(Originally aired 2021/06/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2021. Happy Pride Month!
This month rather snuck up on me, what with one thing and another. I dropped the ball a bit and didn’t manage to get an author interview for this month. Fortunately, that’s not as fatal as it was back when I was doing interviews as separate shows!
But speaking of interview shows, one thing I’ve accomplished in the past month is to get nearly caught up on commissioning transcripts of all the past interview shows. I still have a bunch of them to proofread and post to the blog, but I’m very close to having full transcripts for every podcast I’ve done. And going forward, I hope to have the interviews transcribed in “real time” so they post with the rest of the transcript when the show is released. I’ve been working with several very talented transcribers, so if any of you need to hire someone for that type of work, I can make recommendations.
News of the Field & Book Shopping
This time last year, all sorts of conferences were scrambling to figure out how to pivot to online programming. This year it feels like organizations are starting to get the hang of things, and we can hope that some of the advantages of virtual conferences will be retained going forward, even as we eventually enjoy a return to face-to-face events. One of the things that ate up my time in May was virtually attending the annual Medieval Congress, normally held in Kalamazoo. If you follow my blog, you can read my notes of some of the sessions that touched on queer history. The conference book sales also accounted for my book shopping for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project in the last month. I picked up books on a lot of topics, of course, but the relevant ones are two new releases On the Queerness of Early English Drama: Sex in the Subjunctive by Tison Pugh, and The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance by Leah DeVun. They’re both a bit peripheral to the core focus of the Project, but look fascinating nonetheless. The third book is a slightly older book: Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality when Normal Wasn’t by Karma Lochrie which challenges some of the assumptions about normative female sexuality in the premodern period.
Another online conference that’s coming up is the Golden Crown Literary Society, held over multiple weekends in July. I took advantage of the virtual nature of the event to propose a panel on historical fiction, which was accepted. So on Sunday July 25, at 12pm Eastern Time, I’ll be part of a panel of authors talking about why historical fiction is important and why we choose to tell those stories. So if you have a membership to GCLS, I hope you’ll join Lynn Ames, Catherine Lundoff, Penny Mickelbury, Bonnie Morris, and me.
Publications on the Blog
So, I’ve mentioned a couple times that the month of May kind of landed on me like a ton of bricks, and there’s no more solid evidence of that than the fact that I didn’t post any Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog entries. I started Jen Manion’s book Female Husbands at the end of April and then…got busy. So what had been on the May schedule—that is, finishing up Manion’s book—is now rolled over into June. I’ll spare you the details of the ton of bricks that was May. Let’s just say that sometimes I have to remember that the blog and podcast are only my second job, and sometimes they have to give way. I wish I could say that they were my third job with the second one being my fiction writing, but it’s an unfortunate fact that the more immediate deadlines of the blog and podcast tend to push the writing aside and at some point I’m going to need to make a reckoning of that.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
But at least other people are putting out new books, so let’s talk about them!
There’s one April book to catch up on. I’d waited to include this until I could get more information on whether it has actual sapphic content, since the cover copy is all just hints and suggestions. Katy Turton is a historian specializing in Russian history, and her novel Blackbird's Song: A story of the Russian Revolution, from Stairwell Books, takes that depth of knowledge in fictional form. It tells a story from the waning days of Tsarist Russia, when Anna forms a university friendship with two siblings—and evidently especially with the sister, Rosa—and is drawn into revolutionary action. Love, struggle, and tragedy are intertwined. It isn’t clear to me whether the story has a conventional happy ending.
I found three more May books. Kalikoi looks like a brand new publisher, specializing in books about women who love women. They have a historical title An Intimate Study by Margaret K. Mac set in Victorian England, in which Dr. Alana Brighton is looking for an artist’s model to do some anatomical studies. But the woman who signs on has some rather different interests in the doctor’s anatomy. It looks like this is a rather steamy romance.
We dip back into the medieval fantasy of Arthurian England for The Black Knight and the Lady by J M Dragon from Affinity. This is another book where the cover copy is a bit too coy about the characters, and if it weren’t that the publisher is solidly focused on sapphic fiction I might have overlooked it. After King Arthur’s last battle, a knight is entrusted with the protection of a lady returning home from Camelot. The knight conceals a perilous secret and from context I’m guessing that the secret has to do with why this book is coming out from a queer press.
Born of the Sea by Kate Castle from Dark Horse Publishing is subtitled “The Untold Story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.” Given their popularity as characters in pirate adventure novels, I’m not sure that any story about Anne Bonny and Mary Read is left untold at this point, but if you’re the sort who can’t get enough of these real-life pirate women, then here’s another title to add to your collection.
Someone was commenting on twitter that everyone seems to want their queer novel to come out during Pride month. I haven’t necessarily seen that as a pattern for sapphic historicals in past years, but I can’t deny that this June is busting out all over with books. Ten titles! I’m going to organize them roughly in chronological order, starting out with a couple of mythic settings where I’m not familiar enough with the cultural cues to guess at a more specific inspiration.
Fynn Chen’s self-published Scarlet Dandelions: The Zither and the Sword looks like it might appeal to fans of historical C-dramas on tv. A coming of age story of two princesses that blends politics, peril, and what looks like a deliciously slow-burn romance.
Another historical fantasy with a rather different flavor is the anxiously awaited The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri from Orbit Books. A bitter exiled princess and a powerful priestess hiding in the role of her servant find their destinies—and their hearts—colliding. This story of empire and resistance is the first in a series set in a mythic history inspired by India.
Also set in a fantastic version of history, Kat Dunn’s Monstrous Design, from Zephyr, continues the story and characters from Dangerous Remedy, with a band of friends, allies, and lovers braving the dangers of the French Revolution and new enemies in England in a struggle that may tear them apart.
Olivia Waite gives us the third book in her semi-connected Regency romance series with The Hellion's Waltz from Avon Impulse. If you’ve loved either of her two previous books in the series: A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, then you won’t need any extra urging on this one. Piano teachers and silk weavers and con artists and union organizing feature in another of Waite’s romances throwing women in unexpected professions into each other’s paths.
Later in the 19th century, C.F. Frizzell gives us an American Civil War romance in Measure of Devotion from Bold Strokes Books. One woman disguises herself as a man to join the Union army. Another woman is inexplicably drawn to the soldier, having set her heart on finding a woman to love. (Both seem to have a rather modern understanding of their sexual orientations.) The battle of Gettysburg becomes the catalyst for revelations and new understandings.
We now have another story set in Tsarist Russia, and once again it seems to be more of a drama than a conventional romance. In Yvonne Zipter’s Infraction from Rattling Good Yarns Press, a sweeping cast of characters revolves around Marya Zhukova in St. Petersburg, drawn from intellectuals and litterati, spinsters and debutantes. There is at least one female same-sex romance involved but I can’t tell how prominent it is in the story.
Here’s another book where I’m having to trust the invisible Amazon keywords that there’s lesbian content—though if there is, we can read between the lines of the otherwise vague references in the cover copy. Annabel Fielding’s self-published Lying With Lions is set in Edwardian England and has a semi-gothic feel. Agnes takes a position as archivist for the ruthless, ambitious, and glamorous head of the Bryant family, Lady Helen. She finds herself thrust into a world of secrets—her own, and those she discovers in the Bryant records. I’m guessing there may be some romantic tension between Agnes and Helen. If I’ve guessed wrong, then I have no idea why this is tagged as lesbian fiction.
I love a good old-fashioned historical mystery. In Sarah Bell’s self-published The Murder Next Door, two women—discrete “companions”—become inadvertent witnesses to the circumstances of their neighbor’s murder and insatiable curiosity draws them deeper in. Set in 1912 in Leeds, England this is not only a who-dunnit but a why-dunnit, that questions the conflict between law and justice.
We finish with two books with American settings in the Roaring Twenties. Nghi Vo has previously had books in these listings with a mythic Chinese-inspired setting: The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. Moving to the glittering world of the social elite, The Chosen and the Beautiful, from Tor-dot-com, is a reimagining of The Great Gatsby seen through the eyes of minor character and pro golfer Jordan Baker, written as a Vietnamese adoptee and a lesbian. Oh, and there’s magic.
The final June book is Nekesa Afia’s Dead Dead Girls from Berkley Books. In 1920s Harlem, Louise is trying not to worry that young Black girls like her are turning up dead, until an altercation with the police leaves her with an ultimatum: help solve the murders or land in jail. Although the cover copy makes no mention of it, the main character is a lesbian. It’s unclear whether there’s a romantic subplot.
And that’s it for the new and recent books – something for everyone this month!
What Am I Reading?
And what about me? In the past month I’ve read two books. Both happen to be published through Kickstarter campaigns that I supported. Patience and Esther by S.W. Searle is a graphic novel telling the delightful and relatively angst-free romance of two servants in Edwardian England, a Scottish country girl struggling to help support her family, and an Anglo-Indian woman, lonely and far from anything she considers home. The supporting cast includes a freespirited, if self-centered socialite and a group of working women and feminists in which our heroines find community and support. I was caught a bit unawares by the amount of explicit sex depicted in the pages, though I guess if I’d been familiar with the author’s work I wouldn’t have been surprised. It’s a case where the cover art and description don’t quite reflect that aspect of the content.
The other book I finished is the anthology Silk and Steel, which sprang from the premise “romantic adventure with swordswomen and princesses – or their analogues in other settings.” The content of the collection is exceedingly varied, not only in genre but in tone. I’d venture to say that if the basic premise of the book grabs you, there will be at least one story in this collection that hits smack-dab in the middle of your sweet spot and at least another handful that you’ll find very enjoyable. There was only one that was a bit of a clunker for me. The rest were just what the label promised. And the excitement around this collection gave me a thrill at what it says for the market for sapphic stories outside of lesfic circles.
I’d like to finish up this show by taking a little advantage of my platform and telling you about a great project that I’m part of. Every year the Storybundle organization puts out a Pride Storybundle in June, with a collection of queer genre fiction at a great price. The works in the bundle are offered in all the standard formats and you have the option of directing part of your purchase price to the queer charity selected by the organizers. This year the works included in the full bundle are:
There you have it, a book bundle with something for every queer reader, and new authors to discover. Check out the link in the show notes for details on how to take advantage of this offer.
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