Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 11)

“You’re Not Good Enough”: Classic Books Edition

A little while ago, I came across this fun literary game on the amazing Fiction No Chaser blog. Here are the rules:

  • Write 30 character names on separate slips of paper
  • Put them all in a jar, and shake them up good
  • Randomly choose two names from the jar for each question

For each of the fifteen questions, you have to decide which of the two characters you’d choose, and which one is “not good enough”. Sounds fun, right? Jess and Teagan at Fiction No Chaser played using Harry Potter characters. I decided I’d try it with characters from classic books I’ve reviewed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Here goes…!

You're Not Good Enough Literary Game - Classic Books Edition - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. You only have one more spot on your spelling bee team. Who do you pick?

Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) or Ishmael (Moby Dick)

It’s got to be Ishmael! If he spent all that time reading up about whales, he’s surely picked up a decent vocabulary along the way.

2. Both characters want to kill you. Which one would you kill to save yourself?

Mr Hyde (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or Toad (The Wind In The Willows)

Oh, if it’s within my power, I’m taking down Mr Hyde. I don’t like my chances, he’d probably be able to take me down with his brute strength, but I couldn’t possibly kill the lovable rogue Toad.

3. You’re on The Bachelor/Bachelorette, and you’re down to these two characters. To whom will you give the final rose?

Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes) or Dr Frankenstein (Frankenstein)

Sherlock, no question! I feel like his super-powers of deduction and reasoning would come in handy in a relationship. Plus, Dr Frankenstein was a big ol’ whiner. I’d spend half my life reassuring him that he hadn’t destroyed humanity or whatever, and running from the vengeful monster…


4. You’ve been chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Who would most likely volunteer in your place?

Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn) or Alice (Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland)

Huck would jump in for me, for sure! He’d welcome the adventure, and surely fare better than poor innocent wide-eyed Alice.

5. You’re stranded on an island with an active volcano. Who would you throw into the volcano as a sacrifice?

Holden Caulfield (The Catcher In The Rye) or Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre)

Oh, this is a cruel choice! I guess I’d have to sacrifice Holden, though I do have a soft spot for that wayward ruffian…

6. You’re the next DC/Marvel superhero (with your own TV show, of course!). Who is your sidekick?

Raskolnikov (Crime And Punishment) or Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)

There is no way I’d be able to put up with that creepy stalker nincompoop Jay Gatsby for more than five minutes – it’d turn me into a villain, for sure! Raskolnikov is my guy (at least I know he’s handy with an axe).


7. You’re the manager of an avocado-admiring company. Who would you fire for lack of communication skills?

Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs Dalloway) or Dr Watson (The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes)

Yes, this is an extremely weird question, but a game’s a game. Dr Watson is a spectacular communicator, he narrates all of the Holmes stories and does a damn fine job, so Clarissa is a goner. She’s probably got a party to plan anyway, or flowers to buy, or something.

8. You’ve just finished a book in which your favourite character dies. Which character is most likely to comfort you?

Don Quixote (Don Quixote) or Lorelei Lee (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Sheesh, I’m not sure either of them would be much comfort! Don Quixote would probably go charging off in search of the author, to avenge my grief, and get distracted along the way. Lorelei would probably just pour some champagne and take me out to a fancy party. Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. Lorelei it is!

9. You’re back in high school. Who’s most likely to be part of the popular clique?

Clarissa Harlowe (Clarissa) or Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe)

I feel like Crusoe would more likely have been the weird kid, trying to impress people by jumping off the roof or rolling around in the mud. Clarissa was an elegant and refined lady, so she was probably no Regina George, but she would’ve been popular nonetheless.


10. The day has arrived: you’re finally a year older! Who would have the nerve to forget your birthday?

Jo March (Little Women) or Hester Pyrne (The Scarlet Letter)

Jo would never do such a thing to me! It’d be Hester for sure. She’s too preoccupied, with fending off village gossip and lusting after her baby daddy and raising her kid and everything.

11. Who would be the next big BookTube star?

Elizabeth Bennet (Pride And Prejudice) or Mr Darcy (Pride And Prejudice)

This is the ultimate showdown! It’s almost too hard to choose… but I think it would be Lizzy. Mr Darcy would think that YouTube stardom was beneath him, or some snooty shit like that. Still, I like to think once they were married and happy, and they’d got over all their pride and prejudice, they’d make a cute BookTube duo and do videos together.

12. Sleepover time! You can only invite one person. Who would it be?

David Copperfield (David Copperfield) or Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)

Look, I’m going to make an unexpected choice here. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Heathcliff is a knob… but I’d kind of want to hang out with him a bit, just to see what all the fuss is about. Bonus points if Cathy’s ghost shows up, and I get to see them go into full across-the-divide breakdown mode.


13. Bam, you’re pregnant! Who is the father/mother?

Captain Ahab (Moby Dick) or Lemuel Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels)

Why do I get two men who both go gallivanting off around the world with little regard for the wives and families they leave at home alone for years at a time? Ugh! I think I’d go with Ahab. At least he had passion, I can respect that. Gulliver was a real prick to his wife, especially in the end, and I’d hate to be tethered to his high-and-mighty sanctimoniousness for life.

14. You’ve just sent a super-important text message. Who would leave you on Read?

Dr Jekyll (Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or Dorian Gray (The Picture Of Dorian Gray)

Both of them! Literally, both of them are too self-absorbed to bother responding to my text messages. Well, Dr Jekyll might get back to me someday, on his deathbed maybe…

15. You’ve just woken up in your childhood home, and it’s time for breakfast. Your mother is gone, and replaced with…?

Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre) or Emma Woodhouse (Emma)

Oh, I hope it would be Emma! For all her faults, she did a wonderful job of taking care of her father, and I’m sure she’d cook up something delicious (or have her household staff do it, at least).




That was fun, for something different! If you give it a go, be sure to drop a link in the comments below so I can check it out. Did I make a bad call on any of these? Let me know!


10 Things That Will Make Me Pick Up A Book

It’s the bookworm’s perpetual dilemma, wondering what to read next: how to choose from that towering to-be-read pile? Whenever I’m perusing my own shelves, or those of a bookstore or library, there are a few things that will always push me to pick one book over another. I saw a little while back that The Hungry Bookworm did a post on this very topic as part of a Top Ten Tuesday prompt (hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl), so I thought I’d borrow the idea. Here are ten things that will make me pick up a book (almost) every time…

1. The book is about an experience that’s different to my own or unfamiliar to me.

As far as I’m concerned, one of the best things about reading is getting to live a thousand lives. Whether it’s the chance to be an ageing gay man travelling the world, or the American children of Chinese immigrants, or the founder of an underground book club for women in Iran, I want to live it all through literature. Bonus points if it’s an #ownvoices book – I’m far more likely to pick it up if that’s the case!

2. The book has beautiful cover art.

Save your “don’t judge a book” speech. I’m really not that fussy about my book covers, not in the way I know some other booklovers are. I once knew a woman who would only read first-edition hardcovers, can you imagine? I’m fine with movie poster covers or plain-Jane block lettering on a pastel background… but I can’t deny there’s a special place in my heart for beautifully designed paperbacks. I love covers that catch the eye with clever design and colour!

3. I’ve heard other readers talk about the book (even if they hated it).

I have a hard time convincing authors that even bad reviews can be a good thing. I’ve picked up more than a few books after hearing critical comments from others, and loved them. Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool when it comes to books, and I’m far more likely to pick up a book if someone else has talked to me about it. That’s why it’s so important that we booklovers take the time to leave a short review on sites like Goodreads and Litsy – whether what you have to say about the book is good, bad, or somewhere in between.

4. The book has a premise that bowls me over.

A judge is called to the case of a seventeen-year-old boy refusing medical treatment on religious grounds, and she must decide whether to force him to live or let him die. A man tracks down the victims of vicious online public shaming, and uses them as a lens through which we can examine our digital world. A small town wakes to find that overnight the ocean has receded. Don’t they all sound really good? I’m a sucker for a strong premise, no matter the subject or genre. If a one-sentence summary of the book makes me go “ooooh!”, I’m picking it up for sure!

5. The author wrote another book that I loved.

I picked up Great Expectations because Charles Dickens knocked it out of the park with David Copperfield. I picked up Purple Hibiscus because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie killed it with Americanah (also because the two editions had beautiful matching cover art – see point number 2). I picked up Depends What You Mean By Extremist because I found John Safran’s Murder In Mississippi so gripping. This strategy doesn’t always outright guarantee a great read, but it usually works.

6. The book suits my mood at the time.

Sometimes, I’m looking for a book that will affirm whatever I’m currently feeling. In that case, say I was experiencing a loss, I might turn to The Year Of Magical Thinking. Other times, I’m looking for a book to take my mind off things. Then, if I was feeling down, I might pick up The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared for a few laughs. I hold off on books that are heavier or more challenging until I’m in a good frame of mind; that way, I can be sure I’ll handle it and get everything out of the book that I can. My attempt to read Wuthering Heights when I was emotionally preoccupied was a total disaster!

7. It’s a non-fiction book on a niche subject.

I love a book that delves into the nitty-gritty of something! I tore through a 450+ page history of the humble mosquito. I adored The White Mouse, a small print-run autobiography of an amazing woman of whom most people have never heard. I’m really looking forward to learning how Proust might change my life from Alain de Botton’s book. As long as the author is passionate and excited about their subject, no matter what it is, I’ll get passionate and excited, too!

8. It’s a pervasive and influential book that I’ve seen referenced elsewhere.

Vanity Fair was named for a setting in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. A colleague who transferred left me a farewell note that said “so long, and thanks for all the fish” – I had no idea what that meant until I finally read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. There’s an Alabama legal society named for the fictional Atticus Finch. I love picking up books that help me understand the origins of concepts, characters, idioms, and ideas we take for granted.

9. The book is different in content and style to whatever I’ve read most recently.

I know a lot of readers love to do “book flights” (which I call falling down a reading rabbit hole). They find a subject or a writer or a genre, and read as many books in that one area as they can until they get tired of it or find something new or exhaust their options. I’m not one of those readers. My tolerance for same-ness is usually one book. Occasionally, usually by accident, I’ll read a couple of similar books back-to-back, and it always makes me antsy. It’s a one-way ticket to Reading Slumpville! So, if I’ve just read a gritty account of an Australian true crime, I might reach for a classic romance or a collection of essays next, just to keep things varied and interesting.

10. The book was shortlisted for an award.

Note that I do say shortlisted – I don’t pay all that much attention to the actual winners of major literary awards. In fact, I usually don’t realise that a book has actually won a prize until after I’ve finished reading it and I’m starting to write up a review. I do, however, really enjoy looking over award shortlists. I always end up adding most (or all) of them to my to-be-read list. With the growing push for diversity and inclusion, these lists are usually goldmines of wonderfully varied reads with literary chops. Plus, picking a winner is basically a crapshoot, so I may as well just read them all and love them all for what they are!



What makes you pick up a book? Do you go for cover art as well? Do you stick with your favourite authors or genres? Or is it something else entirely that makes you pull one down from the shelf? Tell me in the comments!

7 Classic Books For People Who Don’t Read The Classics

Are you still searching for a bookish new year’s resolution? “Start reading the classics” might be a good one, but I wouldn’t blame you if you were feeling a bit intimidated. Classic books have a reputation for being long, dense, and difficult to understand. If you were forced to read a few in high school, that was probably enough to put you off them for life. The trick is to find a few that will ease you in. That’s why I’ve put together this list of classic books for people who don’t read classic books. I tried to pick classics that are easy to read, in terms of both language and content (no trigger warnings required, though there will always be some darker themes, can’t avoid those). These reads will get you into the rhythm, and hopefully help you develop a taste for classic books.

Classic-Books-For-People-Who-Dont-Read-The-Classics-Text-Overlaid-on-Image-of-Man-in-Hat-Sitting-at-Bottom-of-Flight-of-Stairs-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte Brontë has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”, which means she was one of the first writers to do first-person narration really, really well. Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman (named Jane Eyre, duh) coming of age in Victorian England. She’s a bit down on her luck, with dead parents and mean stepsisters and everything, but a position as a governess for a strange and alluring man could turn things all around for her… It’s the perfect classic to start with if you’ve got feminist leanings but you’re still a sucker for a good romance. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

You might think you’re already familiar with Sherlock Holmes – he is, after all, the world’s most famous fictional detective, and one of the most commonly used and adapted characters in English literature. All that familiarity and context will make Doyle’s original short story collection, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a fun and easy read. Even if you’ve been living under the world’s largest rock and know nothing about Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson, you’ll still find these stories are quick, clever, and rollicking good fun. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In addition to a classic book with an intricate love triangle, when you pick up The Age Of Innocence you’ll also get a piece of history. It’s written in remembrance of a long-lost time, that of Gilded Age New York, and it’s also the first book written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. That makes Wharton a trailblazer, as well as a teller of cracking yarns. You do need to keep your wits about you as you read this one, because she weaves all kinds of interesting comments and observations into passages as simple as the description of a house facade. If you want a classic book you can sink your teeth into, on a long flight perhaps, this is the one for you! Read my full review here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

I know I promised you some short and snappy classic reads, so I understand if you’re looking at a copy of David Copperfield right now and thinking I’ve led you up the garden path. The thing is, even though this is a long book in terms of page count, I was so enthralled by it and the pages flew by so fast that it felt like a regular-length novel. It’s written in the style of an autobiography, telling the life story of (you guessed it) a man called David Copperfield. Dickens was the master of writing something for everyone; he knew that his books were used for family entertainment, so he weaved in politics, romance, adventure, and intrigue, and seasoned it with humour and horror, to make sure readers of all ages and inclinations would enjoy his books. Read my full review here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

Little Women wasn’t even considered to be a “real” classic until very recently. It has historically been written off as sentimental fluff, and many critical readers have turned their noses up at it. Luckily, I’m here to testify the truth of the matter, just for you Keeper-Upperers: this book is brilliant. Yes, it’s easy to read, and yes, at face value it can come across a little earnest, but lurking below the surface are all manner of feminist principles and class commentary and Alcott’s trademark subversion of expectations. I’m glad to see it has claimed its rightful place in the American literary canon! This is the classic book to read when you want a cozy family story with an edge. Read my full review here.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma - Jane Austen - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It took me a while, but I’m finally coming around to Austen, and to Emma in particular. I know most readers would probably recommend Pride And Prejudice for first-timers, but I actually found Emma to be a better introduction. It’s a gentle book, in the sense that most of the action takes place around bored wealthy white people visiting each other’s houses, but it’s also incredibly clever and witty and wise. Emma is a book that will marinate in your mind long after you’ve finished it. Pick it up if for no other reason than to find out what all the fuss is about. Read my full review here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Mary Shelley put pen to paper and created Frankenstein in order to win a bet, and with that the whole genre of science fiction was born. If you’re a sci-fi reader, you should read this one to see the origins of your preferred genre brought to life (much like the monster, ha!). It’s written in an epistolary style – in letters, and diary entries, and so forth – which means it’s easy enough to pick up and put down, great for reading when you’re likely to experience distractions. That said, you’ll never want to put it down, because it’s just so gripping! Read my full review here.



What classic books would you recommend to people who don’t normally read classic books? Add to this reading list in the comments below!

50 Books To Read Before You Die

It’s a new year, and that means it’s reading resolution time. I’ve written before about how to read more, how to read more classic books, and how to read more diversely, so you can check out those posts if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re setting a more general goal this year, or looking for a fun reading challenge, this is the list for you. I’ve pulled together this list of fifty books to read before you die.

Now, these aren’t necessarily the “best” books, they’re not even the books I enjoyed the most – heck, I haven’t even read a few of them myself (yet). I certainly wouldn’t say these are the only books you should read, or that reading this list will make you definitively “well read” somehow. These are simply fifty of the books I think are well worth reading, listed here (in no particular order) alongside the reason I think you should give them a go…

50 Books To Read Before You Die - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookshelves Leading To Heavens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Let’s ease into it with a children’s book, something swift and sweet. Even if you already read Charlotte’s Web as a child, it’s wonderful to revisit it as an adult. This book has much to teach us about friendship, diversity, and determination.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know Jane Eyre isn’t without it’s problems (there’s the Creole wife locked in the attic by the romantic lead, for starters), but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s compulsively readable, beautifully rendered, and this Brontë sister has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”. Reading this book will show you where masterful first-person narration truly began. Read my full review here.

3. How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Oi! If you’re scrolling past this one, thinking “I don’t read self-help books” with a smug smile, you stop right now! How To Win Friends And Influence People isn’t so much a self-help book as it is a guide to being more polite and nice to others in your day-to-day life. I think the world could do with a bit more politeness and niceness, don’t you?

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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

In Cold Blood wasn’t the first true crime book, but it can (probably) claim the title of the first “non-fiction novel” without much contest. In Capote’s account of a mass murder in Kansas, we can see the origins of all contemporary true crime and investigative journalism. Set aside your qualms about his liberal creative license – it’s a cracking yarn! Read my full review here.

5. Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The first, and most obvious, reason to read Diary Of A Young Girl is an act of remembrance: the story of Anne Frank, and the countless others who perished and suffered alongside her, should be remembered by all who continue to populate this planet. I’d like to add a second, literary reason: I have yet to read a WWII historical fiction novel that comes even close to capturing the hope, horror, and heart-wrenching honesty of this young woman’s record of her experiences.

6. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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

Even if you’re not normally a fantasy reader – I’m certainly not! – A Game Of Thrones is a good one to start with, mostly due to the enduring popularity of the HBO series. If you’ve seen it (and probably even if you haven’t) you’ll find the plot and characters at least somewhat familiar. That makes the whole thing easier to follow. And, let’s be honest, the main reason to read this book before you die is so that you can look down your nose at the know-it-alls who claim they never watched the series because they read the books. Who are they kidding? Read my full review here.

7. 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

Even if you don’t necessarily need to know, in your day-to-day life, the origins of our universe and everything in it… it can’t hurt to have some idea, can it? A Short History Of Nearly Everything will give you the beginner’s guide to answering some of the big scientific questions of our time. Bonus: it’s all written in a highly accessible, folksy style that lets the mind-boggling facts speak for themselves without bogging you down in academic jargon. Read my full review here.

8. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

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

You could probably read Mrs Dalloway fifty times over before you die, to the exclusion of all else, and still not understand quite everything Woolf was trying to say. I found it tough to persist with it when I knew that so much was flying over my head, but I still think it was a book worth reading. Mrs Dalloway has much to teach us about gender, perspective, human relationships – and even if we finish it having understood only a little, we still come out ahead, right? Read my full review here.

9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah - Chimananda Ngozi Adichie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve seen her TED talk, you already know that Adichie is amazing, and her best known book – Americanah – will certainly give you a lot of food for thought. I realise that many of the books on this list are from the American literary tradition, so consider this book a kind of counterpoint to that. In it, Adichie examines the symbolism of America as a concept, and the ramifications of cultural imperialism across the world.

10. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Almost everyone was forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but it’s worth re-visiting (and definitely worth reading for the first time, if you managed to escape that particular rite of passage as I did). It’s a gritty coming-of-age novel, without the sparkle we’ve come to associate with hopeful young adult offerings of the 21st century. Plus, Holden Caulfield isn’t half as unlikeable as everyone makes out. Read my full review here.

11. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

This is the original collection of short stories that birthed a huge body of work around the world’s most famous fictional detective, and you should read it before you die on that basis alone. But if that’s not enough to lure you in, trust me when I say The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is a fun read! The stories aren’t particularly scary or spooky, but they’re always delightful and clever. It’s also a great example of how we can say a lot with a few words: Doyle was the master of economical use of language. Read my full review here.

12. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

Elena Ferrante, whomever she might be, is (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest writers of literary fiction in our time. Sure, it’s fun to venture down the rabbit-hole of sussing out her true identity, but the real reason to read My Brilliant Friend is bigger than that. These English editions are beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein (#namethetranslator), in a way that retains the rolling lyricism of the original Italian. They paint vivid pictures of life in mid-20th century Naples for two young girls growing into adulthood from poverty. A must-read before you die! Read my full review here.

13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the book that saw a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, forcing him into hiding for many years. And with a title like The Satanic Verses… come on, don’t you want to see what all the fuss was about?



14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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This is the book that “activated” me as a teenager, the one that opened my eyes to the way my world could be manipulated and distorted by power structures beyond my young imagining. Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the pinnacle of dystopian fiction because it takes on startling new resonance every single year, with every crazy event of our increasingly mixed-up world.

15. 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

Look, The Fault In Our Stars isn’t a great work of literature. I’m not sure it’s even a good work of contemporary young adult literature. But it is beloved by an entire generation of teens that are growing up fast. I think we should all read it now so that we’ll have something in common to discuss with the doctors who care for us in our nursing homes. Read my full review here.

16. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know – I know – that even if you’ve never read this classic novella, you’ve used the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”, or heard it somewhere and (thought you) understood what it meant. I say you owe it to the English idiom to read its story of origin, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. For bonus points, you can check out Catch-22 as well! Read my full review here.

17. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The trial(s) regarding the prohibition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were world-changing, in the sense that they provided a legal basis upon which we get to access ground-breaking and subversive literature today, even when governments and school boards would prefer that we didn’t. However, when you actually read this supposedly-erotic tome, it really serves as a good reminder that controversy sometimes amounts to no more than a storm in a tea cup. Read my full review here.

18. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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I can feel you rolling your eyes! And, believe me, I understand. Moby Dick is a six-hundred page book about whales. The size of whales. The smell of whales. The slew of artworks featuring whales. The stories of whales in religion. There’s only so many whales a reader can take! But I would suggest you give it a go, and stick with it for as long as you can. Melville experimented with form and style throughout, so some chapters and passages read completely differently to the last – there’s surely something for everyone (even if they’re not that big on whales). Read my full review here.

19. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a sad fact that at some point in life, each and every one of us will experience loss, grief, and mourning. The Year Of Magical Thinking is widely considered to be the epitome of memoirs on that experience, Joan Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband. It’s a must-read before you die, so that you might be a little better prepared for another’s death (or better understand a long-ago passing).

20. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

If you ask a random stranger on the street to name a “classic book”, with no other prompting, most of them will probably say Pride And Prejudice. It’s another one of those books that we all think we “should” read, and sometimes that kind of pressure is too much. I know I tried many times, and failed, until I finally picked it up at the right moment. Austen penned a brilliant and timeless tale of a man who changes his manners and a woman who changes her mind – stick with it until it sticks with you! Read my full review here.

21. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

Maybe it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: To Kill A Mockingbird is the poster-child of books you should read before you die. It was Harper Lee’s only true novel, and what a novel it was! It has shaped politics, legal thinking, and morality debates in America and around the world for decades now. Not to mention the legion of kids named Atticus, after the eternal patriarch and impassioned lawyer… Read my full review here.

22. 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

This is a selfish inclusion on this reading list, I grant you, but I stand by it: I think everyone should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, if for no other reason than I want them to. There’s a huge plot twist about 70 pages in, and – desperate as I am to talk about this book – I live in constant fear of spoiling it for someone. I won’t stop recommending this book until every reader has read it, and I can have spoiler-y discussions to my heart’s content! Read my full review here.

23. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most other lists of books to read before you die include Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude. It’s a great book, no contest here, but I think that Love In The Time of Cholera is a better one to start with, especially if you’re new to the literature of South America and the tradition of magical realism.

24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a miraculously poetic autobiography (well, perhaps not so miraculous, given that Angelou was, in fact, a poet). You will want to clutch this book to your chest and give it a great big hug. It’s tells the (true!) story of a young woman transformed, how she overcame indignity and prejudice to reach a place of self-possession and determination.

25. 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

OK, this is technically seven books (making this a list of 56 books to read before you die, if you want to be a rule ninny), but who could pick just one from the series that changed the world? And, come to that, who hasn’t read at least one of the Harry Potter books yet? Come on! Get caught up with the rest of the world, if you haven’t already. This one’s a gimme.

26. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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

It’s a crying shame that more readers haven’t yet encountered Cold Comfort Farm. It lurks in the shadows of early 20th century classic literature, mostly because Stella Gibbons thumbed her nose at the “literati” (D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular). She refused to play by the rules of networking and deference, and her sales and reputation suffered for it. You should read this book before you die, just to make sure Gibbons’s comedic brilliance won’t be forgotten, no matter how much the literary giants wanted it to be. Read my full review here.

27. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A couple of blokes stand around, chatting, waiting for their mate – don’t you want to know if he ever shows up? It’s a tragi-comedy, sure to tickle the funny bone of all readers with a darker sense of humour. Plus, Waiting For Godot is a play, and that was definitely Beckett’s natural talent, the best way to experience his (at-times very esoteric) writing.

28. 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

If you could use a little romance in your life (without all the naff cliches that are normally found in the pages of Harlequins, or Fabio clutching a buxom blonde on the cover), Call Me By Your Name is the salve for what ails you. Your heart will wrench, your toes will tingle, as you read this beautiful account of a clandestine love affair in 1980s Italy.

29. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

For too many years, Little Women was written off as foolish, simplistic, fluff “for girls”, and excluded from the literary canon. My challenge to all of you is this: find an edition with a decent introduction that describes Alcott’s life and politics, and then read this subtle but subversive story. You’ll see it in a whole new light, as I did! Read my full review here.

30. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record (literally, it’s in the Guiness book) for being – get this – the most-often rejected book that went on to be a best-seller. I can only imagine the strength of will and self-belief it took for Pirsig to persist after receiving his 121st rejection letter… all that zen thinking must have done wonders!

31. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, if we’re being honest (which, of course, we always are), the main reason to read this book before you die is to work out whether it’s worth giving Proust himself a go. In Search Of Lost Time is the longest book in circulation, too long to bind in a single edition, so let de Botton decide for you whether or not to pick it up. Hopefully, reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, you’ll get an idea of whether it’s worth it. It probably is, but even if not, it’s nice to know that Proust could change your life, at least.

32. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

The literary world has dedicated millions and millions of pages to accounts of the world wars, but there are other conflicts just as worthy of our attention. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is one such crucial account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which over one million people met their untimely violent deaths.

33. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, I’m including yet another children’s book, because sometimes they have more to teach us than anything written for grown-ups. In this case, read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to experience and marvel at Carroll’s masterful word play – it just doesn’t quite translate in its full glory to the Disney screen adaptation (or any other!). Read my full review here.

34. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

It’s rare that a book is so good that it makes me angry: The Grapes Of Wrath is one on that short list. I was so gripped by the story of the Joads, a family attempting to escape the economic desolation of the Dust Bowl, that I found myself furious that no one had ever told me how damn good it was! Plus, this book will (sadly) have a recurring timeliness as we inch closer to a climate change doomsday… Read my full review here.

35. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Second-wave feminism has long been superseded, and it’s easy for us now to decry it for all its problems, but I think it still behoves us to examine its origins as we continue to beat a path towards gender equality. The Feminine Mystique is the book widely credited with kicking things off for the second wave, and it holds up surprisingly well compared to some other feminist texts of the time.

36. The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you can’t quite bring yourself to pick up Crime And Punishment (though you shouldn’t be afraid, it’s actually really good!), here’s a more accessible alternative. The Trial tells the story of a man who is arrested and put on (you guessed it) trial, answerable to a remote authority that we don’t quite understand, for supposed crimes that are never quite revealed to us.

37. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picking up a copy of Leaves Of Grass is kind of like opening a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Whitman first published it as a collection of twelve poems in 1855, but then spent many years re-writing and adding to it, so that the final compilation included well over four hundred pieces. Whichever edition you choose, you’ll find it to be a wonderfully sensual collection that straddles philosophies, movements and themes.

38. 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

Here’s another slim tome that we should all read for the pure fun of it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s ridiculous, satirical, and comforting all at once – not to mention hilarious! Plus, you’ll finally get to understand all those hip references to taking towels on holiday, and the number forty-two, and that constant refrain “don’t panic”… Read my full review here.

39. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Shetterley spent six years working on this biographical story, an account of the lives and works of three NASA mathematicians that history might otherwise have forgotten (thus, the title: Hidden Figures). If you’re asking yourself why their figures may have been hidden from view: well, they were women, for one thing, and women of colour at that, working in a field heavily dominated by men. Their contributions to the space race were invaluable, and this book seeks to set the record straight.

40. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

McEwan is pretty damn prolific, and yet somehow the premises of his stories are always jaw-droppers. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend starting with this one, his best-known book, Atonement. In it, one young girl’s mistake has spiralling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess.

41. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The God Of Small Things was Roy’s debut novel, and it made one heck of a splash – can you imagine winning the Booker Prize your first time out? Not only that, she did a Harper Lee, and stepped back from writing and publishing for twenty years! Her follow-up wasn’t published until 2017 (sophomore slump be damned!). But for a fine examination of how small things affect our lives in big ways, you’ve got to go back to the start with this one.

42. Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It seemed only right to include at least one foundational text, a story that has influenced literature in such a way that we still hear its echoes today, in this list of books to read before you die. I chose Inferno, the first of Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. It’s a narrative poem, depicting Dante’s descent through the circles of Hell. Reading it as a contemporary reader, you’ll appreciate how it illuminates the endurance of human nature. We really haven’t changed all that much since Dante dreamed up fitting punishments for our sins in the 14th century…

43. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It never ceases to amaze me how the wowsers can completely miss the point when it comes to literature. The Color Purple has been consistently censored and banned in various ways ever since it was first published in 1982, usually on the grounds of its “explicit” depictions of violence. And yet, the whole point of the story was to reveal to an indifferent audience the violence wrought upon black women in the American South in the 1930s. Read this book before you die, and show the nay-sayers where they can stick their “concern” for your delicate sensibilities!

44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eugenides reportedly sat down to write Middlesex, an intersectional bildungsroman and family saga, after finding that other accounts of intersex lives and anatomies were insufficient in promoting understanding. In so doing, he’s woven together two intricate experiences: that of intersex people, and that of Greek immigrants, in 20th century America. It’s a lot to tackle all at once, but Eugenides got a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, and that ain’t no small thing.

45. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Remember the fifteen-year-old girl who was shot by the Taliban for standing her ground when it came to her right to an education? This is her story, I Am Malala. It plays out against the horrifying backdrop of the rise (and fall) of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan. This book is so detailed, so earnest and fierce, that it is still banned in many schools of that region – making it, in my eye, all the more essential reading.

46. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, but boy-howdy did it come into its own these past few years! I felt like I couldn’t take a step in any direction without running into Gilead-themed protests, the HBO adaptation, the sequel, or some other homage to Atwood’s dystopian story of ideology and control.

47. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is an unimpeachable darling of the Australian literary community, and it’s tough to narrow down down this selection to just one book from her incredibly varied back-catalogue… but in the end, I went with This House Of Grief. It’s her account of the murder conviction of a man who drove his three children into a dam, killing them, in 2005. It is haunting in the extreme; you won’t be the same after reading it (just as Garner has said she was never the same after writing it).

48. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Did you know that Beloved is actually based on the real-life story of an African-American slave? Her name was Margaret Garner, and she escaped Kentucky in 1856. She fled to Ohio, by then a free state. Morrison, who by then was already regarded in some circles as America’s greatest novelist, came across Margaret’s story, and she was driven to write this imagined account of a former slave living in Ohio. She dedicated it to “sixty million and more” – the number of Africans, and their descendants, who died as a result of the slave trade.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

I will never, never, stop being bitter about the fact that The Great Gatsby is held up as the definitive Jazz Age novel, when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so much better! Why would you want to read about a miserable rich stalker throwing fancy parties, when you could instead read the fictional diaries of a woman willing to exploit the gender roles of 1920s America for all they’re worth? It’s hilarious, it’s brilliant, and it’s taught me more about that period than anything Fitzgerald ever scribbled down. Read my full review here.

50. Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes. It’s here. On this list. If I have to read Ulysses (and the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list dictates I must), then you have to read it. At least give it a go! I’m a firm believer that we should all read the books that intimidate us, like trying new foods or travelling someplace unfamiliar, and hey – it might not be as bad as we all think!

And there we have it! How many of these books have you already read? What books do you think everyone should read before they die? Add your recommendations in the comments below!


The Best Books I Read In 2019: Year In Review

Another year is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for another obligatory year-in-review post, a round-up of all the best books I read in 2019. This year, I reviewed 51 books (though a 52nd will squeeze in just after Christmas, before the new year ticks over), and once again they spanned centuries and categories like you wouldn’t believe. That’s one of my favourite things about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: the variety! I’ve covered everything from Pulitzer Prize winners (old and new) to little-known autobiographies, from Great American Novels to books in translation from Sweden, from hilarious Jazz Age social commentary to re-imaginings of Australian folklore. Here’s the best of what I’ve read this year, from start to finish…

Year In Review - The Best Books I Read in 2019 - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image Of Open Day Calendar - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

Like almost everyone, I think, I sat down with my copy of Little Women carrying a heavy burden of skepticism. I assumed it was going to be fluffy, saccharine, a relic of the days before feminism taught the world that women were powerful. How lucky I was to pick up this edition, with its incredible introduction that detailed for me the life and politics of Louisa May Alcott. It really opened my eyes to what she was trying to do with this book, and how she cleverly – but subtly – subverted the weight of expectation that was thrust upon her. Read my full review here.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth - Penguin Australia Edition Laid Flat On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another one I never thought I’d be including in a list of my best reads of the year. Portnoy’s Complaint, by all accounts, was a self-indulgent romp through the mind of an upper-middle-class Jewish American man, obsessed with sex and his mother (naturally). There was no way, I thought, I could possibly relate to, let alone laugh at, his neurotic monologue. Once again, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me eating my words: this book was hilarious! I cackled over poor Portnoy’s complaints, his childhood anecdotes, and his unbelievable knack for getting in his own way. Read my full review here.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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

Alright, here’s one I knew I’d love: I just had no idea how much. I saved up reading The Bell Jar for the moment I thought I needed it, and I’m so glad I did. It was searing, it was heart-breaking, it was gut-churning, it was tear-jerking, it was breath-taking. It’s a modern classic for a reason, Keeper Upperers, and it was so good I almost gave up reading and writing altogether when I finished it. Why bother, when something so beautiful already exists in the world? Trigger warnings aplenty, however – you’ve been warned. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Age Of Innocence is a lot like one of those boggy marshes with hidden patches of quicksand (I know, it’s not an elegant metaphor, but bear with me): it looks plain, maybe a little boring, but if you don’t keep your wits about you as you wander through, you could find yourself sinking and struggling to get free. Wharton’s prose is deceptively simple. What appears to be a description of a carriage or a house actually contains crucial commentary about the world her characters lived in and the way it worked. If you let your mind drift, you’ll miss it, and have to track back through the pages to pick it up again. Wharton was a trailblazer for 20th century female authors in America, and The Age Of Innocence totally holds up. Read my full review here.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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

Poor Stella Gibbons. I’d never heard of her, nor Cold Comfort Farm (her best-known work, which isn’t saying much) before I put together my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. In fact, it would seem that most people – outside of the very well-read English Literature elite – have never heard of her. She wrote dozens of books, and yet it took me a year to track down any of them. Why is she so underappreciated? Well, it would seem she had the audacity to parody D.H. Lawrence, the beloved grand-daddy of horny male writers in her time (and now, come to that), and she pissed off Virginia Woolf into the bargain. Essentially, Gibbons refused to play by the rules, and as a result, those in the powerful literary cliques sought to pull her from our shelves. I’d say that makes reading Cold Comfort Farm a political act. Read my full review here.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Mark Twain’s books are divisive, I won’t deny it. I can certainly see the problems in his treatment of race in America, problems that have seen his books banned from many school libraries and removed from many a syllabus. But I really enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in spite of myself. I loved the way he used dialect, the way he crafted his characters’ speech to tell the reader as much about them as what they were saying. The writing was brilliant, masterful, immersive, and compelling. I wasn’t as sold on Tom Sawyer, but they can’t all be winners. Read my full review – of both! – here.

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Are you tired of me explaining all the ways in which my preconceived ideas have been kicked in the bum this year? I hope not, because here comes another one. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel laureate, getting the gong for literature back in 2017. I assumed, coming to his work knowing that, that it would be Very Literary(TM). To put it bluntly, I thought it would be dense, bleak, boring, and written for people far smarter than me. I was surprised, when I finally came across a copy of An Artist Of The Floating World, to see how slim it was, and even more surprised by how quickly I powered through it. I’ve talked before about how I’ve largely gone off WWII historical fiction, but this is one I can get behind. It’s set in Japan shortly after the conflict ended, and it follows a few days in the life of an artist who is not only “of the floating world”, but also created propaganda posters for the government. Read my full review here.

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

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

When I finished reading The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I knew I’d found my go-to cheer-up read for many years to come. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of an old bloke who jumped out of his nursing home window to avoid a birthday party, and the role his life’s adventures play in what unfolds after that. It stretches far past the bounds of believability, but it’s so fun and so funny that all is forgiven. This is the book I thrust into a friend’s hands if they’re having a down day. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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

I must admit, even if I hadn’t enjoyed Pride And Prejudice, it would be getting a spot on this round-up of the best books I read this year, purely for the fact that I finished it! Long-time Keeper Upperers will know that I’ve been engaged in a brutal stand-off with this book for many years. I’ve picked it up no fewer than six times, only to quickly abandon it and move on to something else shortly thereafter. But now, I can proudly declare that I have read Jane Austen’s beloved prototypical romance, and I finally understand what all the fuss is about. My experience(s) with Pride And Prejudice just go to prove, once again, that it is crucial – crucial! – that a book comes to you at the right time in your reading life. Read my full review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, by a long way, the book I have recommended most often and most vehemently this year, to anyone who’ll listen (and even to those who won’t). I was completely knocked off my feet by this charming little tome, stylised as a series of diary entries chronicling the adventures of society darling Lorelei Lee. If you’ve seen the movie and figured that you didn’t need to read the book (or if you didn’t even know there was a book, no judgement!), you’re dead wrong. This is the most astute, insightful, and witty take on gender roles in the Jazz Age (and all subsequent ages) that I have ever read. Forget about Gatsby (ugh): leave your copy at a local Little Library, and curl up instead with this absolute gem. Read my review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

Have you ever read a book that was so good it made you angry? That’s what happened to me when I read The Grapes Of Wrath. I was nonsensically angry with every single person in my life who had read it and hadn’t (a) recommended it to me immediately, and (b) warned me about how gut-punchingly good it was. I didn’t want to like it. Steinbeck shamelessly ripped off years of work, that of a woman who history has all but forgotten. But the story of the Joads, their migration across America to seek their fortunes (i.e., survive), moved me in ways I can barely describe. It’s all the more incredible, too, for its startling relevance in a climate that is rapidly changing… Read my full review here.

True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Upon reflection, this might be my year of reading (and loving!) dialect, because – like with Huck Finn, and a few others on this list – what drew me in most to Carey’s reimagining of an Australian folk “hero” was the way he represented an early Irish-Australian accent on the page. True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve ever read that has, in my expert-by-virtue-of-living-here opinion, accurately and beautifully represented Australian speech in a way that doesn’t make the reader want to claw their own eyeballs out. And if that doesn’t sell you on it, consider this: Carey imagines an internal world for Kelly that few have considered before reading this work, but simultaneously allows the reader room to make up their own mind about his morality or lack thereof. A must-read Australian novel! Read my full review here.


And there we have it, Keeper Upperers – an even dozen! What do you think of the best books I read this year? What were the best books YOU read this year? Add your recommendations to the comments below, or tell me on the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If you want to check out more of my best-of recommended reads, try this list of the best books I’ve read so far, earlier in the year.

11 Best Closing Lines in Literature

Opening lines get a lot of attention – heck, I’ve done round-up posts of them a couple of times over (here and here). But what about closing lines? Authors must be knackered by the time they get around to the end of their book, I’d understand if they just wanted to phone it in… but these guys managed to whip out one final zinger, a deeply satisfying note on which to leave their readers. Here’s my list of the best closing lines in literature.

11-Best-Closing-Lines-in-Literature-Text-Overlaid-on-Image-of-Book-Open-on-Table-with-Coffee-Mug-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

(And if you think it’s possible to write a post like this without spoilers, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Don’t you dare complain to me if you read on!)

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Let’s start with something a little bit hopeful, a little bit inspirational, from the American classic Gone With The Wind. Scarlett O’Hara has been abandoned by her true love, Rhett Butler, and she’s reassuring herself that tomorrow she’ll think of some way to win him back. The beauty of this aphorism is that it can be applied to almost any situation, because (in the end) it’s basically just a statement of fact, but one that sounds good.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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

“He loved Big Brother.”

And now to something chilling and bleak: this terrifyingly cruel outcome for Winston, at the conclusion of Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a few hundred pages of frustration and rebellion against the omniscient dictatorship under which he lives, Winston sadly succumbs to their brainwashing and decides that he loves his leader. I’ll never forget the first time I read it: young, wide-eyed, naive, I struggled to believe that Orwell didn’t give Winston a happily ever after (you know, overthrowing a government). I’m still not over it, to be honest.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

OK, I unashamedly hated The Great Gatsby, but even I’ve got to concede that this is a corker of a closing line. It’s one we trot out whenever someone brings up The American Dream – finding it, losing it, exposing it, whatever – and for good reason. It’s just masterfully crafted, beautifully evocative… is there anything more frustrating than having to acknowledge how good something is when you didn’t like it? Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

It’s not like Franzen is known for particularly optimistic takes, and indeed The Corrections isn’t a particularly optimistic book… but, looking at it in isolation, I really like the hopeful ring in this closing line. It’s determined, it’s upbeat – it brings to mind a spritely granny who’s heading out in her active wear for an afternoon power-walk. Right?


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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“The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”

I’ve said before that The Bell Jar is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read – and Plath didn’t miss an opportunity to hit me over the head with one last clanger. I love the discordance of an ending that’s about entering a room (which is where you’d logically expect a story to start, not finish). Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

I’ve heard Annie Proulx say in interviews that she’s a bit “over” talking about Brokeback Mountain – in light of the incredibly popular film adaptation – but I can’t help including this closing line in a list of the best. It’s like the literary equivalent of the serenity prayer (accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, etc.). I think everyone can relate, in some small way, to the pain and disillusionment that Proulx captures here.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

“Yukiko’s diarrhoea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.”

I’ll admit I hadn’t actually heard of The Makioka Sisters, let alone read it, before I started putting together this list… but I came across it in another best-of closing lines compilation, and I laughed out loud, disturbing everyone in my immediate radius. It’s just such a wry, blunt statement! As it turns out, Tanizaki’s story is a really heart-wrenching one (from the plot summary, it sounds like the Japanese equivalent of The Grapes Of Wrath), but I love this matter-of-fact translation of its closing line.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“At that, as if it had been the signal he had waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.”

Perhaps I only like this one because I thought Newland Archer was a weak-willed nincompoop, and I was happy to see The Age Of Innocence end with him alone and miserable, but it’s still a beautiful closing line. Quick recap: Newland is standing alone outside a building, knowing that his “true love” (with whom he carried on an affair in his youth, behind his wife’s back) is inside, but he lacks the gumption to go in and say hello. Instead, he heads back to his own hotel alone (to masturbate and cry, probably). Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.


The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”

Raymond Chandler is beloved for his place writing, and how well he captured Los Angeles’s unique ambience in the early 20th century, but as I said in my review of another of his novels (The Big Sleep), I actually enjoyed his characterisation more. He came up with incredible metaphors and similes to really nail his characters, and a bit of that comes through in this closing line from The Long Goodbye: you can just pictured the beleaguered smirk that accompanies it, can’t you?

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Hemingway famously put a lot of effort into his closing lines. He re-wrote the ending of A Farewell To Arms over forty times (and there are still plenty of readers who insist that he got it wrong!), but I don’t think there’s any argument that this closing line, from A Moveable Feast, was his best.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

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“An excellent year’s progress.”

To end back on a lighter note, I love this beauty from Bridget Jones’s Diary. Perhaps it’s not quite as good out of context – Bridget has just summed up her year in alcohol consumed, cigarettes smoked, weight gained and lost, and boyfriends dumped and won – but I think that it holds up. And it’s certainly a line I’ve borrowed myself once or twice around New Year’s Eve…


Which beautiful endings have stuck with you? Which closing lines do you think are the best? Drop your additions to this list in the comments below (or join in the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).


Gifts For Book Lovers 2019: Our Bookish Wishlist This Holiday Season

Look, buying gifts for book lovers is tricky: “books” seems like the obvious choice, but which ones? What if they already have them? What are the other options? Luckily, pretty much every book blogger under the sun pulls together a “best gifts for book lovers” guide each year, and I’m no exception! I put a call out to my Keeper Upperers to see what was on their bookish wish-lists this year, and threw in a few of my own requests for Santa. So, here’s your 100% verified book-lover-approved bookish gift guide for the 2019 holiday season. You’re welcome!

Gift Guide For Book Lovers 2019 - Text Overlaid on Image of Wrapped Gift and Box with Scissors and Decorative Holiday Trinkets - Keeping Up. With The Penguins

Gifts For Book Lovers: Books

Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? I’m generally of the mind that, when it comes to buying books for book lovers as gifts, the more recent the better – chances are, they haven’t had a chance to get their hands on a copy for themselves yet. When I polled some of my Keeper Upperers, all of the books on their wish-lists this year were really recent releases. Check these out…

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble - Taffy BBrodesser-Akner - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The buzz for Fleishman Is In Trouble just keeps growing, even after it peaked on the New York Times Best Seller List earlier this year. It’s the story of a man in his mid-forties going through a bitter divorce, suddenly responsible for his children when his soon-to-be-ex wife disappears with nary more than a casual text-message… and yet, it’s so much more than that! The Guardian called it “a remarkable work of ventriloquism”. This is one to buy for your sharp, funny friend who’s not easily surprised.

Aussie readers can get Fleishman Is In Trouble here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is my personal pick for non-fiction book of the year: She Said, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s account of how they broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Y’know, the one that changed the world? It is every bit as gripping as a crime thriller, every bit as chilling as a detective mystery, and every bit as invigorating as a feminist call-to-arms. This is the book to buy your sister or colleague who has followed the #metoo movement with great interest, and loves an inside scoop and seeing justice done.

Aussie readers can get She Said here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Chain - Adrian McKinty - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the crime thriller for people who “don’t like” crime thrillers, so The Chain has become one of the sleeper hits of the year. Its premise is terrifying: a woman receives a phone call saying that her child has been kidnapped, and she must kidnap another child in order to secure her safe return. She’s swept up in the scheme, the chain, and she’ll have to go to unimaginable lengths to escape it. Put this one under the tree for anyone you think is in need of a great, gripping page turner!

Aussie readers can get The Chain here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Dark Emu - Bruce Pascoe - Book Cover - Magabala Books

Dark Emu is a few years old now, and yet it’s still making headlines. There is a push in the Australian literary community to get it to its (deserved) place in the best-seller list this holiday season, and I reckon we can do it! Bruce Pascoe reconsiders and refutes our understandings of pre-colonial Indigenous populations as “hunter gatherers”, and instead presents a meticulously researched history of agriculture and management that were conveniently forgotten by early dispossessers of the land. It is a must-read for every Australian, and even international readers will learn some important truths.

Aussie readers can get Dark Emu here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

And, if there’s a young person in your life that you think would love to learn more about our Indigenous past, you could give them Pascoe’s new edition Young Dark Emu, available here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Girl, Woman, Other was being lauded in literary circles, but didn’t achieve major circulation and recognition until it jointly won the 2019 Booker Prize. Setting aside that controversy, it has since been re-printed and re-published around the world, finally getting the widespread cut-through it deserves. In it, Evaristo depicts the lives and journeys of twelve characters over the course of a century in Great Britain. Pick this one up for anyone who read and enjoyed The Testaments already – make sure Girl, Woman, Other gets equal recognition for the Booker gong!

Aussie readers can get Girl, Woman, Other here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Book Cover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I read Pain And Prejudice earlier this year, and something strange happened: every time I mentioned it to someone, whatever their age or gender, they would nod enthusiastically and start sharing a story, their own or their loved one’s. Braiding together memoir and science, Jackson explores the ways in which social structures—particularly the medical system—have under-served and oppressed women, keeping them sick and in pain, for far too long. I worry, though, that given the subject matter, this one will be written off as a “women’s” book. Fight the power: buy this book for a MAN in your life!

Aussie readers can get Pain And Prejudice here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

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

If you’d told me this time last year that the winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award would be an incredible dark-comic novel by one of our most brilliant Indigenous women writers, I probably wouldn’t have believed it… and yet, here we are. Too Much Lip defied all expectations. It brought deeply Australian experiences of class and race to the fore, in a way that was beguiling and touching in equal measure. Get this book for your aunt or godmother who just loves a wise-cracking female lead who’s not going to take anyone’s shit.

Aussie readers can get Too Much Lip here.
Everyone else can buy it here.

Gifts For Book Lovers That Aren’t Books

Look, I get it: buying a book for a casual or recreational reader is fine, but buying a book for a truly obsessed book lover can be terrifying. They already own SO MANY BOOKS! And you might be reluctant to just slip a gift voucher in their card (while it is always appreciated, it is kind of the easy-way-out). Luckily, a huge cottage industry has been built around bookish swag and merchandise, so here are a few ideas for gifts for book lovers that aren’t books…

Literary Mugs

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a book lover who doesn’t believe that a book always reads best with a mug of tea or coffee in-hand. That’s why literary-themed mugs are always a great gift (particularly if you’re on a tight budget!). They never go to waste! I love this one in particular, because – let’s face it – the middle of the Venn diagram between book lovers and cat lovers is HUGE.

Aussies can get their literary cat mug here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Bookish Calendars

1000 Books To Read Before You Die 2020 Calendar - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know, I know, everyone has a calendar in their phone nowadays – but the sun has not quite set on fun desk calendars, particularly for folks that work in offices or have some other neutral daily workspace in need of a bit of spruceing! This one is particularly fun: based on the 1,000 Xs To Do/See/Hear/Read Before You Die series, this is a calendar of 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die with quotes, quizzes, recommendations, and more. It’s like a dose of daily bookish inspiration with just a hint of existential dread!

Aussies can get their bookish calendar here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Reading Journal

Read Harder Reading Log - Book Riot - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you have a bit of a scroll through #bookstagram, you’ll see that paper-and-pen reading journals have made a HUGE comeback. A lot of book lovers find it deeply satisfying to have a record of what they’ve read, what’s coming up, what they’ve loved and what they haven’t… And this particular reading journal comes from the experts over at Book Riot, as part of their ethos to READ HARDER every year.

Aussies can get the Read Harder journal here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Bookish Apparel

Out Of Print T-Shirt - A Word After A Word After A Word is Power - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a sucker for a good literary-themed tee, and I’m not the only one! Really, any kind of bookish fashion is going to be a winner as a gift. Scarves and socks are the safest bet if you’re not sure on sizing, but I’m particularly partial to the shirts from the fine folks at Out Of Print (not a sponsored name-drop, I just dig what they do). My favourite this year is their unisex Margaret Atwood quote tee: “A word after a word after a word is power.”

Aussies can get the t-shirt here.
Everyone else can get theirs here.

Bookends

Gothic Dragon Book Ends - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know a single book lover that hasn’t found themselves in need of a book end at some point or another: whether you’ve just bought new shelves and need something to fill in the gaps (until your next trip to the bookstore), or you’re using them for gorgeous props in your #bookstagram feed, they’ll always come in handy! These ones pictured would be PERFECT for the fantasy reader or Game Of Thrones fan in your Kris Kringle pool!

Aussies can get these bookends here.
Everyone else can get them here.

Bookish Home Decor

A Compendium Of Flowers Vase - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even when book lovers aren’t reading, they’re still all about that aesthetic of bookness! You can get bookish-looking anything nowadays: phone cases, wall hangings, curtains, quilts… I’m particularly partial to this Bibliophile’s Vase, a “compendium of flowers”. No one ever has a vase right when they need one, so for the book lover in your life, this gift will be a win-win!

Aussies can get the bibliophile vase here.
Everyone else can get it here.

Bookmarks

Metal Feather Book Marks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is another thing book lovers never have enough of: BOOKMARKS! Even though we get them for free sometimes from bookstores and publishers, they’re usually flimsy cardboard and disintegrate with our regular use. Why not treat the book lover in your life to a gorgeous set of metal bookmarks? They’re a lot more durable, and still really affordable (another great budget option if things are a bit tight this silly season!).

Aussies can get these bookmarks here.
Everyone else can get them here.


Well, I think that should cover something for just about everyone, don’t you? What do YOU want to find under your tree or in your stocking or wrapped in the hands of a loved one this year? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll see if I can get a word to the elves…


7 Classic Books You Can Skip Reading (And What To Read Instead)

I don’t think anyone should read the classics just so they can say they’ve “read the classics”. Sometimes books are glorified and lionised for reasons other than readability. Take Moby Dick, for instance: it’s a fascinating book, one worth reading and understanding from an academic standpoint, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable reading experience for most booklovers. Earlier this year, I talked about how to read more classic books, and I still think that’s a laudable goal… but consider this post the counterpoint, a list of classic books you can skip reading (and some suggestions as to what you can read instead).

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Don’t Read: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Read Instead: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

If you’ve followed Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you had to know this would be the first cab off the rank. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hated The Great Gatsby, and if anything my distaste for it has only grown over time. I have no idea why it’s so popular, especially in high-school reading lists. A privileged white guy discovers it’s fun to have money and party with pretty girls, then his friend dies and nobody comes to the funeral – smh. Maybe it was a revelation for some, but certainly not for me. I found Gentlemen Prefer Blondes superior in just about every way. First, it was funny. Second, it was incredibly insightful. Third, it privileged the voices of characters that Fitzgerald mercilessly marginalised (i.e., women). Trust me, you’ll have way more fun reading about Lorelei’s adventures in love and high society than you will reading about Gatsby borderline-stalking his married ex-girlfriend.

Don’t Read: The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Read Instead: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

When I read The Adventures Of Augie March, I could tell straight away that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens in general, and to David Copperfield in particular. Bellow basically took Dickens’ style of storytelling and transplanted it into 1920s Chicago. I don’t think he did a great job of it, though. Augie is barely a character, he has no agency in his own life, and any other character you might actually care about only appears for a page or two. David Copperfield, on the other hand, was full of fun and intrigue and heartbreak and glory; Dickens was the master of writing books that had something for everyone, and writers like Bellow tackle that legacy at their own peril. When in doubt, go for the OG.

Don’t Read: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Read Instead: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I love the story of how Ray Bradbury came to write Fahrenheit 451. He found a library that would let him use a typewriter for 10c per hour, and he got to work, writing his magnum opus for the princely sum of about nine bucks. It’s a great story-behind-the-story, and I talk more about it in my review, but unfortunately a handful of speed-writing sessions in a library basement doesn’t a masterpiece of modern literature make. Fahrenheit 451 is a really short book, and it reads like a good first draft (which, basically, it is). I feel like almost everyone who loves it read it for the first time in high school, when the idea that a government might gain too much power and people would be forced to rebel was a game-changer. In my view, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the superior dystopian classic: it’s given us so much iconic imagery (Big Brother, the ubiquitous ever-watchful screen, etc.), the prose is straightforward but gripping, and Orwell has a lot more room to explore the ideas of his imagined future.

Don’t Read: The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Read Instead: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

OK, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the first full-length novels written in the form we recognise today, so I can’t be too hard on Laurence Sterne for not exactly nailing it. But don’t be fooled by the title, it’s a study in irony: there’s very little of Tristram Shandy’s life, or opinions, in this book. It’s mostly a meandering chat about philosophy, politics, and his father’s household staff. The language is really inaccessible for most contemporary readers, and I had trouble staying awake. Jane Eyre came later, yes, so Charlotte Brontë had more literary influences to draw upon and she took less of a risk creatively. Still, whichever way you slice it, Jane Eyre is still a far more engaging and readable story. It actually does what it says on the tin, for one thing, in telling Jane’s life story, and Charlotte Brontë has since been called the “first historian of the private consciousness” for her incredible rendering of her protagonist’s inner world.

Don’t Read: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read Instead: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I expected so much more of The Scarlet Letter, based on its reputation. I thought I was in for a treatise on the control of female sexuality, I wanted a take-down of the patriarchy, I hoped there might even be a few dirty bits. I was sorely disappointed, on all counts. Hawthorne sought to make a single point – that the Puritans sucked – and he made it again, and again, and again. The Age Of Innocence (another later book, but an infinitely better one) had a much more nuanced look at gender roles and societal pressure in America. It’s a lot more subtle, which means you have to play close attention, but I’d much rather that than the way that Hawthorne whacked you over the head with his symbolism…

Don’t Read: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Read Instead: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

If you’re going to have a stab at writing the Great American Novel, I think it’s cheating to set your story in Europe. I know, I know, Hemingway was “writing what he knew”, but what he knew was a bunch of drunk blokes and one token woman (whom they all wish to sleep with, natch) enjoying their time as spectators to animal cruelty and exhibiting some pretty gross xenophobia. Also, Hemingway was clearly a terrible lover, because not one of his characters in The Sun Also Rises seemed to realise there were alternatives to vanilla P-in-V sex. Snore. Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath was actually set in the States (point one!), and told what I think to be a far more important story about the lives of rural and impoverished Southerners during the Great Depression. Instead of dilly-dallying about feeling sorry for themselves, every character sacked up and shipped out to make the best of unimaginably shitty circumstances. It sounds like an uplifting read as I’m describing it here, and it was in part, but trust me: Steinbeck had perfected the art of the emotional gut-punch, so there’s plenty of those to be found here, too.

Don’t Read: The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Read Instead: Literally anything else.

I really am loath to tell anyone not to read a book. Even when it’s a book I hated, a book that made me want to pull my eyes out and soak them in water, I’ll usually tell people to give it go and decide for themselves. I never want to discourage anyone from reading, and even in my most negative reviews I try to find something positive to say about the book in question. But for The Golden Bowl, that was damn near impossible. I have never read a book more impenetrable! I had to resort to reading chapter summaries online as I went, to make sure I was actually following what was going on. James seemed hell-bent on confusing and frustrating the heck out of his reader. Maybe he had a nice turn of phrase or two on occasion, and the plot itself (or what I could decipher of it) wasn’t terrible, but reading The Golden Bowl was enough to make me swear off reading anything else he’s written for the rest of my goddamn life. I can’t really think of a comparable title to encourage you to read instead, I hated it that much. Do yourself a favour and pick up something completely different: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, or Little Women, or Cold Comfort Farm.


What classic book do you think you could have skipped reading? What would you say would be a good one to read instead? Drop your recommendations in the comments below, or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If it’s summer where you are (it’s certainly heating up here!), be sure to check out this guide to the best classics to put in your beach bag.

5 Of The Worst Book Endings… Ever!

I’ve talked before about the importance of an opening line, but surely a book’s ending is just as – if not more! – crucial. It’s what the writer leaves the reader with, and what the reader will remember most clearly when they think back on the book later. Writers are well aware of the importance of getting it right: Hemingway famously re-wrote the final passage of A Farewell To Arms over forty times (and there are plenty of readers who say he still got it wrong).

I think a bad book ending feels like a betrayal, more so than other types of media. A movie with a bad ending, for instance, only feels like a waste of an hour or two. A book requires a much longer (and much more emotional) investment from the reader, so we demand some kind of pay-off. I’m not saying every book has to have a happy ending. I’m not even saying that every book needs “closure” in the final pages. What I’m saying is that the ending needs to feel satisfying, in some respect at least. If I’m suddenly chucked out of the story, if the ending is inconsistent or incomplete or overwrought or whatever the case may be, it’s going to sour my opinion of the whole book, even if it was brilliant up ’til then.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five of the worst book endings ever – as voted by me, and some of my darling Keeper-Upperers over on Instagram.

5 Of The Worst Book Endings... Ever! - Text Below Black and White Image of Dead End Road Sign - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Naturally, spoilers abound below, so proceed at your own risk…)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games was one of the very first books I read for the Keeping Up With The Penguins Project. On the whole, I didn’t mind it, but I got the distinct impression that it was written initially as a stand-alone. It wasn’t until the final couple of pages that Collins opened up a door to a second book, and all I could think was: “Clearly, an editor has forced her to do this, because they know there’s money to be made in a successful dystopian YA series”. The story of this first installment had a really natural arc that that flowed to a conclusion, and then BAM: more story to come! Ugh. Most fans of the book don’t seem to take issue with it, though; I might be the only one who noticed. Other Hunger Games readers seem to focus their rage on the end of the series as a whole (and, in fairness, they’re probably right to do so – it was pretty crap). Read my full review here.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Me Before You - Jojo Moyes - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(As suggested by @syarahsyazanaghazali)

It would seem there are about a million reasons to hate the ending of Me Before You: it’s too sad, it’s too corny, and so on and so forth. Personally, I took issue with the ableist overtones, through the book as a whole and the ending in particular. Moyes seemed to imply that there’s no way life as a wheelchair-user could be worthwhile – even when you have all of the privilege of wealth, and happy relationships. Being, as I am, a person who doesn’t live with a disability, it’s probably not my place to deconstruct the ways in which that is problematic, but I feel comfortable saying that it just didn’t sit right with me. This book is definitely polarising – a lot of people really love it, and a lot of people really dislike it, not a lot of in-between – but I think that we can all agree that the ending was, to put it mildly, terrible in multiple ways.

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

All The Light We Cannot See won a Pulitzer prize, and it’s still selling in huge numbers across the world, even years after its release. So, I might be the only one who thinks this, but I’ve just gotta say it: I think the ending was pretty average. It’s a really sprawling epic story of two kids whose lives weave together over the course of WWII, and then… they just kind of find each other? Very briefly? And one of them dies? And then the other one meets the dead one’s sister later? And then she lives happily ever after? I’m including all of these question marks because I feel like it becomes increasingly mystifying, and it’s delivered in rapid-fire (unlike the story that preceded it, which was fairly evenly paced). Maybe it’s not the worst book ending of all time or anything, but it’s definitely one of those that springs to mind when asked. Read my full review here.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(As suggested by @i_left_my_heart_in_sf)

Hoo-boy! Jodi Picoult sure did set the cat among the pigeons with My Sister’s Keeper. In fact, you can’t google her name or the book’s title without at least one or two angry rants about the book’s ending (and the movie‘s ending!) cropping up in the top results. I saw one reviewer say she was so upset by it she wanted to through Picoult in the sewer. Another blamed Picoult for her trust issues. It’s a fraught and emotional story as it is – about a young girl’s fight to control her own body, and not farm her organs out to her ill sister – so the stakes for a satisfying ending are higher than they would be otherwise. I’m afraid to say that Picoult is almost universally considered to have failed that test, and this is unquestionably one of the worst book endings ever.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, J.K. is our Queen. I’m not coming after her. The Harry Potter series is probably a big reason that a lot of us are here and reading right now. All hail, etc. But I’m just going to say it: the epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is hands down one of the worst book endings ever. I struggle to think of an ending that confused, saddened, and disgusted me more than that one. If you’re reading Harry Potter for the first time – and I highly recommend that you do! – just stop when you get to the end of the last proper chapter in this book. If you read any further, you’ll find a really naff, super-corny ending where everyone has grown up and married their high-school sweethearts and had a bunch of kids that they named after the people who died. Vomit! It stitches the story together in the most hopelessly saccharine way, which does the whole series a huge disservice. I think it’s even worse for the reader given the emotional gut-punch of Harry’s death, and re-birth, in the chapters that preceded it, not to mention his trashing of the Elder Wand… I think Deathly Hallows would have been a perfect and fitting end for the series, if not for that stinkin’ epilogue. Grrr!

What do you think? Share your worst book endings ever in the comments below (or tell us all about your disappointments over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).

5 Books You Should Have Read In High School

There are many books we first encounter as required reading in high-school. I think that’s a real shame, because we would get so much more out of them if we came to them later in life. I’m seeing that a lot with books from my original reading list that I never had to read before this blog (even though they’re high-school syllabus standards); The Catcher In The Rye is a good example. That said, I can concede there are some classic books that are perhaps best suited to high-school students.

I should say at the outset that I’m generally opposed to enforced reading. I think the best way to foster a true love and appreciation for reading and writing is to allow kids to read and write what interests them. If a kid wants to read poetry or sci-fi or graphic novels, and write book reports on their favourites, then we should let them. Who cares if other kids are reading something different? It’s school, not a book club. Still, if we’re going to insist on required reading, here are five books that I think you should read in high-school (or should have read in high school, if you’re of a certain age)…

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

I can already hear the shocked gasps: “But it’s all about sex! We can’t let kids read inappropriate things like that!”. And to that, I say this: The Great Gatsby, ubiquitous in high-schools, is all about conspicuous consumption, crime, and violence. Why are we so much more comfortable letting our kids read about someone getting shot than someone getting laid?

I thought The Great Gatsby sucked, and I’ve made no secret of that fact. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book. It’s funnier, it’s more insightful, it’s more clever in its use of language and dialect. Loos did far more interesting things with perspective in narration. It’s set in Jazz Age America, just like Gatsby, but it would give kids a much more nuanced view of that period and it would teach them more about life and literature (see above). Plus, it’s a lot more fun! Read my full review here.

Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

I read Diary Of A Young Girl for the first time in high-school, and I’m so, so glad I did. I think it was a key moment in my empathic development. Reading about a girl to whom I thought I could relate (roughly the same age, bookish, introspective), in the midst of such atrocity and fear, taught me a lot at a very pivotal time. Granted, it might be a bit much for some teenagers, especially those at the younger end of the age bracket, but if they can handle The Book Thief then they can handle Anne Frank’s real-life account. In fact, those two books would make for really good paired reads. It would generate some great in-class discussion about our different perspectives on WWII and what we can learn through both fictional and non-fictional accounts.

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

This is one I’d like to suggest in place of The Catcher In The Rye. As I mentioned earlier, I loved the Salinger book, but if we’re going to be assigning coming-of-age books to teenagers we need to make them representative. All too often, assigned high-school texts – Catcher among them – feature straight white teenage males, somewhere on the spectrum from middle-class to transitory poverty. Even though they’re so common in literature, those characters only reflect the lived experience of a relatively small segment of the population. Go Tell It On The Mountain is one of many, many alternatives to those stories, and it’s a good one (especially as it would seem James Baldwin is disappearing from classrooms – bring Baldwin back!). Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical bildungsroman tells the story of a young black man in 1930s Harlem, and it explores complex intersectional identities in race and religion.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Firstly, all current high-school students should read Fahrenheit 451 because it’s still disturbingly relevant. Forces of oppression are still working to keep us mollified, keep us sedated, and keep us quiet – and this book is a great vehicle to teach and discuss that reality. Secondly, given the depth and breadth of dystopian fiction out there, I worry that if they come to this one too late in life – as I did – it’ll be ruined for them. Fahrenheit 451 reads like an intro-to-dystopia book, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not as complex as other, later works that high-school students are likely to encounter as they enter adulthood. Heck, even some of the most recent young-adult offerings – like The Hunger Games – are far more weighty; Fahrenheit 451 is just too short to build a world as complex and multi-layered as a series that stretches over multiple books. Often, I’ve found, when someone says they love Fahrenehit 451, they read it for the first time in their teens and it blew their minds. I say let’s keep that tradition alive. Read my full review here.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories, so it won’t be particularly laborious for teens who find reading tough. Holmes is a pervasive pop-culture figure, so this book could be considered his “origin story”, a gateway to hundreds of other books and films that feature the tough-talking private detective. The mysteries that he investigates are fun, never too gory or terrifying. And it’s a particularly good book for would-be budding writers, because there’s a lot to be learned from Doyle’s economy of language and the way he sets up a twisty story. Even though I didn’t read this one in high-school myself, I’m sure if I had I would have loved it. Read my full review here.


I want to reiterate that I think it’s crucial kids be able to seek out and choose their own reading material. This post is not a list of commandments, and I wouldn’t expect that every teenager would love and appreciate all (or even any) of these books. Still, if I’m thinking back on my own reading life, and the books that I wish I’d read or books I’m glad I read in high school, these all rank really highly. What books do you think you should have read in high school? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).

And while we’re talking coulda-woulda-shoulda, why not check out this list of books that will help you sort out your life?


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