(Originally aired 2022/02/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February, 2022.
This year, the timing was almost right to be able to announce the year’s new fiction line-up today. But rather than cut the timing too close on getting contracts turned around, I’m putting this episode together before I start reading submissions. So even I don’t know exactly which stories will be chosen. We received a good number of stories—not a new record, but very close to previous years. I’m always a little surprised that we aren’t more inundated. But we’ll keep plugging along. I’ve sort-of already committed to a 2023 series by way of agreeing to commission one piece. So keep your eyes on the blog within the next week or so to see the announcement of the line-up.
Around this time, you already start seeing people talking about what books they’re excited about for the rest of the year. I got involved in a facebook discussion of how those sorts of lists often overlook self-published and small press books, especially now that we’re seeing more and more books featuring queer characters from major publishers. Not fair! people say. We created these genres when no one else would touch queer stories and now we get kicked to the side and ignored! But it’s never quite that simple. (As I pointed out in the discussion.) To eagerly look forward to a book, you have to know it exists and when it will be released. I know I harp on about this regularly, but if I were to put together a list of “10 sapphic historicals I’m looking forward to in 2022,” it would mostly be books from mainstream publishers. Why? Because those are the books I can find information on. The ones that already have publication dates announced and advance publicity easily available. They’re the ones that people are talking up months in advance.
One of the usual complaints about traditional publishing models is the long timelines involved. But those timelines are also what makes it possible to get buzz circulating in time to make a splash at release. And the established book publicity ecosystem—the community of reviewers and bloggers—has traditionally operated with an advance publicity framework. Short timelines and just-in-time production supply chains don’t mesh well with that framework. And so the books that do are the ones that get talked about.
If small queer presses and self-published authors want the same level of visibility, they have to make themselves visible. They can’t count on being the only game in town any more.
News of the Field
This next item may be somewhat niche, but if you’re a US citizen and a supporter of progressive politics (and I have to say, if you aren’t a supporter of progressive politics, this podcast probably makes you uncomfortable on a regular basis) there’s a fund-raising auction you might want to check out called Romancing the Vote 2022, run by the same ad hoc coalition of romance writers and readers who put together the Romancing the Runoff fundraiser last November. And once again, I’m donating a sapphic historical fiction consultation to the auction. This is either a research essay on the setting of your choice, or a manuscript evaluation specifically focusing on historic women-loving-women content. Check out the link in the show notes for more information.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog extended my recent focus on classical Greece and Rome with several essays from the collection Ancient Sex, New Essays edited by Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand. This included the essay by Sandra Boehringer on Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans #5 that became the final chapter of her book that I previously covered; Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson’s “Lusty Ladies in the Roman Imaginary,” which looks at the concepts of active and passive sexual roles through the lens of “active” women; and Kate Gilhuly’s “Lesbians are not from Lesbos,” which follows the development of the several independent sexual reputations associated with the isle of Lesbos and the figure of Sappho.
For this month’s offerings, I decided to clean up a number of assorted journal articles that have been lying around on my computer desktop for quite some time. They cover topics including representations of female same-sex desire in early modern England, grave memorials in England featuring same-sex pairs, the erotic context of the gesture known as “chin-chucking”, and an article on cross-dressing women in Delarivier Manley’s “New Cabal.” So a mixed bag, though all focusing on English topics. I often feel guilty about how skewed the blog is toward English topics and sources. But on the other hand, to the extent that my goal is to provide materials for people writing historic fiction, that seems to be where most people are setting their stories—much as I might like to read more variety.
No new books for the blog received, although I just ordered one I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time – an academic study of lesbian historical fiction. More on that when it arrives and I’ve had time to digest it. But I did receive a fun, historical-related book from a kickstarter campaign I backed. It’s an art book titled Classics…but Make it Gay. It’s a collection of re-interpretations of famous works of art through a queer lens, with contributions from over 60 artists. The book was successful enough they’re doing a second volume. Check out the link in the show notes.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And speaking of new books, what are the recent and forthcoming historical novels that I know about? There are two January books to catch up on. The first is the most recent in a series that has previously managed to escape my notice: The Raven and the Firebird self-published by Cameron Darrow, the fifth book in the Ashes of Victory historic fantasy series, which focuses on an institution of English witches in the period between the first and second World Wars. It looks like Darrow’s series may be best when started at the beginning. The description rather throws you into the middle of an ongoing storyline.
As daily life settles in at the EVE Witchcraft Conservatory, new opportunities, lives and love abound. Victoria and Katya's relationship is ever-evolving, while Millie and Elise are coming to understand what it truly means to be a Bonded witch. At the same time, the school is flourishing, a place of discovery, encouragement and equality. To women and witches everywhere, Longstown has become a beacon brighter than any other. But is it bright enough to shine through the storm rolling in from Germany? For when Helga arrives with an announcement, she brings with her a request: help. Help that only the most famous, most powerful witches in history can provide. Agreeing means thrusting EVE directly into German politics and gaining the attention of Adolf Hitler and his growing Nazi party, while declining would go against the very principles EVE was founded on, yet keep the school safe. EVE's public choices may be nothing to the private ones, however. After all, its greatest secret was never going to stay that way forever...
The second January book is the start of a new series by Edale Lane’s Past and Prologue Press. The book is Daring Duplicity and the series title is The Wellington Mysteries: Adventures of a Lesbian Victorian Detective.
Stetson revels in being unconventional. So when society shies away from her independent nature, the bold woman creates an imaginary boss and opens her own detective agency. And her keen observational skills, convincing disguises, and Holmesian methods quickly bring in a string of tough-to-crack cases. Struggling to squeeze a personal life in around a series of hazardous investigations, Stetson worries she'll never find a woman of like-passions. But with her heart set on true love despite the risk, she carries on hunting for the perfect relationship. Will her clever escapades lead to death, or delight?
February books start off with a Regency romp, The Luring of a Lovely Lady by Emma Locke from Intrepid Reads. This is book 8 in her Scandalous Spinsters series, which features a mix of novels and novellas and primarily features male-female couples.
Wide-eyed innocent Miss Abigail Conley and the beautiful but jaded Lady Cassandra Laurent couldn't be more different, but a spur-of-the moment decision takes them on an unexpected journey across England. Will love be their destination?
Next we have a cross-time story: March in Time, self-published by E.A. McNulty.
Two women, born a century apart...can each rescue the other before Time claims them both? Laura and Jim have upped sticks from the comforts of Edinburgh to a derelict house in the Highlands. Between their rapidly evaporating marital bliss and Laura's redundancy, her carefully constructed identity is crumbling. Whilst dodging renovation duties in the attic, she happens across and old sea chest. In the chest, amongst a collection of the most sumptuous dresses and faded photographs, is a letter, written by the house's former owner. Over the coming months, Laura uncovers the story of two trailblazing women at the turn of the last century. Katie, a glamorous London Gaiety Girl and the quick-witted Flora, a Caithnessian crofter who escaped the plough by joining the army under an assumed moustache. Their whirlwing romance and subsequent determination to fight together through the horrors of war and betrayal makes Laura question everything. Is her sanity a small price to pay for other people's happiness, or can Flora help her come to terms with her own demons?
Just to mix things up a bit, this month brings us a graphic novel with a fictionalized biography of a beloved queer author: Flung Out of Space: The Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith by Grace Ellis & Hannah Templer from Abrams Comic Art
Flung Out of Space is an imagined portrait of the wild and complicated figure that was infamous crime writer Patricia Highsmith. As the story opens, we meet Pat begrudgingly writing low-brow comics. A drinker, a smoker, and a hater of life, Pat knows she can do better. Her brain churns with images of the great novel she could and should be writing—what will eventually be Strangers on a Train (which would later be adapted into a classic film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951). Pat is a chronic womanizer, but she’s ashamed of being gay, and so on the recommendation of her therapist, she enrolls in conversion therapy, where she meets many of her future sexual conquests. Highsmith was unapologetic but guilt-ridden, talented but self-sabotaging, magnetic but withdrawn, vicious but hilarious. In short: She was a hell of a woman and a hell of a protagonist.
I regularly gripe about cover copy that hints and teases about its queer content. I had to dig rather deeply to confirm that Sarai Walker’s The Cherry Robbers from Houghton Mifflin had enough queer content to fit into this podcast. You can’t tell from the following blurb, but the protagonist of the book is a lesbian.
New Mexico, 2017: Sylvia Wren is one of the most important American artists of the past century. Known as a recluse, she avoids all public appearances. There’s a reason: she’s living under an assumed identity, having outrun a tragic past. But when a hungry journalist starts chasing her story, she’s confronted with whom she once was: Iris Chapel. Connecticut, 1950: Iris Chapel is the second youngest of six sisters, all heiresses to a firearms fortune. They’ve grown up cloistered in a palatial Victorian house, mostly neglected by their distant father and troubled mother, who believes that their house is haunted by the victims of Chapel weapons. The girls long to escape, and for most of them, the only way out is marriage. But not long after the first Chapel sister walks down the aisle, she dies of mysterious causes, a tragedy that repeats with the second, leaving the rest to navigate the wreckage, to heart-wrenching consequences. Ultimately, Iris flees the devastation of her family, and so begins the story of Sylvia Wren. But can she outrun the family curse forever?
The last of this month’s new releases is a bit marginal on the historic front. Sweet Paladin: A Lesbian time-travel fantasy romance (book one in a series titled In the Queerness of Time), self-published by Alex Washoe, looks like it’s primarily a contemporary story, but with a fish-out-of-water love interest, thrust across time into modern-day New York.
Celebrity chef Holly Milan ditched her TV career and Michelin Star restaurant (along with her rich New York boyfriend) to run a pay-what-you-can diner in Seattle’s Fremont district. She devotes her energies to feeding the local homeless camp, but no matter how much she bakes, it never feels like enough to feed the world’s hunger. Akachi of Asphodel is a twelfth-century knight of the Order of Sophia, whose home was destroyed by Crusaders. Crying out for help from the Goddess, she awakens to find herself in a strange new world of wonderous technology and dangerous mysteries. The moment they meet, their powerful attraction is obvious. But they soon begin to discover a deeper bond – one that was forged on the day they were born and could be destined to re-write the history of the world.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading? Evidently this month has been all about the audiobooks. I devoured Tasha Suri’s India-inspired historic fantasy The Jasmine Throne, and am now eagerly awaiting the next book in this series, which is due out in August. The multi-faceted relationship between the two female protagonists is complex and ongoing with no guarantee of a happy ending, but should satisfy those who want casual sapphic representation in their epic fantasy.
Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars is not at all historic, but once more provides casually-present lesbian representation in a murder mystery with magic.
And finally, Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun (once more, the first installment in an epic series) explores issues of gender and identity, and how they intertwine with sexuality, as the protagonist in a mostly-solidly-historic China takes on her dead brother’s identity in order to claim the prophecy that he would achieve greatness.
On the page, I’m still working my way through Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower. I found a way to approach reading the book that avoids tripping over the issues I have with it as a historical novel, and having done so, I’m finding I enjoy it. But it does feel a bit more like a modern caper with the characters in fancy-dress than it does a historical romance.
Some day I will find more lesbian Regencies that totally satisfy both the romance and the historical parts of my brain. At least there are lots to choose from these days.
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