Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 1 of 9)

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Some authors manage to make a big impact, despite having a relatively small body of work. Harper Lee is one, Gillian Flynn is another – and, of course, Donna Tartt. Her debut novel, The Secret History, was first published back in 1992, and she’s only published two other books since then. And yet, she’s manage to define a niche genre (dark academia), top best-seller lists, win awards, and win herself a legion of fans around the world.

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The Secret History is a campus novel, set at a fictional(ish) elite liberal arts college in New England. I say “ish” because Tartt based it on Bennington College, where she was a student in the ’80s. (She even dedicates the novel to fellow student Bret Easton Ellis.) The story follows six classics students, who become increasingly isolated from the rest of the school community as they deal with the fall-out of a murder.

I suppose you could make an argument that anything else I say about The Secret History could constitute a “spoiler”… but really, I don’t care. It’s an iconic 30-year-old novel. Deal with it.

Besides, Tartt gives a lot away up front. The Prologue to The Secret History is a masterpiece – up there with the opening chapter of Lolita. In it, Tartt reveals that Bunny, one of the students, is dead, but the full circumstances of his death are only hinted at in the vaguest terms. It’s a hell of an opener, and it compels you to read on immediately.

What follows is a kind of inverted detective story, where the events around Bunny’s murder are laid out in chronological order, with tantalising clues about what’s to come sprinkled throughout the narrative. The narrator, Richard, is an outsider, with a very different background to the others (he’s working-class California to their old-money East Coast). He’s as enthralled by the classics teacher, Julian, as the rest of them, but still new enough to question some of the odd behaviours and habits that they all exhibit.

Richard notices that, as close as the classics students are, they seem to be keeping secrets – from him, and from each other. He’s baffled by, for instance, Henry’s willingness to foot the bill for Bunny’s extravagant tastes. Charles and Camilla seem too close, even for twins. Francis is clearly gay, but no one says or does anything to acknowledge it. All of them show up with strange injuries, hide things in closets, carry on private conversations in Greek. What the heck is up with that?

You can see how I found myself gripped by The Secret History. Something is going on in this story, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it! Tartt’s prose is exquisitely detailed, with startling revelations and intriguing mysteries. By about a third of the way through, I was pretty sure I could see where it was all going, but she still managed to weave in a couple of surprises. The tension was almost too much at times – I gave myself a headache from clenching my teeth, more than once. Plus, the chapters are looooooooong, which made it difficult to take a break. Even at 500+ pages, the temptation to read the whole thing in one sitting is real.

In the hands of a lesser writer, The Secret History would have been beyond the pale. But Tartt is convincing, too convincing, and you’ll find yourself drawn in unquestioningly as the story unfolds. Michiko Kakutani, the legendary New York Times book reviewer, put it perfectly: “It is a measure of Ms. Tartt’s complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny’s murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms. Tartt’s supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes.”

All the way through, I kept thinking back to Crime And Punishment. The Secret History is essentially the same story, but brought forward into the late 20th century, to All American academia. I loved Dostoyevsky’s psychological drama, too, so I guess I just have a thing for books about conflicted murderers.

The trigger warnings may seem obvious: violence, murder, death, and so on. But I also want to give a heads up for alcoholism, incest, epithets – and, of course, a couple of dog deaths 🙁 The first comes early and very brief (less than one paragraph), but the second is violent and cruel and made me feel sick.

In the end, The Secret History is as good as everyone says it is. Its enduring popularity is entirely deserved. I’ll be joining the ranks of Donna Tartt fans, hanging desperately onto hope that a new novel is coming from her very, very soon – she’s past due!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secret History:

  • “If you wanna read a book that is close to 600 pages that is 99% rich whiney kids drinking heavily and complaining about their feelings, then this is the book for you.” – eric Beheler
  • “I can’t believe Jenna Bush Hager said this book was a pillar of literature. It is more like a cement block that all copies of this book should be tied to and thrown overboard. The author drones on and on about 5 college students who kill a fellow student and then 1.) drink 2.) smoke 3.) eat 4.) take baths and 5.) wear suits and ties and 6.) talk ad nauseum about what they have done. I can’t even figure out what decade it is set in.” – Bluetooth Rookie
  • “The most boring read of my life, and I’m a damn lawyer. I’ve read bankruptcy statutes with more zest.” – Jaye Lindsay
  • “I bought this book nearly 25 years ago and just got around to reading it. I wonder if it’s too late to get my money back?” – Shatterbox

Business Or Pleasure – Rachel Lynn Solomon

I feel like I’ve been waiting a year for Business Or Pleasure – and I pretty much have, because I was desperate to read more Rachel Lynn Solomon as soon as I turned the final page of her last book, Weather Girl. This one was billed as “her sexiest novel yet”, and the amazing team at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Chandler Cohen is a bit fed up with being a ghostwriter. She works hard to bring other people’s stories to life, while her own languishes in a Miscellaneous folder on her laptop. She agrees to take on one last job, penning the memoir of TV heartthrob Finnegan Walsh, because it will give her the space and money she needs to figure out her next move.

Except when she meets Finnegan Walsh for an interview, she realises: he’s “Drew”, the man she had an awful one-night-stand with after “her” last book launch.

They agree to put their brief encounter behind them and focus on writing the best book possible… but, come on. Business Or Pleasure is a romance novel.

This is how I die, I think: confessing to Finnegan Walsh over falafel that he did not rock my world.

Business Or Pleasure (Page 100)

Chandler ends up agreeing to give Finn “intimacy” lessons, as a kind of side project to the memoir. Two hot people, working together by day, sleeping together by night, with an explicit lesson plan… who could guess what happens next?

Yes, Business Or Pleasure is a steamy read, with a bonus “oh no, there’s only one bed!” incident that had me giggling with delight. Chandler is a refreshingly sex-positive heroine, and Finn a very respectful student. Oh, and there’s no stupid miscommunication break-up in the third act!

And it’s not all smut: Business Or Pleasure offers a lot of interesting insights into the world of comic book conventions and fantasy fandom, and both main characters have anxiety disorders (OCD and GAD) that play significant roles without defining them.

Business Or Pleasure somehow managed to exceed my already-high expectations. Rachel Lynn Solomon remains a must-read romance author for me.

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Nothing To See Here – Kevin Wilson

I heard the conceit of Nothing To See Here and it was all I needed to know. “A politician’s kids spontaneously combust, threatening his political career” – I am HERE FOR IT! I rushed out to find myself a copy immediately.

Nothing To See Here - Kevin Wilson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, in 1995, Lillian is 28-years-old and down on her luck, living in her mother’s attic in Tennessee. She could’ve lived the good life instead – she could’ve been a contender! – but her mother was bribed into letting her take the fall for her roommate’s drug possession back in high school. So, she drifts from shitty job to shitty job, barely able to see past the fog of poverty and depression. She has a dark sense of humour and a wicked pragmatism that I thoroughly enjoy.

The inciting incident of Nothing To See Here comes when Lillian receives a letter, from that roommate who escaped a drug charge. Madison is every bit as luminous and charismatic as she was in high school, but now she’s a senator’s wife and lives in a mansion paid for with his family’s wealth. Madison writes to Lillian, begging her to come take her up on a “job opportunity”. Lacking any better options, Lillian accepts.

She doesn’t know until she gets there that the “job opportunity” is taking care of Madison’s step-kids. Who spontaneously combust, at inconvenient times. They need to be kept out of sight, and out of mind.

Seriously, they spontaneously combust. Just… whoosh!

‘How are they still alive?’ I asked.

‘It doesn’t hurt them at all,’ she said, shrugging to highlight how dumbfounded she was. ‘They just get really red, like a bad sunburn, but they’re not hurt.’

‘What about their clothes?’ I asked.

‘I’m still figuring this out, Lillian,’ she said. ‘I guess their clothes burn off.’

‘So they’re just these naked kids on fire?’

‘I think so. So you can understand why we’re worried.’

Nothing TO See Here

Lillian agrees to look after these “fire children” for the summer, keeping them out of view of the media and Madison’s husband’s political opponents. (Needless to say, “fire children” might pose a problem for his future presidential aspirations.) That’s easier said than done, but Lillian’s willing to give it a crack for some money in the bank and the chance of a fresh start.

Nothing To See Here is a novel about class, about the divide between wealth and poverty. Lillian’s entire life trajectory is changed, first by Madison’s crime (which wasn’t even a blip on her own record, expunged by money and influence), then by Madison’s exploitation of her desperation in seeking her out for help. It’s a powerful allegory for the limitations of class mobility and inequity of opportunity.

If you were rich, and you were a dude, it really felt like if you just followed a certain number of steps, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted.

Nothing To See Here

As much as Lillian envies Madison’s wealth and privilege, though, Wilson does manage to sneak some sympathy in the side entrance. Madison’s preoccupation with “appearances” and politics prevents her from developing any kind of relationship with the children, a relationship that Lillian ultimately finds immensely rewarding and fulfilling (though, obviously, not without its challenges).

It’s also a fascinating study of female friendship, with Lillian and Madison being essentially grown “frenemies”, while still caring deeply for one another. There are queer overtones, with Lillian’s admiration for Madison tipping over into outright lust at times. It’s difficult to understand, unless you’ve been a woman in this kind of friendship, what would make Lillian feel in anyway drawn to or obligated to Madison after what happened in high school – but she does. It’s one of those illogical relationships that somehow makes perfect sense, and Wilson renders it beautifully on the page.

There was less about the politician husband than I expected. I thought this novel was going to be along the lines of Veep, but it was more like My Brilliant Friend – except more humorous and pithy. So, I guess I’d call Nothing To See Here contemporary feminist fiction meets political satire with a speculative fiction element. That’s one heck of a combination, I know, but Wilson truly nails it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nothing To See Here:

  • “Interesting premise – a pair of twins who burst into flames now and again when they are upset. Implausible? Sure, but that’s beside the point. He never explains why the kids catch fire and you don’t expect him to – all kids catch on fire now and again in a sense. It’s one of them metaphor things.” – Dave the L
  • “I tend to prefer a more serious genre, but once in a while I need to lighten up and this story did it for me. I wasn’t even offended by the main character’s intermittent use of the F word because it was an essential contribution to her character.” – vito catalfio
  • “Stupid . No plot, no body, no reality. So many holes in this book that the pages could be made of Swiss cheese.” – VLK
  • “I just didn’t like this story how Madison hired Lillian to look after her step children who seemed to also catch on fire. Very far fetched story.” – Harrison Shapiro
  • “The simplistic story line, cardboard characters, and uninteresting writing do not reward the time spent reading. The author titled the book correctly: There’s Literally NOTHING to See Here.” – Readerphile

Rodham – Curtis Sittenfeld

Hillary Rodham Clinton has one of the most famous (or infamous) marriages in the world. Everyone knows the story of Hillary and Bill, everyone has an opinion on his Oval Office misbehaviour, everyone remembers how Hillary finally ran for office herself and was bafflingly defeated by… well, you remember. But what if it was all different? What if Hillary had never married Bill? That’s the conceit of Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s alternative history novel published back in 2020 when the world was ending.

Rodham - Curtis Sittenfeld - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Rodham begins with Hillary graduating from Wellesley in 1969, giving a bold and divisive speech at her graduation ceremony (as she did in real life). The following year, attending Yale Law School, she meets Bill Clinton. To her great surprise, the charming and charismatic man pursues her, and they quickly fall in love. They make moves towards building a life together and all seems to be going swimmingly, until Hillary discovers that Bill is a serial cheater (again, as she did in real life).

Here’s where Rodham and real life diverge, though. Real Hillary set aside her qualms about Bill’s philandering and accepted his proposal of marriage – you can read the rest in her Wikipedia entry. In Rodham, though, Fictional Hillary declines, and sets off to start her own career in academia, eventually transitioning into politics herself.

The margin between staying and leaving was so thin; really, it could have gone either way.

Rodham (Page 146)

Rodham offers fascinating insight into Hillary’s mind – or, at least, Sittenfeld’s informed best-guess about it. The choice to relay the story from a first-person point of view doubles the effect. It’s shockingly intimate, even quite horny at times. I found it difficult to force myself to forget that Rodham is about a real person, and that she might have read this imagined version of her own life. There seemed to be no limit on what Sittenfeld imagined for Hillary: what she does when she’s alone, what she likes in bed, what her bowel movements are like.

(Despite extensive Googling, I haven’t been able to find any mention of Real Hillary reading and/or commenting on Rodham. If you know of such evidence, please share it with me! I’m dying to know what she thinks about it!)

I hope I’m not giving you the wrong idea: Rodham isn’t a schlocky fictional exposé. With equal care and attention, Sittenfeld also addresses the Big Issues: sex, sexism, racism, and aging.

Bill doesn’t come off looking too good – at best, he’s portrayed as a charismatic manipulator who can’t keep it in his pants (and I can’t say I finished Rodham thinking the best of him). Hillary’s father comes off as a real prick, too. Completing the trifecta of arseholery, Donald Trump makes his first appearance around page 270 (2005, in Fictional Hillary’s timeline), and remains a peripheral caricature throughout the remainder of the story.

Wasn’t Donald simply a far less palatable version of Bill? Rich and narcissistic and verbose, charismatic, and transfixing? Bill was far smarter, but was he really less sleazy?

Rodham (Page 332)


I noted down a few small qualms as I read Rodham. The dialogue is a bit stilted and formal. The opening chapters assume a strong working knowledge of the U.S. political system. There are odd time jumps in the narrative – for example, skipping right over Fictional Hillary’s first campaign for U.S. Senate, after a lot of build-up to her decision to run at all – and the ending was abrupt. But none of these issues really detracted from my enjoyment and thrill at entering this alternative world, one where a complex woman lays down the gauntlet (and Bill’s political aspirations fall to shit without her).

In a review, The New Yorker criticised Sittenfeld for creating a less controversial Hillary in Rodham. It’s true, Fictional Hillary isn’t faced with a lot of the political decisions that her critics still deride her for to this day. But artificially inserting those facts into the fictional alterna-world would have ruined the book’s conceit, as far as I can tell. Sittenfeld isn’t recreating reality on the page – she’s imagining a different reality, one that allows us to explore ideas about politics and gender with recognisable figures and a control group (i.e., “what really happened”) to compare it to.

I was surprised by Rodham. It was masterfully written, fascinating and shocking (at times), a pleasure to read and fuel for a lot of post-read musing. As I mentioned, I’m dying to know what Real Hillary thought of it, but if I never find out, I’ll satisfy myself with recommending it to everyone and forcing them to tell me what they think about it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Rodham:

  • “This book is lacking in sooo many ways. For a book that is supposed to be about Hillary’s life WITHOUT Bill Clinton, so much of the book is about her relationship with Clinton. Worse yet, the only exciting part of her entire life in this book is the 4 years she spent with Clinton. Outside of that relationship, her life is like eating baked chicken and boiled potatoes every night for dinner for decades on end.” – S. Davis
  • “Save your time. Spoiler alert. She becomes President. I’m not familiar with this author and I thought only a man would write, “thrust” so many times in a sex scene. And use the word scrotum! I’m disappointed to realize the author is a woman!” – C Davis
  • “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that “Bill Clinton’s erect penis” was running for President in this book, There it was, hiding around every corner just waiting to leap out. And just after I’d thought I’d heard the end of it after the first part, it came charging back.” – Tamara T. Pitts
  • “I would have put it in the bin but I shredded and composted it instead. Too embarrassed to send it to my local charity book store. They already had about 7 copies; book clubs have a lot to answer for.” – Vivica

The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot has a jaw-dropping, amazing, oh-my-I-must-read-this-immediately premise. I challenge any booklover or creative type not to immediately run out and grab a copy once they hear it: can’t be done! As per the blurb, The Plot is “a psychologically suspenseful novel about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it”.

The Plot - Jean Hanff Korelitz - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, get this: at Ripley, an arts school in regional Vermont, once-promising writer Jacob Finch Bonner is languishing as an instructor in a low-residency fine arts program. He calls it a “special purgatory” for washed-up writers like himself, teaching fiction writing to students like Evan Parker – arrogant, self-indulgent, with no idea the misery that awaits them in their dream careers.

Evan Parker’s writing extract doesn’t seem like anything special, no different to the dozens of extracts Jacob Finch Bonner has to read every year (are you getting that he’s cynical, yet?). But in a one-on-one workshop, Evan Parker describes the plot of the book he’s planning to write, and… it’s stupendous. (Korelitz very cleverly talks around it, describing but not revealing this magnificent plot to the reader, at first.)

And here’s where The Plot gets interesting. Evan Parker dies, sadly and suddenly, not long after the workshop concludes. He passes without ever having published his game-changing bestseller-for-sure novel.

Three years later, Jacob Finch Bonner has written and published the story as his own. It’s gone on to have all the success that Evan Parker predicted it would: top of the best-seller lists, film adaptation in the works, and a spot in Oprah’s book club. All seems to be going well, until Jacob Finch Bonner receives an email from that reads, simply: “You are a thief.”

Who could possibly know that he stole the plot? Who would care? What are they going to do with that information? You can see how The Plot sucks you in. This is a literary mystery of the highest order.

The emails keep coming, and then they escalate. TalentedTom creates a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and an Instagram feed. Jacob Finch Bonner’s neurosis and fear of being found out begins to eat him alive. As he tries to track down this person threatening to expose him, Jacob Finch Bonner is pulled further into his stolen plot than even he realises.

The tone of The Plot is like a snarkier version of Less – meets Crime And Punishment, meets I Know What You Did Last Summer. It’s a delightful take-down of the publishing industrial complex and the Writer As Martyr archetype, as well as a complex psychological portrait. As Elisabeth Egan wrote for the New York Times review: “If you’re a reader who likes stories where a terrible decision snowballs out of control, this book is just what the librarian ordered. Welcome to a spectacular avalanche.”

Apparently, the rights to a TV series have been secured, but I think The Plot really shines because it’s written in a book format. I’m not sure the story would shine on screen the way it does on the page, and the delicious irony of the skewering would be lost. So, if it’s ever made, I don’t think I’ll be watching.

What I will be doing, though, is looking for more books by Jean Hanff Korelitz! I’d not heard of her before reading The Plot, but I can see from her author bio that she has a decent back-list, so I shouldn’t have too much trouble tracking some down. If she can write something this five-star out-of-this-world great, she’s well worth closer attention.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Plot:

  • “Incase you need to know the author’s politics, don’t worry, she will remind you of them throughout the book. Whether it is complaining that enough tax dollars aren’t going toward Obamacare, mansplaining, or gentrification, the plot is constantly interrupted with self righteousness.” – Amazon Customer
  • “If you like suspense/ torture books you will probably enjoy, though a bit slow in middle.” – DFfifth
  • “I actually gave up halfway through and skipped to the end. Using someone’s idea maybe be morally reprehensible but it is not illegal so 200+ pages of worrying about getting caught was just boring.” – A. L. Caissie
  • “As a survivor of a BFA creative writing workshop and — briefly — the wife of a grad student on his way to becoming a professor, the setting and shop talk of academia and the publishing business were drearily familiar to me. But the pages and pages of rambling exposition in lieu of actual storytelling gave me gas.” – Valued Customer
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