Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 12)

7 Books That Changed My Life

Sometimes, I think we throw around the words “life changing” with regards to books a bit too casually. A book can be brilliant, challenging, wonderful, and enjoyable without necessarily actually changing your life. When I took a look back over all the books I’ve read (as best I can recall), there are only a handful that I can pinpoint as having materially affected the direction of my life, and the choices that I subsequently made. So, today I bring you an honest-to-goodness list of books that changed my life.

Books That Changed My Life - Text Overlaid Above Image Of Leaves Pegged To Line - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the first book my (now) husband ever loaned me. That sounds trite and cliche (almost as trite and cliche as calling Nietzche life-changing), but I promised you honesty and that’s what you’re getting. On the face of it, we didn’t have a lot in common in those early days: he was a bartender, I was working for a bank, he was chronically late, I was always early, he rarely left his neighbourhood, I flew back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for work… and yet, what we always shared was a love of books, and an inclination to talk about them in depth. It all began with his loaning me this tattered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Sometimes, I wonder whether things might’ve worked out differently if he’d handed me another book – The Road, perhaps, or his beloved John Berryman collection. But this was the one he pressed into my hands, and so it went. To this day, we still share book recommendations and argue happily for hours about the merits of a given work of literature – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In My Skin by Kate Holden

In My Skin - Kate Holden - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Looking further back in my reading archive, there’s this memoir: In My Skin by Kate Holden. I must’ve read and re-read and re-read this book dozens of times in my late teens. I remember sprawling out across the foam mattress on my rickety bed in my teeny-tiny dorm room in my final year of boarding school, and devouring it cover to cover. Holden wrote of a world that was recognisable, but still so completely foreign to my own that it fascinated me: she was a heroin addict, a sex worker, and lived a life of instability and risk that I could hardly fathom. And yet, she and I shared so much in common: moodiness, determination, a love of literature… I credit this book, and Holden’s incredible evocative writing, with my emotional development and my capacity to feel deep empathy for people who live lives different to my own. I think it also helped form my interest in activism, particularly in areas of feminism and sex work.

Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

The Complete Short Stories Of Ernest Hemingway - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, technically Hills Like White Elephants isn’t a book, it’s a short story (ironically, I didn’t really like Hemingway’s novel-length work and it made zero impression on me, but that’s for another time). Still, its impact on me was so significant that I include it here. I read Hills Like White Elephants in an elective course in the first year of my undergraduate degree. We read dozens of short stories for that class – Gogol’s The Overcoat, of course, and Virginia Woolf’s The Mark On The Wall – but none moved, challenged, or changed me more than this one. It’s tough to pinpoint why. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first time I recall realising the levels and layers that can exist in literature, how stories change upon close inspection, how intimation and veiled subtext can tell us more than the words on the page. Perhaps it’s the loaded subject matter, the kaleidescope of perspectives offered on the topic of abortion (and, by extension, the agency of women) in so few words. It introduced me to the idea of writing as a craft, like carpentry or mosaic tiling. I don’t think I’d ever been particularly interested in short stories before reading this one – I figured they were like teething husks for writers before they started on the “real” work of novels – but all that changed with this gem from Hemingway. That bastard.

Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll try not to harp on about this one too much, because long-time Keeper Upperers have heard me talk about it a lot, but no list of books that changed my life would be complete without Nineteen Eighty Four. My father handed me a copy when I was about thirteen (it’s hard to remember exactly), and I think I’ve read it about twenty times over since. This book changed everything for me: without it, I might never have developed an interest in politics, a passion for advocacy, a dedication to active resistance. Every time I show up to a protest, or write to a Member for Parliament, or sign a petition, I’m doing so because this book so affected me and changed my understanding of the world. I’m forever grateful to my father for sensing the right moment in my life to hand it to me; the gift wasn’t the book, it was the opening of my eyes to the realities of oppression and power.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

All of the other books that changed my life I’ve listed here so far are ones I read before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins. So, here’s one that I’ve actually read and reviewed for the purposes of this blog: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Like the Hemingway story, it’s hard for me to pin down exactly why or how it changed me. I think, perhaps, it’s the way it challenged me to question my own assumptions. The plot twist of this book (about seventy pages in) pulled the rug out from underneath me like no book ever had before. So, it’s set the bar for all future plot twists pretty damn high! But above and beyond the masterful writing, this story poked some serious holes in everything I thought I understood about personhood, humanity, and the lines that demarcate us. I’ve made it my life’s mission to thrust this book into the hands of every reader I can (and so far, I’m doing pretty good, I think!). Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

The Islanders by F J Campbell

The Islanders - F J Campbell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of all the books that changed my life on this list, this one is probably the most self-indulgent, so I hope you’ll forgive me – but I can’t deny that it was life-changing in the most wonderful way. The Islanders is the first book that an author ever sent to me, in the hopes that I would review it and share my thoughts with Keeper Upperers. Until Fiona reached out to me, I had no idea that there would be writers out there who would think that my opinions on their books were worth having (indeed, most of the authors I’d reviewed up until that point were long dead!). It was reading The Islanders, and Fiona’s very kind encouragement, that opened up a door to a whole new world for me: “real” book reviewing, where I could say what I thought about books on a public platform and people would care (and sometimes even pay me for my efforts!). It’s now my life’s work, and I’ve reviewed hundreds of books since, but I’ll never forget this one (you know what they say…).

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How weird is it that one of the books that changed my life is one that I didn’t even like that much? Moby Dick was a real slog to read, I’m not going to lie. I would drift off in the middle of endless chapters about whale sperm and oil paintings, wondering what the heck Melville was getting at. But this was the book I was reading when I decided to quit my job at the bank, to pursue a life of writing and reading and creativity. This was the book that inspired me to make a “proper go” of Keeping Up With The Penguins, and various other projects. This was the book that made me realise a classic need not be “readable” in order to be extraordinarily important and beneficial to have read. My tattered copy of Moby Dick (another one “borrowed” from my now-husband’s collection actually, ha! We’ve come full circle!) is talismanic, now, and it’s probably the first thing I would grab in the event of a fire. Read my full review of Moby Dick here.

So, there you have it: the seven books that changed my life, and how! I can only imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t read any one of them… What about you? What books have changed your life? Let me know in the comments!

9 Brilliant Books In Translation

As a monolingual reader, I am SO grateful for access to books in translation. Earlier this week, I read and reviewed A Man Called Ove by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman. That would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the translator Henning Koch, who took the original Swedish (En man som heter Ove) and transformed it into a story I could understand. I’ve talked before about the world-changing magic of books in translation, and today I thought I’d expand on that by giving you a round-up of some of my favourite translated book recommendations. Here’s a list of brilliant books in translation…

9 Brilliant Books In Translation - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Sign in Multiple Languages - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by 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

Translated by Rod Bradbury

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is one of the most delightful books I have ever read, my ultimate cheer-up read. It was first published in the original Swedish in 2009, translated into English a short time later – and it’s since gone on to sell over three million copies worldwide. In some ways, it does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of a centenarian who, hoping to avoid the dreary birthday party his nursing home has planned for him, escapes out the window and goes on a wild adventure. It’s like a European Forrest Gump, but less cheesy and infinitely more hilarious! Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

Translated by Ann Goldstein

I’m always worried when reviewing and recommending My Brilliant Friend that I cannot possibly do this beautiful, breathtaking book justice. Seriously, I cannot understate just how brilliant (ha!) it is! It was first published in 2012, the first in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan Novels, and it follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two young girls growing up in the cruel and sometimes violent community of mid-20th century Naples. Ferrante’s true identity is, of course, a mystery (she writes under a pseudonym), and one that gets a lot of attention – but I think we should expend that energy praising her translator, Ann Goldstein, instead. The way that she has managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian in this English edition is just… brilliant! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

This slim little book contains the bizarre but endearing story of a Japanese woman who struggles with social convention, and finds comfort in the rhythm and routine of her “career” working in a local convenience store, where every relationship is transactional. Convenience Store Woman is actually the tenth book by Sayaka Murata (she’s a big-big-big literary star in Japan, named Woman Of The Year by Japanese Vogue in 2016!) but this is the first to be translated into English. Her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, has also previously translated two short stories of Murata’s, and is working on the forthcoming Earthlings, slated for release later this year.

No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Omid Tofighian

No Friend But The Mountains is different from the other books in translation listed here, in a few key ways. The work of translation was done as the book was being drafted (rather than from a completed manuscript). This is because, at the time of writing, Behrouz Boochani was detained on Manus Island by the Australian Government. He and Omid Tofighian wrote the entire thing in concert (translating from Farsi to English), by exchange of WhatsApp messages, to tell the truth of what was happening to Behrouz in the Manus Prison. The book went on to win the Victorian Premier’s Prize in 2019, and has already been deemed an essential work of Australian literature (like it or not, this is a horrifying-but-true Australian story). Thankfully, Behrouz has since been released from Manus, and is currently in New Zealand.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

The Eighth Life - Nino Haratschvili - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are definitely not over! The proof is in The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili. The fine folks at Scribe Publishing were kind enough to send me a copy for review last year, published for the first time in English (written originally in German, though Haratischvili has been writing in both German and Georgian since she was twelve years old). Don’t be intimidated by its size, and the scope of its story (several generations over a crucial period in world history). The Eighth Life will sweep you away. It falls smack bang in the middle of the Venn diagram between Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel Marcia Marquez, and Elena Ferrante.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

A Horse Walks Into A Bar - David Grossman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by Jessica Cohen

A Horse Walks Into A Bar takes a lot of risks… but, I suppose, one must go big or go home. Of all the work that goes into translation, surely the hardest has to be to translate comedy: even the title, a trope of stand up comedy, surely wouldn’t translate easily into every language and culture. Still, Jessica Cohen pulls it off! And it’s just just the lols, it’s also the deep and despairing moments, the unraveling of the protagonist in its short timeline (just two hours), that are done spectacularly well. Grossman wrote this book in Hebrew, and the English-language translation went on to win the Booker International Prize in 2017.

The Odyssey by Homer

Translated by Emily Wilson

Another magical thing about books in translation: if they hang around long enough, and remain popular enough, other people start to have a go and you end up with multiple translations that bring all kinds of new wonders to light. Believe it or not, even though Homer’s The Odyssey has been translated into English many dozens of times since it was first written in Ancient Greece, Emily Wilson’s translation is the first to be completed and published by a woman. Wilson is a Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and looks at this bedrock work of poetry through a contemporary feminist lens. The canon has too long belonged to men, and works like Wilson’s are crucial in diversifying and expanding our perspectives.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Translated by ???

It only seems fair that, in this list of brilliant books in translation, I include an example that is both a shining star and a massive #NameTheTranslator fail. I love this edition of Madame Bovary, which was the highly influential debut of French novelist Gustave Flaubert and caused a huge stir upon release. I read it and loved it, the searing insight into the patriarchal constructions of femininity and madness… and yet, when I looked for the name of the person who had worked so hard to bring this brilliant book into my native tongue, I couldn’t see it anywhere. Not on the cover, not in the prefatory materials, not even on the publisher’s website. There is just one, unattributed, note in the beginning that says: “The translator would like to record his gratitude to his wife, Teresa Russell, who read the translation in manuscript and made many valuable suggestions”. I mean, hats off for giving your wife credit, mate, but surely you deserve some too! So, this one goes out to the anonymous translator of Madame Bovary, and to all other uncredited and unacknowledged translators everywhere, who toil in silence on our behalf.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

Translated by David McDuff

So, as we’ve established, every version of a book in translation is different: in some ways, the translator re-writes a new book each time. That’s why, when I highly recommend people read Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (which I do, by the way), I hasten to add that they should secure this edition, translated into English by David McDuff, for their first time. See, I just can’t be sure that other translations – wonderful as they might be – will capture the same humour, pathos, and beguiling nature of this story about a literal axe murderer. I came to Crime And Punishment, knowing it to be a Russian classic, assuming it would be dull, dense, and depressing – and I can assure you that David McDuff’s version is none of those things. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

What are your favourite books in translation? Add to the list in the comments below – I’m always on the hunt for more!

8 Great Book Podcasts For Book Lovers

Well, after my memory lapse earlier this week (where I couldn’t remember which of the book podcasts I listen to recommended a great book to me), I got to thinking: why not just shout out a whole bunch of great book podcasts all at once? I’m a podcast junkie (in fact, that’s why I almost never get around to listening to audiobooks, no time!), and given my general area of interest, most of my favourite podcasts are bookish in nature. So, here’s a round up of all the best podcasts for book lovers…

8 Great Book Podcasts for Book Lovers - Text Overlaid on Image of Headphones - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One Great Book

One Great Book - Podcast Logo

Most people know Anne Bogel best for her What Should I Read Next? bookish matchmaking podcast, or her long-running Modern Mrs Darcy blog (both are fabulous, by the way!). But her newest book podcast is actually my favourite: One Great Book. In it, she digs through her reading archives and dusts off the hidden gems, those back-list books you might have missed while you were reading. These are short, bite-sized episodes, perfect to squeeze in when you’re after a reading recommendation but you don’t have a lot of time.

Best book recommendation: There have been a few (and more coming every season!), but I never would have picked up Rules Of Civility by Amor Towles without Anne’s recommendation.

Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sydney Writers' Festival - Podcast Logo

I’m an annual volunteer at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, so maybe I’m biased, but this has to be one of the best podcasts for book lovers who can’t always make it to large-scale inner-city literary events in person (I mean, no one can this year, but you get my drift). Volunteering means I can’t always attend events I’d like to see myself, but I go home happy, knowing that in a few weeks or months a recording of the session will be uploaded to the podcast feed. I swear, it’s just like being there! (Except better, because you can save your favourites to listen to over and over again, and rewind if you miss something.) I’m so grateful that the SWF crew goes to so much effort to provide such high-quality recordings – for free!

Best book recommendations: Definitely too many to list, but the first one that comes to mind is Her Body And Other Parties, which I picked up after listening to Carmen Maria Machado’s Curiosity Lecture on Law & Order: SVU.

Harry Potter And The Sacred Text

Harry Potter And The Sacred Text - Podcast Logo

Harry Potter And The Sacred Text is a great book podcast, but maybe not in the way that you’re expecting. As the title suggests, Vanessa and Casper are reading their way through the Harry Potter books chronologically (one chapter per episode), treating them as a sacred text. This means drawing life lessons, inspiration, hard truths, and new insights from the Harry Potter stories – the way we would religious texts, or other sacred writings. This book podcast has had more impact on my non-bookish life than any other, and it’s a must-listen if you’re searching for something on which you can meditate for a while.

Best book recommendation: Well, given the premise, it’s pretty obvious… but I’ve got to say, I’ve got a whole new appreciation for Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, having heard Vanessa’s read of Professor Umbridge.


Annotated - Podcast Logo

Annotated is produced by the experts at Book Riot, so you know they know their stuff! This one is more of an in-depth look at book history and phenomena: The Babysitter’s Club, for example, or the crisis that caused the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature to be completely cancelled. No matter what the subject of any given episode, I always pick up fascinating trivia! All of the Book Riot book podcasts are great, but this one is the cream of the crop in my opinion.

Best book recommendation: again, not strictly a recommendation, but their episode on the publication history of Ulysses by James Joyce was super-helpful when I was putting together my own review!

Talking Words

Talking Words - Podcast Logo

Another potential bias alert: I was lucky enough to study with the host of Talking Words at university, and Better Read Than Dead (the bookshop that has taken the leap into producing book podcasts) is one of my favourite local haunts. That said, Olivia has managed to secure an ongoing series of interviews with truly fascinating authors right across the spectrum – memoirists, activists, award-winning fiction writers, and more. I love hearing them delve into the nitty-gritty of their subjects and the writing process.

Best book recommendation: hands down Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World!

Chat 10 Looks 3

Chat 10 Looks 3 - Podcast Logo

Alright, we’re briefly veering away from strictly-bookish territory. I can’t honestly call Chat 10 Looks 3 one of the best book podcasts… BUT it is definitely one of the best podcasts for book lovers! Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb talk about everything under the sun – music, movies, podcasts, cooking – but their book recommendations are the reason I tune in. Seriously, they’ve never recommended me a dud, not one! And while I subscribe for the book chat, I definitely hang around for the banter; nothing cheers me up more than hearing Crabb and Sales calling one another out on “smug bundts” (the Chatters out there understand).

Best book recommendation: Technically, they talked about She Said after I’d already read (and lovedlovedloved) it, so I’m going to go with Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodessa-Akner. But seriously, whatever they recommend is pretty much guaranteed to be a winner for me.

The To-Read List

I’m almost a little embarrassed about how much I love The To-Read List. I’m worried Bailey, Toby, and Andrew are going to think I’m lovingly-online-stalking them (I’m not, I swear… much). And it’s not just that I totally relate to the goal of the show (to read all of the 125 144 153 unread books on Bailey’s bookshelves). It’s the quirky episode titles, the trivia games, the dubstep remix of the show’s theme song for mini-episodes, the attempts to get Bailey’s husband to read the final installment of the Harry Potter series… Every time I listen, it’s like a wonderful little reminder of the joy of reading and the delight of talking about books with friends and family. This is the My Dad Wrote A Porno of book podcasts.

Best book recommendation: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – I was always hesitant, but I figured if Bailey could get through it in two weeks and take from it as much as she did, I could too!

The Garret

The Garret - Podcast Logo

Let’s be honest: most readers (if not all) harbour a secret desire to write their own books. Right? That’s where The Garret shines among podcasts for book lovers. To quote the show’s subtitle, it’s “interviews by writers, for writers”. Name any of the greats of Australian literature – Charlotte Wood, Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Lucashenko – and you can be sure they’ve sat down with Astrid Edwards and shared incredibly personal and illuminating stories about their writing and their lives. The Garret is always fascinating, always inspiring, and a true pillar of the Aussie literary landscape.

Best book recommendation: The Garret is where I discovered J.P. Pomare, and I was so struck by his interview that I ran out and bought Call Me Evie right away!

Know of any more great book podcasts? Got your own list of podcasts for book lovers? Drop your suggestions in the comments below! (And, a friendly reminder: always rate, review, and subscribe to book podcasts you love – it really does help them out!)

11 Best Dystopian Novels

After reading and reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale last week, I had the idea to write a list of the best dystopian novels for Keeper Upperers interested in reading more. I’m not going to lie, though: putting this list together threw me into a bit of a funk. The more I looked over my shelves and Goodreads history, the more I started to think: “we’re LIVING in a dystopia, how can I separate out the truly dystopian books from the ones that are just slightly shittier versions of our reality?”. Sometimes, existential dread knocks you on your arse when you least expect it. But I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and pulled together this list of the best dystopian novels for you as best I could. Apologies in advance if some of them are just a bit TOO REAL…

11 Best Dystopian Novels - Text Overlaid on Image of Water and City in Distance - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table with Bookmark on Top - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’re probably scratching your head right now, thinking: “Huh? She’s recommending the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale?”. I get it! Every list of the best dystopian novels includes Atwood’s best-known work (and probably a few of her others) as a shining example of dystopia done right. But, having read them both, I gotta say, I think The Testaments is the better book. The Handmaid’s Tale gave such a narrow view of the world of Gilead, just one woman’s perspective and her very personal story, that it left me itching for more. What’s it like to be an Aunt in Gilead, I wondered? Or a wife? All of those questions were answered in Atwood’s follow-up, released last year. It was also a much more pacy, page-turner-y read, like a dystopian thriller with a literary bent. You know what? Read them both! That’s the best way to be sure you’re getting everything you can from Atwood’s brilliant mind.

The Island Will Sink by Briohny Doyle

The Island Will Sink - Briohny Doyle - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Given our current situation, any list of the best dystopian novels must, by necessity, include a few examples of the burgeoning hybrid genre of “climate fiction” (also called cli-fi, or more generally anthropocene). Here’s one you might have missed: The Island Will Sink by Briohny Doyle. It’s set in a near future where the climate has changed, and late-stage capitalism has stepped in to try to stem the hemorrhage. It draws upon classic features of the dystopian genre – perpetual surveillance, infiltration, and distrust – and places them in a very timely imagining of what our world might turn into. Plus, it was published by the incredible local team at Brow Books, and you all know how I love to support OzLit!

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power - Naomi Alderman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What if we take a real-world problem – the oppression of women in patriarchal cultures – and find a supernatural “solution”? That’s effectively what Naomi Alderman has done in The Power. The world is recognisable as our own contemporary hellscape, with one crucial difference: suddenly, teenage girls have the physical power to cause agonising pain… and even kill. It’s a startling, and gripping, exploration of the ripple effects. I think it’s typically shelved as young-adult fiction, but almost everyone I know who has read this has been an adult-adult and loved it, so don’t let your preconceived ideas get in the way!

Daughter Of Bad Times by Rohan Wilson

Daughter Of Bad Times - Rohan Wilson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another crisis facing the real world: refugee migration. And another brilliant dystopian novel about how the “solution” might cause more problems than it solves: Daughter Of Bad Times. (Oh, and another awesome Aussie author, too: Rohan Wilson.) Australian immigration detention centers are turned into manufacturing plants, effectively taking private prisons and diversifying their revenue streams but slapping a family-friendly politically-advantageous label on their bastradry. The story unfolds around a tale of lost love, but it’s also a searing critique of the prioritisation of profit over people, and the logical conclusion of ignoring humanitarian values.

Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills

Dyschronia - Jennifer Mills - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Getting back onto the climate for a minute: what if the exact opposite of what is really happening (the sea levels rising) happened in fiction (the sea levels receding)? Throw in a surreal time-travel element and you’ve got Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills. One morning, the residents of a fictional small beach town wake up to find that the sea has disappeared, leaving an expanse of rotting marine carcasses and other gross stuff behind. Not great news for a community that wanted to market itself as a seaside retreat! They wonder why a local girl, who experiences migraines that allow her to see fuzzy versions of the future, didn’t warn them what was about to happen before it was too late. Dyschronia a really wild, trippy read, and perhaps less recognisably dystopian than the other novels on this list, but it’s definitely my number-one pick for people interested in reading more Australian climate fiction. Read my full review of Dyschronia here.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

C’mon, you had to know this was coming. No list of best dystopian novels is complete without the granddaddy of them all: Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a reason that “Orwellian” has become an adjective recognised across the English-speaking world! Even if you’ve not read this one yet (in which case, go do it, right now!), you’re familiar with its ideas: a totalitarian government keeps its citizens under constant surveillance, and a middle aged man – whose actual job is erasing archives and replacing them with fake news – decides to rebel. For me, the sign of a good dystopian book is one that teaches you something new every time you read it, and Nineteen Eighty-Four definitely does that.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It only seems fair, if Orwell gets a mention, that I throw Brave New World into the mix (Orwell and Huxley had serious beef, after all, and I wouldn’t want to be accused of playing favourites). This book actually started out as a satirical utopia, so Huxley’s vision of the future has a lot more sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll… but things turn to shit pretty quickly. An elite society stratifies everyone into a caste system and keeps them sedated with opiates and orgasms so that they don’t rise up and rebel. Huxley managed to predict a lot of the moral questions we still grapple with today about genetics, reproduction, psychology, and freedom. Read my full review of Brave New World here.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Clockwork Orange really defies categorisation when it comes to genre, so I’ll cop it on the chin if you want to argue that it’s not “really” one of the best dystopian novels. I’ve seen it described as horror, character study, science-fiction, and plenty more. That said, even though it largely centers on the story of one particular man (a classical-music-loving delinquent who gets off on raping and pillaging and generally wreaking havoc), and lacks the intricate world-building of most of the other dystopian books listed here, it still represents a version of a future that terrifies the pants off me. A police state that can use creepy machines in dark basements to brainwash me into vomiting at the sight of blood? “Activists” who want victims to puppet their political beliefs? No, thank you, please! Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, at first I wasn’t really sold on The Hunger Games. It was okay, but the trite love-triangle trope and the basic prose got in the way of my analysis. It’s only over time – and after watching the films, which (I duck for cover as I say this) I actually think are better than the books – that I’ve come to appreciate it for what it is: a really good introduction to dystopian novels for teens (and adults who are maybe nervous about dipping their toe in the water). In a post-apocalyptic North America, the land is divided into twelve poverty-ridden districts, surrounding one luxe and wealthy Capital. Each year, the districts must supply “tributes” – i.e., children and teenagers – to participate in The Hunger Games, an elaborate fight-to-the-death reality show for the entertainment of the Capital’s residents. I’m not saying it’s perfect, or that it’s particularly literary, but I would still say with conviction that it’s one of the best dystopian novels worth reading for newcomers to the genre. Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road - Cormac McCarthy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Road is probably one best suited to advanced-level dystopian readers, ones who are happy to take their stories bleeeaaakk. It’s like a super-twisted road trip novel, where a nameless protagonist and his son journey across a different kind of post-apocalyptic North America, where civilisation and humanity have pretty much disintegrated beyond recognition. McCarthy is typically sparse, but searing, in his writing, so it’s a short book but you’ll still want to give yourself a lot of time to process it (and maybe switch to something a bit more light-hearted straight after, unless you want to wind up in the depths of despair).

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I really wasn’t expecting to encounter a dystopian novel in Ishiguro’s backlist, but here we are. I thought Never Let Me Go was going to be a dark boarding school campus novel, and it is… kind of. He’s wily, that Ishiguro! He sneaks a lot of dystopian and science-fiction elements in when you’re not expecting them. I can’t actually say too much about the premise or plot, I think, without ruining it for other readers who come to it as naively as I did. If you’ve had this one simmering away on the back-burner of your to-be-read-list for a while, I recommend turning to it sooner rather than later – you’ll be glad you did!

Bonus Recommendations!

Here are a few that I’ve not yet read, but I’ve heard are well worthy of inclusion on any list of the best dystopian novels, too:

  • Vox by Christina Dalcher: the U.S. government suddenly decrees that women are no longer allowed to speak more than one hundred words a day… but they didn’t anticipate what would happen when women refuse to be silenced.
  • The Wall by John Lanchester: an island nation builds a giant concrete barrier around its coastline, ostensibly to protect itself from the refugees clambering to escape rising sea levels on the other side.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: actors scramble to survive the end of civilisation… I think? (I don’t know, every plot summary I read is confusing as all heck, but they all say it’s great!)
  • The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: “The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Virgin Suicides” says the blurb, when three young women have been isolated from the world and taught that men are evil… until three strange men wash up on shore, and they find out for themselves.
  • Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick: in the year 2021 (yep, we’re almost there!), a man is charged with tracking down and “retiring” rogue androids, only the androids are indistinguishable from humans and they don’t want to be found.

What would you recommend as the best dystopian novels? Do any on this list pique your interest? Let me know in the comments below! (And all reassurances that the world isn’t quite a dystopia just yet would be greatly appreciated…)

10 Bookish Confessions

Every booklover I know has some secret shame. Whether it’s a classic they’ve never read, or a “bad” book they love, there’s something that they hope their fellow booklovers never discover. Well, no more! Inspired by the radical vulnerability exhibited by the My Favorite Murder gals in their memoir Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, I’m going to put a bookish twist on a game from another one of my most-beloved podcasts, The Guilty Feminist. The host, Deborah Frances-White, starts every show with what she calls “exfoliation of shame”, declaring “I’m a feminist, but…” and confessing her sins. Here are my ten bookish confessions…

10 Bookish Confessions - Text Overlaid on Image of Makeshift Confession Booth - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a booklover, but… I hated The Great Gatsby

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

I’m starting off with an easy one, one I feel very little shame about at all, really: I really hated The Great Gatsby. I know, I know, it’s a “beautiful” story of the destructive power of the American dream… but it stank. The supposed quality of the writing (which, yeah, was okay) didn’t make up for the nonsense story. I suppose I might’ve liked it more if it hadn’t always been lauded as the “great American novel” or the “definitive story of the Jazz Age”. It is neither. It’s the story of a wealthy guy exploiting his privilege to stalk his married neighbour, and the narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Pffft! Hate it. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

I’m a booklover, but… Mr Rochester is one of my problematic faves.

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I loved Jane Eyre. Charlotte is definitely my favourite of the Brontës. The only thing is, her romantic lead – Mr Rochester – is problematic, to say the least. He exploits his position of power over his young governess in ways that would definitely see him called out on social media in a post-#metoo world. He’s a racist git who locks his Creole wife in the attic, because she had the audacity to get a bit cranky with him. I know all of this. And, yet, I can’t help but feel my heart go all aflutter when he and Jane get their happy ending. I’m not even a romantic, I swear! There’s just something about the two of them, and seeing such an earnest heroine finally get the love she’s been hoping for… I try to comfort myself with the fact that at least his wife extracted her revenge, setting a fire that left him severely wounded. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

I’m a booklover, but… I almost never listen to audiobooks.

I’m constantly espousing the benefits of audiobooks. I will shout down anyone who tries to say that listening to an audiobook isn’t “really” reading. I think that they’re an incredible, accessible resource, especially for folks with low vision or other disabilities that make traditional reading formats difficult. You could say I’m a strong advocate, to put it mildly. And yet, I never seem to actually get around to reading them myself! I have the app on my phone, I’m all set up, but there are just SO MANY GREAT PODCASTS to keep up with, all my listening time is used up on them. I know I’m only hurting myself, in the long run, and missing out on some great reading experiences. I’m actually thinking of joining one of those audiobook challenges, to give me the boot up the bum I clearly need… (if there’s one you can recommend, please drop it in the comments below!)

I’m a booklover, but… I’m really skeptical about self-published books.

Okay, now we’re getting into the real stuff. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that I get sent all types of books from all types of authors, including self-published ones. I’m lucky in that most of the self-published books I’ve been sent have been great! But *deep breath* I’ve also been sent some shockers, and I’ve encountered some self-published authors who are real dickheads. I don’t want to let a few bad apples spoil the barrel, but unfortunately they’ve made me super-skeptical, and I rarely pursue self-published books because of it. I know there are plenty of booklovers who love (even prefer) self-published books, and would say that I’m a snob or an elitist for being so selective with them – I promise, I’m not. I’ve just been burned before, and I can’t help that it makes me a little skittish.

I’m a booklover, but… I own books I’ll probably never read.

First, this is a simple matter of quantity: at last count, there were well over three hundred unread books on my shelves, I acquire at least a few more each week, and I very rarely part with books. Even if I read a book a day for years (which, given how chunky some of them are, seems like a pipe dream), I still wouldn’t get through them all. Then, there’s the matter of mood and taste. Keeping Up With The Penguins has really opened up my world when it comes to reading, and I’m far more game to try something new than I would have been before I started… but there are still some books I doubt I’ll ever be in the mood to pluck from my shelves. Many of them were gifts, or unsolicited review copies, or books I bought without really thinking it through. Why keep them, then? All kinds of reasons, but mostly “just in case”.

I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I recommend books I don’t like, or have never read.

HOLD YOUR ROTTEN TOMATOES! I know this is pretty much the cardinal sin for a book blogger, but hear me out. I would never “fake” recommend a book in a review here on the blog. When I call a book Recommended on Keeping Up With The Penguins, you can be damn sure that I’ve read it, loved it, and want to press it into your hands. I’m talking about those personal one-on-one recommendations, where a friend says “Hey, can you recommend a book for me/my lover/my cat-sitter?”. I always ask what they have in mind, or if they can tell me some books they’ve loved in the past, and use that to guide my recommendation. Sometimes – I stress, only sometimes – their answers lead me to think of books that, even though I didn’t love them personally, would probably really suit them. Or, I think of a book I’ve heard a lot about that sounds like the kind of thing they’d enjoy, even though I’ve not yet read it yet. So, really, it’s a good thing, right? Instead of forcing on them only books that I really love for myself, I’m taking their tastes and preferences into account. Right? Right?

I’m a booklover, but… I just didn’t “get” Mrs Dalloway.

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m pretty sure this one makes me both a bad booklover and a bad feminist. I really tried with Mrs Dalloway, I did. I’ve loved some of Virginia Woolf’s other writing, and I really thought I’d get a lot out of her (arguably) most famous novel. But I just didn’t “get” it! It was so hard to follow! I had to re-read every sentence three times, and even then, it all just leaked through, like the book turned my brain into a sieve. I think I actually *gulp* preferred Ulysses, the notoriously unreadable book to which Woolf was responding. I’m open to trying Mrs D again in the future, maybe I’ll get more out of it the second time round, but for now, I’d rather just re-watch The Hours. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

I’m a booklover, but… I find it really hard to DNF a book (any book, even one I hate).

For the uninitiated, to “DNF” means to abandon a book without finishing it – it’s a “did not finish”. I feel like every other booklover in the world has told me that it’s great to DNF a book, that it frees you up to read something you enjoy, that life’s too short to waste on books that won’t fulfill you. The thing is, I’m a dirty completionist at heart; when I start something, I feel compelled to finish it. That’s why I suffered through to the end of those dreadful self-published efforts I mentioned earlier, and books like The Great Gatsby, American Sniper, and others I really didn’t like. Maybe it’s foolishly optimistic of me, like there’s a small part of me that hopes it’ll turn around or magically get better… but, whatever the case, at least you can be confident that every book I review here, I have read from cover to cover.

I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I like the movie better than the book.

It’s rare that I watch film or TV adaptations of books. In fact, I don’t really watch all that many films or TV shows at all, so if I do happen to watch one based on a book, it’s usually just a happy coincidence. That said, sometimes I actually prefer the movie to the book (and yes, I heard you gasp out loud just now). I certainly enjoyed the HBO series of Game Of Thrones way more than I enjoyed the book version. Same goes for the HBO take on Fahrenheit 451 (which I actually reviewed here on the blog, by the way). I love the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s so much that I’ve sworn to myself I’ll never read the original Capote novella on which it is based, just in case it ruins it for me. I know the general wisdom is “don’t judge a book by its movie”, and normally the screen versions fall short, but there are exceptions.

I’m a booklover, but… I really judge people who don’t use bookmarks, or otherwise damage their books.

Look, I’m not saying they’re going to hell or anything, but seriously! I think the world would be a better place if no one ever dog-eared a book or cracked a spine ever again. And I don’t judge them that harshly (I mean, I married one such monster – and I only occasionally shame him by sharing photos of books he’s destroyed on my Instagram). I’m more open to the idea of marginalia, where the defacement of a book actually serves the purpose of engaging with the text, or writing inscriptions in gifts to loved ones (always fun and heartwarming to find those in a secondhand book), but otherwise just… don’t. Get a bookmark, and/or a book sleeve, and show your books some goddamn respect. Sheesh!

Now come on, don’t leave me hanging, here! Share your bookish confessions in the comments below, and we can all exfoliate our shame together…

What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 Books For 2020?

It’s really comforting to know that, even in these uncertain times, there are certain things that a book lover can rely on, like the release of the Dymocks Top 101. Every year, thousands of Australian readers vote on their most beloved books, and those fine booksellers publish the results. I love leafing through this list each year, and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted – much more fun than plain-old same-old lists of best selling books and professional critic round-ups. This is bookish democracy at its finest! Plus, this year, there was a world first: a tie for first place! Here’s my take on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020…

Dymocks Top 101 Books 2020 - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookstore - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief - Books Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Two former number ones, both alike in dignity… turns out, Australia just couldn’t decide between them! It was a dead heat for the number one spot, so Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief tied for first. Eleanor Oliphant got the gong in the 2019 list, and The Book Thief has been lingering around the top 10 ever since it was first released thirteen years ago. Impressive, on both fronts! Zusak maybe has a slight edge, given that his recent follow-up, Bridge Of Clay, also made the list (number 47). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

3. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And here’s one that would come as no surprise to anyone at all. You couldn’t swing a bookmark in Australia these past twelve months without hitting a copy of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. Billed as equally heartbreaking and uplifting, this is a coming of age story that appeals to readers right across the spectrum. It’s got a bit of everything: romance, crime, adventure, humour, and family ties.

4. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another former number one (but fourth place is still very respectable!): All The Light We Cannot See. It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction that won hearts and minds across the world. In it, a German orphan and a blind French girl are destined to cross paths as they both try to play the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Oh, and there’s a precious jewel and a Nazi treasure hunter… Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

5. The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Harper is one of the most formidable crime writing talents to come out of Australia in the past decade. Her debut, The Dry, came in at number five, and her two follow ups – The Lost Man and Force Of Nature – also made the list, at 11 and 92 respectively. This is the book that introduced Aaron Falk, hard-boiled Australian Federal Police investigator. He reluctantly returns to his hometown to mourn the passing of a childhood friend, and (of course) finds himself drawn into a mystery, in the midst of the worst drought of the century… A feature film, starring Eric Bana, is slated for release later this year (corona-willing).

6. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, maybe it’s cheating to put an entire series in, but at least it frees up a few extra slots for other great reads in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020. I think we can safely say that Harry Potter is officially a classic now – and not one of those contemporary classics that we’ll all forget about eventually, but a classic-classic that we’ll be reading and enjoying for generations to come. I actually kind of look forward to the day that we see these books shelved alongside Dickens and Austen…

9. Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s almost a cliche, by this point, for anyone who has ever stepped foot in the White House to write a memoir (especially if they intend to return). Michelle Obama, however, managed to break the mold. Becoming is no whistle-blowing take-down of the upper echelons, nor is it a simpering testament to the magic of democracy. It’s a refreshing and compelling account of the experiences that shaped America’s first black First Lady. I almost held off picking up this one (it’s the contrarian nature in me), but the consistent, long-term hype wore me down.

13. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Look, I can’t deny that I’m overjoyed to see Dark Emu on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020… but I also can’t deny that I’m disappointed to see that it didn’t rank higher. In my view, Pascoe’s account of the true Indigenous agricultural history of this nation should be required reading for all Australians and all who come here. It was voted as the inaugural Parliamentary Book Club read, where constituents chose it as the book they most wanted their elected representatives to read, and shot back to the top of the best-seller list over Christmas as book lovers came out in droves to buy it for their loved ones.

14. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another one I’m really happy to see made the cut (again): The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. In fact, it seems to climb higher and higher in the Dymocks Top 101 list each year. This is a disarmingly honest account of one of Australia’s most beloved comedians and artists, and his family’s journey to reach our shores from Vietnam. It’s one of my favourites to recommend to anyone who expresses an opinion about “boat people” (ugh). Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

15. The Rosie Trilogy by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Rosie books have really captured the hearts and minds of a lot of Australians. It all started with The Rosie Project, where a neurodivergent man finds love with the titular Rosie. She’s nothing like he would have expected he’d find alluring – in fact, she’s a bit of a wreck, but those crazy kids make it work. I give Simsion props for kicking the rom-com cliches to the curb; not only did he invert the much-maligned Grease storyline, he didn’t settle for the “and then they lived happily ever after” ending either. The subsequent novels, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result, follow Don and Rosie as they travel around the world, settle into wedded bliss, and raise a child. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

17. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ever since the HBO adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t just surged in popularity; it’s become emblematic of the struggle to resist conservative governments around the world. Women have shown up wearing red Handmaid robes to protest the passage of legislation that would limit their right to access to health-care. But it’s not just the show: people are returning to the book again and again, and I think it’s safe to say we could now hold it on par with other dystopian classics like Nineteen Eighty Four. Plus, there was the sequel released last year, The Testaments, which came in on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 at number 32. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

26. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I used to roll my eyes whenever I saw Pride And Prejudice in a best-of books list. I mean, what a cliche, right? Well, I’m a convert now – it’s a cliche for a reason, people! I had no fewer than half a dozen aborted attempts to read this classic of English literature, but I got there in the end and I’m SO glad I persisted. For the skeptics out there, let me reassure you that it’s not all gowns and marriage prospects and fluffing about. There’s serious social and political commentary here, and dashing men making foolish decisions and having the women in their lives dress them down for it. Oh, and there’s tea. Can’t have too much tea. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

28. A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin

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

I called it last year, folks: the A Song Of Ice And Fire series is going to be hanging around in the Dymocks Top 101 books for a long, long time, thanks to the unparalleled popularity of the HBO series (that finally concluded last year). Fantasy, particularly High Fantasy(TM), is not usually my thing – I get too lost and confused with all the made up place names and people names and languages and whatnot, even if there’s a helpful guide in the front. But, having watched the adaptation, I actually found A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series, quite easy to follow. I even (gasp) enjoyed it. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

31. Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tara Westover’s story is so incredible that her memoir, Educated, basically sells itself. She was born to a survivalist family, so isolated from society that there was no one around to ensure that she received any kind of proper schooling. She didn’t step foot into a classroom until she was seventeen years old. In this book, she recounts how she pursued her love of learning – all the way to Cambridge University, where she earned a PhD! – and reckoned with the “real” world, so different from that in which she was raised.

34. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m actually kind of shocked that Big Little Lies didn’t rank higher in the Dymocks Top 101 books for this year, but given the strength of the contenders, coming in the mid-thirties is still very respectable. That goes double when you take into account that this book was published six(!) years ago, and one of Liane Moriarty’s other best sellers, The Husband’s Secret, also made the cut (at number 89). I worried for a long time that I was going to be the last person left alive who hadn’t read this perennially popular domestic thriller, but I finally got around to it this year (and just in time to avoid spoilers from the TV show adaptation!). Read my full review of Big Little Lies here, and my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.

36. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australia has seen a whole slew of brilliant life-writing from women in the #MeToo era, bravely disclosing the details of various assaults and harassment that they have suffered in silence over many years. Eggshell Skull is one of the best, because Bri Lee offers a particularly interesting and unique perspective on the experiences of women who come forward. She trained as a lawyer, and worked as a judge’s associate on a regional court circuit for a year. That meant that she saw the system from the “inside”, how the trial and prosecution of people charged with sexual assaults actually works (or doesn’t), and the “outside”, as she herself comes forth as a victim. Hopefully, the inclusion of books such as hers on the Dymocks Top 101 represents a major shift in cultural attitudes towards believing women and paving the way for past injustices to be addressed.

38. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This book is the little-engine-that-could of international best-sellers. On the face of it, A Little Life doesn’t have many points in its favour. It’s long (SUPER long, could-use-it-as-a-doorstop long). It’s depressing (most editions have a cover that features a close up of a man crying hysterically). Hanya Yanagihara is a woman of colour, a group embarrassingly under-represented in the upper echelons of publishing. And yet, here we are, five years after the release of this juggernaut, still singing its praises! That’s what you love to see…

39. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson

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

It would seem that no matter how few fucks you give, you could always give fewer. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck is well on its way to becoming a classic of the self-help genre – it spawned at least a dozen knock-offs, and sparked a trend in obscenity in book titles (which I, for one, wholeheartedly support). Of course, Manson has gone on to write a follow up, which also did well, but it’s the original that Dymocks booklovers voted into the Top 101 books for 2020.

40. Normal People by Sally Rooney

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

I think, in a few decades or so, we’ll look back at Normal People as one of the defining Millennial(TM) novels. From what I’ve read, I don’t think Rooney would be particularly pleased to hear it described that way, but them’s the breaks – you can’t just go and be the voice of a generation and then let it get up your nose. This story of an extraordinarily complex emotional entanglement between two young adults has resonated with a lot of folks, and a BBC adaptation is coming later this month.

42. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another trend-setter: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn can surely be credited with the renewed interest in dark psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators. We’re positively drowning in them, now! I think this one was particularly popular because it came right on the cusp of the moment where we saw a serious shift, a new wave of critical attention to the power differential between men and women. Plus, it brought suspense and intrigue and violence into the hetero marriage, a normally-comfortable setting. Or, maybe this is all overreach – maybe it’s just a really pacy page-turner. Either way!

43. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

If you’re surprised to see this modern classic in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2020, you shouldn’t be. To Kill A Mockingbird has been in every Dymocks Top 101 that I can remember. I think the key is its wide appeal – everyone, from young teens to old crones, can enjoy it – and its timeless message regarding social justice. We’re probably a little more sensitive now to some of the harmful tropes employed by Lee to get her message across (the “white saviour” being the most prominent), but I don’t think that diminishes the comfort and inspiration we can take from her only (true) novel. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

48. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a shame that Scandinavian writers get so much attention for their crime noir thrillers when they’re pumping out heart-warming up-lifting books like A Man Called Ove. Fredrik Backman was a humble Swedish blogger who burst onto the literary scene, and into our hearts, when this book was translated into English back in 2013. It’s the story of a crotchety old man (called Ove, naturally) who’s fed up with just about everything, a condition only exacerbated by the arrival of his noisy, nosy new neighbours. Backman has been making us cry – happy tears, and sad ones – for years now, and will likely go on doing so for years yet.

49. 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

Gone Girl might have jockeyed ahead in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but The Girl On The Train is holding on strong! This domestic thriller follows the interweaving lives of three very different women: Rachel (the alcoholic with the history of fertility issues), Anna (the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, and stay-at-home mum to the infant Rachel might’ve had), and Megan (who lives a few doors down from Anna). Rachel sees no harm in peering into Anna and Megan’s lives from the window of her train as she passes every day, but then she witnesses something that might be a clue to what could be a crime… Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

50. 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 don’t mean to be rude, but I am truly baffled by the continuing popularity of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. (Maybe I’m just bitter because it beat out my favourite to win the Booker Prize, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, back in 2014.) Sure, I can appreciate Flanagan’s skill in depicting the harsh realities of war, specifically life for prisoners working on the Burma railway, but the whole “love story” was just so overwrought and unnecessary… But, clearly, I’ve been outvoted, Aussie book lovers are still enchanted by it. Read my full review of The Narrow Road To The Deep North here.

53. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every time I talk on the internet about The Fault In Our Stars, I live in fear of enraged teens hunting me down with buckets full of rotting tomatoes. But I can’t lie: it’s just not good. Reading it, I felt like John Green just made a list of every single thing that might pull on our heartstrings (star cross’d lovers, teen cancer, disappointing role models) and ticked them off one by one. That said, I’d still recommend that everyone reads it; there’s going to be a whole bunch of future doctors and nurses that came to their profession because they read this book, and we want to have something to talk to them about while they’re caring for us in our old age, don’t we? Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

54. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know I’m a big ol’ skeptic, and when I read The Alchemist I was a little snarky about it, but even I can’t begrudge Aussie book lovers for turning to an allegorical tale of faith and destiny in trying times. Plus, this is an easy read, not too tough to digest, and it might give you a little glimmer of hope when the news has filled you full of existential dread. It’s your standard hero’s journey, complete with buried treasure and a saccharine ending that tells us, once again, that sometimes even our biggest dreams lead us right back home. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

56. Mythos by Stephen Fry

Mythos - Stephen Fry - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve got to admit, I’ve always felt particularly stupid (for many reasons, but one in particular is relevant here) for how little I know about the Greeks and Greek mythology. That’s why I feel particularly lucky – as do a lot of Dymocks readers, it would seem – that Stephen Fry put together this marvelously accessible re-telling of a selection of myths in Mythos. It’s funny, it’s readable, and it’ll at least give you some frame of reference next time someone starts talking Ovid at a party (also, you might want to start going to better parties).

61. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are certainly not over! There are several featured in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but my personal pick is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Over the course of three books, it charts the complex and fascinating history of Korea’s relationship with Japan, through the story of one Korean family who (eventually) migrates to Japan, and then across the world to America. It deconstructs their experiences of racism and power and, as the title would suggest, the symbolic power of the pachinko machines.

63. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Non-fiction doesn’t tend to feature as prominently in the Dymocks lists, but the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 had some strong contenders, including this one: Sapiens. It is a detailed survey of the history of human evolution, from the Stone Age right up to the 21st century. Setting aside some searing criticisms from academics in the field (what would those boffins know?), this book has been extremely popular, and it has introduced a slew of readers to the field of evolutionary biology, an area in which they might not otherwise have had any interest at all. A fascinating read, if nothing else!

65. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Jane Eyre – an oldie, but a goodie! Alongside other classics, like Pride And Prejudice, this seems to be a book that never goes out of style. Naturally, a lot of the more troubling elements have been roundly criticised of late (Mr Rochester is the very definition of a problematic fave – hello, Creole wife locked in the attic and gross exploitation of young female employees!), but that doesn’t negate the nostalgic attachment many readers feel for what is perhaps the coziest and most comforting of the Brontë books. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

67. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We are truly living in the golden age of young adult literature! No longer is it solely the domain of patronising and/or sentimental guff. In fact, it’s probably where some of the most exciting, diverse, and challenging writing is being done – case in point, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Despite being quite specific to the situation of racial injustice in policing in the United States (don’t get me wrong, we’ve got our own problems here, too!), it’s found a wide readership in Australia. I think that’s because, at its heart, it’s about the symbiotic relationship between fear and oppression, and the bravery it takes to smash down barriers.

72. 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

You know, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was always a great comfort read (which is why we see it in the Dymocks Top 101 books pretty much every year), but perhaps it’s got a new resonance this year because it’s chock-full of advice on how to survive the end of the world. Step one: DON’T PANIC! Step two: check on the dolphins. Step three: always pack a towel. If you’re not lucky enough to have befriended a nearby alien with a getaway-spaceship handy, at least you can make the most of the rest of Adams’ oddly prescient advice. Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

74. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Erin Morgenstern burst onto the scene back in 2011 with her incredibly-popular debut novel, The Night Circus… and then she disappeared for years. Finally, she’s back, with The Starless Sea and fans have been frothing at the mouth for it (so no surprise to see it made the cut for the Dymocks Top 101). It’s dreamy, light-fantasy story, with underground cities and libraries and keys and honey and bees… oh my! Read my full review of The Starless Sea (for Primer) here.

78. The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover

The Land Before Avocado - Richard Glover - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’d long suspected that the misty-eyed nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” in Australia was a complete crock. Thankfully, Richard Glover has confirmed by theory in The Land Before Avocado – and its popularity proves to me that I’m not alone! He deconstructs all of the myths around the “simpler times” and the “lazy, hazy days”, and reminds us of what it was actually like growing up in the Australia of his childhood in his typically hilarious style. Would you REALLY want to return to the days where you couldn’t get smashed avo on toast at the local cafe? I didn’t think so!

88. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by 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

Look, if I had it my way, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared would be in the top 10 of every Dymocks list from now until the end of time. It is my ultimate cheer-up read, my go-to gift for loved ones who need a laugh. Just these past couple of weeks, I’ve thrust it into many, many hands. It’s a delightful romp across the world, following a centenarian who – as the title suggests – jumps out the window of his nursing home to avoid a tedious birthday party, and goes on an adventure. I cannot fathom what kind of humourless nincompoop wouldn’t get a few decent belly laughs out of this charming tale. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

90. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Personally, I wavered on reading Ann Patchett for years, mostly because I simply could not figure out where to start. Many trusted readers recommended I try Commonwealth to begin, while others said Bel Canto is her best, while still others insisted I read State Of Wonder. The release of The Dutch House last year seems to have changed all that, though – it’s unequivocally, democratically(!), now the most popular of all her books among Australian readers. So, that settled that!

93. The Martian by Andy Weir

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

Whenever someone tells me that they “don’t read sci-fi” (especially if they wrinkle their nose as they say it), The Martian is the book that I put in their hands. It’s THAT good. Set in a not-too-distant future, it imagines the story of an astronaut left stranded alone on Mars, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from help or even a simple “hello”. It sounds depressing as all heck, but the narrator, Mark Watney, is one of the funniest characters I’ve ever read in fiction. This one manages to be a science lesson, a page turner, and great fun, all at once! Read my full review of The Martian here.

95. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who could resist a delightfully satirical romantic comedy that sees Singapore’s most eligible bachelor married off to a fashion icon in the high-stakes “wedding of the year”? What I like most about Crazy Rich Asians is that, even though much has (rightfully) been made of its success in diversity and representation in a sadly whitewashed contemporary genre, it’s delightful and endearing and entertaining in its own right. This book is not a “diversity pick” or a box to check, it’s just a sparkling, witty, glorious read.

99. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Often, a true story is so incredible, you wouldn’t believe it if it were fiction. That’s what I think every time I see The Trauma Cleaner. Crime-scene and trauma clean-up is a fascinating and bizarre job in and of itself, but the life journey of the trauma cleaner in question, Sandra Pankhurst, takes this book to a whole new level. I don’t think I can say it better than the blurb: “Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…” I mean, come on! If that doesn’t pique your interest, seek help.

100. Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

Your Own Kind Of Girl - Clare Bowditch - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I first encountered Clare Bowditch in her recurring guest role on the beloved and much-missed Aussie TV show, Offspring. I figured she had some kind of musical background, given that her character was a singer and often performed. It turns out, there was a whoooole lot more that I didn’t know, and she revealed it all in Your Own Kind Of Girl. This is the kind of memoir that will have your jaw drop, purely for the incredible bravery it takes to be THAT honest about your life, your anxieties, and the monsters that hide under your bed. My hat goes off to Clare Bowditch for sharing her story, and I’m glad to see it here in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 – hopefully, that means it’s reached scores of other girls of their own kind, too.

101. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Well, this Dymocks Top 101 list sure did save the biggest surprise for last! But, if I’m honest, I’m not sure what’s more surprising. Is it that Little Women wasn’t ranked higher, given the success of the most recent film adaptation? Or is it that Little Women ranked at all, given that SO many people (very, very wrongly) look down on this “sentimental” classic? Whatever the case, I’m happy to see it made the cut. I stand by my conviction that Little Women is actually a deeply subversive and feminist book, and that Louisa May Alcott doesn’t get NEARLY enough adulation, and it would seem that at least a handful of other Aussie book lovers are willing to back me up on it. Read my full review of Little Women here.

General Comments on the Dymocks Top 101 Books for 2020

Last year, Kate Maynor from Dymocks predicted a surge in the popularity of “uplit”, books that leave you feeling uplifted and energised. I think we’ve seen that play out here, with the inclusion of Eleanor Oliphant, Becoming, A Man Called Ove, and so on. I think it makes sense now, more than ever, that people are looking to “escape” the dreariness of the “real” world by diving into books that make them smile (and I’m especially glad that we might finally shake this elitist nonsense about looking down on “escapist” books once and for all!).

Notable exclusions: I’m really surprised that we didn’t see any Andre Aciman in this year’s list (Call Me By Your Name, or his recently-released sequel Find Me). I am freaking OVERJOYED, however, that we finally kicked The Great Gatsby off its stupid perch. And I would have loved to see one of my personal favourites from last year, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, make the cut. Ah well, there’s always next year!

All told, 37 of this year’s 101 books were written by Aussie authors – not bad, but I think we could do better! Reading local is the best way to keep our literary scene thriving, especially with the headwinds authors and publishers and booksellers are going to face over the next few months (even years). 64 of the books were written by women, which is an (awesome!) uptick on last year, and much better reflects the contribution that women are making to literature and the arts.

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

Life After The List: Reflections on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who loved reading. All her life, she’d escaped into books, learned and lived through them. She worried, though, that she didn’t read the “right” books. Everyone she knew seemed to have read classic books and best-sellers that she’d never even heard of. Fear kept her from trying anything new. She kept re-reading her old favourites over and over again, and just tried to bluff her way through conversations about other books that she had never picked up. One night, after a long day at her miserable office job, she had a thought: bugger it. She pulled up a list of the Guardian’s 100 best books written in English. She pulled up that year’s Dymocks 101. She tried to recall every book everyone had ever recommended to her. She scrambled them all up and made for herself a reading list: 109 books she “should” have read already. She started reading them, one by one, and taking notes as she went. Those notes became reviews, and she started publishing them online. That young woman was me, and those reviews are all here, on Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Life After The List - Reflections on Keeping Up With The Penguins - Text Overlaid on Image of Man Standing on Rock at Waterfall - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the last couple weeks, since finally finishing that original reading list with Ulysses, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the best (and the worst) of it all. Still, I had some thoughts that couldn’t be crammed into those round-ups. I’ll forgive you if you want to skip this self-indulgent nostalgic meander through the cobwebs of my mind, but this project has changed my life in more ways than one, and I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the past couple of years.

As I alluded to earlier, at the time I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I was working an office job that wasn’t right for me. I was miserable, exhausted, and just treading water – trying to survive, never moving forward. I remember crying to a friend at one point that the highlight of every day was reading a book on the bus to and from work. Those little windows of time, where I could stick my nose in between the pages and find myself somewhere else for a while, were what brought me the most joy out of anything I did on any given day. Something had to change.

And it did (or, should I say, I did). I quit the job – not in a particularly graceful fashion, I’ll admit, but I did it, and it was absolutely the best decision I ever made. I’m not sure I would have done it had I not started Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs to read books. That’s a pipe dream. What I’m saying is that the choice to start something different, to just try reading books I’d never read before, started a boulder running down the hill. It expanded my thinking, it opened me up to new possibilities about what my life could be. For me, it was reading books, but it could be anything for anyone: crochet, martial arts, speed dating, windsurfing, listening to podcasts, keeping a journal, going for walks. You never know what might be the thing that will change your life: the only way, as my mother would say, is to “suck it and see”.

But enough heavy stuff about life! I’m not a guru. What about the books?!

It’s annoying, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned from all these books, all this reading, is a bit of a cliche: don’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, the “cover” is metaphorical, but that’s basically the gist of it. There were so many books – SO many books! – that I would NEVER have picked up had it not been for Keeping Up With The Penguins. The classics were “too hard”, young adult was “too sappy”, fantasy was “too complicated”, sci-fi was “too nerdy”… I had all of these preconceived ideas, about genres and about specific books, and this project forced me to set them aside and forge ahead anyway. The example I point to all the time is Crime And Punishment. I was VERY sure that I was in for a dense, dull, depressing read – I mean, it’s Russian – and yet it was one of the most wonderful, hilarious, relatable reads of this whole project.

And that brings me to a related lesson: say what you think, no matter what it is, because there’s someone out there waiting for you to say it. One of my best, most-treasured memories of Keeping Up With The Penguins came shortly after I published my review of Crime And Punishment. To protect the innocent, I won’t name names, but a woman in her late 70s got in touch to say that she’d refused to read Crime And Punishment all her life, for the same reasons I had (dense, dull, depressing, etc.). But, having read my review, she finally felt confident about giving it a go. That’s why I’ve always been 100% frank in my reviews here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. If I think a book stinks, I say so, no matter what. If I think it’s great, the same. I try to be fair, not nasty, and give adequate explanation as to the reasons for my opinions, but whatever the case, I’m always going to be straight with you. It’s an approach that has rubbed some people the wrong way (I’ve had more than one rotten tomato lobbed in my direction for my opinions on American Sniper and The Great Gatsby), but I think it’s worth it if what I say resonates for even one reader out there.

I think a lot of this project was about giving myself permission. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I know logically that I don’t need to wait for permission to read a book, any book, and no one can give it to me anyway. Still, I had all of these subconscious worries and doubts: I’m not educated enough to understand the classics, I’m not smart enough to follow experimental prose, I’m not arty enough to enjoy poetry… And you know what? Even if all of those suppositions are true, I can read the books anyway. My husband gave me the best advice when I was reading Moby Dick, and it’s something that I’ve carried with me ever since, with every book I read: “let go of the idea that you’re going to understand everything, just take from it what you can”. So, now, I give myself permission to not completely understand a book. I give myself permission to read one even if I don’t think I’ll enjoy it. And, further to my last lesson, I give myself permission to tell the truth about it. Another example: I didn’t love Mrs Dalloway, even though I “should” have, but I gave myself permission to let it go over my head and to tell the truth about it (even if it makes me a “bad feminist”).

And, of course, I learned a lot personally, about my reading tastes and how I read best. It turns out, I like diversity: in authorship, in content, in form, in style. If I read too many of the same type of books in a row, I get antsy and frustrated – no “book flights” for me. I like humour: even when the subject is “serious”, I’m far more likely to engage with a book that makes me laugh (and I don’t have to feel ashamed about that). I now know that if I’m already thinking about a person I want to give a book to before I even finish it, that it’s a winner – that’s like my brain’s way of telling me YOU LOVE THIS BOOK! And I’m actually pretty good at recommending books to people, with their specific tastes and interests in mind. All of this I only learned through Keeping Up With The Penguins. I think, had I read the same number of books but not taken the time to write down my feelings about them, I might’ve never noticed these patterns.

Alright, I think that’s enough for the moment! From now on, it’s back to regular reviews and bookish chat (at least until I next start feeling philosophical). What do you reckon? About books, about life, about anything? Let me know in the comments!

Worst Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List

Last week, I shared a wonderful round-up of my best reads from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list… but let’s be real: I know you all come here for my snark. This project has led me to some incredible books that immediately became life-long favourites, but it’s also led me to some real stinkers. It seems only fair that I also share this companion round-up: the absolute worst of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.

The Worst Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List - Text Overlaid on Mosaic Tiles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 I might be the only person alive who didn’t have to read this book in high-school. I’m not sure how that happened, but it did, which meant I came to The Great Gatsby for Keeping Up With The Penguins with a weight of expectation. It’s the “definitive Jazz Age novel”, a “beautiful” story about the “decline of the American Dream”… hooey! Nick Carraway thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Owning a fancy fast car will come back to bite you in the arse. Blah, blah, blah. I fail to understand why this is a staple on every high-school English syllabus when there are other great books out there that would offer much better insight (and would be way more fun to read, into the bargain). Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent - Veronica Roth - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I think back to Divergent, there are two things I remember (neither of them flattering). The first is that it felt like Veronica Roth just took the idea of the sorting into Houses from Harry Potter, mixed it with the teen girl protagonist who has to save the world from The Hunger Games, and spat out the flimsiest house-of-cards excuse for a dystopia in the history of fiction. The second thing I remember is the single worst sentence I encountered in this entire project: “I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery”. (Or maybe I should say it was the best sentence I encountered, because it made me snort so hard my nose still hurts.) I do not recommend this book, not even for the teenager in your life that’s teetering on the edge of becoming angsty. Read my full review of Divergent here.

The Golden Bowl by Henry James

The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a dirty finisher. A completionist. I hate to put a book down before I’ve turned the final page (and I certainly can’t bring myself to review a book I haven’t finished reading). The Golden Bowl put all that to the test. I can’t recall another instance where I came so close to abandoning a book in this entire project. I hated it! The Turn Of The Screw wasn’t so bad, and as far as plot goes, The Golden Bowl’s is alright (a love quadrangle complete with extramarital affairs and step-parents)… but DAMN, James needed to CALM DOWN. To say that his writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. It was basically impenetrable – I had to resort to looking up chapter summaries online just to figure out what the fuck he was trying to say with ALL THOSE WORDS and ALL THOSE COMMAS. Henry James and I are done. Finished. Kaput. On pure principle, I will never pick up another book of his as long as I live. Read my full review of The Golden Bowl here.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might seem strange that I’m including The Fault In Our Stars here, given that I’ve certainly referenced elsewhere as a book you should read before you die. I stand by that: so many teens have read and fallen in love with this book, I don’t doubt that many of them will end up paramedics, doctors, and palliative care nurses as a result. But let’s be clear: that’s the only reason to read this book, as far as I can tell. I want to have something to talk about with the doctor or nurse that takes care of me in a nursing home someday. As for the book itself? Trite nonsense, transparently designed to try and pull on my heartstrings. The “love interest”, Augustus? He was such a pretentious cockwomble! “Oh, I put cigarettes in my mouth but never light them because it’s a metaphor!” = get in the fucking bin, mate. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

The Call Of The Wild by Jack London

The Call Of The Wild - Jack London - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever I see The Call Of The Wild shelved in the children’s section of any bookstore, I leave immediately. To call this a “children’s book” is the most sick, twisted, fucked-up thing I can imagine. I thought it was going to be the story of a dog who went camping in the woods. Do you know what I got? Dog-napping and death. Seriously! Humans killing dogs. Dogs killing humans. Dogs killing each other. I couldn’t stand it! I don’t care if all the trauma was interspersed with beautiful place writing about the Klondike, I don’t care if Jack London had some grand point to make about humanity and nature: this book was traumatic in the extreme and I would strongly urge any dog-lover (really, any person with a feeling bone and a beating heart in their bodies) to STAY AWAY from it, for their own good. Read my full review of The Call Of The Wild here.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know, as far as 18th century novels go, Gulliver’s Travels wasn’t bad. It was certainly more readable than Robinson Crusoe or The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I could totally get behind some of Swift’s sociopolitical commentary: the ridiculousness of the Lilliputians at war over the correct way to crack an egg was genius. The thing is, I just could not get past what an absolute arsehole Gulliver was to his wife. Seriously! He just keeps gallivanting off on these doomed adventures, leaving her at home alone raising their kids for years at a time, never knowing whether she’ll ever see him again, whether he’s even alive or dead. Then, when he does come home for good, do you know what he does? He tells her she smells (I’m not being facetious, literally her odor was now “offensive” to him), and spends the rest of his life living in the stables, ankle-deep in horse shit. Occasionally, he’ll deign to dine with her, as long as she sits at the other end of the table and doesn’t speak too much. Gulliver is a dickwad, and I care not a dot for his stupid travels, thank you very much. Read my full review of Gulliver’s Travels here.

American Sniper by Chris Kyle

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

American Sniper, where to start? Whenever I share my feelings about this book, someone somewhere pops up to smack me down for them. Chris Kyle was a “true patriot”, apparently, and I’m “disrespecting his sacrifice” by calling his book a steaming turd. But you know what? I stand by that description (though it may be a little too kind). It’s not just that it was badly written – it really was, even with two ghost writers on the payroll. It’s that the worldview it espoused was horrific. Kyle was the “most lethal sniper” in the history of the U.S. military, and it would seem that he became that way by developing a sickening obsession with guns and violence from a very early age, and unquestioningly accepting the propaganda of American cultural imperialism. He never once conceded that he was shooting actual human beings in Iraq: they were reduced to “targets”, “bad guys”, “savages”, “motherfuckers”. He actually said, with pride, that he “didn’t shoot everyone holding a Koran – he’d like to, but he didn’t”. I’d shelve this book next to Mein Kampf, and any other manifesto written to inspire hatred. I’m not sure I could even justify recommending it under the guise of “know your enemy”. Read my full review of American Sniper here.

Whew! That was cathartic! What do you reckon – have I been too harsh? Are there any I should give a second chance? Or are there some huge stinkers I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List

Long before I even thought of starting this blog, I sat down and made a list: a hundred-and-nine books I felt I “should” have read already. A lot of them were classics, some were more contemporary best-sellers, all of them were pretty much unknown quantities. I took notes as I read about what I liked and what I didn’t, and those notes became reviews, and those reviews became Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now that I’ve finished reading my way through that original list (never fear, the blog will continue and more reviews are coming!) I’m feeling all nostalgic and shit. I thought I’d take a look back at my greatest hits: the best of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.

The Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List - Text Overlaid on Mosaic Tiles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

Even after I read all the blurbs and the accolades, I had no idea what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was going to be about when I sat down to start reading it. Turns out, there’s a very good reason for that. This book had the mother-of-all twists that came seventy pages in, one that completely turns the story on its head. It has set the standard for all plot twists in every book I’ve read since (and very few have lived up to it). But that’s not the only reason to read this book: it’s funny, it’s touching, and I swear it made me a better person. Whenever I’m asked to give a book recommendation for a complete stranger, this is the first one I suggest. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Short History Of Everything wasn’t a completely unknown quantity. I’d read Bill Bryson’s Down Under years ago, and loved it – it’s hard not to be charmed by his folksy style, his wry humour, and his insightful anecdotes. Still, A Short History Of Nearly Everything is in a league of its own. It’s practically a masterclass on how to write about complex topics for the everyday reader. Somehow, Bryson managed to make the most intricate jargon-y scientific and historical knowledge of humankind accessible, understandable, and – most importantly of all – fun! I know it’s a few years out of date now (my edition still says Pluto is a planet, whoops!), but I still use fun facts from this book on a daily basis. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

When I was putting together my original reading list, I knew I had to include Dickens. He was my late grandfather’s favourite author, and I always regretted not having read any of his work while Granddad was still alive; I know we would have had incredible discussions about it. I went with David Copperfield because I read that Dickens had said it was his personal favourite, and who am I to question the author? It totally held up to all of my expectations – exceeded them, even, high as they were! It’s a long, long book, but it didn’t feel like it. I devoured it like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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

I’m a true crime junkie, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I listen to the podcasts, and follow the breaking news on cold cases. And now, having read it, I can see why In Cold Blood is considered essential reading, the foundational text, of the true crime genre. Capote spent six years investigating the Clutter murders, taking over eight thousand pages of notes (helped by his best buddy, Harper Lee, don’t forget), and whittled them down into this incredible book, the “first true crime novel” as he called it. And, before you say it, I know he took some liberties with the truth. I bloody know, alright? Make what you will of the ethics of it, but when the book is this good, I’m willing to overlook a bit of creative license. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

My Brilliant Friend taught me more about the art of translation than any other book on my list. It was originally written in Italian by an anonymous author (Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume, and I don’t care what some dickhead with an algorithm thinks he figured out, her true identity has never been revealed), and translated into English by Ann Goldstein. I was so impressed with the way Goldstein managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian that I started to do a bit of digging, which ended up being a rabbit hole into the world of books in translation. Not only is My Brilliant Friend an incredible read, it’s also a testament to the power of language, and the importance of the #namethetranslator movement. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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

Do you ever read a book and wonder why on earth everyone isn’t talking about it already? That’s how I felt with Cold Comfort Farm. It had a strange cover that kind of put me off, but in deference to the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I ploughed ahead anyway, and I am SO glad I did. Stella Gibbons is a criminally underrated comic author, and Cold Comfort Farm is a work of hilarious genius. It’s like a satirical Mary Poppins, with a cast of characters so eccentric and bizarre they’ll have your eyes wide when they don’t have you in stitches. What’s more, I found out later that Gibbons remains relatively unknown because she refused to play the game and suck up to the literary giants of her day. I say let’s not let her fall into obscurity because she didn’t enjoy networking! Read my full review of Cold Comfort Farm here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of underrated kick-arse women writers: did you know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a book, long before it was a Marilyn Monroe film? I didn’t until I was putting my reading list together, and I was curious enough to give it a try. Anita Loos should be a household name. She was the first salaried scriptwriter to work with major Hollywood studios. She crafted characters that felt so real you could almost reach out and touch them (the protagonist in this book, Lorelei Lee, being a case in point). Loos was observant, brilliant, and funny as hell. Unfortunately, she fell in love with an arsehole, who lived off her profits and cut her down whenever he felt threatened. So, screw him, I say, and while we’re at it, screw anyone who says The Great Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. It’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all the way, baby! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by 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

Before I started reading my way through this list, all I knew about Scandinavian writers was that they wrote crime. Good crime. Grisly crime. Hardened detectives in cold climates sussing out awful murders. But now, having read The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I’ve got to say I think that reputation is a damn shame. This is one of the most delightful, charming, and uplifting books I’ve ever read. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief for a minute or two, but it’s worth it: it’s so worth it. It’s a European Forrest Gump, but better. My edition was translated into English by Rod Bradbury (#namethetranslator!). Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever I get into an argument with someone about whether to bother reading the introduction to a classic book (so many people just skip straight to chapter one!), I always whip out Little Women and beat them over the head with it. This book was written off for centuries as light, sentimental fluff – it was a book “for girls”, and never taken seriously as part of the American literary canon. I might’ve come away from it with the same impression had I not read the introduction, which gave me some context about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the way she came to write her best-known work. This is an incredible book, but you have to be paying close attention and know what to look for. Read my full review of Little Women here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever read a book so good it just made you angry? When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, when I put the book down on my lap and tried to catch my breath after that sucker-punch of a final scene, I found myself irrationally angry at every person in my life who had ever read this book. Why hadn’t they warned me? I’m not sure I even liked it very much at first because I was so startled by it. It’s the story of a family migrating from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, but it’s alarmingly analogous to current events as a result of climate change. I was so moved, and so wrecked, by this book that I needed to put myself in a time-out before I put a hole in a wall. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

I have no idea how Crime And Punishment ended up on my reading list. I was dreading it, to say the least. I eschewed Anna Karenina and War And Peace for the same reason: it’s a Russian classic, which – I was sure – meant it was going to be dense, dull, and depressing. How wrong I was, reader! How wrong I was! This edition – translated into English by David McDuff (name! the! translator!) – was well loved before it fell into my hands, as the tattered cover shows, and I can see why. I never thought I would laugh with, cry for, or relate so hard to a literal axe murderer… and yet, here we are. Seriously, don’t sleep on this one, folks, and never let a book’s reputation decide for you whether it’s to your tastes. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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

Do you know that The Bell Jar is one of the most difficult classic books to find in secondhand stores? There’s a reason for that: no one ever wants to part with their copy. I checked my local secondhand bookstore on an almost-daily basis for months, and never found one. I was about to give up hope and buy it new when a friend stopped by that very same bookstore on her way to visit me and saw this beautiful Faber edition on display – it had come in that very day. She bought it for me, and I loved it. Loved it. The prose is every bit as beautiful as the cover. It’s one of the first things I would save in a fire. Sylvia Plath’s true-life (and death) story is heart-breaking of course, but I’m so, so glad and grateful that she was able to bring this book into the world before she passed. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

It’s been one heck of a ride, hasn’t it? And it’s not over yet! What have been your favourites from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list? Any new favourites that I should read and review ASAP? Let me know in the comments below!

My To-Be-Read List: What’s Next on Keeping Up With The Penguins

This week, I polished off the last of my original reading list for Keeping Up With The Penguins with a review of Ulysses. That, of course, begs the question: what’s next? I’ve accumulated some 250+ additional books since I started this project, and I’ve cobbled them together into a list of sorts, BUT this time around, I plan on giving myself a little more flexibility. Rather than sticking rigidly to a list, I’m just going to go wherever the bookish winds blow me. Never fear: you’ll still get your weekly review here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, plus extra reviews of hot new releases for Keeper Upperers (have you subscribed yet? You should, the perks are awesome – just whack in your email address!). Here’s a sneak peek of what’s coming up soon…

My To Be Read List - What's Up Next On Keeping Up With The Penguins - Text Overlaid on Image of Notebooks and Pen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I feel like I might be the last person – definitely the last Australian woman – alive who hasn’t read Big Little Lies yet. I reviewed Liane Moriarty’s earlier novel, The Husband’s Secret, last year, and I’m curious to see what this one is like. It’s the book that shot Moriarty into the stratosphere of bookish stardom, and it had a wildly successful HBO adaptation with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. I think it’ll make for a great palette cleanser, a good gripping page-turner to get things rolling…

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I wasn’t actually planning to pick this one up, until I heard David Marr interview Andrew Sean Greer at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Greer was so disarming, and so charming, and spoke so eloquently about how he came to write Less that I went out and bought it immediately. He said that he worked out the only way to write about one’s own miseries was to make them funny, and so he did. A funny book about an ageing gay man travelling the world to escape his ex-lover’s wedding? Yes, please!

Sanditon by Jane Austen

Sanditon - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With the Penguins

Sanditon is Jane Austen’s final novel, incomplete at the time of her death. The fine folks at Oxford World Classics were kind enough to send me a copy of their new edition for review last year. I read and reviewed it for Keeper Upperers (*cough*subscribe!*cough*), but I still have SO MUCH MORE to say about it! And about Austen in general… So, I’m going to read this one again, and bring you a more comprehensive review later in the year. Maybe for Austen in August, whaddaya reckon?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s a peek behind the book blogging curtain for you: I’ve actually already read The Handmaid’s Tale. Hehe! I hadn’t when I started this project, but when it came time to review The Testaments over on Primer, I thought I’d best read the original first, to make sure I had a handle on what was going on. I squeezed it in around my other reading commitments, and filed away my notes so that I could bring you a full review once my original reading list was done. So, keep your eyes peeled, it’s coming soon!

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguin

I told just about every person I know this past year that The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is my new ultimate cheer-up read. A whole bunch of them responded “Oh, if you like that, you simply MUST read A Man Called Ove“. Opinion seems to be divided on some of Backman’s other novels, but as best I can tell this one is basically universally adored. If it’s anything like The One Hundred Year Old Man, I’m going to join the chorus. I’m saving it for a moment when I need a book that feels like a hug! (Pssst: does anyone know how to actually pronounce “Ove”?)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is another one that I feel like EVERYONE has read except for me! An American Marriage has been highly recommended by everyone from Oprah to Barack Obama. It also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year. If that’s not enough, I just cannot resist the gorgeous cover art! Inside, there’s a story of a young black couple, cruelly separated early in their marriage when Roy, the husband, is falsely accused of sexual assault and incarcerated for several years. I feel like this one is going to be a heavier read, but a vital one.

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

Because I alphebatise by bookshelves by author surname, Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name has been in the #1 spot for a long, long time. I’ve not seen the film, but I’ve heard it’s fantastic, and the book it’s based on even better. As I understand, it’s about a young man’s infatuation with an older house guest, and the love affair that blooms. It sounds to me like it’s already a contemporary classic of queer literature, so I’m really looking forward to giving it a go. Plus, there’s a sequel!

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m hoping to branch out in a bunch of different ways with my next to-be-read list, and this is one of them: collections of short stories. There weren’t enough of them on my original reading list, so now’s my chance to get into more! Her Body And Other Parties is one of the most popular ones that has been released in recent years, by American author Carmen Maria Machado. I’m particularly curious about the SVU-themed story that I heard her talk about in an interview; after surgery on her wisdom teeth (or something like that), she streamed seasons of Law & Order SVU as she recovered and, in her pain-killer-and-fever-induced fugue state, it inspired a weird story based on episode summaries. I’m here for it!

And, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, there’ll be HEAPS more! As well as branching out with formats (plays, poetry), I’m really excited to read more women, more POC, more writers with disability, more LGBTIQ+ writers… it’s going to be awesome! Are there any books you’re particularly eager for me to read and review? Drop your recommendations in the comments below!

« Older posts