It’s just a fact that I’m way more likely to read a book if I know it’s queer. This doesn’t mean I don’t read and love non-queer books. It’s just that it takes a lot more to get me excited about them, and I’m more likely to pass them by. So I always like to know if a book is queer going in. And I’m not talking All This Could Be Different, Cantoras, or Detransition, Baby levels of queer brilliance. I’m talking a few queer characters! Or even a main queer character who’s one of many, or whose queerness isn’t a big deal or a major part of the plot. I’m taking small, pivotal, world-changing moments of queer joy or connection. I’m talking queer love stories wrapped up in a lot of other exciting drama. Not every book has to be a Great Queer Novel. I just want to read about my people.
Maybe it’s because I read a lot of books pre-publication, when there aren’t a ton of reviews available, but I keep having the wonderful but slightly puzzling experience of the surprise! it’s queer! book. These are books I’ve picked up despite thinking they weren’t queer at all. Often the queer themes and characters aren’t mentioned in the publisher’s summary. Or because they aren’t just about queer people, they don’t show up on queer book lists or get a ton of attention in the many queer bookish circles I run in.
There’s something undeniably delightful about realizing I’ve stumbled on a queer book without meaning to. But more often not, I don’t want to be surprised. I just want to know! So let me do you this public service. Here are eight marvelous books that are beautifully, if sometimes quietly, queer. You’re welcome.
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller
This historical novel, set in the early 20th century, follows the adventures of Sven, a young man from Sweden who finds unexpected belonging in Svalbard, a beautiful, dangerous, and isolated archipelago in the Arctic Circle. Sven isn’t queer but just about every other character is! Miller’s descriptions of the northern landscape are breathtaking, but it’s the formation of Sven’s queer found family that makes this book so moving.
The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan
In this intergenerational saga about a Lebanese Syrian American family, three adult siblings convene in Beirut when their parents announce they’re selling the family home. The youngest sibling, Naj, is a queer musician who’s become internationally famous since moving back to Beirut. Does she steal the show? Absolutely. But the whole book is masterful. It’s got complicated family relationships, the legacies of war and migration, and what happens to stories when they fester untold and unremembered.
Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson
This is a wonderful book for fans of casually queer novels. It’s a kaleidoscopic story about Ruby, an Indigenous woman adopted by white parents, and her search to find herself and her place in the world. It unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, through short chapters told from the POVs of her birth and adoptive parents, friends, lovers and ex-lovers (which include men and women), children, and family members.
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky
This book isn’t exactly coy about its queerness. On the first page, Tiny explains her situation: she has suddenly and mysterious become pregnant via owl, which is strange enough, but also, the owl who gets her pregnant is a woman. The whole story, which is about Tiny’s owl-baby and the struggles she faces from a world that refuses to understand her, is extremely queer, explicitly and thematically. I honestly don’t know why more queer book lovers haven’t been talking about it!
Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
Malaya is a fat Black girl growing up in Harlem in the 1980s and ’90s, surrounded by voices telling her to make herself smaller, from her mother to strangers she passes on the street. It’s a painful, intimate, and ultimately celebratory book about one girl’s determination to claim space. What’s especially breathtaking is the way Sullivan writes about queerness as reprieve and refugee. It is through moments of queer love and desire that Malaya begins to imagine a life lived on her own terms.
True Biz by Sara Nović
I love books that delve into all the messiness of queer lives, but I also love books where queer characters get to deal with all the human things that have nothing to do with their queerness. This is one of those. It’s a wonderful blend of family drama and coming-of-age, set at a fictional school for the Deaf. February, the headmistress, is gay and trying to keep her marriage intact while dealing with an ailing mother, devastating budget cuts, and the near-constant turmoil of teenagers.
Fiona & Jane by Jean Chen Ho
This book of interconnected stories follows two Taiwanese American friends, Fiona and Jane, from childhood through adulthood. They move in and out of each other’s lives as they each deal with family crises, career quandaries, and romantic entanglements. Jane’s queerness feels so similar to the way many people I know in real life experience it. She sleeps with people of different genders and moves between labels, identifying differently at different times in her life.
Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke
This deliciously strange, surreal novel is Weird Queer at its finest. Gerald works at a small PR firm and things get…interesting, to say the least, when he accidentally uploads his consciousness into Slack. And that’s just the beginning of the weird. It’s written entirely in Slack messages, and there are a lot of unexplained phenomena. It’s a hilarious and scathing look at exploitative capitalism and office culture. And underneath all that, there’s a tender queer romance rooted in kindness and optimism.
Looking for more lowkey queer books? Check out these queer books without romances! Some of them are indeed very queer, but some of them aren’t at all focused on the characters’ sexuality. And if you’re looking for the opposite — i.e. books that are very queer very fast — there are plenty of those on this list of books where you don’t have to wait for the gay.