Tag Archives: Book review

Why Queer Diary-Novel ‘Notes of a Crocodile’ Should Be Your Next Beach Read

It’s time to hit the beach, which means it’s time for a fun new beach read. How about a novel about a Taiwanese lesbian and a crocodile on the run?

Qiu Miaojin became one of Taiwan’s most popular and influential novelists when Notes of a Crocodile debuted in 1993, two years before Miaojin died at age 26.

Notes of a Crocodile follows a young woman named Lazi through her journey through a prestigious university in Taipei. According to the LA Review, the story “chronicles her binge-drinking, sexual experiments, and dark ruminations on shame, monstrosity and sexuality, before it closes with her commencement, which she attends alone.”

Through letter- and diary-like excerpts arranged in episodes, Lazi’s story unfolds. She falls face-forward into a relationship with the entrancing Shui Ling, and then with an older woman named Xiao Fan, all why amassing a quirky crew of queer characters.

Long before the bathroom bills that currently obsess transphobic legislators across the United States, Lazi and her friends challenged the idea of gender; one notable line says, “Hey, we should found a gender-free society and monopolize all the public restrooms.”

Interwoven like a double helix through the story, and potentially more interesting, is the story of the crocodile.

The mass-media ecosystem of Notes is crocodile obsessed, with constant reports on croc-sightings and wild speculation about what these secret urban crocodiles eat and how they mate alongside polemics on whether they should be protected or destroyed. Anxious about being exposed, the novel’s eponymous crocodile disguises itself in a “human suit,” lives unobtrusively in a basement, and avoids conspicuous behaviors like purchasing too many cream puffs at the local bakery (cream puffs being a known crocodile delicacy, naturally).

The crocodile, of course, is a metaphor for being gay in a homophobic society – you have to disguise yourself in order to avoid being attacked, and society is obsessed with destroying you. The crocodile seeks refuge in Lazi’s house, where it eventually comes to terms with being a crocodile and not a human. It evens starts a vlog (more than ten years before YouTube was invented).

The book broke countless barriers when it was released. For one, a popular Chinese slang term for lesbians, lazi, comes from the protagonist’s name. And because Miaojin was writing so openly about controversial topics, she has been called the Taiwanese David Foster Wallace.

Notes of a Crocodile has finally been translated into English. Pick up your copy.

Book Review | Ask the Passengers by AS King

Sending love to the aeroplanes while lying on a picnic table is something I’d like to do a little more often. Teenager Astrid has it down to a fine art. A reminder of how, for some of us, we coped in our youth when questions of sexuality arose and that feeling of being a little different from the crowd.

Ask the Passengers by AS King is essentially about love and acceptance; a classic coming of age – coming out story. However, this book stretches us a little further.

Astrid, our protagonist, is a teenager living with her family in a small town in Pennsylvania, having moved from New York City. A senior in high school she not only has to endure the small mindedness of the locals, but the increasing disparity and dysfunction of her family. Knowing herself to be different, Astrid finds the best way to cope is to lie on the picnic bench in the back garden and send love and life questions to passengers on aeroplanes. It is here that King starts to create a little magic, juxtaposing Astrid’s questions with an anecdote from a random passenger on the plane. It adds quirkiness, cleverly drawing our minds to the interconnectedness of ourselves to one another and the world, wherever we are, whoever we are.

The main thrust of the storyline is when Astrid meets Dee and they become girlfriends. Astrid has a genuine need to move slowly in her discovery not only of her sexuality, but in questioning her whole self. However, her friends and girlfriend begin
to push for her to come out to her family, misunderstanding her request to be left alone. We feel Astrid becoming increasingly isolated yet standing firm in her self belief and wish to define herself on her own terms. Her love and study of philosophy
is a crutch, even adopting Socrates (nicknamed Frank) as her imaginary friend and confidante. King uses the philosophy angle, particularly the elusive character of Socrates to develop the notion of questioning who we are. This effectively highlights the bigotry surrounding Astrid and the propensity for people to label and stereotype.

Astrid is, however, eventually propelled forward to be open about her sexuality, coming out to her family who have a mixed and generally negative initial reaction, as seemingly do the entire town. King whips up the emotional responses to Astrid’s intolerable situation; anger, sadness and heightened comedy that such times can invoke. Eventually, Astrid finds light at the end of the tunnel when all settles down and people rediscover respect and dare we hope, a broader perspective.

It is a thought provoking book while remaining highly readable, funny and original; inspiring for a younger crowd and especially those questioning or discovering their sexuality. For those of us who are a little older, it keeps check on our journey of challenging societal norms, reflecting on our own experiences and how and if times have changed that much. Have they? A question I spent a little time thinking about after closing this book. One thing I do recall, however, is like Astrid I found the whole notion of ‘coming out’ perplexing and abstruse and I’ve no doubt I am not alone in this.

AS King is an American writer of young adult fiction. Ask the Passengers is her fourth novel and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.

Book Review | Hild – Nicola Griffith

If you want to learn how to make flax, understand the habits of birds or curse in a range of ancient languages – then ‘Hild’ is the book for you.

Thankfully for readers like me, who are not particularly interested in any of those things – although I do now know a lot more about seventh century politics than I ever imagined possible – ‘Hild’ is also a compelling novel about women and power and survival.

The story starts when Hild is just a child, but a very special child. One of royal birth and uncanny powers. Before she is born, her mother dreams her destiny into being: this child will be light of world, an adviser to kings and a leader of people.

We follow her, her half-brother Cian and friend Begu, as they grow up and join the royal court, where at any time the King’s anger could mean the death of one of his advisers. He has absolute power. And yet Hild has power too, as the King’s seer. Where her power comes from, how she uses it and what she has to sacrifice to keep it are the questions I found most fascinating about this book.

Hild’s wisdom comes because she is observant, continually seeking out the pattern in things. She is always watchful, even among those she loves and trusts most, and remains unmarried for as long as she can. She becomes only woman among the King’s advisors, a vulnerable position.

Hild’s physicality matches her role. She is tall and a skilled rider. She is strong and unsqueamish in battle. But, quietly, Griffith shows the toll that so much violence has on Hild’s mind and sense of herself. Her choices are limited and often costly.

There are other sources of power in the book, which Hild learns to use to her own advantage to keep herself and her loved ones safe. The rise of the Church is one, and with it the magic of the written word which few – apart from Hild – learn to master. Marriage is another: it determines alliances between kingdoms, but who you share your bed with – man or a woman – seems to matter very little.

Confession time. For pages of this novel, I had no idea what was going on. I gave up trying to remember which king was which, who was friend or foe, or even who was still alive. I skimmed over the painstakingly-researched Old Anglisc words – only finding the glossary too late. Not as observant as Hild, I missed a lot of the subtleties and could have done without much of the detail. But the character carried me through.

Hild, later St Hilda of Whitby, really existed, although history records very little about her. And Griffith has breathed her into life.

Hild – I salute you. A woman of wit, sense and intelligence. A woman of power in a man’s world. We need more stories like yours.

Book Review | Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson

Personable yet informative, provocative and highly engaging essays on art and it’s relationship to us.

Book Review: Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson is never far away from my bedside table. It’s a book I treasure. Perhaps many JW fans may find this little book an unusual choice as a favourite, however, I’d go as far to say that everyone should read this book. Why? because it’s important. I also believe it is one of her finer works. True to her style, personable and frank, honest yet confident, her passion is clear and it flows beautifully from start to finish.

So what’s so important? Art is what’s important. This book spares no excuses for the ignorant or elitist; its point is clear. Art is there for everyone to be enjoyed, or not enjoyed; loved and hated, moved or indifferent, provoked and changed. It matters simply because it permeates every level of our existence. It is our past and our future, it is our now. You don’t have to be an artist to enjoy or understand this book, that’s the whole point, it is for everyone.

Written as a series of essays, Ms Winterson begins with her own journey and discovery of paintings, how she sought to educate herself with a subject, at the time, she knew little about. Her words hit home and not without that wry wit bringing a knowing smile, but also a thoughtful frown. She ventures further with her thoughts and opinions on the development of literature, with essays on Virginia Woolf and her personal relationship with her work. It is without doubt a powerful piece, forcing us to think, consider and yet it is engaging, funny, serious and provocative. There is meaning for us all here in her words at any given point in our life, something resonates, something hits home. It has a place on everyone’s shelf.

Book Review | Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Asterix and Dr Zeuss bring a flood of colour and humour when I recall the little girl happily reading in the book corner of the schoolroom. Yet perhaps without realising I’d packed away the comics and cartoons along with my childhood, that is until I discovered Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, and graphic storytelling at its best. If I had any reservations about picking up a graphic novel, they were soon to dissipate. After stepping into Bechdel’s life in pictures, the outside world became quiet until the final page.

Fun Home is Bechdel’s memoir chronicling her life from childhood to early adulthood. A coming of age story, it explores the fraught and complex relationship with her father and the discovery of her sexuality in an increasingly bizarre and dysfunctional home. Bruce Bechdel, Alison’s father is an English teacher and director of the local funeral home of which “Fun Home” became the grimly comic reference used by the family. A distant and exacting man, he channels his perfectionism into the frenetic restoration of the large, Gothic-revival house they live in. The dark humour of “Fun Home” sets the tone as Bechdel intricately weaves us through her story of growing up, coming out as a lesbian amidst the confusing and odd situation of her fathers revelation of his own homosexuality. This all wrapped up in the turmoil of her father shortly afterwards being killed by an oncoming truck.

Bechdel gives us a forceful and unexpectedly personal history crossing the emotional gamut of melancholy, humour, grief and the search for happiness. The use of Daedalean and other literary allusion runs throughout the book giving the text richness and depth, elevated by the wonderful pen and ink wash drawings. The construct of the book is made up of just under 1000 panels in a familiar comic format. A stranger to the graphic novel, I found Bechdels illustrations completely absorbing, refreshing and poignant.


What interests me most after reading this book is the delicate balance it achieves with its easy flowing pace and wit transported by the element of cartoon, while tackling the deeper questions in life we are all faced with. More than once I saw myself within the illustrations and this provokes an added sense of awareness I haven’t come across before. The more I think about this book the more impressed I am. Provocative, clever yet touchingly honest, Bechdel’s early life is firmly etched in my memory.

For those less familiar with Alison Bechdel, she is an American cartoonist and author, initially known for her long running comic strip called ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’. Fun Home was her first critical and commercial success. This book ran on The New York Times best seller list for two weeks and was subsequently adapted as a musical. A later notable work is ‘Are You My Mother’ and she is the recipient of the 2014 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award.


Book Review | The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Absorbing and intelligent historical thriller which draws you into the characters’ world through high drama and delicate detail. A compelling and unsettling read.

Book Review: Genteel Frances Wray and her mother have fallen on hard times, so they let out their unused rooms to  paying guests: a brash, working class couple called Lil and Len. Although humiliating, this arrangement should be the answer to their financial worries. Instead they become entangled in a web of passion, violence, deceit and fear, which threatens to destroy them all.

The shadow of the first world war hangs heavily over their lives. Not just the terrible human cost, but the way in which it irreversibly changed the relationship between classes, generations and genders.

Frances scorns marriage and longs for the freedom that she glimpses in this new post-war world. And yet her loyalty to her mother, who has lost two sons in the war, prevents her from leaving to fulfill her own dreams. By her mid twenties, Frances is resigned to a lonely future of struggling to make ends meet, household drudgery and nightly card games with her mother. Then she meets Lil.

The question of whom or what can be trusted becomes central to this novel as Frances and Lil’s secret romance blossoms and even more so once they become unwilling partners in crime. The book is so compelling because, as a reader, you cannot relax or let down your guard: the risk of betrayal and discovery is always there, just as it is for Frances herself, to the point where she struggles even to trust herself.

The novel is strongest when it uses small details to reveal character or evoke an atmosphere. The looks, accidental touches and half-spoken words between Frances and Lil are far more erotic than the eventual sex scenes. A brief description of Frances hands swollen and ruined by scrubbing floors, speaks more clearly about how she is trapped in middle class poverty than any amount of social comment.

The big set pieces – in particular the courtroom scenes – are also beautifully crafted, unbearably ramping up the tension so that you are desperate to skip to the end of the chapter. But it was the small details that haunted me once I’d finished the book.

Sarah Waters is known for her Gothic imagination, twisting tales and lesbian protagonists. Although ‘The Paying Guests’ may not be as dark or as shocking as some of her earlier work, it’s an absorbing and nerve-wracking read. And those on the look out for lesbians in these pages won’t be disappointed either.

Buy this book now