(Originally aired 2023/12/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2023.
Another year comes to a close and it’s hard not to start having those “what have I accomplished” thoughts. Mostly, with respect to the blog and podcast, I’ve just kept plodding along. The blog took an unintentional break for much of the year, but I’ve been trying to make up for it a little. It helps that I’ve done some trips to the U.C. Berkeley library to download and photocopy articles. Articles are less daunting to blog than entire books and give me more of a chance to put together themes that might lead into podcast topics.
Publications on the Blog
This past month the blog was definitely all about working on materials for a podcast episode on early modern European perceptions of lesbianism in the Ottoman empire. So I blogged a whole array of primary sources. Reports of travelers and diplomats like Nicolas de Nicolay, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Ottaviano Bon, Thomas Glover, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, and Mary Wortley Montague. Plus publications that demonstrate how Europeans came to specially associate Ottoman Turkey with lesbianism among sequestered women, such as William Walsh’s A Dialogue Concerning Women and the anonymous tract Satan’s Harvest Home.
No sapphic-related book shopping this month, but I did pick up a collection of essays on pre-20th century science fiction: Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors, edited by David Seed.
This month we’ll present the final story in our 2023 fiction series: “Battling Poll” by Rose Cullen. And of course next month submissions are open for the 2024 series. I’m a bit worried about getting as much reach for publicizing the submissions call, given how useless the former Twitter has become. It feels like BlueSky is growing into the same supportive community for creative works, but the reach isn’t quite as wide yet. And while I enjoy being on Mastodon, it feels too fragmented and isolated to be useful for submissions calls. Every year I worry about what I’ll receive and every year I’ve gotten enough good stories. But it really helps if you-all can spread the submissions call around if you see it on your social media.
In the outro to every episode, we encourage you to rate and review the show, to help others find us. I don’t make a big deal out of it because, quite honestly, I can’t afford to set my heart on getting those reviews. But the other day I was checking something out on Apple Podcasts and happened to notice that we’ve had two new reviews this year. So I thought I’d share what people are saying about the show. One listener praises the show for “always [taking] the greatest care to let us know what is modern supposition, historical theory, or written/verified ‘fact’.” Several people give a shout out to the original fiction and the new book listings. I love that folks say they’ll pause the podcast to go look up a book that sounds interesting. I’d love to know how many people have found and enjoyed books because they heard about them here. One listener especially appreciates discussions of “the thorny issue of reading our modern ideas into historic text.” I think my favorite review is the one that says, “This podcast is better than any queer studies course offered at any university at the moment, and it’s FREE!” (All caps.) Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I do appreciate when you listeners share your love of the podcast, whether in a review or just by recommending the show to your friends.
Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
And speaking of learning about new releases, what do we have for you this time? There are a few October books that only just came to my attention and the rest are December releases. Maybe I’ll spot some more November books for next month’s episode.
First up is a cross-time story, Say Their Names by Karen Badger from Badger Bliss Books.
Jo Benson is a political science professor. Tam Allen is a cardiac care nurse. Jo and Tam met several years previously, at a demonstration protesting police brutality against the black community. After several years together, they relocate from South Carolina to upstate New York when Jo is offered a tenured position at the State University of New York. Two years after relocating, Jo and Tam purchase an old mansion in the Adirondack region of New York. History collides when they discover secrets about their new home that will change their lives forever. Join them as they strive to discover who had been living in their attic for sixty years.
I’m assuming from context that the secrets in the attic are sapphic in nature, as well as the contemporary framing story.
Next up is Rest in Paper by Jay Mulling, which sent me to look up just how common it was for women to be lawyers at the turn of the 20th century. The answer might surprise you.
Josephine Bradley's grandmother insists that the Bard wrote utter smut. Josephine can't really find the fault in Granny's logic. She had no problem believing Shakespeare was a dirty dog. A very "keen sir," as it were.
Josephine Bradley is a 27-year-old lawyer living her best life. She didn't think she would wear 1904 well, but there she was, absolutely crushing it. She was killing it at her father's firm--well, at their firm, now that she had passed the Illinois Bar Exam--and couldn't think of a better place to be than exactly where she was. That place being the home that she had grown up in, surrounded by family and friends, in a small commuter suburb an hour's train ride west of Chicago.
This thought--that there was no better place to be--was only galvanized by the arrival of two new schoolteachers. One of them was a total Mary and Josephine really couldn't be bothered. But the other one--Miss Thalia Radcliffe--was perfect in every way and only too easy to love. Josephine flirts her way into the new schoolteacher's good graces and finds in her a partner she'd never thought she'd have. Not in this life, anyway.
Josephine and Thalia's budding romance is put on hold, however, when the Bradley's attend Chicago's 1904 Labor Day Parade and Josephine's grandmother goes missing. The family scours the city, searching for their missing matriarch. Chicago is no place for lost Grannies, after all.
Shoot the Moon by Isa Arsén from Putnam Books falls in that awkward era of, “how can this be historic fiction when I remember those events?”
Intelligent but isolated recent physics graduate Annie Fisk feels an undeniable pull toward space. Her childhood memories dimmed by loss, she has left behind her home, her family, and her first love in pursuit of intellectual fulfillment. When she finally lands a job as a NASA secretary during the Apollo 11 mission, the work is everything she dreamed, and while she feels a budding attraction to one of the engineers, she can’t get distracted. Not now.
When her inability to ignore mistaken calculations propels her into a new position, Annie finds herself torn between her ambition, her heart, and a mysterious discovery that upends everything she knows to be scientifically true. Can she overcome her doubts and reach beyond the limits of time and space?
Two Wings to Hide My Face by Penny Mickelbury from Bywater Books is the eagerly-awaited sequel to Two Wings to Fly Away.
In 1857 the US Supreme Court ruled that Blacks were not—and could never be citizens. Black lives were already in peril from the hooligans who would capture and sell them South under the protection of the Runaway Slave Act, even if they weren't runaway slaves. By 1861 Southern states spoke openly of seceding from the Union to form the Confederate States and protect what they believed was their right to own slaves. If the South were to win, slavery would become the law of the land. So for many Blacks, leaving was the only option. Genie Oliver, who frequently dresses as a man to move about the city, is no longer safe in her disguise. White people find themselves just as imperiled for providing any assistance to Blacks—which means that the former Pinkerton’s agent Ezra MacKaye, his fiancé Ada Lawrence, and heiress Abigail Read, are in as much danger as Genie and her friends, the Juniper family. Not knowing what to expect, Ezra, Ada, and the Juniper family join Genie and Abigail as they pack up their lives and head to Canada. Their goal is to stay at least one step ahead of the brutalities of the uncivil war, but can they outpace the dangers that cross their paths every step of the way?
The Prohibition era in California’s Bay Area is the setting for Whiskey War (Speakeasy #2) by Stacy Lynn Miller from Bella Books
At the height of Prohibition and the dawn of the Great Depression, lesbian couple Dax and Rose look forward to a clandestine life together in Half Moon Bay after narrowly escaping death at Devil’s Slide. Dax’s sister May makes the Foster House their refuge while they sit on a gold mine of stolen whiskey from the Seaside Club. But then Frankie Wilkes learns Dax might have it and makes Rose’s life miserable for defending her.
Dax scrambles to unload the barrels in San Francisco to keep their struggling restaurant afloat but sparks the curiosity of May’s husband Logan, who had abandoned them months earlier. He shows up looking for money and finds the hidden barrel Dax had kept for a rainy day. When Logan sells the whiskey to customers by the glass, Dax sees the ugly side of the illegal business when left unchecked.
In comes Grace Parsons, a wealthy Hollywood starlet and Rose’s former lover, with a solution to their problems. However, her bold help spirals into a violent feud that leaves no one in their inner circle untouched. How far will Logan and Frankie go to get what they want? Can Dax and Rose find a way out before the whiskey war takes their lives?
We have yet another cross-time story involving a discovery in an attic with The Apple Diary by Gerri Hill from Bella Books.
After the death of her grandmother, reluctant heiress Madilyn Marak agrees to stay with her grandfather at the estate for the summer. There, she finds an old diary hidden in an antique desk in the attic—The Apple Diary—written by her great-grandmother Isabel.
In there, she finds the love story of Isabel and Lorah, along with a photograph of the two young women from 1933. The diary, like the love affair, was short and brief, but rich and vivid enough for her to feel a true bond with the women despite the heartbreaking ending.
She is determined to get Isabel’s beloved apple orchard—which had fallen into ruins—vibrant again. She hires the inexperienced Dylan Hayes, a woman soon to be homeless, to take on the chore of restoring the orchard to its original glory.
The normally quiet and reserved Madilyn finds a new joy in life as she becomes friends with the outgoing and energetic woman who has come to live on the property. As she is transformed from a stoic and passive heiress to a happy and spirited woman, she realizes the similarities of her journey and that of Isabel’s.
Like Isabel, is she destined to marry a man she doesn’t love? Or will she find the strength that eluded Isabel and follow her heart?
Next up are a couple of books in that favored setting of World War II. Virgin Flight by E.V. Bancroft is from Butterworth Books.
Can love triumph in the battle between duty and desire?
Beryl Jenkinson is a young dreamer determined to break free. Though bound to her family’s garage, her heart dreams of taking flight with Attagirls, the brave women piloting planes across the nation to play a vital role in the war effort.
Odette de Lavigne embodies the allure of a World War Two pin-up girl: glamorous, seductive, and a masterful pilot. But beneath her carefree demeanour lies a poignant secret.
Their destinies collide when Odette literally crashes into Beryl’s life, sparking a blaze of passion and an enduring infatuation. Fate reunites them at the ATA, but can love conquer the clash between duty and enchanting desire?
J.E. Leak’s “Shadow Series” concludes with In the Shadow of Victory (Shadow Series #4) from Certifiably Creative LLC. If you haven’t been reading along in this series, you might want to start at the beginning.
Paris, 1944. As OSS agents Kathryn Hammond and Jenny Ryan navigate the dangerous world of espionage, they are faced with the ultimate test of love and loyalty. Can their love overcome the obstacles in their path, or have time and the shadows of the past cost them a second chance at happiness? Join Kathryn and Jenny on their journey of forgiveness, healing, and devotion, as they discover the strength of their love in the thrilling conclusion to the sapphic noir Shadow series.
Other Books of Interest
Three books fall in my “other books of interest” category.
Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley from Aurora Metro Books indicates that there is queer content, but it isn’t entirely clear what the specifics are.
"I collected the first bone when I was twelve. This fact was not mentioned in court... Such a tiny little bone, more like a tooth. I only kept it to keep him safe."
Kathryn Darkling, imprisoned in Holloway, is facing death by hanging for her vengeance killing. Haunted by a spirit, she still hopes to perform the ancient black magic that will free her soul, or her struggle to punish the mighty will have been in vain. Will the love of her life come to her aid?
Or can she find a way to escape her fate?
Stories set in a fantasy-Viking era often involve gender-bending protagonists. In the case of Vyking Queen by Elora Roze from Blue Flame Publishing the tagline “a third gender romance” suggests that I might be doing the character a disservice by putting her in the lesbian or sapphic category.
A story of a lonely young jarl that must live up to her father's legacy while securing her own. All while fighting against the curse she was born with due to her mother's hate. Will she find a true love? Will she break the curse? Or will the curse prove to be strong enough to break a thousand years rule her family has held over the wild North sea and the people that call it home.
While one of the reviews for A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather from Tor.com indicates that there are sapphic elements, and it turned up under my search terms, the cover copy itself is pretty much silent on the topic.
In 17th-century London, unnatural babies are being born, with eyes made for the dark and webbed digits suited to the sea. Sarah Davis is intimately familiar with such strangeness—having hidden her uncanny nature all her life and fled to London under suspicious circumstances, Sarah starts over as a midwife’s apprentice to a member of the illegal Worshipful Company of Midwives, hoping to carve out for herself an independent life. But with each new unnatural birth, the fear in London grows of the Devil's work. When the wealthy Lady Wren hires her to see her through her pregnancy, Sarah quickly becomes a favorite of her husband, the famous architect Lord Christopher Wren, whose interest in the uncanny borders on obsession. Sarah soon finds herself caught in a web of magic and intrigue created by those who want to use her power for themselves, and whose pursuits threaten to unmake the earth itself.
What Am I Reading?
And what am I reading? It was all audiobooks this month, and given that one of those was Menewood by Nichola Griffith, which clocks in at almost 29 hours of listening time, I hope you’ll understand the skimpiness of this month’s list. Menewood is the sequel to Hild and if you liked the first book, you’ll most likely enjoy this one as well. The story is packed with dense worldbuilding—a term not usually used for historic fiction—and has a meandering pace until things pick up in the last section. There’s more of the same casual background same-sex relationships that we saw in Hild—in fact, I’d say they’re more present and significant in Menewood, though it takes quite a while in the book for that aspect to appear. If you aren’t already familiar with early Anglo-Saxon history, it may be best to approach this book as if it were an epic fantasy set in an unfamiliar world, and let it soak in as you read.
The second audiobook I consumed was Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher, a dark, bordering-on-horror fairy-tale quest that won the Hugo Award for best novel and was a finalist for a couple other major awards. No sapphic content, but a solid Kingfisher-style adventure with a heroine you want to root for.
I had ambitious plans to record a bunch of interviews this week when I was on vacation, and I utterly fell down on the job because my brain gets all claustrophobic and keeps putting off the whole “reaching out and making arrangements” part. Rest assured, I have several fascinating people to interview once I pull my brain back off the ledge and convince it that everything’s ok.
But I’ll finish up with a “what am I writing” note. Because the thing I did accomplish on my vacation was to write a short story that’s the first fiction I’ve completed since the start of the pandemic. Be sure that I’ll let you know more details as they’re available.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online