In August, Book Riot published a list of the Best Books Set In Every State, and I thought to myself, as I so often do, “What if we did a list like this, but for queer women?” I set out to do it, and as it so often goes, it was harder than anticipated, but also a delightful journey into the canon of every book ever published about lesbians.
Challenges presented themselves right out the gate: an overwhelming chunk of our literature is set in New York and California. This is true about literature in general but especially for us, as New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles have been queer refuges for decades, thus making us even more likely than the average author to set our stories there. After taking care of the iconic/classic novels/memoirs for those states, there was little room left for hundreds of incredible books that would’ve absolutely made the list had they been set anywhere else at all.
The hardest states were Wisconsin, Hawaii, Alaska, Wyoming, Ohio and Utah. I was aiming for literary fiction and memoir but eventually expanded my search into genre fiction, including romance, which is a resonant category of literature for our people, I think we can all agree. I attempted to provide a diverse array of experiences, especially in states where I had lots of books to choose from, and also to pick books that had a distinct sense of place.
Are these objectively “the best” books set in every state? Sometimes! I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of these choices, but do know that a solid (no lie) four entire weekends were put in to finding all of these. HAPPY READING!
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg (1987)
The film adaptation tragically excluded an explicit acknowledgment of the romantic relationship between Idgie, an unrepentant tomboy of Whistle Stop, Alabama; and Ruth Jamison, who comes to town to teach at the local Vacation Bible School.
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Grief Map, by Sarah Hahn Campbell (2017)
Grief Map charts the incandescence of profound loss, the cartography of the heart, all the messy stuff we try to make clean in the aftermath of unspeakable loss. Sarah left Lia behind in the small Alaskan town where they’d made a life together — she had to, to protect her daughter — but never stopped loving her. She’s in Colorado when she learns Lia has died, and thus is plunged into a dark time machine of grief/memory. The result is “part memoir, part poetry, part elegy.”
The Dead Go to Seattle, by Vivian Faith Prescott
Prescott is a fifth-generation Alaskan, born and raised in Southeastern Alaska, and a member of the T’akdeintaan clan. These 43 interconnected stories, told by a Native American woman kicked out of her home for being gay to a researcher from the Smithsonian with a time machine, are a true evocation of the state she loves so dearly and the struggles she has with it: colonialism, homophobia and erasure.
Bright Lights of Summer, by Lynn Ames (2014)
As World War II rages overseas, 16-year old Theodora “Dizzy” Hosler joins the World Champion Phoenix Ramblers softball team and meets Frannie, who shares her passion for the game and also for other women. Think “A League of Their Own” if it had dared to go where we went with it in our heads.
Cottonmouths: A Novel, by Kelly J Ford (2017)
After failing out of college, Emily returns to her small Arkansas hometown and falls back in with Jody, her ex-best-friend and first crush — who has, in Emily’s absence, both had a child and built a meth lab in her backyard. It’s a tiny corner of the Ozarks, a place run on gossip and good Christian values, where “an ache born in the woods across the creek” can get you involved with a meth business that seems like a means to an end until nothing means anything anymore.
San Francisco & Northern California
Valencia, by Michelle Tea (2000)
Tea’s exuberant fictionalized memoir is an iconic ’90s time capsule of a young dyke finger-fucking, writing, performing and falling in love all over San Francisco’s Mission District — back when twentysomething working-class artists could, you know, afford to live there. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.
Curious Wine, by Katherine V. Forrest (1983)
Considered a seminal classic of lesbian literature, Forrest’s first novel puts six women with a lot of feelings in a picturesque Lake Tahoe cabin, where two fall for each other in a story that was pretty remarkable for its era, if a little cheesy.
Hoochie Mama: The Other White Meat, by Erica Lopez (2001)
Tomato “Mad Dog” Rodriguez returns to the Mission from jail (she kidnapped her ex-girlfriend for just a few minutes) to find gentrification in full swing in the final book of the Trilogy of Tomatoes series. Lopez keenly evokes late ’90s/early 2000s San Francisco through the eyes of a queer Latinx woman with a voice entirely her own. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Humor and Lesbian Fiction.
The IHOP Papers, by Ali Liebegott (2007)
Girl flees her homophobic family and her small town for San Francisco, then still a reliable dyke mecca, and learns how to live and love while waiting tables in a story that also approaches self-harm, polyamory, poetry, addiction, recovery, dyke drama, and falling in love. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian General Fiction, Stonewall Literature Award Nominee
Life Is Wonderful, People Are Terrific, by Meliza Banales (2015)
18-year-old Missy Fuego is the first in her family to leave home when she heads off to a prestigious hippie school in Santa Cruz and becomes a stripper to pay her tuition in this energetic tale of “being young, drunk, punk and Xicana in Northern California in the ’90s.”
Los Angeles & Southern California
Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour (2012)
Blissful, sun-soaked, California summer love: a proficient and accomplished young set designer in Hollywood finds the girl of her dreams while on the hunt for clues about the hidden life of a movie icon whose letter she found at an estate sale.
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July (2014)
Delightfully weird and entirely original, the queerness in bisexual artist/writer July’s first novel comes in a little later as an intimacy develops between Cheryl, who works from home making self-defense videos, and Clee, her foisted-upon houseguest. July has a way of creating bubbles of regimented, depressive solitude within massive hyper-social cities, giving voice to a human cut off from emotional community but still dutifully visiting her color doctor and developing soothing internal routines. As Lauren Groff wrote in The New York Times, “This is a book that is painfully alive.” Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Fiction.
The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles), by Amy Spalding (2018)
17-year-old Abby’s been content to run her plus-size fashion blog and play sidekick to her hetero friends and their ambitious romances until she meets Jordi, a fellow intern at Jordi’s fave L.A. boutique. “You’ll want to go shopping with Abby,” writes author Gretchen Murphy of the experience of reading this book. “You’ll obsessively need to sample every cheeseburger in town. You might even plan a foodie-fashion-fun times vacation in L.A.”
And Playing the Role of Herself, by KE Lane (2005)
A pure, delicious, lesbian romance snack — a closeted lesbian actress falls for her co-star, who Crystal describes as a “tall, husky-voiced lady with an angular face and slightly cleft chin who is reminiscent of every actress who has ever starred in Law & Order.” Cheesy, but beloved. Winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Ann Bannon Award.
Southland, by Nina Revoy (2003)
This ambitious, gritty crime novel tackles a great expanse of time with a Japanese-American lesbian law student drawn home after the sudden death of her grandfather, who she learns was keeping a significant a secret all his life about four African-American boys found frozen to death in his grocery store during the Watts Riots of 1965. Lauded for its exposition of Los Angeles history and its compelling characters throughout. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, Stonewall Literature Award Nominee
Mean, by Myriam Gurba (2017)
“Her brain starts in one place and ends up across the street and you are chasing her, laughing, suddenly unafraid of cars,” writes Aisha of the queer mixed-race Chicana narrating this biting, fresh, darkly rollicking mash-up of true crime, memoir and ghost story. Mean covers a lot of ground — Southern and Northern California, for starters, and also surviving sexual violence, misogyny, homophobia and a very small town. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for LGBTQ Non-Fiction.
Excavation, by Wendy C Ortiz (2014)
Wendy is already struggling with an abusive family and the unknown folds of her own sexuality and sexual orientation; her eighth grade teacher irrevocably alters her ability to do either when, under the guise of encouraging her writing, he begins a relationship with her. But Oritz doesn’t consider herself a victim, even as she “digs into her past so as to fight her demons, revealing with utter honesty and unrestrained prose the vicious details of her ordeal.” Through enduring details, “a crystallized moment in time emerges: Los Angeles in the 1980s.”
Girl Walking Backwards, by Bett Williams (1998)
Syke’s story isn’t inspirational or even politically correct; it’s just explicitly authentic, evading sensationalism and preachiness. She’s just a concupiscent teenage girl obsessed with this punk goth cutter named Jessica and persistently dodging her Mom’s obsession with the Santa Barbara New Age scene and the healers and hypnotists she’s convinced would cure Skye of her bisexuality. Skye’s high school story isn’t defined by cliques or academics or athletics, but the feeling of the thing: when just going to somebody’s house felt like a potentially life-changing adventure and everybody seemed cooler than you.
Tell Me What You Like: An Alison Kaine Mystery, by Kate Allen (1993)
A lesbian cop walks into a Denver bar, gets herself a leather-dyke dominatrix girlfriend who reluctantly shows her the S/M ropes and eventually investigates a string of lesbian murders. There’s just one problem: every victim just so happens to have been a client of her girlfriend’s. A hot little mystery peppered with wry observations on lesbian subcultures — and delightfully kinky sex.
Sadie, by Courtney Summers (2018)
This riveting New York Times bestseller follows Sadie, a queer kid living in poverty in a rural Colorado trailer park with her addict mother, who’s been raising her sister alone in their isolated small town until that sister turns up dead. When an aspiring podcaster picks up the case Sadie’s determined to solve, things really pick up and you can’t put it down.
Patience & Sarah: A Pioneering Love Story, by Isabel Miller (1969)
Based on the true story of painter Mary Ann Wilson and her “companion” Miss Brundage, this tender story finds wealthy Patience White and boyish Sarah Dowling leaving their homes to buy a farm together in Connecticut. Author Alma Routsong sold the book on street corners and at Daughters of Bilitis meetings before assuming a pseudonym and finding a real publisher. Winner of the American Library Association’s First Stonewall Book Award.
As I Lay Frying — a Rehoboth Beach Memoir, by Fay Jacobs (2004)
Fay Jacobs and her girlfriend Bonnie fell in love with the seaside town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a longtime gay and lesbian vacation enclave, at first sight. The “sometimes provocative, sometimes political, occasionally heartwarming, and always hilarious” essays collected in this book trace their journey from visitors to residents, and everybody they met along the way.
Down to the Bone, by Mayra Lazara Dole (2012)
“Miami is the lushly portrayed setting for this Cuban community,” writes the Kirkus Review of this coming-of-age novel centered on a lesbian who has her life ripped out from under her after a nun discovers love letters between her and her girlfriend, getting both of them expelled and her girlfriend shipped off to Puerto Rico to marry a boy and re-frame her relationship with Laura as a brief foray into sin. Laura reels and rebuilds, assembling chosen family in this sexy, sometimes clumsily written but consistently engaging story.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1982)
The American classic set in rural Georgia is a raw emotional account of pain, passion and survival told by Celie, who seizes your whole heart with letters that trace her coming of age, falling in love for the first time and breaking free.
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, by Jaye Robin Brown (2016)
An out-and-proud lesbian is stuffed back into the closet when her family moves from Atlanta to the conservative Rome, Georgia; but how can she lay low when she meets her new friend’s sister, Mary, and yearns for so much more than she can say?
The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghost, by Tiya Miles (2015)
Miles, an accomplished scholar of Native American and African-American histories, mines a little-known chapter of this country’s past — slaveholding by Southern Cherokees — for her first work of fiction, which sees a biracial magazine writer, an African-American debutante and a “Twizzler-chewing Converse-clad Cherokee-Creek” queer heroine in the present day looking backwards to reconcile the now at a secret-laden historical site in Chatsworth, Georgia. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Fiction.
Odd One Out, by Nic Stone (2018)
Lauded for its deft handling of race and sexuality and authentic adolescent feelings, Odd One Out presents three teenagers in Decatur, Georgia — two girls and one guy — each telling their own story in their own voice, each hung up on one or both of the others. The latest celebrated debut from (bisexual!) New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin.
Name Me Nobody, by Lois-Ann Yamanaka (2000)
You never doubt the authenticity of 13-year-old Emi-Lou’s voice as she grapples with pre-teen shit like feeling ostracized, liking girls, and dreaming of a family that deserves the love she has to give. A reviewer writes, “It’s often hard for people to capture Hawaii pidgin properly without making it sound like some gratuitous affectation, but Yamanaka’s uncanny ability to create and re-create the streams of language that I [grew up in] leads me right back to the world I knew, but as seen through the dazzling screen of her limitless imagination and heart.” Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Children’s/Young Adult Fiction.
Idaho Code, by Joan Opyr (2006)
Everybody knows your business in this small homophobic town where Wilhelmina “Bil” Hardy is “trapped in the coils of her eccentric family and off-the-wall friends” and “neither the course of true love nor amateur sleuthing runs smooth.” Lambda Literary Nominee for Lesbian Mystery.
Memory Mambo, by Achy Obejas (1996)
25-year-old Cuban-American lesbian Juani Casas is often her own worst enemy — torn between family and authenticity, home and homelands, as she manages her family’s laundromat in Chicago and dates closeted women. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.
Coffee Will Make You Black, by April Sinclair (1993)
One of the first queer books I ever read, this coming-of-age novel is at once witty and profound, lighthearted and historically resonant. Jean “Stevie” Stevenson is coming of age in Chicago’s South Side in the 1960s — an era of irrevocable social upheaval, especially within her neighborhood. “Against this remarkable backdrop,” writes Open Road Media, “Stevie makes the sometimes harrowing, often comic, always enthralling transformation into a young adult — socially aware, discovering her sexuality, and proud of her identity.”
Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, by Chavisa Woods (2017)
Set entirely in rural Illinois and often centered on queer outsides, Woods’ collection exposes the expanse of an oft-overlooked population of an elusive yet omnipresent American landscape. It’s all there: dive bars, self-destruction, intergenerational trauma, the psychic burden of war, small-town church culture, the hunt for something haunted ’cause it’s something to do. “Not stories of triumph over adversity, but something completely other.” Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Fiction.
Hoosier Daddy: A Heartland Romance, by Ann McMan and Salem West (2016)
A rare look at lesbian romance in a rural, working-class community, where Jill Fryman — a line supervisor at a truck manufacturing plant — finds herself greased up over El, “a sultry labor organizer from the UAW” who’s rolled into town to unionize the plant after a Japanese buyout. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Romance.
The Butches of Madison County, by Ellen Orleans (1994)
“Odd little gem” is a fitting term for this quirky book that pokes fun at lesbian life and The Bridges of Madison County with one broad but affectionate stroke. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Humor.
Death by Discount, by Mary Vermillion (2004)
In hopes of helping her aunt whose partner just got murdered keep her struggling radio station alive, Mara’s returned to her inadequate hometown of Aldoburg, Iowa, which’s currently at war over the potential opening of a new Wal-Mart. A beautiful police officer catches Mara’s eye just as she begins suspecting her aunt’s opposition to the Wal-Mart might have something to do with her partner’s murder. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Debut Fiction and Lesbian Mystery.
Far from Xanadu, by Julie Anne Peters (2005)
Julie Ann Peters is a prolific writer of queer YA novels, and this heartbreaking yet hopeful one takes her to a small Kansas town where Mike (real name Mary Elizabeth) is coping with her father’s recent suicide when she falls in love with a glamorous new (straight) girl named Xanadu.
My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus, by Kelly Barth (2012)
What happens when fundamentalist Christianity and a big crush on a girl face off? An honest and hilarious little story about a good Christian girl, the tiny imaginary Jesus she takes with her everywhere, and the rewarding search for a church where she can be both Christian and gay.
Dress Codes for Small Towns, by Courtney Stevens (2017)
Billie McCaffrey is the tomboy daughter of her small Kentucky town’s preacher in this “John Hughes-esque exploration of sexual fluidity.” When Billie’s best friend Janie falls for their friend Woods, Billie realizes that she herself is in love with Janie AND Woods, and struggles to keep her feelings to herself while running around with her group of scrappy friends who like to get into trouble and build their own furniture.
Honor Girl, by Maggie Thrash (2015)
Honor Girl “is a witch of a book in the best possible way. It put a spell on me,” wrote Mey Rude of Thrash’s debut graphic memoir about the author’s time at Camp Bellflower for Girls, one of the south’s oldest camps, located deep in the heart of Appalachia — where she inconveniently developed a crush on her counselor Erin.
Her Name in the Sky, by Kelly Quindlen (2014)
In her senior year at a Catholic school in Baton Rouge, Hannah Eaden realizes she’s in love with her best friend. Her best friend is completely there for it, but her community isn’t. “One of the best novels I’ve read that covers the day-by-day thoughts and experiences of a teenage girl dealing with learning her sexuality,” writes the Lesbrary.
Spelling Mississippi, by Marnie Woodrow (2002)
It’s water, not a desire to die, that inspires a high femme in an evening gown and tiara to jump headfirst into the Mississippi River off a wharf in New Orleans’ French Quarter one night as Cleo, the novel’s protagonist, watches. Cleo was conceived during a flood, and their mutual love of water is only one thing that eventually bonds these women together in a seductive work of historical fiction that evokes everything beautiful and dirty about the Big Easy.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (2017)
She came to a hot New Orleans summer, age 25, to fight the death penalty with an internship at a law firm that represents people accused of murder. The intellectual and emotional memoir / thriller hybrid that resulted from this experience earned The Fact of a Body a spot on every best books list last year. The Times said it “pushes the boundaries of writing about trauma,” Vogue called it a “masterpiece” and The Times of London called it “utterly remarkable and heroically accomplished.” Winner of The Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography.
A Good Idea, by Cristina Moracho (2017)
Fin heads back to her Maine hometown after her best friend drowns, her boyfriend confesses to the crime and then has the confession thrown out. Finn is determined to solve the crime herself. Then she meets Serena, falls hard, and ends up questioning if anybody really knows anybody in this town.
Cytherea’s Breath, by Sarah Aldridge (1982)
20th century Baltimore: a physician struggling to establish herself meets a wealthy patron with whom she battles sexism and fights for her voice. Sarah Aldridge is the pen name of Andya Marchant, who was president of legendary lesbian publishing house Naiad Press before leaving to found A&M Books of Rehoboth Beach, which republished all 14 of her groundbreaking novels following her death at the age of 94 in 2003.
Cool For You, by Eileen Myles (2000)
This is where it all began. Or, where it would begin if Myles ever stuck to linear narratives, which they don’t have to because they don’t write books really, they invent books. Reading this novel is like scampering behind a brilliant, gritty, cocky and defiantly poetic tomboy taking you on a adventure through working-class Boston and then some — the Catholic nuns, the nursing homes, the beautiful mean girls, the stupid boys, the dying father and Eileen, who declares early on Why can’t I record everything down like my life counts, like I’m the Queen of England or Bobby Vee, and that way I can be safe and not have to wait to die to be important. She can!
Marriage of a Thousand Lies, by SJ Sindu (2017)
How does one achieve adulthood while navigating multiple marginalized identities, two of which have required you to marry your gay best friend to please your Sri Lankan parents? Lucky loves her family, but longs to be an out lesbian, too, a challenge that grows increasingly urgent when she’s made to return from New York to the wealthy and insular Boston Tamil community she came from to care for her grandmother. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Fiction, Stonewall Literature Award Nominee
The Provincetown Series, by Radclyffe
Radclyffe is our most prolific and acclaimed author of lesbian romance. Her series is devoted entirely to the charming coastal town that’s long been a lesbian vacation haven and — as it is for teenager Brianna Parker, Doctor Victoria King and the new Sheriff in town, Reese Conlon — a year-round home. Side characters come and go, as do the slings and arrows of life and love on the coast, throughout this seven-book ride.
Drum Roll, Please, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow (2018)
Melly’s off at Band Camp in the Michigan woods (I assumed “Camp Rockaway” was Interlochen, but apparently they say in the book that Camp Rockaway is less intense than Interlochen, so now I’m assuming it’s Blue Lake) (thank you for taking this journey with me) with her BFF Olivia, who made her join band in the first place. But the summer isn’t really going her way: her parents get divorced, Olivia ditches her, she’s not sure she’s got the talent to be the rock ‘n’ roll drummer she dreams of — and!!! She’s falling for Adeline, another girl at camp!!
Her, by Cherry Muhanji (1990)
A lyrical map of the lives and loves and relationships (with men, with women, with their families) bustling within a community of black women who moved to Detroit when the getting was as good as it would ever be: working the lines at the Ford Motor Plant in the 1950s. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Debut Fiction.
Hallowed Murder (Jane Lawless Mysteries Series Book 1), by Ellen Hart (1989)
Hart has won six Lambda awards for her 25-book-strong Jane Lawless lesbian mystery series and this is where it all began, with a story about a University of Minnesota sorority facing charges of murder and Jane Lawless, the alumnae advisor who steps in to find the truth — a truth “as chilling as the Minnesota winter.”
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel (2008)
Before The L Word, there were The Dykes To Watch Out For. Collected in award-winning volumes, syndicated in fifty alt newspapers, DTWOF is a “wittily illustrated soap opera” Bechdel calls “half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel” that traces the lives and loves of lesbians in a midsize American city that isn’t explicitly named, but has an intentional Twin Cities vibe. Bechdel started writing it while living in St. Paul and based Madwimmin Books on Amazon, Minneapolis’s women’s bookstore, the oldest in the country before it shuttered in 2012. This volume is the story of an active, thriving community of lesbian adults — a rarity in lesbian literature — who match every tug on your heartstrings with a good, solid drag on us all.
Ramona Blue, by Julie Murphy (2017)
6-foot-tall Ramona Blue has got blue hair, a pregnant sister with an annoying boyfriend, a flaky mom and just the tiniest bit of personal space in the trailer she’s shared with her family since Hurricane Katrina. She’s also got an identity crisis — after coming out as a lesbian, she finds herself falling for a boy and wondering if her sexuality might be more fluid than she’d thought.
Deliver Us From Evie, by M.E. Kerr (1995)
A tough-as-nails tomboy scandalizes her small Missouri farm town by dressing like a boy and eventually seducing Patsy Duff, the wealthy daughter of the town’s top dog. Bittersweet and packed with twists and turns, it’s refreshing to find a masc protagonist being unapologetically herself in a seemingly hopeless place.
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Jam! on the Vine, by LaShonda Katrice Barnett (2015)
Ivoe Williams, born to a Muslim cook and a metalsmith from central-east Texas, escapes menial labor in the segregated corner of the Jim Crow south for a new life in Kansas City, where she reunites with her former teacher/lover Ona. Together, drawing on Ivoe’s lifelong love of writing, they found the first female-run African-American newspaper to cover 1919’s lynchings, race riots and the atrocities of segregation in the American prison system. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Fiction, Stonewall Literature Award Nominee
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by emily m danforth (2010)
This gorgeous, dusty coming-of-age YA novel revives the archetypal coming out narrative through smart, dexterous writing as gripping as it is literary and a narrator who takes up residence in your heart from the start. From coveted intense ’90s woman mix-tapes, subtextually queer vampire movies and girls in cowboy boots to the hard-wrought friendships forged in conversion camp, it’s no wonder this book got picked up as one of 2018’s best films. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult Fiction.
Not Otherwise Specified, by Hannah Moskowitz (2005)
Etta Sinclair, a bisexual black woman who’d do anything to get out of Nebraska, has been kicked out of and tormented by her former group of friends, who call themselves The Disco Dykes, ever since she started dating a guy. But she finds a new friend at her eating disorder support group, and together they plot to audition for an exclusive New York school for the performing arts. According to The Lesbrary, “Not Otherwise Specified is the book that has been missing from the LGBT-YA canon.” Winner of the 2015 Bisexual Book Award for Teen/YA Fiction.
Nevada, by Imogene Binnie (2013)
Part One is all New York: transgender punk Maria Griffiths’ girlfriend cheats on her, she falls apart in Brooklyn, has bad sex in a Burritoville, and ponders the point of it all. Part Two opens in small-town Nevada with a new narrator, a twenty-year-old stoner named James, and then who should walk in to James’ story: “As soon as Maria Griffiths sees James Hanson in the Star City, Nevada Wal-Mart, she’s like, that kid is trans and he doesn’t even know it yet.” Electric, awkward and “unlike anything you’ve read before.” Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Transgender Fiction.
Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule (1964)
Back when pulp fiction was one’s only route to lesbian fiction, Desert of the Heart (the basis of the classic 1985 lesbian film Desert Hearts) came out in proper hardcover and changed the game. This romance between an English professor hitting up Nevada for a quickie divorce and a cartoonist with a job at a Reno casino showed that in an arid place where nothing grows, love can.
Snowsisters, by Tom Wilinsky and Jen Sternick (2018)
Tess, a fan fiction writer who lives on a dairy farm and Soph, a lesbian poet who attends a fancy boarding school in Manhattan, end up roommates at a week-long writing conference in rural New Hampshire. They grow as writers and people while dealing with the variety of other girls at the retreat (including a trans girl and a TERF) and, obviously, falling in love with each other.
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A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, by Daisy Hernandez (2015)
Starting, as so many lesbian stories do, in Catholic School (hers in Union City, New Jersey), this memoir sees a Colombian-Cuban woman carve out her queer, political and artistic identity flush against what the women in her family have taught her about love, money and race. Sandra Cisneros: “Hernández writes with honesty, intelligence, tenderness, and love. I bow deeply in admiration and gratitude.” Winner of The Bisexual Book Award for Memoir.
Give it to Me, by Ana Castillo (2014)
Described as “Sex in the City for a Chicana babe who’s looking for love in all the wrong places,” this story of a recently divorced 43-year-old (bouncing from Albuquerque to Chicago to Los Angeles) who’s got sexual tension with her just-out-of-prison male cousin, a lot of family secrets and a thirst for it all. Winner of The Lambda Literary Award for Best Bisexual Fiction.
Like Water, by Rebecca Podos (2017)
Savannah Espinoza always thought she’d be one of the kids who fled her small New Mexico hometown after graduation, but her father’s diagnosis with Huntington’s disease landed her in the “stuck” group she wasn’t prepared to join. Then she meets Leigh, thoroughly disillusioned with small-town life herself… and unlike anybody Vanni’s ever met. Winner of a Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Children’s/Young Adult Literature
The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
The relatively happy ending and “more explicit sexual existences” of lesbian author Highsmith’s only lesbian-themed novel was revolutionary for its time: a romance between wealthy suburban woman Carol and 19-year-old Therese, who lives on her own in New York City, works at a swanky department store, and loves a glove lunch. You may know it as, of course, Carol.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (1982)
Evocative and seductively uncontrived, Lorde’s “biomythography” — a genre she invented combining history, biography, and myth — traces a tongue-tied, studious daughter of West Indian immigrants in Harlem through her exploration of the girl bars of 1950s Greenwich Village and her first relationships with women.
After Delores, by Sarah Schulman (1988)
A Lower East Side waitress gets tangled up in some heady, hilarious plot while mourning her breakup with Delores, the ex she can’t let go of in a story that highlights the emotional anarchy of lesbian life and relationships at a time when coming out often meant breaking ties with family and sometimes society itself. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Best Lesbian Fiction, Stonewall Book Award for Literature
When Katie Met Cassidy, by Camille Perri (2018)
The rare light, funny queer rom-com for adults from a major publishing house, begging to be the lesbian Love, Simon. “As timeless, warm and funny as When Harry Met Sally,” writes Elisabeth Egan, “with the same Big Apple backdrop and a modern tribe of bar-hopping friends who become as close as family.”
Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown (1973)
Molly Bolt always gets (but rarely keeps) the girl — like in sixth grade in the South, in her Florida high school and at the University of Florida with her alcoholic roommate. It’s that last one that sends Molly to New York, where shit gets real gay. Beloved and scorned for its explicit portrayal of lesbianism, its pained but freewheeling narrative somehow remains relatable and entertaining as hell all these years later.
Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden (1982)
The first-ever young adult novel to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending stars 17-year-old Liza from Brooklyn Heights and Annie Kenyon, also 17, who lives in a low-income neighborhood uptown with her immigrant parents. Their friendship becomes love and also just generally speaking if you haven’t read this you probably should, it’s required.
Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg (1993)
Always and forever canon, Stone Butch Blues is the hard-wrought chronicle of Jess Goldberg, a working class masculine-of-center woman born in upstate New York aching to find a place where she can be herself and also employed, loved and happy. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Small Press Book and the Stonewall Literature Award.
The Ada Decades, by Paula Martinac (2017)
Seven decades of racist turmoil and secret gay networks in Charlotte, North Carolina are pushed through 11 interconnected stories centered on one woman’s personal history, who is developing throughout “her own form of Southern womanhood – compassionate, resilient, principled, and lesbian.”
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Prairie Silence: A Memoir, by Melanie Hoffert (2013)
Melanie yearns for the golden expanse, elusive charm and reliable rhythms of her family’s farm in rural North Dakota — although she left because of what she doesn’t miss, like being asked if she’d found a “fella” yet. In this affecting memoir, she goes home for the harvest to discover it all anew. You can take the Midwest out of the girl, but can you take the girl out of the Midwest?
The Changelings, by Jo Sinclair (1955)
Published during the Lavender Scare and set in Cleveland, The Changelings isn’t explicitly queer, but is described by Out History as “unmistakably a lesbian novel… with its muted but unmistakable eroticism between young adolescent girls.” The Changelings is #71 on the Publishing Triangle’s list of top 100 Lesbian & gay novels. Furthermore, they write on Out History, The Changelings is “a lesbian, feminist, and anti-racist novel, written by a Jewish woman, in which a cross-race relationship between adolescent girls — one Jewish, one Black — shapes a narrative about desegregation, white ethnic racism, class, anti-Semitism, and Jewish identity.” Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Edited Out, by Lisa Haddock (1994)
The 24-year-old Irish-Puerto Rican protagonist of Edited Out is a copyeditor at her hometown newspaper in Frontier City, Oklahoma, where she’s pretty devoted to mourning her ex. Then she gets wrapped up in a new story that takes her in unexpected directions: two years ago, a lesbian teacher allegedly sexually assaulted and killed a 12-year-old, and then killed herself — and Carmen ends up nearly risking it all to find out what really happened.
Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera (2016)
When Gabby, a former Autostraddle Editor, sent me JTAB as a word document in the winter of 2015, I printed it out and didn’t leave my bed ’til I’d finished the whole damn thing. I cried like a mom at a wedding at the end, filled with love for the book and the success I knew it’d be. Eventually, Juliet Takes a Breath rode word-of-mouth to become a bona-fide hit, eventually endorsed by Roxane Gay, Tegan & Sara and Sara Ramirez, among others. This debut novel illuminates one life-changing summer for Juliet Milagros Palante, who leaves the Bronx for an internship in Portland with her favorite feminist author, diving with a thirst for experience and a general cynicism towards love into racial consciousness, her identity as a writer, her relationship to her body — and to the bodies of, you know, other women.
Dryland, by Sara Jaffee (2015)
Explores the uncertainty and complexity of adolescence for one 15-year-old girl in early ’90s Portland, missing her former-Olympic-swimmer exiled brother, considering literally diving in herself when Alexis, the girls’ swim team captain, beckons her hither. “It reads like My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase cut with Annie Dillard, plus something all Jaffe’s own,” raved the Portland Mercury.
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Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, by Karelia Stetz Waters (2014)
Sara Quin’s front-page endorsement of this novel — she cried her eyes out, and was “so touched and amazed to read something that so closely echoed my own adolescence” — is likely all you need to fall for the story of shy, nerdy Triinu Hoffman of rural Oregon, who in 1989 is finding herself (and her love for girls) while her town takes sides over equal rights.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (2007)
Now one of the best-known and most beloved lesbian books of all time, Bechdel’s darkly comic graphic novel about growing up with a closeted father in a Pennsylvania funeral home remains a poignant interrogation of where family ties begin and end, what love can look like, and how repression becomes the most debilitating expression of all. Winner of the Stonewall Non-Fiction Award, Judy Grahn Award, Lambda Literary Award and Will Eisner Comic Industry Award.
The Summer We Got Free, by Mia McKenzie (2013)
Once adored and respected in their West Philadelphia neighborhood, Ava Delaney’s family faces 17 years of ostracization after being rocked by a violent event. After they’re displaced from the community they live in, a mysterious woman arrives to stir up the spirits’ home and unleash Ava’s free-spirited potential. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction.
Sing You Home, by Jodi Picoult (2011)
It’s not often that a lesbian story ranks atop the New York Times Bestseller list, or is taken up by a mass-market mainstream writer like Jodi Picoult. After ten years trying to get pregnant, two miscarriages, and losing a baby at seven months, Zoe’s marriage to Max falls apart, and Zoe finds herself falling for Vanessa, a teenager she finds floating at the bottom of a pool. That yearning to parent hasn’t gone away, though, and then this becomes the personal/political paradigm that vaulted it into public consciousness and got Ellen DeGeneres to option the movie rights — “the story of a lesbian fighting for the right to use frozen embryos created by her and her ex-husband.” The Rhode Island setting is piquant, “from artificial birdsong at Kent County Courthouse to Italian cuisine on Federal Hill.”
The House You Pass Along the Way, by Jacqueline Woodson (1997)
From the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for her poetry collection brown girl dreaming (which is also partially set in South Carolina) comes this early work, a queer middle-grade classic: a subtle story about Stagerlee, a 14-year-old mixed-race girl who’s never really fit in and isn’t sure how to start. When her baby lez cousin, Trout, comes to stay for a summer, Stagerlee finds a comrade when she needs it most. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Young Adult/Children’s Book.
The Revolution of Little Girls, by Blanche McCray Boyd (1991)
Growing up in South Carolina, Ellen Burns prefers playing Tarzan to playing Jane and spikes her Coke before the beauty pageant. In the ’60s/’70s she makes it into Harvard, finds herself as a lesbian, and drinks way too much. “Funny… lively and wry, insightful and poignant,” wrote The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “[A] psychedelic and unsettling journey into a Southern heart of darkness.” Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.
Two Or Three Things I Know For Sure, by Dorothy Allison (1995)
Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Dorothy Allison is one of lesbian literature’s most profound, heart-searing, gut-getting voices. I could underline every word in this book that speaks emotional truth to intergenerational trauma, sexual violence, abuse, poverty, and the stories we build and tell to go on, to get naked again, to be women who survive. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Biography/Autobiography.
Charity: A Novel, by Paulette Callen (1997)
In late 19th-century Charity, South Dakota, “live and let live” is the only way to live, at least if you’re white and male. It’s not the best place for schoolteacher Augusta Roemer to be in a relationship with Jordis, a Sioux woman. The first in what would become a series, Charity: A Novel was lauded as “so piercing in its depiction of small-town life that it leaves the reader startled by its straightforward insights.”
Like Me, by Chely Wright (2011)
The memoir that scandalized country music, galvanized a rapt fan base and changed Nashville forever: Wright’s story of ascending to fame as a country singer while hiding the truth about her sexual orientation. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Memoir/Biography.
Forgetting the Alamo or Blood Memory, by Emma Pérez (2010)
Micaela Campos is a Tejana lesbian cowgirl offering a different vantage point on the American West after the fall of the Alamo in 1836, when Mexicans and indigenous people were under attack from white settlers. Then she falls for a Black & Indigenous woman and learns that “there are no easy solutions to the injustices that birthed the Texas Republic.” Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Fiction.
Mean Little Deaf Queer, by Terry Galloway (2009)
Described by Casey as “a darkly humorous and relentlessly frank memoir,” this book chronicles the awkward growing up in Austin, Texas, of a queer, coke-bottle-thick glasses-wearing self-proclaimed “child freak” who found her calling on the stage. Lambda Award Nominee for Lesbian Memoir/Biography.
Saving Alex, by Alex Cooper (2016)
Alex Cooper fell in love with Yvette, came out to her Mormon family in her nice ordinary town, and was immediately shipped off to St. George, Utah for a treatment program — and eventually got rescued by a legal team in Salt Lake City who were ready to make history. A straightforward account of an unfortunately far-too-common experience we’re rarely invited to with this level of detail, and from somebody on the frontlines of the subsequent battle.
Dismantled, by Jennifer McMahon (2009)
The reckless heady ambition of four college students in a remote cabin in the Vermont woods turns fun into a tragedy. The three survivors want to put it behind them, but it comes back to haunt in unexpected ways in this strange and imaginative literary thriller. Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Lesbian Fiction
Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley (2014)
A finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, this Harlequin Teen novel sets up a very unlikely lesbian romance in 1959, between one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School and the white daughter of one of their Virginia town’s most vocal opponents to school integration.
Dora: A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch (2012)
This retelling of Freud’s Dora from the author of The Chronology of Water follows queer teen Ida, who’s one step ahead of the psychiatrist her father sent her to, as she carries out self-proclaimed “art attacks” with her small posse of pals — including a trans woman, a gay guy and her crush, a queer Native American girl named Obsidian.
Always, by Nicola Griffith (2007)
Set in Griffith’s current home of Seattle, Always marks the return of Griffith’s sensual lesbian detective Aud Torvingen, this time escaping Atlanta for Washington to deal with the real estate manager trying to wrestle away her father’s estate. But danger finds her there, too, this time on a film set marked for sabotage.
The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli (2017)
From the author of the book that became Love, Simon comes this heart-flutteringly delightful story narrated by Molly, a 17-year-old (straight) girl with a cynical lesbian twin sister, Cassie, who’s got a pansexual girlfriend with a cute hipster BFF named Will who Molly’s got a thing for. Cassie and Molly have two moms and, as Casey pointed out, “in addition to the nice spectrum of queer women represented, this novel also features multiple Asian American and Jewish characters!”
Pulp, by Robin Talley (2018)
Charming and profound, this story about stories weaves together women across generations — 18-year-old Janet Jones, living in DC at the height of ’50s McCarthyism and keeping her relationship with her best friend Marie a secret, who finds her refuge in lesbian pulp fiction and, finally Abby Zimet, doing a senior project on lesbian pulp fiction 62 years later, desperate to uncover the true identity of her favorite author. “Not many YA novels contain one lesbian romance, let alone four,” writes Booklist, “but Talley’s newest pulls it off, while creatively spanning time and genre.”
Blue Apple Switchback, by Carrie Highley (2016)
In West Virginia in her early ’30s, lifelong tomboy Carrie discovers her love of cycling, has an affair with a female cycling friend, and then follows her husband to Asheville, only to find her turn at a heterosexual married life exactly as precarious as she’d always feared.
Sugar Run: A Novel, by Mesha Maren (2019)
After 18 years in prison for manslaughter, Jodi McCarthy can’t go back to her lost home in the Appalachian mountains, so instead sets out for someone she left behind. Along the way, she meets a troubled young mother with whom she will make a fresh start in the “charged insularity of rural West Virginia” in this “searing and gritty debut about making a run for another life.”
Carry the One, by Carol Anshaw (2012)
Five high / drunk / sleepy adults leave a rural Wisconsin wedding reception late one night in 1983, and the accident that ensues never lets them go. The bride’s sister, Alice, and the groom’s sister, Maude, had discovered feelings for each other that night, but after what transpired, didn’t see each other for two years afterwards. Although it’s not a queer book, Maude and Alice’s romance is the book’s most enduring love story.
Sisters, by Lynne Cheney (1981)
Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife, denies that this lesbian novel — about a Washington wife who leaves her husband to live on a womyn’s commune in Cheyenne, where she enjoys massage classes, talking shit about men, and participating in Eve-on-Eve affection —is actually a lesbian novel. But like… it is.