Keeping Up With The Penguins

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35 Books You Might Have Missed During The Pandemic

We’ve just passed the fourth anniversary of the date a Public Health Emergency was declared in Australia, due to the emergence of COVID-19. That pesky little virus ravaged the world, shutting down cities and killing millions, incapacitating millions more. With all that going on, we were reading more than ever (for lack of anything else to do while locked down), but we were mostly turning to old comforting favourites or tackling books that had been waiting on our shelves for years. With book stores closed, and events cancelled or hastily relocated to a computer screen, authors had little opportunity to put their new books in front of us. Even with my finger firmly on the pulse of book releases (or so I like to think), I’m still coming across books released in the early 2020s that I missed in the COVID kerfuffle. So, I thought I’d give some of them their long-overdue moment in the spotlight. Here are 35 books you might’ve missed during the pandemic.

35 Books You Might Have Missed During The Pandemic - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Book reviewers are still recovering from the pandemic too, so support this one by making a purchase through an affiliate link 🙂

By the way, COVID-19 isn’t over. The virus is still doing damage in our community, and we all need to protect ourselves and each other as best we can. Get vaccinated, wear a mask if you need to, and for the love of all that is good in this world, STAY HOME if you’re unwell! The new release shelf at your local bookshop can wait, as this reading list proves.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club - Richard Osman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 3 September 2020

Blurb: “In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved murders. But when a brutal killing takes place on their very doorstep, the Thursday Murder Club find themselves in the middle of their first live case. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves.”

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa - Kate Elizabeth Russell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 10 March 2020

Blurb: “Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood.”

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 15 September 2020

Blurb:Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has. In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls. On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone. Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?” Read my full review of Piranesi here.

The Dictionary Of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The Dictionary Of Lost Words - Pip Williams - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 31 March 2020

Blurb: “Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, an Oxford garden shed in which her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip and, learning that the word means ‘slave girl,’ begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.”

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land - Elizabeth Acevedo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 5 May 2020

Blurb: “Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people… In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash. Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.”

The Roommate by Rosie Danan

The Roommate - Rosie Danan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 15 September 2020

Blurb: “The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too tempting to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true. After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…”

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord

Tweet Cute - Emma Lord - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 21 January 2020

Blurb: “All’s fair in love and cheese ― that is, until Pepper and Jack’s spat turns into a viral Twitter war. Little do they know, while they’re publicly duking it out with snarky memes and retweet battles, they’re also falling for each other in real life ― on an anonymous chat app Jack built. As their relationship deepens and their online shenanigans escalate ― people on the internet are shipping them?? ― their battle gets more and more personal, until even these two rivals can’t ignore they were destined for the most unexpected, awkward, all-the-feels romance that neither of them expected.”

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 9 January 2020

Blurb: “Morgan Christopher’s life has been derailed. Taking the fall for a crime she did not commit, her dream of a career in art is put on hold – until a mysterious visitor makes her an offer that will get her released from prison immediately. Her assignment: restore an old post office mural in a sleepy Southern town. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to be free, she accepts. What she finds under the layers of grime is a painting that tells the story of madness, violence, and a conspiracy of small town secrets.” Read my full review of Big Lies In A Small Town here.

The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

Migrations - Charlotte McConaghy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 4 August 2020

Blurb: “Franny Stone has always been the kind of woman who is able to love but unable to stay. Leaving behind everything but her research gear, she arrives in Greenland with a singular purpose: to follow the last Arctic terns in the world on what might be their final migration to Antarctica. Franny talks her way onto a fishing boat, and she and the crew set sail, traveling ever further from shore and safety. But as Franny’s history begins to unspool―a passionate love affair, an absent family, a devastating crime―it becomes clear that she is chasing more than just the birds. When Franny’s dark secrets catch up with her, how much is she willing to risk for one more chance at redemption?”

The Rearranged Life Of Oona Lockhart by Margarita Montimore

The Rearranged Life Of Oona Lockhart - Margarita Montimore - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 25 February 2020

Blurb: “It’s New Year’s Eve 1982, and Oona Lockhart has her whole life before her. At the stroke of midnight she will turn nineteen, and the year ahead promises to be one of consequence. Should she go to London to study economics, or remain at home in Brooklyn to pursue her passion for music and be with her boyfriend? As the countdown to the New Year begins, Oona faints and awakens thirty-two years in the future in her fifty-one-year-old body. Greeted by a friendly stranger in a beautiful house she’s told is her own, Oona learns that with each passing year she will leap to another age at random. And so begins Oona Out of Order…”

Death In Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Death In Her Hands - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 23 June 2020

Blurb: “While on her daily walk with her dog in a secluded woods, a woman comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground by stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no dead body. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, alone after the death of her husband, and she knows no one. Becoming obsessed with solving this mystery, our narrator imagines who Magda was and how she met her fate. A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, Death in Her Hands asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both reflect the truth and keep us blind to it.”

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Wow No Thank You - Samantha Irby - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 31 March 2020

Blurb: “Irby is forty, and increasingly uncomfortable in her own skin despite what Inspirational Instagram Infographics have promised her. She has left her job as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic, has published successful books and has been friendzoned by Hollywood, left Chicago, and moved into a house with a garden that requires repairs and know-how with her wife in a Blue town in the middle of a Red state where she now hosts book clubs and makes mason jar salads. The essays in this collection draw on the raw, hilarious particulars of Irby’s new life. Wow, No Thank You is Irby at her most unflinching, riotous, and relatable.” Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 1 June 2021

Blurb: “For cynical 23-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures. But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train. Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop is a magical, sexy, big-hearted romance where the impossible becomes possible as August does everything in her power to save the girl lost in time.” Read my full review of One Last Stop here.

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

The Other Black Girl - Zakiya Dalila Harris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 1 June 2021

Blurb: “Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust. Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW. A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.” Read my full review of The Other Black Girl here.

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

The Perfect World Of Miwako Sumida - Clarissa Goenawan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 10 March 2020

Blurb: “University sophomore Miwako Sumida has hanged herself, leaving those closest to her reeling. In the months before her suicide, she was hiding away in a remote mountainside village, but what, or whom, was she running from? Ryusei, a fellow student at Waseda who harbored unrequited feelings for Miwako, begs her best friend Chie to bring him to the remote village where she spent her final days. While they are away, his older sister, Fumi, who took Miwako on as an apprentice in her art studio, receives an unexpected guest at her apartment in Tokyo, distracting her from her fear that Miwako’s death may ruin what is left of her brother’s life.” Read my full review of The Perfect World Of Miwako Sumida here.

She Come By It Natural by Sarah Smarsh

She Come By It Natural - Sarah Smarsh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 13 October 2020

Blurb: “Far beyond the recently resurrected ‘Jolene’ or quintessential ‘9 to 5’, Parton’s songs for decades have validated women who go unheard: the poor woman, the pregnant teenager, the struggling mother disparaged as ‘trailer trash’. Parton’s broader career—from singing on the front porch of her family’s cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to achieving stardom in Nashville and Hollywood, from ‘girl singer’ managed by powerful men to leader of a self-made business and philanthropy empire—offers a springboard to examining the intersections of gender, class, and culture. Infused with Smarsh’s trademark insight, intelligence, and humanity, She Come By It Natural is a sympathetic tribute to the icon Dolly Parton and—call it whatever you like—the organic feminism she embodies.” Read my full review of She Come By It Natural here.

Weather by Jenny Offill

Weather - Jenny Offill - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 4 February 2020

Blurb: “Lizzie works in the library of a university where she was once a promising graduate student. Her side hustle is answering the letters that come in to Hell and High Water, the doom-laden podcast hosted by her former mentor. At first it suits her, this chance to practice her other calling as an unofficial shrink, but soon Lizzie finds herself struggling to strike the obligatory note of hope in her responses. The reassuring rhythms of her life as a wife and mother begin to falter as her obsession with disaster psychology and people preparing for the end of the world grows. A marvelous feat of compression, a mix of great feeling and wry humor, Weather is an electrifying encounter with one of the most gifted writers at work today.”

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David Macdonald

When We Were Vikings - Andrew David MacDonald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 28 January 2020

Blurb: “When Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength. A most welcome and wonderful debut, When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all… we are all legends of our own making.” Read my full review of When We Were Vikings here.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

The Recovery Of Rose Gold - Stephanie Wrobel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 5 March 2020

Blurb: “Rose Gold Watts believed she was sick for eighteen years. She thought she needed the feeding tube, the surgeries, the wheelchair… Turns out her mum, Patty, is a really good liar. After five years in prison Patty Watts is finally free. All she wants is to put old grievances behind her, reconcile with her daughter and care for her new infant grandson. When Rose Gold agrees to have Patty move in, it seems their relationship is truly on the mend. But Rose Gold knows her mother. Patty won’t rest until she has her daughter back under her thumb. Which is a smidge inconvenient because Rose Gold wants to be free of Patty. Forever.” Read my full review of The Recovery Of Rose Gold here.

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

The Safe Place - Anna Downes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 23 June 2020

Blurb: “Emily Proudman just lost her acting agent, her job, and her apartment in one miserable day. Emily is desperate. Scott Denny, a successful and charismatic CEO, has a problem that neither his business acumen nor vast wealth can fix. Until he meets Emily. Emily is perfect. Scott offers Emily a summer job as a housekeeper on his remote, beautiful French estate. Enchanted by his lovely wife Nina, and his eccentric young daughter, Aurelia, Emily falls headlong into this oasis of wine-soaked days by the pool. But soon Emily realizes that Scott and Nina are hiding dangerous secrets, and if she doesn’t play along, the consequences could be deadly.” Read my full review of The Safe Place here.

Group by Christie Tate

Group - Christie Tate - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 27 October 2020

Blurb: “The refreshingly original and startlingly hopeful debut memoir of an over-achieving young lawyer who reluctantly agrees to group therapy and gets psychologically and emotionally naked in a room of six complete strangers—and finds human connection, and herself. Often hilarious, and ultimately very touching, Group is a wild ride, and with Christie as our guide, we are given a front row seat to the daring, exhilarating, painful, and hilarious journey that is group therapy—an under-explored process that breaks you down, and then reassembles you so that all the pieces finally fit.”

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Apples Never Fall - Liane Moriarty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 16 August 2021

Blurb: “From the outside, the Delaneys appear to be an enviably contented family. Even after all these years, former tennis coaches Joy and Stan are still winning tournaments, and now that they’ve sold the family business they have all the time in the world to learn how to ‘relax’. Their four adult children are busy living their own lives, and while it could be argued they never quite achieved their destinies, no-one ever says that out loud. But now Joy Delaney has disappeared and her children are re-examining their parents’ marriage and their family history with fresh, frightened eyes. Is her disappearance related to their mysterious house guest from last year? Or were things never as rosy as they seemed in the Delaney household?” Read my full review of Apples Never Fall here.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

The Sentence - Louise Erdrich - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 4 November 2021

Blurb: “Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading “with murderous attention”, must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.”

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 13 April 2021

Blurb: “This is the saga of three generations of a single family and the mark they would leave on the world, a tale that moves from the bustling streets of early 20th-century Brooklyn to the seaside palaces of Greenwich, Connecticut, and Cap d’Antibes to the corridors of power in Washington, DC.  Empire of Pain chronicles the multiple investigations of the Sacklers and their company, and the scorched-earth legal tactics that the family has used to evade accountability.” Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Rodham - Curtis Sittenfeld - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 19 May 2020

Blurb: “Brilliantly weaving a riveting fictional tale into actual historical events, Curtis Sittenfeld delivers an uncannily astute and witty story for our times. In exploring the loneliness, moral ambivalence, and iron determination that characterize the quest for political power, as well as both the exhilaration and painful compromises demanded of female ambition in a world still run mostly by men, Rodham is a singular and unforgettable novel.” Read my full review of Rodham here.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List - Sara Nisha Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 22 July 2021

Blurb: “Aleisha is a bright but anxious teenager working at the local library for the summer when she discovers a crumpled-up piece of paper in the back of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a list of novels that she’s never heard of before. Intrigued, and a little bored with her slow job at the checkout desk, she impulsively decides to read every book on the list, one after the other. As each story gives up its magic, the books transport Aleisha from the painful realities she’s facing at home. When Mukesh arrives at the library, desperate to forge a connection with his bookworm granddaughter, Aleisha passes along the reading list… hoping that it will be a lifeline for him too. Slowly, the shared books create a connection between two lonely souls, as fiction helps them escape their grief and everyday troubles and find joy again.”

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

The Lost Apothecary - Sarah Penner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 2 March 2021

Blurb: “Aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London 200 years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate – and not everyone will survive. With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters, and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance, and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.”

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot - Jean Hanff Korelitz - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 11 May 2021

Blurb: “Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written—let alone published—anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then… he hears the plot.” Read my full review of The Plot here.

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix - Lauren Groff - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 7 September 2021

Blurb: “Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, Matrix gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy in a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around. Lauren Groff’s new novel, her first since Fates and Furies, is a defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.”

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

No One Is Talking About This - Patricia Lockwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 16 February 2021

Blurb: “As real life and its stakes collide with the increasingly absurd antics of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy, and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary. Fragmentary and omniscient, incisive and sincere, No One Is Talking About This is at once a love letter to the endless scroll and a profound, modern meditation on love, language, and human connection from a singular voice in American literature.” Read my full review of No One Is Talking About This here.

Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow And Bliss - Meg Mason - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 2 September 2020

Blurb: “With Patrick gone, the only place Martha has left to go is her childhood home, to live with her chaotic parents, to survive without Ingrid, the sister who made their growing-up bearable, who said she would never give up on Martha, and who finally has. It feels like the end but maybe, by going back, Martha will get to start again. Maybe there is a different story to be written, if Martha can work out where to begin.”

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals In That Country - Laura Jean Mckay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 17 March 2020

Blurb: “As disturbing news arrives of a pandemic sweeping the country, Jean realises this is no ordinary flu: its chief symptom is that its victims begin to understand the language of animals — first mammals, then birds and insects, too. As the flu progresses, the unstoppable voices become overwhelming, and many people begin to lose their minds, including Jean’s infected son, Lee. When he takes off with Kimberly, heading south, Jean feels the pull to follow her kin. Setting off on their trail, with Sue the dingo riding shotgun, they find themselves in a stark, strange world in which the animal apocalypse has only further isolated people from other species. Bold, exhilarating, and wholly original, The Animals in That Country asks what would happen, for better or worse, if we finally understood what animals were saying.” Read my full review of The Animals In That Country here.

The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful - Kim Lock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 7 July 2021

Blurb: “Meet Mercy Blain, whose house has just burnt down. Unfortunately for Mercy, this goes beyond the disaster it would be for most people: she hasn’t been outside that house for two years. Flung out into the world she’s been studiously ignoring, Mercy goes to the only place she can: her not-quite-ex-husband Eugene’s house. But it turns out she can’t stay there either. And so begins Mercy’s unwilling journey. After the chance purchase of a cult classic campervan (read tiny, old and smelly), with the company of her sausage dog, Wasabi, and a mysterious box of cremated remains, Mercy heads north from Adelaide to Darwin.” Read my full review of The Other Side Of Beautiful here.

Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters

Detransition Baby - Torrey Peters - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 7 January 2021

Blurb: “When her ex calls to ask if she wants to be a mother, Reese finds herself intrigued. After being attacked in the street, Amy de-transitioned to become Ames, changed jobs and, thinking he was infertile, started an affair with his boss Katrina. Now Katrina’s pregnant. Could the three of them form an unconventional family – and raise the baby together?”

The Anomaly by Hevre Le Tellier

The Anomaly - Herve Le Tellier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Publication Date: 20 August 2020

Blurb: “When flight Air France 006 enters a terrifying storm, the plane – inexplicably – duplicates. For every passenger on board, there are now two. Just one thing sets them apart. One plane leaves the storm in March. The other doesn’t land until June. For world leaders, the emergence of the June flight raises serious alarms. No science, faith, or protocol can explain this unprecedented event. But for the passengers, a bigger question is at stake. What happens to them, now that their life is shared? And as the doubles prepare to meet, only one thing is certain: life as they know it, will never be the same.” Read my full review of The Anomaly here.

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

Dumplin’, the 2015 young adult novel by Julie Murphy, opens strong with an epigraph quoting Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose”. It’s a theme that runs through the story about a plus-size small-town gal trying to figure out where she fits in a world not made for her.

Dumplin' - Julie Murphy - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Dumplin’ here.
(You’ll be the dumplin’ of my eye if you make a purchase through one of the affiliate links on this page.)

Dumplin’ is set in a small Southern town, known only for having the longest-running beauty pageant in the state of Texas. Willowdean ‘Will’ Dixon has never really fit in, not even in her own family, but she doesn’t mind – or she didn’t, until she developed strong feelings for her gorgeous co-worker at the local burger joint. All of a sudden, Will (known “affectionately” as Dumplin’ by her mother) is self-conscious about her size, and she’s desperate to find a way back to comfort in her own skin.

The only plus-size ‘role model’ Will ever had was her Aunt Lucy, a large woman who passed away shortly before the book begins. Lucy was kind and loving, but also deeply insecure. As Will puts it, “There are so many things that Lucy never did. Not because she couldn’t, but because she told herself she couldn’t, and no one made her believe otherwise.”

Determined to avoid a future life like Lucy’s, Will does the one big thing her aunt was never brave enough to do: enter the beauty pageant. To her mother’s shock, Dumplin’ has no intention of losing weight to fit into a pageant dress (and that’s never really a factor in the story). She enters simply to prove to herself that she can, a fake-it-’til-you-make-it route to body acceptance.

So, it sounds like it should be a heartfelt feel-good read, right? But I found Dumplin’ fairly depressing. Will seems to make ‘being fat’ her whole personality. Hardly a page goes by where she doesn’t mention it. I know that teenagers, especially those who don’t fit the mold of traditional beauty standards, can be a bit obsessive and self-critical, but it just felt over the top.

That’s especially given that Will’s judgement extended to other characters – there wasn’t a single character in Dumplin’ who wasn’t defined by their appearance (fat, skinny, buck-toothed, or otherwise). Will even uses a few ableist slurs that made me grit my teeth. It just wasn’t what I’d been hoping for in a book positioned as an ode to self-love and body positivity. Definitely not in the spirit of Saint Dolly!

I feel like this is a kind of writerly tic that Julie Murphy has been able to overcome, though. I don’t recall it being an issue at all in If The Shoe Fits, one of her later novels. There we got a heroine who was plus-sized and proud, and far more realistic in terms of her self-perception. So, if you’re looking for an uplifting book that places a fat woman in the spotlight and lets her get the man and the happily-ever-after, that’s probably a better one to pick up.

The strongest recommendation I can make for Dumplin’ is that it’s full of characters who love and admire Dolly Parton (even if they don’t quite manage to live by her ethos). It’s wonderful to see such a generous, wonderful woman eulogised in fiction, especially a book aimed at younger readers who might need prompting to find out more about her.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dumplin’:

  • “the book has zero surprises in store for the reader. if you’ve ever read a book before you should steer clear, and if you haven’t, you should read something else.” – Evan Ørndal Lien
  • “This was supposed to be a revolution in heels–and what happens? Willowdean remains somewhat judgmental, and worse, the Roman empire wins! Ugh.” – Stephanie McCall
  • “Unfortunately, this dumpling was a little too bland for my taste.” – Books, Tea, Insanity

The Catch – Amy Lea

The Catch - Amy Lea - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Catch here.
(affiliate link)

When a floundering fashion influencer discovers that her all-expenses-paid vacation at a Canadian resort isn’t booked for the week she arrived, she has no choice but to take up residence at the only AirBNB available in a small fishing village nearby. Who could’ve guessed that in that ramshackle inn, she’d find the man she’d be calling her fiance just a few days later? Well, anyone who’s read one of Amy Lea’s novels, that’s who. The Catch is the latest, the third in her Influencer series, and Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Melanie Karlsen is the kind of gal who’s determined to make the best of a bad situation. She hopes to at least get some good Insta content on a whale watching cruise with the inn’s proprietor, the gruff and grumpy Evan Whaler (yes, naming the fisherman character Whaler is a bit heavy handed, but it’s a romance novel so we can forgive that).

The cruise goes south when Evan falls overboard, though, and Melanie has to tell a small white lie to gain access to his ICU bedside. She never actually intended for his family to find out she and Evan were “engaged”. Now, they’re both caught up in the lie, and they need to keep it going to solve a long-running family feud.

It might sound like The Catch has a lot of moving parts, but it’s actually very smooth reading. As a romance, it’s both swoony and spicy, though a rather slow burn (by my standards, anyway). It’s well-written and heartfelt without being cloying or annoying, which is a tricky balance to maintain. The Catch is the perfect escapist romance that won’t insult your intelligence.

Read my review of Amy Lea’s previous novel, Exes and O’s, here.

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10 Books About Betrayal

Beware the Ides of March! Yes, there’s a long, long history of back-stabbing and treachery in literature, with characters double-crossing each another – and even, sometimes, the reader. Here are ten books about betrayal.

10 Books About Betrayal - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Kite Runner is one of the best-selling books about betrayal so far this century, and it’s been tearing book clubs apart since its initial publication in 2003. The heartbreaking story plays out against the backdrop of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, and the rise of the Taliban regime. A young boy of wealth and privilege befriends the son of his father’s servant, only to betray him in his moment of greatest need. He spends his life seeking redemption for his self-interest and cowardice, a journey that takes him back to his homeland in search of the chance for a do-over. Read my full review of The Kite Runner here.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re looking for award-winning books about betrayal, Atonement is right on the money. As the title suggests, it’s a story about the price we pay for betraying the ones we love, and the sacrifices we must make in seeking forgiveness. A poor man is sent to prison on the basis of a rich girl’s false allegation (I know, I know), and three lives are forever altered as a result. The fact that this all plays out in the first half of the 20th century, with WWII looming and booming, just ratchets up the drama. It’s probably the book for which Ian McEwan is best known, the shiny jewel in the crown of his oeuvre. Read my full review of Atonement here.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is all very Jesus-Judas coded, and if you know what happened between them, you know that this will be a book about betrayal. The titular Miss Jean Brodie – who is, indeed, in her prime when the novel begins, and doesn’t waste a chance to remind you of that fact – is a teacher at a school for girls. She has selected for herself six ten-year-old students, her special favourites, the “Brodie set”. Before long, one of them betrays her. Miss Brodie’s prime passes faster than she expects, and she finds herself on her death bed, trying to guilt them into revealing who dobbed on her to the school principal. Read my full review of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie here.

A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re looking for books about betrayal, A Game Of Thrones is like a bargain bonanza. You get SO MANY BETRAYALS for the price of one! There’s Queen Cersei, betraying her husband by sleeping with [redacted]. Then there’s Ned Stark, who’s betrayed by [redacted] who swore he’d be on his side when he revealed the truth about [redacted]’s parentage. And old Neddie is keeping a secret or two under his hat, too. Really, this is an epic book about betrayal at every turn, with some sex and dragons to keep things spicy. And if you love it, there are plenty more big books in the Song Of Ice and Fire fantasy series to keep it going. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient - Alex Michaelides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’ve got to keep your wits about you when you’re reading The Silent Patient, because all the signs are there before the ultimate betrayal is revealed in the final pages. Theo is a forensic psychologist, obsessed with the case of the woman who murdered her husband then refused to say a word – in her own defence, or otherwise – for six years. He’s convinced that he’s the only one who can get through to her, and it’s a convenient excuse to avoid his wife at home, whom he believes is having an affair. Michaelides mixes Athenian tragedy and Agatha Christie mystery tropes in this best-selling mystery-thriller about betrayal. Read my full review of The Silent Patient here.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Heartburn - Nora Ephron - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It takes a unique talent to write a book about betrayal in a marriage and make it funny – luckily, Nora Ephron had talent in spades. She’s better known for her romantic comedy films, of course, but she tried her hand at written fiction with Heartburn, a novel loosely based on her own messy marital relations. After discovering that her husband has been sleeping with a glamorous socialite, Rachel retreats to her home city of New York, and sets about overcoming her heartbreak through therapy, sexual fantasy, and food. Oh, and she’s heavily pregnant, too. It hardly sounds like a barrel of laughs, but Ephron can make anything funny. Read my full review of Heartburn here.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy - Tracy Chevalier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Othello is Shakespeare’s classic play about betrayal, a rich story of duplicity and manipulation. It’s recreated for a modern audience in Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, one of the best books about betrayal in Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. The story is transposed onto a 1970s schoolyard, and takes place over the course of a single day. A new student arrives seeking allies, and falls in love with the most popular girl in school, invoking the ire of another boy who vows to destroy the budding friendship. With racial politics, gender politics, and power struggles playing out on the page, it’s every bit as gripping and harrowing as Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sula only has one titular character, but really it’s a story about two girls whose fates are woven together despite their differences. Nel and Sula are fiercely devoted to one another, a friendship that offers refuge from the ravages of bullies and abuse. It endures even when their paths diverge, Nel becoming ‘a pillar of the Black community’ and Sula a social pariah. An unspeakable betrayal will forever change their friendship, but can the bonds forged in childhood ever truly be broken?

Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller

Notes On A Scandal - Zoe Heller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Notes On A Scandal depicts a torrid affair, i.e. a schoolteacher taking advantage of her position of power and sexually abusing a student. You might think that it’s a book about how she betrays the trust of the parents and the child in question, but the duplicity of this novel goes even deeper than that. The narrator, Barbara Covett, thinks she is doing the right thing by closely observing and recording every move that Sheba Hart makes, as the “affair” is discovered and her world falls apart – but really, Barbara is committing the ultimate betrayal, and Sheba is about to find out the truth. Your allegiances will shift in very uncomfortable ways. Read my full review of Notes On A Scandal here.

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue - Melanie Benjamin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the best books about betrayal is even better for being based – very closely! – on a real-life breach of trust. The Swans Of Fifth Avenue tells the story of how Truman Capote infiltrated, and then betrayed, the socialites of Manhattan’s upper-est echelons. After the riotous success of In Cold Blood, he found himself in need of a story, so he befriended the Ladies Who Lunch and then used their lives as fodder. Yes, that really happened, and Melanie Benjamin wrote a novel about it! It’s heavy on the sparkle and scandal, the gossip and glitz, and the schadenfreude is just too delicious for words. Read my full review of The Swans Of Fifth Avenue here.

The Anomaly – Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly is one of the pandemic novels you might’ve missed when it came out in 2020. It was published in the original French (L’Anomalie), then translated into English by Adriana Hunter. It’s kind of a sci-fi thriller meets philosophical novel, and it’s a weird one.

The Anomaly - Herve Le Tellier - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, as per the blurb: “During a terrifying storm, Air France 006 – inexplicably – duplicates… one plane lands in March, the other doesn’t arrive until June.” Straight off the bat, The Anomaly has some Lost vibes. There’s a plane-related mishap, of course, but also a wide cast of characters, each of whom has an intriguing/troubling back-story. There’s a hit man on board, a translator, a film editor, a traumatised child, a Nigerian hip-hop artist, and so on. The only thing that really connects them all is that they ended up on this plane and it randomly copied itself mid-flight.

I’m going to give you the trigger warnings I wish I’d had before I read The Anomaly: there is a dog death straight away, on page three, without any chance to prepare yourself. That in itself was almost enough to ruin the rest of it for me. There’s also some murder, violence, and child abuse, and I suppose it might also be triggering for anyone who’s afraid of flying. Just so you know!

Anyway, alongside the stories of the passengers runs the story of the scientist charged with figuring out how and why Air France 006 produced an identical copy of itself mid-air. Adrian Miller is a kind-of bumbling statistician who was charged with developing protocols to manage government responses to aircraft incidents post-9/11. He was asked to develop a protocol for what to do if none of the other protocols applied, and he was so sure that such a scenario could never happen, that this “alternative” protocol was “call Adrian Miller”. Sure enough, the situation in The Anomaly sees this protocol put into effect.

There are some fun moments, pithy one liners that jump of the page. I like how le Tellier customised Tolstoy with “All smooth flights are alike. Every turbulent flight is turbulent in its own way,” (page 43). I also got a chuckle out of: “Freedom of thought on the internet is all the more complete now that it’s clear that people have stopped thinking,” (page 301).

Mostly, though, The Anomaly is brain-bending stuff – scientifically, spiritually, and philosophically. le Tellier covers a lot of ground very quickly, rather than focusing on any one aspect of the mystery in depth. One minute, he’s treating Air France 006 as evidence that we’re all living in a simulation, then it’s God sending us a message, then the plane fell through a wormhole… The character I related to most was throughout the whole thing was the baffled President, who just nodded along with what everyone was saying and tried desperately to look like he was keeping up.

It’s a fascinating premise, but The Anomaly never quite achieves lift off, in my view. I would have liked to see one or two characters, and/or one or two of the philosophical questions raised by the conceit, addressed in depth. As it stands, le Tellier took a light, broad strokes approach, which might appeal to others but didn’t really work for me.

le Tellier has announced that a television adaptation is in the works, and fans of Lost should definitely watch that. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend rushing out to read The Anomaly first, though. It’s fine, just skippable, and maybe it will be more resonant on screen.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Anomaly:

  • “I’ve wasted enough time with this book; no sense in wasting more time reviewing it.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I’m sorry I bought this book. Just a couple pages into it is a graphic description of a dog hit by a car. I don’t want to read things like that! I don’t care what it contributes to the story. When will novel writers learn that YOU DON”T KILL THE DOG, or any other pet for that matter.” – bethweiser
  • “Lost its excitement midway into story and got confusing of who was who at end because so much of wasted time on scientist that didn’t even solve anything.” – Tmumble
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