(Originally aired 2023/01/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2023.
Here’s looking forward to a new year of content, so let’s take a look back at what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has done this year.
With 30 podcast episodes, in addition to the monthly On the Shelf roundups, we published five original stories: “Palio” by Gwen C. Katz, “The Spirits of Cabassus” by Ursula Whitcher, “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain” by Miyuki Jane Pinkard, and just last week “From the Bird’s Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko, who will be joining us in an interview later in this episode.
This year, I kicked off a new series that I’ve been contemplating for a while: “Our F/Favorite Tropes” – you can’t tell in the audio version, but that’s written “Our F-slash-F-avorite Tropes”. This series will explore how the dynamics of popular historic romance tropes change when a female couple is involved. In the five episodes so far we’ve explored tropes for only one bed, spinsters, marriage-based plots, kissing lessons, and widows. The trope series is being a lot of fun and I intend to continue for as long as I can come up with interesting tropes to explore.
The remaining 7 episodes covered many of our popular topics: a biographical look at 18th century gender non-conforming actress Charlotte Charke, a tour through three works of literature – John Lyly’s play Gallathea, the 2nd century Greek novel Babyloniaka, and the 18th century legal appeal of Anne or Jean-Baptiste Grandjean, all of which coincidentally touch on the motif of two women marrying. The show did an interview with Erica Friedman about her book on the history of Yuri anime and manga. There was an episode on the motif of the ”lavender menace” throughout history, that is, the way accusations of queer sexuality have been used to undermine feminist movements. And we put together our second multi-media show on the topic of the history of lesbian sex in pornography.
If you missed any of these and want to go back and check them out, you can find a cumulative index on the website. I’ve been thinking of doing some thematic indexes as well, collecting up the fiction episodes, biographical episodes, interview episodes, and so forth for easier browsing.
In the past year, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has published summaries of 51 publications. Those are harder to sum up, especially since I was doing a fair amount of working my way through a random collection of downloaded articles. The most ambitious project was publishing an edition, translation, and commentary on the Grandjean appeal. This past month’s entry was Lisa Moore’s Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel, which I chose along with a couple other forthcoming items as background for a podcast on the gothic genre.
I felt a bit like I was slacking off this year, but when I look at the numbers, the only year I covered more publications than this was in 2014, when I first started the project and kick-started it by posting a publication every day for a while. No need to worry about running out of material, though. I’ve covered a total of 385 publications, but my database lists close to a thousand. Many of the ones I haven’t covered yet are either hard to track down, of only marginal interest, or largely duplicate content I’ve already covered. But that still leaves several hundred titles on the to-be-read list.
While we’re talking about annual summaries, in another month or so I plan to do my usual summary of topics and dynamics of the sapphic historical fiction field. That will be posted on the blog, since it involves a lot of data crunching that may not be of general interest. I always find it interesting to see how many books I’ve been able to find, what the balance is between big press, small press, and self-published, and how the settings are distributed in time and space.
News of the Field
In addition to annual summaries, of course, January means that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is open for submissions to our fiction series. We’re looking for short stories up to 5000 words, for which we pay 8 cents a word. The stories must be set in an actual historic time and place, although fantastic elements that are appropriate to the setting may be used. And the date of the story must be pre-20th century. The central character should reasonably be categorized as lesbian or sapphic, although there’s no requirement for the story to be a romance, and in fact romance plots should have something else interesting going on as well. If you want more details and a bit of insight into what I’m looking for, follow the link in the show notes to our call for submissions. It’s fairly comprehensive.
I won’t claim that this podcast has up-to-the-minute media news, but in case you aren’t already aware of it, there’s a new BBC series on Marie Antoinette that evidently leans in to the rumors of her lesbian relationships. It’s by the same writer as The Favourite which had a similar spin on Queen Anne. It’s Marie Antoinette, so don’t go into it expecting a happy ending, but it looks lush and entertaining.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Of course, the heart of these On the Shelf episodes is the new book listings.
Periodically I like to talk about my adventures in putting together the new releases. I pick up a fair number from mentions on social media, and there are a few queer and lesbian small presses that I check out every month. I skim through the more general lists of queer books that other organizations compile—especially useful if they tag them with the type of representation and the genre. Very rarely, an author will reach out and let me know about an upcoming book, which I love because it means people are aware of what the podcast is doing. But for the final “what have I missed” check, I grind my way through listings on Amazon. Because, like it or not, that’s the most efficient place to look.
My standard method is to do an “advanced search” for everything published starting 2 months before the episode I’m putting together. So for this January show, I asked for everything published in November 2022 or later. It’s an absolute must to cover the previous month, since many self-published books aren’t listed on Amazon before their publication date. (This, as I often note, isn’t ideal for getting eyeballs on a book. And in a moment I’ll point out one more reason for this.) Going back 2 months is extra work, but sometimes it turns up titles I hadn’t seen before. My standard keywords are “lesbian or sapphic” plus “historical,” and specifically excluding “erotic” and “erotica”. (If you do a similar search and instead require the keyword “erotica” you’ll see why excluding that tag cuts down on irrelevant books, without excluding relevant ones.)
Now you might think that searching on the keywords “lesbian” plus “historical” would mean that the majority of books returned by the search would be potentially relevant to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. But you’d be wrong. I’ll set aside the question of what gets tagged as “historical” because there are perfectly reasonable applications of the term that aren’t what I’m looking for. But one thing is immediately obvious: there are books being tagged with every possible queer-related term, even when the book has a much narrower focus. How else to explain why so much gay male romance turns up in my search results? (This is a problem that’s even more striking when searching keywords in Audible for audiobooks.) But there’s an even bigger keyword problem in Amazon, and that’s what I call “classics spam”.
There are entities—hard to know whether they’re organized enough to be called companies—who package up popular classic novels that are in the public domain and game the Amazon algorithms to get their items up to the top of searches. You can identify the ones I’m calling “classics spam” because they are whole arrays of titles with identical covers, listed as being “independently published” and all with a very recent publication date. And that’s where the books become a problem for searches, because the entities continually re-issue the same titles over and over, presumably to take advantage of an algorithm that prioritizes new releases. And whoever is issuing these books is packing their metadata full of irrelevant keywords to get them to turn up in searches. I have no idea what other irrelevant keywords they might be carrying, but I can tell you that there’s no valid reason for the works of Charles Dickens, or Joseph Conrad, or Charles Darwin, or Robert Louis Stevenson to be turning up in a keyword search for lesbians.
How much of a problem is this? I crunched the numbers this month, because that’s what I like to do for fun: crunch numbers. The search I ran this month returned 44 pages of results. At 16 titles per page, that’s about 700 titles. Of those, 176 listings—about a quarter—were for future publication dates. The “classics spam” listings are never set up in advance of publication, so those future titles are free of them. But in the listings for books already in publication, the “classics spam” drown out the genuine organic search results. Out of 350 December books, ¾ of them were spam. Out of 170 November books, a little over a third were spam. (As I mentioned, the spam listings get recycled with more recent publication dates, so the further back you go, the smaller the proportion gets.)
This means that if I don’t know about a book in advance of publication, I need to wade through pages and pages of search results that don’t merely fail to hit the specific target I’m looking for, but that have been deliberately designed to make it difficult to find what I’m looking for. Before I got a sense of how this dynamic worked, I often stopped browsing the search results once I was getting entire pages full of classics spam. Now I know I was overlooking books that were getting elbowed out by the spam. Even filtering out the spam, out of the 191 already-released listings returned by this month’s search, 25 titles actually fit the criteria I use for the podcast—about one-eighth. But that’s better than the rate with the spam included, which is about 5%.
I want to point out that there’s nothing illegal in classics spam. The works are in the public domain and anybody who wants to can publish a new edition. I could do it; you could do it. And in a system where publishers get to pick the keywords they attach to a book, there’s no good way to legislate where you cross the line from keyword optimization to making search functions unusable. But just as we’re seeing with the decline in the usability of Google searches, gaming the system is a parasite that eventually kills its host.
So all in all, trying to find recent, thematically-relevant books using Amazon keyword searches is a daunting task. If you’ve ever wondered if people are going to stumble across your book on Amazon without knowing to look for it specifically, the answer is “probably not.” What can you do to make it more findable? So many things, but that’s a topic for another day.
And with that said, I’m doing my bit for getting out the word about new books.
I have one correction to make for a book mentioned in last month’s show. Elsie Sees it Through by Derek Ansell is published by Next Chapter Publishing, rather than being self-published. I think that when I took the listing information from Amazon, it must not have included the publisher information at that time, but the author kindly wrote to me to provide me with the correct data. Yay, author feedback!
Also, I’m still holding off on discussing books from any of the several Harper Collins imprints until their strike is settled. This is something that has been requested by the striking workers as a way of supporting their action. The “on hold” list is up to three titles now.
There are three November titles that I only just discovered, all set in 19th century America.
A Rose Blooms at Golden Fork self-published by Rachel Anderson appears to be the start of a three-book series with a common setting.
It's the start of the 1849 Gold Rush and young frontier woman Rose Davis has just struck out from her homestead for the booming town of Golden Fork. Can a young, single female make it on her own on the wild frontier? Pull up a stool at the Lucky Shoe saloon and find out all that's happening from the mill to the mines. Rose follows her dreams and her heart to unexpected places in this historical romance.
Just Wide Enough for Two self-published by Kacey M. Martin offers a fictionalized take on the relationship between poet Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert.
Everyone in Amherst, Massachusetts knows that Emily Dickinson is odd. But no one really knows her better than Susan Gilbert. Friends since childhood, Emily and Susan can always be seen walking arm and arm and sneaking off into the woods, though what they do alone out there, no one knows. But when Emily’s brother, Austin, takes a romantic interest in Susan, things begin to change for Emily as she starts to experience a feeling she doesn’t quite understand – jealousy. When Susan Gilbert moves back to Amherst it becomes clear that her family has certain financial needs that need to be met. It also becomes clearer that the family is depending on Susan to meet those needs. A man like Austin Dickinson solves all of those problems. He’s handsome, kind, seemingly intelligent, and wealthy. The only issue? Susan is madly in love with his sister.
Rachel Kelly and the Vigilantes (Rachel Kelly in Oregon County # 1) self-published by Pamela Cabot gives us a Western adventure.
Rachel Kelly wasn’t the only person who wanted Frank Dawson and his vicious gang brought to justice. Over the years many others had tried to locate the hideout of the outlaws who robbed banks, murdered, and took captives to work as slaves. Yet somehow the gang always managed to escape the law. Dawson made his biggest mistake on the day he raided Rachel’s homestead and murdered her family. She took it very personally and made it her life’s work to find them. The breakthrough came when Rachel met a gang member who claimed she was able to smuggle in hand-picked vigilantes, masquerading as captives, into the stronghold. One potential recruit was a full-blooded Native American skilled in the use of her bow and knives with deadly accuracy. It was no easy task to assemble a group of capable, courageous vigilantes, but find them she did. Each had their own reasons for joining. Each having to decide whether they were willing to risk their lives to end Dawson’s reign of terror and free the captives. Brave indeed, but were they riding to the rescue or into a clever trap?
I have five more December books, plus a couple of related series titles to mention that were published earlier this year. They’re set in a wide time-span from mythic Greece up through the fateful voyage of the Titanic.
Most stories set in classical Greece have strong fantasy elements, and it can be tricky to judge whether to count them as historicals or not. I leaned in favor of Unchain My Heart (which has the sub-title “A Fantasy Lesbian Romance in Classical Greece” in case you weren’t sure). It’s the first volume in the Bonds of Fate series, self-published by R.J. Martin.
Kyra the Bard has given up on love. Zoe the Amazon doesn’t believe in it. It will take a powerful magic to convince either of them to try love again. When Zoe learns her sister isn’t in their homeland but instead marrying an Athenian, she leaves her comfortable new life in Egypt to confront her. What should be a simple journey across the Sea is complicated by a sudden storm, a villainous mutiny, and a monstrous ex-lover. Kyra would have been just another fling on Zoe’s way to Athens, but the gods know better, and ensure they're bound together until they realize they can help each other heal old wounds.
I almost managed to have read this next book before it showed up on the podcast, but it’s way up there at the top of my to-be-read list, based on the cover copy. The title, Sixpenny Octavo self-published by Annick Trent, is a reference to a particular size of book in the printing trade.
Clockmender Hannah Croft's friend Molly has been arrested for her connections to a Jacobin club. In the tumultuous political climate of 1790s Britain, being in the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to land Molly in gaol. Hannah's one hope to free her lies in the testimony of housemaid Lucy Boone. Lucy has spent her entire life moving from one household to another, never forming a true connection with her fellow servants—nor with her occasional lovers. She prefers it that way. When you can rely on yourself, why would you need anyone else? But when Hannah Croft asks for help, she cannot say no. Working together to free Molly, the two women don't try to ignore their growing attraction. For Hannah, Lucy is a beacon of hope at a difficult time. And Lucy finds herself loving her new life, made welcome by Hannah and her friends. But their situation is fraught with danger. Rumours abound of an informant in their midst, and a sinister man from the magistrate's office dogs Lucy's steps. One wrong move could land them in gaol—or splinter their new relationship from within.
As proof that my method of identifying new releases has gaps in it, I only ran across this next Regency-set series when book 3 came out. The series title is Diary of an Obstinate, Headstrong Female, and the first two titles are Vanilla Kisses and Appetence. By the way, in case, like me, you’ve never encountered the word “appetence” before, it means a strong desire or craving, related to appetite. The December publication in this series, volume 3, is Midwinter and the series is self-published by C.C. Burns.
A cosy country Christmastide. An ill-timed quest to expose injustice. A determined pursuit that sets everything asunder. When Eleanor and Annalise arrive at Stapleford Hall and begin to acclimatise to the slow rhythms of a secluded country life, they expect the remaining months of Eleanor’s confinement to continue as uneventfully as they began. But then a Christmas outing sets them on an unexpected mission to seek justice for the women of Cambridgeshire who are subject to the tyranny of the University Proctors and the questionable practice of confining them to The Spinning House without reasonable cause or a fair trial. Their quest to expose this unlawful custom leads them on a path of spontaneous adventure, new acquaintances, and a chance to test their thespian skills and new disguises. It would be risky business in any event, but with Eleanor lying low and Giles expanding his countrywide search for her, the timing might have been better. As the Midwinter winds set over the frost-bitten Fens, unforeseen danger begins to crystallise in the powdery snow trails of their perilous footprints.
Olivia Waite, whose “Feminine Pursuits” series has hit many people’s favorites list, has a new self-published short work out for the holidays, titled Hen Fever. I’m not sure whether it connects in any way to the Feminine Pursuits books.
Lydia Wraxhall is on her best behavior every day of the year—except one: the annual Bickerton Christmas Poultry Show. On that day she brushes her birds, sharpens her tongue, and engages in the closest thing the village knows to war. Harriet Boyne is a soldier’s widow reeling from the worst years of her life. She and her friends have inherited a manor on the village outskirts, and Harriet is looking forward to a quiet holiday far from the anguish of the battlefield. But a dispute over a flock of loose chickens — a rare local breed, which Lydia thinks could be champions and Harriet thinks could be delicious — draws Harriet into the competition under Lydia’s grudging guidance. Harriet’s frozen heart is thawed by Lydia’s gentleness, and lonely Lydia blossoms under Harriet’s keen regard. But the day of the poultry show is fast approaching, and everyone’s drawing up battle lines. And in the contest between secret love and public glory, there can only be one winner.
This is my regular bewilderment at the fashion for secondary titles that explain what the book is about, but with White Star: A lesbian Gilded Age romance set on the Titanic self-published by Laura Jelenkovich, at least you know for certain what you’re getting.
They thought they had six days to be together away from the world, the lies and fake smiles that tore their spirit to shreds. Just the two of them, young women trapped in an impossible love. With a twist of fate they had embarked happiness in Southampton, the Titanic sailing for New York on her maiden voyage. But that same fate would soon reveal its true face, disrupting the lives of 2,200 people on the freezing moonless night of April 15, 1912. Billions of stars twinkled, reflected on the still waters of the mirror-smooth Atlantic, the only witnesses to a tragedy no one could ever forget. Or maybe someone could, at least for a while.
There are six January books in my spreadsheet so far, with a similarly wide time-spread as the December books.
The Demon Gospel (Hidden Gods #2) by Ariel Dalziel from Bongo Productions Press signals fairly clearly that this historic fantasy has significant erotic content, and based on the cover copy it looks like you’re going to get non-consensual sex. It wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the first book in this series has sapphic content, but you can check it out for yourself.
After the sacking of the Judaean city of Makor, Chana is a slave to a truly demonic Master—Alexander of Rome. When he brings home a powerful shapeshifter, Chana is subject to witnessing and participating in their ever-growing depravities. But the shapeshifter is just as much at the Master's nonexistant mercy as Chana is. Together they forge a secret bond, hoping that Alexander will never find out. How long can they fool a centuries-old demon? Worse yet, Rome herself descends into chaos, going through four Emperors in eighteen months. From Nero and Otho's suicides, through Galba and Vitellius’ bloody ends at the hands of the mob, Chana witnesses it all. As Eve and Chana learn more about the Master, they find his sinister backing behind the Empire itself. But as Eve learns to control her tremendous powers, Chana harbors the secret hope of freedom. Will she find it? How does one escape a demon?
Violet Cowper has joined the significant crowd writing Regency-era sapphic romance series. This month’s contribution is Her Enticing Muse (Ladylike Inclinations #3).
England, 1792. Maria Balcombe refuses to forsake her talents. Fleeing an unwanted arranged marriage, the gifted young artist hopes to make a name for herself in London’s competitive streets. So when a celebrated portraitist agrees to her pleas for mentorship despite their clashing styles, she gratefully accepts the beautiful woman’s strict conditions. Stella Wesley needs an obedient student. But with limited opportunities for creators of the fairer sex, she reluctantly bends her ideals for a confidante who’s willing to flaunt society and act as a living anatomy model. And she soon finds the hours she spends exploring the artistic intimacy of the female body are turning into an undeniable, smoldering attraction. Angry at a world that demands conformity over innovation, a conflicted Maria throws their future into jeopardy with her stubborn frankness. And when Stella is torn between abandoning her protégé for a one-in-a-lifetime offer or succumbing to her deepest desires, she fears more than one heart will end up broken. Will their forbidden strokes reveal love’s vivid promise?
Forever's Promise by Missouri Vaun from Bold Strokes Books is part of an ongoing string of Westerns, although it doesn’t appear that they are part of a connected series.
Wesley Holden migrated west with her brother, Clyde, to build a life neither of them could hope for back East. To share the homestead claim, Wesley had to disguise herself as a man. As brothers, Wesley and Clyde began to carve a new home out of the Kansas frontier. When Clyde is unexpectedly killed, Wes is left alone with the farm, determined to carry on, but more isolated as the days pass. For the promise of a better life, Charlotte Rose answers an ad for a bride. But the hope of a frontier husband ends when she arrives to find Clyde Holden is dead. Charlotte can’t return home because she discovered en route that she’s pregnant. Her only hope is to convince Clyde’s brother, Wes, that she can be a good wife. Desperate and out of options, Charlotte is resolved to win Wes’s heart. Allowing Charlotte to get too close is dangerous. If Wes marries, she’ll have to reveal her secret and risk everything for a woman who might never really love her, but resisting Charlotte is easier said than done.
Another story in the Western genre is The Ashes of the Brothel: Betrayal in the Wickedest Little Town in the West self-published by Katryna Lalock.
Jolted by her mother's horrific death during a California-bound train ride, Louisa never had much choice but to accept that life can be as brutal as it is beautiful. After arriving in Jerome, Arizona, with her father, Pa, and younger sister, Heather, Louisa can only hope for an uneventful reset. But their new home, dubbed the Wickedest Little Town in the West, might have a slew of even harsher lessons in store. Tragedy strikes again, and Louisa must pave the way for her sister's survival, even if it means doing something that makes Heather resent her. Becoming the right-hand woman to local brothel owner Miss Jennie, mingling with wealthy investors, and conning her way into a slice of the local mine fortune were never on Louisa's to-do list. Then again, neither was murder. Now, as Louisa's cunning little schemes ignite, it won't just be her life going up in flames.
If you’re a fan of literary novels, you definitely want to check out this next title, which was long-listed for the prestigeous Booker Prize: After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz from Liveright.
“The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho,” so begins this intrepid debut novel, centuries after the Greek poet penned her lyric verse. Ignited by the same muse, a myriad of women break from their small, predetermined lives for seemingly disparate paths: in 1892, Rina Faccio trades her needlepoint for a pen; in 1902, Romaine Brooks sails for Capri with nothing but her clotted paintbrushes; and in 1923, Virginia Woolf writes: “I want to make life fuller and fuller.” Writing in cascading vignettes, Selby Wynn Schwartz spins an invigorating tale of women whose narratives converge and splinter as they forge queer identities and claim the right to their own lives.
And we’ll conclude with In the Shadow of Truth (Shadow Series #3) by J.E. Leak from Certifiably Creative LLC
New OSS trainee Jenny Ryan is brimming with equal parts excitement and fear. She is one step closer to serving her country overseas, but when her ambition costs her dearly, she realizes the fight has come to her and love has turned to lies. OSS instructor Kathryn Hammond is no stranger to sacrifice. But when doing her job means sending the woman she loves into the churn of war, her devotion to duty is tested like never before. When shocking revelations and the cruel march of time threaten their love, will Kat and Jenny embrace the truth and find each other again before it’s too late?
What Am I Reading?
I look at my list of reading, watching, and listening for the year and realize I’ve entirely fallen out of the habit of posting reviews. I think I need to power through and blog some mini-reviews for the whole year. The problem with having high standards for writing reviews is that it’s easy to psych yourself out of doing it entirely.
This month was another audiobooks-only month. I took in The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin, the sequel to The City We Became, about a group of people who become the living avatars of New York City in a fight against a cosmic evil that manifests as gentrification and other urban threats.
I was intrigued by a YA historic fantasy, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones, due to the elements of medieval Welsh legend and the promise of sapphic elements. (I became aware of it when putting together the book listings.) Although the main character does have a significant past relationship with another woman, the central romance is with a man, which is a hazard of identifying queer content by hints and rumor. The book was perfectly ok, but didn’t have the content I was hoping for.
I also got a bit of a surprise from Reader, I Murdered Him by Betsy Cornwell. Inspired by the character of the young girl Adele in the novel Jane Eyre, I had thought, from the cover copy, that this tale of girl-gang rage against the patriarchy would be a bit more of a madcap heist than it turned out to be. Instead I’d describe it as a dark gothic, and it should have content advisories for sexual assault and threat of incest. Don’t get me wrong, it was a powerful, well-written book, and I definitely enjoyed it. It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
We finish up this show with an interview with Jennifer Nestojko, the author of our December story, “From the Bird’s Nest.” Jennifer is a teacher, poet, and storyteller, living on the central coast of California. We’ve known each other for quite some time—several decades—which I tend to feel nervous about mentioning, lest people think that being a personal friend gets you a leg up on selling stories to the podcast. It doesn’t. But it’s possible that people who know me have a slight advantage in knowing what sorts of stories I might like.
[Interview transcript will be posted 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