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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 284 - On the Shelf for April 2024

Saturday, April 6, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 284 - On the Shelf for April 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/04/06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2024.

I sit here writing the introduction to this episode and trying to think of what you-all might find interesting. There are times when my life currently feels like just counting down the days until retirement. (390 days as of the date this episode airs.)

The most exciting thing I’ve done in the last month was buy a recumbent tricycle—a rather fancy high-end machine that will keep me bicycling confidently for decades to come. Some nerve damage in one leg has meant that I’ve taken a few falls—rather embarrassingly, always when at a complete stop. The stability of the tricycle addresses that, while the mechanics of the recumbent configuration mean I still have the power and maneuverability of a good road bike.

It's always interesting to meet someone that you’ve only known through language—whether the written word or audio. Do you have that experience of: “Gosh, you’re…different from what I imagined”? Do you get images in your head of what an author might look like, based on their writing? Since I don’t have a good visual imagination for people, I’m often surprised to discover that I must have imagined what someone looks like—because when I meet them I have to readjust. It's something I struggle with when describing characters because I don’t always have a clear image of them in my mind. So I’m sometimes curious how listeners visualize me, based on the bits of my life I mention in these introductions. That is, assuming you don’t already know me in person!

Last week we aired the first fiction episode of this year’s series. I continue to be amazed at the quality of the stories people are willing to entrust to me. Every year it gets harder to choose just four stories, and I’m more able to design a truly diverse line-up. On the days that I’m tempted to say, “Maybe this is the last year for the fiction series,” I find myself thinking, “But what about that author that I encouraged to revise and resubmit? What about that author who never gets discouraged if I only buy one out of every three stories they send me? What about that author who wrote me a thank you for my feedback who might send me something totally amazing next time?”

In my secret heart, I wish I had it in me to start a publishing house specifically for sapphic historical fiction, but I know my limits and I know my competencies, and that isn’t one of them. But this small corner of publishing continues to give me joy. I only wish the stories I publish would get even more listeners and readers so my authors would get the acclaim they deserve.

Book Shopping!

Once again, I’ve gone a month without blogging any new books. And once again I promise not to beat myself up about it, though I wish I could figure out where I once found the energy to post a blog every day and produce a podcast every week!

But one of the books from this month’s shopping will probably pop up to the top of my reading list. This is Before the Word Was Queer: Sexuality and the English Dictionary, 1600-1930 by Stephen Turton. Thanks to the power of social media, I heard about this book when the author made a release announcement on BlueSky and was able to ask some questions that convinced me I absolutely needed this book. As the title implies, this is an exploration of the language used to describe and express sexuality in English over the last four centuries, and how that language has been described in dictionaries—as well as how it has been censored in dictionaries. I was delighted to discover that there is an entire chapter addressing the language of lesbianism that solidly demolishes the perennial claim that “we didn’t have a word for lesbians until the late 19th century.”

I picked up two other books that fall more in the deep background research category, although Emma Southon’s A Rome of One’s Own: The Forgotten Women of the Roman Empire does have one biography that discusses theories around the possible sapphic leanings of one woman, based on her writings. And I confess I do love the Virginia Woolf pun in the book’s title.

The third book is yet another resource for my future Restoration-era romance series. Like the other two books picked up this month, it’s a brand new release. This time I heard about it on the podcast “Not Just the Tudors.” The book is Pomp and Piety: Everyday Life of the Aristocracy in Stuart England by Ben Norman. I don’t expect there to be anything specifically on queer history—or at least not women’s queer history—but it takes many ingredients to cook a dinner and not all of them have to be the main dish.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

But of course, books that do focus on women’s queer history are the meat and potatoes of this podcast, so let’s take a look at new and recent releases.

I first heard about Eliza Lentzski’s Lighthouse Keeper when it was in progress and she posted about it on social media. So I popped it into my spreadsheet and was delightfully surprised to find it out in the world.

In 1874, in the quaint coastal town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the ocean’s waves echo with tales of lost love. Lizzy Darby, a resilient young woman with a heart marked by past sorrows, seeks refuge in the familiarity of her parents' general store. Scarred by the loss of her first love to the unpredictable sea, Lizzy strives to find solace in the routine of her daily life.

Joana Maria Pascoal is a spirited immigrant from the Azores Islands. In her quest for a brighter future for her family, Joana adopts the guise of a man to secure a lucrative position as the town's lighthouse keeper. As Lizzy and Joana's lives become intertwined, an undeniable connection forms, one that transcends the boundaries imposed by their society.

Haunted by the wreckage of her past romance, Lizzy grapples with the fear of opening her heart again. Joana, trapped by a disguise that shields her from prejudice but endangers her livelihood, battles the urge to succumb to a forbidden love. Her dual identity hangs in the balance, a secret that, if exposed, could shatter the financial support crucial for her family's survival.

Clandestine meetings, stolen moments, and the heart's yearnings collide with the harsh realities of a world bound by tradition and familial expectations. Will the secrets that Lizzy and Joana harbor tear them apart, or can their burgeoning relationship overcome the circumstances that threaten a promising new love?

I know that I miss a lot of non-English-language releases, simply because my search terms aren’t attuned for them, or I can’t easily determine if they have sapphic content. But this month I ran across the German translation Eine Lady für die Diebin or A Lady for a Highwayman by Dani Collins (translated by Emma Schwarz). From the author’s website, it looks like the story was originally part of a collection of a dozen erotic Regency-era stories with a diverse assortment of romantic couples, but the German version appears to be a standalone of this sapphic encounter. The German cover copy is in the blog, but here’s the shorter summary the author provides for the English-language collection: “Robbed at gunpoint by a female highwayman, a young lady loses her locket but gains self-knowledge in a stolen kiss.” If you’ve been listening to the podcast long enough to remember the highwaywomen episode, you’ll recognize several of the stock tropes of sapphic highwayman encounters!

Als ihre Lippen sich berührten, hatte Annabelle das Gefühl, dass dies der einzige Ort auf der Welt war, an dem sie sein wollte. Genau hier, um diese süße Empfindung mit dieser Frau zu teilen.

Annabelle ist einem Adligen versprochen, obwohl sie sich viel lieber dem Studium widmen würde. Als sie mit den Eltern auf dem Weg zu ihrem künftigen Gatten überfallen wird, traut Annabell ihren Augen nicht. Denn der Wegelagerer ist eine Frau! Als die Diebin sie in einem unbeobachteten Moment küsst, wird Annabelle alles klar. Sie weiß: sie muss die schöne Diebin wiedersehen - und erneut küssen …

Teil der Lovers and Liaisons Regency Collection. Willkommen in der Welt glitzernder Bälle, geheimer Sehnsüchte und skandalöser Begierden! Zwölf fesselnde Kurzgeschichten laden ein zu einer unvergesslichen Reise voller Lust und Sinnlichkeit in die Regency-Ära.

A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland from Dell looks at the darker side of selkie legends.

When a sharp cry wakes Jean in the middle of the night during a terrible tempest, she’s convinced it must have been a dream. But when the cry comes again, Jean ventures outside and is shocked by what she discovers—a young woman in labor, already drenched to the bone in the freezing cold and barely able to speak a word of English.

Although Jean is the only midwife in the village and for miles around, she’s at a loss as to who this woman is or where she’s from; Jean can only assume she must be the new wife of the neighbor up the road, Tobias. And when Tobias does indeed arrive at her cabin in search of his wife, Muirin, Jean’s questions continue to grow. Why has he kept his wife’s pregnancy a secret? And why does Muirin’s open demeanor change completely the moment she’s in his presence?

Though Jean learned long ago that she should stay out of other people’s business, her growing concern—and growing feelings—for Muirin mean she can’t simply set her worries aside. But when the answers she finds are more harrowing than she ever could have imagined, she fears she may have endangered herself, Muirin, and the baby. Will she be able to put things right and save the woman she loves before it’s too late, or will someone have to pay for Jean’s actions with their life?

Spitting Gold by Carmella Lowkis from Transworld Digital combines gothic and paranormal elements.

Paris, 1866. When Baroness Sylvie Devereux receives a house-call from Charlotte Mothe, the penniless sister she disowned, she fears that her shady past is about to catch up with her. With their father ill and Charlotte unable to pay his medical bills, Sylvie is persuaded to reprise her role as a gifted medium, to perform one last con.

The marks are the de Jacquinots, a dysfunctional aristocratic family who believe they are being haunted by the ghost of their great aunt, brutally murdered during the French Revolution. There's rumours she buried some valuable jewels before she died: a fortune that would restore the family to their former glory. The Mothe sisters are tasked with finding the treasure and exorcising the poltergeist, for good.

The con gets underway, with the duo deploying every trick to terrify the family out of their gold. But when inexplicable horrors start to happen to them too, the sisters start to question whether they really are at the mercy of a vengeful spirit. And what other deep, dark secrets threaten to come to light . . .

Other Books of Interest

I have three titles in the “other books of interest” category, in all cases because the sapphic content is either very minor or is only vaguely implied by the available information.

Teach the Children to Pray by Rebecca Harwick from Kastanien Press is a rather uncompromising look at coming of age during the Thirty Years War in Germany.

1618. A witch hunt forces ten year-old Josefine Dorn and her father to the harsh, unforgiving roads of Germany. That same year, Bohemian Protestants throw the Holy Roman Emperor’s regents from a castle window, sparking a religious war that soon engulfs the whole Empire. Driven by misfortune and desperation, Josefine’s father enlists, and Josefine follows him into the army’s baggage train.

In the army, Josefine learns to survive, first as a child looking after her soldier father, and later, in the unlikely role of field surgeon, tending to the war’s broken and ailing.

Josefine’s story is interwoven with the ordinary people of Germany—men and women; Protestants, Catholics and Jews; believers and unbelievers—as they strive to hold onto what truly matters in spite of plundering armies and narrow-minded princes. Evocatively written and infused with warmth and humanity, Teach the Children to Pray brings to life a richly-drawn cast of characters through the eyes of its striking heroine and her extraordinary story of lost faith, forbidden love, and the search for peace in a time of endless war.

The description I received from the publisher for Grey Dog by Elliott Gish from ECW Press calls it a “queer awakening” story, but it appears primarily to be horror.

The year is 1901, and Ada Byrd — spinster, schoolmarm, amateur naturalist — accepts a teaching post in isolated Lowry Bridge, grateful for the chance to re-establish herself where no one knows her secrets. She develops friendships with her neighbors, explores the woods with her students, and begins to see a future in this tiny farming community. Her past — riddled with grief and shame — has never seemed so far away.

But then, Ada begins to witness strange and grisly phenomena: a swarm of dying crickets, a self-mutilating rabbit, a malformed faun. She soon believes that something old and beastly — which she calls Grey Dog — is behind these visceral offerings, which both beckon and repel her. As her confusion deepens, her grip on what is real, what is delusion, and what is traumatic memory loosens, and Ada takes on the wildness of the woods, behaving erratically and pushing her newfound friends away. In the end, she is left with one question: What is the real horror? The Grey Dog, the uncontainable power of female rage, or Ada herself?

The Final Curse of Ophelia Gray by Christine Calella from Page Street YA is tagged as LGBTQIA, but advance reviews seem to indicate that sapphic content is limited to some side characters and the title character is aro/ace.

After a lifetime of abuse at the hands of superstitious townsfolk, Ophelia Young, a bastard child of the notorious pirate queen, is tired of paying for the sins of her mother. Despite playing by the rules her whole life, she’s earned nothing but spite and suspicion. So when a naval officer saves her from the jeering crowd at her mother’s hanging, Ophelia hatches a new hope of enlisting in the navy to escape her mother’s legacy and redeem her own reputation for good. But Ophelia soon discovers that a life at sea isn’t as honorable as she hoped.

Betsy Young is as different as she could be from her half-sister Ophelia. She’s a nervous homebody who wants to keep her family safe and longs to be in love. So naturally, she’s devastated when the son of their family’s business partner rejects her hand in marriage and her sister joins the navy. But when her father contracts a life-threatening illness as well, Betsy has to bring Ophelia home to save the family business.

Unfortunately for the Young sisters, Betsy trying to get Ophelia recalled reveals that Ophelia enlisted fraudulently under Betsy’s name, a secret which Ophelia struggles to keep from crewmates who would kill her if they knew she was the pirate queen’s daughter. To save Ophelia from the naval authorities, Betsy will have to board a ship during hurricane season and brave all the dangers of the sea to get them both home safe.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading? When a new book by Aliette de Bodard comes out, it immediately goes on my to-read list, though I’m a bit behind on the actual reading. But one of my two audiobooks this month was her Monte-Cristo-inspired adventure A Fire Born of Exile which gender-flips the main character (producing a central sapphic romance) and sets the story in her space-faring Xuya universe.

It was interesting to follow the plot knowing that this was inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, because it meant that part of my brain was constantly working to match characters up with their originals and try to predict where the plot would go on that basis. I’d be interested to hear from readers who aren’t familiar with the details of the Dumas story. De Bodard’s version kept me on the edge of my seat wondering how everything would work out through a very layered and tangled plot. The emotional work of the novel was strong and the relationships all felt very real, within the context of the setting.

The second audiobook I listened to this month is quite a change of pace from my usual: John Scalzi’s Starter Villain about a guy who gets a surprise inheritance from a mysterious uncle and quickly finds himself out of his depth among international criminal conspiracies. Oh, and it’s a comedy and involves genetically engineered intelligent cats.

It feels a bit odd to call a book “light and fluffy” which it involves a fairly high body count, but it’s more in the realm of cartoon violence and you never worry that any character you’re meant to care about will be offed. And the twist at the end is both cleverly surprising and yet not at all unexpected if you’ve been paying close attention. All in all, I can’t say it grabbed me, but it was fun and I don’t regret listening.

So that’s it for the April books and now I need to brainstorm which historic romance trope I’m going to tackle in the next episode.

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

Major category: