Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Fantasy (page 1 of 2)

Lanny – Max Porter

Did you ever pick up a book in spite of yourself? I was never really all that drawn to read Lanny – despite the endless glowing recommendations from fellow readers and Keeper Upperers – until I heard Max Porter give a reading at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The organisers called Lanny “a tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama”, and even though I was skeptical, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up a copy.

Lanny - Max Porter - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Lanny was first published in 2019, the follow-up to Porter’s cult success Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. As in his previous novel, myth and modern life come together through the eyes of children. The titular character, Lanny, is an every-child, with all the oddity and gnomic wisdom we expect from these miniature humans.

Lanny is a remarkably short novel, quick to power through and with lots of white space, but it seems to contain multitudes: magic, suspense, horror, joy, and wonder. Porter really pushes the boundaries between prose and poetry, but it’s hardly one of those highly-literary Experimental Novels that make you feel like you’ve just dropped far too much acid to understand. It’s compulsively readable, and even the dullest among us will be able to pick up what Porter is putting down.

The story is told in three sections. The first switches between four narrators. We’ve got Dead Papa Toothwort, a spirit of some kind who watches and listens to a small English village. Then, there’s Lanny’s dad, an office worker in London. And there’s Lanny’s mum, a crime writer with ambivalent feelings about their suburban life (there’s no ambivalence about her love for her son, though). And, finally, there’s Pete, a local eccentric who was once a famous artist; Lanny’s Mum seeks him out, and he starts giving Lanny art lessons.




Through these grown-up eyes, Lanny emerges: idiosyncratic, silly, and sometimes wise beyond his years. He builds things, talks to trees, and baffles just about every grown-up he encounters. His relationship with Pete, the artist, deepens quickly. Pete was actually my favourite narrator, and my favourite character overall.

“I can usually see a way to understand terrible things; Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber of hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.”

Pete (Page 68)

Lanny reveals in conversation with Pete that the mysterious Dead Papa Toothwort is a local myth, a man made entirely of ivy. The rhyme goes: “Say your prayers and be good too, or Dead Papa Toothwort is coming for you,”. Lanny could have been told without Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective, but it adds a layer to our understanding of what Porter is trying to do with the story. Lanny isn’t just about one mildly interesting kid; it’s about England, and small town politics, and perspective.

Toothwort allows the reader to “ride the smells” of the town (including Jenny’s lasagne, and Derek’s hot-pot-for-one – yes, your mouth may water a little). The snatches of conversation he draws from the town are formatted differently to the rest of the narrative, curling across the pages in at-first-glance nonsensical italics. The topics are just what you’d expect from small-town conversation: dog walks, cancer scares, mini-breaks, local gossip… And Toothwort’s commentary on it all serves to remind us just how small, and simultaneously how large, our lives are.





The second section is told in snippets of internal dialogue. (Spoilers ahoy!) Lanny goes missing, and the whole town (mostly) joins in the search for him (eventually). Many of the insights come from Lanny’s distraught mother; Porter will really do a number on you, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, with the way he lays out her terror and guilt. Then there’s Lanny’s father, who doesn’t feel as close to the child, and the sneaky little voice in his head who wonders if they’re not all better off with the kid gone.

Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective interjects occasionally, but he takes a back-seat to Pete, who is accused of abducting and/or assaulting the child. The village shows its true colours in the witch hunt; Pete is beaten (and my heart broke for him more than it did for Lanny, if I’m honest), but he maintains his innocence and his determination to help Lanny’s parents find the boy. He’s made a scapegoat, purely for the fact that he chose to colour outside the lines when he chose how he wanted to live his life, but he holds his head up high and fuck the lot of them (I told you he was my favourite!).

The third section gets a little a lot weird. The best way I could describe it is a series of feverish dream-like explanations of what has happened to Lanny, and what his parents and Pete make of it. I suppose, given that I’m already elbow-deep in spoilers, I’m obligated to tell you that Lanny is found safe and (relatively) well, having been fed and watered by Dead Papa Toothwort on his adventure… but beyond that, I’m really not sure how to describe the ending to you. You’ll just have to read Lanny for yourself.

Lanny is a short book, as I said, but it’s “about” so many things. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. For me, it was about an innocent man harangued and almost hanged by a small town, but maybe you’ll find in it a book about nature, a book about a child’s sense of wonder, a book about parental obligation and fear, a book about a town ghost, a morality tale, an environmental allegory, a hybrid fairytale, a freewheeling fantasy. I’m not sure I could recommend Lanny blindly, because it’s so weird, but I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to others who have read it (that’s a hint to tell me what you think in the comments, by the way!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lanny:

  • “Probably didn’t like the book” – Amazon Customer
  • “Just because you can change the orientation of your font doesn’t mean you’re doing something creative or cutting edge. Mush like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the author is so obsessed with how amazing and creative they are, they fail to tell a fundamentally sound story. Inside cover says $24 for a book that can’t break 20,000 words. There seems to be a trend in the vein of Pirate Utopia where an established author shovels overpriced garbage and tricks loyal readers into buying their hot trash.” – LJ
  • “Having trampled “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Mr. Porter now turns his oh-so-clever combination of full-on thesaurus assault, “whimsy,” and “never use seven words when forty-nine words would do just as well” on the Green Man legend. Yeah… no, Max. No.” – L. Chaney
  • “Very odd book. Doesn’t take long to read would be its only plus.” – Miss Sara Claire Mason


The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown, but the trope itself has existed far longer. Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the king and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind: we all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

I had a devil of a time finding a copy of The Colour Of Magic in my usual secondhand bookstore haunts. Most Terry Pratchett books are like hen’s teeth, even though he was pretty prolific (he wrote and contributed to over 70 books over the course of his life). It would seem that he’s, well, rather popular. I ended up finding this copy at a probably-illegal lonely market stall, run from the side of the road in Newtown. A hippie bloke was selling off what appeared to be his entire personal library, bless his cotton socks. I didn’t realise until I got home and opened the book that this edition also includes the sequel, The Light Fantastic – it doesn’t mention it on the cover at all. Weird, eh?

The Colour Of Magic is a comic fantasy novel, the first in Pratchett’s Discworld series, published in 1983. The first print run of the British edition produced just 506 copies; I can only imagine the panic at the printers when they realised just how many more they’d need, because it achieved instant popularity. All I knew about the book going in, though, was that a friend of mine from university loved Pratchett, and his shelves were stuffed with books from this series. We’ve since lost touch, but if he’s out there and he stumbles upon this little blog, I hope he’s happy I finally got around to picking up his favourite 😉

The blurb opens with the tagline: “The funniest and most unorthodox fantasy in this or any other galaxy”, which sounded like a very deliberate and unsubtle dig at Douglas Adams. Indeed, The Colour Of Magic read very much like fantasy’s answer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and they’d probably make good companion reads if you’re into that kind of thing. This book, and the whole series after it, is set in a world that takes the form of a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the back of a giant turtle (the Great A’Tuin), floating through space. The inhabitants of the Discworld include wizards, dwarves, soldiers, beggars, vampires, witches, and all other manner of ghosties and ghoulies. The blurb hastened to reassure me, the reader, that the series can be read in any order, but it’s really best to start at the beginning, and enjoy them in the chronology that Pratchett originally intended. And so, I did…!



The Colour Of Magic follows the adventures of a failed wizard, and a wealthy (but rather naive) tourist, as they travel together through the Discworld. The story is split into “sections”, rather than chapters, so it reads almost like a group of short stories or novellas, as opposed to continuous novel-length prose. In the first, Rincewind (the wizard) is paid handsomely to guide Twoflower (the tourist) around the biggest city in the realm, his home of Ankh-Morpork. My first literal lol came when Rincewind described Twoflower thus:

“Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour shouting ‘All Gods are bastards’.”

The Colour of Magic

Initially, Rincewind accepts payment for his services in advance and tries to do a runner, but the leader of Ankh-Morpork stops him. The leadership team fears that if Twoflower gets lost or dies on his watch, the resulting PR disaster would cause his rich and vengeful hometown to invade. Of course, Twoflower is promptly kidnapped by a gang of thieves, and, with his leader’s warnings ringing in his ears, Rincewind has to stage a rescue, so their adventures begin…

Oh, and Twoflower has with him The Luggage, an apparently-indestructible enchanted sentient(!) chest. It’s the R2-D2 to their Luke and C3PO, really.



An important note: my reluctance to read fantasy novels mostly stems from my fear of not being able to keep all the names of people and places straight (as I said in my review of A Game Of Thrones). There were a few murky moments in The Colour Of Magic, but on the whole I realise now, writing it, that my summary will sound a lot more confusing than the book itself. So, if you’re of the same mind, take heart – any confusion you’re currently feeling can be attributed right back to me, because Pratchett did a very good job of making everything clear. The only thing I would highlight as a potential issue is that the whole book reads like it’s on fast forward, and you need to be prepared to jump from place to place and crisis to crisis very quickly. In fact, The Colour Of Magic is pretty much one long series of quick accidents that rocket Twoflower and Rincewind around the Discworld, so that Pratchett can show off his universe as quickly as possible. As long as you’re prepared to keep pace, you’ll be just fine.

Anyway, back to the story: along the way, they’re joined by a large, violent, and mostly-monosyllabic barbarian named Hrun, who carries a magical sword. He doesn’t hang around long, though. They visit the upside-down mountain of Wyrmberg, home of the dragon riders, and Hrun catches the eye of the potential-heiress Liessa. He’s roped into marrying her so that she may ascend to the throne, and Rincewind and Twoflower carry on without him. They don’t even stick around for the bachelor party!

Before long, disaster strikes again: they’re taken to the edge of the Discworld by ocean currents (every Flat Earther’s worst nightmare!), and nearly topple over the edge. They’re caught by the Circumfence (definitely Pratchett’s cleverest pun in the whole book), a huge net that was installed to catch anything that washed off the Discworld. A sea troll finds them and takes them in, before promptly handing them over to the Krullians. This new group is seeking to discover the sex of the Great A’Tuin (the turtle on whose back the whole Discworld rests, remember?). They’re very concerned about the possibility of the Great A’Tuin running into another giant space turtle, naturally, so they want to assess what the reaction of the turtle might be based on its sex (if it’s a boy turtle and it runs into another boy turtle, for instance, they might fight, spelling certain doom for everyone in the Discworld).



The Krullians are planning to launch a two-person capsule over the edge of the disc, and they decide to offer Rincewind and Twoflower to the God of Fate in sacrifice, to ensure the voyage’s success. In the end, however, Twoflower ends up joining the mission in the capsule, and Rincewind escapes… only to fall right over the edge, anyway.

The story quite neatly segues into the beginning of The Light Fantastic, so they can be read as a single novel, but I didn’t continue on with it – I’ve had enough fun for the moment! Nonetheless, I can definitely appreciate how well The Colour Of Magic sets up the Discworld series; Pratchett left a lot of interesting threads dangling, and I can understand the reader’s desperation to tug at them a little and see what happens. The series reached thirty-two installments, and sold over 20 million copies around the world, leading it to become one of the most popular and celebrated series in English literature. But what’s weird is that most die-hard Pratchett fans insist that The Colour Of Magic isn’t his finest work, and claim that it really undersells his talent. Perhaps I did myself a disservice by not reading on, but hey – there’s only so many hours in a day, and this gal has a whole list of great books to get through!

Pratchett said that The Colour Of Magic was “written in protest”, and he intended to satirise earlier fantasy novels. He loved fantasy, but found pre-1990s work contained “too many dark lords, too much lack of thought”. I’d say he was pretty successful in that endeavour; he made a lot of sharp jabs at cliches and tropes of the genre, like the stereotypical revealing outfits worn by female characters, the ridiculousness of attempting to ride a dragon, and – in a style quite reminiscent of Don Quixote – the unbelievable baseless “quests” of protagonists and their sidekicks. This has led some critics to argue that you really need to be a fan of fantasy to understand and fully appreciate The Colour Of Magic (while, in his later books, Pratchett satirised the real world, which was more accessible for readers outside the usual genre market). I would argue the opposite is true. I think The Colour Of Magic is perfect for people who are normally skeptical of fantasy, because it pokes fun of all the cliches that scare or annoy us. It’s like Pratchett is saying to us: “See? It’s not all bad!”.



Naturally, given its popularity, there’s a screen adaptation: a two-parter made for television that combines The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic. A few of the stars will be very familiar to fantasy fans, with Sean Austin (Samwise Gamgee from Lord Of The Rings) playing Twoflower, and Christopher Lee playing Death. Off-screen, the Discworld books have also been adapted into graphic novels and computer games, the perfect formats to capture a new generation of interested readers.

On the whole, I had much the same reaction to The Colour Of Magic as I did The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which is really not surprising given their similarities in form and tone. It was a fun little romp, a great read to take one’s mind off their troubles and the real world collapsing around our ears, a great moment of escapism with clever parody and satire thrown in to keep it sharp. I’d recommend you give this one a go if you’re not normally into fantasy and you want to give it a try without committing to a doorstop novel that will languish on your bedside table for months.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Colour Of Magic:

  • “When you need to laugh and enjoy the absurd. What better place than the back of a huge turtle? The elephants are also useful.” – Morris C. Johnson
  • “So much fun – it’s what you would get if Douglas Adams wrote Lord Of The Rings.” – Jeremy Parker
  • “I beseech thee. Please release the great Terry Pratchet so that he may delivery us from the stinking, fetid, over commercialized and over politicized, literature which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre has become. Please let Rincewind show the way to incompetent hero want-to-be thieves how to survive and escape. Please let the great Captain Sam show those who have aspirations of leading villages to become empires, how to lead people. Please let PreditaX show young teenage upstart witches with intelligence and wisdom years beyond them, the true colour of magic. Thank you for hearing my prayers.” – Reghu
  • “This book had words in it. Some, when in a particular order were very humorous.” – Chester J
  • “I ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT COLOR IT WAS!!!!!” – Lord Eagle Death Club
  • “Given that this book has spawned over three dozen sequels, I should have suspected it would be less Tolkien and more Piers Anthony. The stock review is that it’s what might happen if Douglas Adams had written fantasy. Except it’s not very funny, and not very good. Might I have enjoyed this had I read it as a teenager? Maybe. But I’m not. It starts out only slightly dumb, but gets worse with every page. And the ending is just terrible. Boring, unfunny, and utterly pointless. Seriously, seriously awful.” – Don.


The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Keeper-Upperers, I made a whoopsy! Back when I reviewed Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, I mistakenly labelled it as the only children’s book on my reading list – I forgot entirely about this bad boy! The Wind In The Willows is a children’s story written by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. Set in a rural part of Edwardian England, it follows the adventures (or misadventures, as it were) of four anthropomorphised animals: Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Having not been totally Disney-fied, it hasn’t quite reached the pervasive popularity of Alice, but I’d say it’s about on par in terms of loveliness.

Now, oddly for such a delightful little tome, The Wind In The Willows was actually born of some pretty miserable circumstances. Kenneth Grahame had a pretty rough trot, on the whole. His mother died when he was five, and his father had a pretty hectic drinking problem, so the kids were dumped with their grandmother. It was all rather shitful, but Grahame made the most of it. His Grandma lived near the Thames and he loved exploring the area, mucking around, as kids do. He survived his rough start, and went on to score a pretty swanky secretary job at the Bank Of England. He married at the age of 40, and the following year his wife had their only child, a sickly boy named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born premature and blind in one eye.

Raising Alastair was tough, and a few years after his birth Grahame decided he was jack of the rat race. He resigned from his position at the bank and moved the whole family back to the country, where he felt most at home. He spent a lot of his time “simply messing about in boats”, and began expanding the bedtime stories he had made up for Alastair into a manuscript. The characters of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger had been fixtures in the Grahame household during Alastair’s childhood; even when Papa Kenneth went off on one of his boating trips, he would write letters home containing tales of their adventures for his son. So, The Wind In The Willows must’ve been a walk-up start, right? Kid tested, and approved?

Well, not really: a number of publishers rejected the manuscript outright. Everyone was expecting books more in the vein of his previous works (he’d already published The Golden Age, and Dream Days, by this point), and they were sorely disappointed. When he finally found a publisher willing to take a chance on his children’s story, the critics panned it… but the public loved it! Bookstores kept selling out, so multiple print-runs were required, in quick succession. Plus, it got a ringing endorsement from President Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to Grahame to say he had “read it and reread it, and [had] come to accept the characters as old friends”. That’s one heck of a blurb, eh?



I’m with Teddy: it’s a brilliant book. And it’s certainly not “just” a children’s story. There’s plenty in there for adults, like this gem:

“The best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”

Page 13, The Wind In The Willows

The story starts with Mole, who decides he can’t be fucked cleaning his messy house, so he abandons it altogether and goes to crash on a mate’s couch (BIG MOOD!). He and his mate, Rat, have a wonderful time boating every day and living together (a more contemporary interpretation of this story offers a queer reading of their relationship, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day). They decide to visit their mate, Toad.

Now, Toad’s a real larrikin; he has a tendency to jump on every fad, and the latest is his growing obsession with motorcars. He’s kind of a garbage person, with his criminal tendencies and blatant fat-phobia and all, but he’s also debonair and charming in his over-the-top way, and anyone who says he isn’t their favourite character is lying.

Mole decides he would also like to meet the elusive Badger, but gets really lost trying to find his house. Rat rescues him from freezing to death in the woods, and on their way home they end up stumbling upon Badger’s abode anyway. He offers them shelter from the snowstorm outside, and winds up joining their growing posse.



Meanwhile, Toad’s obsession with motorcars quickly spirals out of control. While Badger, Ratty, and Mole are sitting around drinking tea like grown-ups, Toad steals and crashes several cars, winds up hospitalised on more than one occasion, and has to pay out big money in fines. The crew holds an intervention for him, but he escapes and steals a convertible for one last joyride (that, of course, lands him in jail). He eventually escapes, and has all kinds of mishaps and misadventures making his way home. When he rejoins his mates, he convinces them to gang up and banish the weasles and stoats that have been squatting in his home during his incarceration absence. Toad learns a few important lessons about humility and friendship, and they all live happily ever after.

I thought The Wind In The Willows was going to be a light, easy read, and it was… but not as light or as easy as I was expecting. It seemed to require a lot more focus than Alice, but (granted) I did have a nasty head cold at the time I was reading it and my brain felt like Swiss cheese, so it might not have been entirely Grahame’s fault. I didn’t have it as bad as some folks: a historian was found tortured and murdered in his home in 2016, because a thief had broken in, intent on finding the rare first edition hidden somewhere in the house. (Seriously, this actually happened!)

The Wind In The Willows would be a great one to read out loud to kids, but that’s not all it’s good for. It’s also a great pick for adults who need a little bit of a break from lofty literature (like I did after last week). And I’m glad Grahame managed to turn his shitty life circumstances into a wonderful and enduring story that has become such a major source of joy in so many childhoods – good on him!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Wind In The Willows:

  • “The plot was awful it was silly and profane. Don’t you dare waste your time on this book please heed me don’t download this horrible awful mean.nasty ugly book!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Shannon
  • “I have no idea how to read or write. Was disappointed when this wasn’t hentai.” – F.T.
  • “This is my very favorite book. Nice Kindle version. The illustrations look good on my iPad.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I am a young reader and I found NO interest in this book.
I think that this should have more drama.” – garcia


The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

I think I’ve seen The Alchemist under the arm of just about every hippie I’ve ever met… and I’ve never once asked any of them about it, for fear that it would “change my life” or “give me a new perspective” or “open my mind to spirituality” or some shit. Maybe that makes me a cynic, but so be it! The point is that, like most of the books on my original reading list, I knew very little about The Alchemist going in, but in service of my aim to Keep Up With The Penguins, I went in regardless.

The cover of this edition promises “a fable about following your dreams”, and I suppose it delivered, technically. Like any fable, it wasn’t a tough read, and I burned through it in just a few hours (the fastest I’ve finished any book for this project, as I recall). The Alchemist reads like a fairytale, with very simple and straightforward language; I wondered if it read the same way in the original Portuguese, but I guess I’ll never know.

Oh, yeah, a bit of background: Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author, and The Alchemist was originally written in Portuguese (“O Alquimista”). This version was translated into English by Alan R. Clarke, and it has been translated into some 70 other languages as of 2016.



Anyway, The Alchemist is an allegorical novel. It starts with an Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, having recurring dreams about finding treasure buried under the Egyptian pyramids (haven’t we all?). He stumbles across a Romani fortune-teller, who confirms his suspicion that the dream is prophetic – and believe you me, in my head I’m screaming “BUDDY, THIS IS NOT A GOOD PLAN!”, but he doesn’t hear me. Then he sits down to have a chat with a King disguised as a pauper, who tells him:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”

(So, The Secret totally ripped him off, but that’s not my business.)

Anyway, the rest of the book is pretty much Coelho reinforcing that rather trite philosophy, over and over again. Santiago’s journey to Egypt is a total shit-fight. He gets robbed, and has to work in a jewellery store for a year to make his money back. Then he makes his way through the desert, encountering mortal peril every step of the way and buddying up with a bloke who really wants to become an alchemist (don’t get excited, he’s not the titular character). They find an oasis, and there Santiago falls in love with a girl (conveniently forgetting all about the merchant’s daughter who he also “loved” back in Spain). He leaves her hanging to travel the rest of the way through the desert, and en route he meats The Actual Alchemist(TM), who teaches him to “listen to his heart” (very insight, much wise).

The two of them come within a bee’s dick of becoming collateral damage in a tribal war, and when Santiago finally makes it to the bloody pyramids, he gets the living shit beat out of him by a local gang. Then – awesome timing! – he has another “prophetic”  dream that tells him the stinking treasure is actually buried under a tree in his hometown. I swore, loudly, when I read that part.



I know, I know: it’s a beautiful story about overcoming obstacles and faith and persistence and all of that… but let’s be real, sometimes you’re better off just calling it a day and heading back to your sheep and the merchant’s daughter. Maybe that means you miss out on the treasure, but you get beaten and robbed and taken prisoner far less frequently.

Coelho wrote the book almost as quickly as I read it; it took him just two weeks, in 1987. He later explained that he was able to spew it out so quickly because the book was “already written in [his] soul”. And that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Coelho.

Maybe there’s something in his whole faith and persistence shtick, because The Alchemist’s success came from pretty humble beginnings. It was not an instant best-seller, by any stretch. Coelho first sold it to a small publishing house, who gave it a small print run in Brazil, but they ended up handing him back the rights because they figured they’d backed the wrong horse.


But Coelho kept the hustle alive: he self-published, and fought the good fight, until finally – finally – his book took off in France, and became an “unexpected” best-seller in the mid ’90s. It’s a great testament to the power of word-of-mouth marketing, because this was pre-Facebook and (until he hit the big time) Coelho had no budget for any other publicity.

Given The Alchemist’s enduring (eventual) popularity, you might be surprised to learn it’s not yet been adapted for the big screen. Coelho was reluctant to sell the rights, believing that “a book has life of its own inside the reader’s mind” (or some hippie shit like that), and film adaptations rarely live up to the book. But, over time, he “opened his mind” to the possibility (and, I’d imagine, the piles of money offered that got bigger and bigger – even hippies can’t resist the lure of fat stacks). Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but the project stalled for several years. Then, in 2008, Harvey Weinstein announced that he had bought the rights and would produce the film himself. By 2015, he’d secured a director, and a lead actor, but then… well, yeah. Weinstein had some other shit going on. He ain’t going to be producing anything for a while. So, Coelho keeps the money, and he doesn’t have to see his magnum opus butchered on the big screen by a notorious sexual predator. Everyone’s a winner!

I can see why hippies love The Alchemist. I was right in my suspicion: there’s a lot of spirituality and listening to your heart and all that guff. I’m definitely too cynical for this book – or maybe the book is too earnest, whichever you prefer. As the New York Times said, it’s more self-help than literature. I’d describe it as The Secret meets The Divine Comedy. The main tick in its column is that it’s an all-ages read, as far as I can tell, so if you’re looking to cheer up a stressed-out kid this would be a good one to read out loud to them. If you’re reading it alone… well, at least it’ll be over quickly. And maybe you’re not dead inside like me, so you might even enjoy it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Alchemist:

  • “Really was expecting something life altering. My dog chewed up the book when I was 18 pages in and I should have let her finish….” – jane
  • “Too much words like all his books!” – george raven
  • “Meh. I’m going to finish it, but only because they said It couldn’t be done.” – Andy Robertson
  • “Follow Your Dreams. That’s it. Save your money for your dreams – nothing wrong with this book but no more uplifting than the Facebook posts your friends send for free.” – West Coast Dreamer
  • “Apparently, if you are a man, the world will arrange itself to make sure you are happy. If you are a woman, your job is to sit yourself at home and wait for your main to come back and fulfil you, no matter how long that takes, because that’s your job. You don’t get your own destiny, you get to deal with his….” – Alison
  • “My personal legend is complete and the sun is setting on the mountains to the north. My treasure is having been able to complete this stupid book and put it away forever.” – Laura WG
  • “What a sappy story. If you want to drink syrup, by all means read this book.” – Dixie Dome
  • “A novel for stoners. What a regrettable purchase.” – NJ

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