Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is one of those (true!) stories that you immediately want to know more about. As per the blurb, it’s “the phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space,”. Margot Lee Shetterly spent years learning about the ‘human computers’ who worked with paper and pencil to put man on the moon, and shared all she had learned about them in her 2016 non-fiction best-seller.

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterly - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Of course, by examining the roles these women played at NASA, Shetterly incidentally traces American history through WWII, the Cold War, and the space race. Hidden Figures highlights the particular barriers for black women in the sciences as well as society at large, from the late 1930s through to the 1960s. She offers a kind note at the beginning of the book about being faithful to that period, with regard to the use of epithets and pejoratives – it was nice to have a heads up, but honestly, that note made it sound worse than the actual text bore out.

The first surprise of Hidden Figures was just how many black women worked as mathematicians and scientists at NASA. There weren’t just a handful of them – there were dozens and dozens.

Many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

Hidden Figures (Page 248)

What’s more, Shetterly herself knew many of these women. Her father worked with them so she grew up around them, and she took for granted their roles at NASA, the way children do. “Growing up in Hampton [Virginia], the face of science was brown like mine,” she says (page xiii). This is ‘see it to be it’ in action.

As Shetterly describes it, when these women took jobs as ‘computers’ during WWII labour shortages, workplaces in Virginia were still segregated and the women – especially the black women – were kept at arm’s length. Still, most of them were grateful to have meaningful work (with the dark days of the Depression not so far behind them, and many of them supporting themselves and their children), and NASA paid handsomely for the time.

Gradually, the utility of the women began to outweigh the entrenched (at times, government-mandated) racism and sexism, and by the time Apollo 11 was preparing for launch, they were working in essential roles at the highest levels.

This is all fascinating, of course. Unfortunately, Hidden Figures itself is hard to penetrate. The story is told largely in the historical abstract, with a lot of unnecessary “context” (i.e., extraneous detail). The voice is very detached from the women supposedly at the heart of the story. The rare glimpses Shetterly offers into their personalities and private lives are the most engaging and interesting parts of Hidden Figures. On the whole, though, it’s a disappointingly dry read.

Don’t get me wrong: it should be a good story! It’s just not told in a compelling or engaging way in this particular book. Perhaps more dialogue – interviews with the women themselves, conversations with their co-workers or children – might have made the story more moving, or at least tangible. As it stands, I feel like I just read a Wikipedia entry about them. I think Shetterly was more committed to stating facts for the record than telling a story. That works fine in some formats (see above, Wikipedia entry), but not in Hidden Figures.

I’ve not yet seen the film adaptation, but I’d imagine it would be a much better format for telling this story. Allowing us to engage with the women – even just a few of them – on a human level, ‘put faces to names’, will make the story of Hidden Figures sparkle the way that it should.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hidden Figures:

  • “Thank God the producers of the movie eliminated over two thirds of the book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This book was like reading a dry tortuous math textbook. Too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary details, and the book jumps all over the place. When I get a book like this I just go the the epilogue, even that was torturous!” – N. Ross
  • “This is the kind of novel a science or history teacher would require you to read.” – Trisha K
  • “This book reminds me of when I was lilttle and my mother would mention some Obit from the village we lived in and then my Dad would follow with his brother’s name and then my Mom would recall their Mother amd then my Father would recall how he worked with his Dad and then my mother would recall them going to school together and then my Dad would talk about the car they drove blah, blah, blah I was ready to take the gaspipe.
    All I can say is the screenwriter who took this pile of crap and made a great movie out of it deserves an Academy Award.” – Amazon Customer

A Not So Meet Cute – Meghan Quinn

Could a Pretty Woman-type scenario really work? Lottie is about to find out in A Not So Meet Cute, the latest contemporary romance from best-selling author Meghan Quinn. Penguin Books Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Get yourself ready for the mother of all romance trope mash-ups. A Not So Meet Cute is a enemies-to-lovers, fake-dating, billionaire romance, with chapters told from alternating points of view.

Lottie is half-jokingly looking for a rich husband to pull her out of the financial black hole she has found herself in, after being fired by her best frenemy. Chance throws her into Huxley’s path, just as he happens to be looking for a fake fiance to help him cinch a major real estate deal. Can you imagine what happens next?

It’s completely unrealistic, of course, and totally predictable, but so what? It’s a fun, spicy romance with the door wide open. Some readers will be put off by the commanding and domineering manner of the leading man, but others will swoon – to each their own, et cetera.

As for me, I had fun reading A Not So Meet Cute, and I’ve tee’d up a few of Meghan Quinn’s audiobooks to see what else she has to offer.

Where To Get Book Recommendations

One question I’m frequently asked is where I find all these books on my shelves. With between 500,000 and one million books traditionally published each year (four million, if you factor in self-published titles), the choices can feel overwhelming. When you find a source of book recommendations that sends a constant stream of five-star reads your way, that shit is more precious than gold. If you’re looking for resources to narrow down your search for your next great read, here are my suggestions on where to get book recommendations.

Where To Get Book Recommendations - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Podcasts

I’m a podcast junkie. It’s one of the few trends I jumped on right at the beginning. Back in the days when you had to search the iTunes store on your computer, download a few episodes of a podcast, manually transfer them across to your iPod (with a cord!), and listen to them with headphones connected by wires? Yep, I was there, and I was lovin’ it.

Podcasts are a goldmine for book recommendations, even if you don’t quite know what your tastes are or they’re very broad. If you find a few podcasters you vibe with, who post episodes regularly, you’ll have book recommendations on tap. Of course, taste in podcasts varies as widely as taste in books, so the best way to find ones that work for you are to sample as many as you can.

Personally, I get amazing book recommendations from Chat 10 Looks 3, What Should I Read Next, and (mostly) The To Read List Podcast. Seriously, The To Read List Podcast is the best (or worst, depending how you look at it) thing to happen to my own to-read list in a long, long time.

Check out my recommendations for more great book podcasts here.

Email Newsletters

I know, I know – no one likes a cluttered inbox! But if you’re judicious with your use of the “subscribe” button, it’s a great way to get book recommendations.

Firstly, you want to choose outlets that won’t email you too frequently, or will let you decide how frequently their emails come through.

Secondly, you want to look for outlets that are recommending books that will work for you.

The good news is, if you stuff up either of these steps, it’s easily remedied: just press “unsubscribe” and try something else.

If you notice there’s a particular imprint who publishes a lot of your favourite books (look over the spines on your bookshelf for regularly-occurring logos), head to their website and I can all but guarantee they’ll have an email newsletter you can subscribe to. If there’s a news site you regularly visit, see if they have a Books or Arts section newsletter.

Some of my best book recommendations come from Penguin, Buzzfeed Books, Book Riot, and Publishers Weekly.

And, not to shamelessly self-promote, but the Keeping Up With The Penguins email newsletter is pretty great!

Book Reviewers

Speaking of shameless self-promotion: book reviewers are one of your best sources of book recommendations.

Why? Well, we read and review books for that exact purpose.

And there’s no shortage of them! No matter your tastes, no matter your interests, someone out there is reading and recommending books you’ll love on the internet.

Now, being as I am a book reviewer myself, I get my book recommendations from dozens and dozens of wonderful readers in this space. It feels rude and mean to recommend just a few! So, I’m going to satisfy myself with giving just The Uncorked Librarian as an example – because Christine has been so wonderfully kind as to feature a lot of my own recommendations in her book lists!

#Bookstagram

Just about every social media platform has a corner carved out for readers, so you could find a group on Facebook or a list on Twitter to give you book recommendations easily enough… but #Bookstagram is uniquely addictive. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful pictures of wonderful books, all produced by some of the most dedicated readers you’ll ever encounter.

Of course, there are 81 million (and counting!) posts tagged #Bookstagram, but it’s not hard to narrow down. Try searching tags specific to your taste – #RomanceBookstagram and #HorrorBookstagram are more manageable, for instance – and make sure you Follow anyone who posts about books you think you could love.

Check out my recommendations for #bookstagrammers you should be following here.

Bookish Besties

Of course, all of these online options are wonderful, but when it comes to book recommendations, nothing can really replace the one-on-one. Your bookish besties know you, know your tastes, and (if you’re lucky) are happy to forward book recommendations to you as they encounter them.

One of my bookish besties is Cathal, local bookstore achillean and true saint among men. He frequently sends me photos of books that have come into his store, asking if I might be interested in them because they sound like something I might like, or screenshots of blurbs and titles that belong on my wishlist. He’s even been known to simply drop books in my lap! If you can find a friend like that, readers, never let them go. (And I hope it goes without saying that I return the favour whenever I can!)

If your IRL friends aren’t particularly bookish or don’t share your tastes, don’t fret! You could connect with fellow readers on a platform like Goodreads or TheStorygraph. Don’t let anyone tell you that online friends “don’t count”, especially when it comes to book recommendations!

(By the way, remember how I mentioned email newsletters a minute ago? Goodreads has a pretty good one!)

Bookstore/Library Browsing

Don’t underestimate the merits of the browse. At your local bookstore or library, you might just stumble over your next favourite read – no recommendation necessary!

Of course, if you don’t want to leave it up to chance, check for a Staff Recommendations shelf (or ask a bookseller or librarian yourself – they love the opportunity to recommend books to patrons, you’ll make their day guaranteed!).

Another under-used resource: the local authors section. Not every bookstore or library has one, but if yours does, it’s well worth checking out. If you find a great book, there’s the bonus of perhaps running into your new favourite author getting coffee or at the post office!

Keep an eye out for author events or book clubs run through your local bookstore/library, too (that’s where those email newsletters come in handy again!). I’ve found a lot of great book recommendations through events I attended out of simple curiosity or boredom.

And, finally, use your library’s app or your bookstore’s website if you’re in a pickle. Sometimes, it’s 2AM and you need a book recommendation but all the stores are closed. The internet is your friend! I get my audiobook recommendations almost exclusively through my library’s app, no in-person browsing or chit-chat required.

Any Ordinary Day – Leigh Sales

I’ve admired Leigh Sales for a long time, and not just for her Walkley Award-winning journalism. Her arts podcast, Chat 10 Looks 3, with Annabel Crabb, is where I get a lot of my book recommendations. So, inevitably, I had to check out Sales’s own book, Any Ordinary Day (tagline: “Blindsides, resilience, and what happens after the worst day of your life”).

Any Ordinary Day - Leigh Sales - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In Any Ordinary Day, Sales examines our vulnerability to life-changing events, and how we process the grief and fear that come with them. She was prompted to think about this subject after two widely covered, deeply traumatic events that occurred in rapid succession in 2014 (the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, and the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney).

In her work as a journalist, she has realised that the worst days, where the unthinkable happens, “start with the day’s deceptive ordinariness” – which is how she landed on the book’s title. Ask someone about a devastating experience, and they’ll almost always start with ‘it was any ordinary day…’.

Sales talks to people who’ve faced unimaginable traumas, from acts of terrorism to natural disasters. Her interviewees have lost children and spouses, and/or come horrifyingly close to death themselves. In between chats, she describes what the science says about how our brains respond to shock, and grief. In case it’s not already clear, Any Ordinary Day isn’t a self-help book or a survivor’s guide – it’s more like a wider consideration of how and why we respond to tragedy.

Sales shares enough of her feelings and experiences to be transparent with the reader (e.g., she acknowledges her bias as an atheist when speaking to a Jesuit priest), but not so much that she overshadows the experiences of her interviewees. It’s a very delicate balance, and Sales has clearly had a lot of experience walking that particular tightrope.

What surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have, given Sales’s line of work) was her brilliant interrogation of the role of journalism and the public interest in freak tragedies. Sales gives quite a lot of time to the role that the news plays in not only our awareness of these events, but also the reaction and recovery of their victims. The public is undeniably curious when terrible things happen, but what right do we have to the inside story of the worst day of someone’s life? It’s the journalist’s difficult job to play the gatekeeper, usually under enormous pressure to get clicks and views.

Another thing I didn’t expect: Any Ordinary Day is a good book to read if you’re awkward around grief and tragedy. If you find yourself shying away from people in awful circumstances, because you’re unsure of what to say or scared of “making things worse”, Sales offers answers about the “right” thing to do and you’ll feel much more equipped.

It’s worth noting that Any Ordinary Day is a (mostly) straight, white book. I think we can give Sales some leeway, given the universality of grief and shock in the wake of tragedy, but we should be aware of it all the same. Any Ordinary Day isn’t going to tell you anything about how these experiences are compounded by institutional bias and systemic oppression – though, of course, that’s a whole other book’s worth of information.

I did wonder whether, in the wake of The Terrible No Good Very Bad Year 2020, an updated edition might be in order. Where most of the tragedies Sales examines in Any Ordinary Day mostly affect a handful of people (in the case of natural disasters, thousands at most), COVID-19 caused near-universal upheaval and distress. I’d be curious to hear her take, specifically, on what the pandemic has done to us and our fear of tragedy, given what she learned putting this book together before it happened.

In sum, Any Ordinary Day is an interesting and reflective book, very well paced and highly readable. Next time you see a news story about a terrible event and find yourself thinking “I could never survive something like that”, you’ll want to be able to turn to this book for proof that ordinary people survive the unthinkable every day, and most of us have buried reserves of resilience.

Double Lives – Kate McCaffrey

Double Lives - Kate McCaffrey - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The premise of Double Lives seemed super timely with the release of Adnan Syed and other developments relating to podcast-popular crime cases here in Australia. I thought this new release might be something along the lines of Sadie (another novel styled as a true crime podcast).

It begins with Amy, a radio journalist, angling for a sought-after slot on drive time. She decides to conduct real-time on-air investigation into the case of Jonah Scott, who confessed to the murder of his girlfriend Casey Williams. She encourages listeners to contribute tips and theories – “we allow consumers of media to be the producers of media”.

Important note: I think what I’m about to say could constitute a “spoiler”, but it’s essential in explaining my reaction to Double Lives and what I think others need to know when deciding whether to read it.

The first “big reveal” comes in Chapter 2. The identification of Casey’s body was delayed… because she was trans. Apparently the investigators, ignoring any other evidence, were trying to identify her by her genitals? Ick.

I really resented Casey’s gender being used as a “shock twist”, but I wanted to give Double Lives a fair shot, so I tried to put it from my mind.

Unfortunately, the icks kept coming. Deadnaming and misgendering went largely unchallenged in the narrative. The story focused almost entirely on the cis-woman’s career advancement and her feelings of guilt about how she reacted when her ex-lover came out as trans (don’t worry, she feels really bad about it). There was so much opportunity in Double Lives to explore how and why trans bodies are exploited for entertainment, but McCaffrey skipped over that aspect entirely.

This story – which uses the murder of a trans woman by her lover for shock and intrigue – wasn’t handled sensitively at all.

Double Lives fell short on other measures, too. The characters were one-dimensional. Their arcs required leaps of logic or empathy that eluded me (the murderer was expected to be absolved because… his family were religious bullies?). The writing was somehow both basic and overblown (e.g., a character being “overcome with a feeling of numbness” – what was wrong with “she felt numb”?). The plot was a series of hats on hats: a small town, a podcast investigation, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex work, religious cults… Between all those balls in the air, and the frenetic structure and pacing, Double Lives felt exhausting.

I really hate to shit on a new release. I seriously considered not writing this review at all, and I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums. I hope (beyond hope) that McCaffrey’s intentions were good with Double Lives… but she missed the mark, as I see it, by a long shot. I recommend caution and a critical eye to anyone thinking of reading this one.

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