I recently spent an afternoon in the amazing Gay’s The Word and came home with a fantastic selection of 8 books to recommend you all. There were a few I went in deliberately to buy, but most gathered from browsing. I think I walked backwards and forwards around the shop a hundred times trying to decide what to leave behind, it was such a hard decision. Eventually we came home with a shoulder-aching haul that are my picks for September:
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England by Neil McKenna
28th April 1870. The flamboyantly dressed Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton are causing a stir in the Strand Theatre. All eyes are riveted upon their lascivious oglings of the gentlemen in the stalls. Moments later they are led away by the police.
What followed was a scandal that shocked and titillated Victorian England in equal measure. It turned out that the alluring Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton were no ordinary young women. Far from it. In fact, they were young men who liked to dress as women.
When the Metropolitan Police launched a secret campaign to bring about their downfall, they were arrested and subjected to a sensational show trial in Westminster Hall. As the trial of ‘the Young Men in Women’s Clothes’ unfolded, Fanny and Stella’s extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores were revealed to an incredulous public.
With a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives, “Fanny and Stella” is a Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth-century London. By turns tragic and comic, meticulously researched and dazzlingly written, “Fanny and Stella” is an enthralling tour-de-force.
Hild by Nicola Griffith
Britain in the seventh century – and the world is changing. Small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. Edwin, King of Northumbria, plots his rise to overking of all the Angles. Ruthless and unforgiving, he is prepared to use every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Into this brutal, vibrant court steps Hild – Edwin’s youngest niece.
With her glittering mind and powerful curiosity, Hild has a unique way of reading the world. By studying nature, observing human behavior and matching cause with effect, she has developed the ability to make startlingly accurate predictions. It is a gift that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.
It is also a valuable weapon. Hild is indispensable to Edwin – unless she should ever lead him astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can see the future and lead men like a warrior.
The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai
In Sri Lankan myth, a person who dies may be reborn a “hungry ghost”–a ghost with a large stomach that can never be filled through its tiny mouth–if he has desired too much during his life. It is the duty of the living to free the dead who are doomed to this fate by transferring karma from their own good deeds. In Shyam Selvadurai’s masterful new novel, Shivan, a troubled young man of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese ancestry, is preparing to travel from Toronto, Canada, to the land of his childhood, Sri Lanka, to rescue his ailing grandmother and bring her back to die. But on the eve of his departure–as Shivan meditates on his turbulent past, recalls his gradual discovery of his homosexuality, and wrestles with his complicated relationship with the wily old woman–he discovers just how much his own heart’s desires are entwined with the volatile political, racial, and sexual mix of Sri Lanka’s past and present. In the end, Shivan must decide: will he rescue his grandmother, or join her? The Hungry Ghosts is an unconventional exploration of the immigrant experience; a tale of family ties and the long reach of the past; and a heart-wrenching look at how racial, political, and sexual differences can tear apart a country, a family, and a human being.
Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin
YA Historical Fiction
In the summer of 1926, sixteen-year-old Garnet Richardson is sent to a lake resort to escape the polio epidemic in the city. She dreams of indulging her passion for ornithology and visiting the famous new amusement park–a summer of fun before she returns for her final year of high school, after which she’s expected to marry a nice boy and settle into middle-class homemaking. But in the country, Garnet finds herself under the supervision of equally oppressive guardians–her father’s wealthy cousin and the matron’s stuck-up daughter. Only a liberating job in a hat shop, an intense, secret relationship with a daring and beautiful flapper, and a deep faith in her own fierce heart can save her from the suffocating boredom of traditional femininity.
The Charioteer by Mary Renault
Injured at Dunkirk, Laurie Odell, a young corporal, is recovering at a rural veterans’ hospital. There he meets Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. The men find solace in each other’s friendship, which slowly develops into a covert, chaste romance. Then Ralph Lanyon appears, a mentor from Laurie’s school days, and now a naval officer. Through him, Laurie is drawn into a tight-knit circle of gay men with few illusions about life, and for whom liaisons are fleeting. He is forced to choose between the ideals of a perfect friendship and the pleasures of experience.
First published in 1953, The Charioteer is a a tender, intelligent coming-of-age novel and a bold, unapologetic portrayal of homosexuality
Fighting Proud: The Untold Story of the Gay Men Who Served in Two World Wars by Stephen Bourne
Unearthing the stories of the gay men who served in the armed forces and at home, and bringing to light the great unheralded contribution they made to the war effort. Fighting Proud weaves together the remarkable lives of these men, from RAF hero Ian Gleed – a Flying Ace twice honoured for bravery by King George VI – to the infantry officers serving in the trenches on the Western Front in WWI – many of whom led the charges into machine-gun fire only to find themselves court-marshalled after the war for indecent behaviour. Behind the lines, Alan Turing’s work on breaking the -enigma machine- and subsequent persecution contrasts with the many stories of love and courage in Blitzed-out London, with new wartime diaries and letters unearthed for the first time. Bourne tells the bitterly sad story of Ivor Novello, who wrote the WWI anthem -Keep the Home Fires Burning, – and the crucial work of Noel Coward – who was hated by Hitler for his work entertaining the troops. Fighting Proud also includes a wealth of long-suppressed wartime photography.
Moonstruck, Volume One: Magic to Brew by Grace Ellis & Shae Beagle
Werewolf barista Julie and her new girlfriend go on a date to a close-up magic show, but all heck breaks loose when the magician casts a horrible spell on their friend Chet. Now it’s up to the team of mythical pals to stop the illicit illusionist before it’s too late.
The Flower Beneath The Foot by Ronald Firbank
At the fantastical court of King Willie and Her Dreaminess the Queen of Pisuerga, maid of honour Laura de Nazianzi and His Weariness Prince Yousef whisper promises to each other in the palace gardens. But Laura is destined for disappointment. The King and Queen have plans for a royal wedding for their Prince, and the young woman in their sights is none other than Princess Elsie of England. The court is all aflutter.
First published in 1923, Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot is a flamboyant court satire and lyrical tour de force of innuendo and eccentricity. Read by many as a subversive celebration of homosexuality, this is a classic of modernist literature from a stylist like no other.
All these books are available from Gay’s The Word. I’m starting with some novel research and reading Fighting Proud – if you’ve read any of these let me know what you thought.