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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 290 - On the Shelf for July 2024

Saturday, July 6, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 290 - On the Shelf for July 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024-07-06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2024.

It’s the middle of summer and all those summer plans are galloping down upon us like a herd of migrating wildebeest! Ok, not sure where that simile came from. Too much Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom in my youth, I think.

This time next month I’ll be off on my travels and I will either have pre-loaded the August podcasts or I’ll have decided I get a vacation. Those who pay close attention may have noticed that our second fiction episode should have gone live last week. Never fear—everything will happen in its own time. The quest for the right narrators has meant some rescheduling but I’m working with some great possibilities and I think you’ll consider the wait to be worth it.

Publications on the Blog

Without wanting to jinx things, I seem to have broken through my block on getting new blogs written.  Mostly I’ve been focusing on materials for my trope episode on plays and actors, but I also slipped in Vivien Ng’s “Looking for Lesbians in Chinese History” which takes more of a “how I became interested in this subject” angle than an extended survey. I got some great feedback on Ng’s subject from commenters on social media and have a couple more sources on Chinese history to track down. I also covered yet another rebuttal to Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women, this one by A. Cameron  in the article “Love (and Marriage) Between Women.”

But as I said, most of my current reading is in the field of drama, either specifically touching on female homoeroticism or simply on women’s participation on the stage. First up was Pamela Cheek with "The 'Mémoires secrets' and the Actress: Tribadism, Performance, and Property" looking at the popular obsession with sapphism among 18th century French actresses. Next was two articles by Theodora A. Jankowski. “ the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare’s Plays” which strains a bit to find lesbian-like themes in Shakespeare, and then “’Where there can be no cause of affection’: Redefining Virgins, Their Desires, and Their Pleasures in John Lyly’s Gallathea” which examines my favorite early modern English play and how it challenges gender expectations.

I’m currently reading and writing up articles from the collection Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage edited by Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, which has only one article specifically focused on sapphic themes, but a great deal of information about women’s participation in the theater across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Book Shopping!

No book shopping directly for the Project, but I added a couple titles to the background research for my Restoration-era projects: Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House and Peter Thornton’s Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France & Holland.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

…which gives me the lead-in to note that the first of my Restoration-set sapphic romance stories will come out this month in Whispers in the Stacks: An Anthology of Library Love Stories edited by M.J. Lowe from Bella Books. I think mine is the only non-contemporary story in the volume but of course you’ll be picking it up even if only to read “Bound in Bitterness” in which a book thief gets more than she bargained for when caught red-handed.

From pragmatic librarians finding unexpected connections to visitors discovering more than just books, Whispers in the Stacks: An Anthology of Library Love Stories explores love in quiet corners and among towering bookshelves. Whether it’s the charm of a late-night study session turning into a subtle flirtation, or a librarian uncovering a spy lurking between the stacks, this anthology proves that even in the most orderly places, romance can write its own unpredictable story.

But now let’s dip back a bit to mention a May book that I missed previously: Meridian Bay: A Linked Collection by A.L. Duncan, McGee Mathews, and Nancy Sparks.

In the midst of the Gilded Age and the contentious stormfronts of the Suffragette movement, we enter a world where privilege is paramount in a reforming Boston, and there is no room for error or the weak at heart.

A time when women are regarded as little more than good company, Dr. Magdalena Brockton is left her parents estate with less than an expected inheritance to maintain it. Convinced to sign Meridian Bay as a lodge, one by one she rents the rooms of her once too quiet Queen Anne manor house. Unbeknownst to everyone at Meridian Bay, their lives are about to be connected to one basic need; one which knows no boundaries of privilege or passion.

June provides an overflowing list of Pride Month romances to catch up on. A number of them are relatively short, and Regency settings are a favorite. So they should be perfect for your summer beach reads.

Cupid's Trap (Cupid's Favorites #1) by Jaye Vincent is one of the bite-sized Regencies.

Miss Mae Griffin did not plan to come to Bath to stay with her elder sister’s best friend. She did not intend to be invited to Lady Flora Neville’s salon, and certainly did not imagine that she would come face to face with the most enigmatic woman she had ever encountered… one she cannot stop thinking of no matter how hard she tries. And yet, this is precisely what has happened.

As she discovers that there is more to Lady Flora Neville than she ever expected possible, Mae begins to wonder if there is another life available to her—one that defies the expectations placed upon her by her dear Mama and the rest of polite society.

Like Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick, might the very deepest love be hiding behind something that Mae has never considered: that her own pride might be standing in the way of what she wants most in life.

But can she push aside the threat of ruin to capture some of the Bard’s timeless love story for her own?

The Earl's Wife by Jessica Dalvin offers a lot of mysteries in its brief cover copy. Who is Amelie and what part does she play in Elizabeth’s forthcoming marriage?

What happens when an arranged marriage goes terribly wrong?

Elizabeth has been betrothed to the Earl of Stacks, but there are those who are determined to stop the mixed-class marriage and Elizabeth’s life is in danger.

But when her father organises discreet protection for her, another danger becomes apparent. Elizabeth is falling for Amelie and now her life and her future with the Earl are on the cusp of a terrible ending. Can Elizabeth survive the engagement? And what will she do about her feelings for Amelie?

The Lady's Secret: A Regency Affair by Adela Vesper is another short Regency tale that provides only hints of the story within.

In a time of social upheaval and reform, two brave women, Evelyn and Cassandra, stand united in their fight against corruption and tyranny. Their unwavering love and commitment to justice form the backbone of a movement that challenges the very foundations of power and privilege.

In contrast to the previous two blurbs, the cover copy for Aven Blair’s three 1920s French Quarter Sapphic Series books is maybe a bit too extensive? I’ve condensed things down a little.

In Claire's Young Flame, the proprietor of the Creole Crown Hotel is distracted from her strict focus on business by a visiting photo journalist who brings a whirlwind romance in her wake amid the intoxicating backdrop of jazz and decadence.

Evan's Entanglement brings together a Prohibition-dodging wine importer and a young artist. Romance blossoms late one night in the quiet of an art gallery, but the shady side of Evan’s business plunges them both into danger.

And, finally, Julian's Lady Luck offers an age-gap romance between a casino owner and young roulette player who gambles at the tables…and with hearts, hoping to win big but risking a devastating loss. I feel like I’m not doing proper justice to the lush descriptions in the cover copy for this trio, but a certain amount of condensing was necessary.

World War II is a popular setting for sapphic romance, but Love in the Shadows by Emma Nichols from J'Adore Les Books tackles some of the darker side of the setting.

Johanna Neumann, a once-acclaimed pianist, is forced to leave her high-society life in Berlin to support her military husband, the newly appointed Kommandant of Erstein. With her son enlisted in the Hitler Youth and her dreams of music silenced by the clamor of conflict, she grapples with the harsh realities of her new existence in a place where she is neither welcome nor trusted. Haunted by loss and loneliness and disillusioned by her husband's transformation, she, like many, yearns for an end to the war so she can go back to her beloved homeland before her young daughter, Astrid, is recruited into the Nazi regime.

As Johanna tries to navigate her restricted life in the heart of war-torn 1943 Alsace, a flicker of hope emerges in the form of Fabienne Brun, a spirited dairy farmer turned French Resistance fighter. Their connection is undeniable, and that is more terrifying than the war, but is Johanna delusional in hoping for a future together, if they survive the war?

This next book—also set around World War II—falls on the edge of what I normally include, as it mixes in paranormal parallel worlds and vampires into its history. So…not strictly a historical but maybe of interest? Death Has Golden Eyes (Dizzy Dixon Mysteries #1) by Cameron Darrow.

1948. Newly discharged from the British Army, Desdemona “Dizzy” Dixon returns to Britain after four years in a Europe shattered by Nazi occult magic and the atomic weapons that ripped a hole into a parallel dimension known as the Realm. Her plans? Unpack, and make sure her two Realmic companions don’t kill each other.

A tall task when one of them is a vampire.

But adjusting to life in their new home may have to wait. Only a few hours after moving in, she encounters two werewolves—one alive, one dead. Did one kill the other? Or was it a local with everything to fear? Or hate? To the people of the village of Moorhead, these beings of legend are synonymous with Nazi magic—so what if one of them winds up dead?

As Earth’s foremost expert on the Realm and the greatest champion of its strangely-familiar inhabitants, it will be up to Dizzy to separate fact from fairy tale and uncover the truth, for the sake of the living and the dead.

Seductive vampires with a taste for more than blood, local cops out of their depth, small town politics, members of Dizzy’s own fan club and… a talking fox? More than murder and blackmail are afoot on the mist-shrouded moors of the North of England—alive, dead, and everywhere in between!

The July books start off with the conclusion to Tasha Suri’s Burning Kingdoms trilogy: The Lotus Empire from Orbit Books. This is a series with a lot of complex world-building so I advise starting at the beginning, and if you’ve been reading along so far, then you’ve probably already pre-ordered it!

Malini has claimed her rightful throne as the empress of Parijatdvipa, just as the nameless gods prophesied. Now, in order to gain the support of the priesthood who remain loyal to the fallen emperor, she must consider a terrible bargain: Claim her throne and burn in order to seal her legacy—or find another willing to take her place on the pyre.

Priya has survived the deathless waters and now their magic runs in her veins. But a mysterious yaksa with flowering eyes and a mouth of thorns lies beneath the waters. The yaksa promises protection for Ahiranya. But in exchange, she needs a sacrifice. And she’s chosen Priya as the one to offer it.

Two women once entwined by fate now stand against each other. But when an ancient enemy rises to threaten their world, Priya and Malini will find themselves fighting together once more – to prevent their kingdoms, and their futures, from burning to ash.

Although A Rose by Any Other Name by Mary McMyne from Redhook is tagged as having sapphic elements, it appears that the protagonist’s main romantic relationship is with a man (or maybe more than one). It isn’t clear and the reviews I can find aren’t much clearer. Why does everyone seem to think that the existence of queer relationships in a book is a massive spoiler about which details must never be divulged in advance?

England, 1591. Rose Rushe’s passion for life runs deep—she loves mead and music, meddles with astrology, and laughs at her mother’s warnings to guard her reputation. When Rose’s father dies and a noble accuses her and her dear friend Cecely of witchcraft, they flee to the household of respected alchemists in London. But as their bond deepens, their sanctuary begins to feel more like a cage. To escape, they turn to the occult, secretly casting charms and selling astrological advice in the hopes of building a life together. This thriving underground business leads Rose to fair young noble Henry and playwright Will Shakespeare, and so begins a brief, tempestuous, and powerful romance—one filled with secret longings and deep betrayals. In this world of dazzling masques and decadent feasts, where the stars decide futures, Rose will write her own fate instead. 

The previous books in Juno Dawson’s Her Majesties Royal Coven series have had contemporary settings, but in Queen B from Penguin Books she takes us back to the origins of her fictional organization.

It’s 1536 and the Queen has been beheaded. Lady Grace Fairfax, witch, knows that something foul is at play—that someone had betrayed Anne Boleyn and her coven. Wild with the loss of their leader—and her lover, a secret that if spilled could spell Grace’s own end— she will do anything in her power to track down the traitor. But there’s more at stake than revenge: it was one of their own, a witch, that betrayed them, and Grace isn’t the only one looking for her. King Henry VIII has sent witchfinders after them, and they’re organized like they’ve never been before under his new advisor, the impassioned Sir Ambrose Fulke, a cold man blinded by his faith. His cruel reign could mean the end of witchkind itself. If Grace wants to find her revenge and live, she will have to do more than disappear. She will have to be reborn.

Secret organizations are also the focus of Daughters of Chaos by Jen Fawkes from The Overlook Press, which also has a touch of the supernatural.

The year is 1862. After a tragedy at home, 22-year-old Sylvie Swift parts ways with her twin brother to trace the origins of an enigmatic playscript that’s landed on their doorstep. This text leads her to Nashville, the Union Army’s western headquarters, bustling with soldiers and saboteurs, partisans and powerful men––and powerful women. Sylvie works on a translation of the playscript by day, but at night, under the direction of the Army’s Secret Service Chief, she acts as Union spy. Both endeavors acquaint her with an ancient sisterhood whose members – including Hannah, a fiery revolutionary to whom Sylvie is increasingly drawn – possess uncanny, and potentially monstrous, powers. Sylvie soon becomes entangled in the Cult of Chaos, a mystical feminist society steadfast in their age-old mission to confront and eradicate the violent injustices enacted by men.

I often organize each month’s books in chronological order, simply because I have to pick some sort of order, though sometimes a different grouping makes more sense. But that chronology is why it irks me when I have no idea exactly when—or where—a book is set. Doctor's Bitter Pill by Sharon G. Clark from Flashpoint Publications gives no specific clue to the setting. It might be 18th century, or 19th, or maybe even 20th. Nor can I figure out from the cover copy where it’s set, although either England or the US seems the best bet, based on the names.  So this one’s sort of a random grab bag.

Giselle Saunders has a relatively happy life, until her benefactor, Preston Muir dies a horrible death. Giselle has no sooner come to grips with her “uncle’s” death, when the rest of the family begins dying one-by-one from an epidemic. She turns to Elspeth, a nurse hired to assist Colonel Gardner after an injury, and the rest of the family during this medical emergency. Other than Preston and the Colonel, Elspeth is the only person Giselle has ever trusted, and the only one who has ever created the strange feelings in Giselle’s body and heart.

Elspeth Keillor believes something sinister is happening at the Gardner mansion. When the Colonel enlists her assistance in keeping an eye on Giselle when the family falls ill, Elspeth realizes she may be in over her head—and over-her-head-in-love with the much younger Giselle. Elspeth suspects foul play by the son-in-law, Dr. Edwin Merrick, but is dismissed when she starts questioning his procedures on the patients. Her distress increases when Elspeth learns Giselle has taken it upon herself to prove Edwin the murderer.

 Will Giselle and Elspeth be able to come to terms with their attraction to one another, before they are the next victim?

Forever Fields by Josh Hill from Wicked House Publishing is a supernatural—maybe verging on horror—mystery.

Wounded WWI veteran Elsie Everly returns home to find out her late father left her a mysterious house in the middle of nowhere Utah. Elsie hires the young and enigmatic handywoman Harriet and together they struggle against the strange and increasingly dangerous happenings connected to the house, her father, and the dark and malevolent hole that appears in her field. They must solve the mysteries and fight for their lives, and their love, to defeat the ghosts of the house and what awaits them in the hole in the ground before it's too late.

The Harlem Renaissance series by Nekesa Afia, from Berkley Books, makes it clear in earlier volumes that the protagonist has had romances with women, so don’t let the lack of clear sapphic signals for A Lethal Lady put you off as this series looks highly intriguing.

Louise Lloyd is finally living the quiet life she’d longed for, working in a parfumerie by day and spending time with her new friends every night at the Aquarius club in Paris. When a desperate mother asks for help locating her artist daughter, Louise initially refuses to keep her hard-won but fragile peace intact. But the woman comes with a letter of introduction from an old friend in Harlem, and Louise realizes she has no choice but to do what she can to find the missing young woman.

The woman’s daughter, Iris Wright, is part of an elite social circle. Louise soon finds herself drawn into a world of privilege and ice-cold ambition—a young group of artists who will do anything to get ahead—but would they murder one of their own? With the help of some friends from home, Louise must untangle a web of lies, jealousy, and betrayal to find out what really happened to Iris while fighting to keep her new life from crashing down around her.

Other Books of Interest

I’ve put two books in the “other books of interest” category this month.

A Shore Thing by Joanna Lowell from Berkley Publishing includes a romance between a woman and a trans-masculine character. A decade or two ago, a story like this would probably have been presented as sapphic, which is why I consider it “of interest” to listeners. I consider it a very positive thing that overtly trans stories are coming into their own, though it can sometimes make it tricky to figure out categories in a historic context if the cover copy is ambiguous. (Note that this cover copy is not ambiguous.)

Former painter and unreformed rake Kit Griffith is forging a new life in Cornwall, choosing freedom over an identity that didn't fit. He knew that leaving his Sisterhood of women artists might mean forfeiting artistic community forever. He didn’t realize he would lose his ability to paint altogether. Luckily, he has other talents. Why not devote himself to selling bicycles and trysting with the holidaymakers?

Enter Muriel Pendrake, the feisty New-York-bound botanist who has come to St. Ives to commission Kit for illustrations of British seaweeds. Kit shouldn’t accept Muriel’s offer, but he must enlist her help to prove to an all-male cycling club that women can ride as well as men. And she won't agree unless he gives her what she wants. Maybe that's exactly the challenge he needs.

As Kit and Muriel spend their days cycling together, their desire begins to burn with the heat of the summer sun. But are they pedaling toward something impossible? The past is bound to catch up to them, and at the season’s end, their paths will diverge. With only their hearts as guides, Kit and Muriel must decide if they’re willing to race into the unknown for the adventure of a lifetime.

The second “of interest” book is The Hollywood Governess by Alexandra Weston from Boldwood Books. It was very frustrating to try to research the content of this book. It’s tagged as “lesbian romance” but the cover copy and reviews are too coy for words, suggesting that providing specific details of the romance would be a "spoiler." When it comes to “is this book sapphic or not” I don’t believe in spoilers, so I’ll make a stab at it. Reading between the lines, I think the sapphic romance is between a minor background character and the dead woman who looms over the plot. I’ll be interested to know if I was right, if anyone reads it and gets back to me.

Hollywood, 1937

Hester Carlyle has no wish to look after the pampered offspring of the rich anymore, in spite of being a highly sought-after governess. But with her elderly father frail, and the roof of their rundown cottage in dreary Yorkshire falling in, she has no choice but to accept a dazzling new placement.

Movie star Aidan Neil is box office gold, but after the tragic death of his wife Dinah Doyle, he needs Hester’s help to raise their young daughter Erin. Aidan and Dinah were once the perfect Hollywood couple, but stars don’t shine forever…

At Aidan’s glittering Hollywood mansion, Hester finds a family struggling with their grief. Hester knows she can help little Erin, but Aidan’s torment is palpable. Brooding and reclusive, he is far from the picture-perfect hero Hester's seen in films. There’s an edge to him that makes Hester wonder if he’s hiding a dark secret of his own....

Was the marriage between Aidan and Dinah as perfect as it appeared to be? Was Dinah’s death really a tragic accident?

When it finally comes, the truth is more shocking than Hester could ever have imagined. And she knows that if revealed, it will destroy the family she has grown to love and ruin Aidan's Hollywood dream forever...

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? Evidently reading for the blog was not the only context where I was devouring things this past month. All audiobooks, as is often the case.

I finished The Chatelaine by Kate Heartfield. This is a revised version that was previously published as Armed In Her Fashion. While I had bought the original, I hadn't gotten to it yet, so this was the updated one. So… This is a dense and layered historic fantasy set in the Low Countries in the early 14th century. The fantasy elements are essentially "what if Hellmouth paintings and the fevered imaginings of Hieronymous Bosch were real?" In the midst of that, a bitter, opinionated woman determines to seek justice for herself and her daughter even if she has to petition Hell for it directly. The worldbuilding is vivid and the resolution is both heartbreaking and triumphant.

An audiobook sale led me to pick up the first three of T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series: Paladin’s Grace, Paladin’s Strength, and Paladin’s Hope . These are delightful, if formulaic, fantasy romances in which broken people find wholeness with each other. The characters are Kingfisher’s usual type – good-hearted, self-deprecating, and generally good at what they do. There's a series through-line, and other books and characters in the world get passing references. Just so you know what you’re getting into, the romance threads involve significant amounts of people obsessively thinking about sex, destructively pining, and then enjoying significant amounts of on-page sex. None of the pairings so far are sapphic, alas.

I’ve been reading some things for my Hugo Award voting, which led me to pick up some books outside my usual. (Which is always a good thing to do periodically.) This included Rose House by Arkady Martine a suspenseful mystery about an AI-controlled house. I found it interesting (and it wasn’t so far into horror as to put me off) but it didn’t entirely grab me. I had a similar reaction to The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older, another mystery, this time set on living platforms suspended over a gas giant planet. This one does include a sapphic relationship (that presumably carries over to the sequel) but I was a little disappointed in the low level of sensory writing, given how exotic the setting is. It didn’t quite feel as alien as I expected.

And that pretty much winds up my Hugo reading, since the voting deadline is approaching quickly. Which means my Worldcon travel is right behind, sneaking up on me and I need to finalize my post-convention sightseeing plans pretty soon.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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