(Originally aired 2022/12/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2022.
Usually I try to start the On the Shelf episodes with a bit of general chat or philosophical introspection, but since I found myself ranting a bit on various topics later in the show, I’ll just note the turning of the seasons and a hope that you’re all getting through your to-be-read stacks for the year.
Publications on the Blog
After the blog marathon in October to present the edition and translation of the Grandjean trial record, I feel like I was slacking a bit in November, just covering four journal articles. The first was a delightfully image-filled exploration of classical Greek vase paintings showing female pairs in the context of romantic and erotic symbolism. The article by Meryl Altman has the in-joke title “Parthenoi to Watch Out For.” Not an article, technically, but the text of a conference paper which—alas—never seems to have been expanded into the more detailed study the author promised.
After that I covered three articles all touching on medieval Arabic topics. The first, “From Semantics to Normative Law” by Sara Omar, looks at the logical structures and argumentation behind how charges of same-sex acts were treated in Islamic law. The other two look at homoerotic topics in the 1001 Nights. Zayde Antrim’s “Qamarayn: The Erotics of Sameness in the 1001 Nights” discusses how early versions of the tales feature ideals of beauty and desirableness that don’t follow a gender binary, raising the question of whether attraction itself could be considered gendered in that context. The other article, “’I Am Not Good at Any of This’ Playing with Homoeroticism in The Arabian Nights” by Frank Bosman, was less relevant than I thought it would be, as if focuses mostly on apparent scenes of male same-sex erotics.
In December I expect to continue cleaning up some of the random journal articles in my to-do folder. And then, perhaps in the new year, I’ll pull something from the bookshelf for a deeper dive. I haven’t been doing any serious book shopping for the blog lately, which means I really should go look at some of the academic press catalogs and see what’s come out while I haven’t been paying attention.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction and Publishing Dynamics
In the context of the new and recent releases of lesbian and sapphic historicals, I’m doing something a bit unusual this month and holding off on including one title, due to the ongoing strike by Harper Collins employees. The Harper Collins Union has indicated that one way to support the strike is for reviewers and readers to hold off on promotion of Harper Collins titles until an agreement is reached. Therefore I’ve taken note of the books that I’d otherwise be including in this list and will cover them in a later episode.
There was a time when queer books were mostly the province of small independent presses and maybe we figured that the doings of major publishing houses were irrelevant to us. But even though the majority of the books I include in these listings come from small presses or are self-published, the “big five” publishing conglomerates make up a substantial fraction – close to a quarter of the titles I mentioned in 2021. And the visibility of queer books from those major publishers has a wider effect on the market and on reader expectations. Some of the issues being raised by the Harper Collins Union include diversity and inclusion among publishing staff, which can definitely have an impact on what books get chosen and how they get promoted. It behooves us, as book-lovers, to care about the larger dynamics in the publishing world, whether it’s an openness to queer characters in mainstream books, or the ways in which monopolistic systems depress author income, or how technologies help or hinder the distribution of books in ways that benefit those who create them.
We’ve been getting some strong reminders recently about not entrusting our communities to corporations that are primarily concerned with making a small number of very wealthy people even richer. Twitter has been an enormous benefit for community building, for publicizing work, for networking with other authors and readers. And despite the long ongoing struggle around trying to improve the safety and usefulness of the platform, most people assumed it would continue more or less as a fixture. Now we’ve seen how fragile those Twitter communities and dynamics were. It only took one obscenely wealthy man to decide he wanted Twitter as his plaything, and now it’s broken and we’re all scrambling to rebuild those networks. The most vulnerable and marginalized are scrambling the hardest. In this context I should note that I’ve moved most of what had been my Twitter activity over onto Mastodon, where you can find me as @heatherrosejones@Wandering.Shop. The Twitter accounts for me and the Project will remain for now, but socializing will be on Mastodon.
The queer book community has an unfortunate habit of piling our eggs into too few baskets, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Amazon. Self-publishing and e-book distribution have been wonderful for readers and writers of niche genres. But I wince every time I’m putting the new book lists together and see a book that is only available through Amazon. In the time that I’ve been actively working on using non-Amazon links in the show notes, fully one third of the books I mention are relying solely on Amazon for distribution. And, of course, if we’re looking at self-published books, the rate is much higher. What happens to those books if – no, not if, when – Amazon decides to mess with the availability of queer books? What happens if Jeff Bezos decides books in general don’t have a high enough profit margin and disappears that part of the business after having leveraged his clout to drive other options out of business? This is the devil’s bargain that people make every day when they trade healthy, complex economic systems for convenience and the simplicity of one-click.
This, I confess, is the socio-political rant I go off on most often. When we fail to be mindful of the sum consequences of all our individual decisions as producers and consumers, we are complicit in our own eventual destruction.
That being said, here are the new and recent books falling generally in the category of lesbian and sapphic historical fiction. There’s one October book that, while not technically having a historic setting, may appeal to fans of historicals.
Julie & Winifred's Most Excellent Adventure by Heather Massey from Crackerjack Creatives
In 1838 England, spinster mathematician Winifred Blackburn helps her inventor brother build a time machine as an instrument of good for science, only to discover his diabolical plan for using it to manipulate history. To stop him, she steals the device. But when her heist goes wrong, she uses the time machine to avoid capture—and accidentally leaps to the year 2030. Meanwhile, in 2030 America, Julie “Queen of All Geeks” Sherman enjoys a lucrative job, an adorable cat, and a treasure trove of comic book collectibles, but finding the love of her life is the one achievement she hasn’t been able to unlock. What good is her golden nest egg if she can’t share it with anyone? One fateful day at a comic con, Julie encounters a disoriented Winifred and helps her recover. The situation takes a wild turn when Winifred proves she’s a genuine time traveler. This time-crossed couple wins the romance jackpot, but danger threatens their happily ever after when a mysterious intruder appears, bent on stealing the time machine at all costs. To help Winifred escape back to Victorian London, Julie has to act fast—even if it means losing the woman of her dreams.
The majority of the new books this time are catching up on November books.
Observations on the Danger of Female Curiosity by Suzanne Moss from Aesculus Books is inspired by real life female scientists of the 18th century.
Thea Morell, Georgian heiress and eligible lady, is not normal. At least, that’s what she has come to believe. She loves nothing more than spending hours at the study of natural history, collecting fossils, insects, dead fish, bones and even the odd spider. Up to now, she has held off her mother’s entreaties to marry, but this year something has changed and the pressure is growing. While observing and experimenting in her search for scientific truth, Thea also begins to acknowledge a truth about herself. A most inconvenient one which sparks at the lips of the electrical venus and bursts into flame in the presence of the very proper Lady Eleanor Harrington. Has her obsession with the male-dominated world of natural history caused the unnatural tendencies she can’t seem to control? And more importantly, what is she going to do about it?
And if that sounds intriguing, the author has a free prequel story, “A Defence of Astronomical Curiosity for Ladies,” offered to those who sign up for her newsletter. The show notes have a link to her website where you can sign up.
This prequel tells the story of aspiring astronomer Harriet Nichol, her intended – the dastardly Courtenay Marriott, and the significant complication of socialite Emma DeClere.
A slightly different take on the “Roaring 20s” than some of the books we’ve been seeing lately is: My Life with Rachel: A Tale of Two Women in 1920's New York self-published by Ariel Archer.
June 29, 1921. Ariel Archer and Rachel Selinger, two “sisters,” arrive on Ellis Island from Europe… beginning new lives in America. Finding that they must keep the true nature of their relationship (and indeed other aspects of their actual identities) a secret, they embark on a journey of discovery in a new home… New York. A place they call home for the next 9 years. My Life with Rachel, told in the first person through Ariel’s point of view, is a story about confronting the harsh realities of the American Dream, about the role of fate, chance, and choices as part of the Human condition, about living amidst the changes of progress but also trying to cope with things that hold us back, and ultimately about the power of friendship, companionship, and love… especially when that’s all you have left and you have to start over again. Step back a century into the Roaring Twenties. Prepare for some history, some drama, a bit of romance… and a few surprises!
From the cover copy, it isn’t entirely clear that this next love triangle ends up with the two women together, but I think we have enough variety of stories that it’s ok to take a risk. So check out: Elsie Sees It Through self-published by Derek Ansell.
London, 1943. The War in Europe is raging. After Elsie bumps into a young soldier, they are both attracted to each other and in time, become close friends. Elsie lives with her widowed mother in a small North London house and has a close relationship with her long-time friend, Julia, who would like that relationship to become more personal and intimate. After the young soldier Brian proposes marriage to Elsie, she doesn't know who to choose. Conflicted, Elsie doesn't know what she wants, or what she believes is her destiny. While sweeping changes take place across England and the rest of the world, Elsie must come to terms with her life and her future, and navigate a difficult, thorny path to happiness.
I am still grumpy that Jeannelle M. Ferreira—who has been one of our fiction series authors—let me find out by chance on Twitter that she has a new collection out from Nekyla press, The Fire and the Place in the Forest: Collected Stories and Poems.
The circle is always closing. In crazy times, this essential selection of the fiction and poetry of Jeannelle M. Ferreira holds out a branch of lights kindled from chosen futures and pasts always close behind, where history never confines itself to one familiar face and selkies and demons offer as much inheritance as memories, bodies, or ghosts. Intimately Jewish, integrally queer, these are tales for holding on to. They know how to remember and to change. Eighteen years of stories and poems from small queer presses, 'zines, podcasts and other corners of the universe are collected here, alongside new work, for the first time.
I wanted a more concrete description of the contents and asked Jeannelle if the collection fit into the “historic lesbians” theme. And she replied (and I quote directly):
"I think historic lesbians is really all I do at this juncture but yes, we gotcher gaslamp New Bedford lesbians, yer steampunk New York garment district lesbians, yer 1816 Virginia lesbians, yer Of Course I Wrote a Holocaust One lesbians and, as you know, yer Pale of Settlement lesbians, with a smattering of Young Dyke of the Nineties poetry, mostly because poetry zines die fastest."
Meg Mardell has trained me to look forward to her annual Christmas Masquerade series from NineStar Press and hasn’t failed me yet. Volume #3 is A Chaperoned Christmas and as usual features a broadly queer cast while centering a romantic couple that will appeal to sapphic readers.
Candida Damerell avoids two things at all costs: her former hometown, Salcombe Bay, and her former lover, Broderick Carlyle. She’s worked too hard to shake off her sad family history in Devonshire and become a premier London hostess. To think she nearly threw it all away for a bohemian charmer like Broderick! He never understood Candida’s need to keep their secret romance, well, secret. Unfortunately, this holiday season, the fates seem determined to thwart her best efforts at self-preservation.
Broderick Carlyle is not surprised to see his estranged lover on the same coastal railway platform a fortnight before Christmas. Who else could tempt him into such a backwater at this dangerously jolly time of year? Not the country rustic whose need for Society chaperones is the alleged reason for the visit. What Broderick is not prepared to learn is that this windswept bit of coast is where Candida grew up. Even more alarming? The “country rustic” is none other than an earl’s daughter from the neighbouring estate.
Lady Sophia Luscombe has no intention of leaving her beloved Devonshire and her new horse breeding business for smelly, snobby London, especially not under the guidance of two Society chaperones. What if they managed to get Sophie married at last? No, she will distract her sophisticated visitors by making them fall in love with each other. The intimate entertainments of a West Country Christmas will make it easy to force the two together. It would be the perfect plan—or it would be if only the too-perfect Candida were not Sophie’s secret first love. Just as the web of cross purposes frays to breaking point, a masquerade ball arrives to give these fierce spirits one last opportunity to tell the truth in time for Christmas. Is it too late for a second or even a third chance at love?
I suppose we could count that last as functioning as a December book, but there are only two titles officially released in December.
The Captain's Choice: A Sapphic Seas Romance by Wren Taylor from Epicea Press follows the usual sapphic pirate romance storyline.
Wales, 1707 Mona Lloyd is desperate to escape a wedding and a future with a man she doesn’t love. When she stows away on the only ship to visit her sleepy village of Ogmore-by-Sea, she learns the ship isn’t all it seems, and neither is the beautiful, aloof captain that helms it. As Mona fights for acceptance among the ship’s crew, she is also fighting a growing attraction to the alluring captain. Captain Elinor Davies promised herself she would never fall in love again. She has everything she ever dreamed of: a ship of her own, a loyal crew, and wealth beyond her wildest dreams. But when a pretty, young stowaway appears on her ship to challenge everything she holds dear, she has to choose between her responsibility to her crew and her heart’s true desire. Can the two overcome their differences and a tragic past, or is history doomed to repeat itself? Follow Mona and Elinor to the Caribbean for this steamy, swashbuckling romance filled with adventure, danger, and desire in the Golden Age of Piracy.
Edale Lane’s Wellington Mysteries series from Past and Prologue Press diverges from the previous volumes in presenting a collection of shorter works under the title Daunting Dilemmas.
Stetson has been fooling London for ten years while her fictitious alter-ego solves crimes. But could a criminal mastermind put her carefree days of sleuthing in jeopardy? Evelyn longs to be recognized for her talent; will her music prove to be the key in helping Stetson solve a mystery? While Jack the Ripper terrorizes London, Stetson closes in on the art thief she has been after for months; however, will catching him place her in an impossible position which threatens to expose her? A collection of five sequential novellas, each encompassing its own exciting mystery while furthering the story of Stetson’s life in London.
So those are the new books for the month. Another new thing I’ve started doing recently is boosting these new titles into my social media feeds. Discoverability is the biggest hurdle for queer books and I strongly encourage you-all to mention the books you’re reading and the books you love in your social media to help people find them.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been consuming? I’m still focusing far more on audiobooks than print, mostly for the multi-tasking potential. This month I took in Olivia Atwater’s Victorian faerie romantic adventure, Longshadow. This is a sequel to a previous book Half a Soul, which I haven’t read yet, but the book fills you in on the backstory you need.
Another series where I jumped in on book two is A Restless Truth by Freya Marske. This is, again, a sort of magical Victorian romantic adventure—which we seem to have been seeing a lot of lately. As with a prior series where I dipped in on book 2, the overall series focuses on a series of queer romances, but book two is the only one with a female couple.
When I included Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk in the new book listings, I wasn’t sure exactly what the historic setting was. Now I can assure you that it’s 1930s Chicago complete with supernatural gangsters and deals with demons. And a very very central sapphic romance that drives all the protagonist’s choices.
I don’t mention my tv and movie viewing as religiously as the books, but here are some items worth noting. I want to give a very strong recommendation to The Woman King a fictionalized treatment of the Dahomey “Amazons” in the mid 1800s. Even aside from providing a strikingly different view of colonial West Africa, the central aspect of the story is the tight bonds of loyalty, friendship, and love between the women of the Agojie warror band. If you like the energy and power of the superhero movie Wakanda Forever (which I also saw and recommend) then I recommend you seek out The Woman King which adds in some overt sapphic elements.
For the aforementioned movies, I wish I could get the same vibes with a bit less emphasis on violence and fight scenes. I’m not getting that from the Netflix series Warrior Nun, which is about a secret convent of demon-fighting nuns, with bonus science-fictional elements, Vatican intrigues, and angels…maybe. Again, lots and lots of violent fight scenes, sufficiently mitigated by overt sapphic threads in the plot. And you just have to forgive a show when its willing to include casual lesbians.
Another very queer series that just released its second season is Young Royals, which follows the entirely-too-realistic struggles of a teenaged heir to the throne, exploring same-sex love and heartbreak at an upper crust boarding school. There’s a temptation to shout at the kids, “Dial it down, chill out, adolescence isn’t forever!” But that’s really the point of the drama and angst and the series handles contemporary issues in realistic ways.
I haven’t decided on a podcast topic for the December essay show yet. I’ve been trying to space out the trope shows a bit to make sure there’s some variety in content. But if you have a favorite trope that you want to make sure is included, speak up.
We’ll close out the end of the month with our last fiction episode of the year, “From the Bird's Nest” by Jennifer Nestojko. I felt that Jennifer really captured the dynamic of a later 19th century romantic friendship in this epistolary story and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. And, of course, in January we’ll be open for submissions for next year’s fiction series. Wait… how can that be coming up so soon! I hope that the choices are just as hard as they were last time! Spread the word and point all your author friends to the Call for Submissions linked in the show notes.
I’ve been trying to get back in the habit of having an author guest every month, helped by having interviews set up for our fiction series authors. This month I invited Marianne Ratcliffe to talk about her recent gothic romance, The Secret of Matterdale Hall.
[Interview transcript will appear here when available.]
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 Marianne Ratcliffe Online