Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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Appreciation – Liam Pieper

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Now and then, you come across a book that makes your jaw drop. The latest one for me is Appreciation by Liam Pieper, kindly sent to me for review by Penguin Books Australia.

The conceit in and of itself is a bit of a show-stopper: a cancelled Australian artist has to enlist a ghostwriter to pen a memoir, in the hopes of rehabilitating his public image and restoring the eye-watering value of his paintings. “He will have to suffer the worst of indignities,” the narrator says on page 66. “He will have to write a book.”

The blurb promises Appreciation is “a wild romp through Australian celebrity that’s as bold and scathing as it is hilarious”, and I can tell you it definitely delivers. This book is sharp as hell, a brutal critique of Australian arts culture and the media-managed shrink-wrapped nature of ‘authenticity’ as a brand. Best of all, it comes from an insider – Pieper himself is an award-winning ghostwriter, and presumably has extensive experience dealing with real-life characters like his fictional Oli Darling. How else would he pitch the tale so perfectly?

I mean, the gall! The gumption! Pieper clearly doesn’t care about making friends in the industry (or not getting sued, for that matter). I imagine he’ll struggle to get any arts funding in the foreseeable future, but I’m very grateful for his sacrifice. Hats off!

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Read Appreciation on audiobook via Libro.fm here. (affiliate link)

10 Books To Read When You Feel Lonely

There are few worse feelings in life than loneliness. In fact, it’s epidemic, and linked to poor mental and physical health. Luckily, for bookworms, we have shelves full of books that can help alleviate that feeling – a temporary salve at least. Here are ten books to read when you feel lonely.

10 Books To Read When You Feel Lonely - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eleanor Oliphant has basically made loneliness her whole personality – not that she’d describe herself as lonely. She’s ‘completely fine’, as the title suggests, with her work and her pizza and vodka nights and her weekly conversations with Mummy. Over the course of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, though, she discovers that true human connection is not impossible, and there are people who can see beyond her eccentricities. This is one of the books to read when you feel lonely because, if an odd duck like Eleanor can overcome it, so can you. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

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The Thursday Murder Club is a books to read when you feel lonely two-fer: it’s got a group of friends that will warm your heart and make you laugh, and a murder mystery that will keep you intrigued and distracted. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron enjoy investigating unsolved murders as a hobby, but when one occurs right underneath their noses in their retirement village, their skills are put to the test. They’re an unlikely gang of armchair detectives, but they’ve got a few tricks up their sleeves. Plus, there’s a few sequels that come after this one, and books are one of the few healthy binges that can help you deal with loneliness.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

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One of the most accessible solutions to loneliness is a good chat with a good friend. If one of those isn’t forthcoming, the next best thing is reading a memoir like Everything I Know About Love. Dolly Alderton is disarmingly frank, a bit of a mess but a loveable one, and reading her memoir is like listening to a friend tell you a bunch of stories about her life over a glass of wine (or five). She’s even got a couple of recipes to give you, along with some advice for navigating early adulthood and cautionary tales.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You think you’re lonely? Try being the only person on an entire planet! That’s Mark Watney’s situation in The Martian, a book about an astronaut accidentally abandoned by his team on the red planet. He has plenty of problems to contend with – figuring out how to survive, generating enough food and breathable air for himself on a planet that supplies neither, until the next spaceship arrives in a few years’ time – but he remains optimistic, no matter how insurmountable the obstacles. This is one of those books to read when you feel lonely because Watney’s enthusiasm is simply infectious, and his great sense of humour about his dire circumstances is sure to make you feel better about your own. Read my full review of The Martian here.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Loneliness is a problem for Don Tillman, and like all the problems in his life – grocery shopping, workplace politics, schoolyard bullies – he’s sure it should be approached logically and scientifically. That’s why he creates The Wife Project, a questionnaire designed to filter out candidates and find his most compatible partner for life. What could possibly go wrong? The Rosie Project is a book about looking for love and companionship in all the wrong places, but somehow finding it anyway. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List - Sara Nisha Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For many lonely bookworms, the library is a place of solace. Whether you’re a patron – like widower Mukesh looking for a way to connect with his granddaughter – or an employee – like bright but anxious teenager Aleshia – it’s a place to find connection and comfort. In The Reading List, these lonely souls form an unlikely friendship over a list of book recommendations Aleshia discovers in one of the returns. This is a story about finding joy through the common interest of books, and we can all use a little of that, lonely or not.

The Helpline by Katherine Collette

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The Helpline is a book about Germaine. Germaine is in her late thirties, she’s very good with numbers, she loves Soduku (more than most people), and she makes a point of seeing her mother as little as possible. In fact, she avoids most people. She’d rather be analysing spreadsheet data than engaging in pointless conversation. But now that she’s lost her job as a senior mathematician, she’s forced to find alternate employment answering phones for the local senior citizen helpline. It forces her to connect with other people, for the first time in a long time, and she discovers it’s not quite as bad as she remembers. Read my full review of The Helpline here.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Best Friend's Exorcism - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Counteract your loneliness with a heaping serve of nostalgia, and a side of… demonic possession? My Best Friend’s Exorcism will take you back to the heady days of adolescent friendship, when your friends are your world, and you’ll do anything to protect them. Of course, it’s a Grady Hendrix horror-comedy novel, so things also get a little freaky, but that’s a nice distraction from the real-world horrors that exacerbate our feelings of isolation. Read my full review of My Best Friend’s Exorcism here.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you live to be a hundred, you see a lot of friends come and go, and you inevitably experience some periods of loneliness. Allan Karlsson doesn’t let it get him down, though. There’s always vodka! In The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, he (you guessed it!) climbs out the window of his retirement home and goes on an adventure, one that takes him around the world and elicits some very strange memories from his century of living life to the fullest. This is one of the best books to read when you feel lonely because not only is it great fun, but it reminds you that it’s never too late and your life isn’t over until its over. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful - Kim Lock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re feeling really lonely, it might seem strange that I’m recommending a book about someone who chooses to be alone most of the time – but give it a chance. The Other Side Of Beautiful is a really moving book about overcoming your fears to find connection and happiness. A woman who lives with severe anxiety and agoraphobia is forced out into the world by a house fire, and finds herself driving the length of Australia in a run-down van with her sausage dog, Wasabi, for company. It might sound bleak, but it’s one of the most heartwarming books to read when you feel lonely – promise! Read my full review of The Other Side Of Beautiful here.

They Both Die At The End – Adam Silvera

We all know I love a book that does exactly what it says on the tin, and what you see is what you get in They Both Die At The End. This queer young adult novel – Silvera’s third – was first published back in 2017, but it’s had a recent resurgence in the best-seller list thanks to a spike in popularity on #BookTok.

They Both Die At The End - Adam Silvera - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get They Both Die At The End here.
(In the end, I’ll thank you for making a purchase through one of the affiliate links on this page until the day I die!)

So, there are two main characters (the titular ones, who die at the end), both young men in their late teens. Mateo is a nervous wreck of a human, Rufus is a tough guy with a lot of baggage. They don’t know each other from bars of soap, but they’re about to spend their last day alive together.

In the world of They Both Die At The End, everyone gets a phone call on the day that they’ll die, letting them know it’s about to happen and, y’know, good luck. It’s a system called ‘Death-Cast’, and that’s pretty much all that Silvera tells us about it. Apparently, the prequel novel (The First To Die At The End, published in 2022) gives a bit more background as to how the system came into effect, but that didn’t really help me much going into this one. The only insight we get into Death-Cast and how it works is a couple of short chapters about phone operators who work there. I can see why Silvera wrote it that way, but I found it distracting in terms of the reading experience; I like to get the practicalities out of the way so I can focus on the story, but they were left dangling and distracting me all the way through.

But I digress! Mateo and Rufus each get this call, and they’re understandably bummed. Death-Cast only tells you that you will die, not how or why or anything useful. Mateo feels incredibly isolated by the news – his father is in a coma, his best friend is struggling to raise a young child on her own, and he feels as though he has no one with whom he can spend his last day. Rufus was in the middle of beating a guy up when the call came, and as he was gathering his family for last goodbyes, the cops showed up to arrest him. He had to do a runner to avoid spending his last day in jail, so he’s all on his lonesome, too.

In desperation, they both turn to an app called Last Friend, designed to pair people up for their last days. After a bit of back and forth, they meet and set about living as much life as they can with the time they have left.

They Both Die At The End is easy to read in terms of prose style, but it’s still a huge bummer. The title isn’t ironic, and it’s no bait-and-switch. Mateo and Rufus both die, so the growth they experience and the joy they find on their last day is all bittersweet, for them and for the reader. Silvera is very clever in that way, subverting our narrative expectations.

It’s also wonderful to see queer characters of colour represented so positively in young adult fiction, especially in the current climate of book banning. It’s never been more important for kids to have access to all kinds of characters in the books that they read, especially in the notoriously white and heteronormative worlds of speculative fiction. So, hats off to Silvera for that!

Still, I couldn’t help wanting more from They Both Die At The End: more detail in the world-building, more hope for the characters (I know, they’re destined to die and that’s The Point, but still!), and more depth to it all than just a doomed love affair between two young guys who are doing their best. I can see why it did big numbers on #BookTok, but it left me feeling a bit bereft.

My favourite Amazon reviews of They Both Die At The End:

  • “‘m sorry, but what’s the point of this book beside to leave readers with a feeling of complete and utter hopelessness, and a belief that we will all in fact die miserable and alone? My depressed mind was already convinced of this fact, but hey, thanks for validating it.” – Katie Irwin
  • “It’s a good thing these two are dying because their useless and meaningless lives contribute nothing to the world or people around them. The worst part of it is is that they are FICTIONAL. They’re not even REAL and you couldn’t even make them interesting or worth caring about.” – Brandon B
  • “It is not readily apparent, but this book has strong homosexual themes.” – David Aloha
  • “So many 5 star reviews – there must be an awful lot of young, gay/bi-curious American readers… “They both die at the end” – I just wished it happened 350 pages earlier.” – Mike707

It Takes A Town – Aoife Clifford

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You’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a kid – but did you know that it takes a town to solve a murder? That’s the idea at the heart of It Takes A Town, the new crime novel by Aoife Clifford, kindly sent to me for review by the fine folks at Ultimo Press.

Vanessa Walton was the shining star of her hometown of Welcome (a fictional town with a truly excellent name). When she’s found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home, her funeral is one of the best-attended in living memory. And yet, she rubbed plenty of people in Welcome the wrong way – that might be why she was receiving threatening letters before she died. Was her death really an accident, or was it something more nefarious?

All signs are pointing to an accident, until a local teen goes missing. The same teen who was making noise about Vanessa’s death being suspicious. Solving the mystery of Vanessa’s final moments, and identifying her killer, might be the only way to get her home safe.

It Takes A Town is a standard small-town crime novel, complete with the blow-in detective from the big city. I definitely didn’t pick the baddie from the beginning, so it’s a well-plotted mystery in that regard. The thing is, it’s a bit hard to keep all the players straight. There are a lot of characters, their ages and characterstics are vague, and given that their relationships to each other are central to understanding the plot, it makes for quite a chaotic read.

Buy It Takes A Town on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)
Read It Takes A Town on audiobook via Libro.fm here. (affiliate link)

13 Well Plotted Mysteries

Have you ever thought about how hard it must be to plot a mystery novel? The author has to know who did it, why they did it, how they did it – and they’ve got to figure out how to tell the reader all of that, without going too fast or too slow, and keeping them entertained all the while. It’s no mean feat, and it’s all the more impressive when an author does it particularly well. Here are thirteen well plotted mysteries that will keep you intrigued all the way through to perfectly crafted solutions.

13 Well Plotted Mysteries - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

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I happened to watch The Cry as a television mini-series before I read the book, but let me tell you: it’s one of the most well plotted mysteries you’ll experience, no matter the format. The central mystery revolves around a missing child, an infant who disappears from under his parents nose. The media flocks to the scene, the parents make tearful appeals – but all is not as it seems. There’s a reveal at the mid-point of this one that will knock your socks off, and you’ll barely have a chance to pull them on before they’re knocked off once more. Read my full review of The Cry here.

Kill Your Husbands by Jack Heath

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Jack Heath is a remarkably prolific writer, with over forty titles to his name across multiple genres, so he’s got a well-practiced hand when it comes to writing well plotted mysteries. Kill Your Husbands is a sharp and funny mystery-thriller about a couple’s weekend gone wrong – like, really wrong. Three couples rent an isolated house on a mountaintop, and decide to spice things up with some partner-swapping. It’s all fun and games until one of the husbands turns up dead, and then another, and then one of the wives goes missing. Read my full review of Kill Your Husbands here.

Remember Me by Charity Norman

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Are some secrets best left buried? That’s the question at the heart of Remember Me, a wonderfully suspenseful novel about a young woman who went missing twenty-five years ago, and the clues to her fate coming from an unlikely source. Through the mists of her father’s failing memory, Emily gets glimpses of the past, and what might have happened to Leah Patara. But does she really want to know? It’s a family drama wrapped around a crime mystery, and it will keep you hooked to the very last page. Read my full review of Remember Me here.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

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You might know Liane Moriarty best for Big Little Lies, the best-selling novel turned HBO series starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, but if you’re after well plotted mysteries, it’s well worth exploring further into her catalogue. Apples Never Fall is perfectly paced and totally readable, with town gossip and parallel timelines that keep you guessing. There’s a cast of characters bound together, but each harbouring their own secrets – secrets a nosy detective is determined to uncover. If you’re a fan of town gossip and barely-founded assumptions, this is the mystery novel for you. Read my full review of Apples Never Fall here.

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

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Is it too soon for a COVID-19 murder mystery? Not when it’s as well plotted as this one! 56 Days is Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest high-concept crime thriller, set in Dublin in the early days of the city’s first lock-down. The main characters are a couple who barely know each other, forced into the pressure cooker situation of living with each other during the pandemic, so the reader gets two (or more?) very different perspectives on the same events. It’s well written, well paced, with tantalising clues and a couple of truly excellent fake-out twists. Read my full review of 56 Days here.

The Likeness by Tana French

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Tana French has been called the reining queen of Irish crime, with good reason: her Dublin Murder Squad series is wall-to-wall well plotted mysteries. The Likeness is my favourite, the one with a premise so bonkers that I simply had to read it. Detective Cassie Maddox is trying to find her balance after a major trauma on a previous case when a murder victim shows up who looks identical to her. That’s weird, but it gets weirder when they learn that the victim was living under an alias that Maddox once used while undercover. None of the victim’s friends know that she’s dead, so Maddox’s boss has her pose as the dead girl, pretending to recover from her injuries in the hopes of luring the murderer out of the woodwork. It’s insane, but will it work? Read my full review of The Likeness here.

I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers

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I Saw A Man isn’t a thriller, but it’s every bit as tense and gripping. It’s a literary mystery, one that penetrates far more deeply than your standard paint-by-numbers airport novel. Owen Sheers uses two terrible tragedies to interrogate the psychology of trauma, the capriciousness of chance, the weight of grief, and the morality of complicit silence, all the while keeping the reader glued to the page by the mysterious moral dilemma that changes the life of every character. Read my full review of I Saw A Man here.

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Regular readers of Keeping Up With The Penguins might be sick of me recommending Big Lies In A Small Town, but I can’t help it! It’s one of the most well plotted mysteries I’ve read, all the better for the fact that I simply wasn’t expecting it at all based on the cover and blurb. The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Will she uncover the truth with the layers of paint and grime? Read my full review of Big Lies In A Small Town here.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble - Taffy Brodesser-Akner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You probably won’t find Fleishman Is In Trouble shelved with the mysteries at your local independent bookstore, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the most well plotted mysteries of recent years. It looks like your stock-standard New York divorce novel, with a privileged couple – he’s a doctor, she’s a talent agent/manager – sniping at each other and using their kids like battering rams in the dissolution of their marriage. But by the end of the first chapter, you’ll realise that this is something very different. Read my full review of Fleishman Is In Trouble here.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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It’s so meta: one of the most well plotted mystery is a book about a well plotted mystery. How about that? The Plot is “a psychologically suspenseful novel about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it”. A creative writing student sadly dies tragically young, and his professor decides to take the plot he planned to use for his debut novel. Who would notice, who would care? It turns out someone does, and they care a lot. Enough to put the author’s life at risk, not to mention his career and reputation. Read my full review of The Plot here.

The Woman In The Library by Sulari Gentill

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The Woman In The Library is an underrated gem, a well plotted metafictional mystery that will keep you turning pages way past your bed time. Hannah Tigone is a crime writer, working on a novel that begins in the Boston Library. Four strangers get to talking after a woman’s scream in the next room breaks the silence. Later, they discover that the woman who screamed was murdered – could one of them be the killer? Chapter-by-chapter, Hannah forwards this work-in-progress to her writer friend Leo, but slowly his responses reveal he might not be the trusty correspondent he seems. Read my full review of The Woman In The Library here.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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With just a few well plotted mysteries, Gillian Flynn has changed the game. She reached mainstream popular appeal with her best-seller Gone Girl, but her debut novel Sharp Objects is the one with the truly masterful plot. The follows Camille, a journalist for a small Chicago newspaper, as she’s drawn back to her hometown to report on the abduction and murder of two young girls. At first, she doesn’t seem particularly unusual – sure, she’s a bit of a drinker, and she clearly has some unresolved issues with her family, but who doesn’t? Soon, you’ll realise how dark she really is, and why those issues with her mother and her hometown might never be untangled. Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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Of course, it’s not a list of well plotted mysteries without an Agatha Christie novel. And, even though it’s kind of an obvious choice, we really can’t go past And Then There Were None. It’s a Christie classic, a locked-room mystery with a ticking clock, featuring ten strangers trapped on an isolated island. All were brought there under similar false pretenses, and all of them are destined to die. But who would draw them there? Why are they being killed off, one by one? How can the murderer operate undetected? Christie will tell you when she’s good and ready, but you’ll realise that the clues there all along. Read my full review of And Then There Were None here.

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