(Originally aired 2023/05/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2023.
As I’m writing this, a couple weeks in advance of air time, my part of California has very abruptly decided it’s summer now. A week ago it was cold and rainy, now it’s time to turn off the thermostat and start up the irrigation system. Looking out my office window, the bees are buzzing around the apple blossoms, the lemons are hanging heavy on the tree, and the apothecary roses are starting to bloom.
This May is going to be a bit of a landmark month for me, given that I’ll be turning 65. I think at this point I officially get classified as “an old.” You never really know how you’re going to feel about such things. I’ll be celebrating the event with a spa weekend in Napa with my best friend and a three week vacation that also includes two SFF conventions. So I guess you can conclude that I won’t be slowing down.
And if you’ve ever wondered, “What would the host of my favorite podcast appreciate getting as a birthday present?” The answer is always and ever: leave us a review on your favorite podcast site, or talk us up to your friends on social media, or tell people about how the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has changed your life. Well, ok, don’t go overboard. But be assured that spreading the word about the podcast does make a difference. I can always tell from the listener numbers when people have been talking us up.
Speaking of spreading the word, I have a lead on a very exciting interview prospect that I can’t wait to share with you all. I won’t jinx it by mentioning names before we have the details nailed down, but let’s just say that my response to the query fell somewhat short of being cool, calm, and collected.. There’s nothing quite like being taken seriously as a venue by people you admire in the field!
The blog still doesn’t have any new publications up, alas, but I happened to be in Berkeley doing some shopping yesterday and decided to drop by Moe’s Books to browse through the gender and sexuality section and see what I could turn up. I found two new-to-me books on historic cross-dressing, one older and one recent.
Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough have a number of publications on cross-dressing in history and this book Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender includes a rather extensive historic survey through western culture. The articles I’ve read by the Bulloughs tend to feel very outdated, particularly when they address social interpretations of cross-dressing, though that’s not at all surprising given that the publications I’ve covered were written 30 to 50 years ago.
Much more up-to-date is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag, which looks at cross-dressing of all types within the later part of 19th century America, and the ways in which that aspect of the American West was deliberately erased from popular history with shifting understandings of sexuality at the turn of the century. Within the last decade, there have been a number of excellent studies around this topic that I’d consider essential reading for anyone contemplating writing a cross-dressed woman in a “Wild West” setting.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
New and recent book listings are a bit more sparse this month than they’ve been lately, but there’s a lot of variety. And—you know that thing I was complaining about Amazon a few months ago, the thing where my “lesbian historical fiction” keyword searches were turning up hundreds of re-issued classic novels with identical generic covers? It looks like just maybe Amazon is doing something about that, because this time the search only included one of those. Though when I posted about it on social media, someone else mentioned that they’d run a search for lesbian romance just a couple days ago and were inundated with “classics spam” as usual. So the jury is still out on whether they’ve found a way to address the problem.
Serendipitously, when I was checking out that person’s search using “lesbian romance” as the keywords rather than “lesbian historical” I turned up an April book that I would have missed. Folks: here’s the importance of proper keywords in your book listings! I can only boost the books that I can find.
That April book is the historic fantasy A Wound Like Lapis Lazuli by Melody Wiklund. The cover copy mentions the baroque era, but not a specific year, and the setting seems to be an invented Italian kingdom.
Ricardo Montero is a painter of great repute, favored by the king of Salandra and chosen by him to paint the ceiling of a temple dedicated to a sea goddess. When he mysteriously goes missing, his friend Beatriz enters a competition to paint the temple in his stead. But when the sea goddess herself gets involved in Beatriz's painting, and in her life, Beatriz finds herself in over her head. Hopefully the woman she's falling in love with can help keep her afloat. Meanwhile, Ricardo has been kidnapped by one of the king's enemies, a woman who claims the kidnapping is purely to spite the king but who seems obsessed with Ricardo himself. Under pressure and learning secrets he never wanted to know, Ricardo fights to maintain his loyalty to the king and control over his feelings and his life.
The May books start off with a story in one of my favorite centuries: The Disenchantment by Celia Bell from Pantheon. I’ve picked up the audiobook for this and it’ll probably get moved to next in line to listen to.
In 17th century Paris, everyone has something to hide. The noblemen and women and writers consort with fortune tellers in the dark confines of their salons, servants practice witchcraft and black magic, and the titled poison family members to obtain inheritance. But for the Baroness Marie Catherine, the only thing she wishes to hide is how unhappy she is in her marriage, and the pleasures she seeks outside of it. When her husband is present, the Baroness spends her days tending to her children and telling them elaborate fairy tales, but when he’s gone, Marie Catherine indulges in a more liberated existence, one of salons in grand houses, forward-thinking discussions with female scholars, and at the center of her freedom: Victoire Rose de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Conti, the androgynous, self-assured countess who steals Marie Catherine’s heart and becomes her lover. Victoire possesses everything Marie Catherine does not—confidence in her love, and a brazen fearlessness in all that she’s willing to do for it. But when Victoire’s passion results in a shocking act of murder, she and Marie Catherine must escape from the tight clutches of Paris’ eager chief of police. As they attempt to outwit him, they are led to the darkest corners of Paris and Versailles. What they discover is a city full of lies, mysticism, and people who have secrets they would also kill to keep.
Jane Walsh is starting a new Regency-era series at Bold Strokes Books with The Accidental Bride (The Spinsters of Inverley #1).
Miss Grace Linfield has resigned herself to life as a lady’s companion as the only path to respectable security. At least it allows her to visit the beautiful seaside town of Inverley with her charge, Lady Edith. Passions flare when botanist Miss Thea Martin whirls into town —and into Grace’s bed for a scandalous night of passion. Disaster looms when Lady Edith elopes with Thea’s brother. Prim-and-proper Grace and wildly outrageous Thea each wish it was anyone else by their side as they race after them to Gretna Green. In the midst of attempting to stop a wedding that will incur the wrath of both their families, they discover their passion for each other is too strong to resist. A chance at a real relationship was the last thing either of them expected. When Grace and Thea return from Scotland, will the honeymoon be over? Or will love finally be in full bloom?
I have a bit of an idiosyncratic prejudice against treating vampire stories as “historical” if the primary story is set in the present day and the historical element comes in only via the vampire’s immortality. But A Long Time Dead by Samara Breger from Bywater Books is set entirely in the early 19th century, so it fits this podcast’s remit more closely.
Somewhere foggy, 1830 . . . Poppy had always loved the night, which is why it wasn’t too much of a bother to wake one evening in an unfamiliar home far from London, weak and confused and plagued with a terrible thirst for blood, to learn that she could no longer step out into the day. And while vampirism presented several disadvantages, it more than made up for those in its benefits: immortality, a body that could run at speed for hours without tiring, the thrill of becoming a predator, the thing that pulls rabbits from bushes and tears through their fur and flesh with the sharp point of a white fang. And, of course, Roisin. The mysterious woman who has lived for centuries, who held Poppy through her painful transformation, and who, for some reason, is now teaching her how to adjust to her new, endless life. A tight, lonely, buttoned-up woman, with kindness and care pressed up behind her teeth. The time they spend together is as transformative to Poppy as the changes in her body, and soon, she finds herself hopelessly, overwhelmingly attached. But Roisin has secrets of her own, and can’t make any promises; not when vengeance must be served. Soon, their little world explodes. Together and apart, they encounter scores of vampires, shifty pirates, conniving opera singers, ancient nobles, glamorous French women, and a found family that throws a very particular sort of party. But overhead, threat looms—one woman who is capable of destroying everything Poppy and Roisin hold dear.
As I mentioned earlier, there have been a number of relatively recent historical studies that look at cross-dressing and transing gender in the American West that can inspire new angles on queer historical stories. Another relatively recent shift has been in how characters who previously would have been characterized as “passing women” are treated in fiction, given contemporary understandings of gender performance. They Ain't Proper by M.B. Guel from Bella Books signals that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the gender of one of the protagonists.
1880s, The Wild West. An easy, solitary life on the outskirts of Ghosthallow is all Lou Ramirez wants. They want to buy their house plans and live their quiet life far from townsfolk’s prying eyes. That plan, however, hits a bump when instead of house plans, a house wife is delivered to their door instead. Florence Castellanos desperately needs a way out from under her family debt, and it seems as though selling her services as a wife is the only way to do it. Expecting a rough, harsh man to be her new husband, Florence is pleasantly surprised to instead be dropped off at the ranch of an equally surprised Lou. Lou would rather Florence leave them to their lonely existence, but Florence is too charmed by the quiet and mysterious rancher to give up. She may have come into Lou’s life easily, but she certainly isn’t planning to leave that way. Undeterred by Lou’s prickly demeanor, Florence is determined to get her reluctant spouse to open up to her. When the past comes back to haunt the pair, the fight for their independence—and their love—may become more deadly than either of them ever expected.
When the first book in the Las Leonas historic romance series came out, I kept trying to figure out why it showed up with a tag for “lesbian,” because the cover copy sure sounded like a male-female romance. So I dropped it from my spreadsheet and chalked it up to over-zealous keywording. But now that the second book in the series is out, I guess they’re just tagging the entire series as lesbian because one of the component books is. I guess? Anyway, Las Leonas book 2, An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera from Canary Street Press looks absolutely delicious. It, too, has gone into my audiobook queue.
One last summer. For Manuela del Carmen Caceres Galvan, the invitation to show her paintings at the 1889 Exposition Universelle came at the perfect time. Soon to be trapped in a loveless marriage, Manuela has given herself one last summer of freedom—in Paris, with her two best friends. One scandalous encounter. Cora Kempf Bristol, Duchess of Sundridge, is known for her ruthlessness in business. It's not money she chases, but power. When she sees the opportunity to secure her position among her rivals, she does not hesitate. How difficult could it be to convince the mercurial Miss Caceres Galvan to part with a parcel of land she’s sworn never to sell? One life-changing bargain. Tempted by Cora’s offer, Manuela proposes a trade: her beloved land for a summer with the duchess in her corner of Paris. A taste of the wild, carefree world that will soon be out of her reach. What follows thrills and terrifies Cora, igniting desires the duchess long thought dead. As they fill their days indulging in a shared passion for the arts and their nights with dark and delicious deeds, the happiness that seemed impossible moves within reach…though claiming it would cause the greatest scandal Paris has seen in decades.
Considering the thriving community of lesbian romance authors in Australia, there are surprisingly few historic romances set there, but this month we get one more addition to that short list: House of Longing by Tara Calaby from Text Publishing.
Charlotte has always known she is different. Where other young women see their destiny in marriage and motherhood, the reclusive Charlotte wants only to work with her father in his stationery business; perhaps even run it herself one day. Then Flora Dalton bursts through the shop door and into Charlotte’s life—and a new world of baffling desires and possibilities seems to open up to her. But Melbourne society of the 1890s is not built to embrace unorthodoxy. When tragedy strikes and Charlotte is unmoored by grief, she finds herself admitted to Kew Lunatic Asylum ‘for her own safety’. There she learns that women enter the big white house on the hill for many reasons, not all of them to do with lunacy. That her capacity for love, loyalty and friendship is greater than she had ever understood. And that it will take all of these things—along with an unexpected talent for guile—to extract herself from the care of men and make her way back to her heart’s desires.
Kim Pritekel’s Wynter series, from Sapphire Books, includes both contemporary and historic stories, all revolving around the town of Wynter, Colorado. The fifth book in the series, Showing Mercy is only the second book with a historic setting.
Fifteen-year-old Mercy Faulkner is hit with the hardest blow of her young life when her beloved father is killed in an accident. Now, she must leave all she knows to move with her mother, a hard woman that she feels like she barely knows, to the small mountain town of Wynter, Colorado. Her mother has been offered a job there and a place to live and start over for the two. Bethany Wynter, seventeen, gorgeous and the granddaughter of the founder of Wynter and early residents, Justice and Thea Kilkoyne, she has everything going for her. She and her twin brother, Billy are at the top of their game - popular, well-loved in the community and dominate in academics and athletics. But, when the beautiful and shy Mercy shows up in town, a sibling rivalry will begin that will split the twins for the first time in their life. When World War II hits the shores of the United States, everything changes for everyone. Who will go off to war, who will come back, and will any of them ever be the same?
As usual, the new releases this month include a reminder that I can only include the books I know about, and knowing about books either means that they get talked up in the social media I follow, or someone lets me know about forthcoming releases directly, or they have the right keywords to turn up in my searches on Amazon (which, alas, is still the most efficient place to run such searches) and have cover copy that make the sapphic content clear. If you have a book coming out—or know of one—that you think might fall within the scope of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, please drop me a note. I’m sure there are books I miss unintentionally.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading lately? It’s been a thin month, in part because I’m writing the show a bit earlier than usual, but in part because life has been hectic. Although I have several books in process, I only completed listening to two audiobooks.
The latest installment in Sherry Thomas’s “Lady Sherlock” series, A Tempest at Sea, follows the pattern set previously with a lot of non-linear storytelling, unreliable narrators, and revisiting key scenes from different points of view to gradually unlock the story. This particular method of building a mystery story may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s absolute catnip for me. This volume is a sort of locked room mystery on board a ship, with Charlotte Holmes spending the entire story arc in disguise. The various twists are satisfying as identities and motives are sorted out. And, as in previous books in the series, the casual inclusion of historically-appropriate queer characters makes me feel much at home even without any central queer romance.
The second audiobook I completed is more overtly sapphic but comes with a warning for character death. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue is set in Ireland during the Spanish Flu pandemic in the early 20th century. Reading it while still in the midst of Covid is unsettling in the parallels. (The novel was written prior to Covid but was expedited to release once the pandemic started.) The story spans only a few days in the life of a nurse in a combination flu/maternity ward and packs a lot of drama into that short period. One of the many sub-themes is harsh criticism of the treatment of unwed mothers and their children. This was a hard and painful book to read, but pandemics aren’t exactly a bed of roses to live through—or die in.
Last week, we aired Catherine Lundoff’s story “The Pirate in the Mirror” and today we have her on the show to talk about that and her other projects.
[Interview transcript will be available at a later date.]
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
Links to Catherine Lundoff Online