Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 41)

10 Comfort Reads

Of all the reasons we choose to read, surely comfort must be chief among them. Whether we’re having a tough day, a tough year, or a tough life, there is a unique comfort to be found in books. Of course, what constitutes a “comfort read” will vary from reader to reader, but usually they’re uplifting in some measure and/or familiar in their content and form. Here are ten of my own favourite comfort reads.

10 Comfort Reads - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
(If you buy a book through a link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission, which I’ll find very comforting indeed!)

Breathe easy, my trans and NB/gender-queer friends! You’ll find no mention of TERF-y wizards here. I know some people count Those Books as “comfort reads”, but I find no comfort in the dehumanisation and oppression of your awesome selves. This is a safe space!

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the first things I look for in my comfort reads is a good hearty laugh, and David Sedaris has plenty of those to offer in Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless. Even when I know the punchline is coming, it still never fails to elicit a chuckle. During the last lockdown, I took particular pleasure in re-reading this one on audiobook; Sedaris was my constant companion on my daily government-sanctioned walks around the neighbourhood, and I didn’t even mind that I looked like a crazy person laughing to myself in public. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

If you’re looking for comfort reads that are heart-warmingly familiar, you can’t go past Jane Austen’s most beloved novel, Pride And Prejudice. Even when you know how it’s going to pan out, you’ll find yourself just as lost in Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance as you were the very first time. As Meg Ryan’s character said in the classic booklover film You’ve Got Mail: ““Confession: I have read Pride and Prejudice two hundred times. I get lost in the language, words like: Thither. Mischance. Felicity. I am always in agony over whether Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are really going to get together.” Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice 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

Whenever a loved one is feeling down, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is the book I thrust into their hands. I’m sure you can guess from the title what it’s about. Alan Karlsson makes for a wonderful accidental centenarian protagonist in this wild romp. It’s like a European Forrest Gump: funny, heart-warming, and just a little over-the-top. The Swedes are best known for their crime noir, when their comfort reads are really where it’s at. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

The Helpline by Katherine Collette

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can tell you from personal experience that Germaine’s time working on a Senior Citizen’s hotline is a dream in comparison to real-life call centre work… but that’s the beauty of comfort reads! They are the spoonful of sugar that helps us swallow the real-life medicine. The Helpline is a delightful debut from Australian novelist Katherine Collette, with a quirky protagonist, an eccentric cast of characters, and a David-and-Goliath battle to save a community center. Pick this one up when you’re feeling left out and down on your luck. Read my full review of The Helpline here.

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Devil Wears Prada is a two-fer: a wonderful comfort read and a perfect comfort watch, in the form of the film adaptation! Weisberger’s book is a grittier, darker version than the one portrayed by Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep (Meryl Streep!!) on screen, but both have laughs and aspirational lifestyles to offer. There’s also the delicious gossipy delight of working out how much of Weisberger’s “fiction” debut was actually drawn from her time working under Anna Wintour at Vogue… I first picked this one up at an airport, hoping for a distraction on a long flight, and instead I got one of my favourite-ever comfort reads that I’ve returned to many times over.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It took me a while to warm up to The Hobbit – my father gave me a copy when I was eight or so, and hassled me to read it for years and years before I finally gave it a shot – but it’s become one of my favourite comfort reads for when the Real World becomes Too Much. It’s far more fun than Tolkien’s epic fantasy efforts in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and far easier to read. Forget about the film adaptation travesties, where they bloated the story beyond all recognition. The Hobbit is the comfort read to pick up when your inner child needs a bit of TLC and your brain is ready to switch off from real-world concerns.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Bridget-Joness-Diary-Helen-Fielding-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

If you’re looking for the same heart-warming comfort of Pride And Prejudice, but with a more contemporary setting and relatable heroine, your best pick would be Bridget Jones’s Diary. Bridget is everything we need in a leading lady: flawed, good natured, optimistic but realistic. Her romantic interests are of a Type we all know: the scoundrel, the hoity-toity, the gay. She drinks too much, smokes too much, and loves a carbohydrate, but never once gives up on her quest for self-improvement. While it’s maybe more of a throwback now than it was the progressive ground-breaker it was at the time, it remains one of my all-time favourite comfort reads.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All The Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Skeptics (like me) really struggle with young adult romances, and it’s not hard to see why. All too often, they’re trite, twee, and unrealistic to the point of irritation. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the rare exceptions, with just the right balance of sweet and savoury to make it a perfect comfort read. The premise, on its face, is horrifying – a high school girl’s secret love letters are delivered to their subjects, and she’s forced to fake-date the Popular Boy to throw her sister’s boyfriend off the scent – but the tone is so delightful and the plot so satisfying, it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Read my full review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before here.

The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald

The Nancys - RWR McDonald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Cozy mysteries make for great comfort reads, and they don’t come any cozier than The Nancys. When Tippy Chan’s mother wins a two-week cruise, her non-traditional family expands to include her Uncle Pike (who bears a startling resemblance to Santa Claus) and his fabulous boyfriend, Devon, fresh off the plane from Sydney. Together, they form The Nancys, a group dedicated to solving the mystery of a local school teacher’s murder (and they do makeovers, on the side). If you’re normally a crime-thriller reader but you’re looking for something softer and more comforting to read during tough times, give this one a go.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda - Roald Dahl - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Break glass in case of emergency: when none of your other comfort reads are cutting it, return to one of your childhood favourites for an instant feel-good hit of nostalgia. Matilda is the first time I can remember seeing myself represented in fiction – an intensely bookish, mostly misunderstood girl uses her powers for good and beats the bullies once and for all. This is a classic of children’s literature for a reason, and it totally holds up to an adult reading, too.

18 Pulitzer Prize Winning Books

The Pulitzer Prizes are a set of awards given each year for achievements in American journalism, literature, and composition. You might have noticed that quite a few of the books I’ve read and recommended here on Keeping Up With The Penguins are lauded as Pulitzer Prize-winners – for some reason, I seem to share a literary sensibility with the panel of judges. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (formerly the Pulitzer Prize for Novel) is awarded “for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. Here are eighteen great Pulitzer Prize-winning books from the past 100 years.

18 Pulitzer Prize Winning Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you purchase one of these Pulitzer Prize winning books through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.

March by Geraldine Brooks

March - Geraldine Brooks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2006

In her 2005 novel, March, Geraldine Brooks reimagines Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women from the perspective of the mostly-absent March patriarch. The Pulitzer Prize judges commended Brooks for adding “adult resonance to Alcott’s optimistic children’s tale to portray the moral complexity of war, and a marriage tested”. They called March “a lushly written, wholly original tale steeped in the details of another time”.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1940

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath is now widely considered a classic of American working class literature, and a strong contender for the Great American Novel moniker. In the year following its 1939 release, Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel, and the National Book Award, for his searing social commentary. It was also the best-selling novel of the year (an astonishing 430,000 copies), and the Armed Services Edition went through two full print runs. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

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

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015

Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See explores the depth and breadth of human nature through a story about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in unlikely circumstances over the course of WWII. According to the Pulitzer Prize judges, Doerr “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another”. They called this New York Times best-seller “dazzling … a magnificent, deeply moving novel”. Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1953

The Old Man And The Sea was first published in 1952, the last major work of fiction by Hemingway to be published during his lifetime. The deceptively short and simple story revolves around an aging Cuban fisherman, and his struggle to reel in a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream. Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year following its release, and it was also cited specifically in the judges’ comments when he received a Nobel Prize for Literature (which Hemingway, in turn, dedicated to the people of Cuba).

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2003

Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex tells the uniquely intertwined history of Cal, an intersex third-generation Greek American. The Pulitzer Board described it as a “vastly realized, multi-generational novel as highspirited as it is intelligent … Like the masks of Greek drama, Middlesex is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but its real triumph is its emotional abundance, delivered with consummate authority and grace,”. Read my full review of Middlesex here.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory - Richard Powers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019

Richard Powers’ The Overstory is “a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance”, one that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among several other awards and short-listings in 2019. It contains the stories of nine fictional Americans, each of whom share some special connection to trees, despite their disparate circumstances and eras. The Pulitzer Prize website describes it as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them,”.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1937

Gone With The Wind is best known these days as the classic film, but back in 1936 it was an astonishingly popular novel by American author Margaret Mitchell. It was an instant best-seller, with hundreds of thousands of copies flying off the shelves long before the 1939 film adaptation. It depicts a questionable coming-of-age story against the backdrop of a horribly white-washed version of Southern plantation life immediately prior to and during the Civil War. It doesn’t stand up to today’s critical scrutiny, but at the time it was a phenomenon, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel the year following its release.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

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Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1999

As the ’90s drew to a close, Michael Cunningham was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, a novel that draws upon the life and work of Virginia Woolf “to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters who are struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair”. It is a “passionate, profound, and deeply moving” novel, one that is still widely recognised as Cunningham’s most remarkable literary achievement.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From The Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad is “an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed”. Egan centres the story on the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker, and his employee, the young and passionate Sasha. Told through a series of creative and innovative formats, this story “captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both”.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1988

Toni Morrison was awarded a slew of prizes for her 1987 novel Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among them. It seems particularly fitting, given that she hoped for the novel to stand in as a memorial testament to the lives lost and damaged beyond recognition by the Atlantic slave trade (“There’s no small bench by the road,” she said, “and because such a place doesn’t exist, that I know of, the book had to.”) In this unique story, of a former slave living a haunted life in Cincinnati, Morrison captures a universal pain and shame. Read my full review of Beloved here.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018

It’s so rare that a truly funny book wins the Pulitzer Prize – which makes it all the more special when one does! Less got the gong in 2018, and it was very well deserved. The story revolves around Arthur Less, an aging gay man so desperate to avoid the wedding of his ex-lover that he accepts every invitation to every half-baked literary event around the world. Less is “a scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, [and] a bittersweet romance of chances lost”. Read my full review of Less here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1921

In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for The Age Of Innocence. It was a controversial choice, but not (necessarily) because of the author’s gender. The Pulitzer Prize for Novel was originally set to go to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, as per the choice of the Prize’s jury at the time, but the board overruled them and awarded the prize to Wharton instead. The apparent reason for the switch was Lewis’s novel having “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West”, and Wharton said in a note to Lewis that she “despaired” over the decision. Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2008

Junot Diaz has fallen from grace since being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, having been called out for despicable behaviour as part of the #MeToo reckoning. Despite the revelations, however, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is still sold in editions with a Pulitzer Prize seal embossed on the cover. The story itself is a fascinating window into an aspect of American life – a Dominican-American who dreams of overcoming the challenges of his ghetto home to find love and success – but can we really separate the art from the artist?

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

All The King's Men - Robert Penn Warren - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1947

Who would’ve thought, when Robert Penn Warren was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1947 for his fictionalised account of the troubled term of a populist governor, that it would still be so resonant over seventy years later? All The King’s Men traces the political career of Willie Stark, a cynical Southerner who seems destined for the life (and death) of a messianic figure. The New York Time Book Review called the book “magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue sparks,”. Read my full review of All The King’s Men here.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017

The Underground Railroad is a semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. It “combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America,”. According to the judges, “The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.” Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1983

Alice Walker became the first ever black woman to win a Pulitzer when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple in 1983. It has retained its cultural currency across the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. The story of a young black girl, told through her letters to God, is a challenging read, but a vital and perennially relevant one. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007

Cormac McCarthy is a notoriously reclusive contemporary writer, but he granted rare and special insight into his writing process and creative mind after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Road in 2007. He told Oprah that it took him only six weeks to write the haunting post-apocalyptic novel. The idea came to him after a road trip with his son in El Paso, where he found himself wondering what the road might look like in a hundred years’ time. “It is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of,” according to his publisher.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1961

To Kill A Mockingbird has been widely considered one of the most iconic American novels of all time since its release, so it was hardly a surprise when Harper Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The judges were openly disappointed in the literary offerings from established writers that year, but credited Lee with “revitalising American fiction” and producing a novel of “unusual distinction”. Her friend, Truman Capote, was happy for her – but remained bitter that she had won a Pulitzer, while he hadn’t for In Cold Blood, until his death. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

Book Birthdays in 2022

A brand new year has begun, which means (among other things) that a whole new batch of books are celebrating milestone birthdays! Here are some of the major book birthdays in 2022.

Book Birthdays in 2022 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Books Turning 10 In 2022

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

The Fault In Our Stars was YA superstar John Green’s sixth novel. Before it was published in 2012, the announcement of just its title – just its title – saw pre-orders explode, and it rose to #84 on the Amazon bestseller list. Green foolishly committed to personally signing each pre-ordered copy; that’s how he ended up having to autograph the entire first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received. That’s peak extra, right there… Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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Former Entertainment Weekly writer Gillian Flynn had published two twisty thrillers with anti-heronies – Sharp Objects and Dark Places – prior to 2012, but it was Gone Girl that snagged the book club market and made her a superstar. Looking back, it’s interesting to note that this book about women’s rage shot to the top of the bestseller list long before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements went global, perhaps an omen of the reckoning that was to come. Amy Dunne remains one of the most divisive protagonists of the past decade, and people are still scraping their jaws off the ground after That Twist. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Wild was first published back in 2012, Cheryl Strayed wasn’t exactly on top of the world. Even though Reese Witherspoon had optioned the book weeks before its publication date, and it debuted at #7 on the New York Times Best Seller list, Strayed and her husband were sitting on $85,000 of credit card debt and were struggling to make rent. She even asked her agent to put a rush on the cheque the publisher offered, whatever the amount, so that she could use it to keep a roof over her family’s heads. Ten years on, things look very different for her and her family, and she’s generously spoken openly about her past financial struggles and the grit it took to write through them. Read my full review of Wild here.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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

A Man Called Ove has won a legion of fans around the world, but few realise that the beloved titular character actually began on Fredrik Backman’s blog. A few years before the novel was published in 2012, the then-relatively-unknown blogger read an article about (no kidding) a man called Ove who had “a fit” while buying museum tickets. Backman found the man completely relatable, and published a series of posts titled “I am a man called Ove”, detailing his pet peeves and his difficulties getting along with others. Hundreds of readers begged him to turn the series into a novel, and ten years later it has become an iconic heartwarming favourite. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post - Emily M Danforth - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Emily M Danforth accidentally did 20+ years of research, as a (self-described) “weirdo closeted queer kid” in Miles City, Montana, before the 2005 case of Zach Stark inspired her to write The Miseducation Of Cameron Post. Much has changed since its publication in 2012 (though not enough); many jurisdictions around the world are planning to (or have already!) banned “conversion therapy” camps and other harmful practices aimed at “de-gaying” youths. Still, this book remains a beacon for queer and questioning teens and their allies, and each new edition released by its publishers is prettier than the last. Read my full review of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post here.

Books Turning 20 In 2022

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka On The Shore - Haruki Murakami - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For much of the ’80s and ’90s, Haruki Murakami was one of Japan’s best kept literary secrets. It wasn’t until the ’00s that the English translations of his work generated serious buzz outside his homeland. Kafka On The Shore was one of those breakthrough titles, translated into English by Phillip Gabriel. Like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle before it, and 1Q84, it has a strange dreamlike quality, the trademark Japanese magical realism for which Murakami is renowned and adored. It’s hardly an easy read, but 20 years after its initial publication in the original Japanese, Kafka On The Shore continues to astonish new readers and re-readers alike.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jeffrey Eugenides’ bildungsroman-cum-family saga Middlesex has sold over 4 million copies worldwide since its publication 20 years ago (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club). It was named one of the best books of 2002 by multiple mastheads, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times Book Review – a few have even suggested it as a contender for the title of the Great American Novel. Its enduring popularity (despite never having been adapted for film or television, the easiest way to engage new readers years after a book’s release) would certainly support that designation. Read my full review of Middlesex here.

The Days Of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

The Days Of Abandonment - Elena Ferrante - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous literary genius, so reclusive that it’s really quite difficult to tell you anything at all about the genesis and publication of The Days Of Abandonment. I can tell you that it came before her most popular work – the series of Neapolitan novels, beginning with My Brilliant Friend – being first published in the original Italian in 2002. Ann Goldstein translated it into English, and the translation was published in 2005 (so I suppose, technically, it has two birthdays?). Other than that, the history of this novel remains as mysterious as that of its author.

Books Turning 50 in 2022

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down - Richard Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Watership Down began the way a lot of great children’s books do: as a story the author told his own kids. Richard Adams was desperate to keep his two young girls entertained on a long road trip, so he started making up a story for them about some bunnies who had adventures on the fields around Berkshire where they lived. The girls loved it so much that they convinced him to write it down. The rest is history, now – Watership Down turns 50 this year! Incidentally, its younger sibling, the sequel Tales From Watership Down, turns 26. Read my full review of Watership Down here.

The Best Books Of 2021: My Reading Year In Review

We had high hopes for 2021, didn’t we? 2020 was the year that everything changed, and 2021 was… the year that things continued to change. I guess it’s the only constant, or whatever. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the range of great books out there. These are the best books of 2021, my reading year in review.

The Best Books Of 2021 - Reading Year In Review - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From page one, The Underground Railroad depicts the gruesome realities of the slave trade and enslaved lives. Every chapter reveals some new horror. So much of what happens to Cora is gut-churningly awful, and yet… it’s compelling, and propulsive. It’s not a light or easy read, but it’s unputdownable all the same. That’s a very weird combination, and not one I’ve encountered often in my literary sojourns. It feels twisted to have so thoroughly enjoyed and relished a book about such a terrible subject, but I’ll chalk that up to Whitehead’s talent rather than any defect in my own character. Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.

The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray

The Speech Writer - Martin McKenzie-Murray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

After the past few years, you’d be forgiven for thinking political satire is dead. The Speechwriter proves it isn’t so. Martin McKenzie-Murray’s skewering of Australian bureaucracy and political lethargy is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. It is styled as the prison memoir of Toby, former speechwriter to the PM and current inmate of Sunshine correctional facility. It is edited (with frequent footnote asides) from his murderous cellmate Garry. Together, they weave a tale so extraordinary you can’t help but believe it. This is Australian humour at its finest, the most underrated of the best books of 2021. Read my full review of The Speechwriter here.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Too Much Lip blends The Castle and the Beverly Hillbillies with a storytelling tradition older than any of us can fathom – a unique combination that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I was particularly taken with Lucashenko’s use of dialect, which weaves the narrative and the dialogue together; even though the narration is third-person, a step removed from Kerry and her family, it’s still rich in Bundjalung language and northern NSW/regional QLD vernacular. But, most importantly of all, it’s funny! Lucashenko uses bla(c)k humour to humanise the sterotypes of First Nations families in this Miles Franklin Award-winning novel you can’t miss. Read my full review of Too Much Lip here.

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim by David Sedaris

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I loved, loved, loved my first adventure with David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day) so I’m not ashamed to say I came to Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim hoping for more of the same. Such an approach would normally invite disappointment, but Sedaris totally delivered. This collection of autobiographical essays once again focuses on the author’s upbringing, family, and his adult life. You’d think that well would run dry eventually, but Sedaris is clearly more than capable of hauling out every last trickle. Sedaris once again proves himself the master of poking fun, even when he’s poking down, because he pokes nobody harder than himself. Read my full review of Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim here.

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Empire Of Pain is a chunky book, but it doesn’t read like one – it’s every bit as gripping and compelling as any fictional family saga. You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. With the precision of a prosecutor, but the even-handedness of a responsible journalist, Radden Keefe picks apart the origins of this dynasty’s deadly legacy. This is one of the best books of 2021, a must-must-must for fans of Erin Brockovich and The Social Network. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK. Little Fires Everywhere is masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family, lots of little dramas unfolding in each of their lives. Little Fires Everywhere is one of those rare novels that actually lives up to the endless hype. Ng has definitely won a fan in me – I’ll eagerly await anything else she writes from now on. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.

The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful - Kim Lock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes, you pick up a book and its premise resonates in a way neither you nor the author anticipated. That’s what happened for me with The Other Side Of Beautiful. I doubt that Kim Lock foresaw that I’d be reading her book about Mercy Blain, a woman terrified to leave her house, while I was locked down and not allowed to leave the house… but here we are. Luckily, Mercy Blain’s story is warm and heart-felt, one of overcoming fear and finding home wherever you are. Lock’s alarmingly accurate depictions of Mercy’s physical experience of anxiety were a little triggering, to be honest, but the wonderful rhythm of her writing carried me through the discomfort. This is one of the best books of 2021, not to mention the best-timed! Read my full review of The Other Side Of Beautiful here.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It can be hard to follow-up a debut novel that went gangbusters the way that Red, White & Royal Blue did, but McQuiston hasn’t broken stride. One Last Stop is a, frankly, fucking delightful queer romance with a time-travel element. It’s also snort-laugh funny; anyone who’s ever lived in a share-house or found themselves a family in an ensemble of bizarre friends will relate, hard. The romance is steamy at times, sweet at others, and always just a little bit magical. It was a particular pleasure to read a queer novel that touches on significant issues in the community (including discrimination and AIDS) without being a giant, whining bummer. Read my full review of One Last Stop here.

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead - Emily Austin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, obviously this is one of the best books of 2021 for the amazing title alone, but Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead is no bait-and-switch. The contents are every bit as great as you’d hope! With hints of Convenience Store Woman and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, this book from debut Canadian author Emily Austin is a hilariously deadpan, macabre-meets-comedy read. The main character’s anxious apathy and her unsentimental delivery make an otherwise-dark story a hilarious and relatable read. Plus, it’s got a quick and neat resolution, a relief after the intensity of the previous pages, and it ends on a hopeful note (but not a saccharine one). Read my full review of Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead here.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling. It was a breathtaking read, in more ways than one. The dangers and horrors of Westover’s childhood had my heart in my throat – but the moments of love and compassion shared within this bizarre family did, too. I was captivated by the way Westover was able to relate her story, with frankness and fairness that any memoir writer should envy. Read my full review of Educated here.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room - Emma Donoghue - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes a book’s premise alone is enough to chill you to your core. Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, a boy who has spent his entire life held captive in a single locked room with his mother. This is no post-apocalyptic hide-out or agoraphobic folie à deux – they are both victims of a terrible crime (based on the real-life horrors of Josef Fritzl). It’s stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable (as, indeed, I did). You’d be forgiven for being skeptical going in, figuring (once again, as I did) that the premise and the plot was too obviously horrifying to be truly immersive and that the pulling-of-heartstrings would feel contrived, but I can promise you you’re in good hands. Read my full review of Room here.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me - Ann Rule - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I normally shy away from the twisted fandom that grows around certain serial killers; so much has been written about Ted Bundy it’s hard to escape him, let alone choose one version as the “definitive” Ted Bundy story… but The Stranger Beside Me is such an enduring book of true crime, up there with In Cold Blood, that I felt I simply had to read it. I’m so glad I did; it turned out to be one of the best books of 2021 for me. At first, it was enjoyable purely as a spooky story, but as the end grew closer, and the true impact of Bundy’s crimes became more tangible, it was no longer spooky so much as desperately sad. It made me Feel A Lot Of Things (which is a testament, really, to its excellence and Rule’s skill as a true crime writer). Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In 2019, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of Brock Turner, a man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle. It’s an incredible read, on every level: as a tool for dismantling the patriarchy, as a masterfully-crafted narrative, as an account of crime and justice, and as a radical testament to the costs of survival. (Hot tip: this is one of the smash-the-patriarchy reads I recommend in my gift guide “for men”!) Read my full review of Know My Name here.

The Helpline by Katherine Collette

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist: think The Rosie Project, or A Man Called Ove. Of course, the underlying truth that makes these kinds of books enjoyable is the disconnect between the way the narrator sees the world and the way we know it to be, but the comedy is magnified by the fact that we can also recognise the truth in Germaine’s dealings with bureaucracy and office politics. In other hands, that could make The Helpline sad or confusing or (worst of all) dull, but Collette nails the voice that allows us to engage and empathise and laugh with (instead of at) Germaine. Read my full review of The Helpline here.

Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Year Of Yes - Shonda Rhimes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Year Of Yes actually encouraged me (I will not say the word inspired: I will not, I will not, I will not) to start saying yes a bit more myself. Not to anything particularly life changing, but to invitations and offers that I might otherwise have turned down. Post-lockdown anxiety in 2021 had me very apprehensive about going back out into the world and interacting IRL again, but it turned out the more often I said “yes”, the easier (and better) it got, just like it did for Shonda Rhimes in this fabulous memoir. Take this as a simple testament to the power of Year Of Yes: it convinced even the hardest-baked cynic on the other side of the world to give it a go. Read my full review of Year Of Yes here.

My Year In Books 2021

I was recently clearing out some old bookmarks, and found this post from BookerTalk back at the end of 2019. It seemed like such a fun idea, I saved it to give it a go myself sometime: answer a bunch of questions using only the titles of books you’d read that year. Looks like I’m finally getting around to it! Here’s my life in books for the year 2021…

My Year In Books 2021 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In high school I was: Educated

Read my full review of Educated here.

People might be surprised by: (my experiences working on) The Helpline

Read my full review of The Helpline here.

I will never be: Rebecca

Read my full review of Rebecca here.

My fantasy job is: The Speechwriter

Read my full review of The Speechwriter here.

At the end of a long day I need: (We’re Going To Need More) Wine

Read my full review of We’re Going To Need More Wine here.

I hate: Misery

Read my full review of Misery here.

I wish I had: The Audacity

Read my full review of The Audacity here.

My family reunions are: Sorrow And Bliss

Read my full review (for Primer) here.

At a party, you’d find me with: The Stranger Beside Me

Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

I’ve never been to: Northanger Abbey

Read my full review of Northanger Abbey here.

A happy day includes: Love Objects

Read my full review of Love Objects here.

The motto I live by is: Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead

Read my full review of Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead here. (I hope that doesn’t make me sound morbid – it’s just an impermanence this-too-shall-pass thing I’m going for, I swear!)

On my bucket list is: Becoming

Read my full review of Becoming here.

In my next life, I want to have: (be a) New Animal

Read my full review of New Animal here.

The actual origin of this list/game is a bit of a mystery; it’s been floating around the book blogs for years now. I’ve linked back to where I first saw it (BookerTalk, one of my favourites!), but if you know who came up with it originally, please let me know in the comments so I can give them full credit!

UPDATE: Veronica from The Burgeoning Bookshelf found this game’s origins! It was Adam over at RoofBeamReader! His original post can be found here. Thanks for the fun, Adam, and the hot tip, Veronica!

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