Queer Book Club: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen-coverEileen is the story of a young woman set in the early 60s, in a small New England Town. It’s told retrospectively by Eileen when she’s much older, and there’s a wry humour to the retrospective viewpoint. Younger Eileen is trapped, living with her alcoholic father in their run down house, and working as a secretary in a juvenile prison. Nothing is rewarding about Eileen’s life, and she dreams of escape. She fantasises about Randy, one of the prison guards, and stalks him from afar, but really she’s quite alienated from her own desires, and her own body. Increasingly, we learn in snapshots from her childhood, that the whole of her life has been loveless and without affection. When a beautiful woman gets a job at the prison, Eileen’s desperate need for companionship transforms into a powerful crush.

This book caught my eye on the Man Booker shortlist. I’m slightly iffy as to whether it belongs in Queer Book Club (the main character isn’t explicitly queer), but the action hangs around Eileen’s crush on the beautiful new prison educator, Rebecca, so that’ll do I reckon.

I’ve seen the book labelled thriller, but it doesn’t really have the pacing of a thriller. Most of the book is more of an intricate character study of Eileen, following her around for a week, leading up to an unknown event which will cause her to leave her hometown forever. I loved the characterisation. Some of it is pretty grim—Eileen lives in filth and squalor, and hates her body to the point where she near starves herself, and then purges with laxatives, whilst drinking pretty heavily. Her relationship with her father is strained—he’s been a drunk for years, and has delusions and paranoia. But as the story takes shape, it becomes apparent that there never really was a golden time for Eileen. The retrospective style of narration, with the promise of escape and a better time, lifts the book from utter bleakness, so there’s humour and hope.

Whilst Eileen’s situation is not typical, there are some interesting reflections on women and sexuality at that time, and the limited roles available. Eileen’s not simply a victim of circumstance. She’s often quite an unpleasant, frustrating character, although I actually found her sympathetic as well.

The thriller element only really makes up the later part of the story, when Rebecca embroils Eileen in a surprising plot that finally snaps her out of the trap her life’s become. I won’t spoil the twist, but it was unexpected for me, even though the narrative is shaped towards that moment.

Eileen’s well worth a look, if you go in expecting a deep character study, and not a pacey thriller.

Queer Book Club: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

not-otherwise-specified-coverThis is a YA contemporary novel. Etta doesn’t seem to fit anywhere—her bisexuality gets her into trouble with the “Disco Dykes” group at school, she’s not skinny or white enough for the ballet she loves, she’s not ill enough for people to take her eating disorder seriously, she’s not a good enough singer to go to theatre school. Etta’s struggling with social isolation, and being the only person who is providing the support she needs. Then she finds unexpected friends at her group counselling, in a younger white anorexic girl and her gay brother. Bianca and James are from a very religious family, and are having problems all of their own.

When I first picked up this book, I was a bit stunned (in the sense of being hit round the head). The style is pretty intense—Moskowitz gets right in Etta’s head, and she has a pretty full on pile of anxieties which she cycles through constantly. The style is both a positive and a negative—on the one hand, it feels realistic, and I could really feel Etta’s struggle to cope with all the problems around her, and try to stay positive and on top of them. She keeps telling herself she’s really up-beat and happy, even when she’s falling apart, and eventually it comes true. On the other hand, the style makes for a somewhat unhinging read at times, especially if you’ve had mental health problems yourself.

Moskowitz does a really good job of showing some of the difficulties faced by bisexuals in finding acceptance, and in facing bi-phobia and bi-erasure. I’ve not read a lot of books with bisexual characters, and so that made a nice change. The bullying Etta faces at the hands of the girls at school actually gets pretty nasty at times, and that’s never completely resolved, which was a bit unsatisfying. Etta does stop looking for their acceptance, at least.

This is a bit of a novel of extremes. The characterisation is excellent, but that makes it a tricky read at times, and not all of the emotional loose ends feel completely tied up.

Writing Trans Characters

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I had this idea I wanted to put together a guide to writing trans characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t really sure such a thing is possible. There are an infinite number of possible trans characters and trans stories, and having that variety represented is as important as anything else. So I’m just going to write about what I’d like to see in trans characters, and maybe it’ll be useful to others.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had recently about writing trans characters:

Transition isn’t the only story. Much as I loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a kid, I don’t want to read it over and over for the rest of my life. I want to know what awesome adventures that beautiful butterfly has when it’s done stuffing it’s face with saveloy and fruit. For me, it’s really important to tell stories that aren’t just about transition. Part of the reason for that is because sometimes it feels like there is no life beyond transition, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only trans person who’s wondered if they even have a place in the world. Stories of what happens next are more important than telling the same transition story over and over. (Also, as a side note, trans stories that read like surgical manuals are particularly tedious. The few programmes about trans people I saw on TV growing up were mostly just about surgical procedures. It scared the hell out of me.)

Trans people could exist in any environment or genre, not just realism, Bildungsroman or high school. Trans people could have adventures in space, or kill dragons, or fight clockwork robots, or solve crime, or get eaten by eldritch horrors, or act as a spy during the 18th century, or really just anything. Having looked pretty hard, I’ve noticed some more genre fiction emerging with trans characters. Which is really cool. But I’d love to see more of that stuff, and just more variety in general. I read pretty widely, in genre and literary fiction, and I want to be able to give my book geekness full expression.

Trans people don’t exist for non-trans people to get their tragedy jollies. Does the story really present a believable human being, or is the character really just an object which serves some cathartic process for others? I’m not saying the story has to be happy (I don’t write happy fiction), or the character has to be the main character, but does the character’s transness exist only as a symbol of something else, or to milk an emotional response? (Clue: if people say things like “her tragic struggle for acceptance taught me so much about what it means to really be your true self”, you’ve probably written something overly sentimental and should try harder next time.)

Trans people aren’t always part of the mainstream. Not all trans people want to be. Trans people can be queer in different ways. Not all trans people care about passing, (some do, and that’s fine too). Not everyone transitions, and if they do, their transition is unique to them, and doesn’t necessarily fit some formula. Trans people don’t always fit into a binary model of gender. Trans people can be part of subcultures other than LGBT ones, and might also be part of a queer social network.

Trans is not the whole character. This should go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t—being trans is just one part of a big and complex character picture. It can dominate a person’s life at times, and at others, become irrelevant, but the point is, it’s just one part of a person. You’ve got to write all the other parts as well, or you have a flimsy character.

I have a sequel coming up to my vampire novella, with a trans character in. And my plan is the third and final part of the trilogy will be from his point of view. He’s gay and goth, and a vampire (and kinky as hell). So I’ve hopefully managed to fulfil some of my own wishes for a decent trans character.

Recommendations for good trans fiction welcome.

Queer Book Club: We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

We Are the Ants cover

We Are the Ants is a hybrid YA novel, with elements of sci-fi, coming of age and romance thrown in. Henry is struggling at home—his mum hasn’t coped since his dad left, his brother bullies him, and he’s losing his grandmother to Alzheimer’s. He watches his fellow students drive around in flash cars, while his family just struggle to get by. And he lost his boyfriend to suicide. But on top of all that, he’s regularly kidnapped by slug-like aliens, who now want him to decide whether the Earth will end. Thanks to his brother telling everyone in school about the abductions, his fellow students call him Space Boy, and bully him mercilessly. Henry isn’t really sure whether the Earth is worth saving.

Despite the pretty out there premise of the alien abductions, We Are the Ants is mostly a high school coming of age story. It’s pretty dark and brutal at times, more so than average. Henry is dealing with a lot of things, and has an understandably bleak outlook on life. His voice is really distinctive, veering from alienated distance to dark humour. The voice was really the first thing to grab me about the novel. Henry definitely serves up a whole heap of existential angst along the way, as he tries to negotiate his increasingly desperate life, and feelings of self-loathing. There were a few shocks in the story, as Henry punishes himself for his perceived failings with his late boyfriend, or is punished by others or by circumstance. When a new student, Diego Vega, befriends him, he’s really in no state to embark on a new relationship.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and Hutchinson does justice to the varied complex issues covered, particularly the family’s financial hardship and the various problems that arise from that. There’s really no let up for Henry. (Trigger warnings for bullying, sexual assault and attempted rape.)

It’s a good book. But I was a little disappointed in the ending. It didn’t quite satisfy as a pay-off to all that angst and trauma. And not because it wasn’t a happy ending. It just had too much ambiguity for me, given the novel set-up. However, even given the ending (which I don’t want to spoiler), We Are the Ants is definitely worth a look.

Queer Book Club: You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan

You Know Me Well coverYou Know Me Well is a YA coming of age novel, set in San Francisco, with a vein of romance. Mark is in love with his best friend, Ryan, who runs hot and cold with him and isn’t ready to come out, whereas Kate is in love with a dream girl her best friend set her up with, who she’s never even met before. Among all the confusion and turmoil of their final years in school, what Mark and Kate really need in the end is a good friend to get them through—and luckily they find each other.

The story alternates chapters between Mark and Kate. I enjoyed both characters, and didn’t have that horrible sensation that sometimes happens with multiple points of view, of craving one character more than another. The characters are very different—Mark is much more sporty and conventional, whereas Kate is an artist—but they complement each other because they’re both very sensitive to each other’s needs. While each of them is paralysed at times by their fears for themselves, their friendship means that they have the support they need to push through their fears. Kate’s self-sabotaging anxiety is pretty astounding at times, but it’s also what brings her and Mark together.

The representation of teenage life is much closer to my own experience than some YA I’ve read, so that was easy to connect with. School is there, but the characters are also around in the city, going to clubs and bars, drinking, going to house parties. I also liked the way that when the characters take risks, really cool things can happen to them. They push each other to be better, to believe in their own abilities, particularly where Kate’s art is concerned. There’s almost a fairy tale quality to the night they meet, when, just for a short time, their dreams start to come true.

This book has a lot of queer characters, which is cool. Most of the characters are out, and they draw strength from that sense of community and shared experience. The book also touches on the awkwardness of coming out, with Mark’s friend Ryan, not because Ryan is living in a repressive community, but because he’s just not ready to share that private part of himself with the world. Because there are all these different queer characters, the writers are able to show lots of different queer experiences. At the centre of the story is the friendship between Mark and Kate, and it’s refreshing to see friendship celebrated over romance in this context.

This is a very enjoyable book. As I say, there’s a fairy tale quality about a few bits, which didn’t feel entirely realistic, but I’m not all that fussed about realism if the story is good.

Free EBook: Love is the Cure

loveiscrowtreeThe ebook version of my gothic novella, Love is the Cure, is available free today on Amazon. So if you like bleak, gothic fiction, tragedy, classicism, and gay and bi vampires, take a look.

It’s a little bit experimental, as it’s a story told in fragments, and it’s not romance, but there are relationships. Honest reviews welcome.

US Version.

UK Version.

Or if you follow one those links, you should be able to find a version in your location.

You can read an excerpt here, and there is a peak inside function on Amazon.

Queer Classics: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando cover picMy second queer classics review, and first genderfuck Friday. In celebration of creatively messing around with gender, I thought I’d review Woolf’s Orlando, as it’s one of my favourite books.

As an avid reader and massive weirdo, I was a huge Virginia Woolf fan in my teens. Orlando was one of the first gender bending characters I came across. Woolf described Orlando as a writer’s holiday, and she dedicated it to her friend, muse and sometime lover, Vita Sackville West. You can see in Orlando’s love of their ancestral home echoes of Sackville West’s love of Knole, the estate she lost due to entailment down the male line.

Orlando is definitely a departure from Woolf’s usual dense, poetic stream of consciousness novels, in that it’s much more playful and light-hearted, as well as being simpler in style. Most wonderful of all, and the feature that warmed my little magic realism heart before I even knew what that was, the main character never ages or dies, but begins in Tudor times and ends in the 20th century, and halfway through the story, goes to bed a man and wakes up a woman. No explanation, no fuss. Orlando is really just a lot of fun, a lovely historical romp.

Special mention to the 1992 film adaptation with Tilda Swinton. Lush historical costuming, and Tilda Swinton. What more do you need? Don’t be greedy.

I’m going to set aside Fridays here for creative gender bending, whether it’s creative work, specific characters, critical work or real individuals. Your nominations for GenderFuck Friday welcome.

Queer Classics: Maurice by E.M. Forster

Maurice cover picI’ve mention elsewhere on this blog that as part of my research for the 1920s novel I’m working on at the moment, I read a few earlier queer works. I enjoyed these so much I’ve decided to carry on reading a few more.

I read the Penguin Classics edition (pictured), which has an excellent introduction by David Leavitt. I’d recommend this edition. I generally find Penguin Classics to be better than cheaper alternatives, but then I like a bit of historical and literary context.

Forster finished writing Maurice in 1914, but it wasn’t published until 1971 at his request, after he’d died. Although Forster shared the story with friends, including Christopher Isherwood, at the time of writing. Forster didn’t feel the world was ready for a book about love between men that had a happy ending, and he was determined to have a happy ending. There had been a previous fashion for using same sex love in tragic cautionary tales, but that really wasn’t what Forster wanted. He wanted a celebration.

I’m a huge fan of Forster’s better known social satires, and I love his style. Maurice has the same easy style as his other books, although it lacks the satire. It’s much more in earnest, as you’d probably expect from the subject matter and Forster’s aims.

The story follows Maurice Hall from a school boy through to Cambridge and adulthood, focusing on his sexual awakening. In that sense, it’s follows the familiar path of the traditional coming out story, which seems to be a specific kind of Bildungsroman. At Cambridge, Maurice meets Clive Durham, and they share an appreciation for an intellectual ideal of classically inspired love. But this doesn’t fulfil what Maurice really wants, and Clive is unwilling to commit to anything more. Then Maurice meets Alec Scudder, a gamekeeper at Clive’s country estate. If Maurice is to find love with Alec, they must overcome their class differences and Maurice’s prejudices.

People have suggested that Forster was a bit of a prude, and that he hadn’t really come to terms with his own desires when he wrote the book. There are some very sweet and tender moments in the story, which don’t really seem prudish, but there is a certain unease in the novel with society’s attitudes and whether love between men can really ever fit. It’s not a story of hopelessness, by any means, but it is a story of escape.

One of the things that I find most interesting about reading these early queer stories is that they chart the changes in the ways that sex and sexuality has been viewed at different times. Some of them have even shaped those views. You have to read them in the context they were written, for sure, but it’s a fascinating insight. In that respect, and because Forster is always enjoyable, even in unfamiliar territory, Maurice is worth a look.

Queer Book Club: The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven King coverThe Raven Cycle series is a four part YA paranormal series. Blue lives in a chaotic house full of psychics and witches, but she has no magical ability herself, other than to boost their power. When she meets Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah, four boys from the local private school, she’s drawn into their hunt for a dead Welsh king, thought to be buried along the powerful ley line that makes her home of Henrietta, Viriginia, such an unusual place. Hanging over the whole story is the foretelling that one of the boys, Gansey, will die within the year.

I just finished the final book in the series, The Raven King. I have a confession to make, before I go any further. These books have turned me into a frothing fanboy, and I’m far too old to be their target readership, and it’s all rather embarrassing. So this is not so much a review as a collection of enthusiasm.

The weird thing is, they’re not perfect. It took a good hundred pages of the first book to really pull me in. The point of view character changes per chapter, and sometimes at the start of a chapter, it wasn’t always completely obvious which point of view I was in for a little while. But those issues aside, I adore the characters and the paranormal mystery that’s at the heart of the story. Blue’s unconventional household full of eccentric women makes for an unusual and endearing heart to the story, and each of the young people is vividly painted. I even put aside the slight silliness of Welsh medieval history and mythology ending up in Virginia, because the plot was involving enough, and executed in such a creative way, that it didn’t matter. Stiefvater is very brave and imaginative in the way she expresses the world of magic and dreams, and I was often surprised and delighted by the twists and turns of the magical elements. By the second book, the stakes are so high, and the characters so enmeshed in the magic, that there’s no escaping it and everything becomes very personal.

The books took me by surprise, because the blurb on the first one, to be blunt, is kind of naff. It’s all about true love and kissing. I picked it up from the library, not expecting very much. It turns out that there’s much more paranormal plot than kissing, but there is also love and friendship. Friendship is one of the most enjoyable elements. All the core characters grow to love each other, whether that love is romantic or platonic. The celebration of friendship is so evocative of those strong, almost obsessive friendships that happen for young adults, and not necessarily later in life, and I was probably on a massive nostalgia kick. But I think it’s also that the characters’ love for one another is infectious.

The characters are complex, flawed, haunted, spiky, and completely involving. And the male/female love that’s promised from the start is not the only kind that is featured in the end. When it became clear in the second book that one of the main characters is gay, I was over the moon, not least because the books are so full of a heady homoerotic vibe that this pay off was so welcome and refreshing. And there’s more pay off with that character, but I don’t want to include spoilers. The love is beautiful to read, slow building, rewarding. The story takes the characters’ past traumas and hang-ups seriously. There are no crap clichés, just a feeling of truth and fulfilment and compromise and learning and negotiation. Like reality, but more lovely. I’m being slightly cheeky in labelling this a queer book, because really it’s an everybody book.

Read these books. Fall in love.