Title and Author: The Ruin of a Rake
Published by: Avon Impulse
Genre: Historical romance
Reviewed by: Anya
What to Expect: Enemies-to-lovers story with a unique twist. And kittens! Read More
Title: An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles
Published by: Random House LLC
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: KJ Charles wraps up the Sins of the Cities trilogy with with a trapeze artist named Pen who won’t compromise gender identity for sake of an earldom and a detective who acknowledges Pen’s true self while knowing he might have to convince Pen to do exactly that in order to save Pen’s life.
A private detective finds passion, danger, and the love of a lifetime when he hunts down a lost earl in Victorian London.
On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.
Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.
But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.
While I haven’t read the entire KJ Charles oeuvre, the stories I have read are about careful, thoughtful lovers in the Victorian age. Interesting time to be queer. It’s an age with visible homosexuality and an age gearing up toward the 1885 legislation that will make private acts between consenting men blatantly illegal. The same legislation that will land Oscar Wilde in gaol in 1896.
But the Victorian era, known for sexual repression, was categorized by an awful lot of talk about sex and, thanks to one sexologist Havelock Ellis, created a term called sexual inversion, which was used to describe a reversal of gender traits as an inborn mechanism. The term was used across the spectrum of homosexuality and gender identity but perhaps it was most closely descriptive of transgenderism—a term that was introduced a century later.
(Don’t get too excited about this guy Ellis. He was also a proponent for Eugenics. Jerk.)
I rudely interrupted myself. What was I saying?
Who doesn’t have the language to describe how odd it feels to have large hands and broad shoulders, despite the fact they have uncommon body awareness to fly on the trapeze. It was interesting to consider a character who know who they were (Pen’s identity wasn’t in question for himself) but because of this lack of common vocabulary (which is remains topics of many Twitter threads today), Pen was wary of the constant requirement to adhere to a standard that simply didn’t suit them.
Who sees Pen authentically. Conversely, Pen sees Mark (a one-armed Polish man who has long ago worked out how to perform daily tasks, though others see him as defective) for who he is as well. This ongoing discussion and validation is nice to see. In fact, KJ Charles often writes about the perspective of those who are seen as ‘others’ or ‘outliers’ to standard white bread society. She writes with a lot of kindness and patience and, I suspect, with the hope of raising awareness so we (as a whole) can elevate how we treat those around us.
I was invested. And as much as I didn’t quite fall in love with this couple as much as Nathaniel and Justin, I did (on more than one occasion) pick up my e-reader just after closing it just to read another few lines, which became some more pages, which became chapters.
This trilogy demonstrates why KJ Charles has such a dedicated following. If you don’t pick up this series, pick up another; the choice on whether or not to read her books is a no-brainer.
What you may not like: As referenced above, there is such care put into how her lovers treat each other, how they navigate each other’s ‘otherness’ — not just accepting their lover but constantly, consistently, repetitively accepting their lover. Unfortunately, this wore down my interest, possibly because I was already onboard with these concepts. Similarly, in book #3 (which this is), there was a lot of revisiting of what had happened in prior books. Perhaps it was necessary for those who read the prior books in the series some time ago. I felt it could have been more subtle.
There is also one point in which Pen seems to have adopted a new pronoun but because it was said by Mark rather than Pen themselves, I was uncomfortable. This is in part because there were several instances in this story in which Mark proceeded to move against Pen’s explicit wishes (which is likely the other reason I didn’t love them together). It is very difficult to run roughshod over a lover’s wishes and is, perhaps, unforgivable to many readers. I’m still mulling it over (Though in real life? No. I’d be raising hell if that happened to a friend of mine. No forgiveness, know what I’m saying?)
What you will love: The authentic Victorian London experience – complete with smells, fog, livelihood, trendy words, and lots (and lots) of tea. The relationships supersede the mystery but, even so, the plot was interesting, especially as it grew over the course of the three books. Mostly, I loved the community, how each character remains imperfect, but also perfectly, wonderfully loved. Because, really, her characters are perfectly, wonderfully lovable.
Binge on Books is joined today by guest reviewer and writer, Moog. She chat with Mackenzi Lee about all things queer historicals and also her stellar new release, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.
When I first learned about The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I honestly thought I’d misheard. A queer YA historical road trip book? Surely I had just made that up out of my head and it couldn’t really exist. But it did! And does! And is out June 27th!
Blurb: Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
Witty, romantic, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a sumptuous romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.
We were lucky enough to catch up with the lovely Mackenzi Lee before the release of Gentleman’s Guide to talk about YA historical fiction, weird research facts, and what she’s working on next.
Moog for Binge on Books: Hi Mackenzi! Thanks for being here. I loved The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue from page one (especially Monty, disaster of my heart). I read a lot of YA and a lot of historical romance, but there’s not much historical fiction in YA. Your first book, This Monstrous Thing, and Gentleman’s Guide are both YA historicals with fantasy elements. What draws you to this genre in particular?
Mackenzi: Historical fiction is a hard category in YA–I feel like I’m constantly fighting against the idea that historical fiction is boring, and so many of my readers start their positive reviews of my books with the caveat “I generally don’t like or read historical fiction but…” And as delighted I am that they read and enjoyed mine in spite of that, I wish everyone loved historicals because they’re so magical! I love that historical fiction feels like fantasy, because the world is so foreign to modern readers, but it’s all real (which makes the fantasy such a natural addition, though I do tend to favor historicals that are lighter on the fantasy, or whose fantasy is rooted in the real history of the time it’s set in). But on the flip side of that, I love how, when you read historical accounts, you realize people don’t really change. We’re the same through centuries and across time and space. I was also a history major in college, and very close to becoming an academic writer, until a professor told me my papers read like historical fiction novels and I realized I might be writing in the wrong genre.
Moog: That’s so cool! What sort of things were you writing in your papers?
Mackenzi: Basically I would write things like “Henry VI was hurt and angry over this” and write dialogue for Richard III (my history degree emphasis was Wars of the Roses in England :). Which apparently you are not supposed to do. And in general I think my writing style skewed a little too narrative driven for my professors.
Moog: Le gasp! Not narrative! And writing historical fiction, like writing academic papers, comes with a bunch of research (I say, staring down my shelf full of Victorian social history books that I claim are for “research” and not just for my own heart). Was there any particular fact you found out while writing/researching for Gentleman’s Guide that you couldn’t find a way to include?
Mackenzi: Oh gosh, so much research. The trick to being a historical fiction writer is both knowing how to research (and loving it) and also knowing when to put down the research and start writing–it’s so easy to use it as an excuse to not get words on the page. My favorite fact, which didn’t end up in the book but is in the author’s note, is that there were more gay bars and clubs in London in the 1700s than there were in the 1940s. There was a thriving subculture for queer people in 18th century Europe!
My other favorite fact that didn’t make it in anywhere was that in the 1700s, the British were exporting prostitutes to pirate islands like Tortuga to discourage the pirates from just getting it on with each other. (But beyond random sex with each other, pirates also had a sort of civil marriage that bound two male pirates and their booty together, and often they shared living space and provisions on the ship. Pirates were pioneers of gay marriage 🙂
Moog: *hoards queer history facts like a tiny dragon* Speaking of, I also really loved that Gentleman’s Guide includes a PoC love interest, a bisexual hero, and a character with a chronic health condition, all of which have also been underrepresented in mainstream publishing. Are there similar themes in your future books?
Mackenzi: Thank you! I’ve been generally frustrated with the lack of diversity in historical fiction, and non-fiction narratives. We use “historical accuracy” as an excuse for not including characters with marginalized identities in historical fiction, or we often make them tortured side characters (especially the queer ones). And it’s not that the narratives don’t exist–I read a lot of primary sources from black, chronically ill, and queer people in England in the 1700s. They were there! We just erase them and instead keep telling the story of the straight white guys.
And I’ve been trying really hard to not be part of that problem! I don’t feel like a lot of these narratives are mine to tell, since I’m a white lady, but I try to do what I can to include minority characters in my historical fiction and nonfiction that are more than being tortured outsiders.
As far as future books, I have an anthology of my Bygone Badass Broads essays coming out next year [Editor’s note: #BygoneBadassBroads is Mackenzi’s Twitter series about forgotten badass ladies from history], and I made an effort (which my publisher was hugely supportive of) to make sure we were including marginalized women and their stories. And my next book is about sexuality and gender identity and set in the 1600s in Holland.
Moog: It’s wonderful to hear that your publisher was so supportive! Your upcoming books both sound amazing. Felicity from Gentleman’s Guide is 100% a Bygone Badass Broad, right? Which of the Bygone Broads do you think would get on best with her and/or best form a terrifying alliance with her to change the face of medicine forever?
Mackenzi: Thank you! Bygone Badass Broads was a true passion project for me, and to see it take off the way it has has been both surprising and incredibly rewarding. Of the Bygone Badass Broads I’ve featured, I think Felicity would pair best with Mary Anning, the paleontologist in 1700s England, or Clelia Duel Mosher, the American physician in the turn of the century who helped dispel myths about female fragility. They’re all three science minded and independent (neither Mary nor Clelia ever married). I think the three of them would make a kick ass science girl squad.
Moog: I would 100% read that book! If you were suddenly confined to a desert island and, for some archaic island reason, you could only take queer historical books (of any sub-genre) with you, which would be the first three books you packed?
Mackenzi: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (not on-page queerness, but you can definitely do a really solid queer reading of it, and it’s my favorite book in the world so I’m bending the rules for it)
Moog: Your desert island would have the best tiny library! Thanks again for being here, Mackenzi <3 Chatting queer historical has been glorious. As a last note: three random quick-fire questions! Weirdest home decoration you own?
Mackenzi: My dad made me a to-scale mechanical arm for the This Monstrous Thing trailer, which now functions as a charming table ornament in my apartment.
Moog: How do you take your tea (or hot beverage of your choice)?
Mackenzi: Fruity. I’m generally disinclined to tea, but I love fruit teas, which are not as commonly available in most places as I want them to be. But I was just on a research trip in Holland and they serve fruit tea at almost every restaurant! I’ve never been so delighted.
Moog: What are you reading right now?
Mackenzi: Oh gosh too many things–I’ve been picking up and putting down a dozen books a day lately. At this moment, I’m deep in Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor and Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant who Helped Bring Down the Communist Party by Lisa E. Davis.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee is published by HarperCollins and is released on June 27 2017.
Mackenzi Lee holds a BA in history and an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults, and her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Crixeo, The Friend, and The Newport Review, among others. Her debut novel, THIS MONSTROUS THING, which won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award, is out now from HarperCollins. Her second book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, a queer spin on the classic adventure novel, will be released in June of 2017.
She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home, where she works as an independent bookstore manager.
Moog Florin is a writer, blogger, and lacker of balance. She lives in London with her wife (lovely) and an octopus (stuffed), and can be found blogging into the void about books, stickers, and queer romance at MM Florin Writes. You can also find Moog on Twitter: @MM_Florin
Published by: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: historical romance/suspense
Reviewed by: Anya
What to Expect: Never-been-kissed MC meets a rogue with a heart of gold. Gorgeous historical romance with a side dish of family secrets… Read More
Published by: Amazon Digital Services
Format: .mobi ARC
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewed by: Erin
Buy at: Amazon
What to Expect: This is a sweet friends-to-lovers book featuring honest-to-goodness adults, witty banter, and some really good groveling.
Published by: Amazon Digital Services
Format: .mobi ARC
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewed by: Erin
Buy at: Amazon
What to Expect:
Could you use some sweet, minimal angst historical romance in our life right now? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s been a tough week. Here are some lovely escapist holiday novellas for your reading pleasure.