(Originally aired 2022/03/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2022.
You know, I don’t know if I should even take the risk of commenting on what’s going on in the world in these introductions, because in the week between recording and when the podcast goes live, pretty much anything could happen. Events move quickly. And the rhythms of a monthly round-up podcast don’t allow for timeliness.
Speaking of which, although it’s somewhat old news at this point, we have a line-up for the 2022 fiction series. The first story of the year, of course, was one we bought last year: “Palio” by Gwen C. Katz, which aired in January. But we have four new stories to announce, and a commitment to continue the fiction series in 2023 because I’ve already agreed to commission something for next year. I even have a schedule that’s fairly solid.
The April story will be a tale of curses, ghosts, and religious tourism in 4th century Cappadocia (which is in modern-day Turkey). This is “The Spirits of Cabassus” by Ursula Whitcher.
The July story is “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” by Rebecca Fraimow, set among a Jewish theater company in late 19th century St. Petersburg.
In October, we’re taking advantage of aligning with Halloween to present a story of supernatural danger and household rivalry in Heian era Japan, with Miyuki Jane Pinchard’s tale “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain.”
And in December we have a wistful, gentle epistolary story of claiming one’s life, set in 19th century New England – “From the Bird’s Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko.
It's always interesting to see the themes that emerge in each year's submissions, both the ones we choose and the ones we don’t. Ghosts appeared several times. The performing arts were a noticeable presence, with singers, actors, and music hall performers. Several submissions were set in religious communities. Two of the stories I bought had characters with invisible disabilities. The distribution in eras was fairly similar to previous years, but with an unexpected cluster in the 17th century. It's one of my favorite centuries; perhaps people were playing to that? Though I didn’t end up buying any of those. The geographic distribution was also similar to previous years with a heavy focus on North America and the British Isles. (I've never received a submission set in South America, and only one set in Africa if you don't count Ancient Egypt.) In the first three years of the fiction series, most of the submissions came in during the last week of January, but last year and this one there was a fairly steady flow throughout the month. Much easier on my nerves!
So for those of you thinking ahead to submitting next year, what is it that catches my eye and makes it to the final round? The first hurdle is simply "good writing"—prose that is not only competently written but that uses language in skillful ways. The writing should paint a vivid picture and it should be clear that every word and sentence was chosen to create the desired effect. If you're a beginning writer, the place to put your energy is in learning and practicing these basic writing skills. Plotting, characterization, and background research are relatively easy to pick up and can be fixed in revisions. But solid writing chops are essential to make it in the door. They require work and practice and, ideally, good critique partners.
The next hurdle to be considered seriously is that the central character(s) of the story should clearly fit the lesbian/sapphic theme in some way and should do so in a way that rings true to their historic context. I'm kind of picky on that point. I don't want modern personalities dressed up in costume on a stage. And, needless to say, the historic setting itself should also ring true. I can enjoy playing fast and loose with history as much as the next person, but it's not what I'm looking for in this fiction series.
After that, the considerations become more flexible. I tend to be drawn to stories that are "a story" rather than a character sketch or a slice of life. I like an episode where the central character changes in some way in response to the events. But I hope I'm open to a diversity of narrative structures, not all of which have that pattern. I generally hold to the notion that a story should come to an end rather than merely stopping, and that stories should have an underlying meaning and theme that real life doesn't always have. And, in general, I prefer stories in which all the characters--even villains--have complex lives and personalities rather than simply fulfilling a functional role. They don't all have to be likeable or pleasant, but they should make sense.
The ultimate consideration--and the one that can be the hardest on authors when it doesn’t benefit their submission--is that I want to buy a reasonably balanced diversity of stories in terms of setting, era, and plot. If I get four fabulous stories about late 17th century sword-wielding opera singers who rescue their girlfriends from convents, I'm still only going to buy one of them in any given year. (Though if I ever did get four fabulous stories on that theme in a single year, I might suggest kickstarting an anthology!)
Publications on the Blog
In the blog this past month I’d meant to clear out some random articles that were sitting on my computer desktop, but there ended up being a theme after all. They all cover some aspect of early modern England—which could happen by chance, given how much research in lesbian history draws on those topics—but I also ended up with two articles analyzing the depiction of female same-sex desire in Delariver Manley’s The New Atalantis. These are Ros Ballaster’s "`The Vices of Old Rome Revived': Representations of Female Same-Sex Desire in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England" and Jennifer Frangos’s “The Woman in Man’s Clothes and the Pleasures of Delarivier Manley’s ‘New Cabal’”. Another article only touches on same-sex issues in passing, but provides important background on interpreting depictions of female couples in art. This is Will Fisher’s “The Erotics of Chin Chucking in Seventeenth-Century England.” And I finished with two articles on the social meaning of same-sex pairs in grave memorials, neither of which provided new information, but which closed the loop on early publications on the topic. In one case, I discuss just the section on same-sex tombs in the chapter The Double Tomb from Jessica Barker’s book Stone Fidelity: Marriage and Emotion in Medieval Tomb Sculpture. The other item is the article “Two names of friendship, but one Starre: Memorials to Single-Sex Couples in the Early Modern Period” by Jean Wilson, which is cited in later articles on women’s double-tombs, but which primarily focuses on men’s memorials.
For the next month I think I’ll start on the articles in the collection Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson. There are a couple of articles that explicitly address homoerotic topics, but I may do brief skims through all the articles on general principles. When writing about female same-sex relationships in history, it isn’t possible to know too much about non-sexual relations between women. The structures of women’s interactions with each other will be the water that your sapphic couple are swimming in.
I picked up two new books for the blog this month. One is the brand new study Novel Approaches to Lesbian History by Linda Garber. This is an academic study of lesbian historical fiction. I first became aware of it in the planning stages several years ago and have been eagerly awaiting it ever since. The other book is Julie Peakman’s Mighty Lewd Books: The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-Century England.
This would have been a useful book to have on hand back when I was putting together this month’s essay podcast: A History of Lesbian Sex in Pornography. This is a topic that was on my brainstorming list, but it got moved up to the top when Sheena asked if I’d like to tackle the topic for her special event on Lesbian erotic fiction last month. I agreed on the condition that I create a double-duty episode and include it in this podcast as well. This is the second show I’ve created with a slide-show version, although it’s designed to work for audio-only as well. But I highly recommend looking up the YouTube version of the show, which will include images—plus an actual embedded image of me narrating the show in real time! I only just learned how to do that. I’m not planning to go over to having video content for all the shows—honestly it more or less doubles the work, if it’s going to be anything more than a video of me reading the script. But it’s fun to do for the occasional topic that has a lot of visual content.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
So let’s look at the new and recent historic fiction. There’s one February release that I only just found, but otherwise apparantly I’m caught up with everything that pings my search filters.
Geonn Cannon has what appears to be a stand-alone book from Supposed Crimes: Queen and Bandit.
Gracie Simon is a reporter with a secret. Forced to lie about her gender to get hired, she lives in fear of what will happen when the truth comes out. Evelyn Wade is a rising star with a secret of her own. With three hit films on her resume already, she's ready to risk it all to reveal the truth in the hopes it will help other actresses. When Gracie is assigned to do a story about Evelyn's new movie, both secrets come to light during the course of their conversation. Evelyn is ready to spill the beans about what she knows but doesn't want to be anywhere near Los Angeles when the bombshell drops. To avoid the fallout, Gracie suggests they take a road trip under the guise of doing a complete, in-depth profile of the up-and-coming starlet. Evelyn agrees, and they hit the road the same day Gracie's exclusive hits the presses. Trapped together in a car, with bridges burning behind them and 2,000 miles to their destination, Gracie and Evelyn quickly discover that when the secrets are thrown out, the only thing left is the truth.
There are nine March books in my spreadsheet. I’ve followed my default approach of organizing them chronologically.
Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix (Remixed Classics #3) by Aminah Mae Safi from Feiwel & Friends is part of a collection by various authors that re-interpret various classic works through new lenses. A fair number of the works in the series have queer content, and in this case there is a sapphic main character who is not the point-of-view character.
Jerusalem, 1192. The Third Crusade is ending, and Rahma Al Hud just wants to get herself and her sister, Zeena, back home to their family's land on the Tigris River. The only problem? They've run out of money. Rahma is a trained warrior, and though she is not nobility, she still has a strong sense of duty and honor. She refuses to steal from less fortunate traders on the road, so instead she steals from the fleeing invaders. But every time she scrapes enough money together, she finds herself giving it away to those more desperate than herself. In a last attempt to get home, Rahma and Zeena rob the richest-looking caravan they've ever seen. But in her haste, Rahma unwittingly steals the chest containing the keys to the city of Jerusalem and the peace treaty that was bound for Salah Ad-Din and Richard the Lionheart. In order to restore peace to the Holy Land, Rahma must return the treaty and the keys, and escape without getting caught. With the help of a motley crew of misfits—including a softspoken Mongolian warrior, a lost Andalusian scientist, a frustratingly handsome Persian prince, and an unfortunate English invader left behind enemy lines—Rahma is in for her most daring heist of all.
Daughters of the Deer by Danielle Daniel from Random House Canada looks like it falls in the literary fiction genre. As the book delves deeply into the history and experiences of First Nations people of Canada, I checked out the author’s bio, curious about her personal connections. She notes that although she has an Algonquin ancestor, she does not feel able to identify as Métis, but writes out of respect and honor for that ancestry. I’ve linked her bio in the transcript in case you want to know more. I feel like I have some responsibility when including books focusing on marginalized cultures, and I generally try to do some research to understand where the author is coming from, even though I rarely comment on it in the show.
In this haunting, groundbreaking, historical novel, Danielle Daniel imagines the lives of her ancestors in the Algonquin territories of the 1600s, a story inspired by her family link to a girl murdered near Trois-Rivières in the early days of French settlement. Marie, an Algonquin woman of the Weskarini Deer Clan, lost her first husband and her children to an Iroquois raid. In the aftermath of another lethal attack, her chief begs her to remarry for the sake of the clan. Marie is a healer who honours the ways of her people, and Pierre, the green-eyed ex-soldier from France who wants her for his bride, is not the man she would choose. But her people are dwindling, wracked by white men's diseases and nearly starving every winter as the game retreats away from the white settlements. If her chief believes such a marriage will cement their alliance with the French against the Iroquois and the British, she feels she has no choice. Though she does it reluctantly, and with some fear--Marie is trading the memory of the man she loved for a man she doesn't understand at all, and whose devout Catholicism blinds him to the ways of her people. This beautiful, powerful novel brings to life women who have literally fallen through the cracks of settler histories. Especially Jeanne, the first child born of the new marriage, neither white nor Weskarini, but caught between worlds. As she reaches adolescence, it becomes clear she is two-spirited. In her mother's culture, she would have been considered blessed, her nature a sign of special wisdom. But to the settlers of New France, and even to her own father, Jeanne is unnatural, sinful--a woman to be shunned, and worse.
Lillie Lainoff’s One for All from Farrar, Straus and Giroux is basically a gender-flipped YA Three Musketeers, but also includes casual representation of a disability that the author shares. Although the book came up on my keyword searches, it wasn’t clear what the queer representation was until I found one review that confirms there’s an f/f relationship among important secondary characters. And that’s quite enough that I’ve added this to my pre-orders.
Tania de Batz is most herself with a sword in her hand. Everyone in town thinks her near-constant dizziness makes her weak, nothing but “a sick girl”; even her mother is desperate to marry her off for security. But Tania wants to be strong, independent, a fencer like her father—a former Musketeer and her greatest champion. Then Papa is brutally, mysteriously murdered. His dying wish? For Tania to attend finishing school. But L’Académie des Mariées, Tania realizes, is no finishing school. It’s a secret training ground for a new kind of Musketeer: women who are socialites on the surface, but strap daggers under their skirts, seduce men into giving up dangerous secrets, and protect France from downfall. And they don’t shy away from a swordfight. With her newfound sisters at her side, Tania feels for the first time like she has a purpose, like she belongs. But then she meets Étienne, her first target in uncovering a potential assassination plot. He’s kind, charming, and breathlessly attractive—and he might have information about what really happened to her father. Torn between duty and dizzying emotion, Tania will have to lean on her friends, listen to her own body, and decide where her loyalties lie…or risk losing everything she’s ever wanted. This debut novel is a fierce, whirlwind adventure about the depth of found family, the strength that goes beyond the body, and the determination it takes to fight for what you love.
Jane Walsh continues her series of Regencies from Bold Strokes Books with Her Duchess to Desire.
Anne, the Duchess of Hawthorne, is tired of her reputation as the Ice Queen of London society. She resolves to leave behind her cold-hearted marriage to the duke―and to find a woman to keep her warm at night. Perhaps the dashing designer she hires to transform her Mayfair estate can also help her to transform her life. Letitia Barrow has big dreams of running her own interior design business. The opportunity to reinvent the Hawthorne estate is the job that will finally establish her as a leading designer among the ton. The duchess might make her weak in the knees, but giving in to temptation could risk everything she’s working so hard to build.
And another Regency that’s part of a series, though it looks like this is the only sapphic story is A Lady's Finder (When the Blood is Up #3) by Edie Cay from ScarabSkin Books. Based on the page count this looks like it’s short story length, and although the book is tagged “lesbian romance” on Amazon, the cover copy seems to indicate that the love interest is non-binary and uses male pronouns. So you’ll have to figure out the representation for yourself.
Lady Agnes is a scandal thanks to her sister’s marriage to a prizefighter. Or rather, she should be, but as a charitable spinster-to-be, she remains firmly invisible, even to those she loves. Always dutiful, Lady Agnes should be the toast of her family, but only if she marries well. Finding the prospect of wedding a man unpalatable, Lady Agnes cannot be the social savior of her sister. Suddenly, receiving attentions from the unpredictable and surprisingly resourceful Mr. Jack Townsend, Lady Agnes finds herself believing he might love her and not her dowry. After being overlooked for so long, can she believe he cares for her, or is she a means to an end as her family insists? Jack About Town is London’s best Finder of Lost Things. What few realize is that Jack transcends the spheres of men and women, existing as both, or perhaps neither, sex. True, his most lucrative finds are pornographic artifacts for rich toffs. But now he has found Lady Agnes, a meticulous, generous, knock-down incredible lady who wears men’s boots. Best of all, Lady Agnes accepts him in his entirety—a jewel so rare that even Jack is surprised he could find it. When Jack is commissioned to steal from Lady Agnes’s cousin, can Jack find a way to prove his love and still earn the money he needs to protect himself and his home?
Francesca May brings us a historic fantasy in Wild and Wicked Things from Redhook.
In the aftermath of World War I, a young woman gets swept into a glittering world filled with illicit magic, romance, blood debts, and murder in this lush and decadent debut novel. On Crow Island, people whispered, real magic lurked just below the surface, but Annie Mason never expected her enigmatic new neighbor to be a witch. When she witnesses a confrontation between her best friend Bea and the infamous Emmeline Delacroix at one of Emmeline’s extravagantly illicit parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where magic can buy what money can not; a world where the consequence of a forbidden blood bargain might be death.
Another book where the keywords indicate sapphic content, but the cover copy is coy, is The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin by Kip Wilson from Versify.
The story of Hilde, a former orphan, who experiences Berlin on the cusp of WWII and discovers her own voice and sexuality and finds a family when she gets a job at a cabaret.
The Ribbon Leaf by Lori Weber from Red Deer Press hits a hot-button historic era, with the story of the friendship of Jewish and gentile girls in Nazi Germany. Stories with this trope can sometimes be very good and sometimes be problematic, and I don’t have enough information to be able to advise potential readers. So do your own due diligence if this is likely to be an issue for you.
Would you risk your life to help a friend? In Nazi Germany, friendship between an Aryan German girl and a Jewish German girl is strictly verboten, and an act of kindness might mean death. Sabine and Edie have been best friends since Kindergarten. Then Kristallnacht hits in 1938, shattering Jewish shop windows, synagogues, and their friendship. The girls, who once dreamed of stardom together, now take different paths -- Edie escapes to Canada, and Sabine remains to experience life in her Nazi-controlled southern German town, eventually rescuing and supporting Edie's beloved Papa who poses as Sabine's grandfather. Even though the girls are separated, the yellow ribbon that once decorated their identical dresses binds the girls' families in ways that contradict Nazi ideology. Throughout the seven long years of WWII, Sabine confronts how far courage can take her, while Edie finds her own strength to deal with leaving her father behind, integrating into a new country, and coming to terms with her sexual orientation. Each girl comes of age, experiencing first loves, loss, and joy. Without knowing how the other is doing across the ocean, they keep hope alive that their bond of friendship remains.
World War II is also the context for this next historic fantasy: Into the Underwood: Maiden self-published by J.L. Robertson.
Against the harrowing backdrop of World War II, a young seamstress' ability to bring embroidery to life exposes an unremembered past and unforeseeable future. Sylvia Taylor began her life following in her mother's footsteps, training to become London's next high-end dressmaker. But when a series of air raids send her back to her mother's home village of Lustleigh, she is immediately abducted by the Erlkönig, the immortal ruler of the Underwood—a woodland kingdom of spirits and monsters. As Sylvia endures an indefinite term of servitude to settle a mysterious family debt, she meets Sasha, a famine survivor from the Soviet Union, with whom she begins piecing together dark secrets from her family's past.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading lately? It feels like I sometimes have three or four books going simultaneously. I’m continuing my recent love affair with audiobooks. I’d wanted to listen to Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey ever since I heard about it. And—honestly—even if all I’d listened to was the introductory material, this would have been worth it. There’s so much about the mythic and historic context of the story that provide context for the tale itself. Although not necessarily an enjoyable aspect, Wilson’s translation really lays bare how very gendered the experiences of characters in the Odyssey were. I’ve also started listening to the second book in K. Arsenault Rivera’s alternate Asia fantasy, The Phoenix Empress. If you’re looking for casual inclusion of sapphic relationships in epic fantasy, this should definitely be on your radar. I read the first book, The Tiger’s Daughter when it first came out and struggled with the structure and pacing. Sometimes listening to an audiobook helps with those issues for me, but The Phoenix Empress is presenting me with many of the same problems and I’ve switched over to a different book for now and will see if I come back to it.
In print, I just gobbled down an advance reading copy of Aliette de Bodard’s “Of Charms, Ghosts, and Grievances” – the latest adventure of her fallen angel / dragon prince husbands in the Dominion of the Fallen universe. No sapphic representation in this one, though the larger series does have it, but it’s so enjoyable seeing an author get to have fun playing with established characters in new situations. I’m also in the middle of reading Samantha Rajaram’s The Company Daughters, which the author talked about on this podcast. Very solidly historically grounded in the world of the Dutch East India Company.
And what are you reading these days? In next month’s show, I get to tell you about my new release, so I hope that it will make it onto some of your to-be-read lists soon!
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online