Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 9)

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

How’s this for an opening line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Chills, right? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful book, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a story told largely through letters to God, from a black woman named Celie. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship.

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(To fortify you for what’s to come, here’s a fun fact about my copy of The Color Purple: it was once awarded to Ella S at her Year 7 Speech Night, for Excellence in Mathematics of all things, according to the plate stuck in the front. Wherever she is, hope she’s still kicking the quadratic equation’s arse!)

Celie’s story begins, as I said, with her at fourteen years old, living in poverty and lacking any real education. Her story begins in the American South (Georgia, it would seem) in the early half of the 20th century. As if all of that weren’t enough – trigger warning! so many trigger warnings! – she has also been beaten and raped (repeatedly) by her father, Alphonso. She became pregnant, twice, and as far as she knows Alphonso has killed their children. The abuse at the hands of her father, and just about every other man in her life, has left her with very little self-worth or belief, aside from that which she finds in her letters to God. The dialect in which she writes takes a little getting used to at first, but no more so than books like Huck Finn.

The bright spot in Celie’s life is her younger sister, Nettie – a beautiful, clever, and brave girl whom Celie will protect from their father at all costs. An older man (identified only as Mister) comes sniffing around, looking for a bride. Alphonso refuses to let him take Nettie, and Mister begrudgingly accepts Celie instead (he needs someone, desperately, to care for his children and keep his house, ugh). Unfortunately, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for Celie, because as Mister’s wife she experiences only more abuse and degradation.





Not long after, Nettie runs away from home. She and Celie know she could never be safe at Mister’s house (he does, after all, still have his rapey eye on her), so Celie recommends she seek out a wealthy stranger she once met in passing to help. Unbelievably, this works, and Nettie joins their household and their missionary trip to Africa. Nettie promises to write, but when Celie never receives any letters, she concludes that her sister must be dead.

About a third of the way through The Color Purple, we’re introduced to the third central character: Shug Avery, a jazz singer and long-time mistress of Mister (whom she calls Albert, weird). When she falls ill, Mister takes her in to be cared for (i.e., by his wife, Celie) until she’s well enough to go back to work. Little does he know, he’s tying his own noose: Celie and Shug fall in love.

Shug is basically everything Celie wishes herself to be: brave, free, talented, beautiful, and worldly (in every sense). Their relationship strengthens and deepens over time, and eventually Celie elects to move away from Shug, abandoning her arsehole husband and his rotten kids. Through Shug, she also learns that her sister Nettie is not dead after all: Mister has been hiding her letters, she is alive and well in Africa, and Celie clings to hope that one day they will be reunited. And I suppose that’s about as far as I can get into describing the plot without getting too spoiler-y…





It actually took me a while to work out when exactly the events of The Color Purple were taking place. Given that the majority of the action occurs in isolated rural areas, and things have been so shitty for women of colour for so long, it could’ve been just about any time since the American Civil War. Towards the end, however, characters started alluding to a(nother) world war, which puts the timeline between 1910 and 1940. I actually liked the timeless quality, with Walker’s focus on the immediate and the minutia of character. It made the story more universal, more ingratiating to readers in the present.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that, with all the God talk and letters that are basically prayers, that this is a religious novel. Walker says in her preface that “this is the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness, a rebirth into strong feelings of Oneness I realised I had experienced and taken for granted as a child,”. That said, The Color Purple isn’t evangelical or preachy at all. I found it totally accessible and relatable, even as a lifelong atheist. Celie explicitly starts to doubt the “official” version of God (as organised Christian religion would have us believe) about halfway through the novel, and comes to the remarkably progressive conclusion that “god” is in everything. Her last letter is addressed: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.”

The core message I took away from The Color Purple was not, despite the impression I might have given, “doesn’t life suck for people of colour”. Instead, it was to marvel at the strength and power of relationships between women. It is through her relationship with Shug, and her persistent belief in the strength of her bond with Nettie, that Celie is able to overcome all that oppresses her. The women in her life are a salve to the wounds inflicted by men and their violence, as Celie herself is a salve to the wounds inflicted on the women she loves. So, despite the rather traumatic and depressing content, the “feel” of The Color Purple is more hopeful and uplifting than you might expect.





The Color Purple was first published in 1982, and went on to win both the National Book Award For Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1983 (making Walker the first black woman to win the latter). It has retained its cultural currency in the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! *eye roll*). It appeared on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009.

There has been a very successful movie adaptation (with Oprah!), and a musical adaptation too, but I actually don’t feel all that inclined to seek either of them out. I feel like the power of the story comes from Celie’s telling of it, in words on paper, and I’m not sure it could translate onto screen or stage. All told, The Color Purple is a brilliant and very moving work of art, one well worth a read (and probably at least one or two re-reads, come to that).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Color Purple:

  • “Life is uncertain and people are generally bad and good. When you can, do the things that make you happy.” – Kelly
  • “The book was a lot like the movie but different.” – N. Keith
  • “It was very disheartening for to see this book be ruined so with the perversion of lesbianism. Otherwise, it would have been a very good book. It was informative and interesting, but very disgusting because of the sexual perversion of lesbianism.” – Ecclesia
  • “incredible sorrry” – jessica Utley


Julie and Julia – Julie Powell

Julie Powell’s life in the early ’00s was a bit of a bummer. She was working a dead-end secretarial job, fielding the public’s suggestions for a Ground Zero memorial. She was diagnosed with PCOS and, given that she was nearly thirty, the pressure to produce a child (from all corners: familial, professional, and internal) intensified. On the verge of existential crisis, she did what so many of us do: she sought out a Project, and she found it in her mother’s battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie And Julia is her memoir, based on her blog, about her year of cooking dangerously.

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It’s the contemporary domestic equivalent of a herculean feat: 524 recipes, in 365 days. What’s more, Powell only had one tiny apartment kitchen to work in, not to mention an aversion to eggs and no bloody idea where to buy offal or marrow bones. Naturally, mishaps and misadventures ensue.

Powell started the project in August 2002, when blogs were still new, mysterious little rabbit-holes of the internet where one could build a large following relatively quickly if they were doing something no one else was blogging about. Her mother thought she was crazy, and most of her friends did, too – thoughts that Powell doesn’t mind repeating for the reader, and huffing about at length (but after all, as Anne Lamott said, “if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have treated you better”). Her only steadfast supporter is Eric, her husband, but even he blanches at some of the more adventurous recipes, and his patience is tested by Powell’s frequent cooking-induced melt-downs.

As she tells her own story, in chronological episodic form (not unlike a blog), Powell weaves in imagined scenes from Julia Child’s life. Drawing on biographies, letters, and photographs, she paints a very rosy picture of Julia’s romance with her husband, Paul, and how she came to love French cooking. These are decorative touches, however; Julie Powell is the meat of the story, Julia Child just the garnish.



In other reviews and articles, a lot has been made of what Julia Child herself thought of Powell’s project (in sum: she wasn’t a fan, really). I’m kind of disappointed that so much focus has been trained on that one aspect of this quite-remarkable story. I find it much more interesting to look at what drew Child to cooking initially, and what parallels can be found in Powell’s experience.

Child, for instance, didn’t learn to cook until the age of 37, and once she’d figured it out (graduating from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, no less), she set about spreading the word. She published Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in service of teaching the average “servantless” American to cook like a gourmet chef – or, to put it more simply, she made high-falootin’ food accessible.

Isn’t that essentially what Powell has done with Julie And Julia, too? Granted, she’s not teaching us how to cook (she just barely includes a single recipe, it’s not a cook-book after all), but she is making it feel like an achievable goal at least. Before reading Julia And Julia, I would have felt more comfortable skydiving than attempting any fancy-pants French cooking. I’m not one of those can’t-boil-water types, but my idea of a hearty home-cooked meal is more bangers-and-mash than boeuf bourguignon (in fact, I even had to Google how to spell the latter, twice). Seeing that Powell, like me, didn’t have all the tools or know-how when she started off and still she gave it a go… well, “inspirational” is a gross word, but it instilled a little confidence. I even went out and bought a leek.

What’s more: both Julie and Julia are unafraid of admitting their mistakes. Granted, Julie might drop a few more f-bombs, but they both hasten to reassure readers that cock-ups are a natural part of learning to cook. As Julia once said, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, what does it matter – who’s there to see you?”.



I don’t want to mislead you, though: Julie And Julia is just as much about marriage and existential dread as it is cooking. Powell weaves in memories of her childhood and youth, hopes and fears for her future, making the story more comprehensive than just a single year in her life with one ambitious project as its focus. I think that was a good call, on her part, preemptively answering our desire for authenticity in such accounts and saving us from a repetitive cooking procedural (if that’s what you’re after, seriously, go find a recipe book).

Of course, not long after publication, Julie And Julia was adapted to a film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep(!) as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Powell. I watched it once, years ago, and I can’t say I remember much, other than it was good and funny and Meryl Streep was brilliant. I’ll have to watch it again, soon. In doing some Googling for this review, I learned that it was actually the last film written and directed by Nora Ephron before she died, which makes it extra-special.

So, final verdict: I liked it. Sure, Powell’s snarky sense of humour and tendency towards histrionics won’t be to everyone’s taste, but what is? Julie And Julia is a good, quick read that – if you’re anything like me – will inspire you to pick up the tongs instead of ordering UberEats for the fourth night in a row. If it doesn’t sound like it’s up your alley, that’s fine, because I’m going to share with you the single most important take-away of the whole book: put more butter in everything. Seriously. That pat of butter you normally use? Double it.


I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Michelle McNamara

When my dear friend Cathal handed me a copy of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, I literally squealed with delight. I’d been desperate to read it ever since I did my initial binge-listen to every episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast (reminder: I reviewed the hosts’ joint memoir Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, also a gift from Cathal, here). But I exercised some restraint, and held onto it until I felt I really… “needed” it. That’s the definition of adulthood, isn’t it? Delayed gratification? Okay, maybe it’s a bit whacky that my gratification comes from a gritty true crime novel, but whatever. I am what I am, and what I am is a true crime junkie. I’ve made my peace with it.

The back-cover summary for I’ll Be Gone In The Dark promises “a masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book”. It also features glowing endorsements from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, once again lending credence to the idea that the truth can be stranger (and better) than fiction.

The story of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has received almost as much attention as the crimes it covers. It all began with McNamara’s blog (True Crime Diary, still online here), and an article she wrote for the LA Times in 2013. At that time, the series of rapes and murders attributed to the Golden State Killer were still a decades-old cold case, with files stretching across multiple jurisdictions and decades. McNamara sadly died, aged just 46, with the manuscript of this book only two-thirds done.

It was completed after her death by the lead researcher and a close colleague (Paule Haynes, and Billy Jensen), and her husband (Patton Oswalt) wrote a touching afterword in her honour. These contributors added footnotes to clarify or expand upon what McNamara had written before her death, rather than editorialising in an attempt to produce a “polished” story. They don’t ignore or gloss over McNamara’s passing, and they don’t falsely emulate her style or voice – it’s always clear to the reader what was McNamara’s work, and what was their logical continuation. On occasion, they cobbled together crucial sections from her notes and blog posts, making it clear to the reader that they had done so. I really liked this approach; it seemed more respectful, to both McNamara and the reader, than any alternative. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was ultimately published posthumously, in 2018, two years after McNamara’s death.





Even though the book is definitively true crime, it has a more literary bent than most offerings you’d find at airport bookshops. It crosses over into memoir at times, with McNamara offering up her own family history to explain how she came to have an interest in true crime and this particular case. It’s not schlocky, sensationalist true crime, but it’s still compulsively readable. It would seem that the one concession the publishers made to the tropes of the genre were the glossy photograph inserts: smiling photographs of the victims and their families, yearbook photos, neighbourhoods where crimes took place, evidence bags, and police sketches.

McNamara doesn’t shy away from her own role in bringing the case to worldwide public attention; she’s not braggy, but she doesn’t downplay it either. She wasn’t “just lucky”. She, and a group of like-minded armchair detectives, kept the case alive through hard work, persistence, and determination. In fact, it was McNamara who coined the “Golden State Killer” moniker. Prior to that, given that the culprit had undertaken three separate crime sprees with little to connect them, the press had given him three different nicknames (including the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker). The public, understandably, got the impression that these were different perpetrators, until McNamara came along and started connecting dots on their behalf.

The crimes (over one hundred burglaries, at least fifty sexual assaults, and at least thirteen murders) were all committed long before the DNA testing and lab analysis we have today. “By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man,” McNamara says on page 4, “more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority”. More than eight thousand suspects were investigated as part of the Golden State Killer case, but when McNamara started her blog, the police still had nothing.





It’s near impossible to wrap your head around the magnitude, severity, and sheer volume of crimes committed by the Golden State Killer, and McNamara doesn’t even attempt to lay out the facts of the case(s) in any linear fashion. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been to try to capture the scope and relate the details of all of these crimes, because there were just so many – and, being an unsolved case with no leads at the time of writing, it’s not like there were trial documents or police interviews to verify information against. McNamara and her publishers helpfully included, in the front of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark a timeline, a map, and – most importantly, in my view, a list of victims and investigators. That’s something I wish we saw more in true crime: front-and-center focus on victims, and the people who work to bring them justice.

That said, the title is drawn from a threat the killer made to one of his early victims:

“… a man in a leather hood entered the window of a house in Citrus. Heights and sneaked up on a sixteen-year-old girl watching television alone in the den. He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark,’.”

Page 60-61

Still, because the killer hadn’t been identified at the time of writing, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by default avoids exploiting the victims or overtly revering the serial rapist and murderer (the way that true crime books about, say, Ted Bundy, tend to).





I’ll Be Gone In The Dark topped the New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction, and remained there for fifteen weeks. HBO subsequently purchased the film rights, and a six-part documentary series was released earlier this year. But, of course, the big clincher is this: since the time of publication, the Golden State Killer has been caught. His identification and arrest was controversial, as it occurred through the use of DNA evidence matched against samples provided to a genealogy website. What’s even more stunning is that McNamara foresaw this: in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, her notes point to her intention to find a way of running the killer’s DNA through 23AndMe or Ancestry.com.

Obviously, there are all kinds of scary ethical questions raised by this type of investigation, but I won’t explore them here. All I’ll say is, just this once, I’m glad it worked. The culprit has been sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping (he cannot be charged on counts of rapes he committed in the 1970s, as the statute of limitations has passed – boo to that!).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, though, concludes with a letter from McNamara to the then-unidentified killer. In it, she personally implores him to step into the light. It gave me literal goosebumps – and I still can’t help but wonder what went through his mind when he read it (as he undoubtedly has).

I’ve heard some readers complain that reading I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is less captivating now that the “case is solved”. I would argue that, if that’s the case, you’re reading it for different reasons than I am. I read this book to learn about a woman’s pursuit of justice, to understand the horrors wrought upon the women who were victimised by one terrible man, to get some insight into how fifty years can go by without an answer being found. I’m not here to gawp at a cold case (and if you are, no worries, there are plenty of other true crime books out there for you). But if you’re anything like me, if any of those motives sound more appealing to you than simple scares and shock factor, then I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the book for you, as it was for me.

I don’t often include plugs at the end of my book reviews, but given the nature and content of this one, I feel it’s warranted. U.S. Keeper Upperers, I know there’s a lot of you – consider throwing some support towards End The Backlog, who aim to eliminate the atrocious backlog of untested rape kits across your country and prevent such a backlog from ever building up again. For Keeper Upperers elsewhere, look into your local or state-based sexual assault support services, I’m sure they could use your backing, too!

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark:

  • “This book legit gave me nightmares. 10/10 would recommend.” – Justin Marshal Kirkpatrick
  • “I don’t understand the reviews for this book. I found it to be dull and boring. My favorite true crime books read like a novel. This book is stale and full of percentages.” – siansays

Flowers In The Attic – VC Andrews

I’m a sucker for a content warning. If the news anchor says “the following content may be distressing to some viewers”, you’d better believe my eyes will be glued to the screen. When the ladies of the My Favorite Murder podcast warned their listeners about the twisted, sickening premise of Flowers In The Attic, I knew I had to give it a go. After all, they’d read it as teenagers, how bad could it really be? Keeper Upperers, consider my lesson learned…

Flowers In The Attic is a (relatively) contemporary (supposedly) gothic novel, first published in 1979. It’s the first book in the Dollanganger Series, so named for the family at the center of the story. It all starts in 1957, with a beautiful family of six (mother, father, and four adoring children) living a comfortable suburban life in Pennsylvania. Naturally, tragedy must strike. The father is killed in a car accident on the evening of his thirty-sixth birthday. Given that he was the family’s breadwinner, and his wife had no marketable skills, the remaining Dollangangers are forced to flee their newly-repossessed house and throw themselves at the mercy of their estranged (but very wealthy) maternal family.

All of this is narrated by Cathy Dollanganger, the second child and eldest daughter. Her perspective reminded me a bit of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird: a grown woman telling a story from her younger perspective… but that’s about all these two books have in common. Harper Lee’s classic American tale of racial injustice and coming-of-age was confronting in a way, but Flowers In The Attic is grim and sickening on a whole other level.

See, the mother feeds Cathy and her siblings (older brother Christopher, and younger twins Carrie and Cory – all Cs, yes, very clever) some cock-and-bull story about how their grandfather is evil. She says the kids will have to hide out in a far-flung wing of the family mansion until she convinces the old coot that kids aren’t so bad to have around, then he’ll welcome them with open arms and give them all his money. Sounds hinky, right?





When the family arrives, they are given a very cold shoulder by their grandmother – by which I mean she hands them a printed list of heinous “rules” they must follow in order to keep their existence a complete secret from everyone else in the house (even the help! imagine!), under the very serious threat of physical violence. Oh, and there’s a lot of God-talk too: no being naked in front of each other because it’s sinful, no thinking about what anyone looks like naked because it’s sinful, no looking at yourself naked because it’s sinful… you get the drift.

The mother is exempt from all of this, for the most part. She cops a flogging, but at least she gets to move around the house and the servants know she’s there. She tries to reassure the kids that they’ll only be locked up for a few days, but those days turn into weeks, and then the weeks into months. On one of the daily food drops, the grandmother reveals to Cathy and Christopher that they are all, in fact, the product of an incestuous union between their mother and her half-uncle. Heaven forbid! That’s why the kids have to be kept secret, it would seem. If the grandfather knew that his daughter’s marriage to his half-brother had produced progeny, he’d… well, it’s not clear what he’d do exactly, but it would be bad.

Are you following this? It’s a bit convoluted, I’ll grant you. So, here’s a little mid-point tl;dr summary for you: Mummy married her Uncle, and now the kids are locked in the attic so the rich Grandpa won’t write them all out of his will. Ick. Now, I’m not going to tease you with content warnings or thinly-veiled references to more icky stuff (that’s the carrot that lured me to Flowers In The Attic in the first place). Consider everything from here on out extremely spoiler-y (and gross). Proceed at your own peril.





Things really start to drag in the middle. I mean, there’s only so much of kids whinging that they want to go outside a reader can take. Plus, the holes in the logic of the story become less “mysterious” and more mystifying. I tried to assume that it was all part of a masterful plot, that Andrews was being clever and leading me down rabbit holes, but 200 pages in I had to concede. The fact that they all just seemed to forget entirely about those extensive rules by the second act was what killed Flowers In The Attic for me. On day one, it was all “not a PEEP out of you until AFTER 10am or YOU’LL ALL BE WHIPPED!”, and (it felt like) the next minute the kids are all screaming their little lungs out by breakfast and no one gives a shit.

So, let me skip ahead. It turns out the reason that the evil grandmother was so hard on them with all this God business was that she was worried history was going to repeat itself… which, of course, it does. It comes on gradually, with Cathy suddenly noticing her changing body, and catching her older brother staring at her now and then, but eventually they’re snuggling and making out and there is a particularly awful incident whereby Christopher forcibly rapes Cathy, only for her to later tell him that she “secretly wanted it” and he “didn’t need to feel bad because they did nothing wrong”.

Feel free to take a moment to let the wave of nausea pass. I know I needed to take a few, myself.

The thing is, I’m really only assuming the grandmother’s motivation and role in the whole business. As a villain, she’s completely two-dimensional. Her dialogue and mannerisms are laughably cliche, like a child’s imagining what an evil grandmother would be like. At one point, she is literally (in a dream, no less) likened to the witch from Hansel and Gretel. There’s no insight into her past, her marriage, her motivation for keeping up the charade when (clang!) we find out the grandfather has actually been dead for months.





Ah, yes, the big twist reveal (as if we needed another): the mother and grandmother kept the “flowers” locked in the attic even after the grandfather passed away. The ladies have actually been trying to kill the kids off, by putting arsenic in their daily food deliveries. Andrews explains this strange new malevolence by having the kids overhear the servants say that the grandfather wrote a “codicil” into his will, stating that the mother would never inherit a dime if she had any children. Yeah, sure. Sounds legit. What lawyer wouldn’t sign off on that?

That’s the final straw for the kids (not the locked-in-the-attic-for-three-years thing, not the starved-for-two-weeks-because-Cathy-took-her-shirt-off thing, not the their-mother-didn’t-visit-them-for-months-because-she-was-honeymooning-with-her-new-husband thing, not the death-of-one-of-the-twins thing). Arsenic in their desserts? No, thank you! They hustle up everything of value that they can carry and run away. And they decide not to dob in their mother and grandmother for the imprisonment and attempted murder because…? Something about not wanting to go to a foster home? Wanting their deeply disturbing incestuous union to continue? Holy heck, I could barely bring myself to care by that point. I was just glad to be done with Flowers In The Attic and the terrible, schlocky writing.

Flowers In The Attic is a strange hybrid: a barely-comprehensible poorly-written story full of holes that still managed to disturb and horrify me. At first, I was frustrated by the mistreatment of the children, but all too soon I was frustrated by the children themselves, and the whole ludicrous set-up. I was sickened by the abuse and incest, but also by the fact that this is marketed as a young adult novel. I’m hardly one to restrict any young person’s access to any reading material, but damn. Even for kids that have a taste for the macabre, it’s a bit much, and the quality of the writing and the strength of the resolution (or lack thereof) just doesn’t justify it. If you’re going to serve young readers up a heaping plate of “adult themes”, best you give them some redeeming quality to wash it down with. They’d be better off reading Lolita.





It would seem that I’m pretty much alone in my opinion, however – maybe because I never did, in fact, read Flowers In The Attic as a young adult and as such have no nostalgic attachment to it. The book was an immediate sensation, and went on to sell over forty million copies world-wide. Of course, that success was not without controversy, with schools and libraries removing it from the reach of young readers (with limited success). Controversy also tainted the novel’s supposed inspiration; Andrews maintained all her life that Flowers In The Attic was “based on a true story”, but there is basically no evidence (beyond Andrews’ account and the reported corroboration of an unidentified family member) to support that. I’m not saying people aren’t held captive against their will for years on end, and that terrible things don’t happen… but Flowers In The Attic is so preposterous and flawed, I’m disinclined to believe a word about it.

Still, the legend lives on. There have been two film adaptations of Flowers In The Attic, a stage-play, a slew of sequels, prequels, re-tellings… even after Andrews’ death, the ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman took up the torch and continued publishing under her name. There are now more than 80 books in circulation for the VC Andrews brand, but I can tell you what: as far as I’m concerned, one was more than enough. If you get your jollies being scared, read some decent true crime. If you want some campy gothic fun, read classics like Dracula. If you want taboo, pick up some Henry Miller. But, for the love of all that is good and gory, don’t bother with Flowers In The Attic, not even to see what all the fuss is about.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Flowers In The Attic:

  • “Disturbing and infuriating all wrapped up in one. Don’t think I’ll be continuing the series. Not a fan of terrible parenting, child abuse or incest. No thank you.” – aziza
  • “good read will have to put it down due to getting angry” – Brandy
  • “I liked the movie but I’m halfway through the book and can’t stay interested. Oh look they’re still in the attic…still….yup, still there. Next chapter…still there.” – Kellyann

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

It is nothing short of miraculous that I’ve managed to go so long – over eight years, including the release of a wildly successful film adaptation – without reading Gone Girl. It’s doubly miraculous, surely, that I managed to avoid spoilers that whole time, too. But the jig is up, and I’m buckling down. Gone Girl is a crime thriller/mystery novel by American writer, Gillian Flynn. It came on the crest of the wave of “psychological thrillers”. In fact, given how many copies it sold (over two million in the first year alone), how long it spent on the best-seller lists, the extent to which it has permeated the popular consciousness, we might say that Gone Girl was the typhoon that caused the wave to begin with.

Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. There’s a sign of a struggle in the living room, but no other real clues as to where she’s gone. The police suspect Nick was involved somehow in her disappearance, but he swears he had nothing to do with it. That’s how Gone Girl begins.

Flynn deftly weaves in their back-story, in the form of Amy’s diary entries. Nick and Amy had a fairy tale meet-cute and courtship. They married after dating for two years, merging seamlessly into one another. But when the global financial crisis hit, they both lost their jobs (Nick as a pop-culture writer for a magazine, Amy as a personality-quiz creator).

This change in circumstance all but forced them to leave cosmopolitan New York, moving to Nick’s hometown in backwater Mississippi. There, he opened a bar with his twin sister (borrowing the last of Amy’s family money to do so), and focused on caring for his terminally ill mother and demented father. Meanwhile, Amy… did nothing much, really, until she disappeared.

Flynn has borrowed from a few different sources to put this plot together. She used her own experience of being laid off from her job as a writer for Entertainment Weekly. She has also said that she was inspired by the real-life disappearance of Laci Peterson in 2002. It’s a strange mix, but damn, it’s delicious.





Nick and Amy’s perspectives alternate throughout the novel. They describe their marriage in very different ways, each (obviously) more sympathetic to their own cause and critical of the other. Both narrators feel unsteady, unreliable, but it’s not exactly clear why… at first. Every character in Gone Girl – from the married couple to the childhood friends to the greasy lawyer – exists in a murky grey area. No one is entirely likeable or unlikeable, trustworthy or untrustworthy, hero or villain.

The “big twist” comes almost exactly half-way through. Amy isn’t who she’s been telling us she is in her diary entries. At first, the switch felt a bit jarring, too extreme to be believable. But I went with it, and stopped using “believability” as a criterion by which I gauged my enjoyment of the story. I quickly found it added a whole new dimension to an already-complex plot. Plus, it was a great subversion of the kind of “suspense” we expect from these kinds of novels. The reader is forced to change gears, from wondering whether Nick Dunne was actually involved in his wife’s disappearance and waiting for the “big twist”, to wondering where on earth the story could possibly go after the truth is revealed.

I debated long and hard whether to discuss the details of the “big twist” here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, they’ve already been discussed and debated elsewhere at length – even some publicity materials have at least alluded to them. Plus, I don’t really believe in “spoilers” (if you don’t want to know what happens in a book, what the heck are you doing here?). But in the end, I had to concede: I won’t reveal all, just on the off chance that there’s some other Keeper Upperer out there who hasn’t read Gone Girl yet and would like to someday. The reading experience will definitely be better, as it is with all thrillers, if you don’t see what’s coming.

(What I will say, for those who already know, is that I really liked the ending. That might be a controversial position, as I’ve seen other reviewers bemoan it for being “unrealistic”, but I thought it was very fitting. I really appreciated that Flynn avoided the neat-bow-around-everything approach of so many other contemporary crime thriller writers. So, there.)





I was pleasantly – if weirdly – surprised by Gone Girl. I wasn’t going to stay-up-all-night to finish it, the way the schlocky blurbs promised I would, but I was always curious to see what happened next. I was particularly impressed by the complexity of the characters, and the way that Flynn weaved intriguing, tantalising hints into the story. In the Battle Of The Girls (Gone Girl versus The Girl On The Train), this one definitely comes out on top.

The film adaptation was released in 2014, written by Flynn herself and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. I’m actually planning to watch it – a very rare outcome, but one that should be a testament to how much I enjoyed Gone Girl. I’m also keen to read Flynn’s other books (Sharp Objects, in particular, comes highly recommended), though I worry that they couldn’t possibly “live up” now that my expectations have been elevated. But even if they don’t, at least Flynn will already have a win on her record.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gone Girl:

  • “Too many sexual remarks that were not necessary” – Tonga
  • “This is a great book, the shipping was fast, but the book was somewhat dirty. I had to wipe off dust.” – Esmerelda
  • “I would rather read an offensively revisionist middle school history textbook from a religious private school in a red state cover to cover once a week for the rest of my life then have to read this again. So you hate yourself go ahead and give somebody money for it and insult yourself by reading it. Trash.” – DangItBobby
  • “I didn’t like what was revealed in the middle of the.book because it should have been revealed near the end of the book. I went to Wikipedia to read a review and I shouldn’t have. The idiot who did the review disclosed the whole story of what happened in the second part of the book. When I read a mystery I want the main event to be revealed at the end of the book not in the middle” – Bruce
  • “Wife loved it.” – Jeremiah

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