Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Young Adult (page 1 of 4)

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

I first became aware of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower via the 2012 film adaptation. I vaguely remember seeing it; it left the impression of being quirky but also a huge bummer. It turns out that Stephen Chbosky himself actually wrote and directed it (John Hughes originally held the rights, before he sadly passed away). Anyway, at some point I figured out it was a young adult book before it was a film, and picked up a copy for myself along the way.

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The cover of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower promises “a deeply affecting coming-of-age story… in the tradition of The Catcher In The Rye“. It was first published in 1999, and it’s set in the early years of that decade, beginning in 1991.

Charlie is the titular wallflower: a shy, introspective, socially awkward teen, just starting high-school as the story begins. He begins writing semi-anonymous letters, addressed to “dear friend”, he says in the hopes of reaching “someone out there [who] listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have” (page 3). Seems reasonable enough!

Through these letters, Charlie’s story – and his unique perspective on life – unfolds. He’s very earnest and matter-of-fact, but he’s also surprisingly perceptive and insightful for a fifteen-year-old. My teenage diaries and letters were certainly more angst-ridden and self-indulgent, no mean feat considering Charlie’s history of mental health issues.

In these letters, to his mysterious and anonymous “friend”, Charlie makes mention of his periods of depression and “things getting bad” (mostly triggered, it would seem, by the sudden and unexpected death of his Aunt Helen, in a car crash, and more recently that of his friend Michael, who took his own life). Charlie feels mostly alone in the world, but he doesn’t seem to mind so much; as he sees it, there are plenty of perks to being a wallflower (geddit?).

Eventually, he makes friends with two older kids from his school, Patrick and Sam. At first, it seemed they might just be taking pity on the weird quiet kid whose friend killed himself, but they proved me wrong. They adopt Charlie into their friendship circle, as one of their own, and he has all of the slightly-less-than-wholesome high school experiences that we would hope. He even develops a charmingly inappropriate and unrequited crush on Sam, who acknowledges it without ever embarrassing him.

Of course, the major problem with befriending older kids in high school is that they’re destined to grow up and get out long before you. That might seem like the logical climax towards which The Perks Of Being A Wallflower would build, but Chbosky always has something darker looming over it all. Charlie increasingly exhibits symptoms of PTSD (of course, that’s not the language he uses to describe it in his letters, but it’s clear that’s what’s going on), and it turns out his repressed trauma is something a lot more gnarly than you might expect. It all comes out when he finally gets His Moment with Sam, right before she leaves for college.

Spoilers below this point, blah blah blah…

Ah, yes, the “big twist” reveal. It comes on subtly, and when it did I wasn’t sure Chbosky had really “earned” the feelings he was clearly hoping to elicit from the reader (see: the same problem as Daisy Jones And The Six). In essence, Charlie was sexually abused by his Aunt Helen as a very young child; that’s why his memory of the event is shaky, and also why his feelings about her death are so confused and troubling. The epilogue, Charlie’s final letter to his friend, reveals that he was discovered in a catatonic state after some kind of psychotic break that recalled his memories of the abuse, and he had to spend some time in a psychiatric facility. Sam and Patrick visited, and while he didn’t exactly live “happily ever after”, he finished up in much better shape than he started out.

I’m really not sure how I feel about child abuse being used as a “big twist” in a novel either, but… for all its problems, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Chbosky and Charlie’s story really got under my skin. Of course, this should serve as a huge stinky trigger warning, but for those of us who can stomach it, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a book that will stay with you, whether you like it or not.

I think Chbosky has a rare talent for writing in the voice of a teenager, about TeEn IsSuEs, in a way that doesn’t sound patronising. He said he wanted to address the question of why good people let themselves get treated badly, and I suppose he found an answer of sorts. He also said he incorporated many of his own memories of growing up in Pittsburgh, making The Perks Of Being A Wallflower at least somewhat autobiographical (though I hope not too autobiographical, ’cause… you know).

Naturally, because Chbosky wrote something relatively realistic about teens for teens, some parents got their knickers in a knot over it. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower has hit the American Library Association’s top 10 list for the Most Frequently Banned And Challenged books no fewer than six times. Apparently, some parents have taken issue with the book’s “pornographic content” and “vulgarity”, “homosexual themes”, and “glorification” of drugs and alcohol – as though teens would have no idea about any of that were it not for a book. Honestly!

I found The Perks Of Being A Wallflower to be a really affecting book, as promised by the blurb, and its effect certainly lingered. I also re-watched the film, and it totally holds up – still quirky and a bummer, as I remembered, but very well done. On the whole, if dark YA gets your motor running, this is one that should be top of your to-be-read list (if it’s not already).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower:

  • “This book was absolutely amazing and all the moms on here are a bunch of crybaby’s. Many things in the book are not quite AS graphic as they make it seem because of the way it’s written. Overall, it’s a really really good book and now I cant wait to watch the movie. And if you’re a mom whose unsure if their kid should read it, buy it anyways because all you have to do is read it first and decide for yourself, AND you get to relax and read a book.” – Victoria
  • “First of all, I respect any opinion that this is a great book. But I must say I am confounded by the thousands of five-star reviews, because not only do I not see that, but I actively, aggressively disliked “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which would have been more aptly titled “The Perks of Being Weird and Weepy.”” – Ga303
  • “its no wonder high-schoolers are depressed these days. this book made me miserable.” – Dj Hickson
  • “I really didn’t like the various sexual comments.” – Joanne McDowell
  • “It sucked and was super boring and dumb. My girlfriend hated hearing me complain the whole time I was reading it.” – Garrett landsrud

Sadie – Courtney Summers

Well, Keeper Upperers, last year I asked Santa for a big stack of books – and boy, did he deliver! Sadie by Courtney Summers came via my wonderful and dear friend Cathal, right into my hot little hands. This one has been near the top of my wishlist for ages, so I couldn’t bring myself to wait another minute before tearing in to it.

Sadie - Courtney Summers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Sadie is Courtney Summer’s break-out novel. She’s written several other books prior, but this is the one that catapulted her to international attention and #bookstagram fame. What brought it to my attention was the killer premise: a modern twist on a murder mystery, partly styled as a podcast transcript.

The story begins with the discovery of a body, that of 13-year-old Mattie Southern, in a small run-down town in the middle of nowhere. She is survived by her 19-year-old sister, Sadie. Right off the bat, I liked the way that Summers was thumbing her nose at the tropes by naming her book after the living protagonist. When was the last time you read a crime novel with a titular girl who wasn’t dead?

That’s your first hint that Sadie is cleverer than it might first appear. Summers also lampoons the true-crime trend of middle-class butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths white blonde victims. Mattie and Sadie are from the wrong side of the tracks, their fathers are long gone, and their mother decided she preferred drugs to home-cooked dinners. Sadie and Mattie have had to forge their own way, living in a trailer with only their landlady for support.

West McCray – a radio journalist – overhears the tragic news of Mattie’s death while he’s working on another story nearby. At first, he doesn’t think much of it (another dead girl? that’s sad, but it’s hardly a story). Then, he hears from their landlady: Sadie has gone missing, just months after Mattie’s death. That’s the impetus for his podcast investigation, what hooks him (and us, the readers): what happened to the girls?

So, one side of the story is told by West, as he investigates – through interviews and sticking his nose everywhere it doesn’t belong – and the other side is told by Sadie herself. It’s a really interesting way of piecing the story together: each protagonist knows things the other doesn’t, and even without the high-stakes plot, you’ll find yourself desperate to find out what happens when their stories catch up to one another and intersect.

Summers also nails the podcast transcript, I must say. It’s very clearly modelled off cultural staples like Serial and This American Life. As I read, I couldn’t help but “hear” most of it in the soothing tones of Ira Glass. It got a little trite towards the end, maybe a little “neat”, but overall it holds up. I read in another review that apparently there are actual recorded episodes out there, which I’m curious to track down.

I think it’s also really powerful that Sadie is given her own voice, the opportunity to tell the reader her own story. Had the whole lot been narrated by West and the people he interviews, a lot of the complexity and intimacy would have been lost. She reveals pretty early on where exactly she’s gone “missing” to: she’s on the hunt for the man she believes killed Mattie, and she plans to give him a taste of his own medicine. She also has a stutter, which makes her internal monologue particularly powerful; what she’s not able to physically say out loud, she can share with us.

Being a crime novel, styled as a true crime podcast, there’s obviously some pretty gruesome stuff (if you’re not a true crime junkie, it’s probably worse than you’d imagine). So, here’s a content warning for violence (duh) and child abuse. Though Courtney Summers’ books are classed as Young Adult, I really feel that Sadie could have been published and marketed as adult crime fiction without raising an eyebrow.

The ending isn’t exactly happy, though it does provide enough resolution that the story feels finished. I knocked it over in a single afternoon. I’d say it’s the perfect book for fans of Veronica Mars.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sadie:

  • “It was pretty ok!” – Lauren A Woods
  • “Wtf” – User

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was one of the most-frequently banned and challenged books in the year it was released, according to the American Library Association. Why? Officially, for its profanity, vulgarity, and references to drug use. But, unofficially, it’s hard to imagine that it’s for any reason other than it might stoke the fire of young would-be Black Lives Matter activists in the tinderbox that is the United States. This is a story about the human cost of racially-motivated police brutality.

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This is Thomas’s debut novel, an expanded version of a short story she wrote in response to the death of Oscar Grant. It’s shelved and marketed as a young adult novel – given that it features a teen protagonist who, one could argue, “comes of age” – but The Hate U Give would be appealing and accessible to readers of all ages. We all have something to learn from this story.

It opens at a party, where our main character – Starr Carter – is feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Even though the party is thrown in her neighbourhood by people roughly her own age, she doesn’t feel like she “fits in”, mostly (it would seem) because she attends Williamson, a “white-people” high school. When shots are fired, her friend Khalil helps her escape, and they drive away to safety in his car… or so they think.

Khalil is pulled over, and after a short interaction, the police officer shoots him. Starr is the only witness to Khalil’s death. The officer keeps his gun trained on her until back-up arrives.

That might sound like a story in and of itself, but really it’s only the beginning of The Hate U Give. The story actually unfolds around what Starr decides to do next. Should she make a statement to police and prosecutors, knowing it might cause trouble for her family? Should she identify herself as the witness among her friends and neighbours, knowing that it might incite the ire of local gang members? She’s stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, an impossible decision for anyone to make, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl. Chuck into the mix a racist frenemy, a white boyfriend who doesn’t get it, and the ripple effects of drug addiction and gang violence in her neighbourhood… Unsurprisingly, Starr struggles under the weight of what is right and what is safe.

“I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

The Hate U Give (38)

The Hate U Give is a call to action in the form of a young-adult novel. Its central message is reflected in its title, which is actually a reference to an idea attributed to Tupac: that THUG LIFE actually stands for “The hate u give little infants fucks everybody”. In other words, raising children – of all colours and creeds – in a racist system that only functions on the back of oppression is good for no one. Or, to borrow an older saying, we reap what we sow.

In the Author’s Note following the novel’s conclusion, Thomas describes the first time she saw a photo of Emmett Till. She managed to convince herself that it was “history”, until she saw the video of Oscar Grant. This triggered a series of difficult conversations and revelations for her, and “from all of those questions and emotions, The Hate U Give was born”. She emphasises that her motivation for writing the novel was the opportunity to give young people the reassurance that they are not alone in their frustration, fear, and sadness. I like to think that it’s not just “young people” Thomas is speaking to anymore, because surely after the events of this year (if nothing else), that frustration, fear, and sadness is felt by all.

The presence of Chris – Starr’s white boyfriend – in the novel is a deft touch, one that kindly guides white readers towards understanding the role we have to play in making change happen. The Hate U Give also serves the dual role of guidebook and mirror, with Starr’s code-switching reflecting the lived reality of many readers while revealing it to others who haven’t experienced it for themselves. Characters like Starr – and her brothers, her father, and mother – are too often caricatured in fiction. It was a relief to read such a complex and nuanced depiction of them, and the politics of their communities.

It’s both amazing and saddening that The Hate U Give is still so resonant and relevant, perhaps even more so than when it was initially published. The film adaptation – released in 2018 – has also gone on to receive popular and critical acclaim. And so I circle back around to where I began: it’s hard to imagine that this book could be banned for any reason other than systemic racism. I feel a nervous flutter in my stomach as I type that, and I’m tempted to backspace over it, but if Starr can find the strength to use her voice then so can I.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hate U Give:

  • “I haven’t read it yet, I’ve heard good things and I’m sure it’s great. All I know is that it came broken. Not sure who’s fault it is but I don’t know who to tell and I’m very upset.” – Alyssa
  • “I’ve been wanting to read something that could help me understand better what blacks are like. This was was a great start. I plan to read more to help me understand as I’m a 70 something women who doesn’t consider myself racist but I grew up in VA and my school was the first in our country to graduate black people from a regular formerly all white High School. I need to continue my education.” – Ruth Moorman
  • “Couldn’t read the book — the first few pages were so full of obcenities I stopped caring what the plot was about. I know some young people talk this way but I choose to avoid filling my mind with dirt.” – Lee Gardner
  • “Doesn’t contain a Y and a O in the title.
    I won’t stand for this kind of madness.” – The Biz
  • “Contacting customer service immediately.” – Amazon Customer

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

For a fluffy young-adult rom-com, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a spine-chilling premise. Lara Jean has written a letter to every boy she’s ever loved (five total), letters that were supposed to be for her eyes only… until one day, under mysterious circumstances, the letters are mailed to the boys in question. It’s every teen girl’s worst nightmare; even now, slightly (ahem!) past my teenage years, I shudder at the thought. But don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read.

To All The Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was first published back in 2014. I’d already seen the Netflix adaptation, but I figured if the book was anywhere near as charming and endearing, it’d be worth reading. Han has said her story was inspired by her own habit of writing love letters (never mailed) to the boys she had crushes on as a teenager. For Lara Jean – and presumably for her creator – the letters are cathartic, a way to “let go” and farewell the boys she has no future with (including her sister’s boyfriend – eek!).

Sure, the romance is the central plot, but equally essential to this novel is Lara Jean’s family. Her mother is, sadly, dead, but she is very close to her father and sisters. Margot is the elder, headed off for university in Scotland, and Kitty is the younger, annoying at times but wise beyond her years. Josh – the aforementioned boyfriend of Margot – is practically part of the family. He lives next door and he often joins them for dinner and family events. He is also (prepare yourself for a stomach-churn) an unintended recipient of one of Lara Jean’s letters.





What’s a girl to do? Throw everyone off the scent by plunging head-long into a fake relationship, of course! Another recipient of a letter, Peter Kravinsky, is the “cool guy” of Lara Jean’s high school. He’s also recently broken up with his own girlfriend. They mutually agree to carry on as though they’re in a relationship. Lara Jean hopes it will prove to Josh that she’s moved on (and stop Margot cottoning on to the fact that she was secretly lusting after him the whole time, plausible deniability is the name of the game!), and Peter just wants to make his ex-girlfriend and resident Mean Girl, Gen, jealous.

Will it come as any shock if I tell you that this perfect plan goes horribly awry? Of course not! Of course it does! And everyone involved gets their feelings at least a little bit hurt. Such is the nature of young-adult romances. And yet, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – predictable and sweet as it might be – never once feels like a cliche. It’s never cloying or annoying. I mean, if you’re determined to be a real grouch, I suppose you could look down your nose at it, but boo to you!





Given the dire state of the world, and our collective desperation for a little escapism, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the perfect read for the current moment. It’s sweet, it’s nostalgic, no one has to wear a mask or sing Happy Birthday as they wash their hands… Lara Jean’s internal monologue feels real. So. many other YA novels I’ve read sound like an adult simply parodying the way they think teenagers speak “nowadays”, which is patronising to say the least. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, however, hits the mark – a bullseye! Ah, to be young and in love…

The initial release spent 40 weeks on the New York Times Young Adult Best Seller List, and went on to be translated and published in over 30 languages. It got another boost upon the release of the Netflix adaptation in 2018 (which, I’m pleased to report, was mostly faithful to the book). There have since been two sequels, too: P.S. I Love You in 2015 (now with its own Netflix treatment, too), and Always And Forever, Lara Jean in 2016. I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to seek those out, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing so. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who needs to be reminded that life can be good and sweet.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before:

  • “I wanted the movie.” – Kayti
  • “This was an amazing book because it was about boys.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I couldn’t put this book down. I love how it was clean and not dirty.” – Staci

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown, but the trope itself has existed far longer. Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the king and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind: we all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


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