(Originally aired 2022/05/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2022.
May tends to be a special month for me. It’s my birthday month, which makes the other parts feel like they’re scheduled as part of the celebration. It’s when the International Medieval Congress is held, which is my regular connection with my secret identity as an academic. The congress will be all-virtual for the third year in a row, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve found that format to work so well for an international conference that they’re going to keep it.
May is a good month for science fiction and fantasy conventions, and this year I’m making my first venture to WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin. The convention has always focused on feminist and progressive themes and I’ve been meaning to go for quite some time with the primary stumbling block being my primary commitment to the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan – it’s daunting to contemplate two separate trips across the country in the same month, and the two events aren’t scheduled closely enough to turn it into a single trip. Given the relatively small size of this podcast audience, there’s a low probability that the listeners I bump into at conventions won’t be people I already know, but if it happens that you’re at WisCon, or BayCon in July, or the Chicago Worldcon in August, I’d really love for you to introduce yourself and chat.
May is also when my garden really starts going. It being California, the roses have been going full speed for over a month now, which was perfect timing for lots of promotional posts for my novella “The Language of Roses,” which came out in April. I had a lot of fun finding blossoms that matched references in the book and posting them all over my social media. But May is when the edible garden starts coming in. I already have scallions and artichokes and the first radishes. Soon the berries will start coming ripe. The strawberries are here already, then raspberries and blackberries and blueberries and this year I’ve just put in some currants and gooseberries, which I should get at least a taste of. The tomatoes are still a ways off, but there are always the fresh herbs and citrus fruits year-round. Growing things makes me happy, and growing things to eat gives me a special connection with the world, even though I have no ambition or ability to supply a substantial part of my own table.
May is also the month when I can start counting on the weather being good enough to eat outdoors regularly. So imagine me sitting on the stone bench under the grape arbor, surrounded by orange and lemon trees, listening to the play of the fountain, and digging into one of the fabulous novels that are coming out faster than I can keep up with.
So all in all, May is a great month for feeling like the world is conspiring for a birthday celebration. And if you’ve ever wondered what a podcast host would love to receive as a birthday present, the answer is always: spread the word about the show. I love it every time I see people I don’t even know recommending the show to someone on social media, or posting links to an episode to contribute to a conversation. And another great present is to post a review on a podcast app. Apple podcasts is a convenient metric for buzz about a show and the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has only one lonely little review at that site. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’re wielding disproportionate social power, boost a podcast!
LHMP Fiction Series
Looking ahead, it may feel a bit early to start cheerleading for next year’s fiction series, but since I’ve already made a firm commitment to continue the series next year, no reason not to. I don’t have a new page of submission information up yet, but expect the requirements to be functionally identical to this year’s requirements, which are still posted. Sometimes the best story ideas lie fallow because you have no idea where you’d publish that story. Think about us, if it fits the theme!
Publications on the Blog
While April was full of many things, what it wasn’t full of was reading articles for the blog. So I still have the second half of Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens to finish up. I guess, in retrospect, I needed a little vacation.
Regardless of the amount of reading I’ve done, there’s always shopping! I did pick up a couple new publications to add to the list. The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd is a collection of studies looking at different aspects of material that can reasonably be classified as “lesbian literature” across time. About half of the material focuses on the 20th century, when works that self-consciously identify as “lesbian” start appearing, but a quarter of the book focuses on pre-20th century literature, with the rest addressing more general theoretical issues, such as the question of what we mean when we call a work “lesbian.”
The other new book falls between my personal interests in 17th century history and the Project’s interest in deep background research on contexts for women’s independence from marriage. Ingenious Trade: Women and Work in Seventeenth-Century London by Laura Gowing digs into archives and records to trace the lives of female apprentices, and especially of those apprenticed to women. An apprenticeship in the 17th century could not reasonably be called an “independent life” in the sense a modern woman would recognize, but it provided a door to at least a little economic power, and the combination of household and business formed when an established businesswoman took on female apprentices provides yet another model for imagining storylines that don’t make heterosexual marriage the center of women’s lives.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And speaking of imagined storylines, let’s look at the new and recent books! We have one April book to catch up on and 6 books coming out in May. (Looking ahead to June, I already have 14 books on the list. Possibly a Pride Month effect? Who knows.)
Fractures and Hinges by Edith Zeitlberger from Launch Point Press has the fascinating setting of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.
It is the year 1903 and Eleanor, the Duchess of Darnsworth, is the envy of many—a beautiful and sophisticated woman, happily married mother of three, well-respected lady of society and an accomplished horse-breeder. But beneath the perfect surface lurks the memory of a tragic loss that haunts Eleanor’s every waking moment. On a visit to Vienna, she encounters the independent-minded and strong-willed Countess Sophie von Hagendorf, who, with her academic pursuits and unconventional lifestyle, has chosen to break through the rigid confines society has set out for her. She, too, has had to create a façade towards the world as loss and a fateful accident have left their scars. Sophie’s brusque manners both exasperate and intrigue the Duchess, but with closer acquaintance, the two women discover a sympathy beyond anything expected and the prospect of a love that could redeem them both…but can they forge a relationship in European society?
I’m trusting the tags and keywords for The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave from Picador. Very much as for the previous book of hers that I read, The Mercies, the book’s cover copy makes no overt reference to sapphic content, and the advance reviews feel like they’re being deliberately coy and treating any sapphic content as if it were a spoiler. But people’s tags definitely hint that it’s there, and The Mercies definitely had a strong sapphic theme, though I suspect that The Dance Tree will be similarly emotionally fraught and definitely not a capital-R romance by any means.
In Strasbourg, in the boiling hot summer of 1518, a plague strikes the women of the city. First it is just one – a lone figure, dancing in the main square – but she is joined by more and more and the city authorities declare an emergency. Musicians will be brought in. The devil will be danced out of these women. Just beyond the city’s limits, pregnant Lisbet lives with her mother-in-law and husband, tending the bees that are their livelihood. Her best friend Ida visits regularly and Lisbet is so looking forward to sharing life and motherhood with her. And then, just as the first woman begins to dance in the city, Lisbet’s sister-in-law Nethe returns from six years’ penance in the mountains for an unknown crime. No one – not even Ida – will tell Lisbet what Nethe did all those years ago, and Nethe herself will not speak a word about it. It is the beginning of a few weeks that will change everything for Lisbet – her understanding of what it is to love and be loved, and her determination to survive at all costs for the baby she is carrying. Lisbet and Nethe and Ida soon find themselves pushing at the boundaries of their existence – but they’re dancing to a dangerous tune.
I often comment on the frequency of cross-time stories where the historic storyline runs in parallel with, and is connected to, a contemporary character who is discovering that history. Don't You Dare: Uncovering Lost Love self-published by Gayla Turner puts a slightly different twist on this sub-genre by having the author stand in for the contemporary character. (Although I’ll point out that historic research contradicts the claim in the opening line of the blurb that newspapers a century ago never mentioned LGBTQ people.)
"Don't You Dare" … weaves together a current-day journey of discovery and a true-life love story between two women that took place over a hundred years ago. Newspaper headlines and stories back then didn't mention LGBTQ people. The LGBTQ community loved and lived in the background of society because it was too dangerous to do otherwise. All were hidden, just like the wedding photos belonging to author Gayla Turner's grandmother – Ruby. This … book begins with the discovery of these hidden wedding photos dated June 8, 1915. As these photos unveiled an awe-inspiring secret, Gayla Turner embarked on a seven-year journey to find out more about her grandmother and the woman standing next to her dressed as the groom. Curiosity led to extensive research that uncovered a love story between Ruby and the mystery woman in the photos. The author also uncovered a secret lesbian social club that was formed in the early 1900s by a local businesswoman. Women from as far away as Chicago traveled by train to the little farm town of Amherst, Wisconsin, to attend her exclusive parties. The local town people thought Cora held private tea and card parties so single young ladies could talk about how to find a husband. Little did they know, finding a man was not a subject of their conversations.
The Wicked and the Willing by Lianyu Tan from Shattered Scepter Press continues the author’s exploration of erotic horror in historic settings.
1927, colonial Singapore. Monsters don’t scare Gean Choo. And there are monsters aplenty among the Europeans on sultry Singapore island, all of them running away from something—or someone. When she starts her new job as a lady’s companion, she can’t imagine falling for the impassioned, demanding mistress of Ambrosia Hall, nor the gruff, brooding woman who serves as her lady’s majordomo. The latter holds her heart; the former, her body, blood, and loyalty. Both want her. Both need her. And one of them will die for her.
Nghi Vo previously layered fantasy and the Asian immigrant experience over a retelling an American classic in The Chosen and the Beautiful. Many of the same elements are present in her new book, Siren Queen from Tor.com, inspired by the experiences of Chinese-American actresses in early Hollywood.
"No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers." Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill―but she doesn't care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid. But in Luli's world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes―even if that means becoming the monster herself.
Based on some early reviews, I’ll suggest that readers might want to check out content advisories for That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan from Penguin. It appears to involve some difficult themes.
1955: In a cramped apartment on the Lower East Side, school teachers Dovie and Gillian live as lodgers, unable to reveal the truth about their relationship. They guard their private lives fiercely - until someone guesses their secret. 1975: Twenty years on, in the same apartment, Ava Winters is desperately trying to conceal her mother's fragile mental state from the critical eyes of their neighbours. But, one sweltering July morning, Ava's mother escapes. Alone after her mother's departure, Ava takes delivery of a parcel. The box is addressed only to 'Apartment 3B', and contains a photograph of a woman with the word 'LIAR' scrawled across her face. Seeking refuge from her own crisis, Ava determines to track the owner of the photograph down. And, in so doing, discovers a shocking chain of kindnesses, lies and betrayals - with one woman at the centre of it all...
The themes of teachers and the era of closeted relationships also appear in The Teachers' Room by Lydia Stryk from Bywater Books.
The year is 1963, and even though the times they are a-changin', the timeworn ways of the past still hold their suffocating grip. Karen Murphy, fresh from college, takes on her first teaching job in a small Midwestern town. Despite her best efforts, she can't seem to stick to the subjects in her school books, helped along by the antics of a girl who upends all her lesson plans. Karen has a lot to learn about the teaching profession, and her female colleagues are there every step of the way to offer their advice, especially the enigmatic fourth-grade teacher, Esther Jonas. As Karen soon discovers, the idea of the devoted spinster teacher with no life beyond her classroom is a myth―the school is teeming with hidden passions and illicit stories stretching far beyond the classroom, her own explosive passion for Esther Jonas, included. As the two women begin to carve out a secret life together, a shocking betrayal rocks her world, putting everything she holds dear in jeopardy.
It's always interesting when coincidence creates themes among the books released in a given month. Have you ever noticed that sort of clustering of similar books coming out at the same time, when there’s no way it could have happened deliberately?
What Am I Reading?
And what am I reading? I mentioned earlier that I seem to have taken an inadvertent non-fiction vacation in April, but that definitely wasn’t the case on the fiction side. On the page, I finished The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram. While I definitely hadn’t been expecting a capital-R Romance, I wasn’t quite expecting the direction it ended up taking. Definitely a sapphic book, but more along the lines of Portrait of a Woman on Fire in its resolution. I quickly devoured T. Kingfisher’s fantasy romantic adventure Swordheart and am looking forward to the promised sequels to it. I started on Kate Bloomfield’s historic romance Passing as Elias involving a woman cross-dressing for a career as an apothecary. The cover copy had intrigued me enough to buy the book when I first encountered it, but the writing style ended up not working for me well enough to finish it.
Following my recent pattern, I’ve been binging audiobooks of various genres. I came up to date with Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series with books 5 and 6 in the series: Murder on Cold Street and Miss Moriarty, I Presume? Unlike book 4, no queer content in these, alas.
I don’t tend to pick my reading based on what other people are raving about—my tastes tend to be too idiosyncratic for that to work well—but I did pick up The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, I think because it was part of an Audible sale. Wow, this book. It would have been an interesting enough story even if it were just a chronicle of the life of a closeted bisexual actress in Hollywood, but the story lays out a trail of clues for a hidden but intertwined story that provides a powerful twist at the end.
For something completely different, I listened to Kate Elliott’s mil-sci-fi space opera Unconquerable Sun, which she pitches as a gender-flipped queer Alexander the Great in space. If you like lots of casual queerness in your space opera, this may be your jam. While I admire Elliott’s writing and have loved some of her other books, I find that space opera focusing on lots of technical details of ships and battles just isn’t my thing. Great characters but…I guess this is what drives some fans to write coffee shop AUs. I want to spend more time with the characters, just not when they’re fighting battles.
Because my to-read list is so long, sometimes I’ll pick just one book in a series to sample, and in the case of C.L. Polk’s Kingston Cycle—which might reasonably be described as “alternate-England Downton Abbey with magic and lots of politics”—I picked book #2 as my sample because that was the one advertised as involving a sapphic romance. My conclusion is that this series is not one that can be read piecemeal or out of order. While I was able to jump in and keep up, because that’s one of my reader super-powers, I doubt most people would have that experience. The romantic subplot was sweet and satisfying, but overall I’m not fond of plots that revolve around protagonists frantically running around thinking they have to save the world single-handed. So I’m not sure I’m going to circle back and pick up the other volumes.
I dunno. As time passes I find that I grow more opinionated about what I’m looking for in a good read, and I’m trying to give myself permission to filter out books that aren’t likely to hit the spot. And often it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books, as such! It’s just that there are plots and characters and settings and prose styles that just aren’t my jam. And I wish that there were more book s that were both my jam and my peanut butter—where the structural elements of the book hit the spot and I could get the sapphic content I crave. Like: lately I’ve been indulging in my long-time love affair with historic mysteries, and what I want is an entire genre of historic mysteries that also have female same-sex romances. Please write them?
We finish up this month’s On the Shelf with an interview with Ursula Whitcher, the author of “The Spirits of Cabassus,” our most recent fiction episode.
[Interview transcript will be added when available.]
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 Ursula Whitcher Online