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13 Classic Books That Weren’t Well Received

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

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

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

Ulysses by James Joyce

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

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

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

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

Lord Of The Flies - William Golding - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

100 Years Of Good Reads

I came across something fun on Goodreads the other day. They’ve put together a list of “the most popular books published over the past 100 years, as determined by Goodreads members’ digital shelves”. What a great use of the data they’ve collected from us obsessive book loggers!

100 Years Of Good Reads - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
(There are some affiliate links on this page, just FYI – I’ll earn a small commission if you buy your next good read!)

It’s actually pretty fascinating: There are plenty of old-school masterpieces, of course, and a good supply of those books most likely to be found in required school curricula. But you’ll also find gonzo journalism, children’s classics, international literature, Arabic poetry, existentialist dread, and even graphic novels.

Goodreads (100 Years of Popular Books on Goodreads)

Just for fun, I thought I’d go through the list and add a little commentary for you. (Okay, and I also wanted to tally up how many of them I’d already read – sue me!)

1922: Ulysses by James Joyce

I don’t want to be that girl, but I promise you: Ulysses is not the crisis situation you’re imagining! Read my full review of Ulysses here.

1923: The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

1924: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

UGH! Why? Why? Why? If I never have to see The Great Gatsby on a best-of book list ever again, I’ll die happy. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

1926: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A soldier gets his dick blown off, and remains such a misogynist that he never figures out how to go down on the lady he loves. The Sun Also Rises? More like The Lady Also Deserves To Finish. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

1927: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

1928: The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

1929: Passing by Nella Larsen

1930: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

A truly pleasant surprise! As I Lay Dying is short, weird, and an excellent example of why men can write from a woman’s perspective (occasionally). Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

1931: The Joy Of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

1932: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Sex, drugs, and feelies? The “dystopian” future that Huxley imagines in Brave New World doesn’t sound so bad, really. Read my full review of Brave New World here.

1933: In Praise Of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

1934: Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie

1935: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

1936: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

1937: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is rich and wonderful and devastating – and Tea Cake is my ride-or-die classic book boyfriend. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

1938: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Did you know that Rebecca has never been out of print? Never, not once, in the nearly-hundred years it’s been a good read? It’s gothic, it’s spooky, it’s fun, and it’s more than deserving. Read my full review of Rebecca here.

1939: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, I was angry. Angry that no one had ever told me – warned me! – how damn good it is. I’m still angry! Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

1940: Native Son by Richard Wright

1941: The Library Of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges

1942: The Stranger by Albert Camus

1943: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince works precisely because doesn’t get bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves,” de Saint-Exupéry writes on page 6, “and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.” Bring tissues. Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

1944: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

1945: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

1946: The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers

1947: No Exit by Jean Paul-Sartre

1948: I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

1949: 1984 by George Orwell

1950: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

1951: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

1952: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

1953: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Did you know that books don’t actually burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? Ray Bradbury asked an expert for help naming his novel, but they misunderstood the question. Paper auto-ignites at that temperature, but burns much, much lower. That fun fact is honestly more interesting to me than Fahrenheit 451 was. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

1954: The Fellowship Of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

1956: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

1957: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

1958: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

1959: The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

1960: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Yes, I know, it’s problematic. White saviours are bad, and Atticus Finch is the whitest-saviouriest of them all. But To Kill A Mockingbird is still such a good read! And Harper Lee’s only (true) novel! Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

1961: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 is funny… for the first hundred pages or so. Beyond that, you’re just reading the same joke over and over again. It’s good to know where the idiom came from, though! Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

1962: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

1963: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s infuriating how good The Bell Jar is. Like, seriously, I wanted to throw it down on the floor and just give up. So good. And the Faber editions are so pretty! Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

1964: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

1965: Dune by Frank Herbert

1966: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

1967: One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude has a cracker of an opening line – the famous one about Colonel Buendía facing the firing squad. Beyond that, I didn’t love-love-love it, but I didn’t hate-hate-hate it, either. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

1968: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

1969: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.” It’s confronting, it’s brilliant, and it’s an enduring classic for a reason. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

1970: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Morrison has said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “interested in talking about black girlhood”. It seems sadly inevitable that a book on that subject would end up a foundational text about the impact of Euro-centric beauty standards and internalised loathing. Read my full review of The Bluest Eye here.

1971: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

1972: Ways Of Seeing by John Berger

1973: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

1974: Carrie by Stephen King

I’ve got this one on a to-read shelf, that I might get to… some day… probably…

1975: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

1976: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

1977: Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison

1978: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

1979: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

1980: The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco

1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

1982: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple is still – to this day – being challenged, banned, and removed from high school reading lists. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! eye roll). Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

1983: The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

1984: The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

1985: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Even though it might feel like “The Handmaid’s Tale is coming true!” with everything going on at the moment, the truth is that Atwood didn’t use a single thing that hasn’t already happened, or isn’t already happening, to create the dystopian world of Gilead. Just a heads up! Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

1986: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

1987: Watchmen by Alan Moore

1988: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is a beautiful fable, a wonderful read… for hippies. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

1989: The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

1990: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

1991: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Time travel to 18th century Scotland, marriage of convenience with a Scot in a kilt… but make it horny! It’s not a great work of literature, but Outlander does exactly what it says on the tin. Read my full review of Outlander here.

1992: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I’m sorry to say that The Secret History, is every bit as good as everyone always says it is. Read my full review of The Secret History here.

1993: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

1994: The Wind Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

1995: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

1996: A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game Of Thrones might never have made it onto a list like this, if not for the HBO adaptation that had the whole world glued to their screens for eight seasons. But here we are! Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

1997: Guns, Germs And Steel by Jared Diamond

1998: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

1999: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

2000: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielwski

2001: The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

2002: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

2003: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

2005: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I reckon this one is destined to become a classic. It’s clever, and it’s creepy as heck. Well deserving of its place on this Goodreads list! Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.

2006: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

2007: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Look, if you’re in the mid- to upper-end of the Young Adult bracket and you’re just starting to understand the significance of WWII, The Book Thief is a brilliant, life-changing read. For the rest of us… well, it’s a good reminder that literacy is important. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

2008: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

Do you remember when it felt like everyone and their book club was reading The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society? You might’ve skipped it because of all the hype, but it’s actually not bad. Read my full review of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society here.

2009: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2010: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

To call The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks a “biography” is reductive. It’s so much more than the dates and facts of a life. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck! Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

2011: The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

If you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, monks could use the rock you’ve been living under as an off-the-grid retreat. You need to hop to it, if for no other reason than it’s miraculous it hasn’t been spoiled for you yet. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

2013: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

2014: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It wasn’t quite the blockbuster success that Little Fires Everywhere was, but Everything I Never Told You is still a masterful, gripping domestic drama, fully deserving of its place on any list of good reads. Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.

2015: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

2016: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

2017: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

It’s incredible how timely The Hate U Give was at the time of its release – and it’s incredibly sad that it’s still so timely, even more so, years later. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.

2018: Educated by Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated would be a fascinating read. Read my full review of Educated here.

2019: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing and anyone who needs a bit of starry-eyed optimism. Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

2020: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Through this multi-generational family saga, Brit Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels. The Vanishing Half is a must-read for your book club; there’s a lot to unpack here. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.

2021: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Alright, I’ve read 33 of these so far, and reviewed most of them, too! Not bad! How about you? Drop your total in the comments! And thank you Goodreads for putting together this list – nice to see you using your powers for good.

12 Wonderful Queer Love Stories

For too long, queer love stories were miserable and tragic. Queer lovers died, or were torn apart by time and circumstance, or were forced to keep their love hidden due to the prevailing social mores. Thankfully, we’re moving on, and allowing queer love stories – real and fictional – to be celebrated, loud and proud. Here are twelve wonderful queer love stories to pick up before the end of Pride.

12 Wonderful Queer Love Stories - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be my one true love if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page (I’ll earn a small commission).

Meet Cute Club by Jack Harbon

Meet Cute Club - Jack Harbon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Where better to start for a list of queer love stories than one with a book club at its heart? The romantic leads of Meet Cute Club are Jordan – founder of the fledgling titular club – and Rex – a “frustratingly obnoxious and breathtakingly handsome” bookseller who makes fun of Jordan for buying books “meant for grandmas”. Naturally, they’re destined to be together. This is a wonderfully sweet rom-com with relatable characters, and an important message about (forgive me) not judging a book by its cover.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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

One Last Stop is, quite frankly, one of the most delightful queer love stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The central character, August, is new to New York City, but she’s already got the cynicism down. That is, until she meets Jane – a beautiful stranger on a train, with a bewitching smile and a leather jacket. How was August to know that Jane had come unstuck in time, from her home in the 1970s, and falling in love with her would cause all kinds of trouble? Yes, it’s a queer romance with a time-travel element, and it’s snort-laugh funny to boot! Read my full review of One Last Stop here.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Argonauts is a pillar of the contemporary queer canon, so frequently invoked that it’s practically become cliche. It’s been so thoroughly read, analysed, and critiqued that it’s hard to believe that there’s any stone remaining unturned… but I really think that the queer love story at its heart deserves more attention. Nelson’s love for her partner, Harry, absolutely shines on every page. Even when they disagree, even when they’re scared, even when things are awful. Even if a lot of the academic auto-theory goes over your head, The Argonauts is worth reading for that alone. Read my full review of The Argonauts here.

Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Only Mostly Devastated - Sophie Gonzales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Only Mostly Devastated, summer loving had Ollie ablast… but not even queer love stories are immune to the keen sting of summer’s end. When his holiday dreamboat Will Tavares ghosts him, Ollie regretfully lets him go. Until, that is, a family emergency sees Ollie uprooted and moved across the country, and he finds none other than Will Tavares at his new high-school. Will isn’t “out” at school – he isn’t even nice. This is a boy-meets-boy spin on the Grease storyline, and it’s a must-read for anyone who ever pined for their first love.

Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee

Meet Cute Diary - Emery Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Noah Ramirez has painted himself into a bit of a corner. His blog – Meet Cute Diary – is a collection of real queer love stories and trans happy-ever-afters… only they’re all fake. Noah has made them all up. “What started as the fantasies of a trans boy afraid to step out of the closet has grown into a beacon of hope for trans readers across the globe”, and now a troll has exposed the truth. There are a number of logical, rational ways to handle this disaster, so naturally Noah chooses to start fake-dating Drew, a “real” queer romance to convince his followers that it is possible. What could go wrong?

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours - Michael Cunningham - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can see the evolution of queer love stories across the three generations depicted in The Hours. Virginia Woolf (yes, based on the real-life writer) is forced to keep her Sapphic feelings hidden, barely daring to express them in private let alone in public. Then there’s Laura, a 1940s housewife for whom a clandestine expression of her true desires represents escape from her stifling life of domesticity. And finally, there’s Clarissa, who lives a full and open life in love with her partner in 1990s New York. Really, though, the true queer love story in The Hours is that of Clarissa and her best friend, Richard – they could have been lovers (sexuality being fluid and all), but instead they prioritised their bond of friendship, which lasted a lifetime. Read my full review of The Hours here.

Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

SImon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda is one of Gen Z’s most iconic queer love stories. Simon reaches out to an anonymous poster on his high school’s Tumblr page (yes, times have changed), and they begin exchanging emails. When Simon is blackmailed, with a bully threatening to out him and his still-anonymous online pen pal, Simon has to figure out what’s most important, getting what he wants or keeping others from getting hurt. The identity of Simon’s crush will keep you guessing right up until the end, but there’s no doubt as to the heady passion of their youthful first-love.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Less is sure that he is “the first homosexual to ever grow old”. He finds himself suddenly single, dumped by his long-time (much-younger) fuck-buddy for a more age-appropriate suitor. And now they’re getting married. And they’ve invited Arthur to the wedding. What’s Arthur to do? Concoct a scheme to avoid attending, of course! Arthur doesn’t intend to find himself in his trip around the world, but of course he does – and he finds true love, too. (Bonus: Less is one of the few queer love stories I’ve found that won a Pulitzer Prize!) Read my full review of Less here.

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

The Charm Offensive - Alison Cochrun - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In The Charm Offensive, “disgraced tech wunderkind” Charlie Winshaw needs to rehabilitate his image. How better than to re-make himself as Prince Charming for the millions of viewers of reality dating show Ever After? He’s relying on producer Dev Deshpande to make him look good – though that’s easier said than done. On screen, Charlie is stiff, awkward, and clearly a fish out of water among the female contestants. Off screen, sparks are flying between him and Dev. This sweet romantic comedy is great fun, and also prompts us to think about when and how queer love stories are told.

Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters

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Detransition Baby is certainly one of the more complex queer love stories on this list – but if you can follow, it’s so, so worth it! Reese believes she’s on the cusp of living the kind of life generations of trans women have only dreamed about: decent job, New York apartment, and the love of her life… until her girlfriend decides to detransition, and return to life as Ames. Oh, and he knocks up his (cis) boss, into the bargain. Can the three of them figure out how to make a family out of this mess? This is a truly beautiful story about family, commitment, and rolling with the punches.

Love, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery

Love, Hate & Clickbait - Liz Bowery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thom is a political consultant: suave, manipulative, and calculating. Clay is a data analyst, and basically the complete opposite: awkward, lanky, and new to politicking. In Love, Hate & Clickbait, their boss – a California governor and future presidential candidate – forces them to pretend for the cameras that they’re dating, to cover for her own homophobic gaffe. You’ll think you can see where this one is going, but this queer love story has some surprises still in store for you! Read my full review of Love, Hate & Clickbait here.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

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Here’s one of the wonderful queer love stories you’ve definitely seen all over #Bookstagram: Red, White & Royal Blue. Imagine if American’s First Son fell in love with the Prince of Wales – what could possibly go wrong? In McQuiston’s debut, Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry find out (spoiler: a whole hell of a lot can go wrong, but it’s definitely worth it). These two heartthrobs, despite their shaky start, seem made for each other. Their cute banter and quiet yearnings are a true delight to read. Pick this one up when your faith in love (or politics) has been shaken, and you’ll find it restored quick smart! Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

101 Funny Book Tweets

We talk a lot of shit about Twitter, but it’s actually a wonderful platform for pithy jokes. To celebrate me finally getting in gear and properly starting a dedicated Keeping Up With The Penguins Twitter account, here are 101 funny book tweets. (Okay, fine, I also needed to find a use for the ridiculously large bank of screenshots taking up space on my phone…)

101 Funny Book Tweets - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Funny Book Tweets of 2022

Relatable Funny Book Tweets

Screenshot of tweet from @PatrickNathan
"me: "omg I can't wait to read this!"
me: *places it on shelf for six years*"

Funny Book Tweets About Pride And Prejudice

Read my review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Funny Book Tweets About Moby Dick

Read my review of Moby Dick here.

Funny Book Tweets About The Brontës

Read more about the Brontës here.

Funny Book Tweets About Frankenstein

Read my review of Frankenstein here.

Funny Tweets About Kids Books

Screenshot of a Tweet from @blackcindy: "Matilda was dead ass walking around with adoption papers fjjcjffc my good sis was ready to kick it"

Funny Book Tweets About Kafka

Funny Book Tweets About To Kill A Mockingbird

Read my review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

Funny Book Tweets About The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Read my review of The Picture Of Dorian Gray here.

More Funny Book Tweets

Screenshot of a Tweet by @joboyley: "My daughter has started a story and 'Rebecca' no longer has the greatest opening lines in literature." with a picture of a handwritten note that says: "As the day becomes night, the ghosts start to stir. Some littrely start to stir, because they are chef ghosts."

16 Historical Fiction Books About Real People

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but when I do, I find that the historical fiction books about real people have a little extra “zing”. Whether they’re household names, like Henry VIII or Lizzie Borden, or unsung heroes, like prisoners of war or long-suffering wives, it never ceases to amaze me the life and level of detail authors are able to bring to these books about historical figures. Here are 16 historical fiction books about real people that are well worth adding to your shelves.

16 Historical Fiction Books About Real People - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
And let’s be real: if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.

The Tattooist Of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

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Heather Morris’s debut novel, The Tattooist Of Auschwitz, is based on the real-life stories of Lale Sokolov. Sokolov met his wife, Gita, in Auschwitz, and they managed – against all odds – to survive and start a life together after the end of WWII. Morris’s fictionalised Sokolov meets his future wife when he tattoos her identification number onto her arm when she is first imprisoned in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This Holocaust fiction novel has been controversial, with experts questioning the accuracy of elements in Morris’s story and others defending her use of creative license. Wherever you land in the debate, there’s no doubt that as far as historical fiction books about real people go, this is an interesting one.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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There are real people everywhere you look in Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, the first in a trilogy of Tudor historical fiction novels. It’s a condensed fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, a key player in the rise and reign of Henry VIII. Mantel has said that she spent five years researching Cromwell’s life and the Tudor period, making sure that her fictional account matched the historical record. Her focus was on putting the reader in the time and place, hopefully losing the judgemental lens of hindsight. Cromwell is a particularly interesting real person on whom to base a historical fiction novel, given his modest beginnings and his meteoric rise.

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

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Speaking of Booker Prize-winning historical fiction books about real people: Marlon James’s Booker Prize-winning novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings revolves around the true story of the 1976 attempted assassination of Jamaican musician Bob Marley. Just two days before he was set to play at the Smile Jamaica Festival, a band-aid on the wounds of recent political violence in the country, seven armed men raided Marley’s home and opened fire. Through this series of events, James weaves in a much deeper history of a country on the precipice.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

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Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s fictionalised account of the real life and alleged crimes of Grace Marks, once considered Canada’s most celebrated murderess. Marks and another servant from her household, James McDermott, were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (slash secret lover) Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was sentenced to death and hanged, while Marks’s death sentence was commuted. Was she actually guilty, or was she wrongfully imprisoned? Atwood doesn’t necessarily answer the obvious question, but it’s still a really fascinating read. Read my full review of Alias Grace here.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

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Philippa Gregory has a PhD in 18th century literature. She’s written a number of historical romance novels, but The Other Boleyn Girl is the one for which she’s best known. It’s a semi-speculative historical romance, which posits that Henry VIII originally fell in love with then-14-year-old Mary Boleyn before famously divorcing his wife, and England from the Vatican, to marry her older sister Anne. Yes, Mary Boleyn was a real person, but disturbingly little is known about her today. Gregory has taken it upon herself to fill in the gaps. Read my full review of The Other Boleyn Girl here.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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We all know the rhyme, don’t we? Lizzie Borden took an axe / and gave her mother forty whacks / When she saw what she had done / she gave her father forty-one. It’s based on the real life murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents, but what if there’s more to the story? That’s what Sarah Schmidt explores in See What I Have Done, her fictional account of what really happened in the Borden household prior to the murders. From multiple perspectives, she interrogates all of the differing accounts of what “really” happened that day, echoing the real confusion as to Borden’s guilt that has persisted over decades.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s a certain delicious defiance in calling historical fiction books about real people “true history”s, don’t you think? It’s especially so in the case of True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. It’s a fictional story based rather loosely on the life of renowned bush-ranger Ned Kelly and his gang. He positions it as an autobiography, written in Kelly’s own hand; he modelled the dialect style off the most famous surviving piece of Ned Kelly’s own writing, The Jerilderie letter. You certainly can’t fault his attention to detail – which makes his generous use of the ol’ creative license easily forgivable. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

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Beloved American president Abraham Lincoln had a rough trot in many respects – but one of the roughest patches came after the death of his son, William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln. Willie was just 11 years old when he died of typhoid fever, at the White House no less, during his father’s presidency. George Saunders, noted American short story writer, heard a story about how President Lincoln used to visit Willie’s crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery to reportedly hold his son’s body, and it proved a spark of inspiration. His first full-length novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, is an experimental exploration of grief, death, and perspective, inspired by these real, tragic events.

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

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Whenever I find a book I really love, I find myself becoming curious about the author’s life off the page. That’s what drew me to The Swans Of Fifth Avenue, a historical fiction novel about the real life of author Truman Capote. Benjamin tells the story of how he 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 Benjamin wrote a novel about it! Read my full review of The Swans Of Fifth Avenue here.

A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville

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I don’t tend to read a lot of Australian historical fiction, mostly because I resent the wistful, whitewashed, romantic versions of our colonial past that it tends to present, but A Room Made Of Leaves is something special. It’s an entirely-believable imagined memoir of a real woman, Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850), the wife of wool baron John Macarthur, whom history has all but erased. Grenville dedicates it “to all those whose stories have been silenced”, and it speaks to those gaps in the archive – a work of historical fiction for the #metoo era. Read my full review of A Room Made Of Leaves here.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

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Decades after her death, Norma Jeane Baker – alias Marilyn Monroe – remains the subject of public fascination and scrutiny. While much attention is paid to her roles as actress and “sex symbol”, Joyce Carol Oates took a closer look at the ugly truths of her life in Blonde. Oates stresses that this is a fictionalised account of Monroe’s life, but it’s one that will unsettle you and force you to look at the syrupy starlet very differently. As far as historical fiction books about real people go, this one is particularly shocking and revelatory and brilliant. (And Elena Ferrante highly recommends it!)

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

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John Wilkes Booth is one of the most infamous men in American history, responsible for the assassination of one of the country’s most beloved presidents, abolitionist Abraham Lincoln. Much has been written about him, but Karen Joy Fowler’s recent take is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating historical fiction books about real people I’ve ever read. Booth is not just a story about John Wilkes Booth: it’s the story of his whole, weird, super-dramatic family, and the whole, weird, super-dramatic times they lived in. Part-family saga, part-psychological interrogation, Booth is a must-read for fans of Hamilton. Read my full review of Booth here.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

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I’m pretty sure if you lined up every book written about Virginia Woolf, the line would circle the Earth twice (or something equally ridiculous). Her likeness appears frequently in historical fiction books about real people, because she’s a fascinating figure (and we have a grotesque interest in dark, brilliant women who meet sad ends). One of the better treatments of Woolf’s life I’ve read is that found in The Hours, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham. Woolf is one of three protagonists, three women whose lives are touched in some way or another by Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. It’s a sad read, but a beautiful one. Read my full review of The Hours here.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Agnes Magnúsdóttir might not be a household name, but she still occupies an important place in world history: she was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, beheaded by axe in 1830. She’s slightly better known now than she was in the past (a particularly positive result of historical fiction books about real people), thanks to Hannah Kent’s book Burial Rites. The truth of what Agnes did at Ketilsson’s farm is blurred and lost to time, but it would appear that a series of romantic entanglements led to her and two accomplices stabbing and bludgeoning two people to death, and attempting to cover the crime with a fire.

At The Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino

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Rosella Postorino’s historical fiction novel At The Wolf’s Table was inspired by Margot Wölk, a woman who didn’t reveal until very late in her life that she had been one of Hitler’s food tasters. Her (truly rotten, awful, no-good) job was to sample the genocidal dictator’s meal before he ate it, to test whether it had been poisoned or otherwise tampered with. Sadly, Wölk passed soon after revealing the truth of her role as Hitler’s food taster, so we have lost the opportunity to learn more about what that life was like, but we can be glad that Postorino has found a way to tell a version of her story to the world.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

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Sometimes, historical fiction books about real people merge with the speculative to produce really interesting results. One of the best examples is Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s version of what might have happened if Hilary Clinton had never married Bill and forged her own path. It’s a “what might have been” alternative history, one that is full to the brim with gossip and scandal. Oprah called it “a deviously clever what-if”, and both the New Yorker and NPR named it one of the best books of 2020. Read my full review of Rodham here.

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