Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Concierge – Abby Corson

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Hector Harrow has worked at Cavengreen Hotel for his entire adult life. He’s the hotel concierge, which means he sees everything and says nothing… until now. He’s finally ready to spill the beans about what happened the night of the murder. That’s where The Concierge begins, and I was thrilled to dive into the copy that Ultimo Press sent me for review.

From the blurb, The Concierge sounded a bit like The Speechwriter, which really piqued my interest. It didn’t play out that way on the page, but it does fall into an equally interesting (to me) category instead: the older-people-behaving-badly story.

Hector Harrow didn’t just discover the body at Cavengreen Hotel, he was accused of the murder, and he’s telling the story in the hopes of clearing his name. He’s the only completely believable and fleshed-out character, but seeing as he’s the narrator, Corson just about gets away with it. I think she did a great job of depicting his OCD behaviours, and showing how the trauma of Hector’s childhood abuse impacted his experience of the plot.

The Concierge does start to drag a bit beyond the half-way point, when things should be ratcheting up in an Agatha Christie-style mystery, but if you can hang in there, there’s a Big Twist(TM) to come in the final chapter. You’ll also have to overlook some clunky dialogue and some major plot holes (no DNA testing?), but it’s forgivable as long as you’re as endeared to Hector as I am.

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15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists

Want to read more classic books, but sick of reading about white men saving the day? Never fear! I’ve got you covered with this list of classic books with female protagonists.

15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë has been called “the first historian of private consciousness” for the way she wrote the narrator in her novel Jane Eyre. It’s a moving and elegant depiction of a woman’s inner world in a time period not that far removed from our own, all things considered. A young woman endures loss and loneliness to forge her own path of independence, working as a governess. A man – the enigmatic Mr Rochester – thinks he’ll save the day by marrying her, only to have his own nefarious schemes unveiled and ruin it all. In the end, it’s Jane who saves the day, her lover’s and her own. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Jane Austen wrote a stack of classic books with female protagonists – in fact, it’s all she really wrote over the course of her short life. The most prominent in her oeuvre remains Pride And Prejudice, the story of a woman who has to overcome her first impressions and preconceived notions for a shot at happiness. There’s a lot of critical analysis of P&P, and debate as to whether it could be construed as a feminist text still rages, but for me it comes down to this: Elizabeth Bennet tells a man she wants nothing to do with him unless he pulls his socks up, and he does. That feels like a win for women. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Tess Of The d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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If you’ve got the stomach for classic books about women being treated badly, you can give Tess Of The d’Urbervilles a go. Tess Durbeyfield is raised in poverty, and claims kinship with the wealthy d’Urberville family in order to secure part of their fortune. Her new cousin, Alec, is a real piece of work, and he ‘ruins’ her (in the Victorian sense of the word). She moves on as best she can, but she soon finds that she can’t escape her past as easily as she hoped. It’s widely regarded as the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels, but it’s also one of the most disheartening and depressing.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

If you needed proof that classic books with female protagonists can still be deeply problematic, you’ll find it in Gone With The Wind. This classic of American literature (and film, of course) depicts a laughably romanticised view of a woman’s journey to self-actualisation against the backdrop of the Civil War in the South. Never mind the slavery, look at the outfits! This can be a tough one to read for a contemporary reader, but if you can quiet your qualms, you’ll find that Scarlett O’Hara is a fascinating character. She’s selfish and vain, she makes terrible choices, and she manipulates the men in her life to get what she wants – and yet, she’s undoubtedly the heroine of this story.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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The titular protagonist of Leo Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina is the mother of all self-destructive girls with main character syndrome. Her story entails an extramarital affair with cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband and they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia and their lives totally unravel. It’s the ultimate fuck-around-and-find-out story, with Anna bearing the brunt of her bad decisions in the end. Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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I have a rule for recommending Little Women to first-time readers: you can only pick up this book if you have a good understanding of the context in which Louisa May Alcott wrote it, and the subtlety of her subversion of societal norms. Without that background knowledge, it’s all too easy to write off the story of the March sisters as sentimental stuff “for girls” (which is, indeed, what Alcott’s publishers asked her to write). When you read between the lines, however, you’ll find one of the fiercest classic books with female protagonists in the American canon, with Jo March representing all women who choose a career for themselves in spite of society pushing them towards more ‘womanly’ pursuits. Read my full review of Little Women here.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Hester Prynne has got to be one of the most hard-done-by female protagonists in classic literature. In The Scarlet Letter, she makes the terminal mistake of having an affair with a priest in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. She can’t even deny her indiscretion after giving birth to a child (the most annoying child I’ve ever encountered in fiction, just by-the-by), but she keeps the name of her suitor under wraps. She’s punished, and cruelly, by her community, forced to wear a large red A on her clothes to identify her to all and sundry as an adulteress. The priest gets away with it all scot-free… or does he? Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary is one of my favourite classic books with a female protagonist, if for no other reason than Emma is relatable as all heck. When she gets married, as women of her station are expected required to do, she quickly finds that it’s not the fairytale she was sold all her life. Rather than meekly accepting her fate, she goes off the deep end and she does it in style. She drinks heavily, she overspends on luxury clothes, she has disappointing affairs with even more disappointing men. Perhaps some might read it as a cautionary tale, but I love to see a woman set her shitty life on fire in fiction. Good for her!

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

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If you’re looking for classic books with female protagonists that are also quick and easy reads, Agnes Grey will sort you out. Most editions of this novella run only 100 pages or so, and the story isn’t exactly tough to follow. A young woman chooses to contribute to her family’s finances, against their strenuous objection, by becoming a governess. She thinks it’ll be all finger-painting and nap time, but instead she discovers that children are awful and working for rich people is the worst. Still, she persists, and eventually forges for herself a situation where she relies on no one else to put food on her plate, which is as good as a happily-ever-after for any woman in Victorian times. Read my full review of Agnes Grey here.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

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The two female protagonists of Vanity Fair represent the duality that we see throughout a lot of classic literature. It’s the Madonna/whore complex, the meek and mild lady versus the outspoken and brash harlot. Naturally, your own personal inclinations will lead you to side with one or the other, but it’s a fascinating read whichever way you turn. Sweet Amelia Sedley is on the up-and-up, and yet she doesn’t get half as far in life as the scheming Becky Sharp. Their relationship waxes and wanes across the course of the epic, as they each choose to deal with the restrictions placed on their gender in Regency England in their own way. Read my full review of Vanity Fair here.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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Lovely young ladies in white linen dresses setting out for a picnic on St Valentine’s Day in the year of Australia’s federation. It hardly sounds like the stuff of classic horror novels, but for anyone who’s read Picnic At Hanging Rock, that one-sentence summary will send shivers up the spine. Three girls, under the blaze of an afternoon sun, decide to climb into the shadows of the volcanic outcropping – only to disappear, never to be seen again. This mysterious (and, it must be said, strangely slightly horny) novel ends on a massive cliffhanger, and proves that schoolgirls aren’t always squealing over nothing.

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

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Henry James, by his own admission, was bored with the ghost stories of his day. That’s why he wrote The Turn Of The Screw, where the scares come from the ambiguity of the events that unfold. Was his governess protagonist really seeing ghosts, or was she quietly insane? The choice of a woman as protagonist is telling, as the long history of women not being believed or written off as “hysterical” is what really sells it. If you’re going to read any of James’s work, it should be this classic book with a female protagonist (because it’s one of the shortest, and he could get real wordy). Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

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The protagonist of My Brilliant Career is a 16-year-old girl, mostly because Miles Franklin herself was a 16-year-old girl when she wrote it. That’s not all Franklin and her character Sybylla had in common, either. Both were headstrong, energetic, and frustrated with the boredom of living in a small outback town. Franklin wrote the story mostly as a way to entertain her friends; she sent it to acclaimed poet Henry Lawson without even a hope that he might enjoy it and pass it on to a publisher. In the end, she had to revoke the rights to publication until after her death, because too many of her loved ones and community members recognised themselves in the pages (and didn’t much like what they saw). Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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In North And South, Elizabeth Gaskell uses the life story of a young woman from Southern England to critique the ravages of the Industrial Revolution on society. Margaret Hale is, for lack of a better term, a country bumpkin, forced by economic hardship to move to the turbulent North. She witnesses the origins of the fight for workers’ rights, with the first occupational strikes and the rise of the nouveau riche. She has a soft spot for John Thornton, a cotton mill owner who sees nothing wrong with exploiting his workers, and so her principles must do battle with her heart. It’s a lofty novel disguised as a love story, as many of the best classic books with female protagonists are.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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I’ve saved Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for last, because in my mind, it’s the best example of classic books with female protagonists being overlooked and disregarded because they have female protagonists. This story is styled as the diary of socialite Lorelai Lee as she drinks champagne and seeks a husband in Jazz Age America. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s hilarious – and it’s a blazing social satire of the gender roles of the time. But being about a woman, and written by a woman, it’s relegated to the dusty bottom shelf while stinkers like The Great Gatsby are lauded and forced upon unwitting high-schoolers. So, fight the patriarchy, and read Anita Loos. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Anatomy – Dana Schwartz

Books about women in STEM are having a Moment. You might be thinking they’re all romances and futuristic sci-fi, but there’s at least one gothic historical fiction story in the mix. Anatomy is set in 19th century Edinburgh, and follows Hazel Sinnett, a lady who wants to be a surgeon – and the “resurrection man” (i.e. body snatcher) who helps her.

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So, here’s a more detailed breakdown of Anatomy‘s plot: Hazel is about 19 years old, and her parents pretty much leave her to her own devices (her mother is still mourning the death of her elder brother, and her father is off protecting Napoleon). She’s practically engaged to her gross cousin, but that doesn’t take up much of her time. She wants to make the most of her freedom while she can, by becoming a physician and performing surgery – a very unlikely occupation for a woman of her status at that time.

She does a Mulan, disguising herself as her late brother to gain access to lectures in anatomy and medicine, in the hopes of learning enough to pass the Royal Physician’s Examination. One of the instructors has her number, though, and boots her from the course, insisting that it would be a waste for a woman to learn surgical skills. Luckily, Hazel has befriended Jack, who earns a crust by digging up dead bodies for surgeons to practice on. He agrees to pilfer a few corpses for her to DIY her education, and (naturally) they fall in love.

It was convenient to read this one so soon after reading Stiff by Mary Roach, which gave me a lot of context for the grave-robbing and anatomy dissection aspects. So, if you’re yet to read either of them, I’d recommend starting with the non-fiction, in order to fully appreciate Anatomy in its gory glory.

It’s definitely a Young Adult novel, but given the gruesomeness of the subject matter, probably one best suited to the upper end of that age bracket. It’s definitely the kind of YA novel that would appeal to adults, and well-written enough to make for a quick read at any age. It has a Bridgerton vibe to it, with the woman having to marry herself off to avoid destitution, but also a Frankenstein vibe, with the mad scientists trying to create and preserve life. I suppose, all things considered, you could make the argument that it’s basically the same plot as Titanic (the “common boy”s name being Jack is what really sells it).

I sped through Anatomy and quite enjoyed the reading experience, but there are a few niggling problems with it that I just can’t let go. For starters, Schwartz never really explains why Hazel is so obsessed with science and surgery, beyond… feminism, I guess? There’s the dead brother angle, and I suppose the reader is supposed to extrapolate that her grief triggered a yearning to conquer the disease that killed him, but it’s not really explicitly stated. It also stretches believability that Hazel would be some kind of surgical savant with only her father’s out-of-date textbooks to guide her, that her parents would neglect her to that degree, that her household staff are more than happy to go along with her amateur-autopsies-in-the-dungeon plan… basically, you have to be credulous as heck to read this one.

You could also probably make a meal out of historical anachronisms and factual errors in Anatomy. At one point, Hazel tells Jack to “shut up” – what I know about 19th century Scottish noble-ladies could fit on the back of a postage stamp, but I’m pretty confident they weren’t saying “shut up”, no matter how unladylike they were.

And, finally, the pacing of Anatomy is really uneven, especially towards the end. The beginning reads like a standard young adult romance (albeit with a macabre twist), but then it suddenly nose-dives into horror with supernatural elements that were barely signposted before the last 50 pages. Schwartz really puts the pedal to the metal, and the whole thing is “resolved” so quickly you’ll get whiplash.

So, in the end, Anatomy is a fun read, but only if you don’t look too closely at it. Even a gentle poke opens up holes big enough to fall through.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Anatomy:

  • “I got really excited in the first third of this book. There were a lot of plot threads introduced and I couldn’t wait to see how they were explored and intricately when together. Well I’m still waiting.” – corny416
  • “I was willing to tolerate the hetero romance and I loved the medical gore and such, but I got close to 200 pages when I realized I wasn’t having fun.” – Melissa N.
  • “Hazel claims to be a lady but acts more like a spoiled brat.” – Shay Lane

The Fury – Alex Michaelides

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A movie star invites her friends to join her on a private Greek island… and then there’s a murder. That’s basically the premise of The Fury, the new book by Alex Michaelides (best known for his best-selling #BookTok sensation The Silent Patient). My friends at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

There’s really not much more to tell you about the plot of The Fury. It’s a locked room mystery on a private island in a gorgeous location with glamourous characters. Michaelides is clearly doing everything he can to catch our eye, and he’s planning a few plot twists to keep us interested.

I’ll say straight up that I don’t think the Prologue or the first chapter are really necessary. If I were reading The Fury again, knowing what I know now, I’d just go straight from Chapter Two. The chapters are short, which makes the story feel punchy and pacy, but the foreshadowing at the end of just about every chapter is a bit heavy handed. Michaelides loves to end a chapter with an ominous clanger that’s meant to build suspense, but by the second act it starts to really grate on the reader. All up, it’s quite clumsy for a third novel.

Dual timelines in mysteries are pretty tired, but this one has a nice alternative. Michaelides manages to achieve the same effect in The Fury by having the narrator circle back and tell the story again from the beginning, zooming in on different parts to reveal more information that casts the rest in new light.

I did my best to stay credulous, but a couple of plot points in The Fury really stretched beyond the believable. I can’t say much more without “giving it all away”, except that I can’t imagine a world where characters behave the way the characters in this novel do. It’s all in service of the ending; Michaelides must have started with that, and tied himself up in knots trying to make it work.

All told, The Fury is a great idea for a twist on a locked room mystery, but it needed more refinement before going to print. I suspect a few fans of The Silent Patient will love it, but most will be disappointed.

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18 Award-Winning Non-Fiction Books

When you spend as much time on #Bookstagram as I do, you’ll see a lot of non-fiction slander. I think too many readers have been traumatised by rubbish self-help and dense textbooks for school to appreciate the mastery of a true story well-told. Far be it for me to tell anyone what to read, but if you ever find yourself wanting to give non-fiction another go, here are eighteen award-winning non-fiction books that will grip you just as tightly as the best-written mystery or romance.

18 Award Winning Nonfiction Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Feel Free by Zadie Smith

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Zadie Smith really can do it all: fiction, non-fiction, whatever takes her fancy. Feel Free is her “thoroughly resplendent” essay collection, which won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. In five sections (“In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free”), she explores the concept of freedom as it applies to language and thought and how we experience the world. Smith was praised for the range, with vignettes, profiles, and reviews on subjects as varied as Jay-Z and J.G. Ballard. In her acceptance speech, Smith extended her thanks to her husband, Nick Laird, and apologised for stealing the title for her collection from one of his poetry books.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

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The Princess Diarist is one of the most bitter-sweet award-winning non-fiction books. Carrie Fisher bared all in her account of filming the first Star Wars film, exposing a long-suspected affair she had with her married co-star Harrison Ford, going so far as to include love letters she wrote to him as a wonder-struck 19-year-old. It was the last book Fisher published before her death in 2016. The following year, she was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for her narration of the audiobook, beating out fellow nominees Bruce Springsteen, Bernie Sanders, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Read my full review of The Princess Diarist here.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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If there’s any non-fiction book that’s worthy of winning all the awards, it’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot explores the hidden contributions of a woman whose name the world barely knew, contributions that made most of modern medicine possible. 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, to boot! For her efforts, Skloot was awarded the National Academies Communication Award (for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine), the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction, a Salon Book Award, and the book was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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Anyone who’s lost anyone unexpectedly and turned to literature has undoubtedly encountered The Year Of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion’s memoir (and, later, play) describing her experience of the loss of her husband became an instant classic account of mourning and grief. The New York Times Book Review described it as “exhilarating”, with Didion’s journey through grief making a kind of adventure story for the reader, traversing the terrain of her emotional life. Didion was then awarded the 2005 National Book Award For Non-Fiction, with judges calling it “a masterpiece in two genres” (memoir and journalism) and “a stunning book of electric honesty and passion”.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

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Anyone who’s ever heard about a domestic abuse situation and wondered “why didn’t she leave?” needs to read Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. It’s a deeply disturbing and incredibly illuminating exploration into the causes of domestic abuse, and our collective role in preventing and mitigating the harm it causes. Hill was already an award-winning journalist prior to its release (having taken home Our Watch awards, Walkley Awards, and Amnesty International Australian Media awards for her reporting on domestic violence and the Family Court), but I’d imagine the 2020 Stella Prize for this brilliant book takes pride of place on the trophy shelf.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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When Breath Becomes Air is every bit as devastating as the most well-written tragedy, and there isn’t even hope for a fictional happily-ever-after. Shortly after finding his footing in the medical profession, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. This terminal diagnosis, and the transition from doctor to patient, is the subject of his memoir. It’s a meditation on mortality that resonated with readers, as demonstrated by the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

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Michelle McNamara was one of the original true-crime obsessives, detailing her private investigation into the Golden State Killer (a moniker she actually coined) on her blog TrueCrimeDiary. She was about two-thirds of the way into adapting her blog posts into a book when she sadly died unexpectedly in 2016. It took two years for her colleagues and husband to finish her work, and the book was published in its final form, as I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, in 2018. Just two months later, the Golden State Killer was caught. It’s a story as wild as the book itself, one that captured enough public attention to win the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for Non-Fiction. Read my full review of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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A Short History Of Nearly Everything is an ambitious non-fiction book, to say the least. Bill Bryson attempts to provide an overview of the entire history of the whole world, from the Big Bang to biology to subatomic particles. It’s a tough call, especially when you factor in that Bryson – by his own admission – knew very little about science when he began, and he wanted to write a book that was accessible to the every-person, without too much scientific jargon. That it went on to become an award-winning non-fiction book is nothing short of extraordinary: the EU Descartes Prize for science communication, and The Aventis Prize for Best General Science Book. (Bonus points: Bryson donated the prize money to a children’s hospital.) Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

Tracker by Alexis Wright

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Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders. For her work, she was awarded the Stella Prize in 2018. Read my full review of Tracker here.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

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Non-fiction books win awards when they shine a light on aspects of culture and history that make us think about our world in a different way. Well, that’s the case with The Five, anyway. It’s a book about challenging long-held assumptions, specifically about the victims of Jack the Ripper. The serial killer’s name is known the world over, but the names of his victims (Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane, for the record) not so much. They’re often reduced to markers in a crime scene, misremembered as sex workers and addicts, when in fact their lives were real and whole and complex. It’s an essential contribution to the historical record and the genre of true crime, for which Rubenhold won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize valued at £50,000. Read my full review of The Five here.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

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Bri Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is perhaps the main reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths. Despite overwhelming internal and external obstacles, Lee shows extraordinary bravery in describing her experiences working as a judge’s associate, and how it led her to report and prosecute her own abuser. Read my full review of Eggshell Skull here.

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

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John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. In Murder In Mississippi (alternative title God’ll Cut You Down), he jets off to the U.S. to investigate the murder of a white supremacist by a Black man. He thinks he’ll EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort comes to pass. It becomes a book about writing a true crime book, more than a book about the crime itself – but Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for True Crime, nonetheless. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

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The market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated, which makes it all the more surprising that Becoming went on to become an award-winning best-seller. Michelle Obama describes her life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her courtship with and marriage to Barack, and her time as First Lady living at the world’s most famous address. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the content or format, and yet it captured the public’s attention in a way that not many political memoirs seem to do. The book won the NCAAP Image Award for Biography/Autobiography, and the audiobook, narrated by the author herself, won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. Read my full review of Becoming here.

Educated by Tara Westover

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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 – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling. She won a list of awards and accolades as long as your arm, among them: the ALA’s Alex Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and the Goodreads Choice Award for Autobiogaphy. Read my full review of Educated here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

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The world knew Chanel Miller’s story long before we knew her name – which is why she chose to reclaim it in her memoir, titled (of course) Know My Name. As “Jane Doe”, Miller made headlines for her incisive and moving victim impact statement, describing the after-effects of a disgusting sexual assault perpetrated by “promising young man” Brock Turner. By coming forward and identifying herself, Miller has connected her name to her attacker’s in perpetuity, but she has also won the Ridenhour Book Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Non-Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Read my full review of Know My Name here.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

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

Not all award-winning non-fiction books are doom and gloom! Me Talk Pretty One Day will have you howling with laughter, in the hands of master storyteller and humourist David Sedaris. In this essay collection, he aligns and contrasts his childhood growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fumbling attempts to integrate as an adult living the ex-pat life in Normandy, France. Making one’s own linguistic shortcomings the butt of the joke doesn’t sting so much, we can assume, when you take home the Lambda Literary Award For Humor, the Puddly Award for Humor, and the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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

Cheryl Strayed discovered, after the publication of her memoir Wild, that rags-to-riches stories don’t play out as quickly as you might think. She was $85,000 in debt when she sold the book, and the advance she received was barely enough to stay afloat. Even when the awards came rolling in – the Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography, the Readers Choice Award at the Oregon Book Awards, and the Puddly Award For Non-Fiction – she still had some financial demons to wrangle. Luckily, she has huge reserves of fortitude and inner strength, as evidenced by her 1,100 hike along the Pacific Crest Trail described in the book in question. Read my full review of Wild here.

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

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

You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. Or, maybe you’ve read Empire Of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning non-fiction book about their exploitation of loopholes in pharmaceutical regulation and their central role in the American opioid epidemic. He, quite rightly, won massive acclaim for his investigative journalism, including the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction and the Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

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