Sapphic Book Bingo 2022

Join the Sapphic Book Bingo
[Bingo card with boxes arranged in 5x5 grid, each with a heading summarising a particular trope or aspect often found in sapphic books]

I’m about six weeks late with this, but there’s plenty of 2022 still to come, which means that there’s plenty of time still to read books. Plenty of time to take a look at Jae’s Sapphic Book Bingo and mark out a line you might like to fill. There’s still time to fill the whole card, if you’re feeling ambitious.

As ever with Jae’s challenges, there’s a refreshingly wide choice of themes, and my stories fit into quite a few of them. Such as:

  • Speak Its Name is, above all, Lydia’s coming-out story. (It takes her a while to come out even to herself, which was a bit of a challenge when I realised that the whole thing needed to be rewritten and put into her point of view.)
  • It’s also an award-winning book. In fact, it was the first self-published book ever shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. Getting shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize means you automatically win a Betty Trask Award. Will I be forever thrilled to have been shortlisted for the same award as Sarah Waters? Oh yes.
  • I have a few short stories available for free. Find The Mermaid at The Lesbian Historic Motif podcast or Prima Donna at A Story Most Queer (both historical fiction, both podcasts). Or sign up for my newsletter to download Yay or Nay (historical fiction again) or In Little Space (a Christmassy short set between Speak Its Name and The Real World).
  • And you can find Daisy’s Yarn in the new IReadIndies anthology Anything But Romance, free until the end of the month. As you might guess, it’s Not a romance as well as being a free book.
  • Are student politics (Speak Its Name) or the intersection between sexual identity and faith (both Speak Its Name and The Real World) out of your comfort zone? There’s another square for you.
  • As for different sexual orientation or gender identity, Lydia is a lesbian (Speak Its Name is her book) and Colette is bisexual (The Real World is hers, and it’s very, very bi). They’re both cis.
  • They’re an established couple by the time we get to The Real World.
  • I think The Real World is probably my author’s pick. I was flicking through it this morning and thinking that it was worth all the anguish after all.

And if you’re going for the trickier Book Unicorn card, either Speak Its Name or The Real World will of course count for Faith. (You might find some other possibilities on my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations post, too.)

There are some that I can’t help you with. I’m too young to have written a sapphic classic, though I’ve read plenty (most recently enjoyed Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder At The Nightwood Bar). I am not a POC author (try Sara Collins, The Confessions of Frannie Langton). Nor am I a newbie (going to have to do some research there). And so forth.

And there are some that are a bit borderline. I’m not sure that I’d count ‘both being rostered to cook baked potatoes’ as a meet-cute, but you might feel differently. (Sadly, my cutest sapphic meet-cute happens in A Spoke in the Wheel, which is not a sapphic book, what with it being narrated by a man and all. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Vicki and Gianna and their background cycling app rivalry meet-cute. Gianna, the silversmith, would be my best shot at an unusual job, too. Oh well.)

If you think one of my books might help you fill a square on your card, you’ll find them, among other places, on Smashwords, where I’m giving a 50% discount to readers playing Sapphic Bingo. Use voucher code TF79U to get the discount.

So that’s it. Have fun. Eyes down.

Lost and found

Two books, 'Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland', 'Floral Patterns of India', and a white ceramic coaster with a gold letter K, on a padded envelope with 'KAFJ BIRTHDAY 26 JUL 21' written on it in red ballpoint pen

Every time I spoke to Pa over the last few months of his life, he said to me, ‘I still haven’t found your birthday present’. Found, that is, in the room that he used as half study, half bedroom, half model railway layout, and indeed, good luck finding anything in there. He’d given me a hideous charity shop coaster as a sort of joke present on the day itself, but my actual present was lost.

I assumed we’d never find it. Or, rather, I assumed we’d find it and we wouldn’t know. That it would be loose among his own things, indistinguishable from them.

But there it was: a padded envelope, with my initials and the date of my birthday. I cried a bit. Inside: a book of birds, and a book of stickers. Yes. Something I’d like, but something that might have been his own.

We found all sorts of things. There was another envelope, a much older one. Inside was a scarf. The writing on the envelope told us that the scarf was made by my great-grandmother for my grandfather, and it was in remarkably good condition one hundred and twenty years later. Other things were not so well documented. In the same box as the scarf we found several lovely early twentieth century Christmas cards, with no clue as to who sent them, or to whom. Somebody must have kept them for some reason, but I shouldn’t think we’ll ever know now.

We fill our homes with things – because we like them, because somebody important gave them to us, because we don’t get round to getting rid of them. We know what the reasons are; the people who come after us probably won’t, unless we tell them. I can see myself hanging onto that padded envelope; if so, I can see my children, if I have any, chucking it. And we will both be right.

Every item in a house is there for a reason. Some of those reasons are not particularly good ones.

‘Every word on that page is there for a reason,’ my A-level English teacher told me. It was quite possibly the most significant thing I learned at school. Every word represents a choice. Saying it this way, not any of the other ways one might have said it. Keeping it there when you come to reread. Deciding that it needed to be said in the first place.

Pa was an expansive, digressive, eclectic writer. He wrote about all sorts of things, though the nominal subject was usually mass transit. Most of his readers were quite happy to come along for the ride. And I think that his reason for most of the words, like most of the items, was, quite simply, that he liked them.

Here’s something that’s in my house for a reason, a birthday present I most definitely knew about. This was what Pa made me for my fifth birthday. It says so on the back.

A large wooden dolls' house in a cluttered room

Daily Decoration: Alice

A textile Christmas tree decoration representing Lewis Carroll's Alice

Alice came, appropriately enough, from the British Library. So did quite a few of the permanent inhabitants of Wonderland. I picked them up week by week: the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, the flamingo, the Knave of Hearts…

I looked at her just now and the part of my brain that’s always quoting something said, ‘Very Tenniel.’ I first came across Alice in Ballet Shoes, in the excruciatingly embarrassing sequence where Pauline gets the part instead of a friend who’s really better qualified and probably needs the money more, and then gets a severe case of swelled head… I didn’t read Alice in Wonderland until a few years later.

Actually, I’m not sure that this Alice is very Tenniel; she seems rather calm and unruffled, as if she’s never fallen down a rabbithole in her life. I’m very fond of book!Alice, largely because of how logical and observant she is, and the way she approaches confusing and frightening situations: wanders around and asks questions. And occasionally cries. It’s as good a philosophy as any.

In This Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger

I read this in Truro, where we were staying above a pub. I started it in bed, and finished it in the beer garden, with the gentle sound of a little river running past, and the cathedral towering up above the trees, just the other side.

And I was thinking what a pity it is that Susan Howatch, who when she was writing wrote about unconventional clergy relationships like nobody else, never got round to the Bensons.

There are a few plausible reasons why not, of course. Firstly, I’m not sure that anybody would believe in the Bensons if they appeared in a novel. They’re really quite incredible in real life. (Edward White Benson was the first Bishop of Truro – this was why they were on my mind – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to his wife when she was twelve. After his death she set up home with the daughter of a different Archbishop of Canterbury. All the children were as queer as their mother, in every sense. No need to bolt invented polyamory onto the facts here. But even Susan Howatch might not have got away with the Bensons.) Secondly, she writes very heterosexual books. So she was probably never going to take on the Bensons.

Anyway, I was in the mood for something that took a queer, religious, character, that took both the queerness and the religion seriously, and was prepared to delve deep into the psyche of that character.

In This Small Spot hit that, er, spot about eighty per cent of the time.

This isn’t anything like a Howatch. It doesn’t have the snobbery, the psychics, or the daddy issues. And it isn’t so tediously straight. It does have the ‘can’t do anything, got to finish this book’ thing that Howatch manages to do over and over again; which is why I had to finish it in a pub beer garden before we could see any more of Truro. And it was almost but not quite exactly what I wanted.

“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”

Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

I don’t think I’d argue with anything in that blurb. I bought the book on the strength of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be getting its own post if I hadn’t enjoyed it. The calm rhythm of the religious life, the complex relationships between the novices, the developing tension between Sister Michele and another nun, made for an absorbing read. It wasn’t perfect, though, and there were a couple of things that left me wanting to argue.

Firstly, the pacing was a bit off, or the plot. An overuse of ‘Later, Mickey would…’ built up a suspense that was never quite delivered on. Things developed sequentially, one event leading to another, and tending to evolve from characters’ desires and personalities. This suited the setting, but there sometimes seemed to be a reluctance to commit at key points. I said above that I was looking for something that would delve deeply into a character’s psyche. I think that often it didn’t delve deeply enough.

At one point Mickey reflects that the enclosed nature of the abbey makes trivial events take on an inflated importance. Actually, I found the opposite to be true: there would have been space to take much more time to explore the personality clashes and emerging trauma that grew from and drove events.

And then it takes an unexpected turn into melodrama.

Major spoilers follow the picture of Truro cathedral.

A pointy Victorian Gothic cathedral in grey stone, shot from below.

Mickey sustains serious injuries rescuing her love interest from a fire, a combination of events which results in both of them asking to be released from their vows. Mickey returns to medical life. Having both taken time to reflect, the two of them set up house together.

And very shortly afterwards Mickey dies.

Yeah.

In fairness, it didn’t strike me as a stereotypical ‘bury your gays’. There was too much of a sense of the bigger picture for that. The happy ending had already been earned and obtained; in fact, I’d have been perfectly contented had the book ended just a few chapters earlier. What we got, however, was an ambitious ending, and one that I don’t think the author managed to pull off. She didn’t quite earn Anselma/Lauren’s revelation that ‘The tragedy would have been never to have known her at all’. It might have worked, given some more space; as it was, it felt glib.

It was intensely readable, however, and I’ll be buying the sequel. I want to know more.

LGBTQ Christian fiction book recs

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Note: this began as a spontaneous blog post in 2016 and has metamorphosed into an ongoing rec list over the years. I add relevant books to it as I read them, and am always on the lookout for more. The fact that a book appears on this list doesn’t necessarily imply that I thought that it was particularly good, just that it matches the criteria in the third paragraph below.

I got chatting on Twitter with the user of the Diverse Church account about books with LGBTQ Christian characters, and how few of these there actually are.

Now, at least part of the reason I wrote one (now two) of my own was that I was frustrated with the lack of representation. However, I’ve found a few over the years, and it only seems fair to share the intel. In this post, I’m only listing books I’ve actually read, but in some cases it was a while ago. I’m adding warnings, but there’s always a possibility that I’ll not have remembered something horrible. Proceed at your own risk!

While not all of these end with hugs and puppies, they do start from, or at least eventually arrive at, the assumption that being Christian and being LGBTQ are not incompatible states, and call, in one way or another, for affirmation.

As for things I haven’t read (yet)… I’ve found Jesus in Love to be a very interesting source of recommendations. There’s also the reliqueer tag on LGBTQ Reads. Do add your own – either for individual books or authors, or for rec sites or round-ups – in comments!

On to the books…

Michael Arditti, The Celibate. The AIDS crisis and the narrator’s own personal crisis meet head-on. Warning for some gory Ripperology and [see spoilers in footnotes]*

Michael Arditti, Easter. Set in a London parish over the course of one Holy Week, with multiple storylines playing out across the congregation, seen from multiple perspectives.

Jaye Robin Brown, Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit. US young adult. The narrator is the daughter of a radio minister, is herself a committed Christian, and is an out lesbian. None of which is a problem in Atlanta, but when her father remarries and the reconfigured family moves to a more conservative part of Georgia, she agrees to go back in the closet, just for the time being. Things only get more complicated when she falls for one of the girls at her new church.

Paula Boock: Dare, Truth or Promise. New Zealand teen fiction of the ‘challenges of high school’ type. One of the main characters is Roman Catholic, and there’s a lovely scene with her priest, which meant a lot to me back in the day.

Carol Anne Douglas: Sister Matthew and Sister Rose: Novices in Love. Does what it says on the tin, really, with a side of magical realism. Both novices express a good deal of frustration with the rules of the convent and the Roman Catholic Church, but at least one of them appears to maintain a strong faith in spite of this.

Catherine Fox: Lindchester chronicles (Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory). Barchester for the modern day, with outright representation of gay and lesbian characters and engagement with the politics.

Elena Graf: This Is My Body. A romance between an Episcopalian priest and former opera singer and a professor of philosophy, set in a seaside town in Maine. It’s very refreshing to read a romance between two women (two older women, at that) which deals seriously and respectfully with questions of faith.

Aster Glenn Gray: Briarley. M/M Beauty and the Beast retelling, in which one of the main characters is a parson in wartime rural England. I loved this. Full review here.

Radclyffe Hall: The Well of Loneliness. Definitely short in the hugs and puppies department, but I couldn’t leave it off the list, for much the same reasons as those that Kittredge Cherry explains over at Jesus in Love.

Heather Rose Jones: Alpennia series. (Daughter of Mystery, The Mystic Marriage, Mother of Souls). Low fantasy, early nineteenth century, Ruritanian. I ate these books up with a spoon, but I append a health warning as the fantasy element crosses over with the religious element in a way that might not work for everybody. Nevertheless, they do include at least one character who speaks positively and explicitly about the intersection between her faith and her sexual identity, and absolutely deserve their place on this list.

Kathleen Jowitt: Stancester series. (Speak Its Name, The Real World). I wrote these, on the basis that if you can’t find what you’re looking for you might as well create it yourself. Faith, identity, and student politics on a West Country university campus. 

A. M. Leibowitz, Anthem. A worship leader’s confessional song becomes an accidental Christian hit. Particularly entertaining for anyone who’s ever had to stifle a snigger at the unintentional suggestiveness of some worship music.

A. M. Leibowitz, Passing on Faith. The gay son of one homophobic pastor (and brother of another) falls for his affirming Christian neighbour. This is the first in a series; I haven’t read the rest of it yet.

Rachel Mann, The Gospel of Eve. Many fucked up things happen in this book, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that there isn’t a happy ending, but the relationship between two women ordinands is by far the least fucked up. Or, at least, only in the way that relationships generally are.

J. B. Marsden, Bobbi and Soul. Romance between an Episcopalian priest and a doctor, with nice background details of rural Colorado and both main characters’ workplaces.

ed. Gabriela Martins, Keep Faith. This anthology of short stories includes two featuring queer Christian girls: “Godzilla” (Kate Brauning), a perceptive examination of what it’s like to be the token same-sex couple in a well-meaning affirming church youth group, and “Whatever She Wants” (Kess Costales), whose time-lapse structure works well to show how its narrator comes to understand who she is and how her faith fits with that. (I reviewed the anthology as a whole here.)

Alex Sanchez: The God Box. American teen fiction, also of the ‘challenges of high school’ type; engages the question head on throughout the book.

Caren J. Werlinger: In This Small Spot. A bereaved doctor enters an abbey, only to find herself falling for one of the nuns. I loved most of this and had some reservations about the rest of it. Reviewed here (spoilers, but there’s a warning before you get there).

Sarah L. Young, Plus One. Another American YA book. One of the narrators is bisexual and (presumably) Roman Catholic; there’s quite a lot of discussion about how her faith affects her reaction to an unplanned pregnancy, but she doesn’t seem to experience any conflict between her faith and her sexual orientation. Reviewed here. (Edit: unfortunately the publisher has folded, but you may be able to pick up a second-hand copy.)

 

* child sexual assault, connected with gay identity in a way that I found quite distasteful. But ultimately affirms the holiness of queer sexuality.