The way in which we think about, discuss, and perceive gender is one of the most important and ongoing revolutions in our society today, and we’re all currently living in a significant historical period. Naturally, this shift in public consciousness is reflected in the art that is being produced. (And what’s more revolutionary than art?) So, without further ado, here are five powerful novels that will change the way you think about gender and the world in which we’re living.
1. The Book of Flora by Meg Elison
Set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the final installment in Elison’s Road to Nowhere trilogy has delighted even the harshest of critics. Publishers Weekly notes in their starred review that The Book of Flora “widens its scope from reproductive rights to gender binaries and the consequences of stories.” Locus Magazine agrees, stating that “what sets the Road to Nowhere trilogy apart from other literary pandemics is how Elison centers her story around reproductive rights, gender identity, and sexuality.” And (though we’d never spoil!) its ending is one for the ages. Booklist says “its shocking conclusion will leave readers reeling and rethinking what they know about gender identity and trauma.”
In the Bookstr office, we were awed by The Book of Flora, a feminist dystopia unlike any other we’ve read. You can see our reaction here! It makes the top of our list because of how Elison explores themes of feminism, LGBTQ+ people’s rights, women’s rights, and the commodification and governmental control of women’s bodies over the course of the novel. Through the lens of expertly crafted dystopia, and a brilliant protagonist in Flora, Meg Elison showcases her incredible talent, and this book is proof of that.
In this Philip K. Dick Award–winning series, one woman’s unknowable destiny depends on a bold new step in human evolution.
In the wake of the apocalypse, Flora has come of age in a highly gendered post-plague society where females have become a precious, coveted, hunted, and endangered commodity. But Flora does not participate in the economy that trades in bodies. An anathema in a world that prizes procreation above all else, she is an outsider everywhere she goes, including the thriving all-female city of Shy.
Now navigating a blighted landscape, Flora, her friends, and a sullen young slave she adopts as her own child leave their oppressive pasts behind to find their place in the world. They seek refuge aboard a ship where gender is fluid, where the dynamic is uneasy, and where rumors flow of a bold new reproductive strategy.
When the promise of a miraculous hope for humanity’s future tears Flora’s makeshift family asunder, she must choose: protect the safe haven she’s built or risk everything to defy oppression, whatever its provenance.
2. The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara
Named a Recommended Book of 2018 by Buzzfeed, The Wall Street Journal, The Millions, Southern Living, Bustle, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Nylon, Mashable, Library Journal and Thrillist, and dubbed “vividly imagined” by The New York Times Book Review, Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties became an instant classic of its genre when published last year. Exploring the life of a transgender teenager (based on Angie Xtravaganza) who falls in love and creates a space for themselves, the novel inspired one NYT reviewer to gush about how “you are… struck by the Xtravaganza’s strength and determination, by their vibrant spirits and humor, by their creativity, by their sensitivity to beauty and their capacity to give and receive love.” And while multiple reviews praise the novel’s vibrancy and vigor, Nami Mun, author of Miles From Nowhere, observes that “underneath the grime and glitter, The House of Impossible Beauties is quietly about necessity and defiance, about love and death, about characters who ache to be alive and seen in a world that mirrors back nothing but rejection and violence.”
It’s 1980 in New York City, and nowhere is the city’s glamour and energy better reflected than in the burgeoning Harlem ball scene, where seventeen-year-old Angel first comes into her own. Burned by her traumatic past, Angel is new to the drag world, new to ball culture, and has a yearning inside of her to help create family for those without. When she falls in love with Hector, a beautiful young man who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, the two decide to form the House of Xtravaganza, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. But when Hector dies of AIDS-related complications, Angel must bear the responsibility of tending to their house alone.
As mother of the house, Angel recruits Venus, a whip-fast trans girl who dreams of finding a rich man to take care of her; Juanito, a quiet boy who loves fabrics and design; and Daniel, a butch queen who accidentally saves Venus’s life. The Xtravaganzas must learn to navigate sex work, addiction, and persistent abuse, leaning on each other as bulwarks against a world that resists them. All are ambitious, resilient, and determined to control their own fates, even as they hurtle toward devastating consequences.
Told in a voice that brims with wit, rage, tenderness, and fierce yearning, The House of Impossible Beauties is a tragic story of love, family, and the dynamism of the human spirit.
3. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
Winner of the American Library Association Gay & Lesbian Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award, this novel, first published in 1993, was a groundbreaking work of gender exploration. Set in the often repressive 1950s, the novel follows Jess, whose parents have sent her to a psychiatric institution after catching her trying on her father’s clothes. Publishers Weekly called it “compelling,” while Book Riot dubbed it “a classic novel that explores butch identity and the blurred lines between masculine and feminine.” Alison Bechdel says, “Stone Butch Blues has probably touched your life even if you haven’t read it yet,” while the Village Voice credits Feinberg with giving ‘the word ‘transgender’ legs.” Perhaps it’s time to use yours (legs, that is) to head to your local bookstore and grab a copy of a novel that will forever change your perception.
Published in 1993, this brave, original novel is considered to be the finest account ever written of the complexities of a transgender existence.
Woman or man? That’s the question that rages like a storm around Jess Goldberg, clouding her life and her identity. Growing up differently gendered in a blue–collar town in the 1950’s, coming out as a butch in the bars and factories of the prefeminist ’60s, deciding to pass as a man in order to survive when she is left without work or a community in the early ’70s. This powerful, provocative and deeply moving novel sees Jess coming full circle, she learns to accept the complexities of being a transgendered person in a world demanding simple explanations: a he-she emerging whole, weathering the turbulence.
Leslie Feinberg is also the author of Trans Liberation, Trans Gender Warriors and Transgender Liberation, and is a noted activist and speaker on transgender issues.
4. WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS BY ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE
Winner of the 2016 Tiptree Award, longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and recipient of the Stonewall Book Award Honor, as well as a Kirkus Best Book of 2016, and a Booklist Editor’s Choice McLemore’s When the Moon Was Ours “explores gender with magical realism and carefully researched cultural markers.” Booklist notes that McLemore’s sophomore novel “mixes fairy-tale ingredients with the elegance of a love story, with all of it rooted in a deeply real sense of humanity” while Publishers Weekly says, “readers interested in gender identity and the pull of family and history will find this to be an engrossing exploration of these and other powerful themes.”
McLemore delivers a second stunning and utterly romantic novel, again tinged with magic.
To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
Atmospheric, dynamic, and packed with gorgeous prose, When the Moon was Ours is another winner from this talented author.
5. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
In their starred review, Kirkus called Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl “groundbreaking, shape—and genre—shifting work from a daring writer; a fresh novel that elevates questions of sexual identity and intimacy,” while The New Yorker notes that Lawlor’s novel “explor[es] the malleability of gender and desire.” Dubbed by Foreword in their starred review as “…a hilarious, original, gender-fluid novel replete with 1990s cachet, sex, and queer identity,” Paul… is hailed as “a new benchmark for gender-nonconforming literature.”
It’s 1993 and Paul Polydoris tends bar at the only gay club in a university town thrumming with politics and partying. He studies queer theory, has a dyke best friend, makes zines, and is a flâneur with a rich dating life. But Paul’s also got a secret: he’s a shapeshifter. Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco–a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure.
Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel offers a speculative history of early ’90s identity politics during the heyday of ACT UP and Queer Nation. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a riotous, razor-sharp bildungsroman whose hero/ine wends his way through a world gutted by loss, pulsing with music, and opening into an array of intimacy and connections.