(Originally aired 2023/02/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2023.
There’s a temptation to wait to record this episode at the very last minute in order to see if I can include the new fiction line-up announcement. As I’m writing this, there are still two days left in the submissions period (and I’m hoping for the same last-minute flood I’ve received in past years to bring the numbers up to the usual level). But while I’ll almost certainly have started reading submissions by Saturday, chances are I won’t be ready to make an announcement. If you want the up-to-the-minute news about the line-up, make sure to follow the blog.
News of the Field
In news of the field, I’m still holding off on promoting books from Harper Collins imprints, to support the ongoing strike by their workers. The list of postponed books is up to 4 titles now, but the company has recently entered negotiations with the union, so perhaps by next month I’ll be in a position to do the catch-up listings.
When working on the annual roundup of statistics on lesbian and sapphic historicals, I’ve been digging into the various connections and relationships between imprints to be able to give a more accurate picture of who’s publishing what. My database—which goes back at least 20 years, though much more spottily in the first half—includes slightly over 300 named imprints, with an average of 2.3 titles per imprint.
But that average doesn’t give an accurate picture at all. Almost 200 of those imprints have only a single book listed in the database, while the most prolific has 71 titles. Out of the 11 imprints that have 10 or more titles, 9 are specifically queer small presses.
But, again, that doesn’t show the whole picture because of the way mainstream publishing is a small collection of conglomerations of specialty imprints. So, for example, by my count, the Harper Collins group accounts for 15 different imprints in my database, for a total of 28 titles. Penguin/Random House accounts for 25 different imprints for a total of 51 titles. And Hachette, while including only 6 imprints in my database, accounts for 20 titles.
So while it might seem as if, on the basis of individual named imprints, the small queer presses are the major players, when you view the mainstream publishers as unified entities, you can see that they’re a significant presence in the field.
This is, of course, both a good and a bad thing. It’s a good thing that mainstream publishers are embracing books with queer content. Their books have larger reach. They’re more accessible to the general public through bookstores and libraries. But the down side is that, as more queer books are available from major publishers, their books are beginning to dominate some online book discussion spaces. There are practical reasons for this that I’ve discussed in previous shows, having to do with the way information flows within the literary ecosystem. But never forget that small, independent queer presses were what created the space for that to happen.
Publications on the Blog
In January, the blog delved into George E. Haggerty’s Unnatural Affections: Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century. It’s a look at how various categories of transgressive desire shaped literary genres in the 18th century that helped give rise to the gothic novel. It’s one of several books I selected to prepare for a podcast on lesbian gothics, though I’m not sure I’m ready to do that one this month.
I went on one of my periodic online book shopping sprees, inspired by a calendar reminder to order a book that came out late last year: Wendy L. Rouse’s Public Faces, Secret Lives: A Queer History of the Women's Suffrage Movement.
While I was shopping, I followed up on a couple other notes and discovered that there was now an affordable paperback edition of Thomas A. Abercrombie’s Passing to América: Antonio (Née Maria) Yta's Transgressive, Transatlantic Life in the Twilight of the Spanish Empire. Like many biographies of so-called “passing women,” this falls more in the category of transgender history, but remains a continuing interest for the blog in order to provide context for one of the more popular tropes in sapphic historical fiction.
For similar reasons, I picked up Norena Shopland’s A History of Women in Men's Clothes: From Cross-Dressing to Empowerment. This work is from a publisher that specializes in popularized history, rather than an academic press, and a brief skim through the table of contents suggests that a more accurate title would be “a history of women in men’s clothes in the 19th century and later.” But I’ll review it and let you know if I think it would be useful.
The last item from the shopping trip is a collection edited by Ruth Vanita: Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. As the collection is broad in scope in terms of eras and identities, I expect that maybe one or two articles at most will be of interest to the Project, but I’m always on the lookout for non-Euro-centric studies and Ruth Vanita has done a lot of good work in the field.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Now let’s move on to new and recent fiction. I found only one January book that I’d missed previously, so I’ll just fold it in with the February books, rather than separating it out, and follow my usual format of tackling titles in chronological order of setting. I don’t know if people notice that I do that! And sometimes I’ll do a thematic group out of order.
This month has another relatively invisible feature: it’s the first month since I started actively avoiding Amazon links when I was able to get a non-Amazon url for all the current listings. My ideal goal is to be able to provide an author, publisher, or Books2Read type link for every book, even if it’s simply the author’s website that itself has an Amazon link. The advantage is that it delivers your eyeballs to the author’s own information which may include other titles, blogs, or mailing lists.
She Who Would be King by Kim Pritekel from Sapphire Books is a historic fantasy that combines some solidly real-world grounding with an imagined country where the story largely takes place.
Cateline is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a nobleman in fourteenth-century France. It's a time when children aren't seen as those to be loved and cherished, but instead are used as pawns and bargaining chips on the chessboard of control and privilege. She is married off to a prince in the country of Sursha, a Gaelic-speaking island nation near Ireland. Fergus, her betrothed, is next in line to take over once beloved King Carthac dies. Or is he? Fallon, the youngest royal child and only girl, has been raised as one of the king's sons her entire life, for reasons she has never fully understood. A natural fighter, she was raised to be a warrior and head the Crown's Elite Guard assigned to protect her boorish brother Fergus. Forced to fill in for her brother in an unexpected way, an instant attraction between Fallon and Cateline forms. In a game of thrones filled with deception and betrayal, even the most secret love can mean death.
The Pirate's Pursuit (Sapphic Seas #2) by Wren Taylor from Epicea Press introduces two new characters to the series, but has intersections with the couple from the previous book.
Lisbet Clarke knows how to fend for herself in the growing pirate haven of Nassau, and is quite content doing it. When a woman from her past steps back into her life, she is forced to finally contend with old memories and betrayals. Yet, she can’t help but wonder what might have been had things ended differently between them. Kit Murphy never thought she would see the island she grew up on again. But face to face with her first love, there is no place she would rather be. Kit is eager to make amends and rebuild a connection with the only person who understood her, even if fate seems to have other plans. Thrown together on a dangerous voyage, Kit and Lisbet must fight for their lives… and their love.
Blood in the Tea Leaves, self-published by Beka Westrup, is another overtly real-world/fantasy intersection, in this case involving vampires. It’s a companion novella to another book by the author.
Marie is a woman sold into a loveless marriage in a 1700’s, secondary-world France. Under the close tutelage of the esteemed Lady Colette Valand, Marie has sewn a small corner of life for herself in their little town in the country-side. She even manages to find love and companionship in a secret affair with a prostitute, Alice. But Lady Colette has a few secrets of her own, and they all come to light on one fateful night, when their bodies and futures are forever changed by a mysterious tin of tea leaves.
The Secret Life of Spinsters: A Sapphic Regency Romance (Desiring The Dexingtons # 2), self-published by Renee Dahlia, is yet another case of a family-saga type historic romance series that includes one sapphic entry. The format is becoming something of a publishing category on its own!
Confirmed spinster Elspeth Dexington works in the Dexington family linen manufacturing business dealing with logistics. She believes that machinery will make clothing cheaper for the people, and therefore everyone can afford new clothes, not hand-me-downs and turned cuffs. But when her father declares they will stop manufacturing linen and shift to cotton, she has a new fight on her hands. Producing affordable clothing shouldn’t come at such a great human cost. Help comes in an unexpected form. Florencia Waulker is the daughter of one of the Luddite organisers. She does all her blind father’s correspondence, but when he orders an attack on the Dexington factory, she realises his belief in the need to rid factories of machines have gone too far. She sneaks out to warn the daughter of the factory owner, only to find herself caught up in a conspiracy. Can two spinsters work together to prevent a disaster, or two? Or is falling in love the real problem?
Dangerous Flames (Good Neighbors coda), self-published by Stephanie Burgis, probably requires reading the four stories in the main series first for context. Again, this is a historic fantasy, in this case somewhat lightly anchored in a vaguely late 19th century not-quite-England.
No killing until the wedding's over. No killing... It's such a simple, temporary rule - but Carmilla, the notorious Countess Cardenza, will still find it hard to follow when she's confronted by her most dangerous old flame at Mia and Leander's wedding. With appallingly respectable neighbors, shambling zombies, and old enemies on every side, will her reunion with Eliza de Mornay end with murder or kissing - or both?
For Lamb by Lesa Cline-Ransome from Holliday House is a young adult novel more on the literary side and dealing with heavy themes.
The book follows a family striving to better their lives in the late 1930s Jackson, Mississippi. Lamb’s mother is a hard-working, creative seamstress who cannot reveal she is a lesbian. Lamb’s brother has a brilliant mind and has even earned a college scholarship for a black college up north-- if only he could curb his impulsiveness and rebellious nature. Lamb herself is a quiet and studious girl. She is also naive. As she tentatively accepts the friendly overtures of a white girl who loans her a book she loves, she sets a off a calamitous series of events that pulls in her mother, charming hustler uncle, estranged father, and brother, and ends in a lynching.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading? It’s been half and half print and audiobooks this month, with the print titles both being novellas that I could finish in one sitting.
I listened to Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey, which I enthused about when it showed up in the new book listings. The story is inspired by the real life story of two young women in 17th century Peru who became sword-wielding vigilantes to fight crime. While the premise of the book is absolutely my cup of tea—or maybe mug of ale in this case—the story never quite grabbed me. The language felt repetitive and slow, and the main characters had a lot of anachronistically modern attitudes. Sometimes that sort of thing is a deliberate authorial choice to provide the reader with a more solid connection to the story, but in this case it felt like the author really wanted to be writing about modern teenagers, but dressed them up in costumes.
I definitely enjoyed Olivia Waite’s new short romance Hen Fever, in which two lonely women bond and fall in love over breeding chickens for the local poultry show. It had a lot of complexity for such a short work. The setting is several decades after her Feminine Pursuits series so I don’t think it’s meant to connect to it, at least not that I noticed.
Another shorter work that I read was Nhi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful, which is a re-working of The Great Gatsby focused around the character of Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker. Jordan is re-imagined as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, but the story also throws magic into the mix, including explaining Gatsby’s rise as being due to a bargain with demons. My reading notes say, “Vibes, all vibes!” It’s very much a story where atmosphere is a central character, and I suspect that if you aren’t at all familiar with The Great Gatsby you might stumble in places trying to follow the plot.
I finished up the month listening to yet another of K.J. Charles’s gay male historic romances, The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting. Like pretty much every book of hers that I’ve read, the prose and character studies are excellent…and like many of them, I feel like she leans in a little hard on “hate sex turns into true romance.” But as usual, the characters have good intentions even when they have conflicting goals and everything works out.
And that’s it for this month’s On the Shelf. For the essay show, I probably need something quicker to script than the gothic fiction episode I’m working on, so you’ll probably get another “Our F/Favorite Tropes” episode. And watch the blog and my social media to hear about this year’s fiction line-up. The first fiction show will be in April, so I have time to get things set up…I say with a hollow laugh knowing that I always mean to get the fiction episodes set up well in advance and often fail.
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