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Sibling Rivalry: Who Was The Best Brontë?

Now and then you get a random cluster of super-successful people, all from the same family. There’s multiple household names on these particular family trees, recognisable the world over. In the ’80s, it was all about the Jacksons. The ’90s and ’00s had the Baldwins and the Wayans and the Arquettes. Today, you’ve probably got a favourite Hemsworth or Gyllenhaal or Franco. But back in the 19th century, they had the Brontës.

Who Was The Best Bronte? Text Box Overlaid on Green Pattern and Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who Were The Brontës?

There’s not a whole lot of sex/drugs/rock’n’roll in the Brontë story, but bear with me. In 1812, a clergyman from a barely-literate Irish family (that’d be Patrick Brontë) met and married the love of his life, Maria. They rapidly produced six offspring: Maria (born 1814), Elizabeth (1815), Charlotte (1816), Branwell (1817), Emily (1818) and Anne (1820). (OK, maybe there was a bit of sex… unprotected sex, apparently.)

To accommodate the expanding brood, Patrick moved his family to the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Even though the town’s population had grown exponentially, there was no sewerage or sanitary systems. The water supply was constantly contaminated by the rotting corpses in the cemetery up the hill (D-minus for the town planner). Food was scarce, and everyone survived (barely) on a steady diet of porridge and potatoes. Life expectancy for residents was around 25 years, and infant mortality was nearly half, so getting all of the Brontës up past knee height was a pretty significant accomplishment.

Unfortunately, even though the kids held up alright, their mother didn’t fare so well, and she died the following year. Her sister moved in with Patrick shortly after to help with running the house, but he needed a bit of peace and quiet (or a better education for the rugrats, or both). He found the kids places at a reputable charitable school not far away. Of course, even “reputable” charitable schools in those days had pupils so malnourished that they lost their eyesight, and rats would gnaw on their extremities at night, so it’s all relative.

Sure enough, the Brontës started dropping like flies. By 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth (the two eldest) were dead from illnesses contracted at school. Patrick got fed up with his kids dying, so he brought the remaining ones back home pronto.


Having suffered stoically through all this death and porridge, now finding themselves quite alone in the middle of nowhere, the remaining Brontë sprogs – Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne – took to making up stories for their own entertainment. They created the fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal, writing stories and poems and feeding off one another’s creativity. In fact, they wrote more as children than any of them managed as adults. Just goes to show what lengths kids would go to keep from getting bored when they don’t have iPads.

In 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne had a collection of poems published under their pen names (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). Branwell was making a pest of himself (more on that in a second), and contributed very little to their literary efforts from that point onward. Their isolation meant that the Brontës created their own kind of literary tradition – relatively untouched by the influence of others that came before, and one that could not be replicated by others that came after. Their creative output was, of course, cut short by their untimely deaths (Emily and Branwell bit the dust in 1848, Anne kicked the year after that, and Charlotte made it all the way to 1854). Still, their reputations continued to grow after their deaths. They are now considered to be one of the most influential literary families of all time, and their home in Haworth is a pilgrimage site (the Brontë Parsonage Museum) for booklovers from around the world. None of the Brontës bore any children, so any genetic genius died out with paper Patrick; sadly, he outlived all of his children, dying in 1861.

Parents are probably supposed to say that they don’t have a favourite kid, and Patrick undoubtedly loved them all, but we are under no such obligation! Debate has raged for over a century now: who was the best Brontë? Let’s take a look at the contenders…

Emily Brontë 

Emily gets pretty much all of the love nowadays. She only wrote one novel – Wuthering Heights – which I once described as a bad-boy’s decade-long over getting friendzoned. It’s a pretty spooky read, full of hauntings and moors and incestuous marriages and stuff. I suppose it’s also a pretty good “eternal love” story, if you’re into that kind of thing. Critics have been analysing Wuthering Heights for decades (I gave it a shot, too), and I’d bet they’re not even halfway done – there’s enough layers of metaphor to keep them at it for a while yet. It’s definitely the most iconic Brontë novel (but could we really say that it’s the “best”? hmmm…)

As for the woman herself, Emily was a bit of a character. She had a bit of trouble holding down a job – mostly because all of the jobs for unmarried women her age at the time involved looking after kids, and she didn’t like that. In fact, she once told the pupils at the school where she taught that she preferred the school dog over all of them (same, girl, same). That teaching gig was the only one she ever had. She shrugged off the pressure to become a governess like her sisters, and focused intensely on her writing. She was the determined, hard-working, creative, childless-by-choice one. The media would probably call her a “nasty woman” if she were around today.

Charlotte Brontë 

I must say I’m very biased here, because Charlotte’s magnum opus – Jane Eyre – is one of my favourite books of all time. Charlotte was the “first historian of the private consciousness”, writing a story where all of the action is told through the eyes and experiences of the central character. She pretty much invented first-person narration as we understand it today. Jane Eyre tells the story of a young governess who survives a shitty childhood (complete with evil stepmother, and a boarding school that violates every health code ever), only to fall in love with her boss (who happens to be keeping his mad wife locked in his attic). It was a deeply feminist book, very progressive for its time, and so much more accessible and readable than Wuthering Heights! A highly recommended read from Keeping Up With The Penguins – be sure to check out my full review here.

Anyway, Charlotte was the pretty, popular one. Case in point: she received a pretty steady stream of marriage proposals throughout her life. One bloke, Reverend Henry Nussey, wrote her a letter asking for her hand – she turned him down because she just wasn’t that into him, and she thought (probably rightly) that being married to a clergyman would be boring as fuck. Another reverend – David Pryce – met her once (once!) at a tea party before he popped the question. She turned him down as well, figuring (once again, probably rightly) that he was bonkers. She did finally marry a curate (Arthur Bell Nicholls) – but even he had to propose twice before she finally conceded. No man was gonna hold Charlotte down!

Turns out, getting married was probably a bad call on her part anyway: Charlotte died less than a year after the ceremony, and it would seem that it was extreme morning sickness that done her in. Her death certificate listed “phthisis” (acute tuberculosis) as the cause of death, but today’s medicine points to an evil foetus as the more likely cause. Still, Charlotte did manage to out-live all of her siblings, and she was certainly more prolific than any of them. That’s a pretty strong case for her being the Best Brontë Of All Time, don’t you think?

Anne Brontë 

When you start Googling people’s opinions on who was the best Brontë, you’re going to come across a squillion articles talking up Anne – the “forgotten” Brontë sister. People seem to really sympathise with poor little Anne, younger sister to two of the greatest female writers of all time. They do have a point: Emily and Charlotte would have been tough acts to follow.

Still, I’m not sure Anne is as “forgotten” as everyone says. Her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is certainly having a resurgence at the moment. It’s the story of a woman living in (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall; she really wants some alone-time, but drunk fuckboys keep coming at her from all directions. Anne basically used this book to sub-tweet all of her siblings. She sent up Charlotte and Emily, who wrote angry hard-drinking men as irresistibly attractive love interests, and her brother Branwell, who was himself an angry hard-drinking man in life. All of her writing had pretty strong moral messages, and her female characters were Strong Independent WomenTM, which was pretty controversial for the time.

Charlotte certainly wasn’t a fan of her younger sister’s work. She actually prevented The Tenant of Wildfell; Hall being republished after Anne’s death, saying “Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” She sounds mad jelly, doesn’t she?

Anne has historically been a dark horse for the title of the best Brontë, but judging by how much love she’s got on the internet over recent years, she’s probably the frontrunner now.

Branwell Brontë 

If you want to talk about the real forgotten Brontë, spare a thought for poor drunk Branwell. Popular opinion would have it that Anne is the one who got shafted, but I’m sure you have never read anything by Branwell – in fact, you probably didn’t even know there was a Brontë brother until now. Right?

In his younger years, Branwell’s father and sister thought he was an absolute genius – he was the darling of the family, intelligent and talented and driven. But, like so many white male boy-wonders before and since, his life quickly descended into a spiral of debt and addiction. Anne took pity on him and got him a job, but mad-dog Branwell got himself fired for having an affair with his boss’s wife (!). He frittered away the money he borrowed from his father (and, reportedly, stole from his employer), drinking and partying in establishments of ill-repute. He’d have been a fun guy to have along on a night out, but you probably wouldn’t have trusted him with your wallet.

As far as his writing goes, he and Charlotte actually co-wrote a book called Juvenilia when they were children. He followed that up with assorted pieces of poetry and prose. Things looked promising for Branwell when he got a few articles published in local newspapers… but he was ultimately waylaid by his love for opium. Branwell’s work is difficult to find today, and he’s barely a blip on the literary critique radar. He lives eternally in the shadow of his sisters, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d unironically call him the best Brontë.

So, who was the best Brontë?

Well, obviously, my vote is with Charlotte (and I give an honourable mention to Branwell, for being such a hot mess). But the true winner is up to you! Cast your vote by commenting below (or telling us your favourite over at KUWTP on Facebook), and subscribe to Keeping Up With The Penguins to be the first to know when we decide the winner 😉

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

There was no possibility of picking up another treatise on how tough it is to be a white man that day… (without driving myself completely bonkers). That’s how I came to read Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece was originally published in 1847 under the title Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and “edited” under the pen name Currer Bell. All of the Brontë sisters took on gender-ambiguous nom de plumes, assuming (quite rightly, it turned out) that literature written by women wouldn’t get a fair shake. Charlotte was once told by Robert Southey that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be”. Firstly, fuck that guy. Secondly, I’m glad Charlotte didn’t listen to him, because her shit is brilliant.

Charlotte was, as you’ve probably guessed, the older sister to Emily Brontë (I reviewed Wuthering Heights a little while back). Emily gets all of the love and accolades, but it was Charlotte that truly revolutionised the art of first-person fiction (i.e., she was the first to really write about what was going on in people’s heads). She has been called “the first historian of private consciousness”, and her influence can be seen in the work of dudes like Proust and Joyce. She internalised the action the way that no one before her could, and was one of the first to explore classism, sexuality, religion, and feminism in the way we do today. So, when it comes to the Brontë sibling rivalry, I’m going in to bat for Charlotte.

By the way, if I sound at all like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because the introduction to this edition is off the chain. It’s insightful, helpful, and intelligent – without going over your head. Plus, I just fucking loved Jane Eyre. I absorbed the book like a brand-new sponge baptised in bathwater.



Right from the outset, Jane Eyre is pretty gripping. Jane – the main character, duh – is ten years old, her parents are dead, and she has been sent to live with her nice, rich uncle… but he dies too, so she’s raised by her evil stepmother, alongside her three bratty cousins. Life’s pretty terrible for Jane, but it is beautifully written. I tend to feel pretty disconnected from literature of this period (as most would-be bookworms do); I don’t understand the language, the imagery, the style, and the metaphor. All of it seems anchored in a context that I don’t know enough about to fully comprehend… but not so with Jane! I was immediately immersed in her world. She feels everything so keenly, and passion drips from every word – I mean, she’s a very intense girl, but Charlotte Brontë is artful enough to keep it from sliding into melodramatics. It’s everything that My Brilliant Career should have been.

Jane winds up in a boarding school, and the drama doesn’t stop: she’s pretty mercilessly bullied for a while, the girls are all kinds of weird, and her first best friend Helen Burns dies of tuberculosis. This is where we first see Brontë really draw from her own life (I should do a shot every time an author in this project “writes what they know”). Helen’s death eerily mirrors the deaths of Brontë’s own younger sisters: Elizabeth and Maria Brontë both died of tuberculosis in childhood, as a result of the conditions at their school. So this whole section of the plot is basically Charlotte saying a big ol’ “fuck you” to so-called charitable institutions.

When Jane is done with school, she is transferred to the Thornfield mansion, and introduced to her new master Mr Rochester. Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand: I didn’t really like Rochester much, mostly because he constantly talks over and down to Jane, and he’s basically just a pompous, self-absorbed fuckboy of the highest order… but I found the initial flirtations between he and Jane very romantic. I really wanted to be a keener, more critical feminist, but this shit had me all aflutter. I’m pretty confident that every strong, independent woman who has had the misfortune of falling in love with a man can relate.



The saving grace is that Jane Eyre is a blatant proto-feminist call to arms. Brontë doesn’t even try to hide it in layers of metaphor, like so many other writers of the time. She literally tells us, through Jane, that she thinks women are equal to men and it is absolute bullshit that they aren’t treated as such. She was so woke for her time that it confused the hell out of critics. One Ms Elizabeth Rigby wrote, in her “scathing” review, that “no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert dishes with the same hands, or talks of doing so in the same breath” and as such Jane Eyre must have been written by a man… or, at least, by a woman “so depraved as to have long forfeited the society of her own sex”. Fuck yes, Charlotte Brontë, fuck yes! Troll reviews like that are how you know you’re on the right track.

It’s true that – panty-dropping for Rochester aside – Jane is a bad bitch. She fawns over him privately, sure, but in his company she makes every show of having no time for his bullshit. On the eve of their engagement, she says:

“Here I heard myself apostrophized as a ‘hard little thing’; and it was added ‘any other woman would have been melted to marrow hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise.’

I assured him that I was naturally hard – very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers[e] rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks [engagement] elapsed: he should know fully what sort of bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.”

… and she proceeds to torture him mercilessly every damn day. Jane Eyre was the Beyonce’s Lemonade of its time.

If you’re tempted to roll your eyes right now, stop and think about it: this was a really scathing commentary on class and gender roles back in the day. Of course it wasn’t perfect – Jane doesn’t exactly call Rochester out on his treatment of his “savage Creole” wife that he hid in the attic, and there’s a few moments of superiority and white-saviourism – but it’s hardly fair to put a 21st century head on Charlotte Brontë’s shoulders. As it stands, in her own context, she was a true radical.

And lest this talk of radical feminism scare you off, you should know that Jane Eyre is still fucking hilarious. You wouldn’t call it a “comedy” per se, but I literally laughed out loud countless times. Jane is so witty and dry and clever – maybe a touch too earnest and self-deprecating at times, but it’s endearing. Shit like this had me in hysterics:

“‘No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,’ he began, ‘especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?’

‘They go to hell,’ was my ready and orthodox answer.

‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pit full of fire.’

‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.'”

Jane Eyre is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints experienced by a clever, funny woman over the course of a decade in the 19th century. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it. Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and highly recommended by Keeping Up With The Penguins (and, as we all know, there is no higher praise than that!).

Note: I loved Jane Eyre SO MUCH that it made the cut for my official shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

  • “This version is “illustrated” with reproductions of paintings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the text. For example, in the middle of a description of Sundays at the Lowood school, when the girls had to walk two miles to church services in the snow, there is a picture of a Native American spearing a buffalo.” – J. W. Shields
  • “I could have read Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, or O’Connor. I could have read Don Quixote a second time or sailed again with Captain Ahab on his philosophical quest. Instead, I wasted a few weeks reading this glorified soap opera with what is perhaps one of the most unintentional comic endings in all of literature. Onward, Sancho, onward!” – Nemo
  • “Gee, this is a classic. But I was shocked by the unremitting sadism in it and soon stopped reading it.” – U. S. ‘nAye
  • “The floral print came off and not noticing this, it transferred to my leg while wearing shorts. Other than that the book is great…” – Nancy Host
  • “I read this against my will.” – Erik

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Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

OK folks, let’s be real here: before you read this review, you should know that I’m not going to shake the Earth with it. It turns out, Wuthering Heights has been reviewed and critiqued approximately eighty billion times already. My copy (purchased for $10, once owned by but never borrowed from the library of Riverside Girls’ High, according to the stamp in the front) has a Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Further Reading List (pages!), a Note on the Text, a Genealogical Table, a Bibliographical Notice for the author, and an Editors Preface to the New [1850] Edition… not to mention that the text itself is followed by 13 pages of notes. How can I possibly add to an analysis that’s already longer than the book? I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not optimistic… 😉

(A hot tip for those of you yet to read Wuthering Heights: given how many characters Emily Brontë names for their parents, and how many of them marry their cousins, an edition with the aforementioned Genealogical Table in the front is really handy!)

So, it’s 1801, right. This moody guy, Heathcliff, lives with his daughter-in-law and her new husband (his own son having perished, at some point). The DIL is hot, but they’re all kind of rude and weird. Their kindly neighbour – who’s trying to narrate this mess – comes to have a sleepover, but they stick him in a really strange room and he has nutty dreams and sees a ghost. He bails quick smart. Then, presto, we kind of switch narrators, because that kindly neighbour – safe, back at his place – gets bored at dinner and makes his housemaid give him all the dirt on those whack-jobs up the road. So, it’s the narrator narrating the narration of his housemaid. Got it?

It turns out: that Heathcliff guy was once a ruffian street-kid, with a Cinderella-esque upbringing (once the dude who took him in died, the rest of the family started being really mean). Catherine (we’ll call her Cathy Senior for clarity – you’ll see why in a minute) was a saucy little minx, who flirtatiously tortured Heathcliff for years, but she ultimately decided to marry the snooty guy next door instead. It was a hella dramatic household – years of drunken rages and fights and marriage proposals and death. It’s great tea, but damn, I wanted to tell them all to just calm down for a minute.

Heathcliff went on a sulky walkabout after his true-love-slash-adopted-sister married the snooty guy. Cathy Senior is overjoyed when he eventually returns, which makes Mr Snooty super jealous. Then, Mr Snooty’s sister takes a fancy to Heathcliff, and Cathy Senior is so not jealous of them that she goes proper bonkers and locks herself in her room.

Heathcliff does actually take Mr Snooty’s sister for a wife (seemingly because they both just fancied a shag and this was the only way to get one back then), but being back living with the adopted family that hates him isn’t great for his mental health. Guys, this is just Volume I. Strap in!


I can see why Wuthering Heights has been picked apart so many times – there’s clearly layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, but (unlike Mrs Dalloway) that doesn’t mean that a surface reading isn’t perfectly enjoyable. Of course, you’ve got to keep track of all the love triangles dodecahedrons and set aside any qualms you have about incest…

In Volume II, Heathcliff decides he doesn’t give a damn who’s married whom, and sneaks in to see Cathy Senior while Mr Snooty is at church. They pash for a bit, but she’s still bonkers, and Mr Snooty ends up catching them at it. It turns out Cathy Senior was knocked up (though none of them have mentioned it up until now) – the shock of the whole situation sends her into pre-term labour, and she dies not long after the shorty drops.

This, in turn, makes Heathcliff even more mental (losing his true-love-slash-adopted-sister and all), so Mr Snooty’s sister leaves him… but it turns out she was knocked up as well (gasp!). She runs away to the country to have the kid and eat a lot of peaches… then the story jumps ahead 13 years, and she dies too. I’m serious! I’m not making this up, I swear.

Cathy Junior (yes, Brontë named both characters Cathy, it’s crazy) is a mad little scamp; she thinks her cousins are living far, far away… but it turns out they’re living up the road with Heathcliff, and when she finds out she gets proper pissed off. She becomes secret pen pals with Heathcliff’s son and they trade notes via the milkman for a few days, until they decide they’ve fallen in love. (It kind of seems like deciding you want to marry the guy you’ve been messaging on Tinder for a few days… only that guy is your cousin and living with your mother’s ex-lover and it’s all really fucked up!)

He's Your Cousin - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Heathcliff isn’t at all bothered by the incest, and approves of the match. He’s so determined that Cathy Junior should marry his son that he takes her hostage, knocks her around a bit, and tells her that he won’t release her to see her dying dad until she’s got a ring on it. The whole thing is a study in Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence, and by all rights I should have been shocked and confronted… but I was so confused and bored by their dramatics that it passed by me with barely an eyebrow raised.

To skip ahead to the end (which I’m sure we’re all eager to do by this point): Heathcliff dies and the implication seems to be that he and Cathy Senior go on to have a rollicking good time in the afterlife, haunting the moors and so forth. Cathy Junior outlives her cousin-husband, and eventually falls in love with her other cousin (even though he’s really stupid). They… live happily ever after? I guess?


The thing is, while I was reading Wuthering Heights, I was having a pretty tough time personally – putting on pants in the morning was about all I could manage, let alone immersing myself in Brontë’s madness. I’ll definitely read this book again, not because the first time was so good, but because I could not possibly have got everything out of Wuthering Heights that it has to offer, when so much of my brain space was occupied with other things. Ergo, at this point, I can really only recommend it to someone who’s got the emotional and mental stability to enjoy it properly.

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any emotional turmoil of your own going on, go for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights:

  • “This book wasn’t particularly good and it wasn’t particularly bad. I don’t really like this style but I’m reading the classics so that I can say that I did.” – the1cuttiepoo
  • “Classic Victorian plot of everyone being too proud to be happy.” – Jamie K Devine
  • “A serious and depressing masterpiece where Heathcliff is an evil jerk and everyone dies….” – David Allen Patterson

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If all you knew about Wuthering Heights before you read this review was drawn from the Kate Bush song, don’t worry – you’re not alone! Check out more songs inspired by classic literature here.

Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet

I want to tell you something about myself, something that will come as a surprise: I am a huge nerd. Last year, when I bought new bookshelves, I got to revel in the glory of the opportunity to properly alphabetise my entire personal library (so much fun!). Then, I bought more bookshelves, and got to do it all over again! (STILL FUN! I swear!) It inspired me to put together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet. Since then, my alphabetising fingers have been getting itchy… then I came across this series from the inimitable Simon over at Stuck In A Book: his thoughts on an author for every letter of the alphabet. I thought I might shamelessly steal that idea for a single post, and try to put together a list of must-read authors for every letter of the alphabet. Can I do it? Even for X? You’re about to find out!

The A-Z Of Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Jane Austen

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

You’re not surprised, right? I mean, if we’re talking must-read authors in my Anglophone corner of the world, and you’re going alphabetical, you’ve got to start with Austen. Despite her surprisingly small oeuvre (only six completed novels, a handful of stories and an incomplete manuscript), she has influenced English literature more than perhaps any other Regency author. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here, and/or Emma here.

Honourable mentions: Maya Angelou, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Atwood

B: The Brontës

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to just one! The Brontës were the most talented literary family of the Victorian era. Their novels – originally published under androgynous pseudonyms – were proto-feminist women-centred works of art that blazed the trail for female writers who came after them (let’s just forget about the Brontë brother, Branwell, who preferred drinking and dirty dancing to poetry and prose). Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here, and/or Jane Eyre here.

Honourable mentions: Fredrik Backman, Alain de Botton, and Brit Bennett

C: Truman Capote

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

Look, Truman Capote was hardly a stand-up guy. He was pretty liberal with his applications of the ol’ creative license. He loved blowing his own horn. He barely hesitated to sell out his best friends when his career needed a boost with a salacious tell-all. And yet, be damned if he wasn’t an incredible, imitable writer. He revolutionised the true crime genre, steering it away from sparse journalistic re-tellings and using the conventions of fiction to weave a story for the reader. Everything he wrote was carefully considered and expertly crafted. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

Honourable mentions: Maxine Beneba Clarke

D: Charles Dickens

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

It’s all too easy to forget that the serialised novel was the primary medium of family entertainment back in the Victorian era. Authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so they tended to stretch things out, which means they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being bloated and dull. In fact, Dickens worked incredibly hard to keep his stories interesting and entertaining, to keep his circulation numbers up and keep the cheques coming. Love romance? Dickens has you covered. Military history? Same. Adventure? Crime? Character study? There’s something for everyone in his catalogue, I swear it. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Honourable mentions: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle

E: Bernadine Evaristo

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

Bernadine Evaristo shot to international fame last year when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other… in tandem with Margaret Atwood for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a controversial decision, and it ate up plenty of space in the Opinion and Arts pages, which was warranted but also a bit of a shame. The scandal has overshadowed Evaristo’s many other works and achievements: being the first black British writer to assume the No. 1 spot on the UK fiction paperback chart, for instance, not to mention her previous eight novels and novellas.

Honourable mentions: Nora Ephron, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides


F: Elena Ferrante

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

Oh, Elena Ferrante. I think I could write a book about how much I love Elena Ferrante (and I’m not the only one). It’s not just the mystique – she’s the world’s best-known living pseudonymous author – that appeals. Her writing is lyrical, but never overwrought, and translated beautifully into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. You should, of course, begin with her Neapolitan Quartet, her series of novels following the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grew up together in mid-20th century Naples with all the violence, poverty, and oppression that entailed. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend (the first book of the Neapolitan Quartet) here.

Honourable mentions: Karen Joy Fowler

G: Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is basically the Madonna of the Australian literary scene. She’s had her ups and downs, she’s come in and out of fashion, but she reinvents herself so constantly and completely that it’s impossible for anyone not to respect her art. She’s written everything – from essay collections to thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction to true crime – and her craft is second to none. I’m yet to encounter a work of Garner’s that I haven’t enthusiastically devoured, and immediately flagged to re-read.

Honourable mentions: Stella Gibbons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Roxane Gay

H: Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway can be a bit hit-and-miss. Case in point: I fell in love with his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, in an undergrad English Lit unit, but I was exhausted and bored by The Sun Also Rises. He never actually wrote the six-word short story for which he’s well-known (“Baby Shoes”, you know the one), but I’ve heard The Old Man And The Sea is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. It would seem that different Hemingways appeal to different readers: the only way to find yours is to give his books and stories a go for yourself. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Honourable mentions: Chloe Hooper

I: Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The man won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He’s got an OBE. Just about everything he’s ever written has been shortlisted (or won!) for a major literary prize. What more do you need? Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated and lauded English-language authors in the world – he’s a must-read if for no other reason than simple curiosity. The good news is, as far as I’m concerned, his books totally hold up. They’re slightly strange, but not too off-the-wall. They’re sparse, but not underdone. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

J: Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve always said it’s such a shame that the Scandinavians are so well-renowned for their crime noir, when they’ve got brilliant comic novelists like Jonas Jonasson. From humble beginnings as a Swedish blogger, Jonasson has gone on to hit international best-seller lists with his delightful novels about unlikely heroes. His writing is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and warm your cockles, all at once. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Honourable mentions: Tayari Jones


K: Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephen King has published over sixty books, and combined they’ve sold some 350 million copies around the world. While he tends towards the darker side – horror, thriller, the supernatural – he still has plenty of options for readers who are, shall we say… a bit chicken (myself included!). Still, he’s called the “King Of Horror” (yes, a pun on his name) for very good reason. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you should definitely check him out at his gore-iest. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

L: Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wondering who the heck Anita Loos is, and what she’s doing in an A-Z list of must-read authors? You’re probably not the only one. I certainly hadn’t heard of her before I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list (in fact, I wouldn’t have known Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was anything other than a Marilyn Munroe film). This, Keeper Upperers, is one of the great travesties of our time. Anita Loos was a brilliant comic screenwriter, the first salaried one in Hollywood, and she suffered from that awful chronic condition that affects so many successful women: loving an arsehole of a husband who sucked her dry and kept her in the shadows. Don’t let him win, folks. Don’t sleep on Anita Loos. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Honourable mentions: Melissa Lucashenko

M: Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s no delight quite like that of discovering an author at the beginning of their very bright career. I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where she had been invited to speak after her debut book – a collection of short stories, notoriously difficult to sell – won her international acclaim. She has since also published an incredible memoir, In The Dream House, a true work of art that promises to revolutionise the genre of memoir and has already carved out a spot in the queer literary canon. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Honourable mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison

N: Vladimir Nabokov

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

I don’t know if it helps or harms Vladimir Nabokov’s reputation that his name has become synonymous with Lolita, a book written from the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert, about his twisted obsession with his teenage stepdaughter. It’s stomach-churning subject matter, to be sure, but to write a book so fascinating, so captivating, about someone so abhorrent is surely a feat not many could manage. Add into the equation the fact that English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet he mastered it so completely as to write more lyrically and more beautifully than any of his Anglophone contemporaries… well, that’s just gob-smacking, isn’t it?

Honourable mentions: Maggie Nelson, Celeste Ng

O: Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Susan Orlean won herself a new legion of fans when her drunk tweets made the headlines last month, giving those of us who have long loved her writing ample opportunity to say: told you so! She is perhaps best-known for her book of The Orchid Thief, based on a piece of investigative journalism into the case of (you guessed it) some stolen orchids. My personal favourite, however, is The Library Book – her surprisingly intimate, incredibly detailed, booklover catnip exploration of the Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986. The point is, there’s something in Orlean’s oeuvre for everyone.

Honourable mentions: Maggie O’Farrell


P: Sylvia Plath

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

I had a devil of a time tracking down a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my local secondhand bookstore haunts. It turns out, readers are still so enamored with her work that they’re unwilling to part with their copies. I suspected, prior to reading her work, that her enduring popularity was due to the mythology surrounding her life and death. She was depressed! Damaged! Beautiful! But it turns out her writing is just as beautiful as she was. Every time I pick up one of her books, I fight against the equal and competing urges to throw them across the room and hug them to my chest. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Honourable mentions: Max Porter

Q: Daniel Quinn

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s an over-used phrase, to be sure, but Daniel Quinn was surely ahead of his time. He was using fiction to explore environmentalism and the dangers of an anthropocentric worldview long before it was cool. Some of his ideas were controversial (if I understand correctly, international efforts to aid countries ravaged by famines made the famines… worse, somehow?), but he still managed to merge philosophy and fiction in a way that the average person (i.e., me) could understand. Plus, he coined a whole bunch of phrases that have slipped into common parlance in certain circles (see: the boiling frog, the Great Forgetting).

R: Sally Rooney

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

Ah, Sally Rooney: the millennial wunderkind. She’s been called everything from the voice of a generation to the 21st century’s answer to J.D. Salinger. All this despite having only two full-length books (Conversations With Friends, and Normal People) under her belt. And she’s just 29 years old. What have YOU done lately? The world is waiting with bated breath for the next great novel from the pen of its newest literary darling. I’m sure she’s up to the challenge. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Honourable mentions: Jean Rhys

S: David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a relatively recent convert to David Sedaris, but holy heck – he’s got me hook, line, and sinker. He is truly the master of humorous autobiographical writing, and can find the funny in even the most dire of life circumstances. (Take, for instance, his musings on his failed attempts to panic-buy at the onset of a global pandemic.) His secret sauce seems to be a unique combination of cutting insight – no one is spared – and equally powerful self-deprecation. I can’t think of anyone else who could insult someone in such a way that they laughed ’til they cried, and make fun of himself at the same time, in quite the way Sedaris can. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Honourable mentions: Mary Shelley, Zadie Smith, and John Steinbeck

T: Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I couldn’t put together a list of must-read authors without including one of the Russian masters. Leo Tolstoy has a reputation for being wordy and, look, it’s not undeserved. War And Peace comes in at about 587k words. Anna Karenina at 340k. (For reference: most books published today come in well under 100k.) And yet, his popularity endures. That’s because his novels contain some universal truths, some enduring sensibility that we can all relate to. Either that, or people just really like showing off.

Honourable mentions: Maria Tumarkin


U: Gabrielle Union

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, fine, maybe I’ve been swayed by my love of late-90s teen comedy movies (and U is a bear of a letter). Still, I stand by the inclusion of Gabrielle Union in an A-Z list of must-read authors. She has parlayed her early success playing teenagers in various competitive and romantic dilemmas into a career as an activist in women’s health and well-being. Her thesis is We’re Going To Need More Wine, a sentiment that was oddly prescient given that it was published long before the world fell to pieces. She has since expanded her creative efforts to include children’s books, focused on positive representations of non-traditional families.

V: Sarah Vaughn

Anatomy Of A Scandal - Sarah Vaughan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, we’re getting down to the bear letters, but I’m going strong! V is for Vaughn, as in Sarah Vaughn – not the jazz singer, but the British novelist and journalist. She has parlayed her illustrious career writing for outlets like The Guardian into best-selling fiction that explores power, privilege, and politics. Even with a bunch of success notches already punched into her belt – including film and television rights, awards, and over twenty translations of her work – Vaughan is still going strong.

W: Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alice Walker is, without doubt, one of the greatest living American writers and feminists (or, as per the term she herself coined, “womanist”). Most of her best-known full length fiction was published in the ’70s and ’80s, but it continues to resonate – particularly in the age of #MeToo and #BLM – with its searing depictions of racism, sexism, violence and resilience. But she’s not just a wildly successful and brilliant novelist: her poetry, her short fiction, her journalism, and (most importantly) her activism are also ground-breaking and vital contributions to contemporary life.

Honourable mentions: Colson Whitehead, Charlotte Wood, and Edith Wharton

X: Xenophon

A History Of My Times - Xenophon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, I had to reach WAY back into the archives to find an X I could get behind… but I found one! Xenophon was an Athenian philosopher, and I inherited one of his books as a result of merging marital bookshelves. Turns out, my husband is onto something: a lot of what we know of Ancient Greece is derived from his histories, as well as that which we know of his mate Socrates. He was also kind enough to write in Attic Greek – the old-timey equivalent of plain language – which means his books were more accessible to his contemporaries, and they’ve been a boon for translators in the modern world.

Y: Hanya Yanagihara

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

You’d be forgiven for associating Hanya Yanagihara’s name only with her international best-seller and near-universally acclaimed novel, A Little Life. It has won (and broken) hearts for five years now, and it’s still going strong. But Yanagihara is a multi-talented gal; she’s also a travel writer, a magazine editor, and she wrote a previous novel (based on the real story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) that is arguably just as worthy of attention. She is a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature, beloved by critics and readers alike.

Z: Markus Zusak

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

Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief, made the Second World War tangible for youngsters in a way that not many other contemporary writers have managed. Through his story of the young girl who steals books and learns to read (narrated by Death, into the bargain), he’s captured their heads and hearts and maybe – just maybe – taught the kids enough about the horrors of world conflict to make them inclined to stop history repeating itself. What’s extra-interesting is that the success of that novel led him to take a decade-long break from writing and publishing, a dry spell only recently broken with the rains of his new novel, Bridge Of Clay (an epic coming-of-age story). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.


Lost In Translation: Mis-Translated Book Titles

August is Women In Translation month, and here at Keeping Up With The Penguins we kicked off in fine style with a review of Convenience Store Woman. Still, I wanted to do something special to showcase the vital creative work that translators do to bring books to us Anglophone readers. For too long, translators have been overlooked, underpaid, and underappreciated, and that’s only just starting to change (remember, always #namethetranslator in your reviews and recommendations!). In case you’re in any doubt, here’s the proof: using Google’s translate function, I’ve translated some book titles into another language and then back into English. The results are… hilarious, disturbing, and baffling in equal measure. Enjoy!

Lost In Translation - Mis-Translated Book Titles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Stars Are To Blame

A slightly stroppier take on John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. Read my full review here.

No.

The literal and complete opposite of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. Read my full review here.

To Make Fun Of

Harper Lee was kind of hinting that you shouldn’t make fun of anyone in To Kill A MockingbirdRead my full review here.

The Tale Of Her Servant

Kind of gives the Wife a much bigger role than Margaret Atwood’s original The Handmaid’s Tale, no? Read my full review here.

One Hour Work Orange

In fairness, the title of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange makes very little sense in English, unless you’ve read the book… but this still somehow one-ups the confusion. Read my full review here.


The Wind Was Blowing

I really have no idea how the wacky translator algorithm gets here from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Read my full review here.

Who Catches In Rye?

Holden Caulfield does! Or, at least, he wants to in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. Read my full review here.

Fruits Of Anger

Alright, this one is a pretty obvious mis-translation from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, but it still makes me giggle (I picture an apple with an angry emoji face on it… hehe!). Read my full review here.

What A Dog Is Surprised By At Night

I mean, it’s kind of beside the point of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, but this is still a killer title, right? Don’t you want to know?

Rats and Mans

I know, I know, it’s a double up, but John Steinbeck’s book titles just lend themselves so well to mis-translation! This one was Of Mice And Men, obviously.


The Guide Of The Mural For The Galaxy

It’s poetic, but lacks the logical coherence of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Read my full review here.

The Princess Is Drowning

Yikes! Nowhere near as fun a pun as Carrie Fisher’s original The Princess Diarist.

In The Cold

A far less-menacing take on the true-crime classic, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Read my full review here.

Subtle Art Don’t Fuck

I mean, it’s snappy! Actually, I think I almost like it better than Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck

The Mystery Of Man

I doubt Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret would have been in my top one thousand guesses for the mis-translation of this one… but here we are! Read my full review here.


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