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Some people feel like outsiders every day of their lives. One such person is Harley Sekyere, a 21-year-old gay Black man in England who comes from an unsupportive household, felt at sea at college and has no idea where to turn. That’s a situation plenty of people will relate to. And it’s the premise of Small Joys, Elvin James Mensah’s sympathetic debut novel.

It’s 2005, shortly after terrorists coordinated a series of subway and bus bombings that devastated London. Harley had grand plans to graduate from university with a degree in music journalism but dropped out. Bereft of any other constructive goals, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and depression, he makes a drastic decision: Back home in the town of Dartford, southeast of London, he wanders into the woods with a small X-ACTO knife.

He catches a break. Muddy, a straight white man “holding a pair of binoculars,” approaches Harley, sees that he’s bleeding and stops him from proceeding further. Fortuitously, Muddy is more than just a devoted bird-watcher who happened to walk by. He’s also about to become Harley’s roommate.

Mensah then introduces other characters who become part of Harley’s support network. They include Chelsea, a young white woman whose father owns the apartment building where Harley and Muddy live. She’s a friend of Harley’s and helps him reclaim his old job at the cinema where she works. Also in the mix are Finlay, Muddy’s best mate, whom Chelsea is dating; and Noria, a Black woman who’s dating Muddy and is obsessed with styling Harley’s hair.

The center of all of this is Harley, of whom Mensah writes with great affection. He offers unforgettable details, such as when he notes that Harley is so self-conscious that he sometimes stores food in his cheeks “to create the illusion [he] was eating quicker than [he] actually was.” Harley’s lack of assurance, he says, comes from “anxiety and queerness and failure.” It also comes from his homophobic father, a religious man hoping to convert his son; his relationship with an abusive older man; and his burgeoning feelings for Muddy.

Small Joys is simpler and more predictable than the books to which it is already being compared, among them works by Brandon Taylor and Bryan Washington. The raw emotions in Mensah’s book, however, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.

The raw emotions in Small Joys will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Elvin James Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.
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Cat Sebastian’s We Could Be So Good is a sweet workplace romance that follows two men who work at a newspaper in late 1950s New York City. It reads like a love letter to the queer pulp novels of the era, but with an infusion of hope not often seen in literature about the time period. 

Nick Russo is a gruff, working-class journalist from Brooklyn who has worked his way up the ladder to become a lead journalist for The Chronicle. Charmingly naive Andy Fleming is the begrudging heir to his family media empire and Nick’s future boss. Nick is prepared to hate Andy, who he sees as a pretty boy who has had everything handed to him, but that’s easier said than done. During their first encounter, Nick finds Andy literally stuck—his tie jammed in a filing cabinet. Andy’s lovable mess charms the grumpy journalist, and soon Nick is helping Andy with small, everyday tasks like keeping track of keys as well as bigger issues like navigating the politics of the paper. Nick, who has long known he is gay, is content to merely pine for his hapless friend. But then Andy begins to question his own feelings for Nick and whether they could be more than platonic.

We Could Be So Good takes place in the oft-romanticized late 1950s, which are a particularly fascinating and high-stakes backdrop for a queer historical romance. It would be easy to fill both men with shame and self-loathing, given the threats to their safety. And yet this book is filled with so much hope. The queer scene was beginning to blossom in this era, with pulp novels acting like a road map for the LGBTQ+ community. Nick and Andy read these books, and Sebastian incorporates plot devices and tropes from them into her work. However, instead of the shame and violence that often accompanied contemporary 1950s narratives, Sebastian gives Nick and Andy a safe space to explore their sexuality. They even experience some (albeit minor) degree of acceptance from their families. These refreshing choices prevent the story from being bogged down by the toxicity of the time period, allowing the reader to experience queer optimism if not outright joy.

With We Could Be So Good, Sebastian adds a tender, heartening stunner of a love story to her already-impressive body of work.

Cat Sebastian’s midcentury romance is a tender, heartening stunner of a love story.
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Before Geena Rocero was a successful model, she was a child in the Philippines who was interested in feminine clothes. The country’s popular transgender beauty pageants drew her in first as a viewer and then as a competitor. It was in those pageants that she picked up the nickname “Horse Barbie”—a reference to both her stupendous manelike wig and her tall stature. Rocero dominated pageants throughout the late 1990s alongside a sisterhood of supportive trans beauty queens; she also began to take off-label estrogen to DIY her own medical transition. A move as a teenager to San Francisco enabled a social transition and subsequently a medical transition under a doctor’s care. 

The discrimination Rocero experienced as an Asian and Pacific Islander woman with a dark complexion made life in America difficult. But soon the long-legged beauty caught the attention of a fashion photographer in New York City, and her international modeling career took off, landing her on billboards, in music videos and even in a 2005 Complex magazine feature called “The 10 Most Beautiful Women in the World.” Yet Rocero remained closeted—and constantly afraid of being outed and potentially losing her career—for nearly a decade.    

Rocero’s life story is a completely engrossing whirlwind. Readers don’t need to have previous knowledge of the colonialist history of the Philippines, gender-affirming care for transgender people or the modeling industry to enjoy Horse Barbie. She explains everything in accessible language, imparted like a trusted friend. 

Rocero’s outsider-to-insider perspective as a Filipina immigrant underscores America’s mixed acceptance of transgender people, who, Rocero explains, are “legally recognized here but culturally misunderstood.” In the Philippines, the presence of trans folks in pageants is mainstream, but she found that many Americans only see transgender people depicted negatively or offensively on talk shows such as “Jerry Springer.” Despite her accomplishments, Rocero remained in fear of becoming a statistic of another murdered trans woman. “I had crossed an ocean for recognition,” she writes. “But what good was that recognition without safety?”

Horse Barbie is an emotionally engaging read. Rocero’s pride in her success as both a fashion model and a highly visible trans woman of color is hard won, and having the chance to read about it feels like a privilege.

Geena Rocero was a trans pageant queen in the Philippines who became a successful model in the United States. As you'd expect, her life story is a completely engrossing whirlwind.

Are lesbian bars endangered places? Down from a high of 206 bars recorded in 1987, there are currently only 20+ of these beloved, sticky, red-painted bars left in the U.S. Moby Dyke, the chronicle of Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each of these remaining bars, offers readers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

Traveling from San Francisco to New York City, from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Mobile, Alabama, Burton visits both historic neighborhood bars and newer nightclubs, talking to owners and patrons about why they love these bars and who is welcome there. Virtually every bar Burton visited is lesbian-owned but welcomes everyone, including the full range of queer identities: trans men and women, nonbinary folks and the emerging generation of gender-diverse young queers. Burton also asks why so many gay bars for cisgender men continue to thrive as exclusive spaces, while lesbian bars thrive on inclusion.

An accomplished and very funny journalist, Burton is able to track serious issues around queer belonging in a fresh and lively voice. The personal narrative underlying her pursuit of lesbian bars—including her marriage to Davin, a trans man, and coming out to her conservative Mormon family—is as topical and good-humored as the interviews and reportage contained here. 

Burton’s road trip was also shaped by COVID-19, and her experiences reveal how the isolation of the pandemic stoked a real hunger for the joy of being with others in crowded, sweaty rooms, singing karaoke, partaking in dildo races and people-watching (after showing a vaccination card, of course). Even the details about the economics of Burton’s quest (such as how to fund a road trip on a book advance while still working a day job) offer a fascinating glimpse into the reality of a writer’s life. 

Burton’s portrait of the evolution of lesbian bars into communal spaces offers a timely and engaging snapshot of queer life in America.

Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each lesbian bar in the U.S. offers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.
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New York City-based book publicist-turned-writer Amelia Possanza dedicates her book “to all the queers, ordinary and extraordinary, whose names have been destroyed by history, and to the rosy-fingered custodians of the queer archive.” Possanza is one such rosy-fingered custodian, a queer person attracted to the archives not just to understand history but also to understand her own story. “I was certain that if I uncovered enough lesbians in history, they would reveal a message or a lesson, a blueprint of how I might build my own life,” she writes.

Possanza’s debut book, Lesbian Love Story, is part archival research and part memoir. It includes seven chapters, each of which historicizes a lesbian love story. While the chapter on Sappho harkens back to antiquity, the other six span the 1890s through the 1990s, offering a lively lesbian mix: golf star Babe Didrikson Zaharias, groundbreaking memoirist Mary Casal, Chicana activist and writer Gloria Anzaldua and others. Possanza digs into the details of their lives with passionate engagement, frequently turning the narrative from the archival subject back to herself and exploring personal topics vis-a-vis these historical women: gender identity, the vagaries and politics of cross-dressing, the insidious narrowness of second-wave feminism, friendship, power dynamics in relationships and, most of all, obsessive love.

“In case it isn’t obvious yet,” Possanza writes in a late chapter, “I am an unforgivable romantic. I love love. Not as a means to an end, a steppingstone on the path to marriage and children, but as a surrender to passion, even when it’s surely doomed. Obsessive, selfish love that feasts on its own ruin.” As she unearths these romantic stories, Possanza also identifies the gaps within them, the moments when she wants to know more. To fill these silences, she imagines the scenes she longs to see, engaging with history not as a disembodied historian but as a young lesbian who wants answers, who wants to find her people. Though a blueprint does not, and cannot, neatly emerge from this sea of stories, Possanza does find the space, movement and complexity provided by a multifaceted past to buoy her ongoing becoming.

Amelia Possanza weaves her own memories through seven moving lesbian love stories from the archives in her debut book.
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Much like his first novel, Real Life, Brandon Taylor’s The Late Americans follows a loosely knit circle of lovers and friends in and around a university in Iowa as they badger, seduce and provoke one another over the span of an academic year. Financial, class and racial divisions are at the core of many of their interactions, as are disputes over the value of art rooted in trauma and concerns about selling out.

The Late Americans lacks a central character; instead, the story flows from one character or pair to the next, leaving the reader to make connections and hold onto each person’s secrets and dreams. The novel opens with a blistering portrayal of a poetry workshop where Seamus is verbally attacked for critiquing a peer’s work, then later he has sex with an older Iowan visiting the hospice facility where Seamus is a cook. From there, the novel switches focus to Goran, Timo and Ivan, all of whom gave up music or dance to pursue business or finance degrees. Noah, who is still studying dance, befriends another dancer in the program, Fatima, who supports herself by working in a cafe and contemplates leaving school after she is assaulted by another student. The novel ends in early summer, when the cast gathers at a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains to bid their former lives goodbye and move into the unknown.  

Taylor has previously written stories about ballet, and his plotting and style mirror the art form. In dance, our focus moves from performer to performer, now watching a pas de deux, now a solo. His novel functions similarly, seamlessly shifting our gaze from the individual to the duo, to the group and back again until, almost magically, the story is told and the piece comes to a close. A thought-provoking and lyrical novel about a group of people on the precipice of change, The Late Americans is a perceptive look at passion, sacrifice and intimacy among friends. 

A thought-provoking and lyrical story about a group of people on the precipice of change, The Late Americans is a perceptive look at passion, sacrifice and intimacy among friends.
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Paris has a reputation, a certain je ne sais quoi that has enchanted people (and readers) for years. Fueling this fascination further is Celia Bell’s debut novel, The Disenchantment, inspired by the real-life Affair of the Poisons, a period of scandal in French high society from 1677 to 1682. Bell takes us to a time when Paris was sensationalized by fortunetellers, love potions and poisons used by prominent people concerned for their wealth, reputation and romances.

Among them is Marie Catherine, the Baroness of Cardonnoy. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, Marie Catherine has realized that while money can’t buy happiness, it can provide frequent opportunities to rendezvous with her lover, Victoire Rose, Mademoiselle de Conti. The danger of their illicit affair being discovered only deepens the romance—that is, until a servant sees them kissing. However, he fails to recognize Victoire and instead reports to the baron that Marie Catherine is having an affair with a gentleman.

Furious, the baron goes to the home of Alain Lavoie, the artist commissioned to make a portrait of the baroness and their two children. Sure that Lavoie is the only man that had been near his wife, the baron assumes the painter’s guilt and orders his men to beat him to death. As fate would have it, the baron is murdered the same night. Marie Catherine is shocked by the news, at first wondering who could have done this, then overwhelmed by a sense of relief at never having to see the baron again. The pleasure is short-lived, however, and in the aftermath, Marie Catherine constructs a series of lies that backfire, leading others to believe that she used poison and witchcraft to rid herself of her husband.

Bell’s reliance on historical facts and actual people who lived through the Affair of the Poisons adds a thick layer of intrigue. The same can be said about her descriptions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the time, as well as her depictions of supporting characters—such as the lady’s maid Jeanne and police chief Gabriel de la Reynie—which add a wealth of information about 17th-century Paris. Through it all, Bell successfully keeps readers in suspense about who makes it through and who doesn’t.

For all those who love Paris, The Disenchantment delivers a juicy romance with plenty of twists.

For all those who love Paris, The Disenchantment delivers a juicy romance with plenty of twists.
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Jennifer Neal’s debut novel is a haunting coming-of-age story, a melodic love letter to the language of music and a fierce, dark, rage-filled upbraiding of patriarchal violence. 

Gabrielle has the ability to change the color of her skin, a quality inherited from her mother, Tallulah. As a child, Gabrielle learns how to shift from her natural brown into vivid reds and blues and golds, as well as how to hide her skin tones from the world when needed. Chillingly, Gabrielle and Tallulah most often make their skin white to appease the family patriarch, a violent, abusive man who demands everything in the house, including his wife and daughter, be whitewashed.

When Gabrielle’s controlling father insists that she take a year off after high school to improve her piano playing and bulk up her resume for college applications, she finds an unexpected source of freedom and solace in her piano teacher, a queer woman named Dominique. Dominique and her mother, Niyala, fill their colorful home with love, music and food—so unlike the cold and fearful house where Gabrielle grew up. As Gabrielle spends more time with them, she slowly begins to face—and heal—her deep old wounds.

Notes on Her Color unfolds almost glacially at first, in a series of meandering scenes—some banal and domestic, others startling in their harsh depictions of violence. A series of events toward the end of the novel heightens the book’s emotional impact, and though the pacing may feel a bit dizzying to some readers, it also captures the often tumultuous whims of adolescence.

Neal’s prose is assured and evocative, and the magic of shifting skin tones enables a fascinating commentary on race, power, invisibility and desire. But where this novel truly shines is in its nuanced exploration of relationships between women. There’s a softness in the way Neal writes about Gabrielle and Dominique, and a hard-edged tenderness to how Dominique and Niyala bicker and tease. Gabrielle and Tallulah’s thorny, muddled relationship is described with prickly honesty: They are haunted by many of the same demons, and yet they struggle to see each other clearly. With small but devastating details, Neal paints a vivid picture of their close bond and, just as gracefully, depicts the ways the world frays it nearly to breaking. 

Notes on Her Color is about familial violence and the complex legacies of generational trauma. It’s also about queer joy and the hard, slow work of liberation. Musicians and artists will likely find it especially compelling—the women in this novel use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should look out for this debut.

Musicians and artists will likely find Jennifer Neal’s novel especially compelling—the female characters use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should read this debut.
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Sarah Cypher’s debut novel is as much about storytelling as it is about the characters who inhabit it. A swirling multigenerational family epic, it’s about the power that stories hold over families and whole nations, and the mysterious ways that certain indelible narratives can supplant real memories. Through an unusual structure that bucks narrative convention, Cypher explores the blurry lines between storytelling and history, memory and identity, exile and home.

Born with blue skin into a diasporic Palestinian family, Betty Rummani grows up awash in stories. During the first years of her life, she is passed between family members: her scientist mother, who often buries herself in work; her white father, desperate to remake the three of them into a functioning family unit; and her great aunt Nuha, the true keeper of the family’s stories. 

Betty recounts this turbulent childhood many years later as an adult faced with a difficult decision: to stay in the city she knows, or to follow the woman she loves to a new country. Searching for clarity, she hungrily turns to the notebooks left behind by Nuha when she died, and begins to piece together the surprising story of her aunt’s life.

Though Betty narrates the novel in the first person, she often feels like a peripheral character. She slips into Nuha’s voice and life as if she were Nuha herself. The book is full of vivid scenes from before Betty’s birth and memories of Nuha’s life in Palestine. This unusual structure can feel a bit clunky at times, as Betty recounts not only events she never witnessed but also the associated complex emotional realities. But readers who can relax into this kind of magical storytelling will find it both whimsical and powerful.

Cypher’s prose has a softness to it and a melodic cadence. It often feels as if Betty is speaking directly to the reader, though when she breaks the fourth wall, she does so slyly, so quietly you’ll miss it if you blink. The story feels like it’s being untangled as it’s told, and this—along with subtle glimpses of almost-magic—provides the sense of mystery that permeates the book.

The Skin and Its Girl is an intriguing debut, a story within a story within a story, and a lyrical and haunting journey through generations and across oceans.

Sarah Cypher’s first novel is a story within a story within a story, a lyrical and haunting journey through generations and across oceans.
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Love may be universal, but no one writes about love quite like Edmund White. The veteran author returns with The Humble Lover, an outrageous, tender novel that complicates contemporary ideas of what traditional, “appropriate” desires and relationships look like. 

Aldwych West is an aging elite who spends his money trying to woo the latest object of his affection, a ballerino (that’s the male form of ballerina) named August Dupond. Very quickly, the two men become entangled—emotionally, financially and physically. But Aldwych isn’t the only one with ambitions; his inheritance-hungry niece-in-law, Ernestine, also wants to win August over, even as the young man moves in with Aldwych. In this complicated web of desire and wealth, everyone chases ecstasy, no matter the cost. 

White has been pushing the boundaries of what love can be since the beginning of his career. With The Joy of Gay Sex in 1977, White (with co-author Charles Silverstein) helped to codify the sexual, psychological and spiritual pleasures of gay life. This holistic concept of pleasure is present as White plumbs the depths of Aldwych’s desires, detailing the man’s insecurity and loneliness—though of course, there are still thrilling moments that brim with sexuality, both inhibited and explicit. When Aldwych first invites August to stay with him, he restrains himself, and even though they are half-naked in the same bed, all they do is lie next to each other and sleep. When sex does appear on the page, it is ecstatic—tinged with, or perhaps enhanced by, the pain and hunger of uneven power dynamics.

The Humble Lover could be categorized as a political satire, but that would imply a target. Rather than going on a tirade, White forces readers to become intimate with what they might otherwise denounce. At first blush, Aldwych’s desperation is repulsive, particularly considering his vast wealth and the age gap between him and August, but the closer we get to Aldwych, the more relatable his misery is. He is searching for something, maybe youth, maybe affection, maybe acceptance, and White keeps his journey engaging, hilarious and moving throughout. 

As Ernestine clashes with Aldwych, and August defies Aldwych’s wishes, we become more and more invested, wondering which of these characters will finally get what they want. Filled with sublime descriptions of ballet and Aldwych’s out-of-touch, affluent sensibility, this novel is as mischievous as it is thought-provoking. It is Edmund White at his very best.

Mischievous as it is thought-provoking, The Humble Lover is Edmund White at his very best.
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Arcady Dalca is a mage who specializes in shape-shifting, a thief and also the scion of the most infamous family in the city of Vatra. Their grandfather, the Plaguebringer, was widely believed to have caused the Strikes, virulent and deadly diseases that swept the world. But Arcady does not believe their grandfather was capable of such destruction and has embarked on a quest to discover the truth. Part of that quest requires stealing the Plaguebringer’s seal, a dragonstone amulet that allows the wearer to wield magic, and using its power to shape-shift into a new identity. But the spell Arcady casts to claim the seal rips a hole in the Veil separating worlds and lets an invader through: Everen, the last male dragon, failed seer and prince of a dying world. Everen wants to tear the Veil wide open, letting his fellow dragons back into the world that banished them so that they can escape extinction and wreak vengeance on humankind for their betrayal. Everen is trapped in human form, but he can regain his full power if he wins Arcady’s complete trust—and then kills them.

In writing Dragonfall, author L.R. Lam was clearly inspired by fantasy authors like Anne McCaffrey and Robin Hobb, both of whom have written iconic tales starring dragons. But Lam also injects this classic high fantasy quest with a healthy dose of sexual tension. The romance between Arcady and Everen is central to the plot, since the fates of both humans and dragons hinge on their bond. And while all is not well in their relationship by the book’s end, it seems clear that by the planned trilogy’s conclusion, these Veil-crossed lovers will be united, saving the world in the process. 

L.R. Lam knows what fantasy romance needs: dragon shifters.

Lam employs many common tropes of both romance and high fantasy, but their world building is still delightfully imaginative and richly detailed. Despite banishing dragons centuries ago, humans still worship them as gods, with different dragon deities being associated with different kinds of spells. All of the magic in Dragonfall involves asking the world to reshape itself in a specific way, which means that all humans who possess seals have the capacity to manipulate themselves or their environments to fit their needs or desires. Lam delves headlong into the philosophical implications of this, constructing a society built almost entirely around fluidity. This extends from architecture built on a premise of ephemerality, because it can be magically adjusted at any moment, to a concept of gender wholly based on personal preferences, as many people can change their appearances at will. Everen, whose world is one of rigid roles and clearly demarcated boundaries, finds this embrace of inconstancy confounding. But for the genderfluid Arcady, such liberation is the bedrock of existence. Lam’s deep exploration of this fascinating society beautifully balances the somewhat pulpy genre elements.

Grimdark aficionados should steer clear, but Dragonfall will delight fans of well-designed worlds, heroes’ journeys and slow-burning romance. Here there be (sexy) dragons.

Here there be (sexy) dragons: Dragonfall will delight fans of well-designed worlds, heroes’ journeys and slow-burning romance.

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