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To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. She refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations. She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be “treated kindly” by the handful of reviewers she thought might read it. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood.

Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley.

Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!

Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.

So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds).

Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!

Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press.

Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Some authors manage to make a big impact, despite having a relatively small body of work. Harper Lee is one, Gillian Flynn is another – and, of course, Donna Tartt. Her debut novel, The Secret History, was first published back in 1992, and she’s only published two other books since then. And yet, she’s manage to define a niche genre (dark academia), top best-seller lists, win awards, and win herself a legion of fans around the world.

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Secret History is a campus novel, set at a fictional(ish) elite liberal arts college in New England. I say “ish” because Tartt based it on Bennington College, where she was a student in the ’80s. (She even dedicates the novel to fellow student Bret Easton Ellis.) The story follows six classics students, who become increasingly isolated from the rest of the school community as they deal with the fall-out of a murder.

I suppose you could make an argument that anything else I say about The Secret History could constitute a “spoiler”… but really, I don’t care. It’s an iconic 30-year-old novel. Deal with it.

Besides, Tartt gives a lot away up front. The Prologue to The Secret History is a masterpiece – up there with the opening chapter of Lolita. In it, Tartt reveals that Bunny, one of the students, is dead, but the full circumstances of his death are only hinted at in the vaguest terms. It’s a hell of an opener, and it compels you to read on immediately.

What follows is a kind of inverted detective story, where the events around Bunny’s murder are laid out in chronological order, with tantalising clues about what’s to come sprinkled throughout the narrative. The narrator, Richard, is an outsider, with a very different background to the others (he’s working-class California to their old-money East Coast). He’s as enthralled by the classics teacher, Julian, as the rest of them, but still new enough to question some of the odd behaviours and habits that they all exhibit.

Richard notices that, as close as the classics students are, they seem to be keeping secrets – from him, and from each other. He’s baffled by, for instance, Henry’s willingness to foot the bill for Bunny’s extravagant tastes. Charles and Camilla seem too close, even for twins. Francis is clearly gay, but no one says or does anything to acknowledge it. All of them show up with strange injuries, hide things in closets, carry on private conversations in Greek. What the heck is up with that?

You can see how I found myself gripped by The Secret History. Something is going on in this story, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it! Tartt’s prose is exquisitely detailed, with startling revelations and intriguing mysteries. By about a third of the way through, I was pretty sure I could see where it was all going, but she still managed to weave in a couple of surprises. The tension was almost too much at times – I gave myself a headache from clenching my teeth, more than once. Plus, the chapters are looooooooong, which made it difficult to take a break. Even at 500+ pages, the temptation to read the whole thing in one sitting is real.

In the hands of a lesser writer, The Secret History would have been beyond the pale. But Tartt is convincing, too convincing, and you’ll find yourself drawn in unquestioningly as the story unfolds. Michiko Kakutani, the legendary New York Times book reviewer, put it perfectly: “It is a measure of Ms. Tartt’s complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny’s murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms. Tartt’s supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes.”

All the way through, I kept thinking back to Crime And Punishment. The Secret History is essentially the same story, but brought forward into the late 20th century, to All American academia. I loved Dostoyevsky’s psychological drama, too, so I guess I just have a thing for books about conflicted murderers.

The trigger warnings may seem obvious: violence, murder, death, and so on. But I also want to give a heads up for alcoholism, incest, epithets – and, of course, a couple of dog deaths 🙁 The first comes early and very brief (less than one paragraph), but the second is violent and cruel and made me feel sick.

In the end, The Secret History is as good as everyone says it is. Its enduring popularity is entirely deserved. I’ll be joining the ranks of Donna Tartt fans, hanging desperately onto hope that a new novel is coming from her very, very soon – she’s past due!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secret History:

  • “If you wanna read a book that is close to 600 pages that is 99% rich whiney kids drinking heavily and complaining about their feelings, then this is the book for you.” – eric Beheler
  • “I can’t believe Jenna Bush Hager said this book was a pillar of literature. It is more like a cement block that all copies of this book should be tied to and thrown overboard. The author drones on and on about 5 college students who kill a fellow student and then 1.) drink 2.) smoke 3.) eat 4.) take baths and 5.) wear suits and ties and 6.) talk ad nauseum about what they have done. I can’t even figure out what decade it is set in.” – Bluetooth Rookie
  • “The most boring read of my life, and I’m a damn lawyer. I’ve read bankruptcy statutes with more zest.” – Jaye Lindsay
  • “I bought this book nearly 25 years ago and just got around to reading it. I wonder if it’s too late to get my money back?” – Shatterbox

20 Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads

Goodreads is kind of a necessary evil in the book world. There are plenty of alternatives out there, but Daddy GR already kind of owns the market. I recently came across an interesting Instagram reel by beloved bookstagrammer @James_Trevino where he went through a list of the most rated books on Goodreads. I did some googling, and it turns out (like best-seller lists) there are a lot of different ways to quantify “most reviewed books on Goodreads”, each with different results. Here are some of the recurring entries on these lists.

20 Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Heads up: I’ve personally chosen to exclude Harry Potter books from this list, because J.K. Rowling keeps espousing garbage. Besides, if you don’t already know that they’re among the most reviewed books on Goodreads, I don’t know how to help you.

Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads

20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

2,106,021 ratings

Average rating: 4.14 stars

Blurb: Generations of readers young and old, male and female, have fallen in love with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s most popular and enduring novel, Little Women. Here are talented tomboy and author-to-be Jo, tragically frail Beth, beautiful Meg, and romantic, spoiled Amy, united in their devotion to each other and their struggles to survive in New England during the Civil War. Read my full review of Little Women here.

19. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,246,404 ratings

Average rating: 3.97 stars

Blurb: Sixty years after its original publication, Ray Bradbury’s internationally acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451 stands as a classic of world literature set in a bleak, dystopian future. Today its message has grown more relevant than ever before. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

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

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

2,374,386 ratings

Average rating: 4.44 stars

Blurb: Sweeping from a harsh land of cold to a summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, A Game of Thrones tells a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

17. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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

2,393,632 ratings

Average rating: 4.39 stars

Blurb: It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still. By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

16. Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,420,877 ratings

Average rating: 3.88 stars

Blurb: They are an unlikely pair: George is “small and quick and dark of face”; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a “family,” clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation. Laborers in California’s dusty vegetable fields, they hustle work when they can, living a hand-to-mouth existence. But George and Lennie have a plan: to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. Read my full review of Of Mice And Men here.

15. The Fellowship of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord Of The Rings - JRR Tolkien - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,704,909 ratings

Average rating: 4.38 stars

Blurb: In The Fellowship of The Ring, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.

14. 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

2,761,234 ratings

Average rating: 3.96 stars

Blurb: Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy. And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar. Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just The Girl On The TrainRead my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

13. Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

Lord Of The Flies - William Golding - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,765,481 ratings

Average rating: 3.69 stars

Blurb: Labeled a parable, an allegory, a myth, a morality tale, a parody, a political treatise, even a vision of the apocalypse, Lord of the Flies is perhaps our most memorable novel about “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

12. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

2,830,977 ratings

Average rating: 3.90 stars

Blurb: Combining magic, mysticism, wisdom, and wonder into an inspiring tale of self-discovery, The Alchemist has become a modern classic, selling millions of copies around the world and transforming the lives of countless readers across generations. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

11. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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

2,905,373 ratings

Average rating: 4.12 stars

Blurb: Who are you? What have we done to each other? These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy’s friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn’t true. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

10. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,983,265 ratings

Average rating: 4.34 stars

Blurb: 1970s Afghanistan: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what would happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to an Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption. Read my full review of The Kite Runner here.

9. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

3,346,163 ratings

Average rating: 3.80 stars

Blurb: The Catcher in the Rye is an all-time classic in coming-of-age literature- an elegy to teenage alienation, capturing the deeply human need for connection and the bewildering sense of loss as we leave childhood behind. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.

8. The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Diary Of A Young Girl - Anne Frank - Keeping Up With The Penguins

3,522,518 ratings

Average rating: 4.18 stars

Blurb: Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. Her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.

7. Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent - Veronica Roth - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

3,746,041 ratings

Average rating: 4.15 stars

Blurb: In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. Read my full review of Divergent here.

6. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

3,990,032 ratings

Average rating: 4.28 stars

Blurb: Since its immediate success in 1813, Pride and Prejudice has remained one of the most popular novels in the English language. Jane Austen called this brilliant work “her own darling child” and its vivacious heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.” The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth and her proud beau, Mr. Darcy, is a splendid performance of civilized sparring. And Jane Austen’s radiant wit sparkles as her characters dance a delicate quadrille of flirtation and intrigue, making this book the most superb comedy of manners of Regency England. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

5. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

4,258,687 ratings

Average rating: 4.19 stars

Blurb: The year 1984 has come and gone, but George Orwell’s prophetic, nightmarish vision in 1949 of the world we were becoming is timelier than ever. 1984 is still the great modern classic of “negative utopia”—a startlingly original and haunting novel that creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing, from the first sentence to the last four words. No one can deny the novel’s hold on the imaginations of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions—a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time.

4. 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

4,821,366 ratings

Average rating: 4.15 stars

Blurb: Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

4,897,924 ratings

Average rating: 3.93 stars

Blurb: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

5,753,350 ratings

Average rating: 4.27 stars

Blurb: The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it. To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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

8,058,782 ratings

Average rating: 4.33 stars

Blurb: Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weight survival against humanity and life against love. Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads: Honourable Mentions

How many of the most reviewed books on Goodreads have you read? Let me know in the comments!

Does The Dog Die? 30+ Books To Avoid

I have read way too many books lately where (gulp) the dog dies. I hate it. I especially hate it when I have no idea that it’s coming. I know it’s my personal trigger, not shared by everyone, but it bothers me enough that I decided to put together a list, just in case anyone else out there wants to avoid being blindsided.

Does The Dog Die - 30 Books To Avoid - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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This list is not exhaustive, obviously. I haven’t read every book (though I’m giving it a red hot go). I also haven’t included books where the dog famously dies (e.g., Old Yeller, Where The Red Fern Grows, those “classics”). This is specifically a list of books where the dog dies and you might not see it coming. I’ll update this list of books to avoid as I encounter more.

I’ve also included books with instances of cruelty towards dogs or dog injuries, even if they don’t necessarily die, because I find those just as difficult (so I’m assuming others do, too). Where I’ve published a review, I’ve linked to it, if you’re looking for a bit more context about what happens.

Oh, and I’ve included a few photos of Fyodor Dogstoyevsky too, just to remind you in this misery parade that there are happy, beloved dogs out there living their best lives.

Fyodor Dogstoyevsky wearing a rainbow harness sitting on the grass, next to a copy of Sharp Objects

Books To Avoid Where The Dog Dies

A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder by Holly Jackson

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier

Big Swiss by Jen Beagin

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Burst by Mary Otis

The Call Of The Wild by Jack London

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

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

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

The Days Of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Death In Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Fyodor Dogstoyevsky cuddling his teddy on a soft blanket next to a copy of The Silence Project

Educated by Tara Westover

How To Sell A Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

The Marriage Act by John Marrs

Milkman by Anna Burns

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Fyodor Dogstoyevsky in a Christmas outfit under someone's arm, behind an open Santa book

She Is Haunted by Paige Clark

The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Tender Is The Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The Winners by Fredrik Backman

20 Books Set In The Deep South

The American Deep South captivates us in fiction, for many reasons. I think it’s the combination of sunshine and dark history that draws us in. Even all the way on the other side of the world (Sydney, Australia), I find myself tearing through books set in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina and feeling absolutely transported. Here are twenty books set in the Deep South that y’all should really read (see what I did there?).

20 Books Set In The Deep South - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

Harper Lee was an Alabama native, so it’s no surprise she chose the rural town of Maycomb, AL for her only true novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. This is one of the classic books set in the Deep South, read across the world and loved by people of all ages and backgrounds. Many of the events Lee depicts in this novel resemble things that actually happened in her hometown (Monroeville), and the “boy next door” character was based on her own childhood friend, Truman Capote. And, of course, it’s impossible to ignore that many of the themes in this book reflect the ugly history of racism and oppression in the Deep South. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” – isn’t that a cracker of an opening line? Even though it doesn’t explicitly reveal that The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is set in the Deep South, it definitely hints at the haunting nature of the story set in a small Georgian mill town. Or, really, it’s multiple stories, of characters yearning to escape – especially Mick Kelly, an avatar of sorts for McCullers, a young girl who rejects gender norms and dreams of playing the piano. This Oprah’s Book Club pick will transport you, moving you in more ways than one. Read my full review of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter here.

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

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Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil is one of the most iconic books set in the Deep South, as well as a classic of the true crime genre. John Berendt truly immerses himself (and the reader) in the scene of the crime, stretching far beyond the details of a murder to craft careful portraits of the Savannah residents tangentially linked to it. This book showcases the diversity to be found in the South if you care enough to look closely: drag queens, society ladies, antiques dealers, rednecks, voodoo priestesses… all of them with plenty of dirty laundry that Berendt is just dying to air out.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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How’s this for a(nother) great opening line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Chills, right? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful book, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a story told largely through letters to God, from a black woman named Celie who grows up in Georgia. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship. While life has historically sucked for black women in the Deep South, Celie’s is particularly tough – but through her relationships with other women, and her inner reserves of strength, she comes out the other side. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half - Brit Bennett - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Vanishing Half begins in Mallard, a small Southern town primarily populated by light-skinned black Americans “who would never be white but refused to be treated like Negroes”. It’s the hometown of twin girls who grow up together, but whose lives diverge in surprising and significant ways. One grows up to “pass” as white, while the other marries a dark-skinned man and has a dark-skinned daughter. Through this multi-generational family saga, Brit Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels, and the echoing impact of internalised racism across generations. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Best Friend's Exorcism - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins

South Carolina might seem like an unlikely setting for a supernatural teenage romp concluding with a literal exorcism, but in Grady Hendrix’s hands, My Best Friend’s Exorcism just works. It turns out demonic possession makes for a fascinating metaphor, and you can read a lot of meanings into it. It’s about coming-of-age, obviously, but also the frustrations of living in a small Southern town, the widening wealth divide between the working and middle classes, and the double standards when it comes to sex and gender. Hendrix makes Deep South suburbia every bit as terrifying as the darkest urban paranormal horror story. Read my full review of My Best Friend’s Exorcism here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing Unburied Sing - Jesmyn Ward - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jesmyn Ward has written several books set in the Deep South – she’s definitely one of the most powerful contemporary author voices to come out of Mississippi in the past while. The one for which she’s best known, at this point in her career, is Sing, Unburied, Sing. The story starts with thirteen-year-old Jojo, figuring out what it means to be a man. His role models are his dignified Black grandfather and his absent white father – coupled with the inconsistent presence of his mother, Leonie, in his life, it’s a confusing mix. Ward’s third novel is dark and compelling, exploring race, gender, and inherited trauma across generations through an odyssey across rural Mississippi.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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William Faulkner’s writing often sounds a lot like drunk texting, but he won the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1949, so clearly there’s more to it than confused rambling. As I Lay Dying is the story of a Southern woman’s death, and a perverse kind of funeral procession as her family transports her coffin across the Deep South so that she can be buried in her hometown. It’s narrated by no fewer than fifteen characters, and all of them have something a bit crazy going on, aside from the matriarch’s death. It’s a challenging read, but it’s also one of the defining books set in the Deep South, so it’s worth checking out. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones - Keeping Up With The Penguins

An American Marriage is the book that Oprah says “redefined the traditional American love story”. It’s about Roy and Celestial, a middle-class Black couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman. He’s sent to prison, and Celestial is forced to confront a life very different to the one she had envisaged for them. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

Ah, Gone With The Wind. If your feelings about this one are complicated, you’re not alone. It’s a white-washed, rose-coloured caricature of a very dark period in America’s history, one that skips over anything uncomfortable or unpleasant about slavery and plantation life in favour of lovely dresses and romantic embraces and spunky (white) anti-heroes. And yet, it’s been so widely-read and made such a huge cultural impact that any list of books set in the Deep South is incomplete without it. Read it for the epic that it is, but take everything it represents about Southern life during the Civil War with the bitterest grain of salt.

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

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Anne Rice combines the best of the Deep South setting with classic gothic/paranormal horror in Interview With The Vampire – and it’s strangely sexy. Louis de Pointe du Lac was once a young Louisiana plantation owner, before he was driven mad with grief after the loss of his brother. In the throes of angst, he encountered Lestat de Lioncourt, a vampire who offers Louis companionship and eternal life. 200 years later, Louis tells his life story to a reporter, thus the book’s title. Follow Louis and his bretheren from Louisiana to New Orleans, across Austria and Transylvania, through Paris and into the darkest recesses of our basest impulses.

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

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Bree is 38 years old, she uses canvas bags, she’s a former board member of several charities, and she’s a doting mother to two teenage daughters and a “surprise” infant son. Her perfect life in suburbia is shattered when she looks away for just a moment, and her son is taken. Then, the phone rings: “Go home. Tell no one. Do not call the police. Do not call your husband. Be at your house by 5:15pm or he’s gone for good.” It’s a fairly standard (if horrifying) opening for a high-octane mystery, but Jackson has a few surprises in store for readers of Mother May I. This is one of the most chilling and thought-provoking thriller books set in the Deep South. Read my full review of Mother May I here.

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

All The King's Men - Robert Penn Warren - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, the character Willie Stark bears striking resemblance to the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that it was “never intended to be a book about politics” (which makes Deep South politics a strange choice of subject matter). Read my full review of All The King’s Men here.

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

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Murder In Mississippi is actually titled God’ll Cut You Down for U.S. editions. John Safran explained that, while “Murder In Mississippi” sounds very exotic and interesting to us Aussies, for Americans it’s the equivalent of calling a book “Murder in New South Wales”. Whatever it’s called, this is a fascinating true crime story told by one of Australia’s most notorious pranksters. Safran fancied himself a Capote-style newshound, following the news of a white supremacist’s murder by a black man all the way to Mississippi. He thought he was going EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

I Kissed Shara Wheeler - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Casey McQuiston is a bit of a storytelling chameleon, blending stories seamlessly into any setting. In their debut, it was the White House. In their follow-up, it was New York City. And now, in I Kissed Shara Wheeler, it’s a Catholic high school in Alabama – quite the change(s) of pace, don’t you think? Chloe Green has a hard time with her family’s relocation from California to the Deep South, but she channels her fears and frustrations into her quest to become valedictorian of her new school. Shara Wheeler is her main competition – until Shara kisses Chloe, and promptly disappears. This is a fun and hilarious rom-com, all the better for the queer desire at its heart and its Southern setting. Read my full review of I Kissed Shara Wheeler here.

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

SImon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most people don’t even realise that Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda – the beloved queer YA romance novel – is actually set in the Deep South. So, here’s your FYI: the story takes place in mid-2010s suburban Atlanta. Understanding that actually makes the story richer, once you know the “big reveal”. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a cracker! Simon is a closeted teen who begins an anonymous pen-pal friendship with another secretly-gay student at his high-school. The identity house of cards could all come tumbling down, though, when a bully blackmails Simon by threatening to out him and his new friend – who Simon is developing feelings for, and he thinks the feeling is mutual, as long as their secrets stay safe.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

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Maybe the pageant scene isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Deep South, but it’s a captivating spectacle all the same. Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ takes that scene for its setting, a small Texas town where Willowdean Dixon is determined to take the crown as Miss Clover City. She doesn’t take after her former-beauty-queen mother when it comes to body size, but she’s determined to feel at home in her own skin. Alongside a cast of other unlikely characters, she faces down her fear in order to show the town (and herself) that she belongs on that stage just as much as anyone else. Read my full review of Dumplin’ here.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book set in the Deep South about a woman’s search for respect, disguised as a woman’s search for love. Janie finds love and freedom with a poor man, in stark contrast to what is “expected” of her (not to mention available to her) in her rural Florida town. Her first two husbands offer her stability, which is comfort of a kind, but expected that she be defined by her marriage to them – in Tea Cake, she finds a man who wants her to have and be anything she chooses, and supports her regardless of his own role in her life. It’s a beautiful story of both love and devastation, connections and divides within the Black community. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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Of all the books set in the Deep South that expose injustices and brutal racism, The Nickel Boys is the one sure to turn your stomach the most. The Pulitzer Prize judges called it “ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption” when they awarded him the 2020 Prize for Fiction (his second win, making him only the fourth writer to get the gong twice). The story begins with an investigation into the by-then defunct Nickel Academy, a “reform school” with a horrifying history. Bodies are found in unmarked graves, and former “students” slowly, tentatively, come forward to tell the truth of what happened to them there. This is a painfully accurate account of what happened to many children in some chapters of Deep South history. Read my full review of The Nickel Boys here.

Bonus: check out my full review of Colson Whitehead’s earlier novel, The Underground Railroad, here. It’s set (partially) in the Deep South, too!

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

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Susan Orlean has a knack for sniffing out delightfully niche true crime stories and spinning them into fascinating tales. In 1998, she published The Orchid Thief, “a true story of beauty and obsession” she found on the southern edge of Florida. It revolves around notorious horticulturalist John Laroche, and the illegal poaching of rare orchids – a much bigger trade than you’d think! Laroche found a legal loophole that he thought might let him get away with it, one “that he claimed allowed the Seminole natives to remove endangered species from the swamp”. But this story ends up stretching far beyond the bounds of the Deep South, where Laroche’s claims can’t protect him.

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