Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Popular Fiction (page 1 of 4)

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Matt Haig really pumps books out. Fiction, non-fiction, adult, children’s – he’s done it all, twenty-six times over (by my count). This is the first of his I’ve read, and it’s one of his most popular: The Midnight Library. It came out in August 2020, when we were all descending into madness because… well, you know. We all really needed a fantasy-inspired story about choosing life.

The Midnight Library - Matt Haig - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Midnight Library here.
(And if you use an affiliate link on this page to build your own library, I’ll earn a small commission, which will help me build mine.)

The Midnight Library – the book and this review – warrants some BIG TIME trigger warnings. So, here they are, up front: watch out for death/suicide, mental illness, death of/cruelty towards animals.

If you’re still with me, here we go: the story follows 35-year-old Nora, a British woman having a really rough week. Her cat dies, she loses her job, her neighbour hires someone to help him out so he doesn’t need her anymore, and it all piles on top of a lifetime of regrets and chances not taken. She decides to take her own life…

… but, hovering somewhere between Here and The Afterlife, she ends up in the library. The Midnight Library. Her childhood librarian guides her through the stacks, an infinite number of books, each representing a life that Nora could have had. Before she Moves On, Nora has the chance to “try” as many lives as she wants, simply by pulling the book that represents it from the shelf.

The opening chapters of The Midnight Library are a perfect demonstration of how we’re all just an unfortunate event or two away from complete crisis. I really liked that aspect, and also the short chapters (some are just a sentence or a paragraph long), which make for quick and easy reading.

It’s a clumsy metaphor, though – even if it is a comforting one for bookish types. And the plot is a little… linear. I promise you, there are no surprises or shock twists waiting for you in The Midnight Library. It’s as predictable as an after-school special. Even the exposition is boringly straightforward: Mrs Elm, the librarian, lays it all out for Nora (and the reader), as often as she needs, straight as an arrow.

After trying all the lives she can think of – marrying the fiance she left at the altar, working as a glaciologist in the Arctic, working the inspirational speaker circuit after a career as a champion swimmer, playing sold-out stadiums as a rock star, making an honest living as a vineyard owner – Nora… makes exactly the choice you’d expect her to make. Seriously, imagine the most obvious and saccharine way The Midnight Library could end, and you’ve got it. It’s basically an updated version of The Wizard Of Oz or It’s A Wonderful Life.

Even if I hadn’t known going in when The Midnight Library was published, I would’ve *known* it was a pandemic novel. If the themes and ending weren’t enough to clue me in, there’s the dedication (“To all the health workers. And the care workers. Thank you.”). I suppose, looking back, we all needed something a bit sweet and optimistic to get us through a tough time – but I’m not sure the story holds up now that the initial devastation has passed.

“Life is worth living! It’s never too late!” is a nice sentiment, but I didn’t love the overall message of The Midnight Library. It read to me like: “if you’re just grateful and kind and hopeful, you’ll be able to think yourself out of depression and suicidality!”. Despite the fact that you’ve lost your job, your parents are dead, your cat got hit by a car, you have no support system, and you clearly have some unresolved mental health issues going on? Sure, Jan.

Oh, and one last gripe: Haig works in a lot of watered-down philosophy by making Nora a philosophy grad. It’s clumsy and obvious and annoyed me all the way through The Midnight Library.

Alright, and now I’m going to stop being a Negative Nancy! Yes, it was too simple and sweet for me, but The Midnight Library was highly readable and a fun thought experiment. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who gave it five stars on Goodreads and gushed about it to friends on Zoom.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Midnight Library:

  • “Like other reviewers, I thought the premise was interesting. However, the ending is predictable and I found myself actually rolling my eyes while reading the last few pages. Appreciate the beauty in the life you already have. We get it. I prefer the beauty of subtlety.” – K. Short
  • “If you can guess where this book is going in the first 30 pages, congratulations, you’re slightly above the comprehension level of an inebriated oyster. I kept reading in an attempt to reconcile the text with the praise this book has received, and, much like the endless streams of philosophical nonsense you’ll have to endure before the last page, came up short. Philosophy isn’t the search for answers. It’s the search for more questions, and often only pointless ones. (Goodness Mr Thoreau, I guess perspective really does matter! I’ll start seeing instead of looking right away!) Unless you’ve never seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” or any of that film’s tired and trite imitators, this book will be a dull, repetitive experience.” – spaceflounder
  • “To the reviewers who complained because their physical copies of the book were missing pages – count your blessings!” – Kandy Witte

The Silent Treatment – Abbie Greaves

Frank has done something terrible, but he hasn’t told his wife of forty years, Maggie. In fact, he hasn’t actually spoken to her for six months, even though they’ve otherwise continued their lives together as normal. Not a single word, over shared meals or in a shared bed under a shared roof. Over the course of The Silent Treatment, the reasons for Frank’s sudden silence are revealed – and it turns out Maggie has a few reasons for keeping mum, too.

The Silent Treatment - Abbie Greaves - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Silent Treatment here.
(And I’ll give you the OPPOSITE of the silent treatment if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase – you’ll be supporting me with a small commission!)

It’s a compelling premise, so I was eager to dive into The Silent Treatment. The story unfolds in a dual narrative, of sorts. First, Frank narrates their love story, telling it to a comatose Maggie in her hospital bed. Then, Maggie’s voice comes to the fore, in a series of letters she wrote to Frank prior to her hospitalisation.

I suppose I can’t really say more without “spoiling” The Silent Treatment. With that in mind, I need to offer a bunch of trigger warnings, each of which represents a major plot point (which is disappointing, I hate it when books are predicated on triggering twists). So, there’s suicide, miscarriage, infertility, post-natal depression, self-harm, addiction – quite the litany, isn’t it?

But The Silent Treatment is a surprisingly wistful read, not at all as sharp as that list of trigger warnings would suggest. I imagine it would hit much harder to highly sensitive readers, but I’m a hardened ol’ cynic (unless something happens to a dog), so it didn’t “move” me the way it moved the writers who blurbed it. The closest I got to tears were the parts that made me want to call my Mum and apologise for being such a stubbonly angsty teenager.

As I read, I found there was too much alluding to the Big Bad Secret(s) the characters were keeping, and not enough propelling me forward to the reveal. A lot of The Silent Treatment could have been avoided if Frank and Maggie had read The Five Love Languages – or just, y’know, talked to each other. As the title suggests, both of them retreat into silence instead of being open with each other and confronting their problems as a team. It doesn’t seem like a particularly happy or healthy marriage, despite how often they declare how happy they are.

Plus, in the end, the “payoff” was lacking. It didn’t clang for me – I was more left thinking “oh, that’s it?”. The Epilogue was a bit trite, too.

Perhaps it’s a case of misleading marketing; the blurb positions The Silent Treatment as a story about a relationship breakdown, but really it’s about how tough it is to (a) deal with infertility and (b) parent an addict. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I’d known that going in.

I wanted to like it, but it didn’t live up to the promise of its premise. There are a lot of fascinating reasons why someone might not speak to their spouse for six months, but sadly the reasons for that scenario in The Silent Treatment made it seem mundane. I’m sure there are other readers to whom this book would be better suited, it just wasn’t for me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Silent Treatment:

  • “I felt no empathy with any of the characters, far too much detail of their feelings for each and far too descriptive of their feelings for their child. All parents feel that way, it is not unusual to love your child and be devastated if they choose the wrongs path in life. Not necessary to write a book about it!” – Amazon Customer
  • “This is likely a weepy film. Sentimental codswallop to be honest. Would two people with intelligence and love for each other really make such a hash of all the most important things in their lives? I was hoping for something more nuanced and more true to life but this isn’t that book. Unless you enjoy shamelessly melodramatic weepies with very little plot to them I suggest you avoid this book and find a better use of your time.” – EV
  • “I just didn’t believe that two people who professed to love each other so very much could live through a period of six months without talking. It’s just too childish. They were of a similar age to me but had my partner refused to speak to me for any length of time, I’d have walked out, not taken a bunch of tablets that made me into a vegetable. That’s just passive-aggressive.” – MalMonroe

My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

It’s kind of weird that this is my first Jodi Picoult read, especially given how much I love books about moral dilemmas and ethical quagmires (for which she is famous). My Sister’s Keeper is her eleventh novel, but it’s undoubtedly her most widely read and best known – thanks, at least in part, to the controversial film adaptation released in 2009.

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get My Sister’s Keeper here.
(And when you use an affiliate link on this page, you’ll be the keeper of a great new purchase while I earn a small commission at no cost to you!)

Picoult, indeed, tackles a very thorny issue in this one. The main character, Anna, is thirteen years old at the time My Sister’s Keeper begins. She was conceived as a matched donor for her older sister, Kate. Kate is barely clinging to life after a young diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia. She’s been variously saved over the intervening decade through donations of Anna’s umbilical cord blood, blood-blood, stem cells, bone marrow – and now, one of Anna’s kidneys is on the table.

Faced with the possibility of being forced to undergo a major surgery – with the risk of lifelong complications (or, y’know, death) and no guarantee that it will save Kate’s life – Anna takes drastic action. She seeks out flashy lawyer Campbell Alexander to petition on her behalf for medical emancipation from her parents. That would mean that the decision of whether or not to donate a kidney would rest entirely in her 13-year-old hands.

My Sister’s Keeper is told from multiple perspectives, so you get the full spectrum of insight into the ramifications of Anna’s decision. You hear from Anna herself, as well as her lawyer, her mother, her father, her brother, and her guardian ad litem appointed by the court.

Interestingly, you don’t hear from her sister, undeniably the person most impacted by Anna’s fight for emancipation. There’s a good reason for that in the narrative, and let this serve as your warning that this review, from here on out, is going to get spoiler-y.

During the trial for Anna’s medical emancipation, she reveals that she’s actually acting according to her sister’s wishes. Anna would be willing to continue to act as a donor, except that Kate has asked her to stop; she feels she’s ready to die, but surmises that her parents aren’t ready to let her give up the fight. It’s the big “clang” we’ve been waiting for throughout My Sister’s Keeper, saving it from being an expensive high-stakes teenage temper tantrum.

Oh, and there’s a side-plot playing out, too. Anna and Kate’s brother, Jesse, is a secret juvenile delinquent. In a laughably obvious ploy for his firefighter father’s attention, he’s been secretly setting fires in abandoned buildings all over town. This storyline has a nice little denouement, with a confrontation between Jesse and his father, just before Anna’s big reveal… but it’s never really Finished, aside from a throwaway line in the epilogue. Apparently, that one conversation with his father, and his sister’s death (more on that in a second), was enough for Jesse to turn his life around and enroll in the police academy. *shrugs*

Anyway, back to Anna: the judge rules in her favour, and awards her lawyer a medical power of attorney. The lawyer offers her a lift to the hospital to see Kate and tell her the good(?) news…

… and their car crashes. Anna is declared brain dead, and the lawyer grants permission for her kidney to be donated to Kate. Kate lives not-exactly-happily, but ever after, anyway.

Up until that point, I’d been thoroughly enjoying My Sister’s Keeper. I’d been pleasantly surprised by the Picoult’s deft handling of a mightily complex subject, with decent prose and excellent timing. She says, in the Acknowledgements, that her own child had to undergo ten surgeries in three years, so clearly she had heaps of experience to draw on with the sick-child narrative. But that ending? Ooft. It was too quick, too brash, and too melodramatic.

If Picoult was intent on working in this final twist (Anna’s death), she could at least have stretched out the timeline so it didn’t feel so soapy. I mean, a car crash on the way to the hospital? Come on. It was an unfortunate end to what had been, otherwise, a cracking read.

It only made it all the more baffling to me that My Sister’s Keeper readers were so attached to this ending that they metaphorically set the world on fire when it was changed to suit the film adaptation. The movie presents a radically different outcome, plus it emphasises some sub-plots while writing out others entirely. Most interesting to me: this was all done against Picoult’s wishes. Taking an author’s work and changing it, despite her public derision of that decision? Bold. Very bold.

Anyway, all told, My Sister’s Keeper was a winner for me, right up until the very end. Picoult snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I’m keen to give another one of her books a go, though, to see if her talents have been better applied elsewhere.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister’s Keeper:

  • “I swear the book itself is really good. I felt so many things reading about these characters try to figure life as they know it. But after getting to the end the one message I can give is, do not read this book. Do not pick it up because if you’re like me you loved GOT and then sn 8 happened. That’s the best way to describe this book’s ending.” – Kindle Customer
  • “book sucks” – Mads
  • “if it is going to be melodrama then I will take it in period costume. This was trying to be philosophical but fell on its arty arse… Maybe the only problem with the surprise ending is that they weren’t all treated to the same fate!” – Bibliophage
  • “3 compelling characters only if you count the dog” – Bri Bold
  • “Seriously one the worst books I’ve read. I feel like the author didn’t have the courage to follow the through with the story. I know she has said she had it planned out from the beginning but seriously, you are going to boil the whole story down to a random accident? Then in future everything is okay so don’t get to glum… Cheap, why don’t I just listen to a Brittney Spears song and eat some pop tarts while laying on some 50 thread count sheets to finish the experience.

    Honestly it would be like if at the end of the Joy Luck Club a meteor hit the town and vaporized the mothers, and sisters in China, then flashing forward and showing how that ironed everything out and made the daughters overcome their issues with their mothers. Seriously a cowardly writer, I don’t think I will explore anymore of her work.” – Jacqueline

The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Do you know how to play mahjong? I don’t, but I can tell you that The Joy Luck Club is structured similarly to the game, four parts with four chapters apiece to create sixteen interlocking stories. Granted, I only know that because I looked it up, but it’s a start, wouldn’t you say?

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Joy Luck Club here.
(It’ll bring me joy if you use an affiliate link like this one, because I’ll earn a small commission – and you’ll get good luck, probably!)

The stories revolve around eight women: four Chinese mothers, and their four American(ised) daughters. These immigrant families all came, from their various points of origin, to San Francisco, where they met at the First Chinese Baptist Church. Suyuan Woo is the founding member of what they call The Joy Luck Club (for which the book gets its name). It’s a regular appointment to play mahjong, feast on good food, share stories and celebrate being alive (and, later, play the stockmarket).

In the first section, we learn that Suyuan Woo has sadly passed away, and her daughter Jing-Mei Woo is taking her place at the mahjong table. She was once the wife of an officer, forced to flee her Kweilin home during WWII and abandon her twin daughters along the way. The three other mothers in The Joy Luck Club have equally sad stories. They’re all around the same theme, too: life is hard, tradition is good (except when it sucks), and kids are ungrateful.

The only narrative propulsion throughout The Joy Luck Club, really, is Jing-Mei Woo’s attempt to find the twin daughters her mother was forced to abandon decades prior. The other ladies of the club had a letter confirming that they were alive and safe, but they don’t yet know that their mother is dead.

So, eight stories, for each of the eight women. It was hard to place the stories as you were reading them. Aside from the respective character’s name at the beginning of “their” chapter, I found myself relying heavily on context clues to work out when and where each story was taking place (and how it connected to the other stories in The Joy Luck Club, though I’ll happily admit that sometimes that thread eluded me).

I won’t pretend to be any kind of expert on China (or Chinese culture, Chinese language, Chinese tradition, the Chinese diaspora, Chinese medicine, or even Chinese food), so all I’m relying on is my gut feeling in saying this… but the stories in The Joy Luck Club felt OFF, in the way Tan depicted them. I struggle to put my finger on exactly why, but something about the characters and their lives on the page just didn’t feel authentic.

I read, after finishing the book, that although The Joy Luck Club sold well and was very popular with many readers, there were a number of critics who reproached Tan for perpetuating racist stereotypes about Chinese Americans. Frank Chin, one of the pioneers of Chinese American literature, attributed The Joy Luck Club‘s popularity to this pandering approach; according to him, depicting Chinese culture as “backwards, cruel, and misogynistic” guaranteed that the book would be received well by mainstream America. He also criticised Tan’s invention of Chinese “folk tales” for the book, calling them “Confucian culture as seen through the interchangeable Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese mix (depending which is the yellow enemy of the moment) of Hollywood”. Zing!

The mother/daughter relationships are well fleshed out, though – complex and multifaceted, an impression enhanced by the alternating generational accounts in the book’s structure. It’s a commendable representation of the search for identity and inherited trauma. Critics praised this aspect of The Joy Luck Club, with Nancy Willard saying: “Amy Tan’s special accomplishment in this novel is not her ability to show us how mothers and daughters hurt each other, but how they ultimately forgive each other.”

And, ultimately, I liked the philosophy of the club itself, the Joy Luck Club – making a space in one’s life to be deliberately, determinedly happy, even when the world is falling to shit. We could all use a bit of that, couldn’t we? Unfortunately, the titular club only really appears in the first couple of chapters of The Joy Luck Club; it’s barely mentioned after that.

All told, The Joy Luck Club wasn’t really what I was expecting. It was fine, I’m sure some find it deep and impactful, but it’s not one I’ll be thrusting into your hands or re-reading myself. In fact, I think reading the opening chapter as a short story by itself would make it much more powerful, so maybe give that a go instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Joy Luck Club:

  • “This isn’t advice on how to raise children.” – Lok An
  • “The kindle version sucks. You can’t even burn it for warmth.” – NYAAH!
  • “This book is the absolutely worst ever. The Dr. Seuss books are better than this. Amy Tan needs to step up her game because this was a joke. Some of these stories makes no sense and you can tell that Amy Tan was high while making this book. Needs to be banned from every bookstore around the world including Antarctica and North Korea. The Bible is miles better than this s***.” – Hans Guzman
  • “If you don’t know any Asian American people, you will love this book.” – nico

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta wrote: “Nowhere in the world are there to be found people richer than the Chinese”. It’s a fitting epigraph for Kevin Kwan’s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians, an outrageous over-the-top satirical novel about the very richest Chinese families, first published back in 2013.

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Crazy Rich Asians here.
(I’ll earn a small commission from purchases made through these affiliate links – not enough to make me crazy rich, but it’s a start!)

Kwan has said that, in writing Crazy Rich Asians, he wanted to “introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience” – and try to bite back your jealousy when you hear that he loosely based the novel on his own upbringing in Singapore. While caring for his father (who sadly passed in 2010), Kwan began writing stories to preserve the memories they shared. Beginning with the chapter he called “Singapore Bible Study” (“an excuse [for attendees] to gossip and show off new jewellery”), he eventually developed the stories into a novel.

Crazy Rich Asians revolves around five central characters, though the full cast is huge. There’s a helpful family tree in the front to help you keep things straight, with hilarious footnotes (the footnotes continue throughout the novel, but sadly devolve into oddly patronising for-dummies translations of slang terms and descriptions of Asian cuisine).

Things kick off when Nicholas (Nick) Young, heir to the fortune of one of the wealthiest families in Asia, asks his ABC (American Born Chinese) girlfriend Rachel Chu to come to Singapore with him, to attend the wedding of the year. Singapore’s most eligible bachelor, Colin Khoo, is marrying fashion icon, Araminta Lee, and everyone’s going to be there.

Rachel has basically no idea about Nick’s family or wealth. As far as she knows, he’s a regular old middle-class NYU professor, like her. She crashes into this grand-wedding-cum-family-reunion completely unprepared.

Eleanor Young, Nick’s controlling mother, is one of the titular Crazy Rich Asians. She’s as obsessed with prestige and propriety as you’d expect a ridiculously wealthy matriarch to be. She’s terrified at the prospect that Nick might be serious about – might even marry – a girl no one knows, an American, from outside her close-knit circle of wealthy friends and families.

Eleanor hires a private investigator to learn more about Rachel’s past, hoping to use whatever she uncovers to prove to Nick that she’s not a suitable marriage prospect. Things backfire, in more ways than one.

And, as if that’s not enough, there are side plots galore. There’s Nick’s younger brother and his trampy soap-opera star girlfriend, who shows up to meet the family in a completely sheer outfit. There’s Nick’s cousin, who is baffled to discover that her seemingly-happy husband is receiving filthy text messages from a Hong Kong mistress. Colin’s wondering what the hell he’s got himself into with all these wedding shenanigans, and whether he can stomach the hoopla long enough to get Araminta down the aisle. And more!

Crazy Rich Asians is just as gossipy as Austen, with the same emphasis on class, lineage, and scandal. Of course, the volume is turned up to eleven, with jaw-dropping opulence in every aspect – designers, decor, and domestic help. In fact, Kwan has said that his editor asked that some off the more lavish details be cut from the story, as they weren’t “believable”; Kwan sent through links to news articles to prove that the families he’s writing about really do live this way. Truth is less believable than fiction, at least in this case.

It was fun to plunge into the glitzy world of the Youngs and the Leongs, but a couple of things held me back from enjoying Crazy Rich Asians as thoroughly as I would have liked. Firstly, the dialogue was quite stilted throughout, and tended to over-explain (I recall a similar issue when reading Kevin Kwan’s 2020 novel Sex And Vanity). Secondly, there was a shocking and unexpected scene about dog-fighting, which made my breath catch in my throat. Thankfully, it was called out by characters in-text, but it still felt really jarring. I skipped my eyes over a page or two, and went back to the glitzy fun I came for. (Oh, and another trigger warning, there’s a fairly detailed description of a pretty awful domestic abuse situation towards the end.)

Still, despite those issues, I can see why Crazy Rich Asians went gangbusters and became an international best-seller. Kwan capitalised on the momentum and released two sequels: China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, and Rich People Problems in 2017. There was a film adaptation too, which was widely praised for its carefully curated aesthetic and Asian cast.

All told, if you’re looking for a book to take to the beach, Crazy Rich Asians is a very safe bet. Be prepared to weep the next time you check your own bank balance, though!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crazy Rich Asians:

  • “I would recommend this book to people who like flat characters, unrealistic dialogue, a love story with no spark, and a predictable ending.” – doodlenoodle
  • “if I could get the time back I spent reading this book I’d use it to watch paint dry, I’d enjoy that more.” – IL
  • “I get it. They’re crazy rich. Not enough character development.” – ST
  • “if you actually loved this book and found it funny and entertaining, then you must be as dumb as a bag of rocks. I’m no member of Mensa, but I can see that this book was written for the un-intellectual masses instead of people who actually enjoy fiction.” – RWK88205
  • “Regardless of the word “rich” in the title, this novel is poor, poor, poor.” – Margaret Grant
« Older posts