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Middlemarch – George Eliot

Curse the TBR jar! When I set up my low-tech book selection system for what I’m going to read this year, Middlemarch was the one book I really dreaded picking. After I facepalmed a few times, though, I had a thought: hey, at least I’m getting it out of the way early!

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Middlemarch (subtitle: A Study of Provincial Life) is widely regarded as one of the Great Novels of English Literature. It was first published in eight volumes over the course of 1871 and 1872. Virginia Woolf described it, in 1919, as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” but she was one of the very few people actually reading it at the time. It didn’t really make an impact on the literati until a book by F.R. Leavis in 1948, The Great Tradition, “rediscovered” it.

Now, before we get started on Middlemarch itself, here’s a note on the author. George Eliot is a pen name, taken by Mary Ann Evans. It wasn’t unusual for women authors to take masculine or androgynous names at the time, given the pervasive patriarchal bias in publishing at the time (ahem), but there has been particular attention paid to this author’s choice. I’ve tried to find a bunch of fancy diplomatic ways to say this, but the hell with it: basically, there’s good reason to suspect that Eliot was a trans man (or would have been, had Eliot lived in a more progressive time), and TERFs super-hate anyone pointing that out. I’ll use feminine pronouns (she/her) for Eliot throughout this review, though, for a couple of reasons. First, it will make this review consistent with all the Official(TM) sources about Eliot’s work and identity, and second, we really can’t know what Eliot would have chosen. But I want it to be clear that I’m totally open to the idea that Eliot was in fact a man (which trans men are, by the way), and I wholeheartedly support academic endeavours to uncover more about Eliot’s true identity, as best we can.

Okay, with that out of the way, here we go! Believe it or not, Middlemarch is actually a historical novel – the action takes place about forty years or so before it was published. The fictional town for which the novel takes its name was likely based on Coventry, an area where Eliot lived before she moved to London.

It doesn’t so much have a “plot” as it does a series of interweaving and interconnected stories about various residents of Middlemarch. The main players are Dorothea Brooke (who loves cottages and is disillusioned by her marriage to an older dude), Tertius Lydgate (a doctor with crazy ideas about how medicine should be a science), Fred Vincy (a privileged gambler who swears he’ll grow up if Mary Garth agrees to marry him), and Nicholas Bulstrode (a banker with a sordid past).

So, Middlemarch makes for 900 pages of who’s going to marry whom, who’s going to inherit, who’s in debt, who’s on which side of a political divide… and none of it works out the ways characters would hope. Their marriages suck, their inheritances are poisoned chalices, their debts won’t let them buy nice food, and the politics of the 1832 Reform Act tear the town in two. It all sounds very exciting, but it’s so dragged out and the characters so wooden, it’s hard to pluck out a storyline that really moves the reader. There’s a marked absence of the emotion or passion you see with other 19th century writers – certainly no tears for the reader in this bad boy.

Oh, and if you’re picking up Middlemarch for the first time, steel yourself for some anti-Semitism and racism – yeah, yeah, it’s “of the time”, but it’s still yucky.

On the upside, though, Middlemarch has a lot of really sick burns. I would’ve hated to come up against Eliot in a Twitter beef, but I would’ve loved to have sat next to her in an office.

Mr Rigg Featherstone’s low characteristics were all of the sober, water-drinking kind. From the earliest to the latest hour of the day he was always as sleek, neat, and cool as the frog he resembled.


I feel a bit blasphemous saying this, but it’s true: it’s enough to get the “gist” of what’s going on in Middlemarch. I didn’t feel the need to absorb every single nuance or pore over every word. Maybe I would’ve got more out of it if I did, but a skim here and there made for a much easier read. Come at me if you must!

Initial reviews of Middlemarch were mixed, but now they’re wholly gushing. I feel like a lone reed, buffeted by the wind but rooted firm in my conviction that – like Anna Karenina – it’s just okay. I’m sure studying the novel would illuminate more of it, make it feel richer and more engaging, but as a casual reader… *shrug*. I didn’t hate it, but I’m glad to have put it behind me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Middlemarch:

  • “Hard ole English to understand. Bla, bla, bla, bla.and, yada,yada, yada.Did have some antagonist and vllians to like and hate.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Pay attention to the dimensions. It’s made for tiny hands and tiny eyes. It’s the size of a graham cracker. Great story” – Victor Gloria IV

20 Brilliant Essay Collections

Essay collections exist in a kind of literary no-man’s-land. They’re non-fiction, but they don’t often slip neatly into a particular category (like “science” or “history”). Often, they draw from the author’s own life, but they don’t follow the chronology we expect of a memoir or autobiography. But if you can figure out where they’re shelved in your local independent bookshop, essay collections can make for some of the best reads. Check out these twenty brilliant essay collections, from all kinds of authors about all kinds of subjects.

20 Brilliant Essay Collections - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

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Men Explain Things To Me is a slim little essay collection with a provocative title and a brilliant premise. Rebecca Solnit writes about the lived experience of women in the patriarchy in seven essays (or nine, if you get a later edition) from the last twenty years. She addresses violence against women, marriage equality, the influence of Virginia Woolf, the erasure of women from the archive, fraught online spaces, and more. Solnit was even credited with coining the term “mansplaining” – even though the word itself doesn’t appear in the title essay, and she later said she didn’t necessarily agree with such a gendered term.

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

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Zadie Smith is a once-in-a-generation literary darling, writing beloved fiction and brilliant non-fiction with the same zeal. In Feel Free, her 2018 essay collection, she addresses questions we all find ourselves pondering from time to time. Why do we love libraries? How will we explain our inaction on climate change to future generations? What are online social networks doing to us? Her answers are categorised in the book’s five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free (from which the essay collection gets its name). Smith interrogates major world-changing events and small personal disruptions with equal fascination, which makes for an illuminating read.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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Roxane Gay has built a career on being forthright, unabashed, and holding a microphone to the best and worst of the little voices in our heads. Bad Feminist is a collection of her essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly. As the title suggests, in one of the collection’s most memorable moments, she addresses the difficulty of reconciling her feminism with her love of hip-hop music and the colour pink. She contends throughout this essay collection that it’s better to be a ‘bad feminist’ than to be no kind of feminist at all. Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.

Shrill by Lindy West

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Have you ever felt like you just take up too much space in a world that wants you to be small and quiet? Lindy West has, and that’s what she writes in Shrill, the first of her hilarious and insightful essay collections. She lays bear the shame and humiliation that comes with the journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance, in a world that insists you be smaller and quieter. West has battled internet trolls, waged war against rape jokes, and reached an uneasy accord with her unruly body and mind. These essays are brilliant, relatable and hilarious for all women who have felt like they didn’t quite fit.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

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How To Write An Autobiographical Novel seems like an odd title for an essay collection, but it makes sense once you hear Alexander Chee’s explanation behind it. On book tours and at speaking events regarding his novels, he found himself facing the same question over and over: “how much of this fictional story is autobiographical?”. He started thinking about how we forge identities in literature, giving rise to this brilliant collection of essays. It’s his “manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him”.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

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Samantha Irby describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. Wow, No Thank You a collection of her essays about… stuff. Life. Ridiculous jobs. Trying to make friends as an adult. The lost art of making a mix-tape. Living in a place where most people don’t share your politics. Getting your period and bleeding all over the sheets of your Airbnb. Trying to remember why you ever found nightclubs fun. There’s even a whole essay of “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever…” jokes (the format might mystify you if you’re not on Twitter, but it’s hilarious). Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.

Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

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Are you sick of the trope where a nice, skinny, white girl shows up dead and that’s all we ever get to know about her? You’re not the only one. Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls interrogates “iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories”. This is one of those essay collections that will stick with you, and change the way you consume stories forever.

If you want alternatives to read, check out my list of crime thrillers without dead girls here.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

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Jia Tolentino has been called “a peerless voice of our generation” and a “Joan Didion of our time”. Trick Mirror is one of the most critically acclaimed essay collections of recent years, a “dazzling collection of nine entirely original essays… [that] delves into the forces that warp our vision”. Have you ever wondered why we think what we do and the way we do? Normally, that’s the kind of question we’d leave to marketing professionals and moral philosophy professors, but Tolentino addresses it in an accessible and relatable way. She wants us to understand what advertising, social media, consumerism, and the whole she-bang has done to our consciousness and our understanding of ourselves.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

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I’ll confess: David Foster Wallace is kind of my literary secret shame. The man was hardly a paragon of virtue, he treated the women in his life horribly, and he clearly had a lot of troubles that were never adequately addressed. But damn, if his essays aren’t some of the funniest I’ve ever read! Seriously, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one of those brilliant essay collections that will have you howling with laughter so loud your neighbours might call the cops. Wallace is, at turns, cynical, curious, credulous, and cutting – and yet his essays feel seamless. They’re long, they’re stuffed with footnotes that would make a lit professor weep, and yet you’ll read them feeling like no time is passing at all because you’re having so much fun. I can’t speak for his fiction, but his essay collections? Must-reads, especially this one!

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

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Any library of brilliant essay collections is woefully incomplete without David Sedaris, especially his 2000 collection Me Talk Pretty One Day. It’s over twenty years old, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless. It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday. It’s also a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

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I find it hard not to build up a head of steam when I talk about Nora Ephron, because she is criminally underrated. Because she wrote about women and their relationships (to each other and themselves), instead of men with businesses or guns, she’s relegated to the “chick lit” and “rom-com” shelves, described as “fluffy” instead of ingenious. Want proof? Pick up I Feel Bad About My Neck, one of the most brilliant and incisive essay collections you’ll read anywhere. With her trademark candour and dry humour, she tackles the unspeakable: aging as a woman in a society that values perpetual youth.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen

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Scan the headlines of any celebrity gossip website, and you’ll notice: times have changed. We’re a long way from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. The women of today’s front pages are boundary pushers, provocative and powerful in ways that women of previous generations wouldn’t dare dream about. Anne Helen Petersen has had a lot of cause to study these women in her role as a Buzzfeed editor, and she’s written Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud to explain what she’s seen. She “uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of powerhouses like Serena Williams, Hillary Clinton, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures”.

All About Love by bell hooks

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“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet we would all love better if we used it as a verb,” writes bell hooks in All About Love, one of her most widely-read and lauded essay collections. She posits that our society is descending into lovelessness. Not romantic lovelessness – we’re drowning in smooches – but the kind where we lack basic compassion and empathy for each other, and ourselves. We are divided and discontented, due to “society’s failure to provide a model for learning to love”. You’ll want to set aside a lot of time to read and think about this one, to really absorb its message – if you do, it’ll change your life.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is Eddo-Lodge’s first essay collection. It started with her blog post of the same name that she published back in 2014, but there’s no need to go trawling the internet for it: Eddo-Lodge reproduces it in full in the preface. It serves as a thesis statement, framing and contextualising everything that is to follow. So, the $64,000 question: why isn’t Eddo-Lodge talking to white people about race? Well, basically, she’s fed up: with white denial, with white self-flagellation, with trying to shake hands with a brick wall. Ironically, this is a collection of essays about race and racism that every white person should absolutely read. Read my full review of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.

Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

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If you loved Say Nothing and Empire Of Pain (like I did), you’ll be overjoyed (as I was) to get your hands on a copy of Rogues, a collection of Patrick Radden Keefe’s most celebrated essays from The New Yorker. These delightfully detailed investigative pieces focus on his favourite subjects: “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial”. They’re like delectable bite-sized true crime tales, all meticulously researched and fact-checked so as to ensure they’re completely believable. Each and every one is masterfully crafted, perfectly balanced, and totally gripping. Read my full review of Rogues here.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

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The best essay collections combine both sweeping views of the way we live our lives and the minutiae of how the author lives their own. How To Be A Woman is the perfect example. Caitlin Moran interrogates what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, with broad observations as well as deeply personal (not to mention riotously funny) anecdotes. From abortions to Brazilian waxes to pop culture to reproduction, Moran explores the opportunities and constraints for women in all areas of life. She “lays bare the reasons why female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself”.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

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When you think about it, essay collections are a medium well suited to the millennial generation, with our attention spans ruined by television and our ingrained narcissism and all. Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love is to our generation what Bridget Jones’s Diary was to the Gen Xers. In it, she writes about contemporary young adulthood and all its essential components: “falling in love, finding a job, getting drunk, getting dumped, realizing that Ivan from the corner shop might just be the only reliable man in her life, and that absolutely no one can ever compare to her best girlfriends”.

Figuring by Maria Popova

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If you’ve ever Googled any kind of lofty question – what did Toni Morrison say makes life worth living? is stoicism a solution to anxiety? what the heck is a ‘growth mindset’? – chances are you’ve stumbled upon (now renamed The Marginalian). The mind behind the brilliant website is Maria Popova, and while her online archives constitute about a hundred essay collections’ worth of material, she’s condensed her best and made her contribution in the form of Figuring. This one is a must-read for the literary nerds and the philosophy students and the history buffs. It features snippets and essential lessons from the lives of figures like Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman.

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

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It took Maria Tumarkin nine years to research and write Axiomatic, one of the most powerful essay collections you’ll encounter at your local independent bookstore. She seeks to understand grief, loss, and trauma, and how they inform who we are as people. So, as you can probably already tell, it’s not exactly a light read – but if you’re in the mood to do some deep thinking, it’s an excellent selection. Each of its five sections is based on an axiom about the past and present (like “history repeats itself” or “time heals all wounds”), and examines true stories from Tumarkin’s own life and those around her to illustrate her wider points.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

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The problem with essay collections about successful people is that too many of them are of the “here’s how you can be successful too, invest in this stock and get rich quick!” variety. Outliers is the exception (and you have no idea how hard it was not to call it an ‘outlier’ just now). Malcolm Gladwell takes an intellectual look at the best and the brightest, the shining stars of innovation and industry, with the aim of finding out what exactly makes them different. This isn’t just about waking up early or taking cold showers; there are very specific concoctions of culture, community, and cunning that get people to the very top of the game, and Gladwell lays them out for us.

13 Classic Books That Weren’t Well Received

It’s easy to forget that some iconic books – classics that we were forced to read in high-school, that SparkNotes makes memes about now – weren’t always held up as the pinnacle of literature. Many of the “most loved” books today were woefully underappreciated in their own time. Some of them were downright derided. Here are thirteen classic books that weren’t well received… at first.

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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Brave New World – Aldous Huxley’s now-classic dystopia, complete with sex, drugs, and “feelies” – got some positive press upon its release in 1932. Philosopher Bertrand Russell praised it, saying that Huxley “has shown his usually masterly skill” and Dame Rebecca West called it Huxley’s “most accomplished novel”. But he faced some heavy criticism, too. Fellow sci-fi author H.G. Wells railed against Huxley for “betraying the future as a concept”. A review published in The Guardian was particularly savage: “the title which he gave to one of his earlier books, These Barren Leaves, is applicable to very much that he has written…. This book fails both as a satire and romance…. It is easier to exploit the possibilities of mental death than to meet the demands of creative life.” Read my full review of Brave New World here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

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It might surprise you to know that The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was almost as controversial when it was first released in 1885 as it is today. As recently as 2016, the classic American novel was removed from one Virginia public school district, on the basis that it includes inappropriate language and racial slurs. 130 years prior, the Concord Public Library committee held a very similar view: “the veriest trash… rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,”. They, too, chose to ban the book. Upon hearing that news, Twain is reported to have said “This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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The Brontës famously published their works using androgynous pseudonyms (Emily going by “Ellis Bell”), but that didn’t stop reviewers going to town on her only published novel, Wuthering Heights. Graham’s Lady Magazine wrote at the time: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors,”. The Examiner said “as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages”. Emily, being notoriously shy and reluctant to publish at all, probably didn’t read her own press – good thing, too, if those reviews are anything to go by. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell


Even though Gone With The Wind was wildly popular with readers immediately upon release (it was the best-selling fiction book two years running, in 1936 and 1937), critics didn’t share their enthusiasm. Reviewer for The New York Times, Ralph Thompson, said “I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to say, 500 pages… Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter.” That’s a sick burn all on its own, but critics rightly also zeroed in on Mitchell’s deeply problematic and revisionist depictions of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction. Those (very justified) criticisms have only amplified over time.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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I have been very vocal about my own dislike of The Great Gatsby, and I am pleased to report that many early readers and reviewers agreed with me. The novel – now considered one of the classic books of the Jazz Age – was considered a fall from form for Fitzgerald, “an inconsequential performance by a once-promising author who had grown bored and cynical”, and reviewers were “quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today”. The plot was also called “improbable”, and its style “painfully forced”. Fitzgerald was apparently so bummed out by these reviews that he signed off a telegram to his publisher: “Yours in great depression”. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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One of the (many) funny things about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the contrast in its reception on different continents. In the U.K., where newspapers had a huge staff of experienced reviewers and literary critics, they called it “a phenomenal literary work, a philosophical, metaphysical, and poetic romance”, and “one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most amusing of modern books”. Meanwhile, in the New World (U.S.), where experienced critics were few and far between, baffled journalists trying to wade through Melville’s mountain of prose declared it “not worth the money asked for it, either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper” and “a crazy sort of affair”. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides of the pond, but doesn’t that just prove the rule? Read my full review of Moby Dick here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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Look, examples abound that prove Ulysses should be on any list of classic books that weren’t well received. Even today, respected as a load-bearing pillar in the modernist canon, most readers and reviewers regard it with confusion more so than admiration or anything else. Some of my favourite Ulysses slams include Virginia Woolf writing in her diary that it was: “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating,”. See also The Sporting Times, who wrote that it was “written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine,”. Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Joseph Heller threw a decades-long tantrum when Catch-22 wasn’t received as well as he thought it should have been. Even though The New York Times initially called it “a dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights,”, a second review in the same paper said “[it is] repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest,”. Despite Heller’s big hopes, it didn’t win a single award, not even the much coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Heller remained bitter about it until the day he died. Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

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Angry teenagers forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in English Lit classes would be thrilled to know how poorly it was received upon its release in 1951. It was called everything from “disappointing”, to “a near miss”, to “wholly repellent”, to “peculiarly offensive”. Most reviewers seemed to take particular issue with the divisive protagonist-narrator, Holden Caulfield, whose adolescent angst was declared “wearisome” by the New Republic. Older wowsers didn’t like that he was running around getting drunk and trying to get it on with sex workers, either – a position that certain school board members still hold today, it would seem. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Kafka was the very definition of “underappreciated in his own time”, and he knew it, too. His diaries and letters are full of laments about his work and his general malaise, self-deprecation taken to the extreme. Today, The Metamorphosis is his best-known work and widely regarded as one of the most brilliant allegories ever written – but it was barely read when it was first published in 1915, and even Kafka himself didn’t like it in retrospect. He wrote that he “[was] reading The Metamorphosis at home and find[ing] it bad,”, that he felt a “great antipathy” towards it and its “unreadable ending”. The bulk of Kafka’s other work wasn’t published until after his death, and it certainly wasn’t widely read or beloved until many years later.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Long before it was a HBO series, or the symbol of white feminist resistance against the Trump administration, The Handmaid’s Tale was a 1986 novel met with a reaction that could be best summed up as: “meh”. The New York Times said it “lacks imagination” (which is true, technically, given that Atwood has said time and again that everything she included in the book has happened or is happening somewhere in the world). It was also called, by various other outlets, “short on characterisation,” “thinly textured,” and (my personal favourite) “paranoid poppycock”. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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The Grapes Of Wrath was basically America’s first big Hate Read. In 1939, everyone was reading it and everyone had something to say about it. Steinbeck was attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, believe it or not: both accused him of being a communist, and publishing a book of propaganda. The Associated Farmers of California were particularly vocal in their displeasure, calling Steinbeck’s depiction of the treatment of migrating farm workers as a “pack of lies”. Steinbeck was also revealed to have ripped off the research work of comparatively-unknown writer Sanora Bobb, but that didn’t seem as important to anyone as the fact that he was “trying to make a political point” (that it… sucks to be poor?). Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

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The criticism of Lord Of The Flies began before it even hit the bookstore shelves. More than 20 publishers passed on Golding’s nightmare-fuel story about shipwrecked children turning to savages (I can’t imagine why). One called it “rubbish and dull, pointless,”. Even when he finally found a publisher willing to take a punt on it, they sold only a few thousand copies before it went out of print. The New Yorker called it “completely unpleasant”. How it went from the bargain bin to a Nobel Prize winner assigned reading in every English-speaking classroom around the world is beyond me. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

100 Years Of Good Reads

I came across something fun on Goodreads the other day. They’ve put together a list of “the most popular books published over the past 100 years, as determined by Goodreads members’ digital shelves”. What a great use of the data they’ve collected from us obsessive book loggers!

100 Years Of Good Reads - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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It’s actually pretty fascinating: There are plenty of old-school masterpieces, of course, and a good supply of those books most likely to be found in required school curricula. But you’ll also find gonzo journalism, children’s classics, international literature, Arabic poetry, existentialist dread, and even graphic novels.

Goodreads (100 Years of Popular Books on Goodreads)

Just for fun, I thought I’d go through the list and add a little commentary for you. (Okay, and I also wanted to tally up how many of them I’d already read – sue me!)

1922: Ulysses by James Joyce

I don’t want to be that girl, but I promise you: Ulysses is not the crisis situation you’re imagining! Read my full review of Ulysses here.

1923: The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

1924: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

UGH! Why? Why? Why? If I never have to see The Great Gatsby on a best-of book list ever again, I’ll die happy. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

1926: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A soldier gets his dick blown off, and remains such a misogynist that he never figures out how to go down on the lady he loves. The Sun Also Rises? More like The Lady Also Deserves To Finish. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

1927: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

1928: The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

1929: Passing by Nella Larsen

1930: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

A truly pleasant surprise! As I Lay Dying is short, weird, and an excellent example of why men can write from a woman’s perspective (occasionally). Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

1931: The Joy Of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

1932: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Sex, drugs, and feelies? The “dystopian” future that Huxley imagines in Brave New World doesn’t sound so bad, really. Read my full review of Brave New World here.

1933: In Praise Of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

1934: Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie

1935: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

1936: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

1937: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is rich and wonderful and devastating – and Tea Cake is my ride-or-die classic book boyfriend. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

1938: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Did you know that Rebecca has never been out of print? Never, not once, in the nearly-hundred years it’s been a good read? It’s gothic, it’s spooky, it’s fun, and it’s more than deserving. Read my full review of Rebecca here.

1939: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, I was angry. Angry that no one had ever told me – warned me! – how damn good it is. I’m still angry! Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

1940: Native Son by Richard Wright

1941: The Library Of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges

1942: The Stranger by Albert Camus

1943: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince works precisely because doesn’t get bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves,” de Saint-Exupéry writes on page 6, “and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.” Bring tissues. Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

1944: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

1945: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

1946: The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers

1947: No Exit by Jean Paul-Sartre

1948: I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

1949: 1984 by George Orwell

1950: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

1951: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

1952: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

1953: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Did you know that books don’t actually burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? Ray Bradbury asked an expert for help naming his novel, but they misunderstood the question. Paper auto-ignites at that temperature, but burns much, much lower. That fun fact is honestly more interesting to me than Fahrenheit 451 was. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

1954: The Fellowship Of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

1956: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

1957: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

1958: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

1959: The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

1960: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Yes, I know, it’s problematic. White saviours are bad, and Atticus Finch is the whitest-saviouriest of them all. But To Kill A Mockingbird is still such a good read! And Harper Lee’s only (true) novel! Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

1961: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 is funny… for the first hundred pages or so. Beyond that, you’re just reading the same joke over and over again. It’s good to know where the idiom came from, though! Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

1962: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

1963: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s infuriating how good The Bell Jar is. Like, seriously, I wanted to throw it down on the floor and just give up. So good. And the Faber editions are so pretty! Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

1964: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

1965: Dune by Frank Herbert

1966: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

1967: One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude has a cracker of an opening line – the famous one about Colonel Buendía facing the firing squad. Beyond that, I didn’t love-love-love it, but I didn’t hate-hate-hate it, either. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

1968: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

1969: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.” It’s confronting, it’s brilliant, and it’s an enduring classic for a reason. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

1970: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Morrison has said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “interested in talking about black girlhood”. It seems sadly inevitable that a book on that subject would end up a foundational text about the impact of Euro-centric beauty standards and internalised loathing. Read my full review of The Bluest Eye here.

1971: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

1972: Ways Of Seeing by John Berger

1973: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

1974: Carrie by Stephen King

I’ve got this one on a to-read shelf, that I might get to… some day… probably…

1975: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

1976: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

1977: Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison

1978: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

1979: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

1980: The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco

1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

1982: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple is still – to this day – being challenged, banned, and removed from high school reading lists. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! eye roll). Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

1983: The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

1984: The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

1985: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Even though it might feel like “The Handmaid’s Tale is coming true!” with everything going on at the moment, the truth is that Atwood didn’t use a single thing that hasn’t already happened, or isn’t already happening, to create the dystopian world of Gilead. Just a heads up! Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

1986: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

1987: Watchmen by Alan Moore

1988: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is a beautiful fable, a wonderful read… for hippies. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

1989: The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

1990: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

1991: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Time travel to 18th century Scotland, marriage of convenience with a Scot in a kilt… but make it horny! It’s not a great work of literature, but Outlander does exactly what it says on the tin. Read my full review of Outlander here.

1992: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

1993: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

1994: The Wind Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

1995: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

1996: A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game Of Thrones might never have made it onto a list like this, if not for the HBO adaptation that had the whole world glued to their screens for eight seasons. But here we are! Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

1997: Guns, Germs And Steel by Jared Diamond

1998: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

1999: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

2000: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielwski

2001: The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

2002: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

2003: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

2005: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I reckon this one is destined to become a classic. It’s clever, and it’s creepy as heck. Well deserving of its place on this Goodreads list! Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.

2006: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

2007: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Look, if you’re in the mid- to upper-end of the Young Adult bracket and you’re just starting to understand the significance of WWII, The Book Thief is a brilliant, life-changing read. For the rest of us… well, it’s a good reminder that literacy is important. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

2008: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

2009: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2010: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

To call The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks a “biography” is reductive. It’s so much more than the dates and facts of a life. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck! Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

2011: The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

If you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, monks could use the rock you’ve been living under as an off-the-grid retreat. You need to hop to it, if for no other reason than it’s miraculous it hasn’t been spoiled for you yet. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

2013: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

2014: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It wasn’t quite the blockbuster success that Little Fires Everywhere was, but Everything I Never Told You is still a masterful, gripping domestic drama, fully deserving of its place on any list of good reads. Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.

2015: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

2016: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

2017: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

It’s incredible how timely The Hate U Give was at the time of its release – and it’s incredibly sad that it’s still so timely, even more so, years later. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.

2018: Educated by Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated would be a fascinating read. Read my full review of Educated here.

2019: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing and anyone who needs a bit of starry-eyed optimism. Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

2020: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Through this multi-generational family saga, Brit Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels. The Vanishing Half is a must-read for your book club; there’s a lot to unpack here. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.

2021: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Alright, I’ve read 33 of these so far, and reviewed most of them, too! Not bad! How about you? Drop your total in the comments! And thank you Goodreads for putting together this list – nice to see you using your powers for good.

12 Wonderful Queer Love Stories

For too long, queer love stories were miserable and tragic. Queer lovers died, or were torn apart by time and circumstance, or were forced to keep their love hidden due to the prevailing social mores. Thankfully, we’re moving on, and allowing queer love stories – real and fictional – to be celebrated, loud and proud. Here are twelve wonderful queer love stories to pick up before the end of Pride.

12 Wonderful Queer Love Stories - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be my one true love if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page (I’ll earn a small commission).

Meet Cute Club by Jack Harbon

Where better to start for a list of queer love stories than one with a book club at its heart? The romantic leads of Meet Cute Club are Jordan – founder of the fledgling titular club – and Rex – a “frustratingly obnoxious and breathtakingly handsome” bookseller who makes fun of Jordan for buying books “meant for grandmas”. Naturally, they’re destined to be together. This is a wonderfully sweet rom-com with relatable characters, and an important message about (forgive me) not judging a book by its cover.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One Last Stop is, quite frankly, one of the most delightful queer love stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The central character, August, is new to New York City, but she’s already got the cynicism down. That is, until she meets Jane – a beautiful stranger on a train, with a bewitching smile and a leather jacket. How was August to know that Jane had come unstuck in time, from her home in the 1970s, and falling in love with her would cause all kinds of trouble? Yes, it’s a queer romance with a time-travel element, and it’s snort-laugh funny to boot! Read my full review of One Last Stop here.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Argonauts is a pillar of the contemporary queer canon, so frequently invoked that it’s practically become cliche. It’s been so thoroughly read, analysed, and critiqued that it’s hard to believe that there’s any stone remaining unturned… but I really think that the queer love story at its heart deserves more attention. Nelson’s love for her partner, Harry, absolutely shines on every page. Even when they disagree, even when they’re scared, even when things are awful. Even if a lot of the academic auto-theory goes over your head, The Argonauts is worth reading for that alone. Read my full review of The Argonauts here.

Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Only Mostly Devastated - Sophie Gonzales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Only Mostly Devastated, summer loving had Ollie ablast… but not even queer love stories are immune to the keen sting of summer’s end. When his holiday dreamboat Will Tavares ghosts him, Ollie regretfully lets him go. Until, that is, a family emergency sees Ollie uprooted and moved across the country, and he finds none other than Will Tavares at his new high-school. Will isn’t “out” at school – he isn’t even nice. This is a boy-meets-boy spin on the Grease storyline, and it’s a must-read for anyone who ever pined for their first love.

Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee

Meet Cute Diary - Emery Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Noah Ramirez has painted himself into a bit of a corner. His blog – Meet Cute Diary – is a collection of real queer love stories and trans happy-ever-afters… only they’re all fake. Noah has made them all up. “What started as the fantasies of a trans boy afraid to step out of the closet has grown into a beacon of hope for trans readers across the globe”, and now a troll has exposed the truth. There are a number of logical, rational ways to handle this disaster, so naturally Noah chooses to start fake-dating Drew, a “real” queer romance to convince his followers that it is possible. What could go wrong?

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours - Michael Cunningham - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can see the evolution of queer love stories across the three generations depicted in The Hours. Virginia Woolf (yes, based on the real-life writer) is forced to keep her Sapphic feelings hidden, barely daring to express them in private let alone in public. Then there’s Laura, a 1940s housewife for whom a clandestine expression of her true desires represents escape from her stifling life of domesticity. And finally, there’s Clarissa, who lives a full and open life in love with her partner in 1990s New York. Really, though, the true queer love story in The Hours is that of Clarissa and her best friend, Richard – they could have been lovers (sexuality being fluid and all), but instead they prioritised their bond of friendship, which lasted a lifetime. Read my full review of The Hours here.

Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

SImon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda is one of Gen Z’s most iconic queer love stories. Simon reaches out to an anonymous poster on his high school’s Tumblr page (yes, times have changed), and they begin exchanging emails. When Simon is blackmailed, with a bully threatening to out him and his still-anonymous online pen pal, Simon has to figure out what’s most important, getting what he wants or keeping others from getting hurt. The identity of Simon’s crush will keep you guessing right up until the end, but there’s no doubt as to the heady passion of their youthful first-love.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Less is sure that he is “the first homosexual to ever grow old”. He finds himself suddenly single, dumped by his long-time (much-younger) fuck-buddy for a more age-appropriate suitor. And now they’re getting married. And they’ve invited Arthur to the wedding. What’s Arthur to do? Concoct a scheme to avoid attending, of course! Arthur doesn’t intend to find himself in his trip around the world, but of course he does – and he finds true love, too. (Bonus: Less is one of the few queer love stories I’ve found that won a Pulitzer Prize!) Read my full review of Less here.

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

The Charm Offensive - Alison Cochrun - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In The Charm Offensive, “disgraced tech wunderkind” Charlie Winshaw needs to rehabilitate his image. How better than to re-make himself as Prince Charming for the millions of viewers of reality dating show Ever After? He’s relying on producer Dev Deshpande to make him look good – though that’s easier said than done. On screen, Charlie is stiff, awkward, and clearly a fish out of water among the female contestants. Off screen, sparks are flying between him and Dev. This sweet romantic comedy is great fun, and also prompts us to think about when and how queer love stories are told.

Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters

Detransition Baby - Torrey Peters - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Detransition Baby is certainly one of the more complex queer love stories on this list – but if you can follow, it’s so, so worth it! Reese believes she’s on the cusp of living the kind of life generations of trans women have only dreamed about: decent job, New York apartment, and the love of her life… until her girlfriend decides to detransition, and return to life as Ames. Oh, and he knocks up his (cis) boss, into the bargain. Can the three of them figure out how to make a family out of this mess? This is a truly beautiful story about family, commitment, and rolling with the punches.

Love, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery

Love, Hate & Clickbait - Liz Bowery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thom is a political consultant: suave, manipulative, and calculating. Clay is a data analyst, and basically the complete opposite: awkward, lanky, and new to politicking. In Love, Hate & Clickbait, their boss – a California governor and future presidential candidate – forces them to pretend for the cameras that they’re dating, to cover for her own homophobic gaffe. You’ll think you can see where this one is going, but this queer love story has some surprises still in store for you! Read my full review of Love, Hate & Clickbait here.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Red White And Royal Blue - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s one of the wonderful queer love stories you’ve definitely seen all over #Bookstagram: Red, White & Royal Blue. Imagine if American’s First Son fell in love with the Prince of Wales – what could possibly go wrong? In McQuiston’s debut, Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry find out (spoiler: a whole hell of a lot can go wrong, but it’s definitely worth it). These two heartthrobs, despite their shaky start, seem made for each other. Their cute banter and quiet yearnings are a true delight to read. Pick this one up when your faith in love (or politics) has been shaken, and you’ll find it restored quick smart! Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

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