Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 15)

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales? It’s a killer premise for Casey McQuiston’s debut novel (and #Bookstagram darling) Red, White & Royal Blue. They’ve quickly become one of my auto-buy authors – I loved One Last Stop, and I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy of I Kissed Shara Wheeler – so it was great to go back and see where it all began for them back in 2019.

Red White And Royal Blue - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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McQuiston, unsurprisingly, came up for the idea for Red, White & Royal Blue – a romance between the heirs to two of the world’s most powerful families – during the 2016 American presidential election. They’ve also cited the TV show Veep, the Hilary Clinton biography A Woman In Charge, and royal romance The Royal We as sources of inspiration.

It makes for a delightful escapist read. Alex Claremont-Diaz, one of the romantic leads, is the First Son of America’s first woman president. He’s had a few encounters with Britain’s Prince Henry, none of them good. Their mutual dislike bubbles over at a royal wedding, when a little argy-bargy sends them careening into an extravagant wedding cake – a moment unfortunately captured by photographers.

So, it’s time for damage control! Their handlers concoct a plan for Henry and Alex to make a public show of friendship, to alleviate the risk of any further diplomatic incidents. Red, White & Royal Blue isn’t so much a fake-dating romance book as it is a fake-friendship-turns-into-real-dating romance book – a welcome twist on the trope.

Alex and Henry’s forced proximity really keeps the tension high, and propels the plot forward. Their burgeoning love affair is paced just right – not so quick as to be completely unbelievable, not so slow as to become boring, and with just the right amount of angst. The sociopolitical complexities of coming out are addressed as significant obstacles, but not overwhelming ones.

The only flaw in Red, White & Royal Blue‘s story, as far as I could see, was that one of the plot points (re: the emails, no spoilers but IYKYK) was so blatantly foreseeable! I felt like I spent two-thirds of the book waiting for that particular shoe to drop. Hot tip: if you EVER want to keep ANYTHING secret, NEVER put it in writing – especially in a romance novel!

That was forgivable, though, given how FUN this novel was. It’s hard to believe McQuiston was a debut writer. The tone was consistently youthful (without being either annoying or condescending), wry, and self-aware.

He’s unsure of the dress code for inviting your sworn-enemy-turned-fake-best-friend to your room to have sex with you, especially when that room is in the White House, and especially when that person is a guy, and especially when that guy is the Prince of England.

Red, White & Royal Blue (page 134)

I did get a weird pang towards the end, looking at the dates. The timeline of Red, White & Royal Blue clearly stretched in the future at the time McQuiston was writing; they (understandably) had no idea that absolutely everything would change in 2020. It makes for a heart-wrenchingly sweet parallel universe where a left-wing woman could be President and none of us ever did a birthday party via Zoom.

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing, and/or anyone who’s just particularly burned out by The State Of The World and looking for some starry-eyed optimism.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Red, White & Royal Blue:

  • “Alex is sad. He looks at Henry. Their eyes meet. Henry smiles for once. That makes Alex smile. Alex says “OMG LOL WE ARE CRAZY” then Henry says “we ARE crazy” then they both turn on their heels and head to another room. Sex happens. Sky is blue. Grass is green.” – Amazon Customer
  • “If you want to read chapter after chapter of vulgar language explicitly describing homosexual sex, then this is the book for you.” – goldie
  • “Written for adolescent girls with the reading difficulties.” – Kneale Grainger

Calypso – David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a must-read auto-buy author for me now, but I’m forcing myself to take it slow. I make myself read only one book of his at a time, every so often, instead of gobbling them all down at once like the gluttonous goblin-reader I am at heart. I started with Me Talk Pretty One Day, then last year Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, and now Calypso – a collection of 21 autobiographical essays published in 2018.

Get Calypso here.
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My first literal lol came from Calypso‘s blurb. After promising that “Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation towards middle age and mortality”, it reveals that he named his beach house the Sea Section. HA! It also says that Calypso is “beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumour joke” – so if there was any doubt whether it might be up my alley…

Sedaris’s essay collections always revolve around a rough theme or motif. With Calypso, he focuses on middle-age and the changing shape of his family (as he approaches the age his mother was when she passed away, and deals with the loss of his sister). Many of the stories take place at the aforementioned Sea Section (I still laugh, every time! What a brilliant pun!), with his remaining family members gathering at the North Carolina beach house for holidays and getaways. It presents the perfect location and excuse for the Sedaris clan to gather, and spend time with their patriarch, now in his ’90s.

Plus, it gives Sedaris the opportunity to realise his childhood dream of “[owning] a beach house and it would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it,”.

Sedaris is at his best (i.e., his cattiest) in Your English Is So Good, an essay bemoaning the nonsense filler phrases that pepper our interactions with strangers. I also struggled to control my snort-laughs while reading And While You’re Up There, Check On My Prostate, about the curses of various languages and cultures. (His conclusion is that the Romanians have us all beat, with gems like “I fuck your mother’s memorial cake” and “shove your hand up my ass and jerk off my shit”.)

Unusually, for Sedaris, the content of Calypso warrants a pretty strong trigger warning: for suicide, his sister Tiffany’s in particular. It’s a sad event in his life, of course, and there are a few particularly bleak moments as Sedaris reckons with what it means for himself and his family, but for the most part Sedaris addresses it with the same matter-of-fact wry tone that he does most facts of life.

The best thing about David Sedaris books is that I get to enjoy them for the “first time” twice! Once on paper, once on audio! I’m pleased to report that the Calypso audiobook, read by Sedaris himself, is just as wonderful as the paperback version (though hearing him imitate his brother’s drawling dialogue makes those parts even funnier, if you can imagine).

So, of course, I enjoyed Calypso. There was no way Sedaris was going to let me down. Even though the content is a bit darker in parts, he still writes with the humour and panache that makes him unique. It’s impossible not to be impressed by his mastery of the form, the way in which he can punch in any direction and still manage to remain thoroughly likeable and hilarious. It’s going to be difficult to force myself to wait to pick up another one of his books…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Calypso:

  • “Usually donate books to either Hospice or our local Friends of the Library; however, in fear that someone will purchase this, read it and give it a 5-star review thereby encouraging further reading, I felt that I had to prevent that.” – Sammypot
  • “Tumors being fed to turtles, injured kittens being shot, yuppies in a buying frenzy for useless clothing, diarrhea on a plane, suicide, alcoholism, etc.” – Shelaw
  • “If you like neuroses and self absorption, this is the book for you.” – Indiana Kevin
  • “As a David Sedaris fan I was really looking forward to this book. Saved it to read on vacation. Big mistake. Full of depressing stories. Death, illness, diarrhea. Really? Can’t understand the good reviews.” – Pop99

A Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

Very few blurbs have grabbed me like that of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being. It’s a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. I mean… isn’t that fascinating?!

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get A Tale For The Time Being here.
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The story unfolds through the two alternating timelines, Nao’s in her diary and a close third-person narration as Ruth reads it (yes, the writer character’s name is the same as the IRL writer, it’s all very meta). Normally, writers writing about writers bugs me, but it didn’t at all in A Tale For The Time Being, possibly because the third-person POV gave it some distance to stop it feeling too schlocky, and Nao’s diary entries broke things up.

Nao is a fascinating character. She was raised in Silicon Valley, a completely American upbringing, until her father lost his job and the family was forced to relocate back to Tokyo. Her father is depressed, isolated (she calls him hikikomori), and suicidal, while her mother is barely present, working to keep a roof over their heads. But if things suck at home, they’re even worse at school, where Nao is tormented by her classmates and forgotten by her friends back in the States.

Hearing all that, you’d probably expect (as I did) that Nao’s diary would be wistful and angsty, but she has a lot of vigour. Her initial diary entries read as though she’s grabbing you in a big bear hug and shouting HELLO in your ear. She’s like a Japanese Holden Caulfield, but far more likeable.

Nao is just about driven to suicide herself, but she commits to recording as much as she can about the life of her 104-year-old grandmother, a “famous-anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun”, before she dies. That’s the purpose with which she begins the diary, but over the course of A Tale For The Time Being, her interjections and digressions reveal far more about her own life.

(And I suppose this is as good a time as any to give a few trigger warnings: suicidality and bullying, of course, and also sexual assault, war crimes, and one natural – but horrific – dog death.)

Ruth, reading all of this, becomes deeply emotionally invested. Not only is she reading the diary, but she’s constantly searching the internet, seeking out translators, trying to find any skerrick of evidence she can that Nao (and/or her family) survived the tsunami of 2011. Of course, she does eventually manage to connect the dots and find out what became of all the players – but not in the way that you’d expect. A Tale For The Time Being takes some weird detours into metaphysics and philosophy, but it still comes to a satisfying (though pleasingly not saccharine) conclusion.

Off the page, Ruth Ozeki (the real life one) seems as fascinating as her characters. She’s “a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest” according to her author bio. In fact, she was the first Zen Buddhist priest to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for this book, back in 2013). And she also thanks one of my faves, Karen Joy Fowler, in the Acknowledgements for giving her courage “at a critical moment in time”.

A Tale For The Time Being would be a great pick for fans of Mieko Kawakami, though Ozeki’s prose is a little more smooth and inviting, a little less edgy and devastating. I was so thrilled to discover that the story lived up to the high, high expectations the blurb had set.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Tale For The Time Being:

  • “Two neurotic confused suicidal dopes yammering endlessly about their “feelings” What ever they are.” – M. Konikoff
  • “Odd that Ozeki embraces Zen (less is more) since the book is so redundant, excessive, and long-winded, all of which would seem Zen’s opposite. Like real life? Maybe so, but then the novel is an imitative fallacy. Like what Jefferson did with the bible, I’d like to snip out the good parts of this book, string them together, and perhaps by doing so create a greater work of art.” – SS
  • ““A Tale for the Time Being” should be renamed “A Tale to Waste Your Time”.” – L. Marantz

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Like many readers, I picked up Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, before her debut – but believe you me, I was out the door hunting down a copy of her first as soon as I turned the final page. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s first novel, published in 2014, and while it didn’t make a splash the way that the follow-up did, it’s still an intriguing and intense read.

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Everything I Never Told You begins in 1977. The Lee family appears to be average in every way – working father, stay-at-home mother, three kids and a comfortable home in Ohio. Except that their middle child, Lydia, is dead… and they don’t know it, yet.

That sounds like a spoiler, but it isn’t. It’s in the blurb, it’s in the first sentence, and Lydia’s body has been found by the end of the first chapter. So, cool your jets.

Lydia’s death forces everyone in the Lee family to reevaluate their lives, and reveals some hard home truths. As an investigation plays out in the background, they realise they didn’t know Lydia – or each other – as well as they thought. Their bright, popular, bubbly girl was in fact a ball of angst with few friends and slipping grades. It turns out, James and Marilyn Lee hadn’t done as good a job concealing their own struggles from their children as they’d thought.

Race plays a major role in this family drama. A lot of the tension stems from the fact that white regional Ohio was not a comfortable place to be for Chinese Americans in the ’70s, and mixed race families faced uphill battles on every front – internal and external. These issues have new resonance with the spike in anti-Chinese sentiment in the States (and, I’m sorry to say, other parts of the world) after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in late 2019.

Everything I Never Told You is a propulsive read, but not an easy one, if that makes sense. It’s much darker than I remember Little Fires Everywhere being, with darker themes and content. Trigger warnings, naturally, for depression, suicide, infidelity, and racism.

But Ng’s writing shines, despite the darkness – she knows just how to drag a reader’s eyes down the page. In particular, I want to call out her pithy and apt descriptions (“a woman built like a sofa cushion”, and “a florid ham hock of a man”). She has said that she spent six years working on Everything I Never Told You, writing four different drafts. Her hard work definitely paid off.

For her efforts, Ng won the Amazon Book Of The Year award of 2014, beating out the popular favourites Stephen King and Hilary Mantel. She was widely praised, by readers and critics alike, for her domestic psycho-drama and her depiction of the damage that parents can inflict on their children.

Because ultimately, that’s what this book is about: the weight of parental hopes and dreams, even (especially) the unspoken ones. Once again, I find myself eagerly anticipating another Celeste Ng novel – luckily, I won’t have to wait for long!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Everything I Never Told You:

  • “These people should have gotten some REAL problems. not the summers of their discontent. Whiners all.” – bookbabe21
  • “downer” – Marjorie E. Brower
  • “Read this if you are on an antidepressant. Otherwise, beware.” – Mimi
  • “Book was a downer. All the characters were unhappy. Nothing to be gained by reading this book. I wish the author hadn’t told us.” – katbag

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

There’s been a lot of nostalgia for the ’90s lately, and to those of you remembering (or wishing you were old enough to remember) those days of yore, let me recommend you read American Psycho. Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel will remind you what a hotbed of toxic masculine Yuppie nonsense much of that decade really was. It’s a fascinating read, but not one for the faint of heart.

American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Ellis chose the perfect quote – from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground – as an epigraph. It begins:

Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.

American Psycho Epigraph

The first few chapters give off strong Money-era Martin Amis vibes. At first, the protagonist – Patrick Bateman, the titular American psycho (i.e., maniacal investment banker) – mentions his private obsession with sexualised violence only briefly, with nonchalance. Blink and you’ll miss it. (And poor some out for the poor early readers who didn’t know what they were in for…)

Bateman narrates his everyday activities: morning routine, office routine, endless dinner-and-drinks get-togethers with his investment banker buddies and the women they refer to exclusively as “hardbodies”. The characters – including Bateman – are constantly confused for one another, because all of those Wall Street guys are the same. Bateman is strangely obsessed with what people are wearing, Valentino this and Brooks Brothers that. It’s obviously a commentary on the consumerist culture of the era and geography, but it was so frequent and heavy-handed (seriously, about a third of the novel is dedicated to describing the characters’ outfits), that I couldn’t help but wonder if Ellis was just a smidgen obsessed himself.

Oh, and in an eerie stroke of foresight, Bateman is also obsessed with Donald Trump. Ha!

Anyway, American Psycho seems like your bog-standard Yuppie greed novel, until Bateman starts describing his violent impulses and how he acts upon them.

So, that brings us to the trigger warnings. I realise that my triggers (i.e., anything at all that might even present a minor inconvenience to a dog) are not shared by all. However, I feel pretty confident in saying if you have a trigger, it’ll be pulled by American Psycho. Some governments have deemed it so disturbing that it can only be sold to 18+ adults, shrink-wrapped like a smutty magazine.

Personally, for the most part, I found Bateman’s infamous violence almost comedic. It was just so incredibly graphic. The one instance that really stuck with me is when he narrates noticing fat spatters on his blinds and curtains from the breasts of a woman (he electrified them with starter cords until they exploded). That’s a pretty good example of what you can expect.

And, for those of you who share my concern for fictional canine welfare, there is more than one occasion of truly horrible holy-fuck-I’m-going-to-cry-until-I-throw-up violence against dogs. The first, at least, can be seen coming a mile off (when Bateman attacks the owner), so I could skip my eyes over the page. Unfortunately, the later instances are very sudden and truly sickening.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people around Ellis warned him that American Psycho would ruin his career, prior to its publication. Simon & Schuster acquired the manuscript first, but later withdrew due to “aesthetic differences” (i.e., “this is so fucked, we cannot possibly publish it”). Vintage Books then picked it up, and went on to publish it after what they called “a customary editing process”. Ellis received death threats and hate-mail galore when it hit the shelves, and even anyone who positively reviewed the book was subject to criticism. He recalled in an interview that “the one good review [that appeared in] the national press” (the Los Angeles Times) resulted in “a three-page letter section of people canceling their subscriptions”.

Even now – more than 30 years later – American Psycho continues to make waves. Apparently, in Australia, it’s supposed to be sold shrink-wrapped, but that’s news to me; I bought it naked as the day it was born. Governments and wowsers are still banning it, petitioning for it to be banned, hiding it on the top shelf out of reach of the poor impressionable children… don’t they realise by now that the banning a book is the best way to guarantee that people will read it?

Ultimately, I thought American Psycho was just another – quite good, but gimmicky – commentary on Yuppie culture. I didn’t hate it, but books that make the same point(s) without the chainsaw murders are a dime a dozen. If someone’s looking for a Yuppie-critical read, American Psycho wouldn’t be the first (or even probably the third) I’d recommend. If they’re after a horrifying novel to make their stomach churn, sure, they could pick this one up, but personally I found Tender Is The Flesh a lot more unsettling.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Psycho:

  • “I don’t think I’ve ever read a more boring or uninteresting book. He literally just goes on and on about clothes and other boring stuff” – Amazon Customer
  • “Maybe some men shouldn’t be allowed to read & write.” – Kathryn Harvey
  • “Yes it’s repulsive, but so is a puddle of vomit on a school room floor. How this got out of the trash bin and actually published is an insult to even marginally better writers.” – George Zucco III
  • “If you really want to punish an ex of yours, buy them a copy of this book. They’ll never stop cursing your name.” – Jesse L. Cairns
  • “I will grant the business card scene is fantastic, although it is not enough to make up for the crapfest this book is.” – Ira Jaxon
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