Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

It’s kind of weird that this is my first Jodi Picoult read, especially given how much I love books about moral dilemmas and ethical quagmires (for which she is famous). My Sister’s Keeper is her eleventh novel, but it’s undoubtedly her most widely read and best known – thanks, at least in part, to the controversial film adaptation released in 2009.

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Get My Sister’s Keeper here.
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Picoult, indeed, tackles a very thorny issue in this one. The main character, Anna, is thirteen years old at the time My Sister’s Keeper begins. She was conceived as a matched donor for her older sister, Kate. Kate is barely clinging to life after a young diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia. She’s been variously saved over the intervening decade through donations of Anna’s umbilical cord blood, blood-blood, stem cells, bone marrow – and now, one of Anna’s kidneys is on the table.

Faced with the possibility of being forced to undergo a major surgery – with the risk of lifelong complications (or, y’know, death) and no guarantee that it will save Kate’s life – Anna takes drastic action. She seeks out flashy lawyer Campbell Alexander to petition on her behalf for medical emancipation from her parents. That would mean that the decision of whether or not to donate a kidney would rest entirely in her 13-year-old hands.

My Sister’s Keeper is told from multiple perspectives, so you get the full spectrum of insight into the ramifications of Anna’s decision. You hear from Anna herself, as well as her lawyer, her mother, her father, her brother, and her guardian ad litem appointed by the court.

Interestingly, you don’t hear from her sister, undeniably the person most impacted by Anna’s fight for emancipation. There’s a good reason for that in the narrative, and let this serve as your warning that this review, from here on out, is going to get spoiler-y.

During the trial for Anna’s medical emancipation, she reveals that she’s actually acting according to her sister’s wishes. Anna would be willing to continue to act as a donor, except that Kate has asked her to stop; she feels she’s ready to die, but surmises that her parents aren’t ready to let her give up the fight. It’s the big “clang” we’ve been waiting for throughout My Sister’s Keeper, saving it from being an expensive high-stakes teenage temper tantrum.

Oh, and there’s a side-plot playing out, too. Anna and Kate’s brother, Jesse, is a secret juvenile delinquent. In a laughably obvious ploy for his firefighter father’s attention, he’s been secretly setting fires in abandoned buildings all over town. This storyline has a nice little denouement, with a confrontation between Jesse and his father, just before Anna’s big reveal… but it’s never really Finished, aside from a throwaway line in the epilogue. Apparently, that one conversation with his father, and his sister’s death (more on that in a second), was enough for Jesse to turn his life around and enroll in the police academy. *shrugs*

Anyway, back to Anna: the judge rules in her favour, and awards her lawyer a medical power of attorney. The lawyer offers her a lift to the hospital to see Kate and tell her the good(?) news…

… and their car crashes. Anna is declared brain dead, and the lawyer grants permission for her kidney to be donated to Kate. Kate lives not-exactly-happily, but ever after, anyway.

Up until that point, I’d been thoroughly enjoying My Sister’s Keeper. I’d been pleasantly surprised by the Picoult’s deft handling of a mightily complex subject, with decent prose and excellent timing. She says, in the Acknowledgements, that her own child had to undergo ten surgeries in three years, so clearly she had heaps of experience to draw on with the sick-child narrative. But that ending? Ooft. It was too quick, too brash, and too melodramatic.

If Picoult was intent on working in this final twist (Anna’s death), she could at least have stretched out the timeline so it didn’t feel so soapy. I mean, a car crash on the way to the hospital? Come on. It was an unfortunate end to what had been, otherwise, a cracking read.

It only made it all the more baffling to me that My Sister’s Keeper readers were so attached to this ending that they metaphorically set the world on fire when it was changed to suit the film adaptation. The movie presents a radically different outcome, plus it emphasises some sub-plots while writing out others entirely. Most interesting to me: this was all done against Picoult’s wishes. Taking an author’s work and changing it, despite her public derision of that decision? Bold. Very bold.

Anyway, all told, My Sister’s Keeper was a winner for me, right up until the very end. Picoult snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I’m keen to give another one of her books a go, though, to see if her talents have been better applied elsewhere.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister’s Keeper:

  • “I swear the book itself is really good. I felt so many things reading about these characters try to figure life as they know it. But after getting to the end the one message I can give is, do not read this book. Do not pick it up because if you’re like me you loved GOT and then sn 8 happened. That’s the best way to describe this book’s ending.” – Kindle Customer
  • “book sucks” – Mads
  • “if it is going to be melodrama then I will take it in period costume. This was trying to be philosophical but fell on its arty arse… Maybe the only problem with the surprise ending is that they weren’t all treated to the same fate!” – Bibliophage
  • “3 compelling characters only if you count the dog” – Bri Bold
  • “Seriously one the worst books I’ve read. I feel like the author didn’t have the courage to follow the through with the story. I know she has said she had it planned out from the beginning but seriously, you are going to boil the whole story down to a random accident? Then in future everything is okay so don’t get to glum… Cheap, why don’t I just listen to a Brittney Spears song and eat some pop tarts while laying on some 50 thread count sheets to finish the experience.

    Honestly it would be like if at the end of the Joy Luck Club a meteor hit the town and vaporized the mothers, and sisters in China, then flashing forward and showing how that ironed everything out and made the daughters overcome their issues with their mothers. Seriously a cowardly writer, I don’t think I will explore anymore of her work.” – Jacqueline

The Women Could Fly – Megan Giddings

Megan Giddings is one of the fiercest new voices in contemporary fiction. In The Women Could Fly, her second novel, she imagines a dystopian world where witchcraft is persecuted and single women are not to be trusted.

My endless gratitude to the team at Macmillan for sending me a copy for review!

When the story begins, Josephine Thomas isn’t sure that witchcraft actually exists. It could be a lie perpetrated by the authorities to keep women oppressed. Of greater concern is her mother being declared dead, after she disappeared off the face of the earth fourteen years ago. She left concerning, mysterious instructions in her Will that Josephine must follow to the letter in order to collect her inheritance, and put the past behind her.

Oh, and the pressure is on in Josephine’s casual relationship. Women must marry by age 30, or face a life of restricted movement and intense state surveillance, in the name of public safety. Should 28-year-old Josephine try to make a marriage out of her occasional booty calls with a man she calls Party City? Or might there be another option?

The Women Could Fly is an eerie, prescient novel with the sharp social commentary I suspect will become characteristic of Giddings’ writing. She “explores the limits women face—and the powers they have to transgress and transcend them”. You will finish The Women Could Fly with an intense desire to jump on a broomstick and dance naked under the moon – or, at the very least, write a letter to your local representative.

13 Classic Books That Weren’t Well Received

It’s easy to forget that some iconic books – classics that we were forced to read in high-school, that SparkNotes makes memes about now – weren’t always held up as the pinnacle of literature. Many of the “most loved” books today were woefully underappreciated in their own time. Some of them were downright derided. Here are thirteen classic books that weren’t well received… at first.

If you buy one of these classic books through an affiliate link, I’ll receive a small commission, very gratefully!

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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Brave New World – Aldous Huxley’s now-classic dystopia, complete with sex, drugs, and “feelies” – got some positive press upon its release in 1932. Philosopher Bertrand Russell praised it, saying that Huxley “has shown his usually masterly skill” and Dame Rebecca West called it Huxley’s “most accomplished novel”. But he faced some heavy criticism, too. Fellow sci-fi author H.G. Wells railed against Huxley for “betraying the future as a concept”. A review published in The Guardian was particularly savage: “the title which he gave to one of his earlier books, These Barren Leaves, is applicable to very much that he has written…. This book fails both as a satire and romance…. It is easier to exploit the possibilities of mental death than to meet the demands of creative life.” Read my full review of Brave New World here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

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It might surprise you to know that The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was almost as controversial when it was first released in 1885 as it is today. As recently as 2016, the classic American novel was removed from one Virginia public school district, on the basis that it includes inappropriate language and racial slurs. 130 years prior, the Concord Public Library committee held a very similar view: “the veriest trash… rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,”. They, too, chose to ban the book. Upon hearing that news, Twain is reported to have said “This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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The Brontës famously published their works using androgynous pseudonyms (Emily going by “Ellis Bell”), but that didn’t stop reviewers going to town on her only published novel, Wuthering Heights. Graham’s Lady Magazine wrote at the time: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors,”. The Examiner said “as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages”. Emily, being notoriously shy and reluctant to publish at all, probably didn’t read her own press – good thing, too, if those reviews are anything to go by. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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Even though Gone With The Wind was wildly popular with readers immediately upon release (it was the best-selling fiction book two years running, in 1936 and 1937), critics didn’t share their enthusiasm. Reviewer for The New York Times, Ralph Thompson, said “I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to say, 500 pages… Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter.” That’s a sick burn all on its own, but critics rightly also zeroed in on Mitchell’s deeply problematic and revisionist depictions of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction. Those (very justified) criticisms have only amplified over time.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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I have been very vocal about my own dislike of The Great Gatsby, and I am pleased to report that many early readers and reviewers agreed with me. The novel – now considered one of the classic books of the Jazz Age – was considered a fall from form for Fitzgerald, “an inconsequential performance by a once-promising author who had grown bored and cynical”, and reviewers were “quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today”. The plot was also called “improbable”, and its style “painfully forced”. Fitzgerald was apparently so bummed out by these reviews that he signed off a telegram to his publisher: “Yours in great depression”. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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One of the (many) funny things about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the contrast in its reception on different continents. In the U.K., where newspapers had a huge staff of experienced reviewers and literary critics, they called it “a phenomenal literary work, a philosophical, metaphysical, and poetic romance”, and “one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most amusing of modern books”. Meanwhile, in the New World (U.S.), where experienced critics were few and far between, baffled journalists trying to wade through Melville’s mountain of prose declared it “not worth the money asked for it, either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper” and “a crazy sort of affair”. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides of the pond, but doesn’t that just prove the rule? Read my full review of Moby Dick here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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Look, examples abound that prove Ulysses should be on any list of classic books that weren’t well received. Even today, respected as a load-bearing pillar in the modernist canon, most readers and reviewers regard it with confusion more so than admiration or anything else. Some of my favourite Ulysses slams include Virginia Woolf writing in her diary that it was: “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating,”. See also The Sporting Times, who wrote that it was “written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine,”. Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Joseph Heller threw a decades-long tantrum when Catch-22 wasn’t received as well as he thought it should have been. Even though The New York Times initially called it “a dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights,”, a second review in the same paper said “[it is] repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest,”. Despite Heller’s big hopes, it didn’t win a single award, not even the much coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Heller remained bitter about it until the day he died. Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

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Angry teenagers forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in English Lit classes would be thrilled to know how poorly it was received upon its release in 1951. It was called everything from “disappointing”, to “a near miss”, to “wholly repellent”, to “peculiarly offensive”. Most reviewers seemed to take particular issue with the divisive protagonist-narrator, Holden Caulfield, whose adolescent angst was declared “wearisome” by the New Republic. Older wowsers didn’t like that he was running around getting drunk and trying to get it on with sex workers, either – a position that certain school board members still hold today, it would seem. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Kafka was the very definition of “underappreciated in his own time”, and he knew it, too. His diaries and letters are full of laments about his work and his general malaise, self-deprecation taken to the extreme. Today, The Metamorphosis is his best-known work and widely regarded as one of the most brilliant allegories ever written – but it was barely read when it was first published in 1915, and even Kafka himself didn’t like it in retrospect. He wrote that he “[was] reading The Metamorphosis at home and find[ing] it bad,”, that he felt a “great antipathy” towards it and its “unreadable ending”. The bulk of Kafka’s other work wasn’t published until after his death, and it certainly wasn’t widely read or beloved until many years later.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Long before it was a HBO series, or the symbol of white feminist resistance against the Trump administration, The Handmaid’s Tale was a 1986 novel met with a reaction that could be best summed up as: “meh”. The New York Times said it “lacks imagination” (which is true, technically, given that Atwood has said time and again that everything she included in the book has happened or is happening somewhere in the world). It was also called, by various other outlets, “short on characterisation,” “thinly textured,” and (my personal favourite) “paranoid poppycock”. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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The Grapes Of Wrath was basically America’s first big Hate Read. In 1939, everyone was reading it and everyone had something to say about it. Steinbeck was attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, believe it or not: both accused him of being a communist, and publishing a book of propaganda. The Associated Farmers of California were particularly vocal in their displeasure, calling Steinbeck’s depiction of the treatment of migrating farm workers as a “pack of lies”. Steinbeck was also revealed to have ripped off the research work of comparatively-unknown writer Sanora Bobb, but that didn’t seem as important to anyone as the fact that he was “trying to make a political point” (that it… sucks to be poor?). Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

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The criticism of Lord Of The Flies began before it even hit the bookstore shelves. More than 20 publishers passed on Golding’s nightmare-fuel story about shipwrecked children turning to savages (I can’t imagine why). One called it “rubbish and dull, pointless,”. Even when he finally found a publisher willing to take a punt on it, they sold only a few thousand copies before it went out of print. The New Yorker called it “completely unpleasant”. How it went from the bargain bin to a Nobel Prize winner assigned reading in every English-speaking classroom around the world is beyond me. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Having read Toni Morrison’s most-beloved (ha!) novel first, I decided to go with her very first novel next. The Bluest Eye is an iconic novel about beauty, violent jealousy, and the source of racial self-loathing, first published in 1970.

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Bluest Eye here.
(Heads up: if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission, which will chase the blues away!)

The Bluest Eye is short, just shy of a couple hundred pages, so it can be read in one sitting if you’ve got the peace and quiet you’ll need to really focus on it. I wouldn’t characterise it as a quick read, because there is so much going on and it’s very dark, but it’s a short one at least.

Speaking of the dark themes, I’m going to give you the trigger warnings right now, because I won’t be able to avoid talking about them from this point on. Heads up for family violence, rape (including that of a child), and animal cruelty (including a particularly horrendous dog death that really messed me up).

Okay, on with it: the action takes place in Lorain, Ohio – which was actually Morrison’s hometown! – in the early 1940s, just before war broke out. It all revolves around Pecola, a young Black girl who is widely considered ugly due to her dark skin and her unpolished appearance.

The point of view, though, is that of Claudia, a girl around Pecola’s age whose parents foster Pecola at various times. See, Pecola’s home life leaves a lot to be desired. Her family lives in an abandoned shop front, and her father is an unreliable alcoholic who sexually abuses her (I warned you!) and beats her mother. When her father accidentally burns the place down, Pecola goes to stay with Claudia’s family, until… well, it’s not clear when exactly, because her circumstances seem unlikely to improve.

Flashbacks throughout The Bluest Eye weave together Pecola’s story, and Claudia’s, and that of Pecola’s parents (Cholly and Pauline), as well as other characters that are in Pecola’s orbit. It’s a clear precursor to books like Girl, Woman, Other, that use multiple characters’ perspectives to tell a wide-ranging story around a theme.

There are no “big reveals” or “climaxes” exactly. It’s more like The Bluest Eye circles around a major time bomb – the fact that Pecola is pregnant, after being raped by her father – that will inevitably go off. It is through that pregnancy that Morrison paints a portrait of Black life in a WASP community in that era. As if it all wasn’t sad enough, Pecola’s child doesn’t survive, an outcome that Claudia blames on herself (she and her sister planted marigolds, in the hopes that the plant’s survival would guarantee the child’s, but of course neither flourished).

In the end, Claudia realises that her community uses Pecola – her “ugliness”, her poverty, her terrible circumstances – to make themselves feel better. The title – The Bluest Eye – comes from Pecola’s desperate attempt, towards the end of the novel, to turn her eyes blue, in the hopes that it would make her “pretty” (read: more white) and change her fortune. Pecola descends into madness, and lives a life of delusion, where she believes she has succeeded in changing the colour of her eyes.

So, yeah. There’s not much joy to be found here.

Morrison has said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “interested in talking about black girlhood”. It seems sadly inevitable that a book on that subject would end up a foundational text about the impact of Euro-centric beauty standards and internalised loathing. She subsequently said her ‘job’, as she saw it, was to “rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate”, which she certainly achieved.

My edition has a gorgeous, generous afterword by Toni Morrison herself, written in 1993. She mentions—among other things—that she broke the narrative of The Bluest Eye into parts that the reader has to reassemble, to prevent us from falling into the trap of “the comfort of pitying Pecola.” I think that’s what sets works like this apart from Misery Porn books like A Little Life – the misery is central to the story, but there is purpose to it beyond pitying the sufferer.

Morrison also says, though, that she’s not satisfied with the execution of her ideas in retrospect, which is a shame—and, honestly, a brave thing to admit to a reader who has just finished her book.

And, of course, I must mention that The Bluest Eye – being a book about racism, incest, molestation, and so forth – has been subjected to countless bans and instances of censorship. It’s not ancient history, either; as recently as last year, it made the top ten list of most-banned books in the U.S. I mean, I understand that these subjects are tough and not all kids (heck, not all adults) are up to it – and there’s no shame in that – but denying others access to Morrison’s brilliant Nobel Prize-winning work is just unconscionable. So, there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bluest Eye:

  • “F this book it was for school .. but ok overall” – maddie
  • “our stupid Florida governor has banned this book and I have no idea why.” – fmartinache
  • “Appalling. Filled with sex . Awful sex. Can’t see why this is an award book. Not appropriate for kids. Amen” – Ron Toleos
  • “People say “Oh, it’s a powerful story about racism and false ideas of beauty etc.” But IMO, there are so many BETTER stories about those themes that DON’T make me want to scrub my eyeballs after reading them.” – Trudi M. Rosenblum
  • “For those who care, she uses f-words and b-words in the book. The book is filled with sexuality. I didn’t like it because if I want to read a book, I like to read something that doesn’t pollute my mind and I thought, an skilful writer like her didn’t need to decorate her work with profanity” – Naz88

The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast – Christine Sykes

Are you sick of seeing older women represented in fiction as just crocheting grandmas or lonely baffled biddies? I know I am. I’m loving seeing more stories about older women with rich, complex, and meaningful lives beyond their kids and the cliches of twilight years. The most recent to fall into my hands is The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast by Christine Sykes – the wonderful folks at Ventura Press and DMCPR Media were kind enough to send it to me for review.

The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast is like The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Conifer meets Strictly Ballroom. Three women – lifelong friends, reunited after many years of life pulling them in different directions – are dancing their way into the Senior Superstar Competition on the Sunshine Coast. Sykes was actually inspired by her aunt’s experience taking up tap dancing later in life, and it’s clear to see her passion for the form and the fun it brings dancers of all ages.

The story is framed as being told by the women – Sofia, Carol, and Bonnie – to one of their granddaughters during the first COVID-19 lockdown. I thought, at first, that it might go in a Daisy Jones direction, but instead it ended up reading as a kind of semi-omniscient first-person tale. That made the perspective a little confusing at times, as to who was speaking and what they knew (or should know) about what went down in the lead up to the final round of the competition.

The dialogue and prose was a bit clunky, too, heavy on the exposition. Nonetheless, The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast is a fun story about friendship, truth, and (most important of all) tap-dancing.

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