Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 1 of 6)

Too Much Lip – Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip, on its face, sounds like a big ask of Australian author Melissa Lucashenko. How can you take all of the worst stereotypes of First Nations families – drinking, crime, welfare, violence – and give them texture? Make them compelling? Heck, make them funny? It’s a tall order, but Lucashenko pulls it off.

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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As per the blurb: “Wise cracking Kerry Salter has spent a lifetime avoiding two things – her hometown and prison. But now her pop is dying and she’s an inch away from the lockup, so she heads south on a stolen Harley.” As Kerry admits herself in the narrative, “too much lip” is her “problem” from “way back” – she just can’t help but say what’s on her mind (and it’s not always kind or flattering for those around her, particularly her family).

This book presents an Australian brand of what might elsewhere be called magical realism. The first conversation Kerry has in the novel takes place with three cheeky crows who are witness to her exodus from Queensland – backpack of stolen loot in tow. It sets the tone for the black (blak) comedy that is to follow in Too Much Lip, one that weaves together ancient culture and contemporary injustice.

What struck me immediately in Too Much Lip is the masterful way in which Lucashenko paints a picture of a culture continuing, but scarred. Kerry’s nephew Donny’s totem animal, the whale, is the perfect metaphor.

“If Granny Ava was still alive he might have learned to call them in off some coastal headland, Kerry reflected. Mighta been taught them special songs, and all them special whale ways, but Uncle Richard in Lismore had only passed on the fact of the totem, and the lingo name for the animal. It was up to Donny what he did with that in the twenty-first century.”

Too Much Lip (Page 51)

The story moves from Kerry’s discomfort at returning to her hometown, to a grassroots protest against the local mayor’s plan to install a jail on their sacred land, to the uncovering of long-buried family secrets. Underpinning it all is a cycle of inter-generational trauma, suffered and inflicted in turn.

While the violence and abuses of the past don’t excuse those perpetrated in the present (Lucashenko isn’t about to give anyone, black or white, a free pass), they go a long way to explaining it and providing all-too-often-absent context for all-too-common problems in families like the Salters. That said, Lucashenko doesn’t push the reader too hard, holding back from drowning us in misery (as she rightly could have) while providing enough to put us squarely on Kerry’s side – even when she’s making terrible decisions that will have you gnashing your teeth in frustration.





Too Much Lip blends The Castle and the Beverly Hillbillies with a storytelling tradition older than any of us can fathom – a unique combination that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I was particularly taken with Lucashenko’s use of dialect, which weaves the narrative and the dialogue together; even though the narration is third-person, a step removed from Kerry and her family, it’s still rich in Bundjalung language and northern NSW/regional QLD vernacular. And in the Salters, Lucashenko has created a family that, yes, drink and lash out and steal and vandalise, but also love and share and laugh and stand together when the shit goes down.

(I must offer a specific trigger warning, though, for a few horrific incidents of cruelty to animals, towards the end of Too Much Lip – I found it especially confronting, so I’d imagine others might as well.)

It’s particularly important that, when you pick up Too Much Lip (which you really should), you don’t skip past the author biography and afterword, which provide essential context for understanding this story. Lucashenko is a Goorie author of Bundjalung and European heritage, and while the specific locations and details of Too Much Lip are imagined, she says “virtually every incidence of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once,”. She also adds that the epigraph “refers to my great-grandmother Christina Copson who, as a Goorie woman in Wolvi in 1907, was arrested for shooting her attempted rapist (also Aboriginal). Christina later beat the charge against her in a Brisbane court, unapologetically stating that although she had shot her attacker in the hip, she had been aiming for his heart and she was only sorry that she had not killed him,”. It’s clear where Kerry gets her spirit, and her lip.

In addition to writing acclaimed fiction (Too Much Lip is her sixth novel, and it won the Miles Franklin award in 2019), Lucashenko is also an amazing advocate and activist. In addition to her work championing First Nations writing, she also co-founded Sisters Inside, a Queensland organisation that provides programs, services, and support for women and girls who have been incarcerated. If you’re looking to do something to end the terrible legacy of state violence against First Nations people in this country (and pay the rent, while you’re at it), supporting Sisters Inside would be a great place to start.

Important reminder: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation, land that was never ceded or sold.


The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

When most kids first hear about the Underground Railroad, they picture just that: train tracks that ran underground, and (in this context) ferried slaves to safety during a truly abhorrent period of American history. Colson Whitehead is the first writer – as far as I know – to take that childish notion and turn it into literary fiction. The Underground Railroad is a semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Before we go any further, I need to make something clear: I’m an Australian girl with no more than the general gist of American history. I have absolutely no authority when it comes to accounts of the slave trade in the States, and no more knowledge than what I’ve gleaned here and there (we didn’t even cover it in school, really). All I’ve done is read this book, and I’m going to tell you what I think of it – take that with as many grains of salt as you deem necessary.

So, back in 2000, baby Whitehead has this idea to write a book about a literal underground railroad… but he chickens out. He doesn’t think he’s got the writing chops to pull it off. Still, the idea festers away in the darkest recesses of his brain, for over a decade. Finally, with five other novels to his name, he sets about writing it, The Underground Railroad.

This process entailed the kind of research that makes you exhausted just to think about: difficult and time consuming. Whitehead spent longer than you or I care to imagine working his way through the oral history archives (over two thousand personal accounts of slavery collected by the Federal Writers’ Project back in the ’30s), and traditional slave testimonies. To his credit, Whitehead doesn’t drown the reader in detail; he employs the ol’ iceberg theory of writing (nine-tenths below the surface) in The Underground Railroad to great effect. The story has the ring of authenticity, without straying into showing-off territory.





The central character, Cora, is born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia. When she is alarmingly young, her mother – Mabel – escapes, without her, leaving her to fend for herself. Obviously, that engenders some very complicated feelings in Cora, pride that her mother was able to extricate herself on the one hand (she was never caught, not even by the notorious slave-catcher Ridgeway), but resentment at being abandoned on the other. Fair enough, wouldn’t you say?

Cora doesn’t harbour any particular aspirations to escape herself although, as she says: “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” Life on the plantation is so horrific that it’s impossible not to dream of escape, but at the same time the odds seem insurmountable (Mabel is the only slave who’s ever pulled it off).

Enter Caesar: a fellow slave, a young man, who approaches Cora and asks her to accompany him on his escape attempt. He seems to view her as some kind of lucky charm, given her mother’s success. Cora rebuffs him at first, but the idea takes root, and grows in her until it seems inevitable. This is how she finds herself swept into the clandestine operation of the underground railroad. In Whitehead’s telling, it’s no metaphor: it has tracks, and stations, and conductors, and timetables. Escaping by the narrowest of margins, Cora and Ceasar board a train and find themselves…





… in South Carolina. And North Carolina. And Tennessee, and Indiana, and further beyond. Her journey is harrowing (to say the least) and each stop on the railroad presents a different manifestation of the reality (and the legacy) of slavery in America. In between each of these stations, Whitehead gives the reader a digression, a back-story of people Cora encounters. At first, they might appear only tangential to the story, but they all piece together to give a more complete picture of what Cora – and at least sixty million others – had to face.

From page one, The Underground Railroad depicts the gruesome realities of the slave trade and enslaved lives. Every chapter reveals some new horror. So much of what happens to Cora is gut-churningly awful, and yet… it’s compelling, and propulsive. The Underground Railroad is not a light or easy read, but it’s unputdownable all the same. That’s a very weird combination, and not one I’ve encountered often in my literary sojourns. I read a review on The Guardian that described it as “beautifully written and painful to read”, which pretty much sums it up.

When Whitehead was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this book, the committee cited the “smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape that speaks to contemporary America”. They weren’t the only ones who were impressed; The Underground Railroad also won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the 2017 Andrew Carneige Medal for Excellence. Sometimes, books that rack up awards are overlooked or discounted by the wider public, written off as too lofty or literary to be decipherable by regular humans, but The Underground Railroad hit all the best-seller lists.

Not to be basic about it, but I’m a fan. A huge fan. It feels twisted to have so thoroughly enjoyed and relished a book about such a terrible subject, but I’ll chalk that up to Whitehead’s talent rather than any defect in my own character. I predict The Underground Railroad will go on to join the canon of classic works about American slavery, alongside Beloved and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Underground Railroad:

  • “I don’t think this book gives an factual account of what the Underground Railroad was. I also question whether or not a person could have gone through what Cora did and survived!?!” – Betty
  • “The fake railroad just didn’t work for me.” – AMO1234
  • “This is perfect background for these times of racial conflict. The south was not all mansions and mint juleps.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Poorly written and how do I say, trite. Fails as science fiction, and fails at historical fiction. An actual subterranean interstate railway system that is un-noticed by authorities. Who built it? How did they do it un-noticed? No nuance. A poor imitation of Forest Gump, focused on senseless torture and atrocities. The Pulitzer committee should be ashamed. To summarize, I did not like it.” – M. Konikoff
  • “Since when do cabbages grow on vines.
    My worry is that some people may think this is a nonfiction book.” – Amazon Customer

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean made international headlines, and won herself a legion of new fans, earlier this year when she posted a series of unabashedly drunken tweets lamenting the state of the world. She’s well deserving of the recognition, of course, but there are plenty of us who were well enamored with her long before she had one too many wines at her neighbour’s house. I’ve been crazy about her ever since I picked up The Library Book earlier this year, her account of the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library Fire.

Never heard of it? Neither had Orlean, until she moved to Los Angeles and took a tour of the Central Library building. Her tour guide pulled a book from a shelf and smelled it (slightly odd, but not beyond the pale for book lovers). Then he said he could “still smell the smoke”, and that’s what piqued Orlean’s interest. She thought, at first, that he meant the remnants of a time when patrons were allowed to smoke cigarettes in libraries. But, no: he was talking about the suspected act of arson that set light to the library on the morning of 29 April 1986, the fire that burned for several hours, the same one that destroyed over 400,000 books and damaged several hundred thousand more. No one was killed, but fifty firefighters were injured.

‘Hang on,’ Orlean thought (as I’m sure you are right now), ‘if the fire was that big, why hasn’t anyone heard about it?’. Check the date: it was drowned out of the news almost immediately by the Chernobyl disaster. And thus, the biggest library fire in the history of the United States was all but forgotten – and the suspected crime remains unsolved.





That’s not to say there were no suspects. Orlean begins The Library Book with a profile of Harry Peak, the man who led police on a wild goose chase throughout their investigation. He is described as being “very blonde” by his lawyer, and “the biggest bullshitter in the world” by his sister – make of that what you will. Orlean reads reports, transcripts, interviews friends and relatives, to find out everything she can about Harry Peak… but even then (spoiler alert), she can’t definitively answer – nor can anyone else – the question of why, or even whether, he would set fire to the Los Angeles Central Library.

The Library Book is, at its bones, a true crime story, interrogating who could have possibly started such a fire, and why. That said, it’s a long way from the feigned objectivity or omniscience of a book like The Arsonist. Orlean’s writing is memoir-esque, interweaving her own recollections of childhood library visits, and also incorporating extensive local history, including the socioeconomic and political complexities of the city of angels.

Now, I’m going to put a very important warning right here: do not read The Library Book if your friends and family will not take kindly to being bombarded with “fun facts” for at least a month. I made a grave error in choosing this book to accompany me when I was a passenger on a road trip. By the time we reached our destination, my fellow travellers were ready to set me on fire. Every few minutes, I’d say “Oh, wow! Did you know…” They were interested, at first, but after a while it wore thin, and soon my gasps of fascination were met with exhausted groans. So, there you go. You’ve been warned.





Orlean leaves no stone unturned, which is what makes The Library Book such a trove of delight and wonder for book-lovers and library patrons. She turns up everything from the history of libraries, the growth of Hollywood, the bust of the Depression, the psychology of arsonists, the physics of book burning (she even burned a copy of Fahrenheit 451 herself, for research!), the lives of the librarians who worked in the building (right down to their preferred brands of cigarettes)… she spent six and a half years researching this book, and it shows. And yet, she doesn’t simply dump it all in your lap; she delivers it, seamlessly, in a page-turning book that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a library and the terrible crime that occurred there (probably).

I’m sure you’ve deduced as much by now, but I’ll say it for the record: The Library Book is a highly Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a must for any library-goer or book-worm. And, in a year when libraries have been beaten and bruised by pandemic restrictions coupled with the increased demand of the disadvantaged communities they serve, there is surely no better time to read a love letter the public library system.

Do you use your local library? Either way, you might want to check this out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Library Book:

  • “lots of facts about libraries” – kcp
  • “Dreadful book – throw out” – Polly
  • “This book is tedious, overwritten and disjointed. Just like the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER is impossible to eat, this book is impossible to read.” – ruth evans

Good Talk – Mira Jacob

In case you’re new around here, let me give you the skinny: Keeping Up With The Penguins is all about trying new things. Even if it’s a book you don’t think you’ll like, even if it’s an author you’ve never read before, even if it’s a genre that you’ve written off as “not for you” – you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) have to give it a go anyway. That’s the deal. I’ve never read a graphic novel before. I never even read comics as a kid. But when my dear friend read and recommended Good Talk by Mira Jacob, I had to walk the walk.

Good Talk - Mira Jacob - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Good Talk is “a memoir in conversations”, promises the blurb, “a bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us”. Those conversations began for Jacob when her six-year-old son became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and an innocent line of childish enquiry turned tricky.

“Sometimes, you don’t know how confused you are about something important until you try explaining it to someone else.”

Good Talk, PAge 20

Her son’s questions about race, and identity, and politics, led Jacob to re-evaluate her own life experiences and conversations from her past. She reproduces those memories in Good Talk, from her parents’ migration to the United States to the election of Donald Trump. They include being mistaken for “the help” at her in-laws’ party, being put in the position of telling her husband that their son had asked if he was afraid of brown people, and being overwhelmed with joy when Barack Obama was elected as President shortly after her son’s birth. She has spoken about how she never set out to write a memoir because she didn’t feel she was up to the level of vulnerability and transparency it requires, but boy. Oh, boy.

Let’s cut to the chase: Good Talk is a damn good book. It’s not just a “good graphic novel”, it’s not just a “cult classic”, it’s good without a qualifier. So good that, at a recent (COVID-safe) gathering of friends, I pulled a friend away from the merry-making and forced her to read Chapter 6. That’s the chapter where Jacob describes winning a Daughters Of The American Revolution essay contest, only to have the women running the contest try to dissuade her from presenting her essay at their luncheon when they realised she was brown (luckily, she had a kick-arse teacher who backed her up and got her on that stage).

Jacob’s recollections, images, and dialogue are deceptive in their simplicity (and, let me be clear, I mean that in the best possible way). What, on its face, might look like a speech bubble actually contains the weight of hundreds of years of systemic oppression and the gritted teeth of resilience. Jacob’s language is frank, her presentation is enticing, but her message is searing. If you’re white, like me, and the beneficiary of a system that means your skin colour hasn’t kept you out of room, you’ll need to sit with it a while to fully comprehend its meaning.

The beauty of Good Talk, in my view, is that it works on multiple levels. In a remarkably accessible way, Jacob has written a book that will make people of colour feel seen and heard, and make people who are white or white-passing re-evaluate their conversations and interactions (the way that Jacob had to when her son started asking questions about Michael Jackson).

Other reviews of Good Talk have emphasised that Jacob resists “people of colour” becoming a monolith in the U.S., as though there is some unique experience shared by all, and I wouldn’t want to speak over her on that front (obviously), but I still think there’s some incredible universal resonance here. What shines through – and what will unify all readers, regardless of racial or cultural heritage – is the fierce love that Jacob has for her son and her family. “I can’t protect you from becoming a brown man in America,” Jacob rhetorically laments to her son on page 346. Even as a child-free white woman, my heart broke when I read that, and my eyes got a bit watery.

I could’ve read this book quickly, if I wanted to. I probably could’ve knocked it over in a single afternoon. But I took my time, in an effort to really, truly, fully appreciate its content, and the generosity of Jacob in sharing it with us (and by “us”, I mean “me”). If all graphic novels are as good as Good Talk, consider me a convert.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Good Talk:

  • “Literally hugged this book to my chest after finishing it, unwilling to put it down. It felt like hanging out with a brilliant, funny, sad friend.” – EN
  • “Anyone and everyone, especially mixed race Americans looking for people like them, should read this.
    The build up and the tension and release ebbing and flowing throughout the pages is incredible and so perfectly captures many of the internal and external tensions for mixed race families in modern America.
    (Having the same name as the author only makes me slightly biased!)” – Mira L
  • “This book is for you. A version or part of everyone you know is probably in this book. You’re in here. Even when you don’t want to see it. I learned a lot about myself, my family, our friends and the world we live in. Mira and her family are my heroes.” – B. Healy
  • “I really did not like the cartoon reading format. Past that book was good.” – Becky

The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante

You should know that, as I write this, I am suffering a severe case of Ferrante Fever. Ever since I read My Brilliant Friend, I’ve been borderline-obsessed with the world’s most notable living pseudonymous author. That book was the first in the Neapolitan Quartet, a series of four novels (a “wildly original contemporary epic”) that follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grow up in mid-20th century Naples with all of the impoverishment, violence, and oppression that such a life entails. I can’t emphasise enough the delight of discovering an author who has such a glorious back-list to read through. I find myself spacing out my reading of Ferrante, trying to make the magic last as long as possible. Today, I share with you my thoughts on the second book in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story Of A New Name.

The Story Of A New Name - Elena Ferrante - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Story Of A New Name was first published in the original Italian in 2013, and shortly thereafter translated into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator). The story picks up after My Brilliant Friend leaves off, in the spring of 1966. Lila is a newlywed, and Lena is continuing her studies, exploring the world beyond the neighbourhood of their childhoods. Despite their diverging paths, their complex and evolving bond continues.

Lila gives Lena her Garner-esque diaries for safe-keeping, on the condition that her friend would never read them. Lena, of course, betrays that promise almost immediately (who among us wouldn’t? Come on, now!). Upon reading them, Lena is forced to re-evaluate her life, and Lila’s. Confronted by what she discovers (their childhoods being depicted with “ruthless accuracy”), she promptly throws the offending notebooks into a river.

I can’t even pretend that anything I say about The Story Of A New Name from here on won’t constitute “spoilers”, so proceed at your own peril…





Lila emerges from her honeymoon only to find herself living under a weight of expectation to become pregnant, though she doesn’t want to have children and she deeply resents her husband (he’s a dickhead, btw). Her first pregnancy is short-lived, and she miscarries at ten weeks. The town gossip suggests that her animosity kills any embryos that would embed in her womb (yep, that’s fucked). Given that her husband regularly beats and rapes her, who could blame her for being a bit ticked off? Their marriage is inherently political, intertwined with and influenced by their family business and their relationship with the Solaras brothers (basically the rich kids who have financed all their hopes and dreams… at a price).

Lila’s doctor prescribes “sun and swimming” (y’know, “for strength”) to facilitate her fertility, so she’s packed off to a summer beach holiday. Determined not to be trapped alone with her mother and her sister-in-law, she begs Lena to come with her. Lena has her own ulterior motive to accompany them: Nino, the unattainable intellectual object of her secret crush, will be “studying” at the beach, so Lena convinces Lila that’s the place to be for all this fertile “sun and swimming” business.

Most of The Story Of A New Name takes place on this beach holiday because, folks, it is full of drama – think your favourite reality show to the power of N. Remember how Lena harboured secret desires for Nino? Yeah, Lila – her best friend – hooks up with him instead. The affair is brief, but it still leaves Lila with a bun in the oven (gasp! pearl-clutching!), and she is forced to return to her husband who does not believe her (whether he’s deluding himself, or genuinely confused, who knows), when Lila says the child isn’t his.





Stefano – Lila’s husband – undertakes an affair of his own and his lover, Ada, becomes pregnant, too. Lila, quite understandably, is fed up with the bullshit and she leaves, despite the fact that she’s forced to move into a smaller, dodgier neighbourhood with her childhood fried, Enzo. Ada happily takes her place at Stefano’s side, with their kind-of-more-legitimate kid in their big house.

While all of this is going on, Lena – the actual narrator, though you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the story is “about” her because it’s really all “about” her brilliant friend – graduates from high school, and wins a scholarship to study at a university in Pisa. That’s all well and good, but she suffers from one of the most debilitating cases of imposter syndrome I’ve ever seen depicted in fiction. Lena doubts herself constantly: her intellect, her background, her aptitude…

And then there’s the fact that she’s sexually active. A young woman! Unmarried! Having sex! Can you believe it? Set aside the fact that it’s largely rooted in an earlier molestation: it’s scandalous! Eventually, she meets Pietro, a nice young bloke from an important family who doesn’t give a shit about her “reputation” (what a guy). He’s just happy to finally meet a girl he can talk to about old poetry and philosophy and politics.





When they graduate university, Pietro’s gift to Lena is an engagement ring, which she happily(?) accepts. In return, she gives him a hand-written novel. Unbeknownst to her, he passes it on to his mother, who uses her connections to have it placed at a publishing house. The book is released to popular success and critical acclaim, but Lena is disappointed and confused when she realises that no one from her old neighbourhood really gives a shit (her old teacher and former librarian, who fostered her young literary mind, are no longer around). The story ends with Lena attending her first public reading as a published author… where she realises that Nino is in attendance. Yes, that Nino, of the object-of-her-secret-desire-but-then-he-knocked-up-her-brilliant-friend fame.

Returning to the Neapolitan Quartet with The Story Of A New Name felt like picking up where I’d left off with old friends. I got to see how Lila and Lena “turned out”, what “happened next” for them. That might sound bleeding obvious to anyone who’s used to reading books in series, but mostly I read stand-alone novels, so for me it was wonderful. Lila was as manipulative and shrewd as ever, but still a sympathetic character – my feelings towards her were as ambivalent, contradictory, and ebbing as Lena’s own.

Thematically, The Story Of A New Name addresses many of the same issues as My Brilliant Friend: female friendship, class marginalisation, sexual expression, competitive relationships, the importance of literacy… The decisions of the girls’ parents in the first novel (Lena’s to allow her to continue her education, Lila’s to withdraw her from school at a young age) have ripple effects throughout their lives. The Neapolitan Quartet is effectively a Sliding Doors-epic. Both feel overshadowed and envious of the other, furious jealousy mingles with the unshakeable affection of shared experience… ugh. Ferrante is just too good for words. Too good.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of A New Name:

  • “It was kind of confusing. I didn’t like the beating the women received but I finished the book and the ending was worth it.” – Sue Campbell
  • “I loved it, but it’s a book for women. Therefore I can’t give it 5 stars. I don’t see many men with patience to read it through…” – Amazon Customer
  • “Interesting, but redundant . Perhaps touch like life .” – j toby

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