The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

tumblr_otb4utrqck1tfx1a7o1_540Title: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 4.0 out of 5.0

If you asked me to draw up a wishlist of things I wanted from a queer YA historical novel, it would include the following:

  1. tender queer boys
  2. strong girls who are fallible but have agency & their own goals
  3. PIRATES!
  4. adventure
  5. road trips! (AKA the only reason I’d read a Grand Tour novel)
  6. dropping trou before European dignitaries at Versailles
  7. intersectional identities
  8. a nuanced handling of chronic illness and disability

And man, like. It deliversThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (hi, love that title) is an adventure romp about two boys and one judgemental, not-here-for-your-shit sister who go on a Grand Tour. But because of one of the boys’ assholery (Monty’s), they end up being chased across the Continent by a sinister duke with nefarious plans.

This was an incredibly well-written novel––there is one thing I love most in all the world and it’s the slightly offbeat, self aware humour of historical fantasy set in Regency England. Think Sorcerer to the Crown and Sorcery and Cecelia and you’ve got a good idea of what I’m talking about, because our narrator/erstwhile protagonist/resident douchebag Henry “Monty” Montague has wit and humour in spades. Also self-hate, because this novel goes to some dark places for something so otherwise lighthearted and enjoyable.

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The Girl From Everywhere

21979832Title: The Girl From Everywhere
Author: Heidi Heilig
Genre: YA, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★☆☆ | 2.5

I’m already tired of writing this review, and I haven’t even begun. This is largely because I have very few feelings about this novel and quite a few thoughts, and I’m honestly not even sure I have energy enough––or frankly, that I give enough of a shit––to write a whole review, which is kind of a problem when you’ve read a whole novel.

Like, I liked it fine? I just have a total of zero emotions about it otherwise, which may be in part due to the stomach virus I came down with after graduation and in part due to the reading slump I’ve been in all year. Maybe the novel just hit me at a bad point, because it has many things that I would otherwise enjoy. But I read it when I read it, so these thoughts will have to suffice, and this is as fair as it’s going to get.

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Forbidden

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Title: Forbidden
Author: Beverly Jenkins
Genre: Historical Romance
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 4.0 out of 5.0

Surely my not having read any Beverly Jenkins before this constitutes as some kind of crime simply because I enjoyed Forbidden so much. Eddy and Rhine actually managed to steal my heart with their sweetness. And I also appreciated the fact that Jenkins doesn’t shy away from dealing with issues of racism during the time period. The story is set in the 1870s American West. Eddy, who lives in Denver, decides to move West to realise her dream of one day owning a restaurant. However, one her way there she is robbed and left for dead in the desert. She ends up in Virginia City in the bedroom of one Rhine Fontaine who rescues her from the desert. Their romance goes from there.

The romance was definitely wonderful and one of the major reasons I enjoyed this book so much. Eddy and Rhine are definitely attracted to one another from soon after the see one another, however due to all the obstacles in their way it does take some time for their romance to amount to anything. Tragically, Jenkins decides to gloss over the wedding night as all moonlight and flowers which was a bit disappointing as it was in my view an important part of their relationship.

The key issue between Eddy and Rhine is that Eddy is black while legally Rhine is white. Early on we find out Rhine’s history and parentage as well as the fact that he chooses to pass as white. This decision is also a significant part of Rhine’s character. Jenkins never shies away from the reality of the life Rhine lived before he decided to pass as white. Nor does she shy away from the internal conflicts that Rhine continues to experience because of his decision.

Jenkins’ characterisation was my favourite part of the novel. The novel has a fairly large secondary character cast and Jenkins manages to make each of these characters individualised. Each character had their own personalities, dreams, and families. They went beyond their occupations and their relationships to either Eddy or Rhine. I finished the novel wanting to read books about the secondary characters.

However, Forbidden is not without its faults, hence the rating of four stars. Jenkins plays to the ‘psycho ex girlfriend’ trope to an extreme level. In my view it ruined what would have otherwise been a great ending. Rhine’s ex Natalie, a young rich white woman, cannot handle Rhine leaving her and so resorts to extreme measures. It is something that is played out too often across our tv screens and personally a trope that I despise. So, to see this trope in historical romance which is very much escapist literature for me was not something that I wanted.

Overall, since reading this I’ve already personally recommended Beverly Jenkins to three friends and read two more of her books so I think that should say enough about how much I enjoyed this book.

The Steep and Thorny Way

22838927Title: The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Magical Realism
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ | 2.5 out of 5

I’ve been listening to a lot of songs that give me southern gothic vibes lately. That, coupled with the fact that I’m currently in Georgia and the fact that I’ve been marathoning Preacher means that The Steep and Thorny Way has been exactly the kind of novel I’m looking for. Moody, stormy, a revenge narrative smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Oregon, where the glamour of the ’20s seems to have packed its bags and skipped out of town.

Hannalee Denney is the only biracial girl in the rural town of Elston, and her father the only Black man, until his death at the hands of a reckless driver. But Hannalee and her mother are trying to move forward. Her mother’s married the local physician, and Hannalee is adapting to this new life. But then her father’s murderer gets released, and he’s telling a story different from the one she heard. According to him, Hannalee’s new stepfather is the one who killed Hank Denney.

If the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, the novel is a loose reconfiguration of Hamlet set in rural Oregon, complete with chilling ghosts and possible poison and the presence of the Klu Klux Klan. And friends, I really wasn’t sold. I really admire books with a commitment to concept and that would have been necessary to the success of this novel.There are ways of grounding the supernatural into more realistic portrayals of racism and homophobia and I think this was really well done in Libba Bray’s Diviners series, but this necessitates the author to be willing to take the idea of the supernatural to its logical extremes. But Steep & Thorny Way kept pulling back, much to the detriment not only of the atmosphere, but also of the overall narrative.

This wouldn’t have actually made me quit the novel, though, because I’ve read a lot of novels that failed to live up to their concepts but still turned out pretty enjoyable. What made this novel join the 33% club was its clunky writing and complete lack of subtlety. This is likely a result of Winters wanting to address a lot of the racism and homophobia in the time period she’s writing in, so I can’t really fault her for it, but the writing was so heavy-handed the process of reading became the hardest part of the narrative. Sometimes a light touch is all that’s needed.

Character interactions make no sense. Conversations go from Point A to Planet X in the space of a few sentences, and rather than feeling organic, they feel as if they have agendas: the point of Paragraph Z was to convey Y information. Characterisation is also all over the place. It’s as if the novel got so caught up in its messaging that it forgot that it had a story to tell. Which is really such a shame, because it would have been an interesting one.

The Agency Series (Y.S. Lee)

Title: The Agency
Author: YS Lee
Genre: Action, Historical Fiction, Mystery
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ || 2.0 stars

In some ways, it’s deeply unfair to rate these books as a series. In others, it’s the only way to rate it at all. As individual books, they were mostly competent, interesting reads. I’m generally a huge fan of revisionist Victorian novels (particularly if there is a mystery element) that feature intrepid girls (particularly if they are intrepid girls of colour), but I found that the more I read the books, the more frustrated and impatient I became with them.

The Agency follows Mary Quinn, formerly Mary Lang, an Irish-Chinese girl who was saved from the noose to be given a second chance at life. She takes this second chance to turn herself into a member of the Agency, a covert all-female private detective agency that utilises stereotypes about women to go undercover as maids, companions, and governesses––all in the name of the case. In each of the four books, Mary is sent on a different case––uncovering the truth behind the smuggling of Hindu artifacts into England while posing as the paid companion of a spoiled young lady, solving the death of a bricklayer at the building site of the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower in the guise of a twelve year old boy, even enjoying a stint in Buckingham Palace as a maid chasing down a string of petty thefts in the palace. This setup allows for an almost infinite amount of permutations––Lee could certainly have extended the series indefinitely if she so chose, so it’s something of a minor miracle that she chose to complete it at four. This is also part of why I found myself enjoying the novels less and less.

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Cinder & Ella

22724488Title: Cinder & Ella
Author: Kelly Oram
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, YA
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ || 1 star

warnings for: in-universe ableism, death, suicide ideations/attempts

Can someone tell me why this has such a high rating on Goodreads? I truly would like to know, because this book was fucking awful. Like I’m sorry, did we travel back in time to 2003? Because that was the last year this book would have been acceptable to me, and even there would have been a question mark punctuating my enjoyment. And several exclamation points following. (FTR, I would have been seven or eight, and I still might have looked down my nose at this book.) It’s just sexist hogwash, is what it is.

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Tithe

tumblr_inline_mv54cvqtu91r4y49lTitle: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: ☆ || 4.0 stars

Tithe was and remains one of my favourite books from my childhood, and I still look back on it fondly, though I can’t tell if it’s because of nostalgia, or because Kaye was one of the only explicitly Asian characters in my life back then, or because Rath Roiben Rye was so hunky or what. And I must have been about 10 when I first picked the book up from the library (cos look at that cover, who wouldn’t) and I was going into my rebellious pimply teenager phase, the kind who thought that wearing Converse with a ball gown was So Edgy and thought barbed wire was an aesthetic and thought Jersey was the best place on earth (full disclosure: still a proud Jersey girl). Which is probably why Tithe, which was the very definition of early pre-teen punk indie emo set in New Jersey, still resonates with me today. And why I still go back and reread it. (Also, come on. We’re pretty much culturally conditioned to enjoy romances between spunky, intrepid tough girls and cold, emotionally constipated men who want to love them but can’t because they’re cursed. I can’t help it if Tam Lin’s my favourite story archetype. #excuses)

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