Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I managed to score this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at a market stall, for the princely sum of just $5. I’d been searching for it for so long, I’d happily have paid four times that. According to the author bio, Muriel Spark was pretty damn prolific, and yet this is the only book of hers that I’ve ever come across – and it was bloody hard to find! It’s definitely the best-known of her works, first published in The New Yorker, and then as a book by Macmillan, in 1961. The introduction promises: “… a sublimely funny book. It is also very short and has much to say about sex.” Honey, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling.

It opens in 1930s Edinburgh. The titular Miss Jean Brodie – who is, indeed, in her prime, and doesn’t waste a chance to remind you of that fact – is a teacher at a school for girls. She has selected for herself six ten-year-old students, her special favourites, the “Brodie set”. It was a funny change of pace going from The Thirty-Nine Steps, which had an almost entirely male cast, to The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which (by nature of its setting and its story) is almost entirely female.

Under Miss Brodie’s mentorship, these six girls (Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice) learn all about world travels, love, and fascism. Yep, apparently that’s the new reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and it’s one heck of a combo! Miss Brodie finds herself entangled in a dramatic love triangle with her colleagues: the singing teacher, Mr Gordon Lowther, and the handsome one-armed (married!) war veteran, Mr Teddy Lloyd. It’s Lloyd that really gets Miss Brodie’s motor running, but ultimately she turns him down. He is married, after all, and she has some self-respect. She embarks on an affair with Lowther instead, probably closing her eyes and thinking of her one-armed Teddy all the while…

Anyway, the girls grow up (as kids are wont to do), but they maintain the close bonds they formed under Miss Brodie’s tutelage, and she keeps having them all around for tea and whatnot. The headmistress at the school, Miss Mackay, is not a fan of Miss Brodie’s teaching methods and the course this is all taking (hard to imagine why), so she starts throwing a few tea parties of her own, trying to gather dirt from the girls that would give her grounds for dismissal. Sudden unemployment sure does put a quick end to a woman’s “prime”, eh?





Now, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie does have a jumpy timeline, which normally I’m not inclined to enjoy, but I actually didn’t mind it so much in this case. One of the “flash forwards” in the story reveals that one of the Brodie set will ultimately (gasp!) betray their patroness, dobbing her in to the headmistress… but doesn’t show the reader which one. It was really cleverly done by Spark, and added an extra air of mystery and suspicion to the whole thing.

Anyway, back in the regular timeline, poor Teddy is still lusting after Miss Brodie, and (prepare yourself for an avalanche of creepy) he starts having the girls from the Brodie set come around and pose for his portraits. He ends up drawing all of their faces as his paramour *vomit*. Let me say that one more time for the cheap seats in the back: this teacher pains Miss Jean Brodie’s primey head onto the bodies of her pubescent students. Isn’t that the grossest thing you’ve ever fucking heard?! And yet, they all seem like they’re cool with it! Miss Brodie’s pretty damn flattered, even. She pulls a few strings, trying to egg Rose on to having an affair with the creepy old guy, figuring the young girl would be an adequate distraction from all of her prime-ness… but Teddy ends up sticking it to plain ol’ Sandy, instead, much to everyone’s surprise. Oh, and while all this is going on, Lowther dumps Miss Brodie. Pretty understandable really, given everything.

And this is where Miss Brodie really fucks up: she accepts a new member to the Brodie set, Joyce Emily. This newbie seems open to the whole fascism thing, so Brodie fans the flames, encouraging her to run away and fight in the Spanish Civil War on the nationalist side. Of course, Joyce Emily follows the suggestion… and is promptly killed en route. Yikes!





Sandy has become Miss Brodie’s confidante, so she gets all the inside scoop on this turn of events, all the while still fucking the teacher that paints his lover’s heads on students bodies (I’m sorry, I can’t get over that, it’s just so icky, and NONE OF THEM SEEM TO CARE! WHY?!). Sandy’s interest in Teddy wanes over time, but her Swimfan-y obsession with Miss Brodie reaches boiling point. She winds up approaching the headmistress, giving her all the dirt she has on Miss Brodie, which (it turns out) is enough to get her fired. Then the little betrayer converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun, Miss Brodie dies never knowing that Sandy ratted her out, the end.

Now, maybe I’ve been at this reading-and-reviewing-the-classics game a little too long, but I couldn’t help reading this as a religious allegory. I mean, I don’t know dick about religion, so I could be way off-base, but hear me out: Miss Jean Brodie is Jesus (right?), and she gathers all these disciples (students) around her, and goes about preaching an alternate worldview, until Judas (Sandy) betrays her. That’s about right, isn’t it?

Even if it isn’t, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is ultimately a story about loyalty. You can tell, because Sandy keeps on repeating “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due”, which is an interesting moral philosophy in and of itself. It’s also a funny book, in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma was funny: I didn’t laugh out loud, but I appreciated how it was witty and clever. And damn, Spark manages to cram a whole lotta story into very few words: this review is about as long as the book!





If you haven’t already had your fill of creepy for the day, here’s the final serve: Miss Jean Brodie is based on a real person! Christina Kay was Spark’s teacher for two years at James Gillespie’s School For Girls, and Spark credited her with encouraging her burgeoning talent for writing. Spark, like Sandy, also later converted to Catholicism. No word on whether the perverted painting and underhanded betrayal parts are true-to-life, but they do say “write what you know”…

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie will give you a lot to chew on; don’t be fooled by how short it is! It’s definitely worth a read. It’s unlikely to become your special all-time favourite, but it will stick with you for a while. I’m selfishly hoping you’ll all read it and be creeped out as I am, if for no other reason than to validate my feelings! It can’t just be me… right?

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie:

  • “Good story no real purpose though. Well written.” – Courtney McFeters
  • “Muriel Spark, to me, is one of the greatest writers of her time. Each book is a gem, but of course, this one really sparkles.” – Sally
  • “I consider myself a fairly inteligent high school student who is eager to be challenged mentally. The problems with this book are several fold. It jumps around like a five-year on a jolt cola bender. The characters are unimpressive and serve somehow or another to emulate each other and form some sort of omni-character – which i dont care to figure out. The plot is about as unsubstantial and insignificant as an ant taking a dump. [note: the reason i am so profane is due to my hating the book and having to analyze the non-existent humor in it for my AP literature class, apologies around] THIS BOOK IS THE ATTEMPT BY MURIEL SPARK TO ACADEMICLLY POSTURE HERSELF INTO A POSITION OF PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL AUTHORITY AND DISPLAY HER COMPLEX AND INSIGNIFICANT FICTION FORMAT. MAKE NO MISTAKE, THIS BOOK IS ONE PRETENSTIOUS(sic) PAGE AFTER ANOTHER.
a mad millburn lit student (2002-2003)” – nozama woleb
  • “I just wanted to say that this book made me wish that theyd legalise hand guns in the UK. It is the kind of book that makes little children cry. I have read more interesting stuff on the bake of crisp packets. In conclusion 9/10 phycopathic maniacs recomend reading The Pride of MJB before going on a random killing spree.” – Mr Cook’s Favourite Pupil


We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

It’s a compelling title, isn’t it? We Were Liars. Hats off to Lockhart and her marketing team for that one! It’s all the more enticing for the blurb on the back, which reads: “We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense that will leave you reeling. Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just lie.”

We Were Liars was published in 2014, debuting at #6 on the New York Times Best Seller List in the Young Adult category (spending 13 weeks in the top ten), and it went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction. Most impressively, in my mind, it achieved massive cross-over appeal. In fact, I struggle to think of this as a Young Adult novel at all, because even though it ticks all the right boxes and it was marketed that way, most of the people I know who have read and loved it are adult-adults. Grown ups. “Old”. It’s probably the best example, in my mind, of the way in which Young Adult fiction has infiltrated the book-buying world to become a genre and a movement in its own right.

Anyway, We Were Liars is the story of the wealthy, seemingly-perfect Sinclair family. And I mean “wealthy”, as in 1%-every-summer-they-gather-for-a-holiday-on-their-private-island-like-that’s-normal welathy. Stories about rich kids aren’t new, and they have wide appeal – think Gossip Girl, and The OC, and Beverley Hills 90210 (I’m assuming, I’m a bit young to have seen that last one the first time around). What makes We Were Liars differently is that it seems to treat issues of class and race a lot more critically than the rich teenager stories of yore, which was really refreshing. The Sinclairs appear wealthy, and they certainly have the trappings of wealth, but the irony is that none of them are actually able to support themselves without family money. The wealth, and the power it supposedly affords them, is an illusion. It’s the kids, the teenagers, the protagonists, who see through it all. It’s very zeitgeist-y, in a world where kids are leading the revolution.

So, the supposedly-wealthy white-bread Sinclairs gather on this island near Martha’s Vineyard every year… until one summer when Cadence, the narrator, is found seriously injured in the water. She suffers severe migraines and some kind of trauma-induced amnesia; she is completely unable to remember the circumstances leading up to her injury. Her mother refuses to tell her what happened, and packs her off to Europe the next summer… but then, two years later, Cadence returns to the island and begins to piece her memories back together.

The whole “Liars” thing was a bit clumsy, if you ask me. Like I said, it makes for a compelling title, and you’d think that’d be enough, but Lockhart has parlayed it into this Famous Five-esque relationship between the Sinclair cousins. Their family, unironically, calls them collectively “the Liars”, but it’s not 100% clear why until it (kind of) plays into the big shock reveal at the end… and, just, eugh. I wasn’t a fan. It seemed a reach.

Still, the relationships themselves are interesting and well-crafted. Lockhart has said she was inspired by her own fantasies of having a close group of friends growing up, and her curiosity about the potential consequences of those bonds. In fact, We Were Liars‘s appeal to adult readers is probably rooted in nostalgia for the days of childhood friendship, and a new perspective on how those children and teenagers interact with adults we know to be imperfect.

Amy Bender, from the Los Angeles Times, said that We Were Liars was “a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help”, and I don’t think I can say it better myself. The metaphor of Cadence’s amnesia was masterfully done (it mirrors the WASP-y family tradition of denial), and I haven’t seen that kind of complexity in many other Young Adult novels to date. All told, I’d say this is a good one to start with if you’re an adult-adult who’s curious as to why so many readers your age are turning to Young Adult fiction (and I’ll be writing more about that later this week). It’s definitely right up your alley if you liked The Girl On The Train, and don’t mind your female protagonists young, waify, and unreliable.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Were Liars:

  • “Meh, more teen drama than I thought it would be.” – T. Lenahan
  • “GREAT BOOK FAST DELIVERY” – Rachael
  • “Suspenseful. I identified with the central character….don’t know why. Perhaps it was the pain of growing up. Teen years are so hard.” – AvidReader
  • “Was very disappointed with this book. Enjoyed it until the end.” – Jen L
  • “The ending really makes no sense unless the characters are extremely stupid and have no common sense. Very disappointing, would not recommend.” – Juan Blanco
  • “I’m emotionally dead inside but that’s okay because it was very ver very well written” – brandi e huskey

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle


I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews with great authors, and you’d be surprised how many of them say they read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as children. So, this week, I figured, if it’s good enough for them…

In the late 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle was a young doctor, struggling to make ends meet in his Southsea practice. He turned to writing short stories and articles as a way to supplement his income. I literally laughed out loud when I read that in his author bio – he must be the only doctor in the history of the world that upped his hustle with writing as a side gig! The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories, was published serially in The Strand Magazine between July 1891 and June 1892. The stories were so well received that The Strand saw a considerable boost in subscription numbers, and Doyle grabbed the bull by the horns and demanded more money (because none of his other books or stories were making enough to keep him afloat).

The character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by one of Doyle’s lecturers at Edinburgh University – a bloke called Joseph Bell, who had an eerie talent for spotting details. Still, Doyle owes a true artistic debt to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe was the one who actually invented the classic detective story formula (the prototype being his beloved character C. Auguste Dupin): a super-smart detective with a knack for deduction and leaps of logic, a less-smart (but perhaps more personable) sidekick who narrates the action, and bumbling local officials who never quite get it right. Poe invented all of that, and yet it’s Doyle’s Sherlock that has become synonymous with the fictional detective archetype. Life really isn’t fair…

To make matters worse, Doyle wasn’t actually all that interested in writing his most famous character. His true passion lay with historical fashion, and he lamented that Sherlock Holmes took him away from better things. He idn’t mind the money that came with publishing commercial fiction, of course, and he ultimately published more than sixty Holmes novels and stories to keep that rolling in… but he was really bitter about the fact that there was no demand for any of his other works. He tried to kill Holmes off in 1893 (a short story called “The Final Problem”), but the public outrage was so great that Doyle was forced to bring him back to life with additional stories from earlier in the timeline. To this day, Doyle’s “serious” writing languishes largely unread, while Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most recognisable fictional characters in the world.

Like Frankenstein, or Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters that defined a genre. Even if you’ve never read an Arthur Conan Doyle story in your life, you probably still know who Sherlock is (and you might have even used the phrase “no shit, Sherlock” a time or two). His influence is so widespread that the character of Sherlock Holmes has been played by no fewer than 70 different actors, across 200 film adaptations – and there are hundreds of TV series, stage productions, audio recordings, and other adaptations beyond that. Some of them also bear the title The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but they don’t necessarily follow any of the stories from this collection.

Yes, back to the collection: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes consists of twelve short stories. They’re quick, easy, fun to read, and – most of all – bloody clever! They’re narrated by Dr Watson, recounting the cases taken on by Sherlock Holmes – everything from a mysterious newspaper advertisement (“The Red-Headed League”) to the Ku Klux Klan (“The Five Orange Pips”).

Despite being detective fiction, it’s not all doom and gloom! Most of the cases are actually quite whimsical and fun. Plus, I think that Sherlock has been misrepresented in a lot of modern-day adaptations – in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he certainly didn’t seem as mean or as brisk as I was expecting. On the whole, this collection is much closer to Scooby Doo than it is to Criminal Minds.


Doyle’s economy of language is dead-set fucking legendary, and I loved how Holmes cut across class divides (which, we must remember, were particularly prominent in Victorian England, where the stories are set). Everyone, from poor street beggars and opium users through to noblemen and royalty, comes to Holmes, hat in hand, asking for help. He’s all about justice in an unjust world, and he has little regard for aristocracy and power. Indeed, he takes particular glee in mocking the power structures of the day, and unveiling the incompetence and prejudice of the authorities. Fuck yeah, Sherlock! Fight the power!

Doyle once said that “The Adventures of the Speckled Band” from this collection was his favourite Sherlock Holmes story. I, personally, couldn’t narrow it down to just one – I loved “A Scandal in Bohemia” (featuring the enigmatic Irene Adler), “The Red-Headed League”, and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”. Ultimately, though, they’re all highly readable, endlessly entertaining, and definitely leave you wanting more. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a highly Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

  • “Good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good awesome cool swag fun to read” – S. Rolman
  • “very heavy book. The case is made of heavy cardboard and the set looks very expensive.” – Debbie Perdue
  • “Great book for unexpected twists, unless you are a detective.” – Tom Bentley
  • “The author terribly misrepresents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed the Mormon Church).” – DLemon
  • “I ordered this to read on my Kindle but decided that I do not like to read on the Kindle.” – Mary Clark