(Originally aired 2023/06/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2023.
It’s Pride Month
Pride month rolls around again and it’s always curious to see whether we get higher numbers of queer books released in June. I’ve had a vague impression that this is the case, but when I looked at the actual numbers for the last several years, it doesn’t necessarily prove true. June was among the most prolific months in 2021 and 2022, but not in 2020. I don’t have the full numbers yet for this year, because it’ll be a couple months before I can pick up all the June books that didn’t have pre-release listings, but the June numbers look somewhat skimpy this year.
It occurred to me this month to leverage NetGalley as another source of information about upcoming books, but the advance review site has no way to do the complex search intersections I need. You can look at lists of LGBTQ+ books but there’s no way to filter that by genre—not even by fiction versus non-fiction—or by character representation. Or I can look at lists of historical fiction but can’t filter for character representation. And there’s only a single category for all romance, so I can’t even filter for historic romance.
I’m not sure why I keep bringing up the difficulties of book discoverability, except to emphasize both to authors and readers how important this aspect is to getting books in front of the eyeballs that most want to read them. This is particularly the case for a small, marginal category like the one this podcast covers. If you’re an author of sapphic historical fiction, it’s absolutely key to use your toolbox to communicate your book’s market position. And if you’re an avid reader of sapphic historical fiction, the best thing you can do to ensure a continuing supply is to help get the word out—not only about the small handful of books that already get the buzz, but about the more obscure titles, especially from indies and small presses.
Every year when pride month rolls around, we see listicles and promotions for queer fiction, but with the tardy expansion of the major publishers into the field, more and more often those lists focus exclusively on the “Big 5” publishers and ignore the authors and presses that created the viability of the field in the first place. So this is just to say that a good way for a bibliophile to celebrate pride is to buy, read, and publicly endorse indie and small press books.
What I Did on My Summer Vacation
I had quite the vacation from my day-job in May, taking off three entire weeks. (And—believe me—my co-workers were overjoyed to have me back this past week.) I didn’t quite have enough leisure time to get a preliminary glimpse of what retirement will be like, though I was able to get some advance work done on the podcast. The cornerstones of my time off were two science fiction and fantasy conventions: the Nebulas conference, which is the annual professional conference of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and WisCon which is a general convention focused on feminism and marginalized identities.
In addition to hanging out with my book peeps and participating in panel discussions, I had several delightful encounters relating to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. At the Nebulas, I was sitting around a lunch table with maybe 10 other people, discussing current projects and trading business cards (as you do), and it came out that fully half of the people at the table were already aware of the Project. And one author noted that they were hoping to submit a story to the fiction series at some point. (So I guess I should go ahead and commit to doing the fiction series again in 2024!) At WisCon there were a couple of times when someone came up to me out of the blue and told me how much they enjoyed the podcast, and in one case, how important the new book listings segment was for them. It’s hard for me to express how much it means to me when people tell me these things. I can keep going for quite some time on one unsolicited moment of appreciation.
So (ahem) take this as the official confirmation that there will be a fiction series in 2024. I’ll try to get the Call for Submissions post updated and posted on the website and update the various places where I can publicize it. It’s never too soon to start writing!
Publications on the Blog
With regard to the blog, I’m still in a bit of a slump with respect to posting publication summaries. I have the notes for several articles, but have gotten out of the rhythm of getting things written up and posted. Maybe this month!
But the book shopping is proceeding apace, boosted by my usual May shopping spree when all the academic presses run their sales in conjunction with the International Medieval Congress. (I skipped the Congress this year due to conflicts, but I never skip the book shopping.)
On the light-hearted side, I picked up a pop history book Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency by Bea Koch. A look at women of the English Regency era who were far from the proper and respectable ideal. Of course I bought Jill Liddington’s new book, As Good as a Marriage: The Anne Lister Diaries 1836-38, that she came on the show to talk about last month. Somewhat less clearly pertinent, is Lucy M. Allen-Goss’s Female Desire in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and Middle English Romance. The summary of this book indicates that it touches on same-sex desire, though my experience with Chaucerian scholarship is that studies often stretch a very little data into somewhat tenuous interpretations in that area. So we’ll see.
On the side of general women’s history that I expect to find useful, but without a specific homoerotic aspect, I picked up Sandra Ballif Straubhaar’s Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds. This collects up the sadly small corpus of Old Norse poetry that is attributed to female authors, either directly or embedded within sagas. I haven’t had a chance to do more than glance at it, but it sounds intriguing. And finally, I came across an older book, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque, by Mohja Kahf which covers a wide timespan beginning in the middle ages. When an author with a western cultural background (like me) is writing characters that have been traditionally viewed as outsiders, it can be very useful to know about the relevant stereotypes and myths, in order to avoid perpetuating them. Books like this are part of my eternal project to try to decolonize my historical imagination.
I think there are a couple more books that I’ve ordered that haven’t arrived yet. If they seem relevant, I’ll include them when they show up.
Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
I’ve decided to try something a little different with the new and recent book releases. More and more often, I find myself dithering over whether a book can reasonably be classified as lesbian or sapphic if the gender identity of one or more characters doesn’t clearly align as a woman. I don’t want to misrepresent characters that can be perceived as female but are presented as non-binary or as falling more on the transmasculine side. And similarly, when dealing with historic settings that did not necessarily have social categories for trans men, there can be a fair amount of ambiguity between a woman choosing to pass as a man for pragmatic reasons and a trans man.
So in order to respect these ambiguities and uncertainties, I’m going to be presenting books in two categories: titles where the characters are clearly presented as women with lesbian or sapphic identities, and titles that I feel would be of interest to people looking for lesbian or sapphic books but where I feel less certain about applying that label. So in addition to the list of lesbian and sapphic historicals, I may have a second list of “books of interest.”
This is also where I’ll put books that aren’t technically historical but that may be of significant interest to readers who enjoy historicals, such as one of this month’s titles involving love in a historic re-enactment setting.
So let’s start with the lesbian and sapphic historicals!
I came across two books, which appear to begin an ongoing series, inspired by Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy Twelfth Night. The author is Hannah Miyamoto, but the conceit of the books is that Miyamoto is editing a lost manuscript by a fictional early 20th century author “Lady Vanessa S.-G.” This was a bit confusing until I found a blog post in which the author discusses the series! The series title is The New Countess: A Story of Sexy 16th Century Sapphists of Shakespeare and book 1 is titled Twelve Nights with Viola & Olivia. I’ve edited the cover copy to skip the bits about the fictional author.
Young, rich, and beautiful, Contessa Olivia di Castellamare has just announced that she will not marry for the next seven years. Why then, does she fall in love with the first boy she meets? Does she know that the boy she loves is really a girl? Twelve Nights with Viola & Olivia retells the story of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night from the perspective of the three young women that the play leaves silent: Viola, the girl passing as a boy, Countess Olivia, and Olivia's faithful lady of the bed-chamber Maria. Transferring Shakespeare’s mythical Illyria to a real kingdom during the Italian Wars (1494-1559), this story conveys the fears, anger, lusts and loves of Countess Olivia, as she wields her kiss and her sword with equal ability.
The second book in this series is If I Should Tell my History .
Beautiful young Countess Olivia has just married Sebastiano by accident: She thought he was Viola, his twin sister, when Viola was pretending to be a boy. Meanwhile, Viola loves a man in love with Olivia, and Sebastiano’s friend is in love with him. The course of love has never run less smooth.
I don’t usually comment on the writing style of the cover copy that I include in this segment, but I have to confess that I’m confused by some of the word choices for this next item. I’m going to read the copy as-written, but it doesn’t always make sense. The book is Sicili and the Penniless Lad by Rachel C. Neale from Spectrum Books and it appears to be set in the English Regency.
Ivy Ferthing has been out of society for five years due to famous, engorged rumors that destroyed her reputation. Now, just shy of nineteen, she has promised to play the part of propriety for her mother’s sake, but Ivy is an outlandish force to be reckoned with, and her true nature knows no shame––especially when it comes to an answerless beauty like Sicili Windihill.
Sicili Windihill is answerless, and never more than in the presence of Grace, the defiant half-naked painting that haunted her childhood. Now, having returned to the gossiping county of Wiltshire after six years of living in London, she is once again at the mercy of her father’s scheming ways. No sooner is she reunited with Grace and the tumultuous feelings it brings up then she discovers her father is harboring a grand, obnoxious plan––one that involves a devastating ultimatum.
They meet at a ball. A tantalizing tryst of wit, courage, fear, and unspoken admiration are quick to follow.
Geonn Cannon has a new book that looks like it’s independent from any previous series: Do Unto Others from Supposed Crimes.
Professional grifter Tinker and her apprentice, Penny Chaplin, have been conning their way across America for the past five years. They rob from the rich and corrupt and give to the deserving: themselves. There aren't many rules to being a grifter. Don't get greedy. Always trust your partner. Never fall for a mark. In the summer of 1945, killing time between jobs in Albuquerque, they're going to break all three.
Books that blend the English Regency with magic are common enough to practically form their own sub-genre. Alexis Hall has an entry into the field with Mortal Follies from Del Rey.
It is the year 1814, and life for a young lady of good breeding has many difficulties. There are balls to attend, fashions to follow, marriages to consider, and, of course, the tiny complication of existing in a world swarming with fairy spirits, interfering deities, and actual straight-up sorcerers. Miss Maelys Mitchelmore finds her entry into high society hindered by an irritating curse. It begins innocuously enough with her dress slowly unmaking itself over the course of an evening at a high-profile ball, a scandal she narrowly manages to escape. However, as the curse progresses to more fatal proportions, Miss Mitchelmore must seek out aid, even if that means mixing with undesirable company. And there are few less desirable than Lady Georgianna Landrake—a brooding, alluring young woman sardonically nicknamed “the Duke of Annadale”—who may or may not have murdered her own father and brothers to inherit their fortune. If one is to believe the gossip, she might be some kind of malign enchantress. Then again, a malign enchantress might be exactly what Miss Mitchelmore needs. With the Duke’s help, Miss Mitchelmore delves into a world of angry gods and vindictive magic, keen to unmask the perpetrator of these otherworldly attacks. But Miss Mitchelmore’s reputation is not the only thing at risk in spending time with her new ally. For the reputed witch has her own secrets that may prove dangerous to Miss Mitchelmore’s heart—not to mention her life.
Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens from The Dial Press looks like it’s packed with all your favorite Wild West tropes, as long as you don’t mind a protagonist who takes up sex work.
It's the spring of 1877 and sixteen-year-old Bridget is already disillusioned. She's exhausted from caring for her ne'er-do-well alcoholic father, but when he's killed by a snakebite as they cross the Kansas prairie, she knows she has only her wits to keep her alive. She arrives penniless in Dodge City, and, thanks to the allure of her bright red hair and country-girl beauty, is soon recruited to work at the Buffalo Queen, the only brothel in town run by women. Bridget takes to brothel life, appreciating the good food, good pay, and good friendships she forms with her fellow “sporting women." Then Spartan Lee, the most legendary (and only) female gunfighter in the region, rides into town, and Bridget falls in love. Hard. Before long, though, a series of shocking double-crosses shatter the Buffalo Queen's tenuous peace and safety. Crushed by the devastating consequences of her actions and desperate for vengeance and autonomy, Bridget resolves to claim her own destiny.
There are some historic persons and events that attract fictional interpretations over and over again. Killingly by Katharine Beutner from Soho Crime is not the first treatment of its subject. Reviews and tags indicate that there is sapphic content, but it isn’t prominent. You may want to review content warnings on this one, too.
Based on the unsolved real-life disappearance of a Mount Holyoke student in 1897. Bertha Mellish, “the most peculiar, quiet, reserved girl” at Mount Holyoke College, is missing. One cold November morning the junior is spotted walking through the Massachusetts woods; then, she vanishes. As a search team dredges the pond where she might have drowned, Bertha’s panicked father and sister arrive at the campus desperate to find some clue as to her fate or state of mind. Bertha’s best friend, Agnes, a scholarly loner studying medicine, might know the truth, but she is being unhelpfully tightlipped, inciting the suspicions of Bertha’s family, her classmates, and the private investigator hired by the Mellish family doctor. As secrets from Agnes and Bertha’s lives come to light, so do the competing agendas driving each person who is searching for Bertha. Where did Bertha go? Who would want to hurt her? And could she still be alive?
The ”magical circus” is another theme that has its own micro-genre, and we get an entry with casual sapphic content in The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson from Tor Books.
Welcome to the Circus of the Fantasticals. Ringmaster – Rin, to those who know her best – can jump to different moments in time as easily as her wife, Odette, soars from bar to bar on the trapeze. With the scars of World War I feeling more distant as the years pass, Rin is focusing on the brighter things in life. Like the circus she’s built and the magical misfits and outcasts -- known as Sparks – who’ve made it their home. Every night, Rin and the Fantasticals enchant a Big Top packed full with audiences who need to see the impossible. But while the present is bright, threats come at Rin from the past and the future. The future holds an impending war that the Sparks can see barrelling toward their Big Top and everyone in it. And Rin's past creeps closer every day, a malevolent shadow Rin can’t fully escape. It takes the form of another Spark circus, with tents as black as midnight and a ringmaster who rules over his troupe with a dangerous power. Rin's circus has something he wants, and he won't stop until it's his.
Moving to more recent history, we have what sounds like a mystery with a gothic flavor in The Gulf by Rachel Cochran from Harper.
In Parson, Texas, a small town ravaged by a devastating hurricane and the Vietnam War, twenty-nine-year-old Lou is diligently renovating a decaying old mansion for Miss Kate, the elderly neighbor who has always been like a mother to her. Mourning her brother’s death in Vietnam, Lou dreams of enjoying a more peaceful future in Parson. But those hopes are crushed when Miss Kate is murdered, and no one but Lou seems to care about finding the killer. The situation becomes complicated when Joanna, Miss Kate’s long-estranged daughter and Lou’s first love, arrives in Parson—not to learn more about her mother’s death but for the house. Her arrival unearths sinister secrets involving the history of the town and its residents . . . revelations that may be the key to helping Lou discover the truth about Miss Kate’s death and her killer.
Other Books of Interest
As it happens, after setting up the category of “other books of interest,” I don’t have any this month that fall in the category for gender identity reasons. But I thought people might be interested in a new book from Jenny Frame that plays with the idea of love in a historical style: Just One Dance (The Regency Romance Club #1) from Bold Strokes Books.
Taylor Sparks is sick of swiping left or right. Online dating, where a casual glance at a profile forms your opinion of a person, has no sparkle. She has a business idea to make dating special—the Regency Romance Club. Guests fall in love in the regency style, with grand balls and regency pursuits, while enjoying some of Britain’s most magnificent stately homes. Jaq Bailey is mourning the death of her best friend. She wants to feel every inch of the pain and guilt she deserves for their death. A professor of early modern history, Bailey has sequestered herself in her study writing books and articles. Life is lonely and unchanging, until her publishers ask her to meet with Taylor, who is looking for a historian to help with her new business. As they start working together, Taylor’s bubbly personality and Bailey’s guilty angst clash, but as Bailey gets dragged into the magical, regency romance world, Taylor’s sparkle brings hope back into her life. They’re working to help others find their true loves, but they just might find it for themselves too.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading? When I checked my spreadsheet, I was surprised to see that I’ve finished eight books since the last podcast, all but one of them audiobooks. This is a bit less startling when you consider that my vacation travels included a road trip from the SF Bay Area down to LA and back, plus a plane and bus trip to Madison, Wisconsin. That’s a lot of time to fill.
I finally consumed The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, which is every bit as amazing as the series’ 3 Hugo awards indicate. I’d been putting this book off due to reviews indicating that it was dark and traumatic. Those reviews weren’t wrong, but the flavor of the darkness wasn’t the sort that booted me out of the story. The premise involves a world of massive seismic activity, whose inhabitants include people who can psychically control or manipulate that seismic activity and who thus become pawns or scapegoats in the politics of how to maintain civilization during the periodic ecological collapses resulting from quake and eruptions.
On a somewhat lighter side—if one can call murder mysteries “light”—a friend’s mention in their blog set me on the track of a new historic mystery series by Claudia Gray, with the premise that all of Jane Austen’s characters exist in the same story universe. The two titles so far are: The Murder of Mr Wickham and The Late Mrs Willoughby. Some very unlikeable canonical characters are murdered and two original characters—the son of Pride and Prejudice’s Darcy and Elizabeth, and the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine and Henry—team up to investigate. The mysteries are fun, though the writing is repetitive at times. The two central characters are engaging, leading one to root for their eventual romance. Young Jonathan Darcy is clearly—if sometimes clumsily—depicted as on the autism spectrum and Juliet Tilney’s cheerful acceptance of his “oddities” is refreshing. It’s not for me to say if an autistic reader would consider it good representation, but it’s an interesting example of how to do such representation in a historic context. (For what it’s worth, I’ve always considered Austen’s depiction of Mr. Woodhouse in Emma to be someone recognizably on the autism spectrum, though of course Austen had no diagnostic manual as guidance.)
My drive to LA was perfect for taking in a novella on each leg, which brought me Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, an homage to Chinese martial arts movies, with a fantasy twist, and T. Kingfisher’s The Seventh Bride, a re-making of the Bluebeard story with a lot of fantasy and fierce feminism, and Kingfisher’s usual application of no-nonsense young women to knotty problems. Both books have background sapphic elements.
While I was at the Nebulas conference, I picked up Tempest Bradford’s middle-grade sci fi story Ruby Finley vs the Interstellar Invasion, which went on to win the Nebula award in its category that weekend. I don’t often buy middle grade books for my own reading, but I do buy them sometimes to put in my Little Free Library, which means I take the opportunity to read them first. This is the story about how a young girl with a scientific bent and a fascination with insects investigates a peculiar bug that turns out to be an interstellar visitor. Highly recommended for the young scientists in your social circle.
(Hmm, this reminds me of another middle-grade title I picked up for the same purpose, Ursula Vernon’s Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess #1) which is an utterly delightful and feminist fairy tale. Ursula Vernon is the same author as T. Kingfisher, but the Kingfisher name is for her adult fiction.)
I’ll finish this roundup with two lesbian historic romances. The Bluestocking Beds Her Bride by Fenna Edgewood was a bit hard to sort out. If I had to describe it, I’d say an allegedly Regency setting, tackling more Victorian-flavored social issues, with a modern thriller/caper plot and a side order of “here are some fun facts I learned from books about lesbian history.” There’s significant explicit sexual content, although in general the romance takes a back seat to the action. It didn’t quite hit my sweet spot, although mostly in being all over the map historically.
I was very impressed by An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera. This is part of the Las Léonas romance series, focusing on a group of young women, all Caribbean heiresses, attending the 1889 Paris Exposition together to further their individual personal goals and, incidentally, to find love. This is the second book and the only one with a sapphic romance, but I’ve enjoyed it so much I just might pick up the rest of the series too. The heroine has come to Paris for one last sapphic fling before the marriage that will repair her family’s fortunes and reputation. The central couple are the perfect mismatched-but-actually-perfectly-matched pair, and each came complete with a posse of fiercely loyal and non-nonsense friends. There’s some fairly steamy content starting around the mid-point, but I’ll note that while I’m usually fairly “meh” about sex scenes, the language was so lovely that I thoroughly enjoyed them.
This Month’s Essay
Thanks to my vacation time, I actually already have this month’s essay show completed. I’ve gotten out of the habit of announcing the essay shows in advance since I’m often scrambling at the last minute. The June show will be another episode in the “F/Favorite Tropes” series looking at romances involving aristocrats and billionaires. I’m having so much fun with the trope series and I hope you are too!
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