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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 286 - On the Shelf for May 2024

Saturday, May 4, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 286 - On the Shelf for May 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/05/04 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2024.

I’m afraid this is going to be one of those episodes that’s mostly stripped down to just the book news. I worry that people aren’t interested in episodes that are basically book catalogs, but I haven’t had the time and energy to set up interviews, or think about special topic book lists, or any of the other occasional content I include in these episodes. I’m going though one of those “maybe it’s time to wrap things up” periods. Injections of listener enthusiasm and feedback would be welcome.

I truly did mean to get some articles up in the blog this month to mention. I even started typing up the notes from one of the half dozen that I’ve read and highlighted. Then my brain shut down and I set it aside. The most momentous thing I’m doing related to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is that I’ve finally started thinning down my library of books I’m never likely to use for anything, so that—among other things—I can make space for all the gender and sexuality books without having to double-shelve them and leave piles on the floor. Making the choices to discard has been easier than I thought, but finding appropriate homes for them will be harder. They end up in three categories: books to give away, books that I’ll try to get store credit for at my local used bookstore, and books that have substantial resale value that I need to find a middleman for. All of which means that I’ll have boxes of books sitting around for months while I get things sorted out. But I’ve been meaning to thin out the library for quite some time and it’s good to have made a start.

Book Shopping!

And, of course, the new books keep coming in. This month’s addition is Women on Stage in Stuart Drama by Sophie Tomlinson. This purchase (and another related book that’s still in transit) came out of the inspiration to do a tropes episode on women in the theater. Searching through the books and articles I’ve already blogged and the “to do” list made me realize I had a bunch of reading to do before working on the theater episode, including several solidly relevant books that I hadn’t yet acquired. Women on Stage in Stuart Drama also contributes nicely to my background research for my Restoration-era series-in-planning.

And speaking of which, that series is no longer simply a talking point. In July, the first story from that project, “Bound in Bitterness,” will be published in the anthology Whispers in the Stacks edited by M.J. Lowe for Bella Books. The topic of the collection is “romance set in libraries” so I don’t know if any of the other stories will have historic settings. It feels good to see my Restoration ladies finally start to see the light of day. I have a second completed story in the setting that wasn’t chosen for the anthology I wrote it for, which is waiting for an appropriate venue to be published. And the romance of the central figures in the series is only waiting for my retirement. Which is now only one year out and can’t come too soon.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

While Whispers in the Stacks is still a few months out, we can take a look at the May releases and a handful of books I missed in the last couple months.

I think I’ve mentioned previously that I often pass over vampire novels, even if the vampire has a deep historic background, because they don’t have the structure of historical fiction. But Unholy with Eyes like Wolves by Morgan Dante is an exception with what looks like a more solid historic grounding. The story blends the themes of the historic Countess Bathory and the literary Carmilla.

Noémie, a dishonored and widowed noblewoman in early 17th century Hungary, finds herself in an unenviable position: After grievous trauma and loss, her last chance to regain her honor comes when she must serve as Lady Erzsébet Báthory’s handmaiden. Báthory is stoic and imperious, and as Noémie struggles to acclimate and accept her present and future, she begins to have dreams about a mysterious woman. Worse, there are stories of disappearance and deaths in the castle, and Noémie might be next.

I really enjoyed a previous book in Annick Trent’s The Old Bridge Inn series, set in the late 18th century and focusing on ordinary working people in the context of social upheavals. This month she has a novelette set in the same series: Harvest Season (The Old Bridge Inn #3).

Lowri has spent the past month bringing in the harvest and daydreaming about her one-night stand with Eliza, barmaid at the Blue Boar. When the two women meet again, the spark between them is as strong as ever, but they cannot immediately act upon it: they must race against time to warn a group of weavers who face arrest for organising a strike.

Renee Dahlia breaks free of the pattern that historic romance series with a variety of types of couples will only have a single f/f volume. In the case of the Regency-era series Desiring the Dexingtons, so far 3 of the 5 titles have involved female couples. This one is The Summer of Second Chances (Desiring the Dexingtons #4).

Laudanum addicted Lady Hyacinth Walfingham is sent to the Soho Club to recover, but it’s not only the medicine that has harmed her. As she comes to terms with her old life, she slowly falls for her nurse.

Jane Bonklesford knows that life is tough, and she can only rely on herself. Her side hustle of making dentures forms a key part of her plan to get out of poverty. Working as a nurse at the Soho Club helps her keep her business costs low, and the last thing she needs is to fall in love with the beautiful aristocratic Lady Walfingham.

Can they overcome their assumptions and make a life together? Or will their class differences be too much of a hurdle?

The cover copy for 2 Screams 1 Sugar by Sula Sullivan makes it a bit difficult to untangle what genres it’s playing to. The text gives off the feel of maybe turn-of-the-century England, without providing any solid evidence of time or place. The solid elements are that it’s a mystery, it involves a sapphic romance, and—based on both the cover art and the author’s notes—both protagonists are Black. Since the author sometimes writes historic fantasy, I’m uncertain whether the reference to one of the characters as a “giantess” is meant to be literal or only figurative.

In the bustling streets of Whittlesham, where gas lamps flicker, and crime abounds, two young women find themselves drawn together after a chance encounter at a crime scene turned tourist attraction. Destiny is a plucky aspiring detective stuck in the murky world of low-ranking journalism, and Jada is a giantess artist who turns the macabre into money with her crime scene sketches.

Driven by insatiable curiosity and a mutual passion for justice, the two women embark on a journey that leads them to unexpected places, including the purchase of a derelict narrowboat. Working together, the duo transform the boat into a cozy shop where they serve coffee, gather clues, and concoct plans to establish their own detective agency.

As they navigate the treacherous waters of the lowest currents of Whittlesham’s society and unmask the secrets hidden within its dark alleys, Destiny and Jada must rely on each other's strengths to unravel the truth behind the crimes that haunt their city. Danger lurks around every corner. Can they stay one step ahead, or will they become the next victims in Whittlesham’s twisted history?

The Good Women of Fudi by Liu Hong from Scribe Publications is set in turn-of-the-century China, featuring two gender-nonconforming women. But this isn’t a straightforward romance novel, despite clear sapphic themes, and it’s probably best not to go in expecting the two women to achieve a happily-ever-after ending together.

Best friends Jiali and Wu Fang know that no man is a match for them. In their small harbour town of Fudi, they practise sword fighting, write couplets to one another, and strut around dressed as men. Jiali is a renowned poet and Wu Fang is going to be China’s first female surgeon. But when Wu Fang returns from medical training in Japan, she is horrified to hear of Jiali’s marriage to a man who cannot even match her couplets, and confused by her intense feelings of jealousy towards her friend’s new husband, Yanbu.

Ocean man Charles has arrived in Fudi to start a new life. He eschews the company of his fellow foreigners, preferring to spend time with new colleague Yanbu, his wife, Jiali, and her friend, Wu Fang. Over the course of several months, he grows close to them all, in increasingly confusing ways, but what will happen when he is forced to choose between his country and his friends?

As tensions between the Manchu rulers and the people rise, and foreign battleships gather out at sea, loyalties will be tested in more ways than Jiali, Wu Fang, Yanbu, and Charles can possibly imagine.

It feels like we’ve been having a wealth of Prohibition-themed novels in the last year or two, now including Adrift by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books.

Janeth Castro never expected to be the most prominent bootlegger in Southern California. After growing up in Central Mexico and falling into her role in the business, she’s torn between supporting her family values and living life on her own terms. The last thing she needs is a white woman protesting at her door.

Alice Covington is many things: a pickpocket, a drifter, and now a daughter of the Prohibition movement. Under her mother’s cruel eye, she follows the protests to a mysterious mansion by the sea. Determined to play by her parents’ rules—which include not falling in love with a woman—she is surprised to find the great house host to the most surprising, and attractive, rum smuggler in town.

Janeth and Alice are caught in storms that neither can seem to escape. Obligation, fear, and old guilt claw daily at their hearts, and their chance meeting leads to an unexpected romance that may be just what they need to find safe harbor.

This next book, My Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna van Veen from Poisoned Pen Press, has a strongly gothic feel.

Spirits are drawn to salt, be it blood or tears.

Roos Beckman has a spirit companion only she can see. Ruth—strange, corpse-like, and dead for centuries—is the light of Roos’ life. That is, until the wealthy young widow Agnes Knoop visits one of Roos’ backroom seances, and the two strike up a connection.

Soon, Roos is whisked away to the crumbling estate Agnes inherited upon the death of her husband, where an ill woman haunts the halls, strange smells drift through the air at night, and mysterious stone statues reside in the family chapel. Something dreadful festers in the manor, but still, the attraction between Roos and Agnes is undeniable.

Then, someone is murdered.

Poor, alone, and with a history of ‘hysterics’, Roos is the obvious culprit. With her sanity and innocence in question, she’ll have to prove who—or what—is at fault or lose everything she holds dear.

I confess it gave me a bit of a jolt when I saw that A Liaison with Her Leading Lady by Lotte R. James is published by Harlequin Historical. Harlequin publishing lesbian historic romance! As much as I have concerns about the pitifully few big-press sapphic romances sucking all the attention away from the much larger, long-established small press field, it’s still something of a landmark.

Ruth Connell’s beloved theater is under threat! In desperation, she approaches reclusive playwright Artemis Goode. If Artemis can write a hit, Ruth can save her troupe from financial ruin. Yet it’s not just Ruth’s livelihood in need of saving, but Artemis’s shattered heart, too. As quickly as their personalities clash, their passion ignites! But while that leads their play toward success, it also leads Ruth closer to the end of her partnership with Artemis…

I think a theme this month is, “I have no idea from the cover copy whether this book falls within our scope or not.” Fortunately, for The Honey Witch by Sydney J. Shields from Redhook, advance reviews came to my rescue and confirmed this has a historic setting. (19th century was as specific as anyone got.) Otherwise, the book is much more on the fantasy side and is definitely following the trend of witchy books.

The Honey Witch of Innisfree can never find true love. That is her curse to bear. But when a young woman who doesn’t believe in magic arrives on her island, sparks fly in this deliciously sweet debut novel of magic, hope, and love overcoming all.

Twenty-one-year-old Marigold Claude has always preferred the company of the spirits of the meadow to any of the suitors who’ve tried to woo her. So when her grandmother whisks her away to the family cottage on the tiny Isle of Innisfree with an offer to train her as the next Honey Witch, she accepts immediately. But her newfound magic and independence come with a price: No one can fall in love with the Honey Witch.

When Lottie Burke, a notoriously grumpy skeptic who doesn’t believe in magic, shows up on her doorstep, Marigold can’t resist the challenge to prove to her that magic is real. But soon, Marigold begins to care for Lottie in ways she never expected. And when darker magic awakens and threatens to destroy her home, she must fight for much more than her new home—at the risk of losing her magic and her heart.

Other Books of Interest

Three books go in my “other books of interest” category. In the case of Flight Lines (WASPS #2) by Jana Williams, one of the subject tags identifies it as LGBTQ+, but I couldn’t have guessed that from the cover copy.

Flight Lines picks up the WASP story after their graduation from training camp in Sweetwater, Texas. With their arrival at Moss Beach Airfield, California—their duty station, life as a professional flyer is about to begin. They quickly find it's a struggle to create a space for themselves on a military base. But their biggest challenge is getting a chance to prove their skills as pilots—pilots that are desperately needed for the war effort. Each woman finds a chance to shine despite the setbacks, buoyed by friendship and their shared passion for flying - they set their course and never look back.

For Pebble in the Pond by Alex Westmore (pen name of Linda Kay Silva), the uncertainty has to do with the historic context, though notes on the book indicate there are time-travel elements. I’m a bit more willing to rely on the coy language about “secrets” and “a price to pay for love” given the general trend of the author’s body of work. But, as usual, I offer no guarantees about the content of books I include in the “other of interest” group.

When bookstore owner and writer Ryan Kincaid stumbles upon an estate sale, she buys the whole lot of Catherine Van Wyck's massive library for a song...but the song those books sing reveals secrets Catherine would rather remain in the darkness...secrets that would upend her world and those of a granddaughter she has shielded from the truth for far too long.

But what is this secret buried between the pages of novels too old and too dusty for anyone else to care about? Did socialite Catherine Van Wyck lead a mysterious life before she married her long-gone husband, or is there something more menacing about a story she buried a lifetime ago?

Ryan is determined to uncover this unearth who the real Catherine Van Wyck is, who she was, and the life path she traveled before she became a millionaire philanthropist who is now nearly penniless.

What happened to her fortune?

What happened to her husband?

What happened to her finely constructed life?

And just what is this secret Catherine has protected all these years?

Ryan Kincaid is determined to find unearth the story behind this fascinating woman; and in doing so, realizes there is often a price to pay for love, for loss, and for living with secrets too shallow to remain buried forever.

Books can change a lot between initial plans and release. I enter the data on books to include when I first run across it, but every once in a while the final book takes a different angle. The original cover copy for A Heart Divided by Angie Williams from Bold Strokes Books looked very much like US Civil War standard sapphic plot A, with a cross-gender soldier and a Maxon-Dixon enemies-to-lovers romance. But at the last minute when putting this episode together, I checked back on the publisher’s website because of an apparent inconsistency in the protagonist’s nomme-de-guerre. At which point I discovered that the book’s description had been revised to align the protagonist solidly as a trans man. So: potentially “other books of interest,” and I’m glad the revised description kept me from making incorrect assumptions about the characters.

Wanda Baker’s life was never the same after killing her abusive stepfather. With nowhere to hide, she steals a soldier’s uniform and falls in with a battalion of Confederate soldiers, redefining herself as Jack Logan. Even though done out of necessity, he soon realizes living as a man reflects his true self in more ways than just the clothes he wears. The world finally sees him as the man he knows he is.

After the war, Jack finds work on a horse ranch owned by the widow of a Union soldier, Emma Stevens. She’s the most beautiful woman Jack has ever seen, but being a veteran of the Confederate army that killed her husband isn’t the only thing keeping them apart.

Emma hates that she needs the enemy’s help to manage her husband’s beloved ranch, but with fewer qualified men left after the war, she's forced to accept she has no choice. She and her young son must place their trust somewhere, and Jack is her best hope of keeping the ranch and her husband's legacy intact.

Their differences are too hard to ignore, but only love can heal a heart divided.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading in the last month? Mostly audiobooks, as usual. You may remember that Lucy Holland came on the show to talk about her novel Song of the Huntress. I found it lovely and heart-ripping and complex and deeply historically rooted. The complicated relationships between Queen Aethel, her husband the king, and her beloved, the warrior-woman cast out of time, are drawn with intense realism, while not overpowering the dynamics of the historic politics blended with deep magic of the land. A very “chewy” book as I like to call them.

Nghi Vo has continued her Singing Hills Cycle, set in an alternate fantasy China and featuring the non-binary monk Chih whose vocation is to collect stories. This installment, Mammoths at the Gates, still has the core focus on "what is the meaning and purpose of Story?" But this one didn't grab me quite as much as the previous books in the series, though it gives us a wider window on the sentient hoopoe birds that serve as a repository for the collected stories the monks seek out.

K.J. Charles has another winner in Death in the Spires, a convoluted murder mystery set in early 20th century Oxford. As usual there are lots of well-drawn and juicy characters. And the book will threaten to break your heart multiple times in multiple directions as the climax draws near. Although male homoerotic relationships thread through the plot, this is not a romance novel.

And finally, I always have a read in process that I call my “tooth-brushing book.” It lives on the bathroom counter and gives me a metric to make sure I brush my teeth for the requisite amount of time. For this purpose, it needs to be a book I can read in small chunks and then put down again. For the last year and more, this book has been The Time Travelers Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer. It’s a popular-oriented general social history of early 19th century Britain, with a very readable balance between covering the broad outlines and featuring interesting colorful tidbits. There is a very light background conceit that the reader is a potential time-traveler being presented with essential information in the form of a guidebook, but this motif isn’t taken to extremes and doesn’t get in the way of reading the book as serious history.

Several years ago, I read the same author’s The Time Travelers Guide to Restoration Britain. While books like this can be very useful to the writer of historical fiction to provide a general grounding in a particular period, they aren’t sufficient to be a sole source of research. Rather, they can provide a scaffolding onto which more detailed research can be attached. Or they can provide an idea of what sorts of stories are possible in that era and keep you from spinning plots that won’t stand up to a more in-depth fleshing out. One potential down side of this sort of high-level general history is that they often present only a homogenized, generic view of society—one that gets in the way of imagining the more diverse characters and stories that are equally true to life and more interesting to write. But Mortimer’s books are reasonably sound on that part, at least acknowledging the dynamics of racism, describing the realities of how different economic classes lived, and even touching a little on diverse sexualities.

And now I need to pick a new tooth-brushing book!

Show Notes

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

Major category: