Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

Much like a piano player in a bar, on occasion I’ll take requests – and I can’t think of a book review that has been requested more often by more Keeper Upperers than One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. This landmark novel was first published in García Márquez’s native Spanish (as Cien años de soledad) in 1967, and this edition was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. Here we go…!

One Hundred Years Of Solitude covers seven generations in the life of the Buendía family (don’t worry, there’s a helpful family tree in the front of most editions if you lose track of who’s who along the way). It has a cracker of an opening line – the famous one about Colonel Buendía facing the firing squad – that echoes throughout the story, like a drawn-out version of a life flashing before your eyes.

The story really begins, however, with the patriarch of the family, José Arcadio, deciding to move his family out of their hometown after an… unfortunate incident (he stabbed a mate at a cockfight, over some nasty accusations of limp dick). The family settles by a river and establishes the town of Macondo, which José Arcadio envisages as a “city of mirrors”, a paradise for his growing brood.

The town remains isolated, almost entirely disconnected from the world, save for a band of gypsies (I don’t know if that’s cool to say or not, but that’s the word García Márquez used so that’s what I’m going with) who visit them each year. They come to hawk their incredible technologies – magnets! Telescopes! Ice! And José Arcadio is more than willing to hand over every dollar he has for their gizmos and gadgets.





In fact, José Arcadio goes full mad scientist, trying to figure out how to save the world with magnets, while his wife – Ursula – simply has to put up with his bullshit, for lack of any other option. She keeps the kids fed and the clothes clean and the house in order, while José spirals deeper into his delusions.

Joke’s on him, though: in the end, he invents squat, while his long-suffering wife lives to be well over 100 years old, reigning over six of the seven generations of Buendías. This brings me to what I consider to be the central moral or message of One Hundred Years Of Solitude: men are stupid, and it’s always up to the women to clean up the mess.

“They’re all alike,” Ursula lamented. “At first they behave very well, they’re obedient and prompt and they don’t seem capable of killing a fly, but as soon as their beards appear they go to ruin.”

One Hundred Years Of Solutide (156)

Oh, but that’s not all! García Márquez has more than one row to hoe. Bureaucracy is from the devil. War and jealousy are pretty bad, too. A propensity towards sex with your sisters and cousins will probably end in tears (it turns out Game Of Thrones didn’t invent incest, who knew?).

It’s all this in-family rooting that seems to be the cause of most of the Buendías’ troubles. Ursula and José were cousins before they were married, and their kids inherited both their curiosity in other branches of the family tree and their fear that their family will be supernaturally punished for these abominations. The recurring example is the Buendía cousin who was born with a tail; he bled to death and died after asking his butcher mate to chop it off, because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to lose his virginity if girls kept laughing every time he pulled his pants down.





That’s an example of the “magical realism” we’ve all heard so much about. Mostly, One Hundred Years Of Solitude is grounded in recognisable reality – there are people and they have problems that have a tangible worldly basis. But, now and then, weird stuff happens. García Márquez blurs the line between the literal and the metaphorical. People are born with tails. Ghosts hang out in your backyard. A beautiful woman levitates off her bed and straight up into the sky, never to be seen again. All of this is accepted as normal (or, if not normal, at least not all that mystifying) by the characters involved. The banality of these magical events is reinforced by the narrator’s lack of interest in them, too – they are related in the same tone as one might describe what they had for breakfast.

And circling back around to the incest for a minute (c’mon, you didn’t think I could leave it alone for long, did you?), it seems to me to be a way of manifesting two of the major themes of the book: solitude (duh), and the cyclical nature of time. Because the town the Buendías founded and inhabit is so isolated, they really don’t have much choice but to start boning down with others in the same gene pool. And that’s why they see the same problems, the same dramas, the same events playing out time and time again, too.

In the end, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Macondo (and, by extension, the Buendía family) falls apart. The last surviving son discovers a manuscript left behind by one of his forebears, which depicts all of the family’s struggles and triumphs. Meanwhile, a wild wind whips up and away all remaining traces of the town that they founded.





Reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a lot like listening to a drunk person tell you a story when you’re five pints deep yourself. It’s sprawling, and tangential, and you can be sure they’re taking a bit of creative license, but you can still follow what they’re saying and you’re curious enough not to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom mid-sentence and never return. There’s not much tagged dialogue (as in “blah blah blah”, he said), and the timeline feels fluid and circular, so it really does read as though the story is being told to you second-hand. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s not a straightforward story, either.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude, in the fifty-odd years since its release, has been translated into over forty languages and sold over 50 million copies. It’s widely considered to be García Márquez’s magnum opus, the shining jewel in the crown of the Latin American literary boom of the ’60s and ’70s. When García Márquez won the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, One Hundred Years Of Solitude was widely touted to be one of the main reasons why. It is now recognised as one of the most significant books of the Hispanic literary canon, and a survey of international writers deemed it the book that has most shaped world literature.

(If it’s so good, why hasn’t it been made into a movie? Find the answer here.)

So, what’s the verdict? I didn’t love-love-love it, but I didn’t hate-hate-hate it, either. I wouldn’t breathlessly thrust it into the hands of a fellow booklover, but I wouldn’t crinkle my nose if they picked it up of their own accord. I’m going to reserve my judgement on García Márquez until I’ve read more of his work – I’ve got my eye on Love In The Time Of Cholera next…

My favourite Amazon reviews of One Hundred Years Of Solitude:

  • “Was forced to read this lengthly exercise in tedium by my freshman English teacher at Yale. Oh, I know, it’s “great literature,” but trust me, the pages do not turn. On top of that, Marquez’s Marxist leanings are all too apparent. Bleh.” – vonhayek
  • “I have no idea what all the fuss regarding this book is about. I found this book irritating in its repetition of the name Jose Arcadia Buendia in virtually every paragraph, or every other paragraph in the first 60 pages. Call the guy Jose and move on… sure, it’s normal and it’s approach of the tribes and villages represented here, but the writing seems so basic. But I guess somebody thought it deserved a Nobel prize. I would prefer that they hand out an ice pick to everyone that reads it, as I wanted to use one on my brain to end the torture of this novel.” – SmilingGoodTimes
  • “I’m so pissed this has Oprah’s logo on it, I wouldn’t have bought if it was on the cover in the picture. Way to cheapen the experience OPRAH” – Ryan Stapleford
  • “A hundred years is a little too much solitude” – The Dwighter

7 Books That Will Take You To Another Place

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t had the chance to get out much lately. Whether you’re in mandated isolation, lockdown, or just staying home because it’s the right thing to do, you’re probably getting stick of staring at your own four walls. Luckily, booklovers have a magic power: we can escape to anywhere we want, at any time, as long as the right book is within reach! To stop you going stir crazy, I’ve put together this list of books that will take you to another place…

7 Books That Will Take You To Another Place - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Naples)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Naples is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited urban settlements in the world. It’s got a whole lotta history to get the buffs excited: a UNESCO World Heritage site in its city center, the Roman ruins of Pompeii, and Vesuvius just up the road… but, let’s be real, most of us are really thinking about the food. Naples’ pizza is world famous, and they have more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else on the planet. The Naples of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a lot grittier than the one we day-dream about (violence, poverty, and oppression are rife), but her writing is powerful enough to sweep you up in the story and make you feel as though you’re really there, anyway. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (The Pacific Crest Trail)

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 4,720km hiking route along the West Coast of the United States. It covers mountains, national forests and parks, scooting around areas of civilisation and modern conveniences (like roads and toilets). Hiking the whole thing is – obviously – a huge undertaking, usually requiring months or years of preparation. Cheryl Strayed, in the wake of her mother’s death and recovering from heroin addiction, decided to give it a go on a lark. She didn’t set out to do the whole thing (she’s not that crazy), but she still managed nearly 1,800km on her own, with very little preparation or assistance. She immortalised her journey in her memoir, Wild, which went on to top international best-seller lists and make the PCT a go-to destination for hikers in search of solace and revelation. Read my full review of Wild here.

Ulysses by James Joyce (Dublin)

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dublin – “The Fair City” – is the capital of Ireland and ranked by the Globalization and World Cities Network as one of the top thirty cities in the world. You’d think it might’ve changed a lot since James Joyce wrote Ulysses, depicting a day in the life of fictional Dubliner Stephen Bloom, but given the number of Joyce/Bloom tours that still operate in the city, it would seem that a lot remains the same. You can visit the pubs Bloom drank at, sites where Joyce is known to have lived and worked, and even have a gander at statues erected in their honour. That’s if you’re not too busy enjoying the rest of what Dublin has to offer… Read my full review of Ulysses here.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Lagos)

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

Lagos is the most populous city of Nigeria – in fact, of the entire African continent – and it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. It’s a booming economical and financial hub, with the flood of new money bringing ultramodern sky-rises and developments, but it’s also the center of art and culture in the region. “Nollywood” (the Nigerian film industry) produces about 1,000 films per year, outstripping Hollywood by a considerable margin. After the movies, you can check out the city’s famed nightlife and live music scene. The hustle and bustle, the colours and lights, jump off the page of My Sister, The Serial Killer. It’s a unique glimpse into a part of the world too often inaccessible to Anglophone readers. Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (New York)

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

C’mon, do I really need to explain to you why you might want to visit New York? Fictional depictions of the Big Apple abound, in every form (film, television, books, music, musicals…), so you’re spoiled for choice if that’s what you’re after. I find the depiction in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year Of Rest And Relaxation particularly interesting, though, because it covers a unique time in New York’s history: the year leading up to the September 11 attacks. The (relatively) carefree innocence of the city’s inhabitants is oddly foreboding, the dramatic irony being that the reader knows what’s coming. Seeing as time travel isn’t yet possible (nor any other kind of travel at the moment… ahem!), give this one a try if you’re so inclined.


Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Tokyo)

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tokyo is the capital of Japan, the political and economic center of the country, the seat of the Emperor, and the most populous metropolitan area in the world (with about 37 million inhabitants). I must say though, what I find most alluring about it as a destination isn’t the “attractions”, the history, or the other stuff that we tourists normally gawk at: it’s the idiosyncratic features of modern life in Tokyo that fascinate me. And there’s no better view of them than that offered by Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman. This slim little novel taught me more about Tokyo and urban Japanese culture than anything else I’ve ever read. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

Paris Match by John Von Sothen (Paris)

Paris Match - John Von Sothen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, normally I would prefer books about places to be written by native inhabitants of those places (see… pretty much all of the above). However, I make an exception for Paris. The city of love manages to be both alluring and hostile to outsiders at the same time, which makes it uniquely fun and funny to read about from an outsider’s perspective. That’s what you get in Paris Match (and in Me Talk Pretty One Day, and in pretty much every other American-man-abroad account I’ve read of living in France). John Von Sothen has been living with his Parisian wife and children in the city for nearly two decades, so he’s seen it from both sides now, and his insights are both hilarious and helpful for us would-be Francophiles.

Whew! That was quite a trip around the world, wasn’t it? And without having to check baggage or try to snooze off the jet-lag in a busy airport! Where have you (fictionally) “been” lately? Tell me the comments!

My Sister The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

As much as we all love a bit of mystery and intrigue, sometimes it’s nice to read a book with the premise laid out completely in the title. My Sister The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends.

I first encountered Oyinkan Braithwaite at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (she’s lovely, by the way, and she had a queue out the door for book signings after her session). It’s hard to imagine that such an astonishingly dark and laughably twisted plot came out of the mind of such a delightful creature. I’m sure her Google search history must’ve got her on a watch-list somewhere…

But, to the story: as I said, Ayoola keeps killing her boyfriends, and it’s up to Korede to clean up the mess and keep her sister’s secrets. Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body (c’mon, we’ve all got one). The story begins with Korede cleaning up the blood spatters of the third man that Ayoola has”dispatched”, and immediately you get the sense that this situation can’t continue indefinitely.

Even aside from the serial murders, Korede and Ayoola have a strange relationship – in no small part due to their fact that their father was horribly cruel and extremely dodgy (in fact, the knife Ayoola uses to off her suitors once belonged to him, a deftly crafted metaphor for the inheritance of violence that never comes off as ham-fisted). Korede feels responsible for her sister, but simultaneously suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. She’s the “homely” one, while Ayoola is unequivocally the “beautiful” one, with all of the privilege and preference that beauty entails.





The plot boils over when a love triangle forms: Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome and charismatic doctor that Korede has loved from afar for months. Sibling loyalty can only go so far, after all. This forces Korede into the small gap between the proverbial rock and hard place: should she keep her sister’s secrets, or divulge them to the man she loves (possibly saving his life)?

My Sister The Serial Killer thus cleverly mixes crime, romance, and family saga. It’s definitely not a thriller, in the sense that it focuses far more on the sisters’ relationship – and what happens to it under strain – than it does any cat-and-mouse games with detectives. It’s also set in Lagos, with a remarkably strong sense of location and culture that we might more commonly associate with “place writing” (and a “place” that’s sadly not often encountered by Anglophone readers, to boot).





The story unfolds in short, punchy chapters. The family backstory – abusive father, complex mother – is revealed incrementally, in a way that naturally parallels and informs the rollercoaster of the love triangle and the will-she-or-won’t-she (kill again). I must say, I thought My Sister The Serial Killer would be more light-hearted in tone – or, at least, more morbidly humorous. Braithwaite focuses more on moral responsibility and culpability than I expected. There were few laughs, and more “wait, what would I do in that situation?” dilemmas. Is Ayoola empowered, or simply sociopathic? Is Korede doing the right thing by covering up her crimes, or is she enabling a murderer? Is she righteously loyal, or simply blinded by the affection of shared experience?

But, I suppose, I can hardly complain that my funny bone wasn’t tickled when it was such a pleasure to spend time with such complex and intriguing characters. The novel’s conclusion was satisfying without being too “neat”. Braithwaite demonstrates a talent for writing far beyond her years and experience. I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next (“My Brother, The Money Launderer”, perhaps? “My Mother, The Armed Robber”?)

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister The Serial Killer:

  • “I love this story. This is the first book I’ve bought since scholastic book fairs were a thing for me.” – Lauryn
  • “I don’t understand why I’m meant to care about an unapologetic murderer and her accomplice sister???? Also if I had a sister I feel like my cap would be covering up one murder for her. After that homegirl is on her own. By three I’d probably call the police myself because, you know, maybe my sister needs to work through some stuff (in prison) if she’s killing this many people?” – Miss Print
  • “Hilarious! I have two younger sisters and one torments the other with… well, not covering for murder, but other things.” – Mason J Blacher

Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet

I want to tell you something about myself, something that will come as a surprise: I am a huge nerd. Last year, when I bought new bookshelves, I got to revel in the glory of the opportunity to properly alphabetise my entire personal library (so much fun!). Then, I bought more bookshelves, and got to do it all over again! (STILL FUN! I swear!) It inspired me to put together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet. Since then, my alphabetising fingers have been getting itchy… then I came across this series from the inimitable Simon over at Stuck In A Book: his thoughts on an author for every letter of the alphabet. I thought I might shamelessly steal that idea for a single post, and try to put together a list of must-read authors for every letter of the alphabet. Can I do it? Even for X? You’re about to find out!

The A-Z Of Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Jane Austen

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

You’re not surprised, right? I mean, if we’re talking must-read authors in my Anglophone corner of the world, and you’re going alphabetical, you’ve got to start with Austen. Despite her surprisingly small oeuvre (only six completed novels, a handful of stories and an incomplete manuscript), she has influenced English literature more than perhaps any other Regency author. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here, and/or Emma here.

Honourable mentions: Maya Angelou, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Atwood

B: The Brontës

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to just one! The Brontës were the most talented literary family of the Victorian era. Their novels – originally published under androgynous pseudonyms – were proto-feminist women-centred works of art that blazed the trail for female writers who came after them (let’s just forget about the Brontë brother, Branwell, who preferred drinking and dirty dancing to poetry and prose). Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here, and/or Jane Eyre here.

Honourable mentions: Fredrik Backman, Alain de Botton, and Brit Bennett

C: Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, Truman Capote was hardly a stand-up guy. He was pretty liberal with his applications of the ol’ creative license. He loved blowing his own horn. He barely hesitated to sell out his best friends when his career needed a boost with a salacious tell-all. And yet, be damned if he wasn’t an incredible, imitable writer. He revolutionised the true crime genre, steering it away from sparse journalistic re-tellings and using the conventions of fiction to weave a story for the reader. Everything he wrote was carefully considered and expertly crafted. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

Honourable mentions: Maxine Beneba Clarke

D: Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s all too easy to forget that the serialised novel was the primary medium of family entertainment back in the Victorian era. Authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so they tended to stretch things out, which means they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being bloated and dull. In fact, Dickens worked incredibly hard to keep his stories interesting and entertaining, to keep his circulation numbers up and keep the cheques coming. Love romance? Dickens has you covered. Military history? Same. Adventure? Crime? Character study? There’s something for everyone in his catalogue, I swear it. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Honourable mentions: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle

E: Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bernadine Evaristo shot to international fame last year when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other… in tandem with Margaret Atwood for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a controversial decision, and it ate up plenty of space in the Opinion and Arts pages, which was warranted but also a bit of a shame. The scandal has overshadowed Evaristo’s many other works and achievements: being the first black British writer to assume the No. 1 spot on the UK fiction paperback chart, for instance, not to mention her previous eight novels and novellas.

Honourable mentions: Nora Ephron, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides


F: Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oh, Elena Ferrante. I think I could write a book about how much I love Elena Ferrante (and I’m not the only one). It’s not just the mystique – she’s the world’s best-known living pseudonymous author – that appeals. Her writing is lyrical, but never overwrought, and translated beautifully into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. You should, of course, begin with her Neapolitan Quartet, her series of novels following the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grew up together in mid-20th century Naples with all the violence, poverty, and oppression that entailed. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend (the first book of the Neapolitan Quartet) here.

Honourable mentions: Karen Joy Fowler

G: Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is basically the Madonna of the Australian literary scene. She’s had her ups and downs, she’s come in and out of fashion, but she reinvents herself so constantly and completely that it’s impossible for anyone not to respect her art. She’s written everything – from essay collections to thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction to true crime – and her craft is second to none. I’m yet to encounter a work of Garner’s that I haven’t enthusiastically devoured, and immediately flagged to re-read.

Honourable mentions: Stella Gibbons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Roxane Gay

H: Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway can be a bit hit-and-miss. Case in point: I fell in love with his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, in an undergrad English Lit unit, but I was exhausted and bored by The Sun Also Rises. He never actually wrote the six-word short story for which he’s well-known (“Baby Shoes”, you know the one), but I’ve heard The Old Man And The Sea is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. It would seem that different Hemingways appeal to different readers: the only way to find yours is to give his books and stories a go for yourself. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Honourable mentions: Chloe Hooper

I: Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The man won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He’s got an OBE. Just about everything he’s ever written has been shortlisted (or won!) for a major literary prize. What more do you need? Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated and lauded English-language authors in the world – he’s a must-read if for no other reason than simple curiosity. The good news is, as far as I’m concerned, his books totally hold up. They’re slightly strange, but not too off-the-wall. They’re sparse, but not underdone. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

J: Jonas Jonasson

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

I’ve always said it’s such a shame that the Scandinavians are so well-renowned for their crime noir, when they’ve got brilliant comic novelists like Jonas Jonasson. From humble beginnings as a Swedish blogger, Jonasson has gone on to hit international best-seller lists with his delightful novels about unlikely heroes. His writing is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and warm your cockles, all at once. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Honourable mentions: Tayari Jones


K: Stephen King

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

Stephen King has published over sixty books, and combined they’ve sold some 350 million copies around the world. While he tends towards the darker side – horror, thriller, the supernatural – he still has plenty of options for readers who are, shall we say… a bit chicken (myself included!). Still, he’s called the “King Of Horror” (yes, a pun on his name) for very good reason. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you should definitely check him out at his gore-iest. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

L: Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wondering who the heck Anita Loos is, and what she’s doing in an A-Z list of must-read authors? You’re probably not the only one. I certainly hadn’t heard of her before I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list (in fact, I wouldn’t have known Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was anything other than a Marilyn Munroe film). This, Keeper Upperers, is one of the great travesties of our time. Anita Loos was a brilliant comic screenwriter, the first salaried one in Hollywood, and she suffered from that awful chronic condition that affects so many successful women: loving an arsehole of a husband who sucked her dry and kept her in the shadows. Don’t let him win, folks. Don’t sleep on Anita Loos. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Honourable mentions: Melissa Lucashenko

M: Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s no delight quite like that of discovering an author at the beginning of their very bright career. I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where she had been invited to speak after her debut book – a collection of short stories, notoriously difficult to sell – won her international acclaim. She has since also published an incredible memoir, In The Dream House, a true work of art that promises to revolutionise the genre of memoir and has already carved out a spot in the queer literary canon. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Honourable mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison

N: Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know if it helps or harms Vladimir Nabokov’s reputation that his name has become synonymous with Lolita, a book written from the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert, about his twisted obsession with his teenage stepdaughter. It’s stomach-churning subject matter, to be sure, but to write a book so fascinating, so captivating, about someone so abhorrent is surely a feat not many could manage. Add into the equation the fact that English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet he mastered it so completely as to write more lyrically and more beautifully than any of his Anglophone contemporaries… well, that’s just gob-smacking, isn’t it?

Honourable mentions: Maggie Nelson, Celeste Ng

O: Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Susan Orlean won herself a new legion of fans when her drunk tweets made the headlines last month, giving those of us who have long loved her writing ample opportunity to say: told you so! She is perhaps best-known for her book of The Orchid Thief, based on a piece of investigative journalism into the case of (you guessed it) some stolen orchids. My personal favourite, however, is The Library Book – her surprisingly intimate, incredibly detailed, booklover catnip exploration of the Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986. The point is, there’s something in Orlean’s oeuvre for everyone.

Honourable mentions: Maggie O’Farrell


P: Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I had a devil of a time tracking down a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my local secondhand bookstore haunts. It turns out, readers are still so enamored with her work that they’re unwilling to part with their copies. I suspected, prior to reading her work, that her enduring popularity was due to the mythology surrounding her life and death. She was depressed! Damaged! Beautiful! But it turns out her writing is just as beautiful as she was. Every time I pick up one of her books, I fight against the equal and competing urges to throw them across the room and hug them to my chest. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Honourable mentions: Max Porter

Q: Daniel Quinn

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s an over-used phrase, to be sure, but Daniel Quinn was surely ahead of his time. He was using fiction to explore environmentalism and the dangers of an anthropocentric worldview long before it was cool. Some of his ideas were controversial (if I understand correctly, international efforts to aid countries ravaged by famines made the famines… worse, somehow?), but he still managed to merge philosophy and fiction in a way that the average person (i.e., me) could understand. Plus, he coined a whole bunch of phrases that have slipped into common parlance in certain circles (see: the boiling frog, the Great Forgetting).

R: Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Sally Rooney: the millennial wunderkind. She’s been called everything from the voice of a generation to the 21st century’s answer to J.D. Salinger. All this despite having only two full-length books (Conversations With Friends, and Normal People) under her belt. And she’s just 29 years old. What have YOU done lately? The world is waiting with bated breath for the next great novel from the pen of its newest literary darling. I’m sure she’s up to the challenge. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Honourable mentions: Jean Rhys

S: David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a relatively recent convert to David Sedaris, but holy heck – he’s got me hook, line, and sinker. He is truly the master of humorous autobiographical writing, and can find the funny in even the most dire of life circumstances. (Take, for instance, his musings on his failed attempts to panic-buy at the onset of a global pandemic.) His secret sauce seems to be a unique combination of cutting insight – no one is spared – and equally powerful self-deprecation. I can’t think of anyone else who could insult someone in such a way that they laughed ’til they cried, and make fun of himself at the same time, in quite the way Sedaris can. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Honourable mentions: Mary Shelley, Zadie Smith, and John Steinbeck

T: Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I couldn’t put together a list of must-read authors without including one of the Russian masters. Leo Tolstoy has a reputation for being wordy and, look, it’s not undeserved. War And Peace comes in at about 587k words. Anna Karenina at 340k. (For reference: most books published today come in well under 100k.) And yet, his popularity endures. That’s because his novels contain some universal truths, some enduring sensibility that we can all relate to. Either that, or people just really like showing off.

Honourable mentions: Maria Tumarkin


U: Gabrielle Union

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, fine, maybe I’ve been swayed by my love of late-90s teen comedy movies (and U is a bear of a letter). Still, I stand by the inclusion of Gabrielle Union in an A-Z list of must-read authors. She has parlayed her early success playing teenagers in various competitive and romantic dilemmas into a career as an activist in women’s health and well-being. Her thesis is We’re Going To Need More Wine, a sentiment that was oddly prescient given that it was published long before the world fell to pieces. She has since expanded her creative efforts to include children’s books, focused on positive representations of non-traditional families.

V: Sarah Vaughn

Anatomy Of A Scandal - Sarah Vaughan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, we’re getting down to the bear letters, but I’m going strong! V is for Vaughn, as in Sarah Vaughn – not the jazz singer, but the British novelist and journalist. She has parlayed her illustrious career writing for outlets like The Guardian into best-selling fiction that explores power, privilege, and politics. Even with a bunch of success notches already punched into her belt – including film and television rights, awards, and over twenty translations of her work – Vaughan is still going strong.

W: Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alice Walker is, without doubt, one of the greatest living American writers and feminists (or, as per the term she herself coined, “womanist”). Most of her best-known full length fiction was published in the ’70s and ’80s, but it continues to resonate – particularly in the age of #MeToo and #BLM – with its searing depictions of racism, sexism, violence and resilience. But she’s not just a wildly successful and brilliant novelist: her poetry, her short fiction, her journalism, and (most importantly) her activism are also ground-breaking and vital contributions to contemporary life.

Honourable mentions: Colson Whitehead, Charlotte Wood, and Edith Wharton

X: Xenophon

A History Of My Times - Xenophon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, I had to reach WAY back into the archives to find an X I could get behind… but I found one! Xenophon was an Athenian philosopher, and I inherited one of his books as a result of merging marital bookshelves. Turns out, my husband is onto something: a lot of what we know of Ancient Greece is derived from his histories, as well as that which we know of his mate Socrates. He was also kind enough to write in Attic Greek – the old-timey equivalent of plain language – which means his books were more accessible to his contemporaries, and they’ve been a boon for translators in the modern world.

Y: Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d be forgiven for associating Hanya Yanagihara’s name only with her international best-seller and near-universally acclaimed novel, A Little Life. It has won (and broken) hearts for five years now, and it’s still going strong. But Yanagihara is a multi-talented gal; she’s also a travel writer, a magazine editor, and she wrote a previous novel (based on the real story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) that is arguably just as worthy of attention. She is a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature, beloved by critics and readers alike.

Z: Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief, made the Second World War tangible for youngsters in a way that not many other contemporary writers have managed. Through his story of the young girl who steals books and learns to read (narrated by Death, into the bargain), he’s captured their heads and hearts and maybe – just maybe – taught the kids enough about the horrors of world conflict to make them inclined to stop history repeating itself. What’s extra-interesting is that the success of that novel led him to take a decade-long break from writing and publishing, a dry spell only recently broken with the rains of his new novel, Bridge Of Clay (an epic coming-of-age story). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.


A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

Picture this: you’re 47 years old, with a family and a plum job as a Sociology lecturer at a fancy university. Your mother has sadly passed away, but you still have your father (84 years of age, and fighting fit aside from the occasional fit of… ahem, fecal incontinence). There’s also your older sister, Vera, who’s divorced and tried to royally screw you over with your mother’s will, so you really don’t have much to do with her anymore. Then, one day, the phone rings: your father is calling to tell you he’s fallen in love with a 36 year old Ukrainian blonde bombshell who wears green satin knickers, and they’re getting married. That’s the situation Nadezhda finds herself in, and the premise of the bizarrely-named A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian.

I assume, based on Marina Lewycka’s author bio, that at least some aspects of her debut novel are autobiographical. She, like her protagonist, was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp at the end of WWII, and grew up in England. Her resume includes a post teaching at Sheffield Hallam University, and she is married with an adult daughter.

Still, one would hope that she’s exaggerating for comic effect. When Nadezhda and Vera try to put aside their years-long feud to save their father from Valentina (the voluptuous gold-digger), they hit more than a few bumps in the road. Their campaign to oust the much-younger bride unearths all manner of family secrets, and not the cute mother-had-an-affair-with-the-milkman kind. Nadezdha has to reckon with all kinds of trauma that she was too young (at the time) to remember properly for herself, including her family’s struggle to survive the Ukrainian famine and Stalin’s purges. Unfortunately, Vera remembers all too well, but she’s reluctant to share…





Lewycka offsets these huge bummers in the plot by offering us humorous theatrics, melodramatics, and soap-opera-worthy family bust-ups. There’s nothing sentimental or wistful about A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian: think more an over-the-top pantomime than gritty realism. The intergenerational trauma of war, poverty, and fear are ever-present (in Vera and Nadezhda’s mother’s insistence, for example, on accumulating non-perishable food, a hangover from her young life of famine and scarcity), but they co-exist with Bridget Jones-esque family squabbles and “wonderfully absurd” moments of farce.

Still, despite Lewycka’s best attempts, I still found A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian to be far more sombre than I had expected – more akin to a book like The Eighth Life. Maybe it’s just harder to find the funny these days than it was back when the book was first published, in 2005. Valentina abuses her husband physically and psychologically, she is grossly manipulative and cruel, and I just couldn’t make the leap to letting elder abuse tickle my funny bone. Plus, the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with immigration authorities had me reaching for a bottle of wine. Maybe it’s a case of bad timing, or maybe this story just hasn’t aged well… it’s hard to tell.





What I did like was the strange paragraph breaks, which made the whole story feel slightly off-kilter. The sudden pauses changed the emphasis of each exchange, in a way that made me pause myself to properly think about what was going on in the story (like listening to a song in 7:8 time). Oh, and it takes its bizarre title from a book-within-a-book – the father’s treatise on (you guessed it!) the history of tractors – so you do literally get a short history of the significance of tractors (though it’s translated from Ukrainian into English, for the reader’s convenience).

Speaking of translation: A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian has now been translated into over 27 languages, including Russian and Ukrainian (though, apparently, a few Ukrainian reviewers were really unhappy with the book and the way it represented their country and people – Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov called it a “banal tale” that would not teach anyone anything about Ukrainian migrant communities in Britain, burn!). Those criticisms aside, Lewycka won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2005, the U.K.’s only formal literary award for comic literature (for which the winner receives “a jeroboam of Champagne Bollinnger Special Cuvee and 52 volumes of the Everyman Wodehouse edition and a Gloucestershire Old Spots pig named for the winning novel).

I’m not sure I found it champagne-and-books-and-a-pig funny, but it was a fairly entertaining read. I’d recommend A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian for when you want your multi-generational epic compacted, and served with a spoonful of sugar.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian:

  • “Very much enjoyed the actual history of the tractor and the history related to WWII, but found the story of the nonagenarian and the buxom 30-something Ukrainian a bit silly.” – Shirley Mauss
  • “Get on with it for God’s sake. This book resembles a Star Trek time vortex episode where the same scene is played over and over and over and over again without conclusion. The daughter visits the father, fights with him and his new wife, vows not to return, next chapter, daughter visits father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits her father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits father’s house, fights with father and his new wife, vows not to return. Enough already.” – bigsnickers
  • “The book is nice.” – Kelly You

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