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Wednesday 08 October 2008


The Best Queer Reads of 2007

Posted in: Books
By Claire Gummer - 9th January 2008

Literary detective Claire Gummer reveals her favourite books of the past year.

Best Fiction:

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Alan Bennett — The Uncommon Reader

Simply delightful. If I had to single out one title, this would be my book of the year. In 2006 I read the gay British dramatist's whopping two volumes of autobiography and thoroughly enjoyed them; this is just as good — if only a fraction of the length. It's a hilarious story about how the Queen's accidental encounter with a mobile library and a gay kitchenhand switched her on to reading... with startling results.

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Best Crime:

Val McDermid — Beneath the Bleeding

I'm not a dedicated follower of death, but I thought I should give crime a go. So I sat down and sampled six crime novels with a GLBT angle, ranging from silly summer reads and period pieces to down-and-dirty thrillers such as the latest by Patricia Cornwell (finally out now she's married her female partner) and Val McDermid. The latter lesbian recently won British organisation Stonewall's writer of the year award for her contribution to queer lives, and her book — with two lesbian characters to Cornwell's one, in case you're counting—is also the best of the bunch. It features Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, big names in the Wire in the Blood TV series that was based on earlier novels.

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Best Great Unknown:

Jackie Kay — Wish I Was Here

Like McDermid, Jackie Kay's a Scot, but she's not nearly so well known — and she should be, as she has a wonderful ear for language and a great grasp of character. With this outstanding collection of short stories (her second), she has wowed the mainstream British critics. Queer characters abound, and she's very versatile: watch out for a new collection of poems in coming weeks.

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Best NZ:

Peter Wells — Lucky Bastard

Gay author Peter Wells' literary offerings are often considered 'niche' but this richly layered novel, about the fallout of war and the falling out of family members, deserves a wide readership. This is an evocative read, ranging from post-war Japan to present-day Auckland, from the relationship of victor and vanquished to that between an aging father and his gay son.

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Best Non-Fiction:

Philip Norman — Douglas Lilburn, His Life and Music

This massive New Zealand biography appeared in 2006 so my mentioning it here is cheating of a sort, but the Lilburn work did win the Montana Award for Biography in 2007. It's readable and revelatory about, for instance, just how close the gay composer's relationship with painter Rita Angus really was. There's only one thing I can't get my head around: Lilburn's Otago boarding school had open-air dormitories all year round...

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Best Poetry:

James Fenton (ed) — The New Faber Book of Love Poems

A beautiful anthology, this ranges from the predictable 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' to some entirely unexpected lesbian blues lyrics of the 1920s. Oxford's former Professor of Poetry wears his heart on his sleeve in his introduction, offering fascinating insights into the gay history of some love poetry. My only complaint: there's only one work by Carol Ann Duffy! Expect the paperback in the first half of this year — possibly in time for Valentine's Day.

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Best Young Adult:

Will Davis — My Side of the Story

The first and best of four queer-content Young Adult novels I read this year. Like the publisher, I'm at a loss to know why this engaging and award-winning story has had relatively little attention. It couldn't be the fact that it's about a gay 16-year-old who explores sex and drugs, could it? Love the cover: green with a brooding teen, handmade type and a splash of pink.

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Best Quirky:

Rupert Christiansen — The Complete Book of Aunts; CM Dawnay & Mungo McCosh — An Alphabet of Aunts

Inspired by his own Aunt Janet, Christiansen pays tribute to many and various aunts — among them literary, heroic, X-rated, fairy-tale, damned bad, and bargain aunts. It's a lovely idea, great for those who — in these egalitarian days of queer parenthood — might wish to reclaim the role of 'auntie'. Just as appealing (though harder to come by) is the collaborative Alphabet of Aunts, a volume of puns and visual delights. The Spectator's critic revelled in its 'inventiveness and brilliant surreal design'. Sadly, I know of no equivalent books about uncles, perhaps because some people imagine aunts as being entirely innocent (spinsters and maidens all) and uncles as walking the shady side of the street.

Claire Gummer is a former express editor and Women's Bookshop staffer who now works for the publisher of Lucky Bastard. She talks books once a month on the G&T Show, a GLBT programme on Auckland's Planet FM (104.6) aired on Thursdays from 7–8am. The show is on holiday and will return to the airwaves later in January.


Claire Gummer - 9th January 2008