Hello and welcome to the August 2023 edition of the Queer Lit Review blog! This month we have a manga retelling of Beauty and the Beast, a new baronet dealing with a clan of local smugglers after having an affair with their leader, and a young girl struggling to handle her new superpowers.
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Title/Author/Artist: Entangled With You by Aki Aoi
Summary: Once upon a time, Marcel’s sister injured herself in the forest while gathering herbs. Marcel was at a loss for what to do until a fearsome horned man appeared, offering help — in exchange for a promise. Now, ten years later, Marcel returns to the woods, steeling himself for death. Instead, he finds something quite different: a gentle soul, friendship…and perhaps something more.
Series/Standalone: Standalone anthology
Genre/Sub-Genre: Manga/Fantasy/light romance
Book Format: Print/graphic novel
Length: 184 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: None. Note that while this is a romance anthology, there are no sex scenes.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written.
Art/Illustrations: The art here, both on the cover and inside, is GORGEOUS! Especially if you like plants and plant drawings. With the exception of the cover, everything is in black and white, and it's still very beautiful with clear, crisp lines. I find myself flipping through the book often just to stare at the plants!
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: The first thing you need to know about this book is that it’s a single volume manga anthology, which means most of the stories will be very short. The second thing you need to know is that most of these stories center around plants (did I mention the gorgeous plant art?!?!). Only one story is loosely centered around migrating birds.
The first story, Entangled With You, is the longest and takes up half the book. It’s a beautiful Beauty and the Beast retelling of the most wholesome variety and I do highly recommend it. As others have commented on Goodreads, I also wish Entangled With You was much longer. I can’t say too much, or I’ll give things away, but I loved that the beast, Giselbert, teaches Marcel how to read, and that Marcel teaches Giselbert about medicinal plants. I wanted to spend more time with them in the garden and more time watching them read together! This story has a follow-up chapter at the very end of the anthology too.
There are four other stories in the second half of this book. These were slice-of-life stories that, while they were good, were just too short for me and left me wanting to know more about the characters, about the situations they found themselves in, and what became of them. The longest of these, Along the Way, was cute the way the two boyfriends compared themselves to characters in a picture book they’d both fallen in love with years ago. I wanted to be shown the story they loved more than I wanted it told and explained to me. (It’s about the lonely Prince of Darkness who flees after he befriends a shepherd with too much light and I am HERE for that story!)
Overall, this was a delightfully sweet collection that I highly recommend, just so long as you go into it knowing it’s an anthology of mostly very short stories.
Title/Author: The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen by KJ Charles
Summary: The district of Kent isn’t far from London, geographically speaking, but it might as well be another world for Sir Gareth Inglish, who has unexpectedly inherited his estranged father’s estate. Along with the house, he finds he must now contend with a teenage stepsister, suspicious townsfolk, and the local band of smugglers. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Doomsday smuggler clan is led by a man named Joss — whom Gareth once knew as “Kent” when they had a short-lived, anonymous fling in a London mollyhouse.
Series/Standalone: This book is first in the Doomsday Books duology. It stands alone, but I do also recommend the second book, A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel, which comes out in September and centers around Joss’s nephew Luke.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Historical romance
Book Format: eBook
Length: 342 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Content Warnings: Violence, abuse of a child character, and blackmail/threats to out a closeted character.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written!
Would I Recommend?: Yes!
Personal thoughts: It will not surprise long-time readers of the Queer Lit Review to learn that I am a huge fan of KJ Charles (see: February 2019, July 2019, and January 2022). The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is her first traditionally published book, coming from Sourcebooks Casablanca. Sourcebooks has been snapping up a number of successful indie authors lately, including Alexis Hall and Katee Robert, but I genuinely think this is the best book that has come out of their lineup. KJ Charles is both a veteran author and a long-time book editor, and that polish and expertise shows. I'm a harsh grader of books but this one was pretty much perfect. As soon as I got a few chapters in I couldn't put it down!
There are many authors who follow in the footsteps of Georgette Heyer (for good or for ill) but I can't think of any who manage to combine Heyer's vividness of setting and language with an awareness of the lives Heyer excluded so successfully as KJ Charles. The Kentish slang here is especially delightful, the romance is swoonworthy, and the dangerous adventures surrounding the smuggling plot had me genuinely on the edge of my seat. If Band Sinister is especially for fans of Venetia and The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting for fans of The Masqueraders, I think lovers of The Toll-Gate and The Unknown Ajax will have an especially good time with The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen. All that aside, though, I think anyone who enjoys a good historical romance, whether they like Heyer or not, will enjoy this one.
Title/Author: Ellie Engle Saves Herself! by Leah Johnson
Summary: As twelve-year-old Ellie Engle navigates seventh grade and her changing relationship with her best friend, a freak accident occurs and gives Ellie the ability to bring things back to life through touch.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Children's fiction
Book Format: Print (an ARC from the author, thanks Leah!)
Length: 275 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Sapphic protagonist
Content Warnings: Divorce, death of a grandparent (off-page, but mentioned a lot), and death of an animal.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes!
Personal thoughts: I love love love Leah Johnson! Her two YA books were some of my favorites in the last five years and somehow I love this one even more than those? Ellie was everything I wanted and more; a well-paced middle grade novel that explores and captures what it is like to be in middle school, unsure of who you are changing into even while the changes keep happening.
Ellie is used to keeping things bottled up. Her feelings about her dad leaving, her secret feelings for her best friend, her feelings about her grandfather passing away...Her mom has enough on her plate trying to provide for the two of them and Ellie doesn’t want to make things even harder for her. So when an earthquake gives Ellie the powers to bring things back from the dead (in addition to super hearing), she does what she always does, she bottles it up.
Eventually, though, the secret of her powers gets out and goes viral. Ellie’s world is flipped upside down. Her best friend is no longer speaking to her, too upset that Ellie is in the spotlight when she wants it for herself and her mom can’t go to work because she’s too busy keeping Ellie safe from the media circus that has set up on their front lawn. Through all of this, Ellie is struggling internally to figure out what kind of “hero” she wants to be. With a large knowledge of comic books and memories of her grandfather’s wisdom, Ellie tries to navigate what it means to be super, to step into yourself, and to be your own hero.
I think very few authors are doing it the way Leah Johnson is doing it. Her ability to weave a good story behind an even better character makes for deeply enjoyable and deeply human books. Ellie, in particular, was such a great read because Leah was able to talk about complex issues (like coming out) through the lens of having superpowers, making it more relatable to kids Ellie’s age who may have stumbled upon the book. It was a great read from every angle and I can’t wait to see what Johnson writes next!