Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 7)

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

I don’t think that funny books get enough attention. We give awards to sweeping epics about wars, we send books about children in mortal peril straight to the top of the best-seller list, and we spend decades critiquing classics about dysfunctional families and ghosts. Meanwhile, books that make you laugh – and books about sex, too, but that’s a matter for another day – tend to be shrugged off. They’re not considered Serious Books For Grown Ups(TM), and I think that’s a real shame! The world is depressing enough; sometimes, curling up with a book that will make you chuckle is just the thing you need to take your mind off it. So this week I’m giving you full permission to indulge your desire to giggle: here are eight books that will make you laugh out loud.

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman in White Shirt and Red Pants Laughing - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I told my mother the title of this book, she literally snorted, so I think that’s a pretty good sign. The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is written in a dead-pan, nonchalant style that only becomes more and more hilarious as the circumstances of the old man in question become more and more ridiculous. The stark contrast between the matter-of-fact storytelling and the multiple murders and car-jackings will definitely tickle your funny bone. I hope it’s equally as funny in the original Swedish… (and, I’m sorry, but the movie was nowhere near as funny. Stick to the book if you’re after a chuckle!)

The Martian – Andy Weir

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A situation this dire – a man abandoned, trapped, alone on the red planet, dozens of years and thousands of miles away from any hope of help – shouldn’t be funny… but the voice that Weir creates for his hero, Mark Watney, in The Martian is so strong and so believable that you’re completely swept away in his unfailing sense of humour and optimism. He had me literally laughing out loud from the very first page. Plus, there are lots of swears (take that as a recommendation or warning, whatever your preference). And once again, the book is way funnier than the movie!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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I’m sure all long-time Keeper-Upperers are well and truly sick of me recommending this book at every opportunity, but people: I PROMISE, it’s THAT GOOD! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a “funny” novel in the sense that it’s actually a really heart-wrenching story, but I guess my sense of humour just aligns with the protagonist’s perfectly because I was laughing out loud the whole way through. Rosemary narrates a scene of a couple breaking up in a university cafeteria in the opening pages, and I was cracking up so hard my husband could hear me from the other end of the house.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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I can hear your skeptical groans: how could a popular science book be funny? Suspend your disbelief, people, because A Short History Of Nearly Everything totally is! Set aside your preconceived notions, forget all about trying to read A Brief History of Time and falling asleep: Bill Bryson has the chops as a comic writer, and manages to communicate all the science-y concepts and jargon with his trademark folksy style. And he’s not afraid to shy away from poo jokes, which is surely huge points in his column! If you’re not convinced, you can check out my full review here, or pick up any of his others and you’ll see what I mean – I also highly recommend his hilarious book Down Under, about his travels through Australia.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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It really saddens me that Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t feature more often in lists of funny books, so I’m doing what I can to redress the balance here. I must stress that you shouldn’t read extracts from the book or passages in isolation, even if you really want to get a feel for it before you plunge in. The introduction to my edition included a few “funny bits”, and I was scratching my head; I seriously thought the writer must have broken her funny bone because they made no sense at all on their own. The humour of the book, and its brilliance, really comes from reading it in its entirety because a lot of the comedy relies on context. I really recommend this one if you’re already familiar with Austen or the Brontës or D.H. Lawrence and his cronies – really, any of the English lit classics of the early 19th and 20th centuries, because this book satirises the heck out of all of them, to great effect! Read my full review here.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

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I know I was hanging shit on heavy, bleak military stories a minute ago, and Catch-22 forces me to admit that they can be funny… just not often. That said, I really don’t think you need to be into military fiction to enjoy Heller’s magnum opus: the humour of Catch-22 comes from the fact that it is so damn relatable for anyone who has any experience at all with bureaucracy (so, basically everyone). It’s a dark satire, sure, but it offers comic relief at its finest. Most of the jokes come within the first 200 pages or so, and Heller just pretty much repeats them from there on out (as I mentioned in my review), but they’re REALLY funny jokes so I think we can forgive him.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

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Here’s another one that’s hilarious because it’s just so damn believable! Sure, not everyone can relate directly to the trials and tribulations of a Jewish boy growing up in mid-20th century America, but Roth’s characterisation is so superb that you would totally believe, if you hadn’t seen the cover, that Portnoy’s Complaint was just an alarmingly honest and frank memoir. Everyone – myself included – makes a meal of that one scene that features the narrator doing something unspeakable with a piece of liver that his mother then cooks for the family dinner, but the humour can be far more subtle and far-reaching than that. Plus, the salacious side of essentially listening in to a psychotherapy session about sex and mothers is just too good to resist!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, I must admit, I’m including this sci-fi classic mostly because I feel like I would be subjected to a hailstorm of hate mail if I didn’t. People who love The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy feel really passionately about it, even if they’re not usually sci-fi readers. The story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, a befuddled Englishman who finds himself rescued from Planet Earth’s destruction by a kind-hearted alien. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s light-hearted – I probably didn’t LOL as often as I did with some of the other books on this list, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. Ultimately, I think it’s a great comfort read, and most of the joy comes from knowing the punchlines before you read them.


Please join me in sharing the love for books that will make you laugh out loud! What books give you the giggles? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

9 Great Books That Haven’t Been Made Into Movies… Yet!

The book-to-film adaptation is pretty much standard for every best-seller nowadays. Sometimes, books are picked up by film production companies before they’re even released, because the buzz around them is so big. Film producers are pretty non-discriminatory: they’ll take on anything they think might be a money-maker. Heck, even the self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes was given the treatment and became the immortal film Mean Girls (it is a vital and very important movie, don’t @ me). A lot of readers resent this constant churn, believing that movie-makers ruin their favourite stories in translation, but even the most cynical booklover can’t deny that movies get people more interested in the books that inspired them. The Lord Of The Rings movies triggered a massive surge in sales for the fantasy series, with over 25 million copies flying off the shelves worldwide after their release. All of this begs the question: why are there still a handful of good books that haven’t been made into movies… yet?

9 Great Books That Haven't Been Made Into Movies... Yet - Text Overlaid on Image of Unspooled Film - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

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I covered this off in my review of the hippie classic, but just in case you missed it: The Alchemist, a fable about chasing your dreams and self-belief, has never been made into a movie. There have been attempts, of course. Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but nothing really came of that. Then Harvey Weinstein took them on, but he didn’t seem to be in any rush, because it took until 2015 for him to secure a director and a lead actor and then… well, Weinstein got what was coming to him. It’s looking unlikely that The Alchemist will be coming to cinemas any time soon.

Why hasn’t The Alchemist been made into a movie yet?

The delay seems to be mostly attributable to Coelho’s own reluctance to sell the rights in the first place. He has said that he believes “a book has a life of its own inside the reader’s mind”, and that movie adaptations rarely live up to them; basically, he’s worried that filmmakers will butcher his life’s work, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that could well be the case. Weinstein got the closest of anyone so far, but I don’t think I need to explain to you why that venture isn’t going to work out. I guess we’ll all just have to wait for another film mogul to convince Coelho that it’s worth doing right (and probably shove even bigger stacks of money his way). IMDB has a page suggesting the film is “in development”, but that means sweet fuck-all…

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

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You’d think that this one would be a walk-up start, because all the elements are there! Donna Tartt’s The Secret History tells the story of a cabal of Classics students (yes, even pretentious nerds can have cults) at an Ivy League university who try to get away with murdering one of their own. It’s got mystery! It’s got suspense! It’s got intrigue! And given that Tartt’s equally popular book, The Goldfinch, is set to be released as a film very soon, it seems strange that this one hasn’t been picked up.

Why hasn’t The Secret History been made into a movie yet?

It’s not for lack of trying! Alan J Paukla was the first to realise its potential; he picked it up, and roped in Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write the screenplay. Sadly, Paukla was killed in a car accident in 1998, and the project died with him. Gwenyth Paltrow later showed some interest, and picked up the rights with her brother. They agreed to develop the film with Miramax, but then, again sadly, their father passed away and they were understandably distracted. Now the rights have reverted back to the author, and she has refused to sell them on again as yet; perhaps she suspects that the project is cursed and wants to avoid any more tragedies…

One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

It’s been well over fifty years since One Hundred Years Of Solitude was published, and yet there have never been any real attempts (that we know of) to turn it into a movie. The book checks a bunch of boxes: an idyllic setting (a town in beautiful Central America), social currency (with its critique of capitalism and everything), a colourful family (the Buendias, seven generations of them!), and classic magical realism (a la Amelie or Chocolat). So, where the heck is our movie?

Why hasn’t One Hundred Years Of Solitude been made into a movie yet?

Well, if I’m being honest, it’s largely because Márquez was a real stick in the mud. He famously refused to sell the rights to his beautiful book, knocking back all comers, regardless of what they offered him. Giuseppe Tornatore got the closest, but Márquez literally told him that he would only sell the rights if the director agreed to “film the entire book, but only release one chapter – two minutes long – each year for a hundred years”. That would be an artistic triumph, to be sure, but probably not the most practical project to get off the ground. Plus, the book is rumoured to be “unfilmable”, with a bunch of characters all sharing the same name, and tricky bits that would probably require massive amounts of hallucinogens to properly envisage, so… maybe the producers didn’t try that hard to get Márquez’s blessing. Netflix announced last month that they’ve purchased the rights (now that Márquez isn’t around to give them a hard time), and his sons will serve as executive producers. So, maybe soon…?

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

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Look, pulling together a script (and a film) about a woman who lives her life over and over again, dozens of times, with those lives taking her all around Europe over the course of the 20th century, probably wouldn’t be easy… but heck, if Kate Atkinson can make it work as a book (and I think she did!), it can be done. Life After Life is high-concept, but no more so than other time travel and speculative fiction films, so what’s the hold-up?

Why hasn’t Life After Life been made into a movie yet?

Beats me! Lionsgate announced in 2014 that they had acquired the rights to an adaptation, and even went as far as to secure Semi Chellas (of Mad Men) and Esta Spalding (of The Bridge) as screenwriters. They’re the same production company responsible for Twilight and The Hunger Games, so we know they can do it! But they’ve been alarmingly quiet about the project since then; even Kate Atkinson’s website doesn’t say any more than that. I’ll be keeping an eye on the IMDB page, but no news doesn’t seem like good news…

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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C’mon, we all remember this one! Most of us read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but I didn’t – I covered it last year in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It was the OG young adult novel, before young adult was even a thing, and it’s especially resonant now with our increased awareness around mental health issues in teenagers. Plus, it’s set in New York, an iconic visual setting that’s incredibly popular with filmmakers.

Why hasn’t The Catcher In The Rye been made into a movie yet?

J.D. Salinger famously swore, up and down, no two ways about it, that The Catcher In The Rye would never be made into a film. He thought that the first-person narration would sound “cheesy” if it were ever to be adapted. Even since his passing back in 2010, his estate has stayed firm in adhering to his wishes; he went so far as to write them into his will. All of Hollywood’s best and brightest have tried to wear them down: John Cusack once said he deeply regretted never having the opportunity to play Holden Caulfield, Marlon Brando wanted to have a go at getting up on screen, as did Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire, and even Leonardo DiCaprio. But Salinger was so firm in his insistence that his agents didn’t even bother showing him offers from the heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg. So, don’t hold your breath, people!

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

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We’ve had more than ample time to get this project off the ground: Don Quixote was first published in 1605, before movies were even in the realm of imagination (so de Cervantes could hardly object to the adaptation of his work). It’s a hilarious story of misadventure and mishap, there are clearly no copyright issues or existing contracts to get in the way, and historical movies of that time period were all the rage for a time… and yet, no dice!

Why hasn’t Don Quixote been made into a movie yet?

Pick your poison. It’s too long, they say: the epic novel runs to well over 1,000 pages and follows dozens of different storylines along the way. Plus, it’s cursed! Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, tried to film his version (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), but a series of calamities shut down production indefinitely, and all of his attempts to revive it so far have been unsuccessful. There have long been rumours of Disney versions coming – one animated, one live-action – but they’ve never materialised, and no one quite knows why. In fact, Don Quixote is so notoriously unfilmable that Gilliam’s failure became the subject of a documentary that did actually get released, Lost In La Mancha – that might be as close as we ever get!

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

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It might be a little premature to include All The Light We Cannot See on this list, seeing as it was only released a few years ago, in 2014. The entwined stories of a young blind girl in Occupied France and a German boy plucked from an orphanage to join the Nazis as a radio technician captivated the world, and Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That’s why I included it my List of books to read for this project, and I reviewed it in full here. Still, in the age of instant gratification, five years seems an awfully long wait for a film that would be so hotly-anticipated… don’t you think?

Why hasn’t All The Light We Cannot See been made into a movie yet?

Who bloody knows? The rights were instantly acquired by 20th Century Fox upon release, so all signs looked good. Then there was a Netflix announcement last month about a mini-series a la Big Little Lies on HBO. But there’s been no news since then – as far as we know, there’s no director, producers, or actors on board. So, I guess it’s a case of hurry up and wait!

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

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Here’s another WWII-era novel screaming out for a film adaptation: this time, from Nobel Prize-winning Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro. His story focuses on retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono, who is forced to confront the role he played in the war and its impact on his reputation as he struggles to secure happy marriages for his daughters. An Artist Of The Floating World is a little nutty in the timeline (I’ll tell you more about it in my review coming soon), but there’s no flashy magical realism or any of the other logistical problems that could gum up the works in producing a film. Plus, two of Ishiguro’s other books – The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go – have been adapted by Hollywood, so clearly he doesn’t object to the idea.

Why hasn’t An Artist Of The Floating World been made into a movie yet?

I have searched high or low, all over the internet, and I cannot find a single of the film rights even being sought, let alone acquired or acted on. In fact, aside from a few bloggers and commentators expressing concern that a future film adaptation might white-wash the story (as, unfortunately, has happened with so many other Asian books and films), no one seems to be talking about this potentially award-winning film at all. Maybe I should look into it myself, eh? 😉

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

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OK, so, technically this dystopian classic has been made into two for-TV movies, and there have been a bunch of other types of adaptations as well, but I’ve decided they don’t count. I want to see Brave New World, with all its sex and drugs and open rebellion against the World State, in full technicolour on a huge screen with surround sound, please! This story couldn’t be more topical, with the masses separated into castes and numbed to their outrage with government provision of various sedatives, so the world is well and truly primed for this movie done properly. (I reviewed the book in full here, by the way, if that description has you wanting more!)

Why hasn’t Brave New World been made into a movie yet?

Because everyone’s too hell-bent on putting it on TV again! The production companies have signed on Spielberg, for pity’s sake, and they’ve got one heck of a budget, but it looks like the next version is going to be filmed as a miniseries to air on the Syfy channel, instead of a big-screen blockbuster. Boo, I say! Leonardo DiCaprio has made noise about adapting Brave New World to film before, though, so I’m hoping he’ll keep fighting the good fight, especially if the miniseries does well and reignites some interest…


Writing up this list might have been a bit silly on my part, because now I’m desperate to see all of these films and none of them exist yet! Wahhhh! What book do you think deserves a big-screen adaptation? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 for 2019?

It’s that time of year again! Members of the Dymocks Booklovers club (over 11,000 of them!) have cast their votes, and the Australian bookseller chain has announced the winners: their Top 101 books for 2019. I really appreciate that Dymocks goes to the effort of asking their loyal customers what they think (instead of just relying on the figures of the current best selling books in Australia), and I love looking through this list each year and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted among my fellow booklovers. As always, there are a bunch of old favourites, plenty of new entries, and many from my own bookshelves. Here’s what I reckon about the Dymocks 101 for 2019…

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#1 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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BAM! I knew this book was popular – I’ve seen it all over #bookstagram for months – but I had no idea it was THAT popular! Either I underestimated its power, or Gail Honeyman has secret powers to mobilise a formidable army of loyal Australian readers to vote Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine into the top spot. I recently picked up this one in a fit of (probably only perceived) peer pressure; I feel like I’m the only booklover left who hasn’t read it! It sounds a lot like a female-led The Rosie Project, so I’m cautiously curious.

#2 Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford

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And BAM – another surprise! Clementine Ford is a very divisive figure in Australia, in feminism and in the media more broadly. Fight Like A Girl is her treatise, a call to arms, for her unapologetically angry, at times confronting, at times challenging, always impressive, sociopolitical philosophy. If you’d asked me before the Dymocks Top 101 list was released, I would have said there was no way such a controversial book – non-fiction and female-authored, come to that – would crack the top twenty… but here we are! (Boys Will Be Boys, Ford’s follow-up to Fight Like A Girl, also made the list, coming in at #12.)

#3 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Ah, now we’re back on more predictable ground: All The Light We Cannot See was #2 in the Dymocks list last year, so it’s roughly maintained its spot. I’d imagine we’ll see it hanging around in the Top 101 for a while yet. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction novel (and they’re so hot right now!) that follows the lives of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths cross over the course of the conflict. Read my full review here.

#4 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Two remarkably similar (in premise, if not tone) historical WWII fiction novels, with female child protagonists, back-to-back in the Dymocks 101: clearly, there’s a deep interest in these kinds of stories, and they have a loyal fan base! The Book Thief was published back in 2005, and it’s featured in the list since then. It was #1 in 2017, the year that I put my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list together (which is how I found myself picking it up to begin with). Clearly, it’s got some serious staying power! This is another one I’m sure we’ll be seeing in the Top 101 for many years yet… Read my full review here.

#6 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic tale of racism and loyalty in the American South, has nudged up a few spots this year (from #10 back in 2018). I think it might make its way even higher over the next couple of years, as the Trump presidency plays itself out and the world tries to claw its way back. This remains a canonical text for our understandings of how the personal is political (and, indeed, how the political is personal). It’s not without its flaws of course, but I loved it. Read my full review here.

#7 Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Again, no surprises here: Pride And Prejudice is right where we left it last year, in the #7 spot of the Dymocks Top 101. It is popularly considered the most loved of Austen’s works, and it’s probably the best known (if not the best flat-out) English-language novel of the 19th century. I’d be gob-smacked if it dropped out of the top ten any time soon! In fact, I challenge you to find any list of “100 best books” that doesn’t include this classic.

#9 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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It’s taken a while, but The Handmaid’s Tale is finally getting the worldwide recognition and adulation it deserves – buoyed no doubt by the incredibly popular television series, and the countless hours and pages of commentary it spawned. Like all good dystopian fiction, Atwood’s Republic of Gilead has ever-startling resonance for our real-world struggles with gender, class, and exploitation.

#10 The Dry by Jane Harper

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Isn’t it great to see so many Australian women writers making good this year? The Dry is actually the second of Harper’s novels to make the Dymocks Top 101 Books this year (her more recent offering, The Lost Man, came in at #8). I’m yet to read any of her books, but The Dry is going to be my first – it’s calling me from my to-be-read shelf! As I understand from the blurb, it’s a crime drama set in the hometown of a fictional AFP investigator, Aaron Falk, where he reluctantly investigates the murder of a local family while simultaneously confronting the community that cruelly rejected him decades prior.

#15 Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Speaking of Australian women writers, here’s another! Hannah Kent has become somewhat of a darling of Australian literature the last few years, and this is perhaps the best-loved of the books she’s written so far. Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was the last woman put to death in Iceland; she was convicted of murdering two men, including her employer, and this is Kent’s reimagining of her final days. Stay tuned for my review (and also for the film adaptation, which will reportedly star Jennifer Lawrence in the lead!).

#18 Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Good thing I didn’t turn “Australian women writers in the Dymocks 101” into a drinking game, because we’d be out of wine by now! Liane Moriarty is an incredible home-grown commercial fiction success story. She was growing in popularity in her own right, but the HBO adaptation of her sixth book, Big Little Lies, has shot her into the stratosphere of literary stardom. I’ve not yet read this one, but I did read her previous novel, The Husband’s Secret (review coming soon!), and it came in on this same list at #78. Her most recent release, Nine Perfect Strangers, came in a bit below this one at #24, but I expect we’ll see it climb higher over the next year or two.

#25 The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

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If you’ll permit me to get a little sappy-slash-political for a minute: I think it’s really wonderful that, in this era of fear-mongering and misinformation, Australian booklovers are still supporting a refugee memoir. Forget what you’ve been told about “boat people” or “illegals” – Anh Do turns all the stereotypes on their head in The Happiest Refugee. After I read it, I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s not sure where they fall on the issue of refugees coming to our country. It’s vital that we continue to share and celebrate these stories, not just because they’re amazing but also to counterbalance the powerful forces that would see us all divided (in their own interest, of course).

#27 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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Once Bill Gates recommends your book, chances are it’s going to be selling like hot-cakes for a while. And that’s exactly what’s happened to Graeme Simsion with The Rosie Project. He’s managed to parlay his success with this comic novel about the eccentric scientist Don Tillman’s search for love into an entire trilogy, following it up with The Rosie Effect and, just this year, The Rosie Result. I couldn’t help but take issue with some of Simsion’s (mis)representations of life on the autism spectrum, but I can’t deny that this is a wonderful light-hearted read – one to reach for when you need a reminder that the whole world isn’t shit. Also, Graeme Simsion actually re-tweeted my quote of a particularly harsh review, so he’s clearly a good sport! Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

#29 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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On its face, A Little Life doesn’t have much going for it. It’s a loooooong book, for one – my edition runs some 720 pages! Its author, Hanya Yanaghiara, is a woman of colour, a group too-often underrepresented in lists of best books. And holy heck, it is not an easy read! If you decide to give this one a go, be prepared for long and detailed descriptions of intense and horrific childhood trauma, as well as addiction, relationship breakdown, and all other manner of dark shit. The fact that A Little Life ranked so highly in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2019 is nothing short of a miracle, as far as I’m concerned. It just goes to show: Australian booklovers really are the bravest and the strongest of them all!

#32 The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

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I must admit, I wasn’t entirely sold on The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart when I first encountered it. The cover art is, as you can see, incredibly beautiful… but a book about flowers? Pass! And then I heard an interview with Holly Ringland. I couldn’t help myself, she had me! Hook, line, and sinker! In this wonderful book, an intense family tragedy sees a young girl, Alice, move in with her estranged grandmother on a native flower farm. Her story spans two decades and says much about the traumas we fear to speak out loud, and the secrets that grow around them. (Oh, and it’s another Australian woman writer – everybody drink!)

#33 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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I don’t think the importance of this book – and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, which came in at #77 – can be overstated. Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, delightful and fun and flashy, but it’s also an incredible case study in the impact of good, honest representation. The film adaptation was hugely popular, and I think it was Sandra Oh who said that she cried as she watched it because finally – finally! – there was a film full of people who looked like her. The Asian characters aren’t jokes or side-kicks, but the stars of the show. So, heck yes for Crazy Rich Asians making the Dymocks 101, and here’s hoping it’s a sign of more great #ownvoices success stories to come!

#45 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think my thoughts on this inclusion in the Dymocks 101 list can be almost entirely summed up in a single word: ugh. I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I think The Great Gatsby stinks. It’s just so boring and hackneyed! A moody white guy discovers that it’s fun to party with pretty girls, then his rich friend dies and no one comes to the funeral. Like… so what? And yet, it appears on this list year after year (though, I do note happily that it’s down a bit from its rank of #27 in 2018). I just don’t understand its enduring appeal! Trust me, read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes instead – it’s a much more fun and interesting take on the Jazz Age in American. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

#46 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Back to the good stuff: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is now one of my favourite all-time books, having read it back in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It’s amazing, but unsurprising, that Charlotte’s masterful rendering of the inner consciousness of a young, scared girl is still so popular centuries later. Here’s another controversial opinion for you: even though she was kind of the bitchy sister, in my estimation Charlotte was the best of the Brontës. (You can fight me on that in the comments if you like!) Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

#47 Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As soon as I saw this book, and that incredible cover art, I just knew it would be wonderful. Normal People kind of exploded after it was placed on the long-list for the 2018 Booker Prize, and I’m still surprised it didn’t make it any further in the process, given its immense popularity and numerous literary commendations. Ostensibly, it’s a story about two Irish girls who study together in Dublin and the relationship they forge between them, but it’s also a deeply political novel that will melt even the hardest of hearts.

#50 A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The popularity of the HBO series pretty much guarantees that A Game Of Thrones will appear in the Dymocks Top 101 list for years to come. I know it’s sacrilegious to admit this, but I’m actually really glad that I watched the TV adaptation before I sat down to read the book. Fantasy stories with dozens of place names and characters and complicated made-up languages drive me up the wall, so having it all straight in my head before I began really helped me properly enjoy Martin’s intricate story of love and war. Read my full review here.

#52 The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Along with Gone Girl (which came in at #37), this book launched the international publishing trend of Books With “Girl” In The Title. We saw “girls” everywhere: on trains, in windows, being good, being bad, coming, going… The widespread infantilisation of female characters really bothered me, and I’m so glad to see we’re finally at the tail end of it, but The Girl On The Train remains popular enough to earn its spot in the Top 101 (albeit considerably further down than last year, when it reached #14). Read my full review here.

#55 The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have no idea how or why The Narrow Road To The Deep North has risen some twenty spots since last year’s Dymocks book list, but it has! As far as I know, no film adaptation has been announced, no new release has got Flanagan’s name back in the spotlight, no new awards have been given… apparently, booklovers this year just enjoyed it more than last. Strange, eh? I finally got around to reading it recently – my first-ever Booker prize winner! – and I was strangely impressed. As much as I’ve gone off historical WWII fiction (I usually prefer real-life accounts, which I find more impactful), I really appreciated the way that Flanagan didn’t shy away from the gritty, awful realities of war.

#58 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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As long as we have hippies on their quest for spiritual awakening, we will have The Alchemist in the Dymocks 101. I can’t honestly say, having read it, that it changed my life or made me look at the world any differently. That said, it was an easy read – almost like a child’s fairytale – and I can see that there’s plenty of fodder to treat it as a sacred text. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to bother reading it, but maybe temper your expectations in terms of its ability to open up your mind to a higher power.

#61 The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Really, the only surprise here is that The Subtle Art Of Giving A Fuck is so far down the list! This book, with its striking orange cover and its shameless profanity (of which I’m fully in favour), was everywhere in 2018. Perhaps the Dymocks Booklovers are a self-assured literary lot who don’t need self-help gurus to sort out their messy lives? Probably. But I’ll admit, the hype lured me in; I picked up a copy of this one a little while back and I know I’ll have to read it eventually, just to see what all the fuss is about.

#62 The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I cannot recall a single year, in all my time following the Dymocks Booklovers Top 101, where The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy hasn’t featured somewhere. It got a much higher rank last year (#19), but it’s always guaranteed a spot – a testament to its enduring popularity. This book is beloved, not just in the sci-fi community but in the broader general readership. In fact, I had a devil of a time trying to find it secondhand, because no one ever wants to part with their copy! Eventually, I did pick one up, and I’m glad I persisted because it’s an actual honest-to-goodness first edition – it’ll be worth a quid someday!

#64 Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reckoning is the memoir of Australia’s beloved comedian and activist Magda Szubanski. I’ll never forget my overwhelming feeling of joy and relief the day that Australia voted Yes to marriage equality, and I got to see Magda address the gathered crowd in celebration. She is inextricably linked to that campaign in my mind, and I’m eternally grateful for her faith and persistence in changing Australia for the better. Her account of coming to terms with her family history, her sexuality, and her place in the world is truly captivating, a must-read!

#68 The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Andy Weir has one of those overnight-success stories that was years in the making. He slogged away writing The Martian, fielding rejections left and right, until – fed up – he published the whole thing for free on his own website. Now, here he is, eight years later, with millions of book sales under his belt, a major film adaptation starring Matt Damon, a follow-up book on the shelves (and another one in the works, as I understand it), and another year running in the Dymocks 101. See? Persistence pays! Read my full review of The Martian here.

#84 The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner is such a remarkable book on so many fronts that I don’t quite know where to begin in describing it. For one, the subject – Sandra Pankhurst – is a trans woman, and (off the back of International Transgender Day of Visibility last week) I think it’s amazing that so many people are connecting with her story, allowing it to resonate, and learning through it. She is also a former sex worker, drag queen, husband – she’s lived one heck of a life! The occupation of “trauma cleaner” is a fascinating, terrifying, and at-times literally unbelievable one; this account will leave your mouth hanging open at the end of every passage.

#88 Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was really surprised to see that the news of a sequel – for the book, and the film – to Aciman’s juggernaut Call Me By Your Name didn’t give it more of a boost in the Dymocks Top 101 rankings this year. Still, I’m happy to see it here at all! Calling it “one of the great love stories of our time” might be a bit of a stretch, but not a big one. The book depicts a beautiful love affair that blossoms between a confused teenager and an older grad student, against the stunning backdrop of a family home in Italy. The follow-up is sure to be a runaway best-seller, so make sure you get in on this one now (if you haven’t already)

#91 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If my vote was the only one that counted, My Brilliant Friend would probably come in at #1 in every Dymocks 101 for the next twenty years or so. As it stands, I’ll have to settle for it coming in here towards the end… for now. Elena Ferrante’s book – the first of her Neapolitan Novels – is quite frankly one of the best I have ever read. The way she weaves the story of two girls growing up, a tenuous and torrid friendship ebbing and flowing between them, in mid-20th century Naples is just… breathtaking. Truly! I’m starting my campaign to get her a ranking she deserves in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2020 right now! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.


Notable Exclusions: I think the fine folks at Dymocks are taking some editorial license and cutting out cook books and other gimmicky options. This Top 101 is light on self-help, and non-fiction across the board (just eighteen non-fiction books, by my count). I’m really surprised that Wuthering Heights wasn’t included (especially after Jane Eyre made the cut!), and there were relatively few classics on the whole, too (only nine included this year).

You might have noticed a generally positive and up-beat tone to a lot of the books on the list. Kate Maynor from Dymocks has confirmed they’re seeing a trend towards what she called “UpLit” – stories in which protagonists have to go through a level of darkness to reach an ultimately redeeming end. That’s hardly a new premise in literature, but I can see why it’s having a resurgence; given the dark times in which we live and work, a little “up” with our lit is a welcome respite.

It’s a shame that Tracker didn’t make the list, and there’s a disturbing (ongoing) trend of under-representation of Indigenous Australian storytelling. It’s great to see more Australian authors on the list each year, but the fact that so few of them are from our Indigenous community really sours it for me.

Dymocks Booklovers have made huge strides in terms of gender equality – the 2019 Top 101 list has reached rough parity – but there’s still a way to go in terms of other intersectional identities. I’ve got my fingers crossed that more marginalised authors make the cut next year; I think disability activist Carly Findlay’s new book, Say Hello, is a strong contender!

What do you think of the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2019? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Check out what I thought of last year’s Dymocks Top 101 list here!

Award Winning Books Worth Reading

Booklovers take their book-loving seriously, and their opinions vary – widely. So any award that picks one book as the “best” of a given year or genre is always going to be controversial. Literary awards honour the great authors of our time, and winning a major one pretty much guarantees that a book will fly off the shelves as people to scramble to see whether it’s worthy. It’s a high-stakes game, this literary award business! Today on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we take a look at some of the major awards and ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question: are there any award winning books that are worth your time?

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time - Text Overlaid on Image of Trophy and Sparkly Lights - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Major Literary Awards

Let’s take a quick look at some of those major awards and prizes, shall we?

  • The Man Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best original novel, written in English, that’s had a print run in the U.K.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author (supposedly from any country, but more on that in a minute), who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recognises a distinguished work of fiction by an American writer (usually themed around American life) published in the preceding calendar year.
  • The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback (founder of revolutionary sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories); they recognise the best science-fiction and fantasy works of the preceding year.
  • The Miles Franklin Literary Award is awarded each year to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. (The Stella Prize is also awarded each year to a female writer, in response to a perceived gender bias in the selection of Miles Franklin winners. Both awards are named after legendary Australian author [Stella] Miles Franklin.)
  • The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually to American authors of fiction who have produced the year’s “best” works. The organisation claims it to be the “largest peer-juried award in America”.
  • The National Book Awards are presented each year by the National Book Foundation in the U.S., and traditionally includes two lifetime achievement awards.
  • The Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.

This is, obviously, a very, very small sample of a rather large pool of major literary prizes. There are dozens of others in every country, and across every conceivable genre and market.

Man Booker Award Controversies

Controversy plagues every literary award, in one way or another, and the sniping only grows bigger and uglier as the award becomes more prestigious. If we’re going to look at some examples, we might as well start right at the top, with the Man Booker.

Take, for instance, the great Trainspotting drama of 1993. Two judges threatened to quit the Man Booker committee after Irvine Welsh’s “vulgar” novel was named on the long-list that year. The book offended their feminist sensitivities, so much so that it was subsequently pulled from the short-list. Welsh didn’t respond well (even by my low standards); he called the prize imperialist, and said that “any claim that it’s an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”.

The shit-slinging doesn’t stop there. In 2001, A.L. Kennedy said that the Man Booker is “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Her experiences on the committee in the ’90s had convinced her that the winner was determined only by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. She also claimed to be the only judge who had read all 300 novels under consideration – yikes.


The same year that Kennedy called bullshit, there was an unrelated whoops-y in the announcement of the winner. Life Of Pi had pretty long odds, until the prize’s website accidentally announced it as the winner a week before the official decision. I’d imagine the originator of that particular fuck-up had to go into some kind of witness protection, because bookies have been known to take baseball bats to kneecaps and they had to pay out all of the bets when the leak later proved to be correct.

The most recent revelations about more Man Booker scandals (oh yeah, there’s plenty more!) can be found here.

And, lest you get the impression that the Man Booker is the worst of the life, let me tack on a couple of Nobel disasters. The Swedish award has long been the target of accusations of political bias and Eurocentrism in their selection process. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkov never got the gong, oversights that have been widely attributed to Sweden’s long-held antipathy towards Russia. On multiple occasions, other authors from outside of Europe have also been controversially and bafflingly snubbed; in 1974, Grahame Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were all over-looked in favour of a joint award to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who (to this day!) remain relatively unknown outside their home country. (And you should know, they were both Nobel judges themselves – a pure coincidence, I’m sure, but…)

via GIPHY

It’s all enough to make you wonder whether the awards mean anything at all. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that merit clearly isn’t the only criteria at play in picking the winners. But, despite the drama, now and then these committees pick a winner that is, y’know, actually a winner. Let’s take a look at some of the award winning books that are worth your time…

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1921)

Leading the charge, we’ve got The Age of Innocence (and you can check out my full review for the run-down). The committee almost overlooked this early 20th century gem, but in the end Wharton’s competition was disqualified on political grounds. And that’s the story of how she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction *fist pump*. Now, this isn’t to say that gender equality was achieved as of that moment – it was one very small step, and one could perhaps even question its ongoing relevance given the way that women have been overlooked for literary awards in the century since – but you never forget the first 😉 And if that’s not reason enough to invest your eyeballs, the story’s pretty damn good! Buy it here.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Hugo Award (2016)

Not all award winners are lofty works of literary fiction, only comprehensible to English majors 😉 The Martian scored a Hugo Award, and went on to become one of the biggest break-through sci-fi novels of the past decade. I was pretty hesitant when I first picked it up, because sci-fi isn’t my go-to genre and I’m skeptical of any film adaptation starring Matt Damon, but goshdarn it was funny! I cackled out loud on every other page (check out my full review); Weir’s characterisation and voice is strong and direct and hilarious. Plus, the premise is pretty compelling – a lone man abandoned on a planet, forced to find a way to survive on meager rations until help arrives – and it forces the reader to confront the terrifying thought of what they’d do in that situation. Buy it here.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1961)

Forty years after Edith Wharton got the gong, Harper Lee was called up – for her first (and only) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s one of the only books I’ve read that’s truly exceeded the hype, and I’m not sure I can recommend it more highly than that (I mean, the hype is considerable). I completely understand if you take issue with some of the racial politics of the book, especially given that it has been so widely and consistently lauded with nary a mention of some of its more problematic elements, but the writing is exquisite, so I’d say it’s worth a look regardless (check out my review here to see why). Plus, it’s had many tangible real-world impacts since its release – consider the formation of the Atticus Finch Legal Society, for instance – so reading it will get you up to speed on that front, too. Buy it here.

The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2009) (and the ABIA Book Of The Year, and the ABA Book Of The Year, and a bunch more)

Christos Tsiolkas won nearly every major literary award in Australia – except the biggie, the Miles Franklin (for which he was short-listed) – with The Slap. I read it a few years ago, and I don’t mind confessing: I had to take a few runs at it. I bought a copy in a fit of unbridled optimism about my future reading life (it’s a long book), only to pick it up once every couple of months, and then abandon it after a few pages. It followed me, languishing in the bottom of a suitcase, as I moved up and down the country. When I finally got around to finishing it, I was so glad I’d persisted! The catalyst of a slap at a family barbecue sets off a chain of reactions, sucking multiple characters and families into a vortex. This one would be particularly good for readers overseas who still think of Australia as the home of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee; Tsiolkas’ treatment of Australian suburbia and community is searing, confronting, and insightful. Buy it here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2014)

I know, I know, I squeeze this one in with just about every list of recommended books I write here on the blog: I make no apologies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves definitely deserves its place here. I wouldn’t recommend reading my review until after you’ve read the book; the plot twist is just so damn good, don’t let anything ruin it for you! I’m this book’s biggest advocate and proponent now, and I think its relatively understated popularity is infuriating. And, let’s be honest, I’m still bitter that it lost out to The Narrow Road To The Deep North for the Man Booker Prize in 2014; luckily, the folks judging the PEN/Faulkner saw sense. Buy it here.

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais (1933)

Stella Gibbons was snubbed by the literary world for the most part, so she makes it into this list by the skin of her teeth. Her crime was satirising D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries, making fun of their horniness-masquerading-as-moral-philosophy and their attempts to write vernacular. Luckily, she still managed to score a gong or two, and in all honesty Cold Comfort Farm deserved a lot more. It’s really the only novel for which Gibbons is remembered (also a shame, because she was pretty damn prolific), and even then it’s not all that widely read, not even in academia. It’s a snarkier, sassier, more modern Jane Austen – a great one to read when you need a good laugh! Buy it here.

I’m actually pretty behind in reading the award winners, so there’s every chance I’ve missed some fantastic worthy inclusions here – please give me your suggestions in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

My Bookish Timeline

Have you ever mocked up your bookish timeline? Probably not (I might be the only person nerdy enough to actually think about shit like this). Take a look over your shelves, then: are you mostly in the 18th century? Or do you like to hang out in the years of your youth? It might sound like a really boring exercise, but hold your judgment: it’s actually really interesting to take a look at your books this way. It tells you a lot about yourself and your reading habits, and it might even give you some additional insights into the books themselves. For instance, I remember The Scarlet Letter reading like a way older book than David Copperfield, and yet it turns out they were published in the very same year. So, I couldn’t help myself, I had to know more! I present to you: the Keeping Up With The Penguins bookish timeline.




A Bookish Timeline - Keeping Up With The Penguins


So, all told, my bookish timeline spans 695 years. Only 30 of the 109 books are from this century, and yet, for some reason, the single year that produced the most books on my reading List was 2013. Random, eh? Most of my Recommended reads are from the 19th century (so far, anyway), so maybe I enjoy the classics more than I thought I would. I’d also assumed that perhaps the reason it feels like I’m reading so many novels about WWII is that the bulk of my reading list came from the years immediately after the conflict, but in reality I’m only reading twenty books from the following four decades, so there goes that theory. But putting together my bookish timeline was a fruitful exercise in many other respects, and I reckon you should all give it a go 😉 Drop your most interesting insights in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

5 Books That Will Take Your Breath Away

You might think you know what you’re going to find on this list of “books that will take your breath away”, but I’m making it my personal mission to up-end your expectations today, Keeper-Upperers. This week, I reviewed The Bell Jar, and if I were wearing socks it would’ve knocked them right off. It took my breath away literally, at times, and it got me to thinking about the books that do that, and the varying reasons why. So, here’s a list of five books that will take your breath away (and not always for the reasons you’d expect).

5 Books That Will Take Your Breath Away - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Holding Open Book - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Breathtakingly Beautiful Prose: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elena Ferrante is not here to play, people. I’m not (currently) capable of reading My Brilliant Friend in the original Italian, but I can only assume it’s at least as breathtaking as Ann Goldstein’s fantastic English translation. My Brilliant Friend is, at times, toe-curling and stomach-churning. The titular character, the brilliant friend, is sometimes chilling and calculating and cruel… and, yet, Ferrante’s writing is always, always, always just fucking beautiful. If you asked me, apropos of nothing, to name a book of incredible prose, this is the first book I’d recommend.

Breathtakingly Bad: American Sniper (Chris Kyle)

American Sniper - Chris Kyle - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Breathtaking” is not always a good thing: just ask anyone who’s ever had a panic attack, or listened to a really awkward eulogy, or witnessed a car crash. I am still haunted by American Sniper, and Chris Kyle’s truly stunning lack of self-awareness. He’s amused by his own inhumanity, he’s dismissive of his wife and children, he’s remarkably lacking in empathy for people who don’t look like him or worship the same god, and he’s got a massive, throbbing boner for his gun. I hold American Sniper up as the worst example of just about everything, and it is, without a doubt, breathtakingly bad.

Laugh ‘Til You Can’t Breathe: Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might never have heard of Cold Comfort Farm, and that’s okay; heck, I hadn’t, until I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. I don’t mind telling you, though, it’s a travesty that this one is so often overlooked, because Gibbons had a brilliant comedic mind. Cold Comfort Farm is the funniest classic I’ve ever read. An Austen-esque protagonist, finding herself unexpectedly orphaned and ill-equipped for any type of gainful employment, cheerfully imposes upon her long-lost relatives, hell-bent on civilising them through sheer force of will. Do not read any extracts online (indeed, skip the introduction, even), because they won’t seem half as funny out of context and they’ll give you the wrong idea. Trust me on this. I have an excellent sense of humour.

Honourable mentions: The Martian, and Portnoy’s Complaint – both extremely funny in very different ways.

Breathtakingly Sad: The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll concede, this must be the least surprising inclusion on this list. You can get more details from my review this week, but basically it was an alarmingly autobiographical story of a young woman’s descent into deep depression. The life of Esther Greenwood (the protagonist) mirrored the real life of writer Sylvia Plath in almost every way – except that Esther got an almost-happy ending. Plath, sadly, died by suicide just weeks after The Bell Jar’s publication. It is, of course, beautifully written – at least on par with My Brilliant Friend, in my humble opinion – but it is excruciatingly sad, and not for the faint of heart or easily triggered.

Honourable mention: Still Alice – the prose doesn’t compare in terms of mastery, but Lisa Genova’s story of a middle-aged woman’s descent into Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease is still incredibly heartbreaking.

Hold Your Breath ‘Til It’s Over: Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

I’ve never quite reconciled my love of Lolita. Nabokov’s writing is awe-inspiring, the beauty of the language almost incomparable, and yet the subject matter… it’s haunting, horrifying, and hypnotic, in equal measures. Humbert Humbert is truly despicable, and reading the entire story from his perspective (the voice of his victim, the young Lolita, is completely silenced) is too much for some readers. It’s a book often abandoned and it’s not hard to see why. But I loved it in a way that, like I said, I can’t quite reconcile. I insist that everyone at least gives it a go (somewhat selfishly, I’ll admit – I just hope I won’t be the only one who sees its beauty!).

Honourable mention: A Clockwork Orange – Burgess depicted the most gut-churning gore and violence (both criminal and state-sanctioned) in a nonsense language (Nasdat) of his own devising, and yet the imagery was crystal clear.

What weird reason has a book taken your breath away? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand (And My Best Tips To Track Them Down!)

Hi, my name is Sheree, and I’m a second-hand book addict. If you’ve been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you’ll know that I’m a regular fixture in all my local stores, scouring the shelves for books on The List. In fact, I’ve managed to find the majority of them this way (the subject of this week’s review, Fangirl, being the exception). Sometimes, I muse on how easy it would be to simply buy them all brand new with the click of a button… but where’s the fun in that? It’s all about the thrill of the chase! To save you some of my heartache, I thought I’d write a post about the longest and most difficult chases, and give you some tips to make it all a little easier. Here’s 7 books that are hard to find second hand (and my best tips for tracking them down!).

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand - Book Covers and Text - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett

When my hunt for books on The List first started, I didn’t anticipate Terry Pratchett being a problem. After all, he’s so popular, and so prolific(!), I figured that every secondhand book store would be simply groaning under the weight of his entire collection. Plus, I was sure I’d seen stacks of his books in other stores before, so surely it wouldn’t be that hard. Turns out, I was dead wrong! Maybe I’m just in the wrong (geographical) area, maybe all fantasy books just blur together in my mind, but whatever it is: The Colour of Magic was nowhere to be found! When I did see a small handful of Terry Pratchett’s offerings on the shelves (which wasn’t often at all, by the way), this particular book – the first in his Discworld series – was never among them. I ended up finding it while I was wandering through a neighbouring suburb on a Saturday afternoon. Some long-suffering hippie had set up a trestle table, and he was selling off his personal book collection; he had half a dozen Pratchett books, and I finally hit pay-dirt.

Tip Number 1: Don’t limit your search to stores! Often, the best bargains are to be found at markets and other stall-type set-ups, where people are just selling off their own stuff (thank you, Marie Kondo!). They’re just happy to be rid of it, de-cluttering and all that being good for the soul, and you can score a hard-to-find book at a fraction of what you’d pay in the store (where the seller would know exactly how hard it is to find, and how much it’s worth!).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

I had one secondhand book store staff member LITERALLY LAUGH IN MY FACE when I asked if they had a copy. If that doesn’t convince you that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is hard to find second hand, I don’t know what will! The problem is that this beloved classic of the sci-fi genre is a comfort read; people pull it out when they want something familiar and calming, re-reading it dozens of times over, and so they never want to part with it.

Still, joke’s on that giggly store clerk: I grabbed the first copy I found, without even looking at the price (a modest $9, thank goodness!), and it turns out it’s a freaking first edition! It’ll be worth a quid one day, believe you me…

Tip Number 2: Don’t give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And before you donate or sell any book of your own, always double check the publication date and whether there’s any significance to that edition. Make sure you’re armed with information, and you know its worth before you pass it on!

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

Now, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Clarissa was tough to find second hand: not only is it one of the lesser-known classics (compared to something like Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield), but it’s also fucking loooooooong! It runs to over 1,500 pages, meaning that it’s not that popular with contemporary readers. And when people aren’t buying it new, your chances of finding it second hand decrease dramatically (duh). So, I was keeping my eyes peeled for a big-ass book… Imagine my surprise when I found a modestly-sized abridged version at a closing-down sale, running to just 500 pages! Now, I’m not saying I’d turn down a copy of the full text if I came across one, but in the meantime I’m happy to consider it checked off my to-buy list.

Tip Number 3: Don’t get tunnel vision! I find having a to-buy list really enhances my second-hand book buying experience, and it stops me from feeling overwhelmed. Without it, I’d probably want to take home every single book I see, and end up with a hundred copies of everything. But if I stayed hell-bent on only buying “pretty” editions, or full texts, or print-runs from Penguin, or whatever, I’d have missed out on some great deals and books I’ve come to love very much. So, a list is a good idea, but don’t let it hem you in!

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend

I’ve searched for Lolly Willowes one long and hard, and it’s even tougher than most of the others on this list, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve got to check for two different titles (it’s usually called “Lolly Willowes”, but some editions go under “The Loving Huntsman”). And, if that’s not enough, I’ve also got to check under two different author names (she’s alternately called Sylvia Townsend, and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Luckily, T and W are pretty close together in the alphabet, so I normally don’t have to search too far if the shelves are arranged alphabetically…

Tip Number 4: If there’s something in particular you’re searching for, make sure you know everything there is to know about it. Does it have an alternative title? Did the author use a nom de plume at first, or switch to a married name, or choose a new name after coming out? You’ll kick yourself forever if you figure out that you could’ve found a copy, if only you’d known where to look!

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Speaking of alternate titles: The Sun Also Rises was also sometimes printed with the title “Fiesta”. There’s a fun fact for you! But even knowing that, I still had a really tough time finding it, and I couldn’t understand why. I mean, I saw A Farewell To Arms, and The Old Man and The Sea, in almost every store I entered – but never the Hemingway I actually wanted. I was bitching about this situation (indeed, rather loudly) in my favourite second-hand book store one day, when a lovely young woman gently tapped me on the shoulder, and held out to me the copy she’d just pulled off the shelf.

Of course, this all happened on the very day when I had no cash on me and I’d left my card at home. But I wasn’t completely out of luck: I was in the company of a very dear friend (when I’m with friends, “let’s go for a wander!” is almost always code for “let’s go find a bookstore to browse!”), and he was kind enough to buy it for me. Not all heroes wear capes!

Tip Number 5: If you’re going to forget your wallet, make sure your friend brings his! And make sure you name them as a sponsor of your book blog and show them lots of love and gratitude 😉 Ha! On a more serious note, don’t be afraid to ask the store assistants if you’re looking for something in particular. Sure, now and then, you’ll encounter one that will laugh in your face (ahem!), but for the most part they are incredibly kind and helpful. And the patrons are too, come to that (the young lady who helped me was not an aberration – I’ve helped out fellow patrons a time or two myself!). Sometimes, the store will have a “wait” list of sorts, and the staff will add your name and call you if the book comes in. They’re so grateful for your custom, they’ll go above and beyond to make sure you keep coming back!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I must admit, I actually have no idea why this one was so difficult to find. It was one of my top priorities in my search, having heard that it was excellent, and I dutifully checked every single store I passed in my travels. I came across dozens of regular bookstores that stocked brand-new copies of the tri-band Penguin edition, but I never came across it second-hand. It wasn’t too long to be popular, like Clarissa, or genre-defining, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it was just… hard to find! Luckily, I eventually found a copy at a market stall, buried among stacks of Vintage classics and coffee-table books.

Tip Number 6: Keep your eyes peeled, at all times, always! Even when you’re browsing the markets for a gift, or looking for a bathroom in Tel Aviv, or even just hanging out at a mate’s place – I’ve had more than one generous friend offer to permanently lend me a book from their collection, for the purposes of this blog. You just never know where you’ll find gold!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I have it on very good authority (i.e., several booksellers and #bookstagrammers have told me) that no one ever, ever, ever wants to part with their copy of The Bell Jar. And I can see why! Having read it for the first time recently (my review here), I can already tell that it’s a book I’ll read over and over again, and you’ll have to pry my gorgeous Faber edition from my cold dead hands. Seriously, it’s beautiful! It’s matte black embossed with shiny gold, and it has the most beautiful inscription from a friend of mine. (Yeah, funny story: she knew I’d been searching long and hard for a copy, and she was looking for a last-minute gift for me, so she stopped in the secondhand book store closest to my house and said “I know you probably don’t have it, because my friend is in here looking for it all the time, but is there any chance you’ve got a copy of The Bell Jar?”. Sure enough, they’d had one come in that very day. Sometimes, life just works out!)

Tip Number 7: Make sure your friends and family know what it is you’re after. That’s not to say you should expect them to buy everything they see for you, of course, but they can give you a heads up when they spot a hard-to-find book in their local second-hand store. And they’ll know exactly what to get you for Christmas!

Bonus tip: Never bother buying any Charles Dickens, or D.H. Lawrence, or Grahame Greene brand new. Every single second-hand store I have ever entered has STACKS of them, and at least a few of those are unread, as-new copies. The same also goes for the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and the Harry Potter books. Plus, if you’re not precious about movie tie-in editions (I’m not, but some booklovers are), you’ll find STACKS of them in secondhand stores, too. If you’re after a book that has been turned into a film in the last 2-3 years, you’re almost guaranteed to find it (and probably in pristine condition, too!).

Bonus bonus tip: Young Adult is a mixed bag, on the whole. Some of them (like Fangirl, and If I Stay) are tough to find right now. In general, you’ve got the best hope of finding the specific YA read you’re after in a secondhand store that has a dedicated YA section (if they’re lumped in with general fiction, you’re going to have a hard time – not sure why that is, it just is, I don’t make the rules). And you usually have to wait about 5-10 years after the initial release, once the target market has outgrown them and moved out of home (either they’ll sell them off, or their parents will, either way…).

Do you buy your books second hand? Why/why not? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

The Best Books I’ve Read… So Far!

Ohhhh, we’re half-way there! (And if you’re half the eighties rock fan I am, you sang that line in your head.) I am officially halfway through my reading list: 55 books down, 54 books to go. It seems incredible to me that what started as a half-hearted joke with my husband about how much literature I was missing out on has become this huge project, and I’ve managed to make it halfway through (relatively) unscathed. What’s a girl to do but write a celebratory list post of the highlights? Here are the best books I’ve read so far, at this point, halfway to my ultimate goal of Keeping Up With The Penguins.

The Best Books I've Read... So Far! - Book Covers in Collage and Text in Black and Red - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The First Book I Loved: David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I always knew Charles Dickens was the Grand Poobah of English literature, but I had no idea I was going to discover a book I loved so much, so early in this project. I was only a few books in, and this one bowled me right the fuck over. You can read my full review here, but suffice to say that I devoured David Copperfield like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion is beautifully rendered. Critics have hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what they call “supermarket” writing; novels were the primary source of family entertainment back then (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to weave a bit of everything into his stories to keep the everyone happy. Critics be damned, I think it’s precisely this “just chuck it all in the pot and give it a stir” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book. Buy it here.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I’ve Read: In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I realise that, given the creative liberties that Truman Capote took with the story of the Clutter murders, calling In Cold Blood “non-fiction” might be a bit rich… but I stand by it. I’ve read some great pop-science books, of course (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything gets an honourable mention), but In Cold Blood was definitely the most beautiful and readable non-fiction offering from The List. I hate the term “page-turner”, but there’s really no other way to describe it. I was fucking gripped, with white knuckles, the whole way through. Read my full review here, and buy Capote’s magnum opus here.

The Most Underrated Book I’ve Read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m still not over my shock that I hadn’t heard of (let alone read) this incredible book before I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a travesty, I tell you – a criminal oversight of the book-loving community. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is also one of the very, very few books that gets an actual spoiler warning in my review, which should be testament enough to the strength of the plot-twist. If you ask me for a book recommendation these days, it’s almost inevitable that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be top of my list; even if you tell me you’ve already read it, I’ll tell you to read it again. Buy it here, if you haven’t already (and read it before you read my review!).

The Best Classic Book I’ve Read: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bearing in mind that I usually define a classic as a book that has lasted over a hundred years and maintained a level of popularity and interest, my favourite so far has to have been Jane Eyre. In fact, I clutched this book to my chest and smiled so often I started to look like a woman in a bad infomercial. I know Wuthering Heights gets most of the love and attention, but to me Jane Eyre is clearly superior (and it’s on that basis that I declared Charlotte to be the best Brontë). I’ve crammed my review full of fun facts about Charlotte and this book, and you can learn even more from the introduction to this fantastic Penguin Classics edition.

The Most Fun Book To Read: The Adventures of Sherlock Homes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes isn’t typically billed as a “funny” book, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it: it was just really fun to read! Sherlock’s adventures are presented as a series of short stories, and I was blown away by Doyle’s economy of language – how he managed to cram so much into so few words is still beyond me (it takes me longer to describe what happens in one of the cases than it does for Doyle to tell the whole story). It’s good, clean fun, too, which is not usually my kind of thing, but it’s great for anyone looking for a classic that the whole family can enjoy. Read my full review here, and buy the collection here.

The Book That Lived Up To The Hype: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know it’s super-weird that I hadn’t read this one prior to Keeping Up With The Penguins, given that it’s a staple of high-school required reading lists… but somehow I squirmed out of that particular rite of passage. So, I came to it later in life, cynical enough to think there was no way that Harper Lee’s only true novel could live up to the hype. Imagine my surprise when it did! In fact, it exceeded it. To Kill A Mockingbird is a stunning read, no matter when you come to it. It’s not without its issues, of course (which I address, very briefly, in my review), and the release of Go Set A Watchman was controversial at best (and a disgusting violation at worst), but I hate to think that any of that detracts from our appreciation of Lee’s masterful writing. If you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird yet, there’s no shame, just get a copy here – right now!

The Most Beautifully Written Book: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend is so wonderful, I was actually nervous about posting my review; I didn’t think there was any way that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s beautiful writing justice. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read in my entire life. Of course, credit doesn’t go only to Ferrante – there’s also her translator, Ann Goldstein, who somehow retained the beautiful rolling lyricism of the original Italian without the slightest hint that the work was not originally written in English. Luckily, My Brilliant Friend is just the first in the series of Neapolitan novels, so there’s plenty more Ferrante to sustain you once you’re done – get them all here.

The Biggest Surprise: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Crime and Punishment ended up on The List almost as a joke: my husband suggested it, never believing for a second that I would actually read it. In fact, I didn’t even believe that I would actually read it! I thought this Russian classic was for pretentious losers who name-drop at parties and wear fedoras inside. And then I had to eat my fucking words, because I did read it and I loved it! Raskolnikov is (and I know I probably shouldn’t say this about a literal axe-murderer, but whatever) so damn relatable, a bundle of nerves slowly unravelling in 19th century St Petersburg, and it’s so readable I would have totally believed it was a contemporary historical novel. I said as much in my review. Don’t believe me? Get it and see for yourself.


And there we have it! Of course, many thanks go to all of you who have stuck with me for the last year and a bit; I can’t wait to see what adventures we go on as we cruise through to the finish 😉 And my question for all of you today: what have been YOUR favourites so far in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

Why Are Adults Reading YA Books?

You might have noticed this very trend and likewise asked yourself: why are adults reading YA books? And, to be clear, I’m not talking about young adults (the target market) – I’m talking about adult adults. Ones who pay their own bills and have grown-up jobs and maybe even mini-adults of their own running around their house. Why are they, in increasing numbers, turning to literature marketed and targeted at people decades younger than them? That’s what we’re here to figure out!

Why Are Adults Reading YA Books? Words in Purple and White Over a Collage of YA Book Covers and Pink Background - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Definition of Young Adult Literature

First, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page (a little literary humour, get it?). What exactly is a “young adult” novel? As with any other genre or category of books, it can be hard to nail it down in a way that pleases everybody, but let’s give it a shot.

The emergence of “young adult” as a genre occurred side by side with the emergence of “adolescence” or “teenage” as a stage of life. Once upon a time, there was just a neat dividing line between childhood and adulthood, and once you jumped the fence, that was that! Books were divided along much the same lines: fairy and adventure stories for kids, serious literature for grown-ups, and a few “supermarket” novels for family to enjoy together. When we started to understand more about adolescence as a transition stage between childhood and adulthood, writers started pumping out books for that newly-defined age group, too. The term “young adult books” entered the lexicon with the Young Adult Library Services Association, and has been used ever since.

So, it starts with age. For the most part, young adult books are written for 12- to 17-year-olds (but the boundaries are fuzzy, and you’ll find literary critics and commentators that say the market stretches up to 30-year-olds). As such, the protagonists are usually within that age range, mostly teenagers and sometimes university students or other people in their early twenties.

And as much as it’s a relatively new genre, most young adult literature has a centuries-old theme: the bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age story. The tradition dates back to 17th century Germany, as far as Goethe and his buddies, who wrote stories about young protagonists undertaking some kind of journey towards maturity. Most YA novels at least touch on this theme; their main characters undergo some kind of major development or change that propels them towards adulthood. They come of age, as we all do (albeit under different circumstances).


Unfortunately, there’s not much else that ties all young adult books together (because young adult literature straddles every imaginable sub-genre, but more on that in a minute). There’s a school of thought that suggests, structurally, young adult books tend to have a satisfying and resolute ending. There’s not much ambiguity in how they finish, and plot points are usually wrapped up in neat little bows, giving you that “ahhh!” feeling when you turn the final page. But this argument is hotly contested, and most young adult readers don’t struggle at all to provide a list of examples that defy the cliche. So, like I said, there’s not a lot that defines the genre, beside the age of the readers/protagonists and the coming-of-age journey.

In the end, we need to remember that the designation of “young adult” is about one thing, and one thing only: marketing. It’s a label that publishers slap on the spine, making a book easier to define and sell. How else would booksellers know which section they should unpack the box in? I’d imagine it’s quite rare that a writer sits down and says to themselves “I’m going to write a young adult book”, unless an editor is poking them in the ribs and demanding a best seller. Instead, they’re thinking about the characters and the story, world-building… and that brings us to the next important distinction.

YA Sub-genres

Young adult books can be found in just about every genre you can imagine. We’re all quite familiar by now, I’d think, with young adult fantasy (Twilight being the first that springs to mind for most people), and dystopian young adult (you’re lying if you say you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games), and realistic young adult fiction (along the lines of The Fault In Our Stars). But there are also young adult mysteries, young adult romance, young adult thrillers, young adult sci-fi, Christian young adult, LGBTIQ+ young adult, historical young adult fiction, non-fiction targeted at young adults… basically, take any genre you can think of, and cram “young adult” in the name somewhere, and I guarantee you there’s a shelf for it on Goodreads.

And it’s not just the big ones: young adult sub-genres get super niche! There are young adult novels-in-verse, young adult epistolary novels (books written in letters, text messages, emails, even Tweets), young adult graphic novels, and so on. Don’t even get me started on cross-sub-genres! If you’re looking for a young adult fantasy thriller written as a book within a book with a protagonist who identifies as trans, it’s out there – in fact, it’s probably a whole series.

How Many Adults Read YA Books?

So, now we know what young adult is, and we know there’s plenty of it out there: how many adults are actually reading it? I’ll tell you in a word: lots!

A 2012 survey found that 55% of YA readers are adults. In fact, the largest (and growing!) segment in the market for YA literature are adults aged between 30 and 44 years (which accounts for 28% of all sales). Of course, one could make the argument that it’s not all that many in real terms – less than 30% of American adults reported reading 11 or more books the previous year, so they’re starting from a pretty low base – but the market has grown exponentially, so those proportions and numbers are definitely headed up, despite the downward trend in other literary pursuits.

Even if adults aren’t reading young adult books themselves, chances are they’re consuming young adult media in some other form. The film franchises – Divergent, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games – have raked in billions at the box office. Standalone films – The Fault In Our Stars, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Love Simon – do pretty damn well, too. The TV adaptations – Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl – continue to reach audiences of millions, and the Netflix/Amazon robots are snapping up more production rights than you can poke a stick at. Plus, the die-hard fans have become content producers themselves: blogs, fan Twitter accounts, Instagram feeds, and YouTube channels dominate the online sphere. Young adult fiction is now a multi-media industry, in keeping with the growing media literacy of the target market, so its incursion on the screens and feeds of grown-ups seems inevitable. The question may not be “why are adults reading YA books?” but rather “is it even possible to avoid them?”.

Why are adults reading YA books?

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

C.S. Lewis

Young adult fiction has always had some level of cross-over appeal, if for no other reason than parents want to read what their kids are reading, so they can talk to them about it. But this natural tendency exploded into a phenomenon with the release of Harry Potter. Yep, like almost every other discussion of contemporary fiction and literacy, it all comes back to Rowling. Harry Potter appealed to a broad base of readers on a scale never seen before: children, young adults, adult-adults, old-adults, you name it, everyone loved the Boy Who Lived. The themes of friendship, identity, discrimination, fear, politics, and family gave Harry Potter universal appeal. Publishers catered to everyone by releasing two different covers: one for “kids”, with colourful illustrations, and a more subtle and sedate one for adults. Not everyone who picked up a Harry Potter book went on to dive headfirst into the world of YA, of course, but it was a gateway drug for a lot of adult readers.

This leads us to a major, and perhaps kind of obvious, reason to read young adult books (especially the books we remember from our own adolescence): nostalgia, and simple escapism. There’s comfort to be found in reading beautiful (but uncomplicated) prose, depicting straightforward and sometimes-predictable storylines, watching characters for whom we feel deep affection grow, and overcome their obstacles. Young adult books often remind older readers of their own teenage years, so there’s an instant familiarity: every “coming of age” story is relatable in some way, because we’ve all “come of age” ourselves at one time or another. The difference is that, in our real adult lives, coming of age doesn’t stop at The End, and our own stories continue to tangle and new complications arise and we’re constantly challenged. In young adult stories, for the most part, there’s a happy ending: the monster is defeated, the government is overthrown, the young couple winds up together, the student gets her dream job, and the mystery is solved. There is a satisfaction and a sense of relief that comes with a happily-ever-after, and it makes for a wonderful holiday from troubled times in the real world.

(Plus, I’ve seen many adult readers online comment to the effect that they really enjoy that YA is, for the most part, clean. For whatever reason – and I struggle to relate to this, but to each his own – they find too many adult-adult books stray into the pornographic and ultraviolent, whereas books written for teenagers deal with an age-appropriately sanitised version of real life, with which they are more comfortable.)


Of course, many readers reject this notion of “escapism” in their reading habits, and with good reason. Even in the case of a clean book with a happy ending (once again, Harry Potter is the best and most obvious example), young adult literature tends to get into some pretty heavy stuff: evil, in all its forms. Popular young adult books from recent years (even in sub-genres like fantasy and sci-fi) have covered everything from police brutality to homophobia to suicide to political oppression. Young adult certainly doesn’t shy away from these serious issues, but it does perhaps tackle them in a more hopeful way – balancing the good with the bad, and giving characters opportunities for redemption and recovery. Even in the most tragic stories, there’s a glimmer of hope to be found, with beloved characters learning important life lessons that set them in good stead for their imagined futures. So, it’s different to escapism in the sense that this type of adult reader doesn’t seek to forget their real-life worries, but rather find more optimistic ways to understand them through YA literature.

This is made much easier with the ever-increasing diversity and representation we find in new young adult book releases, far more so than in any other category of literature. Young adult books with characters that are black, brown, displaced, disaffected, victimised, multilingual, trans, gay, living with disability, terminally ill, orphaned, and unintentionally pregnant are finding massive audiences around the world. This could be one reason that young adult has emerged over the past decade as one of the (if not the absolute) most profitable segment of the publishing industry. Book buyers are repeatedly showing that they seek diversity and representation in literature, and they vote in favour of books that give it to them using their consumer dollar.

So, YA books are almost universally relatable (especially with their track record of representation for marginalised people), they provide comfort through nostalgia and escapism, they deal with difficult real-life issues in a hopeful way, and – never forget! – they are often shorter, easier to read, and cheaper than adult-adult books. Given all that: why are there adults who don’t read YA?

 Best YA Books For Adults

Now that you’re convinced – YA is where it’s at! – I’m sure you’re wanting some guidance on where to start. Just like any other category of literature, not all YA is brilliant. In fact, some of it is straight-up shithouse. But there’s an argument to be made that you’re more likely to find high-quality writing on the YA shelf, because these books are written and structured to grab (and keep!) the attention of teenagers – no mean feat in an age where they have an entire world of information, friends, and dopamine-stimulating games at their fingertips. This list is a combination of the cream of the crop – incredible works of literature in their own right – and YA books that are just so damn popular, you’ll have to read them just to catch up with the rest of the world.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

Read my full review of We Were Liars here.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

*Though, really, you could substitute this for just about any other John Green book and achieve the same result in terms of a well-rounded YA education. I have reviewed The Fault In Our Stars here, and Paper Towns here.

The Hunger Games (Series) – Suzanne Collins

Read my review of the first book in the series (The Hunger Games) here.

The Chronicles of Narnia (Series) – C.S. Lewis

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Read my full review of The Book Thief here

If you’re not sold on the idea of young adult fiction per se, never fear! I’ve got some suggestions for you too. You could try some contemporary literary fiction (for grown-ups) with teenage protagonists – Call Me By Your Name, My Brilliant Friend, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are excellent options. You could also try revisiting some books you read in high-school when you were coming of age yourself – think The Catcher In The Rye, or To Kill A Mockingbird. And for a personal account from an adult who changed her perspective on reading YA, you’ve got to check out this amazing post from the fabulous What Jane Read Next – she was once a skeptic, too! 😉

What do you think about YA? Are you an adult-adult convert? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

14 Great Bookstagram Accounts You Should Really Be Following

Guess what, Keeper-Upperers? Not only is Keeping Up With The Penguins one year old now, but so is the Keeping Up With The Penguins Instagram! When I started this blog, I’d heard about the #bookstagram phenomenon, but I had no idea what a wonderful, warm, and welcoming community I’d find there. I set up an account, and started posting photos of the books I was reading and reviewing, and it fast became one of my favourite parts of this project. I’m no great shakes at photography, I don’t go All-Out Extra with props and fairylights and all that business, but that’s the beauty of #bookstagram – it’s not about the bells and whistles, it’s about the books! I’ve “met” some truly fantastic people over the last year through the platform, and I thought today I’d share a short list of some of the best bookstagram accounts you really should be following.

14 Great Bookstagrammers You Really Should Be Following - Text Overlaid on Image of Phone with Instagram Logo on Screen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

@alexs.bookgram

Alex describes herself as an “amateur book reviewer” in her bio, but her feed shows she is a definite pro! She’s got gorgeous bookish photos in all kinds of locations, and every time I scroll through I find something new to add to my TBR. You can check out her account here, and her book blog here.

@jane.read.next

I “met” Jane in the early days of sharing on Instagram, and her feed fast became one of my all-time favourites. She’s a fellow Aussie, a veteran of the publishing industry, and there’s a lot of crossover in our tastes! I’ve loved many of the books she recommended. Also, now and then, she’ll share photos of her gorgeous doggos – the easiest way to win me over! Check out her account here, and her book blog here.

@yumyumicecream

Her guardian angel is Jack Kerouac with a recent assist from Lorrie Moore. She would love to put the novels of John Darnielle into the hands of anyone who has ever ached or cried from loneliness. And she’s one of my favourite bookstagrammers! Her feed is filled with gorgeous books, almost always accompanied by a coffee that makes my mouth water or some other delicious treat. Check out her account here.

@bookkissed

Aysha is a literature student, and it shows in her feed: a gorgeous varied collection of books from every genre and period (though I do notice she has a particular affinity for Stephen King and Agatha Christie, they feature often!). She posts beautiful and creative book stacks and snaps of what (and where) she’s reading – always a joy to see! Check out her account here.

@sasha_hawkins

Sasha loves reading all kinds of books, and at the moment she’s focused on the classics. She wants to spread the word that there’s a classic for everyone, and that our options go beyond the white male-dominated literary canon (a girl after my own heart!). She’s a sucker for beautiful books – but aren’t we all? I love her collection. Check out her account here and follow her on Goodreads here.

@reading.the.classics

Helena is one impressive lady! She’s a homeschool mum of six (count ’em! including a newborn!), living in Northern Ireland, reading stacks of books, doing the #ElizabethGaskell2019 challenge, and still she finds time to share gorgeous photos of the classics (mostly) on Instagram. I drool over her collection, it’s absolutely stunning. Check out her account here.

@rooreads

Stephanie Berg is a Chicago-based bookstagrammer with a feed that slays! I’ve discovered lots of new literary fiction and gorgeous editions (seriously spectacular cover art, where does she find them?!) through her account. She’s currently a @pageonebooks ambassador, and you can find her account here, and follow her on Goodreads here.

@classicsandcaffeine

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My #bestnine of 2018 is dominated by Orwell, Conrad, and Hardy. And i’m happy to say i’m far from done reading these incredible authors. Their writings have had great impacts on me. George Orwell reminded me that my political rights is important and how i use them can very much affect my personal life, and that i must never let my fear overrule compassion and justice. Thomas Hardy has fascinated me ever since i first read Tess at least 10 years ago. I think Hardy understood women and his writing was subtly (or maybe not so subtly?) critical of patriarchy. And Joseph Conrad. Oh Conrad, easily my new favourite author. Heart of Darkness is a tale that will never finish what it’s saying. ☕️ I don’t have any specific target/goal for my reading life for the new year, but i’d love to hear yours. Do share what you’re up to reading wise for 2019. #bestninebookstagram #georgeorwell #1984 #thomashardy #thewoodlanders #josephconrad #heartofdarkness #edithwharton #theageofinnocence #charlesdickens #olivertwist #classicliterature #literature #penguinenglishlibrary #oxfordworldsclassics #wordsworthclassics #bookstagram #bookstagrammer #bookstagramindonesia #bookreview #igreads #readersofinstagram

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I’ll bet you can tell from her handle – classics AND caffeine! – that Ester is truly awesome. She’s based in Indonesia, and she shares a lot of classics and modern classics worth reading. She’s on a little hiatus at the moment, hopefully she’ll be back soon to share more bookish goodness with us! You can still check out her account here.

@book_trails

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"Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it." . . An overwhelming and intriguing story. I like how original the concept of this story and let's be honest the cover is really gorgeous it's one of my favorite book cover ever! So this novel is about Grenouille who is an orphan, he's obsessed with perfumes and it's ability to control people. His obsession led to murder as he experiment with different scents. I won't elaborate more cuz I know some of you haven't read this novel and I don't want to spoil the story. . . QOTD: Do you read books by german or any foreign authors? I love reading books by different foreign authors, I have some of French, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, German and Arab authors. If you want to recommend me some of your favorite foreign author then please do!😍

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Fattyma loves books and photography, so bookstagram is her true home! And we are so lucky to have her, my eyeballs turn into hearts whenever I look at her posts. She reads all kinds of books – classics, best sellers, fantasy, mystery, young adult, and more – and her photos are incredible. Check out her account here and follow her on Goodreads here.

@spinesvines

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#MeetTheBookstagrammer⁣ 10 Things About Me⁣ ⁣ Well let me begin by stating the obvious— I love books (spines) & wine (vines). This is doesn’t count towards the ten because it’s a well known fact. ⁣😊 ⁣ ✨ I’m usually reading three books at once in three different ways — an audiobook for my commute, a book on my kindle which I keep in my bag and a physical book on my nightstand. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I created the #diversespines hashtag to shine the light on women authors of color. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m the co-founder/co-moderator of @litonhst bookclub⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m a major foodie! I love to eat 😋⁣ ⁣ ✨ I love to travel (no cruises for me🙅🏽‍♀️) especially outside of the U.S. Some of my favorite places are France, England, Italy, Greece, Jamaica and Turks & Caicos. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ When I’m not reading, I’m watching NCIS, Chicago P.D., Blue Bloods & re-runs of Law & Order Criminal Intent. I love a good crime drama. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I grew up a proud military brat living in many places but the highlights were Japan and Hawaii. I actually spent my freshman and sophomore years of high school in Hawaii. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ I’m a proud graduate of The University of Tennessee, Knoxville ⁣#VFL ⁣ ✨ IRL I’m a project manager for the federal government and one my greatest accomplishments was being the Chief of Staff to the 2016 Federal Transition Coordinator. What does that mean— we oversee and provide support for presidential elections and facilitate the peaceful transition of authority between the incoming and outgoing administrations. ⁣ ⁣ ✨ Last but not least, I’m a MOM! I have two young adults, a 24 year old daughter & a 22 year old son. ⁣ .⁣ .⁣ 📸 credit: @msbszenlife .⁣ .⁣ 📚🍷⁣ #spinesvines #books #wine #bookstagrammer #diversebooks #blogger #booklover #bibliophile #ilovebooks #ilovewine

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I must admit, I’m a little bit a lot in awe of Jamise. She’s taken her passion for books (spines) and wine (vines), and turned it into not only this beautiful bookstagram account, but also @diversespines – a book club initiative that highlights women writers of colour and encourages us all to read more diversely. She’s doing incredible work, and I love it! Check out her account here, and more of her stuff here.

@the.imperfect.library

Ally is another fantastic Aussie bookstagrammer, and I love seeing what she’s reading (in hard copy and in audio) in her bio. She’s focused on the classics, women’s literature, and mental health – a trifecta of awesomeness in her feed! She also has a very adorable new kitty… Check out her account here.

@bookish.behavior

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Happy #ReadABookDay everyone! Thought I’d start this post with the quote below. . . “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” — Jean Rhys . Whether you’re reading a book about someone in a different part of your own state, your own country, or another country altogether, reading has a capacity to showcase how something that looks different, might not be all that different after all. . Part of what’s driven my diverse reading these past few years, is how often I find myself either relating to the story or gaining an understanding I didn’t know I needed. The world becomes smaller. The capacity for understanding increases. . Pictured are a few books that span an experience different from mine, but ones that I can’t wait to read! (Minus Erotic Stories – which I’ve already read and is AMAZE – and everyone should read!) . . 🌎 Next Year In Havana – a love story set within the political unrest in Cuba 🌍 Americanah – 2 Nigerians making their way in the US/UK after leaving military-ruled Nigeria 🌏 An Unrestored Woman – short stories about the establishment of the India/Pakistan borders and the ensuing refugee crisis 🌎 Educated – memoir of a girl who was kept out of school by her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD 🌏 Pachinko – a sweeping tale of an exiled Korean family fighting to make their way in Japan . Have you read any of these? What are some books that have stuck with you long after you read it? Let’s chat!

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If I’m ever worried that I’m missing out on some amazing diverse reads, I head straight for Poonam’s feed, because it is chockers with amazing recommendations and gorgeous photos! The reviews in her captions always give amazing insights into what’s worth reading and why, she is a must-follow for every booklover. Check out her account here.

@happinessisreading

What is it about the combination of books and coffee that makes for such great bookstagram feeds? Ritika is another caffeinated booklover, and she shares her incredible collection of literary fiction, non-fiction, modern classics, and more. I’ve spotted so many of my favourites in her gorgeous photographs. Check out her account here.

@vincereview

I actually came to Paula’s bookstagram through her blog, where she posts amazing and insightful reviews of books old and new, but whichever way you find her, you’re going to want to mash that follow button! She’s a former author and English student, and (like me!) she’s seeking to read classics, best sellers, and other books to discover for herself what they’re like, instead of relying on the opinions of self-professed experts. Her reviews are no-frills straight-talkin’ brilliance, and her enthusiasm is definitely contagious! Check out her account here, and her blog here.

So, if this incredible assortment of readers doesn’t convince you to check out #bookstagram, I don’t know what will! You can, of course, find little ol’ me here too. Are you a bookstagrammer? Drop your handle in the comments so we can all see your stuff (or share it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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