(Originally aired 2022/11/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2022.
I’m always tempted to make some sort of seasonal observation after noting the month, but seasons are so very contextual. Here in relatively-coastal California, November means that tomato season is finally winding down to a close and just this week I decided it was time to change out the air filter in the heater and turn on the thermostat for the winter. What was my clue? Probably the layer of cats that I’d find myself buried under every morning. OK, so two cats don’t make much of a layer, but still.
For me, the end of the year is either a chaos of traveling and events, or it’s time to retreat to my introvert-cave and try to recharge. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between. This year, it’s the introvert cave. No more traveling until…well, I’m not sure when. The next thing I have on my calendar is in July, but I’m sure something will come up.
The wealth of virtual conferences that I can attend from my home office has changed the dynamic of thinking about book-related events. A few weeks ago, I was able to take part in an online mini-convention around sapphic speculative fiction, organized and hosted by Sheena Ebersohn of The Lesbian Review. Sheena has been doing some amazing things to support the lesbian and sapphic fiction community, and I always know when I’m invited to take part that it will be well-organized, well-run, and a joy to participate in. Even as many events are pivoting back to being in person or hybrid events that combine physical and virtual spaces, I think we’ve all realized the continuing potential for virtual events to expand our connections and to welcome those whose geographic or economic situation has historically restricted their access.
With the end of the year coming around, I’m ramping up the cheerleading for next year’s fiction series. Once again, we’ll be buying stories to air on the podcast. Please help spread the word to authors who might feel inspired to submit something for our consideration. This will be our sixth year airing fiction. Somehow I keep thinking about the fiction series as being a recent addition to the show, but we’ve been doing fiction shows for two thirds of the podcast’s lifetime. I love being able to bring you new stories and to support the authors who are writing them. I hope you’re enjoying them just as much!
Publications on the Blog
For the last month, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been doing something drastically different from our usual: publishing a translation of a historic document that sheds light on attitudes and beliefs around gender and sexuality in mid-18th century France. The legal appeal of Anne, or Jean-Baptiste, Grandjean against a charge of “profaning the sacrament of marriage” by being a woman married to a woman raises questions about the interaction of legal, social, and internal gender identities, changing understandings of the relationship between gender and desire, and the challenges of interpreting even the most factual of documents when everyone involved has a vested interest in spinning those facts for their own protection and survival.
I’ve presented a couple of shorter texts in translation previously but this is my most ambitious project to date in that field. I won’t claim that the result would meet scholarly standards, but it’s certainly been an enjoyable adventure.
I’d like to return to blogging shorter journal articles for a while—though journal articles can be just as much work as entire books to turn into summaries. As my day-job has shifted to including one day a week in Berkeley at the physical worksite, it will be easy to spend some evenings at the U.C. Berkeley library downloading material from JSTOR. The change in work schedule is adding an enjoyable variety to my schedule, though I’m glad I’ll still be working from home for the most part.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And now it’s time for the new book listings. I’m already looking forward to my year-end analysis of trends in sapphic historicals, because I’ve been noticing some trends on an anecdotal basis that I’d like to verify. One of those trends is stories set between the two world wars, whether you call it the Roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, or the Lost Generation. I should do a special round-up of titles in that era at some point.
The one October book I’m catching up on is set in that era. The Veronica Nash series by A.J. Matthews follows two British women through a series of mysteries. I hadn’t identified the characters as sapphic previously, due to the lack of any clear signifiers in the cover copy, but the 8th book, Death on the Rocks, from Extasy Books, Inc. specifically mentions the couple being on a honeymoon, so you might want to circle back and start the series at the beginning.
Death drops in. Veronica and Claire’s delayed honeymoon on the French Riviera is interrupted when a man falls onto their beach. Did Hollywood mogul Solly Myers fall—or was he pushed? He’d plenty of enemies, but negotiating the tangle of friendships and betrayals to uncover the truth is no easy task—especially after one fateful night in the casino.
The November books don’t include any particularly early settings—all from the Regency onward through the mid-20th century, and all set either in England or the USA or a fantasy version of one of them.
Her Vixen Actress (Ladylike Inclinations #2) self-published by Violet Cowper, is a working-class Regency romance with a lot of passion.
England, 1782. Grace Dashwood longs to woo London’s theater-goers. But the up-and-coming actress’s glamorous good looks and sexy charm aren’t enough to win her a place on the city’s cutthroat stage. Until she meets an earnest lady playwright who has the connections she covets… and a ravishing beauty she wants to explore. Frances Smythe clings to her prim-and-proper manner. So the quiet writer’s patience stretches to a breaking point with the redheaded whirlwind of a performer, even as she senses the first red- hot sparks of passion. But when she finally yields to the woman’s dramatic pleas for aid, she’s rewarded with a delectable kiss that leaves her aching for more taboo trysts. Shocked to have caught a wealthy man’s eye, Grace can’t bring herself to accept his patronage in the face of her unexplored desires. But Frances’s fear of intimacy plunges the duo into an impossible limbo as she refuses to fully commit her emotions. Will their tangled connection get tied up in knots or weave a tapestry of happily ever after?
There’s something about the Regency era that inspires authors to toss magic into the mix, and Lady Liesl's Seaside Surprise (Teacup Magic #4) self-published by Tansy Rayner Roberts, offers a sapphic romance in a magical Regency series. I’ve been a fan of Tansy’s work for quite some time—especially on the now-retired podcast Galactic Suburbia—and I’m very much looking forward to reading this story.
Lady Liesl, fourth daughter of the Earl of Sandwich, always thought her fate was to marry well, and live a perfect life like her older sisters. Now she's had a taste of rebellion, and she likes it... Hunting a missing diamond in a remote seaside town on behalf of a runaway Countess, Liesl finds herself at the mysterious Aphrodite Villa, with a sinister lack of servants, and no household magic in sight... not to mention a parlour full of wild, bohemian artists, including the devilishly seductive Perdita. This is the Teacup Isles, where nothing is quite as it seems. Lady Liesl is about to uncover some surprising secrets about her family and herself.
Due to the nature of source material on women who loved women in history, even writing something relatively biographical can require a lot of fictionalizing. That Dickinson Girl: A Novel of the Civil War (Forgotten Women #1) by Joan Koster from Tidal Waters Press is loosely based on the life of a forgotten orator, feminist, and lesbian, Anna Dickinson, This is the story of her rise to fame and fortune at the expense of love during the political and social turmoil of the American Civil War.
Eighteen-year-old Anna Dickinson is nothing like the women around her, and she knows it. Gifted with a powerful voice, a razor-sharp wit, and unbounded energy, the diminutive curly head sets out to surpass the men of her day as she rails against slavery and pushes for women’s rights. There are only two things that can bring her downfall—the entangling love she has for her devoted companion, Julia, and an assassin’s bullet. Forced to accompany the fiery young orator on her speaking tour of New England, Julia Pennington fights her growing attraction to ever more impertinent woman. When a traitor sets out to assassinate Anna, will Julia risk her life to save her?
There has long been a close connection between gothic literature and queer-coded female characters. Now we can get stories where we don’t need to rely on ambiguous coding, as in The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe from Bellows Press.
Susan Mottram lives an idyllic existence until her eighteenth birthday, when her father’s sudden death plunges the family into penury. To support her mother and younger sister, Susan takes employment as a teacher at a remote Yorkshire boarding school, Matterdale Hall, owned by the radical Dr. Claybourn and his penny-pinching wife. Susan soon discovers that all is not as it seems. Why is little Mary so silent? What really happened to Susan’s predecessor? Is anyone safe in the school’s draughty halls? Through a life-changing meeting with the beautiful and mysterious Cassandra, Susan begins to uncover the truth about Matterdale Hall, and discovers the cruelty, and love, that can lie within the human heart.
One of the anecdotal patterns I’ve been noticing, though one that probably doesn’t rise to the level of statistical significance, is for a romantic historic fantasy series where the second book features a female couple. This can create a dilemma for those of us with somewhat focused reading tastes: read the series from the beginning to get the full set-up? Or cherry-pick the book with the characters we find intriguing and hope we’ll get the background from context? I tend to do the latter, I’m afraid.
The latest series I’ve seen with this structure is A Restless Truth (The Last Binding #2) by Freya Marske from Tor.com.
The most interesting things in Maud Blyth's life have happened to her brother Robin, but she's ready to join any cause, especially if it involves magical secrets that may threaten the whole of the British Isles. Bound for New York on the R.M.S. Lyric, she's ready for an adventure. What she actually finds is a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and a beautiful stranger in Violet Debenham, who is everything—a magician, an actress, a scandal—Maud has been trained to fear and has learned to desire. Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of loathsome, aristocratic suspects, they must solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy that began generations before them.
Hot Keys by R.E. Ward from Bold Strokes Books is another Jazz Age romance, adding to my perception that we have a trend going on.
In 1920s New York City, it’s hard on the streets, but Betty May Dewitt and her best friend, Jack Norval, are determined to make their Tin Pan Alley dreams come true. Fate leads them to a speakeasy called the Trespass Inn, where people play fast and loose and criminals run the show. Betty and Jack are whisked into the glamorous and dangerous world of Prohibition rum-running, but fate has more in store for them than adventure. Romance blooms when a psychic medium’s magic dazzles Betty, and a gangster infuriates and fascinates Jack all at the same time. But danger lurks in every alley, and with the Trespass Inn under attack by rival gangsters, Betty and Jack will have to fight—not only for their hearts and dreams, but for their lives.
I’m not entirely sure of the intended era for the historic fantasy Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk from Tor.com. The cover copy calls it a “period piece” and some reviews mention the 1940s, so I guess we’ll go with that.
A magical detective dives into the affairs of Chicago's divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life. This sapphic period piece will dazzle anyone looking for mystery, intrigue, romance, magic, or all of the above. An exiled augur who sold her soul to save her brother's life is offered one last job before serving an eternity in hell. When she turns it down, her client sweetens the pot by offering up the one payment she can't resist―the chance to have a future where she grows old with the woman she loves. To succeed, she is given three days to track down the White City Vampire, Chicago's most notorious serial killer. If she fails, only hell and heartbreak await.
And we’ll finish up with another story from the 1940s, but purely historical this time: Enigma by Suzie Clarke from Bold Strokes Books.
There is a time for courage, a time for sacrifice, a time for love. In the fall of 1941, the United States Office of American Defense summons agent Polly Silvester to find an elusive spy. Critical information about aircraft designs, production numbers, and flight schedules vital to America’s safety are being stolen from the Portage Aircraft plant in Barberton, Ohio. And the spy is most likely a woman. Polly’s orders are simple. Find the spy—whatever the cost or sacrifice. Polly has taken an oath to protect and serve her country, but the spy she’s hunting may be the love of her life. Desperate times and impossible choices skew the line between what’s right and what matters. Can Polly do what she must when everything is on the line?
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? Audiobooks are dominating my list, though I did read a paper copy of P. Djèlí Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015. It’s a novella set in the same magical alternate early 20th century Egypt as the novelette A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which I also listened to this month, and the novel A Master of Djinn, which I listened to back in May. The latter two feature Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi and her girlfriend who…well, that would be a spoiler. Fatma will ensnare the heart of every reader who likes a dapper butch detective. I missed that aspect when A Master of Djinn came out last year and failed to include it in the new book listings.
I also listened to the audio version of a medieval Arabic tale The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat Al-Himma, translated by Melanie Magidow. Despite the focus of the narrative on a supremely competent warrior woman who becomes the leader of her clan, defeating rival families and Byzantine crusaders alike, the story needs a lot of content warnings for misogyny, sexual coercion and rape, and just plain annoying relatives. But embedded within the historic context is a casual acceptance of fictional women warriors and of female same-sex desire, though the latter gets only a brief mention in passing.
I also listened to a couple of short Audible Original historicals. The Audible Originals being free with the account means they don’t have to work quite as hard to catch my attention. K.J. Charles offers her standard fare of gay male historical romance with a Regency-set enemies-to-lovers caper in A Thief in the Night. I was a bit less enchanted by Sarah Page’s Mrs. Wickham which endeavors to redeem the character of the charming and amoral pair from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The writing was ok, but I had a hard time buying Mr. Wickham’s change of personality that was the core of the happy ending.
I hope you enjoyed our most recent fiction episode, “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard. The author is here to join us to talk about the story and her writing.
[A transcription of the interview will be available at a later date.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Miyuki Jane Pinckard Online