Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 1 of 5)

Too Much Lip – Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip, on its face, sounds like a big ask of Australian author Melissa Lucashenko. How can you take all of the worst stereotypes of First Nations families – drinking, crime, welfare, violence – and give them texture? Make them compelling? Heck, make them funny? It’s a tall order, but Lucashenko pulls it off.

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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As per the blurb: “Wise cracking Kerry Salter has spent a lifetime avoiding two things – her hometown and prison. But now her pop is dying and she’s an inch away from the lockup, so she heads south on a stolen Harley.” As Kerry admits herself in the narrative, “too much lip” is her “problem” from “way back” – she just can’t help but say what’s on her mind (and it’s not always kind or flattering for those around her, particularly her family).

This book presents an Australian brand of what might elsewhere be called magical realism. The first conversation Kerry has in the novel takes place with three cheeky crows who are witness to her exodus from Queensland – backpack of stolen loot in tow. It sets the tone for the black (blak) comedy that is to follow in Too Much Lip, one that weaves together ancient culture and contemporary injustice.

What struck me immediately in Too Much Lip is the masterful way in which Lucashenko paints a picture of a culture continuing, but scarred. Kerry’s nephew Donny’s totem animal, the whale, is the perfect metaphor.

“If Granny Ava was still alive he might have learned to call them in off some coastal headland, Kerry reflected. Mighta been taught them special songs, and all them special whale ways, but Uncle Richard in Lismore had only passed on the fact of the totem, and the lingo name for the animal. It was up to Donny what he did with that in the twenty-first century.”

Too Much Lip (Page 51)

The story moves from Kerry’s discomfort at returning to her hometown, to a grassroots protest against the local mayor’s plan to install a jail on their sacred land, to the uncovering of long-buried family secrets. Underpinning it all is a cycle of inter-generational trauma, suffered and inflicted in turn.

While the violence and abuses of the past don’t excuse those perpetrated in the present (Lucashenko isn’t about to give anyone, black or white, a free pass), they go a long way to explaining it and providing all-too-often-absent context for all-too-common problems in families like the Salters. That said, Lucashenko doesn’t push the reader too hard, holding back from drowning us in misery (as she rightly could have) while providing enough to put us squarely on Kerry’s side – even when she’s making terrible decisions that will have you gnashing your teeth in frustration.





Too Much Lip blends The Castle and the Beverly Hillbillies with a storytelling tradition older than any of us can fathom – a unique combination that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I was particularly taken with Lucashenko’s use of dialect, which weaves the narrative and the dialogue together; even though the narration is third-person, a step removed from Kerry and her family, it’s still rich in Bundjalung language and northern NSW/regional QLD vernacular. And in the Salters, Lucashenko has created a family that, yes, drink and lash out and steal and vandalise, but also love and share and laugh and stand together when the shit goes down.

(I must offer a specific trigger warning, though, for a few horrific incidents of cruelty to animals, towards the end of Too Much Lip – I found it especially confronting, so I’d imagine others might as well.)

It’s particularly important that, when you pick up Too Much Lip (which you really should), you don’t skip past the author biography and afterword, which provide essential context for understanding this story. Lucashenko is a Goorie author of Bundjalung and European heritage, and while the specific locations and details of Too Much Lip are imagined, she says “virtually every incidence of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once,”. She also adds that the epigraph “refers to my great-grandmother Christina Copson who, as a Goorie woman in Wolvi in 1907, was arrested for shooting her attempted rapist (also Aboriginal). Christina later beat the charge against her in a Brisbane court, unapologetically stating that although she had shot her attacker in the hip, she had been aiming for his heart and she was only sorry that she had not killed him,”. It’s clear where Kerry gets her spirit, and her lip.

In addition to writing acclaimed fiction (Too Much Lip is her sixth novel, and it won the Miles Franklin award in 2019), Lucashenko is also an amazing advocate and activist. In addition to her work championing First Nations writing, she also co-founded Sisters Inside, a Queensland organisation that provides programs, services, and support for women and girls who have been incarcerated. If you’re looking to do something to end the terrible legacy of state violence against First Nations people in this country (and pay the rent, while you’re at it), supporting Sisters Inside would be a great place to start.

Important reminder: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation, land that was never ceded or sold.


Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

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

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

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

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





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

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

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





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

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

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

Murder In Mississippi (Page 280)

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murder In Mississippi:

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

The Helpline – Katherine Collette

I first encountered Katherine Collette via her podcast with Kate Mildenhall (The First Time). She spoke there about The Helpline, writing it and the process of publishing, and I thought it sounded fascinating. To be honest, though, I probably would have picked it up anyway, based on the amazing and hilarious cover art alone…

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Helpline here.
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The Helpline is a book about Germaine. Germaine is in her late thirties, she’s very good with numbers, she loves Soduku (more than most people, she attends conventions and watches YouTube videos of champions in her spare time), and she very recently lost her job as senior mathematician at Wallace Insurance. Her mother, Sharon, is hardly the nurturing type, and full of useless suggestions, which is why Germaine makes a point of seeing her as little as possible. In fact, she avoids most people. She’d rather be analysing spreadsheet data than engaging in pointless conversation.

Germaine soon discovers that there is very little demand in the job market for senior mathematicians. In the end, she’s forced to accept the only job she can get: answering the senior’s helpline at the local council. She shares an office with her new colleague, Eva (who drinks three large Slurpees a day, and sleeps just five hours a night). Aside from the paycheck, the only good thing about working the helpline is the free biscuits.

It’s not long before the mayor, high-flyer Verity Bainbridge, recognises Germaine’s unique talents and work ethic. Naturally, she invites Germaine to participate in a secret project: ousting the chairperson of the local Senior Citizen’s Center, Gladys. Gladys has been causing a lot of trouble for the owner of the ritzy golf club next door. In fact, it might be best if the Senior Citizen’s Center was closed down altogether – for the good of the community, Verity reassures Germaine. Germaine agrees, and takes to her new assignment with vigor, but it all goes a bit sideways when she’s forced to get to know the people she’s supposed to be getting rid of…




The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist: think The Rosie Project, or A Man Called Ove. Germaine’s quirky narration (complete with helpful figures and graphs to illustrate her story: anticipated career trajectory, persons at fault for The Incident, and so on) is immediately endearing. Of course, the underlying truth that makes these kinds of books enjoyable is the disconnect between the way the narrator sees the world and the way we know it to be, but the comedy is magnified by the fact that we can also recognise the truth in Germaine’s dealings with bureaucracy and office politics. In other hands, that could make The Helpline sad or confusing or (worst of all) dull, but Collette nails the voice that allows us to engage and empathise and laugh with (instead of at) Germaine.

Another masterstroke: Collette provides an array of small, delightful details that flesh out The Helpline without bogging it down. I can see how this plot and its characters could have easily swung too far in one direction or the other – grossly saccharine, or striving but soulless – but Collette gets the balance just right. Her prose is lighthearted, but sharp, and straightforward, but enchanting.

An important note: Germaine’s personality isn’t a front. There’s no shadowy childhood trauma that “made her this way” (unless you count the cheating scandal that robbed Alan Cosgrove of the 2006 Soduku Championship). It’s a welcome respite from the trigger-heavy “rom coms with depth” that build a character around a defining Terrible Thing that happened to them years prior to the narrative.





I’ve read elsewhere a couple of veiled allusions to the fact that The Helpline may have been inspired by real-life events (Celia may or may not bear a resemblance to a certain president of a certain senior citizen’s centre somewhere in this great country). It’s certainly not hard to believe, given the machinations of local councils and petty corruption we’ve all become too used to. That said, this book is more than just an office comedy with a light romantic sub-plot: it’s a witty contemporary parable about how we decide what to value in life, and what to do when the world throws us a curve ball or two.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Helpline:

  • “I didn’t finish , too slow characters pathetic, all they seem concerned about was biscuit jar .” – Jan Fischer
  • “The characters made me laugh throughout the whole book. Of course, they also made me quit doing Sudoku.” – Betsy Donaghey

Australia Day – Melanie Cheng

One of my favourite bits of book trivia is that Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was actually a country doctor. Believe it or not, back in those days, writing actually paid better than doctoring, so detective stories were his side-hustle. It’s kind of the other way around for Melanie Cheng, but still, she is both a general practitioner, and now – after publication of her debut short story collection, Australia Day, in 2017 – a writer.

Australia Day - Melanie Cheng - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Balancing medicine and manuscript wasn’t easy for Cheng. This collection was written over a period of nine years, and finally published after she won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2016. Australia Day contains 14 stories, each depicting some aspect of the life of a “typical” Australian. Of course, there’s no such thing; her protagonists range from the very young to the very old, the wealthy to the working class, the vaguely Christian to the devout Muslim… so, no points for deducing that she was Making A Point(TM).

Australians don’t share a single background or cultural identity, nor do their experiences of Australian life necessarily match up. And yet, the characters in Australia Day undoubtedly “belong” together. They all desire the comfort of home, and yet they all feel some variety of displacement. That seems to be the defining characteristic of the typical Australian, by this collection’s definition.



An important note on the title, for overseas Keeper Upperers who might not understand the subtext: Australia Day is our “official” national public holiday, 26 January, supposedly commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in 1788. Setting the many historical quibbles with that date aside, it has become a really contentious subject in contemporary Australia given that the arrival of the British marked the beginning of a period of horrific destruction and violence for the First Nations people of this continent. While some Australians are having barbecues, and others are having citizenship ceremonies, Indigenous Australians and their allies are mourning. It has become a rallying point for resistance against the ongoing colonial occupation of First Nations land.

So, to call a short story collection Australia Day, particularly one that doesn’t always necessarily paint Australia and Australians in a great light… well, it’s a bold choice.

To really underline the point, the first and last stories of the collection – the bookends, as it were – are both set on Australia Day. The first is about a young medical student, an immigrant from Hong Kong, bravely facing a hailstorm of microaggressions at an Australia Day barbecue. The last is about an elderly woman, Mrs Chan, whose grandson’s birthday happens to fall on the same date.



Some of the stories, like ‘Macca’, clearly draw upon Cheng’s experience as a doctor. I’d imagine that line of work has given her intimate access to private lives across the spectrum of our community, which gives her a deep well from which she can draw characters who are complex and complete. That said, at times, I got the impression that Cheng was simply trying to show off how much of the world she’d seen and how open her eyes were to different life experiences. To my mind, the best of her stories were the deceptively banal slice-of-life ones, as opposed to the white-guilt-marrying-into-money-and-honeymooning-in-the-Maldives ones.

Plot-wise, the stories generally focus on the structural inequalities that Australians battle every day. In that sense, it’s a lot like Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, or (to use an overseas example) Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Cheng has written about people and their problems (as opposed to problems personified), and in so doing, made their struggles tangible without the telling of them coming across as moralistic or patronising.

All of Cheng’s characters are seeking something elusive, at times ineffable, and there are few happy endings. Some of the stories – ‘Ticket Holder Number 5’ in particular – offer the clang of revelation that I look for in short stories. Others fell a bit… well, short. Still others were perhaps ahead of their time; ‘Big Problems’ struck me as a precursor to novels like Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age. So, as with any short story collection (with maybe a notable exception or two), I’d say that this one is hit and miss. Some are great, some are okay, and each reader will probably have their own opinion as to which is which.


The Family Law – Benjamin Law

Working in a beloved local bookstore definitely has its perks (though not necessarily the ones you’d imagine – being able to read all day behind the desk is a pipe dream!). I’m a long-time fan of Benjamin Law, and one day earlier this year he came in to the store for a TV shoot. When he was done, my boss convinced me to (shyly) ask him to sign a copy of his memoir, The Family Law.

The Family Law - Benjamin Law - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Family Law here.
(When you do, an Australian author will get a cut, a small publisher will get a cut, I’ll get a cut, and you’ll get a great read!)

In case you’re not familiar, Law is an Australian author and journalist. He’s been working in television, radio, and theater for years – not to mention his strong Twitter presence. He was born in Queensland in 1982, to immigrant parents from Hong Kong. The Family Law is his memoir, about what it was like to grow up in an Asian-Australian family in the heartland of Pauline Hanson and her ilk.

It’s not a misery memoir, however – no sad laments, no tearful recollections of racially-motivated violence and oppression. This is a story of heart, humour, and hope. As per the blurb: “Meet the Law family – eccentric, endearing, and hard to resist. Your guide: Benjamin, the third of five children and a born humourist.”

The Family Law is presented as a series of vignettes and essays, in the style of David Sedaris. The through line is family connection, the love between siblings and parents, forged in the fire of being the only Asians on the mostly-white Sunshine Coast. The humour is self-deprecating, colourful, occasionally scatalogical, and uniquely Australian. Law plays to his strengths: the strangeness of being both an insider and an outsider at once, of feeling both at home and displaced.



Law is disarmingly honest about experiences that would make most of us squirm to recount (and probably automatically disqualify him from any future in politics): performing in black-face for a school production, family in-jokes about rape, an Islamophobic aunt, an extended family summarily deported after overstaying their tourist visas… He is admirably forthcoming and frank about these flies in the ointment (there’s probably something to that whole power-of-vulnerability thing) and it’s a handy signpost for the reader that he’s not here to make himself look good. He’s here to tell his family’s story.

“Every marriage starts with passive aggression, but couples soon realise that being passive requires effort. It’s easier to be openly hostile.”

The Family Law (Page 15)

I must say, even though each of the Laws get a look in, it’s the mother – Jenny – who steals every scene. She’s beyond brilliant. She tapes difficult English words (like “diarrhoea”) with their definition to the wall, so she can remember them. She likens giving birth to “squeezing a lemon out of your penis hole”. She is always, always borderline-inappropriate, in the most amiable and likeable way.



The Family Law is a memoir that will speak to all young Australians, not just those with an Asian background, not just those who are gay. Even though Law speaks to his racial and sexual identity, those facets aren’t defining in his story, and they’re certainly not essential to engaging with it. Basically, all you’ll need to enjoy The Family Law is some level of experience with family relationships, and a permissive sense of humour. Some familiarity with the Queensland vernacular and culture might also come in handy…

In 2010, Law created a six-part television comedy series of the same name, loosely based on the book. (No, I haven’t watched it yet – my to-watch list is now longer than my to-read list, if you can believe it – but I watched the trailer on YouTube, does that count?) It was the most-viewed program on SBS OnDemand throughout the series, and received huge critical acclaim here and overseas.

All in all, The Family Law is a charming, funny, and occasionally over-the-top series of recollections about feeling different and family life. Despite what they say about not meeting your heroes, I feel lucky to have done so, and Benjamin Law remains one of mine 🙂


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