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The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers is one of those authors that really should be a household name, but few people seem to have her books on their shelves at home. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was her debut novel, published in 1940 when she was just (get this) 23 years old. As reviewers noted at the time, there is a startling gap between her youth and her ‘astonishing perception of humanity’ in this remarkably insightful novel.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter here.
(The reviewer’s heart is a lonely one too, but it warms up a bit when you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page.)

She originally called her story The Mute, but her publishers made her change it to “something more poetic”. The title that went to print is drawn from a poem called The Lonely Hunter by Fiona MacLeod (aka William Sharp): “Deep in the heart of Summer / sweet is life to me still / but my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill”.

The opening line is a corker: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” In fact, the whole first chapter will knock your socks off. As the first sentence suggests, it focuses on two close friends, John Singer and Spiros Antonapolous. They are both deaf, and communicate primarily via sign language; their disability isolates them from the rest of their community in the small mill town where they live, but they are satisfied with each other’s company.

Unfortunately, Spiros’s mental health declines rapidly. Singer is happy to continue caring for him (reviewers have likened their relationship to that of George and Lennie in Of Mice And Men), but his only living relative elects to have him institutionalised, rather than risk any liability or take any responsibility. This is devastating to Singer, who loses the only person with whom he can communicate with ease.

He moves out of the apartment they shared, finding it too painful to live among the memories of his friend, and takes up residence at a nearby boarding house. He eats at the same diner three times a day, and gradually begins to attract interest from miscellaneous lost souls, all of whom are looking for connection.

These are the “satellite characters” that we follow over the course of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. The introduction to my edition (by Kasia Boddy) offers a really helpful description of them, explaining how each of them represents a different kind of loneliness or alienation, alongside Singer himself.

Thirteen-year-old Mick Kelly confesses [to Singer] her growing passion for music; fifty-one-year-old Dr Benedict Copeland talks about his frustrations at raising the consciousness of the town’s black people (starting with his own family); Jake Blount, a twenty-nine-year-old itinerant labour agitator and drunk, reveals his plans for revolution; only Biff Brannon, the forty-four-year-old cafe owner, recognises that Singer is a ‘home-made God’ for them all… [Singer is] a blank canvas on to which just about anything can be projected.

Introduction (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter)

McCullers said that she sought to write a novel about “a character to whom other characters reveal their innermost secrets”, and by any measure, she succeeded. By virtue of the fact that he cannot hear or speak, Singer becomes a de-facto therapist for the town, specifically these four characters who have difficulty connecting with others for their own reasons. The image of a priest also popped into my head a lot as I was reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter – not that I know much about them, but something in the anonymity of hearing sealed confessions… you get my drift.

There are many pleasant surprises in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, but there’s one in particular I want to highlight. I’m amazed by the progressive politics threaded throughout the story. If you can set aside some of the archaic language (yes, there’s a few n-words that are very of-the-time, and Singer is frequently described as a ‘deaf-mute’), McCullers is streets ahead of many writers of our time, let alone her own. She writes intricate inner worlds for the kinds of characters so often reduced to tropes and stereotypes – people of colour, people with disabilities – and gives them agency. Not only that, she allows them to explicitly advocate for themselves politically, be it through Blount’s socialism or Dr Copeland’s racial activism or Mick’s proto-feminism.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this kind of pinko-leftie philosophy would lead to widespread criticism and controversy (books are being banned for less today!), but The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter rocketed to the top of the best-seller list almost immediately. McCullers’ prodigious talent superseded any qualms the reading public had about her politics; she “gave voice to those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated [and] oppressed”, in such a way that readers forgot about their prejudice. In fact, I think there’s an argument to be made that many readers over the decades have projected themselves onto the characters of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, in much the same way that the characters project themselves onto Singer – a kind of meta-genius that’s almost infuriating, and downright baffling when you take into account McCullers’ tender years and limited world experience at the time of writing.

Yes, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is an annoyingly good book. You’ll be annoyed that a woman so young and sheltered can be so wise and insightful, you’ll be annoyed that she can articulate that insight so beautifully, and you’ll be annoyed most of all that her name isn’t held aloft alongside Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s when it comes to the best literary writers of the 20th century.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter:

  • “McCullers’ book clearly contains some wonderful character descriptions, but I gave up early hunting for the story….” – D.Beyer
  • “Didn’t know this was an Oprah selection before I started it. If I had i never would’ve read it. It was true to her lousy taste.” – Kindle Customer
  • “OK so it is well written and has interesting characters, it is also depressing and boring.” – Monica K
  • “I found this book to be about as enriching as reading Karl Marx and as uplifting as reading the national enquirer.” – Darlene Riley
  • “Just look at how popular used copies are. People are desperate to get rid of this nonsense.” – Marc
  • “In the grand list of books that you will have enjoyed having read, this one ranks slightly above “Tom and Jane Go to Camp”.

    Now, I’m not going to say that this book was trite, boring, lacking in substance or otherwise devoid of anything resembling redeeming merit, because it does have its purpose. That purpose being to sit on your shelf and make it appear as though you are some kind of eruditic masochist.

    If, like me, you were forced to read this book as some sophomore hazing ritual, you will no doubt remember that this book contains very little in the way of plot and character development. The characters don’t so much grow as fester.

    I would not recommend this book to anybody, even those that I hate. People who have suicidal tendencies are warned to stay away as the most cheery portion of this book is slightly happier than a crushed puppy.

    In closing, let me just summarize: this book is bad.” – Rolf M. Buchner

My Unpopular Opinions About Popular Books

We all have them: unpopular opinions about popular books. Whether it’s a classic that just didn’t quite work for us, or a best-seller that made us roll our eyes, there are books we’d rather not admit we didn’t love in mixed company. Well, I’m ripping the bandage off our collective secret shame today by sharing my very own unpopular opinions about popular books. Have at it!

My Unpopular Opinions About Popular Books - Book Discussion - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be popular with me if you use an affiliate link on this page to buy a book – I’ll earn a small fee for referring you.

It Ends With Us actually does a good job of countering myths about domestic violence

Criticism of It Ends With Us – some of it from very authoritative sources – stems from the view that it “romanticises” domestic violence. As I read it, though, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way she depicted the insidiousness of violence in this kind of relationship.

People don’t fall in love with people who beat them or are cruel to them. They fall in love with someone who seems wonderful, who treats them well, and makes them feel loved and safe. It’s only later, often very gradually, that violence occurs.

To ignore the romance of relationships that turn violent is, ultimately, dangerous. If we’re only on alert for bad guys under the bed or behind the closet door, we’ll miss the danger that’s right in front of us.

Read more (with additional context and caveats) about domestic violence in It Ends With Us here.

The Sun Also Rises is heteronormative nonsense

I realise I’m hardly blowing your mind by proposing that Hemingway was a drunk misogynist – but the number of times I’ve expressed this opinion to shocked countenances warrants its inclusion.

The Sun Also Rises basically boils down to a veteran who got his dick blown off bemoaning the fact that he can never fuck the woman he loves (and, as such, can never make her love him).

And that’s how we know that Hemingway never went down on a single woman in his life.

Seriously, the notion that there is no way to fuck without a full and functioning penis is completely ridiculous – as is the idea, by extension, that a woman can’t return your romantic feelings if you can’t have sex with her.

For all his faults, Hemingway still managed to write some brilliant pieces. This just isn’t one of them.

Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

The Great Gatsby is not the definitive Jazz Age novel

If you’re a regular Keeper Upperer, you’re probably sick of hearing me bang on about this – so I’ll forgive you if you skip down the page. This unpopular opinion has become more of my personality than I care to admit.

The thing is, The Great Gatsby stinks. The prose is overwrought. The metaphors are clumsy. And the plot is just… ugh. A rich guy gets shot after the woman he’s been stalking for years commits vehicular homicide, then his mate has a sook that nobody comes to the funeral. The narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that drinking with pretty girls is fun. I mean, why do people like this novel?

Especially given that there is a much, much better alternative out there: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Most people don’t realise that it was a brilliant book before it was turned into an iconic film. I suspect that’s because Anita Loos wrote funny stories instead of tragic ones, irreverent stories instead of earnest ones, and interrogated the inner lives of women instead of men.

She deserves to be a household name, dammit – I won’t rest, etc etc.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Read my full review of (the far superior) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Ulysses is a better read than Mrs Dalloway

I suppose I have to hand in my feminist card for this one, but I stand by it. Even though it’s longer and whinier and more self-indulgent, Ulysses is a better read than Mrs Dalloway. I got more out of reading it, and think back to it more often. It had a much stronger sense of place, and much more ambition. Woolf basically just wanted to “top” Joyce anyway, because she thought Ulysses sucked, whereas Joyce’s motivations were a little more organic.

I’ll prove it: read the opening chapter of Mrs Dalloway alongside the final chapter of Ulysses (the best of each, in my view), and tell me which one is more powerful.

Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

Not every Dan Brown book is terrible

Everyone loves to shit on The Da Vinci Code, using it as short-hand for the pulpy mass-produced adventure thrillers that you buy in an airport for lack of better options – but that’s not all Dan Brown has written. It’s just his most “popular” book.

His earlier novels, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, are much better in my view, and I’ve got copies of both on my shelves (not in pride of place exactly, but still, they’re there). They’re not great works of literature, they probably wouldn’t stand up to intense critical scrutiny, but they’re cracking good reads that made me think. Is there really any more we can ask of them?

The Hunger Games movies are better than the books

I’m probably angering a legion of millennial young adult readers here, but so be it. I’ve read endless complaints about the Hunger Games films – that they cut out Peeta’s disability, they skipped important scenes, they added stuff that wasn’t necessary – and yet none of them have been able to convince me.

The thing is, the narration of the Hunger Games books is infuriating. The mind of a teenage girl isn’t a fun or interesting place to be when the writing isn’t sophisticated and superb. I lived through it once, I don’t need to do it again in fiction. Katniss Everdeen’s train of thought drove me nuts at times, and with the film format, I got to thoroughly enjoy Suzanne Collins’s dystopia without having to put up with the protagonist’s thoughts about it.

In fact, I enjoyed the films so much – not just the story, but the costumes! the staging! – that I’ve watched them multiple times. They’re comfort watches for me, the same way that the books are comfort reads for so many others my age.

Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

13 Twisted Marriage Thrillers

Rightly or wrongly, marriage is still expected to be one of the most significant relationships of our lives. Somewhere along the way, most of us will pick one other person to love, cherish, and all of that. It doesn’t always go the way it’s supposed to, though. Some marriages end up dark and twisted – in real life, and in fiction. Here are thirteen twisted marriage thrillers that give a whole new meaning to “for better or for worse”.

13 Twisted Marriage Thrillers - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If your marriage is strained because of your book buying habit, use an affiliate link on this page to make your next purchase and tell your spouse you’re just supporting your favourite book reviewer 😉

The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

The Cry - Helen Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Cry is a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. Joanna is a young first-time mother, travelling to Australia with her nine-week-old baby Noah and her partner Alistair. They’re coming to wage a custody battle for Alistair’s child from his first marriage, but everything changes when Noah goes missing. The ensuing media storm is enough to throw a wrench in any marriage, but it turns out Joanna and Alistair have even darker depths that Fitzgerald plumbs to perfection. This is one of the best twisted marriage thrillers I’ve ever read, hands down, and the TV series adaptation is incredible, too. Read my full review of The Cry here.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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

You can’t talk about twisted marriage thrillers without talking about Gone Girl, the blockbuster best-seller that defined the sub-genre. Flynn set the standard for books about marriages gone wrong, and about beautiful unlikeable women to boot, for years to come. The story begins (as so many do) with a pretty blonde woman going missing, and her husband the obvious suspect in her disappearance. But about half-way through, the reader discovers that the missing woman, Amy, has a bevy of secrets she’s been keeping very close to her chest, and it changes the game completely. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

My Lovely Wife - Samantha Downing - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The hint is right there in the title: My Lovely Wife is a twisted marriage thriller about a wife (and a marriage) that is anything but lovely. Millicent is the titular wife, and she and her (unnamed) husband appear to have the perfect suburban life. They’ve been married for fifteen years, they’re raising two kids, they work and they spend quality time together… only their quality time isn’t exactly what you’re picturing. The “secret” to keeping their marriage alive is darker and more twisted than you could possibly imagine, and it’s all about to unravel. This is a shockingly good debut that will have your chin on the floor.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient - Alex Michaelides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every marriage looks perfect from far enough away. Alicia Berenson seemed to have it all: high-profile career, gorgeous grand house, happy husband. Until, one night, he came home from work and she shot and killed him – then never said another word. In The Silent Patient, a criminal psychotherapist becomes obsessed with the case and begins working with Alicia, determined to get to the bottom of her crime. The investigation takes him down something of a rabbit hole, and soon you’ll be questioning his own motivations. Read my full review of The Silent Patient here.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In some twisted marriage thrillers, even the characters don’t realise they’re in one – until they do. Cecilia is a happily married mother of three, waiting for her husband to come home from a business trip, nosing about in the attic looking for something when she finds something else entirely. It’s a letter, addressed to her in her husband’s handwriting, with instructions that she should only open it in the event of his death. Even though her husband is still alive and well, curiosity gnaws at her. What secret could he be keeping? The Husband’s Secret is one of Moriarty’s early-career novels, and it’s sure to get debate raging at your book club. Read my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.

Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates And Furies - Lauren Groff - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyone who reads twisted marriage thrillers knows there are two sides to every story. That’s the truth at the heart of Fates And Furies. This is an unabashedly ambitious novel that skews to the side of the literary, but it will still have your heart in your throat. Charting the growth of a marriage over decades, it explores what couples might hide from each other and whether it’s honesty or secrecy that makes a marital union last. Groff has carefully crafted a story that has no heroes, and will make you wonder how well you can ever really know somebody.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Daphne du Maurier wrote one of the O.G. twisted marriage thrillers. Rebecca has never been out of print – never, not once – since it was first published back in 1938. The author described it herself in a letter to her publisher as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. The young, naive narrator thinks she’s getting a happily-ever-after when she’s whisked away by the handsome and withholding Maxim de Winter, only to plunge into a life haunted by the specter of the wife who came before her. What really happened to Rebecca? Read my full review of Rebecca here.

The Other Woman by Sandie Jones

The Other Woman - Sandie Jones - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Twisted marriage thrillers that have ghostly wedding dresses hanging empty on their covers always slap. Always! Take The Other Woman, for instance: an addictive and highly-bingeable debut novel that made the cut for Reese’s Book Club. Emma thinks she’s found Mr Right. Adam is charming, attentive, the whole package… except that package includes his mother, Pammie. If you think your mother-in-law is bad, trust me when I say she’s got nothing on Pammie. The other woman in Adam’s relationship will stop at nothing to get rid of Emma. Nothing.

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I Go To Sleep - SJ Watson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We’ve all had a disorienting moment upon waking after a nap or a big night out where we don’t know exactly where we are or what’s going on. What if that happened every single time you woke, though? This strange amnesia is the conceit of Before I Go To Sleep, a high-concept twisted marriage thriller. Christine loses all of her memories every time she sleeps. There’s only one person she can trust to put the pieces together: her husband, Ben. Only, can she trust him? Is he telling her the whole story? This is a heart-pounding domestic suspense novel that will have you flipping pages as fast as your eyes and fingers will let you.

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Behind Closed Doors - BA Paris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We love to hate the perfect couple, don’t we? Jack and Grace are newlyweds, with wealth and charm and little hearts in their eyes. They host dinner parties in their beautiful home, and maintain a gorgeous garden. Everything looks too good to be true… because it is. In Behind Closed Doors, we look closer at the perfect marriage to find its fault-lines. Is it nice that Jack and Grace are never seen apart, or is it creepy? Is it understandable that they have high-security metal shutters on their downstairs windows, or is it strange? Is it enviable that Grace can cook elaborate dinners and yet remain so slim, or is it a symptom of something being terribly wrong?

The Last Mrs Parrish by Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs Parrish - Liv Constantine - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Last Mrs Parrish is a twisted marriage thriller about envy, greed, and manipulation… but not from within the marriage, from outside it. Amber Patterson wants everything that Daphne Parrish takes for granted – money, power, beauty, adoration – and she has a plan to get it. She slowly insinuates herself into the Parrish family, gradually edging closer to taking all she wants for herself. The closer she gets, though, the more she realises that Daphne’s life might not be everything she dreamed – and a secret from Amber’s past might ruin her best-laid plans, anyhow.

The Perfect Marriage by Jeneva Rose

The Perfect Marriage - Jeneva Rose - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Many a perfect marriage has broken down over an affair – nothing particularly twisted about that. But what if your husband’s mistress turned up dead, he was accused of killing her, and you had to defend him in court? That’s the kind of thing twisted marriage thrillers are made of! And it’s the premise of The Perfect Marriage. Sarah Morgan loves her work as a defense attorney, but this case will test her like never before. None of the facts (that Adam and Kelly were having an affair, that Kelly was found stabbed to death in Adam and Sarah’s holiday house in the woods) are in dispute – except the most important one. Did Adam do it? Can Sarah ever be really sure of his innocence?

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Sometimes I Lie - Alice Feeney - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Unreliable narrators are the bread and butter of twisted marriage thrillers – but at least the narrator of Sometimes I Lie is up front about it. It’s right there in the title! Amber Reynolds is in a coma – kind of. She’s aware of what’s going on around her, but she can’t move or speak. She has no idea how she ended up this way, but she’s fairly sure her husband doesn’t love her anymore. Through alternating timelines, the pieces slowly come together. No one can be trusted in this heart-pounding psychological thriller about the lies that prop up a marriage and what happens when it comes tumbling down.

20 Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads

Goodreads is kind of a necessary evil in the book world. There are plenty of alternatives out there, but Daddy GR already kind of owns the market. I recently came across an interesting Instagram reel by beloved bookstagrammer @James_Trevino where he went through a list of the most rated books on Goodreads. I did some googling, and it turns out (like best-seller lists) there are a lot of different ways to quantify “most reviewed books on Goodreads”, each with different results. Here are some of the recurring entries on these lists.

20 Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be my best-reviewed reader if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page – you’ll be supporting my work with a small commission!

Heads up: I’ve personally chosen to exclude Harry Potter books from this list, because J.K. Rowling keeps espousing garbage. Besides, if you don’t already know that they’re among the most reviewed books on Goodreads, I don’t know how to help you.

Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads

20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

2,106,021 ratings

Average rating: 4.14 stars

Blurb: Generations of readers young and old, male and female, have fallen in love with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s most popular and enduring novel, Little Women. Here are talented tomboy and author-to-be Jo, tragically frail Beth, beautiful Meg, and romantic, spoiled Amy, united in their devotion to each other and their struggles to survive in New England during the Civil War. Read my full review of Little Women here.

19. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,246,404 ratings

Average rating: 3.97 stars

Blurb: Sixty years after its original publication, Ray Bradbury’s internationally acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451 stands as a classic of world literature set in a bleak, dystopian future. Today its message has grown more relevant than ever before. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

18. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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

2,374,386 ratings

Average rating: 4.44 stars

Blurb: Sweeping from a harsh land of cold to a summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, A Game of Thrones tells a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

17. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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

2,393,632 ratings

Average rating: 4.39 stars

Blurb: It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still. By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

16. Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,420,877 ratings

Average rating: 3.88 stars

Blurb: They are an unlikely pair: George is “small and quick and dark of face”; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a “family,” clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation. Laborers in California’s dusty vegetable fields, they hustle work when they can, living a hand-to-mouth existence. But George and Lennie have a plan: to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. Read my full review of Of Mice And Men here.

15. The Fellowship of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord Of The Rings - JRR Tolkien - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,704,909 ratings

Average rating: 4.38 stars

Blurb: In The Fellowship of The Ring, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.

14. 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

2,761,234 ratings

Average rating: 3.96 stars

Blurb: Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy. And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar. Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just The Girl On The TrainRead my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

13. Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

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

2,765,481 ratings

Average rating: 3.69 stars

Blurb: Labeled a parable, an allegory, a myth, a morality tale, a parody, a political treatise, even a vision of the apocalypse, Lord of the Flies is perhaps our most memorable novel about “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

12. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

2,830,977 ratings

Average rating: 3.90 stars

Blurb: Combining magic, mysticism, wisdom, and wonder into an inspiring tale of self-discovery, The Alchemist has become a modern classic, selling millions of copies around the world and transforming the lives of countless readers across generations. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

11. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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

2,905,373 ratings

Average rating: 4.12 stars

Blurb: Who are you? What have we done to each other? These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy’s friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn’t true. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

10. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2,983,265 ratings

Average rating: 4.34 stars

Blurb: 1970s Afghanistan: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what would happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to an Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption. Read my full review of The Kite Runner here.

9. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

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

3,346,163 ratings

Average rating: 3.80 stars

Blurb: The Catcher in the Rye is an all-time classic in coming-of-age literature- an elegy to teenage alienation, capturing the deeply human need for connection and the bewildering sense of loss as we leave childhood behind. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.

8. The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Diary Of A Young Girl - Anne Frank - Keeping Up With The Penguins

3,522,518 ratings

Average rating: 4.18 stars

Blurb: Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. Her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.

7. Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent - Veronica Roth - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

3,746,041 ratings

Average rating: 4.15 stars

Blurb: In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. Read my full review of Divergent here.

6. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

3,990,032 ratings

Average rating: 4.28 stars

Blurb: Since its immediate success in 1813, Pride and Prejudice has remained one of the most popular novels in the English language. Jane Austen called this brilliant work “her own darling child” and its vivacious heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.” The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth and her proud beau, Mr. Darcy, is a splendid performance of civilized sparring. And Jane Austen’s radiant wit sparkles as her characters dance a delicate quadrille of flirtation and intrigue, making this book the most superb comedy of manners of Regency England. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

5. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

4,258,687 ratings

Average rating: 4.19 stars

Blurb: The year 1984 has come and gone, but George Orwell’s prophetic, nightmarish vision in 1949 of the world we were becoming is timelier than ever. 1984 is still the great modern classic of “negative utopia”—a startlingly original and haunting novel that creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing, from the first sentence to the last four words. No one can deny the novel’s hold on the imaginations of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions—a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time.

4. 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

4,821,366 ratings

Average rating: 4.15 stars

Blurb: Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

4,897,924 ratings

Average rating: 3.93 stars

Blurb: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

5,753,350 ratings

Average rating: 4.27 stars

Blurb: The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it. To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

8,058,782 ratings

Average rating: 4.33 stars

Blurb: Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weight survival against humanity and life against love. Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

Most Reviewed Books On Goodreads: Honourable Mentions

How many of the most reviewed books on Goodreads have you read? Let me know in the comments!

23 Books About Missing Persons Cases

The first week in August each year is National Missing Persons Week, a week of action to address the startlingly high number of open missing persons cases in Australia. Each year, tens of thousands of people are reported missing; while, fortunately, around 80% of them are located within a week of a report being made, too many vanish. This is a unique opportunity to raise awareness of people who are missing, and the issues faced by their loved ones who search for them. I’m doing my part with this list of fiction and non-fiction books about missing persons cases.

23 Books About Missing Persons Cases - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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If you have information about a person who may be missing, report it straight away to Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Apples Never Fall - Liane Moriarty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Apples Never Fall is exactly what you’d expect of a Liane Moriarty novel: perfectly paced and totally readable, with town gossip and parallel timelines that keep you guessing. But instead of a particularly violent crime or broken marriage at its heart, Moriarty centres this one around a family falling apart after the disappearance of its matriarch. Joy had no reason to vanish into thin air, but she did, and she is sorely missed. One nosy detective is particularly determined to find her, no matter how many family secrets she has to dig out of the closet to do so. Read my full review of Apples Never Fall here.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie - Courtney Summers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even if you read a lot of books about missing persons cases, Sadie will probably take you by surprise – if for no other reason than the person who is missing gets to narrate one side of the story. She reveals pretty early on where exactly she’s gone “missing” to: she’s on the hunt for the man she believes killed her little sister, and she plans to give him a taste of his own medicine. She also has a stutter, which makes her internal monologue particularly powerful; what she’s not able to physically say out loud, she can share with the reader. This is a moving and intense story, suitable for older-young adults and adult-adults alike. Read my full review of Sadie here.

The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

The Woman In Cabin 10 - Ruth Ware - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Imagine you know that someone’s gone missing – that’s scary in and of itself, right? Ruth Ware doubles down on that premise in The Woman In Cabin 10, by having everyone around the protagonist insist that her fellow traveller isn’t actually missing. This story is reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Hitchcockian films where the fear comes not just from not being able to trust anyone around you, but not being able to trust your own mind. Plus, there’s the locked-room aspect of the cruise ship setting, meaning that the culprit of a violent crime must be on board.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble - Taffy Brodesser-Akner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

At first glance, Fleishman Is In Trouble looks like your stock-standard New York divorce novel, but by the end of the first chapter, you’ll realise that this is one of the most compelling books about missing persons cases you’ll find on the literary fiction shelf. Toby Fleishman’s single life comes to an abrupt halt when his soon-to-be ex-wife drops their kids off at his apartment in the middle of the night and disappears. She won’t answer calls or texts, and her assistant won’t tell Toby where she is or when she’s coming back. Forced to reckon with both his kids and his emotional baggage without support, Toby thinks he’s got it tough – but there’s two sides to this fascinating story. Read my full review of Fleishman Is In Trouble here.

The Lake House by Kate Morton

The Lake House - Kate Morton - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Kate Morton has said she was inspired to write The Lake House, her fascinating book about a missing persons case stretching back decades, by the real-life mystery of the Beaumont children. In Morton’s fictional version, an infant goes missing in 1933 during a Midsummer Eve party, and the house gardener is blamed (though he is never caught or charged). In 2003, a police detective on “enforced leave” stumbles across the now abandoned home, and learns of the unsolved disappearance. She finds herself drawn into the mystery, and can’t help asking questions. Read my full review of The Lake House here.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Say Nothing is one of the essential books about missing persons cases, in that it shines a light on the disturbing history of “disappearances” during the Troubles. In 1972, Jean McConville, a 38-year-old widowed mother of ten(!), was abducted from her Belfast home and never seen alive again. No one has ever been officially brought to justice for her abduction and murder. Through this unsolved case, Keefe explores the sectarian violence that has divided Ireland, and specifically the culture of silence that underpins the social contract in all areas of Irish life as a result. Read my full review of Say Nothing here.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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If you want books about missing persons cases with big twist reveals… well, you’ve probably already read Gone Girl, but it’s worth mentioning all the same. This super-mega-best selling thriller starts as many others do, with a bright and charming young woman going missing and her husband under suspicion. However, about halfway through, the truth behind Amazing Amy’s disappearance is revealed, and it completely changes everything you thought you knew about the case. This one is as propulsive as it is shocking, and iconic. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns - John Green - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paper Towns is your standard coming-of-age story for the most part, but the personal growth for Quentin “Q” Jacobsen comes through his search for the enigmatic girl next door. He’s “loved” Margot Roth Spiegelman from afar for years, so when she vanishes and leaves behind a trail of clues, he can’t help but follow them. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief a bit to fully enjoy this young adult novel (I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught!), but it’s a sweet example of books about missing persons cases with a happy ending. Read my full review of Paper Towns here.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How can you find a missing person when your own memory can’t be trusted? You can’t be sure when she went missing, or why, and your memories of what happened to her are getting muddled up with what happened to your sister decades ago. This is the predicament of Maud in Elizabeth Is Missing, a story about a woman with dementia searching for her missing friend. Even with all the things her failing mind is taking from her, Maud clings to the memory of her friend Elizabeth and resolves to find her – whatever it takes. It’s a heart-wrenching one, obviously, but a beautiful novel all the same.

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

Here’s another one of the super-mega-best-seller books about missing persons cases: The Girl On The Train. A bereft woman descending into alcoholism rides the train every day, looking into the lives of people who live along the track – that’s how she notices when one of them, a young woman, goes missing. Would anyone believe her if she told them? The story unfolds with three different narrators offering their perspectives in turn, each of them providing a piece of the puzzle. This is a disorienting, but compelling, mystery thriller. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

I Kissed Shara Wheeler - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You remember what it was like to have your first kiss, don’t you? Especially if you were a teenager at the time! The heady rush, the butterflies, the nerves, the excitement… But what if the person you kissed went missing right after? How far would you go to find them? That’s the conceit of I Kissed Shara Wheeler. The titular Shara Wheeler disappears after being kissed by aspiring school valedictorian Chloe Green (among others). She left behind a series of annoyingly cryptic notes, and Chloe has to assemble a team of unlikely allies in the quest to track her down. As far as books about missing persons cases go, this is one of the most lighthearted and delightful of the bunch. Read my full review of I Kissed Shara Wheeler here.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Chain - Adrian McKinty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Adrian McKinty has cited an interesting mish-mash of sources as inspiration for The Chain. It seems he combined stories missing persons cases triggered by cartel kidnappings, and the strange chain letter trend of his youth. Reading it, you can see how these ideas melded together in his mind. A woman receives a phone call telling her that her daughter has been kidnapped (terrifying, in and of itself), and to ensure her safe return, she must kidnap another person’s child. She’s on “the chain” now, and there’s no way off it but to do what the kidnappers say. It’s a book about missing persons cases with a high-stakes ethical dilemma at its core. Read my full review of The Chain here.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

The Sanatorium - Sarah Pearse - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Books about missing persons cases and locked room mysteries seem kind of antithetical… but here we are! The Sanatorium manages to do both, with a woman going missing (during her engagement celebrations, no less) at a remote mental asylum remodelled as a luxury hotel. Yes, there’s a lot at play in this story, but traumatised Detective Elin’s search for her brother’s missing fiance is the driving force in the narrative. Read my full review of The Sanatorium here.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of the most iconic books about missing persons cases in Australian literary history. The story follows a group of girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies on a sunny Valentine’s Day in 1900, as they set out for a picnic that goes terribly wrong. Three girls climb into a secluded volcanic outcropping, and mysteriously vanish into thin air. This spooky and intriguing masterpiece has spawned fantastic film and television adaptations, and readers still share theories as to what might have happened to the girls (given the book’s notoriously open-ended conclusion).

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reservoir 13 is a strange book – to read and to describe. It shouldn’t be, as it’s got all the key ingredients of favourite books about missing persons cases. There’s a rural village setting, a chilly winter, and (of course) a missing girl. Rebecca Shaw is thirteen years old, in the area on holidays with her family, and she has disappeared. The townspeople gather to search the moors, and reporters descend on their small town. Jon McGregor uses all the tropes to lull us into a false sense of familiarity, before up-ending our expectations completely. This book isn’t about what you think it’s about. Read my full review of Reservoir 13 here.

Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions For A Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Instructions For A Heatwave begins, Gretta thinks that it’s any ordinary day: her husband wakes up, goes out to get the paper… except he never returns. His disappearance is the catalyst for a family reunion, of sorts, as Gretta and her grown children come together to try and figure out what the heck has happened. It’s a story full of family secrets, simmering resentments, and emotional claustrophobia. You’ll find this one smack bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of the “popular” and the “literary”, a rich family drama with a curious missing persons case to draw you in. Read my full review of Instructions For A Heatwave here.

Missing, Presumed Dead by Mark Tedeschi

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

Dorothy Davis and Kerry Whelan came from opposite sides of Sydney. They were both (very) comfortably middle class, but other than that they had little in common. They ran in different circles, they had different hobbies, they never met. So, how did they both vanish without a trace, never to be seen again? Missing, Presumed Dead is one of the more recent Australian books about missing persons cases, with Mark Tedeschi (the Crown Prosecutor of both cases) providing a lot of insight into the machinations of the criminal justice system when someone goes missing. Read my full review of Missing, Presumed Dead here.

Remember Me by Charity Norman

Remember Me - Charity Norman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The thing about missing persons cases is that there’s always the chance someone who knows something will let it slip someday. That’s what happens in Remember Me. When Emily Kirkland returns to her small hometown to care for her aging father, she realises he might know more than he’s let on about the disappearance of Leah Patara. Leah’s disappearance rocked the town twenty-five years previously, and now, through the mists of her father’s failing memory, Emily is getting glimpses of what might have happened to her. The thing is, does she really want to know? Is closure for Leah’s family worth ruining her father’s final moments, if there’s a chance he might have had something to do with it? Read my full review of Remember Me here.

The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

The Cry - Helen Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Cry is, hands down, one of the most brilliantly plotted books about missing persons cases I’ve ever read. The premise evokes Madeline McCann, for the tender age of the child who goes missing and the worldwide scrutiny of the parents in the case, but also Azaria Chamberlain for its Australian setting. It’s a modern take on the missing child, told in the style of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn (if you’re fans of their books, you definitely want to pick this one up). It’s a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. Read my full review of The Cry here.

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

The Temple House Vanishing - Rachel Donohue - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Twenty-five years ago, a teenage student of Temple House vanished, along with her enigmatic and charming art teacher. In the (roughly) present day, a journalist with a childhood connection to the girl decides to investigate. She uncovers multiple stories of unrequited love, artistic passion, obsession, fantasy, and betrayal. That’s the premise of The Temple House Vanishing, the debut novel from Irish writer Rachel Donohue. It might sound like your standard book about a missing persons case, but Donohue manages to use a well-worn plot to interrogate all manner of very literary themes. Read my full review of The Temple House Vanishing here.

The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

The Women Could Fly - Megan Giddings - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When The Women Could Fly begins, Josephine Thomas isn’t sure that witchcraft actually exists. It could be a lie perpetrated by the authorities to keep women oppressed. Of greater concern is her mother being declared dead, after she disappeared off the face of the earth fourteen years ago. She left concerning, mysterious instructions in her Will that Josephine must follow to the letter in order to collect her inheritance, and put the past behind her. What follows is a strange story about witchcraft, feminism, and forging unique paths in societies that don’t tolerate them. Read my full review of The Women Could Fly here.

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I wouldn’t blame you for glancing at Big Lies In A Small Town and writing it off as another in the litany of potboiler books about missing persons cases with historical fiction bents. But you’d be wrong, as I was when I did the very same thing! The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. It’s fictional, but the town of Edenton and the themes Chamberlain explores (race, privilege, and opportunity) are very real. Don’t skip past this one at the airport – it’s worth it! Read my full review of Big Lies In A Small Town here.

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

Mother May I - Joshilyn Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bree is 38 years old, she uses canvas bags, she’s a former board member of several charities, and she’s a doting mother to two teenage daughters and a “surprise” infant son. Her perfect life is shattered when she looks away for just a moment, and her son is taken. The phone rings: “Go home. Tell no one. Do not call the police. Do not call your husband. Be at your house by 5:15pm or he’s gone for good.” It’s a nightmare scenario, truly the worst of the worst – Mother May I is one of the books about missing persons cases that will strike fear in the heart of every new parent. Read my full review of Mother May I here.

If you have information about a person who may be missing, report it straight away to Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

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