Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Comedy (page 1 of 4)

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.
(I’ll get a tiny cut if you do, because it’s an affiliate link – thank you for helping me keep keeping up!)

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

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 🙂


A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

Picture this: you’re 47 years old, with a family and a plum job as a Sociology lecturer at a fancy university. Your mother has sadly passed away, but you still have your father (84 years of age, and fighting fit aside from the occasional fit of… ahem, fecal incontinence). There’s also your older sister, Vera, who’s divorced and tried to royally screw you over with your mother’s will, so you really don’t have much to do with her anymore. Then, one day, the phone rings: your father is calling to tell you he’s fallen in love with a 36 year old Ukrainian blonde bombshell who wears green satin knickers, and they’re getting married. That’s the situation Nadezhda finds herself in, and the premise of the bizarrely-named A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian.

I assume, based on Marina Lewycka’s author bio, that at least some aspects of her debut novel are autobiographical. She, like her protagonist, was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp at the end of WWII, and grew up in England. Her resume includes a post teaching at Sheffield Hallam University, and she is married with an adult daughter.

Still, one would hope that she’s exaggerating for comic effect. When Nadezhda and Vera try to put aside their years-long feud to save their father from Valentina (the voluptuous gold-digger), they hit more than a few bumps in the road. Their campaign to oust the much-younger bride unearths all manner of family secrets, and not the cute mother-had-an-affair-with-the-milkman kind. Nadezdha has to reckon with all kinds of trauma that she was too young (at the time) to remember properly for herself, including her family’s struggle to survive the Ukrainian famine and Stalin’s purges. Unfortunately, Vera remembers all too well, but she’s reluctant to share…





Lewycka offsets these huge bummers in the plot by offering us humorous theatrics, melodramatics, and soap-opera-worthy family bust-ups. There’s nothing sentimental or wistful about A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian: think more an over-the-top pantomime than gritty realism. The intergenerational trauma of war, poverty, and fear are ever-present (in Vera and Nadezhda’s mother’s insistence, for example, on accumulating non-perishable food, a hangover from her young life of famine and scarcity), but they co-exist with Bridget Jones-esque family squabbles and “wonderfully absurd” moments of farce.

Still, despite Lewycka’s best attempts, I still found A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian to be far more sombre than I had expected – more akin to a book like The Eighth Life. Maybe it’s just harder to find the funny these days than it was back when the book was first published, in 2005. Valentina abuses her husband physically and psychologically, she is grossly manipulative and cruel, and I just couldn’t make the leap to letting elder abuse tickle my funny bone. Plus, the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with immigration authorities had me reaching for a bottle of wine. Maybe it’s a case of bad timing, or maybe this story just hasn’t aged well… it’s hard to tell.





What I did like was the strange paragraph breaks, which made the whole story feel slightly off-kilter. The sudden pauses changed the emphasis of each exchange, in a way that made me pause myself to properly think about what was going on in the story (like listening to a song in 7:8 time). Oh, and it takes its bizarre title from a book-within-a-book – the father’s treatise on (you guessed it!) the history of tractors – so you do literally get a short history of the significance of tractors (though it’s translated from Ukrainian into English, for the reader’s convenience).

Speaking of translation: A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian has now been translated into over 27 languages, including Russian and Ukrainian (though, apparently, a few Ukrainian reviewers were really unhappy with the book and the way it represented their country and people – Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov called it a “banal tale” that would not teach anyone anything about Ukrainian migrant communities in Britain, burn!). Those criticisms aside, Lewycka won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2005, the U.K.’s only formal literary award for comic literature (for which the winner receives “a jeroboam of Champagne Bollinnger Special Cuvee and 52 volumes of the Everyman Wodehouse edition and a Gloucestershire Old Spots pig named for the winning novel).

I’m not sure I found it champagne-and-books-and-a-pig funny, but it was a fairly entertaining read. I’d recommend A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian for when you want your multi-generational epic compacted, and served with a spoonful of sugar.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian:

  • “Very much enjoyed the actual history of the tractor and the history related to WWII, but found the story of the nonagenarian and the buxom 30-something Ukrainian a bit silly.” – Shirley Mauss
  • “Get on with it for God’s sake. This book resembles a Star Trek time vortex episode where the same scene is played over and over and over and over again without conclusion. The daughter visits the father, fights with him and his new wife, vows not to return, next chapter, daughter visits father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits her father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits father’s house, fights with father and his new wife, vows not to return. Enough already.” – bigsnickers
  • “The book is nice.” – Kelly You

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

I know David Sedaris mostly by reputation. I’d heard some of his segments on This American Life, and I loved his essay about his failed attempts at panic-buying at the onset of the pandemic, but I hadn’t read anything book-length until I picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day. This memoir, told in essays, was first published in 2000, making this year its twentieth anniversary, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless.

My edition comes with a new introduction from the author, describing the various types of “fan” mail he has received since its initial release. Right from the outset, Sedaris sets his tone: uniquely sarcastic and affectionate in equal measure, poking fun without ever being cruel. I’m still scratching my head, trying to work out how he did it. How did he manage to land punches – in all directions, up and down and sideways – that feel like kisses? It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is split into two parts. The first is a collection of essays about his childhood, mostly set in his native North Carolina. The second focuses on his life after moving to France, with his partner. It’s hard to believe how much life Sedaris has lived, as a speed addict, a furniture removalist, a writing teacher, a failed performance artist, an ex-pat… It’s all copy for Sedaris. He provides seemingly endless and delightfully witty commentary on all of his experiences, sharing the worst of them (addiction, grief, shame) with just as much good humour as the best of them.





Much of the humour in the second section is derived from Sedaris’s attempt to live in France without actually speaking French (and his fumbling efforts to learn). The titular essay – Me Talk Pretty One Day – is drawn from his participation in language classes, where just about everything is lost in translation. However, the title also echoes in the very first essay, from Sedaris’s childhood, about receiving speech therapy for his pronounced lisp. It’s a satisfyingly neat parallel. In fact, Sedaris’s communication “failures” are a recurring motif throughout the book.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is about astutely-observed adventures in seemingly mundane everyday activities. I’m sure Sedaris occasionally exaggerates and over-emphasises for comic effect, but I am more than willing to forgive him that. He seems like the kind of writer that could derive side-splitting laughter from a shopping list. That said, this isn’t a “fluffy” read. Sedaris is disarmingly honest about his extended flirtation with crystal meth (and his related dalliance with performance art), and other moments of darkness and weakness in his life. Still, he seems to process these traumas (self-inflicted and otherwise) in the way I most prefer and adore: with self-deprecating humour.





Me Talk Pretty One Day is a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. It’s a shame that it’s never been adapted for the screen. Apparently, it was all set to go – with a completed script and all – but Sedaris’s sister expressed concerns about how their family would be portrayed, and so he squashed it. For all his ribbing and warts-and-all honesty, Sedaris is clearly still a good guy, one who will set aside his own interests to protect his family and keep them happy.

So, I end where I began: still amazed at Sedaris’s knack for being cutting without being cruel, to tease but never bully. Every critical observation he offers is laced with love and LOLs. Every autobiographical gem he mines is polished to a bright shine. Me Talk Pretty One Day definitely lives up to the hype, and I guarantee it will tickle your funny bone, even in your darkest hours.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Me Talk Pretty One Day:

  • “Some people may like his humor but I’m not one of them.” – Dick
  • “I had to stop reading this while on the treadmill at the gym. I was laughing so hard I could barely walk and was making a spectacle of myself.” – Kindle Customer
  • “It was absolutely hilarious. I just wish he would not use so much “potty talk”. That not pretty!” – margaret h cleveland
  • “If you want to laugh hard enough to pee, this is for you.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s David Sedaris. Nuff said

    Except there are word minimums on this review, like a school book report. He’s the writer, not me.” – Amazon Customer

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I love a good sleeper hit. You know those books that have been out for a while without a fuss, then they start gathering steam, and all of a sudden they’re everywhere you look? That’s what happened with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Once upon a time, Backman was a quiet little Swedish blogger, and A Man Called Ove (or, in the original Swedish, En man som heter Ove) was his debut novel. It was published in 2012, translated into English in 2013, but didn’t reach the New York Times Bestseller List until eighteen months later. Once it got there, it stayed there for 42 weeks. And, here’s some more fun trivia: it’s an even bigger, even more-unexpectedly huge best seller in South Korea (not even his publisher quite understands why). Sometimes, miracles happen, eh?

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy A Man Called Ove here.
(Using any of the affiliate links on this page will send a tiny commission my way, just so you know!)

This English language edition – which has sold over three million copies around the world, by the way – was translated by Henning Koch. Remember: always #NameTheTranslator!

It begins with an especially-curmudgeonly old-before-his-time 59-year-old man, called Ove (in case you missed it). He’s been having a rough trot. He’s still mourning the loss of his wife, and recently found himself forced into early retirement. Lacking any purpose or intention for the rest of his life, he plans to die by suicide. As fate would have it, on the day of his planned departure from this mortal coil, an exuberant young family moves in next door.

Ove has always lived by a set of pragmatic principles and strict routines. When the newcomers knock over his mailbox trying to back in their trailer, he just about blows a gasket. Parvaneh is a pregnant mother of two, and Patrick is her partner who really struggles with parking. Ove finds them bothersome and tiresome and just about every other -some adjective you can imagine a grumpy old man throwing at a couple of kids just trying to find their way in the world. When they mess up his plans to die, he stubbornly refuses to accept the divine intervention, and makes a new plan… until it happens again. And again.





Look, I know this doesn’t sound like the stuff of great comic novels. A lonely old guy trying to off himself? Complete with wacky neighbours and hijinks? Indeed, Backman had trouble finding a publisher at first. Based on his pitch, they said the book had “no commercial potential”, and that Ove was too unlikeable, too much of a Debbie Downer.

Reader, they were very, very wrong. I was howling with laughter from page one. I was sending snaps of the funniest bits to my friends by page twelve. And then, about half way through, my eyes got a bit wet. And then it happened again, a little further on. By the end of A Man Called Ove, I’d used up half a box of tissues, and my cheeks, my chin, and my shirt front were all wet, too.

Backman is uniquely skilled at the art of getting the reader to care more than they thought they would. He’s managed to make the old man’s cynicism and indignation endearing. Ove, stick-in-the-mud as he may be, feels disconnected and lost – who can’t relate to that? And he finds, in his new neighbours, new purpose (mostly to tell them how they’re doing it all wrong) – who can’t relate to that, too?

As Ove’s relationship with his new neighbours develops, so unfolds his backstory, one so heart-wrenching and wonderful and evocative that it sings in perfect harmony with the rest of the novel. I never once felt like I was being pulled back and forth in the timeline, or emotionally manipulated, because Backman knew just when to push, and when to back away. What I loved most of all was that it was brimming with my favourite type of whimsical, misanthropic humour, much along the lines of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, my ultimate cheer-up read. A Man Called Ove is darker in its contents and themes, perhaps, but it’s definitely the same “vibe”.





There’s been a movie adaptation of A Man Called Ove (and also a stage production) – I watched the trailer on YouTube, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out to watch in full. I just can’t imagine how the comedy, so dark and perfect on the page, could translate to the screen. Backman has also since written several other novels, though (he’s now officially “Sweden’s most popular literary export since Stieg Larsson”), and I’m particularly interested to check out My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.

I’d love to recommend this as a book club read, but I feel like there’s a very good chance every book club in the world has read it already – once again, I’m late to the party. A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them, and I think we could all do with a few more of those.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Man Called Ove:

  • “i was looking for an uplifting book and this was recommended. 10+ chapters of a man who dislikes everyone and wants to kill himself is definitely NOT an easy listening or feel good read. i might be only slightly encouraged by the realization that i am markedly happier and nicer than Ove.” – Appalasia Farm
  • “Sad, but uplifting” – Geoff Burdge
  • “Signed my wife up for an Audible account. But she hated it. Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever.” – Argyle Shopper
  • “I could not wait for Ove to be Over.” – Marty


« Older posts