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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 281 - On the Shelf for March 2024

Saturday, March 2, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 281 - On the Shelf for March 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2024.

The On The Shelf episodes vary a lot in terms of how much content I have. I wouldn’t have predicted that the new book listings would be the one constant back when I set up this format—they weren’t even part of the template originally! But after a couple of bare-bones months, we have a lot to talk about this month.

First off is announcing the fiction line-up for this year. One of the ways I measure the success of this fiction series is whether I've attracted a true diversity of voices and stories. This year I'm feeling very happy about that aspect! I haven’t sorted out the order in which they’ll appear, because that can depend on when I locate appropriate narrators, but in no particular order we’ll be publishing the following.

  • "The Font of Liberty" by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall - Set in 1830s France, the denizens of a publishing house deal with political activism and censorship. (And I love the little "font" pun in the title.)
  • "A Very Long Malaise" by L.J. Lee - Romantic and political intrigue in Korea of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1790).
  • "Follow the Monkey" by Jamie McGhee - Survival and hope in colonial Brazil during the rise of Quilombo dos Palmares, a hidden society of escaped slaves who took up arms against Portuguese colonists.
  • "Daughters of Derbyshire" by Daniel Stride - When plague sweeps through 17th century Derbyshire, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

I’m going to need to work very hard to find the right narrators for the Korean and Afro-Brazilian stories. Ideally the narrator would not simply be comfortable with the language (proper names and some incidental vocabulary) but would also share that background. All help in leads for potential narrators will be welcome!

News of the Field

Listeners are probably aware that I’m fairly active in the science fiction and fantasy community, and wow has the chatter been going at full volume in the last month. The very short version (for those who don’t read my blog regularly) is that the nomination data for the Hugo awards that were given out last year (when Worldcon was held in China) finally was released. And it was immediately apparent from the data that something very strange had happened. In fact, several different very strange things happened. And the people who knew the most about what happened—who, by the way, were non-Chinese members of the convention committee—were not providing much in the way of useful explanation.

Now, poking at strange data and trying figure out how it got that strange is not only something I enjoy, but is also much of what I do for a living. So along with a number of other people I started poking at the data and published a few blogs about what I observed, both on my own and in collaboration with another data geek. This has taken up a fair amount of my so-called free time in the last few weeks.

At this point, it’s clear that there were several types of data manipulation going on that not only resulted in some specific people and publications being removed from the Hugo ballot, but that appear to have systematically suppressed the number of Chinese publications and people from appearing on a ballot that should by all rights have seen them significantly represented. Needless to say, there are people working diligently on making sure that nothing like this can happen again.

Book awards can get an unwarranted amount of attention sometimes. There are always many more excellent books being published than there are awards to recognize that excellence. But if the awards are going to mean anything, the process needs to be transparent and reliable. And last year’s Hugos definitely were not. It will take a while for the community to recover from this. If you want to know more, there’s a link in the show notes to the article “Charting the Cliff” which covers many of the issues.

Publications on the Blog

Given all that, perhaps I’ll be forgiven for only blogging two publications for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project in the last month. One is the pop-history book I mentioned buying last month: A Short History of Queer Women by Kirsty Loehr. As I indicated previously, it’s light and fluffy and not very solid on the history, but it could be a fun read.

The second item was the article “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” by Kirsti Bohata, which I read when I was working on the tropes episode about employment-based romances.

Book Shopping!

Shopping netted me one new book this month: The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes: 1685-1712. These are the travel journals of a woman who traveled by herself through all the counties of England in the late 17th century. “By herself” meaning with servants, of course. I love this sort of source material for women who did things that run contrary to the historic stereotypes. Not necessarily women who are ”breaking the rules” or becoming social outlaws, but simply ordinary things that get erased from the popular view of women’s history. And, of course, this specific book will be added to the background reading for my planned Restoration-era series.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Speaking of writing, let’s look at the new and recent books. I found five titles from the last few months that I hadn’t identified previously, five March books, and then three titles that I’ll mention in the “other books of interest” segment.

First up we have an American West romance, Above Rubies by Fyn Alexander from JMS Books.

The year is 1885 and all May Jakobsson wants is a home of her own and a woman to love. Leaving behind her poor immigrant family, she claims her one hundred and sixty acres under the Homestead Act in Dakota Territory. Life on the farm is lonely and there seems no hope of meeting the right woman, or any woman with her inclinations. That is, until an itinerant seamstress arrives in town.

When wealthy Boston socialite Temperance Lowell decides to take her sewing machine and travel the rails staying in different towns, she is seeking adventure while escaping Boston where the woman she was having an affair with is getting married. The last thing she expects is to meet a tall, shy woman wearing men’s clothes to whom she is instantly attracted.

Not only does their attachment cause an uproar in the town of Livingstone, especially among the men who were already hostile to a woman like May, and were more than interested in the beautiful and elegant Temperance, but it confuses May who, in her own words, is “as common as the dirt I dig.” Temperance, a little older and very sure of herself, knows May is the woman for her.

Can they make a life together in a rough town among farming folk? Will their love survive the challenges thrown their way?

Next is another romance with a western setting: Silver Heels: Women of the Wild West by Olivia Hampton.

Sabrina was born into wealth and privilege, but after she’s forced to run for her life, she finds herself in the newly formed Colorado Territory, and in the town of Big Antler. Becoming Silver, one of the most popular entertainers on the stage of a seedy theatre named The Pearl was never going to be Sabrina’s first choice for an escape plan, but that’s exactly where she ends up.

Maddie’s spent most of her life in boomtowns. She’s always ready to gamble, just not with her heart. No woman can tie her down. No town can keep her interest for long. A past filled with scars and a need for adventure keep her on the run.

The masked and mysterious Silver, and her devastatingly sexy high heeled shoes, gets Maddie’s attention and fast. The sparks fly faster. But love is dangerous. So is the man hunting for Sabrina. Will they risk it all for love and each other or will they fold under the pressure of their pasts and secrets?

The cover copy for this next book feels a bit over-the-top, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite match the hype. Whispers in the Shadows: The Untold Story of a Love that Defied Convention by Haley Ruby

Step into the enthralling world of "Whispers in the Shadows," a captivating novel that transcends time and convention. This extraordinary tale, set against the backdrop of Victorian England, unveils the forbidden romance between Amelia, a woman of high society, and Charlotte, a spirited artist. Their story is a powerful testament to the enduring strength of love amidst societal constraints.

In the midst of London's rigid societal norms, Amelia and Charlotte's paths cross in a fateful encounter that ignites a passion both profound and forbidden. As they navigate the complexities of their hidden relationship, they confront not only personal conflicts but also the pressures of a society unwilling to accept their love. From secret meetings in moonlit gardens to the grand masquerade balls of London, their journey is one of courage, defiance, and unwavering commitment.

There’s an author’s advisory for Lies that Bind by Rae Knowles & April Yates from Brigids Gate Press that indicates it contains graphic sex and violence and potentially abusive situations.

Lorelei Keyes and Adele Hughes are content, if not entirely happy, running a sham séance business in the English tourist town of Matlock Bath. Lorelei's business savvy and Adele's gift for mimicry provide for their basic needs, but the customers are not the only ones deceived. With the arrival of a mysterious visitor, Viola, the couple finds their long-held secrets under threat of exposure and their quiet life upended. Viola pulls the pair onto a transatlantic crossing bound for Adele's homeland of New York, and the turbulent seas are nothing compared to the treacherous and tawdry happenings aboard the ship. Adele's gifts run much deeper than mimicry. Lorelei's past is more depraved than she lets on. The couple faces the end of their romance, and may stand to lose much more than that if they cannot discern Viola's true intentions before reaching their final destination. Not for the faint of heart, Lies That Bind challenges its readers as it investigates power dynamics, the nature of power, and the ways it can be expressed-whether by domination or self-acceptance; treachery or honesty.

It feels like there’s been a regular theme of sapphic historicals featuring female boxers in the last couple years. This one also tosses in some paranormal elements and is part of a series set in an alternate 1920s world with magic, but it’s the only sapphic entry in the series. Of Socialites and Prizefights (Flos Magicae) by Arden Powell.

When Deepa Patel rejects the wrong man, he curses her: every night, she will transform into a wild animal until her curse is broken by true love’s kiss. The problem is twofold. One: Deepa needs her nights to seduce shallow men into spending money on her—money she desperately needs to buy herself and her mother a better life. Two: she doesn’t believe in love. She’s never met a man she wanted to keep longer than a week, never mind forever.

She never considered her true love might be a woman.

Roz is unlike any of Deepa’s past suitors. She’s working class, with a nose that’s been broken at least once, courtesy of an underground boxing club. And she makes Deepa feel lighter and softer than she ever thought possible. But Roz can’t afford to give Deepa the life of luxury she craves.

Meanwhile, Deepa is posing as a wealthy nobleman's fiancée. There’s no love between them, but his lifestyle is everything she’s ever wanted. Caught between a real relationship and a loveless fake one, Deepa has to choose: give up on her dreams for a chance at true love, or make her dreams come true but stay cursed forever.

Due to the advance scheduling dynamics of indie books versus books from publishers, the March books are mostly the latter. First up is a historic fantasy from this month’s author guest: Song of the Huntress by Lucy Holland from Macmillan.

Britain, 60 AD. Hoping to save her lover and her land from the Romans, Herla makes a desperate pact with the Otherworld King. She becomes Lord of the Hunt and for centuries she rides, reaping wanderers’ souls. Until the night she meets a woman on a bloody battlefield – a Saxon queen with ice-blue eyes.

Queen Æthelburg of Wessex is a proven fighter, but after a battlefield defeat she finds her husband’s court turning against her. Yet King Ine needs Æthel more than ever: the dead kings of Wessex are waking, and Ine must master his bloodline’s ancient magic if they are to survive.

When their paths cross, Herla knows it’s no coincidence. Something dark and dangerous is at work in the Wessex court. As she and Æthel grow closer, Herla must find her humanity – and a way to break the curse – before it’s too late.

Pelican Girls by Julia Malye from Harper has that dancing-around-the-topic language that sometimes leads me to place a book in the “other books of interest” category if I can’t be certain of the sapphic content, but early reviews indicate that there’s a romance between two of the female characters. For those who keep track, this falls more in the literary genre.

Paris, 1720. La Salpêtrière hospital is in crisis: too many occupants, not enough beds. Halfway across the world, France's colony in the wilds of North America has space to spare and needs families to fill it. So the director of the hospital rounds up nearly a hundred female “volunteers” of childbearing age—orphans, prisoners, and mental patients—to be shipped to New Orleans.

Among this group are three unlikely friends: a sharp-tongued twelve-year old orphan, a mute ‘madwoman,’ and an accused abortionist. Charlotte, Pétronille, and Geneviève, along with the dozens of other women aboard La Baleine, have no knowledge of what lies ahead and no control over their futures. Strangers brought together by fate, these brave and fierce young women will face extraordinary adversity—pirates, slavedrivers, sickness, war—but also the private trauma of heartbreak and unrequited love, children born and lost, cruelty and unexpected pleasure, and a friendship forged in fire that will sustain through the years.

Stacy Lynn Miller’s “Speakeasy” series from Bella Books continues with a third volume: Last Barrel.

Three years after Whiskey War, Dax and Rose live the high life at the Foster House, running the poshest speakeasy on the west coast. Half Moon Bay is about to claim its place as the top tourist destination in Northern California, with a second club and the remodeled Seaside Hotel under Grace Parsons’s ownership and Dax’s management. Repeal of Prohibition is on the horizon with the prospect of making their illegal liquor businesses legitimate. Dax’s fractured friendship with Charlie Dawson is the only blowback from her battle with Frankie Wilkes. If she could fix it, her life with Rose would be perfect.

Or so Dax thinks until an election sweeps in Roy Wilkes as the new county sheriff. With the law behind him, he’s hellbent on revenge for the death of his brother in the wake of the whiskey war and puts everyone involved in his crosshairs. On day one, he wreaks havoc in Half Moon Bay with arrests and beatings. Nothing is off the table. No one close to Dax and Rose is safe, and they must leverage every resource to protect the people they love. How far will Dax go? Will beating Wilkes at his game come at too high a price? Who will survive to open the last barrel?

Another book in a continuing series is The Weavers of Alamaxa (Alamaxa #2) by Hadeer Elsbai from Harper Voyager. This series is inspired by Egyptian history, although set in a world with fantasy elements.

The world is on fire...but some women can control it.

The Daughters of Izdihar—a group of women fighting for the vote and against the patriarchal rule of Parliament—have finally made strides in having their voices heard...only to find them drowned out by the cannons of the fundamentalist Ziranis. As long as Alamaxa continues to allow for the elemental magic of the weavers—and insist on allowing an academy to teach such things—the Zirani will stop at nothing to end what they perceive is a threat to not only their way of life, but the entire world.

Two such weavers, Nehal and Giorgina, had come together despite their differences to grow both their political and weaving power. But after the attack, Nehal wakes up in a Zirani prison, and Giorgina is on the run in her besieged city. If they can reunite again, they can rally Alamaxa to fight off the encroaching Zirani threat. Yet with so much in their way—including a contingent of Zirani insurgents with their own ideas about rebellion—this will be no easy task.

And the last time a weaver fought back, the whole world was shattered.

Two incredible women are all that stands before an entire army. But they’ve fought against power before and won. This time, though, it’s no longer about rhetoric.

This time it’s about magic and blood.

We finish up with a book in Portuguese, Julieta e Cinderela by Vicky Fiorez which blends the characters of Cinderella and Shakespeare’s Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, set in 19th century Verona.

Juliet Capulet is devastated when she discovers that her family arranged her engagement to Romeo Montague, with the intention of ending the bloody feud between the families. But on her first visit to the Montague house, she meets Cinderella, the family's maid who wins her heart with generosity. Divided by class and background, the two find connection, even as the engagement progresses. But the Montagues can be brutal when crossed… [Note: This is a paraphrase of a Google translation of the Portuguese cover copy.]

While we’re talking about non-English books—and I have a couple more on the list for the near future—I’ll mention that the French translation of my book Daughter of Mystery is also coming out in March, after being pushed back for production changes.

Other Books of Interest

I put three titles in the “other books of interest” section, not because there’s any question of the sapphic content, but because they appear to fall more in the erotica category than the historic fiction category. I tread a fine balance here. One of the reasons I generally exclude erotica is because, if I don’t set my search terms to exclude it, I end up wading through an awful lot of male-gaze content that has only the barest acquaintance with historic settings. Even when written for the lesbian market, erotica rarely has a solid historic grounding, tending to fall much farther into the fantasy side of the line. But three titles popped up in my search that some listeners might be inclined to check out further.

Coming of Age (Bintanath #1) by Joan Fennelly is set in the Egypt of the ancient Pharaohs and combines the supernatural with a lesbian relationship.

Jewels of the Harem: Love's Secret Treasures by Lucilla Leigh is set in the harem of the Ottoman palace of Topkapi. In general I’d be wary of orientalist harem fantasies if you’re looking for solid representation of historic cultures.

And the same author has released Victorian Passions: Lesbian Romance Amidst Historical Intrigue which is more or less what it says on the label.

What Am I Reading?

What have I been reading in the past month? One of the books that got caught up in the Hugo award shenanigans was R. F. Kuang’s historic fantasy Babel, about linguistic-based magic and 19th century colonialism. It’s a very powerful book with an ending that found the right balance between tragedy and grim determination. As a linguist, I really enjoyed the magical premise.

An audiobook sale led me to pick up another one of K.J. Charles’ backlist: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I always enjoy Charles’ work but this one didn’t grab me as much as many of her other books.

A different audiobook sale inspired me to get Courtney Milan’s historic romance The Duke who Didn't. I’m having some interesting thoughts about what does and doesn’t throw me out of a historic romance, due to listening to this while also being in the middle of Emma R. Alban’s Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend. Both books are set in the Victorian period, both are very engagingly written, and both present characters that feel entirely like modern people dressed up in costume. Usually, that’s a “nope” for me. And…it’s sort of a problem for me in both these books? Except I enjoy the quality of the writing enough that I’m just pretending they’re actually contemporaries with a few quirks. But I’m not enjoying them as historic romances. I had a similar issue with Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower and Jane Walsh’s Her Countess to Cherish, except those two didn’t sweep me up in the writing and story enough for me to be able to ignore the modern attitudes and behaviors. And the non-sapphic historical mystery Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley had solid writing chops, but that didn’t make up for the character failing historic plausibility for me. (Although in that case it was slightly different from a modern character, simply one that didn’t make sense in her own time.) So I’ve been pondering the interactions of these elements in terms of which directions a book can fail me and still leaving me glad I’d read it.

Author Guest

We’ll finish up this month’s episode with an interview with Lucy Holland.

(Interview will be included in the transcript when it has been transcribed.)

Show Notes

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 Lucy Holland Online

Major category: