Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Search results: "dickens" (page 1 of 9)

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended read on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather, who idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. This gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from my grandparents’ collection, and I’m sure Granddad would have been damn proud that I finally got around to reading it.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel (and, after the mess that was Vanity Fair, that was almost enough to put me off!). The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism, either: it was written by J.B. Priestly who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest. And he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though, because Dickens is a fucking God. I get it now. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. Priestly didn’t like that, but I thought it’s precisely this”chuck-in-a-bit-of-everything” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book.



The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch and Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it). Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away and find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s extremely basic, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon after, too. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never once lose track of who they are or what they’re about.



In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. Isn’t that fucking great?!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

Note: I loved David Copperfield SO MUCH that I included it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes


Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet

I want to tell you something about myself, something that will come as a surprise: I am a huge nerd. Last year, when I bought new bookshelves, I got to revel in the glory of the opportunity to properly alphabetise my entire personal library (so much fun!). Then, I bought more bookshelves, and got to do it all over again! (STILL FUN! I swear!) It inspired me to put together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet. Since then, my alphabetising fingers have been getting itchy… then I came across this series from the inimitable Simon over at Stuck In A Book: his thoughts on an author for every letter of the alphabet. I thought I might shamelessly steal that idea for a single post, and try to put together a list of must-read authors for every letter of the alphabet. Can I do it? Even for X? You’re about to find out!

The A-Z Of Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’re not surprised, right? I mean, if we’re talking must-read authors in my Anglophone corner of the world, and you’re going alphabetical, you’ve got to start with Austen. Despite her surprisingly small oeuvre (only six completed novels, a handful of stories and an incomplete manuscript), she has influenced English literature more than perhaps any other Regency author. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here, and/or Emma here.

Honourable mentions: Maya Angelou, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Atwood

B: The Brontës

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to just one! The Brontës were the most talented literary family of the Victorian era. Their novels – originally published under androgynous pseudonyms – were proto-feminist women-centred works of art that blazed the trail for female writers who came after them (let’s just forget about the Brontë brother, Branwell, who preferred drinking and dirty dancing to poetry and prose). Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here, and/or Jane Eyre here.

Honourable mentions: Fredrik Backman, Alain de Botton, and Brit Bennett

C: Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, Truman Capote was hardly a stand-up guy. He was pretty liberal with his applications of the ol’ creative license. He loved blowing his own horn. He barely hesitated to sell out his best friends when his career needed a boost with a salacious tell-all. And yet, be damned if he wasn’t an incredible, imitable writer. He revolutionised the true crime genre, steering it away from sparse journalistic re-tellings and using the conventions of fiction to weave a story for the reader. Everything he wrote was carefully considered and expertly crafted. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

Honourable mentions: Maxine Beneba Clarke

D: Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s all too easy to forget that the serialised novel was the primary medium of family entertainment back in the Victorian era. Authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so they tended to stretch things out, which means they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being bloated and dull. In fact, Dickens worked incredibly hard to keep his stories interesting and entertaining, to keep his circulation numbers up and keep the cheques coming. Love romance? Dickens has you covered. Military history? Same. Adventure? Crime? Character study? There’s something for everyone in his catalogue, I swear it. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Honourable mentions: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle

E: Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bernadine Evaristo shot to international fame last year when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other… in tandem with Margaret Atwood for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a controversial decision, and it ate up plenty of space in the Opinion and Arts pages, which was warranted but also a bit of a shame. The scandal has overshadowed Evaristo’s many other works and achievements: being the first black British writer to assume the No. 1 spot on the UK fiction paperback chart, for instance, not to mention her previous eight novels and novellas.

Honourable mentions: Nora Ephron, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides


F: Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oh, Elena Ferrante. I think I could write a book about how much I love Elena Ferrante (and I’m not the only one). It’s not just the mystique – she’s the world’s best-known living pseudonymous author – that appeals. Her writing is lyrical, but never overwrought, and translated beautifully into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. You should, of course, begin with her Neapolitan Quartet, her series of novels following the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grew up together in mid-20th century Naples with all the violence, poverty, and oppression that entailed. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend (the first book of the Neapolitan Quartet) here.

Honourable mentions: Karen Joy Fowler

G: Helen Garner

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

Helen Garner is basically the Madonna of the Australian literary scene. She’s had her ups and downs, she’s come in and out of fashion, but she reinvents herself so constantly and completely that it’s impossible for anyone not to respect her art. She’s written everything – from essay collections to thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction to true crime – and her craft is second to none. I’m yet to encounter a work of Garner’s that I haven’t enthusiastically devoured, and immediately flagged to re-read.

Honourable mentions: Stella Gibbons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Roxane Gay

H: Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway can be a bit hit-and-miss. Case in point: I fell in love with his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, in an undergrad English Lit unit, but I was exhausted and bored by The Sun Also Rises. He never actually wrote the six-word short story for which he’s well-known (“Baby Shoes”, you know the one), but I’ve heard The Old Man And The Sea is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. It would seem that different Hemingways appeal to different readers: the only way to find yours is to give his books and stories a go for yourself. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Honourable mentions: Chloe Hooper

I: Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The man won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He’s got an OBE. Just about everything he’s ever written has been shortlisted (or won!) for a major literary prize. What more do you need? Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated and lauded English-language authors in the world – he’s a must-read if for no other reason than simple curiosity. The good news is, as far as I’m concerned, his books totally hold up. They’re slightly strange, but not too off-the-wall. They’re sparse, but not underdone. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

J: Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve always said it’s such a shame that the Scandinavians are so well-renowned for their crime noir, when they’ve got brilliant comic novelists like Jonas Jonasson. From humble beginnings as a Swedish blogger, Jonasson has gone on to hit international best-seller lists with his delightful novels about unlikely heroes. His writing is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and warm your cockles, all at once. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Honourable mentions: Tayari Jones


K: Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephen King has published over sixty books, and combined they’ve sold some 350 million copies around the world. While he tends towards the darker side – horror, thriller, the supernatural – he still has plenty of options for readers who are, shall we say… a bit chicken (myself included!). Still, he’s called the “King Of Horror” (yes, a pun on his name) for very good reason. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you should definitely check him out at his gore-iest. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

L: Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wondering who the heck Anita Loos is, and what she’s doing in an A-Z list of must-read authors? You’re probably not the only one. I certainly hadn’t heard of her before I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list (in fact, I wouldn’t have known Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was anything other than a Marilyn Munroe film). This, Keeper Upperers, is one of the great travesties of our time. Anita Loos was a brilliant comic screenwriter, the first salaried one in Hollywood, and she suffered from that awful chronic condition that affects so many successful women: loving an arsehole of a husband who sucked her dry and kept her in the shadows. Don’t let him win, folks. Don’t sleep on Anita Loos. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Honourable mentions: Melissa Lucashenko

M: Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s no delight quite like that of discovering an author at the beginning of their very bright career. I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where she had been invited to speak after her debut book – a collection of short stories, notoriously difficult to sell – won her international acclaim. She has since also published an incredible memoir, In The Dream House, a true work of art that promises to revolutionise the genre of memoir and has already carved out a spot in the queer literary canon. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Honourable mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison

N: Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know if it helps or harms Vladimir Nabokov’s reputation that his name has become synonymous with Lolita, a book written from the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert, about his twisted obsession with his teenage stepdaughter. It’s stomach-churning subject matter, to be sure, but to write a book so fascinating, so captivating, about someone so abhorrent is surely a feat not many could manage. Add into the equation the fact that English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet he mastered it so completely as to write more lyrically and more beautifully than any of his Anglophone contemporaries… well, that’s just gob-smacking, isn’t it?

Honourable mentions: Maggie Nelson, Celeste Ng

O: Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Susan Orlean won herself a new legion of fans when her drunk tweets made the headlines last month, giving those of us who have long loved her writing ample opportunity to say: told you so! She is perhaps best-known for her book of The Orchid Thief, based on a piece of investigative journalism into the case of (you guessed it) some stolen orchids. My personal favourite, however, is The Library Book – her surprisingly intimate, incredibly detailed, booklover catnip exploration of the Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986. The point is, there’s something in Orlean’s oeuvre for everyone.

Honourable mentions: Maggie O’Farrell


P: Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I had a devil of a time tracking down a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my local secondhand bookstore haunts. It turns out, readers are still so enamored with her work that they’re unwilling to part with their copies. I suspected, prior to reading her work, that her enduring popularity was due to the mythology surrounding her life and death. She was depressed! Damaged! Beautiful! But it turns out her writing is just as beautiful as she was. Every time I pick up one of her books, I fight against the equal and competing urges to throw them across the room and hug them to my chest. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Honourable mentions: Max Porter

Q: Daniel Quinn

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s an over-used phrase, to be sure, but Daniel Quinn was surely ahead of his time. He was using fiction to explore environmentalism and the dangers of an anthropocentric worldview long before it was cool. Some of his ideas were controversial (if I understand correctly, international efforts to aid countries ravaged by famines made the famines… worse, somehow?), but he still managed to merge philosophy and fiction in a way that the average person (i.e., me) could understand. Plus, he coined a whole bunch of phrases that have slipped into common parlance in certain circles (see: the boiling frog, the Great Forgetting).

R: Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Sally Rooney: the millennial wunderkind. She’s been called everything from the voice of a generation to the 21st century’s answer to J.D. Salinger. All this despite having only two full-length books (Conversations With Friends, and Normal People) under her belt. And she’s just 29 years old. What have YOU done lately? The world is waiting with bated breath for the next great novel from the pen of its newest literary darling. I’m sure she’s up to the challenge. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Honourable mentions: Jean Rhys

S: David Sedaris

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

I’m a relatively recent convert to David Sedaris, but holy heck – he’s got me hook, line, and sinker. He is truly the master of humorous autobiographical writing, and can find the funny in even the most dire of life circumstances. (Take, for instance, his musings on his failed attempts to panic-buy at the onset of a global pandemic.) His secret sauce seems to be a unique combination of cutting insight – no one is spared – and equally powerful self-deprecation. I can’t think of anyone else who could insult someone in such a way that they laughed ’til they cried, and make fun of himself at the same time, in quite the way Sedaris can. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Honourable mentions: Mary Shelley, Zadie Smith, and John Steinbeck

T: Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I couldn’t put together a list of must-read authors without including one of the Russian masters. Leo Tolstoy has a reputation for being wordy and, look, it’s not undeserved. War And Peace comes in at about 587k words. Anna Karenina at 340k. (For reference: most books published today come in well under 100k.) And yet, his popularity endures. That’s because his novels contain some universal truths, some enduring sensibility that we can all relate to. Either that, or people just really like showing off.

Honourable mentions: Maria Tumarkin


U: Gabrielle Union

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, fine, maybe I’ve been swayed by my love of late-90s teen comedy movies (and U is a bear of a letter). Still, I stand by the inclusion of Gabrielle Union in an A-Z list of must-read authors. She has parlayed her early success playing teenagers in various competitive and romantic dilemmas into a career as an activist in women’s health and well-being. Her thesis is We’re Going To Need More Wine, a sentiment that was oddly prescient given that it was published long before the world fell to pieces. She has since expanded her creative efforts to include children’s books, focused on positive representations of non-traditional families.

V: Sarah Vaughn

Anatomy Of A Scandal - Sarah Vaughan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, we’re getting down to the bear letters, but I’m going strong! V is for Vaughn, as in Sarah Vaughn – not the jazz singer, but the British novelist and journalist. She has parlayed her illustrious career writing for outlets like The Guardian into best-selling fiction that explores power, privilege, and politics. Even with a bunch of success notches already punched into her belt – including film and television rights, awards, and over twenty translations of her work – Vaughan is still going strong.

W: Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alice Walker is, without doubt, one of the greatest living American writers and feminists (or, as per the term she herself coined, “womanist”). Most of her best-known full length fiction was published in the ’70s and ’80s, but it continues to resonate – particularly in the age of #MeToo and #BLM – with its searing depictions of racism, sexism, violence and resilience. But she’s not just a wildly successful and brilliant novelist: her poetry, her short fiction, her journalism, and (most importantly) her activism are also ground-breaking and vital contributions to contemporary life.

Honourable mentions: Colson Whitehead, Charlotte Wood, and Edith Wharton

X: Xenophon

A History Of My Times - Xenophon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, I had to reach WAY back into the archives to find an X I could get behind… but I found one! Xenophon was an Athenian philosopher, and I inherited one of his books as a result of merging marital bookshelves. Turns out, my husband is onto something: a lot of what we know of Ancient Greece is derived from his histories, as well as that which we know of his mate Socrates. He was also kind enough to write in Attic Greek – the old-timey equivalent of plain language – which means his books were more accessible to his contemporaries, and they’ve been a boon for translators in the modern world.

Y: Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d be forgiven for associating Hanya Yanagihara’s name only with her international best-seller and near-universally acclaimed novel, A Little Life. It has won (and broken) hearts for five years now, and it’s still going strong. But Yanagihara is a multi-talented gal; she’s also a travel writer, a magazine editor, and she wrote a previous novel (based on the real story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) that is arguably just as worthy of attention. She is a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature, beloved by critics and readers alike.

Z: Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief, made the Second World War tangible for youngsters in a way that not many other contemporary writers have managed. Through his story of the young girl who steals books and learns to read (narrated by Death, into the bargain), he’s captured their heads and hearts and maybe – just maybe – taught the kids enough about the horrors of world conflict to make them inclined to stop history repeating itself. What’s extra-interesting is that the success of that novel led him to take a decade-long break from writing and publishing, a dry spell only recently broken with the rains of his new novel, Bridge Of Clay (an epic coming-of-age story). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.


What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 Books For 2020?

It’s really comforting to know that, even in these uncertain times, there are certain things that a book lover can rely on, like the release of the Dymocks Top 101. Every year, thousands of Australian readers vote on their most beloved books, and those fine booksellers publish the results. I love leafing through this list each year, and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted – much more fun than plain-old same-old lists of best selling books and professional critic round-ups. This is bookish democracy at its finest! Plus, this year, there was a world first: a tie for first place! Here’s my take on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020…

Dymocks Top 101 Books 2020 - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookstore - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief - Books Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Two former number ones, both alike in dignity… turns out, Australia just couldn’t decide between them! It was a dead heat for the number one spot, so Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief tied for first. Eleanor Oliphant got the gong in the 2019 list, and The Book Thief has been lingering around the top 10 ever since it was first released thirteen years ago. Impressive, on both fronts! Zusak maybe has a slight edge, given that his recent follow-up, Bridge Of Clay, also made the list (number 47). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

3. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And here’s one that would come as no surprise to anyone at all. You couldn’t swing a bookmark in Australia these past twelve months without hitting a copy of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. Billed as equally heartbreaking and uplifting, this is a coming of age story that appeals to readers right across the spectrum. It’s got a bit of everything: romance, crime, adventure, humour, and family ties.

4. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another former number one (but fourth place is still very respectable!): All The Light We Cannot See. It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction that won hearts and minds across the world. In it, a German orphan and a blind French girl are destined to cross paths as they both try to play the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Oh, and there’s a precious jewel and a Nazi treasure hunter… Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

5. The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Harper is one of the most formidable crime writing talents to come out of Australia in the past decade. Her debut, The Dry, came in at number five, and her two follow ups – The Lost Man and Force Of Nature – also made the list, at 11 and 92 respectively. This is the book that introduced Aaron Falk, hard-boiled Australian Federal Police investigator. He reluctantly returns to his hometown to mourn the passing of a childhood friend, and (of course) finds himself drawn into a mystery, in the midst of the worst drought of the century… A feature film, starring Eric Bana, is slated for release later this year (corona-willing).

6. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, maybe it’s cheating to put an entire series in, but at least it frees up a few extra slots for other great reads in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020. I think we can safely say that Harry Potter is officially a classic now – and not one of those contemporary classics that we’ll all forget about eventually, but a classic-classic that we’ll be reading and enjoying for generations to come. I actually kind of look forward to the day that we see these books shelved alongside Dickens and Austen…

9. Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s almost a cliche, by this point, for anyone who has ever stepped foot in the White House to write a memoir (especially if they intend to return). Michelle Obama, however, managed to break the mold. Becoming is no whistle-blowing take-down of the upper echelons, nor is it a simpering testament to the magic of democracy. It’s a refreshing and compelling account of the experiences that shaped America’s first black First Lady. I almost held off picking up this one (it’s the contrarian nature in me), but the consistent, long-term hype wore me down.

13. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Look, I can’t deny that I’m overjoyed to see Dark Emu on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020… but I also can’t deny that I’m disappointed to see that it didn’t rank higher. In my view, Pascoe’s account of the true Indigenous agricultural history of this nation should be required reading for all Australians and all who come here. It was voted as the inaugural Parliamentary Book Club read, where constituents chose it as the book they most wanted their elected representatives to read, and shot back to the top of the best-seller list over Christmas as book lovers came out in droves to buy it for their loved ones.

14. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another one I’m really happy to see made the cut (again): The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. In fact, it seems to climb higher and higher in the Dymocks Top 101 list each year. This is a disarmingly honest account of one of Australia’s most beloved comedians and artists, and his family’s journey to reach our shores from Vietnam. It’s one of my favourites to recommend to anyone who expresses an opinion about “boat people” (ugh). Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

15. The Rosie Trilogy by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Rosie books have really captured the hearts and minds of a lot of Australians. It all started with The Rosie Project, where a neurodivergent man finds love with the titular Rosie. She’s nothing like he would have expected he’d find alluring – in fact, she’s a bit of a wreck, but those crazy kids make it work. I give Simsion props for kicking the rom-com cliches to the curb; not only did he invert the much-maligned Grease storyline, he didn’t settle for the “and then they lived happily ever after” ending either. The subsequent novels, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result, follow Don and Rosie as they travel around the world, settle into wedded bliss, and raise a child. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

17. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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

Ever since the HBO adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t just surged in popularity; it’s become emblematic of the struggle to resist conservative governments around the world. Women have shown up wearing red Handmaid robes to protest the passage of legislation that would limit their right to access to health-care. But it’s not just the show: people are returning to the book again and again, and I think it’s safe to say we could now hold it on par with other dystopian classics like Nineteen Eighty Four. Plus, there was the sequel released last year, The Testaments, which came in on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 at number 32. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

26. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I used to roll my eyes whenever I saw Pride And Prejudice in a best-of books list. I mean, what a cliche, right? Well, I’m a convert now – it’s a cliche for a reason, people! I had no fewer than half a dozen aborted attempts to read this classic of English literature, but I got there in the end and I’m SO glad I persisted. For the skeptics out there, let me reassure you that it’s not all gowns and marriage prospects and fluffing about. There’s serious social and political commentary here, and dashing men making foolish decisions and having the women in their lives dress them down for it. Oh, and there’s tea. Can’t have too much tea. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

28. A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin

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

I called it last year, folks: the A Song Of Ice And Fire series is going to be hanging around in the Dymocks Top 101 books for a long, long time, thanks to the unparalleled popularity of the HBO series (that finally concluded last year). Fantasy, particularly High Fantasy(TM), is not usually my thing – I get too lost and confused with all the made up place names and people names and languages and whatnot, even if there’s a helpful guide in the front. But, having watched the adaptation, I actually found A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series, quite easy to follow. I even (gasp) enjoyed it. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

31. Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tara Westover’s story is so incredible that her memoir, Educated, basically sells itself. She was born to a survivalist family, so isolated from society that there was no one around to ensure that she received any kind of proper schooling. She didn’t step foot into a classroom until she was seventeen years old. In this book, she recounts how she pursued her love of learning – all the way to Cambridge University, where she earned a PhD! – and reckoned with the “real” world, so different from that in which she was raised.

34. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m actually kind of shocked that Big Little Lies didn’t rank higher in the Dymocks Top 101 books for this year, but given the strength of the contenders, coming in the mid-thirties is still very respectable. That goes double when you take into account that this book was published six(!) years ago, and one of Liane Moriarty’s other best sellers, The Husband’s Secret, also made the cut (at number 89). I worried for a long time that I was going to be the last person left alive who hadn’t read this perennially popular domestic thriller, but I finally got around to it this year (and just in time to avoid spoilers from the TV show adaptation!). Read my full review of Big Little Lies here, and my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.

36. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australia has seen a whole slew of brilliant life-writing from women in the #MeToo era, bravely disclosing the details of various assaults and harassment that they have suffered in silence over many years. Eggshell Skull is one of the best, because Bri Lee offers a particularly interesting and unique perspective on the experiences of women who come forward. She trained as a lawyer, and worked as a judge’s associate on a regional court circuit for a year. That meant that she saw the system from the “inside”, how the trial and prosecution of people charged with sexual assaults actually works (or doesn’t), and the “outside”, as she herself comes forth as a victim. Hopefully, the inclusion of books such as hers on the Dymocks Top 101 represents a major shift in cultural attitudes towards believing women and paving the way for past injustices to be addressed.

38. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This book is the little-engine-that-could of international best-sellers. On the face of it, A Little Life doesn’t have many points in its favour. It’s long (SUPER long, could-use-it-as-a-doorstop long). It’s depressing (most editions have a cover that features a close up of a man crying hysterically). Hanya Yanagihara is a woman of colour, a group embarrassingly under-represented in the upper echelons of publishing. And yet, here we are, five years after the release of this juggernaut, still singing its praises! That’s what you love to see…

39. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It would seem that no matter how few fucks you give, you could always give fewer. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck is well on its way to becoming a classic of the self-help genre – it spawned at least a dozen knock-offs, and sparked a trend in obscenity in book titles (which I, for one, wholeheartedly support). Of course, Manson has gone on to write a follow up, which also did well, but it’s the original that Dymocks booklovers voted into the Top 101 books for 2020.

40. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think, in a few decades or so, we’ll look back at Normal People as one of the defining Millennial(TM) novels. From what I’ve read, I don’t think Rooney would be particularly pleased to hear it described that way, but them’s the breaks – you can’t just go and be the voice of a generation and then let it get up your nose. This story of an extraordinarily complex emotional entanglement between two young adults has resonated with a lot of folks, and a BBC adaptation is coming later this month. Read my full review of Normal People here.

42. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another trend-setter: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn can surely be credited with the renewed interest in dark psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators. We’re positively drowning in them, now! I think this one was particularly popular because it came right on the cusp of the moment where we saw a serious shift, a new wave of critical attention to the power differential between men and women. Plus, it brought suspense and intrigue and violence into the hetero marriage, a normally-comfortable setting. Or, maybe this is all overreach – maybe it’s just a really pacy page-turner. Either way!

43. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re surprised to see this modern classic in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2020, you shouldn’t be. To Kill A Mockingbird has been in every Dymocks Top 101 that I can remember. I think the key is its wide appeal – everyone, from young teens to old crones, can enjoy it – and its timeless message regarding social justice. We’re probably a little more sensitive now to some of the harmful tropes employed by Lee to get her message across (the “white saviour” being the most prominent), but I don’t think that diminishes the comfort and inspiration we can take from her only (true) novel. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

48. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a shame that Scandinavian writers get so much attention for their crime noir thrillers when they’re pumping out heart-warming up-lifting books like A Man Called Ove. Fredrik Backman was a humble Swedish blogger who burst onto the literary scene, and into our hearts, when this book was translated into English back in 2013. It’s the story of a crotchety old man (called Ove, naturally) who’s fed up with just about everything, a condition only exacerbated by the arrival of his noisy, nosy new neighbours. Backman has been making us cry – happy tears, and sad ones – for years now, and will likely go on doing so for years yet. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

49. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Gone Girl might have jockeyed ahead in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but The Girl On The Train is holding on strong! This domestic thriller follows the interweaving lives of three very different women: Rachel (the alcoholic with the history of fertility issues), Anna (the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, and stay-at-home mum to the infant Rachel might’ve had), and Megan (who lives a few doors down from Anna). Rachel sees no harm in peering into Anna and Megan’s lives from the window of her train as she passes every day, but then she witnesses something that might be a clue to what could be a crime… Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

50. The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t mean to be rude, but I am truly baffled by the continuing popularity of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. (Maybe I’m just bitter because it beat out my favourite to win the Booker Prize, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, back in 2014.) Sure, I can appreciate Flanagan’s skill in depicting the harsh realities of war, specifically life for prisoners working on the Burma railway, but the whole “love story” was just so overwrought and unnecessary… But, clearly, I’ve been outvoted, Aussie book lovers are still enchanted by it. Read my full review of The Narrow Road To The Deep North here.

53. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every time I talk on the internet about The Fault In Our Stars, I live in fear of enraged teens hunting me down with buckets full of rotting tomatoes. But I can’t lie: it’s just not good. Reading it, I felt like John Green just made a list of every single thing that might pull on our heartstrings (star cross’d lovers, teen cancer, disappointing role models) and ticked them off one by one. That said, I’d still recommend that everyone reads it; there’s going to be a whole bunch of future doctors and nurses that came to their profession because they read this book, and we want to have something to talk to them about while they’re caring for us in our old age, don’t we? Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

54. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know I’m a big ol’ skeptic, and when I read The Alchemist I was a little snarky about it, but even I can’t begrudge Aussie book lovers for turning to an allegorical tale of faith and destiny in trying times. Plus, this is an easy read, not too tough to digest, and it might give you a little glimmer of hope when the news has filled you full of existential dread. It’s your standard hero’s journey, complete with buried treasure and a saccharine ending that tells us, once again, that sometimes even our biggest dreams lead us right back home. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.


56. Mythos by Stephen Fry

Mythos - Stephen Fry - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve got to admit, I’ve always felt particularly stupid (for many reasons, but one in particular is relevant here) for how little I know about the Greeks and Greek mythology. That’s why I feel particularly lucky – as do a lot of Dymocks readers, it would seem – that Stephen Fry put together this marvelously accessible re-telling of a selection of myths in Mythos. It’s funny, it’s readable, and it’ll at least give you some frame of reference next time someone starts talking Ovid at a party (also, you might want to start going to better parties).

61. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are certainly not over! There are several featured in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but my personal pick is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Over the course of three books, it charts the complex and fascinating history of Korea’s relationship with Japan, through the story of one Korean family who (eventually) migrates to Japan, and then across the world to America. It deconstructs their experiences of racism and power and, as the title would suggest, the symbolic power of the pachinko machines.

63. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Non-fiction doesn’t tend to feature as prominently in the Dymocks lists, but the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 had some strong contenders, including this one: Sapiens. It is a detailed survey of the history of human evolution, from the Stone Age right up to the 21st century. Setting aside some searing criticisms from academics in the field (what would those boffins know?), this book has been extremely popular, and it has introduced a slew of readers to the field of evolutionary biology, an area in which they might not otherwise have had any interest at all. A fascinating read, if nothing else!

65. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Jane Eyre – an oldie, but a goodie! Alongside other classics, like Pride And Prejudice, this seems to be a book that never goes out of style. Naturally, a lot of the more troubling elements have been roundly criticised of late (Mr Rochester is the very definition of a problematic fave – hello, Creole wife locked in the attic and gross exploitation of young female employees!), but that doesn’t negate the nostalgic attachment many readers feel for what is perhaps the coziest and most comforting of the Brontë books. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

67. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We are truly living in the golden age of young adult literature! No longer is it solely the domain of patronising and/or sentimental guff. In fact, it’s probably where some of the most exciting, diverse, and challenging writing is being done – case in point, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Despite being quite specific to the situation of racial injustice in policing in the United States (don’t get me wrong, we’ve got our own problems here, too!), it’s found a wide readership in Australia. I think that’s because, at its heart, it’s about the symbiotic relationship between fear and oppression, and the bravery it takes to smash down barriers.


72. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was always a great comfort read (which is why we see it in the Dymocks Top 101 books pretty much every year), but perhaps it’s got a new resonance this year because it’s chock-full of advice on how to survive the end of the world. Step one: DON’T PANIC! Step two: check on the dolphins. Step three: always pack a towel. If you’re not lucky enough to have befriended a nearby alien with a getaway-spaceship handy, at least you can make the most of the rest of Adams’ oddly prescient advice. Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

74. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Erin Morgenstern burst onto the scene back in 2011 with her incredibly-popular debut novel, The Night Circus… and then she disappeared for years. Finally, she’s back, with The Starless Sea and fans have been frothing at the mouth for it (so no surprise to see it made the cut for the Dymocks Top 101). It’s dreamy, light-fantasy story, with underground cities and libraries and keys and honey and bees… oh my! Read my full review of The Starless Sea (for Primer) here.

78. The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover

The Land Before Avocado - Richard Glover - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’d long suspected that the misty-eyed nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” in Australia was a complete crock. Thankfully, Richard Glover has confirmed by theory in The Land Before Avocado – and its popularity proves to me that I’m not alone! He deconstructs all of the myths around the “simpler times” and the “lazy, hazy days”, and reminds us of what it was actually like growing up in the Australia of his childhood in his typically hilarious style. Would you REALLY want to return to the days where you couldn’t get smashed avo on toast at the local cafe? I didn’t think so!

88. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, if I had it my way, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared would be in the top 10 of every Dymocks list from now until the end of time. It is my ultimate cheer-up read, my go-to gift for loved ones who need a laugh. Just these past couple of weeks, I’ve thrust it into many, many hands. It’s a delightful romp across the world, following a centenarian who – as the title suggests – jumps out the window of his nursing home to avoid a tedious birthday party, and goes on an adventure. I cannot fathom what kind of humourless nincompoop wouldn’t get a few decent belly laughs out of this charming tale. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

90. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Personally, I wavered on reading Ann Patchett for years, mostly because I simply could not figure out where to start. Many trusted readers recommended I try Commonwealth to begin, while others said Bel Canto is her best, while still others insisted I read State Of Wonder. The release of The Dutch House last year seems to have changed all that, though – it’s unequivocally, democratically(!), now the most popular of all her books among Australian readers. So, that settled that!


93. The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever someone tells me that they “don’t read sci-fi” (especially if they wrinkle their nose as they say it), The Martian is the book that I put in their hands. It’s THAT good. Set in a not-too-distant future, it imagines the story of an astronaut left stranded alone on Mars, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from help or even a simple “hello”. It sounds depressing as all heck, but the narrator, Mark Watney, is one of the funniest characters I’ve ever read in fiction. This one manages to be a science lesson, a page turner, and great fun, all at once! Read my full review of The Martian here.

95. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who could resist a delightfully satirical romantic comedy that sees Singapore’s most eligible bachelor married off to a fashion icon in the high-stakes “wedding of the year”? What I like most about Crazy Rich Asians is that, even though much has (rightfully) been made of its success in diversity and representation in a sadly whitewashed contemporary genre, it’s delightful and endearing and entertaining in its own right. This book is not a “diversity pick” or a box to check, it’s just a sparkling, witty, glorious read.

99. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Often, a true story is so incredible, you wouldn’t believe it if it were fiction. That’s what I think every time I see The Trauma Cleaner. Crime-scene and trauma clean-up is a fascinating and bizarre job in and of itself, but the life journey of the trauma cleaner in question, Sandra Pankhurst, takes this book to a whole new level. I don’t think I can say it better than the blurb: “Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…” I mean, come on! If that doesn’t pique your interest, seek help.

100. Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

Your Own Kind Of Girl - Clare Bowditch - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I first encountered Clare Bowditch in her recurring guest role on the beloved and much-missed Aussie TV show, Offspring. I figured she had some kind of musical background, given that her character was a singer and often performed. It turns out, there was a whoooole lot more that I didn’t know, and she revealed it all in Your Own Kind Of Girl. This is the kind of memoir that will have your jaw drop, purely for the incredible bravery it takes to be THAT honest about your life, your anxieties, and the monsters that hide under your bed. My hat goes off to Clare Bowditch for sharing her story, and I’m glad to see it here in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 – hopefully, that means it’s reached scores of other girls of their own kind, too.

101. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Well, this Dymocks Top 101 list sure did save the biggest surprise for last! But, if I’m honest, I’m not sure what’s more surprising. Is it that Little Women wasn’t ranked higher, given the success of the most recent film adaptation? Or is it that Little Women ranked at all, given that SO many people (very, very wrongly) look down on this “sentimental” classic? Whatever the case, I’m happy to see it made the cut. I stand by my conviction that Little Women is actually a deeply subversive and feminist book, and that Louisa May Alcott doesn’t get NEARLY enough adulation, and it would seem that at least a handful of other Aussie book lovers are willing to back me up on it. Read my full review of Little Women here.

General Comments on the Dymocks Top 101 Books for 2020

Last year, Kate Maynor from Dymocks predicted a surge in the popularity of “uplit”, books that leave you feeling uplifted and energised. I think we’ve seen that play out here, with the inclusion of Eleanor Oliphant, Becoming, A Man Called Ove, and so on. I think it makes sense now, more than ever, that people are looking to “escape” the dreariness of the “real” world by diving into books that make them smile (and I’m especially glad that we might finally shake this elitist nonsense about looking down on “escapist” books once and for all!).

Notable exclusions: I’m really surprised that we didn’t see any Andre Aciman in this year’s list (Call Me By Your Name, or his recently-released sequel Find Me). I am freaking OVERJOYED, however, that we finally kicked The Great Gatsby off its stupid perch. And I would have loved to see one of my personal favourites from last year, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, make the cut. Ah well, there’s always next year!

All told, 37 of this year’s 101 books were written by Aussie authors – not bad, but I think we could do better! Reading local is the best way to keep our literary scene thriving, especially with the headwinds authors and publishers and booksellers are going to face over the next few months (even years). 64 of the books were written by women, which is an (awesome!) uptick on last year, and much better reflects the contribution that women are making to literature and the arts.



Check out what I thought of last year’s Dymocks Top 101 books here!

Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List

Long before I even thought of starting this blog, I sat down and made a list: a hundred-and-nine books I felt I “should” have read already. A lot of them were classics, some were more contemporary best-sellers, all of them were pretty much unknown quantities. I took notes as I read about what I liked and what I didn’t, and those notes became reviews, and those reviews became Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now that I’ve finished reading my way through that original list (never fear, the blog will continue and more reviews are coming!) I’m feeling all nostalgic and shit. I thought I’d take a look back at my greatest hits: the best of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.

The Best Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List - Text Overlaid on Mosaic Tiles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even after I read all the blurbs and the accolades, I had no idea what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was going to be about when I sat down to start reading it. Turns out, there’s a very good reason for that. This book had the mother-of-all twists that came seventy pages in, one that completely turns the story on its head. It has set the standard for all plot twists in every book I’ve read since (and very few have lived up to it). But that’s not the only reason to read this book: it’s funny, it’s touching, and I swear it made me a better person. Whenever I’m asked to give a book recommendation for a complete stranger, this is the first one I suggest. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Short History Of Everything wasn’t a completely unknown quantity. I’d read Bill Bryson’s Down Under years ago, and loved it – it’s hard not to be charmed by his folksy style, his wry humour, and his insightful anecdotes. Still, A Short History Of Nearly Everything is in a league of its own. It’s practically a masterclass on how to write about complex topics for the everyday reader. Somehow, Bryson managed to make the most intricate jargon-y scientific and historical knowledge of humankind accessible, understandable, and – most importantly of all – fun! I know it’s a few years out of date now (my edition still says Pluto is a planet, whoops!), but I still use fun facts from this book on a daily basis. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I was putting together my original reading list, I knew I had to include Dickens. He was my late grandfather’s favourite author, and I always regretted not having read any of his work while Granddad was still alive; I know we would have had incredible discussions about it. I went with David Copperfield because I read that Dickens had said it was his personal favourite, and who am I to question the author? It totally held up to all of my expectations – exceeded them, even, high as they were! It’s a long, long book, but it didn’t feel like it. I devoured it like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a true crime junkie, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I listen to the podcasts, and follow the breaking news on cold cases. And now, having read it, I can see why In Cold Blood is considered essential reading, the foundational text, of the true crime genre. Capote spent six years investigating the Clutter murders, taking over eight thousand pages of notes (helped by his best buddy, Harper Lee, don’t forget), and whittled them down into this incredible book, the “first true crime novel” as he called it. And, before you say it, I know he took some liberties with the truth. I bloody know, alright? Make what you will of the ethics of it, but when the book is this good, I’m willing to overlook a bit of creative license. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend taught me more about the art of translation than any other book on my list. It was originally written in Italian by an anonymous author (Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume, and I don’t care what some dickhead with an algorithm thinks he figured out, her true identity has never been revealed), and translated into English by Ann Goldstein. I was so impressed with the way Goldstein managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian that I started to do a bit of digging, which ended up being a rabbit hole into the world of books in translation. Not only is My Brilliant Friend an incredible read, it’s also a testament to the power of language, and the importance of the #namethetranslator movement. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Do you ever read a book and wonder why on earth everyone isn’t talking about it already? That’s how I felt with Cold Comfort Farm. It had a strange cover that kind of put me off, but in deference to the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I ploughed ahead anyway, and I am SO glad I did. Stella Gibbons is a criminally underrated comic author, and Cold Comfort Farm is a work of hilarious genius. It’s like a satirical Mary Poppins, with a cast of characters so eccentric and bizarre they’ll have your eyes wide when they don’t have you in stitches. What’s more, I found out later that Gibbons remains relatively unknown because she refused to play the game and suck up to the literary giants of her day. I say let’s not let her fall into obscurity because she didn’t enjoy networking! Read my full review of Cold Comfort Farm here.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of underrated kick-arse women writers: did you know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a book, long before it was a Marilyn Monroe film? I didn’t until I was putting my reading list together, and I was curious enough to give it a try. Anita Loos should be a household name. She was the first salaried scriptwriter to work with major Hollywood studios. She crafted characters that felt so real you could almost reach out and touch them (the protagonist in this book, Lorelei Lee, being a case in point). Loos was observant, brilliant, and funny as hell. Unfortunately, she fell in love with an arsehole, who lived off her profits and cut her down whenever he felt threatened. So, screw him, I say, and while we’re at it, screw anyone who says The Great Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. It’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all the way, baby! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Before I started reading my way through this list, all I knew about Scandinavian writers was that they wrote crime. Good crime. Grisly crime. Hardened detectives in cold climates sussing out awful murders. But now, having read The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I’ve got to say I think that reputation is a damn shame. This is one of the most delightful, charming, and uplifting books I’ve ever read. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief for a minute or two, but it’s worth it: it’s so worth it. It’s a European Forrest Gump, but better. My edition was translated into English by Rod Bradbury (#namethetranslator!). 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

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever I get into an argument with someone about whether to bother reading the introduction to a classic book (so many people just skip straight to chapter one!), I always whip out Little Women and beat them over the head with it. This book was written off for centuries as light, sentimental fluff – it was a book “for girls”, and never taken seriously as part of the American literary canon. I might’ve come away from it with the same impression had I not read the introduction, which gave me some context about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the way she came to write her best-known work. This is an incredible book, but you have to be paying close attention and know what to look for. Read my full review of Little Women here.


The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Have you ever read a book so good it just made you angry? When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, when I put the book down on my lap and tried to catch my breath after that sucker-punch of a final scene, I found myself irrationally angry at every person in my life who had ever read this book. Why hadn’t they warned me? I’m not sure I even liked it very much at first because I was so startled by it. It’s the story of a family migrating from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, but it’s alarmingly analogous to current events as a result of climate change. I was so moved, and so wrecked, by this book that I needed to put myself in a time-out before I put a hole in a wall. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have no idea how Crime And Punishment ended up on my reading list. I was dreading it, to say the least. I eschewed Anna Karenina and War And Peace for the same reason: it’s a Russian classic, which – I was sure – meant it was going to be dense, dull, and depressing. How wrong I was, reader! How wrong I was! This edition – translated into English by David McDuff (name! the! translator!) – was well loved before it fell into my hands, as the tattered cover shows, and I can see why. I never thought I would laugh with, cry for, or relate so hard to a literal axe murderer… and yet, here we are. Seriously, don’t sleep on this one, folks, and never let a book’s reputation decide for you whether it’s to your tastes. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Do you know that The Bell Jar is one of the most difficult classic books to find in secondhand stores? There’s a reason for that: no one ever wants to part with their copy. I checked my local secondhand bookstore on an almost-daily basis for months, and never found one. I was about to give up hope and buy it new when a friend stopped by that very same bookstore on her way to visit me and saw this beautiful Faber edition on display – it had come in that very day. She bought it for me, and I loved it. Loved it. The prose is every bit as beautiful as the cover. It’s one of the first things I would save in a fire. Sylvia Plath’s true-life (and death) story is heart-breaking of course, but I’m so, so glad and grateful that she was able to bring this book into the world before she passed. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

It’s been one heck of a ride, hasn’t it? And it’s not over yet! What have been your favourites from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list? Any new favourites that I should read and review ASAP? Let me know in the comments below!


Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

You might know Benjamin Disraeli from his time as a conservative Prime Minister of the UK. He became a Tory MP in 1837, then Prime Minister in 1868. You might find it hard to believe that he also squeezed out a decent writing career – not just before, or after, but actually during his time in office. Yep, that’s right, he was running the country and writing and publishing books all the while. And today, I’m reviewing one of them: Sybil, or The Two Nations.

As far as legacies of politicians go, Sybil is a pretty good one. First, it’s where we get the political concept of “one nation”, frequently cited (and misused, *cough*Pauline Hanson*cough*) by politicians today. It alludes to the bitter divide between the “two nations” of England in Disraeli’s time: the aristocratic landowners lived lives of luxury, while the workers and underclasses lived in horrific conditions and extreme poverty. Disraeli was making A Point, you see, that we should aspire to be “one nation”: a government that represents and rules for all, not just a privileged few. Oh, and Sybil also gave us the trope of a villain stroking a white cat. So, there you go.

Sybil was first published in 1845, the same year as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition Of The Working Class In England. Both books sought to draw attention to the plight of the poor, just in different ways. Disraeli wasn’t shy about shamelessly ripping off the ideas and research of others. In fact, a lot of the background information for Sybil was drawn directly from official government reports, to which he had access by virtue of his job. Disraeli wanted to make his political and philosophical points more palatable by shoe-horning them into a love story: “a tender love story linked to a gripping detective plot”, according to the blurb on this edition. That makes Sybil a “roman à thèse”, a fancy way of saying it’s a fictional book about an idea, a novel with a thesis. But don’t be fooled: the “love story” is the flimsiest excuse for a premise that I’ve ever encountered, and Sybil is a blatant critique of capitalism and industralisation.

Look, I’m all about political reform and uplifting the working classes. I can totally get behind Disraeli’s points about representative democracy and equality. But I must say, when it came to crafting a fictional story to make those points, Disraeli made a real pig’s ear of it. Sybil reads like he sat down with a checklist of everything that should be included in an “industrial novel”, and wrote until he checked off all of them, one by one: someone tours a factory and is horrified by the workers’ conditions, the workers go on strike, all the rich people panic, the characters have political arguments, someone tries to start a union…



The “story”, if we can call it that, follows Charles Egremont, a new conservative party MP (whose rich family basically bought him the election). His brother wants him to marry an heiress, Lady Joan, but Charles is ambivalent about that union (to say the least). While he’s trying to worm his way out of it, he runs into a bloke named Gerard, and overhears his daughter – Sybil – singing. And just like that, Charles is a goner! Just from hearing her voice, he falls head-over-clacker in love. Lady Joan be damned!

It sounds somewhat romantic, but bear in mind that it takes a lot of meandering chapters to get to this point – weird hybrids of character histories, and critical essays about British politics and monarchy rule. The book is set around the time of Queen Victoria’s ascendance to the throne, but Disraeli rambles on and on about hundreds of years of history before that. So, y’know, don’t get too excited.

Once he’s “fallen in love”, Charles Egremont starts hanging out with Gerard, trying to get a whiff of his daughter, and sticking his nose in everywhere it doesn’t belong. Charles tells himself he’s just trying to find out first-hand what the life of the working classes is actually like. And reader, it is grim. He is astounded that it’s so different to his life as a member off the aristocracy (imagine!), with all the starvation and disease and general misery. After a big blow-up argument with his brother about cancelling the wedding planner, Charles decides to move into a house up the road from Gerard for a while. All the better to continue with his new hobbies: spying on the poor, and jerking it to Sybil.

This gives Disraeli ample opportunity to air ALL of his grievances with capitalism. He likens the exploitation of the working classes to serfdom. What a revelation! *eye roll* Okay, fine, at the time, it probably was a revelation, but reading this “groundbreaking” critique two hundred years later, I was just sitting there like… yeah, no shit, mate.



Ultimately, as Charles watches on, the working classes mobilise (yeah, boys!). They’re fed up with all the workplace deaths and no tea in the break room, so they go on strike. It looks like it’s working, but things start to go awry when the protestors turn into an angry mob, and groupthink takes over. They decide they’re going to lay siege to Marney Castle. But don’t worry, Sybil and Charles get away safely, and live happily ever after.

Ah, yes, Sybil, we haven’t said much about her yet – mostly because there’s not much to say. She was so two-dimensional, she was almost see-through (even by the extra-low standard I set for privileged male writers of that period). Her main job was to stand around being beautiful and believing in social justice, while wealthy white men like Charles made all the decisions and did all the politicking. She eventually hooks up with Charles, of course, but that’s about all she does throughout the whole book named for her. Sad.

The introduction to this edition promised me that “Sybil is, in large part, a novel about what it feels like to be in love with someone who disapproves of you”, but – as I’m sure you can tell by now – I really wasn’t feeling that. Sybil is far grittier than, say, David Copperfield or Vanity Fair. It’s not as plot-driven, and it’s far more academic. That might be because, unlike Dickens and Thackeray, Disraeli’s work was never published in serial form, so he didn’t have to keep it pacy and punchy to keep the readers coming back week-to-week.

I think I only soaked in about 10% of what Disraeli was pouring out. Sybil is probably better suited to readers who are already deeply familiar with the system of British government and the monarchy, and/or people who have a keen interest and some background knowledge of 18th and 19th century British history. Having an at-best rudimentary understanding of both, this book didn’t do much for me. I appreciated Disraeli’s ideas, but I wasn’t a fan of his execution.

There was only one part that stuck with me, my favourite line:

“I rather like bad wine,” said Mr Mountchesney, “one gets so bored with good wine.”

That’s drawn from the opening scene and, to be frank, I wouldn’t recommend reading much further than that. The beginning was the best and most interesting part of the whole book, which isn’t saying much, sadly.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sybil:

  • “Could have done without icky sweet Sybil. Very powerful images of social inequities of the times. Are we heading this way?” – Quotarian
  • “I have only read the first bit, didn’t really grab my attention and hold it so the jury is still out” – TieDye Kid
  • “Benjamin Disraeli writes, “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In Sybil, Disraeli attempts to explain the struggle of the Victorian working class. He spends a great deal of time justifying himself which is boring to read. The story itself is told by an obvious elitist masquerading as suffragette. Though it has many quotable sentences, I did not enjoy this book in its entirety.” – Ali


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