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Saturday, April 25, 2015 - 20:11
1) Yay, the historic novel by Samar Habib was delivered today, so I'm going to do my best to get it read in time to add a review at the end of covering the two non-fiction books of hers. 2) I'm going to try to do a garden post tomorrow with lots of pictures. I'm feeling really happy about this year's garden & orchard. And it looks like I just may have gotten the right combination for Enough Summer Squash. (I.e., way more than any reasonable human can eat.) 3) I had a lovely day today at 's birthday party. The group of us hiked off to a beach near Santa Cruz (the theory was to find some tide pools as well, but we made do with some delightfully deep fern-lined sea caves). There was picnicking, sand castle building, wave-wading, and long chats with some folks I'd never talked much with before. And a fair amount of lying on the beach in the sun with a hat covering my face, just soaking up the sun. 4) and I have decided to skip Kalamazoo this year (multiple reasons, but in part not wanting to get into a rut for the sake of tradition) and instead I'm going out to NYC for the last week in May. The planned schedule includes to Broadway shows: Alison Bechdel's autobiographic Fun Home, and Hand to God (because it's what's playing at 's theatre currently, so of course I have to see it!). Other than that (and hanging out with my girlfriend, of course) I'm always interested in meeting up with people I know online but have never met in person (or barely met in person). My standard NYC trip for the past few years has been Thanksgiving week which is a really bad time for expecting people to have openings in their social schedule. Maybe I'll have more luck this time. (I'll be there Wed-Sat.)
Thursday, April 23, 2015 - 09:41
So I was contemplating a Random Thursday blog topic on my homeward commute, listening to SFF podcasts as is my wont, and what should I be listening to but Rocket Talk, which started in on the crimes against world-building committed in the name of food and feasting scenes in fantasy. The general consensus (and I’m only halfway through the episode at the point of writing this) was that nobody writing epic fantasy does any decent food-related world-building, and everyone is just repeating lazy stock tropes of Renn Faire turkey legs and whatnot. I noticed that by some strange, totally random quirk of fate all the authors they gave as examples of poor food-related world-building happened to be male writers of grim epic fantasy. Maybe, just possibly, they might have found some better examples by diversifying their scope a little, but never mind that. (Why, yes, I do take mental notes on gender balance in the spontaneously-cited authors in SFF podcasts. Doesn’t everyone?) It’s not my podcast, but this is my blog, and since I was brainstorming for a topic for tomorrow, food as world-building seemed as good as any. I think I’ve blogged previously about hunting for historic cookbooks and references that are appropriate for Alpennian cuisine. (I envision the up-scale cuisine as being thoroughly French-influenced, while the lower and middle classes would follow a variety of local regional styles that I have yet to need to develop in detail.) But here I’m more interested in the ways food and dining are used in the context of story. The opening scene of Daughter of Mystery is a good example: we have the old Baron Saveze dining alone at home, in a formal setting of butlers and footmen, being served a succession of fancy dishes produced by his imported French chef, and complaining of his inability to enjoy them (implicitly: due to his health problems). Here is a man who takes for granted the enjoyment of the best things -- or at least access to the best things, even if he doesn’t enjoy them. One suspects the chef, Guillaumin, may be frustrated to have his talents wasted here in the baron’s exile from the court, but Baron Saveze had been a mover and shaker in Rotenek and there is no doubt that he would have been entertaining lavishly at a level that would have made such an employee an essential staff member. And the taste issue is meant to be part of the foreshadowing of just how bad his health has become. After Margerit Sovitre inherits the baron’s household, there is one initial meaningful scene involving food. Margerit makes her first furtive visit to the mansion she has inherited and is having difficulty believing that she is truly mistress of a great estate now. LeFevre’s insistence that she permit Guillaumin to pull out all the stops for an impromptu luncheon serves to punctuate the resources she now (theoretically) has at her command. But when she moves to the capital, she allows one of her new social connections to hire Guillaumin away from her, in an act both of practicality and social economy. Margerit is in an awkward position with regard to entertaining. As an unmarried, underage woman of the middle class, it would be impossible for her to host any sort of formal entertainment. And her nominal chaperone, her Aunt Bertrut, is in little better position in the unfamiliar environment of Rotenek. So the household makes do with an ordinary cook, probably a woman (though I don’t know that I ever say), rather than a higher status male chef, just as was the case in her Uncle Fulpi’s household in Chalanz. Food and dining are more meaningful during this period in their absence than their presence. When Aunt Bertrut becomes betrothed to the well-born but impoverished Charul Pertinek, Margerit takes note of the changes it makes in her dining-related social life: * * * What she enjoyed most, so far, from Aunt Bertrut’s betrothal was a new opportunity for socializing that fell between the routine of a dinner at home with only her aunt for company and the rigors of an evening out in society. Margerit had found herself missing the Fulpi family dinners in Chalanz, formal though they may have been. She didn’t mind not having the position to host elaborate events but she did wish on occasion that the rules of society made allowance for a quiet evening with a few friends—something more than the rituals of afternoon visiting. She wished even more that Barbara’s strict propriety would allow her to join them at the long empty table. Hadn’t she said that she’d shared the baron’s table on occasion when they were informal at home? But the farthest she would unbend was on those rare occasions when Aunt Bertrut went out alone and Barbara would consent to share a supper sent in to the library while they studied. * * * And that is the dining situation for most of the remainder of the book. Margerit’s social position restricts her to quiet domestic entertaining, though of course she is often a guest at other people's formal dinners. Dining, as with every other social ritual, is a bit of a battleground between Margerit and Barbara, with Margerit’s impulses towards egalitarian fraternization being resisted by Barbara’s strict insistence on maintaining the distance of their social roles. When everything turns upside down towards the end of the book, that social distance still keeps them separated in the realm of dining. Margerit breaks through only by introduction of a deliberately informal (if exceedingly elaborate) picnic, carefully planned so as to be available spontaneously on a carriage ride. In this context outside of social hierarchies, the two women can once again come together over food and dine together as if equals. When the story rolls over into The Mystic Marriage now we have three food-related economies to track. Tiporsel house has now settled down into the culinary routine of an established upper-class household. Between Barbara’s social cachet and Margerit’s money they are able to invite, organize, and implement any level of culinary entertainment they desire. But, with the exception of Margerit’s hosting of the Floodtide party at Chalanz, we rarely see the more formal entertainments. Rather we are shown the more informal, intimate dinners that Margerit still loves to use to level social distinctions and which she and Barbara--being at the upper end of the power structure--have both the ability and standing to implement. An example would be the dinner party Margerit hosts toward the end of the novel to officially welcome Serafina Talarico to Rotenek, and to introduce her to some of the scholarly women who will become her future comrades. Jeanne de Cherdillac represents the middle ground. As a well-born widow there are no social limitations on who and how she entertains, but being of merely comfortable financial circumstances she isn’t position to host the lavish banquets and dinner parties that Margerit and Barbara could throw if they chose. Jeanne keeps a female cook who is quite well versed in haute cuisine but we never see Jeanne entertaining formally. Instead, we see her using food to create illusions, beginning with the scene where she is unexpectedly entertaining the destitute Antuniet and skillfully provides her with a filling meal without embarrassing her by taking note of her hunger. Jeanne continues to use food to create an illusion of normal social interactions with Antuniet: the “cozy little dinner” when she is reporting the results of her attempt to find Antuniet a sponsor; the picnic meals she brings down to Antuniet’s workshop, which are not simply an acknowledgment of Antuniet’s inability to provide such hospitality, but an excuse to draw Antuniet out of her work. We get the sense that Jeanne’s social life is largely lived in other people’s spaces--that her extroverted performance as a social butterfly is done on larger stages. There is a strong implication that Jeanne keeps her own house as an intimate space, not only to keep a close check on her spending, but to reserve some part of her life private. Her repeated maneuvering to place Antuniet within that intimate space should have been a clue to Jeanne herself long before she realized it. The details of the little menus that Jeanne offers in this space are provided to reinforce the image of offering, not just a shared meal, but the substance of that upper-class life that Antuniet has lost any other access to. Antuniet accepts it from Jeanne where she might refuse it from, for example, Margerit, precisely because she recognizes that Jeanne is peddling illusions, dreams, and memories, and not everyday substance. Antuniet stands at the bottom end of the culinary scale and this is emphasized by the way she is repeatedly connected with “bread”. This is still an era when the basic staple of the impoverished was bread, and the quality of life depending on what quality and quantity of bread you were able to obtain. Even when her life achieves a temporary equilibrium under the subsidy of her patron, her household does not extend to maintaining an independent kitchen. The basics of life come from the bakery across the street and other foodstuffs are brought in from the 19th century equivalent of fast food joints. But it isn’t only her financial status that equates Antuniet’s life with bread. In her interactions with Jeanne, she envisions herself as “bread, not cake”, as being able to provide nothing more than the very basic necessities of social and emotional interaction. This sets up a key metaphor in their relationship where bread is contrasted with two very different alternatives. Antuniet sees herself as falling far short of the cake that Jeanne is accustomed to in her glittering upper-class world. But Antuniet’s bread is also contrasted with the emptiness of emotional starvation--with the husks a starving man will use to trick his belly into believing it's been fed. And in the context of a devoutly Catholic society such as we find in Alpennia, the ceremonial partaking of bread becomes far more than a matter of mere nourishment. There are points where biblical bread references start flying thick and fast, from the baker’s quip about “Man does not live by bread alone, but it’s certain he can’t live without it” to Antuniet’s agonized “I needed bread and you offered me a stone!” And I don’t think I need to say much about the key scene where Antuniet and Jeanne share and feed each other fresh bread after a night of alchemy working the Mystic Marriage.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 14:22
Short-lists for all categories are now complete. Daughter of Mystery is on the short-list for Science Fiction/Fantasy. Congratulations to all the other nominees!
Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - 08:45

Congratulations to Barbara Schneider who won the e-book give-away of The Mystic Marriage! And thanks to all of you who entered. (The winner has been notified by e-mail.)

Publications: 
The Mystic Marriage
Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.

Chapter 7: Communities

Today we'll finish up with the chapter in Donoghue that really hit home with me when I first read it. Too often when we think about pre-modern lesbians, there's a tendency to think in terms of isolation: that every woman's story will be a lonely coming-out story of thinking she's the "only one" and having to invent her identity and relationship from scratch. This idea has been reinforced by the popularity of the "social constructionist" school of homosexuality, which holds that there is no such thing as an innate sexual orientation identity, only patterns and concepts of social behavior that are structured and limited by the particular culture a person lives in. This school holds that there was no such thing as a "homosexual identity" before it was invented by medical sexologists in the late 19th century, and that there is no valid conceptual connection between modern gay and lesbian identities and historic persons who happened to engage in same-sex sexual activities.

Whatever one's emotional response to such a position, the research done on the history of women's same-sex desires and sexual activities in the last couple of decades has rather blown out of the water the notion that a concept of "lesbian identity" and even "lesbian community" didn't exist until doctors invented it around 1900. And that research helps provide a basis for telling stories about historic lesbians who didn't have to invent themselves from scratch, without having to throw historicity out the window to do so.

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends. Researchers looking for closely parallel institutions for women are often led to conclude that there was no pre-modern sense of a community of lesbians (or even to conclude that this lack indicates an absence of lesbian activity entirely). But this approach ignores gender differences in social and economic opportunities, as well as prioritizing certain types of erotic encounters.

An absence of 18th century lesbian “cruising places” should not be taken as proof that there was no such thing as “lesbian culture” or “lesbian community” in that era. For example, there is some evidence from late 18th century Amsterdam for small social groups of tribades, but the rarity of evidence is linked to a large extent with the general disinterest in prosecution outside of special circumstances.

In this final chapter, Donoghue looks at representations (including clearly fictional ones) of groups of women socializing around a common interest in lesbianism. Sometimes these representations are displacements of hostility against some other factor, such as the regular portrayal of convents as a hotbed of lesbianism. In other cases, suspicion of women’s political influence, especially when implemented through female networks, was expressed as a suspicion of lesbianism. In other cases, a conceptual tradition—such as the association of Sappho with lesbianism—was converted into the idea of an actual ongoing cultural tradition. Aside from fictional portrayals, there has often been a shying away among historians from an examination of the erotic aspects of women’s social and political networks.

The nun’s smooth tongue

Women-only institutions, such as convents and harems, were a common site for male fantasies about women’s sexual activities, not only with each other, but under an assumption that women with restricted access to men will be sexually frustrated and voracious in general. The heterosexual version of this assumption led to the borrowing of convent terminology as slang for prostitutes and brothels. Combine a prurient interest in what women might do in the absence of men with the virulent strain of anti-Catholicism present in England during this era and the fictional portrayal of orgies in convents or sexually predatory abbesses becomes a tempting blend of pornography and polemic. Examples mentioned in earlier chapters include Barrin’s Venus in the Cloister and Diderot’s The Nun. Less explicitly, works such as Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” weave a lesbian sensuality into a (hostile) depiction of the attractions of convent life, finishing with the image of the postulant sharing her bed “chastely” with a “fresh and virgin bride” every night “embracing arm in arm”.

The convent of pleasure

Among protestant writers, a positive vision of a convent-like all-female community is presented in works such as Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762). The potential for passionately-charged relationships among the women of these communities is still implicit, but without the overlay of religious hostility. Another genre of fictional portrayals of all-female communities grows out of a revived interest in classical Amazons. But in general Amazonian stories mock the idea of women-only communities, and avoid the erotic potential of such an arrangement.

Within this context, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure stands out as unusual. The story revolves around Lady Happy, who has been blessed with sufficient fortune (and an absence of male authority figures) to be able to reject marriage and disdain male suitors in favor of setting up an all-woman community to enjoy “all the delights and pleasures that are allowed and lawful.” Lady Happy’s male suitors, feeling themselves unjustly cheated of the chance to claim her fortune and her person, plot to infiltrate the community and, when this fails, to destroy it for spite.

Among the descriptions of sensual luxury, a rather overt lesbian aspect is introduced when a new guest notes to Lady Happy, “Observing in your several recreations some of your ladies do accoustre [i.e., dress] themselves in masculine habits, and act lovers-parts; I desire you will give me leave to be sometimes so accoustred and act the part of your loving servant.” The implication here is that romantic role-playing, accompanied by cross-dressing, is a routine part of the community. Lady Happy consents to this courtship and finds herself romantically attracted to the newcomer, asking herself, “Why may not I love a woman with the same affection I could a man?” She balks a little when the other woman, though using the vocabulary of friendship and platonic love, initiates kisses and embraces, claiming that they are not “sin” among friends. Just at the point when Lady Happy is overcoming her qualms and pledging her love to the other, there comes an accusation that a man has entered the community in disguise and—of course—it turns out to be Lady Happy’s lover. Other characters note that, in retrospect, they should have known when they saw how Lady Happy reacted to being kissed because “women’s kisses are unnatural”. Thus, even in a context which seems at first to embrace and endorse same-sex love within a women’s community, heteronormativity is restored at the end.

In contrast to Shakespearean plays with similar motifs, however, the audience is not in on the secret until the final reveal. In experiencing the play real-time, they would have been shown a genuine and convincing love story between women, only very artificially “saved” at the very end.

New cabals

If the preceding examples show contexts where an all-female environment creates the potential for same-sex passion, a different set of texts show that passion as the purpose of forming the community. The roman à clef Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediteranean (1709) has one episode (among a much larger quantity of material) giving an account of a group of women who are clearly indicated as joining together for the celebration of same-sex passion.

The narrative voice coyly frames the description with assertions that there could be no “irregularity” in their affections and activities because what could women do together, after all? But in the publishing context of the day, this was (among other reasons) a necessity to avoid libel charges, given how transparent the portrayals were. Although the descriptions of the activities mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, the rules of the community not only exclude men, but exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men (marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, but male lovers are right out).

The women join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion (and secrecy) but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Most of the descriptions of the women (including those meant to represent contemporary figures) do not indicate gender role play or cross-dressing, but there are a few exceptions. One woman (meant to represent Lady Frescheville) is described as mannish in style (though not in dress), and another (representing Lady Anne Popham) is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [i.e., clothing] of the other sex”. But this is not as part of “butch-femme” role play, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment.

The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. This couple (along with other of Wharton’s lovers of both sexes) also appear in the fictionalized Memoirs of Europe (1710) by the same author. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.

Although the formal organization of this lesbian community is most likely fictional, the emphasis in the book on the need for secrecy from the outside world (and especially from husbands), the difficulties of pursuing erotic relationships that had no social standing or protections, and the extensive network of connections across gaps of class, status, and age create a plausible picture of how lesbian-oriented women may have found each other and gained at least some social and emotional support for their relationships. The accuracy of the specifics, though, is suspect given that all the women disguised in this characters were connected in some way to Whig politics.

A similar, transparently disguised social network of “tribades” is portrayed in William King’s viciously satiric The Toast, created primarily to express his personal hatred and feud against the Duchess of Newburgh. Images of organized associations of lesbians also feature in a group of late 18th century French texts that take a more libertine and pornographic look at what are depicted as sex clubs. While these are fictional and of dubious relation to actual practice, a non-fictional travelogue by a German visitor to London in the 1780s notes matter-of-factly the existence of organized societies for “females who avoid all intimate intercourse with the opposite sex, confining themselves to their own sex…called Lesbians.”

Sappho

The most pervasive connection or network for 18th century lesbians was a conceptual and historical one, tracing the practice back to Sappho. Despite the counter-claims of some Sappho scholars such as Joan DeJean [whose work I will cover at some future date], Donoghue points out the extensive awareness of the connection between the historic poet Sappho and the tradition of Sappho as a lover of women, giving rise to the use of “Sapphic” and “lesbian” as descriptors in this sense. Thus even superficially innocent references to the ancient poet were available as allusions to passion between women.

This section goes into some detail regarding the translations and versions of Sappho’s work that were popularly available in the 18th century and the ways in which they acknowledged or deliberately concealed the references to love between women. There was also the complication that, for many, Sappho stood in for the idea of intellectual and literary women in general, and therefore female scholars even more than male ones found themselves straining to discount the “taint” of lesbianism for the most famous Lesbian. This tension is played out in various fictional portrayals of the poet.

Sappho enters, as well, into the tension between viewing same-sex passions as a new development in the 18th century, or as a continuation of a longstanding phenomenon. The classical Sappho could be used to imply lesbianism was something of the past, no longer practiced, and perhaps conceptually divorced from the “unaccountable” affections between 18th century women. But those educated enough to have access to literature of the previous century, such as Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” (1633) or Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies would find it harder to dismiss lesbianism as an ongoing tradition.

This chapter concludes with a somewhat confused collection of polemical tracts against what was perceived as the rise of lesbian behavior in the 18th century, making reference not only to classical sources such as Sappho and Diana, but to pernicious foreign influences either from that default source of vice, France, or more exotic locations such as Turkey. The clear lesbian context of these writings gives us the connection for unambiguously identifying slang terms for lesbians and lesbian sex such as “the game of flats” and “Tommy”. There are extensive excerpts from the writings of Hester Thrale, whose venom against both male and female homosexuality led her to speculate extensively on the sex lives of her contemporaries.

Time period: 
Sunday, April 19, 2015 - 22:17
I decided to stick with the original release date for my official promotional blitz. Expect to see me talking about The Mystic Marriage all over the internet today. If you're reading about it here, I doubt you need me to talk the book up any more than I already have. But just for the same of completeness… In this sequel to the fantasy adventure Daughter of Mystery, Antuniet Chazillen sets out to redeem her family’s honor after the disastrous events of the previous book. A long-hidden book of alchemical secrets holds the key to success, but only if she can outwit the enemies hunting her and find a patron willing to finance her work. At her return to Alpennia, she turns to Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac for help with the latter. Jeanne is bored with the current round of balls and concerts and considers Antuniet’s plea just the thing to add spice to the season. Before long, she too is drawn into Antuniet’s world of intrigue and alchemy. The alchemy of precious gems throws two women into a crucible of adversity, but it is the alchemy of the human heart that transforms them both. Available from Bella Books Or from Amazon.com (Note: Amazon Kindle version will be released in about a month, but all e-book formats are available through the Bella website.) And remember: the chance to win a free e-book in conjunction with the Lesbian Historic Motif Project will run until the end of the day, Monday April 20!
Sunday, April 19, 2015 - 13:17
In a random twitter conversation this morning about hypothetical Duolingo for ancient languages, it occurred to me that I've never put my "Conversational Medieval Welsh" booklet up on the web. That has now been remedied. I actually have a lot of assorted research papers I've never put on the web. In some cases, I had a paper publication available. In others, the formatting was daunting. (In some cases, I have class materials that would make a good web article but they're image-heavy with pictures I don't have rights/permissions for.) I really should work on all that. Sometime when I have free time. Hey, you know what else I could throw up easily? It's been 10 years since I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my Laureling. I put together a collection of 25 articles representing both the breadth of my work and what I considered my "best work" at the time. I have it right here in pdf. Let's throw that one up on the web site as well. Some of the content is SCA-specific, but most of it is of more general interest.
Thursday, April 16, 2015 - 13:58
Last week I made rather a fuss about the importance of book reviews to authors, so this week I thought I’d talk about it from my point of view as a reader. I post about a lot of things on this blog in the format of reviews, simply because it’s a standard way of evaluating and communicating about my experiences to other people. Most of my non-fiction “reviews” have been more in the line of simple summaries of contents, although occasionally I might add some evaluative comments. (In some ways, the LHMP entries are just an expanded version of my book-intake posts.) But for fiction I tend to get a bit more long-winded and subjective. I've fallen in the habit of writing my reviews in two parts: one an attempt at even-handed criticism, and the other detailing my personal emotional relationship with the text. This is important because my overall take-away is very much influenced by the second part and I think it's important to show where I'm coming from. It’s been relatively recently that I’ve started making a point of reviewing every novel I read (and I have missed a few, for one reason or another). If you wonder why you haven’t seen that many reviews, the simple fact is that I don’t read a lot of novels. The way I explain it is that I use the same part of my brain for reading as for writing. So when I’m immersed in writing, I feel less urge to read, and if I’m reading something really interesting, it lessens my urge to write. When it comes down to it, there are very few books out there that I would read in preference to the ones I write. I guess that’s part of what makes me a writer. But when Daughter of Mystery came out, I found myself a bit more interested in seeing what the rest of the writing world was up to. I’d stopped keeping up around about the time grad school seized me by the throat and I’ve felt very disconnected ever since. In a way, that’s a good thing. It helps give me the freedom to be very picky about what I do read, rather than feeling I have to keep up with particular authors and series just because they’re what everyone is reading. And while I do prioritize those novels that are most in tune with my own reading tastes, I also find myself reading for a number of competing and conflicting reasons. For example, I’ve been doing my best to read more widely from the lesbian presses, simply because this is the industry I chose to make my publishing home at the moment. So I’ve been looking there for historicals and fantasies that either seem likely to be to my taste or are by people I might share a market with. A major “problem” I have is that I’m completely uninterested in contemporary settings—even for paranormals, though I’ve enjoyed a good urban fantasy as long as it wasn’t generic vampire/werewolf stuff. And—quite frankly—erotic romance doesn’t actively appeal to me, although some erotic content is fine if handled without damage to the plot. (And by “erotic romance” I don’t mean just “ordinarily this would be called porn but we don’t use that word”. I mean any book where sexual activity is explicit on the page. Not that I don’t enjoy good porn, in its place. But not when I’m reading for story.) In the SFF world, I've been reading for awards season (though not always exhaustively) and I've been making a point to read at least one book by authors who I've struck up online friendships with. (I can't possibly afford the time to read every book by every author I have some personal connection to, alas! I know too many authors and they're too prolific.) When I publish reviews here on my blog, I don’t use a “star” rating system. I’d rather discuss the details of what I liked or didn’t like. But since I’m also posting my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I have to convert my impressions into a numeric score—and a slightly different score for each site. One of the tricky things is that the calibration guidelines for the two sites don’t align in some parts of the scale and to be meaningful, I try to follow the explicit calibrations. 1-star
  • Amazon: I hate it
  • Goodreads: I did not like it
2-star
  • Amazon: I don’t like it
  • Goodreads: It was ok
3-star
  • Amazon: It’s ok
  • Goodreads: I liked it
4-star
  • Amazon: I like it
  • Goodreads: I really liked it
5-star
  • Amazon: I love it
  • Goodreads: It was amazing
This means, technically, that an Amazon star ranking should generally always be 1 star more than the Goodreads ranking. In reality, I suspect people generally have their own internal calibration and tend to use a similar scale on both sites. I know that, for me, I’d have a hard time giving a book 2 stars on Goodreads if I thought it was basically ok with no major flaws. It would just feel…odd. So my own ranking, when pushed to the choice, tends to go something like this: 1-2 stars: I try to avoid ever finding myself reading anything I would give this ranking. I book would fall in this range if the writing were bad (that is, worse than merely pedestrian), or if the plot or characters were seriously flawed or completely illogical. 3 stars: If a book were simply not to my taste, but was solidly written and plotted, this is probably where it would fall. Or if I really liked the premise and characters but felt the writing or the plotting were flawed. 4-star Amazon: At a minimum, solid, competent writing, solid plot and engaging characters. Plus at least one extra: really good writing, a strong woman-centered story, at least the potential for romance between women, a setting or premise that pushes my buttons. 4-star Goodreads or 5-star Amazon: Must have go beyond competent to beautiful writing, solid plot, and engaging characters. Plus at least one extra from the previous list. 5-star Goodreads: As before, but with at least two extras from the previous list. My initial selection process tends to filter for overall setting and theme, so it's rare that I'd end up down-grading a book on that basis unless I'd been pulled a bait-and-switch. Solid writing, plotting, and characters are an absolute for me. I can’t turn off my brain and enjoy something for its premise if I keep getting slapped in the face by the writing style. A story that has one or two of those "extras" but weak writing can hold on to me long enough to finish the book, but it won't get top marks. But I’ll hold to my right to apply some very subjective criteria to bring a solidly competent book up to the “it was amazing” level. I’ve spent too much of my reading life in the company of books that barely recognized female characters as human, much less as important to the plot and interesting in their own right. Fuck that shit. And I’ve spent too much of my reading life in the company of books that either erased, discounted, or were oblivious to the existence of anything but heterosexuality. For me, personally, to be a truly great read, a book has to give me reason to believe that I might see that aspect of myself reflected in the story somehow. I have to be able to believe that the character I’ve been urged to identify with just might fall in love with another girl, rather than the boy. She doesn’t have to, but I have to believe it’s possible.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - 09:15
This is it! The last teaser from The Mystic Marriage. When Teaser Tuesday rolls around again, I'll have to come up with something else to post because the book will already have been released (for one whole day). Shh, let me tell you a secret. Some bookstores already have it on the shelves. If you're in the SF Bay Area, you can get it at Laurel Bookstore in downtown Oakland (where I'll be doing some sort of release event in a month or so, currently under discussion). I know Bookwoman in Austin TX has copies already. Possibly others, but I have no idea who. If you want to get it from your local SFF bookstore, you're probably going to have to go in and specifically request that they carry it. (See my previous comments on that.) And, of course, you have until next Monday to enter for a chance to win a free e-copy, which you'll be able to get instantaneously! * * * So, Antuniet thought, it had come to this in the end. She waited for the old despair to sweep in--the conviction that fate had allowed her to rise only for the fall to be greater. But she and despair had become estranged lately. * * * After Barbara was gone, the hours ticked by, measured by the regular faint tonk tonk of a drip somewhere out of sight. A gutter pipe, from the metallic echo. No windows gave any clue to the sun’s passage but the chill of evening quieted the sound. Then she was glad for the lack of windows. Powerful friends could do that much at least: an interior cell where the cold could be kept off with blankets. Good food and plentiful, when it came. It could have been far worse. Higher friends could do more, of course. Efriturik had spent no time inside these walls. He’d been released on oath as soon as the charge was laid. If truth could not be held as constant, even less could justice. There had never been any possibility that a son of Atilliet would suffer worse than humiliation and count that bad enough. What were the penalties for sorcery in the ordinary courts? Her imagination had never shied away from picking at wounds. Gone were the days when such a case would have been handed over to the church—not unless there were blasphemy involved as well. It was such an elusive charge, sorcery. So easy to believe; so hard to prove. And so rarely brought against anyone with standing. What penalty would Elisebet have sought had Efriturik not escaped her grasp by claiming privilege? It didn’t matter except to guess what she herself might face. And even so, would Elisebet have been mad enough to demand the ultimate penalty? It wasn’t right or just to have one law for princes and another for such as her. And yet, justice be damned, if she had the same right to appeal her case to Annek, she would, so long as honor remained. She slept in fits and starts with no dreams that she could recall. The nightmares that had preyed on her while waiting were satisfied with her waking fears now. In the morning, Jeanne came. She hadn’t slept well either; that much was clear. Even paint and powder couldn’t conceal that she’d been weeping. She wept again now, held close while Antuniet found herself playing the awkward role of comforter. Jeanne’s voice came muffled, “I meant to be strong for you.” “Hush, hush,” Antuniet found herself saying. “You needn’t be afraid. Barbara has all manner of ideas in train. Do you know? She even offered to bloody her sword in my name.” “She would do that?” Jeanne asked in surprise. “Well, I’m not as shocked as I should be,” Antuniet said in an attempt at humor. “For all her grand speeches about justice and law, I know she has few qualms about settling matters in dark alleys. I suppose I should be glad I’m under her protection. There was a time when I would have been on the other end of her blade, though God knows why she’s taken me in. I’ve brought no honor to her house or lineage.” She was babbling and she knew it. Jeanne wasn’t fooled.
Sunday, April 12, 2015 - 11:10
Lone Star LesFic is an extremely well-run event--still at that cusp where they're able to run it on donations and fundraising without needing to charge admission, but drawing a sizable crowd (I'd estimate maybe close to 100?) The hospitality is truly stunning and it's clear there's a strong, vibrant, and tight-knit literary community at its heart. Since I'd decided to spend this year trying some new book events and reaching out to more reading communities, I was delighted when LSLF accepted my application to be one of the authors on their program. (And it was even nicer when The Mystic Marriage was able to get a slight pre-release in time to have copies for the event.) The weekend kicked off with a group dinner Friday evening at a place featuring "good old-fashioned home cooking". (When I inquired about BBQ, thinking of the fame of said cuisine, it was pointed out to me that for BBQ you go to a BBQ joint -- it's taken too seriously to be a casual menu inclusion.) A number of the featured authors were included, as well as event staff and locals, although all the Bold Strokes Books authors were off at their own group dinner. The event itself was a one-day affair at a small conference center (that we shared with another group whose primary activity evidently involved sitting all day, given the number of butt-pillows I saw being carried into their function rooms!). There was a programming room that was spit in two for the panels and readings and combined for the opening and closing sessions, plus a general function room where the hospitality, dealers, fundraising displays, and book signings took place. It was a great use of space and gave a very "centered" feel to the event. (The two function rooms were accessible directly off the general-purpose room, which meant there wasn't any tendency for wandering off.) The programming consisted of three tracks (aside from the un-opposed opening and closing sessions): group readings, discussion panels, and signing sessions. With four time-slots (other than the opening/closing) this meant that authors who were participating in all the programing facets (which pretty much everyone did) only had one free slot to see what everyone else was doing. Lucky for me, my free period was opposite the "Lesbians in Historical Fiction" panel, so I got to hear Linda Crist, CF Frizzell, Del Robertson, and Justine Saracen talking about their research and how they incorporated it into their work. There were two other panels. (Not sure why they didn't fill the fourth available panel slot, but it may be that some authors declined to do panel discussions.) I don't know what went on in "Sexual Content in LesFic: How Much?" but I was on the panel for "LesFic SUper Powers: Vampires, Demons, Ghosts, and Psychics" along with Mavis Applewater, Therese Szymanski, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Barbara Ann Wright. Given that the intent of the panel was to talk about these themes in our own work, I had a bit of creative tap-dancing to do since my work doesn't feature any of those! (I talked about magic in the world of Alpennia, which wasn't too far a stretch, but there was a certain amount of creative interpretation of the discussion prompts.) For my reading, I picked Chapter 3 from The Mystic Marriage, which is the best introduction to Antuniet and Jeanne and their interactions. (Chapter 1 in isolation gives a somewhat misleading notion of where the story is going, and chapter 2 is all Margerit and Barbara.) The reading went pretty smoothly (yay for rehearsals!) but I can't really tell whether people liked it. We had a group Q&A after all 4 readings, which I had suggested as a substitute for the planned individual Q&A after each reader, because we got started a little late and I pointed out that it gave better time management to avoid running over. I guess the added benefit is it avoided an awkward silence after my reading since no one had any questions for me in the Q&A. (I invited people to talk to me about it later, but nobody took me up on it.) I know the book vendor sold at least one copy of The Mystic Marriage because it showed up during my signing session. (That may be the only copy of my books they sold, alas, because I didn't see the stacks on the table change height during the day.) I also signed the pair of books (plus booklet of "Three Nights at the Opera") I'd donated to the fundraising table. Someone got a real deal because the set together went for the same price as other individual books! I did get my Texas BBQ fix, because evidently there's a traditional exodus to a local BBQ joint after the conference closes. (I didn't choose wisely on my menu selection: took the beef rib which turned out to be way too greasy and not particularly flavorful. Should have picked the pork ribs instead.) I had a couple of nice conversations over dinner, and then it was back to my motel with a stop at Walgreens to pick up some Sominex in hopes of avoiding the previous night's sleep debacle. (I don't know what set it off, but even with all my usual techniques, I didn't get to sleep until 4am. On the up side, this means that when the motel security guard was pounding on a door a couple rooms away for half an hour at 2am, I didn't get woken up because: still awake.) Would I recommend attending LSLF? Definitely, if you're local enough to make a one-day convention cost-effective. You get a fairly large author-bang for your donations-optional-buck, which is hard to beat. Would I attend again? Probably not. As far as I can tell from the evidence, the attendees simply aren't interested in the sort of books I write. Not that I got any directly negative feedback, but there was an echoing silence of positive engagement. Over dinner afterward, I apologized to the event organizer for not being a good fit for their attendees' interests (which isn't something I could have known going in). I feel bad for the unknown author who might otherwise have been offered my slot and whose work might have been more in the lesfic mainstream and of interest to the conference attendees. And I feel bad for the conference bookseller who went to some trouble to stock up on my books (especially the pre-release of the new one) and got so little return on it.

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