(Originally aired 2024/02/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2024.
Since it’s February, that means that submissions are closed for this year’s fiction series. But since I’m recording this in January, it means that I haven’t started reading the submissions yet and certainly haven’t made the selections yet. So watch the blog for that news. Based purely on what I’ve seen when logging in the submissions as they come, there are some interesting shifts this year. But there’s also a bit of disappointment that the numbers of submissions are on the low side. All this will be taken into account when I decide whether to continue the fiction series next year.
On the personal side, I dodged another layoff at work but this time I’m a bit disappointed, because the layoff package would have taken me out pretty close to my planned retirement date. Ah well, still another year and change to go. Also on the personal side, I have a change to a book that was in the January listings. The French translation of Daughter of Mystery got a title change, which required pushing the release date a bit later. So now it will be coming out in March as L’Héritière des Mystères. (Sorry about my French.) I also just signed the contract for a short story in an upcoming anthology from Bella Books, so more on that when a date is set.
Publications on the Blog
After pledging last month to get back on a weekly schedule for new articles on the blog, I only managed one last month: Liza Blake’s article “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” which was background reading for last month’s essay show.
But if you’re one of the folks who reads the blog, you’ll also see I’ve been posting some analysis on the rather peculiar data for last year’s science fiction and fantasy Hugo Awards. If you enjoy geeking out on statistics and data analysis, you might want to take a look. But behind that data is a community upset that a process that has always previously been relatively transparent and reliable has shaken our trust in the system.
I picked up one new book for the blog, though it will probably get just a brief high-level review. This is Kirsty Loehr’s A Short History of Queer Women. Loehr’s book isn’t meant to be serious academic history—more of a satirical and lighthearted survey of lesbian icons through the ages. Don’t go to it for research, but it might amuse you for an afternoon.
Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
Which brings us to the new fiction. I have a few catch-up titles from December and January, starting with Alice: A Ghost Story by Mats Evensson. Evidently this gothic tale uses the same setting as a previous book by the same author, The Beast of St Ender, however that one doesn’t have sapphic content.
1844, England. Alice Reed, a promising young reporter, is sent to interview the reclusive Baron Thornbow when her coach crashes. Barely surviving the accident, Alice finds herself in the baron’s ancient mansion, haunted by strange occurrences—and caught in a perilous game of cat and mouse with a vengeful spirit hellbent on her demise.
Amid this swirling nightmare, Alice finds friendship—and perhaps more—in the baron’s entrancing maid, Miss Poole. Together, they must stop the malevolent entity before Alice’s very soul is lost forever.
This next title appears to be erotica, which I usually filter out in my search terms, but the premise and setting are rather interesting. This is The Belle (One of the Outcasts #1) by Violet Knight.
Set against the backdrop of Queen Mary I's reign in England, this romantic tale follows Antoinette, a French gardener navigating the complexities of life in a foreign land. Battling the scars of betrayal from her homeland, Antoinette's world transforms when she encounters Lady Lavinia St. Claire, a Deaf noblewoman.
Before she ever meets her and knows her name, Antoinette calls Lavinia "the belle." Lavinia's intense beauty attracts Antoinette, but signing with one another makes her fall in love.
The Knowing by Emma Hinds from Bedford Square Publishers is a historic fantasy set in the later 19th century and inspired by real people such as Maud Wagner, one of the first known female tattoo artists.
Whilst working as a living canvas for an abusive tattoo artist, Flora meets Minnie, an enigmatic circus performer who offers her love and refuge in an opulent townhouse, home to the menacing Mr Chester Merton. Flora earns her keep reading tarot cards for his guests whilst struggling to harness her gift, the Knowing - an ability to summon the dead. Caught in a dark love triangle between Minnie and Chester, Flora begins to unravel the secrets inside their house. Then at her first public séance, Flora hears the spirit of a murdered boy prostitute and exposes his killer, setting off a train of events which put her life at risk.
Historical fiction takes a wide variety of approaches to dealing with the realities of past ages. Beards by Cheyenne Isles depicts one survival mechanism in the mid 20th century.
As soon as she was old enough to escape her prejudiced Georgia hometown, Audra Lynch ran away to New York looking for the freedom to be herself. It was there that she met the beautiful Vivian Porter whom she fell deeply in love with. Everything about her was perfect, except for one thing: she was married. The marriage, however, wasn’t what it seemed. Her husband, Nathan, was gay and in a relationship with his longtime partner William McMahon.
Five years later, in 1959, Audra and William find themselves following in their partners’ footsteps and preparing for a wedding of their own to help hide the truth about their relationships. As the date draws nearer, Audra begins to question their decision when she starts feeling as trapped as she did back in Georgia. While she contemplates her upcoming nuptials to William, Vivian and Nathan find themselves faced with a big decision: one that could impact all their lives.
Moving on to the February releases, we start with what might be characterized as “Biblical fan-fiction” in The Scrolls of Deborah (Desert Songs Trilogy #1) by Esther Goldenburg from 100 Block by Row House. I have to confess I find the cover copy to be a bit over-the-top dramatic, but I’ll read it as-is.
The Scrolls of Deborah transports us to the awe-inspiring landscapes of the past and uncovers the intertwined lives of Rebekah, a revered matriarch in Judaism, and her devoted handmaiden Deborah. In this mesmerizing tale, their strength, wisdom, and love take center stage, shaping their destinies amid a world steeped in tribal tradition.
With poignant vulnerability, The Scrolls of Deborah, a work of Biblical fiction and the first installment of the Desert Songs Trilogy, illuminates the hidden stories of these remarkable women, whose pivotal roles have often been overshadowed. Against the backdrop of the desert and the opulence of palaces, the narrative weaves a tapestry of captivating tales. Each page reveals stories filled with heartbreak and inspiration, leaving an indelible mark on the very fabric of religious thought.
Through the telling of Deborah’s day-to-day life, the book exposes the profound beauty of connection and community, showcasing the transformative power of shared experiences. It invites readers to witness the immense strength found in the bonds between women and how their choices reverberate across generations.
The Scrolls of Deborah is a testament to the enduring legacy of these extraordinary women whose stories challenge and reshape our understanding of history, faith, and the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.
In the current fashion for spinning off a sapphic novella from a primarily heterosexual historic romance series, we have Letters to Her Love (Northfield Hall Novellas #3) by Katherine Grant.
Louisa Hoggart is about to leave Northfield Hall. Her charge, Miss Caroline Preston, is fully grown and hardly needs a governess anymore. Even more exciting, Louisa plans to move to London as a children’s author. She just has one major task left: help Miss Preston host her first house party.
Opera singer Elena Zilio accepts her invitation to the Northfield Hall house party for the free room and board. She also hopes to find a new protector for herself and her eight-year-old daughter. When she hears Louisa Hoggart will be at the party, she is excited to reconnect with an old acquaintance.
It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly between the two women. Yet what Louisa recognizes as attraction, Elena labels as friendship. Armed with nothing but her pen and big dreams for the future, can Louisa convince Elena to take a chance on the feelings swirling between them?
This next book sounds like it’s a fantasy set in a turn of the 20th century re-named Paris, but it isn’t entirely possible to tell how rooted in real-world history it is: The Absinthe Underground by Jamie Pacton from Peachtree Teen.
After running away from home, Sybil Clarion is eager to embrace all the freedom the Belle Époque city of Severon has to offer. Instead, she’s traded high-society soirées for empty pockets. At least she has Esme, the girl who offered Sybil a home, and if either of them dared, something more.
Ever since Esme Rimbaud brought Sybil back to her flat, the girls have been everything to each other—best friends, found family, and secret crushes. While Esme would rather spend the night tinkering with her clocks and snuggling her cats, Sybil craves excitement and needs money. She plans to get both by stealing the rare posters that crop up around town. With rent due, Esme agrees to accompany—and more importantly protect—Sybil.
When they’re caught selling a poster by none other than its subject, Maeve, the glamorous girl invites Sybil and Esme to The Absinthe Underground, the exclusive club she co-owns, and reveals herself to be a Green Faerie, trapped in this world. She wants to hire thieves for a daring heist in Fae that would set her free, and is willing to pay enough that Sybil and Esme never have to worry about rent again. It’s too good of an offer to pass up, even if Maeve’s tragic story doesn’t quite add up, and the secrets could jeopardize everything the girls have so carefully built.
Other Books of Interest
Perhaps that last book should have been put in the “other books of interest” group instead, which has several entries this month.
The Fox Maidens by Robin Ha from Balzer + Bray gets the “other interest” category because it’s entirely too coy about the hinted queer content.
Kai Song dreams of being a warrior. She wants to follow in the footsteps of her beloved father, the commander of the Royal Legion. But while her father believes in Kai and trains her in martial arts, their society isn’t ready for a girl warrior.
Still, Kai is determined. But she is plagued by rumors that she is the granddaughter of Gumiho, the infamous nine-tailed fox demon who was killed by her father years before.
Everything comes crashing down the day Kai learns the deadly secret about her mother’s past. Now she must come to terms with the truth about her identity and take her destiny into her own hands. As Kai desperately searches for a way to escape her fate, she comes to find compassion, and even love, in the most unexpected places.
Set in sixteenth-century Korea and richly infused with Korean folklore, The Fox Maidens is a timeless and powerful story about fighting for your place in the world, even when it seems impossible.
Guide Us Home by Jesse J Thoma & CF Frizzell from Bold Strokes Books is a contemporary story with cross-time elements from an old book.
Nancy and Sam have no intention of playing nice. Each aims to win the bid for the abandoned Narragansett Island Lighthouse, and compromise isn’t in the cards. It’s preservation versus profit, but the lighthouse’s dissatisfied governing board insists on better from both women.
Ironically, a battered old book at the lighthouse just might provide the key to success. Inspiring parallels are discovered in the dog-eared pages: the struggles, dreams—and love—between two Danish women braving WWII’s desperate days, guided by a valiant lighthouse they know well.
The heroic tale could navigate Nancy and Sam to success, if they stop floundering long enough to see love coming to their rescue.
And finally, An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson from Redhook is decidedly unclear about whether it has a historic setting. The implication is there. And I think perceptive readers will spot the references to a gothic classic.
Deep in the forgotten hills of Massachusetts stands Saint Perpetua’s College. Isolated and ancient, it is not a place for timid girls. Here, secrets are currency, ambition is lifeblood, and strange ceremonies welcome students into the fold.
On her first day of class, Laura Sheridan is thrust into an intense academic rivalry with the beautiful and enigmatic Carmilla. Together, they are drawn into the confidence of their demanding poetry professor, De Lafontaine, who holds her own dark obsession with Carmilla.
But as their rivalry blossoms into something far more delicious, Laura must confront her own strange hungers. Tangled in a sinister game of politics, bloodthirsty professors and magic, Laura and Carmilla must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in their ruthless pursuit of knowledge.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading? I seem to have a lot of books in-process at the moment: five different ebooks, two audiobooks, and a couple of hard copies. But only two titles that I finished in January.
First is Perfect Rhythm by Jae, which I confess I’d been putting off because I’ve had a bit of a reaction to the book being promoted as “the” book to read for lesbian romance with an asexual character. Unfortunately, I found the asexual representation to be decidedly unsatisfying. I have a lot of thoughts about this book, but I’ll save them for a different venue.
I also listened somewhat randomly to a historic mystery, A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn because it was in an Audible two-for-one sale and looked interesting. Alas, I found the heroine unlikeable, especially for how much latitude she was willing to give the awful male co-protagonists. So January was a bit of a wash. But somewhere in those nine books in progress, I’m sure to find something that hits the spot.
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