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Monday, July 11, 2016 - 08:00

I'd been thinking of doing a book giveaway here just to get some non-spam comments on my blog, and then the historical romance anthology Through the Hourglass, which includes my Margaret & Laudomia story, won a Golden Crown Literary Award this weekend and the publisher said we contributors could give away copies to celebrate.

So anyone who posts a comment on any blog entry (of any date) between now and next Monday (2016/07/18) will have a chance at winning a free e-book of Through the Hourglass! (epub, mobi, or pdf) That's all you have to do, just comment, then check back next Monday to see if you won.

The blog doesn't have the sophisticated spam-management module set up yet, so I have to approve all comments by hand, so do worry if there's a delay before your comment appears.

Full citation: 

Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20024-1


If you think about Roman art, you may imagine elegant marble statues. But the popular, everyday art painted on walls of both private homes and public accommodations included a lot of explicit pornography depicting a wide variety of sexual techniques. Most of the wall art is preserved at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, where the eruption of Vesuvius preserved a moment in time from the 1st century CE. When my family visited Pompeii, back in 1976 when I was a teenager, the more prurient images had literal gate-keepers on duty who would allow access to female viewers only by permission of an accompanying male authority.

This is an extensive study of Roman art depicting sexual activity, much of it overtly pornographic. Of the entire (enormous) corpus of material, Clarke has only identified two images that may depict or imply sexual activity between women. Both are part of a series of wall paintings at the Suburban Baths in Pompeii (ca. A.D. 62-79), and the physical condition of the paintings makes interpretation difficult and uncertain.

Both occur in the same location (apodyterium 7) and are scenes 5 and 7 in the series there. The framing of the scenes implies ridicule of sexual activity between women, but it must be considered who the intended audience was (men visiting prostitutes) and the social implications of sexual roles and practices in Roman society.

Scene 5 shows a female figure (identifiable by wearing a breast-band while otherwise naked) reclining on her elbow in bed, turned toward a figure standing beside the bed and with her leg raised to rest on the standing person’s shoulder.

The sex of the standing person can’t be determined from the body, which is indistinct due to damage, but Clarke interprets the person as female based on the hairstyle, and because the person’s skin is depicted as pale and similar in color to the reclining woman. In this genre of art, men are systematically depicted with darker skin than women. Clarke also argues that in this sequence of paintings, there is an increasing degree of “perversion” (according to Roman attitudes) in each successive scene. Given this, the placement of scene 5 in the sequence would be unexpected if it represented a prelude to a standard male-female sex act. Clarke further speculates that among the obscured details, the standing woman may be wearing a dildo (and he provides a number of literary references to such a practice in a Roman context).


Following Scene 6, involving a m/m/f threesome with the man in the middle simultaneously penetrating and being penetrated, Scene 7 increases the number of participants and sex acts. The bed contains two men and two women. From the left, a man anally penetrating a second man, who in turn is receiving fellatio from a woman, who in turn is receiving cunnilingus from a second woman.

Time period: 
Friday, July 8, 2016 - 08:00

I've been catching up with Podcastle audio fiction podcasts lately, so I thought I'd do some very brief reviews of everything (or at least everything I can remember listening to) since the last batch of Podcastle reviews. I tend to listen to this podcast fairly consistently, if often in clusters. Not all the stories hit anywhere near my sweet spot, but I'm usually listening on a drive or while working in the yard, so there's an incentive to finish them even if they aren't quite to my taste. This is rather different from my print-story consumption, where each story has to make a strong case for a place in my reading queue. I think it's good for me, in a way, to have at least one venue where I consume a cross-section of material that I might not otherwise try. These reviews cover about the last three months of the podcast.

I’m skipping the two “Miniatures” because I really don’t remember them well.

410: The Saint of the Sidewalks by Kat Howard

A piece of inventive urban folklore about how new gods come into being, and the relationship between them and their worshippers. That isn’t nearly a good enough description of the vivid gritty realism of this fantasy. A woman invokes the Saint of the Sidewalks and is answered by achieving a burdensome divinity. Strongly recommended.

411: Hands of Burnished Bronze by Rebecca Schwarz

Something very roughly in the King Midas vein, where a king commands his wizard to perform a terrible deed that then returns to haunt him and destroy his victory.

412: For Honor, For Waste by Setsu Uzume

This one is starting to fade in my memory. Once, every cycle of time, one life, one talent is sacrificed to a god-like figure in return for the city’s luck and prosperity. This time, three comrades and warriors are set into competition for the right to be the sacrifice. Can they trust each other enough to do what is truly best for the city? Some intricate characterization and adventure, though most of the plot twists were telegraphed.

413: This is Not a Wardrobe Door by A. Merc Rustad

There seems to be something of a fashion for meta-fiction about portal fiction. This is one of those stories exploring the hidden supernatural mechanics behind secret portals, imaginary childhood friends, and the desperate need to reclaim a sense of belonging that might never have been real in the first place. Haunting and incisive.

414: The Men from Narrow Houses by A. C. Wise

It’s been a while since I listened to this one, but the excerpt on the website brings it all back, so it must have been memorable. The story begins with a repetitive oral-storytelling style that suggests deep mythologies and traditions, but with a contemporary-feeling setting. It’s one of those stories that does a long, slow pulling back to reveal more and more of what’s really happening. In the end, memories get rearranged (or correctly arranged) and things aren’t at all what they seemed at first. Creepy, but not scary.

415: Responsibility Descending by G. Scott Huggins

This is a continuation of the characters and setting of a previous story, involving vast sea-going empires ruled by dragon and human partners, and most especially a story of one of their human-dragon hybrid offspring who has grown up in ignorance of her heritage. The previous story was an interesting mystery of the “discovering your origins” type, with a lot of ambitious worldbuilding. This second story, to my mind, falters and flounders a bit. Too much time is spent having the protagonist explore and come to grips with her new home and culture. There is an awkwardly inserted duel-for-the-sake-of-justice that seems little more than an excuse for an extended training montage and consequent aerial battle.

416: Braid of Days and Wake of Nights by E. Lily Yu

A story of mortality and the desperate rage against death, told with a magical-realist atmosphere involving unicorns and the many different New York Cities that coexist. In the end, despite the fantastic trappings, it’s a story of human relationships and conflicts, brought into sharp focus by one character’s impending death. Whether it’s uplifting or depressing will probably depend on the listener’s own relationship to mortality.

417: Archibald Defeats the Churlish Shark-Gods by Benjamin Blattberg

Don’t recall listening to this one.

418: James and Peter Fishing by Anaea Lay

If, as I did, you find yourself expecting some sort of apostolic reference, you too may find yourself charmed by the slow reveal of exactly who James and Peter are, and why they are fishing together. To say more would be to spoil the surprise. I found this story of the meaning of life to be charmingly philosophical (or perhaps philosophically charming) in the way it reveals layer after layer of the characters’ backstories and motivations. It did seem to go on perhaps a smidge longer than I might have had patience for in a non-audio format.

419: Giants at the End of the World by Leena Likitalo

Huh. Must have somehow hit “mark as played” because I don’t remember this one at all.

420: The Bee Tamer’s Final Performance by Aidan Doyle

This was a completely bonkers piece of hallucinatory nightmare masquerading as a tale of resistance. The imagery kept starting out about 37-degrees aslant from reality, then snicked into place in a configuration even more removed. I doubt I would ever have finished it on the page. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a good story. It’s just...really really strange, and leans more on imagery than plot. Do not read or listen if you have phobias about clowns or bees: contains bee-filled clowns.

421: Hatyasin by Rati Mehrotra


A dark and violent tale of occupation, oppression, and being driven to the breaking point. Also of loyalty, bargains, and love. There’s some rich world-building in a small space, with names that evoke India and ancient alien presences that evoke a touch of Lovecraft. The tone ranges from sisterly squabbling to heroic battle. This story was darker than I usually like, but I was drawn in. The protagonist was far more sympathetic than her actions might suggest.

Thursday, July 7, 2016 - 07:30

It's that time of the summer when I suddenly realize it's time to book my flight to Kansas City for this year's Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention). If you followed along with all my convention blogging last year, you may remember that Worldcon was the event that left me thinking, "This. This is what a successful convention experience can be. Remember this if you're ever feeling down or left out or marginalized in the SFF community." To be sure, every Worldcon is different: a different location, a different organizing committee, a different slice of the SFF community. But it helps to go in with the confidence that I pretty much know how this thing works and that it will work for me.

In addition to the programming, I'm planning to have some fun Alpennia swag to hand out. (Memo to self: in addition to booking flight, work on Alpennia swag!) And--following an approach that worked well last year--I'm making a list of "friends I haven't met in person yet" to contact about penciling in social plans.

Check out my panel schedule here. And if you're going to be there too, please let me know so we can make sure to bump into each other.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - 21:00

In Chapter 10 (The Indian Gentleman) we see that Sara is regaining her balance in the way that she starts inventing “pretends” about the world around her once more. First, it was turning her garret into the Bastille. Now she watches the other people in the neighborhood of Miss Minchin’s school and starts telling herself romantic stories about them.

In particular, she begins inventing fanciful romantic names for the members of one rather large family (known sometimes as The Large Family). One might imagine that she feels envious of the eight children who--in addition to living in comfortable circumstances--are obviously loved. But there doesn’t seem to be anything of envy in her thoughts, only an appreciation of how happy they are.

What Sara hasn’t accounted for is that even as she’s telling stories about The Large Family, they’re telling stories to themselves about her. In particular, the little boy she calls Guy Clarence tells himself a story about how Sara is a poor, hungry beggar-girl for whom the gift of his Christmas sixpence will represent a fortune sufficient to turn her life around. This is a mortifying shock to Sara. Intellectually, she knew that strangers were reacting to her much differently than they had before her fall. But she had never been forced to confront the fact so blatantly.

Once again, a turning point in her life hangs on her willingness to put other people’s needs ahead of her own. Because rather than simply refusing the gift, she gives Guy Clarence the gift of accepting it. That action (along with her upper-class speech mannerisms) makes Sara memorable to the whole Large Family clan. While this fact isn’t completely essential to her later fate, it will certainly smooth her way.

One of the repeating themes that I find both utterly believable and discomfiting is how Sara’s polite and confident demeanor communicates to others that she doesn’t really belong to the working-class life she’s been thrust into.  Believable: because the reflexes and behaviors you’ve been trained into by your upbringing are impossible to shed entirely. The best you might manage is to learn to act out a different role convincingly. I know that I have reflexes and behaviors that derive from spending my entire life with the sure and certain knowledge that I don’t have to worry about my next meal, or where I’m sleeping, or whether my medical needs will be met, or what to do if an unexpected expense comes out of nowhere. (That “sure and certain knowledge” could become wrong overnight if the right conjunction of circumstances happened. But I retain those reflexes because it’s never been wrong yet.) But at the same time, this theme is discomfiting because it’s presented with a flavor of essentialism. That is, one gets the impression that Sara has these reflexes not as learned behavior due to her environment, but because she simply is, deep down and through and through, a genteel person, in the same way as she has gray-green eyes. Her behavior doesn’t simply signal that she has known a better life than she now leads, it signals that she deserves a better life because she is a better person than someone who didn’t have her history.

And one of those reflexes? Sara turns the sixpence into something of a lucky charm, making a hole in it and wearing it as a pendant. She is never tempted to spend it, even when she fantasizes about finding money in the street to buy bread with. Because if she spent it--and especially if she spent it on bread--then she would be the beggar-girl she’d been taken for.

Although we begin to see glimpses of the old Sara returning, there are still dark days. And that’s what the next installment will cover.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - 21:04

Check out this lovely interview E.P. Beaumont did with me on the topic of food as a worldbuilding tool.

The Mystic Marriage
Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - 16:41

As previously noted, last Thursday I e-mailed off the manuscript of Mother of Souls to the publisher. So I should have a brief relaxing break before plunging into my next writing project. Somehow that never quite works out for me. In one of those peculiar conversations that started out on facebook and then jumped over to Twitter, I found myself being inspired by a Starbucks Coffee shopping back to write a fluffly little short story about mermaids. And Nantucket Island. And lonely early 18th century Quaker ladies. Tentative title: "Light in the Water".

And so (as you do) I found myself pulling up old maps of Nantucket that showed settlement distributions, researching types of small watercraft appropriate to the era, and devising an internally-consistent social ecology of mer-people. (Did you know that the two-tailed form featured on the Starbucks label and known in heraldry as a melusine is actually the sexually mature form of the species that has the more familiar single tail only in the juvenile form? What's that you say? "Heather, you just made that up!" Well, yes. Yes, I did.) I'm not sure I'm capable of writing a historically-based story without plunging into some sort of research project. Fortunately I could poke around for an appropriate (human) character name in my own genealogical records.

When I got hit by an attack story back in January after finishing the first draft of Mother of Souls, I put it up as a free e-story. But I think I'll hold on to this one and see if I can find a market for it. Probably not. It's too much of a fluffy romance for a fantasy market, and not "spicy" enough for the usual LesFic markets. But hope springs eternal.

Mother of Souls
Monday, July 4, 2016 - 08:00
Full citation: 

Dover, K. J. 1978. Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-674-36261-6


To quote the author, “That female homosexuality and the attitude of women to male homosexuality can both be discussed within one part of one chapter reflects the paucity of women writers and artists in the Greek world and the virtual silence of male writers and artists on those topics.” Some of this paucity may be due to the types of evidence that Dover is considering, for other writers seem to have found a bit more. (I have in queue Hubbard’s Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, which casts a wider net. But it’s definitely the case that in a field such as classical Greek homoeroticism, where male themes, male writers, and male researchers are so dominant, a work that covers the topic as a whole will give the appearance of slighting female topics, even if the writer has a genuine interest in covering them. (Which is not always the case.) I expect that Hubbard will cover all the same material in more detail, but I’m not ready to tackle that one yet.

It makes most sense simply to list the bits of evidence that Dover discusses. He is largely providing a catalog, with very detailed citations of sources, but without the in-depth discussion of context and interpretation that we say, for example, in Lardinois 1989 with respect to Sappho.

  • Plato’s Symposium - Discussion of the origin of sexual desire, using a myth about how people were originally “double beings”, some both male, some both female, some one of each. After being separated, each always longs to be reunited with their “other half”. The female pairs are called “hetairistriai”, a word occurring nowhere else, but which suggests a woman who consorts with hetairas (courtesans).
  • Asklepiades, epigram - A vague accusation that two Samian women “desert Aphrodite for other things which are not seemly” and are “fugitives from the couch in her domain.”
  • Plutarch Lycurgus - A comment that, in Sparta, “women of good repute” participated in a female equivalent of the male erastes/eromenos relationship.
  • A plate from Thera shows two women interacting with the symbolism of courtship (one is touching the other’s face and they both hold garlands).
  • An Attic red-figured vase shows two nude women, one kneeling before the other and touching her genital region.
  • Sappho - Extensive discussion of the content of her poetry and both contemporary and later references to her life and reputation. (10 of the 13 pages of the article are concerned with the material on Sappho.)
  • A brief discussion on how classical authors (Greek and Roman) associated “Lesbian women” (i.e., women from Lesbos) with sexual aggressiveness and transgressive sexuality, but not necessarily specifically with homoeroticism. Several references from Greek satiric drama are mentioned. Also Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans.
  • Anakreon poem - Reference to a girl from Lesbos who “gapes after another” where the word “another” is grammatically femninine, but whether it refers to a woman or to some other grammatically feminine antecedent in the sentence is unclear.
Time period: 
Saturday, July 2, 2016 - 12:30

The deadline for getting Mother of Souls off to the publisher made a hash of my usual blogging schedule this week. So to get back on track, we get Sara Crewe on Saturday rather than Wednesday.

Chapter 9 (Melchisedec) is all about how Sara’s compulsive empathy and drive to do things for other people (and creatures) turns her attitude around. Lottie (who I’ve noted before seems frozen in a state of emotional immaturity and neediness) asks Sara a lot of tactless questions about her new status, trapping her between the desire to be kind and the desire not to get into trouble with Miss Minchin. Lottie--incapable of taking a hint--persues Sara up to her attic room and is on the verge of making a scene out of her own unhappiness at what she finds, that would largely fall on Sara’s head.

Sara distracts her by trying to find all the positive things that can be said about her garret, including showing Lottie the little skylight where she can look at the sky and watch the sparrows. This is a key foreshadowing for the importance of the skylight as a portal to a magical world. For now, her dreams are limited to the possibility that another little girl might someday live in the attic opposite and they could become friends.

Lottie is encouraged to feed the sparrows with a bit of bun she has in her pocket (a return of the “largesse” theme) and Sara seems to have entirely forgotten Becky’s warning about being careful about crumbs due to the rats. That is, she forgets until Lottie has left and she is sitting quietly thinking about the contrasts in her life, and a rat comes right out into the middle of the room to examine them.


Once again, Sara’s reflex to empathize with everything around her takes over. The rat is given a name and a personality (and an implausibly anthropomorphic family life) and becomes part of the fantasy framing Sara is creating to pad the sharp corners of her new life.  This new “pretend” -- the Prisoners in the Bastille -- is explained to Ermengarde when she, too, sneaks up to the attic. And in that scene, we can see that Sara’s sprits have significantly recovered. She is telling stories, and making new friends, and supporting her existing friends, and drawing all of them together into a world of imagination. And by that, we know she is ready for the next step in her adventure.

Friday, July 1, 2016 - 20:26

I went to see this sequel to Pixar's Finding Nemo largely because, well, Ellen DeGeneres plus a rumor that there was a lesbian couple somewhere in it. OK, and I have a certain local pride in Pixar, despite their usual tendency to make boy-centered films. (See my review of Up for a discussion.)

I confess that, in the previous movie, I found the character of Dory annoying. Scatter-brained, easily distractible, hard to keep on track. And I say this with some discomfort because a number of people very dear to me have those characteristics and, yes, they do drive me crazy. But Finding Dory turns the story around, and rather than Dory being the funny side-kick, now she's the protagonist. The basic plot is: at some time previous to the earlier movie, Dory got separated from her parents. She no longer remembers how or why, or has any idea where they are. All she remembers is that she'd like to find them again some day. And then she starts getting flashes of memory...

Similarly to Finding Nemo, this is a quest story with lots of helpful side-kicks, adventures, peril, and improbable success. What gives both movies a lot of heart is the underlying theme that you can't protect your "different" children from the big, bad, world. What you need to do is give them the personally tailored skills to succeed on their own. Nemo's over-protective single dad wouldn't let him learn to cope with his malformed fin. Dory's parents, in contrast (as we eventually come to realize), did a very successful job of beginning to teach her practical coping skills, and giving her a supportive environment for moving toward independence. But at the beginning of the movie, all she remembers (other than the matra, "I have poor short-term memory") is that it must have been her fault for losing her parents.

The superficial story is the usual roller-coaster ride of improbable slap-stick adventures. The animation is gorgeous, of course. There were times when Pixar seemed to have leapt nimbly across the Uncanny Valley and produced backgrounds that felt photo-realistic. (I felt this even more so with the short that preceded the main feature, following the adventures of a sandpiper chick learning to interact with surf.)

As for the rumored lesbian couple: knowing that they were supposed to be there somewhere in the background, I think I noticed them flash by during an acquarium crowd scene. But if you didn't know they were supposed to be there, I don't see how you would realize it. Not exactly what I'd consider representation in a practical sense.

I'd be very interested to know what viewers who are themselves non-neurotypical think about Finding Dory and how the character is presented. My impression was that there was very little "making a point" going on, and that Dory was a fun, realistic, loveable, and sympathetic character. Not a clown being presented for other people's amusement. But, as I noted above, I'm not viewing the character from inside, so I may not be the best judge.

Thursday, June 30, 2016 - 21:00

About half an hour ago, I hit "send" on the e-mail with the finished manuscript of Mother of Souls. Now I get to relax for a few days before I tackle my next project. Hmm, will it be the Skinsinger collection, the next Alpennia novel, or the grinding heartbreak of starting to try to line up publicity for Mother of Souls? Or maybe I'll clean the house.

Mother of Souls


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