Review // The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue // A grand romp around 18th century Europe

gentleman banner

This is like, one of the first times in my life I’ve been on a hot new book only a few weeks after its release. Like, this isn’t even available in Australia yet. This is what starting a book blog is doing to me!

So, like, disclaimer. I don’t really read a lot of YA. The only ones I do are classic fantasies and hyped up LGBT novels. The last one I really enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, when I was still technically a teen. I don’t know – I’m 23 now, I’m just not in the demographic – rarely does anything YA become a massive favourite of mine anymore. But this has Georgian England and Gentleman’s Grand Tours and diversity, something that would appeal to me no matter the ideal demographic honestly.

And yeah, I definitely enjoyed it.

DSC_0908 copy.png

(ok I’m just showing off how well my Venetian glass bookmark goes with my copy hoohoo terribly suitable)

It’s about a rakish, roguish young lord, Henry ‘Monty’ Montague, in the mid-1700s who embarks on his Grand Tour after being expelled from Eton, the last hurrah before he has to return home to begin learning how to run the estate he’ll one day inherit from his father. With him will be his sister Felicity, who is due to be dropped off at a finishing school in Marseilles, and Percy Newton, a half-African bastard child of a lord and Monty’s childhood friend – and long-standing unrequited love. They’ll have to follow his father’s rules if Monty wants to redeem himself. And, well. He doesn’t. Monty turns his Grand Tour into an adventure with his and his friend’s life at stake, still trying to make progress in his love life along the way.

It was just really, ridiculously fun.

This was a romp, a caper, one hell of a fun adventure novel. Don’t go in expecting it to be anything else lol. There’s pirates, travelling carnivals, highwaymen, trips to prison and alleyway fights, all thanks to the shenanigans of our protagonist. And Monty is a great one – a good guy at heart but a complete ass, careless and clueless and also arrogant as a defence mechanism. Under his merriment and has actually been a rather rough life. He’s an ass, but he’s also that protagonist who eventually sits down, listens and learns. The whole novel is narrated by him, and his voice was so distinct and injects a lot of fun and hilarity into the novel.

Felicity was yet another ‘female scholar/scientist in history rebelling against her place’ character that I just love, but sometimes she felt a bit too on-the-nose Cool Badass No-Nonsense Snarky Girl. Not necessarily bad – absolutely fun and a great foil for Percy and Monty – but not necessarily terribly complex either lol.

And in addition to being an adventure, there’s a lot of heart.

The romance between Percy and Monty was sweet, and the way their relationship unfolded and developed actually surprised me – and made total sense for their characters. Percy was a sweetheart, a great foil for Monty and I could see why they fell for each other – and why it took them so long, in the grand scheme of their friendship, to get together. They’re both hardheaded and stubborn, and make ridiculous mistakes and each live under difficult circumstances. But they way they found each other in the end was, aw, it was sweet.

But it actually touches upon some very serious issues – ones that I wasn’t expecting at all. The author set out to write some diversity in historical fiction, and it shows and is very appreciated. It goes into Monty’s childhood, his life as a recklessly open bisexual man in the 1700s, and the consequences he faces from school, his peers, his father. And it goes into the difficulties of those around him, as well, which was what I mainly hadn’t expected. While Monty may be ignorant, blinded by his own privilege and self-centredness and his own internal defence measures, the novel is very much so aware of the hardships facing Felicity and Percy, women, people of colour and disabled individuals in Europe. I was really pleasantly surprised, that such a fun rompy book could pull off exploring these issues and still making

The adorable, happy ending definitely helped, too.

But I still don’t think I was the ideal demographic?

My problem with YA – not even a problem, but why I can never have YA books as absolute favourites – is that it’s all delivered too simply. This book covered numerous universal issues with gravity and respect, so I’m not talking about YA being simplistic, it absolutely isn’t. But everything in YA, across the board, is just all done more… simply, less rich and textured than “adult fiction”. The way the characters were done were just, hmm, for simpler consumption. Honestly, until their ages were confirmed 70%~ of the way through, I couldn’t tell if Monty and co. were supposed to be mid-teens or in their twenties, they veered from wild and sexed up to just sounding so young. It was eighteen in the end, so, fair ground lol.

I kept comparing this to Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John novels, set roughly a decade after this book, which similarly told the story of a gay nobleman in Georgian England, always travelling across the land and onto the continent in his mystery adventures. Except those books truly, vivdly painted Georgian London – and of the German states, of Scotland and even colonial Canada and Jamaica – and the lifestyle of a queer nobleman in that time, specific to the mid 1700s. This… did, but nowhere near as richly as Gabaldon. I didn’t feel it really portrayed the deathly secrecy of being same-sex attracted in the time – at times this was kind of veering into the unrealistic or wishful. Which, hey, the author acknowledges. And apart from a few things this could have been set anywhere from the late 1600s to the Industrial Revolution, not bringing his historical world to life  nearly as well as I like in historical fiction, not in the settings nor especially the dialogue.

And, yeah, I feel this was a lot to do with the audience. Because this book and a lot of historical fiction, like Gabaldon, or Heyer, are doing very, very different things aimed at very very different people. This was an adventure novel, then a queer romance, then a historical fiction. But while I would have liked to see some richer historical elements it wasnt enough to put me off the novel. Just made me go ‘ah, YA’.

Definitely 4/5. Really, ridiculously fun and terribly sweet.

Advertisements

Series Review // Sins of the Cities // A lot of Murder, Fog and Romance in Victorian London

sotcbanner

So, I don’t read that much romance/erotica. But let me tell you, when I’m in the mood for it, there is literally nothing better than K.J. Charles. Not only does Ms Charles straight up own my ass, but I genuinely think she’s something special in M/M romance.

I’d happily recommend anything written by Charles, having read, like, basically every book she’s published. I was sent An Unsuitable Heir by NetGalley after having the first book of Sins of the Cities sitting on my ereader for months, so! Here’s my honest review of this book and the series at large as a great fan.

DSC_0664 copy

The Sins of the Cities trilogy follows a single mystery, but examines its unfolding through several different POVs.

Each POV examines the mystery from a different angle, and also brings its own inner world to the mystery, including some fascinating characters and pretty excellent romances. The mystery drives the story throughout each book, rather than the romances being the story. But the pagetime is split pretty equally between both elements, neither being an afterthought to the other. An Unsuitable Heir provides all the answers to both threads of mystery, so basically I am beyond thrilled to have been able to read and review this ARC copy ♥

I liked the first book, An Unseen Attraction fine – it took a while to grab me, the initial murder mystery plot was slow to unfold and the romance between Clem Talleyfer, a landlord and Rowley Green, a taxidermist, was nice enough! The leads were likable and sweet, but I didn’t feel invested… until I got to the other mystery of the series that’s revealed at the end. The next two books – I devouredAn Unnatural Vice was an absolutely fantastic build-up of the mystery, almost solving it completely by the end, and had a stellar romance – between Nathaniel Roy a grieving journalist having to work together with Justin Lazarus, the cunning Seer he’s trying to expose – honestly my favourite out of the three.

An Unsuitable Heir was probably the best novel out of the trilogy, though, and a great conclusion to the series. It starts a little earlier than where An Unnatural Vice ended, when Mark Braglewicz, a one-armed enquiry agent discovers the twins he set out to find in the previous book. He finds Pen and Greta Starling, a trapeze artist duo who want nothing to do with their heritage – and a surprising romance with Pen – but, the murderer from the previous books is still out there killing anyone who would bring their inheritance to light. Mark reveals their heritage to keep them safe, betraying the twins and threatening his blossoming relationship… nor stopping the murders, neither.

It tied up all the loose ends of the trilogy in a really satisfying way

The solution to the two conflicts – Pen’s rejection of his inheritance, and the great bloody murderer out to get everyone – were resolved fantastically, and emotionally satisfying as well, since nearly every protagonist became affected by the mayhem they caused, their lives and characters being challenged by this threat and growing in the face of adversity. I could fully believe the identity of the murderer when the big reveal came, and almost fell for a few sneaky, clever red herrings Charles tried to place around.

And I was so happy with the way the problems with Pen and Greta’s heritage was resolved – it was so central to their character arcs and the romance plot, the emotional crux of the story, and the ending was true to their characters and managed to satisfy everyone involved. Particularly for Pen and Mark, who I really became invested in, and Pen’s gender identity and wellbeing. I was so, so happy Charles never let him compromise on any of that, in his romance or his inheritance, it was so important to see imo. Not only that, but our old leads, Nathaniel, Justin and Clem all had parts to play in this plot (not Rowley so much – I think he got one line of dialogue? lol), important to their arcs in the previous books, and had really satisfying endings as well making this novel a really satisfying end to the entire series. Have I said ‘satisfying’ enough? Because it was really bloody satisfying.

Also, it was a pretty great historical read, too. Not as deeply immersive as some historical fiction tomes, but you can tell Charles does her research – Victorian London comes alive in such short books, each one only about 250 pages. She shows a variety of people who existed in the time, from the working class to the gentry to the richer upper class to the truly Dickensian folk. Have I ever seen a (historically accurate) taxidermist in a novel? Definitely not. It’s something different to the usual fare of historical fiction.

One thing that I love about K.J. Charles is the diversity in her romance novels.

Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an author in the M/M genre who includes as much sexual, ethnic and gender diversity in her romances and even in the wider stories themselves as Charles does – which is even more fantastic to see considering she writes historical romances, and most people seem to think black people were invented in the 1960s when it comes to fiction. While writing so much of it, her characters are all so subversive to the norms of historical fiction.

This series features plenty. Clem is half-Indian and, to me, appeared to be on the autism spectrum (I don’t see a lot of reviewers mention this but in my experience his character rang true to that?). Pen uses male pronouns but identifies as something akin to non-binary, without having the modern vocabulary for any label in the Victorian era, and Mark was born with one arm, and a Polish immigrant as well. There’s a variety of sexualities too, with most of the leads being gay, but Justin’s bisexuality and Mark’s pansexuality is explored as well – without putting down their attraction to women/non-men to validate their attraction to men.

And Charles actually does things with this diversity. It’s not just set dressing. And it doesn’t feel exploitative. There’s some nuance and complexity whenever she looks at the ethnic, sexual, socio-economic aspects that she places in her novels, challenging the eras in history she portrays rather than glorifying them. She thoroughly explores what these mean to her characters, too – even the story of Justin and Nathaniel, two cis white, able-bodied males, explores the dynamics of class, wealth and freedom of the Victorian era. They’re still primarily romance novels, but, oh my god, they also try to do something else, too! It truly goes a long way, in my opinion.

These books explore what this means for the characters, and what it does for these characters in this plot. An Unsuitable Heir‘s unfolding plot practically hinges on how the main character relates his gender identity to his class and his society. The exploration of Pen’s experience of his gender identity is something I rarely see done in fiction, let alone done so thoroughly. Not only did it matter to the plot, it was also the emotional crux of the novel – it was so important to Pen’s character and development, and his romance with Mark. The most emotional, heartbreaking, lovely moments came with the understanding Pen found in Mark. I also noticed some very subtle elements of xenophobia directed at Mark, the constant careless mangling of his surname English characters – something that can truly beat you down, make you feel something less than.

She also very refreshingly unapologetically writes about kink. Unlike half the romance writers I come across, who write kinky sex but still somehow manage to deny that’s actually what they’re talking about, Charles lays it all out that ‘yep, this character is submissive’ and nothing in the book is ashamed of this. On another note, Charles gets what’s hot about erotica – it’s not the set dressing, or the prose used (although it helps when it’s not absurd), it’s the psychology of sex – which comes across in all her novels.

I like that Charles writes interconnected stories of queer men through actually portraying these communities and tight friendship circles of queer people seeking companionship and understanding. You know, opposed to the ‘everyone is actually gay!’ kind of thing that happens in MM. This is especially significant when writing historical fiction – I just love, love the depiction of our community thriving throughout history, the best and worst of the realities they faced.

Honestly, I don’t think you could find more fantastic novels in M/M, Charles goes above and beyond. 5/5 for the series as a whole.

Writing on Reading // Queer Retellings

DSC_0245 copy

So, I kinda went hard ranting on twitter the other day. I went hard, because I had just read two short stories and one anthology of queer retellings of fairytales, and they were all tragic disappointments. I was dissecting why, how, what the fuck… and then I realised I actually had a book blog. Like, a space on the internet specially carved out for me to talk about books and reading.

And I was also debating whether to repost my reviews for those novellas here, considering the gist of the short write-ups was ‘disappointing’… why not turn it into one big rant about the concept as a whole?

Brilliant idea. So, here I shall.

Here’s the thing. A really, really high portion of LGBTQ fiction out there is a retelling of some sort, or a queer ‘twist’ on an existing story. Fairytales and folklore are the most common, but plenty take on myths, or classic literature. In such a small genre – compared to hetero fiction – this becomes really apparent, because of how very little LGBT fiction is being written, published and self-published. When so much of it has a blurb with ‘a gay/lesbian twist on the classic story of X’, you really have to sit back and look at what these stories actually are.

Continue reading

Review // The Well // A murder mystery with a few twists

thewellbanner

Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review! And finally, a novel that I’ve requested has turned out to be genuinely good!

It’s a sharp, concise mystery novel, focused on the murder with a M/M romance.

This isn’t an adventurous or genre-changing plot but it made a damn solid novel for an afternoon at home. Twelve years ago a group of teens – Haven, his cousins Linsey and Elise and a few others, including the boy he’d had his eye on – broke into an abandoned haunted house to hold a seance. By morning, Elise had vanished. Twelve years later, Haven is contacted by his old crush, Pierce, and his twin – now paranormal investigators – for help in hunting down the truth. The plot is a page-turner, no wasted words in telling the story of ~what happened on that spooky night~ – and the added diversity is always a point in a book’s favour.

well.png

It was really good fun! The unfolding investigation always kept me interested, it was easy to follow and the conclusion and eventual murderer reveal wasn’t contrived at all. There were some really great, genuinely suspenseful moments towards the end of the novel where I couldn’t stop reading and didn’t want to – I would have read this in two sittings instead of three, thanks to work lol. The twists in the mystery were fun and definitely heightened my interested instead of making it convoluted, and the paranormal twist was especially fun – I enjoyed that it was used, primarily, for a really emotional touch rather than spooooky happenings. I was actually quite pleased with how the ending focused on resolving the murder for the mystery as well as in an emotionally satisfying way.

The M/M romance was a really nice addition

The ridiculous teenage longing and resulting adulthood reunion was sweet and added more emotion and depth to a story that always had plenty. I enjoyed that Haven’s emotional connections were given equal importance between his lost cousin and his love interest – in a mystery novel Elise would have taken precedence, and in an M/M novel her importance would have been (rather stupidly) downplayed in favour of ~sexy gay love~ so I’m glad Sexton gave both aspects the pagetime they deserved to be explored. And yet, because this was a mystery first and M/M romance second, the romance plotline in the present section wasn’t as compelling as it could have been – it was a sweet complement to the mystery, but this novel would have gripped me even more if it had put more effort into the relationship building.

My only qualm, really, is that I wish there had been more

And not because it was lacking – I just genuinely had fun with it, and felt more could only improve the experience. I really did enjoy all the characters, the various dynamics going on between the supporting cast and the mains. I would have adored this if it had been a 400 page novel. Sexton is absolutely a competent writer with great, clear prose, but this barely scrapes up to 200 pages – it did a lot of things that I enjoyed but it only touched upon them, the fast-paced plot taking precedence. The flashback chapters were perfectly concise and well paced throughout the novel, I wouldn’t change them, but I would have loved more on the present day. If it had gone into greater details on the facets of Haven’s life, as a writer, on living life after such a great tragedy; on bringing the town of Hobbsburg to life; on injecting even more tension and longing into his relationship with Pierce, or exploring Pierce and Jordan’s life… honestly, I enjoyed all of it, I would have happily read more Sexton had to write about any part of this story.

Overall, 4/5. A lot of fun, and I could have easily read more – I wish there had been more.

Review // The Watchmaker of Filigree Street // Magic, Watches and a Love Story

watchmaker banner

So, someone must have let slip to Natasha Pulley what my literary kinks are. It is insane how much this book pandered to everything I love. Victorian England? Set in the only part of London (South Kensington) I know well? Meiji era Japan? Diversity in historical settings? Spirited female scientists and the existence of migrant communities throughout history? Japanese linguistics? Hell, even foreign affairs offices, blithely teasing me about my career goals? And most important of all – a happy, loving queer relationship ❤️

It’s about a telegraphist, Thaniel Steepleton, in the London Home Office in the 1880s who goes home to find a mysterious pocket watch left in his room – months later it ends up saving his life from a bomb. He seeks out the watchmaker for answers, and finds Keita Mori, a Japanese man with secrets of his own. And from there, their relationship begins.

DSC_0187 copy

The packaging of this novel was definitely misleading – but for me it ended up being a pleasant surprise.

It very much wanted readers to think the novel was going to tell a completely different story than what it ended up telling – and I think this is the root of a lot of the negative reviews I see for this. This is definitely a trend I’ve noticed very specifically with LGBT+ fiction in literary or speculative genres – publishers try to remain as vague as possible about the very central LGBT+ content inside in every way possible. And I think it would help readers to enjoy it more knowing exactly what it was going in.

The blurb seemed to hint at maybe a historical crime thriller, or maybe a Holmesian mystery with supernatural threads – and those elements were there. But that wasn’t the story. The story was, above all else, about a magical romance between two men. It’s about how Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori find each other, come to love each other, and the magic within Mori that brought them together. It’s about knowing you’re going to fall in love with someone before you even meet, simply based on thousands of possibilities of how your lives are going to unfold – chance and magic. And I have no doubt very different elements of the book would have been emphasised in marketing if either of them had been female – but. That’s another rant.

adored their romance. I loved how the writing portrayed their unfolding relationship; thoughtful and slow, almost drifting along. It was a way of writing the relationship which, by the climax of the novel and of their relationship, makes a alot of the novel make a lot more sense in retrospect. Every scene between the two was very atmospheric – their world in Filigree Street came to life for me. I loved their characters, I grew so fond of Thaniel and so charmed by Mori. I could read any number of novellas about Mori and Thaniel’s post-novel life, oh my god. The author has a short story online from 2010 which inspired this novel, and if it’s as lovely as the story itself I definitely want to read it.

EDIT: half an hour after posting this review I discovered the author is writing a sequel about Thaniel and Mori due to be published next year. I am blessed ❤️

Everything else, really, was dressing to complement the romance.

The historical settings of late Victorian England and its troubles with Irish nationalism, the sweeping political changes in post-civil war Meiji Japan, the rapidly evolving technology of the time, the difficulties of women in academia and public spaces in this time, and the magical realism in this world where clairvoyants and seers are rare but accepted – but, oh man, I found it such an interesting dressing. There wasn’t a great deal of synthesis between these events and the Thaniel/Mori love story at the heart, which was definitely a failing.

Even though I say that, I also found it no great coincidence that this character whose magic made all those around him see him as dangerous based simply on just could be and potential to – and that this character was a queer man, a stigmatised ill-begotten son in his own society and a racial minority in British society in an era with the “Yellow Peril”. This was never really explored in the novel, but it didn’t escape my notice.

I liked all the supporting characters too – even if they weren’t drawn out in great detail or even did a whole lot, there was something about them that seemed vivid to me. Dolly, Fanshawe, Ito and Matsumoto were are ally enjoyable for me – even Annabel, who only had a few speaking lines, was a distinct character for me from the way Pulley painted her from Thaniel’s perspective.

There was one main thing that left me unsatisfied.

And pretty damn conflicted overall, too – and that was the character of Grace. Initially she had all the fantastic qualities of female characters that I enjoy – especially supporting female characters in M/M novels – but she ended up being more of an antagonist force. While I understand why – the decision Thaniel has to make between Grace and Mori is the central conflict of the novel in the end – I just didn’t like that Pulley made that decision. Grace could have been a very fun secondary heroine – she had a lot of character, she was stroppy, headstrong and selfish, focused on her goal of becoming a scientist and to make a grand discovery, to a fault, but good-hearted, with a lot of room to grow. These qualities, that were fun in the beginning, actually manifested in a way that made Grace a very unpleasant person by the end of the novel. I wanted her to leave, to let Mori and Thaniel’s relationship be, and it was too much of a ‘ew get the horrible WOMAN away from the gay ship’ experience than I’m EVER comfortable with. I don’t think Pulley was trying to villainise Grace, considering her ending, but it very much left me with a reading experience I’m very uncomfortable with when reading M/M content.

I found the prose itself lovely – a little slow, but for me it came off considered – and the dialogue was all strong and delightful… but at times the execution of certain scenes didn’t work, especially towards the end of the novel. There wasn’t enough tension being built into the writing, but there was enough that through the context of the story I was able to feel the build up and climaxes so it wasn’t left lying completely flat – but I don’t think she quite managed to land the ending the way she wanted to. Honestly, it read like an author’s first novel – which, hey, it was.

Definitely a 4/5 – I adored it, but there were some little flaws which were just too much for me to ignore.