Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Popular Fiction (page 1 of 5)

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jaswal

If the title of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows doesn’t catch your eye, I don’t know how to help you. Knowing nothing else about this book, I knew I had to read it. Somehow, the title raises a bunch of questions, but at the same time it does exactly what it says on the tin. Brilliant!

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If I had to sum up the thesis of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, I’d say it’s: every woman has a hidden life, and every community has things they don’t talk about. Sometimes, those secrets collide.

Nikki is a twenty-something woman living in London, straddling the worlds of her immigrant parents and her modern contemporaries. She’s a bit directionless (as twenty-somethings tend to be), having dropped out of law school to ‘find her passion’. That search has taken her to a small apartment above a pub where she works a few nights each week, much to her family’s chagrin.

Nikki’s sister has chosen a different path: a respectable profession (nursing) and entering into the marriage market. She asks Nikki to post an ad on a Southall temple message board for young people seeking arranged marriages, and there Nikki finds an intriguing ad of her own. The Sikh Community Association is seeking a creative writing teacher to teach story writing to women – and Nikki, out of curiosity more than anything, takes the job.

But this is Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, so I’m sure you can guess that the storytelling workshop doesn’t work out exactly the way Nikki expects. The proper Sikh widows who attend the class are barely literate, and they’re expecting to learn the English alphabet and grammar, not narrative perspective and literary style. They soon discover, thanks to a gag gift they discover on Nikki’s desk, the world of erotic stories, and realise they’d have a lot more fun telling their own than learning their ABCs.

The erotic stories these Punjabi widows tell aren’t just wink-wink euphemistically sexy – they’re straight up spicy. It turns out these women are hiding a lot under their white dupattas. As the women delve deeper into their fantasies and the radical act of openly communicating their desires, Nikki grows concerned about the community’s reaction to her classes – specifically the Brotherhood, the young men who style themselves as the ‘moral police’.

The title of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows might mislead some readers (it misled me, I’m not too proud to admit it) into thinking this is purely a comedic novel, an older-women-behaving-badly romp with lots of literal lols. It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s also meaningful, and there’s a lot of depth to it if you’re reading it as a feminist text. It’s a book about how women experience and express desire in cultures that are policed by men. It’s about sexuality as a source of confidence, both in and out of the bedroom. And it’s about the power to determine one’s own life, and pursue one’s own happiness.

I particularly appreciated the diversity of the arranged marriages depicted in Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows – both how they happen, and how they turn out. For a long time, the dominant Anglo narrative about arranged marriages was that they were universally awful (especially for women), and shackled two people together for life, site unseen, simply because their parents said so. Then, as far as I can see, there was a bit of an over-correction, and we had a run of stories about modern arranged marriages that worked perfectly because the couple fell in love for real. In Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, there are both very traditional arranged marriages and more contemporary and flexible arranged marriages, ones that work well and ones that don’t. More diversity in our perspective and understanding can only be a good thing, and this book definitely contributes to that.

Reese Witherspoon picked Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows for her reading list in 2018, and it’s easy to see why. As she said, it’s “a mystery, a romance, a family drama… and yes it’s 🔥 🔥 🔥!” – total Reese catnip.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows:

  • “too raunchy to be interesting” – M. Edwards
  • “just silly. misleading title to entice buying.” – KAVANJIT SINGH
  • “The book had romance and murder! Would recommend” – sam
  • “The so called “Erotic Stories” didn’t blow my skirt up.” – I Can Tell

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is billed as “a moving tale of post-war friendship, love, and books,”. I’m not into WWII historical fiction as a rule, but the bookish aspect of this one drew my attention.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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This one also has a heart-wrenching authorial story. Mary Ann Shaffer was a 70-year-old former librarian, encouraged by members of her book club to write a book of her own. She was inspired by a visit to the English Channel island of Guernsey, and crafted a story that combined that location with her own lifelong passion for books and literature. Sadly, Shaffer’s health began to decline after she submitted her manuscript to publishers, and her niece Annie Barrows had to take over for final re-writes and edits. Shaffer passed away shortly before The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society was published in 2008, so she never saw her debut novel in print.

But wipe your tears away, we’ve got a book to review! The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel, set in 1946. The action takes place between London, a city still recovering from the Blitz, and the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by Germans from 1940 to liberation in 1945.

32-year-old writer, Juliet Ashton, found fame and financial security (in very lean times) by writing comedic columns as an intrepid and subversive character. As the novel begins, she’s writing to her publisher to say that she’s ready for a change, to write under her own name about weightier topics. She begins casting around for an idea.

Around the same time, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a stranger from the island of Guernsey. A book that had previously belonged to her – The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb – has found its way into his hands, and he writes to her to tell her how much he enjoys it. They begin a correspondence, and Dawsey tells Juliet all about the literary society run by the residents of Guernsey. It began under strange circumstances, as an alibi for being out after the curfew imposed by German occupiers. Juliet is fascinated, and the story sparks an idea…

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a highly readable book, and surprisingly moving. The wide cast of characters is charming and entertaining, and the letter format is used to great effect. Most importantly to me, the war is more than a convenient backdrop – it’s integral to the plot and the characters, and Shaffer neither romanticises it nor exploits its horrors for dramatic effect.

I read an excellent review by Stevie Davies for The Guardian, which I think sums it up beautifully:

Shaffer’s Guernsey characters step from the past radiant with eccentricity and kindly humour, a comic version of the state of grace. They are innocents who have seen and suffered, without allowing evil to penetrate the rind of decency that guards their humanity.

Stevie Davies (“Bright and dark” – Review of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society)

Given how well it flows and gently tugs on heartstrings, it’s no surprise that The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society hit the best-seller list. I’d imagine that book clubs the world over had a field day with it. It was also adapted into a 2018 film (starring Lily James as Juliet), and the trailer looks quite promising.

Overall, this isn’t a challenging or life-changing read, but a perfectly pleasant one – the perfect gift for a casual reader of historical or romantic fiction, or one with which to pass a quiet rainy afternoon yourself.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society:

  • “Read the whole thing, dog conversations and all. Terrible. I was excited by the title and that turned out to be the best part.” – Sharon tonkin
  • “How could they send four to five letters in the same day!!!!! They weren’t texting, they were writing letters! DUMB. And really, can somebody write letters everyday??? That tells me that Juliet didn’t have a life. WEIRD” – SuzieG
  • “WW2 is SUPPOSED to be used as the backdrop and reason for the title, but the disjointed writing could cause a historically inept person to believe WW2 was fabricated by the authors as a convenient cause for secret food gatherings. This book is assanine.” – Siren23
  • “Want to read about a starving Nazi soldier strangling a cat, boiling it and eating it? No? How about starving Nazi soldiers using spoons to scrape the bottom of a boat to pick up any food scraps left over? How about learning that the heroine you’ve been rooting for all along has been killed in prison and won’t return to her beloved island? Neither did I. The charming and romantic parts of which there were plenty were ruined with these graphic parts. It’s like serving a delicious salad with a few rotten boiled eggs and a teaspoon of spoiled salad dressing. It tastes good except for the rotten bits and in the end you are left with a bad taste in your mouth.” – Ivy Jolie

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

When Queenie was published in 2019, it was widely marketed as “a black Bridget Jones”. That’s an intriguing description, but Candice Carty-Williams has said it doesn’t accurately reflect the content and character of her debut novel. “That’s how I thought of her in the beginning, too. But this book is also naturally political just because of who Queenie is. She’s not Bridget Jones. She never could be,” she told Stylist magazine.

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My edition of Queenie is blurbed by Dolly Alderton, Candace Bushnell, and Bernardine Evaristo – which should give you a good read on the “vibe” of its contents.

The titular main character of this new adult novel is 25 years old, the granddaughter of Jamaican migrants, barely hanging onto her job at a newspaper, and frantic over the breakdown of her relationship with her fiance. Well, technically they’re “on a break”, but Tom is barely replying to Queenie’s messages and calls, so things aren’t looking good.

It might sound like the stuff of fluffly rom-coms, but Queenie isn’t exactly a light read. She’s in one heck of a self-destructive spiral for most of the book, she has a lot of below-average sex with very shitty men, and as a character she’s quite self-absorbed. I’ll offer a bit of a trigger warning here for miscarriage, mental illness (anxiety), and abusive relationships. So, yeah – Bridget Jones it ain’t.

Carty-Williams was spot on when she described Queenie as inherently political – micro-aggressions run rife throughout the novel. It’s a startling, and accurate, reflection of the lived experience of young black women in metropolitan areas like London. Take, for instance, Queenie seeking comfort at her favourite Caribbean bakery – only to find that the building has been taken over in the increasingly gentrified neighbourhood, and it’s now a burger joint full of “white kids holding colourful cans of beer”. She’s endlessly fetishised on dating apps, strangers try to touch her hair in clubs, her boss turns down her Black Lives Matter story on the flimsiest of excuses, and there’s only one other woman in her office who looks like her. Most galling of all, her (white) almost-ex fiance refused to say anything about his uncle’s “jokes” at family gatherings. Ew.

Some of the singularly British nuances escaped me – especially the geography. I expect that disappointment over the gentrification of Brixton would resonate more for readers more familiar with London geography. A lot of the humour missed me, too. The only character that really roused a smile out of me was Queenie’s bestie, Kyazike. She wasn’t “comic relief”, but she was forthright, energetic, and fun – she totally jumped off the page.

Carty-Williams did leave in a nod to the Bridget Jones parallels, in the name of Queenie’s other bestie – Darcy.

Even though Queenie has it very rough over the course of the novel, her story comes to a satisfying end – one that isn’t too neat, but leaves you with hope for her future.

Queenie is, I think, emblematic of an interesting direction in the New Adult and Romantic Comedy categories – books that look like the light-hearted reads we remember, but actually have hidden depths. It’s difficult to “enjoy” a book like this, but it’s still highly readable and surprisingly insightful.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Queenie:

  • “Queenie is a hot mess lol.” – Niya P
  • “”For fans of Luster” that was the clue I missed. I’ve read Luster and it was gross. Queenie made me feel like I needed several showers and an exorcism.” – Hgaines
  • “Though people put themselves through these horrible experiences of having lots of casual sex, I don’t want to read about it. I would rather not be educated in this fashion about all the social issues the author is bringing forward. If I were her mother, I would wash her mouth out with soap. The chapter where she goes to Midnight Mass was the last straw — completely irreverent and disrespectful. Must the vicar who is singing be made fun of?” – Alexis Farrell

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

I must admit, I wasn’t all that curious about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine when I first started seeing it all over #bookstagram. I mean, the main character is completely fine, right? What’s interesting about that? But then I started reading more about it beyond the title, when it topped the Dymocks 101 back in 2019, and my curiosity was piqued. Maybe there was more to this super-mega-best-seller than meets the eye…?

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Eleanor, the titular character, is a bit of an odd duck (but, it turns out, she has good reason to be). She has a routine for everything: work, meals, chats with Mummy, vodka, and that’s about it. She doesn’t have any friends or social engagements. Eleanor Oliphant lives a lonely life. But she’s completely fine with that!

Her routine is disrupted when she decides a local musician on the come up is her soul mate, and begins changing her life and her appearance in preparation for their inevitable romance. It starts with a bikini wax, then a manicure, then a whole new look. These changes ripple out: soon, she’s made friends with Raymond, the office IT guy, and the older man they found passed out in the street. Although she resists these new friendships at first – she’s completely fine, after all! – she finds that, far from draining and distracting her, they actually bring her joy and a sense of fulfillment. Imagine that!

The prose is surprisingly good, and the story is really well-paced. It’s compelling, without feeling like it’s racing by. Honeyman is the master of the gradual reveal, too. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine has a lot of secrets to spring on the reader. Around page 30, you find out Eleanor has a distinctly scarred face. Around page 50, you learn it may be related to a house fire, or maybe her rotten relationship with Mummy. Ten pages after that, Eleanor reveals she was in a horribly abusive relationship in her early twenties, too. The exposition is gradual, and you have to be paying close attention to put all the pieces together.

It should be clear by now that this is far from your standard pick-me-up fare. Eleanor Oliphant has a troubled past on many fronts, which goes a long way to explaining her solitary lifestyle and… odd way of relating to people. There’s a lot more trauma in Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine than I was expecting – it’s closer to Sharp Objects or When I Was Ten than The Rosie Project or The Helpline. Trigger warnings for domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism, suicidality, grief and loss.

Eleanor is a somewhat unreliable narrator, not that she intends to be. She just has a very unusual perspective, on herself and the world, and often the reader learns more from what she doesn’t say than what she does. For example, even though Eleanor constantly affirms how “fine” she is with being alone, she’s clearly desperately lonely and touch-starved; Honeyman zooms in on every moment of physical contact for Eleanor, no matter how fleeting, to highlight just how rare it is for her. It’s beautifully done, and more than a little heart-wrenching. I can see why so many readers fell in love with Eleanor, and her strong cast of supporting characters.

I was really satisfied with the ending, too. I won’t “give it away”, but I will say that all the plotlines come to a natural conclusion. Best of all, there’s no magic wand, no silver-bullet, no quick-fix happily-ever-after. Eleanor ends Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine in a much better position than she begins it, but all her problems don’t magically disappear.

I’m really surprised that Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine hasn’t made it to the silver screen, yet. In 2017, Reese Witherspoon announced that her company Hello Sunshine had optioned the film rights, and there have been a few other minor production and funding announcements, but nothing else since. I’m sure, whenever they pull their fingers out and get it to theaters, it’ll be an instant hit.

Until then, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is highly re-readable, and will surely give your brain a lot to chew on. Definitely more than you’d expect from a beach read!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine:

  • “It really is not as described: it’s about mental health; it’s dark, it’s sad and it’s hardly hilarious unless you are a sociopath.” – rainman
  • “I received this book as a gift. How do you write a thank you note and say “thank you for the most boring and depressing book I’ve ever read” ? I have forced myself to continue reading to chapter 17 as the gift giver said she enjoyed it!! May need a Zoloft or two to finish reading.” – Penny D
  • “This is the type of book where you only read it when you are bored to death on a 20 hour plane ride in coach. And with 5 pages left when the plane lands, you don’t even bother to finish it later.” – Darren

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.

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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
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