044. Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles with EE Ottoman
EE Ottoman, romance author, is my guest! He shares his thoughts on men writing romance, what sexy, fun fantasy can look like when writing trans characters, and writing queerness in a historical setting. The romance worth reading that we discuss is Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles, which is a fun Victorian romp with jewel thieves, baddies who get their comeuppance, and a beautiful love story between two men who also experience personal growth along the way.
EE Ottoman, romance author, is my guest! He shares his thoughts on men writing romance, what sexy, fun fantasy can look like when writing trans characters, and writing queerness in a historical setting. The romance worth reading that we discuss is Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles, which is a fun Victorian romp with jewel thieves, baddies who get their comeuppance, and a beautiful love story between two men who also experience personal growth along the way.
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Guest: EE Ottoman
- Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles
Modern Romance Canon Nomination
- Thanks to Nathan Burgoine for contributing his real life experience to the myths and misconceptions segment.
- RWA demographic study
- A Matter of Disagreement by EE Ottoman
- EE's Twitter thread about what writing pure sexual fantasy looks like for trans romance authors
Shelf Love is Part of the Frolic Podcast Network
Andrea Martucci: Hello, and thanks for listening to episode 44 of Shelf Love. Every week we use romance novels as the text to explore identity relationships and the society that we live in. I'm Andrea Martucci, host of the Shelf Love podcast, and today I am joined by romance novelist EE Ottoman in an episode that we recorded on February 23rd, 2020.
In this episode, EE shares his thoughts on men writing romance, what sexy, fun fantasy can look like when writing trans characters, and writing queerness in a historical setting. The romance worth reading that we discuss is Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles, which is a fun Victorian romp with jewel thieves, baddies who get their comeuppance, and a beautiful love story between two men who also experienced personal growth along the way.
As always, you can check the show notes for all of the details about my guest and get more information about the topics we discuss. You can always find show notes shelflovepodcast.com and there is a transcript available for this episode. You can find that also on shelflovepodcast.com on this episode's page. Search for episode 44.
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This is what I'm doing as a small way to support my local bookstore, but if you are able to please support your local indie bookstore. And that's all for now. I hope you enjoy this fascinating discussion.
EE Ottoman: So I am EE Ottoman. I write trans romance novels. I specifically write a lot of historical romance novels or romance novels with historical settings.
So I've written some fantasy, Sci-fi-ish, romance novels, but they always are grounded in a historical time period. Except for Documenting Light, which is my one contemporary romance novel. Most of my romance novels are also queer. So, all I think, of the romances that I've written have queer characters and trans characters in them.
Andrea Martucci: And we're going to talk later when we talk about Any Old Diamonds about writing queerness and historical setting.
So you have a lot of experience with that.
EE Ottoman: Yes and it's also something that I think that KJ Charles does really, really phenomenally. You know, I feel like I learn a little bit about doing that every time I read one of her books. So I'm excited to get to that part.
Andrea Martucci: There's a lot of myths and misconceptions about romance novels, and one of them as articulated by Nathan Burgoine on Twitter, said that one of the myths that he's heard a lot is that they are by women and for women. And he said, "standing right here" because Nathan is a romance novelist himself. So how would you come back to somebody who believes that about romance novels? How would you convince them that that's not true and/or present evidence?
EE Ottoman: Yeah. So this is a, something about romance that I hear a lot actually both, from inside the industry and from outside the industry that romance is a genre by women for women.
And I think that first we really do need to acknowledge that historically romance has been a genre which is really dominated by women and has been marketed to predominantly a cis woman audience. And, I don't want to ignore that reality cause I think that's really important to what the genre is and what it has been.
But the reality is, especially right now that's really not the case. You know, obviously, like Nathan's guy, he writes romance, I'm a guy, I write, romance. I can think of lots and lots of other male romance novelists, lots and lots of male readers. There are a lot of nonbinary readers, a lot of nonbinary writers in the genre, especially in LGBTQ romance, but really romance across the board.
Actually there was a study done in 2017 on romance readerships looking at, all of the statistical data from various publishers. And, people involved in marketing of romance and from booksellers about who exactly is buying romance, a breakdown of that. And yes, it was done, by RWA, but I think that it's, it's a good study to look at.
And one of the things that they found back in 2017 was that an increasingly large number of romance readers did identify as men and in this section of the study where they talk about where romance is going in the future and what the young readership of romance looks like, what the readership of romance will look like, you know, five years from now, 10 years from now, one of the recommendations they make to publishers and, people involved in marketing and selling romance is that there is a growing readership of romance novels who are male and not binary and that we really need to shift away from thinking of romance as a genre only read by cis women.
And I think that, you know, kind of on a personal, as a trans author and as someone who is very aware that my readership is predominantly trans, I think that this idea that romance is a space that can only be inhabited by cis women is really limiting and really sets up a lot of barriers that don't need to be there because romance can be a space that, you know, cis men can really, like enjoy that non binary people can really enjoy, that trans men can really enjoy, that trans women can really enjoy, just because it's historically been dominated by cis women doesn't mean that that's what the future of romance readership needs to look like.
So usually those are the kinds of things that I bring up when I hear this rhetoric around who reads and writes romance.
Andrea Martucci: Which romance novel would you nominate to be part of the modern romance canon?
EE Ottoman: This is such a good question and it's so difficult because I can think of so many romance novels, quite frankly, I can think of so many romance novels that I am surprised is not considered romance canon.
Like, I always want to say, you know, like Beverly Jenkins' works should be on there. And I'm like, but that's like, not even like modern romance canon that should just be romance canon, you know? And like, and yet, and yet, but I think like when I'm thinking about modern romance canon, I guess I think of that more as being romance novels that have been published in the 2000 teens. Again, that doesn't really narrow it around. I can think of lots of books, but the one that I chose, that I wanted to talk about is Prosperity by Alexis Hall, and probably the Prosperity series by Alexis Hall.
And the reason why I would like to nominate that is because Prosperity was originally published in 2014 and it is this really interesting romance novel that is cross-genre. So it's science fiction romance, and it has a lot of stuff in there about queerness, about transness, about, about narrator and how you tell stories and the stories that we tell.
And I really feel like it was really ahead of its time in those aspects and kind of like foreshadowed a lot of the things that I see being important to the romance genre right now. So in that way, I think that for me, at least when I write the history of what you know, modern romance was, or romance in this part of the two thousands were, it's definitely what I'm going to bring up as being kind of foreshadowing all of these really interesting conversations that have defined romance over the last 10 years.
Andrea Martucci: And so does Prosperity, is it steam punk?
EE Ottoman: Yeah. So it's kind of like, alt history science fiction and that part of it is very, very strong. So I think that it's a book that can really be read and enjoyed by people who are coming from the science fiction/fantasy background and really love that genre, but it's also very much still a romance novel.
So it has that kind of cross-genre appeal that I think is becoming more and more important in romance. But this was quite some time ago.
Andrea Martucci: The guy on the cover looks Donald Glover.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, a little bit.
Andrea Martucci: He's very handsome. So, I love steampunk, first of all, it's cross-genre and the way that it's sort of scifi, but sort of historical and, yeah, I mean, it's just a very interesting genre generally. Do you think, when exploring, like queerness specifically that taking those discussions outside of the contemporary setting and putting it into like a historical or, like a steam punk or fantasy or whatever, like how do you think that helps authors explore things in new ways?
EE Ottoman: For me I think that there's a little bit of a reclaiming that happens when you do that because there is these narratives that are happening right now in particular conversations around transness, but have happened around conversations around queerness, that says that this is something that is a very much modern phenomenon. Right? You know, you get like very conservative people being like, well, you know, back in my day there weren't all of these, you know, trans people running around. There weren't all of these bisexual people or whatever it is. And that's one way that the community has been kind of attacked and undermined.
And by taking queerness and transness out of a contemporary setting and exploring it in a historical setting or exploring it in another setting, you can say, you know, no, this isn't something that like only exists in 2019 or 2020, you know, this is something that has always existed. This is something that can exist in, you know, futuristic space-opera settings.
This is something that can exist in steam punk settings. This isn't bounded by this one moment in time, or this one, you know, geographic, Oh, it's, you know, it's a Western American thing, you know, this is a, it's a human thing. It's a human experience. And so, that's one of the reasons that I really enjoy writing historicals aside from the fact that I just love history, is because there's a real, a real reclaiming element to it, of reclaiming the ability for queer and trans people to take up space in a historical setting. And I think that the same thing can be applied when we're talking about kind of more, science fiction-y fantasy settings as well.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, I was thinking a lot about, when you create a world, I think particularly you're very explicitly creating a world that is not the world we live in, or facsimile of reality, like it's all, it's all made up anyways, but you know, then you start getting like historical accuracy, people coming out of the wood work.
When you're talking about a fantasy world, I imagine it also gives authors opportunities to, open up. Their minds and open up other people's minds about the way things are or were, aren't the only way things can be? Like imagine a world where things were different and, you know, gender is not a binary or people are not treated differently because of being trans or, you know, being queer, whatever, right?
Like does, it doesn't that, it also creates the ability, and not every novel chooses to go this way, but it creates that ability to also present a beautiful fantasy world where the problems of the world we live in don't exist.
EE Ottoman: Yeah. I think that's, that's really true. I, when you were talking about that, I thought of, my book A Matter of Disagreement, which is also kind of a steam-punky fantasy story. And one of the big parts about that is one of the characters, the main character is trans.
And one of the things that I, you know, kind of what if-ed was, what if, you know, trans people had been allowed to or been able to medically transition, in this kind of alt version of history, much sooner than they would have, you know, like, what's, what would that have meant for individuals and for society?
So I think, yeah. I think that having that kind of fantasy element does let us ask those questions and yeah, I think like for a lot of authors, it, you know, allows them to create those fantasies where you can just have these characters and it's just part of the way society works and it's not like it has to drive the entire story, in the same way.
Andrea Martucci: That's right. Right.
That's, that's not where the conflict has to come from.
EE Ottoman: Exactly, yeah.
Andrea Martucci: And so speaking of fantasy, you wrote a tweet thread on February 13th, 2020 and you, I think were inspired by something you've heard Sarah MacLean speak about on the Fated Mates podcast about, you know, Quote, "writing into the id and allowing space for romances that are pure, often sexual fantasy. And I've been thinking a lot about what that would look like for trans romance." And I was super curious and so you spoke a little bit more, but rather than me reading the tweets, I'd love to hear in your own words, what you're thinking about there.
I think particularly around the idea that you don't necessarily want to just take traditional romance tropes and then apply them to trans people and that you deserve fantasy as well as realness.
EE Ottoman: Right. So this is something that I have been thinking a lot about, increasingly more lately. I feel like there's this pressure when you write trans romance, and I see it, I don't know about other authors, but I see it a lot in my own work, to make it, you know, very serious. And, very thoughtful and these stories that like mean something. And I don't think that's like bad. And I also don't think that like more fantasy-driven stories can't, you know, mean something. Or, you know, high-heat stories can't mean something, but it's, for me, a very kind of self-conscious way of writing. Right? I'm always like very keenly aware of who my audience is and the fact that my book is going to be read by not only trans people, but also cis people and people who maybe don't have a lot of experience with trans people. And, and there's all of these kind of layers of self consciousness that goes into writing these stories. And I think that in that way, that kind of can stand in the way of writing something that is pure fantasy, particularly something that is just like like sexy, fun, fantasy.
But I think what another thing, and as I've been thinking more about that and what that would look like for trans romance, I think another thing that kind of stands in the way of that is that so much of the romance heritage of like what these stories look like in the romance genre, you know, like with the alpha heroes and the billionaires, the, you know, these kind of setups the heroines who are being kidnapped and taken away or are in this situation and like have to have all of this kinky sex in order to get out of it. And like these kinds of things that have become the building blocks of the genre. And particularly with building blocks of books in the genre that are really like leaning hard into that fantasy element, aren't really there for trans romance. And, and kind of don't really apply that well to it.
Because if you think, Oh, you know, I'm going to create a alpha hero, you know, who is a trans man? Well then you're going to you're going about, but how does society view trans men? The fact of the matter is that society views trans men as not as masculine as cis men. Not as powerful as cis men. You know, there's a tendency for trans men to be portrayed as more infantilized than cis men.
So then you're going to have to figure out how you're going to overcome that in order to play into this trope, and maybe you can't. You know, I've really gone back and forth about whether or not you could really truly write a trans hero who was a full on alpha hero as it has existed in the romance genre because of all of this baggage our society has around transness and masculinity and what that, you know, perfect, desirable man looks like and the fact that the perfect desirable man is always coded as
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think a lot about how romance as a genre, when you're thinking about what has predominantly been cis straight narratives, I feel like the story is almost always about gender.
And And gender identity and how men and women interact and power dynamics between men and women.
I mean, you know, when, when you start getting into the captive narratives and the alpha and, I mean all of that. I mean, it's just about gender identity
EE Ottoman: yeah.
Andrea Martucci: And then sexual politics. I mean, I think then all romance I think is gender identity.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, I agree with that.
Andrea Martucci: And so, you do want to explore, like the nuance, right, I mean, I think question like what is an alpha male? Are these markers of masculinity healthy? Like, do we, do we want to, say that masculinity equals aggressiveness and, dominant and, powerful and like how, how is power displayed and enacted?
EE Ottoman: Yeah. I think that's really true, you know, and I think that because romance, and maybe even particularly fantasy-heavy romance, is so much about kind of this intersectionality of gender and power. I think like right, we should all be really kind of asking ourselves these questions and, taking really seriously the messages that we're leaning into about gender and power just across the board in romance.
And I think that a lot of romance authors really are, you know, this is, these are conversations I see happening a lot in romance, but I think, yeah, they become like particularly gnarly when we're talking about people who are not cis, and who are not heterosexual. Because what your gender identity means changes, but also like what power dynamics are going to exist and how they're going to be encoded, how they're going to be read also changes.
Yeah, it's just, it's, it's really. It's really complicated. And so like, I really want trans people to have whatever the trans equivalent of, sexy alpha billionaire romance is going to be, or the trans equivalent of whatever the, you know, barbarian romance is going to be, or, these other things, but just even like conceptualizing what that's gonna look like is, is really hard.
And it's also kind of, when I talked about this on Twitter, Corey Alexander, who's a trans author of romance and erotica, said a really smart thing, which was that the only way that you're going to be able to lean a hundred percent into the fantasy while writing trans romance is if you're really, really imagining this for a trans audience and only a trans audience. And I agree with that and I think that's really hard. But I think it's really hard, right? Cause the reality is that a large number of all of our readership is going to be cis.
But it's really hard to be like thinking, Oh, I'm going to write this really fantasy driven story while you're getting comments from readers about like, Oh, I picked up this novel because I wanted to learn more about the trans experience. You know, like the average person, the average romance writer who's writing cisgendered, heterosexual, high-heat erotic romance, and you know, publishing it, you know, is not having people comment or probably not having people comment on like, you know, A Slave to His Hidden Pleasures, "oh, I picked up this book because I wanted, you know, to really understand the inner workings of, you know, this, this cisgender, heterosexual woman's life."
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. (laughs)
EE Ottoman: You know, but that happens to trans authors.
That's kind of like just given. And so I think that there is kind of the self consciousness of who was it being written for and what are people going to get out of it. And like, you know, are people going to know it's a fantasy? You know? Because it, while it might be really kind of obvious that this is a fantasy when we're talking about like a cisgender heterosexual story, I can't guarantee that some random person who's never met a trans person before in their life and has only like the vaguest idea of what a trans person is, is going to pick up this novel and be like, this represents the entire community.
Andrea Martucci: Right. Well, and do you think that's because of sample size or is it because of otherness? Like, you know, it is undeniable that the vast majority of romance and/or like fantasy-type romance is cis hetero romance or erotica. So, I guess there's always a first of everything, right?
Like, so you're going to sit down and pick up a first, you know, trans character romance at some point. Or is it purely that, I mean, you could sit down and read 20 or 30, or a hundred or every romance with trans characters that exists, and a cishetero reader is still always going to see that because it is the other, in their experience as something that like, Oh, well this must represent it must be a monolith, and even though I have a larger sampling size here, I'm going to think that everything I encounter is straight up reality.
EE Ottoman: I think that it's a little of both. I think that, you know, obviously because there is so few trans romances right now, kind of that puts an extra amount of weight on every single one of them.
And this is something that authors, marginalized authors in general are really struggling with, is this pressure to represent every experience for their entire community ever. You know, I've heard many, many authors of color talk about feeling the same pressure. So I think like there's the small sample size, which puts extra pressure on every single trans romance that is being published to represent, but then I also think that it is the otherness, and the fact that we're just going through a period of history where trans people are particularly othered in our society.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. But it's so unfair from an individual creator's perspective to be like, well, I want to write this story. But yeah, I feel like this immense responsibility to not give people the wrong idea about - And there is no single experience, right?
Like there is no singular experience.
Every individual's experience is different. So it's, it's an impossible task to begin with. But then when you start getting out of sort of like a simulacrum of reality. Like, this is not meant to simulate reality.
EE Ottoman: Yeah exactly.
Andrea Martucci: Uh, then yeah, it gets more complicated. And I, I, you know, you were talking about audience and, and basically the idea of, it sounds like you primarily want to write for a trans audience and if for some reason somebody who is, up one of your books, fine, but that's not the audience, but is, does that start getting into the question of kind of like writing for your ideal audience versus writing commercially?
EE Ottoman: Yes. So, I think that like, yeah, my philosophy on writing my books has always been that I write first and foremost for a trans audience.
I know I have like lots and lots of cis readers. I love my cis readers, but I really always want to keep the image of a trans readership, first and foremost, when I decide how I'm going to approach certain things in my books. But yeah, I think that there's a really, you know, marketability commercial aspect where I think that books that are written for primarily a cis audience, are more commercial, a hundred percent. And I think that like every person writing trans romance, every trans author is very aware of that. So you really like have to make a decision about whether or not you're going to write for, you know, potentially a wider audience or whether or not you're going to write for predominantly a trans audience.
Yeah , yeah...
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, I mean it's, it's, I'm just sitting here cause I keep, I'm going back and forth in my mind about this very subject because on the one hand, you know, in terms of absolute size, a cis audience is going to be larger than the total size of the trans audience.
EE Ottoman: Yeah
Andrea Martucci: However, in aggregate, the total number of people who are trans is definitely large enough - it's not even like you have to get a hundred percent of, you know, every trans person on earth to, to be a reader.
I mean, basically I work in marketing so. I think a lot about audience and, I mean, niche audiences generally are actually better because they're more likely to be passionate and more engaged than - like if you appeal really well and really perfectly to a niche audience, that's generally much better than sort of sort of appealing to everybody.
EE Ottoman: Right. And I think that there is like, while I think that you will probably be more marketable if you say, I am writing this book, and even though it has trans main characters, it is a hundred percent for a cis audience, and it's going to present transness in the way that is most appealing to not even a really, you know, well-educated, cis person, a mainstream cis audience, and you know, it's going to explain it really thoroughly and it's going to use terms that, you know, the average cis person on the street is really familiar with. And we're not going to go into any kind of intercommunity dynamics or politics, and we're not going to go into any kind of like more Intercommunity histories or cultures. That's of course going to be your most marketable form of trans romance. Right?
But I think that writing a book, which is primarily for a trans readership and does delve into those community experiences and does have that kind of groundedness in the way that trans people think about themselves and talk about themselves and experience themselves in the world will still have, can still have, I think, appeal to a pretty large, cis readership and probably a, an increasingly growing cis readership. I have a lot of hope for the future in that regard.
But I also think it has the potential to draw in trans readers into romance who may not have been there before because there was nothing for them.
You know, they didn't feel like it was a particularly welcoming space. This is something I've heard from trans readers over and over again in, throughout my career, is that they didn't read romance. They didn't feel like it was a genre that was for them or had stories for them or made room for them.
And then they read one of my books, if they read one of the, you know, Austin Chant's books, or, Corey Alexander's books, and that was their gateway in to the genre. And so I think that there is definitely room to grow that readership as well.
Andrea Martucci: So are you ready to talk about Any Old Diamonds?
EE Ottoman: Sure.
Andrea Martucci: Alright. So I'm on a bit of a KJ Charles kick because I just spoke about A Seditious Affair last week with Emma Barry.
EE Ottoman: Oh, Man, one of my favorites.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And, and I have to say, I think that this one is a departure from, I mean, you know, in my sample size of two KJ Charles books, this one feels pretty different. So, why do you think Any Old Diamonds is a romance novel worth reading?
EE Ottoman: So I love this book. This is probably one of my favorites, if not the favorite, romance read of last year. It is just a incredible balance between the romance, which has all of the dramatic ups and downs that you want. It definitely has that moment where you're like, how are these two people going to get together at the end of this book?
Like I know it has to have a happily ever after ending cause it's a romance novel, but I don't understand how that will even happen which is what you want from a romance novel. And then of course, it works out for them and it feels really satisfying at the end. But it also has this great secondary plot, which is a jewel heist plot that is also really, really well done. There is a amazing twist that comes in this book that kind of propels both plots. So yeah, I think this is a fantastic read as a romance novel. It's a fantastic read as kind of a period drama mystery novel. I just, I was really, really impressed when I read this book.
Andrea Martucci: It really is a lot of fun and it, I think the caper element of it, I think is really fun. And I think particularly when they get to the country manor, there's like, you know, this cast of characters who are milling about and it becomes a performance.
EE Ottoman: Yeah. And it has this like very strong period feel to it.
I know that one of the things that KJ Charles does a lot when she writes her books that she reads a lot of the popular fiction that was being published at the time that her novel is set. And this, probably more than most of her books, you can really tell cause that whole plot, and that whole part of the book really, really feels like you're reading, you know, that turn of the century adventure novel with like the, yeah, the country manor and the colorful cast of characters and people are not who they say they are. And you know, like there are all of these different twists that happen. Yeah. It's, it's great.
Andrea Martucci: And so the, the gist of the plot is this takes place in, do you recall exactly which, which part of the 1800s?
EE Ottoman: Yes. So I wrote this down, and it takes place in 1895.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. Right. And there's trains, so yeah. So we're like, would this be like late Victorian.
EE Ottoman: Ah, you know, yeah. I am actually not a British historian so I don't know off the top of my head the year that queen Victoria died. But this is like either right at the end of the Victorian era or right after that. So we're, we're really approaching that turn of the century,
Andrea Martucci: Right. Like we've kind of, I think, gotten through the industrial revolution and electricity is starting to be a thing, and there's trains now and, things are like a little bit, I was going to say more modern, but I dunno, I think, I think there's like a little bit less of that, like stiff formality that one might expect in a Regency.
EE Ottoman: Yeah. It's definitely like more modern than a Regency, or even, some of KJ, Charles other books that take place, you know, you're earlier in the Victorian period. This definitely feels like we're approaching the 20th century a little bit more.
Andrea Martucci: And so Alec is the son of a Duke. He's the youngest child of four. He's basically estranged from his father. Him and his siblings are. There's a, terrible past there. His father, the Duke and his stepmother, the Duchess, are extremely proud, status-obsessed, people who, who basically demand subservience from every person they encounter, including other aristocrats who they perceive to be of a lower station. And, there's an estrangement primarily because the children refuse to show the proper deference to the Duchess after their mother died under mysterious circumstances, and they married in undue haste, after that occurred.
And then the most recent and biggest affront is that when their sister Cara was dying, she has sort of like an unspecified, lung ailment, the father refused to pay for the funeral - so they couldn't have flowers because that month it was inconvenient to pay for it because that month he was buying a diamond poo poo roar. (parure)
I cannot say this word for the life of me, a diamond necklace of some kind, I believe, for the Duchess. So this diamond necklace is like very symbolic.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, I agree, like, it's very symbolic of kind of, Alex father's cruelty and like their status and fear, greed, and the death of his sister. Yeah. It has like all of the symbolism packed in there.
Andrea Martucci: And so very early in the novel, Alec meets up with the Lily White boys who are two thieves, and basically it's like they're planning a heist three months from when they first meet up and, of the two thieves, Jerry, teams up with Alec to coach him through the process of putting them all in position to steal this diamond necklace from the Duchess.
And it involves a lots of like getting back in the Duke's good graces so that they can get invited to this very exclusive 20-year anniversary dinner, et cetera, et cetera. So Jerry is sort of an unrepentant jewel thief. And, they're sort of feeling each other out. And, Alec is feeling all sorts of like an angst about the terrible things that he has to do.
He has to lie and he has to pretend to be a different person and swallow his rightful pride about, you know, not bowing and scraping to these two terrible people. And, and it also turns out that, he and Jerry also see eye to eye sexually and, so what begins as just a sexual relationship that then as they begin to get deeper and deeper into this plot, it becomes clear that they're really starting to care for each other. But as you said earlier, it's hard to imagine how they can possibly have a future with all that's going on.
So Alec, I should also mention is he's like an artist and he actually does enjoy being an artist, but it's also seen as, like he's dipping his toe in trade, and having to work for his money, which is just so shameful as, as the son of a Duke. But he sees people in a very artistic way, which is awesome.
So, I think the most obvious thing to start with here is the fact that Jerry is a I have noticed that some readers cannot handle "bad people," and I'm going to put bad people in quotes.
They do not like characters that are not completely morally upright. And I think it's important to note that Jerry is generally not violent. There's, there's one instance where somebody tries to blackmail them and, he basically like beats the guy up. Cause he's like, yeah, he was trying to blackmail us, like of course I'm gonna beat him up. But generally, I mean, he's a thief. He cons people and steals are their wealth. And he only is stealing wealth from the wealthy because only the wealthy have wealth. And so there's a bit of this like victimless crime element of it. What do you think about about that? I read some reviews where people were just like, Oh, I can't, you know, like Jerry is just such a, you know, conniving character. Like, I couldn't handle him. I loved him. I thought he was super interesting.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, and the interesting thing about it is that I think that like, anti-heroes or characters that are not, that are kind of morally gray or have these elements to them don't always work for me. but I think that in this case, I think that, jury is really, really interesting. And first of all, like the Lily white boys are like jewel thieves.
Like that's all they steal. They only steal jewels. So we're already talking about like, they're not going into some working class or middle class people's houses, like you have to have significant amount of wealth to have a jewel collection. So yeah, and in that way, I think I agree with you, it's a little bit of like there's a little bit of a victimless crime depending on like how much you really like obscenely wealthy people, or it's a more understandable type of crime. Right.
Andrea Martucci: He said something at some point, like in the course of all of the thievery, they end up paying a lot of bribes to other people who are not so well off. And so in some ways it was almost like redistributing wealth. and one could say that the Duke and the Duchess, you know, what did they do to earn the money to purchase those jewels?
EE Ottoman: Right, exactly
Andrea Martucci: Like, they probably, you know, it was exploiting other people's labor really to have that concentration of wealth.
EE Ottoman: Right. Well, I mean, like, let's be real.
In like a capitalist system, you don't get to the point where you own diamonds, like without exploiting people. So as far as I'm concerned. Like, I think like in that way, it's kind of understandable and smart. But also I think that it's, it's really kind of apparent early on that although Jerry is a criminal and he is a con man, and he does have these elements to him, he does care about people and he does have like these loyalties and these abilities to care and to empathize. And there was a couple of times where what Alec has to do is really, really hard for him. Which is kind of understandable cause there's a couple of times where he has to lie to his siblings who he's very, very close to.
He has to make good with his father and his stepmother, you know, who have been nothing but unbelievably horrible to him since he was a child. and I think that Jerry shows a lot of empathy for like the emotional toll that this takes on Alec. And that kind of sets him up to be a person who is multifaceted, who does do these bad things, but also has these like really kind of solid, good qualities.
And then also, I don't know, I, I really liked that because the jewel heists depends so much on cons, he's a really smart character, you know, and you see that a lot, like his ability to plan and manipulate and stuff.
Which I like, I really like, so I don't know, like whether that goes, it doesn't go towards redeeming him, but it's certainly like made me more interested in this character.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I loved one piece of advice he gave Alec at one point, in kind of coaching him in how to deal with these situations was, to ask men about themselves and tell them that they're more interesting. "It never fails. Jerry had said with an eye roll," and I just, I, it's, it's, I think he really has a keen understanding of human nature. And. Honestly, the worst parts of human nature, which I always think is really interesting, to have characters who are savvy in that way and in in many ways, Alec, part of his journey in the course of this novel is I think it's a journey of self worth. Like, you know, he, he, I think generally has expected very little from people in regards to him.
And he feels very like ignored and all of that. And I think that he, in his acquaintance with Jerry, becomes savvier and better able to get what he wants and manipulate a kind of a shitty situation or world to, kind of go after what he wants.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, and I think there's this interesting thing about passivity in Alec's character, where there's the whole sex element where he is, and enjoys being the more passive sexual partner. And that gets brought up in the book and, discussed about like how does that affect his masculinity in some really interesting ways, but also I think that in the more subtler way, he's been really kind of passively allowed life to happen to him a lot in the past or like allowed himself to become part of like his sister's, I want to say plot I think is the wrong word, but like his sister's narrative around you know, the Duke and Duchess and what she went through and what they did and you know, a little bit with his brother and his brother's kind of trying to recreate the status that he feels like he deserved. And then all of these ways, he's always like passively part of someone else's narrative. And it's really through his relationship with Jerry and through the course of the book that he becomes the one who drives his own narrative, I
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, yeah, I agree. You know, it's established pretty early on in their sexual relationship what Alec, the role he wants Jerry to play. And it's, it's a little bit of role playing where, it turns Alec on even more to feel like he doesn't have control in their encounters. And it frees him, it frees him from the responsibility of feeling like he has to make choices.
And I thought that was really interesting to explore in the so, so when, when speaking about his passivity in life: Having to make these decisions, exhausts him. Feeling like he's always making the wrong decision exhaust him, when he is able, to let go of that, he feels free. But then even as in his nonsexual life, he is taking more control he's still ultimately like by the end of the novel, when they're establishing like maybe what their future could look like. He's like, no, no, no. I still want you to take control of the bedroom.
EE Ottoman: Right . Yeah, that's really set up where even as Alec becomes a character from which like decisions happen and he makes his own decisions and starts driving these narratives more. It's not like, you know, and then he stops wanting to be submissive sexually.
There's that very clear, " You can be more submissive in the bedroom, you know? But that doesn't mean that you have to be a submissive person know, outside of it.
Andrea Martucci: And I mean, even if he is engaging in more deliberate decision making and action out in the world, it still may be exhausting for him. I don't know if you know, like you're ever trying to decide where to go to dinner with somebody and you're like, where do you want to go?
I don't know. Where do you want to go? And you're like, just tell me like, you know, like, as long as we work within some parameters for where you know, I like to eat. Like, if I don't like sushi, don't be like, we're going to go get sushi. Just decide for me, like, I'm just tired. I don't want to, I don't want to decide, and I don't want to have to necessarily consider what you want in this situation because I want to feel like, I just know that you're going to take what you want and I'm not going to have to wonder if my decision for where to go to dinner is going to make you happy.
Like, because you chose, I know you want it. And that frees me up to enjoy this.
So in the context of the masculinity discussion, speaking of romance novels as being generally explorations of gender dynamics, I think when you get into like what cis hetero BDSM relationship novels are about, a lot of times, there is a female submissive and, a male Dom in that relationship. And I feel like generally, that's what's being explored is this like, I just want to give up control within a safe space, you can kind of say that's regressive or progressive or whatever. I mean, that's a, that's a whole other conversation. But, so then when you're talking about a relationship between two men and an Alec, is identifying, at one point says, "well, I'm not precisely manly, am I?"
And Jerry says, "perhaps not by the usual definition, would you say, I am? Manly. Alec thought of Jerry's contained violence, of his dark lust for control, and the way he'd probed into Alec's need to satisfy them both. 'Well, yes, of course. You're the very opposite of me. You know what she want and you do it without hesitation. You take charge.'"
So it's that take chargeness that he's associating with masculinity and, he's thinking, well, we fit together nicely, I guess, because you are, you know. In control, i.e Masculine and I am not, therefore, I must not be masculine.
But the discussion that I think is ongoing is like, why does that have to be a masculine trait? Could that not also be a feminine trait? Could that not just be like a, a trait that some people have, that is not masculine or feminine or anything?
EE Ottoman: Right. Yeah, and I think that that's where the conversation that he has in that scene with Jerry goes where Jerry is like, what do you mean?
First of all, like women can be dominant. Second of all, like this doesn't necessarily have to do with your masculinity. But I liked that it was in there because I think that that felt really realistic to me. Like we get these gendered assumptions placed on us, and they do affect, like, how we think about ourselves. And I think that being more submissive is something that is, not at all associated with traditional masculinity.
Like even now, much less, a hundred years ago. And particularly like, because he's queer and then he's also submissive, you know, having that maybe not be the entire story.
Like, I don't think I would want like the entire narrative of the story to be about you know, Alec's struggle around his masculinity. But I think having that moment we see that he has internalized these cultural narratives of "you're not masculine enough." Cause part of that scene, that you didn't quote from where he is talking about like how a woman would never want him, right?
Andrea Martucci: Oh yes, right.
EE Ottoman: Like not just because he's queer, but because he's submissive. And so it's a good thing that he's with like this masculine man who's more masculine. He doesn't fit into these gender categories correctly. You know, and you can definitely see that he thinks that this is a real lack on his part.
You know, it makes him less desirable. It makes him less of a man. I thought that that was really interesting. And really good was addressed because I think that it would be weird for that not to even come up. It's such a big part of, people who don't fit into these narratives, things that we internalize and then have to deal with.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think it's a really good example of how the patriarchy basically just hurts everybody. And, and these gender expectations hurt everybody. like it's, it's hurting Alec for not fitting into what, you know, the society at large. Has led him to believe he should be or as a man should be. It hurts, people, I mean, I think even men who do more fit into that just kind of like, they just tend to be more, aggressive or, or whatever. It hurts them as well because then I think also other, they're also playing a part. Like, okay, now, now you can never let that down and you can never show emotion and, have a softer side because I expect you to always be in control and, and all of that.
EE Ottoman: Right. It also stigmatizes women too, who might be, you know, like more dominant or, you know, cause that's really the other side. And you were talking about, you know, cisgender, heterosexual, BDSM romances, you know, and it's all, usually it's a female submissive and a male dominant and exploring that dynamic.
But the, the assumption that that's really based on, you know, that these are innately connected to gender, which is part of our society. Is also, you know, like it harms men and all of these different ways that we've talked about, but it also like harms women as well.
Andrea Martucci: Oh yeah, yeah, see. I mostly talk about how it harms women on this show, so I was like, let's do something different. Let's talk more about how it hurts men too.
So, you know, one thing I thought was interesting about Alec's growth as a character was - Alec basically had a lot of self consciousness around the ways he felt he didn't fit in. He didn't feel he was masculine enough.
He was both the son of a Duke, but also, having to shamefully work for money. And, he is interested in men. And so all of his sexual relationships have to kind of be done in the shadows and he hasn't ever been able to translate any of those relationships into like emotional relationships.
And so he feels very self conscious and is focused very inward. And one interesting thing I thought happened in this book was towards the end, I mean, the Duke and the Duchess are villains and there is definitely no redeeming moment or redeeming features about these two people.
EE Ottoman: No.
Andrea Martucci: However, Alec has this realization when he, he kind of stops focusing so much on his pain and his situation and kind of sits up and looks around for a second and depersonalizes the way the Duchess in particular had been treating him and then extrapolates that out to the way the Duke had been treating him, and I think was able to identify, Oh, they're not treating me like this because there's something wrong with me.
They're treating me like this because there's something wrong with them, and they're scared shitless that everybody is going to find out all the terrible things they've done. And that is why they go into every interaction defensively and, kind of guarding their sense of right, because they know that they're wrong.
EE Ottoman: Mmhmm.
Andrea Martucci: Intellectually, if you had asked Alec like,you know, is it your fault that your father treats you like shit? He would say no, course not. But I think emotionally, like deep down inside he felt like there must be something wrong with him and he deserved it.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, I think that's really true. And I think that moment where he can kind of like step out of that is also where he, he lets it go. And like, obviously like what they still did is still terrible and it still caused him pain and like, all of that still still exists, but it's not this thing that drives his life right the same way it was before.
Andrea Martucci: And he doesn't have to let it, he doesn't have to keep reacting to it passively. Like, like, I have no control over this and I must just take it it, I think it is a real turning point in kind of like, Oh no, they're messed up. It's not because of anything I did, but I can choose how I react to this and, and I can, you know, choose for them to be punished for this. What they've done. I usually get a bit peeved when characters like there, there were points in this novel where Alec was agonizing over bad people getting their comeuppance. And I loved that by the end, Jerry had rubbed off on him a little and sort of being like, look, you are not responsible because you catch somebody stealing from you for the consequences that person chose to do You know?
It's not your fault that they got caught. If even if you're the one who caught them, they made their choices. They have to accept the consequences. And Jerry's always like, look, I know I do bad things and I'm ready to accept it. I don't want to get caught, but I'm ready to accept the consequences when it happens. I'm notgoing to be like outraged. Like this is unfair. Like he knows it's fair.
And so I love that by the end. Like, I think, I think Jerry at the beginning was farther on the end of unrepentant criminal, and Alec was a bit too pure for words, and they both moved towards the middle of it. They're all still more on one side than the other. But, but I think both in important ways, they both. towards the middle on that.
EE Ottoman: Yeah. Yeah.
And I think that that's really why the end of this book, like really worked for me. Both, why the, the, resolution for both of their arcs worked for me. And then also the romance in the end worked for me.
Andrea Martucci: Do you want to talk about the writing queerness in a historical setting?
EE Ottoman: Yeah. Yes. So, I was, when I was thinking about this book, this is one of the things that really jumped out to me, about this book is that, one of the things that I really appreciate about KJ, Charles's books is that she really has a great sense of place. The way that she writes about London spaces and the way that she writes about her historical spaces is always really rich and really detailed.
And it really feels like these are real spaces, you know, whether it's people's estates or whether it's clubs or whether it's, you know, boarding houses or streets.
And one of the things that I think was particularly interesting for me about this book is the way that Alec and Jerry use public space in the first half when they're like getting to know each other and developing their romantic relationship and having sex. And I think that it really, it struck me as being really true to what I know of queer history. You know, where they have, sex under a bridge and, you know, they, they're meeting up, they're going to these restaurants, a lot of kind of their flirtation happens in these public spaces.
They meet the theater for the first time. And actually, when Alec is going to meet the Lily White boys for the first time, in the music hall, and he's really, really nervous about meeting these criminals. You know, he imagines that he's like going to meet up with men for sex, basically, like to take the edge off of his anxiety.
And I thought that that was, that was really well done and it made it feel so much so much more grounded in this historical reality of the way that a lot of queer men were inhabiting these spaces and meeting up and having sexual encounters and forming relationships at this time. In a way that I think I've become kind of more conscious of in my own writing, like trying to really represent, but in a way that I think is really hard because,
You know, I don't know if this is true for everyone, but in my kind of understanding and, and life and things I'm, you know, I'm not, immediately when I'm writing my novels going to be like, yes, they're going to have sex in public. Like, that seems like a good idea. Definitely. the choice I should make, you know?
And I think that for a lot of, people who are writing queer romance, that's the same, you know, like even though I know it's historically inaccurate, that, you know a character would be in a boarding house where they would be allowed to have overnight guests, or they would be allowed to have guests alone with them in a room with a closed door at all, or where, you know, the walls would be super thin, and the owner of the boarding house would be like super all up in their business.
You know, for my characters in my romance novels, they always have, the boarding house keeper who's never there at convenient moments or like live in apartments with super thick walls where it's never going to be a problem. They are always finding those private spaces. And there is, at least a couple sex scenes in the book where they do have sex in these more private spaces.
So it's not that private spaces were not open to them. So they were having these sexual encounters in public spaces, but they were also meeting up with other queer men in public spaces and having both their romantic and their social life and their sexual life happening predominantly in these public spaces. So it's a little bit anachronistic when all of us romance writers are all like, no, they have the bedroom with the bed and locked door, always available to them, and I was really appreciative then reading this book how much, I guess realness was at play in the way that so much of Alec and Jerry's relationship was built up utilizing these public spaces.
And it also just gave the book like a really great sense of space, where you got a feel of like, what London would have been like at this time, at this time, as these characters moved through these spaces.
Andrea Martucci: And it's interesting cause I think there is this concept that, oh, everything must have been so oppressive if you are a gay man in Victorian London. In some ways, it fits into our understanding of like, having to be closeted and secretive and not being able to be open about the people you want to have sexual or romantic relationships with. And if you, obviously, because of legal reasons, can't marry somebody and, you know, be in a recognized relationship with them, you definitely can't be in sort of like a sexual relationship with them in the same way that, you know, unmarried, heterosexual couples could not.
You know, like all, all the carriage sex that you see, like heterosexual couples having in a romance novels where there's, there's a lot of those sort of like, how do we sneak away and find someplace to do something that is not socially sanctioned? You know, I think the secretiveness, and I think that that's part of like the historical, genre convention generally. But then it's interesting to think about that it's not like, Oh, you just have to find a really private place to do this.
It's, it's like, it's actually easier to do things in public because there are no private places.
There are no secret places that are not watched by some member of society who is hell bent on upholding the social order of the time, you know,
Like it is. I think it's just weird for us as modern readers to imagine that you don't have a place that is unwatched.
EE Ottoman: Right. Yeah. And I think that like the historical reality for queer men throughout the 19th century and, and a good portion of the 20th century as well, was like, it was just as safe to have sex under a bridge or you know, like as it was or to like you know, flirt with another man at a restaurant as it was to like do it in your apartment, you know? And then that is really hard for modern readers. It's hard for me, like as a queer, modern reader, to even wrap my head around that. But it's the historical truth.
After reading this and thinking about it more, you know, like I would kind of like to see that explored more and to decouple - one of the other things that I liked about it being used here was it kind of like decoupled this from this idea that men in the Victorian era were like meeting up and having sex in these public places, or having these relationships in that public place, and that kind of like meant that it wasn't a real relationship, you know, that it was kind of cheap and fleeting and temporary. And in the context of this book, it's a romance novel, you know, so they are having feelings for each other and they are forming this relationship and they are falling in love. And this is still a part of that experience. I think like by the end, it's kind of implied that this is probably not going to be a part of their experience going forward, but it is very much a part of their experience at the beginning of their relationship.
And so I think that I was very impressed that KJ, Charles just went for it, like took the bull by the horns as far as like addressing that real part of queer history, and and portraying it.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I will say like between again, sample size of two, between A Seditious Affair and Any Old Diamonds, if the HEAs in those two books, I felt like much more hopeful about this one. Not that at the end of A Seditious Affair I felt that they were not going to remain together, but it felt like they would be apart a lot of the time and they would have to, maintain more like keeping up appearances, whereas I don't know why, but at the end of Any Old Diamonds, I was like, they're gonna like run off together and they're going to be able to be together like all the time and they'll figure something out and they're going to make a life together somewhere.
And, and I don't know why. Cause like, it's totally unclear what they're going to do.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, it's really unclear what they're going to do.
Andrea Martucci: Jerry, I love at the end he goes, "and in the interest of full disclosure, I do need to stress that the police want me rather urgently.
Yeah. Well, he's a fugitive.
EE Ottoman: Yeah. No, I agree. And I wonder if that, you know, like this might be getting into a totally different conversation, but I wonder if that like had to deal with like more
the class dynamic, right. Because Dominic is still like, you know, gentry, rich, like he's not letting go of any of his class standing, and so that's always going to stand in the way as opposed to while Alec is more recognized as a Duke's heir, he's still choosing to like be in trade and work for a living and I think that that actually affords him more freedom, in a lot of ways. And of course, you know, Jerry's working class by birth. So,
Andrea Martucci: but able to mingle
EE Ottoman: among different
Andrea Martucci: classes in a way that Silas A Seditious Affair does not, cannot.
EE Ottoman: Yeah. Yeah. You know, because of his whole, the whole con artist part.
Andrea Martucci: Maybe. Maybe that's it. It's, it just seemed like they were going to have like a little bit more fun. Like, like, I don't know. I got the sense that they would kind of live on the fringes
EE Ottoman: society in a way. Yeah, I agree. I really got the same impression from the end of that book. and I think that, yeah, that definitely like tied up more loos ends than I was expecting where I was like, okay, both of these characters have made their decision, where like, in a lot of ways, they're stepping outside of the bounds of what society told them they were supposed to be. Like they've already crossed those bridges for themselves. So this is just gonna be one more thing and they're going to be okay. And, know if that was necessarily that clear cut Affair, at the end of that book.
Andrea Martucci: And I think all the bad things wrapped up quite nicely in Any Old Diamonds . In A Seditious Affair, I feel like, and this isn't meant to be like a, you know, pitting one book against the other, but, in A Seditious Affair, there was like this, like overtone of legislation that was that, I mean, maybe historically, eventually was definitely going to come to pass or, I don't know it was just kind of like this pervasive sense of
EE Ottoman: Yeah. Yeah. think that's very much true.
And I think it does have to do with the setting, you know, when we're talking about a Regency setting and the fact that, The Regency era was actually terrible.
Andrea Martucci: It sounds like it sucked.
EE Ottoman: It was horrible. It was horrible. The government was horrible. The legal system was horrible. I was horrible. And I think that was really like one of the things that you get really from that series overall. And I love, A Society of Gentlemen that trilogy. Um, it's one of KJ Charles. But yeah, I think that it was definitely like every HEA in that series just was so much harder because it was in the Regency era. And like, historically, you know, because I know that it, that it got better.
But that moment was just so dark. I was like, woof.
As opposed to like, again, I think with
Andrea Martucci: Old diamond
EE Ottoman: it's a different time of an era. It's been a much more progressive era, period of history. But then also both of those characters had taken kind of like, such a large step back from kind of societal norms anyway and then also, yeah, I felt like the, the whole secondary plots,
Andrea Martucci: yeah, like the baddies got their comeuppance,
EE Ottoman: Wrapped
really well in this
Andrea Martucci: which it, it was a great sense of relief. Like I felt. Like at the end of it, I was like, Oh, okay. Like I feel like everything worked out well, and, and I won't spoil what happened in the book, but for anybody who's read
the book, that might seem like an odd reaction, but I was pleased.
EE Ottoman: Yeah, no, I really felt like everyone got what they deserved at the end of that book and it was so
like that. This book
is also just like so well like paced and put together and like.
Yeah, the ending really worked really well. And I really had my doubts, like right up until the end, I was like, how is this going to work out? Like how can this possibly like work out in a way that feels fully satisfying?
But I really felt like it did.
Andrea Martucci: And those are the best romance novels, you know, the ones that until the very end, you're really like, I can't see how this is going to work. Like you're gonna really have to convince me. And then somehow out Yeah. Well, I really enjoyed it and I really appreciate you bringing it to my attention and having me read it.
EE Ottoman: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: so where can listeners find you and what's coming next from you?
EE Ottoman: I'm @acosmistmachine on Twitter then also my website is acosmistmachine.com.
Or you can just Google EE Ottoman and it'll come up. And, my books are available, Amazon, Kobo, where eBooks are sold.
And right now I am in the middle of working on a, another. Historical romance, where both main characters are trans, set in the mid 20th century. So the 1960s. yeah, it's, I think gonna be really interesting. it's a big departure from my other historicals, which are all solidly 19th century set. So yeah, I don't have a release date for yet. We're still in early days, but hopefully that will be coming out 2020, 2021.
Andrea Martucci: Awesome, and so now I must know: what is acosmist machine?
EE Ottoman: So, that would at least like a handle I started using when I was new to writing way back. And, acosmist is a branch of philosophical belief. So it's defined as a noun: one who denies the existence of the universe or universe as distinctive from God. So it's like, the universe and God being the same and then combined with machine. Yes. This is something that I thought was very kind of like intellectually cool in the early 2000s, and it's just kind of stuck with me, so.
Andrea Martucci: I love it. Yeah. Well, I've, I've certainly been wondering for a while where I'm just like, what does it mean? And you know, and for all my wondering, never looked it up. So laziness. Well thanks for joining me today.
EE Ottoman: Thank you for having me. This was a lot of fun.
Andrea Martucci: I agree!
Thanks for listening to episode 44 of Shelf Love, a romance novel book club. Show notes with links to find EE Ottoman plus all the details, odds and ends, and ephemera can be found at Shelflovepodcast.com.
Coming up next books by Rose Lerner with Jess, Shelf Love's first official listener, plus Bree from Kit Rocha will be on to discuss A Conspiracy of Whispers by Ada Harper. Also the last two Decameron Quarantine Romance Book Club episodes will be out soon on the topics of history and friendship. Thank you for joining me today.
If you have any thoughts on the show, I'd love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to Andrea@shelflovepodcast.com.