The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of (Winter 2021)

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

Book discovery has never been easier. In this age of the bookternet, my TBR is piled high with titles that I’ve heard recommended on podcasts, seen hauled on BookTube, or spotted in gushing Twitter threads. Each book is vetted by several trusted readers before it ever makes its way to my hands. This has been invaluable for ensuring that the vast majority of the books I read are ones that cater to my particular reading tastes.

The only problem with this strategy is that you lose some of the magic of book discovery before the internet, when wandering a bookstore or library was the main way readers discovered new titles. While I appreciate reading the books everyone is raving about, there’s something special about pulling a dusty volume off a shelf in a forgotten corner of a used bookstore and losing yourself in a narrative I know nothing about.

There are so many books published every week that it is impossible to keep track of them all. Some, despite being fantastic reads, never get the publicity to be heard through the noise. If you appreciate finding little-known gems in your reading life, you’ll want to pick up some of these titles. Each of these is championed by a Book Rioter, and each has fewer than 250 ratings on Goodreads. (For context, The Hunger Games has 6.6 million ratings. In Watermelon Sugar has 14,000.)

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu and Keet Geniza

Kimiko Does Cancer is a short graphic memoir about a queer mixed-race woman getting breast cancer. Tobimatsu wrote this book to challenge the simplified mainstream narrative around cancer, so that other queer people and people of color would have a reference that better reflects their lives. She discusses how this affected her relationship, as well as how it intersected with her exploration of gender. This is a book that packs a punch in just over 100 pages. —Danika Ellis

Maiden, Mother, Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes by Gwen Benaway

Maiden, Mother, Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes Edited by Gwen Benaway

This anthology all focuses on trans women and femmes in fantasy settings, but they cover a range of tones and settings. Some plots follow Dungeons & Dragons–esque magical shenanigans, while others explore grief and trauma through metaphor. They all have trans main characters, but in some narratives that is incidental, while it is at the core of others. The story that takes place at a residential school and involves dream magic has had particular staying power for me, and it’s something I would love to teach in an English class one day. —Danika Ellis

Kenzie Kickstarts a Team (The Derby Daredevils #1) by Kit Rosewater, illustrated by Sophie Escabasse

Kenzie Kickstarts a Team (The Derby Daredevils #1) by Kit Rosewater and Sophie Escabasse

I am shocked that this middle grade novel hasn’t gotten more attention! It’s about a group of 10-year-old girls who start a roller derby team together, which is adorable. All the girls have very different personalities and body types, as well as being different races, and each is the point of view character of a book in the series. This first volume has a sapphic main character! She also has a trans dad, which isn’t something I’ve seen represented in children’s lit before. Most of all, though, this is a great story about friendship, and it is packed full of illustrations — this would be a good Diary of a Wimpy Kid read-alike! —Danika Ellis

Hitting The Mark by Aidan Wayne

Hitting The Mark by Aidan Wayne

In Hitting The Mark, Aidan Wayne aptly displays the power of defining professional boundaries in his queer romance novella. As a famous action-movie hero, Marcus is well known for doing his own stunts. He is filming his next project in his Michigan hometown and he longs to reconnect with his taekwondo master and longtime crush, Taemin. When they reconnect, the attraction is instant. But between Marcus’s filming schedule and Taemin’s taekwondo practice, can they find a way to fit in each other’s lives? The novella takes on difficult topics while maintaining a heartwarmingly funny narrative. Taemin’s life at his studio is fully fleshed out with detailed secondary characters who make the reader want to start learning taekwondo to hang out with them. Similarly, Marcus’s costars are a delight and his connection to his home studio allows him to reconnect with his hometown. Between filming a thrilling science fiction movie, preparing for the Olympics, and falling in love, the pair have plenty on their plate. Ultimately, both Marcus and Taemin realize how to create positive boundaries in their lives as they work towards building a future together. Fans of Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade and His Quiet Agent by Ada Maria Soto will be delighted to dive into Hitting The Mark. —R. Nassor

River of Dreams by Jan Nash

River of Dreams by Jan Nash

In this novel full of mystical elements, Finn Driscoll is counting down the days until she can leave for college. Dealing with personal issues such as her dear brother, Noah, in a coma and her high school social life disappearing daily, she’s ready for a fresh beginning. Until the night she sees Noah in a dream. He begs for her help. At first, she shakes it off as just a nightmare. Then it happens again, and few more times after that. Truly scared, Finn confides in her grandmother, only to learn the very surprising truth about her family. They’re actually known as Dreamwalkers, heroes who step into the River of Dreams and fight the monsters in other people’s nightmares, freeing them to face the problems in their real lives. Finn then sets her heart to saving her brother. The story is certainly a touching and heartbreaking one, full of surreal reality, that will surely stay with you past the last page. I loved this novel, and wish others knew more about this fantastical tale mixed in with contemporary elements. —Aurora Lydia Dominguez

In the Winter Woods cover

In the Winter Woods by Isabelle Adler

A queer cozy mystery! Everything about it is so lovely! Mystery writer Declan Kensington escapes to quiet Maplewood, Vermont in the hopes of de-stressing and reviving his failing career. But when a killer strikes and frames Declan, he must work with public safety commissioner Curtis Monroe to clear his name. —CJ Connor

The Book of Queer Prophets edited by Ruth Hunt

The Book of Queer Prophets Edited by Ruth Hunt

Spiritual and queer identity are equally inherent parts of who I am, and so this anthology was especially cathartic. In this anthology, 24 writers, activists, and thinkers share their experiences and ponderings on the intersection of LGBTQ identity and religious belief as they’ve experienced it — along with the tensions this intersection can present. I especially enjoyed the poet Jay Hulme’s essay on finding spirituality through cathedrals as a young trans man. It was so vulnerable and fascinating, and it made me want to visit a cathedral once it’s safe to do so. —CJ Connor

Kiss and 'Telle? by Nadine C. Keels

Kiss and Telle? by Nadine C. Keels

It’s rare to find tame romance novels, but Kiss and ‘Telle? fits that category! We follow Chantelle and Dennis, two longtime acquaintances who team up to start a business. Naturally sparks fly, yet their chemistry is conveyed through casual conversation and past memories. There are also biblical references within this tale, but that doesn’t overtake the story (and attraction) that gradually unfolds! Nadine Keels is a wonderful writer who addresses the meaning of patience when navigating relationships. —Cathleen Perez Brenycz

Cover of Critical Point by Huang

Critical Point by S.L. Huang

This explosive sci-fi thriller is a blast to read. It’s the third book in the Cas Russell series, but I confess, I started here. I am a series renegade and often read books in random order. Cas Russell is a genetically altered mathematical genius with a bit of a people problem. Her memories have been erased, and she has some issues with “compassion” and having a “moral compass.” But she is a damn good PI, and when one of her PI friends is kidnapped, she’ll do anything to find him. I adore Cas Russell and sped through these books on audio (yes, I know, in the wrong order). If you’re a stickler for reading order, the first book in the series is Zero Sum Game.  —Margaret Kingsbury

Can’t get enough little-known gems in your reading life? Check out our previous editions of The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of!