Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Dry – Jane Harper

I was feeling increasingly ridiculous being an Australian reader who had not read a single Jane Harper novel. She’s one of our biggest authorial exports of recent years, up there with Liane Moriarty. Her novels are crime thrillers set in regional areas – real “small town with a dark secret” stuff – and they’ve won more awards than you can poke a stick at. I decided to start with The Dry, her debut novel first published back in 2016, which went on to sell over a million copies.

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional town five hours’ drive from Melbourne. It’s an El Niño summer (like the one we’re predicted to have later this year), and severe drought has hit the town hard. A farmer, Luke Hadler, shot his wife and son in cold blood, before turning the gun on himself – or so it seems. Most of the townspeople are happy to assume that it was the last desperate act of a depressed man driven to the brink, but Luke’s parents think something more sinister might be afoot. After all, why would Luke leave his 13-month-old daughter unscathed?

They call in Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, who now works as a financial crimes cop in the big smoke. Falk’s not overjoyed to be returning to his hometown, after he left amid scandal as a teenager. He thinks he’s just going to attend the Hadler family funeral, shake a few hands, and be on his way. Of course, they reel him back in, and he finds himself working with the local cop to find out the truth of the Hadler deaths.

All of this suggests that The Dry is a quintessentially Australian story. There have, after all, been several tragic murder-suicides along these lines in regional communities over recent years, and anyone who’s spent more than a minute in a drought-affected area can tell you that it’s thoroughly believable.

You can understand, then, why I was a bit put off by Harper referring to a Hill’s hoist as a “rotary line” in the Prologue. I have never, in my whole life, heard an Australian call it anything other than a Hill’s hoist. What the fuck is she playing at? There were also flies eating the freshly-shot corpses of the Hadley family, but honestly I found that less disturbing than the patois fail.

Aside from a few qualms like that one, The Dry is remarkably well written. The prose is taut and evocative, a step above Liane Moriarty in my view (though it would certainly appeal to readers who like her books). Take, for instance, the way that Falk is lured back to Kiewarra – he receives a note from Luke’s father that reads “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” In context, it struck just the right ominous note, compelling you to read on without over-egging the pudding (as first-time thriller writers are wont to do).

I will concede, though, that most of the plot twists were very predictable. At one point, I literally shook my copy of The Dry and said – out loud – “ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?! HE’S GAY!” as the obtuse characters stumbled around, stymied by their own terrible gaydar. Given that Harper has nailed the “voice” for her thrillers, I’d imagine she’ll come around to better plotting with time.

(Because this is My Thing now, I will give a trigger warning for a dog death: it’s just a mention, a sad one, but very brief and the dog doesn’t actually feature as a character.)

I can totally see why they cast Eric Bana as the lead in the film adaptation of The Dry. He’s the perfect Aaron Falk, exactly as you’d picture him. I’ll definitely be watching it, as soon as I get a chance, now that I’ve read the book. When it was finally released (after COVID-19 delays) in 2021, it broke box office records, becoming one of the highest-grossing Australian film opening weekends ever. If I’m honest, I’m more excited for movie night than I am seeking out any more of Harper’s books. The Dry was good, mostly, but not so good that I simply must read more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dry:

  • “I do not like to read about the shooting of rabbits and all kinds of cruelty to other animals. I know the people in the town it takes place in do it to survive and feed their families but I still don’t want to read about it. The villain was no surprise either. I guessed it was him by about the second time his character was introduced. No, I am not that smart. It was just obvious.” – Sabrina
  • “Found this dry all around. Main character dry. Supporting characters dry. The weather was dry…but I only felt it when it was directly mentioned.” – thom coco edwards
  • “It was a laborious read and I forced myself to get to the end. The mist “gratifying” part of the book was deleting it from my kindle.” – An Avid Reader

The Visitors – Jane Harrison

The Visitors - Jane Harrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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January 1788 was the most pivotal month in Australia’s long, long history. Several ships appeared on the horizon off the New South Wales coast, and First Nations men gathered to discuss what to do. Should the strangers be welcomed, or run off? Are they approaching as friends or foes? This is the moment at the heart of The Visitors, Jane Harrison’s debut novel based on her award-winning play.

The blurb positions The Visitors as Twelve Angry Men meets Lincoln In The Bardo with an Australian sense of humour – which is pretty spot on (though, I’ll admit, I didn’t laugh out loud really at all – the content was too serious and captivating for that).

Representatives of the clan groups around the harbour (Wangal, Bidjigal, Burramuttagal, Cameragal, Gadigal, Wallumedegal, and Gweagal) gather for the emergency meeting. Some are young, some old, each with their own private inclinations and formal alliances that will dictate how they decide to proceed. They argue and share stories over the course of the day; it’s a fascinating tableau, though the reader can see the inevitable conclusion fast approaching.

Over and above the primary focus of The Visitors, I was particularly taken with how Harrison depicted the close connection between First Nations people and country. The Aboriginal characters can read the land and its rhythms in a remarkably complex and insightful way – in line with Dark Emu and contemporary research into First Nations history and science.

What wrenched my heart, though, was the way the characters didn’t – couldn’t – foresee the most dangerous threat posed by the visitors to their shores. It wasn’t their firesticks or their “barbarous” treatment of the land, but something far more insidious…

The Visitors is a particularly thought-provoking read with the forthcoming Referendum in Australia, and I doubt the timing of its release is an accident. I highly recommend it to all Australian readers – and all international readers who want to know more about our history, come to that.

Timely reminder: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation (as featured in The Visitors). I pay my deepest respects to the Elders of this land, and their enduring custodianship.

Buy The Visitors on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

10 Books That Start With A Bang

It’s every author’s dream to write books that start with a bang. That’s how you draw the readers in, get them hooked, knock their socks off right from the get-go. But it’s an elusive goal, for many: the beginning bang often stretches beyond the opening line, and has to be backed-up by a brilliant story to work. Here are ten books that start with a bang and deserve their spot on your to-read list.

10 Books That Start With A Bang - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy begins with the end of the world – literally! You can’t get much more of a bang than that! A Vogon fleet vaporises our dear planet to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Luckily, an unassuming English gent – Arthur Dent – is rescued by Ford Prefect, the humanoid alien freelancer who’s writing a guide to Earth for an interplanetary travel guide. Ford drags Arthur up and away, and they hitch a ride on a passing Vogon space craft. And so, their misadventures begin… Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Donna Tartt’s whole career started with a bang when she wrote the prologue to her debut novel, The Secret History. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the strongest openers ever written. The first pages reveal that a group of friends have killed someone (clang!) named Bunny, and that he’d been dead “for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation”. The reader doesn’t know who Bunny is or why they killed him or how grave their situation might be – it raises so many questions, you simply have no choice but to read on. Read my full review of The Secret History here.

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

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The Temple House Vanishing is surely one of the most underrated books that start with a bang. It might sound like your standard girl-goes-missing mystery/thriller, but Donohue manages to use a well-worn plot to interrogate all manner of very literary themes: class, religion, jealousy. Twenty-five years ago, a teenage student of Temple House vanished, along with her enigmatic and charming art teacher. In the (roughly) present day, a journalist with a childhood connection to the girl decides to investigate. With the death of a significant character in the opening pages, Donohue signals early on that you’re going to get more than you bargained for. Read my full review of The Temple House Vanishing here.

The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness - Tana French - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The best books that start with a bang lay out a premise so bonkers, you simply have to know how it all plays out. That’s what happens with The Likeness, a crime fiction novel by the reigning queen Tana French. Detective Cassie Maddox gets a frantic call from her cop boyfriend, checking on her wellbeing, because a murder victim has just been found who looks exactly like her. They look so similar, in fact, that Maddox’s boss convinces her to pose as the dead girl in her share-house, to see if the murderer will reveal himself if he’s fooled into thinking he didn’t get the job done. BONKERS, right? Read my full review of The Likeness here.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everything I Never Told You begins in 1977. The Lee family appears to be average in every way – working father, stay-at-home mother, three kids and a comfortable home in Ohio. Except that their middle child, Lydia, is dead… and they don’t know it, yet. That’s literally what Celeste Ng reveals on the very first page, and it only gets more intense from there. Your eyes will be glued to the page as Lydia’s disappearance, then death, is revealed to the Lee family, and the reasons for it become clear. Ng has a real knack for writing books that start with a bang. Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.

The Martian by Andy Weir

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

If you’re going to transcend genre boundaries and draw in readers who don’t usually go for science fiction books, they need to start with a bang. Andy Weir nails it with The Martian. “I’m pretty much fucked,” says the narrator Mark Watney in the first line. “That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.” Who could resist reading more? The true fucked-ness of Watney’s situation becomes clear when he reveals that he has been left behind, alone, on Mars after an expedition to the red planet went terribly wrong. He’s going to have to figure out how to survive there, alone, hundreds of thousands of miles away from anyone who could help and with no way to communicate. Read my full review of The Martian here.

Under The Dome by Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can’t actually remember if the descending dome makes a “bang” when it lands in the opening pages of Under The Dome – but it’s such a shock for the readers and characters alike, I say it counts as one of the best books that start with a bang, anyway. A small (fictional) town (in Maine, naturally) finds itself completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large barely-permeable dome that descends over them on an otherwise-normal October day. As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Sister, The Serial Killer has an incredibly intriguing title, but Oyinkan Braithwaite didn’t stop there. The opening pages prove that it’s no bait and switch! Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body – and it’s a good thing that she has one, too, because Ayoola has the unfortunate habit of dispatching her boyfriends. The story begins with Korede cleaning up the blood spatters of the third man that Ayoola has murdered, and immediately you get the sense that this situation can’t continue indefinitely. If that’s not one of the best books that start with a bang, I don’t know what is! Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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“You better not never tell nobody but God.” How’s that for a book that begins with a bang? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful story, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a narrative styled as letters to God, from a black woman named Celie. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship. Despite the book’s traumatic and depressing content, it ends up being more uplifting than you’d expect – promise! Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Great Short Works Of Franz Kafka - Keeping Up With The Penguins

No list of books that start with a bang would be complete without the most iconic of them all: Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It’s one of the most significant fictional stories of the 20th century, mostly for its killer opener. The first pages reveal that the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, has woken up to find himself transformed into a giant bug. Everything else is normal, his bedroom and the weather and his nagging mother, but he’s forced to navigate the world as an oversized insect. He needs to call in sick to work, for starters, and scratch an itch on his belly – both easier said than done when you’ve got a convex back and extra legs. It’s baffling and weird and interesting and provocative – all in Kafka’s signature style.

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Some authors manage to make a big impact, despite having a relatively small body of work. Harper Lee is one, Gillian Flynn is another – and, of course, Donna Tartt. Her debut novel, The Secret History, was first published back in 1992, and she’s only published two other books since then. And yet, she’s manage to define a niche genre (dark academia), top best-seller lists, win awards, and win herself a legion of fans around the world.

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Secret History here.
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The Secret History is a campus novel, set at a fictional(ish) elite liberal arts college in New England. I say “ish” because Tartt based it on Bennington College, where she was a student in the ’80s. (She even dedicates the novel to fellow student Bret Easton Ellis.) The story follows six classics students, who become increasingly isolated from the rest of the school community as they deal with the fall-out of a murder.

I suppose you could make an argument that anything else I say about The Secret History could constitute a “spoiler”… but really, I don’t care. It’s an iconic 30-year-old novel. Deal with it.

Besides, Tartt gives a lot away up front. The Prologue to The Secret History is a masterpiece – up there with the opening chapter of Lolita. In it, Tartt reveals that Bunny, one of the students, is dead, but the full circumstances of his death are only hinted at in the vaguest terms. It’s a hell of an opener, and it compels you to read on immediately.

What follows is a kind of inverted detective story, where the events around Bunny’s murder are laid out in chronological order, with tantalising clues about what’s to come sprinkled throughout the narrative. The narrator, Richard, is an outsider, with a very different background to the others (he’s working-class California to their old-money East Coast). He’s as enthralled by the classics teacher, Julian, as the rest of them, but still new enough to question some of the odd behaviours and habits that they all exhibit.

Richard notices that, as close as the classics students are, they seem to be keeping secrets – from him, and from each other. He’s baffled by, for instance, Henry’s willingness to foot the bill for Bunny’s extravagant tastes. Charles and Camilla seem too close, even for twins. Francis is clearly gay, but no one says or does anything to acknowledge it. All of them show up with strange injuries, hide things in closets, carry on private conversations in Greek. What the heck is up with that?

You can see how I found myself gripped by The Secret History. Something is going on in this story, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it! Tartt’s prose is exquisitely detailed, with startling revelations and intriguing mysteries. By about a third of the way through, I was pretty sure I could see where it was all going, but she still managed to weave in a couple of surprises. The tension was almost too much at times – I gave myself a headache from clenching my teeth, more than once. Plus, the chapters are looooooooong, which made it difficult to take a break. Even at 500+ pages, the temptation to read the whole thing in one sitting is real.

In the hands of a lesser writer, The Secret History would have been beyond the pale. But Tartt is convincing, too convincing, and you’ll find yourself drawn in unquestioningly as the story unfolds. Michiko Kakutani, the legendary New York Times book reviewer, put it perfectly: “It is a measure of Ms. Tartt’s complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny’s murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms. Tartt’s supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes.”

All the way through, I kept thinking back to Crime And Punishment. The Secret History is essentially the same story, but brought forward into the late 20th century, to All American academia. I loved Dostoyevsky’s psychological drama, too, so I guess I just have a thing for books about conflicted murderers.

The trigger warnings may seem obvious: violence, murder, death, and so on. But I also want to give a heads up for alcoholism, incest, epithets – and, of course, a couple of dog deaths 🙁 The first comes early and very brief (less than one paragraph), but the second is violent and cruel and made me feel sick.

In the end, The Secret History is as good as everyone says it is. Its enduring popularity is entirely deserved. I’ll be joining the ranks of Donna Tartt fans, hanging desperately onto hope that a new novel is coming from her very, very soon – she’s past due!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secret History:

  • “If you wanna read a book that is close to 600 pages that is 99% rich whiney kids drinking heavily and complaining about their feelings, then this is the book for you.” – eric Beheler
  • “I can’t believe Jenna Bush Hager said this book was a pillar of literature. It is more like a cement block that all copies of this book should be tied to and thrown overboard. The author drones on and on about 5 college students who kill a fellow student and then 1.) drink 2.) smoke 3.) eat 4.) take baths and 5.) wear suits and ties and 6.) talk ad nauseum about what they have done. I can’t even figure out what decade it is set in.” – Bluetooth Rookie
  • “The most boring read of my life, and I’m a damn lawyer. I’ve read bankruptcy statutes with more zest.” – Jaye Lindsay
  • “I bought this book nearly 25 years ago and just got around to reading it. I wonder if it’s too late to get my money back?” – Shatterbox

Masters Of Death – Olivie Blake

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I’ve scrolled through endless adoring #Bookstagram posts about Olivie Blake’s The Atlas Six – even though I never read it, I feel like I have. She’s one of the authorial unicorns, a self-published writer who went viral and got picked up by traditional publishing houses to put out best-sellers. So, when I pulled a copy of Masters Of Death out of my post box (kindly sent to me for review by the team at Macmillan), it wasn’t a completely unknown quantity.

The blurb makes Masters Of Death sound like just the right mix of dark comedy, satire, and paranormal. A vampire real estate agent is trying to sell a haunted house, and she seeks help from a scam psychic medium (who also happens to be the godson of Death). Kooky fun, right?

The tone is irreverent, but somewhat self-consciously so. Blake goes heavy on the adverbs, which takes some getting used to (the Prelude in particular was baffling). I found it pretty hard to sink into, before I even got to the Rube Goldberg machine of a plot.

There are just so many moving parts to Masters Of Death. There’s the vampire, and her poltergeist, and the psychic medium, and also Death, and then demons, and then the “game”, and then archangels, and a “ledger”, and a goddess, and contracts, and… Maybe I just haven’t read enough contemporary fantasy (or fantasy full stop), but I struggled to follow what was going on and it felt at times like Blake was being purposefully vague.

I did like the character of Death, though it was closer to the Markus Zusak version than the Jose Saramago. And once Blake finally revealed a few key plot points and motivations, it was nice to see some of it come together. I’d say Masters Of Death is a great pick for fans of Erin Morgenstern, and young adult fantasy readers ready to bump up into the books-for-grown-ups category.

Buy Masters Of Death on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

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