I picked up Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book Dirty River because I was thrilled to find another author whose name was unwieldy and confoundingly long, but as soon as I saw the subtitle (A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home) I was hooked. In this transformative memoir, Piepzna-Samarasinha details being a queer, disabled woman of color coming of age among young queer punks in Toronto, running from the abuse of her past. This tragicomic tale is filled with what activists now call intersectionality, but in terms of literature, it’s raw and passionate and wrenching — and it belongs on shelves next to Audre Lorde’s Zami or the pioneering This Bridge Called My Back.
Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark (Bywater Books) and Splinter the Silence (Atlantic Monthly Press) are both amazing reminders of this lesbian author’s mastery over mystery. Trick is an irresistibly compelling thriller set back at Oxford College, where a pile of newspaper clippings leads a down-on-her-luck profiler to her biggest mystery yet. Splinter, however, revisits McDermid’s best characters: (now former) detective Carol Jordan and psychologist Tony Hill (who were featured in her many other novels and the television series based on them, Wire in the Blood). What’s brilliant about McDermid’s Splinter is her masterful mixture of modern crime, contemporary issues, and classic storytelling. The book centers around the mysterious deaths of several young women, all of whom were victims of cyberbullying. In classic fashion, the women's deaths are dismissed as suicides, but Tony begins to think that the police have it all wrong. Do they?
The title alone — Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — should tell you what kind of reverence authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik have for the rather revolutionary Supreme Court justice. A millennial tribute, the moniker Notorious RBG is modeled after rapper Notorious B.I.G., but was even used in an introduction at the White House Conference on Aging last year by none other than President Obama. So, you know, cred. And Notorious RBG (Dey St.) is worthy of her; it’s such an awesomely nerdy book Rachel Maddow sang its praises. A sweet illustrated mashup of pop culture and the academy, Notorious weaves together the feminist pioneer’s archival materials, photos, and cartoons with reporting and interviews with those closest to Ginsburg (including several former clerks). Even if you don’t care to read annotated dissents, you’ll get a better understanding as to why people today are turning the justice into viral videos and personal tattoos.
Patricia Cornwell’s Depraved Heart (William Morrow) returns forensic pathologist Dr. Kay Scarpetta to her most insular book yet in this mystery that takes place in only 12 hours — a good chunk of that all in her head. Scarpetta receives a video on her mobile phone, a decades-old surveillance video of her lesbian niece Lucy that seems to implicate Lucy in an unexpected way. Fearing danger and trusting no one, Scarpetta sets out to unravel the time-sensitive mystery before they’re all doomed in this twisty, fascinating narrative.
There are few books funnier than Isaac Oliver’s breezy Intimacy Idiot (Scribner), a collection of essays and mini-prose about being a (very) single gay man in New York City. Among the most laughable nuggets: hooking up with a guy who dresses like a dolphin, being Hester Prynned on the sidewalk with a “Grindr!” hiss, the author’s reply to men who rejected him on Manhunt, and a note to a one-night stand who made him hide in the closet so he could pay his cleaning lady.
My new favorite poetry power couple — Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown — each turned up a wonderful, must-read collection this year. Jacobs’s Pelvis With Distance (White Pine Press) weaves together a biography-in-poems of artist Georgia O’Keeffe with Jacobs’s own month in a solitary desert cabin, giving loving attention to feminism, the geography of creativity, and relationships among the unfamiliar. Brown too explores her own voice through another woman in Fanny Says. A complex but loving tribute to the author’s grandmother, Fanny Says reads like a novel, one that explores a bawdy Southern broad as well as domestic violence, racism, teenage pregnancy, and the myth of perfect womanhood. The one-two punch of these books makes me want to be a dinner guest at the Jacobs-Brown Arkansas dining table.
Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir (Transgress Press) by Paige Schilt bucks memoir tradition by focusing not on just a couple or an individual coming out as trans or living as trans, but rather one about falling in love, making family together, and creating a world where a transgender family demands their space and happiness in the world. Schilt takes you on a fun, inspired journey encompassing feminist girly geekhood, singing sperm donors, rockabilly folk lesbians, tattooed kinfolk, and all that's wonderfully transgressive and yet so ordinary about our lives. (Professional disclosure: I also edited the book, but that doesn't make it any less wonderful). $17, TransgressPress.org
Stephanie Gayle’s Idyll Threats (Seventh Street Books) is a fun, breezy, and believable mystery novel about Thomas Lynch, a closeted gay police chief in a small Connecticut town. An unexpected dalliance comes around to bite Lynch on the ass when someone he saw there turns up dead; now he’s faced with finding the killer, coming out, and dealing the casual homophobia of his employees — oh, and mourning the recent death of his partner. Along the way there’s a conspiracy buff, a goth teen, and a secret list thats offer clues that’ll keep you guessing.
The drag queens ruled in two mystery novels and one fantastic memoir. Private dick Kat Stone watches her friend Dolly and his drag buddies as their parade float explodes in The Granite Moth (Pegasus Crime), which takes her deep into a murder investigation, possible hate crimes, and a gangster subplot. Meanwhile Wallace Godfrey’s delightfully campy South Florida mashup, Introducing Sunfish & Starfish: Tropical Drag Queen Detectives (Strand Hill Books), starts with a mysterious jewel-encrusted Prada shoe and ends with … well, I can’t tell you, but it’s true to form. In between we meet Larry and Oscar, the titular characters, whose friendship takes a hit as they go from fun-loving drag performers to amateur sleuths dealing with drugs, political intrigue, shady politicians, and that Prada shoe. Meanwhile, drag queen, performance artist, and writer Michael V. Smith’s debut, My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press), is a highly engaging and personal peek inside the life of a gay man who is punished for and later reconciles his transgressions around gender norms. Most telling is how his sexual compulsions — Grindr, sex in parks, tender threesomes, sad blow jobs — helped him escape personal trauma and later address deep loss and his complicated relationship with his father.
Some issues aren’t LGBT, they’re just universal, which is why RM Vaughan’s Bright Eyed: Insomnia and Its Culture (Coach House Books) is so deliciously compelling. The author can’t sleep, and over the 40 years he’s battled insomnia he’s tried everything from marijuana to witchcraft. This tiny books really looks at what it means to live in 24/7 culture where productivity is valued more than sleep, and cellphones and laptops beckon us to work. In his quest to understand his disorder, Vaughan visits a sleep clinic, talks to neuroscientists, and tries the latest sleep apps. It’s sleepy, dreamy, hallucination of a book that’ll appeal to the equally awake night owls.
It’s my guess than most lesbians of a certain age will be moved by Terry Mutchler’s beautiful and maddening memoir, Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, A Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America, a new Seal Press paperback reprint. Mutchler was still a 20-something journalist when she was appointed to the Associated Press's Illinois statehouse bureau and fell in love with Sen. Penny Severns, then a shooting star among the state’s Dems. Their relationship was kept secret, sometimes even from family, until Severns died. Their relationship deepened as Severns was making political headway, first as the state’s Minority Caucus Whip, and later the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee — the first woman to become chief budget negotiator. In 1993, in fact, Severns ran for lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch, still the only time two women were on the top of the state ticket. But this book isn’t a Severns biography; it’s a yearning, heartfelt, and sometimes wrenching love story with a deathbed parting and the kind of ugliness many who stayed closeted expected from family and authority back in the 1990s.
Ever hear of Morgellons syndrome? (If not, Wikipedia it and you’ll be fascinated.) I’m critical of the American health care system as much as the next gay, but partway through poet Gabrielle Glancy’s fascinating hybrid medical memoir I’m Already Disturbed, Please Come In (Oneiric Press), I was convinced she had some sort of similar parasitic delusion, which is why no doctor could find it. In the book, the author battles an undiagnosed illness and baffling collection of symptoms while obsessively dissecting social media, interspersing short but thoughtful essays with ER visit accounts and Twitter reactions. The partial sound bites work, though, and I read the book cover to cover twice in one day — something I’ve never done. Glancy’s take on the intersections between climate change, dwindling natural resources, autoimmune diseases, viruses, and microbial imbalance in our own bodies is assured, fascinating, and terrifying. And all too real.
A great sexuality writer and my favorite tech investigative reporter, Violet Blue offers a no-nonsense, simple-to-follow formula with The Smart Girl;s Guide to Privacy (No Starch Press). In it, Blue (who has many followers) shows how women are targeted online and advises on how to keep yourself safe with step-by-step instructions on how to delete your personal info from websites, change your privacy controls on social media, recover from identity fraud, and remove yourself from those people finder sites that offer up all your info for a small onetime fee to anyone who asks. Smart stuff.
The Incarnations by Susan Barker (Touchstone) was so critically acclaimed in the U.K. it was compared to the work of Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell, in large part because the British-Chinese author captures a breathtaking vision of China’s rich history, with all the beauty and oppression and amazing forgotten characters. It begins in 2008 when Wang, a married taxi driver, finds a letter in his cab that claims he and the mysterious writer are reincarnated “soul mates.” The letter is followed by others, filled with memories of the opulent Ming dynasty, the Mongol invasions, and China’s cultural revolution as well as plenty of personal betrayal and intrigue. As Wang searches for the letters’ author, his “normal” life slips farther and farther away until the surprisingly disconcerting ending.
Mark Segal’s And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality (Akashic Books) is the memoir of a gay journalist who has been at the center of much queer activism for several decades now, being out in the media long before folks like Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow made it cool. Segal interrupted a live broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in 1973, shouting “Gays protest CBS prejudice!” and many years later founded Philadelphia Gay News. Much this book focuses on his work, but the more telling pages are filled with love gained and lost, raising other people’s children, finding himself, and aging in the gay community. A must-read.
Crooked Letter I: Coming Out in the South (New South Books) is like any collection, a bit uneven in its contributions, but editor Connie Griffin has curated a smart series of narratives about being a trans or queer in the South. The result is a thoughtful anthology that deals with questions of being different in the South, of bridging lifestyle and geography, and of finding one’s own voice amid the din of tradition.
Critics often say that Bold Strokes Books publishes the best lesbian romance and super hot erotica (MJ Williamz has that nailed), but for those of us who don’t love straight-up romance no matter how sapphic and want some suspense in our stories, Carsen Taite’s romantic intrigue books are the answer. In Reasonable Doubt, criminal defense attorney Ellery Durand wakes up one morning to find her bank accounts frozen, her face on the front page, and the peace she’s come to treasure shattered in the wake of a terrorism investigation led by FBI behavioral analyst Sarah Flores. There’s a master conspiracy and a growing lesbian attraction at the heart of this story, and a reminder that hot lesbian profilers aren’t limited to Jodie Foster characters. (Caveat: my books have been published by BSB, the largest lesbian publisher in U.S., as well.)
Elliot Tiber’s Taking Woodstock was a hilarious and touching memoir about the man who was instrumental in arranging the site for the original Woodstock, hung out with luminaries like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, and witnessed the Stonewall riots. You don’t have to have read it to enjoy this witty and touching follow-up, After Woodstock: The True Story of a Belgian Movie, an Israeli Wedding, and a Manhattan Breakdown (Square One), but it does add a layer of understanding. This one tackles Tiber’s life after that magical Woodstock weekend in 1969 and covers sex (“I barreled through the Midwest like a man with his pubic hair on fire”), drugs, love (and his longtime partne, theater director Andre Ernotte), politics, and tellingly the AIDS epidemic. Director Ang Lee, who turned Tiber’s first book into a film of the same name, offers a worthwhile foreword to this memoir too.
Photographer and journalist Kristin Schreier Lyseggen’s The Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons (SFINX Publishing) is not the book I expected, but because it tells the story of nine incarcerated trans women in their own words, it’s a tough and worthy read. The women here share many things — intersections of poverty, race, and lack of access to health care are present in many of the women’s narratives — and their stories of forced and survival sex, coming out, losing family, understanding their gender identity, and facing sometimes bleak futures are heartbreaking and confounding.
In You’re Dead, So What: Media, Police, and the Invisibility of Black Women as Victims of Homicide (Michigan State University Press) author Cheryl L. Neely makes a big impact in a short amount of space. A professor of sociology and criminology in Oakland, Calif., Neely uses empirical data on the media and law enforcement bias in reporting violent crimes against African-American women. She explores why women of color receive little attention from the media (versus “White Girl Syndrome,” in which white female victims are extensively covered); how crimes against them are often portrayed as mitigated by substance abuse, sex work, or sexual expression; and why the rendering of them as unworthy by the media translates into a lack of justice for the victims. At a time when Black Lives Matter and dozens of murdered African-American women (both trans and cis) have made headlines, the book is a relevant study.
David Goes Home: Growing Up Gay in the Dust Bowl (Hamaca Press) is Grant Spradling’s hybrid mystery novel and thinly veiled memoir of growing up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression (and, tellingly, before the civil rights movement of the 1960s). In it, a young gay minister named Daniel returns home from his mother’s funeral in an era when gays escaped our hometowns for more welcoming big cities and a return home meant awkward conversations, local gossip, and outright homophobia. But Spaulding doesn’t make characters, even villains, feel one-dimensional. The Texas-based author (himself a retired minister who has been with his husband for 47 years) has written of David before, in two of his mystery novels (Maya Sacrifice and Palenque Murder), but this time he captures a real sense of the power of the closet and the self-doubt that comes with confronting childhood trauma, all wrapped up in a mystery about the death of a local sheriff. Kept me guessing until the end.
Ellen Hart, the author of more than 20 mystery novels featuring private investigator Jane Lawless, is back with Grave Soul (Minotaur Books), another wonderfully plotted and impeccably written page-turner. Lawless is hired by a restaurateur whose girlfriend is disturbed by a childhood nightmare and ends up investigating a quagmire of old secrets that surround Kira and her tight-knit family. Everything you’ve come to expect from Hart — arguably one of the best lesbian mystery writers out there — is in this book, including Lawless’s requisite bruised ribs and concussion and a mystery that keeps you guessing.
In a year when Caitlyn Jenner made the most headlines for being transgender, it’s delightful to see the increasing number of trans narratives hitting bookshelves. A trio of flawed but immensely readable memoirs by trans people are worthy of attention. Frankly Kellie: Becoming a Woman in a Man’s World (Blink Publishing) takes a fascinating look at Kellie Maloney’s life as one of the world’s most successful boxing managers, the person who led Lennox Lewis to his heavyweight championship. It’s surprising that this book by Maloney, who came out in 2014 and later appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K., didn’t get more attention, because it’s a fascinating look at a blemished person raised male in a blue-collar Irish family in 1950s South London who gains fame in one of the world’s most hypermasculine sports, all the while struggling with gender dysphoria.
While trans women made a lot of headlines this year — both good and bad — men remained mostly invisible. Memoirs from Jeremy L. Wallace and Willy Wilkinson attempted to change that. In Wallace’s Taking the Scenic Route to Manhood, the author recounts coming of age in the wrong body, dealing with depression and suicidal ideation, “finding the courage to jump,” and understanding there’s little instant gratification in transition. Now a sought-after public speaker, Wallace is big on entrepreneurship and living your dream, so the memoir feels a bit inspirational, a rarity in such books.
Meanwhile, Wilkinson’s multilayered work, Born on the Edge of Race and Gender: A Voice for Cultural Competency, covers so much, his own life and the stats and background impacting trans men of color in particular in the U.S. It follows his identity shift from butch to a man, coming out in the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community, being one of “only two Asian dykes” working in the AIDS field in the early '90s, battling a difficult coming-out (not as trans, but as a person with a chronic illness), when the word “tranny” went from pride to pejorative, losing trans friends to suicide, and speaking in front of a crowd the day after anesthesia (“I got new just this summer!” he says to a wildly enthusiastic crowd when talking about medical access). Wilkinson is a respected expert on trans health (he launched the Healthcare Access Project at Transgender Law Center and the first large-scale research project on HIV and trans men) and a whip-smart speaker and cultural competency trainer. So it’s refreshing that his really intelligent and approachable memoir ends with a chapter on what allies, businesses, and organizations can do to be trans-affirming. I read Born on the Edge over a weekend, stopping every few pages to share with my copilot memories of San Francisco, of the lesbian community, of shared struggles, and both moments and feelings I shared with Wilkinson. Many memoirs take you to a different time and place, immersing you in the writer’s world, but in many ways Wilkinson immersed me in my own world, remembering our shared struggles, the geography of our coming into ourselves dovetailing.
I often roll my eyes at self-help books, but lesbian branding expert Dorie Clark (who writes for Forbes and Harvard Business Review, among other publications, and is a Duke University prof) offers a canny must-read with Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It (Portfolio). The author interviews 50 thought leaders, including Seth Godin and (my guru) David Allen, to show readers how to stand out in a noisy world, be a “renegade thinker,” and cultivate your own big ideas. Clark argues that working hard is no longer all you need for a successful career, and she’s seemingly her own best example. (Plus, how many productivity/career books tell you to build time in your life for reflection?)
Here’s a coffee-table bonus: Every Breath We Drew (Daylight) by Jess Dugan and Catherine Opie’s 700 Nimes Road (Prestel). Dugan offers intimate self-portraits and those of others that explore gender, masculine construction, relationships, and the chasm between the public and private identity. The photos, often shot in the subject’s bedroom, are intimate but never let you feel like a voyeur. In Opie’s captivating volume, the renowned photographer creates an "indirect portrait" of Elizabeth Taylor through photos taken at the late movie star’s home. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the star, from her tchotchkes to her dog-eared remote control manual; there’s an intimacy in this book you can’t find elsewhere.