Shira Glassman reviews Proper English by KJ Charles

Proper English by KJ Charles

I can think of no more convincing way to start my review/endorsement of KJ Charles’ new book Proper English than these words I added to a reblog of an aesthetic post on Tumblr: “I just read this yesterday! Folks, y’all know there’s an Edwardian lesbian romance that is also a country house murder mystery where the lesbians solve it and live happily ever after, right? Well, now you do.” Plus, the love interest is a beautiful, not-thin woman who is just described as voluptuous and pretty with no disclaimers.

For some of you, that’s all you’ll need and you’ve already one-clicked it or requested it at your library. But if anyone else needs convincing, here are some more details.

The leading lady, Pat, has never been married and likes to go hunting with the men in her social sphere (specifically, “shooting”, which is birds.) There’s an awesome conversation between some of the female characters about vegetarian objections to hunting (in the person of the book’s Indian character, Miss Singh) vs. objections from a meat eater who is merely squeamish about where her food ultimately comes from, vs. the hunter herself. It’s cool to see women talking about “issues” in a book that combines two genres in which one doesn’t usually expect deep philosophy — fluffy romance and country-house murder mystery.

But it is a book with deep bits, small ones that are easy to swallow. Pat’s love interest, Fenella, for example — her storyline is all about her frustration and heartbreak with how often her personality is misread by everyone with whom she interacts. She can’t live up to her own potential so she ends up living down to people’s expectations, therefore proving them true. She’s able to grow through her contact and eventual romance with Pat, who tells her — and this is great advice I had to learn myself, as a baby queer — “People are awfully lazy, and ready to take other people at the value they put on themselves without thinking twice.” (It doesn’t always work; I know that. But it’s at least a useful tool occasionally.)

I forgot this was going to be a murder mystery until the book’s most annoying character, a racist piece of excrement married to the host’s sister, was a no-show for two meals in a row. Then the fact that I’m the kind of nerd who owns 95% of Agatha Christie’s output and even has then on their own special bookshelf kicked in and I realized, oh, wow, no wonder the author made him so over the top annoying! Because that’s a favorite technique of Christie’s, too — and she’s the reason we have country-house murder mysteries — to make the murder victim super awful so that 1. we don’t miss them as a reader and 2. so there will be a healthy crop of suspects because of how many people would breathe easier without Mr. Excrement walking the earth. “The house is full of motives,” as Pat tells Fenella.

There are no Agatha Christie books where the lesbians walk merrily off into the sunset together. Believe me, I’d know. Instead we get dead lesbians, guilty lesbians — all implied, all under the surface — or just no sapphic representation at all, which I prefer to the depressing stuff honestly. So to have my favorite genre of literature include a f/f HEA was a real treat!

I won’t say this book totally scratched my puzzle itch, so its strength is mostly as a romance novel. That’s fine. I wanted to write a Christie-style mystery my whole life and once I tried it (A Harvest of Ripe Figs) I realized how astronomically hard it is to pull off a surprise solution that is truly a surprise. But the world definitely has too few happy, fluffy lesbian historical romances, so it’s nice to have a nice solid new one.

Historical romance also granulates, inasmuch as “Regency romance” is a subgenre separate from “medieval romance”, etc. As far as I can see it, every era of f/f romance is important, because they will always be filling their own niche. After all, one can find a m/f romance set in any era one wants (for example: I love reading about 1660-1770 because of the gigantic skirts and Baroque architecture!) so it would be nice if readers of f/f had the same opportunity. So this book is a nice good quality contribution to that cause!

(P.S. I can’t remember the details but these characters show up in a m/m country house/spy thriller set a few years later, Think of England, which I reviewed back when I wrote it. So this is their backstory.)

Shira Glassman is the author of extremely fluffy, sometimes sexy, f/f fantasy and contemporary romance. Read her latest: Cinnamon Blade, Knife in Shining Armor (superhero/damsel in distress) or Knit One Girl Two (sweet contemporary.)

Elinor reviews Bound By Love by Megan Mulry

Bound By Love is a Regency era novella about Vanessa and Nora, women who have been together for twenty years. They’ve raised Vanessa’s children from a previous marriage and built a happy life together in the English countryside. Then Nora learns that her daughter, who she believed was stillborn just before she met Vanessa, may in fact be living nearby–and that Vanessa may have known there was a possibility Nora’s daughter was alive all along.

This is such an interesting set up for a story! It starts off strong, with alternating chapters in 1810 and in 1790, when Vanessa helped rescue Nora from her abusive husband and the two women fell in love. I’m not a huge Regency person but I thought the tone was fairly on point. I liked having a long term couple at the center of the story. Megan Mulry’s imagined pansexual, kink- and poly-friendly Regency England is charming.

Unfortunately, the tension wasn’t allowed to build enough, so the emotional pay off was limited. Even very serious issues are resolved quickly and without much lingering impact. I wanted the story to dive deeper, especially when Nora meets her possible daughter. Some problems seemed tacked on, which was unnecessary considering the potential for conflict and emotion provided by the premise. I had fun reading this, but in the end it seemed more like a draft than a finished novella.

This book is the second in a series of queer Regency romances by Mulry, which include kink, poly relationships, and which all connect. The final section of this book is the lead in for the next in the series and didn’t tie into the central plot all that well. If you have been longing for queer Regency, you might like to explore the series, especially if you just want a light romp. As a stand alone book, though, this didn’t impress me too much. Hardcore f/f Regency fans might want to check it out, but you’re not missing much if you skip it. Two out of five stars.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

Korri reviews Petticoats and Promises by Penelope Friday

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I love historical romance novels, especially those featuring women who love women (see Pembroke Park). The high stakes of that love when women could not earn a living and had to secure their livelihoods and social position through strategic marriages automatically creates tension and drama. Petticoats and Promises, a Regency romance by Penelope Friday, is a mostly entertaining read in that genre.

A few weeks before their joint coming out ball, Serena Coleridge is astonished to realize that she is in love for her best friend, Clara Battersley, and that the feeling is mutual. As the young women discuss the fact that their debut is an announcement of availability on the marriage market, Serena confesses that she cannot imagine loving someone as much as she does Clara. Their tête-à-tête is interrupted that afternoon but their feelings do not remain unspoken for long; soon the girls share passionate kisses and sensual encounters. On the eve of their coming out ball, Serena’s father’s stocks plummet, leaving no money for a season. Serena does not mind the loss of the social whirl – she is more concerned about losing access to her beloved. An invitation to visit the Coleridges in London is the perfect excuse for Clara and Serena to be together – until they are caught by Clara’s mother, who sends Serena home in disgrace. The rest of the novel follows the aftermath as Serena is cut off from Clara, who quickly marries; deals with her parents’ sorrow and mortification; and navigates the turbulent waters of society. She is sponsored in town by her Aunt Hester and becomes friends with the awkward but kind Mr. Feverley and Miss Kate Smith, another “invert,” which helps her to heal.

Penelope Friday doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer imitating Jane Austen) – she allows Serena Coleridge’s first person narration to render acute observations about social interactions and give readers a glimpse of what life was like in the Regency period. Friday is good at depicting the constraints of the era – never being alone or having time to oneself without servants or parents around, the need to abide by rules and strictures of good breeding. The problem with such insularity, of course, is that the novel focuses solely on Serena’s internal emotional life and yearning for Clara, without the cutting wit and sense of irony that makes Jane Austen’s writing so beloved. Since Clara and Serena share so much history then spend most of the novel apart, it can be difficult to feel invested in them as a couple. The endless misunderstandings between Serena and Clara are another issue with the novel; if only they spoke openly and thoroughly, their happily ever after could have come much sooner. But there is a happily ever after indeed!

 

Korri reviews Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin

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As an avid reader of historical romance novels and lesbian fiction, I have long known of Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park; it has a legendary status among readers, which is only heightened by the fact that it is currently out of print. When I got my hands on a copy via AbeBooks, I eagerly delved in.

Published in 1986, Martin’s delightful book (billed as the first lesbian Regency novel) is more in the vein of Jane Austen than contemporary romance novels. The social intricacies of the era are observed: the heroines know each other for months before addressing each other by first name; gossip spread at public balls in the Herefordshire countryside can ruin reputations; and the villains of the story are an arrogant, overbearing brother and propriety rather than some dastardly foe with a complicated scheme.

Amid this simplicity, it was wonderful to read about the growing attachment between new neighbors Lady Joanna Sinclair and Lady Diana March. Though Lady Diana’s habit of riding astride shocks the locals, including widowed Lady Joanna, the two women become close. Who could help but love the unconventional Diana, a woman who is free in her speech, exotic in her attire, and who was once hauled before a court in Alexandria ‘on charges of drunk and disorderly conduct, assaulting an officer of the law, liberating a trader’s camel, and soliciting the English Ambassador for prostitution’? Joanna’s playfulness with her daughter and repressed talent for painting endears her to readers and to Diana.

The slow-building attraction between Joanna & Diana is charming. The secondary characters offer other portrayals of same-sex love and ground Joanna & Diana within a community. I only wish the happily ever after had given us more time with the heroines, showing readers what their life was like as a family with Joanna’s daughter Molly. This novel has earned a place on my keeper shelf next to other Regency romances.

Audrey reviews Bound with Love by Megan Mulry

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If you used to like Georgette Heyer and still love Jane Austen but are a little gayer than you used to be, perhaps it is time to check out Megan Mulry’s Regency Reimagined series. Bound with Love is a confection involving lurid pasts, long-kept secrets, and at its center, a smolderingly sensual relationship between Vanessa, an English aristocrat, and Nora, a Spanish-born portrait painter.

Although tragic events brought the women together, they’ve loved each other and raised a family together. Their world is perfect–at least, it’s perfect until the day a letter arrives that throws their knowledge of the past into uncertainty, and jeopardizes their future happiness.

Vanessa and Nora are a passionate, sophisticated couple; they’re secure enough in their love for each other that they’re much more exploratory than one might expect from a standard Regency romance. Actually, everyone is much more exploratory than one might expect. There are all kinds of romantic combinations contained herein, and pretty much something for everyone.

The emphasis in this volume is on Vanessa and Nora, but it should be noted that this is the second book in a series. While it can easily be read as a stand-alone, this title is a novella, and the first and third titles (about Nora’s daughter’s relationships and Nora and Vanessa’s neighbors’ alliance with Vanessa’s daughter, respectively) are both novels. I’m not sure why this one didn’t get the full novel treatment, especially as it pulls together the whole group of characters.

One might speculate that this was not Mulry’s favorite grouping. I didn’t get that from the Nora/Vanessa scenes. They were fun. However, the ostensible plotline wrapped up rather suddenly, and the book simply–stopped. It does appear that the book is available only in Kindle form, and at a much lesser price than the other two volumes in Kindle form. And the other two books are also available in print. So…maybe this is an interstitial title? Written to appease those of us who might be more interested in the more “mature” lesbian couple, than in the carousing of the 20-somethings?

Not a clue. But for $2.99, it would be a worthwhile, fun erotic historical frivolity, if that’s your thing.