Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Search results: "fitzgerald" (page 1 of 7)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The recent Keeping Up With The Penguins trend of reviewing short-novels-by-dead-white-guys-that-got-turned-into-movies ends (promise!) with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is a beautiful Penguin edition of the 1925 novel; I picked it up from my favourite secondhand bookstore (as always), and yet it looks brand new, never read. In the front they’ve printed Fitzgerald’s original dedication, to his wife Zelda. I thought that was really sweet… until I later learned that she was quite a piece of work, and would probably have kicked up a royal stink if he hadn’t dedicated the book to her. What a boss!

Fitzgerald began planning The Great Gatsby in 1923, but it was a long and laborious process to get to the finished product. In his first year of writing he pumped out 18,000 words, only to scrap it all and start again. There were stacks of revisions, even entire chapters re-written, before it went to press. Fitzgerald also changed the title more often than he changed his underpants. His reported favourite was “Under The Red, White and Blue”, but it was vetoed by his publishers (and his wife, ha!).



The Great Gatsby, in its final form, received mixed reviews and sold “poorly” – just 20,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing himself to be a failure (boohoo). Shortly after his death, the book experienced a strong resurgence, thanks in large part to the Council on Books in Wartime that distributed 155,000 copies to American soldiers fighting in WWII. It is now considered a contender for that ever-elusive accolade: The Great American Novel. It has been adapted for film, television, literature, opera, ballet, radio, and even computer games. I vaguely remember seeing the 2013 movie at some point, but my memories are mostly just glitter and sparkly costumes. The only concrete fact that my brain saw fit to retain was that Leonardo launched a thousand memes.

Leonardo Di Caprio as Jay Gatsby - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyway, what’s the story? Well, a young Yale graduate slash Great War veteran (Nick Carraway) moves to Long Island to work as a bond salesman and basically sort himself out. He ends up friends with his rich neighbour – Jay Gatsby – who throws a lot of fancy parties. (He’s really rich, okay? It’s very important that you know that.) So, Nick just kinda hangs out there a bit; his only other social outings are visiting his flapper cousin and her philandering husband, who live just up the road. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop asking myself: what’s the point? I mean, a swotty young guy discovers that he likes drinking and pretty girls, and he hangs around his rich neighbour’s hectic parties – so what?

Later, we find out that Gatsby is actually in love with Nick’s beautiful cousin, and has quasi-stalked her for years (but we’re supposed to think that’s romantic, not creepy). He uses Nick to engineer a rendezvous, and finally gets into her pants. They continue hooking up on the sly for a while, until her husband Mr Philanderer finds out and gets all jealous (ironic). There’s a crazy show-down at a hotel in the city, and the beautiful cousin runs over her husband’s mistress in Gatsby’s car (yes, shit really escalated, but it’s not over yet). Because of the car, everyone assumes that Gatsby is the one who was driving, and it’s all very I Know What You Did Last Summer. The mistress’s husband avenges her death by killing Gatsby, and then himself. The beautiful cousin gets back with her husband, and they run away together. Nick tries to throw a funeral for Gatsby and nobody comes. The end.



Fitzgerald famously drew inspiration from the parties he attended in Long Island in the early 1920s, and many true events from his life are reflected in the plot (he fell in love with a girl and needed to “prove himself” with material success before he could marry her, and so on). You don’t have to try too hard to pick apart the Very Important Themes in The Great Gatsby, a lot of stuff about the façade of class mobility in America and the excesses of wealth and the recklessness of ambitious youth. Blah, blah, blah… It all boils down to a cautionary tale, and a pretty boring one at that. How many times do we need to expose the “underbelly” of the Great American Dream? It is a myth, we get it. I mean, maybe they didn’t back in the 1920s, but we’ve all seen American Beauty now, so I’m not sure how much The Great Gatsby adds to that narrative.

I fail to understand how this has become a staple of the high school English syllabus. Is it because it’s a “classic” that’s short enough to squeeze into a teenager’s limited attention span? Do the grown-ups think it’s “relateable”? The characters do all talk and act like rich, indulgent teenagers I suppose, like an old-timey version of The OC. I know I’m not an authority, but I think there are better choices for reading assignments. I mean, as far as the literary merit goes, to me Fitzgerald sounded like a wannabe poet trying too hard to write romantic prose. He told a friend that he wanted The Great Gatsby to be a “consciously artistic achievement”, but it came off sounding like desperate, over-reaching wank half of the time.

So, in conclusion, no. Not for me. No, thank you. My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. I really didn’t care about the characters or the story at all, and finer examples of American literature abound as far as I’m concerned – but by all means, check this one out for yourself if you want to see just how far it falls short of its reputation.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Great Gatsby:

  • “Hated this book. It was a total waste of time. If I wanted to be depressed and read about unfaithfulness in marriage, I would read the court records. Don’t know why this is a classic.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Wow, even better than the Cliff notes I read in High School.” – Marc Reeves
  • “I had to buy this for my son for school. He did not like the book but that’s not Amazon’s fault…” – D. Basuino
  • “One star is too many, but it is the minimum.
    The only reason I read this was for a class. I gave the teacher a stinker review as well.The book is a pointless exercise in futility about pointless stupid people. The only point to the story is that people with money are just as trashy, if not more so, than people without. The characters have no development, are barely two dimensional, do stupid things for no reason and face no consequences for their veniality.This books is the literary equivalent of being stuck in a window seat on a airplane for 14 hours needs to a drunken, smelly creep with bad breath and smelly gas who talks at you for the whole flight about his pointless job. For being such a thin book, it is the hardest reading I have ever had to do.Of course, it is even more aggravating that the kindle edition costs $11 for a book you can get at a bookstore for less than a dollar.” – Heinrick Ludwig von Mencken

Save

10 Great LGBTQ Books You Should Read

Queer literature has been around as long as there’s been literature. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Going all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, there have been stories shared about queer love, life, and loss. Sometimes, those stories had to be masked inside other narratives or told allegorically, but I think we’ve reached the point now where it’s no longer controversial to have openly LGBTQ books on the shelves (whether you identify as being part of the community or not). I’ve featured some great LGBTQ books on Keeping Up With The Penguins in the past, but never rounded up a list of recommendations all in one place, so here you have it: 10 great LGBTQ books you should read (if you haven’t already).

10 Great LGBTIQ Books - Text Overlaid on Painted Rainbow - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Psst: I’m assuming that you’re all au fait with the acronym now because it’s fairly common, but just in case you’re not familiar, I’ll spell it out here. LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer or Questioning. A lot of people and organisations use a longer form, LGBTIQA+, which includes Intersex, Asexual, and a “+” to acknowledge those who don’t identify with any of these particular labels. I’ve chosen to use the shorter form here, purely because it’s what the majority of people use when they search for queer literature on this site and I wanted them to be able to find what they’re looking for.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sorry to start on a bummer note, but I think Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is often overlooked in lists of LGBTQ books, and I wanted to redress the balance straight away (he’s better known for his other works, like Goodbye To Berlin). This is a short but heart-wrenching book, a day in the life of a man grieving the loss of his partner. Today, we’d call him a widower, but back then, in the ’60s, their relationship was only socially “understood” and not legally recognised. As such, he must present to the world as “a single man”, and try to hide his bereavement. It’s incredibly sad, of course, but the dark humour had me cackling with laughter all the way through, too. Read my full review of A Single Man 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

In The Dream House is a recent release; it came out earlier this year, and the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail were kind enough to send me a copy for review. This book is not only destined to become a permanent fixture of the queer literature canon, but it completely revolutionised my idea of what a “memoir” could be. Machado explores, in exquisite detail, a formative – and abusive – love affair she had with someone she refers to only as “the woman in the Dream House”. There has been comparatively very little attention – literary or otherwise – paid to domestic violence in queer relationships, but that doesn’t stop Machado from tackling this vital issue from every possible angle.

Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl - Andrea Lawlor - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll be honest: Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl probably isn’t one for beginners. It’s deeply weird, it’s really offbeat, and if you’re new to reading LGBTQ books, it might completely confuse you. That said, if you think you’re ready to take it on, I really recommend that you do. It’s smutty, it’s raw, it’s intense: Lawlor isn’t here to play, people! The titular Paul is a shapeshifter, with the ability to change their appearance at will (to male/masculine, or female/feminine, or anywhere in between). It’s a rollicking romp, an adventure through clusterfuck that is our contemporary understanding of the gender binary and sexuality, but also a fascinating historical piece in the way that it captures the queer “scene” of the ’90s.


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

People who read a lot of LGBTQ books are probably rolling their eyes at me right now, and I don’t (entirely) blame them. Naming The Argonauts in a list of must-read LGBTQ books is about as cliche as naming The Great Gatsby in a list of must-read American literature. BUT, in my defense, cliches are cliches for a reason, folks: more often than not, they’re alarmingly apt. This book is a love story, of sorts, a memoir of Nelson’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge, but it’s also an exploration of gender identity, queer theory, and the modern family unit. It is fresh, it is fierce, it is dripping with desire and determination to break down barriers.

Bodies Of Men by Nigel Featherstone

Bodies Of Men - Nigel Featherstone - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve talked before about how I find historical fiction set in and around WWII to be pretty tired, but Bodies Of Men is a fresh take that I can really get behind. Two Australian soldiers find themselves drawn together by fate and circumstance, again and again, and ultimately what unfolds is a story about intimacy, loyalty, and how we define masculinity. For a historical fiction book, it sure as shit has a LOT to say about the contemporary era, and how we “remember” stories (or don’t).

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oh, this book! This self-deprecating, charming, delight of a book! Less is the story of Arthur Less, a has-been writer who bemoans the fact that he never sits next to anyone on a plane that has ever heard of his books and that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old”. In an attempt to avoid the awkwardness of his ex-lover’s wedding to a much younger beau, he decides to accept every invitation he receives for every half-baked literary event around the world. Yes, he’s a love-lorn sad-sack and that should be annoying, but it’s actually delightful and endearing and hilarious and – above all – relatable. I defy anyone (gay or straight) to read this book and not fall head-over-heels in love with its protagonist. Read my full review of Less here.


The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

The Monkey's Mask - Dorothy Porter - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It wouldn’t be a list of LGBTQ books without some poetry, right? Even if you’re not normally “into” poetry, I can guarantee you that The Monkey’s Mask will still knock your socks off. It’s a verse novel – a story told in a book-length series of poems – about a private investigator who becomes embroiled in a case of murder, mystery, and betrayal. As if that weren’t enough, there’s lots of hot sex and passionate conflict to keep you interested the whole way through. Some poems were so clever that they literally took my breath away. Still need convincing? The Monkey’s Mask was the best-selling book of poetry in Australia since WWII upon its release – that social proof should count for something!

Acute Misfortune by Erik Jensen

Acute Misfortune - Erik Jensen - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Erik Jensen might not be a mainstream “household name”, but he’s kind of a God in the Australian literary scene. Not only is he an award-winning writer, but he founded The Saturday Paper and he’s editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media. I was drawn to Acute Misfortune when I heard Jensen interviewed on the now-sadly-defunct Saturday Night Safran program; I was absolutely riveted by his story, and knew I had to get my hands on his book. He was invited to write the biography of contemporary Australian artist Adam Cullen. What followed was a four-year relationship of unbelievable intensity (Cullen literally shot Jensen at one point – sorry to spoil that particular point, but I just had to prove my point). Sure, you might come out of a voyeuristic interest in the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but you’ll stay for the tenderness and brutality of this claustrophobic partnership.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Long before she came out during the Australian marriage equality campaign, Magda Szubanski was a queer icon. Her character Sharon Strzlecki – the sports-obsessed, accident-prone, unlucky-in-love second-best-friend – spoke to the heart of many an awkward, anxious, and questioning fan. In her autobiography, Reckoning, Szubanski doesn’t just reckon with her sexuality: she also comes to grips with her father’s former career as a spy, the intergenerational effects of trauma, and doing so in the public eye. Plus, if you don’t follow her on Twitter already, you really should.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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

The Color Purple is a story of hardship, yes, but also incredible resilience – which may be why it’s been so universally adopted by a community that has both in spades. Alice Walker was, herself, a bisexual woman of colour, making this a watershed #ownvoices novel and an icon of the LGBTQ books canon immediately upon release. The story unfolds through a series of letters to God, written by Celie, a young black woman in the American South of the early 1900s. Already, that’s a tough situation, but she faces horrific abuse at the hands of her father, and later her husband (whom she was not at all inclined to marry). The turning point comes when they take in Shug, a blues singer to whom Celie feels an intense, ineffable attraction…

What LGBTQ books would YOU recommend? Add to the list in the comments below!

10 Bookish Confessions

Every booklover I know has some secret shame. Whether it’s a classic they’ve never read, or a “bad” book they love, there’s something that they hope their fellow booklovers never discover. Well, no more! Inspired by the radical vulnerability exhibited by the My Favorite Murder gals in their memoir Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, I’m going to put a bookish twist on a game from another one of my most-beloved podcasts, The Guilty Feminist. The host, Deborah Frances-White, starts every show with what she calls “exfoliation of shame”, declaring “I’m a feminist, but…” and confessing her sins. Here are my ten bookish confessions…

10 Bookish Confessions - Text Overlaid on Image of Makeshift Confession Booth - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a booklover, but… I hated The Great Gatsby

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

I’m starting off with an easy one, one I feel very little shame about at all, really: I really hated The Great Gatsby. I know, I know, it’s a “beautiful” story of the destructive power of the American dream… but it stank. The supposed quality of the writing (which, yeah, was okay) didn’t make up for the nonsense story. I suppose I might’ve liked it more if it hadn’t always been lauded as the “great American novel” or the “definitive story of the Jazz Age”. It is neither. It’s the story of a wealthy guy exploiting his privilege to stalk his married neighbour, and the narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Pffft! Hate it. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

I’m a booklover, but… Mr Rochester is one of my problematic faves.

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I loved Jane Eyre. Charlotte is definitely my favourite of the Brontës. The only thing is, her romantic lead – Mr Rochester – is problematic, to say the least. He exploits his position of power over his young governess in ways that would definitely see him called out on social media in a post-#metoo world. He’s a racist git who locks his Creole wife in the attic, because she had the audacity to get a bit cranky with him. I know all of this. And, yet, I can’t help but feel my heart go all aflutter when he and Jane get their happy ending. I’m not even a romantic, I swear! There’s just something about the two of them, and seeing such an earnest heroine finally get the love she’s been hoping for… I try to comfort myself with the fact that at least his wife extracted her revenge, setting a fire that left him severely wounded. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

I’m a booklover, but… I almost never listen to audiobooks.

I’m constantly espousing the benefits of audiobooks. I will shout down anyone who tries to say that listening to an audiobook isn’t “really” reading. I think that they’re an incredible, accessible resource, especially for folks with low vision or other disabilities that make traditional reading formats difficult. You could say I’m a strong advocate, to put it mildly. And yet, I never seem to actually get around to reading them myself! I have the app on my phone, I’m all set up, but there are just SO MANY GREAT PODCASTS to keep up with, all my listening time is used up on them. I know I’m only hurting myself, in the long run, and missing out on some great reading experiences. I’m actually thinking of joining one of those audiobook challenges, to give me the boot up the bum I clearly need… (if there’s one you can recommend, please drop it in the comments below!)


I’m a booklover, but… I’m really skeptical about self-published books.

Okay, now we’re getting into the real stuff. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that I get sent all types of books from all types of authors, including self-published ones. I’m lucky in that most of the self-published books I’ve been sent have been great! But *deep breath* I’ve also been sent some shockers, and I’ve encountered some self-published authors who are real dickheads. I don’t want to let a few bad apples spoil the barrel, but unfortunately they’ve made me super-skeptical, and I rarely pursue self-published books because of it. I know there are plenty of booklovers who love (even prefer) self-published books, and would say that I’m a snob or an elitist for being so selective with them – I promise, I’m not. I’ve just been burned before, and I can’t help that it makes me a little skittish.

I’m a booklover, but… I own books I’ll probably never read.

First, this is a simple matter of quantity: at last count, there were well over three hundred unread books on my shelves, I acquire at least a few more each week, and I very rarely part with books. Even if I read a book a day for years (which, given how chunky some of them are, seems like a pipe dream), I still wouldn’t get through them all. Then, there’s the matter of mood and taste. Keeping Up With The Penguins has really opened up my world when it comes to reading, and I’m far more game to try something new than I would have been before I started… but there are still some books I doubt I’ll ever be in the mood to pluck from my shelves. Many of them were gifts, or unsolicited review copies, or books I bought without really thinking it through. Why keep them, then? All kinds of reasons, but mostly “just in case”.

I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I recommend books I don’t like, or have never read.

HOLD YOUR ROTTEN TOMATOES! I know this is pretty much the cardinal sin for a book blogger, but hear me out. I would never “fake” recommend a book in a review here on the blog. When I call a book Recommended on Keeping Up With The Penguins, you can be damn sure that I’ve read it, loved it, and want to press it into your hands. I’m talking about those personal one-on-one recommendations, where a friend says “Hey, can you recommend a book for me/my lover/my cat-sitter?”. I always ask what they have in mind, or if they can tell me some books they’ve loved in the past, and use that to guide my recommendation. Sometimes – I stress, only sometimes – their answers lead me to think of books that, even though I didn’t love them personally, would probably really suit them. Or, I think of a book I’ve heard a lot about that sounds like the kind of thing they’d enjoy, even though I’ve not yet read it yet. So, really, it’s a good thing, right? Instead of forcing on them only books that I really love for myself, I’m taking their tastes and preferences into account. Right? Right?


I’m a booklover, but… I just didn’t “get” Mrs Dalloway.

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m pretty sure this one makes me both a bad booklover and a bad feminist. I really tried with Mrs Dalloway, I did. I’ve loved some of Virginia Woolf’s other writing, and I really thought I’d get a lot out of her (arguably) most famous novel. But I just didn’t “get” it! It was so hard to follow! I had to re-read every sentence three times, and even then, it all just leaked through, like the book turned my brain into a sieve. I think I actually *gulp* preferred Ulysses, the notoriously unreadable book to which Woolf was responding. I’m open to trying Mrs D again in the future, maybe I’ll get more out of it the second time round, but for now, I’d rather just re-watch The Hours. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

I’m a booklover, but… I find it really hard to DNF a book (any book, even one I hate).

For the uninitiated, to “DNF” means to abandon a book without finishing it – it’s a “did not finish”. I feel like every other booklover in the world has told me that it’s great to DNF a book, that it frees you up to read something you enjoy, that life’s too short to waste on books that won’t fulfill you. The thing is, I’m a dirty completionist at heart; when I start something, I feel compelled to finish it. That’s why I suffered through to the end of those dreadful self-published efforts I mentioned earlier, and books like The Great Gatsby, American Sniper, and others I really didn’t like. Maybe it’s foolishly optimistic of me, like there’s a small part of me that hopes it’ll turn around or magically get better… but, whatever the case, at least you can be confident that every book I review here, I have read from cover to cover.

I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I like the movie better than the book.

It’s rare that I watch film or TV adaptations of books. In fact, I don’t really watch all that many films or TV shows at all, so if I do happen to watch one based on a book, it’s usually just a happy coincidence. That said, sometimes I actually prefer the movie to the book (and yes, I heard you gasp out loud just now). I certainly enjoyed the HBO series of Game Of Thrones way more than I enjoyed the book version. Same goes for the HBO take on Fahrenheit 451 (which I actually reviewed here on the blog, by the way). I love the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s so much that I’ve sworn to myself I’ll never read the original Capote novella on which it is based, just in case it ruins it for me. I know the general wisdom is “don’t judge a book by its movie”, and normally the screen versions fall short, but there are exceptions.

I’m a booklover, but… I really judge people who don’t use bookmarks, or otherwise damage their books.

Look, I’m not saying they’re going to hell or anything, but seriously! I think the world would be a better place if no one ever dog-eared a book or cracked a spine ever again. And I don’t judge them that harshly (I mean, I married one such monster – and I only occasionally shame him by sharing photos of books he’s destroyed on my Instagram). I’m more open to the idea of marginalia, where the defacement of a book actually serves the purpose of engaging with the text, or writing inscriptions in gifts to loved ones (always fun and heartwarming to find those in a secondhand book), but otherwise just… don’t. Get a bookmark, and/or a book sleeve, and show your books some goddamn respect. Sheesh!

Now come on, don’t leave me hanging, here! Share your bookish confessions in the comments below, and we can all exfoliate our shame together…



What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 Books For 2020?

It’s really comforting to know that, even in these uncertain times, there are certain things that a book lover can rely on, like the release of the Dymocks Top 101. Every year, thousands of Australian readers vote on their most beloved books, and those fine booksellers publish the results. I love leafing through this list each year, and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted – much more fun than plain-old same-old lists of best selling books and professional critic round-ups. This is bookish democracy at its finest! Plus, this year, there was a world first: a tie for first place! Here’s my take on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020…

Dymocks Top 101 Books 2020 - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookstore - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief - Books Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Two former number ones, both alike in dignity… turns out, Australia just couldn’t decide between them! It was a dead heat for the number one spot, so Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief tied for first. Eleanor Oliphant got the gong in the 2019 list, and The Book Thief has been lingering around the top 10 ever since it was first released thirteen years ago. Impressive, on both fronts! Zusak maybe has a slight edge, given that his recent follow-up, Bridge Of Clay, also made the list (number 47). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

3. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And here’s one that would come as no surprise to anyone at all. You couldn’t swing a bookmark in Australia these past twelve months without hitting a copy of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. Billed as equally heartbreaking and uplifting, this is a coming of age story that appeals to readers right across the spectrum. It’s got a bit of everything: romance, crime, adventure, humour, and family ties.

4. 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

Here’s another former number one (but fourth place is still very respectable!): All The Light We Cannot See. It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction that won hearts and minds across the world. 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… Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

5. The Dry by Jane Harper

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

Jane Harper is one of the most formidable crime writing talents to come out of Australia in the past decade. Her debut, The Dry, came in at number five, and her two follow ups – The Lost Man and Force Of Nature – also made the list, at 11 and 92 respectively. This is the book that introduced Aaron Falk, hard-boiled Australian Federal Police investigator. He reluctantly returns to his hometown to mourn the passing of a childhood friend, and (of course) finds himself drawn into a mystery, in the midst of the worst drought of the century… A feature film, starring Eric Bana, is slated for release later this year (corona-willing).

6. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, maybe it’s cheating to put an entire series in, but at least it frees up a few extra slots for other great reads in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020. I think we can safely say that Harry Potter is officially a classic now – and not one of those contemporary classics that we’ll all forget about eventually, but a classic-classic that we’ll be reading and enjoying for generations to come. I actually kind of look forward to the day that we see these books shelved alongside Dickens and Austen…

9. Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s almost a cliche, by this point, for anyone who has ever stepped foot in the White House to write a memoir (especially if they intend to return). Michelle Obama, however, managed to break the mold. Becoming is no whistle-blowing take-down of the upper echelons, nor is it a simpering testament to the magic of democracy. It’s a refreshing and compelling account of the experiences that shaped America’s first black First Lady. I almost held off picking up this one (it’s the contrarian nature in me), but the consistent, long-term hype wore me down.

13. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Look, I can’t deny that I’m overjoyed to see Dark Emu on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020… but I also can’t deny that I’m disappointed to see that it didn’t rank higher. In my view, Pascoe’s account of the true Indigenous agricultural history of this nation should be required reading for all Australians and all who come here. It was voted as the inaugural Parliamentary Book Club read, where constituents chose it as the book they most wanted their elected representatives to read, and shot back to the top of the best-seller list over Christmas as book lovers came out in droves to buy it for their loved ones.

14. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

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

Here’s another one I’m really happy to see made the cut (again): The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. In fact, it seems to climb higher and higher in the Dymocks Top 101 list each year. This is a disarmingly honest account of one of Australia’s most beloved comedians and artists, and his family’s journey to reach our shores from Vietnam. It’s one of my favourites to recommend to anyone who expresses an opinion about “boat people” (ugh). Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

15. The Rosie Trilogy 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 a lot of Australians. It all started with The Rosie Project, where a neurodivergent man finds love with the titular Rosie. She’s nothing like he would have expected he’d find alluring – in fact, she’s a bit of a wreck, but those crazy kids make it work. I give Simsion props for kicking the rom-com cliches to the curb; not only did he invert the much-maligned Grease storyline, he didn’t settle for the “and then they lived happily ever after” ending either. The subsequent novels, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result, follow Don and Rosie as they travel around the world, settle into wedded bliss, and raise a child. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

17. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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

Ever since the HBO adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t just surged in popularity; it’s become emblematic of the struggle to resist conservative governments around the world. Women have shown up wearing red Handmaid robes to protest the passage of legislation that would limit their right to access to health-care. But it’s not just the show: people are returning to the book again and again, and I think it’s safe to say we could now hold it on par with other dystopian classics like Nineteen Eighty Four. Plus, there was the sequel released last year, The Testaments, which came in on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 at number 32. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

26. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

I used to roll my eyes whenever I saw Pride And Prejudice in a best-of books list. I mean, what a cliche, right? Well, I’m a convert now – it’s a cliche for a reason, people! I had no fewer than half a dozen aborted attempts to read this classic of English literature, but I got there in the end and I’m SO glad I persisted. For the skeptics out there, let me reassure you that it’s not all gowns and marriage prospects and fluffing about. There’s serious social and political commentary here, and dashing men making foolish decisions and having the women in their lives dress them down for it. Oh, and there’s tea. Can’t have too much tea. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

28. A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin

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

I called it last year, folks: the A Song Of Ice And Fire series is going to be hanging around in the Dymocks Top 101 books for a long, long time, thanks to the unparalleled popularity of the HBO series (that finally concluded last year). Fantasy, particularly High Fantasy(TM), is not usually my thing – I get too lost and confused with all the made up place names and people names and languages and whatnot, even if there’s a helpful guide in the front. But, having watched the adaptation, I actually found A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series, quite easy to follow. I even (gasp) enjoyed it. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

31. Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tara Westover’s story is so incredible that her memoir, Educated, basically sells itself. She was born to a survivalist family, so isolated from society that there was no one around to ensure that she received any kind of proper schooling. She didn’t step foot into a classroom until she was seventeen years old. In this book, she recounts how she pursued her love of learning – all the way to Cambridge University, where she earned a PhD! – and reckoned with the “real” world, so different from that in which she was raised.

34. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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

I’m actually kind of shocked that Big Little Lies didn’t rank higher in the Dymocks Top 101 books for this year, but given the strength of the contenders, coming in the mid-thirties is still very respectable. That goes double when you take into account that this book was published six(!) years ago, and one of Liane Moriarty’s other best sellers, The Husband’s Secret, also made the cut (at number 89). I worried for a long time that I was going to be the last person left alive who hadn’t read this perennially popular domestic thriller, but I finally got around to it this year (and just in time to avoid spoilers from the TV show adaptation!). Read my full review of Big Little Lies here, and my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.

36. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australia has seen a whole slew of brilliant life-writing from women in the #MeToo era, bravely disclosing the details of various assaults and harassment that they have suffered in silence over many years. Eggshell Skull is one of the best, because Bri Lee offers a particularly interesting and unique perspective on the experiences of women who come forward. She trained as a lawyer, and worked as a judge’s associate on a regional court circuit for a year. That meant that she saw the system from the “inside”, how the trial and prosecution of people charged with sexual assaults actually works (or doesn’t), and the “outside”, as she herself comes forth as a victim. Hopefully, the inclusion of books such as hers on the Dymocks Top 101 represents a major shift in cultural attitudes towards believing women and paving the way for past injustices to be addressed.

38. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

This book is the little-engine-that-could of international best-sellers. On the face of it, A Little Life doesn’t have many points in its favour. It’s long (SUPER long, could-use-it-as-a-doorstop long). It’s depressing (most editions have a cover that features a close up of a man crying hysterically). Hanya Yanagihara is a woman of colour, a group embarrassingly under-represented in the upper echelons of publishing. And yet, here we are, five years after the release of this juggernaut, still singing its praises! That’s what you love to see…

39. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It would seem that no matter how few fucks you give, you could always give fewer. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck is well on its way to becoming a classic of the self-help genre – it spawned at least a dozen knock-offs, and sparked a trend in obscenity in book titles (which I, for one, wholeheartedly support). Of course, Manson has gone on to write a follow up, which also did well, but it’s the original that Dymocks booklovers voted into the Top 101 books for 2020.

40. Normal People by Sally Rooney

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

I think, in a few decades or so, we’ll look back at Normal People as one of the defining Millennial(TM) novels. From what I’ve read, I don’t think Rooney would be particularly pleased to hear it described that way, but them’s the breaks – you can’t just go and be the voice of a generation and then let it get up your nose. This story of an extraordinarily complex emotional entanglement between two young adults has resonated with a lot of folks, and a BBC adaptation is coming later this month. Read my full review of Normal People here.

42. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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

Here’s another trend-setter: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn can surely be credited with the renewed interest in dark psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators. We’re positively drowning in them, now! I think this one was particularly popular because it came right on the cusp of the moment where we saw a serious shift, a new wave of critical attention to the power differential between men and women. Plus, it brought suspense and intrigue and violence into the hetero marriage, a normally-comfortable setting. Or, maybe this is all overreach – maybe it’s just a really pacy page-turner. Either way!

43. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

If you’re surprised to see this modern classic in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2020, you shouldn’t be. To Kill A Mockingbird has been in every Dymocks Top 101 that I can remember. I think the key is its wide appeal – everyone, from young teens to old crones, can enjoy it – and its timeless message regarding social justice. We’re probably a little more sensitive now to some of the harmful tropes employed by Lee to get her message across (the “white saviour” being the most prominent), but I don’t think that diminishes the comfort and inspiration we can take from her only (true) novel. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

48. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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

It’s a shame that Scandinavian writers get so much attention for their crime noir thrillers when they’re pumping out heart-warming up-lifting books like A Man Called Ove. Fredrik Backman was a humble Swedish blogger who burst onto the literary scene, and into our hearts, when this book was translated into English back in 2013. It’s the story of a crotchety old man (called Ove, naturally) who’s fed up with just about everything, a condition only exacerbated by the arrival of his noisy, nosy new neighbours. Backman has been making us cry – happy tears, and sad ones – for years now, and will likely go on doing so for years yet. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

49. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Gone Girl might have jockeyed ahead in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but The Girl On The Train is holding on strong! This domestic thriller follows the interweaving lives of three very different women: Rachel (the alcoholic with the history of fertility issues), Anna (the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, and stay-at-home mum to the infant Rachel might’ve had), and Megan (who lives a few doors down from Anna). Rachel sees no harm in peering into Anna and Megan’s lives from the window of her train as she passes every day, but then she witnesses something that might be a clue to what could be a crime… Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

50. The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t mean to be rude, but I am truly baffled by the continuing popularity of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. (Maybe I’m just bitter because it beat out my favourite to win the Booker Prize, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, back in 2014.) Sure, I can appreciate Flanagan’s skill in depicting the harsh realities of war, specifically life for prisoners working on the Burma railway, but the whole “love story” was just so overwrought and unnecessary… But, clearly, I’ve been outvoted, Aussie book lovers are still enchanted by it. Read my full review of The Narrow Road To The Deep North here.

53. 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

Every time I talk on the internet about The Fault In Our Stars, I live in fear of enraged teens hunting me down with buckets full of rotting tomatoes. But I can’t lie: it’s just not good. Reading it, I felt like John Green just made a list of every single thing that might pull on our heartstrings (star cross’d lovers, teen cancer, disappointing role models) and ticked them off one by one. That said, I’d still recommend that everyone reads it; there’s going to be a whole bunch of future doctors and nurses that came to their profession because they read this book, and we want to have something to talk to them about while they’re caring for us in our old age, don’t we? Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

54. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

I know I’m a big ol’ skeptic, and when I read The Alchemist I was a little snarky about it, but even I can’t begrudge Aussie book lovers for turning to an allegorical tale of faith and destiny in trying times. Plus, this is an easy read, not too tough to digest, and it might give you a little glimmer of hope when the news has filled you full of 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.


56. Mythos by Stephen Fry

Mythos - Stephen Fry - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve got to admit, I’ve always felt particularly stupid (for many reasons, but one in particular is relevant here) for how little I know about the Greeks and Greek mythology. That’s why I feel particularly lucky – as do a lot of Dymocks readers, it would seem – that Stephen Fry put together this marvelously accessible re-telling of a selection of myths in Mythos. It’s funny, it’s readable, and it’ll at least give you some frame of reference next time someone starts talking Ovid at a party (also, you might want to start going to better parties).

61. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are certainly not over! There are several featured in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but my personal pick is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Over the course of three books, it charts the complex and fascinating history of Korea’s relationship with Japan, through the story of one Korean family who (eventually) migrates to Japan, and then across the world to America. It deconstructs their experiences of racism and power and, as the title would suggest, the symbolic power of the pachinko machines.

63. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Non-fiction doesn’t tend to feature as prominently in the Dymocks lists, but the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 had some strong contenders, including this one: Sapiens. It is a detailed survey of the history of human evolution, from the Stone Age right up to the 21st century. Setting aside some searing criticisms from academics in the field (what would those boffins know?), this book has been extremely popular, and it has introduced a slew of readers to the field of evolutionary biology, an area in which they might not otherwise have had any interest at all. A fascinating read, if nothing else!

65. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Jane Eyre – an oldie, but a goodie! Alongside other classics, like Pride And Prejudice, this seems to be a book that never goes out of style. Naturally, a lot of the more troubling elements have been roundly criticised of late (Mr Rochester is the very definition of a problematic fave – hello, Creole wife locked in the attic and gross exploitation of young female employees!), but that doesn’t negate the nostalgic attachment many readers feel for what is perhaps the coziest and most comforting of the Brontë books. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

67. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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

We are truly living in the golden age of young adult literature! No longer is it solely the domain of patronising and/or sentimental guff. In fact, it’s probably where some of the most exciting, diverse, and challenging writing is being done – case in point, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Despite being quite specific to the situation of racial injustice in policing in the United States (don’t get me wrong, we’ve got our own problems here, too!), it’s found a wide readership in Australia. I think that’s because, at its heart, it’s about the symbiotic relationship between fear and oppression, and the bravery it takes to smash down barriers. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.


72. 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

You know, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was always a great comfort read (which is why we see it in the Dymocks Top 101 books pretty much every year), but perhaps it’s got a new resonance this year because it’s chock-full of advice on how to survive the end of the world. Step one: DON’T PANIC! Step two: check on the dolphins. Step three: always pack a towel. If you’re not lucky enough to have befriended a nearby alien with a getaway-spaceship handy, at least you can make the most of the rest of Adams’ oddly prescient advice. Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

74. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Erin Morgenstern burst onto the scene back in 2011 with her incredibly-popular debut novel, The Night Circus… and then she disappeared for years. Finally, she’s back, with The Starless Sea and fans have been frothing at the mouth for it (so no surprise to see it made the cut for the Dymocks Top 101). It’s dreamy, light-fantasy story, with underground cities and libraries and keys and honey and bees… oh my! Read my full review of The Starless Sea (for Primer) here.

78. The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover

The Land Before Avocado - Richard Glover - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’d long suspected that the misty-eyed nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” in Australia was a complete crock. Thankfully, Richard Glover has confirmed by theory in The Land Before Avocado – and its popularity proves to me that I’m not alone! He deconstructs all of the myths around the “simpler times” and the “lazy, hazy days”, and reminds us of what it was actually like growing up in the Australia of his childhood in his typically hilarious style. Would you REALLY want to return to the days where you couldn’t get smashed avo on toast at the local cafe? I didn’t think so!

88. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by 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

Look, if I had it my way, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared would be in the top 10 of every Dymocks list from now until the end of time. It is my ultimate cheer-up read, my go-to gift for loved ones who need a laugh. Just these past couple of weeks, I’ve thrust it into many, many hands. It’s a delightful romp across the world, following a centenarian who – as the title suggests – jumps out the window of his nursing home to avoid a tedious birthday party, and goes on an adventure. I cannot fathom what kind of humourless nincompoop wouldn’t get a few decent belly laughs out of this charming tale. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

90. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Personally, I wavered on reading Ann Patchett for years, mostly because I simply could not figure out where to start. Many trusted readers recommended I try Commonwealth to begin, while others said Bel Canto is her best, while still others insisted I read State Of Wonder. The release of The Dutch House last year seems to have changed all that, though – it’s unequivocally, democratically(!), now the most popular of all her books among Australian readers. So, that settled that!


93. The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever someone tells me that they “don’t read sci-fi” (especially if they wrinkle their nose as they say it), The Martian is the book that I put in their hands. It’s THAT good. Set in a not-too-distant future, it imagines the story of an astronaut left stranded alone on Mars, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from help or even a simple “hello”. It sounds depressing as all heck, but the narrator, Mark Watney, is one of the funniest characters I’ve ever read in fiction. This one manages to be a science lesson, a page turner, and great fun, all at once! Read my full review of The Martian here.

95. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who could resist a delightfully satirical romantic comedy that sees Singapore’s most eligible bachelor married off to a fashion icon in the high-stakes “wedding of the year”? What I like most about Crazy Rich Asians is that, even though much has (rightfully) been made of its success in diversity and representation in a sadly whitewashed contemporary genre, it’s delightful and endearing and entertaining in its own right. This book is not a “diversity pick” or a box to check, it’s just a sparkling, witty, glorious read.

99. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

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

Often, a true story is so incredible, you wouldn’t believe it if it were fiction. That’s what I think every time I see The Trauma Cleaner. Crime-scene and trauma clean-up is a fascinating and bizarre job in and of itself, but the life journey of the trauma cleaner in question, Sandra Pankhurst, takes this book to a whole new level. I don’t think I can say it better than the blurb: “Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…” I mean, come on! If that doesn’t pique your interest, seek help.

100. Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

Your Own Kind Of Girl - Clare Bowditch - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I first encountered Clare Bowditch in her recurring guest role on the beloved and much-missed Aussie TV show, Offspring. I figured she had some kind of musical background, given that her character was a singer and often performed. It turns out, there was a whoooole lot more that I didn’t know, and she revealed it all in Your Own Kind Of Girl. This is the kind of memoir that will have your jaw drop, purely for the incredible bravery it takes to be THAT honest about your life, your anxieties, and the monsters that hide under your bed. My hat goes off to Clare Bowditch for sharing her story, and I’m glad to see it here in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 – hopefully, that means it’s reached scores of other girls of their own kind, too.

101. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Well, this Dymocks Top 101 list sure did save the biggest surprise for last! But, if I’m honest, I’m not sure what’s more surprising. Is it that Little Women wasn’t ranked higher, given the success of the most recent film adaptation? Or is it that Little Women ranked at all, given that SO many people (very, very wrongly) look down on this “sentimental” classic? Whatever the case, I’m happy to see it made the cut. I stand by my conviction that Little Women is actually a deeply subversive and feminist book, and that Louisa May Alcott doesn’t get NEARLY enough adulation, and it would seem that at least a handful of other Aussie book lovers are willing to back me up on it. Read my full review of Little Women here.

General Comments on the Dymocks Top 101 Books for 2020

Last year, Kate Maynor from Dymocks predicted a surge in the popularity of “uplit”, books that leave you feeling uplifted and energised. I think we’ve seen that play out here, with the inclusion of Eleanor Oliphant, Becoming, A Man Called Ove, and so on. I think it makes sense now, more than ever, that people are looking to “escape” the dreariness of the “real” world by diving into books that make them smile (and I’m especially glad that we might finally shake this elitist nonsense about looking down on “escapist” books once and for all!).

Notable exclusions: I’m really surprised that we didn’t see any Andre Aciman in this year’s list (Call Me By Your Name, or his recently-released sequel Find Me). I am freaking OVERJOYED, however, that we finally kicked The Great Gatsby off its stupid perch. And I would have loved to see one of my personal favourites from last year, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, make the cut. Ah well, there’s always next year!

All told, 37 of this year’s 101 books were written by Aussie authors – not bad, but I think we could do better! Reading local is the best way to keep our literary scene thriving, especially with the headwinds authors and publishers and booksellers are going to face over the next few months (even years). 64 of the books were written by women, which is an (awesome!) uptick on last year, and much better reflects the contribution that women are making to literature and the arts.



Check out what I thought of last year’s Dymocks Top 101 books here!

Life After The List: Reflections on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who loved reading. All her life, she’d escaped into books, learned and lived through them. She worried, though, that she didn’t read the “right” books. Everyone she knew seemed to have read classic books and best-sellers that she’d never even heard of. Fear kept her from trying anything new. She kept re-reading her old favourites over and over again, and just tried to bluff her way through conversations about other books that she had never picked up. One night, after a long day at her miserable office job, she had a thought: bugger it. She pulled up a list of the Guardian’s 100 best books written in English. She pulled up that year’s Dymocks 101. She tried to recall every book everyone had ever recommended to her. She scrambled them all up and made for herself a reading list: 109 books she “should” have read already. She started reading them, one by one, and taking notes as she went. Those notes became reviews, and she started publishing them online. That young woman was me, and those reviews are all here, on Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Life After The List - Reflections on Keeping Up With The Penguins - Text Overlaid on Image of Man Standing on Rock at Waterfall - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the last couple weeks, since finally finishing that original reading list with Ulysses, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the best (and the worst) of it all. Still, I had some thoughts that couldn’t be crammed into those round-ups. I’ll forgive you if you want to skip this self-indulgent nostalgic meander through the cobwebs of my mind, but this project has changed my life in more ways than one, and I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the past couple of years.

As I alluded to earlier, at the time I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I was working an office job that wasn’t right for me. I was miserable, exhausted, and just treading water – trying to survive, never moving forward. I remember crying to a friend at one point that the highlight of every day was reading a book on the bus to and from work. Those little windows of time, where I could stick my nose in between the pages and find myself somewhere else for a while, were what brought me the most joy out of anything I did on any given day. Something had to change.

And it did (or, should I say, I did). I quit the job – not in a particularly graceful fashion, I’ll admit, but I did it, and it was absolutely the best decision I ever made. I’m not sure I would have done it had I not started Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs to read books. That’s a pipe dream. What I’m saying is that the choice to start something different, to just try reading books I’d never read before, started a boulder running down the hill. It expanded my thinking, it opened me up to new possibilities about what my life could be. For me, it was reading books, but it could be anything for anyone: crochet, martial arts, speed dating, windsurfing, listening to podcasts, keeping a journal, going for walks. You never know what might be the thing that will change your life: the only way, as my mother would say, is to “suck it and see”.





But enough heavy stuff about life! I’m not a guru. What about the books?!

It’s annoying, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned from all these books, all this reading, is a bit of a cliche: don’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, the “cover” is metaphorical, but that’s basically the gist of it. There were so many books – SO many books! – that I would NEVER have picked up had it not been for Keeping Up With The Penguins. The classics were “too hard”, young adult was “too sappy”, fantasy was “too complicated”, sci-fi was “too nerdy”… I had all of these preconceived ideas, about genres and about specific books, and this project forced me to set them aside and forge ahead anyway. The example I point to all the time is Crime And Punishment. I was VERY sure that I was in for a dense, dull, depressing read – I mean, it’s Russian – and yet it was one of the most wonderful, hilarious, relatable reads of this whole project.

And that brings me to a related lesson: say what you think, no matter what it is, because there’s someone out there waiting for you to say it. One of my best, most-treasured memories of Keeping Up With The Penguins came shortly after I published my review of Crime And Punishment. To protect the innocent, I won’t name names, but a woman in her late 70s got in touch to say that she’d refused to read Crime And Punishment all her life, for the same reasons I had (dense, dull, depressing, etc.). But, having read my review, she finally felt confident about giving it a go. That’s why I’ve always been 100% frank in my reviews here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. If I think a book stinks, I say so, no matter what. If I think it’s great, the same. I try to be fair, not nasty, and give adequate explanation as to the reasons for my opinions, but whatever the case, I’m always going to be straight with you. It’s an approach that has rubbed some people the wrong way (I’ve had more than one rotten tomato lobbed in my direction for my opinions on American Sniper and The Great Gatsby), but I think it’s worth it if what I say resonates for even one reader out there.





I think a lot of this project was about giving myself permission. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I know logically that I don’t need to wait for permission to read a book, any book, and no one can give it to me anyway. Still, I had all of these subconscious worries and doubts: I’m not educated enough to understand the classics, I’m not smart enough to follow experimental prose, I’m not arty enough to enjoy poetry… And you know what? Even if all of those suppositions are true, I can read the books anyway. My husband gave me the best advice when I was reading Moby Dick, and it’s something that I’ve carried with me ever since, with every book I read: “let go of the idea that you’re going to understand everything, just take from it what you can”. So, now, I give myself permission to not completely understand a book. I give myself permission to read one even if I don’t think I’ll enjoy it. And, further to my last lesson, I give myself permission to tell the truth about it. Another example: I didn’t love Mrs Dalloway, even though I “should” have, but I gave myself permission to let it go over my head and to tell the truth about it (even if it makes me a “bad feminist”).

And, of course, I learned a lot personally, about my reading tastes and how I read best. It turns out, I like diversity: in authorship, in content, in form, in style. If I read too many of the same type of books in a row, I get antsy and frustrated – no “book flights” for me. I like humour: even when the subject is “serious”, I’m far more likely to engage with a book that makes me laugh (and I don’t have to feel ashamed about that). I now know that if I’m already thinking about a person I want to give a book to before I even finish it, that it’s a winner – that’s like my brain’s way of telling me YOU LOVE THIS BOOK! And I’m actually pretty good at recommending books to people, with their specific tastes and interests in mind. All of this I only learned through Keeping Up With The Penguins. I think, had I read the same number of books but not taken the time to write down my feelings about them, I might’ve never noticed these patterns.

Alright, I think that’s enough for the moment! From now on, it’s back to regular reviews and bookish chat (at least until I next start feeling philosophical). What do you reckon? About books, about life, about anything? Let me know in the comments!

« Older posts