Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Vagina Monologues – Eve Ensler

Until recently, I only knew The Vagina Monologues as cultural shorthand for strident feminism. It turns out, it has an interesting history, and an impressive legacy often unknown to those who write it off as bitches bitching.

The Vagina Monologues - Eve Ensler - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Here are the basics: The Vagina Monologues is an episodic play, developed and performed by Eve Ensler in 1996. As the title suggests, it explores everything vagina-related, especially those topics that might make us squeamish: sex, body image, genital mutilation, reproduction, menstruation, sex work… Gloria Steinem says in her foreword to my edition: “On every page, there is the power of saying the unsayable,” (page xvi).

Ensler spoke to over two hundred women about their vaginas, and formed monologues (some composite) out of their experiences. The interviews began as casual conversations with friends, then expanded to stories about friends-of-friends, then a continuing chain of referrals to people willing to talk about their most intimate body part. “Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas,” Ensler says (page 5).

What surprised me was the diversity of the women she spoke to and stories she featured – surprisingly progressive for a mid-90s piece. These were women of all ages, races and ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities. She’s revised the content a few times since its initial run, but the guts of it was all there in the beginning. Naturally, it’s been criticised for excluding some groups, or for reducing women to oversimplified biology (“more like a Second Wave consciousness-raising group than a ground-breaking inter-sectional Third Wave cornerstone”), but I give it credit for its progressiveness in context all the same.

Ensler has said that she doesn’t actually remember writing The Vagina Monologues. The idea found her, and the power of the material these women shared with her flowed of its own accord. The play opened at the HERE Arts Centre in New York City on 3 October 1996; it was originally scheduled to mid-November, but that run was quickly extended to the end of December. Most performances were sold out, media coverage was glowing, and word-of-mouth was powerful. The play has since been performed in over 20 countries, including those we wouldn’t necessarily think of as progressive or accepting (like Turkey and China).

Women call up for tickets to ‘the Monologues’… The punk ticket seller tells women that if they can’t say it, they can’t come.

The Vagina Monologues (page xxx)

This edition, the V-Day Edition, is almost as much about what came after The Vagina Monolgoues as it is about The Vagina Monologues itself. Though she originally wrote the play to “celebrate the vagina”, Ensler had a bit of an epiphany and changed tack a couple of years after its debut. She decided to harness the power of the piece to start a movement, to stop violence against women. V-Day is a non-profit movement to raise funds and support for existing local and grassroots organisations. Through performances and protests, V-Day has raised over $100 million for shelters, crisis lines, and legal aid.

The Vagina Monologues is maybe a bit of an artifact now – could Ensler ever have conceived of WAP in the early ’90s? – but many of the issues it addresses remain unresolved, and the goal of V-Day (to end violence against women) remains unmet. New issues have arisen, and old issues have re-emerged, since Ensler first started performing her play Off-Off-Broadway. You couldn’t have an equivalent today without specifically addressing, for instance, the transgender experience, or recent backwards steps in access to reproductive healthcare in the United States.

That’s not to say that Ensler hasn’t done anything to progress alongside community standards, or that her play has no ongoing relevance or resonance. In 2004, for instance, an all-trans cast performed The Vagina Monologues for the first time, a production documented in Beautiful Daughters. Ensler herself writes a new monologue to add to the original text, highlighting another issue affecting people with vaginas – that same year, 2004, she wrote one called They Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy… Or So They Tried after interviewing women whose gender identity didn’t matched that they were assigned at birth. Unfortunately, that addition isn’t included in the V-Day edition, but there are versions available online.

All told, I found The Vagina Monologues interesting on multiple levels: as cultural artifact, as feminist literature, as relatable content. My personal favourite of the monologues? I Was Twelve When My Mother Slapped Me, a composite account of first periods. Hilarious, and insightful!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Vagina Monologues:

  • “I am a man and I learned a lot about women from this unique book. Although, I thought it would be better.” – Darron Vanman
  • “A masterpiece that lets you appreciate and love your wife, your mother, your grandmother and your mother-in-law in a whole new way.” – Amazon Customer
  • “For those sane women who threw this obsenity down before the end, don’t let it bother you. When the disgusted leave only the disgusting remains.” – Hosehead
  • “to call this moronic is an insult to morons everywhere. It’s sub-moronic.” – R. Pichlik
  • “Hard to believe this was a ‘live show’, and was put into a book. That women would discuss their vaginas is one thing, but to discuss on how to dress it, what it would say, etc was pretty much outrageous and needless to say disgusting.” – S. Gratz

Dear Prudence – Daniel M Lavery

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If you loved Tiny Beautiful Things, or pored over Agony Aunt articles in your mother’s magazines as a kid, you’re going to want to read Dear Prudence, a collection of the best and wildest letters and responses from’s advice column. The wonderful folks at Scribe were kind enough to send me a copy for review, and I dove in with glee.

First, the philosopher behind the pen: “Prudence”, in this collection, is Daniel M. Lavery (author of the brilliantly-titled Something That May Shock And Discredit You). He wrote the Dear Prudence advice column from 2016-2021, so he covered a lot of juicy years in terms of personal crises for readers.

“Nothing in particular qualified me for the job outside of a general interest in advice-column history,” he says in the introduction. He points out that it’s not exactly a job you can train for, but it’s an endlessly fascinating one for the right type of person. It’s the same fascination that draws us to read a collection like Dear Prudence: “the quiet, private gratification of gawking at someone else’s problems without having to commit a vulgarity like eavesdropping or going through their mail” (the same reason so many AITA posts go viral).

The letters and responses – with Lavery’s additional commentary – are arranged in thematic chapters, with titles like “Can I break up with him without hurting his feelings?”, “Wait – am I in the wrong here?”, and “My kids are growing up. Can someone please stop this?” Given that many letters and responses were written at the height of COVID-19, there’s also a whole lockdown-themed chapter (which you might find triggering, if it’s all a bit too fresh).

I loved the letters, Lavery’s responses, and Lavery’s approach to Dear Prudence overall. He’s open to admitting when, in retrospect, he gave bad advice, and offers us a version of what he could have said instead. It shouldn’t be refreshing to see someone admit, in print, that they got something wrong – but it is!

My favourite letter in Dear Prudence (and I suspect it’s Lavery’s too) came from a woman who had been putting her husband’s toenail clippings in his coffee. You wouldn’t think anyone could be Team Wife in that scenario, but context is everything!

My only quibble with this collection is that it ends kind of abruptly. I was expecting a bit of an outro, or maybe a summary of the advice that Lavery had dispensed throughout Dear Prudence, but it just ends with no parting words of wisdom. So, let me sum it up as best I can for you: assume the best in others, assert your boundaries with others, and see a therapist.

Buy Dear Prudence on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

13 Must-Read Books By AAPI Authors

I saw the acronym AAPI around a lot before I finally learned what it meant: Asian American Pacific Islander. (Being that I’m on the other side of the world, I think it’s kind of fair enough that I didn’t clock it sooner.) A proposed alternative – APIDA, or Asian Pacific Islander Desi American – has been floating around, but AAPI is still the standard parlance, as in AAPI Heritage Month (May). Looking over my shelves, I realised I had a lot of books by AAPI authors, so I thought I’d put together a list of some of the best. Here are 13 must-read books by AAPI authors for anyone looking to expand their literary horizons in that direction.

13 Must-Read Books By AAPI Authors - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Whether you buy books by AAPI authors, or anything else your heart desires, if you use an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission at no cost to you.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

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The Heart Principle has all the hallmarks of a Hoang classic: a diverse cast of characters and a lot of no-holds-barred open-door lust. It’s a little unrealistic (the first bloke that Anna matches with on Tinder is the winner – really?), but all the best romance novels are. What really sets it above Hoang’s earlier novels, though, is the dark turn the story takes at the end of Part One; Anna receives a devastating phone call that changes everything. It made for an all-too-real jarring contrast between sex and sadness. This is one of the best books by AAPI authors for romance fans. Read my full review of The Heart Principle here.

Bonus: check out my review of Helen Hoang’s debut novel, The Kiss Quotient, here.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Good Talk - Mira Jacob - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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”. Jacob’s six-year-old son began asking tricky questions about race, identity, and politics, which led Jacob to re-evaluate her own life experiences and conversations from her past. She reproduces those memories in this illustrated memoir, from her parents’ migration to the United States to the election of Donald Trump. Jacob’s recollections, images, and dialogue are deceptive in their simplicity (and, let me be clear, I mean that in the best possible way). Read my full review of Good Talk here.

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers by Jesse Q Sutanto

Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice For Murderers - Jesse Q Sutanto - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jesse Q Sutanto has written some of the most delightful and engaging books by AAPI authors of the past few years – and the good news is, she is prolific! Even though she’s probably best known for her best-selling Dial A For Aunties, but I get most excited for Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers. First off, it’s got a great title! And the story is heaps of fun too: a “little old lady” who lives in Chinatown discovers the body of a dead man in the middle of her tea shop. In his hand is a flash-drive, and Vera Wong suspects knows that she’ll do a better job of tracking down the person who’d kill for it than the police ever could.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

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You might be tired of essay writers being hailed as “the voice of a generation”, but it’s kind of understandable when you read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. This collection is a “trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives”. Looking at cultural prisms in turn – the advent of social media, the rise of the scamming ethos, the scourge of optimisation under capitalism – Tolentino examines all the ways in which we deceive ourselves, and the truths we work hard to avoid. This is one of the most insightful and searing books by AAPI authors you’ll find on the New York Times Best-Seller List.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel, the one that catapulted her to book club stardom – it’s probably one of the most widely-read books by AAPI authors today. It was famously endorsed by Reese Witherspoon, who said: “It’s a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection,”. Plus, it’s just masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.

Bonus: read my full review of Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, here.

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

To All The Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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, but don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read. Along with the Netflix series, this book has gone a long way for improving AAPI representation in young adult media. Read my full review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before here.

In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order To Live - Yeonmi Park - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Any list of books by AAPI authors is incomplete without an incredible story of resilience in seeking refuge from oppression. That’s what you’ll get in In Order To Live, Yeonmi Park’s true account of how she escaped the most brutal totalitarian regime in the world. Against the odds, Park has gone on to become an advocate for human rights and support for victims of human trafficking; her memoir has drawn attention to the horrors that take place away from the media spotlight. Above and beyond what Park sacrificed to make it to freedom, she faces execution as a “defector” (one with a very public face, no less) if she ever returns to North Korea. Read my full review of In Order To Live here.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Tale For The Time Being has a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. The story itself actually lives up to the high bar the blurb sets. It takes some weird detours into metaphysics and philosophy, but it still comes to a satisfying (though pleasingly not saccharine) conclusion. Read my full review of A Tale For The Time Being here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In 2016, the name Brock Turner made headlines around the world. He was sentenced to just six months in jail after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman on the Stanford campus in California. His victim, identified then only as Emily Doe, wrote an impact statement which was shared online; it went viral, and reached millions around the world within days. Three years later, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of the man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle. Read my full review of Know My Name here.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Trust Exercise - Susan Choi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Theater kids are a real “type”, aren’t they? The ones in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise are no exception. There they are, back in the ’80s, pursuing their dreams in the high-stakes competitive environment of a private performing arts school. Two freshmen students, David and Sarah, fall in love, the passionate teenage kind that we all recognise (if not remember). There wouldn’t be anything remarkable about that, but there’s a day of reckoning coming, for David and Sarah and their teachers and friends. The protective bubble of their insular world is about to pop, and the fall-out won’t spare any of them.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

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Pizza Girl is one of those broadly underrated books by AAPI authors that has a small but very dedicated fan base. The story revolves around an eighteen-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with the stay-at-home mother who phones in a desperate order. The main character is equal parts pitiable and frustrating. She just can’t seem to hold it together, and she makes terrible decisions – again and again – that will make you want to clip her ear. But she’s also strangely heroic, staring down the barrel of a life she doesn’t want and doing her best to find a way out of it. Read my full review of Pizza Girl here.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

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Doing the rounds of writers festivals and book talks, Alexander Chee kept getting the same question over and over: “how much of your fiction is autobiographical?”. Setting aside the ridiculousness of asking that question of a gay Korean American in the 21st century when his last book was about a 19th century soprano singer living in Paris, the idea stuck in his head and ended up becoming this collection of essays. How To Write An Autobiographical Novel grapples with changing identities, the transformative power of drag, the loss of a parent, and the changing political landscape of Donald Trump’s America.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

The Farm - Joanne Ramos - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Farm is a dystopian novel – but it doesn’t necessarily seem that way at first (isn’t that the way all the best ones begin?). The luxury Golden Oaks retreat, hidden in the Hudson Valley, seems like a dream come true: every amenity, every luxury, all of it provided at your whim and, best of all, you don’t pay a cent. In fact, you’re paid to be there! So what’s the catch? Well, you’ll be cut off from all your friends and family, for one. And you’ll be growing a baby for somebody else, for another. It’s hardly a surprise that it attracts desperate women, and one of them – Jane, from the Philippines – is about to learn what happens when you break the rules of the Farm.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism – Grady Hendrix

I’m a bit obsessed with Grady Hendrix. The concepts for his books always slap, the design is always gorgeous (shout out Quirk Books, love their work!), and he makes horror every bit as readable as a rom-com. So, naturally, I must ration his books – I only read one a year to stop myself gobbling them all down at once. This year’s Hendrix is My Best Friend’s Exorcism, his 2016 novel about… well, you guessed it, a girl whose best friend needs an exorcism.

My Best Friend's Exorcism - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get My Best Friend’s Exorcism here.
(You’ll be my best friend forever if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase – you’ll be sending me a small commission.)

Let’s set the scene: it’s 1988, and Abby and Gretchen are best friends forever. They formed an alliance as outsiders in their younger years, and it solidified into the close bond that only teenage girls can have. Their circle is completed by Glee and Margaret, and the four of them have a very ’80s adolescence. It’s all going swimmingly until an experiment tripping on acid goes horribly wrong, and Gretchen starts acting differently…

Hendrix is a master of setting the scene. In My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it’s the MUSIC that will take you right there. Every chapter is named after a classic ’80s track or album, and if someone hasn’t already made a Spotify playlist of all the songs Abby and Gretchen listen to, they should.

Gretchen’s possession makes for a fascinating metaphor, and you could read a lot of meanings into it. It’s about coming-of-age, obviously, but also the frustrations of living in a small town, the widening wealth divide between the working and middle classes, and the double standards when it comes to sex and gender.

Plus, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a testament to the power of (naturally) friendship. Abby is the only one who can see what’s happening to her bestie. She’s scoffed at and scolded by every adult she knows, but she just can’t leave it alone. Eventually, she resorts to calling in an inexperienced gym-bro exorcist, in a really intense denouement.

Don’t let the whimsical nostalgic design, or the “horror comedy” categorisation, fool you. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a genuinely unsettling read. Hendrix has a real thing for rancid smells and vermin – they’ve both played prominent roles in all the books of his I’ve read (see: Horrorstor). But in this book, he takes it to the next level.

Here’s the thing: I was dancing through My Best Friend’s Exorcism, thoroughly enjoying it, ready to mash that five-star button as soon as I was finished, and then… Picture a big red alarm labelled TRIGGER WARNING going off in your face right now, with loud sirens and bells ringing. There was a horrible dog death, so horrible that it took the wind out of me. It was enough to make me bite my tongue when thinking of recommending this book to anyone.

Oh, and this is marginally less triggering, but still upsetting for those of us Of A Certain Age: one of the characters actually says the line “when you’re old and dried up and thirty“. Another nail in my grave.

A screen adaptation came out last year, on Prime Video – but it didn’t seem to make much of a splash. I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out, for fear that the horrible, nightmare-fuel dog death scene is included in it.

I still love Grady Hendrix. I still really enjoyed My Best Friend’s Exorcism… except that one bit. I can’t get past that one bit. If horror books are supposed to give you nightmares, he did his job a bit too well.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Best Friend’s Exorcism:

  • “It’s a book. Utter garbage. Belongs in trash” – Dolphin
  • “I love this author but this book blew me away. It was and wasn’t what I was expecting and I left me in tears which was 0% okay.” – Talia Mintz
  • “I saw this book on sale for $2.99 and thought it would be a fun read. A quick word search to check for profanity however showed 17 f-words, about 15 s-words.

    For some people, this will be an endorsement, but for me, I called Amazon and got a refund.” – Alex
  • “It’s got a great cover, and that’s why I bought it. In terms of what’s inside the cover, don’t expect much besides a bunch of lazy 80’s references and an incredibly clichéd “horror” story. “Horror” being in quotation marks because this book is about as scary as an episode of The Rugrats.” – Stuart Nelson

Search History – Amy Taylor

Search History - Amy Taylor - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Search History here
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When I pulled Search History out of the package kindly sent to me by Allen & Unwin, the first thing I noticed was the tagline: “Rebecca meets Fleabag“. That was all I needed to know about this novel by Melbourne writer Amy Taylor – reel me in, I’m hooked!

As the blurb promised, Search History is “a sharply funny debut novel about identity, obsession, and desire in the internet age”. But, unlike most books about relationships in tHe DiGiTaL eRa, this one actually rings true – in the way the characters think and behave, and the way their use of technology shapes their perceptions.

The main character, Ana, moves from Perth to Melbourne shortly before Search History begins. She’s fresh off the back of a bad break-up, and her efforts to move on with dating apps have been disappointing (to put it mildly – ‘traumatic’ might be more accurate). But when she bumps into a good-looking stranger at after-work drinks, she thinks she might’ve found a way out of the messy single life.

Then, she makes the terminal mistake of so many new relationships in this century: she Googles her new boyfriend, and discovers something about his past she wishes she hadn’t. “My willpower had long ago been weakened against the dopamine release of online search and reward,” she says, perceptively, on page 154.

It turns out his ex-girlfriend, Emily, died in a tragic accident – but her digital footprint remains. Ana becomes obsessed with examining every inch of Emily’s social media accounts, looking for clues as to what her life with the man they both love(d) was like. Search History rises and falls according to Ana’s discoveries, about Emily and about herself.

My need for information about Emily seemed to reveal that I’d been playing a character all along: nonchalant Ana, who was so self-assured she never felt compelled to compare herself to an ex-girlfriend.

Search history (page 176)

I have no doubt there will be readers and reviewers out there who criticise Search History on the basis that Ana gets in her own way so damn much. But, for me, that’s what made it brilliant and relatable. Ana is both self-destructive and self-aware. She knows what she’s doing is bad for her relationship and her mental health, but she just can’t help herself. Let those who have never accidentally deep-liked a new love interest’s Instagram post cast the first stone, as far as I’m concerned!

Buy Search History on Booktopia. (affiliate link)

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