If you’re looking for something new to read, here are my favourite new queer books for 2021! Quarantine has caused me to get really into YA fiction (because it makes me feel all safe, happy and cosy – can you blame me?) so expect a lot of queer teen love stories.
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All The Things She Said: Everything I Know About Modern Lesbian and Bi Culture by Daisy Jones
All The Things She Said explores the nature of 21st century queerness. Lesbian and bi culture is ever-changing and here, journalist Daisy Jones unpicks outdated stereotypes and shows how, over the past few years, the style and shared language of queer women has slowly infiltrated the mainstream. (Think less hemp sandals, IKEA trips and nut milks and more freedom, expression, community. And Cate Blanchett.)
From the dingy basement clubs of east London to the unchartered realms of TikTok, cutting in DIY mullets and christening Meryl Streep ‘Daddy’, Daisy explores the multifaceted nature of what it means to be lesbian or bi today, while also looking back and celebrating the past.
The book shines a light on the never-ending process of coming out, what it’s like to date as a queer woman, how physical nightlife spaces have evolved into online communities and the reasons why mental health issues have disproportionately impacted LGBTQ+ people.
As someone immersed in the queer culture of women, Daisy brings both the personal perspective and a journalistic one to this changing landscape. Through interviews and lived experience, a cohesive image emerges: one which shows that being lesbian, bi, or anything in between, isn’t necessarily always tied to gender, sexual practice or even romantic attraction.
At some point in the past decade, being a queer woman suddenly became… cool. And this very timely book seeks to unpack exactly how and when this happened.
It wasn’t that long ago (aka, the 90s, when I was a teenager) that the world of lesbian and bisexual women was one of the most hidden subcultures around. Compared to gay men, we were rarely in the spotlight and considered as the opposite of fabulous by the rest of the world.
Both Sandra Bernhard and Jenny Shimizu dating Madonna was about as ‘cool’ as we got back then. Otherwise, mainstream society was pretty confused by KD Lang, Ellen and our ‘strange’ obsession with Zena: Warrior Princess and Willow from Buffy.
As Jones tracks in this book, things slowly began to shift over the past 20 years. From Tumblr and Tik Tok to Sugar Rush and Gentleman Jack, to Kristen Stewart and Cate Blanchett, the modern media landscape has allowed us to create space for ourselves, our style, our desires in a way that didn’t exist before.
The book’s title is especially clever because it pinpoints the release of t.A.T.u.’s song in 2002 as a moment of significance. Both in terms of what the song meant to baby queers at the time and how much has changed since then.
At the time, women loving women only appeared in the media when performed for the male gaze. These days, it feels increasingly less something that is served up for men’s enjoyment and more like something that is owned by women themselves.
It also was interesting to read about Ladyhawke, the late-noughties singer/songwriter, who was forced by her record label to hide her sexuality and its effect on her mental health, and consequently, on her career.
One of the things I loved most about this book was recounting London queer nightlife in this same era. It brought back so many memories of the Joiners, Club Mofo and Ghetto in the second half of the noughties, just after moving to London. I wonder how much readers outside of the UK (or London, for that matter) will identify with the queer references in this book?
But at the same time, who cares. It perfectly captured a moment and looked at the changes that have followed. It made me excited about what’s to come in the next couple of decades, how much more space queer women will continue to take up, and how that can change the world.
Thirteen-year-old Byron needs to get away, and doesn’t care how. Sick of being beaten up by lads for ‘talkin’ like a poof’ after school. Sick of dad – the weightlifting, womanising Gaz – and Mam, who selfishly pissed off to Turkey like Shirley Valentine. Sick of the people who shuffle about Hucknall like the living dead, going on about kitchens they’re too skint to do up and marriages they’re too scared to leave.
It’s a new millennium, Madonna’s ‘Music’ is top of the charts and there’s a whole world to explore – and Byron’s happy to beg, steal and skank onto a rollercoaster ride of hedonism. Life explodes like a rush of ecstasy when Byron discovers the Fallen Divas Project and the East Midlands’ premier podium-dancer-cum-hellraiser, the mesmerising Lady Die. But when the comedown finally kicks in, Byron arrives at a shocking encounter that will change life forever.
I’ll admit, I read the first couple of pages, saw that it’s written entirely in a Midlands vernacular, and gave up instantly. I mean, I mainly read just before falling asleep and figured all the “sez” and “guz” were probably too challenging for my dozy brain.
However, a few days later, I heard Elizabeth Day interview Lees on How to Fail and was utterly drawn in by her incredible life story. So, I figured I should give it another try.
What followed was a series of deep belly laughs that were so loud I surprised myself. This book is a perfectly crafted coming of age tale, a memoir written as fiction, though there are some moments that you really wish weren’t true. The beauty of the story is that you are rooting for Byron all the way while knowing that it clearly all turns out ok.
There’s a level of detail in Lees’ recall that transported me back not only to the early noughties but to the awkwardness and emptiness of being a teenager. The forever wondering what your life will become. The boredom of being forced to deal with other people’s crap (adults and other teens alike) until you are granted the agency to live life on your terms.
My favourite character in the whole book is Gaz, Byron’s father. Not because he is in any way a likeable character, but seeing him through Paris’ bewildered eyes gave me the most laughs (as well as some
This book is a uniquely beautiful insight into the teens trans experience. We’re so lucky to have writers like Lees share their stories with such mastery. Truly one of the best books of the year.
Fifteen-year-old Spencer Harris is a proud nerd, an awesome big brother and a Messi-in-training. He’s also transgender.
After transitioning at his old school leads to a year of bullying, Spencer gets a fresh start at Oakley, the most liberal private school in Ohio. At Oakley, Spencer seems to have it all: more accepting classmates, a decent shot at a starting position on the boy’s soccer team, great new friends, and maybe even something more than friendship with one of his teammates. The problem is, no one at Oakley knows Spencer is trans – he’s passing.
So when a discriminatory law forces Spencer’s coach to bench him after he discovers the ‘F’ on Spencer’s birth certificate, Spencer has to make a choice: cheer his team on from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even if it means coming out to everyone – including the guy he’s falling for.
Waaaaah. Yet another queer YA book that’s left me all smitten. I want to see the Netflix film of so many of these stories lately, especially this one. Can we have more trans teens on our screens, please?
I loved Spencer and his family. They’re all captured with such genuine energy – each operating with the best intentions even if they don’t always get it right. There was so much relatable family stress and joy woven throughout this story. I how the different personalities on the soccer team shone through, and they were collectively essential to Spencer’s story.
This review is only four stars because I would have liked both the love interest, Justice and the best friend, Aiden(?), to have had their characters defined a tiny bit more. I finished the story feeling like I didn’t really know or connect with these characters as well as I should have. They both still felt a little two-dimensional to me, unlike the rest of the key characters.
Otherwise, it was such a lovely story that gave me hope for the future.
Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar
Everyone likes Hani Khan – she’s easy going and one of the most popular girls at school. But when she comes out to her friends as bisexual, they don’t believe her, claiming she can’t be bi if she’s only dated guys. Panicked, Hani blurts out that she’s in a relationship… with a girl her friends can’t stand – Ishu Dey.
Ishu is the polar opposite of Hani. An academic overachiever, she hopes that becoming head girl will set her on the right track for university. Her only problem? Becoming head girl is a popularity contest and Ishu is hardly popular. Pretending to date Hani is the only way she’ll stand a chance of being elected.
Despite their mutually beneficial pact, they start developing real feelings for each other. But some people will do anything to stop two Bengali girls from achieving happily ever after.
I loved Jaigirdar’s previous book, The Henna Wars, so much that I was very excited to read this book.
In Hani and Ishu, Jaigirdar queers the set-up of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by taking two characters who have a lot to gain by pretending to date each other and seeing how sparks fly as their fake relationship causes them to grow close.
One of my favourite things about this book is how much I hated Hani’s best friend, Aisling. Jaigirdar wrote this character with such perfect composition that I slowly became increasingly outraged as the story developed. By the end, I wanted to scream every time her name was on the page!
Also, how beautiful is the cover art for this book? It makes my heart melt to see two gorgeous Bengali girls on the cover. I can’t wait to read what Jaigirdar does next!
Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, by way of obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.
Early in the detox, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.
Yet another author whose previous book created anticipation for me. Broder’s previous novel, The Pisces, was a weird delight for me in 2018 – and her follow-up didn’t disappoint.
Rachel is a character starved of pleasure. Not just sexually but also from food, affection, spirituality and life in general. I appreciated how quickly this abysmal nature of her everyday life was all established so that we could get onto all the gorgeousness that followed.
Miriam is the kind of sheltered character that I usually wouldn’t find interesting. Yet, there was something so engagingly unfiltered about her. It was as if she had been protected from all the social messaging that caused Rachel’s struggles. Miriam felt deliciously present to her life and the pleasures in it, or at least through our narrators’ adoring eyes.
I’ve read many erotic novels, but this is the first one I’ve come across that’s been so body positive. I feel like it unlocked a new part of my brain to the lusciousness of fleshy bodies and suddenly awoke a desire in me to be force-fed ice cream by a thick-thighed domme.
I adore how Broder injects eroticism into some quite oddball scenarios. It’s all quite tantalisingly off-the-wall, which means I am so excited to see what she does next!
London, 1985. Joe, father to eleven-year-old Matty, has disappeared, and nobody will explain where he’s gone, or why.
In the long, hot summer that follows, Matty’s hunt for Joe leads to the ponds at Hampstead Heath. Beneath the water, there is a new kind of freedom. Above the water, a welcoming community of men offer refuge from an increasingly rocky home life.
Fourteen years later, a new revelation sees Matty set off alone in a campervan, driving westwards through Ireland, swimming its wild loughs and following the scant clues left behind about Joe. The trip takes a dangerous turn, and Matty is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers. But safety comes at a price, and with desire and fear running high, the journey turns into an explosive, heart-rending reckoning with the past.
Like many readers, I was drawn to this book because it is set in and around Hampstead Heath.
The first half is anyway. I loved how atmospheric this section was. I felt like I was a queer teen hanging around the Men’s Ponds, chatting to some older guys, wondering if they knew where my dad had gone.
The second half is quite the flash-forward, to a different era and location. Matty is grown and travelling around Ireland in his van, still looking in vain for his father.
Andrew is a very evocative writer. The descriptions of wild swimming transported me to the ponds, and the way she seeds information makes this story take you to unexpected places. It’s been nearly six months since I read this book, but it has stayed with me in a way that makes me think it could be my favourite queer book of 2021.
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