(Originally aired 2022/07/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2022.
How was your Pride Month? Did you do anything special to commemorate it? You know: riot in the streets? Demand the right to be your own special brand of queer? Read a banned book…or maybe write one that will risk banning? Events like Pride hold a fascinating place in the long stretch of history. It’s so easy to lose track of the origins and slide into a simple feel-good celebration. But when we look around at the forces marshalled to push us back into those closets, it can be important to remember the place of rage. We are still making history today and must continue to make it if we want to get to a place where Pride can be mere celebration.
But making history isn’t the only creative act. I’m always on the lookout for people who are creating content that might be of interest to my audience, and when I saw a post on twitter for a new podcast titled “Swords & Sapphics” I figured it was worth a shout-out. As it turns out, the content isn’t quite as historically oriented as the “swords” in the title might imply but very solidly sapphic. It’s a conversational show looking at issues of representation, queer media, body image and related topics, especially as depicted in TV, film, and books. I have a link to their website in the show notes, so check them out if it sounds interesting.
Publications on the Blog
In June, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog looked at a fascinating academic study of lesbian historic fiction: Linda Garber’s Novel Approaches to Lesbian History. Then we tackled The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, which finished up in the beginning of July. Next up on the blog is a book that gets cited regularly by other authors: Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. That should take care of all of July, though I haven’t yet decided how many posts I’m going to split it up into. I’m having some interesting thoughts about Castle’s central thesis about the connections between lesbian representation and ghosts, so you’ll probably hear more about that in my commentary in the blog. After that, well, it feels like there’s been a lot of literary analysis and I’ll be looking in my to-do list for something a bit more based in everyday life.
Several books that I ordered a while ago came in this month. One isn’t remotely relevant to the Project but relates to my interest in the history of magic: Medieval Marvels and Fictions in the Latin West and Islamic World by Michelle Karnes. It provides a cross-cultural look at stories of magical objects and events.
I picked up George E. Haggerty’s Unnatural Affections: Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century from a citation in my recent reading expecting it to be a bit more focused on homoerotic topics than it appears to be. So it may go a bit far down on the to-do list.
The last item touches on a subject I’ve been wanting more academic interest in, though this one is fairly limited in time-frame. Anne E. Linton tackles the topic of intersexuality in: Unmaking Sex: The Gender Outlaws of Nineteenth-Century France. There are many different historic intersections between lesbian possibilities and intersex possibilities but I’ve found it rare to have the intersex side addressed directly. This is a topic I should tackle in a future podcast to discuss the overlap in topic in more detail, and explain why it can be difficult to make clear distinctions when discussing specific individuals.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
This month’s new and recent releases aren’t quite as numerous as last month’s list – though we could always dream of last month’s numbers becoming the norm! I found one May release that had escaped my notice previously.
Penny's Forest by Tatiana Dee from TDY Books braids together a number of cross-time stories, which the author promises us will all come together in the end.
Viola Windermere's plans for a relaxing holiday at her aunt Penny's home in England fall apart when she accidentally travels to 1673 while exploring Penny's wooded property. There she meets and falls in love with a Romani woman named Hazel, who lives in the forest with her young daughter and a mysterious woman called Old Bridget, believed by some to be a witch. Penny Windermere encounters a small occult group living in her house after she transports back in time to 1934. She manages to return to her own time, but the thought of Marion draws her back. Martha Jenkins travels back to 1611 and, against her better judgement, returns again and again with drastic consequences. Jane Ainsworth is the single mother of a small boy in 1593. His sudden disappearance years later is the thread that weaves these stories together.
There’s one more June book: Becoming the Pannell Witch: A Prequel (The Pannell Witch #1) by Melissa Manners from Melissa Manners Publishing. As you can guess from the title, there’s a second part of the story, which will be coming out in October. It appears that these characters are based rather loosely on events surrounding an actual 16th century witch trial in England. The transcript has a link to the (very brief) Wikipedia page about the historic <a href="http://www.alpennia.com/%3Ca%20href%3D"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pannal" rel="nofollow">https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pannal ">Mary Pannal</a>.
Yorkshire, 1556. From the moment Mary meets Elizabeth, she’s smitten. For the first time, her life has a purpose, and when she delves into the world of herbal medicine, she is amazed to see that she can even save lives. But Mary is accused of witchcraft and her world falls apart. Can her relationship with Elizabeth survive?
I found four July releases. First up is The Only Game in Town by Geonn Cannon from Supposed Crimes. It looks like this can be summed up as “What if ‘A League of Their Own’ but more overtly queer?”
When the men are called to fight, women are called to play. 1916. Marcy Neal is a shortstop with a barnstorming baseball team called the Lady Yankees when the US joins the Great War. Every able-bodied man is expected to serve, athletes included. A canceled season would be a financial disaster for team owners and morally devastating for the American public, so a plan is devised. The season will go on as planned... with women players. Marcy jumps at the opportunity to play professionally. With only a few weeks before the first pitch, she gathers the best players she knows. Rosalind O'Brien, the fastest woman in Illinois. Iona "Moxie" Moccia, a catcher who knows the game better than anyone on a Cracker Jack card. And Caroline Rainy, the best pitcher to ever take the mound. Rainy is also Marcy's lifelong friend, first love, and current heartbreak, but she's willing to put her feelings aside for the greater good. The war has given them the chance of a lifetime to prove women can play the game as well as any man, and Marcy has no intention of stopping before the World's Series.
The author, Jill Dearman describes Jazzed from Vine Leaves Press as A gender-swapped take on the infamous “Leopold and Loeb” case: part historical fiction, part true crime. Juxtaposing the thrilling scientific breakthroughs in quantum physics and artistic explosion of the Harlem Renaissance with the pseudoscience of eugenics and anti-immigration fervor that also defined the era.
Academic geniuses, Wilhelmina “Will” Reinhardt and Dorothy “Dolly” Raab, become roommates at Barnard in the early 1920s, a time when college for women was a rarity. Socially awkward Will, grieving her mother’s death, is fascinated by Dolly, a beautiful, charming rebel with an insatiable taste for adrenaline. Both musicians come alive at Harlem jazz clubs and Prohibition-era speakeasies. Dazzled by the world they are discovering together, their romance ignites. But while Will is obsessed with Dolly, Dolly is obsessed with crime. The power dynamics keep shifting as Will agrees to commit petty crimes with Dolly in exchange for sexual favors. When the University and their rich families unite to split them up, passions escalate. To strike back at those who deny them the right to be together, they plot another crime: murder.
Another story with a 20th century setting is Worth a Fortune by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Harriet Browning has thrived as the heiress to a lumber fortune, living lavishly among New York’s elite. Her father’s death reveals unexpected financial woes, and Harriet is left to face a sudden, harsh reality. Ava Clark threw herself into the war effort when her brothers enlisted. Suddenly, the war is over, and she’s without a cause and a job. An ad for a personal secretary from Harriet—the woman she loved more than a decade before—surprises Ava and proves impossible to resist. Harriet only wanted an assistant for a few months—someone to help sort out the mess her parents left. She never bargained for the woman who got away to show up at her front door.
I don’t usually include re-issues in the book listings, but I wanted to take note that Rhiannon Grant has self-published an edition of her Neolithic sapphic story Between Boat and Shore, which had been orphaned when the original publisher, Manifold Press, closed. This is a very unusual and well-written novel combining a slowly developing love story, a bit of a murder mystery, and a fascinating and deeply researched imagining of Neolithic society in the north of the British Isles. I’m really happy to see this book available again.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming? I hadn’t realized until I drew up the list that it’s been all audiobooks for me this month, and not much in the way of sapphic content. Though part of the reason for that is that when I get in a mood for audiobooks, there’s often little overlap between the lesbian historicals on my to-be-read list and the books available in audio. I get a better success rate for the sapphic historical fantasy coming out from the major publishers. But a lot of the more intriguing purely historic titles are either self-published or from small enough presses that they haven’t been up to investing in audiobooks. I know there’s been more of a push to get audiobooks out from the lesbian presses. My own first novel, Daughter of Mystery, will be coming out in audio in August (according to the current published schedule). The industry grapevine seems to consider publication in audio alongside print to be an essential strategy, not just a nice to have. So I can hope that things might change.
I listened to another title in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novella series, about the lives of children who slip into other worlds and what happens when they come back. This one was Across the Green Grass Fields, featuring a world that’s a horse-mad girl’s dream…or nightmare.
Another book that I listened to because it’s a Hugo finalist is Becky Chambers The Galaxy and the Ground Within, a novel in an existing series that stands alone fairly well (which is a good thing because it’s the first book I’ve read from that series). The basic premise is: an odd assortment of spacefaring aliens are stranded together at a planetary truck stop and get to know each other better. I have a number of complicated thoughts about what the book is doing and hope I can make time to explore them in a review. (I’m about half a year behind in writing reviews, so I often catch up by writing very short ones.)
Katherine Addison’s Witness for the Dead is also a continuation of a series, though in this case I’ve read the previous volume, The Goblin Emperor, and feel the sequels wouldn’t stand on their own as well. It’s basically a fantasy police procedural, told from the viewpoint of someone whose profession is taking the testimony of dead souls.
The final item in my media-consumed list is the only one with sapphic content, but wow, what content. The Netflix series First Kill (based on a short story by SFF author V.E. Schwab) can be summed up as “cross Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Romeo and Juliet and make them both lesbians.” You have two warring families – the vampires and the monster hunters – and two high school girls trapped between them as they fall in love. The first season ends on something of a cliffhanger with respect to the romance, but given the tone of the series, I have high hopes for a happily ever after ending.
Looking ahead to the other podcasts coming up this month, we’ll have another fiction show at the end of the month. Rebecca Fraimow’s “A Farce to Suit the New Girl” is set among the birth of Yiddish theater in turn of the century Russia. And we’ll have an interview with Rebecca in the August On the Shelf show.
For the essay episode, I’ve decided to start my series on how favorite historic romance tropes play out with female couples. My original idea was to try to pull in guests to talk about their favorite tropes, and that’s still a possibility for some episodes. But my organizational skills fail a lot around coordinating with other people to do things, and I decided it was better to plunge into the topic on my own rather than leaving it to wither for lack of my social and organizational skills. So this month’s episode will start with a brief overview of what sorts of tropes we’re going to tackle and why they play out differently in sapphic historic romances.
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