I’m trying to do a better job lately reading non-genre fiction, especially by diverse voices. Here’s a roundup of some of the fiction about queer people (heavily weighted towards out queer authors) that I’ve been super-impressed by in the last few years.
The way my life is organized these days, it’s tough for me to write reviews now. Some of the books below have them, some do not, but I love them all. Hopefully you find something new to read and enjoy!
Before we jump in:
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A queer Jewish New York City retelling of Pride and Prejudice centered around 20-something trans guy Ari Wexler and his best friend, cis dude Itche Mattes. It’s a book about love of so many different kinds: friendship, romantic love, familial love. On one level it’s a romantic comedy, but it’s deeper than I usually expect those to be, kind towards every member of its large cast, and full of a sense of wonder at the world and humanity. Despite all the interpersonal drama, it has a very relaxed feel; you know everything really will be okay in the end. I really enjoyed reading it despite having zero knowledge of Pride and Prejudice. One of my Goodreads friends wrote his MA thesis on Jane Austen and he gave it five (of five) stars, so clearly it works no matter where you are on the Austen Knowledge Spectrum.
Disclosure: I’m online pals with Zeller. He has never asked me to publicly review his work, and I bought this with my own money.
“Orryn has spent her whole life running: from her parents, from lovers, from debts and unpaid bills. Running has kept her alive. Running has kept her alone.
She told herself she wouldn’t do it this time. That she owed it to her sister to not just disappear again. But she never meant to end up here, in a community too warm and too kind for someone like her, where William’s love is so pure it could suffocate her, and Miranda’s eyes call to her with an intensity that could tear both hearts and marriages apart. She never meant for these people to look at her with love or expectations.
Orryn has spent her whole life running. But when she sees the end coming from far away, can she hold back the impulse to cut and run, collect her things calmly and simply go?”
The author (my writer pal) describes this as “cozy-but-angsty queer dystopian” and I think that’s spot on. The dystopian system is always there lurking in the background, but the focus is on the interior life of the main character, Orryn, and small moments in the multi-family commune / compound where she’s taken up residence. Orryn is in so much pain, but she tries so hard, and I rooted for her every step of the way – not for a particular outcome, because I really didn’t know what choices she was going to make – but for her to be okay.
Technically it’s the 3rd in a series but I hadn’t read the first two and it worked just fine for me.
Seriously gripping, feminist, anti-colonialist epistolary novel about an Arctic expedition, with a subplot – which grows more important as the book goes on – about a sailor and a naturalist falling in love.
The details: “In 1845, the HMS Vanguard, under the command of Captain William Caulderson, departed England on a voyage of discovery to find a Northwest Passage through the perilous arctic waters separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was never heard from again. Five years later, Captain David Maxwell of the Serapis sets sail to attempt to recover the Vanguard and determine the fate of his former commander. Naturalist Embleton Hall is running from demons of his own. He doesn’t expect to find himself drawn to Captain Maxwell– but the two men form a bond that will become essential to their survival. Together, they’ll brave the elements on a long and harrowing voyage to discover the fate of the lost ship Vanguard. But they’ll also learn that some secrets are best left frozen in ice.”
Samantha SoRelle’s review on Goodreads made me smile.
As the cover of the first book says of our lesbian anti-hero, “Cash Braddock just wants to hang out with her cat, fall in love, and deal drugs. What’s the problem with that?” I’m going to struggle to rec this without spoiling, but I can say this: Cash does fall in love, with the woman of her dreams, and that’s what just about ruins her life. I don’t know quite how to classify this series, but it’s well worth your time.
Cash isn’t be a particularly moral person, but she has her own code. The money laundered from Cash’s dealing of various “light” pills (Adderall, Xanax, etc.) subsidizes her beloved uncle’s growing organic farm and pays college tuition for her assistant. She’s close friends with her neighbor and the neighbor’s awesome lesbian daughter. She’s a nice person. If you ignore the illegal business. When she meets Laurel, she’s smitten, and Laurel is smitten back. Cash worries that Laurel will eventually decide dating a drug dealer isn’t for her. However, as their relationship develops, it starts to seem like Laurel’s the one holding back a secret that will break them up.
The first two books of the series revolve around investigations into problems related to Cash’s business. They’re suspenseful in parts, emotionally raw where it fits – especially at the end of the first book, ow! – but by the end of the second book I felt okay again about Cash’s life and even hopeful for her. I loved the importance of friendships here, especially female friendships, and how messy and painful Bartlett was willing to make things for Cash to create conditions for her to grow.
As a side note, this is a small thing in book two but so emotional: I appreciated the spotlight on how men sometimes don’t believe women about other men’s violence, and how brutal that is for women.
I haven’t yet read the third book, but I’m looking forward to it! (Update November 2020: I read it, and it was good!)
Content warnings, trying to do this without spoiling, these don’t necessarily apply to the main character: violence and threats of violence, including by police against prisoners; sexual and romantic relationships where consent is compromised by power differentials (acknowledged as damaging and messy by characters involved).
Gorgeously raw while still being deliberately and beautifully crafted.
Here’s the blurb: “Wendy Reimer is a thirty-year-old trans woman who comes across evidence that her late grandfather–a devout Mennonite farmer–might have been transgender himself. At first she dismisses this revelation, having other problems at hand, but as she and her friends struggle to cope with the challenges of their increasingly volatile lives–from alcoholism, to sex work, to suicide–Wendy is drawn to the lost pieces of her grandfather’s life, becoming determined to unravel the mystery of his truth. Alternately warm-hearted and dark-spirited, desperate and mirthful, Little Fish explores the winter of discontent in the life of one transgender woman as her past and future become irrevocably entwined. ”
One of the messiest, most painful, ultimately hopeful books I’ve read. Andy Nocera is a gay man married to a woman. When he’s arrested for public indecency after truck stop sex with a man, he loses his wife, his home, and his job, and is sentenced to probation that includes a year of therapy. Socially isolated, living with his dying mother, it’s tough to see how anything in his life will ever get better. But it does. Not with a sudden light bulb moment, not with sustained optimism and hard work, but through a series of small changes, painful revelations in therapy, and finally at least some degree of self-acceptance.
An unflinching look at the damage homophobia and toxic masculinity inflict on men, but intensely compassionate towards its main character and his healing.
This book is fantastic. A magical realism pseudo-memoir that’s nonetheless a true story. I thought Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s review of it was quite good.
Here’s the blurb, which summarizes it better than I could: “…the highly sensational, ultra-exciting, sort-of true coming-of-age story of a young Asian trans girl, pathological liar, and kung-fu expert who runs away from her parents’ abusive home in a rainy city called Gloom. Striking off on her own, she finds her true family in a group of larger-than-life trans femmes who live in a mysterious pleasure district known only as the Street of Miracles. Under the wings of this fierce and fabulous flock, Dearly blossoms into the woman she has always dreamed of being, with a little help from the unscrupulous Doctor Crocodile. When one of their number is brutally murdered, the protagonist joins her sisters in forming a vigilante gang to fight back against the transphobes, violent johns, and cops that stalk the Street of Miracles. But when things go terribly wrong, she must find the truth within herself in order to stop the violence and discover what it really means to grow up and find your family.”
Heavy and sad in many parts, but really beautiful, and the ending gave me some hope. I appreciated Suchi’s review on Goodreads.
What it’s about: “Lucky and her husband, Krishna, are gay. They present an illusion of marital bliss to their conservative Sri Lankan–American families, while each dates on the side. It’s not ideal, but for Lucky, it seems to be working. She goes out dancing, she drinks a bit, she makes ends meet by doing digital art on commission. But when Lucky’s grandmother has a nasty fall, Lucky returns to her childhood home and unexpectedly reconnects with her former best friend and first lover, Nisha, who is preparing for her own arranged wedding with a man she’s never met.
As the connection between the two women is rekindled, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie. But does Nisha really want to be saved? And after a decade’s worth of lying, can Lucky break free of her own circumstances and build a new life? Is she willing to walk away from all that she values about her parents and community to live in a new truth? As Lucky—an outsider no matter what choices she makes—is pushed to the breaking point, Marriage of a Thousand Lies offers a vivid exploration of a life lived at a complex intersection of race, sexuality, and nationality.”
Two mid-twenties guys who graduated from college but can’t seem to figure out adulthood. Not usually my cup of tea, but Ben Monopoli knows how to break my heart in a good way. Vince, who is bi, had an unrequited crush on his straight best friend Griff that was so painful, he ended their friendship before graduation without explanation. When Griff shows up unexpectedly at Vince’s house during a snowstorm, Vince can’t help but hope (against logic!) that it means more than Griff needing a place to stay. But if anything, Griff’s more lost than Vince, since inheriting money means he doesn’t even need a job to help tether him to reality.
As the two spend time together, and with Vince’s other crush Zane, Vince has to figure out how to untangle his grief and his various kinds of love for the two men in his life. IMHO this is the antithesis of the gay-for-you trope in romance novels, and it honors lifelong love that is not romantic or sexual as well as the difficulty of having people in your life in a way that doesn’t match society’s script for how love and family should be organized. Sometimes hard to read, but well worth it.
“Sophie Fournier is the first woman drafted into the North American Hockey League. Playing hockey is something she’s done all her life, but she faces new challenges as she finds her place on the struggling Concord Condors. She has to prove herself better than her rival-turned-teammate, Michael Hayes, and her rival-turned-friend, Dmitri Ivanov, and she has to do it all with a smile.
If she’s successful then she opens the door to other women being drafted. She can’t afford to think about what happens if she fails. All she knows is this: if she’s not the best then she doesn’t get to play. No pressure, though.”
A four-book (so far) series I’ve enjoyed despite knowing little about hockey, though the second book had IMHO serious sophomore slump. The main character is per-the-author demisexual and to me that seemed very well represented on the page, so I was really confused when I saw several reviews from (presumably) allosexual readers complaining there was “no demisexual content.”
And that’s the list! Hope you found something interesting. If you have any suggestions for me, get in touch, always happy to hear about good books!