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The 20 best LGBTQ reads of 2019

Here are the queer books that changed our world this year.

2019-12-23

It's been another great year for queer literature, with LGBT-themed books increasingly breaking into those all important most-read lists.

Whether it's moving fiction, absorbing memoirs or immersive gay history guides, there's been plenty to tear through in 2019 - but if you've not had a chance to get your head stuck in a book this year then fear not, because our book reviewer, Uli Lenart, from London's iconic Gay's the Word book shop, has gathered together the best LGBT reads of 2019.

As you prepare to put your feet up and celebrate the end of another long year, here are the books (in no particular order) that should be joining you beside the fire this festive season...

Salt Slow - Julia Armfield

(Picador)

A haunting and deliciously unsettling debut by the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize in 2018.

Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city’s population become insomniacs overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up a better one.

Blurring the mythic with the mundane, these seductive short stories explore isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Gothic, melancholic and mesmerising.

Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language - Paul Baker

(Reaktion Books)

A funny and joyous insight into the story of Polari, Britain’s secret gay language. A coded vernacular that was used mainly by gay men in the first half of the 20th century, Polari was often associated with the 1960’s BBC radio show Round the Horne, which starred Kenneth Williams.

At a time when being gay could result in criminal prosecution, Polari offered its speakers a degree of public camouflage.

Expert Paul Baker tenderly traces its origins, context, decline and unlikely recent re-emergence. With a cast of drag queens, sailors and macho clones,

Fabulosa! is a fascinating and fantastically readable account of this funny, filthy and ingenious language. With a jacket featuring an amazing image of Derek Jarman and a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, this is an essential book for anyone who wants to Polari bona! 

Lot - Bryan Washington 

(Atlantic Books)

A brutal, raw and blisteringly brilliant collection of short fiction about a young man finding his place in his family and among the community in Houston, Texas, from an extraordinarily powerful new voice.

The son of a black mother and a Latino father is coming of age. He’s working at his family’s restaurant, weathering his brother’s blows and resenting his older sister’s absence. And discovering he likes guys.

Poverty, family, estrangement, drugs, violence and death are artfully explored though a unique mix of street talk and uncompromising prose.

This outstanding collection echoes John Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams at their best: Bryan Washington is a prodigious talent.  

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous - Ocean Vuong 

(Jonathan Cape) 

Ocean Vuong is a magician with words. When he writes, it’s as if language itself is dancing. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, it unearths a family’s history whose epicentre is rooted in Vietnam, and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation.

At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class and masculinity.

This debut novel is a luminous, mesmerising gift. Ocean is also the poet of the exceptional Sky With Exit Wounds which won the 2017 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Extraordinary.

Find Me - André Aciman 

(Faber & Faber)

The eagerly anticipated sequel to the bestselling 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name, which was adapted in 2017 into an Oscar-nominated film.

In Find Me, André Aciman revisits the lives of Elio and Oliver in the years after their first meeting. We discover Elio’s father, Samuel, on a trip from Florence to Rome to visit his son, now a gifted classical pianist. A chance encounter on the train upends Sami’s visit and changes his life.

Elio soon moves to Paris, where he too has an affair, while Oliver, a New England college professor with a family, suddenly finds himself contemplating a return trip across the Atlantic.

A sensual, nuanced and seductive novel that’s perfect for when you are in a romantic mood. 

Me - Elton John 

(Macmillan)

This refreshingly real, hilarious and self-deprecating autobiography from Elton John delivers a fantastically entertaining and enjoyable read. A meaty accompaniment to the smash-hit Rocketman movie, Me is packed with juicy celebrity anecdotes, laugh-outloud stories, and honesty.

From his younger days, growing up in Pinner as Reg Dwight to becoming one of the most enduringly successful singer-songwriters of all time, Elton lays his life bare without pomp or sentimentality.

With the help of ghost-writer Alexis Petridis, he recounts his relationship with lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin, going disco-dancing with the Queen and friendships with the likes of John Lennon, Elizabeth Taylor, Freddie Mercury and George Michael.

Elton writes openly about the music, his relationships, the success, the excess, getting clean, finding love, setting up his Aids foundation and becoming a father. A genuine joy from start to finish. Applause! 

Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen - Amrou Al-Kadhi 

(4th Estate)

The powerful, moving and poignant memoir by journalist, Attitude columnist and founding member of drag troupe Denim.

Of Iraqi heritage, raised in Dubai and Bahrain, Amrou Al-Kadhi went from being a god-fearing Muslim boy enraptured with their mother to becoming a vocal queer drag queen estranged from their family, via the hallowed but problematic halls of Eton College.

It’s a journey from rejection, shame, racial exclusion and over-achievement to the empowering sisterhood of drag and the understanding of Islam in a new, queer way. Through their astonishingly articulate honesty, Amrou has created a soulful, generously hearted book, rich in understanding and healing.

Hilariously funny and mesmerisingly intelligent, this is one of the best memoirs we’ve ever read. A triumph.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf - Marlon James 

(Hamish Hamilton)

The first in Booker Prize-winner Marlon James’s Dark Star Trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is so incredibly brilliant, ingeniously constructed and authentically original, it promises to be a benchmark moment in the history of literature.

Drawing on a rich tradition of African mythology to imagine an ancient world, a lost child, shape-shifting leopards, tribal feuds, witches, a flesh-eating monster and an extraordinary hunter, this is a mesmerising epic fantasy that electrifies the imagination.

Tracker is a hunter, known throughout the 13 kingdoms as one who has a nose — and he always works alone. But he breaks this rule when, hired to find a lost child, he finds himself part of a mismatched group all searching for the same boy.

Lord of the Rings meets Beowulf in this bloody, hallucinatory and thoroughly queer masterpiece. Beyond stunning.

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernardine Evaristo 

(Hamish Hamilton)

 

Tackling themes including feminism, politics, patriarchy, success, relationships and sexuality, Evaristo's eighth novel follows the lives of 12 (mostly black female and non-binary) British characters as they negotiate the world around them.

A wide-ranging exploration of modern-day womanhood, it rightly won the 2019 Booker Prize.

Red, White & Royal Blue - Casey McQuiston 

(St. Martin's Griffin)

The hot young-adult book of the moment that imagines what happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales.

When his mother became president, handsome Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly capitalised upon as millennialmarketing gold for the White House. Too bad there is bad blood between him and Prince Henry of England. When the tabloids get hold of a photo of the two in an altercation, heads of family, state and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals.

But what at first begins as a fake, Instagramable friendship soon develops into a romance neither Alex or Henry could have imagined.

Escapist, absorbing, funny, sexy, romantic and joyful - maybe love really can save the world after all.

 

Alex in Wonderland - Simon James Green 

(Scholastic)

In the coastal town of Newsands, the summer after his GCSEs has not got off to the best start for painfully shy Alex. He’s been abandoned by his best friends, and his dad’s new girlfriend has told him he needs to get a job. He unexpectedly lands a part-time position at Wonderland, a run-down amusement arcade, where he gets to know other teen misfits.

Alex starts to come out of his shell, and to develop feelings for co-worker Ben... who has dimples from heaven, and, sadly, a girlfriend. As debtors close in on Wonderland and threatening notes start to appear, Alex and his friends take it on themselves to save their employer.

By the end of summer, Alex’s life will have changed in ways he couldn’t have imagined. This hilarious book is a joyous triumph.

The Black Flamingo - Dean Atta

(Hodder)

A powerful and revealing young adult novel told in verse, from poet and Attitude columnist Dean Atta.

A boy comes to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen — then at university he finds his wings as a drag artist called The Black Flamingo.

Bold, tender and full of blossoming moments of heartache, and joy about the power of embracing your uniqueness, The Black Flamingo is the tale of a mother’s unconditional love, friendship, family, self-discovery, desire, racial identity and belonging.

Dean Atta was short-listed for the Polari Prize for debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger. The artwork is by Anshika Khullar. 

Paul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl - Andrea Lawlor 

(Picador)

An inventive speculative history of early Nineties identity politics during the heyday of ACT UP and Queer Nation.

It’s 1993 and Paul tends bar at the only gay club in a university town thrumming with politics and partying. He studies queer theory, has a lesbian best friend, and enjoys a rich dating life. But Paul’s got a secret: he’s a shapeshifter.

Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, and women’s studies major to trade, Paul transforms in a series of adventures through the underworld of queer culture. 

Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement - David K. Johnson 

(Columbia University Press)

An accessible, detailed and riveting journey into the pioneering early gay physique zine industry.

In 1951, a new type of publication appeared on news stands: the physique magazine. For many gay men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these images and drawings of almost-naked men were a revelation.

Working against a climate of censorship and suppression in the pre-Stonewall age, the publishers behind these magazines were part of a wider world of physique entrepreneurs who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogues, pen-pal services, book clubs and niche advertising for gay audiences.

Author David K Johnson reveals how the trade — more than just producing iconic, epic images — was an important catalyst for the gay rights movement.

This is an indispensable and fascinating addition to the library of anyone interested in gay culture.

Pride - Matthew Todd

(Andre Deutsch)

A lavishly illustrated and richly detailed coffee-table book marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the story of the LGBTQ equality movement it inspired.

It includes an array of rare images, featuring key people and events across politics, sport and culture, plus moving personal testimonies from the likes of Travis Alabanza, Bisi Alimi, Maureen Duffy, David Furnish, Asifa Lahore, Paris Lees, Jake Shears and Will Young.

Matthew Todd is a former editor of Attitude and the author of Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy

Proud - Edited by Juno Dawson

(Stripes)

Compiled by Attitude’s own Juno Dawson, this is a vibrant and diverse anthology of stories and poetry by established and emerging young LGBTQ adult authors and new voices.

There has been an explosion of fresh talent in writing about the experiences of queer teens in recent years, making it one of the most innovative and responsive genres in publishing today.

And this lovingly curated and inspiring collection of writing and artwork — exploring the theme of pride — is a testament to the boundless imagination of young LGBTQ people. 

This Brutal House - Niven Govinden 

(Dialogue Books)

An urgent and absorbing novel, set in the drag ball community of New York, about marginalised voices soaring until they are heard.

On the steps of City Hall, five ageing house mothers sit in silent protest. They are the guardians of the vogue ball community — queer men who opened their hearts and homes to countless lost children, providing safe spaces for them to explore their true selves.

Through epochs of city night life, house children have been going missing; their absences ignored by the authorities and not investigated by the police.

In a final act of dissent, the mothers have come to pray: to expose their personal struggle beneath our age of protest, and commemorate their loss until justice is served.

A lyrical and passionate novel about protest and the power of angry, marginalised, queer voices.  

Mama's Boy: A Memoir - Dustin Lance Black 

(John Murray)

A revealing and powerful memoir from the Academy Award-winning screenwriter, LGBTQ rights campaigner and husband of Tom Daley.

Dustin Lance Black grew up in a conservative Mormon household outside San Antonio, Texas. His deeply religious mother, Anne, is an extraordinarily resilient survivor of ill-health and abuse. When Lance came out to her at the age of 21, she derided his sexuality as a sin and was terrified for his future.

Mama’s Boy explores what it took to remain a family despite such division. An incredibly moving book about how love really does have the power to conquer all. Beautifully written and fortifying. 

Diary of a Drag Queen - Crystal Rasmussen 

(Ebury)

“Stories like the one where you shagged a 79-year-old builder and knocked over his sister’s ashes while feeding him viagra. Or the time you crashed your car because you were giving a hand job in barely moving traffic and took your eye off the car in front.”

From poo anecdotes to moments of heart-stopping poignancy, this year-in-the-life of non-binary drag performer Crystal Rasmussen is truthful, revealing and obscenely hilarious.

Northern, working-class and shagging men three times her age, Denim drag super group member Crystal writes candidly about sex, love, ambition, weight, family and being yourself.

When out of drag, author Tom Rasmussen is contributing editor at Dazed Beauty, Love magazine and website Refinery29. Strident and unapologetic but really sweet, too. 

Trans Power: Own Your Gender - Juno Roche 

(Jessica Kingsley)

 

We’ll never grasp our true potential if we rely on others to define who or what we are. In this radical, energising and liberating reappraisal of the scope and power of trans consciousness, Juno Roche recalibrates trans as an identity with its own power and strength that transcend the gender binary.

In a series of captivating conversations with leading trans figures including Kate Bornstein, Travis Alabanza, Josephine Jones, Glamrou and E-J Scott, themes of race, bodies, sex and the self are explored.

An inspiring, empowering book that is very real and staggeringly visionary. Trans is beautiful. Trans is powerful. Trans is amazing.