Cover Image: In the City by the Lake

In the City by the Lake

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Member Reviews

What a great historical fiction nove set in the roaring 20s. Mobsters ✔ Boozing ✔ crime ✔.
I had expected all these themes. Yet was beyond surprised about the homosexual love affair between the two men.
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I was so excited about this book. I mean mobsters meets roaring 20's? C'mon, what's not to like?

Well, the style apparently. 

I just couldn't with the MC - a 23-year-old up and coming mobster who is in charge of distributing alcohol to Pansy Palaces. His sexual interactions are anonymous, he's outwardly in denial - all of which are realistic. The problem comes with the language and was just...sigh...unnecessarily hyperbolic? 

Let me provide an example.

Early in the book, the narrator casually drops in that life has been a certain way since he killed his mother. That's...big, right? The implication is he consciously murdered her. It fits his lifestyle, his attitude, etc. However, there's a quick backpedal in the next few paragraphs and it turns out his mother died while giving childbirth. To him. Not murder. And, yes, I understand with a modern sensibility, the MC might have perceived it differently but this kind of take from scene to scene is prevalent. I finally lost the will to continue after he talked about his love interest having such a profound effect on him that his instinct was to punch the future love interest in the face.




This is not a story I will ever be able to get on board with. 

So, I've put the book down.
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Copy received through Netgalley


In the City by the Lake, by Taylor Saracen
224 Pages
POV: 1st person, one character
Themes: Historical, 1920's, LGBT, Pansy Craze, Mobsters
Content Warning: suicide, organised crime, prohibition, mentions male rape and its legal consequences within the historical period, mentions historical laws such as arresting and institutionalising homosexuals and their treatment within asylums.

Wow. It's been a long time since I read a book that affected me the way this one did and I'm left a bit speechless. Heartbroken. Puffy-eyed. Teary. And completely saturated by the gut-wrenching and horrifying truth of an era, striding alongside the beautiful, romantic love that was shared on the pages.

In the City by the Lake is a beautiful, stunning, heart-breaking novel about finding yourself, finding love, and surviving the tragedy and hardships that life throw at you. All in the hopes that you come out the other side in tact, a little better off and a little happier than you were before. In a story that spans nearly ten years of a single person's life, we see how friendships, loves, and family can affect the choices we make. Through Vik, we see how a child's experiences can shape the man he will eventually become. Cal shows us the optimism and the joy that can be found in even the darkest places. And Rosie is the heartbreaking truth of what a cruel world can do to a delicate soul. In the end, the only family that counts is the one we embrace and the one we choose to matter.

I was immediately drawn in by the author's writing style, which was a perfect blend of storytelling and biography. It gave us hints and clues to Vik's life; each chapter a slice of his life like a million puzzle pieces that all have to be fitted together. I was instantly sucked into Vik's life, resonating with his hermit lifestyle and his wish to keep his head down unless something came along that demanded his attention. The growth of his character was beautiful to watch, as with each page and each chapter, with each year that passed, he became someone new, someone better.

While Vik is part of the Russian mob of the 1920-1930's, the story is about more than just his part within the organisation. He's a small fish, making good money, but smart enough to keep his head down and his job under control. He's a closeted gay man, so afraid of being shunned for his feelings that he can barely even accept his own sexuality until another forces him to confront the issue. His story runs deeper than his criminal activities and drifts into how a young gay man, Jewish and Russian, and quietly enjoying a life out of the limelight, handles the changes to his life when politics and the government take steps to eradicate his kind.

I loved the relationships, the dynamics of friendship, love and family, and how it all played out. Most importantly for me, was Vik and Cal's relationship, with the strange dynamics of Cal, Vik and Rosie coming in next in line. When he met Cal for the first time, I wasn't instantly convinced of their relationship, but the more we got to see of Cal on page, the more I could see that Vik's obsession wasn't one sided and that these two were perfect for each other. They offered strength and support in a world that didn't understand them, one minute celebrating freedom and the next oppressing them as a convenient scapegoat for the economic crisis. Yet, through it all, there was the shining hope of their chemistry, their attachment to each other, even before it became a relationship. Add in Rosie's sweetness and it was hard to deny Cal's optimism for Vik's unwitting realism.

When it came to secondary characters, I fell in love with Maks and Rosie right from the start. The more the story progressed, the more I came to love them both. I was instantly attached to Rosie, the same way Cal was; seeing that they needed to be taken care of, protected, and loved. The way that Vik felt uncomfortable around Rosie was eye opening as part of his characterisation, but it was also beautiful to see how time changed the way he looked at the shy but sweet Rosie. On the flip side, I loved that Maks was such a positive force in Vik's life, offering an outlet, laughter and support, even if Vik couldn't trust it to mean what he thought it did. I cried for Rosie so many times. And I laughed with Maks as often. I don't think the book would have been as powerful without these two forces of nature, so quiet and shy and not at all remarkable in the grand scheme of things. Yet, to Vik's story, they were utterly and completely pivotal and life changing.

Fittingly, while the story isn't about Vik's part in the mob, it's not about the sex, either. Yes, he has sex within the book, which is mostly fade-to-black or briefly mentioned without elaborating on it. But though he looks after the 'pansy clubs', some of which offer sex with prostitutes, it's never about the sex or the superficial interactions made between likeminded men. The story is always delving deeper; into Vik's psyche, into his troubles, into his self-loathing that was bred by his father since birth. It digs down into the roots of Vik, and who he is and who he could be, while Cal shines a light into his dark world and tries to help him navigate his way to self discovery.

The book covers a wide range of political and economic events within world history, as well as American history, with the realistic viewpoint of how it affects the main character and those around him. Covering instances such as the economic crash, the Great Depression, the Milk Wars, Hitler's rise to power, the oppression of the Jews in Germany, and the oppression and victimisation of homosexuals in America, the story makes it readily apparent that there are dangers around every corner and it isn't safe to be anything but white, straight, and cis in this new world. Some dangers are shown in how they affect Vik's business – such as the closing of the pansy clubs – while others are far closer to home, such as in how Rosie is treated for being a trans person in a world that doesn't understand.
(Please note: it's never explicity stated that Rosie is trans, but they went from being Roberto to Rosie and, while addressed as male in the novel, I've used gender-neutral terms in my review.)

The storytelling format, and the effect the book had on me, reminds me so strongly of Vinyl Tiger by Dave Di Vito, while being a wholly original and beautiful story all of its own. Like that other novel, this one tugged at my heart in numerous places, but I ended the book spending the last 30% with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

The writing was elegant, yet not overpowering. There was no flowery purple prose, just the subtle, beautiful story of a man struggling to find his way, with littered pieces of American and family history sprinkled in to help us navigate through this world. While it was at once about Vik's relationship with Cal, and Cal's relationship with Rosie, it was also about the ever changing world around us and how the smallest things to the biggest world events can affect a single life. And how our decisions – made or not made – can change the course of a life.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, because the story is beautifully told and you should read it instead of having me rehash it for you. But, I cried, I laughed, I cringed, and I want it in paperback. Now! I'll be re-reading this book many times in the future, both when I need my heart broken and when I want it to be put back together again.


Favourite Quotes

“Perhaps that's why America and her dreams never appealed to me: I was more accustomed to nightmares.”

“Becoming a scholar in Cal had made me a student in myself.”
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Great historical fiction piece. Set in the roaring 20’s, we see a story filled with great detail and a history lesson included! Very well developed characters and great story! A must read!
Thank you NetGalley
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In the City by the Lake, Viktor, a half-Jewish Russian emigre, lives a life of quiet desperation as a low-grade mobster in Chicago from 1929 to 1938. Raised in an all-male family (his mother died birthing him), his Weltanschauung is skewed. He’s a tortured character knowing he is a gay male in a family of manly men. He lives in the closet, misanthropic and misogynic, certain of the reception his family would have if they learned of his inclinations. He always feels that he is merely realistic—rather than fatalistic—and that if he ever found someone to love, he wouldn’t deserve it anyway. 

Chicago provides a bleak backdrop that echoes Vik’s personality. During Prohibition, he is financially doing okay, at least able to set some money aside, as he arranges deliveries of alcohol to Towertown, the gay section of the city. Here he meets Cal. Effervescent Cal, is so much Vik’s opposite that he feels the man is unattainable. When these two finally allow themselves to love each other, the 

Saracen’s world-building is superlative; her story is overlaid over the last of the Roaring Twenties, prohibition, the Stock Market crash, the rise of Nazism in Europe. As the United States recovers from the Great Depression, newspapers circulate story after story blaming homosexuals (the Pansy Craze) for the downward spiral of the economy. Parts of this book are difficult to read because of man’s inhumanity to his queer fellow men.

In the City by the Lake is a gorgeous character study of a man coming to terms with himself and a romance that is poignant enough to bring me to tears. There are no overt sex acts here, but the sensuality is over-the-top, the emotionality is genuine. Their dialogue is appropriate, their voices laced with slang of the time. Vik’s voice constantly tries fathom his own struggles while dealing with broader societal issues.
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This is not my usual genre as it is an LBGTQ romance but I really enjoyed it.  It takes place during the 1920s and 1930s during the "pansy craze."  Viktor Mikhailov is a member of the Russian mob along with his family.   He supplies the Towertown gay clubs with whiskey.  He knows he is gay but he does not want his family to find out.  He meets Calvin Connolly, a gay man from Georgia, at one of the gay clubs and a romance develops.  This is a very well written book and I am glad I read it.
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I really have had to think before reviewing this. This is a book full of such wonderful writing and you are taken back to a time in history that not many m/m books tackle, none that I’ve read anyway. Homosexuality was against the law and men were arrested and then thrown into mental institutions where horrible things were done to them. It’s sickening and makes me so angry. One character in this book has this happen to them and my heart broke for them.

Viktor is Russian and came to the U.S. when he was a child. His mother died after giving birth to him and that shaped the way his father raised him. I felt like Viktor always felt he had to prove himself and in his eyes he always fell short. He now is part of the Russian mob and takes over the part of the city no one else wants. This isn’t a problem for Viktor because he is gay and can find a man while he’s doing his job and no one will know. He never wanted to have feelings for anyone but he meets Cal and everything changes. 

Cal is from Georgia and he had such a positive outlook on the state of the country. He thought that homosexuality was going to be accepted even though Viktor kept telling him things were getting worse, not better. It takes awhile for these two to come together but once Viktor stops fighting he falls for Cal in ways he never thought he could. 

There was a lot of inner dialogue and I felt like some things were repeated constantly, such as that Viktor’s father said none of the men in his family need a woman. The more the story went on I felt like I was waiting for something to happen. Things happen but in quiet ways. They still have a huge impact on Viktor. I loved the ending and was very happy that Viktor took a chance on love. I did feel pretty down after reading this, I felt drained. I think it’s a story many should read though.
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Thank you again NetGalley for a copy of this book. The story is well written with detailed facts taking place in the "Roaring Twenties" and time of prohobition as well as great depression. And of two men falling in love with each other.  They suffer denial, homophobia and how they have been brought up. It easily could be a story at present times too. I highly recommend this book I could have continued reading.
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This novel is an LGBTQ romance set during the 1920s and 30s with the backdrop of the great depression. The main character, Vik, is a gay bootlegger during prohibition who makes a living providing the gay clubs of Chicago with their much needed supplies of liquor. He's also from a family of Russian immigrants and  the novel frequently depicts Vik struggling to come to terms with his adopted country. Although Vik freely sleeps with other men, he also struggles to identify himself as a homosexual man, fearing that identifying himself as such will result in a lessening of his manhood. From a teacher's perspective, the author nicely incorporates some setting imagery to describe the decay and common struggles of Chicago during the Great Depression. It also depicts the onslaught of Victorian values that began to crop up during that time - which resulted in the persecution of many members of the queer community. It provides ample opportunity (especially in a history class) to generate a class discussion around the social conditions of the time.  Overall the greatest triumph of this book is the character development and the personal journey of the main character, Vik. He spends most of the novel working on building his own self-worth and is hastened along by his lover Cal. The character transformation is done deliberately and well and lends itself to a great character study in an English Class or Queer Studies Curriculum.
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The author did a brilliant job of capturing the time period in this novel.  The characters and plot were also well written.  This was a great piece of historical fiction!
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Taylor Saracen certainly knows her way around the English language. She penned a novel that is poignant and captivating. In the City by the Lake is part character study, part history lesson that provide a backdrop for an unforgettable romance.

Viktor, a Russian emigrant and low level mobster, narrates this story. A complex character, full of self-hate whose father fanned those flames at a tender age subsequent to his mother’s death in childbirth. He’s broody with a dash of misanthropy and seems to find suffering his norm. Even though everyone calls him a pessimist they all seem to enjoy being around him; he, of course, thinks himself a realist. A realist moored to the notion that he’s destined to be alone forever. A realist who despite this belief becomes hopelessly besotted by Abe’s Peach upon first sight. 

Viktor has always traveled light, making due with one offs and decidedly closeted. Because Russian mafia. Ironically, he's assigned the Towerton district, the gay mecca of 20s and 30s Chicago. Abe owns The Gallery and shelters, among other things, several of his employees including a man he calls “Peach”. 

Peach a.k.a. Cal Connolly hails from Georgia, is a ginger and Viktor’s polar opposite-outgoing, gregarious and effervescent, shining like a beacon in a sky full of stars. Right from the start Viktor wants him but doesn’t want to jeopardize his lucrative relationship with Abe, thus the pining begins and it was delicious. He feels unworthy of Cal, recognizing he's a creature of darkness whereas Cal is a creature of the light. Afraid of dimming that luminescence, he endeavors to keep his distance.

A fool's errand if ever there were one. 

In the City by the Lake spans from 1929-1937 starting during the “Pansy Craze” and encompasses the denouement of the halcyon days of the Roaring Twenties, prohibition, the Great Depression, The New Deal and the fountainhead of WWII. Saracen clearly did her research which in turn had me doing some cursory research of my own. I knew nothing of the Pansy Craze nor of Chicago's instrumental role in it, so references to actual events that I never knew about, some magnificent and others ghastly, prodded me to look for myself. 

left is roaring 20s; right is 30s homophobia

Imagine going from the toast of every major metropolitan city, living openly and thriving to being rounded up and put into “fruitcake factories” or worse. I didn’t do extensive research but I believe this epoch marked the emergence of conversion therapy. Parallels between then and now with the outlandish correlations made, xenophobia, homophobia and conservative backlash were hard to miss; the queers got blamed for everything from heinous crimes to the Great Depression itself. It seemed to be particularly bad in Chicago where rampant charges of indecency were handed out, many of which flaunted entrapment laws and fear mongering in the press was egregious. 

Naturally, this leads to conflict as they are forced to endure Chicago as it becomes increasingly less friendly to the “pansies”. But what amazed and delighted me was even though things are bleak with a sense of foreboding for what lies ahead, they still carve out moment after moment of joy and happiness. They have next to nothing and are systematically being persecuted but they have each other. Even if its just going to a Cubs game or going to Bughouse Square or making a feast of Campbell's soup, they reveled in it. They don’t escape totally unscathed and trigger warning for secondary character death (that gutted me) but there is a glorious, hard fought and an HEA that, honestly, I was momentarily unsure was going to happen. 

In the City by the Lake is not a sexy book; there are only oblique references to sex or fade to black scenes. However, what it lacks in sexiness it makes up for with a certain air of a bygone era romance that's all-consuming for the protagonists and swept me away right along with them. 

The depth and breadth of Vik’s love for Cal was powerful and affecting due in large part to Saracen’s crafting of him. The dialogue stays true to the time period and all of the characters are compelling to varying degrees. The narrative was engaging and the world building, though I think it goes without saying at this point, was fascinating.

If you’re a fan of historical romance, In the City by the Lake shouldn't be missed. It's a remarkable achievement from new to me author Taylor Saracen; one that has put her on my radar.

A copy was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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The entire novel beautifully foregrounds the relationship between Cal and Vik, but truly focuses on Vik's reflections and fears. While he presents himself as a skeptic and tries his best to tell himself he can't afford emotions, his inner monologue can be poetic and regularly dramatic. Assonance features at times in desperate, romantic appeals to Cal, particularly when Vik's own outward stoicism results in a mess of vulnerability in his private narrations. 
The intimacy between the two is generally playful and always genuine, while Vik navigates through previously unexperienced emotions of jealousy and tenderness. With Cal's bright and bubbly contrast to Viktor, I expected the boring trope of 'the moody, aloof guy tops.' Not so, nor does the novel rely on gratuitous sex scenes to determine this.

The novel often hits hard, something I was expecting but was still unprepared for when those moments came. His whole family dynamic is a mess; striving to be his father's favourite son after his mother died in labour, his brother staying out of the family business of organised crime to become someone through education, and his blessing of a cousin, Maks, the single light of genuine familial love that grates on Vik's nerves for some (absolutely no conceivable) reason. 
And Rosie, a queen of Towertown who our protagonist somehow finds repulsive for their melancholy state and occupation as a sex worker, provides a character heavily implied as queer in both sexuality and gender. Introduced as a drag queen performing at Vik's favoured establishment, their story is the one that offers the most insight into the harsher aspects of the time. 
Affected by the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and increasing persecution against queer individuals, Viktor's narration never falters to centre his own struggles without diminishing the wider issues of the time.
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The roaring 20s was a time of prohibitions and freedoms. This book is obviously very well researched and brings such an amazing realism to the story that you almost feel like the only reason you can't look these men up in a history book is because they flew under the radar. It's a taste of American history with a veneer of fiction.
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