Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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13+ Australian True Crime Books

I know Australia has a bit of a reputation, being full of snakes and spiders and other dangerous critters… but it’s not just the animals that want to kill you Down Under. Here’s a selection of Australian true crime books that might put you off visiting my home country forever (if the crocodiles and box jellyfish haven’t done that already).

13+ Australian True Crime Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

The Arsonist - Chloe Hooper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every Australian was impacted, in some way, by the Black Saturday bushfires. It seemed to be a natural disaster on an unprecedented scale, the deadliest wildfires of Australia’s recorded history (180 people killed, hundreds more injured, and thousands of homes destroyed). Imagine, then, the stomach-dropping realisation that some of the fires were deliberately set. In The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper explores what might’ve led Brendan Sokaluk to light a fire in the LaTrobe Valley on a scorching hot day in February 2009. It sheds completely new light on what we all think we know and remember about that weekend, and the way we understand and investigate acts of arson. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.

Bonus: Hooper is probably better known for another Australian true crime book, The Tall Man, in which she investigates the death of Cameron Doomadgee in police custody.

Trace by Rachael Brown

Trace - Rachael Brown - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The unsolved murder of Maria James is a case that hits home particularly hard for Australian booklovers. The Melbourne mother of two was brutally stabbed in the flat behind her bookshop in 1980, and to this day no one has been charged with the crime. Rachel Brown initially investigated the case for a podcast, before putting together everything she had learned for a book by the same name, Trace. She very deliberately steers away from the “entertainment” aspect of the true crime genre, and spends a lot of time interrogating the ethics of what she’s doing. Ultimately, she decides that it’s the best – and maybe the only – way to generate public interest in the case, and with public interest comes jogged memories and heavy consciences that might just see the crime solved. Read my full review of Trace here.

The Teacher’s Pet by Hedley Thomas

The Teacher's Pet - Hedley Thomas - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of Australian true crime books that began as podcasts: even international listeners and readers will be familiar with The Teacher’s Pet, Hedley Thomas’s investigation into the disappearance (likely murder) of Lynette Dawson. The podcast was downloaded over 30 million times and made front-page news every time a new episode dropped, and now the whole story is laid out in this comprehensive book. It took forty years for Lynette’s murderer to be brought to justice, and it might never have happened if not for Thomas’s investigative journalism and incredible determination. Read my full review of The Teacher’s Pet here.

Carnage by Mark Dapin

When Australians re-watch or quote the viral arrest video for the thousandth time – “this is democracy manifest!”, “what is the charge? eating a meal? a succulent Chinese meal?” – they often forget the strange conflation of circumstances that saw Jack Karlson apprehended outside of a Fortitude Valley restaurant. Mark Dapin has, at long last, pieced it all together in Carnage. It’s an unusual Australian true crime book, in that it doesn’t center on the perpetrator of one terrible crime, but on a shadowy figure lurking in the background of many. As well as being the ripping yarn of one theatrical outlaw, it’s a de-facto history of organised crime in Australia from the 1960s to today.

Fake by Stephanie Wood

Fake - Stephanie Wood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To be catfished is a uniquely modern phenomenon, enabled by the proliferation of dating apps and new levels of technological literacy that allow fake identities to be forged and verified online. At the same time, investigative journalists have never been more empowered to investigate the catfishers, and get to the heart of their motivations. Stephanie Wood fell in love with a former architect turned farmer, and the relationship only soured when he frequently cancelled their meet-ups and found flimsy excuses for her rightful concerns. In Fake, she discovers that the man she loved never actually existed, and she effectively exposes the dark underbelly of contemporary dating.

Larrimah by Kylie Stevenson & Caroline Graham

Larrimah - Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re looking for contemporary Australian true crime books that have classic Australiana vibes, look no further than Larrimah. It has all the elements: “a missing man, an eyeless croc and an outback town of 11 people who mostly hate each other”. The titular town is a remote outback settlement with nothing to see or do, and only the occasional journalist or filmmaker dropping by to try and solve one of the most bizarre missing persons cases in Australia’s living memory. Kylie Stevenson and Caroline Graham have given it the best go they can, and ultimately they’ve written a love letter to this town, one full of dark humour and a deeply Australian sensibility.

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

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

Helen Garner has written some of the most iconic Australian true crime books of the past century, and This House Of Grief is arguably the best. Robert Farquharson’s crimes horrified the nation; in 2005, he drove off a Victorian road and into a dam, causing his three sons in the car with him to drown. It took seven years for the tragic case to make it through the court system, and Garner dutifully attended each hearing and motion, taking copious notes and leaning forward when most Australians chose to look away. The resulting true crime book is one of the most haunting and incredible narratives you’ll ever read, in any genre.

Bonus: Joe Cinque’s Consolation is another of Garner’s iconic Australian true crime books, covering the murder of a young man in Canberra by his girlfriend, and the culpability of one of their friends.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s one of the most intense and insightful Australian true crime books of the decade: Eggshell Skull. Bri Lee brings a unique perspective to the experience of sexual violence survivors in this country. She is a survivor herself, and also worked as a judge’s associate for over a year, sitting in on trial after trial on the regional court circuit, watching the wheels of justice turn over endless cases that mirrored her own. It’s one of the few true crime books that sits in the middle of the Venn diagram between the victim and the “justice” system, and it will forever change the way you think about how both perpetrators and victims are treated. Read my full review of Eggshell Skull here.

Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher

Shark Arm - Phillip Roope - Kevin Meagher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely Australian true crime books, one that turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Read my full review of Shark Arm here.

Reasonable Doubt by Xanthe Mallett

Reasonable Doubt - Xanthe Mallett - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of all the Australian true crime books out there, very few focus on wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice. Dr Xanthé Mallet, internationally-renowned forensic scientist and criminologist, sets out to restore the balance and shine a spotlight on this neglected issue in Reasonable Doubt. She uses a series of Australian case studies to explore the systemic failures of our criminal justice system, with a focus on the factors of a case that increase the likelihood of a wrongful conviction. By examining how and why miscarriages of justice occur, Mallett reveals opportunities for us to avoid them, and highlights the importance of making adequate restitution where they do occur. Read my full review of Reasonable Doubt here.

CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie

CSI Told You Lies - Meshel Laurie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever heard about a true crime case and thought “why don’t the police just…?” or “if I were on the jury, I would…?”. You might’ve fallen victim to the CSI Effect, the unrealistic expectations the general public have of forensic pathology based on that TV show and others like it. In CSI Told You Lies, Meshel Laurie offers the facts to try and counteract those false perceptions. Her approach makes this book a de-facto collection of Australian true crime stories told from a different perspective, that of the forensic pathologists who make it possible to identify and prosecute perpetrators of violent crime. Read my full review of CSI Told You Lies here.

Missing, Presumed Dead by Mark Tedeschi

Missing, Presumed Dead - Mark Tedeschi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dorothy Davis and Kerry Whelan came from opposite sides of Sydney. They were both (very) comfortably middle class, but other than that they had little in common. They ran in different circles, they had different hobbies, they never met. So, how did they both vanish without a trace, never to be seen again? Mark Tedeschi’s Missing, Presumed Dead unspools this tangled web. Tedeschi was the Crown Prosecutor in both cases, so he’s able to provide a lot of insight into the cases and, in so doing, he dispels a lot of damaging myths – like the assumption that a solid case can’t be built on circumstantial evidence, or that the absence of a body means a perpetrator can’t be convicted of homicide. Read my full review of Missing, Presumed Dead here.

Whiteley On Trial by Gabriella Coslovich

Whiteley On Trial - Gabriella Coslovich - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you think of Australian true crime books, you’d be forgiven for thinking mostly of grisly murders and mysterious disappearances. Whiteley On Trial looks at a major crime of a different type altogether, but one no less fascinating: the biggest case of alleged art fraud to ever come before the Australian criminal justice system. Two men were found guilty of faking artworks by gifted Australian artist Brett Whiteley, only to be acquitted a year later by the appeal bench. The artworks were returned to their owners, with a giant question mark hanging over them – are they fakes, or are they the real deal?

Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey is the first novel by Anne Brontë, first published in 1847, then re-released with corrections in 1850. As best we can tell, she wrote it before her sisters wrote their novels (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), even though they were all published at the same time. I didn’t actually realise, prior to picking this one up, that it came before The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall chronologically – though, having read it now, it seems obvious. This is Anne Brontë’s literary starter home.

Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Agnes Grey here.
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Anne Brontë drew on her own and her sisters’ experiences working as a governess to write Agnes Grey, a novel that offers unique insight into that line of work in the 19th century. The titular character works for families of the English gentry, and while on paper it seemed like a good deal (paid to live in a fancy house, eat fancy food and take care of fancy children) it was a very precarious position for young ladies without a lot of options.

In the novel, Agnes Grey is the daughter of a minister and a formerly wealthy woman who was disowned when she married below her station. The Grey family struggles financially, but they’re rich in love, et cetera et cetera. They cut all the corners and scrimp as much as they can, but Agnes is frustrated that her mother and older sister baby her, and don’t let her contribute. That’s what leads her to take up employment as a governess, figuring she could hang out with rich kids all day for pay and send the money home to help out. Of course, in reality, it’s a tough gig, and Agnes has a few hard life lessons in store.

According to her sister, Charlotte, a lot of the elements of Agnes Grey were drawn directly from Anne’s employment. The children Agnes cares for are right little shits – if you’re on the fence about having kids, this might just be the thing to tip you back to the side of freedom – so pour some out for Anne and what she must have gone through. The fictional Bloomfields were allegedly based on the Ingham family of Blake Hall, for whom Anne worked as a governess in 1839; like Agnes, Anne was fired in under twelve months, and had to kill a nest of baby birds to stop the rotten son of the family from torturing them. (The introduction to my edition gives a thoughtful heads up for animal cruelty – thankfully, the episodes are brief and the perpetrators are duly punished in the narrative, with shitty marriages mostly.)

Agnes Grey is fairly easy reading, a good classic to start with if you’re intimidated by the length and/or language of most 19th century literature. Anne Brontë writes simple, straightforward prose and keeps things moving to prevent the story from going stale. Short and to-the-point as it may be, Agnes Grey does deal with lofty themes: class oppression and mobility, subjugation of women (particularly those in caring roles), morality and character education. Still, it doesn’t address these subjects in a way that feels overwhelming or dense.

Agnes Grey was received as “more acceptable but less powerful” than her sisters’ novels at the time of its release. I can certainly see how it was less explicitly offensive to the sensibilities of the middle class, but if you read between the lines, it’s pretty scathing. The moral of the story, as I read it, is that kids are terrors and the people who care for them deserve medals. The rich treat their hired help poorly at their own peril.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Agnes Grey:

  • “There’s a reason no one knows this Bronte sister.” A. Gang
  • “The sad part is that this could have been a great parody of upper class twits if it hadn’t been bogged down by its over-serious style and author avatar. Agnes Grey is the Seinfeld of stories, 300 pages talking about nothing.” – Emily Bowman
  • “Agnes Grey seems to want to be Anne Elliot, but just comes off as a sad sack, poor me, doormat. No one forced her to be a governess, yet she insisted and then spent the book whining how hard it was…quit then.” – M. Leister

Love, Just In – Natalie Murray

Love Just In - Natalie Murray - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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This just in: a new summer rom-com has hit the shelves! Love, Just In is Natalie Murray’s debut adult romance novel, published by Allen And Unwin (who were kind enough to send me a copy for review).

In case you couldn’t tell from the styling and cover art, Love, Just In is aimed squarely at the Emily Henry crowd. It’s Australia’s answer to You and Me on Vacation and other BookTok best-sellers. The story follows Josie, a big-city TV reporter forced to move to a regional bureau after a panic attack live on air, and her semi-estranged paramedic bestie who underwent a tree change after an unthinkable tragedy.

Josie’s new job is going to bring them back together, and maybe they’re meant to be more than friends after all.

Yes, Love, Just In is a friends-to-lovers romance, with a little bit of heat, a peek behind-the-scenes in a TV newsroom, and a few well-timed public health messages. As a dyed-in-the-wool Sydneysider, who wouldn’t move to Newcastle no matter how hot the paramedic boyfriend is, I felt a bit slighted by all the city slander and country life propaganda… but besides that, Love, Just In is a fun read with a resonant message about health anxiety.

Buy Love, Just In on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)
Get Love, Just In on audiobook via Libro.fm here. (affiliate link)

75 Book Club Discussion Questions For Every Genre

If your New Year’s resolution was to join a book club, or you’re heading back to one after a long absence, you might feel a bit intimidated at the prospect of asking or answering book club discussion questions. Reading the book is all well and good, but some of us freeze up when it comes to actually delving into the nitty-gritty of what we liked or what we thought, and there’s no shame in that at all. I thought it might be a good idea to put together a list of book club discussion questions, whether you want to use them to spark your own conversations or just mentally prepare for your next meet-up.

75 Book Club Discussion Questions For Every Genre - Keeping Up With The Penguins

General Book Club Discussion Questions

  1. How much did you know about the book before you started reading it? Did it live up to your expectations?
  2. How does the title relate to the book’s story or themes? Do you think it gave you a good idea of what to expect?
  3. What was your favourite part of the book? Were there any stand out scenes or sections for you?
  4. Were there aspects of this book that you didn’t enjoy? Were there characters, scenes, or style choices that didn’t work for you?
  5. Did you have a favourite character, or one you found particularly relatable?
  6. Do you think this book was too long, too short, or just right? Are there any parts that you would take out, or anything you think could have been explored more?
  7. Was it a page turner for you? Did you race to the end, or did you take it slow?
  8. Was it an easy read for you, or a challenging one?
  9. Would you recommend this book to other readers? Why (or why not)?
  10. Did this book remind you of any other books you’ve read? How would you shelve it in a bookstore, or describe its “vibe” to other readers?
  11. If you were adapting this book for the screen, who would you cast in it?
  12. Did you highlight any particular quotes or passages? Were there any sentences that stood out for you?
  13. Have you read any other books by this author? Would you want to, based on your experience reading this book?
  14. Have you ever experienced anything in your own life that you saw reflected in the book? If so, did you feel it was realistic or related to your own experience?
  15. Did anything about this book take you by surprise?
  16. Were you satisfied by the book’s ending? Did you feel everything was sufficiently resolved?
  17. What do you think would happen to the characters after the story “officially” ends?
  18. What questions would you ask the author about this book?
  19. Do you think this book will stay with you? Will you still be thinking about it in a few weeks, a few months, or a few years?
  20. Would you re-read this book?

Book Club Discussion Questions for Romance Books

  1. What did you think of the “spice” level in this book? Was it too spicy, not spicy enough, or just right for you?
  2. How did you feel about the leading characters? Could you see yourself “falling” for any of them?
  3. Were you “rooting for” the characters to end up together?
  4. Did the love story feel realistic to you? If not, why not?
  5. What were the main obstacles to the romance? Did you agree with how the characters went about overcoming them? What might you have done differently?
  6. How did the characters grow and develop over the course of the story? Did their romance support that growth, or diminish it?
  7. Were there any interesting side characters?
  8. What romantic tropes did you recognise in the story? Did you like them, or not?
  9. Did the story have a Happily Ever After ending? How do you feel about the “rule” that romance books must end happily?
  10. If the book is part of a series, would you want to read the next book?

Book Club Discussion Questions for Mysteries & Thrillers

  1. How did the author grab your attention? Was the story compelling from the start, or did it take a while to warm up to the mystery?
  2. Were there any/enough “twists” in this book for you? Did you see them coming? Did anything take you by surprise?
  3. Were there any red herrings? Did any of them throw you off track?
  4. Did the setting or atmosphere play a role in this story? How do you think it enhanced, or detracted from, the action?
  5. How did you feel about the characters’ choices along the way? Would you have chosen differently, if you were in their situation/s?
  6. How did the author raise the tension, and/or the stakes as the story developed? Do you feel like the story was well paced? Why/why not?
  7. How was law enforcement involved in this story? How do you feel about how they were portrayed?
  8. Did the villain have any redeeming qualities? Could you understand their actions, or empathise with their point of view?
  9. How did this book make you feel? Did you notice your heart racing, or did you get goosebumps?
  10. Were there any questions left unanswered, or mysteries left unsolved?

Book Club Discussion Questions for Literary Fiction

  1. How important was the time period and setting to the story? Could it have been set at a different time, or in a different place?
  2. Did this book win any awards or accolades? Do you agree with the judge’s decision(s)?
  3. Did the author incorporate any genre elements into the story? (Suspense, romance, magical realism, etc.) Did this enhance the story, or detract/distract from it?
  4. What do you think the author was trying to say or achieve with this book?
  5. Did this book, its characters or its story, evoke any emotional reactions from you? What were they?
  6. Did you find anything particularly challenging while reading this book?
  7. How did you feel about the author’s stylistic choices (e.g., punctuation and formatting)? Did they enhance or detract/distract from the story?
  8. Did the author use dialogue effectively? How did conversations between characters progress the story? Are there any conversations that stood out for you?
  9. Do you feel that the “mood” of this book is optimistic or pessimistic?
  10. If you’ve read other books by the author, how does this book fit in with their body of work? Are there any stories, themes, or characters that recur throughout their books?

Book Club Discussion Questions for Non-Fiction Books

  1. How would you describe the author’s style? Is this book fact-focused, story-focused, or emotion-focused?
  2. How was the book organised? Did it cover the subject chronologically, episodically, or thematically? Why do you think the author chose to write this book the way they did?
  3. Did you learn anything new from this book? Did it change the way you think about a particular subject?
  4. Were there any key “fun facts” that stuck out for you?
  5. Did you have to Google anything while reading this book?
  6. Did this book make you want to learn more about the subject/s it covers?
  7. Did this book inspire you to take action, or change anything in your own life?
  8. Is there anything you think the author missed? Do you think the author covered the subject in enough depth?
  9. Did you doubt the author’s authority on the subject at any stage? Did you question any of the information that they relayed?
  10. What do you think motivated the author to write this book, on this subject? Do you think they achieved their goal?

Book Club Discussion Questions for Sci-Fi & Fantasy

  1. Did the author do a good job of making the world and its lore believable? Did you think there was enough detail in the world building?
  2. Were there any maps, glossaries, or appendices included alongside the story? Did you find them helpful?
  3. Would you want to live in the world depicted in this story? Why (or why not)?
  4. Did any of the characters have special abilities or skills? Would you want to have them for yourself?
  5. How did the author depict different races, genders, or cultures in their fictional world?
  6. What were the metaphors in this story? How does the story and its setting relate to the real world?
  7. How did common themes – heroism, loyalty, destiny – factor into the story?
  8. Do you think the author’s style and voice suits speculative fiction?
  9. How does this book compare to other books you’ve read from the same genre? Can you see how other stories or authors have influenced this book?
  10. How do you feel about how violence and conflict were depicted in this book?

Book Club Discussion Questions for Classic Books

  1. Classic books usually have big reputations. How did what you know about the book or its author impact your reading experience? Do you think the book is overrated, or underrated?
  2. Have you ever read or watched any adaptations of this book? How do they compare to the original?
  3. Were there any classic lines, scenes or characters you recognised? Did they have any new resonance or meaning in their original context?
  4. If your edition of this book came with an introduction or footnotes, did you read them? Did they enhance your experience of the story, or detract from it?
  5. How do you think this book was received when it was originally published? Do you think its reputation has improved or deteriorated since then?

Sense And Sensibility – Jane Austen

Jane Austen novels tend to go in and out of fashion. Of course, they’re all perennially popular by general standards, but within Austen’s oeuvre there’s definite trends. I missed Sense And Sensibility‘s most recent hey-day, the peak that came with Emma Thompson’s 1995 film adaptation, but I think the time is ripe for it to come back around.

Sense And Sensibility - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Sense And Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels to come out, published anonymously in 1811 (and it has never been out of print, never not once, since then). The author had been working on it since 1795, as best we can tell from what remains of her other writings. It was originally an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters, and she gave it the working title Elinor and Marianne (for the two main characters) before settling on its final form and title relatively late in the game. You can still trace the novel’s epistolary origins, though, in the gossip-y nature of its plot. A lot of Sense And Sensibility is driven by speculation about what others are thinking and feeling.

The story follows two sisters, Elinor (19 years old, as Austen was when she first started working on it) and Marianne (16 years old). They, along with their younger sister and widowed mother, are forced from their family estate by their older half-brother after their father’s death. They settle in Barton Cottage, a comparatively modest home out in the middle of nowhere, on the property of a distant relative. As you’d expect of an Austen novel, the sisters’ only hope for social progression and livelihood is an advantageous marriage.

Are you sensing a duality theme, here? The two key words of the title, the two sisters… Elinor and Marianne represent each half of the title (as Elizabeth and Darcy represented both “pride” and “prejudice”). Elinor is the one with all the sense. She’s reserved, polite to a fault, and very considered in her words and actions. Marianne, on the other hand, is impulsive and emotional, with keen sensibility as demonstrated by her passion for the arts and beauty. Austen is too clever to let it be that simple, of course. Over the course of Sense And Sensibility, you see Elinor’s sensibility and Marianne’s sense come to the fore on various points.

All that said, I really didn’t care that much about the duality and the broader themes and metaphors of Sense And Sensibility – I’m probably only thinking about it, and telling you about it, because I read the Norton edition (which is aimed at an academic audience, with endless footnotes and explanatory essays). It’s all very fascinating for other readers, studious types who are taking it seriously, but that’s not me. What I’m here for is the savagery.

Sense And Sensibility is definitely the cattiest of Austen’s novels. Elinor in particular is a straight-up hater. She might put on a polite front for other characters, but Austen reveals as narrator that she is absolutely murdering everyone around her in her mind. You’ve got to admire a girl who can filter like that!

So, on my reading, that’s the strongest recommendation I have for Sense And Sensibility: pick it up when you want to read a woman destroying people with words. I’m sure there are many other, loftier reasons to enjoy Austen’s first published work, but that’s the reason I loved it and I see no point trying to pretend otherwise.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sense And Sensibility:

  • “I heave read and enjoyed all of Austen’s published works, and decided to try an Audible version for my daily walks. Why an American would be chosen to narrate an English cast of characters I do not know. The narrator has all the charisma of an eggplant and sounds more like a YouTube robot than an animate being.” – VMT
  • “To the end, I was hopeful that Marianne would die, or perhaps become an old maid, but no. This is a *happy* ending.” – Alexander Kobulnicky
  • “People have worse problems to worry about than worrying about the problems the character has. I kept going through the story and saying, “So what? Who cares? Fix your own problems.”… If you have time to actually read this book, I suggest you spend your time doing something worthwhile instead of wasting your life on Sense and Sensibility.” – J. Lin
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