Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 58)

10 Books About Enduring Friendships

Most book characters have friends, of some kind. Of course, you get your occasional oddball loner like Eleanor Oliphant, but even they usually end up with a buddy or two by the end. But an interesting sub-section of books feature friendships that last over years, decades, across countries and continents. Often, they’re more interesting than the romantic relationships that usually get the most attention. Here are ten books about enduring friendships that will make you want to call your own bestie.

10 Books About Enduring Friendships - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be my best friend forever if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase – I’ll get a small cut of the sale to support this site.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend - Charlotte Wood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not only is The Weekend one of my favourite books about enduring friendships, it’s also one of the best books about older women on my shelves. Too often, older women in fiction are depicted as objects of pity, sad sacks who live in isolation or only care about their grandchildren. Charlotte Wood does a fantastic job of depicting older women who lead full and rich lives – and have complex and rewarding friendships. The four women at the heart of this story have been through it all together, and yet there’s still more surprises in store for them. Read my full review of The Weekend here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

One of the most beloved and acclaimed contemporary books about enduring friendships is My Brilliant Friend, the first in Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels. It lays the groundwork for an epic friendship between two girls who grow up in mid-century Naples. Their families are poor, the local politics is bloody, and each of them have to fight tooth and nail to forge their own path. Their friendship isn’t sweet or simple – it’s dark and complex and full of the strange affection and envy that seems unique to young women. Ferrante’s incredible Italian prose is beautifully translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

Anyone who knows anything at all about A Little Life knows that it’s a deeply traumatic read, certainly not one for the faint of heart. The novel’s traumatic content has been talked to death, but what’s received comparatively scant attention is the power of the enduring friendships between the four primary characters. Jude’s “little life” is impossibly difficult and filled with tragedy and cruelty, but his friendships are what empower and uplift him as he endures it. Not every tear you cry as you read this book will be a sad one, as the power of friendship is every bit as moving. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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

It would be easy to glance at the premise of The Color Purple and think that it’s yet another book about how terrible life is for Black women in America – but if you take a closer look, it’s actually one of the most uplifting books about enduring friendship from the Black canon. Celie is forced to grow up far too fast, subjected to abuse as a child and married to a man she doesn’t love. But it is her friendships with the strong women around her that allow her to fight back, to forge a path to a life that’s more like the one she dreamed for herself. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Joy Luck Club is one of the books about enduring friendship that reflect an oft-overlooked reality: that the strongest and most enduring friendships are often forged through shared experiences of struggle. Suyuan Woo was forced to flee her Kweilin home during WWII and abandon her twin daughters along the way. In her new home, San Francisco, she invited three women from her church to join her at a standing appointment to play mahjong and eat delicious food. In so doing, she forged a connection that endured hardships and lasted generations. Read my full review of The Joy Luck Club here.

Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Books about enduring friendships are rarely simple, but Sula is more complex than most. Two girls grow up in The Bottom, a Black neighbourhood with a ghastly history. Nel’s home life is stable and rigid, while Sula’s is eccentric and loose. Despite their differences, they become close, and their fierce attachment is bolstered rather than broken by a shared traumatic experience. Their paths diverge after adolescence, but the bond between them never truly breaks. The burden of their dreadful secret follows them into adulthood, a friendship that endures distance, gossip, and betrayal.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dystopian futures might seem like odd settings for books about enduring friendships, but in Never Let Me Go, it just makes sense. The story begins like a dark academia novel, with children at a boarding school, isolated from the trials and tribulations of the “real” world. Kazuo Ishiguro masterfully teases out the “big reveal”, the reason that these children are being so carefully cared for and selectively educated. As the truth dawns on the reader, the closeness of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy begins to make a new kind of sense – and their inevitable end will break your heart. Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

What’s a Sherlock without his Watson? The enduring friendship at the heart of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is so iconic, it’s slipped into cultural shorthand. Watson is more than a sidekick to Holmes; he’s a sounding board, a drinking buddy, a chronicler, and a sanity-check. Watson tends to recede into the background, as he narrates Holmes’s cases, but if you remind yourself to read between the lines, you’ll find hints at the adorable mutual affection these two men share. Maybe it nudges at the line between friendship and something more, eh? (Don’t say that too loud, though, the Holmes purists will get mad.) Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl Woman Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There are so many criss-crossing friendships and other relationships in Girl, Woman, Other that you’ll probably need a map to make track. Each character is connected Love Actually-style, but there are a couple of enduring friendships that are worth closer attention. Dominique and Amma in particular are the heart of the novel, young friends who founded a theater company together after finding themselves typecast and marginalised in mainstream productions. Their friendship persists even as their lives go in very different directions, through fundamental disagreements and across continents, culminating in a heartfelt reunion at the end of the novel. Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the cruel realities of life is that our reward for maintaining friendships over decades is often losing our cognitive grasp of them. Emma Healey confronts that reality in Elizabeth Is Missing, a “heartbreakingly honest meditation on memory, identity, and aging”. The protagonist, Maud, is slowly losing her memory as she descends into dementia, but she remembers something essential: her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing. How can she convince others around her to believe her and to help? She begins writing notes to herself, in the hopes of discovering the truth and save her beloved bestie.

10 Books Set In The Australian Outback

As an Australian, I have a strange relationship with “the outback”. I’m definitely more of a city rat than a country mouse, and yet anyone I speak to from overseas seems to expect me to be wearing an Akubra hat and R.M. Williams boots while I traipse around the dry paddocks. As an Australian reader, my relationship with “the outback” in fiction is even stranger. I have a strong bullshit detector, and as soon as writers who have never spent any actual time in “the outback” try to write about it, my eyes start to roll. Even worse, the internet is littered with lists of books set in the Australian outback, put together by people who have no idea what constitutes “the outback” and have never visited beyond the pages of a book (note: Perth, as far away from the Eastern metropolitan centers as it may be, is not “the outback” and books set there definitely don’t count). So, here’s my bonafide list of books set in the Australian outback, written by actual Australians, that actually reflect in some measure rural Australian life.

10 Books Set In The Australian Outback - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Support this Australian gal writing her little outback book reviews by using an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River - Kate Grenville - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If historical fiction readers are looking for books set in the Australian outback, they must start with The Secret River. It’s an iconic Australian novel, for better or worse, and one of the most popular fictional accounts of the colonial experience in 19th century New South Wales. A thief and his wife are deported to the penal colony, where they expect to build a permanent home and work the land to survive. Doing so, however, means forcibly taking the land from its custodians, the Darug people. The politics and controversies of this novel have been debated endlessly, but what’s unquestioned is its beautifully immersive depiction of the natural landscape around the Hawkesbury River.

The Dry by Jane Harper

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

Jane Harper’s novels pretty much all follow a theme: crime thriller books set in the Australian outback. She’s best known for her first, The Dry, which introduced the world to her hardened detective Aaron Falk. Falk is drawn back to his (fictional) hometown of Kiewarra in the middle of an El Niño summer. His childhood friend appears to have shot his wife and son in cold blood before turning the gun on himself, a situation that is sadly becoming increasingly frequent in real rural communities struck by drought. In Harper’s fictional version, however, Falk comes to suspect that a different course of events lead to the deaths of the Hadler family. Read my full review of The Dry here.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Career is one of the classic books set in the Australian outback – we love it so much, we honour author Miles Franklin each year with the Miles Franklin Award for Australian fiction. It has the ring of authenticity because Franklin based its characters and outback setting mostly on her own life. The story follows sixteen-year-old Sybylla as she comes of age, and struggles to figure out what exactly it is that she wants – as opposed to what everyone around her believes she should want. Franklin actually withdrew the book from publication until after her death, because the characters she lampooned in fiction recognised themselves IRL. Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence - Doris Pilkington - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the most extraordinary books set in the Australian outback is undoubtedly Doris Pilkington’s Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence (also adapted into a truly excellent and haunting film). It’s a short but powerful story about three Indigenous girls who were taken from their families at Jigalong and taken to the Moore River settlement. They escaped, and followed a rabbit-proof fence over a grueling 1,300km trek to make their way home. The three girls in question were Pilkington’s mother, aunt, and cousin. It’s essential reading, as it makes personal and tangible the horrors of the Stolen Generation.

The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way Of Things - Charlotte Wood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might not seem like there’s a lot of cross-over between #MeToo literature and books set in the Australian outback, but The Natural Way Of Things falls smack-bang in the middle of that Venn diagram. This dystopian novel begins in a remote facility, deep in the outback, where women are being held in stark rooms, starved and sedated. It takes them a while to figure out what connects them and why they are there: painful events from their past that have rendered them “safer” out of sight (and out of mind).

Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman

Terra Nullius - Claire G Coleman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m surprised that there aren’t more sci-fi or speculative fiction books set in the Australian outback – maybe everyone’s worried about Mad Max comparisons? Claire G Coleman didn’t let that stop her, though. Terra Nullius initially presents as a historical fiction epistolary novel about the colonial invasion of Australia and conflict with the “Natives”. Then, around Chapter 10, it’s revealed to the reader that this is actually a dystopian future, with humans – black and white – are subject to the invasion of an alien species (the “Settlers”). The Australian outback remains real and hauntingly familiar though, with many hurdles for the characters arising from the arid landscape. Read my full review of Terra Nullius here.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Dressmaker is maybe better known is a delightful film starring Kate Winslet – but that was based on a slightly-less delightful slightly-more gothic novel by Australian author Rosalie Ham. The story is set in a (fictional) 1950s Australian town, where everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to take care of her ailing mother. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cop who likes wearing dresses (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. It’s a dark but rich story about cliques, cruelty, and revenge in outback towns. Read my full review of The Dressmaker here.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

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

Ned Kelly, rightly or wrongly, has an inalienable iconic status in Australian history and folklore. As a bushranger, he spent much of his life on the run, pursued by authorities through outback towns. Despite all the theiving and murdering, he became somewhat of a hero to the working classes, an Australian Robin Hood figure who stood his ground against the English colonists. True History Of The Kelly Gang is a reimagining of his life from his own perspective, styled as archived documents and written in Kelly’s idiosyncratic Australian-Irish dialect. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart by Holly Ringwald

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart - Holly Ringland - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Australian outback might look like a barren wasteland to outsiders, but people connected to the land know it to be rich and fertile for the right flora. The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart uses native flowers as a recurring motif, punctuating the story of a young girl who suffers tragic loss and finds herself adrift. She is raised on her grandmother’s native flower farm, and learns to use flowers to say the things that remain unsaid. As a young adult, after a shocking betrayal, Alice flees to the central Australian desert, where she discovers her story is only just beginning. This is one of the books set in the Australian outback that’s had a bit of a boost lately, thanks to a popular streaming series adaptation.

Taboo by Kim Scott

Taboo - Kim Scott - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australian novelist Kim Scott is a descendant of the Noongar people, an Aboriginal cultural bloc that originated in the south-west corner of Western Australia (from Geraldton on the west coast to Esperance on the south coast). Taboo is a poetic and moving exploration of Scott’s heritage and connection to clan and Country. The story follows a group of Noongar people in the present day, as they are invited to revisit the site of a massacre, a taboo place. The current owner of the land where the blood was shed hopes to cleanse its moral stain, but the sins of the past are not so easily expunged.

10 Books That Start With A Bang

It’s every author’s dream to write books that start with a bang. That’s how you draw the readers in, get them hooked, knock their socks off right from the get-go. But it’s an elusive goal, for many: the beginning bang often stretches beyond the opening line, and has to be backed-up by a brilliant story to work. Here are ten books that start with a bang and deserve their spot on your to-read list.

10 Books That Start With A Bang - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll get bang for your buck when you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page – you’ll get the goods, and you’ll be supporting this site with a small commission!

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy begins with the end of the world – literally! You can’t get much more of a bang than that! A Vogon fleet vaporises our dear planet to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Luckily, an unassuming English gent – Arthur Dent – is rescued by Ford Prefect, the humanoid alien freelancer who’s writing a guide to Earth for an interplanetary travel guide. Ford drags Arthur up and away, and they hitch a ride on a passing Vogon space craft. And so, their misadventures begin… Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Donna Tartt’s whole career started with a bang when she wrote the prologue to her debut novel, The Secret History. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the strongest openers ever written. The first pages reveal that a group of friends have killed someone (clang!) named Bunny, and that he’d been dead “for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation”. The reader doesn’t know who Bunny is or why they killed him or how grave their situation might be – it raises so many questions, you simply have no choice but to read on. Read my full review of The Secret History here.

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

The Temple House Vanishing - Rachel Donohue - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Temple House Vanishing is surely one of the most underrated books that start with a bang. It might sound like your standard girl-goes-missing mystery/thriller, but Donohue manages to use a well-worn plot to interrogate all manner of very literary themes: class, religion, jealousy. Twenty-five years ago, a teenage student of Temple House vanished, along with her enigmatic and charming art teacher. In the (roughly) present day, a journalist with a childhood connection to the girl decides to investigate. With the death of a significant character in the opening pages, Donohue signals early on that you’re going to get more than you bargained for. Read my full review of The Temple House Vanishing here.

The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness - Tana French - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The best books that start with a bang lay out a premise so bonkers, you simply have to know how it all plays out. That’s what happens with The Likeness, a crime fiction novel by the reigning queen Tana French. Detective Cassie Maddox gets a frantic call from her cop boyfriend, checking on her wellbeing, because a murder victim has just been found who looks exactly like her. They look so similar, in fact, that Maddox’s boss convinces her to pose as the dead girl in her share-house, to see if the murderer will reveal himself if he’s fooled into thinking he didn’t get the job done. BONKERS, right? Read my full review of The Likeness here.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everything I Never Told You begins in 1977. The Lee family appears to be average in every way – working father, stay-at-home mother, three kids and a comfortable home in Ohio. Except that their middle child, Lydia, is dead… and they don’t know it, yet. That’s literally what Celeste Ng reveals on the very first page, and it only gets more intense from there. Your eyes will be glued to the page as Lydia’s disappearance, then death, is revealed to the Lee family, and the reasons for it become clear. Ng has a real knack for writing books that start with a bang. Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.

The Martian by Andy Weir

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

If you’re going to transcend genre boundaries and draw in readers who don’t usually go for science fiction books, they need to start with a bang. Andy Weir nails it with The Martian. “I’m pretty much fucked,” says the narrator Mark Watney in the first line. “That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.” Who could resist reading more? The true fucked-ness of Watney’s situation becomes clear when he reveals that he has been left behind, alone, on Mars after an expedition to the red planet went terribly wrong. He’s going to have to figure out how to survive there, alone, hundreds of thousands of miles away from anyone who could help and with no way to communicate. Read my full review of The Martian here.

Under The Dome by Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can’t actually remember if the descending dome makes a “bang” when it lands in the opening pages of Under The Dome – but it’s such a shock for the readers and characters alike, I say it counts as one of the best books that start with a bang, anyway. A small (fictional) town (in Maine, naturally) finds itself completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large barely-permeable dome that descends over them on an otherwise-normal October day. As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Sister, The Serial Killer has an incredibly intriguing title, but Oyinkan Braithwaite didn’t stop there. The opening pages prove that it’s no bait and switch! Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body – and it’s a good thing that she has one, too, because Ayoola has the unfortunate habit of dispatching her boyfriends. The story begins with Korede cleaning up the blood spatters of the third man that Ayoola has murdered, and immediately you get the sense that this situation can’t continue indefinitely. If that’s not one of the best books that start with a bang, I don’t know what is! Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” How’s that for a book that begins with a bang? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful story, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a narrative styled as letters to God, from a black woman named Celie. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship. Despite the book’s traumatic and depressing content, it ends up being more uplifting than you’d expect – promise! Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Great Short Works Of Franz Kafka - Keeping Up With The Penguins

No list of books that start with a bang would be complete without the most iconic of them all: Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It’s one of the most significant fictional stories of the 20th century, mostly for its killer opener. The first pages reveal that the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, has woken up to find himself transformed into a giant bug. Everything else is normal, his bedroom and the weather and his nagging mother, but he’s forced to navigate the world as an oversized insect. He needs to call in sick to work, for starters, and scratch an itch on his belly – both easier said than done when you’ve got a convex back and extra legs. It’s baffling and weird and interesting and provocative – all in Kafka’s signature style.

30+ Books With Numerical Titles

One of my local book stores runs a book club based on theme. Rather than assigning a specific book, they suggest a theme and members gather to discuss which book they chose on that theme, and what they thought of it. It’s the perfect set-up for mood readers, or people who are pretty particular in what they like to read. One of their recent themes caught my eye: books with numerical titles. Glancing over my own shelves, I noticed just how many of my books would’ve fit (if I’d gotten my shit together and actually participated). So, just in case you ever find yourself needing books with numerical titles for your own book club (or any other reason), here’s a list!

30+ Books With Numerical Titles - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Naturally, for a list of books with numerical titles, I’ve put them in numerical order. If any of these titles intrigue you, click through to read my full review – and consider purchasing it using an affiliate link to support this page 🙂

The One And Only Dolly Jamieson by Lisa Ireland

One Day by David Nicholls

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Of Those Mothers by Megan Nicol Reed

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Allegra In Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (or The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, depending on where you’re reading)

The Seven Year Slip by Ashley Poston

7 1/2 by Christos Tsiolkas

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

When I Was Ten by Fiona Cummins

The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

12 Steps To A Long And Fulfilling Death by Sarah Smith

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Th1rt3en by Steve Cavanagh

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

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

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

100 Nasty Women Of History by Hannah Jewell

138 Dates by Rebekah Campbell

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

15 Books About Addiction

The science on addiction is always evolving. We now know more than ever about what causes some people to be more susceptible to addiction, the psycho-social circumstances that give rise to addiction developing, and the physical and chemical differences in the bodies and brains of people who experience addiction. And yet, it feels like there’s still so much we don’t know. Literature is another way to understand addiction, to understand its impact on people and communities. Here are fifteen books about addiction that offer a variety of perspectives.

15 Books About Addiction - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You know what’s a fun, safe addiction? Buying things through the affiliate links on this page! I’ll get a small commission for referring you.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

Dry - Augusten Burroughs - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Augusten Burroughs has lived a lot of life – from his strange and traumatic childhood to his coming out as a “witch” in adulthood – all of which he has detailed in his memoirs and essay collections. One of the most poignant and moving accounts, punctuated with his unique brand of humour, is Dry. This memoir covers his ten-year battle with alcohol addiction and treatment (though he does note, in the introduction, that some events have been condensed and “recreated” for literary purposes – why let the truth get in the way of a good story?). After an intervention by his co-workers, Burroughs entered a treatment facility, and had to learn to navigate the world newly sober.

Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones And The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Daisy Jones And The Six is a #BookTok best-seller, a #Bookstagram darling, and responsible for a resurgence in the fashions and music of the ’70s. But readers with a keen eye have picked up its underlying theme about the dangers of addiction, especially in the music industry. Multiple characters in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel experience addiction, with varying levels of success in attaining and maintaining sobriety. While some reviewers have accused Reid of “glamorising” addiction, others have praised its accurate portrayal of both the highs and the lows. Read my full review of Daisy Jones And The Six here.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

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

The Girl On The Train is one of those books about addiction that will make you think twice about pouring a glass of wine or mixing a gin and tonic after a hard day. One of the protagonists, Rachel, has had too many hard days to count – and too many drinks to count, too. She often blacks out, with no idea what she’s said or done, or to whom. It’s one of the driving forces in this best-selling thriller, as she tries to piece together her fractured alcohol-soaked memories to figure out what happened to the woman she saw each day from the train window on her commute. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Wishful Drinking - Carrie Fisher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Carrie Fisher didn’t shy away from her iconic role as the Star Wars heroine Princess Leia – even when it drove her to drink. The cover of Wishful Drinking is a perfect demonstration of her self-deprecating good humour that made her world famous, showing “Leia” face down holding a precariously tipped martini glass, next to a scattered pile of pills. She’s unabashed in her re-telling of her experience of addiction, from marriage breakdown to her time in rehab to the death of a friend. She also provides insight into how her bipolar disorder, diagnosed in her 20s, intertwined with her addiction – even when she appeared, to all the world, to be having a great time.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead - Barbara Kingsolver - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just as Charles Dickens wrote books that changed our understanding of poverty and the working class in the Victorian era, so does Barbara Kingsolver look set to up-end our perspective on addiction in America. Her adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead, shifts the story of the hard-scrabble orphan to contemporary Appalachia. The protagonist battles abuse at the hands of caregivers, housing instability, and barely-there education – largely due to his mother’s persistent addiction(s) – before a series of unfortunate events sees him fall into the clutches of addiction himself. This is set to be one of the most important and captivating books about addiction of the 2020s. Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

Monkey Grip - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you.” So writes Australian literary icon Helen Garner in her debut novel, Monkey Grip. It’s a modern classic of the Australian canon, depicting life and love in Melbourne’s suburbs in the ’70s. Famously, the events and characters of the novel closely resemble those experienced by Garner herself, so they have a strong ring of authenticity. Unfortunately, that includes her falling in love with a heroin addict, and the to-and-fro of their affair. Javo is addicted to smack, Nora is addicted to loving him – even in the face of overwhelming evidence that she will never be able to compete with the high he’s chasing. Read my full review of Monkey Grip here.

You Talk We Die by Judy Ryan

You Talk We Die - Judy Ryan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Many of these books about addiction focus on those most intimately acquainted with its experience, the addict and their loved ones. You Talk We Die is one of the rare books that zooms out, and looks at the impact of addiction on the community, and the community’s responsibility in dealing with it. Judy Ryan was simply a resident of a “heroin hot spot” in Melbourne, where she would frequently have to assist people who had overdosed in the otherwise-quiet suburban streets. After two separate inquests recommended the introduction of safe injecting rooms to no avail, Ryan took it upon herself to advocate for them. After years of dedicated service to the cause, a safe injecting facility was established in her community, and the positive effect has rippled outward. Read my full review of You Talk We Die here.

Adèle by Leïla Slimani

Adele - Leila Slimani - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not all addictions revolve around alcohol or drugs. Some, like that experienced by the titular character in Leïla Slimani’s novel Adèle, manifest around essential human experiences or functions – namely, in this case, sex. Adèle is a respected journalist who appears, from the outside, to have a perfect life – husband, kid, and a swish apartment in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. It’s all a mirage. Adèle is actually a sex addict, seeking ever-more brutal carnal encounters to satisfy her desperate need. She’s kept her addiction a secret, from her husband and colleagues, but the cracks are beginning to show. The story was translated into English by Sam Taylor. Read my full review of Adèle here.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy - JD Vance - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hillbilly Elegy is one of the more controversial books about addiction. Readers have criticised author J.D. Vance’s generalisations from his own experience growing up in suburban Ohio, and highlighted his glaring omissions of racism, his reinforcement of stereotypes, and exclusion of existing scholarship on poverty in Appalachia. Still, the memoir is popular and pervasive enough that it’s worth considering. While Vance’s remit is broad – examining the decline of the white middle class in America, with his own family as a case study – the story is clearly deeply personal, and the legacy of addiction and cycles of abuse essential in understanding Vance’s viewpoint.

Misery by Stephen King

Misery - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephen King has been remarkably open about his struggles with addiction, in reality and in his fiction. That’s what makes Misery one of the most truthful books about addiction, despite its fictional characters and setting. King uses the tropes of horror fiction – a vicious captor, a helpless victim, a remote location, cruelty and torture – to represent the “trap” that addicts find themselves in. Worst of all, the protagonist’s predicament is a hell of his own making, being that he ends up trapped immobile in the home of a sadistic nurse as a result of his own drinking (and drunk driving). Just in case the metaphor isn’t clear enough, the victim is also a writer of best-sellers. Read my full review of Misery here.

Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron

Good Morning Destroyer Of Men's Souls - Nina Renata Aron - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nina Renata Aron begins Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by pointing out that many books about addiction are focused wholly and solely on the person who is experiencing addiction. Her role, that of the person who loves an addict, is relegated to the background. She tired of being a supporting player in her own life, which is why she wrote this memoir, an unflinching account of her co-dependency. Not only does she love and share a life with “K”, who is addicted to opiates, but she can connect the dots between their relationship and the addictions of her sister and her mother’s boyfriend. She generously shares her own experience, and also the broader context of the gendered labour in supporting someone who is experiencing addiction. Read my full review of Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls here.

In My Skin by Kate Holden

In My Skin - Kate Holden - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s a lot of cross-over in the stereotypes about women who experience addiction and women who are sex workers. Kate Holden examines them all, sifting the grains of truth from the societal myths, in In My Skin. This is her memoir about her own heroin addiction, how she turned to sex work to finance her lifestyle, and how she eventually defeated her demons. Holden draws from the rich literary tradition of confessional women writers to draw a beautiful, aching portrait about how her life ended up so very different to how she imagined. It’s a transformative read, one that will have you questioning your assumptions.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sharp Objects follows a journalist, Camille, as she returns to her stifling hometown to investigate the abduction and murder of two young girls. That’s enough to unsettle anyone, but Camille has traumas in her past that make her ultimately susceptible to anything that might provide an escape. Her addiction manifests in multiple ways: there’s drinking, yes, but she’s also addicted to self-harm. She has carved a dictionary’s worth of words into her own skin, and wears long sleeves and pants to hide the signs of her addiction from the world. This is a twisted thriller of the kind that only Gillian Flynn could produce, and it’s also a hair-raising book about the co-morbidities and root causes of addiction. Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Loneliness and addiction go hand in hand – one feeds the other, in an endless loop. That’s reflected in the life of Eleanor, a lonely former foster child who’s repressing some serious family trauma, but she’s “completely fine”. Gail Honeyman was inspired to write Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine after reading about the epidemic of loneliness among young people, and the coping mechanisms they use to ameliorate it. Eleanor turns to alcohol to numb the pain of her isolation, often losing hours of her solitary life (even entire days) to drunken stupors. The story ends on a hopeful note, with Eleanor confronting the reasons she turns to alcohol and forging a path forward. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

Look, there’s an argument to be made that addiction is the least of Jude’s problems in A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara has written one of the definitive books about misery, with his trauma seeming endless over the course of the 800-plus pages. But drug abuse and addiction is an essential symptom of what happens to Jude and his friends, a crucial crutch that the reader must understand in order to understand the characters themselves. Beware when you pick this one up, the list of trigger warnings is longer than your arm. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

« Older posts