(Originally aired 2023/03/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2023.
I feel like I have very little to discuss this month, but the extensive list of recent books makes up for that in content. And I felt inclined to ramble a bit in the “what I’ve been consuming” section, to make up a little for how far behind I am in posting book reviews.
News of the Field
I do have another podcast I’d like to direct your attention to. I can’t say a “new” podcast because evidently they’ve been broadcasting for five years or so at this point, but new to me, at least. The show is “Queer as Fact” and is based out of Australia. Their content tends to be relatively modern topics (that is, “modern” from the point of view of my interests), but the most recent episode caught my attention because it’s on women loving women in Classical Rome—a topic my own show has tackled. There’s a link to the podcast in the show notes. If you enjoy it, drop them a note to let them know where you heard about it.
Publications on the Blog
I’ve managed to get through February without reading anything new for the blog. This wasn’t my intent, but other aspects of life have been a bit intensive. Not all of them bad! I spent a lot of time in February processing my overly abundant Seville orange crop and now have the year’s supply of marmalades, candied orange peel, and other preserved items put away. Nature has a habit of reminding us that the seasons turn as they will and you need to get with the program and catch up.
I did acquire one new book that I may mention in the blog, though the queer content is extremely minimal. This is The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega, subtitled “Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society” from which you may understand that it’s a popular-oriented work on women’s history in the middle ages. It appears to be a collection of material from the author’s blog and looks very readable, if you’re in the market for some basic grounding in the subject. But it only has a couple pages of content touching on same-sex issues, and is very basic on that topic.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The meat of this episode is going to be the new book releases. The list has some catching up to do, not only because the Harper Collins strike has been settled and I’m finally doing their books from the last few months, but also because I turned up some titles that I missed or had mis-categorized. So we’ll start with a couple of December books.
A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar from Harper Collins appears to be something of a girl-gang heist story, using a setting that seems to attract stories like a magnet.
Josefa is an unapologetic and charismatic thief, who loves the thrill of the chase. She has her eye on her biggest mark yet—the RMS Titanic, the most luxurious ship in the world. But she isn’t interested in stealing from wealthy first-class passengers onboard. No, she’s out for the ultimate prize: the Rubiyat, a one of a kind book encrusted with gems that’s worth millions. Josefa can’t score it alone, so she enlists a team of girls with unique talents: Hinnah, a daring acrobat and contortionist; Violet, an actress and expert dissembler; and Emilie, an artist who can replicate any drawing by hand. They couldn’t be more different and yet they have one very important thing in common: their lives depend on breaking into the vault and capturing the Rubiyat. But careless mistakes, old grudges, and new romance threaten to jeopardize everything they’ve worked for and put them in incredible danger when tragedy strikes. While the odds of pulling off the heist are slim, the odds of survival are even slimmer…
Evil's Echo by Jane Alden from Desert Palm Press seems to blend romance with a noir detective story.
In her heart, Eleanor “Butch” Tracy is a crime reporter. Her city editor at the Gazette doesn’t see it that way. He believes women should be covering society parties and fancy weddings, not chronicling murder victims and evildoers. Butch gets her shot at the crime beat when a mysterious killer chooses her to narrate his cold-blooded serial execution of prominent New York citizens. To fully report the crimes and prove herself up to the opportunity, Butch must find the connection among the victims. She partners with the striking NYPD detective Christine Carr to discover the link between the deaths of a judge, a billionaire, and a plastic surgeon. Will they be in time to prevent the final murder? The answer lies buried in the Gazette’s clippings morgue, deep beneath the streets of New York City.
There are several January books to catch up on, both new discoveries and those previously held back. We’ll start with the first of two French-language novels I turned up this month.
Aimer Mathilde self-published by Laurence Tardi is a romance set in Victorian-era Montreal.
Montréal, 1865, deux femmes, un amour... possible? Mathilde Hébert, une jolie blonde enjouée de 19 ans, fille de notaire, rencontre par hasard Elizabeth Rice, 25 ans, immigrante irlandaise vivant seule en chambre dans un quartier industriel. Mathilde est plus que ravie d’avoir enfin rencontré une jeune femme qui s’intéresse à autre chose qu’au mariage et à la mode. Leur sentiment l’une pour l’autre naîtra dans le décor d’un Montréal en plein développement, pourtant encarcané dans une rigidité de mœurs toute victorienne. Leur amour pourra-t-il trouver sa place ? Comment accueilleront-elles leurs propres sentiments ? Comment leur entourage réagira-t-il ? Comment, dans ce contexte, pouvoir aimer Mathilde ? C’est là toute l’histoire de ce roman.
Montreal, 1865, two women, one love...perhaps? Mathilde Hébert, the pretty, cheerful, blonde 19-year-old daughter of a notary, has a chance meeting with Elizabeth Rice, a 25-year-old Irish immigrant, living alone in an industrial district rooming house. Mathilde is delighted to meet a young woman interested in something other than marriage and fashion. Set in Montreal, their feelings for each other emerge hemmed in by rigid Victorian morality. How can they find a place for their love?
When We Lost our Heads by Heather O'Neill from Penguin Random House is—quite by coincidence—also set in 19th century Montreal. With the contrast of careless privilege and civic unrest, it seems the protagonist shares much with her namesake, as alluded to in the title.
Marie Antoine is the charismatic, spoiled daughter of a sugar baron. At age twelve, with her pile of blond curls and unparalleled sense of whimsy, she’s the leader of all the children in the Golden Mile, the affluent strip of nineteenth-century Montreal where powerful families live. Until one day in 1873, when Sadie Arnett, dark-haired, sly and brilliant, moves to the neighbourhood. Marie and Sadie are immediately inseparable. United by their passion and intensity, they attract and repel each other in ways that set them both on fire. Marie, with her bubbly charm, sees all the pleasure of the world, whereas Sadie’s obsession with darkness is all-consuming. Soon, their childlike games take on the thrill of danger and then become deadly. Forced to separate, the girls spend their teenage years engaging in acts of alternating innocence and depravity, until a singular event unites them once more, with devastating effects. After Marie inherits her father’s sugar empire and Sadie disappears into the city’s gritty underworld, the working class begins to foment a revolution. Each woman will play an unexpected role in the events that upend their city—the only question is whether they will find each other once more.
Your Goyle and Mine (The Magickal Underground #1) self-published by Nan Sampson mashes up several historic eras, thanks to a sprinkling of magic.
It’s 1921. The Great War is finally over, but trouble is again brewing for Paris’ most defiant witch. When Father Dominic knocks at Celeste Bérenger’s door asking her to find Eddie, one of the last living gargoyles, she jumps at the chance. For the last fifty years, she and her life partner, Astrid Tollefsen, have run an apothecary shop on the border between the hidden Magical Quarter with its cornucopia of magical denizens and the mundane streets of post-war Paris. Fifty years of punishment for a devastating natural disaster that wasn’t entirely Celeste’s fault. But this is her chance to feel useful again. Helped by her friend, the undead Lord Byron, Celeste’s hunt for Eddie leads her from the casinos and brothels of the Magical Quarter to the Bohemian intelligentsia of Gertrude Stein’s Saturday salons, and into a devious web of danger woven just for her. To protect Byron, save Astrid, and rescue Eddie, Celeste must defy the rules again and draw on forbidden magic…before time runs out for all of them.
The boundaries between fantasy set in history and fantasy with the flavor of a historic setting can be very fuzzy indeed. And as I’ve noted previously, I struggle to be consistent in what I include or exclude with these listings. The Daughters of Izdihar (The Alamaxa Duology #1) by Hadeer Elsbai from Harper Voyager could have gone either way. The setting is strongly based on recent Egyptian history, though set in a fictional land. You’ll just have to accept that sometimes I include books that are purely fantasy on a whim.
As a waterweaver, Nehal can move and shape any water to her will, but she's limited by her lack of formal education. She desires nothing more than to attend the newly opened Weaving Academy, take complete control of her powers, and pursue a glorious future on the battlefield with the first all-female military regiment. But her family cannot afford to let her go--crushed under her father's gambling debt, Nehal is forcibly married into a wealthy merchant family. Her new spouse, Nico, is indifferent and distant and in love with another woman, a bookseller named Giorgina. Giorgina has her own secret, however: she is an earthweaver with dangerously uncontrollable powers. She has no money and no prospects. Her only solace comes from her activities with the Daughters of Izdihar, a radical women's rights group at the forefront of a movement with a simple goal: to attain recognition for women to have a say in their own lives. They live very different lives and come from very different means, yet Nehal and Giorgina have more in common than they think. The cause--and Nico--brings them into each other's orbit, drawn in by the group's enigmatic leader, Malak Mamdouh, and the urge to do what is right. But their problems may seem small in the broader context of their world, as tensions are rising with a neighboring nation that desires an end to weaving and weavers. As Nehal and Giorgina fight for their rights, the threat of war looms in the background, and the two women find themselves struggling to earn--and keep--a lasting freedom.
Now we move on to three February books. A Defiant Devotion (A Truth Universally Acknowledged #2) self-published by E.B. Neal rather transparently advertises one of its inspirations in the series title. Although this is the only volume (so far) featuring a female couple, the series as a whole is very diverse in terms of race and gender. I get a little bit of a sense that the author is trying to capture the dynamics of the Bridgerton tv series.
The year is 1812, and Miss Katherine Knight has no desire to debut, let alone find a husband. An independent, feisty young woman, Katherine prefers hunting and horseback riding to dining and dancing, and spends most of her time eavesdropping at closed doors. When her eldest brother, Lucas, jeopardizes their family’s already precarious future, Katherine uses her talents and intellect to do what she thinks will save her family from ruin. But all her plans threaten to unravel when she meets Lady Rebecca Alwyn, a mysterious and captivating young woman from Amsterdam whose family’s meteoric rise in British society arouses suspicion. Katherine and Rebecca fall headfirst into a deep and intimate friendship, testing the bounds of propriety and morality as they sink ever-deeper into an attachment that might be their undoing. Together, they must tackle their complicated family legacies and come to terms with the actions they take in order to protect the ones they love most — including each other.
Our second French-language title this month is La Femme Falaise self-published by Hélène Néra.
Alice est tombée éperdument amoureuse de Lucia, son amie d’enfance. Leur liaison orageuse a bien failli provoquer un immense scandale dans la haute société anglaise du début des années 1920. Les proches d’Alice, pressés de mettre fin aux rumeurs, l’ont forcée à quitter Londres et à s’installer à Paris où elle tente tant bien que mal de panser ses plaies et de surmonter la perte de Lucia. Après deux années d’une existence solitaire et morose, Alice fait la rencontre de la princesse Sonia de Malanset, une figure du Tout-Paris qui semble prête à lui ouvrir les portes des cercles mondains. Alice tombe très vite sous le charme de Sonia qui l’entraîne dans un tourbillon de fêtes et de musique dans le Paris des Années folles. Mais malgré la promesse d’un nouveau départ, Alice demeure hantée par le souvenir de Lucia et de leur amour sacrifié.
Alice fell madly in love with Lucia, her childhood friend. Their stormy affair threatened a scandal in the high society of 1920s England. To suppress the rumors, Alice's relatives sent her from London to Paris, where she struggles to recover from the loss of Lucia. After two lonely, gloomy years, Alice meets Princess Sonia de Malanset, who seems ready to draw her into Parisian society. Alice falls under Sonia's spell amid a whirlwind of parties and music in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties. Despite this new beginning, she remains haunted by the memory of Lucia and the love they lost.
The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes from William Morrow Paperbacks goes a little bit overboard in setting up the backstory in the book’s cover copy. So bear with me.
Berlin 1933. Following the success of her debut novel, American writer Althea James receives an invitation from Joseph Goebbels himself to participate in a culture exchange program in Germany. For a girl from a small town in Maine, 1933 Berlin seems to be sparklingly cosmopolitan, blossoming in the midst of a great change with the charismatic new chancellor at the helm. Then Althea meets a beautiful woman who promises to show her the real Berlin, and soon she’s drawn into a group of resisters who make her question everything she knows about her hosts—and herself. Paris 1936. She may have escaped Berlin for Paris, but Hannah Brecht discovers the City of Light is no refuge from the anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathizers she thought she left behind. Heartbroken and tormented by the role she played in the betrayal that destroyed her family, Hannah throws herself into her work at the German Library of Burned Books. Through the quiet power of books, she believes she can help counter the tide of fascism she sees rising across Europe and atone for her mistakes. But when a dear friend decides actions will speak louder than words, Hannah must decide what stories she is willing to live—or die—for. New York 1944. Since her husband Edward was killed fighting the Nazis, Vivian Childs has been waging her own war: preventing a powerful senator’s attempts to censor the Armed Service Editions, portable paperbacks that are shipped by the millions to soldiers overseas. Viv knows just how much they mean to the men through the letters she receives—including the last one she got from Edward. She also knows the only way to win this battle is to counter the senator’s propaganda with a story of her own—at the heart of which lies the reclusive and mysterious woman tending the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in Brooklyn. As Viv unknowingly brings her censorship fight crashing into the secrets of the recent past, the fates of these three women will converge, changing all of them forever. Inspired by the true story of the Council of Books in Wartime—the WWII organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, and authors to use books as “weapons in the war of ideas”—The Librarian of Burned Books is an unforgettable historical novel, a haunting love story, and a testament to the beauty, power, and goodness of the written word.
Finishing up with six March books, this may be the longest collective list I’ve ever included. Starting chronologically, we begin with a pair of books set in ancient Greece—a Greece that, as usual, includes a heavy overlay of mythic fantasy.
Lies We Sing to the Sea by Sarah Underwood from Harper Teen.
Each spring, Ithaca condemns twelve maidens to the noose. This is the price vengeful Poseidon demands for the lives of Queen Penelope’s twelve maids, hanged and cast into the depths centuries ago. But when that fate comes for Leto, death is not what she thought it would be. Instead, she wakes on a mysterious island and meets a girl with green eyes and the power to command the sea. A girl named Melantho, who says one more death can stop a thousand. The prince of Ithaca must die—or the tides of fate will drown them all.
As is often the case, that description doesn’t give any indication of the book’s sapphic content, so you’ll have to trust in the tags in Goodreads. The second Greek book is a bit more forthcoming: Now the Wind Scatters by J Donal from Asteria Press.
Iphigenia seems to have it all. As the eldest daughter of the House of Atreus and princess of Mycenae, Iphigenia has had an idyllic childhood despite her family's bloodstained history. She is the darling of the people of her city, and at her side are her endearingly annoying sister Electra and adorable baby brother Orestes. As she comes of age, however, that fragile peace is threatened by strange, burgeoning feelings for her handmaiden. Amidst this crisis of identity, another looms as an ancient goddess only Iphigenia can see simmers beneath the surface of reality. All of this falls to the back burner when war with the Trojans looms high on the horizon, and Iphigenia's father summons her with a proposal of marriage she would go to the ends of the earth to avoid. In a desperate attempt to circumnavigate her fate, Iphigenia discovers a dark truth: the altar her father intends for her is sacrificial rather than matrimonial. It is only by an act of divine intervention that she survives, and it is by divine retribution that she will have her revenge. It is from the desecrated shores of Aulis that Iphigenia will embark on a journey that will take her from the furthest reaches of the ancient Mediterranean to the underworld itself. Amidst romances with goddesses and her own terrifying deification, Iphigenia plots. Despite the pleas of everyone around her, she vows that blood will soon stain the marble halls of the House of Atreus once again. Vengeance is sweet, but as Iphigenia soon discovers, it comes at a price that could cost her everything.
When Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt from MIRA turned up in my search terms, it had all those vague queer-coded descriptions like “the secret wishes of her heart.” Fortunately I was able to confirm with the author that it definitely has sapphic content.
Nantucket in 1846 is an island set apart not just by its geography but by its unique circumstances. With their menfolk away at sea, often for years at a time, women here know a rare independence—and the challenges that go with it. Eliza Macy is struggling to conceal her financial trouble as she waits for her whaling captain husband to return from a voyage. In desperation, she turns against her progressive ideals and targets Meg Wright, a pregnant free Black woman trying to relocate her store to Main Street. Meanwhile, astronomer Maria Mitchell loves running Nantucket’s Atheneum and spending her nights observing the stars, yet she fears revealing the secret wishes of her heart. On a sweltering July night, a massive fire breaks out in town, quickly kindled by the densely packed wooden buildings. With everything they possess now threatened, these three very different women are forced to reevaluate their priorities and decide what to save, what to let go and what kind of life to rebuild from the ashes of the past.
Some real women from early Hollywood inspired Well Behaved Women by Caroline Lamond from One More Chapter.
When Maybelle Crabtree, a God-fearing farm girl from Kentucky, has a chance encounter with a charismatic stranger, her life changes forever. With an invitation to join the infamous Alla Nazimova and her Sewing Circle, Maybelle’s eyes are opened to a life of decadence and glamour. Able to freely discover her own sexuality, Maybelle embraces all that Hollywood has to offer in the hedonist roaring twenties. But both Maybelle and Alla have secrets that threaten to bring their gilded lives crashing down. Hearts will be broken, careers destroyed and friendships shattered because what happens behind closed doors, doesn’t stay hidden forever… A compelling story inspired by the real life of silent movie icon, Alla Nazimova.
World War II is a popular setting for sapphic romances, but usually more in the European theater. To Meet Again by Kadyan from Bold Strokes Books takes up the wartime setting in south-east Asia.
London, 1938. Evelyn has only one dream: to become a singer. Fleeing an arranged marriage, she leaves for Singapore in pursuit of a future brighter than the conventions of society could offer her. Evelyn performs in a Chinatown cabaret to survive, where she meets Joan, a young Australian doctor and avid fan. Little by little, Evelyn and Joan form a close bond that leads to a love stronger than either has ever known. But history has other plans. The Japanese army invades Singapore, and Evelyn must flee while Joan refuses to leave her patients. From prison camps to the deep jungle, through encounters and tragedies, Evelyn and Joan struggle to survive and to find each other again.
Gothic novels are all about atmosphere, and A Dark, Cold Touch by Megan E. Hart from Howling Unicorn Press has it in plenty. What it doesn’t have is a clear indication of where or when the story is set, but we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
The position of lady’s companion at the grand, isolated Hemford House was meant to save Estelle Glass from the scandal of her own making. But when she arrived at the mansion and was greeted by the stern, mysterious and intimidating Mrs. Blackwell, Estelle began to see what had been meant as a punishment might possibly become more like a reward…if only she could manage to find her place in the dreary household and the service of Mrs. Virginia Hemford, the childlike beauty Estelle had been sent to serve. Soon the secrets of Hemford House begin to reveal themselves, one by one, as Estelle tries her best to take care of Ginny and avoid her confusing feelings for the intimidating Mrs. Blackwell. Estelle finds herself caught up in a web of rules designed to keep Ginny “safe”…but safe from what, exactly? Or from whom? What accident claimed the life of Ginny’s previous companion? Why does Mr. Hemford avoid his wife’s company, no matter how charmingly she tries, and fails, to seduce him? And who’s reaching to take Estelle’s hand in the night with that dark, cold touch? Only when Estelle learns the deadly secret everyone at Hemford House has been keeping can she truly understand what it means to take care of Ginny Hemford…or to be cared for by Rachel Blackwell. Can the women of Hemford House escape the hauntings of its ghosts, or will the past consume them all?
That feels like a good set-up for the special show on sapphic gothic stories that I hope to do this month.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? Although I’m currently in the middle of reading two titles in print, the works that I’ve finished in the last month were all audiobooks, dominated by going on a K.J. Charles spree. K.J. Charles, who specializes in gay male historic romances, sometimes with a fantasy element, might seem an odd obsession for someone like me who is focused so strongly on sapphic fiction. But the simple fact is that K.J. Charles is an amazing writer—she has an ability to create vivid and nuanced characters that fit their historic settings and yet are recognizable, and varied, “types” that resonate with this modern reader. And she finds ways for her same-sex couples to be together despite the challenges of the times. All of which makes me rather disappointed that the couple of times she’s written female couples, she just doesn’t seem to have found them as interesting to write about.
But another interesting aspect of reading KJ’s work is that, because I find her writing itself so satisfying, the books provide me with a useful way to define and calibrate how I feel about degrees of sexual content in historic romances, and various types of relationship dynamics. Overall, KJ’s books have far more sexual content, and it’s far more central to the story, than I’m interested in. It isn’t even a matter of the gender of the people involved—I’d feel the same way about that level of sexual content for a female couple. I’m willing to put up with it for the sake of the characters and story, in the same way that I’m willing to put up with boring fight scenes in superhero movies for the sake of the underlying story and characters.
But that means that when the relationship in question doesn’t work for me, the premise that the characters are fated to end up together because of their mutual sexual desire isn’t enough to make it believable. Or perhaps, “believable” isn’t the right word, because I’m quite willing to believe that people end up in bad relationships because the sex is good—I’ve seen it in real life among people I know. But it means that I become much less invested in the story because, for me, great sex isn’t sufficient motivation. So, for example, the central relationship in books 2 and 3 of the Magpies series (A Case of Possession, and A Flight of Magpies) is like pebbles in my shoe. The two characters profess their love for each other despite conflicting goals, lack of trust, and poor communication, based solely (as far as I can tell) on the fact that their sexual kinks are complementary. Mind you, I love the fantasy worldbuilding in this Victorian-set series, with its magically-based thriller/mystery plots. But I’m simply not invested in the couple.
There’s a similar theme in Spectred Isle, another fantasy-infused romantic thriller, this time set between the world wars. The protagonists not only deal with the legal persecution of gay male relationships, but with deep personal distrust of each other and very little in common other than being drawn into the same plot. So, in order to bend the plot to a romance, it’s necessary for sexual desire—unrelated to affection or admiration—to be an overwhelming force. That dynamic works better for me in The Henchman of Zenda, KJ’s alternate take on the classic novel The Prisoner of Zenda, because the central characters are not framed as a romantic couple, but as rivals, possible adversaries, and only incidentally fuck-buddies. (The listen inspired me to check out a couple of video versions or the original story, and I have to say, I love KJ’s spin on the “true story” much better.)
So aside from my immersion in gay male historicals, I listened to two audiobooks that cheered me up in their inclusion of incidental, casual queerness in genres that are only gradually allowing the reader to expect that as a possibility. Court of Fives by Kate Elliott is a YA historic fantasy, inspired significantly by the social and political dynamics of Greco-Roman Egypt. The protagonist is marginalized due to her mixed-class heritage and gender, but hopes to find fulfilment in a ritualized athletics competition. Personal and high-level political upheavals disrupt that plan but her training gets put to good use. The book puts a number of interesting plot developments in train for the sequels. In the background, we see how the same socio-political dynamics disrupt her sister’s sweet romance with another girl, and I’m looking forward hopefully to see if they’re allowed a reunion.
The queer elements in Lucy Holland’s Sistersong are much more overt. Inspired by a cross-over between Britain in the midst of the Saxon invasions, and the folk song about a murdered sister who is converted into a harp that sings her fate, we follow three very different sisters with magical connections to the land: one whose disfigurement makes her hungry for love, one whose self-centered spite brings disaster, and one who is destined to cross gender boundaries and become king. It’s a complex story with many twists and turns, revealing key elements of the past and present in a gradual fashion. (I did spot some of those keys in advance, which added to my enjoyment of the book.) The story was slow at first, and the conflict between Christian and non-Christian elements was a bit overdone, but the story picked up as it went along.
I’m not sure why I felt inspired to be more talky about my reading for this month. I guess I miss being in the habit of doing reviews regularly. Maybe I’ll go back and comb through these podcast notes and do something more formal. I hope your reading is giving you something to think about, too!
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