Safran says on page 29. “These days, you can’t get away with anything.”

Safran embarks on his investigation with all the preconceptions you’d expect upon hearing that a white supremacist might have been murdered by a black man. He charged in with a bit of a white saviour mentality, to be honest. He thought he’d EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass.

A brief overview of the crime at the center of Murder In Mississippi: on 22 April 2010, a neighbour called emergency services and reported seeing smoke rising from Barrett’s home. Firefighters found his corpse near the back door of the house, and an autopsy revealed thirty-five stab wounds, traumatic injuries to the head, and rib fractures. The investigators pieced together a story and timeline that involved Vincent McGee – who was out on parole, after serving most of a sentence for assault and grand larceny – doing some yard work for Barrett in the afternoon, returning to the house that evening and stabbing Barrett, then returning again a third time to set fire to the property in an effort to conceal his crime. They proposed a number of motives for McGee’s alleged crime, mainly robbing Barrett (his wallet and gun were missing), and/or rejecting a sexual advance made by Barrett. Safran was the only one who started asking questions about race.

When Safran arrived in Mississippi, McGee was being held in remand pending trial. Safran was hoping to get the preliminary interviews out of the way and then get his court reporter on, figuring that the Truth Would Come Out as the prosecutor and defense did battle… only McGee entered a guilty plea, and was sentenced to 65 years in prison. That left Safran scratching his arse, wondering where the heck to go from there. It completely destroyed his preconceived narrative (because miscarriage-of-justice stories should really end with the wrongfully-imprisoned man going free, at least in a pre-Serial world).

Murder In Mississippi therefore became a book about the process of researching and writing a true crime book, far more than a book about the crime itself. Searching my feelings about half-way through, as I scanned the obligatory glossy photo inserts, I realised I cared about whether Safran actually got onto McGee’s prison visitor list to interview the man in person, far more than I cared whether McGee actually committed a crime and/or what actually happened at Barrett’s house that night. Safran’s investigation, his frustrations and his doubts are the focus of the story.

“In Mississippi, the more layers of onion I peel, the more I’m standing in a mess of onion.”

Murder In Mississippi (Page 280)

There was actually something quite comforting about reading a fellow Australian’s efforts to wade into American race relations. Neither Safran nor I can pretend to truly understand the divide between white and black in the American South; all we can do is ask nosy questions and make inferences from what we understand of racism in our own backyards. Still, he has the gall to ask far nosier questions than I ever would, which meant I learned a lot.

Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award (True Crime) for his efforts, and enjoyed the process so much that he went on to write Depends What You Mean By Extremist (my review of that one to follow, soon, probably). All told, this was an interesting, compelling, and at-times hilarious read, one I highly recommend to true crime fans and Race Trekkies alike.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murder In Mississippi:

  • “Rambling and unimportant. However, I applaud the effort and wish Mr. Safran success.” – cWallin

What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 Books of 2021?

It’s that time again! Dymocks has released their list of the Top 101 books of 2021. Every year, thousands of booklovers cast their votes for their favourite reads. This isn’t your standard list of bestseller books or critic’s choices: this is bookish democracy at its finest, only the books that inspire their everyday readers to cast a vote make it to the top. As always, there are a few stalwarts, a few surprises, and plenty of books to add to the to-be-read list. Check out my take on the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021…

Dymocks Top 101 Books of 2021 - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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1. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where The Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Where The Crawdads Sing – which has been called a “defining book of the decade”, and sold more than seven million copies around the world – has finally made an impression on Australian booklovers. Out of seemingly nowhere, it has rocketed up to the top of the Top 101 books of 2021. Owens blends nature writing, murder mystery, and the bildungsroman in this story of the “Marsh Girl”. In addition to topping the Dymocks list, it’s also been named Book Of The Year by multiple international booksellers and it’s a Reese Witherspoon pick, currently in production with her company Hello Sunshine.

2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Book Thief has made the top 10 for every year that Keeping Up With The Penguins has been following the Dymocks Top 101 books list – last year, it even tied for first! To be honest, I’m a bit perplexed by its staying power, but who am I to question it? Perhaps it has something to do with its broad appeal to the young adult readership, and the new crop of them that ages into the category every year. For many of them, learning about the horrors of the Holocaust for the first time, this story of a young girl narrated by Death must be particularly touching. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

3. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And here’s the book that also tied for first last year: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. It’s notably more upbeat in tone than The Book Thief, I’ll tell you that for free! It’s another Reese Witherspoon pick, also in development through her production company. The titular Eleanor Oliphant is a very on-trend kooky protagonist: her social skills lack polish, she relies on timetables and rituals to get through the day, and her only significant relationship is with her mother. Eleanor’s world opens up when she meets Raymond, and she realises there might be more to life than being “fine”.

4. The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Harper’s reign as the queen of Australian crime writing continues, probably boosted by the release of her debut’s film adaptation (starring domestic darling Eric Bana) last year. The Dry is the book that introduced Aaron Falk, hard-boiled Australian Federal Police investigator. In the midst of a once-in-a-century drought, Falk finds himself drawn back to his hometown, where he’s drawn into an investigation – the murders of the Hadler family. Harper’s subsequent novels, The Survivors and and The Lost Man, also made the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021 (at 29 and 31, respectively).

5. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just one WWII historical novel about a young girl surmounting personal difficulties as the world around her burns in the top 10 wouldn’t be enough, would it? All The Light We Cannot See is like The Book Thief for grown-ups. In it, a German orphan and a blind French girl are destined to cross paths as they both try to play the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Oh, and there’s a precious jewel and a Nazi treasure hunter (naturally). It won a Pulitzer Prize, and evidently more than a few hearts and minds here among the Australian booklovers. Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

7. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Boy Swallows Universe may have slipped down the Dymocks list a little (from number 3 last year), but it’s still holding in there. Dalton’s debut novel was THE book of 2019 – you couldn’t walk into a bookstore without its bright pink cover assaulting your eyes, you couldn’t attend a book club without someone gushing about how much they just loved-loved-loved it. It doesn’t sound like the stuff of heart-warming reads (absent father, imprisoned mother, mute brother, and a step-father who makes his crust dealing heroin), but Dalton seems to have found the magic formula. Plus, his follow-up – All Our Shimmering Skies – came in at number 30.

9. Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Becoming has held firm in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021, coming in at number 9 for the second year in a row. I thought perhaps our collective interest in America’s first black First Lady might have waned with, y’know, everything else that has happened since her husband left office, but apparently not! She’s not resting on her laurels, either: with the Grammy for Best Audiobook under her arm, she’s gone on to launch a podcast and publish a version of her autobiography aimed specifically at a young adult audience. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Michelle Obama! Read my full review of Becoming here.

10. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s be real: it’s a shock when Pride And Prejudice doesn’t make the top 10! This spot represents a resurgence from the perennial classic, though, from number 26 last year. I’m thinking that’s attributable to the number of bookworms who turned to familiar comfort reads over the course of 2020. I know I did – the Pride And Prejudice audiobook from my library was my constant companion on my government-sanctioned daily walks! That said, it’s the only one of Austen’s novels to make the cut this year. This particular story apparently weaves a special kind of spell over us (or is that just lusting after Mr Darcy and his good fortune?). Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

13. The Tattooist Of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

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

Our collective obsession with romanticised-AHEM-fictionalised WWII stories continues: The Tattooist Of Auschwitz came in at number 13 on the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021. This is a controversial one; it’s beloved in some circles, and reviled in others. Several Holocaust scholars have denounced it as (among other things) inaccurate and a misrepresentation of the experiences of prisoners in Auschwitz… but its fans argue that Morris has never been cagey about her fictionalisation of the real-life story that inspired the novel, and a certain level of creative license must be allowed in order to bring these stories to life. Where do you land? You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.

14. Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Honeybee - Craig Silvey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I feel like the LGBTIQA+ community collectively held our breath when Honeybee came out. Craig Silvey is straight and cis-gender, but turned his hand to writing about the life of a trans teen. This has been done so terribly so many times, it was always going to be a nail-biter. The verdict? Well, Silvey did okay, and he was remarkably open to criticism and scrutiny of his choices. It would be preferable, of course, to see a book by a trans or non-binary writer about the trans/NB experience in the top 20 of the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021, but mainstream cut-through for these stories is still a good thing.

15. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

To Kill A Mockingbird has seen a bump up the Dymocks Top 101, from 43 last year, perhaps owing to the increased global focus on racial justice in the U.S. It’s a go-to book for beginners on the subject, with the capacity to pull on the heartstrings of young and old alike. That said, it should really only be a stepping stone to more contemporary stories that do away with the trope of the white saviour and interrogate more closely the lived experience and realities of racism for black Americans. Still, it’s a thoroughly readable novel that will transport you instantly to the American South. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

19. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games holds a very special place in my heart: it was the very first book I reviewed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins! I even recently revisited in audio format, and it totally holds up. It would seem that other Australian booklovers are equally invested in it, because it made it to number 19 in the Dymocks Top 101 books this year. As far as role models for young adults go, you could do worse than Katniss Everdeen: brave, determined, and sees past the bullshit and bluster. I’d happily give my copy to a 13-year-old cousin who needed something to do on her Christmas holidays. Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

23. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Normal People has positively surged up the list of the Dymocks Top 101 (from 40, last year), perhaps in part due to the hugely successful BBC series. Paul Mescal – the Irish actor who played Connell, and earned a Primetime Emmy nomination for his trouble – is responsible for a whole lotta book sales (not to mention sales of leather chokers!) over the past twelve months! Sally Rooney is a millennial wunderkind (seriously, don’t Google her age, it will throw you into an existential crisis), and Normal People is her crowning glory. The only downside? She. Doesn’t. Use. Inverted. Commas. For. Dialogue. WHY???? Read my full review of Normal People here.

24. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must say, I’m truly impressed to see the staying power of The Happiest Refugee! It’s appeared in the Dymocks Top 101 books for years now. This is the book I want to thrust into the hands of everyone who ever bought (or thought about buying) a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” bumper sticker. Of course, it would have been nice to see a more pointed take on Australia’s current refugee policy – like Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But The Mountains, for instance – make the cut, too. I guess the truth of Australia’s refugee policy is just more palatable when it’s served up with the smiling face of a beloved comedian and artist. Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

36. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy has had a huge spike in popularity this past year, up from number 72 in last year’s rankings of the Dymocks Top 101 books. Once again, I suspect that’s as a result of people turning to comfort reads throughout the pandemic, re-discovering their love for this gem of comedy-sci-fi. (I note that The Martian didn’t make the cut this year, though!) If you’re not normally in to aliens and space-ships and avoid sci-fi on that basis, this is the book to ease you in. Plus, it’s chock-full of advice that seems particularly resonant at the moment (i.e., DON’T PANIC!). Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

39. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moriarty has three titles in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021 this year: Big Little Lies (here, at number 39, the highest ranked), Nine Perfect Strangers (44), and The Husband’s Secret (99). That pretty much cements her position as the reigning queen of Australian domestic noir, right? She’s made quite the splash on the international stage, too, with the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies (starring Reese Witherspoon and a bunch of other fabulous ladies) still going gangbusters after being renewed for a second season. It’s not high-falootin’ literary genius, but it’s still an intensely satisfying read. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.

47. Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

Any Ordinary Day - Leigh Sales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every person who talks about the most devastating day of their life invariably says the same thing: “it was any ordinary day”. Thus, the title of Australian journalist Leigh Sales’ book – Any Ordinary Day – about the worst days, the catastrophic days, when the world collapses in upon you. I suppose it came in this high in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021 because, as much as we’re turning to comforting fiction, we also want to draw inspiration from folks who have faced the worst and survived. Plus, nerds can delight in Sales’ needle-sharp take-down of statistical anomalies and our misconceptions about their frequency.

51. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Rosie books have really captured the hearts and minds of Australian booklovers, as evidenced by the fact that they’re still making a good showing in the Dymocks Top 101. It all started with The Rosie Project, a book about a neurodivergent man who finds love with the titular Rosie. I still have my reservations about the way that Simsion depicts neurodivergence, but I must concede that the trilogy is compulsively readable by audio! I devoured all three books in the trilogy via my headphones, enjoying it that way far more than the traditional paper-and-ink version. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

60. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ugh. Ugh to INFINITY! Why do we continue to elevate The Great Gatsby, a true turd of a novel? Okay, fine, maybe I’m being a little harsh, but my point stands. There are SO MANY wonderful books – ones that interrogate the emptiness of the American dream, ones that hold a mirror up to our shallow consumerist patriarchy, even! – and yet this is the one that makes the cut for the Dymocks Top 101, year after year. A creepy guy stalks a woman for years, then he dies and no one comes to his funeral. Blah. I beg of you, Australian booklovers: next year, read (and vote for!) something else. Anything else. Please! Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

67. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Fault In Our Stars is not that good. It’s not the worst young adult novel I’ve ever read (that’d be this one, or maybe this one), but it’s far from the best. I attribute its ongoing popularity to two things: the carefully crafted formula it follows, specially designed to tug on gullible heartstrings, and the legion of angry teenage fans who will lob tomatoes at you if you say anything negative about it. I bow to those angry teenage fans, and acquiesce to their demands, if for no other reason than they’ll be the doctors caring for me in my nursing home someday. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

68. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Trump era might be over, but the resultant surge in feminist dystopian lit continues! The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic of the genre. Granted, it has moved down considerably from its position in the Dymocks Top 101 books of last year (when it came in at 17), but I suspect that’s because the vote was split between it and The Testaments (55). If I’m completely honest, I actually preferred the latter – it gave much more insight into the world of Gilead, and how a regime like that rises and falls – but it’s good to see The Handmaid’s Tale hanging in there. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

69. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Has there ever been a juggernaut like A Game Of Thrones? George R.R. Martin doesn’t even need to finish it, and it will still keep him in fur coats and jewelled bathtubs until he’s long gone. The unprecedented success of the HBO series is obviously a factor – as is the announcement of multiple spin-off series – in its ongoing popularity, but there are still many, many fans out there dedicated to the books first and foremost. If you’re ready to dip your toes in the rich world of extremely long, extremely detailed, extremely graphic fantasy series, this is probably the one you’ll want to start with. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

70. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Given that Gone Girl – and the Rosamund Pike movie based on it – is predicated on a big shock twist, you’d think that its popularity would wane fairly quickly. Not so! It’s slipped a little since last year (42), but it’s still hanging in there! It even outlasted The Girl On The Train, which I guess makes Gone Girl the winner in the battle of the “girl” novels. Yes, it’s spawned a thousand (a million!) imitations, varying in quality, but that’s what you get when you write a good, twisty thriller with a few unpredictable turns and an unlikeable female narrator that’s sure to divide the book clubs. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

71. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Girl Woman Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I consider this incontrovertible proof that literary awards still matter! Girl, Woman, Other is a wonderful book in its own right, but I doubt it would have found such a broad and passionate readership without the Booker Prize (and the controversy it entailed). When Evaristo’s eighth novel tied for first place (with Margaret Atwood’s aforementioned The Testaments, 55) for the 2019 Booker Prize in flagrant disregard for the rule that prevents joint winners, it made worldwide headlines and surged to the top of best-seller charts. It’s a shame that the controversy overshadowed the remarkable fact that Evaristo was the first black British woman – the first! – to win that prize!

73. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was always a little surprised that a book like A Little Life – with its reputation for being long and laborious – made it to the Dymocks Top 101 books list at all. Having recently reviewed it, and with this marking its fifth year on the list, I’m flabbergasted. It’s impossible to say you love this book without some kind of qualifier: you love it BUT it’s not for everyone, you love it BUT you’re not sure you could ever read it again, you love it BUT… you get the idea. Jude St Francis’s life of unyielding trauma and tragedy is not for everyone, and it might not even be for the people it’s for, if you catch my drift. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

74. Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones And The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You couldn’t swing a bottle of wine without hitting a book club that was reading Daisy Jones And The Six these past couple of years! I’m actually really surprised that this one didn’t come in higher in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021. Perhaps the forthcoming small-screen miniseries adaptation will give it a bit of a boost. Styled as a Behind The Music-style documentary transcript, it tells the story of the fictional Fleetwood Mac-esque band, The Six and their blow-in lead singer Daisy Jones, and their meteoric rise to the top of the charts (not to mention their sudden split and what inspired those horny lyrics…). Read my full review of Daisy Jones and The Six here.

77. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Long before the list was released – like, back as far as New Years’ Day – I was sure we would see The Hate U Give on the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021. It already had enduring popularity, but it was inevitably bolstered by the poignancy of its subject matter, parallel with the #BlackLivesMatter protests last year and the (very!) recent trial for George Floyd’s murder in the U.S. Even though we’re a step removed from it here in Australia, we’re not without our own issues and the messages at the heart of Thomas’s #OwnVoices young adult novel are certainly transferable. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.

83. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time - Mark Haddon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Normally, a murder mystery book would buck the up-lit trend we’ve seen in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021, but The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is different. The protagonist is no hard-boiled detective, but a neurodivergent 15-year-old named Christopher who is determined to, against the odds, uncover the truth of what happened to his neighbour’s dog. It’s not a feel-good book exactly – there are some very real, very depressing issues playing out in the background of Christopher’s life – but readers have fallen in love with his unique way of seeing the world. Read my full review of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time here.

86. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Once upon a time, Backman was a quiet little Swedish blogger, and A Man Called Ove (or, in the original Swedish, En man som heter Ove) was his debut novel. It was published in 2012, translated into English in 2013, but didn’t reach the New York Times Bestseller List until eighteen months later. Once it got there, it stayed there for 42 weeks. Now, it’s practically a modern classic, and a must-read if you need your heart-strings tugged a little. I can’t imagine any reader not feeling at least a little charmed by old-before-his-time Ove, and cheering for him to overcome the rough trot he’s been having. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

89. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a big ol’ skeptic, so when I read The Alchemist – at the urging of one of my hippie-dippie friends – I was a little snarky about it. Still, even I can’t begrudge Aussie book lovers an allegorical tale of faith and destiny in trying times (personally, I’d rather turn to The Little Prince, but there you have it). Coelho’s international best-seller is an easy read, and it will top up your hope jar when the news has doused you in existential dread. It’s your standard hero’s journey, complete with buried treasure and a saccharine ending that tells us, once again, that sometimes even our biggest dreams lead us right back home. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

100. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m kind of shocked that Eggshell Skull has dropped so far down the Dymocks Top 101 (from 36 last year), but given the past month’s shocking revelations regarding sexual assaults, harassment, and cover-ups in Australian politics, perhaps if the votes were held this week the result would be different. Eggshell Skull has never been more timely, more essential, than it is right now. In it, the scary-smart Bri Lee simultaneously reckons with the ways in which the Australian justice system works against survivors of sexual and gendered violence, and comes to terms with her own experience(s) of assault and harassment. A must-read for every Australian.

General Comments

As much as I loved poring over the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say about it that I haven’t already said about every year’s list that’s come before. This year’s list is roughly half women, which is nice, but that’s a very low bar (and considerably lower than last year). About a third of the books are written by Australian authors; it’d be nice to see more, and that number has dropped since last year too, but I suppose it’s alright. There is a continuing troubling lack of diversity: just eleven authors of colour (by my count), and very, very few queer authors. Basically, this list has all the same problems as the lists that have come before it. I’m not sure whether that speaks to a lack of diversity and support for local authors in the publishing history as a whole, or in bookstores, or just in the hearts of booklovers who vote – heck, it’s probably all of the above.

Still, I don’t want to end on that bum note! There are many books on this year’s list that I love, and I have faith that many favourites will either enter or return next year. I’m seriously considering starting my own faction of voters, to try and bump some deserving but perhaps underrated books over the line. Who’s with me?

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