Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 12)

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

The Hours – Michael Cunningham

Did you know that Virginia Woolf’s working title for Mrs Dalloway was originally The Hours? And that’s where Michael Cunningham got the name for his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which “recasts the classic story of Mrs Dalloway in a startling new light”.

The Hours - Michael Cunningham - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Hours revolves around three generations of women living in different time periods and circumstances, each of whom has some kind of connection with Mrs Dalloway. There’s Virginia Woolf herself, in 1920s England. There’s also Laura, a Los Angeles housewife in the 1940s, who yearns to escape her life and wonders if she has the brilliance of the mind that produced Mrs Dalloway. And there’s Clarissa, in 1990s New York, whose brilliant best friend is dying of AIDS-related illness.

“Mrs Woolf”, “Mrs Brown”, and “Mrs Dalloway” (Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa, respectively) are all equally interesting, well-drawn, and complex. That’s unusual for a story with multiple protagonists, in my experience – usually, I find I’m more drawn to one over the others.

The story is told over the course of a single day, in the tradition of Mrs Dalloway – and, in that spirit, I read The Hours in a single sitting. It’s short enough to make that not-too-onerous an undertaking, and I reckon it’s the best way to do it, if you have the time and capacity.

The Hours parallels Mrs Dalloway in several other ways, too. There’s the stream-of-consciousness style, where the protagonists’ thoughts bounce around all willy-nilly, a very tricky literary technique that mirrors free association. There’s also the LGBTIQ+ themes, where each of the protagonists is some variety of queer. Cunningham quite neatly shows, across the successive generations, how queerness and queer relationships become less shameful and more open: from Virginia’s internal torment, to Laura’s clandestine kiss, to Clarissa’s long-term “out” partnership.

One other thing that’s important to note, if you’re considering picking up The Hours, is that Cunningham also explores mental illness, as a form of expression and a legitimate perspective on the world. That means some trigger warnings are necessary: The Hours opens with a scene of Woolf’s suicide in the prologue, and there are other instances of suicide, suicidal ideation, and depression throughout.

So, it’s kind of a bummer, but The Hours is still a good read – I enjoyed it more than the O.G. Mrs Dalloway (and, for sure, I understood a lot more of it!). It also made for a really good movie, starring Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. I wondered whether Streep was specifically cast for the project, or whether she sought it out specially, because she’s evoked as a character in The Hours with a minor off-page role in the early chapters. She said, on the DVD commentary (remember DVD commentary? how quaint!), that a friend’s daughter sent her a copy of the book, thinking she’d get a kick out of it. It would seem that she did, and I did too.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hours here:

  • “I cannot believe that this book won a Pulitzer Prize! It was so incredibly tedious and an orgiastic dive into depression. Main lining on melodrama! Tennessee Williams on steroids!” – Don McPheeters
  • “I’m not going to comment on it winning the Pulitzer. I don’t like a lot of the winners. Mostly because this is a puffed up university award given to literary favorites who stick around long enough.” – Los Angeles Swinger
  • “If you can get past the idea that life is futile, and if you like homosexuality, you’d probably like this book.” – Dale Lund
  • “Just cause you won a Pulitzer Prize don’t mean you can lay down heavy pipe in your old lady’s aqueduct for hours and hours without missing a beat. Respect yourself.” – Patrick Resing

Milkman – Anna Burns

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Milkman in the 2018 Better Read Than Dead Booker Prize giveaway. This book was a big deal back then (which feels like a lifetime ago). It went on to win the Booker Prize (shortly after I won it in my BRTD stack), making Anna Burns the very first Northern Irish writer to get the gong.

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As per the blurb: “In this unnamed city, to be interesting is to be dangerous… [Milkman is] a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.”

The “nameless” city is quite clearly Belfast, Burns’s hometown. Milkman is loosely based on her experiences growing up in that neck of the woods during the Troubles. Burns herself has called the setting as “a distorted version of Belfast”, but also that it could work as “any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions”.

Burns nails the opening line, too.

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.

Milkman (Page 1)

It really sets the tone for this historical psychological novel. The narrator is an unnamed 18-year-old who is being stalked by an older man she calls “the milkman”. He also happens to be a paramilitary honcho. Despite her rebuffing his offers of “lifts” and “talks”, and her quasi-relationship with a more age-appropriate man she calls “maybe-boyfriend”, rumours start to spread around the insular community that she and the milkman are having a torrid affair. This sends the narrator’s mother off the deep-end, panicked that her daughter is practically an old maid and now her reputation is ruined.

It’s a hard plot to summarise, mostly because nothing and no-one is specifically named. Even the narrator only refers to herself as “middle sister” and “maybe girlfriend”. This is a heavy-handed but effective allusion to the culture of silence that surrounded the Troubles (see, once again, Seamus Heaney’s poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing).

Also, much of the plot of Milkman is built around seemingly small events, things that might barely rate a mention if you and I were to discuss our day over a cocktail. Everything is heightened, everything is politicised, and everything is prone to being extrapolated upon by the community. A trip to the fish and chip shop becomes a harrowing experience with a major domino effect in the main character’s life, all because of a rumour that the proprietor heard about her love life.

(Important note: one not-small event that warrants a major trigger warning are particularly violent and horrifying animal deaths, about a hundred pages in. I had to skip my eyes down a couple of pages to get past it, it was making me queasy.)

Anyway, over the course of the novel, the milkman’s stalking escalates, to the point where he’s threatening to kill the narrator’s maybe-boyfriend if she doesn’t leave him. The narrator’s friend calls her out for her aberrant behaviour – like reading while walking, and running at the reservoir – which has apparently made her an easy target for this crazy stalker-slash-hardcore paramilitary. Oh, and she gets poisoned by a local kook. The poor lamb is having a rough month! Luckily, it all kinda-sorta works out by the end. Mostly.

If William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf had a love child who grew up in 1970s Belfast, they would write this book. Milkman won major praise – more than Woolf or Faulkner received for some of their works, even – with reviewers praising Burns’s voice and portrayal of the complex social politics of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. The Booker Prize judges said:

From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world — threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads — while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman, negotiating a way between the demands of family, friends and lovers in an unsettled time. The novel delineates brilliantly the power of gossip and social pressure in a tight-knit community, and shows how both rumour and political loyalties can be put in the service of a relentless campaign of individual sexual harassment… an exploration of the universal experience of societies in crisis.

Booker Prize Judges’ comments on milkman, 2018

I think it’s best to inhale Milkman – read as much of it in a single sitting as you can. I was reading it bit-by-bit at first, and not really getting into it; then, one night, I had the time to read two-thirds of it all in one go, and that’s when I started to really feel the flow. I’d also recommend reading it immediately after Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, if you’re not particularly familiar with the Troubles. As a non-fiction and fiction pairing, they both explore the consequences of a culture of silence and complement each other superbly.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Milkman:

  • “I just can’t finish it, it hurts me to my core to try and read it.” – Danielle Mongeon
  • “While I was reading this book I seriously contemplated making a Dr appointment because I felt like nothing on the pages made any sense to me and I could not keep up with who the author was talking about. No one has any names and as far as I can tell this book has no meaning. I will most likely burn this winter if my house gets too cold.” – Aubrey
  • “Charming and funny, but serious too. If you are not a skilled reader with a sense of humor, though, you will probably not like this novel. In that case, don’t give it a low rating. Consider giving yourself a low rating instead.” – Reviewer
  • “It’s no fun being Irish. Or Reading Milkman. There. I just saved you 17 torturous hours.” – Michael Culp

Conversations With Friends – Sally Rooney

Last year, everyone went ga-ga for Beautiful World, Where Are You. Remember the bucket hats? But I just couldn’t get it up for Sally Rooney’s latest. A young novelist who went to New York writing about a young novelist who went to New York? Snore! Instead, I impulsively picked up a copy of her 2017 debut novel, Conversations With Friends, when I spotted it in a charity shop around the same time everyone was collectively frothing over the new, shiny thing.

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Frances and Bobbi are exes, and performance poets, and friends. They meet a pair of married grown-ups, Melissa and Nick, who are almost-happily married (it would seem). The situation quickly evolves into a Golden Bowl-esque love quadrangle, with Frances and Nick carrying on behind everyone’s backs while Bobbi pines after Melissa from afar. In that regard, Conversations With Friends shares a lot of genetic material with Normal People, Rooney’s second novel; both feature young Irish intellectuals getting themselves tangled up in complicated love affairs.

But rather than a soapy on-again-off-again romance between two abhorrent youths, Conversations With Friends offers a sharper view of identity and intimacy. The players are a lot more clearly delineated, and their motivations are at least fathomable, if not understandable.

The narrator, Frances, is very young (21 years old), as Rooney was at the time of writing (and still is, some might say!). But the prose is very literary – you can tell, because there are no quotation marks for speech, ha! You could read Conversations With Friends as a coming-of-age novel, but it’s not YA. It’s YA for grown-ups.

The characters – especially Frances – know a lot, but they don’t know themselves at all. Their lack of self-awareness, especially coupled with their elite education and “book smarts”, might be grating for some readers. I would have assumed I’d find it annoying as heck, had I known about it before diving in. It’s a testament to Rooney’s talent that she makes it intriguing, enjoyable even. Alexandra Schwartz said, in a review for the New Yorker: “One wonderful aspect of Rooney’s consistently wonderful novel is the fierce clarity with which she examines the self-delusion that so often festers alongside presumed self-knowledge”, and that about sums it up.

I did have a big laugh towards the end when Bobbi and Frances essentially played out the Bad Art Friend drama, years before it went viral on Twitter. Frances writes a short story about Bobbi and doesn’t tell her, even when it’s accepted for publication (for the jaw-dropping fee of €800 – let me tell you, ain’t nobody getting paid that much for the first short story they’ve ever written in 2022!). Melissa gets a hold of it, and forwards it to Bobbi in a moment of spite. Even though Frances insists that the portrait she paints of her friend “isn’t unflattering”, Bobbi still takes offense. It very nearly tears the friends and former lovers apart.

Having typed that, I find myself wondering if it constitutes a spoiler. It’s hard to say, because Conversations With Friends doesn’t really have an ending, per se. There are climaxes for most of the plot points, but none of them are really “resolved” by the final page. I suppose you could make the argument that Frances makes major strides in terms of her self-awareness and boundaries, but her personal development certainly isn’t finished. But, Rooney wrote “fin”, and she knows best, so.

And, of course, Conversations With Friends is coming to a screen near you. After the blockbuster success of the adaptation of Normal People, Hulu and BBC Three announced that they’d be giving Rooney’s debut novel the treatment as well. It’s set to be released sometime this year. I might watch it, I might not – I can’t say I have a strong feeling one way or the other.

What I do feel strongly about, though, is my unpopular opinion that Conversations With Friends is a better book than Normal People. It’s a better rendering of intimacy, and the way we perceive ourselves and each other. It’s more readable and interesting, it’s more dynamic, and I liked it much better. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to write off Beautiful World, Where Are You? after all.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Conversations With Friends:

  • “Geez— according to this author, the Irish are such a bunch of downers! Nobody’s happy, it’s always cold and rainy, people spend most of their time getting drunk and talking a lot of pretentious nonsense.” – A reader
  • “This book has some clever scenes and spunky repartee, perhaps not enough to outweigh the nonsensical gobbledygook but definitely enough for a Netflix original. The author has a nice, fluid style but her characters are conceited, myopic and insensitive 20- and 30-somethings suffering from tiresome, First World angst.” – SodokuGirl
  • “Or, “5,674 Ways to Screw, Devalue, Mislead, Lie to, Mistreat, and Disrespect Your Friends”” – Cyndi Biltoft
  • “Title should be Endless (!) Conversations With Self-centered and Damaged People.” – LAJ

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

One thing (among many) I learned from reading The Underground Railroad is that Colson Whitehead has a unique talent for making the horrific feel compelling. In The Nickel Boys, he turns this talent to a Jim Crow-era segregated reform school, one that the Pulitzer Prize judges called “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 Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The prologue sets up the premise of The Nickel Boys, with an academic investigation into the now-defunct Nickel Academy exposing the school’s secret horrifying history. When bodies are discovered, buried in unmarked graves, former “students” of the “school” begin coming forward to tell their truth.

In Part One, the story begins proper in 1960s Tallahassee. Elwood Curtis is a conscientious black teenager, with the kind of idealistic naivety that’s difficult to maintain past adolescence. An eagle-eyed teacher notes his intelligence, and pushes him to enroll in an accelerated learning program.

That’s when one innocent mistake destroys Elwood Curtis’s future.

On his first day of classes, after a bike mishap, Elwood hitch-hikes to school. A black man picks him up, and all seems fine… until they’re pulled over. The car is stolen. Elwood is convicted (off-page, presumably as an accessory) and he is sent to The Nickel Academy.

Part Two begins as Elwood arrives at the segregated reform school. The educational standards are lax (ahem), the administration is corrupt (ahem!), and the staff don’t just overlook abuses – they actively participate in and encourage them.

Elwood remains idealistic, determined, calm – even after his first trip to the euphemistically-named Ice Cream Factory lands him in the hospital wing for weeks. He befriends Turner, a hardened, cynical, pragmatic boy, the perfect foible.

Elwood bides his time: he plans to serve out his sentence and “graduate” as quickly as possible, until he has a better idea. He sees an opportunity to shut down the Nickel Academy once and for all. He writes a letter detailing all of the corruption and abuses of the “school”, and hopes to slip it to an inspector – Turner ends up doing it for him.

Part Three of The Nickel Boys is set years later, to adulthood in New York – and holy heck, there’s a twist that I did NOT see coming. Beware of spoilers, all who venture past here…

Through flashbacks, we see that Turner learned the “school” administrators discovered Elwood’s insubordinate attempt to expose them, and planned to kill Elwood and bury his body off the books. He warns his friend, and the two of them escape with a haphazard plan. They’re tracked shortly after by Nickel workers, who fire on them – and Elwood is killed.

Yes, it turns out the adult Elwood is actually Turner, who adopted his dead friend’s name and tried his best to honour him in life. After the reveal to reader, Turner/Elwood confesses his true identity and history to his wife, and returns to Tallahassee to give testimony about the truth of the Nickel Academy and what really happened to his friend.

Whew! Whitehead is monstrously talented. I knew it all along, and yet reading The Nickel Boys was still a shock. He knows just when to pull your eyes away from a scene, to avoid reveling in the horror, which somehow makes it more impactful. He uses small details (like the Mexican boy who is shuffled between the “white” and “coloured” dormitories) to add incredible dimension. His prose, his pacing – all of it is deliberate, and masterful.

After writing The Underground Railroad, Whitehead said that he didn’t want to write “another heavy book”, but he felt compelled to do so after the 2016 election. He already had the idea for The Nickel Boys simmering, after learning about the real-life horrors of the Dozier School. He decided to narrow the scope, though, and ground the story, avoiding the fantastical and speculative elements of his previous novels.

I understand his basing it wholly and solely in the real, given the times and circumstances under which it was written—BUT the absence of the speculative element, the almost playful ideation alongside the horrific, means The Nickel Boys lacks the MAGIC of Underground Railroad. It’s excellent, but not magical. The critics didn’t take issue with that, though: New York Times writer Parul Sehgal said “Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here”.

It seems laughably perfunctory to offer trigger warnings (the premise alone should give you an idea of what to expect), but in the interests of full disclosure: steer clear if explicit violence, school abuses (including sexual), and abundant racism are difficult for you. That likely means The Nickel Boys will miss a swathe of readers, but so be it – for those of us who are in a position to read it, it’s outrageously good.

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