Do you have any suggestions for young adult books that are past high school? I enjoyed The IHOP Papers and You Set Me On Fire but haven’t come across a ton of other books in that category.
Thanks for sending me my very first “Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian” question! This is a very interesting topic you bring up, that of a so-called “new adult” genre/category. There is some debate as to whether new adult is indeed a legit genre of literature and whether it’s necessary to label books as such. The term was coined in 2009, according to good old Wikipedia. Generally, books classified as new adult are said to be a kind of older YA, dealing with characters from ages about 18 to 25—or, as you put it, “past high school.” It’s a fascinating transitional time, one that’s not too far behind me if truth be told. You’re technically an adult, officially and all that, but your perspective and life experiences are pretty different from the 30-somethings. So I think the new adult label can be really useful, just in the same way that labelling a book queer or bisexual or trans can be: it helps you know what’s inside the book and whether it’s what you’re looking for!
Also, traditional YA can sometimes be limited by publishers’, parents’, and schools’ ideas on what is “appropriate” for teenagers. Of course, in some ignorant people’s minds, LGBTQ material falls right into the category of inappropriate. Explicit sexuality of any kind usually does. So do illegal drugs, sexual assault, drinking, and all sorts of other things that actual teenagers have to deal with. Because the market is different for new adult books, they can avoid those at best unfortunate and at worst useless ideas about what is relevant to teenagers and what they should be reading.
Regrettably, there aren’t a lot of books out there being officially labelled new adult (let alone queer new adult), so they can be hard to find. That’s where I come in! You mention Mariko Tamaki’s fantastic novel (You) Set Me on Fire, a dark and hilarious book about a disastrous unrequited love story that takes place in an Asian-American girl’s first year of college. It’s the first book that comes to my mind. But you’ve already read it! It seems like you enjoy a raw, darkly humorous voice in a gritty realist setting, since Tamaki’s book and Ali Liebegott’s The IHOP Papers both have that kind of first person perspective. So here are some other books in a similar vein:
First of all, you must read Montreal-born now Toronto-residing Zoe Whittal’s first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts. I actually think Whittall is doing what Liebegott and Michelle Tea are trying to do, but much better, and funnier. Bottle Rocket Hearts follows a Montreal Anglophone, Eve, in her first year of university, learning about queer, feminist, and language politics, earning some street cred, and getting her heart broken by an older Francophone dyke. It’s dark and cynical, but in a really funny way: Eve tells us things like “Intellectually, non-monogamy made complete sense; emotionally, it felt like sandpaper across my eyelids.” It’s a wild ride along with Eve on her bike down Rue St. Catherine, wearing silver spray-painted Doc Martens, listening to the new Luscious Jackson CD, on her way to adulthood.
Second, I heartily recommend Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, by Nayana Currimbhoy. The voice is definitely different from Whittall, Tamaki, and Liebegott, but it’s quite a page-turner, following a 21-year-old brand new boarding school teacher, really not that much older than the fresh faced teenagers in her classes. Genre-wise, this novel is an awesome mix: it’s mostly a coming of age story for a middle class Indian woman, Charu, focused on her figuring out how to be an adult and being introduced to what her parents hid from her in her sheltered adolescence. She’s also discovering that she’s bisexual. But this novel is also a murder mystery, a romance, and a fascinating slice of historical fiction (it’s set in 1970s India).
Here are some ideas for books that I haven’t read myself, but that have been recommended to me in various capacities:
I first heard of Pages For You by Sylvia Brownrigg in this Autostraddle article, and I pretty much love everything that site produces, so I totally trust their positive review of this novel, which according to them is about “Flannery Jansen [who] is new to practically everything — college, the East Coast, masturbating and dating, to name a few. Anne is the older woman — beautiful, full of worldly knowledge. Aaaand action!” Apparently you should “[r]ead Pages if you’ve fallen in love (hard), tried to smoke cigarettes to look mysterious (and failed), or dreamed of finally realizing your lesbian powers on a leaf-strewn campus far away from home.”
Zipper Mouth by New York writer Laurie Weeks came to my attention because it won the Lambda award for lesbian debut fiction in 2012. The protagonist seems to be similarly self-destructive like the woman in The IHOP Papers, and from the first few pages (I owe a copy but haven’t read it yet!) the writing is experimental but relatively accessible. This novel has gotten some high praise from the likes of Eileen Myles, Dave Eggers, and Michelle Tea, who says it is “a brilliant rabbit hole of pitch-black hilarity, undead obsession, the horror of the everyday, and drugs drugs drugs.” I can’t confirm the age of the protagonist for sure, but from all the evidence I’ve gathered about her (im)maturity, she can’t be that old.
I am super psyched to read The Dream of Doctor Bantam by Jeanne Thorton, whose vibe and style seem to be right on par with Whittall, Liebegott, Tamaki, Tea, and Weeks. The main character Julie is 17, and is not in high school, although that’s because she dropped out. Her sister has recently committed suicide, and she’s falling in love with an older woman who’s involved in a cult eerily reminiscent of Scientology. Carmen at Autostraddle says “I was ready for romance, for hot summer nights, for a heart beating merely to continue looking for truth…just know it was all of that and more.” Also, Thornton is trans, and everyone should be reading (more) trans women.
Danika at the Lesbrary reviewed Rachel Gold’s Just Girls fairly recently, and it falls neatly into the new adult category, following two girls living in a university dorm. From her review, it sounds complex, thought-provoking, and authentic. The premise of this novel is interesting, and definitely not without potential controversy: Jess, a cis lesbian who’s been out and proud since high school, deliberately “outs” herself as trans to combat some nasty transphobic gossip going around about a new trans girl in the dorms. Jess figures she can take the heat off the target of this hate. The woman who is actually trans is Ella (also, Ella is bisexual). I can find nothing but positive reviews of this book, but just a disclaimer: none of them are explicitly by trans women and Gold is cis, so you may want to take the reviews with a grain of salt. Also, trigger warning for mentions of transphobia and rape.
Lastly, you might want to check out Better off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon, also about a girl in her first year of college. This young woman is in the process of joining a mysterious sorority. Of course, it’s no ordinary sorority: it’s comprised of lesbian vampires. I have heard great things about Weatherspoon’s work, which is apparently fun and light like you want a paranormal romance to be, but also smart and well-written. Oh yeah, and also sexy. Danika has also reviewed this one.
That’s all I’ve got! Readers, any other recommendations to add?
Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian is a Book Advice Column where you can send me your LGBTQ book related questions and recommendation requests. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian” in the subject.