(Originally aired 2023/07/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2023.
Not much in the way of an introduction this month—I hope everyone had a chance to celebrate pride month in a satisfying way. I’ve been rather buried under the day-job, but did make the time to get in two author interviews for this show. The garden has also been demanding my attention, with the cherry crop to get in, all the various berries turning ripe, and the beginnings of a massive crop of plums of several varieties. As predicted, the fruit trees are making good use of all the rain we got over the winter, though the unusually cool weather currently means that the tomatoes are very late to start ripening. This year it feels like California has flipped normal on its head, especially compared to the rest of the continent.
July is going to see me at two more SFF conventions: I’ll be sharing a table selling books at BayCon the weekend this episode comes out. Then later in the month I’m off to Winnipeg Canada for Pemmicon, the North American Science Fiction Convention that may be held in years when Worldcon is on a different continent. I won’t be going to Worldcon this year, breaking a several year streak. I just wasn’t feeling up to traveling to China, especially given some uncertainty over the convention logistics. So Pemmicon will wrap up my convention schedule for the year. As usual, if you’re at one of these events, I’d love for you to reach out and say hi. A fan of the show got up the courage to do that at WisCon in May and it meant the world to me.
Speaking of things that mean the world to me, I received a note from one of our fiction series authors who said the boost of confidence she got from selling a story to the podcast inspired her to set to work on a full novel, which she’s currently shopping around to agents. I’m delighted to have contributed in some small way to helping an author get started, and I hope that in the future I’ll be able to announce that novel in the forthcoming books listings.
For those of you who—like me—enjoy audiobooks, you might want to check out a collection of early LGBTQ+ short fiction complied by the public domain, crowd-sourced audiobook site LibriVox. Because Librivox only works with public domain material, these are all stories from no later than 1927. The collection includes stories of same-sex desire and transgender experience, though the queer themes are often implicit rather than explicit. But many of the authors represented here participated in same-sex relationships and wrote from their own experience. The collection is titled “Out of the Closet” and includes stories by familiar queer authors such as Walt Whitman and Sarah Orne Jewett, but also has many less well-known authors. The items that I can determine to have sapphic themes include Kate Chopin’s “The Falling in Love of Fedora”, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Felipa”, Rose Terry’s “My Visitation”, Alice Brown’s “There and Now”, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Two Friends”, Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Martha’s Lady”, Octave Thanet’s “My Lorelei: A Heidelberg Romance”, and Sui Sin Far’s “The Heart’s Desire.” There’s a link to the collection in the show notes. I’m a major fan of Librivox for audiobooks of classic works, though the volunteer nature of the narrator pool means that the quality can be variable.
Publications on the Blog
The blog is still on vacation with regard to reviewing new publications. And no non-fiction shopping this month either. So we’ll go right on in to the new and recent fiction releases, of which there is an abundance.
Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
I turned up some previously unnoticed books as far back as March—which is a bit odd, because I set my search parameters to only show me things released in May or later. Amazon’s search feature is badly broken at the moment and is paying little attention either to limits on pub date or to sorting titles by date order. I am very very annoyed.
Up first is what looks like a rather spicy sapphic mash-up of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with The Phantom of the Opera. R.L. Davennor gives us The Hells of Notre Dame (The Phantom of Notre Dame #1) from Night Muse Press. The author notes that as the series continues, the central characters from this book expand to a broader and more diverse polyamorous circle of lovers, but the first book focuses on a sapphic romance.
One night was all it took.
I should have stayed away. I should have thrown away her scarf, banished Esmeralda from my mind, body, and soul, and never thought or spoke of her again. That would have been the best thing, the right thing.
But our Lord works in mysterious ways, and before I know it, the walls of Notre Dame become her prison as much as they are my sanctuary. And with temptation front and center, neither of us have the strength to resist. Our days become longing glances and coded whispers, our nights stolen kisses and caresses on borrowed time, because we both know the inescapable truth.
Our love can only end as it began—in fire. But as each day passes, and the more I fall under her spell, eternal damnation seems a small price to pay.
If Esmeralda is hell, I’ll go willingly.
Next we have a Victorian gothic horror story with what the author describes as a softly sweet conclusion—just in case you were worried where it was going. The book is Catmint's Moth by Laura Jean Mason. The cover copy seems to be following a new fashion for descriptive language that doesn’t entirely target the usual meanings of the words that are used. But here’s what it says.
When grieved prima ballerina, Catmint, is presumed drowned, but is rescued while drifting in the drowning boughs overlooked by the cliffside convalescent home by the practitioner, Moth, a handsome young lady of similar years who dresses in masculine clothing to present male for her profession—who is surgically skilled with delusions of blossoming cadavers—both of their curses interlace. During Catmint’s recovery, Moth is watchful of her practicing under the marred cottonwood. Catmint confidently initiates devotion to blossom into physical intimacy, sharing in a softly secretive courtship until the opera house comes to collect. The bargain is struck for Moth to come with as Catmint’s personal practitioner, while pursuing surgical internship in the city, but is soon blackmailed into participating in the production as well. Moth is tormented by a ghastly imitation of Catmint, which troubles the underground tunnels of the operating rooms, while the prima ballerina performs in deathly rehearsals of the bloody ballet. In the grips of vengeance or utter madness, Moth is consumed. Catmint worthy of coveting despite ruin. Until ultimately, she uncurls what waits under the opera house.
There has been an explosion of interest in Sherlock Holmes re-framings in the last decade, perhaps in part spurred on by the entire Holmes canon moving into the public domain. Meredith Rose takes that canon in an intriguing new direction in A Study in Garnet (The Ladies of Baker Street #1) from Coedwig Books. If all goes as planned, look for an interview with Meredith Rose sometime in the next couple months.
January 29, 1881: Afghanistan ruined her body, but London has broken her heart.
Dr. Siân Watson longs to shed the male disguise she used to join the British Army, but when you look like a bloke, it’s easier to amputate a man’s leg on a battlefield than buy a dress in London. Undaunted, she heads to the Criterion Hotel to find help. But when a chance encounter with an old friend leads to meeting the mesmerizing Sherlyn Holmes, Dr. Watson’s plans are upended—faster than you can say “the game is afoot.”
Now, instead of going home to Wales, she’s moving into 221B Baker Street with Miss Holmes, whose piercing deductions are as thrilling as they are unsettling. Life with the world’s only consulting detective is powerful medicine, but as they hunt for whoever is murdering cab drivers across London, Watson fears her growing affection for Holmes might injure her more deeply than any bullet. As Holmes’s obsession with the case pushes Watson into risks she swore never to take again, she must choose: whatever respectability a woman doctor can earn—or Sherlyn Holmes. Both is not an option.
When their quest for justice lands them in trouble with the law, Watson fears she has survived one war only to fall in a different kind of battle—one that may destroy what’s left of her heart.
Our next offering is a historic fantasy with a somewhat vaguely medieval setting: A Field of Foxglove (Lavender and Foxglove #1) by Hilary Rose Berwick.
Prioress Emmelot des Étoiles loves her world of service and sung prayers, of community and opus Dei – and of secrets, both magical and intimate.
When a bedraggled woman stumbles into Emmelot’s church and is accused of murdering her master, Emmelot vows to save her. The accused, Ysabeau, is a dedicated Diplomat, stolen as a child and forced to serve the local lord with her magical ability to persuade others.
Aware she is falling in love, yet unsure if she trusts her new friend, Emmelot must discover who really killed Ysabeau's master... before the new lord reclaims 'his' Diplomat and Emmelot loses her chance for love.
The sapphic content of Boadicea: Bowed not Broken by Jana Williams is vaguely hinted at in the cover copy, but the subject tags suggest it more clearly.
Boadicea... warrior, mother and fully-trained Druid who readily admits her greatest teacher was the young slave woman she rescues when they were only eighteen. Tasked with a covert mission from her Druid master. Boadicea sets out on her first mission and immediately encounters trouble in the guise of a hapless slave girl about to be beaten. Boadicea grudgingly intervenes never suspecting the far reaching implications for her mission or her life.
I’m not quite sure about including this next title because it claims that it’s “part two” and I can’t find hide or hair of a “part one.” Furthermore, we seem to be very much coming in at this middle of a story. But for what it’s worth, here’s Northwoman: Part Two by M. Jeffrey.
Saxon woman, Wulfrun finds herself mixed into a new love triangle when Erik's ex wife, Loucia, and Revna's ex lover, Astrid, return from a long voyage. Finding ways to cope with the new romantic entanglements to her life, and preparing for the battle with her ex husband, Harold, in Saxon England, she befriends Juçe, a Spanish man who was brought to Lysbotn a slave and was now a free man struggling to find his own place in the world. Before her return to England, she must face one last enemy and prove to herself that she can withstand the upcoming battle.
Upon her return to England, she learns Harold has grown more sadistic and cruel and fears that the Gods have placed too much of a burden on her. Finding her old friend Tate, she gathers the courage to see her demons fall.
If the idea of a Regency romance crossed with a candy-store rom-com, with a gender-crossing love interest and a fake dating plot tickles your fancy, Sweet Nothings and Other Confections by Sula Sullivan may have been written exactly with you in mind.
Lucille Waters, a spunky but anxious aspiring artist, finds herself caught in a conundrum. Her parents want her to marry or become a governess. In order to avoid either fate, she needs a solution— and quickly. On a whim, she lies and tells her parents she is engaged to the reclusive Lord Fondant. When her mother calls her bluff, Lucille is forced to create an elaborate scheme that will hold up against the scrutiny of her parents. The only problem? It involves convincing Lord Fondant to pretend to be her fiance.
Unbeknownst to Lucille and the rest of the Ton, Lord Fondant isn’t Lord Fondant at all. She’s the newly minted Lady Fiona Fondant; Fiona is a renowned confectioner whose delectable creations have captured the hearts of the Ton. Despite Fiona’s success and wealth, she’s struggling to navigate her new role at the helm of the family business. It’s a lonely, physically demanding job that only exacerbates the chronic illness she must manage day in and day out.
Together, they agree to go through with Lucille’s charade that challenges both their hearts and expectations. As their friendship deepens, Lucille and Fiona find themselves entangled in a world of make-believe; the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur, and an undeniably sweet chemistry simmers beneath the surface. But is their newfound friendship a recipe for disaster?
Ann's Angel (School of Enlightenment short story) by Maggie Sims is the newest installment in the growing body of “short sapphic romance spun off of a primarily heterosexual historic romance novel series.” I can’t tell whether you need to have read the main series to follow the action in this short story.
Two courtesans looking to get out of the game…
Ann Dockree wants this Christmas to be her last as a courtesan, but learning that her latest investment did not return the expected funds crushes her. Especially since her dearest friend Mary Hale has enough saved to quit the life and leave London.
But when, only days before Christmas, Mary is hurt at the hands of her so-called benefactor, Ann must care for her. Touching Mary is its own sweet agony, torturing Ann with fantasies of what might be. If only Ann can summon the courage to confess she wants more than friendship with Mary before it is too late.
A warm bath, a compassionate touch, and an unexpected yet longed for taste of pleasure might inspire the Christmas gift that offers happiness to both.
If this next title hadn’t specifically indicated a sapphic romance in the publicity, I’d likely have put it in the “other books of interest” section along with several other titles that have only hints and coy suggestions in the cover copy.
Bunny by Annie Moon looks like it may also need some content warnings for experiences that the cover copy is equally coy about spelling out.
In the enchanting world of Edwardian England, where innocence and secrets intertwine, young Mary embarks on a poignant journey that will shape her understanding of love, devotion. "Bunny" is a deeply moving YA novel that unfolds through the bittersweet words of a dying woman, lovingly crafted for her daughter's eyes to discover.
Set against the backdrop of a bygone era, "Bunny" transports readers to a time of lavish gardens, grand estates, and hidden desires. Mary's idyllic youth is forever transformed when Bunny, a mysterious and troubled young woman, enters her life one fateful summer. Placed under the care of Mary's father's best friend, Rudy, Bunny's fragile state hints at a harrowing past, one marred by abuse and suffering— and something tells Mary that the present is not much better.
Driven by a blossoming affection and compassion for Bunny, Mary becomes her unwavering guardian. As their bond deepens amidst the turmoil of Edwardian country society, tragedy strikes when Bunny is coerced into taking a step with Rudy that she never thought possible. United by their shared experiences, Bunny and Mary find solace in a humble garden cottage, forging a sanctuary away from the cruelties of the world.
However, fate has more challenges in store for the young women. Rudy whisks Bunny away on a journey abroad, leaving Mary behind. When Bunny returns, a changed and haunted figure, the outbreak of World War I casts an ominous shadow over their lives. Working together in a convalescence home within the grand house, they face the harsh realities of war, only to uncover Bunny's hidden secret— one which will change their lives forever.
Ann Aptaker is starting a new mystery series with A Crime of Secrets (Donner & Longstreet Mystery #1) from Bywater Books
New York City, 1899—a city on the cusp of a new century. A city growing taller, faster, a city of new inventions, new ideas—and old dangers on its shadowy streets where crime, misery, and murder lurk. When Pauline Godfrey, a young woman embodying the coming modern age, is viciously murdered, her throat cut, private inquiry agents Finola “Fin” Donner and Devorah Longstreet must navigate a world of violence and passion, lust and betrayal, where duty is twisted into bitter obedience and love is soiled. Fin, a tough survivor of the dockside slums, and her beloved companion, the elegant, intellectual socialite Devorah, probe deep into the festering secrets of a family, the rot and corruption of the police department, and the sinister world of the city’s thieves, whores, and thugs to find the killer.
Another new series (based on the inclusion of a series name and number) is Devil's Slide (Speakeasy #1) by Stacy Lynn Miller from Bella Books.
High school best friends Rose and Dax each have a secret—they like the other in a way they shouldn’t in 1920s Prohibition Era California. After sharing a first kiss, they’re forced apart—each sent to a different city to account for their sin. Rose lands in the coastal tourist city of Half Moon Bay in virtual servitude, working for a distant cousin for pennies. Dax has an idyllic existence in San Francisco, living with her married sister. Then the fates change. Rose escapes her miserable circumstance and lives a full life after landing a job as a lounge singer at an underground speakeasy. Dax wears out her welcome with her brother-in-law, and she and her sister end up tending to inherited property—a restaurant in Half Moon Bay. After nine years, Dax and Rose cross paths again but is it too late for them? Lovers and past loves, greedy businessmen, whiskey, and the quest for a quick buck make it nearly impossible to pick things up where they left off. Will the lives they’ve led keep them apart? Or will Dax and Rose defy the odds and find a way to be together?
Her Forgotten Promise by Corin Burnside from HQ Digital is a cross-time story, uncovering a past romance through contemporary research.
A wartime secret. A journey to uncover the truth. After an accident leaves Claire’s aunt Margaret feeling frail, Claire is more concerned for her than ever: Margaret has started getting mixed up between the past and present and keeps asking after someone called Agnes. When Claire asks her aunt about Agnes, she learns that the two lived together during the war whilst working as WAAFs. They were best friends until Agnes started acting strangely, suddenly becoming secretive and distant. Then one morning, Agnes had gone and never returned home, leaving Margaret distraught. Keen to reconnect with her aunt, Claire promises to help discover what happened to Agnes. But apart from an old photograph of the two girls, Agnes seems to have disappeared into thin air. With Margaret’s memory rapidly fading, can Claire uncover Agnes’ story before it’s too late?
Other Books of Interest
The titles I’ve classified as “other books of interest” this month are all due to significant uncertainty whether the keyword search that implies sapphic content is accurate. In each of these, although the titles turned up in my search, the listing categories aren’t helpful and the cover copy only hints at things like “more in common than they knew” or “the girl she has come to love” or “romance and self-discovery”.
First up is The Dawn of Eternal Winter by Veronika Sizova from Life Rattle Press.
Saint Petersburg, 1905. Amid civil unrest, Margarita boards the train to Paris, escaping the claws of the Russian Empire's ruthless regime. At war with its neighbours, her homeland collapses, leaving millions of broken lives in its wake. Recounting her past to the woman who saved her, Rita takes the readers to the icy gates of Siberia, the colonnade of St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. A daring psychological thriller with romance, fantasy, and suspense, this text synthesizes past and present, beauty and terror, insurgence and war. Set in a fictionalized version of pre-revolutionary Saint Petersburg, this tale of loss, grief, and betrayal becomes a window into the cold authoritarian world where love and freedom are against the law, but the fire of hope burns.
This next is a very short story with a somewhat idiosyncratic prose style (based on a look at the preview): Not Just Another to Bury by Cyan Vidales Nicoletti.
What would you do if a perfect stranger leaves you with everything?
A person you knew- saw- for a split second bequeaths all mortal possessions?
The year is 1349 and volunteer plague doctor, Lucrecia Mordor, has been thrown just about anything. Usually the mind-numbing task of detailing the information of any and all of the new fallen to the great sickness.
Till that day- where a woman named Mary Payne reaches out to Missus Mordor in her last moments of life, not letting go til her last breath. Minutes later Lucrecia is informed-
Miss Mary left her with everything...
Not Just Another to Bury is a story of self discovery, devotion, and of two women- who have more in common than either could have ever thought.
The Madwomen of Paris by Jennifer Cody Epstein from Ballantine Books looks like it may be fairly dark, and as it’s literary fiction rather than a romance, I wouldn’t make assumptions about how things turn out.
When Josephine arrives at the Salpêtrière she is covered in blood and badly bruised. Suffering from near-complete amnesia, she is diagnosed with what the Paris papers are calling “the epidemic of the age”: hysteria. It is a disease so baffling and widespread that Doctor Jean-Martine Charcot, the asylum’s famous director, devotes many of his popular public lectures to the malady. To Charcot’s delight, Josephine also proves extraordinarily susceptible to hypnosis, the tool he uses to unlock hysteria’s myriad (and often sensational) symptoms. Soon Charcot is regularly featuring Josephine on his stage, entrancing the young woman into fantastical acts and hallucinatory fits before enraptured audiences and eager newsmen—many of whom feature her on their paper’s front pages.
For Laure, a lonely asylum attendant assigned to Josephine’s care, Charcot’s diagnosis seems a godsend. A former hysteric herself, she knows better than most that life in the Salpêtrière’s Hysteria Ward is far easier than in its dreaded Lunacy division, from which few inmates ever return. But as Josephine’s fame as Charcot’s “star hysteric” grows, her memory starts to return—and with it, images of a horrific crime she believes she’s committed.
Haunted by these visions, and helplessly trapped in Charcot’s hypnotic web, she starts spiraling into actual insanity. Desperate to save the girl she has grown to love, Laure plots their escape from the Salpêtrière and its doctors. First, though, she must confirm whether Joséphine is actually a madwoman, soon to be consigned to the Salpêtrière’s brutal Lunacy Ward—or a murderer, destined for the guillotine. Both are dark possibilities—but not nearly as dark as what Laure will unearth when she sets out to discover the truth.
We finish with another novel based on actual historic events and situations: Women of the Post by Joshunda Sanders from Park Row.
This story concerns the all-Black battalion of the Women's Army Corps who found purpose, solidarity and lifelong friendship in their mission of sorting over one million pieces of mail for the US Army.
1944, New York City.
Judy Washington is tired of working from dawn til dusk in the Bronx Slave Market, cleaning white women’s houses and barely making a dime. Her husband is fighting overseas, so it's up to Judy and her mother to make enough money for rent and food. When the chance arises for Judy to join the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the ability to bring home a steady paycheck, she jumps at the opportunity. Immediately upon arrival, Judy undergoes grueling military drills and inspections led by Second Officer Charity Adams, one of the only Black officers in the WAC. Judy becomes fast friends with the other women in her unit—Stacy, Bernadette and Mary Alyce—who only discovered she was Black after joining the army.
Under Charity Adams’s direction, they are transferred to Birmingham, England, as part of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion—the only unit of Black women to serve overseas in WWII. Here, they must sort a backlog of over one million pieces of mail. The women work tirelessly, knowing that they're reuniting soldiers to their loved ones through the letters they write. However, their work becomes personal when Mary Alyce discovers a backlogged letter addressed to Judy that will upend her personal life.
Told through the alternating perspectives of Judy, Charity and Mary Alyce, Women of the Post is an unforgettable story of perseverance, female friendship, romance and self-discovery.
I also want to add an update here. A book that was included in the April show as an April release under the title Her Female Husband evidently got changed at some point to a May release under the title The Poisoned Pen Pal and has a different buy link. I’ve included the new data in the show notes. I don’t usually bother with corrections—and it’s pretty common for me to discover that I missed a change of publication date. But in this case I was trying to figure out if this was a different book in the same series, confusingly also identified as “book 1” and figured it was worth a note, just in case someone tried to track it down.
What Am I Reading?
And what am I reading? After the abundance of May, I only finished two items in June. I found Elizabeth Norton’s non-fiction work The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women as an Audible free book and figured it would make good casual listening and deep-background research on women’s lives. I was a little disappointed that it implied it was focused on ordinary women’s lives but ended up centering largely around royalty and a few celebrities, with much less content on everyday lives sprinkled throughout.
It took me a while to read through Sixpenny Octavo by Annick Trent, but it was worth it. This is a sweet, slow-paced romance set in the late 18th century featuring working-class young women in London who get caught up in the political turmoil around “dangerous publications.” The historical grounding is excellent and the interior lives of the central characters are very believable and true to the setting.
This month we have two—count them, two!—author guests on the show. First we talk to Dee Holloway, whose novella Little Nothing comes out from Queen of Swords Press this month.
(Transcript of interview with Dee Holloway will be included when available.)
This month we also talked to Lianyu Tan whose gothic horror novel The Wicked and the Willing just won a Lambda Literary Award!
(Transcript of interview with Lianyu Tan will be included 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 Dee Holloway Online
Links to Lianyu Tan Online