(Originally aired 2022/06/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2022.
News of the Field
It’s Pride Month, which means that I’m promoting the annual speculative fiction Storybundle. See the show notes for a link. If you’re not familiar with the Storybundle concept, it’s a collection of e-books centered around a theme or genre sold as a bundle with the idea that you might buy it for one or two titles that interest you and then find more books and authors that you didn’t realize you would enjoy. The Pride speculative fiction bundle always has a sprinkling of historic fantasies, and once again I have a book included: my brand new novella The Language of Roses. All the titles are worth checking out, but among those that might specifically appeal to sapphic historical readers include two titles in Cynthia Ward’s vampires and spies series: The Adventure of the Incognita Countess and The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum. In addition, there are several anthologies and collections, ghost stories, epic adventure, and solarpunk. And on top of great reads, the Storybundle always chooses a charity to support. This time the charity is Rainbow Railroad which helps LGBT people around the world to escape persecution and violence in their home countries.
Pride Month also means that it’s the anniversary of the start of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. That’s always a convenient time to look back and take stock. I kicked off the project in June 2014, so it’s been eight years of posting summaries of historic research relevant to writing lesbian and sapphic historic fiction. The schedule has been irregular: sometimes I’ve posted every day, mostly I try to post once a week, sometimes I’ve taken breaks. The publication count is up to 360 items, but the to-do list is over 500. I’m not adding new material to hunt down quite as rapidly as I used to, but it’s still faster than I’m reading things. One thing I haven’t been able to do in the last two years has been visiting the U.C. Berkeley library to pull articles from online sources that I can’t access from home. But there are enough books to keep me busy until I’m comfortable going back on campus.
One major benefit of accumulating that much material on the blog is that it makes creating podcasts easier. Back when I first started the podcast, each episode meant starting a research project from scratch. But now I often pick a topic specifically because it’s shown up in multiple publications for the blog. That means I can start by pulling up the relevant topic tags, or simply do a keyword search and find related blog entries. The next step is to copy-paste the relevant chunks of text into a master file. In the process, I get a sense of what sort of outline I want for the episode. Then it’s a matter of moving the blog text into the outline, removing the redundancies, smoothing out the flow of the language, and writing the introduction and transitions. It isn’t quite as simple as stitching together a patchwork of text from the blog, but it’s a lot easier than writing everything new.
Publications on the Blog
Last month I finally finished up the articles in the collection Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. Only a minority of articles were directly relevant to queer topics, but they all addressed women’s lives in some fashion.
I started off June with a blog about Linda Garber’s Novel Approaches to Lesbian History, an academic study of the field of lesbian historical fiction. As you might imagine, I’m tickled to death to find out what other people think of this field as a whole. What sorts of patterns and trends they find and how those are interpreted from a critical perspective. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book for several years, ever since I first saw mention of it.
For the remainder of the month, I thought I’d tackle one of my very recent acquisitions and review the relevant articles in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. The majority of the collection either addresses theoretical topics or 20th century literature, but I think there are four articles that will be suitable for blogging.
And, of course, as usual, I’m buying new books faster than I can blog them! This month’s haul includes several items purchased during the online Medieval Congress. Though online ordering isn’t quite the same as wandering through the book vendors in person and wondering how I’ll fit it all in my suitcase to take home.
I’m going a little outside my usual pre-20th century scope with Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature by Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley. Although the literature Tinsley studies is from the 20th century, she explores the deeper historic context of Caribbean history in which it is situated. And I’m always searching for material to expand beyond the usual white European focus of the blog.
Some topics and historic individuals crop up again and again in the literature, but that doesn’t mean new publications aren’t valuable. Clorinda Donato has created a new study and edition of a fascinating text in The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani: Sexual identity, science and sensationalism in eighteenth-century Italy and England. I’ve previously done a podcast on Vizzani’s life and biography, but Donato’s work provides a detailed look at the context, not only of the original text, but of John Cleland’s English translation, and adds her own translation of the Italian original.
On speculation, I picked up a book titled A Little Gay History of Wales by Daryl Leeworthy. I’ll always have a fondness for Welsh history, but as I suspected, the book has essentially no information on women before the 20th century.
My last purchase to mention this month is Erica Friedman’s By Your Side: The First 100 Years of Yuri Manga & Anime. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this title in the next podcast, which will be an interview with Friedman about this very book, which looks at the history of Japanese “girls love” media.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
New fiction releases are plentiful this month! There are 3 May books to catch up with and then 14 titles released in June.
First, we have a Jane Austen-inspired work: Emma: Restraint and Presumption self-published by Garnet Marriott and adapted from the work by Jane Austen. I feel this should come with a caveat that this is one of those Austen adaptations that makes minor modifications in the original text—an inserted paragraph here and there—to add a queer twist to the story.
Emma Woodhouse distances herself from conventional marriage by imposing it on others, and her search for female intimacy leads her to befriend Miss Harriet Smith, to secure companionship and help Miss Smith to a husband of gentleman status. When this project fails, Emma questions her own approach to marriage, and in trying to establish a companionship with Miss Jane Fairfax, discovers that she must abandon her marriage plans, and seek to satisfy her true nature in an exclusively complete intimacy, independent of social expectation and conventions.
On Stolen Land self-published by Stephanie Rabig is a tale of supernatural horror set in the American west.
When a prairie-mad settler murders Milton Allen's brother and his family, the wealthy rancher offers an enormous bounty to bring the culprit in. Ada Marshall and Pearl Beckwourth, bounty hunters with twenty years’ experience, assume this is yet another straightforward job. But when a fellow bounty hunter is torn to pieces not fifty feet away from their camp, their natural wariness grows, and in the tiny, isolated valley town of Woodlawn, they learn that the attacker may not even be human...
Something Happened in River Falls self-published by Karyn Walters has a similar setting, but is a straightforward historic romance.
Virginia Morrisey is the owner of a successful hotel and a single parent in 1890's America. Best friends with the local madam, she is also known for her dubious morals and her lack of concern for societal mores. Helena Fernandez is the leader of an activist organization dedicated to preserving Christian principles in the town of River Falls, where they both live. Struggling with an attraction to other women, Helena uses her dedication to her organization to suppress and atone for her lesbian yearnings. Brought together by unforeseen circumstances, the women find it hard to ignore their attraction to each other. Can they find a way to come together in a world that will not accept them? Can they face the dangers together or will they push away their chance for happiness?
The June books start off with a fictionalized true-life adventure: Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey from Feiwel & Friends.
Two teen vigilantes set off on an action-packed investigation to expose corruption and deliver justice in Valiant Ladies, Melissa Grey's YA historical fiction novel inspired by real seventeenth century Latinx teenagers known as the Valiant Ladies of Potosí. By day Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza are proper young seventeenth century ladies. But when night falls, they trade in their silks and lace for swords and muskets, venturing out into the vibrant, bustling, crime-ridden streets of Potosí, in the Spanish Empire's Viceroyalty of Peru. They pass their time fighting, gambling, and falling desperately in love with one another. Then, on the night Kiki's engagement to the Viceroy's son is announced, her older brother—heir to her family’s fortune—is murdered. The girls immediately embark on a whirlwind investigation that takes them from the lowliest brothels of Potosí to the highest echelons of the Spanish aristocracy.
Glorious Poison by Kat Dunn from Head of Zeus press completes a series that has been mentioned here before. From the description, I suspect it would help to start the series at the beginning.
The daring and dramatic conclusion to Kat Dunn's epic C18th French Revolution trilogy 'with lashings of lust, love, sacrifice, betrayal and horror'. Robespierre is dead. The Reign of Terror is over. As Royalist strength grows, the Duc de L'Aubespine plots a coup that will consign the revolution to history. With Olympe in his clutches, he believes nothing can stop him. But he's reckoned without the intrepid Battalion of the Dead! Reunited in Paris, Ada is poised for action - but if she plays her hand too soon, everything she's sacrificed to gain his trust will be lost. Meanwhile, an unlikely alliance with an old enemy might be Camille's only option to save Olympe and stop the duc in his tracks. The glittering and macabre bals des victimes and the eerie catacombs make the perfect backdrop for the final episode of the Battalion's tale.
The Bluestocking Beds Her Bride by Fenna Edgewood from Starwater Press is in a Regency series titled “Must Love Scandal” which should tell you something useful about the book.
A carefully constructed life... -- More than ten years ago, Lady Julia Pembroke was a haughty beauty with the ton at her fingertips. Now she's an aging spinster who spends her days advocating for London's less fortunate. Balancing a precarious double-existence, half in and half out of good society, Lady Julia is rumored to prefer friendships with women to marriages to men. But when the charity home Julia runs is threatened, desperate times call for desperate measures—even if it means giving up everything she has fought so hard to become... -- Never weaken. Never trust. Never give away your heart. -- Untamed and incurably sarcastic, Fleur Warburton has spurned marriage once already. Now all but orphaned and down to her last penny, Fleur needs money—and she's ready to marry just about any old, rich fool to finally feel settled and safe. After enough tragedy for one young lifetime, happiness is not in the equation. -- A woman she cannot live without. -- But when Fleur winds up being hosted in London by the infamously independent Lady Julia, mutual admiration and close proximity blossom into an incendiary sensuality that tempt both women into a fateful decision...and threaten ruin and scandal. Now they must decide—make the safe choice and end their alliance or risk everything to follow the perilous adventure of their defiant hearts?
Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens from Scribner UK looks like an unusual cross-time story, involving several actual historic figures. Although there’s an indication of sapphic longing, I wouldn’t look for a happy ending since the protagonist is a ghost.
In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frederic Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost, she’s been hanging around the monastery since her accidental death, spying on the monks and the townspeople and keeping track of her descendants. Blanca is enchanted the moment she sees George, and the magical novel unfolds as a story of deeply felt, unrequited longing—the impossible love of a teenage ghost for a woman who can’t see her and doesn’t know she exists. As George and Chopin, who wear their unconventionality, in George’s case, literally on their sleeves, find themselves in deepening trouble with the provincial, 19th-century villagers, Blanca watches helplessly and reflects on the circumstances of her own death (which involves an ill-advised love affair with a monk-in-training).
Perilous Passages by Edale Lane From Past and Prologue Press is the second volume in a short fiction series: The Wellington Mysteries.
After solving a minor case for a major payout, Stetson embarks on a trip to America with Evelyn and her burlesque company, hoping to find her long-lost father. But the inventive detective leaves with an unidentified art thief still at large. Musician Evelyn has grown to love the unique woman who bends the rules to pursue her dreams. But facing the disapproval of her family and society at large, how can their relationship move forward? Can Stetson keep her newfound love alive, or will confronting lethal foes end in her own death?
Moving on into 20th century settings, we have Beautiful Little Fool self-published by Sarah Zane.
Daisy put everything on the line for love, only to be left broken and alone when her love shipped out to the Great War without so much as a goodbye. Now her parents plan to marry her off to the next rich man who looks her way and she doesn't have the fight left in her to protest. Until Jordan comes along. Jordan is unapologetically bold. She knows what she wants and always goes after it... until she falls hard for the girl next door, who happens to be her best friend. Speaking up could cost her everything, especially if Daisy doesn't feel the same, but staying silent has a high price, too. Her happiness. Both stand to lose everything including each other. With stakes this high, will they find the courage to go after what they want, or will they follow societal expectations straight to miserable ever after?
I realized just as I’m recording this that Beautiful Little Fool sounds like it may be playing with the characters and setting of The Great Gatsby. Not sure about that.
The next book uses the motif that Linda Garber calls the “romance of the archives”—a term I intend to adopt for this popular type of cross-time story. I’m not quite sure how to pronounce the title. Spelled L-O-T-E in all capitals, it looks like it might be an acronym, but I don’t know for what. The book is LOTE by Shola von Reinhold from Duke University Press Books. The cover copy is very elusive about the queer content indicated by the content keywords, so I’m taking this on faith.
Solitary Mathilda has long harbored a conflicted enchantment bordering on rapture with the "Bright Young Things," the Bloomsbury Group, and their contemporaries of the '20s and '30s, and throughout her life her attempts at reinvention have mirrored their extravagance and artfulness. After discovering a photograph of the forgotten Black modernist poet Hermia Druitt, who ran in the same circles as the Bright Young Things, Mathilda becomes transfixed and resolves to learn as much as she can about the mysterious figure. Her search brings her to a peculiar artists’ residency in Dun, a small European town Hermia was known to have lived in during the '30s. The artists’ residency throws her deeper into a lattice of secrets and secret societies that takes hold of her aesthetic imagination. From champagne theft and Black Modernisms to art sabotage, alchemy, and a lotus-eating proto-luxury communist cult, Mathilda’s “Escapes” through modes of aesthetic expression lead her to question the convoluted ways truth is made and obscured.
Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman from Minotaur is one of two books this month set in a 1920s New York nightclub.
New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly's days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day. But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement. With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home. But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking. Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn't the nameless bootlegger he first appeared. With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York's underground and the world of the city's wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable...including Vivian's own.
A nightclub murder is also central to Harlem Sunset (A Harlem Renaissance Mystery Book 2) by Nekesa Afia from Berkley Books.
1926, Harlem. After the tense summer that resulted in the death of murderer Theodore Gilbert, twenty-six-year-old Louise Lloyd has once again gained a level of notoriety. Reporters want to talk to her and she is in the spotlight—the last place she wants to be. Louise begins working at the Dove, owned by her close friend Rafael Moreno. There Louise meets Nora Davies, one of the girls she was kidnapped with nearly a decade ago. Nora is a little rough around the edges, but the two women—along with Rafael and his sister, Louise’s girlfriend, Rosa Maria—spend the night at the club, drinking and talking. The next morning, Rosa Maria wakes up covered in blood with no memory of the previous night. Nora is lying dead in the middle of the dance floor. Louise knows Rosa Maria couldn’t have killed Nora, but the police have a hard time believing that no one present can remember anything at all about what happened. When Louise and Rosa Maria return to their new apartment after being questioned by the police, they notice the door is unlocked. Inside, the word guilty is written on the living room wall. Someone has gone to great lengths to frame and terrify Rosa Maria, and Louise will stop at nothing to clear the woman she loves.
And continuing the New York nightclub theme, but a couple decades later, we have In the Shadow of Love (Shadow Series #2) by J.E. Leak from Certifiably Creative.
Jenny Ryan wanted Kathryn Hammond from the moment she saw her sing at The Grotto, an exclusive Midtown nightclub in wartime New York City. From that moment on, she was plunged into a world of danger and intrigue that led her to a secret job at the Office of Strategic Services and an unlikely romance with the woman of her dreams. Kathryn Hammond didn’t want to fall in love. As an OSS agent, she has an assignment to complete, a war to get back to, and a debt to pay to the dead. But love doesn’t care about the plans of those it enchants, and loving anyone, let alone a fellow member of the OSS, has compromised everything—especially her heart.
Dead Letters from Paradise by Ann McMan from Bywater Books is another “romance of the archives”.
The year is 1960, and Gunsmoke is the most popular show on TV. Elvis Presley tops the Billboard charts, and a charismatic young senator named John F. Kennedy is running for president. And, in North Carolina, four young Black men sit down at a Woolworth's lunch counter and demand service. Enter Esther Jane (EJ) Cloud, a forty-something spinster who manages the Dead Letter Office at the Winston-Salem post office. EJ leads a quiet life in her Old Salem ancestral home and spends her free time volunteering in the town's 18th century medicinal garden. One sunny Spring morning, EJ's simple life is turned upside down when the town's master gardener unceremoniously hands her a stack of handwritten letters that have all been addressed to a nonexistent person at the garden. This simple act sets in motion a chain of events that will lead EJ on a life-altering quest to uncover the identity of the mysterious letter writer―and into a surprising head-on confrontation with the harsh realities of the racial injustice that is as deeply rooted in the life of her community as the ancient herbs cultivated in the Moravian garden. When EJ is forced to read the letters to look for clues about the anonymous sender, what she discovers are lyrical tales of a forbidden passion that threaten to unravel the simple contours of her unexamined life. EJ's official quest soon morphs into a journey of self-discovery as she becomes more deeply enmeshed in the fate of the mysterious letter writer, "Dorothea." Her surprising accomplice in solving the mystery of the letters becomes one, Harrie Hart: a savvy, street smart ten-year-old, wielding an eye patch and a limitless supply of aphorisms. Together, Harrie and EJ make seminal pilgrimages to the tiny town of Paradise to try and uncover the identity of the mercurial sender and, ultimately, learn a better way to navigate the changing world around them.
Now we’re moving into the era where I start getting uncertain about labeling stories “historic” with Vera Kelly: Lost and Found (Vera Kelly #3) by Rosalie Knecht from Tin House Books.
It’s spring 1971 and Vera Kelly and her girlfriend, Max, leave their cozy Brooklyn apartment for an emergency visit to Max's estranged family in Los Angeles. Max’s parents are divorcing—her father is already engaged to a much younger woman and under the sway of an occultist charlatan; her mother has left their estate in a hurry with no indication of return. Max, who hasn’t seen her family since they threw her out at the age of twenty-one, prepares for the trip with equal parts dread and anger. Upon arriving, Vera is shocked by the size and extravagance of the Comstock estate—the sprawling, manicured landscape; expansive and ornate buildings; and garages full of luxury cars reveal a privileged upbringing that, up until this point, Max had only hinted at—while Max attempts to navigate her father, who is hostile and controlling, and the occultist, St. James, who is charming but appears to be siphoning family money. Tensions boil over at dinner when Max threatens to alert her mother—and her mother’s lawyers—to St. James and her father’s plans using marital assets. The next morning, when Vera wakes up, Max is gone.
Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair by June Gervais from Pamela Dorman Books is another book teetering on the edge of what I’d consider historic.
Introvert Gina Mulley is determined to become a tattoo artist, and to find somewhere she belongs in her conventional Long Island town. But this is 1985, when tattooing is still a gritty, male-dominated fringe culture, and Gina’s funky flash is not exactly mainstream tattoo fare. The good news is that her older brother Dominic owns a tattoo shop, and he reluctantly agrees to train her. Gina has a year to prove herself, but her world is turned upside down when a mysterious psychic and his striking assistant, Anna, arrive on the scene. With Anna’s help, Gina recognizes that the only way she has a shot at becoming a professional tattoo artist is to stand up for herself, and embrace her quirkiness both in her art and her life. When Gina and Anna fall in love, Dominic gives Gina an ultimatum. She’s faced with an impossible choice: Is the romance and newfound independence she’s found worth sacrificing her dreams? Or can she find a way to have it all?
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading—or perhaps listening to, in many cases?
On a whim—because I found myself in a really cute bookstore and wanted to buy something—I got Ryka Aoki’s rather bonkers story Light from Uncommon Stars. It’s…well, it has a spaceship full of interstellar refugees managing a doughnut shop, a violin teacher who sells her students’ souls to the devil in order to save her own music, and a teenage transgender runaway violinist. And then things get complicated. Not the sort of book I’d normally pick up, except that it’s a Hugo finalist and I wanted to read it for that, but I very much enjoyed where it took me.
I also enjoyed Catherine Lundoff’s Blood Moon, the second book in her Wolves of Wolf’s Point series, which I’ve been meaning to get to for a while now. Queer menopausal werewolves and a thriller plot, need I say more? Another book that has been sitting half-finished in iBooks for entirely too long is T. Kingfisher’s collection Toad Words which is as delightful as Kingfisher always is.
I continue my plunge into audiobooks. First up is another book I wanted to read for the Hugo voting: P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, following a dapper butch magical investigator in a seriously alternate early 20th century Cairo who gets caught up in a conflict with a bad-ass Djinn. Oh, and her girlfriend is…well, that’s a spoiler, so read it yourself. Someone—and I confess I’ve forgotten who—mentioned that the narration for Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister was truly inspired, so since I’d had my eye on the book already, I took advantage. After growing up in the US, the protagonist is struggling to adapt when her Malaysian-Chinese family returns to their ancestral home. Torn between family loyalty and the desire for independence, missing her girlfriend but not out to her family, things only get more complicated when the ghost of her grandmother takes up residence in her head. Zen Cho brings her own background to a story thoroughly steeped in the culture and setting of contemporary Malaysia.
And finally I absolutely devoured Nicola Griffith’s Arthurian historic fantasy Spear, inspired both by dark age history and Welsh and Irish myth, the story posits the knight Peredur as a queer cross-dressing woman. I loved that—unlike many Arthurian fantasies—I didn’t feel like the outcome of the story was pre-determined and guaranteed to be tragic. For a long time I’d given up on my love of Arthurian re-tellings because I was tired of them all ending the same, but Griffith has given me back my joy in this genre.
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