According to Goodreads, I read 99 books last year, a number I’m surprised by myself – I guess I do read a lot! Not all of these titles were worth my time of course (and sadly, I’m still somewhat of a completist), but some of them affected me deeply. It wasn’t that I necessarily thought they were perfect – in fact, a lot of them have significant flaws – but they are the books I still thought about for quite some time after I’d finished reading them.
We are very lucky to live in a time when publishing is finally seeing a more diverse slate of stories and authors published. Free little libraries/book exchanges, public libraries, e-books and phones allow us to read anywhere anytime, even if we don’t always have the means to pay an author for their work. Ideally, that’s what we should do of course, so I’ve linked all the titles to their authors’ or publisher’s website in case you’d like to purchase them.
Zoë Playdon, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes And the Unwritten History of the Trans Experience
This is in many ways an important book, recovering a large slice of 20th century trans history of the UK and giving a lot of context to the roots of the UK’s particularly vile brand of transphobic discrimination. As someone who studies history, I wasn’t always thrilled to see how Playdon presents and summarizes historical facts, although I recognize the book isn’t meant to be as rigorous as an academic text. She also tends to over-explain a lot of trans terminology and historical context, though of course many readers won’t have the same knowledge of the topic as I do. Still, it’s written very engagingly and will leave you with a wealth of information on recent trans history.
Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims
I happened to read this book because it’s mentioned in Édouard Louis’ The End of Eddy, which I didn’t particularly like, but it made me curious about the title that inspired Louis. Eribon’s self-investigation of his French working-class roots and his own social climb into bourgeois Parisian circles via studying philosophy is a very moving tale of class shame that I recognized myself in a lot (although my background is quite different from his). Eribon rightfully asks why queer people cite their queerness as the reason they feel alienated from their (often homophobic) rural familial roots, when the move to a city and to different class circles probably plays just as much of a role in it. The book’s perspective is necessarily somewhat limited and doesn’t go as deep into class conflict and the political consequences of it as it could, but the emotional affect of it is very powerful.
David de Jong, Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties
As a German, reading this book constantly infuriated me. De Jong’s meticulously researched tale of how the biggest German industrialist families (think Dr. Oetker, Porsche/Volkswagen, BMW etc) propped up and vastly benefited from Hitler and the Nazi regime – and especially how they got off scot-free after the end of the war – shows that capitalism and fascism will thrive off off each other, presenting a stark warning for the danger to our current crumbling democratic societies. The book thankfully has also been translated into German, which is really important as Germans should especially consider this required reading.
This is likely the most surprising entry for me, as I never thought I would care for or enjoy this book. I cannot speak for its historical accuracy, as this is not the period I work on at all, but the weaving of so many everyday details and nuances into the well-trodden story of Henry VIII severing England from the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn brought this world to life in a way that’s nothing short of brilliant. Told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a kind of Tudor rags-to-riches protagonist, this historical novel certainly feels deserving of all the praise and prizes it received, and definitely a very well-done example of how history can be (re)told.
Justin Ling, Missing from the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community
Just yesterday I was discussing with some friends that part of being on gay apps is the implicit danger of meeting a total stranger and often taking precautionary measures to check in on each other. Justin Ling, who reported on the series of gay men murdered in Toronto’s gay village after meeting their killer online, and the mind-boggling (but not surprising) failure of the police to find the killer as well as long denial of the existence of such a serial killer, heartbreakingly conveys the fear and trauma of the surviving family members and friends, while taking a strong stance for police reform (the apologetic “not all cops are bad” way this is presented is one of my few criticisms of the book). It’s a title I constantly considered abandoning while reading because it felt so traumatizing and yet I think Ling does a really good job of not sliding into voyeuristic exploitation.
Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl
The ultimate queer 90’s throwback as experienced through the person of a mysteriously gender-shape-shifting protagonist, this one manages to be a fun, breezy read while asking some pretty existential questions about sex and gender. When we discussed it in one of the book clubs I sometimes attend, it was not an uncontroversial title – with valid questions as to how an author with a different gender identity handled the transfeminine-leaning character and especially the book’s partial setting of the infamous Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – but there was also agreement that it manages to get a lot of things right.
Isaac Fellman, Dead Collections
A tender, often funny and bittersweet story about the emotional toll of caring for others’ legacy and the hope of new love, Fellman’s protagonist is a trans vampire archivist trying to figure out how to continue existing in a world that’s more hostile to his transness than to his vampirism (and of course one is a metaphor for the other). As I venture more and more into archival work as part of my degree, I have such respect and admiration for the people working in archives, preserving the lives of others, but you don’t need to love archives (or vampires) to enjoy this novel!
Gretchen Felker-Martin, Manhunt
I’ve described the plot of this novel to several friends, all of whom have reacted with incredulous stares, usually followed by the desire to immediately want to read it. Felker-Martin uses the genre of horror/dystopia in an incredibly clever way to examine the real-world deadly violence trans people are subjected to, a violence that likely will only increase with the all-out coordinated anti-trans backlash Western countries are currently experiencing. Masterfully plotted, with a wide array of (anti)heroines (and one hero), the book is a grueling (but worthwhile!) assault on the senses, and especially in the latter half almost impossible to put down.
Hugh Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer
This is how modern historiography should look like! Hugh Ryan re-focuses queer history away from the ubiquitous Manhattan and onto Brooklyn, uncovering a rich heritage of sexual and gender difference, also showing that previous gay historians have been somewhat ignorant (or uninterested) in the historical evidence of queer and gender-diverse populations which aren’t white middle-class cis men.
Jasmine Sealy, The Island of Forgetting
Admittedly, I’m biased about this one – the author happens to be a friend of mine. But the freaking Times chose it as a book of the month, so I can’t be all wrong. A beautiful, harrowing family saga situated on Barbados (and Toronto), this novel unravels complex family dynamics against the backdrop of Barbados, which visitors often reduce to a tourist destination without considering the impact the industry has on the island.