(Originally aired 2023/04/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2023.
It’s been a long, wet winter here in California and—though I always do the knock-on-wood type of deflection of bad luck by saying “of course, we need the rain”—I have to confess I’m thinking very fondly ahead to summer. Even the hot days. Maybe especially the hot days.
I’m also, increasingly, thinking fondly ahead to something else. I don’t tend to talk about my day-job doing failure investigations on this show much because there’s very little overlap. That is, there’s actually a lot of philosophical overlap between my writing and my day-job, but it takes a bit of explaining. Having a day-job means that I can be blithely oblivious to questions of monetizing this podcast. But more and more, my day-job has been crowding out the time and attention I have for my creative work: writing fiction, and the blog and podcast. In part it’s because I’ve been accumulating more managerial duties in addition to my investigation work. In part it’s because my department’s headcount keeps getting squeezed and we all have bigger workloads. So in addition to the increasing frequency of working evenings and the occasional weekend, it means that when I do close the corporate laptop, I often don’t want to do anything involving “braining” or staring at computer screens.
But there is an end in sight. If you ever spot me concluding a social media post with something like “2 years, 1 month,” it’s the countdown to my target retirement date. It’s depressing to think that I may not get back to serious fiction writing until I retire. But we all have our choices and priorities, and in the capitalist hellscape we live in, it would be a difficult choice to give up that sweet, sweet corporate paycheck and retirement fund for the laughably thin income of a lesbian historical fiction novelist. So I hang on, and I look ahead, and I scramble to keep this presence going so that I have some hope that people remember who I am and what I’m giving to the world. Some days, that’s the only thing that keeps the podcast going: the thought that it’s my only current way of saying “I exist, I matter, I am here" to the larger lesbian community.
Publications on the Blog
But this is all to say that I’ve spent the second month in a row without reading anything new for the blog. Which also means that the Gothic Fiction episode is going to get pushed out again.
But in the meantime, the book shopping came through and I have two new books (plus several downloaded articles) in preparation for that show. The most focused of these is Paulina Palmer’s Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions. It looks primarily focused on relatively contemporary gothic novels, though some with historic settings. The second new acquisition is The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature edited by E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, which includes the article “The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia” by Steven Bruhm, although I’ll clearly want to cover the entire collection of articles on the blog. Looking through the table of contents, I see a lot of familiar names.
This month will see the first fiction episode of this year’s series, which will be Catherine Lundoff’s “The Pirate in the Mirror,” another story in her Celeste and Jacquotte series.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And speaking of fiction, let’s look at new and recent sapphic historical fiction. There are several March books that only just caught my eye, all of them set in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Violet Cowper has put out another book in the Ladylike Inclinations series. Her Venetian Beauty doesn’t have a series number on the cover, but it looks like it should be number 4.
A fiery beauty and a scholarly spinster... together, will they find the happy ending they deserve? Alexandra Craven has a secret dream to escape the trap of the genteel birth and earn her independent living as a writer. She thinks that accompanying her brother on the Grand Tour would provide her with enough material. However, when her brother falls ill in Venice, she is left without a guidance - and has to look to the timid daughter of their noble host, Veronica Zanotti, for help. Veronica Zanotti, a young lady of more learning than charm, has no secret dreams at all. She is seemingly content to be left alone in her father's library while her sister enjoys the spotlight. However, when a ravishing Englishwoman asks for her assistance, she is plunged into a whirlpool of perilous adventures...
Another Regency-era novel, The Enemy Within by Stein Willard, seems to assume that the casual shopper will be familiar with the series the book belongs to, as the descriptive cover copy is very slight. So your guess is as good as mine on this one.
With their goal of receiving official pardons from the Crown finally in sight, Hirsh and her band of pirate sisters are actively planning for the future. Vows are made and new friendships are formed as the family continues to grow.
We get a lot more information on setting and characters for Eight Strings by Margaret DeRosia from Simon & Schuster.
Ever since her grandfather introduced her to eight-string marionettes, Francesca has dreamed of performing from the rafters of Venice’s popular Minerva Theater. There’s just one problem: the profession is only open to men. When her father arranges to sell her into marriage to pay off his gambling debts, Francesca flees her home. Masquerading as a male orphan named Franco, she secures an apprenticeship with the Minerva’s eccentric ensemble of puppeteers. Amid the elaborate set-pieces, the glittering limes, and the wooden marionettes, she finds a place where she belongs—and grows into the person she was always meant to be: Franco. The past threatens to catch up with Franco when his childhood friend Annella reappears and recognizes him at the theater. Now a paid companion to an influential woman, Annella understands the lengths one must go to survive, and she promises to keep Franco’s secret. Desire sparks between them, and they find themselves playing a dangerous game against the most powerful figures of Venice’s underworld. With their lives—and the fate of the Minerva—hanging in the balance, Franco must discover who is pulling the strings before it’s too late.
Moving up to the early 20th century, we have Her Female Husband (The Kendallville Librarian #1) by Julieanne from Western Michigan Publishing.
While many women in 1908 accept their lot in life to marry, rear children, and run a household for their husbands, Sarah, the Kendallville Librarian lives with her own private reasons to resist such a path. Despite having moved to Kendallville to "find a husband" alongside her best friend, Lydia, she has yet to allow any of the local men her favor. For her own reasons, Lydia also avoids tying herself to a man. While she yearns to do a "man's job" of being a journalist, and for a fair wage, she faces rejection at every turn. That is, until the day she overhears whispers of a woman in another city doing the unthinkable… living as a man. She can't possibly. Or can she? When the notion of donning men's clothing and pursing her dreams won't leave her mind, Lydia begins scheming, much to Sarah's simultaneous shock and burgeoning hope. Sarah, however, soon finds herself thrust into the center of local murder investigation. With everything at stake, will Sarah and Lydia get their happily ever after together? Will the Kendallville Librarian survive her perilous endeavors and finally find peace with her female husband?
I frequently take note when characters in a story fall in the ambiguous territory between gender disguise and transgender identity. When the first couple of books in L. Dreamer’s Heart series came out in 2020, I wasn’t sure how to categorize the relationship. Now that the third and final installment has come out, Heart’s Home, the author has confirmed that he views the story as a lesbian romance. The previous books were originally published under the author’s former name but have now been reissued with the byline L. Dreamer.
In the final installment of the Heart Series, join Thomas, Rachel, TJ, Charlotte, and all of your favorite side characters as they continue to navigate the highs and lows of the lives they’ve created. Follow their adventures through the years, from the Great War to the Great Depression and beyond as the family charts their own paths while learning the true meaning of love, loss, hard work, and family. This collection of short stories and novellas picks up a couple of years after Heart Sings and finishes off the Heart Series with new challenges, triumphs, heartbreaks, and joy.
Another series that recently wrapped up is Cameron Darrow’s “Ashes of Victory” supernatural stories set between the two world wars. The author asked me to let people know that the entire series is now available as a boxed set under the title From the Ashes of Victory.
The First World War is over, the old world shattered and overturned. But one didn't need to be anywhere near the fighting to have everything stripped away. Families, homes, identities lost, the witches of the clandestine group EVE were left at war's end with only two things: their magical gifts and each other. From the ashes of Allied victory and the Russian revolution, this group of survivors will forge for themselves something altogether new in a time when women aren't even allowed to vote, let alone openly practice magic in public. Or love one another. But not all threats to their budding coven come from without. Secrets, lies and the lingering trauma they've suffered could tear them apart as easily as the war tried to do, and they will have to overcome--and embrace--all that they are to ensure the peace is a lasting one, and that the horrors of a world war are never repeated.
The April books are a fascinating spread of themes and settings, starting with a mythic Norse tale, Legacy of the Valiant (Tales from Norvegr #2) by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.
Humble Kai aspires to become more than the petite, inconsequential young woman her community sees. Persistence pays off when the village holy leaders reveal a prophecy. Kai might actualize her dream of being a hero if she completes three seemingly impossible tasks. Princess Solveig, descendant of the famous shieldmaiden Sigrid the Valiant, believes she was born to accomplish great things, but her poor eyesight, weak constitution, and lack of physical expertise hold her back. Convinced she can never realize her ambitions, Solveig settles for living vicariously through her warrior girlfriend. The appearance of a dangerous jötunn wreaking havoc in the kingdom brings the two would-be champions together. Solveig feels both threatened and skeptical when Kai arrives in her father’s great hall with a “magic” sword, claiming she’s there to save the day after more promising protectors have failed. With many lives at stake, will rivalry push Solveig and Kai apart, or will they inspire each other to realize the greatness both women desire to achieve and to survive the coming battle?
Well-known lesbian romance author Karin Kallmaker has only rarely dipped her toes into historical settings, but a current loosely linked series includes this medieval tale: Knight of Nights (The Coin of Love #2) from Romance and Chocolate Ink.
Left in charge of clan and lands while menfolk ride away to the Crusades, Lady Kirstine breaks with tradition by coming to the aid of the local green woman whose medicines once saved Kirstine's life. She's surprised to find the old woman already ably defended by a knight - a knight with no flag. A knight like no other Kirstine has ever met.
I dithered a bit about whether including this next book in the podcast is being true to the identities of the characters, but as usual I tend to err on the side of inclusivity and as long as there is sapphic content it needn’t be the central relationship. But I like readers to know what to expect, so in the case of Something Spectacular (Something Fabulous) by Alexis Hall from Montlake, the podcast relevance is that there is a romantic backstory between a female character and a non-binary but assigned female character, however the central romantic plot of the book involves both of those characters matched with a castrato opera singer. So: make of that what you will.
Peggy Delancey’s not at all ready to move on from her former flame, Arabella Tarleton. But Belle has her own plans for a love match, and she needs Peggy’s help to make those plans a reality. Still hung up on her feelings and unable to deny Belle what she wants, Peggy reluctantly agrees to help her woo the famous and flamboyant opera singer Orfeo. She certainly doesn’t expect to find common ground with a celebrated soprano, but when Peggy and Orfeo meet, a whole new flame is ignited that she can’t ignore. Peggy finds an immediate kinship with Orfeo, a castrato who’s just as nonconforming as she is―and just as affected by their instant connection. They’ve never been able to find their place in the world, but as the pair walks the line between friendship, flirtation, and something more, they may just find their place with each other.
When an author has a historic romance series that includes various gender pairings, it’s fairly rare for there to be more than one f/f romance, but Renee Dahlia has done just that in her “Desiring the Dexingtons” series with The Widow's Modiste.
A bored widow, an incredible dress, and a modiste with a secret. Jacinda Dexington wants to take her modiste shop to the haut ton, so when a client gives her tickets to the Soho Club’s Contrary Gods masquerade ball, she wears the outfit herself. It’s a sensation and everyone wants to know who created it. But only one person offers her refreshments… and a little bit more. Lady Merryam, widowed and bored, only attends the Soho Club’s latest ball to help raise funds for her son’s orphanage. The last she expects is a one night stand with the mysterious woman wearing ‘that’ dress. Could spending more time with her be the answer to her ennui?
The last April book has a somewhat experimental structure with a cross-time plot: The Weeds by Katy Simpson Smith from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Two women, connected across time, edge toward transgression in pursuit of their desires. A Mississippi woman pushes through the ruin of the Roman Colosseum, searching for plants. She has escaped her life, apprenticed herself to catalog all the species growing in this place. Crawling along the stones, she wonders how she has landed here, a reluctant botanist amid a snarl of tourists in comfortable sandals. She hunts for a scientific agenda and a direction of her own. In 1855, a woman pushes through the jungle of the Roman Colosseum, searching for plants. As punishment for her misbehavior, she has been indentured to the English botanist Richard Deakin, for whom she will compile a flora. She is a thief, and she must find new ways to use her hands. If only the woman she loves weren’t on a boat, with a husband. But love isn’t always possible. She logs 420 species. Through a list of seemingly minor plants and their uses―medical, agricultural, culinary―these women calculate intangible threats: a changing climate, the cost of knowledge, and the ways repeated violence can upend women’s lives. They must forge their own small acts of defiance and slip through whatever cracks they find. How can anyone survive?
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been consuming since last month? In general, it’s been books by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, which perhaps indicates that I’m not in an experimental mood. I finished reading Meg Mardell’s latest holiday romance Christmas Masquerade, which is a bit of a comedy of manners, country-house story in which everyone thinks they’re playing matchmaker while also being matched by others. I’ll give away that the conclusion involves pansexual polyamory, just in case that affects people’s inclination to try it. This one didn’t grab me as solidly as Mardell’s previous books, but I admire that she’s telling stories that are so expansive in terms of identities and outcomes.
My other read was Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo, which is the third novella in her Singing Hills series, set in an alternate China with light fantasy. The central character is a collector of stories, and as with the previous books, the telling of stories, and the way those stories interact with the framing action, form a complex structure that offers a slow reveal of hidden secrets. I liked that in this story, that final reveal was so subtle I had to page back to check on a point where I’d made an unsupported assumption that led me off track. The series continues its tradition of including normalized queer relationships among the characters.
Moving over to audiobooks, we have C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken, another historic fantasy that employs an alternate version of an actual historic setting—in this case, colonized French Algeria—and a light overlap of fantasy—just enough to keep you guessing about possible plot twists, and is full of normalized queer relationships, including between the two female protagonists. I loved the worldbuilding and the romance, but I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I hoped due to the bodycount and a fair amount of gory body horror. That doesn’t make it a flawed book, just one that I’m not the target audience for.
And finally, my other audiobook is K.J. Charles’ latest, The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, which matches up a newly-inherited Regency baronet, who has abandonment issues, with the head of a clan of smugglers, who is overburdened with a sense of responsibility. This book has the sort of K.J. Charles plot that I love: very individual characters whose romantic conflict comes from their personal flaws, even as they both try to be good people doing responsible things. I can wholeheartedly understand why they’re attracted to each other and why they have to struggle to get their happy ending. That hasn’t always been the case in my recent reading, so it cheers me up greatly.
What’s been cheering you up in your recent reading? I’d love to hear about it.
When adding upcoming titles to my database, I once again was struck by the geography of sapphic historical fiction. These thoughts aren’t meant to poke at any particular author or book, but at a cumulative pattern that emerges. And specifically a pattern that some historic settings seem to exist primarily in a mythic space, as far as sapphic historicals are concerned.
I can back this up with data from my cumulative spreadsheet. One of the settings I want to highlight is Greece. With the sole exception of a series of WWII-set stories by Mary D Brooks, the titles I’m aware of are set in the Classical era or earlier. And of those 16 books with classical Greek settings, only 2 don’t appear to have overtly fantastic elements, primarily involving the concrete appearance of the pantheon of gods, or movement between the mortal world and that of the immortals. The two exceptions are a fictionalized biography of Sappho, and a story set in Sparta that stretches historic plausibility but doesn’t include any supernatural elements.
I think you could probably include the Brooks WWII series as having fantasy elements—and perhaps even Classical connections—because, as I understand it, the series was originally Xena “Uber” fan-fiction, so there’s a premise of reincarnation, and at least one book includes psychic phenomena. But they don’t fit the more general pattern on a surface level.
Now, I will grant you that—with the exception of Sappho herself—researching sapphic themes in Classical Greece is a bit tricky, although now that we have an English translation of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome there’s a bit less friction to the process. Given that mainstream histories of classical Greece tend to surrender to the imbalance of information on male versus female lives, often making one wonder if women existed at all outside of myth and legend, it makes me sad that historical fiction authors seem to have swallowed that illusion. The pattern here is two-fold: that Greece has no significant history after the Classical era, and that sapphic stories can only exist in the world of mythic fantasy, and not among ordinary lives.
There is, perhaps, less of an excuse on the research side for the similar pattern we see for historic stories with Scandinavian settings. The spreadsheet has 18 stories set either in specific Scandinavian countries or nebulously in the region of Scandinavia. All but 3 of them are set either overtly or implicitly in an early-medieval or mythic “Viking era”. (The 3 exceptions include 2 in the 17th century and 1 in WWII, none of which have fantasy elements.)
But this is not the early medieval Scandinavia of the history books. Fourteen of the 15 stories feature warrior women. The 15th is a cross-time story. Ten of the stories also feature gods, monsters, or magic. Now, the question of women’s participation in warfare in Viking-era Scandinavia is complex. Women warriors definitely featured in Norse sagas and myths, regardless of whether they were part of ordinary life. But what is interesting is how strongly the motif seems essential to sapphic historical fiction with this setting. In many cases, the motif isn’t presented as a woman taking on a cross-gender identity, but rather that warrior women are normalized as part of the fictional culture of the setting.
As with the Classical Greek stories that bring in gods and mythic Amazons, within the fictional geography of sapphic historical fiction, the actual historic cultures of these settings have been erased and replaced with a mythic fantasy. Mind you, I have no problem with mythic fantasy stories! But I do feel uncomfortable around the way they become the only landscape to the exclusion of the realistic.
The presence of mythic or fantasy stories isn’t quite as overwhelming in some other settings. Of the books set in Egypt, only 2/3 have fantasy elements. There are similar numbers for those set in China or a clearly China-based culture. Compare to stories set in France where only 1/3 have fantasy elements. Compare to stories set in Canada or Germany or Russia which are almost devoid of fantasy. (The only reason I’m not tackling the statistics for stories set in the British Isles or in the USA is because I have a lot of gaps in the coding for this aspect and I don’t have time to fill them in enough to do the calculation.)
What does it mean that our imagined version of specific times and places is so heavily overlaid with myth? What does it mean that we seem to find it hard to imagine women loving women in some contexts unless we make those women stand outside the limits of ordinary life? And what does that say about our ability to see people in those cultures as whole, complex human beings? Each book stands alone on its own merits. But in the aggregate, those patterns ask questions that we should ponder.
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