LGBT, just like graphic novels a few weeks ago, isn’t really a genre of literature in itself. The titles we have chosen here range from westerns to romantic comedies, historical to adventure novels and everything in between. They also are not just novels about being LGBT, or coming out stories. But we realised early on, when we had half filled our YA list with LGBT-themed titles, that perhaps they deserve a list of their own, to showcase them as easily some of the best novels we have read this decade. We love them so much that we didn’t want to delete a single one from the list.
1. The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller (2011)
The Song of Achilles is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful novels we have featured on any of our lists. A re-telling of the Greek myth, it follows Achilles and his Patroclus from their childhood first meeting all the way to the tragic battlefields of the Trojan War.
Achilles and Patroclus are hopelessly, helplessly in love, and their love is the backbone of the story. It is also devastating; if you know your Greek myths, you know exactly how the story will end before you start reading it, and Patroclus as our narrator even tells you right at the start. The sense of fatalism hanging over the entire story is breathtaking – literally. At times you will need a break to contemplate what is coming. This is a tragedy of the highest calibre, a love story for the ages.
Miller crafts every sentence as though she is writing poetry, and you can really believe that she spent ten years working on the book – there is no such thing as a word or a comma out of place in her prose.
2. Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012)
Aristotle and Dante won an absolute boatload of awards and medals in the year after it was released, and it deserved every single one of them. Set in the late 1980s, it follows the friendship and blooming romantic relationship of 15 year old Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana. Aristotle is a troubled and lonely kid when he meets Dante at the local pool, and the two soon become inseparable. They dance around each other for a long time – Aristotle in particular struggles to understand his own emotions – before finally confessing their feelings for one another.
Don’t be fooled by the fact this is a YA novel – it is far from an easy read. Sáenz doesn’t sugar coat the realities of growing up ‘different’ in 1980s Texas. Aristotle is angry and confused for a lot of the story, and his internal monologue is sometimes hard to read. He also pushes Dante away. But these harsh realities make the emotional payoff even better, as we’ve followed Aristotle the whole way and watched him learn not only about himself and Dante, but also about his family and his place in the world. This is more than a ‘coming out story’.
Sarah Waters is one of the undisputed champions of modern fiction with LGBT characters and themes – Fingersmith, anyone? Her novels are Literature with a capital ‘L’, the kind of grown up books that we all feel like we should be reading and enjoying. What makes hers so great though is that you actually want to read them, and The Paying Guests is no exception.
Set in 1920s London, in a society still recovering from the devastating impact of the First World War, Frances Wray lives with her mother. They take in two lodgers, Leonard and Lilian Barber, to help support themselves financially, but Frances and Lilian are soon descending into a passionate affair that will shake the foundations of the house and all the lives within it.
Waters’ true strength as an author is her sense of time and place, and how vividly she paints the pictures she wishes for her reader to see. Frances and Lilian are flawed and messy, but vibrant; even as they are forced to hide their true selves away from the people around them, we are encouraged to follow them bravely on their journeys of self-discovery.
4. The Art of Being Normal – Lisa Williamson (2015)
David, our main character, is a transgender teen taking his first steps in transitioning. Kate is the person David feels he should be. A chance encounter with Leo, the new boy at school, leads to the two of them becoming uneasy friends. When Leo goes on a trip to find the father that abandoned him, Kate goes with him, excited about the chance to be herself more openly than she can in their home town. Williamson presents a world that feels like it is very honest and indicative of the experience of trans teens. Refreshingly though, she also makes sure to highlight moments of lightness and love; Leo’s relationships with his sisters are warm and gentle, and an event I shall refer to only as The Prom is a truly charming episode.
This is another title that has migrated over from the YA list, and I’d be inclined to say that of all the books here, it is the most vital. The one I’d encourage and implore everyone to read and give to the teens (and adults!) in their lives. Trans rights, in a world that is still mostly ignorant about them, has been a massive talking point lately, and sensitive, honest, gorgeous books like The Art of Being Normal are only going to help move things in the right direction.
A Little Life is an absolute powerhouse of a novel. It’s over 800 pages long and full to bursting with difficult subjects, from abuse resulting in lifelong trauma to chronic pain and disability, to self harm. It also happens to be about gay relationships, but the interior life of Jude – the main character – is so richly layered and complicated that the fact he is gay just happens to be another thing about him.
In case you can’t tell, A Little Life is not a happy book. We follow Jude and his friends, Willem, JB and Malcolm, through three decades of friendship, an in-depth look at the complexities of male friendships and relationships, which are sometimes neglected in fiction – at least in this level of detail. Jude is a man full of self-loathing, in pain and suffering a trauma that he will never recover from, but his friends do their best for him. The queer themes of this novel go far beyond the characters being gay. The exploration of the idea of platonic life partners with no expectations of anything except love, are themes that have barely been uncovered in novels. There’s an awful lot to unpack here.
6. Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli (2015)
If you haven’t heard of this book then you have probably heard of the movie based on it, Love Simon, which was released last year. Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a great big warm hug of a book. It’s a fairly simple story, compared to most of the others on this list, but that doesn’t make it worth any less than it is. In many ways, it is a fairly standard YA coming out story, but where that tends to create a lot of drama in many novels, Simon’s story is altogether gentler. He’s a gay teen in a high school in the southern USA, so of course he doesn’t have it easy, but what he does have – which a lot of these protagonists don’t – is a group of supportive friends and loving family.
Simon is a very normal teenager, which helps in making him so dang relatable; he’s funny and affectionate, and sure he overthinks, but what teenager doesn’t? He finds it easier to express himself online, like a lot of people do these days, flirting his way into love with Blue, his online beau. This book is lacking in dramatics – apart from the school musical! – but that’s what makes it so special. It’s refreshing to read such a sweet story of young love that feels real.
The Walk-In Closet is the debut novel from Nazemian, a book just as much about the Persian lifestyle and diaspora in America as it is about LGBT themes. Kara is an almost thirty year old woman living as her best friend Bobby’s beard, so he doesn’t have to come out to his Persian parents. They’ve never outright lied about being in a relationship; they just let people believe what they want to believe. Bobby’s parents, the Ebadis, love Kara and have embraced her fully as a member of their family, desperate for the pair to marry and have children. When Kara meets Kyle, she’s forced to confront what she really wants from life.
There’s a lot of secrets in the Ebadi closet – Bobby being gay is far from the only one. The characters exist in their own isolation, keeping things hidden from one another, until eventually it all spills out. The Walk-In Closet is funny and irreverent, salacious and absolutely not a book for everyone, but it is an absolutely cracking read.
Days Without End has featured on several lists lately, including the BBC’s 100 most influential novels. Set in America during the Indian Wars and the American Civil War, it manages to be both a western and historical novel, as well as a love story. Thomas McNulty is our narrator, who befriends and falls in love with John Cole as the two work together as entertainers and then join up to fight in the wars. They ‘adopt’ a Native American girl, Winona, and live as a family before the past comes knocking.
Days Without End is both epic and intimate and – crucially, for a novel with these themes set at the time – has a sort of happy ending. In the quiet years that the family lives together, Thomas explores his own gender identity as well as his sexual one, more comfortable in dresses than he is in traditional masculine garb. There’s nothing sensational about this, or about his relationship with John. It is all very matter of fact, quietly celebrated, and presented in Barry’s lyrical prose.
9. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue – Mackenzi Lee (2017)
This book is on this list for one reason, and that reason is that it is so much fun. Set in 18th century England, Henry ‘Monty’ Montague is a young man who should be preparing for life as a gentleman. However, with his irrepressible spirit, untamed even by the father who disapproves of him, Monty prefers a life of gambling, drinking and love affairs with women and men. He also has a massive crush on Percy, his best friend. Percy is gentle, kind, and courageous – a character that you will love as much as Monty does, because Percy is just like that. Monty is allowed to go on his Grand Tour of Europe with the threat of taking over the family estate hanging over his head for when he comes back, and plans to turn the whole thing into a hedonistic thrill ride. Which is fine, until he accidentally turns the whole thing into a manhunt across Europe.
I mentioned that this book is fun, and it truly is. All three main characters – Monty, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity, are very likeable and the scrapes they get into are full of drama and excitement. Lee also succeeds though in the quieter moments, where Monty’s longing for Percy slowly develops into something much deeper, and watching their relationship change and grow is the real joy of the novel.
This debut novel from Davies has been compared to Bridget Jones, but I’d argue that description doesn’t do the story enough justice at all. It is an outrageous novel, explicit and very funny, as we follow Julia, a 26 year old Londoner who has just realised that the reason she may have been celibate for three years is actually because she’s a lesbian. Her joyful dive into her new lifestyle, complete with a set of interesting and rounded LGBT friends, is wonderful.
But In At The Deep End also goes further and presents something not often seen in such stories – abuse in a gay relationship. Davies paints a picture we are all familiar with in a heterosexual setting, of a controlling partner who manipulates to get what they want, and makes their victim feel as though they are the guilty one. Julia suffers at Sam’s hands, and Davies doesn’t hold back, but it is important to see, and to realise that of course this is just as possible in a lesbian relationship as a straight one. Davies balances this awkward truth with the beacons of light and wholesomeness that are Julia’s friendship group, and you finish the novel appreciating the nuances of relationships on a whole.