Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery

The Lake House – Kate Morton

Once again, I’ve reached a point where I’ve read too many dead white dudes back-to-back. I need to get back to lady business! It’s one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in the course of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: variety is really important to me in my reading life. If I read too many of the same kinds of books in a row, it makes me feel like a caged animal. So, this week, I turn to an Australian woman writer to break me out: Kate Morton, with her international best-seller The Lake House.

The Lake House is Morton’s sixth novel, published back in 2015 (The Clockmaker’s Daughter is her most recent offering, and it made a real splash at the end of last year). She is one of Australia’s biggest literary exports since Colleen McCullough, with international sales at ten million books and growing. Every single one of her titles has made the New York Times Best Seller List. She’s also, for some strange reason, really big in Canada. So, my expectations going into this one were pretty high.

Morton and I actually have quite a bit in common. She’s a fellow Queenslander-by-birth, and we both grew up loving Enid Blyton and dreaming about snowy England and adventures in moors and forests with the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. When she sat down to write The Lake House, she was based in Brisbane, but she decided to set the story in Cornwall as a kind of tourism-of-the-mind experiment.

Perhaps she got swept away with her life-long romanticisation of the English landscape, perhaps she’s just naturally wordy: either way, her writing in The Lake House was extremely descriptive right from the outset. In practically every sentence, she described a smell, a sight, a taste, or a sound. That doesn’t bother me at all – I’m more than happy to read a doorstop novel that describes every facet of a world (real or imaginary) – but I know it gets up some readers’ noses, so I thought I’d offer a warning straight-up.



What did bother me, though, was the bloody timeline(s)! There were three, for crying out loud! And all told from different perspectives! The 2003 timeline focuses on a detective called Sadie, the 1933 focuses on a young aspiring writer named Alice, and the 1914(ish) timeline focuses on Alice’s mother, Eleanor. And, if that’s not tricky enough, they all criss-cross and overlap, so you end up reading Alice’s 2003 story and Eleanor’s 1933 story as well. Oy! I understand why writers do this – they’re being very clever, drip-feeding the story to the reader, et cetera, et cetera – but having to triple-check the dates at the beginning of each chapter, and flip back-and-forth to piece together the chronology for myself, really takes me out of it. Hmph!

I’ll straighten out the timeline as best I can for the purposes of this review, but it ain’t easy. Also, spoilers abound, yadda yadda yadda – this book is recent enough to warrant at least a perfunctory warning.

Back in 1914, a young woman (Eleanor) fell in love with a bloke, married him, and popped out a few kids (one of them being Alice, the would-be writer). Hubby went away to war, came back a bit upset, but he seemed mostly okay. In 1933, when Alice was 16, they threw a “Midsummer Eve” party, but it all went to hell when their youngest child (Theo, an infant) disappeared while everyone was out having a good time. Yikes!



Alice, at the time, blamed herself for the disappearance. She was in love with the family’s gardener, and showed him a book she had written about how to kidnap a kid without getting caught. And, surprise surprise, the gardener goes missing at the same time as the kid. She never mentions any of this to the cops, though, and she spends her whole life trying to put it behind her by building a fabulously successful literary career.

The family home sits abandoned for decades, until 2003, when Sadie – a police detective on “enforced leave” for speaking to journos about a case she believed her department bungled – comes across it while out on a run. She does a little digging, and hears about the (still unsolved) case of the missing child. She starts asking questions, trying to figure out what the heck went down that night, and follows her nose through the whole mystery.

Yes, it’s a mystery novel, but one set outside the system of law enforcement. I appreciated that Sadie was, y’know, a lady, and not a gruff, cynical, end-of-his-career, whiskey-swilling male detective. That was the main basis of The Lake House‘s appeal, to be honest. Also, despite the sex-and-death stakes, this is actually a very “clean” read. All the dirty bits take place out of sight for the reader, so if that’s your preference in literature you’re onto a winner here.



Morton uses a third-person perspective the whole way through, but privileges each of the main characters in their own timeline, which really cleverly highlights the different perspectives each character has on the “truth” of the matter. It turns out Alice wasn’t the only one who blamed herself for Theo’s disappearance – both of her sisters also had reasons to believe they caused the kidnapping in some indirect way, and they all felt very differently about their mother’s behaviour (and Eleanor, of course, thinks of herself in much kinder terms than any of them). Morton weaves in various subplots and unspoken character motivations, which leads to her effectively braiding the three stories together (the story of a missing child, the story of an abandoned child, and the story of an adopted child). That’s in addition to the standard mystery-trope red herrings and big twists. So, I can concede that The Lake House wouldn’t have worked if Morton had tried to tell the story in any kind of chronological or linear style (but the jumpy timeline was still bloody annoying).

Morton has said that she long wanted to write a story about a child’s disappearance. Most readers would (reasonably) assume that she drew her inspiration from the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby (which also happened in 1933), but she has said she was actually thinking more of the case of the Beaumont children, who disappeared here in Australia in 1966. It’s clear that she had motherhood on her mind as she was writing; indeed, she was pregnant with her youngest child at the time, and it really comes across in the pages (and pages!) she devotes to the bond between mothers and infants. But that’s not to say that all of the mothers in The Lake House are Virgin Mary types, far from it! In fact, all of them are strong, but deeply flawed, and they spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves for various reasons.

The World Wars (both I and II) also play major roles in the narrative, and serve as turning points in the plot. When Alice’s father/Eleanor’s husband returned from WWI, he was actually far more “shell shocked” than he initially appeared, with attacks of grief and anxiety and anger that could turn violent. WWII, later in the story, kills one of Alice’s sisters, preventing her from revealing what she knows of Theo’s disappearance.



In fact, each of the sisters held one of the keys to the big mystery of Theo’s disappearance – if only they’d been capable of communicating like fucking grown-ups, the whole mess would have been sorted out long before Sadie came along. I’m going to give you a pared-down version of what happened (apologies to Morton). Deborah, the eldest sister, knew that her father was experiencing severe symptoms of shell shock that couldn’t be controlled and put all of the children at risk. Alice knew that the object of her affections, Ben Munro (the family gardener), was familiar with strategies for making a child disappear, had the means to make it happen, and coincidentally had a barren friend who desperately wanted a child. Clementine, the youngest sister, knew that Eleanor (their mother) was having an affair with Ben Munro The Gardener, and (once she grew up a bit) could have connected the dots and worked out that Theo was in fact Ben’s son, not their father’s. Yep, Eleanor was screwing the help, and it all ended in tears. If Clementine had lived long enough to tell Alice that part of the mystery, and Alice in turn had passed it on to Deborah, it all would have come to a head quite quickly.

Instead, it took an outsider with her own axe to grind sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. Most of The Lake House is iterations of Sadie trying to get the remaining sisters to spill their secrets and sorting through the red herrings. Oh my goodness, so many red herrings! There isn’t a single character Morton didn’t want the reader to think did it, at one point or another. In the end, Sadie gets to the truth of it: Eleanor and Ben “kidnapped” Theo, to save him from the wrath of Eleanor’s shell-shocked husband, whom they feared would hurt the kid in one of his turns. And it turns out (drumroll please) that Sadie’s own grandfather is the long-lost Theo. There you have it. Everyone’s a winner!

(Oh, and Morton totally ripped off my “whydunnit” phrase, which you’ll recall I trademarked back when I reviewed In Cold Blood. Either that, or I’m not as brilliant and unique a creative mind as I thought…)

I wouldn’t say the mystery of The Lake House gripped me – I was more mildly curious about how it would turn out. I wouldn’t have cancelled plans to stay at home reading, but I wasn’t ever inclined to abandon it either. The ending was satisfying, and I didn’t guess the “truth” of it a hundred pages in (and thank goodness for that, or forcing myself through the remaining five hundred pages would have been a real slog). I did find the big reveal to be a bit of a set-up, though, as though Morton was just wallopping the reader with a very heavy-handed reminder that all mothers deeply, truly, no-matter-what love their children, and blood is thicker than water and all of that. Still, the ending is very neat, and it ties up all of the loose ends. As nice as it was to vacation in Lady Land for a while, I’ll happily confess that my favourite character was actually Edwina, the golden retriever. She was the one I connected with most of all. Make of that what you will.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Lake House:

  • “This is asking too much from me. This is not something I want to do. I think it is silly for everyone to do it.” – Jessie
  • “Wait to long! To much description. Interesting” – Patricia Paez
  • “A LONDON COP OF LEAVE GOES TO VISIT HER GRANDFATHER AND FINDS AN OLD ABANDONED HOUSE. THE TWISTS AND TURNS WILL THRILL YOU AND THE ENDING WILL ALSO, I’LL BET YOU CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT, I COULDN’T EVEN THOUGH I TRIED.” – SUSAN F
  • “I love to read but I chose not to finish it and waste my time.” – Patricia Sheyka
  • “Is she serious with this ending??? Total crap. Cornier than Cornwall itself.” – Karen
  • “Slower than crap. Worst book ever.” – Jessica A. Stice
  • “No literary quality as hoped. My first (and, last) Kate Morton book. Thin broth, indeed.” – David A. Oxford
  • “Silly little Soap Opera. Expected Amelia Earhart to come out of the bushes as a long lost Great Aunt there at the end. It’s a good thing daughters are ignorant of household secrets and they don’t talk to each after the man event for seventy or so years. ;-)” – richard briddick

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

It’s been a while since I picked up a contemporary popular fiction book (and even longer since I read one by an Australian woman!), so it’s about time I gave Liane Moriarty’s breakthrough novel a go, don’t you think? The Husband’s Secret came out in 2013, and even though it was her fifth novel, it made one hell of a splash. It sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and Moriarty is now practically a household name. She has the distinction of being the very first Aussie to have a book debut in the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller List (her best-known book, Big Little Lies). Surely, all of this makes The Husband’s Secret a best seller worth reading – we need to see where the magic began!

Jumping right in, The Husband’s Secret has one HECK of a premise! A woman finds an envelope, written in her husband’s hand, and it says (*ominous music*): “For my wife, only to be opened in the event of my death”. But her husband is still very much alive, and he won’t tell her what’s inside.

I think it goes without saying that, given that this is how the story begins, the opening chapter is an absolute cracker. My brain was whirring, I was dying of curiosity, convinced this book was a winner… but then, in chapters two and three, we almost inexplicably started bouncing around in the lives (and, later, timelines) of a bunch of other characters. None of them seemed particularly three-dimensional, and they all had generic white-people names: Rachel. Tess. Will. Jacob. Lauren. It wasn’t until their storylines began to merge and intersect that things finally started making sense again…

The Husband’s Secret is set in Sydney, where Cecilia – the woman who finds the envelope – is an (otherwise) happily married mother-of-three. Her life looks pretty perfect from the outside, until she finds that envelope-shaped cat among the pigeons. Tess, it turns out, is a career-woman who returns to Sydney with her son after she finds out that her husband and her cousin are “in love” (they’re not even shagging, can you believe it, they just sit her down one night and tell her they love each other – vomit!). She enrols her kid in the same school that Cecilia’s kids attend. And then there’s Rachel, the school secretary; she suspects that the P.E. teacher, Connor (who is, coincidentally, Tess’s ex-boyfriend), is the man responsible for the murder of her daughter thirty-odd years ago.





Do you see why it was confusing at first? I mean, the paths all eventually cross and Moriarty pieces it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, but I wasn’t a huge fan of that initial confusion. I just wanted to get back to the letter, dammit, not hear about the love lives and murders of these other randoms!

So, back to THE LETTER! Reading the opening chapters of The Husband’s Secret triggered an intense debate in my household. I was immediately in my own husband’s ear, asking if he’d open the envelope in those circumstances. Long story (and many hours of argument) short: he wouldn’t, I would. I knew, instantly, reading that first page, that I would. I mean, come on now: it’s a secret letter! This is what makes The Husband’s Secret a really great read for book clubs. Love it or hate it, whatever your tastes, you know it’s going to stimulate some interesting conversations when you all get together.

So, we all know how much I hate spoiler warnings, but I feel obligated to offer one here, because this book is relatively recent and it’s kind of predicated on the “shock twist”. Consider this my warning: if you don’t want to know what’s in the envelope, bugger off and come back once you’ve read it for yourself…





So, no shit, Cecilia opens the letter (like any normal person! *ahem*) and it’s a confession that her husband was the one who killed the school secretary’s daughter, when he was seventeen!



Seriously, I was SHOOK! The longer version of the story is this: he had a baby with Cecilia and suddenly got all sentimental about that girl he killed that one time. So, he wrote this letter, figuring no one would see it until after he was dead. And then he set about implementing all these self-flagellation measures in his life to “punish” himself for his crime, seeing as he was never going to go to jail. He forced himself to go without sex for six months, boo hoo. What a guy, right?!

Anyway, this big reveal comes surprisingly early, before you’re even half-way through the book. Still, Moriarty manages to work in a few more twists down the line, so never fear. She drip-feeds you the story of Jane’s murder, and takes you through the sprawling impact it had (and continues to have) on all of their lives. The epilogue had a real Life After Life feel about. it, actually, because it highlighted all the near-misses and almosts that led the story to its conclusion.

Let me level with you: the premise was fun, the twist was interesting, but the writing didn’t exactly blow me away. This is ultimately a story about toxic masculinity, but Moriarty didn’t really interrogate that theme as much as I’d have liked. Even though the story is focused on the three women, and told almost entirely from their perspectives, they were basically just passive receptacles for the garbage behaviour of the men in their lives. They were reactionary, rather than demonstrating any agency of their own, and they never really explained why they were so damn submissive.





All that said, it’s not like I was so unimpressed that I won’t seek out any more Liane Moriarty books. I’m already eager to read Big Little Lies, and I’ve added it to my next reading list for Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, credit where credit is due: Moriarty managed to work in more than one plot twist I didn’t see coming, which I always appreciate (as all readers do), Plus, I really enjoyed reading a story set in my home city. Even when the topic is murder, there’s something really comforting about a familiar setting.

And off the back of the success of the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies, CBS Films has acquired the rights to The Husband’s Secret. They announced back in 2017 that the film will star Blake Lively. I’m looking forward to checking it out, mostly because I’m curious from an artistic standpoint how the twist will translate to the screen. No word on the release date yet, though…

So, would I recommend this one? Maybe. If you’re looking for a challenging, meaty book to wrap your brain around, you’d best keep looking. But if you want something fun to talk about with your book club, or something to get your mother for Christmas, this one’s right up your alley. Do with that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Husband’s Secret:

  • “Without a doubt this is the worst book I’ve read this year. There is not a likable character in the entire book, and that includes a 2 year old….” – MSC
  • “I read most of this book because it was the only book I had with me on a rafting trip. I had such hopes, since is the same author as Big Little Lies, hopes bashed.” – maggie t
  • “Story takes too long.” – Sandra Mulrey
  • “I didn’t like the format. I certainly didn’t like the story. Too depressing. Not my cup of tea. I read to slip into fantasy not depression.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I hated this book so much I deleted it off my Kindle immediately so I wouldn’t be reminded of the time I wasted with it.” – LMPV
  • “Such an enjoyable read! If you like books by Liane Moriarty this book is for you.” – Danielle Galanowsky
  • “Too dark for my taste, I was expecting a bit of suspense/mystery and got child death, adultery, murder, and what seemed to be advertising for the show Biggest Loser. The story is supposed to be how these strangers lives become entwined but in reality it’s just jumping around from one person’s point of view to the next, with several flashbacks thrown in to really muck things up. After the first few chapters I started skipping large chunks of pages and would pick up reading again with Cecilia and her family. This author has a way if making me dislike the main character, casting them in such a negative light that I, as a reader, do not care what happens to them. The only redeeming quality of this book is, I borrowed it from the library and can return it immediately!” – lovestoread
  • “Fine book. Epilogue unneeded.” – McAwsm
  • “It is well written, but I thought it was depressing and I didn’t finish it.” – Sandra Baumer
  • “This was a stupid book. General Hospital is better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I find that authors who use profanity in storytelling demonstrate weak writing skills. It is offensive to me for writers to disrespect and dishonor God Almighty. Not one I could recommend.” – Karla Stores
  • “eye roller” – JKADEN
  • “buncha prudes” – Amazon Customer
  • “Okay for a holiday read. Like the Tupperware party the story unfolds around, it has a a predictable feel emblazoned with plastic characters.” – CM


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