Book Review: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I posted this review on Goodreads in January 2016 (such a long time ago) and was surprised to see recently that I never posted it here on my website. I just happened to reread it lately and have some thoughts … but in order to post them on Goodreads, I need to replace the old review with the new one. So, that’s another good reason for posting this here.

*Non-spoiler review*

A deeply emotional, beautifully written novel: full, complex and harrowing. It speaks with depth about our relationships of friendship and love, and also our relationship with life itself, told across such a substantial time period that gives an affecting weight to this novel about a character who I fell in love with, but cannot love himself.

*Review with spoilers (really, this is written for others who have read the book)*

I forgive you, Hanya, really I do: for putting me through the wringer like the last season of Six Feet Under, for making me cry aloud with a reading experience I don’t recall having gone through, for revealing or inflicting so much pain on your protagonist that I wondered if it would be worth it. But of course it was, though in a way too deep and complex to describe in a book review. To get some idea of that, someone would have to read the book themselves, and then all of us would have our own individual responses and reactions, but I’m pretty sure that yes, we would all forgive you.

I downloaded Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life to read on holidays because I wanted something substantial to read; I’d read about the book’s awards; I like her name (c’mon, admit it; it’s a cool name); and I was intrigued by what little I’d heard about the book: about four friends, some of them gay, in and around New York City. While I was trying to avoid reading any substantial reviews (and thus influence my reading), I did read a line about her cruelty to her characters, and a pal on Facebook mentioned he found it too hard to read or finish.

So, my experience of the book was interesting in light of this. I was first interested in her storytelling. The last major novel I’d read, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, was so wordy, with huge long sections and chapters, without break, I found it a relief that Yanagihara’s storytelling seems straightforward and clear, moving back and forth between focusing on different characters, and expertly and unusually moving into the second-person at times (with one character addressing another). There is a clear focus on a particular time period in the character’s lives, with stories from the past slowly and expertly revealed, and the breadth of time portrayed, taking the characters from late teens to late middle-age, gives such a feeling of substance: of complex lives lived, and of the not inconsiderable genius to capture them in such an ambitious novel. I also found her writing addictive, and because I was so interested in her characters and stories, I found the book hard to put down.

After the initial impression that her writing was straightforward, I was then more and more impressed with how beautiful it is. It’s not showy but occasionally moves into unusual metaphor and lovely poetic qualities, though what’s most impressive is how she employs it: she is interested in describing emotional lives, and friendships, the ways we become closer and move away from each other, as well as memory and the passage of time. After I read the book, I read an interview where she spoke of her specific intentions to write about the inability of men to communicate with each other, a lack of an emotional vocabulary, and I definitely felt this through the whole book without being able to actually say what was happening. So masterful.

And the story! My god. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional and intense, and build and build. I found myself with physical reactions, cringing and revulsed, nearly cried out to stop one character from doing something and, yes, I was crying or near tears many times (although flying does make me a bit emotional).

It is an incredible and powerful story, not one I’ve come across or read about before. In fact, about three-quarters into the book, I did start to wonder whether the author was being too cruel to her protagonist: how much pain and misfortune can one person take? Not one, two, or three trials, but I’d count five. FIVE.

It was then that I felt a contradiction: because the emotions feel so real and authentic, the intelligence so lively and grounded in an understanding of how people move around us, I found myself questioning the shape of the story, the incredible tragedy of the main character, revealed and compounded, and even his friends: ridiculously successful in their chosen careers. In the end, it allowed me to appreciate the novel more by thinking of it as a fable, a novel, a fairy tale of sorts, so the exaggeration is more myth than melodrama.

A final comment is about the multiracial cast of characters of various sexualities. I came of age reading gay literature, written by gay men, as well as writing by those of us from different ethnic backgrounds exploring (and celebrating) our cultural backgrounds. So, a Japanese-American woman writer crossing genders to write about men, with characters who are naturally from a diversity of cultural backgrounds, and all expressing complex sexualities seems to represent a brand, new world for me.

I detected not a false note, and to have created a protagonist (as I discovered, this book involves a group of four friends, but the story really belongs to one of them) whose sexuality is a result of circumstance and emotional connection (not from a gene or orientation) also feels particularly contemporary, even moreso because the writing and themes aren’t forced with a political imperative, but come from a literary imperative to create a powerful story.

I’m still a bit stunned by this book. Some books I love because I admire them, or the writing, or I like the themes and stories. This book surprised me, drew me in and has left me emotionally exhausted. Phew.

What did you think?

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Who blogs?

Originally published 10 September 2015 on

Is blogging important these days?

In the early days of blogging (and Wikipedia tells me that blogs emerged and became popular in the late 1990s), it was all about making a statement, building a public persona and getting a following.

And that’s what you did: if you found someone interesting, perhaps because they had the same interests as you – political, creative, community, recreational – you followed them. At the time, it was only the folks most adept at IT who could set up blogs and make them look and read in an interesting way. They also had the ability to source information from other places (I mean other places on the internet) in a way that most mere mortals couldn’t.

A lot has changed since then. Sites like blogger mean that anyone and everyone can blog, at any time. Everyone knows how to find information easily these days for what they’re interested in. The culture has become much more visual, quicker and less word-based.

Over fifteen years since the late 1990s, I think that few people keep personal blogs anymore, that they are rarely kept updated. The idea of keeping a sort of public journal has really been taken over, first by Facebook, and now by Tumblr and Flick and Instagram.

Newspapers and online magazines sometimes call something a blog, but that’s what a blog always was anyways: an online column or opinion piece. So, it’s appropriate that blogs still live on newspaper and magazine websites.

Blogs have really seen a rise, fall and re-envisioning in the business world. All of our websites have a place for a blog; and in fact, a blog is encouraged. It often is seen as a way of making sure the front page of your website is not static. By changing it regularly, it will engage with visitors, and possibly draw more traffic. That’s the theory anyways, and a bit strange, that it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you’re saying it.

But it does matter what you say, it’s just that people aren’t finding the information in the same way. In this vast web of information, people don’t ‘follow’ the blogs of an individual or company. If they’re looking for specific information, Google will point them to that specific blog (and sadly for the blog-owners, it’s unlikely that the person will take the time to look at any other blog posts).

On this personal blog (as opposed to this blog post, originally on my work website), I’m still a bit amazed about the searches that end up at my blog posts: the most popular one is about buying second-hand clothes in Paris; the second most popular bunch is about eating at the restaurant Geranium in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, I seem to be blogging mostly with food reviews these days, and discovering that some blogs do seem to exist and are followed if they really keep specifically to a particular specific interest.

The other benefit of a blog is that if someone happens to visit someone’s website (perhaps you, dear reader), a blog is a sign that a company or individual writes, and hopefully has something to say, and can demonstrate expertise or interest. It is an additional way that someone can engage with you; it can be a fun place to store and post thoughts; it can be a good way to involve other people in a company (though hiring someone just to write your blogs destroys this point); and can be a good excuse to write (which for writers is a good thing).

Of course, blogs are also often public evidence of intentions not kept, the promise (often in the first blog posts) broken of writing regularly, of being able to ‘keep up with blogging.’

But who can keep up with modern life these days? Rather than looking negatively at the thousands and thousands of truncated blogs, blogs sporadic and blogs not updated, captured on the Internet for everyone to see, we could think, ‘At least we try’.


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Book Review: Hetty Lui McKinnon’s Tenderheart

Tenderheart: A Cookbook about Vegetables and Unbreakable Family BondsTenderheart: A Cookbook about Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds by Hetty Lui McKinnon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I’ve done a book review of a recipe book … but why not? On Goodreads, I see that it hasn’t been released in North America yet, so my review there is the first one up!

I’d seen Hetty’s name and recipes in the New York Times and elsewhere, and when I heard about the Australian book launch, I thought it would be interesting to go, and to get a copy of this book. It was a great event, and a great introduction to her. I bought the book. There is so much to love.

I’ve wanted to eat less meat and more vegetables for a while, and it’s THIS BOOK that has moved my husband and I in this direction and not as a chore but as a pleasure. The book is divided into chapters on different vegetables, and so it’s a great reference. But more than that, comparing it with other recipe books, this one excites me. There are a few recipes for those who want to tackle a more complicated project, but most are quite easy. But they tend to each teach me a different cooking technique and how to use different ingredients in different ways. They often use Asian ingredients that I’m interested in trying out or like to use (Korean spices, say, or Asian seaweed, or kim chee). We’ve made SO many of these recipes now.

The other thing is that the book feels deeply personal, in a beautiful way. She has dedicated the book to her father, and the photo of him even looks a little like my Dad, the son of the owner of a vegetable and produce shop in Vancouver! She also writes about developing the recipes during COVID lockdown, resulting in dishes that are humble, made with easily accessible ingredients, and yet elevated by her expertise and experience. This is really delicious stuff, and will touch your heart as well as fill your belly. I highly, highly recommend it.

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How to refill a long lighter

(Originally posted 14 December 2017): Does anyone else have this problem? I’ve never liked cigarette lighters. I spin the little metal dial, get the flame up, and then when trying to light my tea lights (which is the main reason why I would use a lighter), I manage to angle the lighter so that it burns my fingers. In situations where a gas stove needs lighting, I have always had the fear that I will light the gas and my whole hand.

That is why I have always used long lighters.

I’ve always found it wasteful, though they only cost between $2 and $6, to throw them out when the butane has run out. But the thing is, the first times I tried refilling them, many years ago, I remember it being a complete disaster.

But things move fast these days. I thought of this task more recently and realised that at the time, it was unlikely for there to be advice up on the internet, but nowadays, there is advice on EVERYTHING. The weird thing is that the advice that I found was super complicated and often wrong.

The worst advice involved removing the cartridge from a cigarette lighter and then removing the cartridge from the long lighter, and putting the cigarette lighter cartridge into the long lighter AFTER you’ve made a few small adjustments.

Yeah, right. A video from a kid (who shouldn’t be playing with lighters) didn’t help out, and gave advice that was opposite to what eventually worked. The best advice was found on a message board, but without illustration. So, I thought that I could help out here, for anyone who was once, like me, confused.

How to refill a long lighter:

  • Buy a can of butane
  • Use the smallest nozzle and first use it (or a pin or a screwdriver) to completely release any remaining gas or butane that is in the lighter. Put your instrument into the small hole and press until there is no pressure left, no sound, nothing. This can be an important step, though the truth is, I’ve managed to refill the lighter when there is still a small bit of gas in the compartment.
  • When the cartridge is completely empty, then you can fill it up. Hold the can of butane upside down with the nozzle inserted into the tiny hole for refilling the butane!

  • Press down. It’s likely that extra butane will leak over your fingers, which will be cold, so you might want to wear gloves. And you’d probably want to do this on a solid surface rather than my hands in the air illustration purposes only.
  • You will be able to see in the window whether the cartridge has filled up.

I’m still using the same can of butane to refill lighters 2.5 years after I first wrote this post. And I just got some new advice!

John (thanks John) advises:

You should use a quality butane from brands like Colibri, Puretane, Vector etc. The brand name is less important than how refined it is. Personally, I use 9x refined Colibri for my torches.

Cheap butane like Ronson has more impurities and it can clog up your lighter and ruin it. Long lighters are pretty cheap, so maybe it’s not worth the hassle, but I’ve ruined torches with low quality butane in the past.

I’d found that I could only refill the lighters about 4 or 5 times and then they just wouldn’t light, even when there was enough butane in them. So I thought the problem was my butane. But the thing is, one bottle of butane has lasted me over a decade. So, I’m embarrassed to discover after more than four years (and throwing out some lighters):


If the lighters don’t light, the problem may be that the head of the lighter is dirty (possibly from cheap butane). Most online sources recommended cleaning it with compressed air, but I didn’t have any, so I angled a brush around the end of the lighter (not so easy, since it’s enclosed with plastic) AND I used a long needle, inserting it into the combustion chamber (that’s what the net is calling it). And voila! The two lighters that weren’t working, but had enough gas, suddenly worked.

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That old ‘ise’ vs ‘ize’ chestnut

Originally published 12 September 2013 on

I love my new career as an editor and copywriter.

Looking at the ins and outs of language and how it changes with time and geography fascinates me.

Raised in Canada, of course we knew that there was a difference between the way we said ‘zed’ and Americans said ‘zee’. Ah yes, and ‘colour’ and ‘color’.

But I was unaware of other regional differences. After arriving in London to work, after two years in Brussels, I remember sitting down in my new managerial position, and correcting the spelling on a document written by one of my project workers.

He sat in silence while I corrected ‘organisation’ to ‘organization’ and it was only a week or two later that I discovered, to my horror, that I had been completely ignorant of the difference between ‘ise’ and ‘ize’ in the United Kingdom. ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ I asked but he just shrugged. He’d treated me (and continued to treat me) with passive aggression, and it was just another proof (to him) of my foreign ignorance and ill suitability for the job.

Here in Australia, it was a slow process, but I finally got used to using ‘ise’ instead of ‘ize’ for everything. It’s much easier here to just decide that there are no exceptions and to stick with that construction, whether to spell a word like ‘authorise’ or ‘realise’, even though a number of z’s have snuck into writing here.

Recently, I got a job editing a report for an international agency that uses the Oxford English Dictionary as their guide on spelling.

This should be easy enough, I thought, as Oxford implies (to me at least) spelling from the United Kingdom.

But I was surprised to find out they spell nearly ALL variants with a ‘z’.



But: it’s not possible to go all the way with ‘ize’ as I found a handful of exceptions:


It kind of wanted to make my head explode! But at the same time, I find it kind of amusing. When people find out I’m an editor, they picture me with a tight bun, pulling my hair back from my face, and lecturing them on language rules. But because there are so many rules and different kinds of rules, the aim is consistency, not perfection (though perfection is nice to strive for), and I think a good editor needs to be as flexible and adaptable as they are strict.

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My pitch as an editor

So, for about a decade, this was my pitch on my website to try to get new clients:

I am an established editor who mainly works on written documents for UN and government agencies, from reports and strategies to white papers and annual reports.

I honed my craft as a policy officer in health and human rights, and as a published author of books of poetry and short fiction.

My work as an editor is to make your words persuasive, clear and error-free. Documents might require structural editing (looking at the structure of the report; interrogating the arguments and logic), copyediting (generally improving the language and correcting errors) or proofreading (reviewing the designed version of an edited report or a report that has already been edited).

There are many situations requiring good editing:

  1. After working so intensely on your document, you need a second pair of eyes to catch mistakes you just can’t see anymore.
  2. You’re a great communicator, but not a great writer.
  3. Multiple people have worked on the document and it needs consistency of voice.
  4. The primary authors have English as a second language, or write in a form of English (say, American) that is not your target audience (say, Australian).

These are only a few reasons why you might like me to make your words better. Among the services I provide are:

  1. Rewriting and editing to emphasize key arguments and selling points
  2. Ensuring that the document’s structure and order are logical and make the strongest arguments
  3. Rewriting with an emphasis on clarity, persuasion and the elimination of unnecessary repetition and wordiness
  4. Translating jargon or technical language to plain English
  5. Ensuring consistency of tone, language and Australian spelling
  6. Correcting punctuation, formatting and grammar; correcting diagrams and references; proofreading, spell checking and fact checking.

I worked to tight timeframes, in some cases, working over the weekend or 12-hour days.

My current and past clients include:

The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report) at UNESCO, UNESCO, UN Women, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the City of Sydney, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, WWF-Australia, NTT ICT, IDG, the Australian Human Rights Commission, NSW Justice, NSW Health, Male Champions of Change, Elizabeth Broderick & Co, City West Housing and Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini (Italy).

Drop me a line if you’d like to discuss working together.

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My work as an editor


I’m Andy and I’m an editor.

I started my career working for the International Gay and Lesbian Association in Brussels, and then worked for a gay men’s health organisation in London before working in the HIV sector in Australia for a decade, as an international policy officer and then a programmes manager for a small grants programme to increase access to HIV treatment to anyone who needed it (the programme was global but I worked with Asia and for a short period, Central and Eastern Europe).

Making a career change, I wasn’t sure what I would do. I’ve always loved words, and was a published writer. Could I work in the book publishing industry? But I found the industry closed and slowly discovered that I could make a living as a freelance editor, and I could also use my previous experience to advantage, as a policy writer and with subject matter expertise in health, human rights and community development.

It was an interesting start. I joined a small business network which taught me a lot about running my own business and how to promote myself. I learned about writing that is directed towards a client or reader, instead of rabbiting on about yourself. I ditched the name I was working using after leaving the HIV sector (Quan Consulting) and rebranded myself as ‘Boldface’ and set up a website. I took on any work I could find. I wrote websites. I wrote brochures and blog posts. I edited a few novels of aspiring writers. I wrote and edited tenders.

I learned that even though people are familiar with the idea of ‘copywriting’, that really, only a handful of advertising (now called branding) agencies did that, and that they might not even be particularly good at writing and words, but are excellent at ideas and concepts. And that even though no one really seems to know what editors do (imagining them solely working with journalists or publishers, or getting us mixed up with video editors), that there is a great need for great editing from all types of organisations, from big to small.

And over the decade and past, from 2010, my business has grown into a very healthy one indeed. My big breaks came from working with a team at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then Ernst and Young, when my contact moved there. I won a spot on the editorial team for the City of Sydney. I did editing work for UNDP, through contacts in my old life in the HIV sector, and that experience allowed me to then work for UNESCO and then UN Women. I secured similar work with Australian organisations that I admire, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission and Male Champions of Change.

I learned from this that the type of editing that I like to do is on major, substantial reports that hopefully contribute to some social good in the world. And that after doing these types of reports, that my work was valued and I could get more of the same work. So, nearly all my work these days is from previous clients or word of mouth. I’m not sure if I ever found a client from the work website,

In June 2021, I did a drastic edit of the website. I’ve removed the pages for services that I offered but did little of (editing fictional books, research, editing tenders). I deleted the page with the list of clients, which was outdated. I updated my page on editing. And I updated this page, which was the ‘About Me’ page at

If I was targeting small businesses, or unknown clients, I might have had to put in some work into getting the website to do some more work for me. But it’s really not so necessary for the type of work I’m doing and now that I’m an established business. I left this page up, partly for posterity, and partly because I thought it was a generally good idea for a business to have a website. It acts more as a business card these days, a sign of trust: I exist. I provide services. I am contactable. I am here if you need me. 

But I’ve had a change of heart. I think I’ll just leave up the front page of the website for now, move other materials to his website, and be more streamlined and tidy.

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How websites have changed! And so have my niece and nephew.

Once upon a time, I kept a page on my website that showed off my niece and nephew in their younger years. Way back in 2002, when Jeremiah (now Jerry) was born, it was a good way to share photos with friends and family, and keep some good photos all in one place.

And indeed, my niece and nephew were the joy of my family, so it was a great thing to do for us, and their other fans and admirers.

I kept this up until 2009, when Facebook took over really, and all of us got lazy about taking photos. I still kept the links to the photo albums here as sort of an archival record… but then, Picasa, the web photo album that I used, was bought by Google, and none of the links worked anymore.

But really, the world has changed so much. People no longer use blogs and websites in the way that they once did. Repositories of personal photos and records went long ago to Facebook, and then to Instagram and other places. And because of how dark the world has been discovered to be, it’s also no longer cool to post photos of kids up on websites, even if they’re your relatives!

We just got back from seeing all my family, for the first time in years, in Vancouver, and my nephew is 20! A proper adult. And my niece is 16. How time flies. At the same time, it’s time to move my website to a new host, which means it’s also time to reconsider the pages and what I keep up. I can’t believe that I’ve kept a dedicated webpage to my niece and nephew on my webpage for so long, albeit with modest content. I’ve also, in the last decade or so, seen how inappropriate it is to not allow kids to grow up, by reposting photos of them when they were young, though the photo here is so cute, I will allow just this one …

So, here is a blog post to replace the ‘niece and nephew’ page, while sending out good wishes to my niece and nephew and saying what a pleasure it is to see them growing up into fine human beings.

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2022 in lists: concerts & shows, theatre, books, movies and TV

Movies (seen on TV, probably on a streaming service, or on an airplane)

  • Annie Live! We’d lost track of the live musicals on network TV, but since we love musicals, I found it. It’s such an odd musical. The songs are sentimental and simple, but I still love ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Maybe’ and ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’. Weirdly, they all take place at the start of the musical, and then … the plot goes all over the place and drags. Somewhat enjoyable. 
  • Don’t Look Up. I love that so many people have watched this and that it’s caused such discussion. I was leaning towards some critics’ call that the film isn’t particularly clever, while being enjoyable to watch but other commentators have let me know that this is not the point! The movie is a realistic parable for climate change and points out the collusion of media, politicians and rich people that is leading down the we’re-fucked path.
  • The Power of the Dog. Moody, memorable, engaging. I perhaps expected to like it more than I did with the rave reviews, but it was pretty good. 
  • Ant-man and the Wasp: Enjoyable enough for a Marvel film. It’s a bit sad that I expect so little from these films these days. As long as they entertain me and avoid too large a clichéd CGI battle scene, I’m happy: but I did like the characters and humour in this one. 
  • The French Exit: I’m a sucker for anything with Paris in it and I was willing to go along with the first half of the film – and Michelle Pfeiffer really is fantastic – but it sort of lost me. It was too absurd. I didn’t find the others characters engaging, nor could understand their motivation. 
  • The Eternals: I knew this has some pretty mixed reviews, but being able to watch it at home, in two parts, it wasn’t too long that way. I loved the diverse characters, who were very attractive really. I kept on laughing imagining Angelina Jolie channeling her anger towards Brad Pitt in her action scenes. I love Gemma Chan. I like Scottish accents. Oh, and I especially love that the director and writer is an Asian-American woman and that the movie was a huge box office success. 
  • Encanto: Incredible animation, wonderful music, what’s not to love? And a cultural phenomenon. 
  • The Weekend Away: Gosh, I didn’t like this movie. Sort of the movie version of the Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window, with various intrigue and red herrings but nothing made much sense to me and the filmmaking was pretty uninteresting. 
  • Fire Island: Of course I had to see this film, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice with gay Asian men at the centre. I wanted to like it more, because there were some really, really funny and charming bits, and then other parts which just seemed dull in comparison, and yet did I ever think I would live to see a film with gay Asian men at the centre, with happy endings. No, I did not. 
  • Spiderman: Far From Home: I do think Tom Holland and Zendaya are appealing and have charisma, but for a film that made over one BILLION dollars and is the 24th highest grossing film of ALL TIME, I was surprised by how junior the jokes and storyline was. 
  • Moulin Rouge: We’re seeing the musical soon so wanted to revisit movie. I think it’s even better than I remember it, and am surprised when I read the criticisms of it. Baz made the movie he wanted: it’s a crazy, whirling, colourful, kinetic mash-up, not original in story or setting, but definitely original in the way that it’s told. It’s almost like some people wanted it to be a different movie altogether. Looking forward to the musical now.
  • Thor: Love and Thunder: I really wanted to enjoy this, and it is hard not to enjoy looking at Chris Hemsworth’s butt. I was OK with the slapstick comedy for the first half hour but then I thought: is that all there is? It was strange, tedious and loud, and seemed pitched at younger viewers. Scenes with dozens of child actors are just not appealing to me. 
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover: I hadn’t read the book so didn’t know what the fuss was about, and from my experience with other historical dramas of the time (particularly ones with gay characters), I kept thinking this would end in disaster. That it didn’t was an artistic choice, which I found interesting: choose love, choose sex, strike down class barriers, it said. Plus I loved that I couldn’t match the Emma Corrin from the Crown to the Emma Corrin of this movie: they were fantastic.
  • The Worst Person in the World: Ah, travel. The first overseas trip in over 3 years, which means: movies! I loved this sad, funny, thoughtful Norwegian film about a woman in her early 30s coming of age, a phrase which you’d usually think of for a much younger person, so these questions: What is your best relationship? Do you want to have kids? How do you set boundaries? are much more interesting than moving from being a teenager to a young adult. 
  • Mrs. Harris goes to Paris: The preview of this looked sufficiently charming so I was excited to find it on in-flight entertainment. I had not idea it was a book, and then 30 years ago, a TV movie with Angela Lansbury! I love Paris and I thought I’d like this more than I did. It was FINE. Enjoyable even, but the plot and characters are thin as air. 
  • Peace by Chocolate: I’d read about this true-life story so thought this would be a documentary rather than a movie. It was charming and sweet, and made me proud to be Canadian, to offer asylum-seekers and refugees an opportunity for a better life. Today, I got to try the chocolates too. No lie! They were delicious. 

Movies (seen in the cinema)

  • The Velvet Queen” (“La Panthère des Neiges”): A gorgeous, meditative film that is more about ways of seeing than the search for a snow leopard. 
  • Murder Party: A French farce, meant to allude to the board game Clue (known as Cluedo in Australia) and Agatha Christie’s novels, I thought it was like a French ‘Squid Game’ but not violent. Harmless entertainment, but not fabulous. 
  • Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: I seriously wondered if I was going mad, except after the film, three of the four of us felt the same way (the other loved it). I had no idea WTF was happening for pretty much the whole film. Or perhaps I did understand what was happening, but couldn’t understand why I was supposed to be interested. The characters chased each other around and smashed things up. Apparently, newspaper reviewers have been told not to divulge the plot because it would spoil it, but … sorry. That’s the plot. 
  • How to Thrive: Friends of mine made a documentary about mental health and positive psychology. And we saw it in the cinema. Well done, gents!
  • Wakanda Forever: Surprised that husband didn’t like it that much but I did. Some beautiful, fantastical visuals, and I loved the strong women characters. 
  • Bros: I have rather a lot to say about this but don’t know if I’ll say it here!

Documentaries and Reality Television

  • Drag Race Italia. When I found out it was only six episodes, we popped back in to watch the finale. The shows were overly long, but I liked the host, judges and queens, and it seemed important, to Italy, to have this on TV in terms of gay (and drag) representation. Interesting that while other franchises have been addressing contemporary issues like trans and non-binary identities, racism within the gay community and living with HIV, Drag Race Italia was all about the basic message of acceptance of gay men and outsiders. 
  • RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 14.  I worried that I was dragged out, but it was fun to revisit the OG, which is a well-oiled machine. On the other hand, we tried watching the first Drag Race UK vs The World and we can’t watch any more of it. Too much drag race. And then, we lost our interest in this one too, though will watch the finale. 
  • Project Runway, Season 19. We’ve watched this show since about 2004. Wow. Christian Siriano has slid into his mentor role perfectly, more and more comfortable in front of the camera, and hilarious and with great guidance. It was a good cast and a deserving winner. Enjoyed it.
  • Queer Eye, Season 6: This season brings Queer Eye to Austin, Texas for the usual mix of tears, glow-ups and consumerism. The heroes are well-chosen to represent today’s issues and ways of community-building and activism, and I think this show is a really interesting cultural phenomenon, four gay men and a non-binary person, dropping by homes to spice up their lives. 
  • Survivor Australia, Blood vs Water: The family bonds theme of this Survivor does make it interesting, but it’s amazing, in comparison with the American version, how little strategising these players are shown doing. They talk about having strategies but show no evidence nor even being able to read a crowd or follow a hunch. It’s frustrating. 
  • The Parisian Agency, Season 2: I was really charmed by the first season of this show: engaged by the family dynamics (of a family real estate business) and loved being able to see amazing French (and then European) properties. But I wasn’t as charmed by this season, where they seemed to try to create drama and storylines, which didn’t necessarily go anywhere. I really wanted to see if anyone would buy the shoebox-size apartment that had magnificent views of the Seine!
  • Survivor, Seasons 42 & 43: It surprises me just how much I enjoy this compared to the Australian version. The players are nearly always strategizing, making alliances, betraying each other. Then, set within a multicultural reflection of North America: I find it fascinating. My thought for Season 42 is that Canadians, only having been allowed to compete for two seasons, seem to have a natural advantage. People think we’re so nice they don’t see us coming for them. The winner of Season 43 was really a surprise for us, and we thought it was a good season overall. 
  • Inside the Mind of a Cat: Netflix’s documentary didn’t have much new information for us but there were certainly some cute cats. 
  • Blown Away, Season 3: I’m still surprised how much I love this reality competition for glass artists but there’s a wonderful combination of skill, artistry and interesting personalities, and I think there’s an in-built drama where glass could break or someone get 3rd degree burns at any time.
  • Making the Cut, Season 3: While I find Heidi very annoying, Jeremy terribly dressed and Tim a bit worn out (having loved him in the early seasons of Project Runway), I was very, very impressed with this season. It seemed the talent was at a higher level, and they were willing to reward innovation, rather than playing it safe. 
  • Drag Race España, Season 2: We saw the first couple of episodes and then took a break and watched the last one. Kittens, we’re dragged out! But it seems like a deserving queen won, and I love the judges warmth and enthusiasm.
  • Queer Eye Brazil: It was so interesting to see the Brazilian version of Queer Eye. The heroes seem to be from more modest means, and so are deserving of the free stuff and love. The Fab 5, and the heroes themselves, are all emotional, vulnerable, positive and physically affectionate. I think I liked this even more than the current US series!
  • Drink Masters: We tend to love reality TV competitions and I spent a lot of time learning to make good cocktails during lockdown. So, while I should love this show, I didn’t. They somehow didn’t coax the two experts into really explaining what makes a great cocktail, which is what I love about these shows, generally. I know a helluva lot more about fashion than I used to! But the judging and storytelling were lacking, and aside from wanting to make vermouth spheres, I wasn’t inspired to try making any of the creations, which looks generally wonderful but far to complicated to make at home!

Other television

  • Borgen – Power & Glory, Seasons 1 and 2. Oh Borgen, how I loved you. The new season was great storytelling, as before, engaging, interesting and Danish. So good that it convinced husband to want to watch the early seasons, and I’d forgotten quite how good they are. The added bonus is seeing all the main characters 10 years later, in the latest season. It is wonderful to see how they’ve changed, evolved and aged.
  • Dexter, New Blood. I think it was luck more than anything else that I somehow stopped watching the original Dexter after a few seasons, even though I loved it. Apparently, the storytelling got more and more inconsistent, culminating in one of TV’s most hated finales. But this new series, with the first showrunner: I really, really enjoyed it. I always liked Michael C. Hall, the actor playing his son is amazing as are the rest of the supporting cast. A huge treat to watch.
  • A Very English Scandal. Missed this when it first came out, and I found it completely compelling. Wonderful acting and storytelling. 
  • Emily in Paris, Season 2. I realise that I can watch this cotton candy of a show, and be excited by recognising the places that I visited in Paris and France. Emily is annoying. Other characters are also annoying. I find it particularly annoying that they’ve created the character of a random Chinese musician in Paris who is supposed to play electronic piano, and they kept showing that he can’t even fake play the piano. Kill me now. In general, the story doesn’t make tons of sense. But it’s easy to watch and you can bet I’ll be watching the next two seasons.
  • Veneno. What a show! With electric performances from trans actresses, this 8 episode Spanish series about trans sex worker Veneno’s life and times, and about a journalist who writes her autobiography, was amazing, though sad and harrowing.
  • The Woman In The House Across The Street From The Girl In The Window. What the hell did we just watch? I blame Kristen Bell, who I enjoy watching so was drawn into watching this nonsensical 8 short episodes of fluff. I understand it was supposed to be a spoof of a genre, but it wasn’t funny, clever or in the end, interesting. 
  • Ted Lasso, Seasons 1 and 2: We were late discoveries to this, and ended up binge watching both seasons. How we loved it. 
  • Snowpiercer, Season 3. I liked the first season a lot, but since then, just keep watching out of habit. A strange rhythm with too many characters, I enjoy parts of it and then find myself bored and confused. By the end, sadly, I had completely lost interest.
  • Call My Agent, Seasons 3 & 4. There’s much to like about this show, not least of which is how it encourages me to daydream about strolling around Paris. I did start to get tired about the repetitive theme of the show: lying, pretending not to have lied, getting in trouble because of the lies, and possibly getting out of trouble by lying. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I was pleasantly surprised. 
  • Killing Eve, Season 4. I’d seen the early headlines that the season wasn’t great and the finale was worse, but tried not to read anything before we watched it ourselves. What a terrible season. So bad that it almost made me forget why I liked the season in the first place. Where were the fabulous clothes? Jodie Comer’s amazing accents? Who were all these random new characters and why should we care about them? The story just didn’t make sense. What a shame. 
  • Inventing Anna. I have to admit to being fascinated by Julia Garner’s portrayal of Anna Sorokin. It drew me in, how a young woman with chutzpah, self-confidence and possibly a loose tether to reality conned so many people. But I thought the series was a little too long, and didn’t like the framing device of the journalist. The episode of the journo’s visit to Germany, which was entirely made up, was particularly bad. 
  • Heartstopper. I won’t ever stop being charmed by seeing shows that are now available, mainstream, to huge audiences, that portrayed a world I would have liked to live in when I was 15 or 16, feeling alone and isolated being gay, and wondering if I’d find a romantic partner, or even whether I’ve live to adulthood. I enjoyed this, very much, and spent most of my time making audible ‘Awwwww’ noises. 
  • Russian Doll, Season 2: Aside from the fact that we don’t see tons of Alan in this season, and his story is not as connected to the main one, I think I might have liked this season as much as the first. It’s absolutely bonkers and yet strangely, it sort of made emotional sense, and anchored by Natasha Lyonne’s performance, profane, tough, bossy and literate, I couldn’t stop watching this show.
  • Sort Of: I was charmed by the lead character, the non-binary hardworking Pakistani-Canadian Sabi, and also to spend time in Toronto again, but I wanted the writing to be sharper and stronger so that was a little disappointing. Loved the kids in the show, who were natural and have tons of charisma. 
  • My Brilliant Friend, Season 3: I loved the books, and I was engaged enough to binge-watch the series, but it was so uncomfortable. Elena is terrible to Lila. Lila is terrible to Elena. In fact, all the characters are pretty awful to each other, set amidst the backdrop of political violence, social misogyny and poverty. 
  • Only Murders in the Building, Seasons 1 & 2: I binge-watched these while I was in the hospital and what a gift. Sometimes you just need a well-crafted laugh, and having it delivered by such a cast of amazing actors. Oh, I liked this show. 
  • Lord of the Rings: Ring of Power: I was enjoying this and just allowing myself to remember what I liked about the mythic worlds of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The images were beautiful. The stories engaged me. We were big fans of Game of Thrones and started to watch House of Dragon, but I had to admit it was so boring, I stopped after two episodes. But I lost my interest in Rings of Power by the end, unfortunately, and wondered: what was all that about?
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 5: I was occasionally frustrated by the previous seasons, the pace or how June just kept doing stupid things so we would continue to watch her, as the main character. But this season, I really loved. I liked the pace and the stories and being away from Gilead. Makes me happy to anticipate the final season. 
  • The Crown, Season 5: I was hesitant about this, as I’d read mixed reviews and the timeline is getting to close to now: doesn’t it feel a little intrusive? But watching the season, I remembered that Peter Morgan is a good storyteller, and looks for angles that are new or interesting. I had my quibbles with the season, but over all, I enjoyed it. 
  • Shantaram: This idea, of Bombay noir, the sophisticated and rough Indian underworld, I found compelling. My Aussie husband didn’t find faults with Charlie Hunnam’s accent and Shubham Saraf was a scene-stealer. Enjoyable. 


  • Armistead Maupin’s Mary Ann in Autumn: See the review here.
  • Bernhard Schlink’s Flights of Love. See the review here.
  • Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping. See the review here.
  • A.M. Homes’s Jack. See the review here.
  • Byron Katie’s Loving What Is. See the review here.
  • Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise. See the review here.
  • Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House. I think this is my favourite book of the last two years! See the review here.
  • I liked it so much, I reread Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I never did a review for. So, wrote one here.
  • Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. Meh. See the review here.
  • André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir. I don’t know how he made such a potentially interesting life so deadly boring. The prose was dull and shallow. I only read a bit and gave up.
  • John Waters’ Liar-Mouth: A Feel-Bad Romance: A Novel. It felt like he was simply making up a story in his head of the worst behaved, most unpleasant person, doing the most unpleasant things he could think of. And yet, since he pioneered shock and disgust, it’s just not very shocking these days. I skimmed most of it then gave up.
  • Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties. I wanted to like this more than I did, as a fellow queer Asian writer. Reading various rave reviews of it did give me a better appreciation for it. I connected most with the characters most like me, the queer love affair of ‘Human Development’ but I found the other characters brash and ballsy but I didn’t personally engage with them so much.
  • David Leavitt’s The Page Turner. See the review here.
  • Ian Hamilton’s The Two Sisters of Borneo. See the review here.
  • I also reread Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life again.

Concerts, Shows, Theatre, Exhibitions & Words

  • Iridescent by Gerwyn Davies at the Museum of Sydney: Colonial and historic Sydney and New South Wales imagined through queer characters, uncovered or created, with amazing costumes and beautiful photos of the artist in the costumes in these historic settings. Loved it. 
  • Lost in Shanghai by Jane Hutcheon at the Sydney Festival: A fascinating life told in the style of William Yang, with slides and music. 
  • Six, Studio Theatre, Opera House: What fun to finally see this musical phenomenon. Great music, great performances. Very entertaining. 
  • Tim Minchin, BACK, at the Enmore Theatre: This show was delayed for over two years because of the COVID. I know Minchin more as a composer and musician but from this show, I see he considers himself at heart a comedian, a very intelligent court jester. It was very, very entertaining.  
  • Chorus Line, Opera House: Waited about two years for this to be rescheduled. It’s a classic musical from 1975 and rarely staged as it’s a tough one: requiring its cast to be able to dance at the highest level AND sing AND act. I think it was one of the first professional shows I saw, at, maybe 10 or 11 years old? So, it’s close to my heart. What was the most thrilling about this Sydney production was the dancing: incredible. And next for me, was a bit meta: that if you stop and think about the show and its meaning—performers struggling to make a living out of performing, the gruelling auditions, the pain and sacrifice—you might notice that the brave performers doing the show may be playing characters, but at heart, this IS their life. I found that poignant. There were some sound problems and the recorded music was too loud and too rushed, leaving not enough space at times for comic or touching moments. But otherwise, a great show.
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan, Genesian Theatre: It’s been ages since I’ve seen amateur theatre. One of the cast was down with COVID and another stepped into the role, the same day, reading from the book (and did a good job). Such an old-fashioned play. I can imagine drag queens playing all the female parts, reciting the lines in a very camp way. 
  • Brigadoon, Neglected Musicals, Hayes Theatre: I quite like this classic musical that is both romantic and silly. The cast put on this show in something like a day … and were very impressive in pulling it all off: the songs, the choreography, the lack of a set. I really enjoyed it. 
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sydney Theatre Company: I was mostly speechless by the end of this production, that brought to life Oscar Wilde’s book in a way that was contemporary, surprising and thrilling. Erin Jean Norvill, playing dozens of parts, supported by the technical wizardry of the crew (have they ever been called upon to do so much), was a tour de force. I hope this production goes international! It deserves that much recognition. 
  • Kunstkamer, Australian Ballet, Livecast from the Melbourne Arts Centre: I haven’t seen a lot of dance lately, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a particular combination like this of ballet and contemporary. The manic, flitting hands and contorted facial expressions were unnerving. The scenes with the entire corps were breathtaking: creating moving artwork through bodies. The quality of the livecast was great, allowing us to see more angles and close-ups than if we were there physically, but it still had a quality of immediacy. Very glad to have seen it. 
  • Nils Frahm, Music for Sydney, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House: Appearing like a mad scientist with a wall of amazing contraptions, Frahm captivated us, and the sounds was SO good, I loved that I could feel it in different parts of my body. A wonderful show with lots of rapt fans (and some women who didn’t seem to know why they were there, and had to be told to stop texting and then left in a huff). Frahm said, honestly, at the start that he never imagined that he could do what he loved in front of so many people, and I love that idea: he seems pure and humble. He’s created wonderful music and people want to hear and pay for. I like when the world works like that. 
  • Bonnie and Clyde, Hayes Theatre: Hanging out at the Hayes Theatre is a way to see interesting Broadway musicals which may not have come to Sydney yet (like this one), performed by a young, dynamic cast, and with always inventive and engaging staging. I loved the voices of the leads (and others in the cast) and thought there were some really interesting moments in the musical, though I suspect its weaknesses have prevented more productions of it (its run on Broadway was short, and it doesn’t seem to have been performed often since). So, I felt really lucky to have seen this and that Hayes put it on!
  • Queenie Van Zandt’s BLUE: The Songs of Joni Mitchell, Hayes Theatre: A beautiful show, and beautifully sung, of songs by one of my favourite artists. 
  • Jekyll and Hyde, Hayes Theatre: Brendan Maclean and Brady Peeti Hayes are absolute stars, yet the book of the musical didn’t really grab me.
  • Sigur Rós, Aware Super Theatre: A great concert by a great band. Loved the projections, lighting, sound and … music. 
  • Moulin Rouge! The Musical: I loved this show and it made me wonder why I liked it so much. It is an interesting trick, to tap into our collective subconscious with popular songs so that we’re drawn into the musical, both emotionally and intellectually. Anyone remember Stars on 45? I just wouldn’t expect to like a jukebox musical so much, and while it’s true the story is slight, the set design is magical and transportive; the costumes amazing. We had the special nightclub seats right next to the stage and could see how hard the actors were working. It all became a mythic romance, and I’m impressed how successfully they updated the movie to a new hit musical. Bravo. 
  • RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, Live on Stage! This show was delayed, because of COVID, so long that there were two seasons of queens on stage, rather than one. What was most interesting was the audience, and the phenomenon that RPDR has become. Otherwise, some amusing shows and great dancers, though probably not as charming as seeing a show close-up at the Imperial Hotel. 
  • Godspell, Hayes Theatre: This was one of my formative musicals; I even played rehearsal piano for our high school production. So, a jolt, definitely, to see a contemporary version, not only a female Christ, but many of the songs with major changes. An incredible, multi-talented cast. We particularly liked Victoria, who was both musical director and performer. 
  • Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Lyric Theatre. The music really was quite gorgeous and yet surprisingly unmemorable (and similar to many other Rodgers and Hammerstein songs). On top of such a well-worn fable, it was by turns, exuberant, junior and camp. But all in all enjoyable and an amazing cast. 
  • All We Want is More: The Tobias Wong Project & A Seat at the Table (Contemporary Stories of Chinese Canadians in BC), Museum of Vancouver. Great to learn about the conceptual artist and designer Tobias Wong and that with his untimely death, the Museum of Vancouver looks like it will a custodian of his work. And my cousin has an interview in ‘A Seat at the Table’ so it was cool to see the exhibit, my people, my history.

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Book Review: Ian Hamilton’s The Two Sisters of Borneo

The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee, #6)The Two Sisters of Borneo by Ian Hamilton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My mother and brother are big fans of this series of detective novels, by Ian Fleming, with the heroine, Ava Lee, a Chinese-Canadian lesbian. And Mom basically thrust his book onto me, wanting to know what I thought. I was, I admit, a bit suspicious. Even though I read that Chinese-Canadians, lesbians, and Chinese-Canadian lesbians are fans of the series, it seemed a bit suss for an older white guy to be using this particular identity as his hero.

The thing is though, I can’t find anything objectionable about the hero of the book, as the telling strangely lacks details that I could find objectionable. The hero is a character. The hero of his books. And it doesn’t feel like her identity is being wielded in a way to get attention, or done in a sloppy fashion. Lee is wealthy and well-dressed, in a seemingly healthy relationship with someone she doesn’t necessarily see a lot of, is a master of an obscure form of martial arts and is a forensic accountant. Also, in this book, she shows proper concern for a mentor (business partner) who is dying.

While there are details about her, and she has a voice, I never lose the sense of an author carefully plotting a book and moving around pieces, as if on a chess board. So, the hero could have been a retired Welsh-born journalist and civil servant, like the author himself, or it could be a Chinese-Canadian lesbian forensic accountant. The details just seemed, like the details of the plot, a way of keeping the book moving along.

And yet, I found the story pretty lifeless. The main plotline here is forensic accounting, that money is being stolen under the cover of bankruptcy and insolvency. The characters are sketched in terms of their size and build, and probably the most attention in the book goes to their clothes and the labels they are wearing. There is also a ton of detail about a fairly traditional Chinese wedding, and, uh, eating dim sum and a funeral. While my mother and brother found this clever, how well the author captured these events, I found the recounting somewhat anthropological. In the book, there are some good people … and a few sketchy people. I can’t pinpoint why I find the dialogue so stilted and unnatural, but it all felt very pedestrian. How about this gem: ‘Growing a business when you’re undercapitalized isn’t any fun’? Everyone speaks in a very similar voice, except for Uncle, who seems to purposely not speak with any contractions.

It takes more than two thirds of the book for something to happen that interests me, and as I expected, the villain HAD to be someone different than the only possibility sketched out for most of the book, but there certainly were few red herrings and no twists or turns. It IS an easy read, and because it’s so easy to read, I guess a page-turner. And if my mother and brother like reading a detective novel about a Chinese-Canadian lesbian forensic accountant, than really, I shouldn’t be reviewing this as literature and simply be glad that they are enjoying the book and series.

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