Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 13)

The Chain – Adrian McKinty

The Chain has one of those plots that pulled me in, before I’d even finished reading the blurb. Picture this: a woman receives a phone call, advising her that her daughter has been kidnapped while waiting for the school bus. Terrifying, of course. She has to pay a ransom, but she also has to kidnap another person’s child, in order to secure her daughter’s safe return. Isn’t that twisted? I love a good ethical dilemma, as you know, so I ran out to pick up a copy of The Chain as soon as I could.

The Chain - Adrian McKinty - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Adrian McKinty has cited an interesting mish-mash of sources as inspiration for The Chain. It seems he combined stories of cartel kidnappings where family members could be substituted for the original victim, and the strange chain letter trend of his youth. Reading the book, it’s easy to see how these ideas melded together.

The main character, Rachel, is a divorcee whose cancer has recently returned. All of those troubles are shoved to the side, though, when her daughter Kylie is kidnapped. A terrified voice at the other end of an unknown number tells Rachel “you are not the first, and you will certainly not be the last,”. She is now part of The Chain: a series of parents and loved ones held together by their complicity, kidnapping someone in order to secure the return of their own.

The “chain” is more like a web, with the anonymous masterminds keeping tabs on their victims, using them where necessary to convince new victims to play along. The whole operation exploits the fierce love that parents have for their children, coupled with their fear of punishment should their involvement be revealed. None of them can dob anyone in without throwing themselves under the bus, too.

The Chain is told through short, punchy chapters. The story moves fast, and there are plenty of moments that will twist your stomach and hitch your breath. As well as the obvious trigger warning for violence against children, I should warn you about content relating to cancer, addiction, and dog death. Also, I don’t know if this constitutes a trigger warning, but there are a LOT of guns in this story. Like, everyone’s got a gun, everyone’s looking for a gun, everyone’s shooting a gun… it’s a surprisingly American idiosyncrasy for a thriller by an Irish writer.

It also has an unusual structure for a thriller – perhaps because McKinty originally conceived The Chain as a short story. There are two “parts”, and they read more like a first book and a sequel – smushed together into a single volume.

In the beginning, I felt like McKinty leaned a bit too hard into the people-put-everything-on-social-media aspect. Characters on the “chain” turn to Facebook and Instagram to stalk potential victims, and manage to turn up all kinds of information with very little effort. That might make sense if the story was set in the earliest days of social media, but these days I can’t think of anyone who would put their home address or phone number publicly visible on Facebook. It just stretched the bounds of believability.

McKinty also had a few hats-on-hats-on-hats, plot-wise. The Chain is such a compelling idea, I’m not sure he really needed the main character’s cancer diagnosis, or the side character’s heroin addiction, or the villain’s whole hippie commune back-story, or… Simplifying the story flies in the face of everything we’re told about how characters should be “complex”, but I think it would have made the hair-raising plot more impactful.

The story is definitely going to lend itself to a screen adaptation, though – I’m surprised we haven’t seen one already. Rights to The Chain were purchased by Universal Pictures back in 2020, and a director and writer have signed on, but no other news as yet. It definitely has the chops to make a Don’t Say A Word-type psychological thriller.

All told, The Chain is a high-octane thriller for fans of adrenaline-pump stories. As to the major question at its heart (“how far would you go to protect your loved ones?”), I still haven’t decided. In that respect, at least, this one will stick with me for a while.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Chain:

  • “Hopefully this crap will earn McKinty enough money so he can return to his earlier writing style.” – kb
  • “I read this in one day while my kids were playing on the beach. I literally couldn’t put it down. I had to know what happened next… now I have no idea where my kids are. Thanks a lot.” mrs. jones
  • “If you have seen the movie Taken with Liam Neeson you basically read this book. I imagine this book being as cheesy action film that is totally predictable. I’m taken back from the amazing reviews it has received. How much did they pay Stephen King to write that review?” – andrew ji
  • “”Rachel knows and Ginger knows. And Ginger knows that Rachel knows and Rachel knows that Ginger knows.” Really captivating stuff right there.” – Amanda E

Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

John Carreyrou is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story behind Theranos, the Silicon Valley biotech startup he revealed to be a multi-billion dollar fraud. The story of Theranos, and its charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes, has reached mythic proportions in popular culture. Bad Blood is the riveting true story told in full, straight from the source, so if you’ve only heard it in snippets and memes, this is the book for you.

Bad Blood - John Carreyrou - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Bad Blood is a true crime book about corporate fraud – an particularly rich untapped vein in that genre, if you ask me. This story has got it all: the gold-rush mentality of Silicon Valley, a brilliant idea, secrets and lies, a house of cards, a cat-and-mouse game with reporters… it all unfolds like a high-octane thriller, but better, for being real.

Holmes started Theranos as a 19-year-old college drop-out. She had incredible vision and admirable goals – making health care accessible and affordable, effecting a shift in the power dynamic between doctors and patients. You know, information is power, and all of that. She imagined a device in people’s homes that would allow them to diagnose dozens – no hundreds – no thousands of diseases with a single finger prick, a far cry from long lines at the pathologist to have vials of blood drawn at a time.

The amounts of money that she was able to attract with this idea are astronomical. Most of the people involved aren’t household names (with the exception of Rupert Murdoch), but the brands that got on board – Walgreens, Safeway – sure are.

Unfortunately for them all, Holmes’s ambition was coupled with complete delusion about her capacity to achieve and deliver on what she promised. She had all the hallmarks of a cult leader: a charismatic recruiter with a peculiar talent for pitting people against each other while keeping them on her side.

For over a decade, as Carreyrou depicts in Bad Blood, Holmes systematically drove away dozens of people who could have actually helped her, tarring them as nay-sayers and small-minded critics. The extreme lengths that Holmes and her lawyers and devotees went to prevent their fraud being made public brings to mind Harvey Weinstein and the story that unfolded in She Said (Holmes and Weinstein even used the same lawyer).

Holmes channeled [the] fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery.

Bad blood (page 296)

Carreyrou himself doesn’t appear in the story until Chapter 19. He conducted hundreds of interviews investigating the story of Theranos and preparing it for the public – first for the Wall Street Journal, and then for Bad Blood. He managed to track down no fewer than sixty former Theranos employees, convincing them to set aside their fears of retaliation and legal ramifications. Holmes herself declined to participate (hard to imagine why…).

It all allowed him to paint a completely convincing picture of what life inside Holmes’s web was like, but it also led to him becoming personally invested in the story and a target of Holmes’s wrath. He does come off as slightly defensive towards the very end of Bad Blood (did we really need to know about the ‘fuck you, Carreyrou’ chant the Theranos employees did at a gathering?), but I suppose it’s understandable, given what they put him through.

Bill Gates said that “Bad Blood tackles some serious ethical questions, but it is ultimately a thriller with a tragic ending. It’s a fun read full of bizarre details that will make you gasp out loud,”. It also serves as a testament to the power and importance of unbiased investigative journalism. Bad Blood had my jaw dropping and my tongue wagging for days, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a true crime read without blood.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Blood:

  • “Bought the book for several of my employees.” – buy amazon buy
  • “Bought Bad Blood while I was watching The Dropout on Hulu. Here’s the thing: my copy of Bad Blood is a total dropout in that the pages drop out and the binding is unbound! I’m trying to get through but seriously…My copy is like the subject of L’il Wayne’s “How to Love.” For a second the pages of my copy are over here. Now they are over there.” – Karen
  • “This book is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing more than a recount of an entitled brat, her evil spouse, and hundreds of people getting screwed over in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure why I listened as long as I did. With the rave reviews, I was expecting something better, but the book just seems so repetitive. The overarching theme of the book is 1) Make crappy product that doesn’t work. 2) Scam person into thinking it does. 3) Rinse and repeat” – Austin

Any Ordinary Day – Leigh Sales

I’ve admired Leigh Sales for a long time, and not just for her Walkley Award-winning journalism. Her arts podcast, Chat 10 Looks 3, with Annabel Crabb, is where I get a lot of my book recommendations. So, inevitably, I had to check out Sales’s own book, Any Ordinary Day (tagline: “Blindsides, resilience, and what happens after the worst day of your life”).

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In Any Ordinary Day, Sales examines our vulnerability to life-changing events, and how we process the grief and fear that come with them. She was prompted to think about this subject after two widely covered, deeply traumatic events that occurred in rapid succession in 2014 (the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, and the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney).

In her work as a journalist, she has realised that the worst days, where the unthinkable happens, “start with the day’s deceptive ordinariness” – which is how she landed on the book’s title. Ask someone about a devastating experience, and they’ll almost always start with ‘it was any ordinary day…’.

Sales talks to people who’ve faced unimaginable traumas, from acts of terrorism to natural disasters. Her interviewees have lost children and spouses, and/or come horrifyingly close to death themselves. In between chats, she describes what the science says about how our brains respond to shock, and grief. In case it’s not already clear, Any Ordinary Day isn’t a self-help book or a survivor’s guide – it’s more like a wider consideration of how and why we respond to tragedy.

Sales shares enough of her feelings and experiences to be transparent with the reader (e.g., she acknowledges her bias as an atheist when speaking to a Jesuit priest), but not so much that she overshadows the experiences of her interviewees. It’s a very delicate balance, and Sales has clearly had a lot of experience walking that particular tightrope.

What surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have, given Sales’s line of work) was her brilliant interrogation of the role of journalism and the public interest in freak tragedies. Sales gives quite a lot of time to the role that the news plays in not only our awareness of these events, but also the reaction and recovery of their victims. The public is undeniably curious when terrible things happen, but what right do we have to the inside story of the worst day of someone’s life? It’s the journalist’s difficult job to play the gatekeeper, usually under enormous pressure to get clicks and views.

Another thing I didn’t expect: Any Ordinary Day is a good book to read if you’re awkward around grief and tragedy. If you find yourself shying away from people in awful circumstances, because you’re unsure of what to say or scared of “making things worse”, Sales offers answers about the “right” thing to do and you’ll feel much more equipped.

It’s worth noting that Any Ordinary Day is a (mostly) straight, white book. I think we can give Sales some leeway, given the universality of grief and shock in the wake of tragedy, but we should be aware of it all the same. Any Ordinary Day isn’t going to tell you anything about how these experiences are compounded by institutional bias and systemic oppression – though, of course, that’s a whole other book’s worth of information.

I did wonder whether, in the wake of The Terrible No Good Very Bad Year 2020, an updated edition might be in order. Where most of the tragedies Sales examines in Any Ordinary Day mostly affect a handful of people (in the case of natural disasters, thousands at most), COVID-19 caused near-universal upheaval and distress. I’d be curious to hear her take, specifically, on what the pandemic has done to us and our fear of tragedy, given what she learned putting this book together before it happened.

In sum, Any Ordinary Day is an interesting and reflective book, very well paced and highly readable. Next time you see a news story about a terrible event and find yourself thinking “I could never survive something like that”, you’ll want to be able to turn to this book for proof that ordinary people survive the unthinkable every day, and most of us have buried reserves of resilience.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Does this book really need an introduction? I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou’s iconic 1969 autobiography, describing her youth and upbringing. The title comes from the third stanza of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (which is well worth reading in full, if you’ve got a moment). It’s one of the most acclaimed autobiographies in the history of literature, and with good reason.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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By the way, a note on choosing your edition: mine is gorgeous, but it doesn’t have the foreword by Oprah. If I had my time again, I’d prioritise that over prettiness.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings traces Angelou’s life from age three to seventeen, artfully recreating the perspective of the child while retaining the wisdom of the adult narrator. She and her older brother, Bailey, were abandoned by their parents and sent to live with their grandmother (whom they call Momma) in Stamps, Arkansas. Several years later, Angelou’s father unexpectedly appears and takes the children to live with their mother in St Louis. There, aged just eight years, Maya is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. This horrifying event has ongoing ramifications throughout her young life (obviously).

The traumatised Angelou proves too much for her mother and St Louis family to handle, so she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps. There they remain until after Angelou graduates eighth grade, a watershed moment in her young life. Momma then decides that the children are ready to return to their mother, who was by then living in California.

Angelou attends high school while living with her mother (whom she adores, despite the earlier traumatic experience in her St Louis home). Before she even graduates, Angelou becomes the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She relishes the independence and responsibility that comes with entering the workforce, but she still experiences the usual confusion and angst that comes with adolescence. In a moment of desperation, to prove to herself that she “isn’t a lesbian”, she sleeps with a local teenage boy and becomes pregnant.

She manages to hide the pregnancy from her family for eight months, until she graduates high-school, and at seventeen years of age, she gives birth to her son. It’s remarkably not a particularly traumatic experience for her, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings ends on a positive and hopeful note as Angelou embarks on motherhood.

So, as that potted summary might indicate, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings depicts a radical transformation, from a nervous young girl subjected to racism and abuse to a self-possessed young woman with hope and determination. At many critical junctures, books and literature provide solace to Angelou, and it’s through the power of the written word that she reclaims her own agency and makes sense of her bewildering world. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story, especially for fellow bookworms, and it’s impossible to read this one without feeling uplifted in some way (despite the traumatic content).

It reads like a novel (even though, obviously, it’s not) – beautifully, lyrically, with rich and inviting prose. It would seem that’s very much by design; Angelou wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in response to a challenge issued by her friend James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis, to “write an autobiography that was also a piece of literature”. She later said that she felt “tricked” into writing the book (she initially refused, as she thought of herself as a poet rather than a memoirist, but couldn’t resist the challenge), but given the result, I think we can forgive Baldwin and Loomis the manipulation.

The literary feeling isn’t just a “vibe”. Many fancy-pants literature critics have commented on it, categorising I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as “autobiographical fiction” rather than straight narrative non-fiction. But Angelou herself resolutely called this and her subsequent books autobiographies, and thematically they align very neatly with other autobiographies by Black women. Basically, let’s not punish Angelou for writing so damn well that we can’t believe it’s real.

If I had to offer a criticism – like, under pain of death – I would say that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings slows down a bit in the second half. Plus, the content is definitely going to be tough for some readers to handle (trigger warnings for racism, sexual abuse, and violence). But it’s just so beautifully written! I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.”

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings:

  • “I get that this book is an autobiography so of course I knew it was going to be somewhat boring. But what I didn’t know was how boring.” – Amy Lee
  • “Should be required reading in high school except that too many school boards will probably disapprove.” – Allen Hunter
  • “I wanted the book with the title that included CRAWDAD not caged bird sings…my mistake” – Sheldon Rudolph
  • “This has to be the worst book ever written! I am reading thisfor english right now and I can’t read two pages without fallingasleep. She goes on and on about things that don’t pretain to the topic. I remember toward the begining of the book she spent half of a page on how she didn’t steal a can of pinapples when she had the chance. So what! I don’t steal stuff every day, and I don’t write about it and bore people with it. What ever you do, don’t buy this book.” – Wesley Detweller

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Having read Toni Morrison’s most-beloved (ha!) novel first, I decided to go with her very first novel next. The Bluest Eye is an iconic novel about beauty, violent jealousy, and the source of racial self-loathing, first published in 1970.

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Bluest Eye is short, just shy of a couple hundred pages, so it can be read in one sitting if you’ve got the peace and quiet you’ll need to really focus on it. I wouldn’t characterise it as a quick read, because there is so much going on and it’s very dark, but it’s a short one at least.

Speaking of the dark themes, I’m going to give you the trigger warnings right now, because I won’t be able to avoid talking about them from this point on. Heads up for family violence, rape (including that of a child), and animal cruelty (including a particularly horrendous dog death that really messed me up).

Okay, on with it: the action takes place in Lorain, Ohio – which was actually Morrison’s hometown! – in the early 1940s, just before war broke out. It all revolves around Pecola, a young Black girl who is widely considered ugly due to her dark skin and her unpolished appearance.

The point of view, though, is that of Claudia, a girl around Pecola’s age whose parents foster Pecola at various times. See, Pecola’s home life leaves a lot to be desired. Her family lives in an abandoned shop front, and her father is an unreliable alcoholic who sexually abuses her (I warned you!) and beats her mother. When her father accidentally burns the place down, Pecola goes to stay with Claudia’s family, until… well, it’s not clear when exactly, because her circumstances seem unlikely to improve.

Flashbacks throughout The Bluest Eye weave together Pecola’s story, and Claudia’s, and that of Pecola’s parents (Cholly and Pauline), as well as other characters that are in Pecola’s orbit. It’s a clear precursor to books like Girl, Woman, Other, that use multiple characters’ perspectives to tell a wide-ranging story around a theme.

There are no “big reveals” or “climaxes” exactly. It’s more like The Bluest Eye circles around a major time bomb – the fact that Pecola is pregnant, after being raped by her father – that will inevitably go off. It is through that pregnancy that Morrison paints a portrait of Black life in a WASP community in that era. As if it all wasn’t sad enough, Pecola’s child doesn’t survive, an outcome that Claudia blames on herself (she and her sister planted marigolds, in the hopes that the plant’s survival would guarantee the child’s, but of course neither flourished).

In the end, Claudia realises that her community uses Pecola – her “ugliness”, her poverty, her terrible circumstances – to make themselves feel better. The title – The Bluest Eye – comes from Pecola’s desperate attempt, towards the end of the novel, to turn her eyes blue, in the hopes that it would make her “pretty” (read: more white) and change her fortune. Pecola descends into madness, and lives a life of delusion, where she believes she has succeeded in changing the colour of her eyes.

So, yeah. There’s not much joy to be found here.

Morrison has said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “interested in talking about black girlhood”. It seems sadly inevitable that a book on that subject would end up a foundational text about the impact of Euro-centric beauty standards and internalised loathing. She subsequently said her ‘job’, as she saw it, was to “rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate”, which she certainly achieved.

My edition has a gorgeous, generous afterword by Toni Morrison herself, written in 1993. She mentions—among other things—that she broke the narrative of The Bluest Eye into parts that the reader has to reassemble, to prevent us from falling into the trap of “the comfort of pitying Pecola.” I think that’s what sets works like this apart from Misery Porn books like A Little Life – the misery is central to the story, but there is purpose to it beyond pitying the sufferer.

Morrison also says, though, that she’s not satisfied with the execution of her ideas in retrospect, which is a shame—and, honestly, a brave thing to admit to a reader who has just finished her book.

And, of course, I must mention that The Bluest Eye – being a book about racism, incest, molestation, and so forth – has been subjected to countless bans and instances of censorship. It’s not ancient history, either; as recently as last year, it made the top ten list of most-banned books in the U.S. I mean, I understand that these subjects are tough and not all kids (heck, not all adults) are up to it – and there’s no shame in that – but denying others access to Morrison’s brilliant Nobel Prize-winning work is just unconscionable. So, there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bluest Eye:

  • “F this book it was for school .. but ok overall” – maddie
  • “our stupid Florida governor has banned this book and I have no idea why.” – fmartinache
  • “Appalling. Filled with sex . Awful sex. Can’t see why this is an award book. Not appropriate for kids. Amen” – Ron Toleos
  • “People say “Oh, it’s a powerful story about racism and false ideas of beauty etc.” But IMO, there are so many BETTER stories about those themes that DON’T make me want to scrub my eyeballs after reading them.” – Trudi M. Rosenblum
  • “For those who care, she uses f-words and b-words in the book. The book is filled with sexuality. I didn’t like it because if I want to read a book, I like to read something that doesn’t pollute my mind and I thought, an skilful writer like her didn’t need to decorate her work with profanity” – Naz88
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