Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 2 of 26)

eBooks vs Printed Books: Which Is Better?

A girl can only drop an 800+ page book on her face or her foot so many times before she starts to wonder: “eBooks vs printed books – which is better?”. I’ve always been a die-hard advocate for paper and ink, but reading Under The Dome really got me thinking about whether there might be a better way. I realise I’m probably poking another hornet’s nest here, but I figure it’s finally time to weigh in on another great debate of the reading world. I ask again: eBooks vs printed books – which is better?

eBooks vs Printed Books - Which Is Better? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

History of eBooks

You might think that eBooks are a bit of a Johnny-come-lately on the scene, but actually they were first conceived back in the 1930s, after writer Bob Brown underwent the transformative cinematic experience of his first “talkie” movie (y’know, one of the ones when they finally figured out how to make sound match up with the picture). His theory was that book-reading had not kept pace with movie-watching, and he envisaged a machine that could be plugged in to any electrical socket and would allow him to read faster without any risk of nasty paper cuts (yes, those were his concerns, in that order).

It took about forty years for Bob Brown’s idea to come to fruition, but we got there. Of course, there are quibbles as to who did what first, but general consensus would suggest that eBooks kicked off in earnest when Michael S. Hart started Project Gutenberg in 1971. He typed up a plain-text copy of the United States Declaration Of Independence, and thought to himself: “hey, plain text copies of old documents would make them easier to access on this newfandangled Internet!” (I’m paraphrasing, but I’m sure it was something along those lines.)

Project Gutenberg now has over 60,000 digitised titles available (for free!) to anyone with an internet connection, using any device, but – of course – that’s not the only platform or format for eBooks anymore. With the ascendancy of Amazon and other mass-delivery infrastructure (which, sadly, wiped out early competitors, like Sony’s Data Discman – RIP), rapid improvements in technology (like the development of the PDF), infrastructural changes (ISBNs issued to books only available in eBook format), and the proliferation of devices and contraptions capable of reading eBooks (called, creatively, eReaders), eBooks have now saturated the book selling market and the public consciousness.

But the question still remains, eBooks vs printed books: is the shiny (relatively) new version really better than the OG?


Benefits of Reading eBooks

Ask any eBook convert, and they’ll rattle off a list of benefits of reading eBooks as long as your arm. Here’s just a few:

  • Variety: There are literally millions (maybe billions, by now!) of eBooks available at the tap of a button, and they’re accessible immediately.
  • Portability: An eBook library of 1,000+ books fits in your pocket. Can’t get that with paperbacks! This is especially great for travellers, and others who need to read on the go.
  • Affordability: The price point for eBooks averages out around $3-4 a pop, far less than you’d pay for any print book. There’s also huge swathes of them available for free, and most public libraries now offer eBook lending services, too.
  • Functionality: Come across a word you’ve never heard before? Tap it and the definition pops right up. Want to highlight a passage? No worries about the sacrilege of defacing print books, go right ahead and do it digitally! Want to pick up right where you left off with the audiobook version? Easy-peasy with an eBook.
  • Accessibility: The flexibility of the format makes it easier for people to adapt it to their needs. Want to read with one hand while you’re breastfeeding? Much easier to do that with an eReader than a print book! Want to make the font larger, or even change it entirely? You can do that, too.

Sounds like it’s all beer and skittles, right?


Benefits of Reading Printed Books

Not quite. There are some things printed books give us that you just can’t get with eBooks and eReaders.

  • Physicality: The smell of printed books, the feel of the paper, even those annoying paper cuts – all of that can make a big difference to how we enjoy the act of reading. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest that physically turning pages and the visual cues of printed books improves our recall of what we read. **Bonus benefit: their physical presence in our homes, their collectibility, is also a huge draw!
  • Shareability: There have been all kinds of legal dramas – and resulting limitations – on sharing eBooks with friends. If you’re the kind of reader that loves pressing a book you’ve just finished into the hands of another, that’s something you’re only going to be able to do with the print version (legally, anyway).
  • Durability: The thing about a printed book is, no matter how old it is or how long you’re using it, it will never “go flat” right before the shock twist or the happily-ever-after!
  • Readability: For those of us looking to avoid screens and blue-light in the evenings, printed books are the only way to go. Many newer eReaders are marketed as being no- or low-blue-light, but the jury’s still out on how they affect our circadian rhythms. Plus, however you slice it, printed books are easier to read in direct sunlight or other glare-y conditions.
  • Affordability: I know, I know, I just said that affordability was one of the main benefits of eBooks, but that doesn’t count the initial outlay of purchasing an eReader to begin with (if you’re not using your regular phone or tablet). The good ones can be pretty exxy, far more than you’d pay for even a new-release hardcover edition!

The (Environmental) Elephant In The Room

Yes, I’m ignoring one of the most contentious parts of this debate: the environmental impact of eBooks vs printed books. I’ve heard very strong arguments on both sides. eBooks eliminate the fuel used to print and ship books, not to mention the use of paper and synthetic chemicals to produce them. But there’s an equally strong argument that the manufacture and distribution of eReaders is just as big an environmental problem (the last thing we need is more plastic and electronic waste!), and most reputable publishers use responsibly-sourced and recycled materials to produce printed books now, anyway. The details of this part of the debate are complex, and constantly changing, so I’m just going to go ahead and declare it a wash. Whichever way we read, it’s going to have an environmental impact (as does our very existence).


Are people really buying more eBooks vs printed books?

Well, that depends who you ask (and when!). There was a huge spike in production and sales of eBooks and eReaders a few years back, but that didn’t last as long as everyone expected. Printed books are far from dead. The data I’ve seen suggest that eBooks are still a smaller chunk of the market: roughly $940 million-worth in the U.S., compared to $3 billion for hardcovers and $2.5 billion for paperbacks (as of 2019). That could be partially attributable to the lower cover price for eBooks, but the pendulum is definitely swinging back in printed books’ direction.


Well, then? eBooks vs printed books – which is better?

Sorry to disappoint, but I’m going to have to revert to the traditional fence-sit on this one: it depends. For some readers, eBooks are their preferred format for reading, and I can definitely see the benefits. Heck, I might even be convinced to give them a go myself one day. But, for now, your girl stays hopelessly devoted to printed books. Even though they hurt when I drop them on my face, nothing beats the look and feel of paper and ink in my hands.


What’s The Difference Between Literary Fiction And Popular Fiction?

Alrighty, Keeper Upperers: today, we’re going to tackle one of the trickiest debates in the bookish world. What’s the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction? In my “real” life, in addition to Keeping Up With The Penguins, I work in a bookstore and I’ve just completed my Masters of Creative Writing, so I’ve had a lot of cause to think about this question over the couple of years. I can’t promise you I’ve got THE answer (anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something), but I’ve got some thoughts…

What's The Difference Between Literary Fiction And Popular Fiction? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For most of my reading life, I considered “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” to be miscellaneous No-Man’s-Lands, the places I mentally sent every book that didn’t fit neatly into a “genre” category. If it had magic and dragons, it’s fantasy. If it had marriage proposals and sexy bits, it’s romance. If it had spaceships and robots, it’s science fiction. But when a book had none of those qualities, or too many of them, it ended up going “over there” to general fiction territory. I decided which side of the border each book landed on – “literary fiction” or “popular fiction” – using a kind of sliding scale between “likely to win a major literary prize, like the Booker” and “likely to be purchased for $4.99 in an airport”.

And now, let’s look at a few of the (almost innumerable) problems with that line of thinking:

  • All of these judgements are pretty subjective, not to mention arbitrary. You can buy just about any book in an airport nowadays, and major awards have been given to some real stinkers. Just look at what happened with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; it was widely heralded as a critical success, but the Granddaddy of literary criticism James Wood wrote it off as “hysterical fiction” and many airport loungers complained that they “didn’t get it”.
  • These judgements are based on external factors – what others think of the book, what the publisher’s marketing budget is, where the book is sold, what it looks like – rather than the content of the book itself. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers.
  • There’s an inherent elitism in this divide that’s impossible to ignore: “literary fiction” is for intellectuals and grown-ups, while “popular fiction” is for slobs.



It’s that last point that I want to hone in on here. If Keeping Up With The Penguins had a slogan, I’m pretty sure it would be “elitism stinks”. The whole point of this project and this blog was to break down the barriers (or at least lob a brick or two in their direction) between “good” books and “bad” books, between “classics” and “potboilers”, between the “literary” and the “popular”. I’d always worried that I wasn’t “smart” enough to read or understand literary fiction and classic literature, and it’s because of the very elitism that underwrites this divide.

David Foster Wallace said in one of his essays that “Low Art” is the sort of art that has to please people in order to make money. Now, he was talking about television at the time, but I think we can apply the same philosophy to “popular fiction”. Popular fiction needs to be – you guessed it – popular, in order to be successful. Lots of people need to buy it. And the best way to get people to buy your thing is to give them what they want: whether it be dragons, or sexy bits, or space ships, or just a laugh.

“High Art”, on the other hand (according to David Foster Wallace, and this analogy, anyway) needn’t concern itself with popularity. “Literary fiction”, the die-hard adherents would have you believe, is about Artistic Endeavour and Creative Expression and has no concern with popularity or sales. Except, of course, that’s complete bullshit. Even literary geniuses have to feed themselves. What good is writing a brilliant work of literary fiction if it doesn’t pay the rent? Indeed, how could anyone write a brilliant work of literary fiction if they can’t afford to feed themselves? (Yes, classism and elitism are kissing cousins.)



My suspicion is, deep down, that we all know this divide between “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” is a lie. Every criterion we use to judge them is retrofitted to our gut-feelings. When we read a book, we just “feel” like it’s one or the other – which is why booklovers argue themselves hoarse about the differences between them. No book will “feel” the same to every reader, which means every reader will make their own assessment as to its popularity versus literariness. (Yes, even popularity is subjective – the false consensus effect is an unavoidable cognitive bias that leads us to believe most people agree with us, so if we think a book is good we are inclined to believe that others will/do think the same.)

I see this play out time and time again, in many areas of my bookish life: whether I’m shelving books at work, discussing books in class, or figuring out how to tag them on this blog and on #bookstagram. Diane Chamberlain is a good example: a first-glance at the cover of Big Lies In A Small Town had me convinced that it was going to be formulaic popular fiction seasoned with thriller tropes, but reading it I found a really astonishing and quite literary story about art and race. Even so, I think I’d have a tough time convincing my lecturers to let me write an academic essay about it. Or we could look at a book like An American Marriage, which seems to tick all the boxes on both sides of the page: an Oprah book club pick AND a literary prize winner, a best-seller AND a critical success. What on earth would we call that? Popular literary fiction? Literary popular fiction?

I told you I wouldn’t have THE answer, and – yes, I spoiled it for you – I don’t. I’d really love to see us do away with labels like “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” altogether, but I can see how that’s not practical. These labels act like marketing shorthand, and make it much easier for a lot of people to choose what they’re going to read next. It’s just a shame that, I suspect, they’re going to miss out on some great choices because of these arbitrary, subjective, and elitist distinctions. Ah, well – at least you can always rely on me, here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, to give it to you straight, wherever the book is shelved.


Mid-Year Round Up: Best Books of 2020 (So Far!)

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a long, long year… and it’s only nearly half-way done! Really, one of the (very) few upsides is that we’ve had the chance to pick up some great new books, and catch up on some older ones we missed the first time around. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d do a little interim round-up of the best books I’ve read in 2020 so far. Here’s to getting back on track in the second half!

Mid-Year Round Up - The Best Books of 2020 So Far - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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

Arthur Less finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time booty-buddy dumps him to marry a far more eligible (and age appropriate) bachelor. Arthur Less decides that he must act. He can’t RSVP “no” to the nuptials and admit defeat, but he couldn’t possibly attend either, especially with his own 50th birthday looming… so, he proceeds to accept every half-baked invitation he’s received to literary events around the world, and sends his ex his regrets, citing “unfortunate” prior engagements. I highly recommend this heartwarming adventure of self-discovery to anyone in need of a chuckle. Read my full review of Less here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as popular as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado has done it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. It’s a must-read, and destined to become a pillar of the queer literary canon.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically a young-adult novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed as such. Riley, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy living in Trope Town, has been acting out and upsetting the authors of the books in which he plays a purely-supporting role. He’s sent to therapy with all the other defective Manic Pixies, and that’s when things start to go really awry. This literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately. Read my full review of The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project here.

Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

Throat - Ellen Van Neerven - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Van Neerven’s new poetry collection, Throat, is at times sarcastic, at others simply searing, but always in the most deeply satisfying way. They never shy away from the political (“This country is a haunted house, governments still playing cat chasing marsupial mouse”) or the personal (“The Only Blak Queer In The World” is a heart-wrenching insight into the isolation of intersectionality, and the search for community and solace). The cities that ate Australia is particular perfection, as is Politicians having long showers on stolen land, and all are incredibly timely with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining traction around the world. I devoured Throat in a single sitting, and I’m sure I will savour it again over many more.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I first read Rabbits For Food back in January, I was worried that I’d peaked too soon, that I’d already found my favourite book of the year. Six months on, I’m still worried! The main character, Bunny, lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. The book is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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

A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them – and I think we could all do with a few more of those. I’d love to recommend it as a book club read, but I think I’m late to the party; everyone seems to have read it and loved it already! I’m glad I finally got around to it in 2020. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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

That’s right: Carmen Maria Machado is a double-header in my round-up of the best books of 2020 so far! Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. This is a story about a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Don’t sleep on it, folks!

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair by Ali Whitelock

the lactic acid in the calves of your despiar - Ali Whitelock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, cards on the table: Ali Whitelock is a dear friend of mine… BUT I keep my objectivity hat on at all times for you, Keeper Upperers! Besides, I fell in love with her poetry long before she and I fell in together, and I read and reviewed the lactic acid in the calves of your despair all of my own accord. I never cease to be amazed by her incredible talent to tickle, tantalise, delight, and devastate. Personal favourite from this collection has to be NOTES from the six week course entitled: ‘a beginner’s guide to writing poetry’, but an honourable mention must go to if you have no eyes where do the tears go?, and (of course) the poem that became a viral sensation during the Australian bush fires earlier this year, this is coal don’t be afraid. Ali Whitelock continues to give ’em hell, and it’s an honour to watch her do it.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean Mckay

The Animals In That Country - Laura Jean Mckay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few authors would consider themselves lucky to be releasing a book in the midst of a global pandemic. Laura Jean McKay might be the only exception. Her new novel The Animals In That Country revolves around the outbreak of a highly infections sub-type of influenza that threatens the very fabric of society – sound familiar? It’s an eerily prescient premise, right down to the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and the government ads that encourage people to “keep calm and stay indoors”. McKay is a masterful storyteller, and her talent truly shines in this story of family and belonging. Read my full review of The Animals In That Country on Primer here.


What have been your best reads of 2020 so far? Let me know in the comments below!

12+ Books That Will Teach You Something New

My father always says “you’re never too old to learn”. I’m still a spring chicken (and I’ll deny any evidence to the contrary), but even I can see the wisdom in that. I sure as heck learned a lot reading and reviewing Frankissstein earlier this week. My bookish partner-in-crime, Chent, read that book and worked on that review alongside me. I learned that just because a book is marketed as a “trans novel” doesn’t make it so (in fact, it should probably make you more suspicious than anything), that identifying as queer doesn’t give you unique access to all queer experiences, that undeniable writing talent isn’t enough to make a good book… the list goes on and on. In that spirit, I’ve decided to put together this list of books that will teach you something new.

Books That Will Teach You Something New - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In some ways, every book will teach you something, regardless of its genre, quality, or content. I tried to cap this list at an even dozen, but more and more books that will teach you something new kept jumping out at me, and I just couldn’t help myself.

DON’T SCROLL PAST THIS EXTENDED INTRODUCTION TO GET STRAIGHT TO THE GOODS! I see you! Before we get stuck in, I want to highlight a few books that will speak more accurately to the LGBTIQ+ experience than Frankissstein did or could. It seems only fair that I stick them front and center, don’t you think? Chent and I discussed it, and concluded that This Book Is Gay is a great start for people wanting to learn more about queer life, queer communities, and queer politics. Further recommended reading would include The Stonewall Reader, Queer There And Everywhere, and Growing Up Queer In Australia. Now, go forth and do some book learnin’!

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

Let’s start with the granddaddy of books that will teach you something new: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. As the title suggests, it contains… well, a short history of nearly everything. Even though it was first published about fifteen years ago (and still refers to Pluto as a planet, whoops!), this bad boy is still chockers full of fun and relevant facts that you won’t be able to resist sharing around the water cooler. I know that I annoyed my friends and family for WEEKS with insights into geology, biology, evolutionary psychology, physiology, universeology (okay, that’s not the real name, but I was on a roll there). I’ll happily make a personal guarantee that this book will teach you something new, AND you’ll have fun while you’re doing it. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender - Susannah Cahalan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In a former life, I was a psychology student (in fact, I went on to get First Class Honours, thank you very much). Throughout the duration of my degree, and for years afterwards, I always took the Rosenhan experiment as read. A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication, thus proving that psychiatric diagnosis was biased and basically bullshit. Right?

Wrong. Susannah Cahalan called into question everything I thought I “knew” about that experiment, and the years of psychiatric research that has come off the back of it. Don’t mistake me: The Great Pretender isn’t some quacky conspiracy-theorist psychiatry hit job, but it is a critical examination of the field of psychiatry and its fallibility. Not only did this book teach me a great deal about a field I thought I already “knew”, it taught me a lot about questioning the sources of my own knowledge and not taking for granted my own critical thinking.

In My Skin by Kate Holden

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

I’ve read a lot – a lot – about the history and lived experience of sex work undertaken by women, and In My Skin by Kate Holden remains the very best of all. Perhaps it’s because it was one of the very first (I read it when I was in my mid-teens), and it’s probably the book that prompted/shaped my interest and understanding of this subject at an influential time in my life. Holden doesn’t hold her fire. She doesn’t shy away from cliches or stereotypes where they are, in her case, true (she was addicted to heroin for the majority of her career as a sex worker), but she also works to dismantle the prejudices and misconceptions that are still so widespread about this industry.

I credit this book with not only being an incredible piece of writing, and not only with teaching me about a way of life with which I was not at all familiar, but with teaching me how to empathise with people who made decisions I couldn’t understand or life choices I wouldn’t make for myself. It has become a pillar of the contemporary #ownvoices SW canon, with very good reason.


On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On Writing could easily replace most high-school or first-year writing and communications classes (at the very least, it should be assigned reading for them all). I think, perhaps, the reason that it’s not is that Stephen King has long been unfairly maligned in academia as a “genre” writer. Because his books have ghosts and ghoulies and beasties, they’re not “real” literature, and as such his memoir-slash-self-help-guide to writing well couldn’t POSSIBLY have anything worthy to teach us… Obviously, that’s complete nonsense.

Even if you have no interest in “being a writer”, there’s still much you can learn from this book. King offers insights into the nature of determination, motivation, persistence, and resilience. And I have no doubt that you’ll call his style advice to mind when you’re writing an email or a book review blog (ahem). It’s a concise guide to writing and to overcoming obstacles, without the gimmicky nonsense that too-often populates the “self help” section.

Bonus recommendation: If you’re interested in writing, or in creativity, or in simply living your life better and looking at things a different way, you should definitely check out Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. Or, failing that, you can watch her TED talk.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Citizen: An American Lyric is perhaps one of the most mind-bending books I’ve read in recent years (and that includes A Brief History Of Time and other traditionally-intense tomes). It taught me a lot, in two different ways. Firstly, it changed my idea of what “poetry” could be. Citizen isn’t just page after page of rhyming couplets, or haikus, or even a verse novel. It’s a multi-media experience. It incorporates photography, film, news media, prose – like a delicious soup made from everything you can find in your fridge, left to simmer for hours. On another level altogether, it taught me a lot about race, privilege, and visibility, particularly in terms of micro-aggressions (yes, a buzzword, but one made tangible through Rankine’s art).

Of course, the onus should never be upon people of colour to “teach” white people about race and privilege, but it behooves us to read, learn, and understand from their work. Citizen is one of the best-selling books of poetry of my generation, and I’m sure (I’m yet to see any evidence for it, but I struggle to believe it wouldn’t be the case) that sales have re-surged in light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month. This book is a testament of lived experience, and it has a lot to teach everyone, of all races and creeds.

Bonus recommendation(s): If you’re looking for more local (Australian) collections that deal with race and justice, I cannot recommend highly enough Blakwork by Alison Whittaker, and Throat by Ellen Van Neerven.

The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

When I picked up The Mosquito, I was really only looking for the answer to one particular question: why do mosquitoes exist? It’s something I’ve wondered for a while, but I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory answer. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not an essential food source for any other animal, they’re not crucial for pollination of fruits, they really serve no purpose at all other than spreading disease and annoying the shit out of us. But I digress!

My point is that The Mosquito taught me so much more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t so much a history of the creature itself, but a detailed examination of the ways in which it has altered the course of human history. Wars have been won and lost based on vulnerability to the mosquito’s attack. It’s literally “my kingdom for the mosquito”, all the way through. I learnt more about the Romans, more about Napoleon, and even more about conflicts of the 20th century through The Mosquito than I have any other book. And that’s not to mention the biology, the evolutionary theory, the epidemiology…

Going Dark by Julia Ebner

Going Dark - Julia Ebner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Extremism” is a word used so often that it has almost come to lose its meaning. We talk about “extremists” being “radicalised online”, but what does that actually mean? Julia Ebner works at a “counter-extremism” think tank, so it seems that she’s pretty well positioned to tell us. What’s more, she actually spent years going undercover in the world of these “online extremists” – in her free time! – and Going Dark is an account of what she learned.

I’d imagine most people pick up a book like this thinking “I could never be radicalised online”. Maybe, if you’re a particularly curious individual, you idly wonder whether you could without giving it any serious thought. The fact is, it’s easier than you realise for your thoughts to be molded and directed by dark corners of the internet. Ebner shows, in terrifying detail, the ways that human vulnerabilities and emotional sore-spots can be exploited and capitalised upon by extreme ideologies.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Library Book should really come with a warning: “you’re going to annoy the shit out of your family, friends, and colleagues with fun facts for the next few weeks”. It’s often shelved in the true crime section, which I suppose is where it belongs, as it is the result of Susan Orlean’s investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986. Still, within that story, Orlean manages to relate a history of libraries and books, of city planning and management, of arson and police investigation, of community support services and social justice…

I made the mistake of reading this one on a road trip, so not only did I learn a lot, but everyone in the car was forced to learn a lot along with me. Did you know that the Los Angeles Central Library fire was so hot that it caused book covers to pop like popcorn? Did you know that food manufacturers volunteered freezer space to prevent wet books from molding? Did you know that more books were damaged by efforts to put out the fire than by the fire itself? You’ll read The Library Book and learn something new, or I’ll eat my copy, cover and all.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a provocative title. I still remember the time, back in 2017, when Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was suddenly saturating my Twitter feed. Folks were upset, folks were confused, folks were enthusiastic, folks were relieved – and, in the past three years, the opinions continue to flow forth. This is the book that Marlon James said was “begging to be written”, one that explores the intersection of race, gender, and class in Britain (though its message is universally resonant).

The main reason to read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is to learn about the undue burden that minorities (BAME, to use the British parlance) carry in “teaching” others about racial justice, and the structural inequalities that prop up white privilege. Even though it might seem, at first, to be written with a specific audience in mind, I think this is one of the books that will teach you something new regardless of your background or circumstances.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

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

In our anthropocentric (human-centred) minds, sometimes we forget that we are animals, subject to the same forces of nature as every other creature on this planet. Sapiens uses fields of evolutionary science – anthropology, biology, psychology – to explain how humans came to dominate our environment, and what the past can teach us about the possibilities for our collective future. Harari explains all the ways we are unique, as a species, and all the ways in which we’re really not all that different.

This book is based on a series of lectures given by Harari at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and it was first published in English in 2014 (“translated by the author with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman”, #NameTheTranslator!). So, while some of its observations might feel a little dated, it’s still got a lot to teach us about our species (plus, there’s a follow up – Homo Deus – published in 2017). And don’t worry, despite its origins, it’s not particularly academic or dense – it was definitely written for a wide audience, using language that we can all understand.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics - Stephen D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Freakonomics has become one of the contemporary classics of popular non-fiction, and with good reason. Levitt and Dubner manage to meld the seemingly-dry and dull field of economics with the engaging familiar territory of pop culture, to help us better understand why and how we make the decisions we do – and, by extension, why and how the world works. Levitt is a renowned economist by trade, but he was never afraid to step outside the traditions and conventions of the field and look at topics that his colleagues wouldn’t consider worthy of attention. That’s what makes this such a fascinating read, guaranteed to teach you something new (even if you normally switch off the news when an economist comes on).

Since Freakonomics was first published in 2005, it has been reprinted, revised, republished, had a follow-up (SuperFreakonomics), continued in blog form, transformed into a bi-weekly radio/podcast program, and even been adapted to documentary film. Levitt and Dubner even formed their own consultancy firm off the back of the book’s success, with Nobel laureates among the founding partners. Not bad for a book based on statistical analysis, eh?

Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

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

Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are, at best, guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served women (and AFAB people) for far too long.

It’s a personal subject for Jackson: in 2001, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and then, in 2015, adenomyosis. She has spent years researching these conditions, and the broader medical system in which they are studied and treated. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. Pain And Prejudice gives voice to hundreds of years of silent suffering.


Well, that should be enough book-learnin’ to keep us going for a while, don’t you think? No? Drop your recommendations for books that will teach us all something new in the comments!

All The Books We Should Have Read: A Book Blogger Round Up

We hear a lot about how the online world, especially social media, is a cesspool full of haters and trolls clambering to bring each other down and destroy your self-esteem. I must say, that really doesn’t jibe with my experience. Ever since I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve been embraced by a community of reviewers and readers, all of whom have been nothing but warm and wonderful and welcoming. Book people really are the best people.

After my little round-up of my favourite book podcasts went gangbusters, I thought it high-time I do the same for my favourite book bloggers… but rather than just wax on about how much I love each and every one of them, I thought I’d do something different. This time, I reached out and asked them all a question: What’s one book you haven’t read (that you really “should”)? It’s called a one-question interview, and I tell you what, the responses are FASCINATING. Check them out…

All The Books We Should Have Read - Book Bloggers Tell All - Keeping Up With The Penguins

*Note: some responses have been edited for length and clarity, but they’re all awesome!*

Christine at The Uncorked Librarian

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

“With the March release of the over-the-top YA novel Anna K, I knew for sure that I had to pick up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the near future. It’s been deemed one of the greatest works of literature – EVER! – and as an English and History double major from a traditional all-women’s college, not to mention an MLIS grad, I cannot believe that Anna and I are not better acquainted. Maybe my hesitation comes from reading Madame Bovary in my freshman year of college? I’m not even sure why I associate the two!”

“I don’t regret reading Jenny Lee’s modern-day multicultural version; it’s like Gossip Girl meets Crazy Rich Asians at a Kardashian-esque soiree. I hope that Tolstoy’s version is just as extra!”

Check out Christine’s wrap up of awesome March 2020 releases – plus get inspired to travel with her diverse book and booze recommendations – over at The Uncorked Librarian.

Lory at The Emerald City Book Review

I Contain Multitudes - Ed Yong

“It’s only since I’ve started blogging that I’ve gotten really interested in reading nonfiction, due to the enthusiasm of other bloggers who introduced me to titles I would not have sought out on my own… I really need to read more of them, so I’m making an effort this year to read at least one nonfiction book per month.”

“One that I’ve had on my list for a while, but that seems especially necessary to read right now, is I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. I want to know more about that invisible realm that lurks within us, and which suggests that we are more of an “interconnected, interdependent multitude” than we care to imagine. Can we quell our individualism for a moment, take that “grander view of life”, and maybe find a healthier way of co-existing? That’s what I’d like to know.”

See how Lory’s mission to read more non-fiction is going over at The Emerald City Book Review.

Lynne at Fictionophile

We Begin At The End - Chris Whitaker

“The book that springs to mind when asked is We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker. I have read about thirty reviews of this novel by other book bloggers and I haven’t come across a negative one yet. It seems to have the hallmarks of a truly memorable and touching read. Sadly, it is not yet available in Canada in Kindle format, so it will be quite some time before I have the opportunity to read it, but it’s number one on my wish list!”

Keep up with Lynne’s quest to get her hands on We Begin At The End over at Fictionophile.

Mandy at Off The Beaten Shelf

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Vintage Books

“I studied literature in college, which was a lot of ‘shoulds’ about reading because it’s professors constantly telling you what they, as the curriculum developers, think you should be reading. Since I graduated, I’ve been trying to unlearn the idea of ‘shoulds’ and just go with my gut and read whatever sounds interesting to me in the moment.”

“That being said, every time someone talks about Anna Karenina and Crime And Punishment, I always feel like I’ve missed out! I couldn’t pick just one, so those are my two – I’ll call them ‘enthusiastic shoulds’ – that I plan to get around to one of these days.”

Mandy writes a lot about the bookish life and publishing news over on Off The Beaten Shelf, go check it out!

Jess at Fiction No Chaser

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy was the first book to pop into my head when I read the question. Not only is this a book I ‘should’ read, it’s a book that has intrigued me for so long that I’m almost afraid to read it at this point. I went through a phase where I read tons of Russian literature. I’m the person who loved reading War and Peace, so it’s kind of strange that I’ve never read Anna Karenina.”

“It’s hard to avoid spoilers for this classic, so I do know how it ends, but I have avoided watching movies so that I can truly experience it when I finally take the plunge.”

Jess’s reading tastes are hella varied, so even if the Russian classics aren’t on your own TBR, you should definitely check out her hilarious reviews over at Fiction No Chaser.

Paula at The Vince Review

Pendennis - William Makepeace Thackeray

“My nemesis so far is Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray. It was an impulse purchase from a second hand shop, but has been taking the space of a house brick on my shelf and taunting me more with each passing month. It’s the novel Thackeray wrote straight on the heels of his more-famous Vanity Fair, but I haven’t come across anybody else who has even heard of it, let alone read it!”

*Note: Paula’s review of Vanity Fair is amazing! Mine slightly less so, but you can find it here if you want.*

“Pendennis’s immense size and scanty reputation presses heavier on my shoulders every day. The back cover blurb is the hook that holds me fast. It tells me that the book is a superbly rich and panoramic portrait of Victorian England which is unforgettable. I’d hate to be the chicken who missed having my cotton socks wowed off, just because I let disinclination get the better of me. And I’d love to be the reviewer to help restore an obscure gem to the light of day, so I really am going to read it. Just not quite yet. Please feel free to hold me accountable. I need to be free again!”

If you like Keeping Up With The Penguins, you’ll love The Vince Review – Paula and I share eerily similar tastes!

Rachael at Booklist Queen

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

“At Booklist Queen, I help frustrated readers – tired of wasting their time on over-hyped bestsellers – find more great books to read. I have everyone covered with book recommendations (from classics to hot new releases) and an annual reading challenge. That said, one bestseller I’m ashamed to say I haven’t actually read is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.”

“I recommend this fantasy about duelling magicians all the time, because I have only ever heard great things. I already know I’m going to love it! I was captivated by her latest book, The Starless Sea, and my friends with similar reading tastes have all recommended it to me. Yet, it’s still languished on my to-read list for over six years.”

Rachael told me that she placed a library hold on The Night Circus immediately after responding to my question, good on her! Her book round-ups are extensive, honest, and awesome – find them all over at Booklist Queen.

Simon at Stuck In A Book

“The book I really should read, and definitely haven’t, is one I don’t know anything about. It’s Hive of Glass by Breton Amis. No one has ever recommended him to me, and I haven’t got a clue what Hive of Glass is about.”

“So, why have I chosen it? Chiefly because it’s been on my shelves for so long. There comes a moment in every avid book buyer’s life when they realise they won’t read all the books they buy. I currently have about 1700 unread books on my shelves. I have come to terms with the fact that book buying and book reading are two entirely separate pleasures that just happen to overlap. But when I bought Hive of Glass in 2003, I hadn’t reached that conclusion yet. I bought it out of idle curiosity, and fully intended to read it in the next few months. Here we are, the best part of two decades later…”

“Reading Hive Of Glass won’t make those other 1700 books get read, and it won’t change the sort of reader I am, but it might be a small gesture towards it. And, who knows, maybe it’s great?”

Simon really does have a knack for uncovering hidden gems, and he kindly shares his bounty with us over at Stuck In A Book.

Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

“While there’s likely quite a lot of books that I should have read, I can’t go past The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies, and The Mirror And The Light). I know that’s three books, but from all the reviews I’ve read and discussions I’ve had with people, they all say that the three books form one complete story.”

“The reason I feel like I ‘should’ read these is that they are everything I favour: historical fiction, about the Tudor court, involving sagas with people betraying each other, betraying themselves, and betraying their King. But they are each tomes in their own right, and I’ve always worried they must get bogged down with too much politics. I’ve put Wolf Hall on my must-read list so I can dither no more. I think it’s going to be like the Game of Thrones series, just start reading and re-surface weeks later…”

“… Actually, the entire GoT series took me three months, but I’m sure the Wolf Hall trilogy won’t be like that. Right?”

No one tell her! But I’m sure when Theresa finds out, she’ll let us all know the full truth (and nothing but) over on her fantastic blog, Theresa Smith Writes.

Veronica at The Burgeoning Bookshelf

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

“I can think of so many books I should have read but the one that came through the strongest is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Ever since it was published in 2016 I’ve been seeing amazing reviews and I stop and think, ‘Will I?’, but 800 pages of heartbreak might be too much for me. I feel like I’m the only one who hasn’t read it… yet.”

Veronica’s definitely not the only one! Be sure to check out The Burgeoning Bookshelf for some (mostly) more lighthearted reads.



Big thanks to all the amazing book bloggers who took part in this one question interview! Know another book blogger who deserves a shout-out (or want to join in the fun with your own answer)? Drop a comment down below!

« Older posts Newer posts »