Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz

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

The Plot - Jean Hanff Korelitz - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Plot here.
(And don’t lose the plot about the affiliate links on this page – they just mean I’ll earn a small commission for referring you.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Plot:

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

Exes And O’s – Amy Lea

Exes And Os - Amy Lea - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Romance reader Tara Chen has had her heart broken ten times over. Sick of searching in vain for a new meet cute, she decides to revisit each of her exes, to see if she can make her own second-chance romance happen. Her new roommate, Trevor, is on hand to help her stay the course. He just happens to be a sexy fireman… what could possibly go wrong in Exes And O’s?

The wonderful team at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review. This is Amy Lea’s second novel, the follow-up to her #BookTok sensation Set On You. I was in the mood for something fun, and this fit the bill perfectly (though, I’ll admit, that errant apostrophe in the title drives me nuts).

Speaking of nuts: Lea kindly dedicates Exes And O’s to all of the “crazy” ex-girlfriends (it’s me, hi) and pulls an epigraph from Taylor Swift’s Blank Space. She also includes a very thoughtful content warning before the book begins.

Exes And O’s is sweet, fun, and totally predictable – in a good and comforting way. You know from the second chapter exactly where it’s going, and it’s gratifying to see it all play out exactly the way you’d expect.

Personally, I would’ve liked to see a little more heat, but that’s just my taste – I’m sure for a lot of readers, Lea has the balance just right in Exes And O’s. I think contemporary romance fans will love this one, and it’s a perfectly diverting read for a lazy afternoon.

Buy Exes And O’s on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

10 Classic Books Everyone Should Read

We all know I’m not a fan of “should”ing when it comes to books. The only “should” I really get behind is we should read books that give us what we need – whether that’s intellectual challenge, information, or plain ol’ fun. But if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what classic books everyone should read, I’d be able to afford every book on my wishlist. So, bowing to public pressure, here’s a list of ten classic books everyone should read (and why).

10 Classic Books Everyone Should Read - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I first read The Grapes Of Wrath, I was really struck by how sadly applicable it could be to our current changing climate. (Well, that and the stunning writing, and the sucker-punch of an ending – Steinbeck really needed therapy, sheesh!) In the late 1930s, families struggling to recover from the Great Depression migrated in huge numbers to states like California, in search of work and stability. We’re already seeing the same thing happen to populations impacted by rising sea levels, extinction events, and natural disasters. Sorry to start out on such a bummer note, but this is one of the classic books everyone should read because it’s a scary glimpse into what’s going on in the present. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Selfishly, I say Little Women is one of the classic books everyone should read because it’s so widely misrepresented and misunderstood. It’s almost become a cliche, a shorthand for cloying fluff literature – and yet, Louisa May Alcott wrote it hoping for the complete opposite. She was under pressure from her publishers to write a “good moral story for girls”, and she fulfilled their request while also subverting all of the tropes of the time. The protagonist wasn’t genteel, wasn’t sweet, and didn’t end up with the novel’s “hero”. Alcott used the story to address major social problems, including poverty and suffrage. She was a feminist hero before her time, and we all really should be reading her as such. Read my full review of Little Women here.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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Do you remember Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the danger of a single story? She was speaking mostly in the context of African literature and the stories of African women, but it definitely applies more broadly. In this case, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the classic books everyone should read because it swims against the current of the ‘single story’ about being Black in America in the early 20th century. Naturally, narratives about explicit racism and the intergenerational trauma of slavery are at the fore – as they should be – but this book is brilliant in that it is about Black issues, and written by a Black author, without being about either of those things. It should definitely be included in all American reading lists, for that and for many other reasons. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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The Little Prince is one of the classic books everyone should read because it will open your heart (and your tear ducts). It’s chock-full of gems of wisdom, like “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations,” and “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Plus, even the new editions come with truly gorgeous watercolour illustrations that de Saint-Exupéry slaved over while preparing the original manuscript. Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is one of the classic books everyone should read if they’ve got any kind of interest in how literature – specifically literary mysteries – “work”. Despite his ambivalent feelings about his most famous and beloved character (and “ambivalent” is putting it very mildly), Doyle wrote stories that are a true masterclass in economy of language and the importance of pacing. Time after time, Sherlock’s cases are clever, inventive, and keep you turning pages. Plus, they’re plain old fun – even if classic books aren’t usually “your thing”. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Russian classics have a reputation for being long and depressing – and it’s not unwarranted. But it is really unfair that Crime And Punishment gets tarred with that brush! I read the McDuff translation, which may make a difference (translated classic books that everyone should read are a tricky beast), so make sure you’re picking up that one if you’re taking my recommendation. It’s some of the most compelling psychological fiction I’ve ever read, and it’s hilarious to boot. You’ll find yourself totally relating to an axe murderer who just can’t help getting in his own way. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re after a cracking classic read, one that will pull you along without all the pathos of Wuthering Heights (yes, that’s a dig at Charlotte Brontë’s melodramatic little sister), you must check out Jane Eyre. Charlotte has been called the “first historian of private consciousness” for the revolutionary way she wrote a young woman’s narrative – and the love story is as steamy as mid-19th century literature can get. Plus, when you read it alongside Wide Sargasso Sea, it will teach you a lot about perspective in stories (fictional and otherwise), and the silencing of voices throughout literature. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

With the recent contemporary romance boom on #Bookstagram, you might think you’ve got more than enough enemies-to-lovers books to be getting on with. Pride And Prejudice is the OG enemies-to-lovers, the point where it all began, and it’s definitely one of the classic books everyone should read. I didn’t have an easy ride with it – I started and abandoned it no fewer than six times before I finally got on a roll – but, like all of Austen’s works, my appreciation for it has only grown over time. I dare you to find a contemporary romance with more smouldering disdain and tortured yearning! Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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You’re probably guessing that Frankenstein belongs on a list of classic books everyone should read for feminism(TM) reasons. You’re not wrong, but there are plenty of other reasons it belongs here, too. This book represents the origins of science fiction, a genre that has influenced literature and the broader cultural zeitgeist more than we realise. Plus, when you really think about it, Shelley was giving us a super-timely warning about hubristic tech bros who spend way too much money and time on projects when they have no idea what they’re doing and no regard for the consequences. (Everyone on Twitter knows what I’m talking about…) Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me - Ann Rule - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Stranger Beside Me is considerably younger than a lot of the other classic books everyone should read, but it’s a classic of the true crime genre so I say it counts! It’s not all salacious insider details about one of the most horrifying serial killers to terrorise America’s cities, either. It has an important message for us all about how appearances can be deceiving, and how we should listen when our spidey senses start tingling. Ann Rule worked alongside Ted Bundy for years without (initially) knowing that he was raping and murdering women for kicks. It will make you look at all of your casual relationships and acquaintances a little differently. Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – Iain Reid

Iain Reid was already an award-winning nonfiction writer when he decided to turn his hand to fiction. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is his first novel, and despite his past success, he had trouble finding anyone willing to publish it. “Just about everyone in Canada rejected it,” he has said, “until Simon and Schuster made a modest offer.” I bet they’re I-told-you-so-ing all over town, because I’m Thinking Of Ending Things went on to become a New York Times Best Seller, got translated into twenty languages, and scored a Netflix adaptation.

I'm Thinking Of Ending Things - Iain Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a road trip novel in the psychological thriller/horror fiction vein. My edition – and most editions, I think – comes with no blurb, so you truly go in blind. The story begins with a nameless narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, in a car en route to visit Jake’s parents for the first time. She’s thinking of ending things, but Jake doesn’t know that yet.

That’s not all Jake doesn’t know yet. Our narrator is also being stalked by The Caller, a man who leaves her cryptic voicemails, somehow calling her from her own number.

So, yeah. You’re already drowning in hints that something’s hinky.

The evening with Jake’s parents, on a remote farm in the middle of winter, is creepy as hell. The conversation is awkward, the parents are weird, and the narrator can’t make sense of the weird things she sees – like a photo of herself as a child in Jake’s room. They only met a few months prior at a pub trivia night, so it seems impossible that he could have it, but she’s soon distracted by another unsettling conversation with Jake’s dad and a visit to the harrowing basement.

How do we know when something is menacing? What cues us that something is not innocent? Instinct always trumps reason.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (Page 17)

On the drive home, Jake wants to stop for ice cream. The narrator thinks she recognises one of the girls behind the counter, and is extra-creeped out when the girl subtly mentions being “worried” for her. When they leave, Jake comes up with a flimsy excuse to detour past the local high-school. And that’s where I’m Thinking Of Ending Things really takes off.

The chapters are interspersed, too, with italicised pages – apparently extracts from a gossipy conversation about some kind of tragedy or scandal. They gradually nudge the reader towards the novel’s horrifying conclusion.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things would be a great spooky read for Halloween. I read it all in one night, because I definitely would have had nightmares if I’d put it down halfway. Mr Keeping Up With The Penguins walked into the room unexpectedly when I was about three-quarters of the way through, and I jumped so high my head just about hit the ceiling.

The ending was a bit murky, though, and it didn’t quite satisfy after such a hair-raising build-up. This might be one where you have to google “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things ending explained” after you finish. Reid has said that he left things open to interpretation on purpose, because he “appreciates books that put some of the onus onto me to decipher and complete the story”. That’s great and everything, but I like my mysteries completely solved – if only so I can still get a good night’s sleep afterwards.

Still, I enjoyed reading I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, and I definitely want to check out the 2020 Netflix adaptation – especially since I realised Toni Collette is in it (one of my faves). Tl;dr? I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is Under The Skin meets Gone Girl meets Fight Club, and it’s definitely not for wimps.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things:

  • “If you’ve been debating getting this story since BookTok recommended it, do yourself a solid and make the purchase. Not only is the story incredible, but the cover has a matte finish that feels amazing in your hands.” – Mv
  • “Thank goodness I downloaded this one from the library and wasted time instead of money.” – cschlingmann
  • “One of the reviews said you will read this in one sitting–you will–but not because it’s good. You will do it to end the pain.” – Michael Blake
  • “It’s Fight Club … in the snow.” – Listener

Remainders Of The Day – Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell has been running a Wigtown bookshop for twenty years now, and Remainders Of The Day is the third installment of his diary series about day-to-day life as a bookseller. Having worked in a quaint and quirky secondhand bookstore myself, I fully expected Remainders Of The Day to be a fun and relatable read, so I was delighted to receive a copy from Profile Books (via Allen & Unwin) for review.

Remainders Of The Day was more understated than I expected, quite a cozy read – with brilliant moments of sensational snark. “Spotted Bum-Bag Dave shuffling onto the bus to Newtown Stewart as I was closing up,” Bythell writes of a local ‘colourful character’ at one point. “He hasn’t set foot in the shop for quite a while. I think I may have offended him. I certainly hope so.”

What I think Bythell conveys really well is how variable the number of customers are (and the resultant takings) day-to-day. Some days, customers flow and the till tinkles often to the tune of hundreds of pounds. On other days, Bythell is lucky if he sees a single soul.

I think readers of Remainders Of The Day will be shocked to discover the hold that Amazon and other online retailers have over the book trade, even for traditional bricks-and-mortar store. Bythell’s bungles of online orders and frustrations with bureaucracy are a recurring motif.

The story did get a bit bogged down in the very detailed descriptions of the ins-and-outs of the Wigtown Festival (towards the end of September). Personally, I also reeled at the mention of some very tragic dog deaths mentioned (towards the end of May) – though I can hardly fault Bythell for that.

All told, Remainders Of The Day is a remarkably accurate insight into the life of a used bookseller, and a delightful easy read for this time of year.

Buy Remainders Of The Day on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

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