This is a round-up of of every single book I recommend here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. You should know, though, that I set the bar for my book recommendations pretty high. You can be confident that every single one of the recommended reads I list on this page are books that I personally love, treasure, and adore so much that I will happily recommend them to anyone (regardless of their tastes and preferences).
Oh, and if you buy any of these books (I really hope you do!) through a link on this page, I’ll get a tiny commission at no extra cost to you – it helps me keep Keeping Up With The Penguins, and bringing you more recommended reads!
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
When I first picked up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I had no earthly idea what it was about. It had stacks of rapturous blurbs on the cover and in the front pages, but none of them gave any specifics about the plot… and it turns out, there’s a very good reason for that. There’s a twist about 70 pages in that sets the bar for all future plot twists. I personally think it’s criminal that Fowler didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2014 (she was shortlisted, but the gong went to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North). I’ve made it my life’s mission to thrust this book into as many readers’ hands as possible. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Have you ever finished a book that was so good it made you positively furious?! That’s what happened to me with The Grapes Of Wrath. When I turned the final page, and read that gut-punch of an ending, I was immediately livid with everyone in my life who hadn’t warned me just how very good it was. Setting aside my qualms about Steinbeck ripping off a lot of his research, this story is scary in its timelessness, and has a new resonance in the era of climate change. A family migrates from the Dust Bowl, in search of work, and encounter hardships beyond imagining along the way. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House was the most hotly-anticipated memoir of 2020. When I received a copy for review from the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail, the accompanying press release promised that it would “revolutionise” my idea of what memoir and non-fiction writing could be. “Yeah, right,” I thought… and yeah, it WAS right. Machado’s white hot writing talent is one thing, but the way she has structured and presented this memoir is just truly mind-blowing. Not only does she write deftly, vulnerably, beautifully, and devastatingly, the story she tells is a crucial and timely one: a formative and abusive relationship with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. This book is destined for the queer canon, where it most certainly belongs.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
I, for one, will never understand why we hold The Great Gatsby up to be the “definitive Jazz Age novel” when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes exists. Most people only know it as the Marilyn Monroe film, which was wonderful of course, but the book is a true masterpiece. Flighty, self-absorbed Lorelei Lee takes it into her pretty little head to keep a diary, and there she records the most searing critique of class systems and gender oppression that I’ve read in American literature. I think, perhaps, Anita Loos has been neglected and forgotten because her arsehole of a husband sucked the life (and money) out of her, so I’m doing my part for the feminist cause and putting her front and centre, where she belongs. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
You might think you “know” the Harvey Weinstein story. You followed the news stories as they broke: the hotel rooms, the bathrobes, the potted plants… Trust me, until you’ve read She Said, you’ve got no idea what really happened. The fine folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy of this one for review, and it took my breath away. Not only are the details of Weinstein’s crimes horrific, but the lengths that he went to cover them up (and the number of people who enabled him along the way) are almost literally unbelievable. I’m so grateful to Kantor and Twohey for sharing with us the story behind the story, how they worked to break the sexual harassment story that changed the world – they’ll teach this in journalism classes for years to come. Read my full review of She Said on Primer.
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Scandinavian authors are perhaps better known for their thrillers and crime noir best-sellers of recent years, but I think that’s a real shame: their comedy is what truly shines. The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is a delightful romp across the world and across a lifetime, following the adventures of a centenarian who (as the title suggests) jumps out the window of his dreary nursing home and goes on an adventure. It’s my ultimate go-to cheer-up read, a must-read for fans of A Man Called Ove, and the book I buy for any friend who’s having a hard time. It was written in the original Swedish by Jonas Jonasson, and my edition was translated into English by Rod Bradbury. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
It really alarms me the snobbery that still exists around Little Women. For centuries, now, people have written off this book and excluded it from the canon, calling it “sentimental”, “fluff”, “moralising”, a “book for girls”. Whenever I hear someone speak about it in those tones, all I can think is that they didn’t know enough about Louisa May Alcott, the political climate in which she lived her life, and the miraculous and clever approach she took to subverting the expectations placed upon her. Little Women requires a close reading, one informed by context: if you read it with a keen eye, you’ll find literary brilliance and searing critique worthy of the Great American Novel. Read my full review of Little Women here.
Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
I think I had every reason to be skeptical about Rabbits For Food: it’s a writer writing about a writer, it’s an introspective book about mental illness, it has a jumpy timeline, the protagonist’s name is Bunny… and even with all the hoops I gave it to jump through, this book STILL made its way into the very depths of my heart. It had a perfect balance of darkness and humour, the kind of bleak comedy that had me crying tears of laughter while my heart ached. I will be forever grateful to Serpent’s Tail for sending me a copy for review, and I have talked it up to every reader I’ve encountered ever since. It’s rare that a quiet new release becomes one of my all-time favourites after a single read, but Rabbits For Food has done it – that should tell you something.
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
For the longest time, I thought Crime And Punishment – along with all the other dense, dull, dreary Russian classics – was a book that people only pretended to have read. If anyone had told me it was their favourite book, I would’ve rolled my eyes and inwardly called them a pretentious twat. Reader, I am now one of those unfairly-maligned pretentious twats. This book was nothing like I expected: it was heart-warming, it was hilarious, it was relatable… no mean feat for a book about a literal axe murderer! I read the edition translated into English by David McDuff, so I can’t speak to the others that are floating around, but anyone who writes this one off without trying it for themselves is missing the heck out. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I really struggled when I sat down to review My Brilliant Friend – and I’m struggling with this summary now – because I just don’t know how I can possibly do such a brilliant (forgive me) book justice. I think we spend too much time gossiping and theorising about Ferrante’s true identity (her name is a pseudonym, and she remains anonymous to this day), when we should be focusing on her incredible storytelling. This is the first installment of the Neapolitan Novels series, and covers the childhood and adolescence of Lena and Lila, two young girls growing up in the bleak environs of mid-20th century Naples. It is a testament to the ferocity of female friendships, and navigating the patriarchal waters. It is also beautifully translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock is one of the most-often represented characters recreated in film, television, and books. He has become synonymous with the genre of detective mysteries, and so we all feel like we already know his stories. Please, from the bottom of my heart, don’t let that stop you from reading the original collection of short stories, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle. Even though they were just potboilers to him, a way to make fast cash while he focused on the true artistic work of historical fiction, they are enduring and powerful and delightful in equal measure. His economy of language is what blew me away the most: it would take longer for me to explain to you the details of what happens in just one story than it would for you to read the collection in its entirety. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I know, I know, it’s almost cliche to be a true crime fan at this point: podcasts like Serial have exploded into the public consciousness, and brought new legitimacy to the genre that was written off as sensationalist garbage for decades. That said, I cannot overstate the importance of going back to where it all began, with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the “first true crime novel”. In 1959, the Clutter family was murdered in their Kansas farm home, and Capote read a short article about it in The New Yorker. He immediately packed his bags and headed out there to investigate. After six years, and eight thousand pages of notes, he produced In Cold Blood, the book that still defines the genre to this day. (And no, I don’t care that he took some liberties with the truth: it is such a gripping and compelling read that I’ll forgive any and all creative license.) Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
Charlotte Wood is perhaps best known for her widely-adored speculative fiction, The Natural Way Of Things, but (in my humble opinion) The Weekend is her best book yet. It delves deeply into the lives of four women: or, more accurately, three women, old friends, who are charged with cleaning out the beach house of the fourth, who has recently died. I have never read a book that better blended tenderness with brutality, radical honesty with shameful secrecy, and deep respect with unforgiveable transgression. Wood interrogates the ways in which friendships change, or change us, and the grooves we wear into ourselves as we proceed into later life. When I turned the final page, I wanted to physically applaud her: bravo, Charlotte Wood, for so beautifully and honestly depicting the complex lives of older women in fiction!
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
I’ve long said that funny books don’t get the praise they deserve: Less by Andrew Sean Greer is the wonderful exception to that rule. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, making it the first unabashedly comic novel to get the gong in my lifetime. Arthur Less, our sad-sack love-lorn protagonist, must find a way to avoid the wedding of his ex-lover to a new beau, so he decides to accept every invitation he receives to every half-baked literary event in every corner of the world. The book follows him as he travels, clinging desperately to any remnants of youthful vitality and self-respect he can scrounge up. And, though it might not sound it from this summary, it is HILARIOUS! Read my full review of Less here.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
It almost scares me how often I find myself referring back to The Library Book. On its face, its a twist on a true crime book: a retrospective investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986, with some memoir and social commentary thrown in. But I find myself, almost weekly, using a tid-bit I gleaned from it for something totally unrelated: a friend who needs advice on preserving wet books, the evolving role of libraries in the digital age, the burden of proof in collecting evidence for arson cases… I sat down expecting to read an account of a bunch of books burning (heart-wrenching, but simple enough, for any book lover), and I got much, much more than I bargained for. Read my full review of The Library Book here.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Good Talk is a damn good book. It’s not just a “good graphic novel”, it’s not just a “cult classic”, it’s good without a qualifier. The beauty of it, in my view, is that it works on multiple levels. In a remarkably accessible way, Jacob has written a book that will make people of colour feel seen and heard, and make people who are white or white-passing re-evaluate their conversations and interactions. If all graphic novels are this good, consider me a convert. Read my full review of Good Talk here.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I worry that An American Marriage might get pigeon holed as an “issue novel”. It’s truly not. It’s based on realistic “issues”, yes, but it’s ultimately about loyalty, how much we owe and to whom. It’s about marriage, and what we can reasonably expect from our spouses and ourselves. And, best of all, it’s so readable (stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable), and so emotive (make-sure-you’ve-got-tissues-handy emotive). If you’ve been putting off reading this one because of all the hype, stop doing that and get on it right now – An American Marriage totally lives up. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Me Talk Pretty One Day is about astutely-observed adventures in seemingly mundane everyday activities. I’m sure Sedaris occasionally exaggerates and over-emphasises for comic effect, but I am more than willing to forgive him that. He seems like the kind of writer that could derive side-splitting laughter from a shopping list. Every critical observation he offers is laced with love and LOLs. Every autobiographical gem he mines is polished to a bright shine. This is a book guaranteed to tickle your funny bone. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman is no odd-couple rom-com. It’s very satirical, almost dystopian, in tone – wry, matter of fact, and mournful, all at once. It’s a class commentary, in the sense that it looks at social problems caused by class and gender inequity in Japan. Keiko lives in a “grim post-capitalist reverie”, where she finds purpose, acceptance, and contentment in the fluorescent, synthetic environment of the convenience store. Into the bargain, she’s a woman, which gives Murata ample fodder to question whether women can truly be happy in their “traditional” roles, that age-old question of feminism. And all of this – ALL of it – crammed into just 163 pages! Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.
The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray
Martin McKenzie-Murray’s skewering of Australian bureaucracy and political lethargy is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. The absurdity of The Speechwriter is unshakably familiar, but dialed up to eleven. The tone is endearingly nihilistic: the fed-up straight man to the world’s clown car. This is Australian humour at its finest. A highly recommended read for anyone who needs a wry laugh and a shot in the arm.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
From page one, The Underground Railroad depicts the gruesome realities of the slave trade and enslaved lives. Every chapter reveals some new horror. So much of what happens to Cora is gut-churningly awful, and yet… it’s compelling, and propulsive. The Underground Railroad is not a light or easy read, but it’s unputdownable all the same. That’s a very weird combination, and not one I’ve encountered often in my literary sojourns. I read a review on The Guardian that described it as “beautifully written and painful to read”, which pretty much sums it up. Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
Too Much Lip blends The Castle and the Beverly Hillbillies with a storytelling tradition older than any of us can fathom – a unique combination that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I was particularly taken with Lucashenko’s use of dialect, which weaves the narrative and the dialogue together; even though the narration is third-person, a step removed from Kerry and her family, it’s still rich in Bundjalung language and northern NSW/regional QLD vernacular. And in the Salters, Lucashenko has created a family that, yes, drink and lash out and steal and vandalise, but also love and share and laugh and stand together when the shit goes down. Read my full review of Too Much Lip here.
Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
Empire Of Pain is a chunky book, but it doesn’t read like one – it’s every bit as gripping and compelling as any fictional family saga. (And don’t worry, the medical jargon is comprehensible to anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.) With the precision of a prosecutor, but the even-handedness of a responsible journalist, Radden Keefe picks apart the origins of the Sackler/OxyContin dynasty’s deadly legacy. This is a must-must-must read for fans of Erin Brockovich and The Social Network.