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Reading diary 2021, #5

It’s time to retire this blog. All I’m doing is posting mini-rants-masquerading-as-reviews of books and movies, and that at increasingly longer intervals. Plus, WordPress have gone and fucked up a perfectly good product, and their new “Gutenberg” block editor is shit. It now takes ten times longer to format a blog post, and I had to trash the one I’d planned to post before this one because I couldn’t get the editor to let me format it how I wanted. If I want to use the old editor, I have to pay extra money. I’ve no desire to support a business that blackmails its customers by removing functionality and then demanding money to return it. So, fuck them.

I could, I suppose, move to another platform. Not Blogger. I was on that originally. But they kept on randomly blocking my blog because their AI had decided it was spam… and Blogger made it increasingly difficult to get it unblocked. “Customer support” is not a phrase that seems to be in Google’s vocabulary. I’ve also heard their current version is even worse than WordPress.

Other blogging platforms seem more in the nature of website-building platforms for complete idiots. All drag and drop and fixed templates and zero actual control on the part of the user. And yes, I do still use the CLI in $dayjob.

Anyway, blogs are dead, social media is a cesspool of stupidity and tribalism, fandom is a pitched battle between various groups determined to police and/or gatekeep everyone else, and who knows when physical conventions will be a thing again? (I refer, of course, to English-language genre culture.)

Anyway, for this ultimate post, I shall finish much as I’ve been going on these last few years. With sort of reviews of half a dozen books.

submissionSubmission, Michel Houellebecq (2015, France). I can’t decide if this novel is irresponsible race-baiting or a clever commentary on the culture war. It’s probably both. In Submission‘s 2022, a moderate Muslim candidate becomes president of France and remakes French society along moderate Islamic lines – which are not all that moderate. In a word, the patriarchy is back. Women can no longer work. The narrator is a professor at a Parisian university, who is forced to retire when the new regime takes over. While the new government greatly reduces crime, it is at the cost of women’s freedoms. Professors are “bribed” back into their positions by finding them biddable female students as wives. Which, to be fair, is not how Islam works. It is, however, how patriarchy works. And that’s definitely one of the unacknowledged planks of the right-wing adherents of the “culture war”. They hate Muslims. But they want women back in the kitchen and no brown people in sight. But I’m not sure this novel is commenting on them, and I don’t think Islam is a good vehicle to make that point. But then France has a different reaction to its Muslim citizens than the UK, and I grew up in the Middle East so I’ve lived in actual Islamic countries, and Houellebecq’s presentation of Islam is hopelessly simplified, even though he provides a character to actually explain the religion. There’s also an unacknowledged issue here. I’ve seen it in the real world. In Houellebecq’s France, women can still study, but they cannot work. So their studies are worthless. But those women don’t want their daughters to suffer the same fate, so they agitate for jobs. It’s what’s been happing in the Gulf states for the past 30 years. Houllebecq’s interpretation of an Islamic Europe is unsustainable. You can’t disenfranchise half of the population and expect that to continue unopposed. Houellebecq is a controversial figure, but much of the controversy he has manufactured himself. Submission is the sort of novel that will upset people, but it’s not really a thought experiment. it’s a piss-take. Houellebecq is upsetting the people he’s taking the piss out of. Seems fair to me.

binaryBinary System, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This was originally published as two ebooks in 2016 and 2017, but that seems an odd decision since neither seem to stand on their own. It is good old-fashioned – where “old-fashioned” means 1990s – science fiction, but with updated sensibilities. To be fair, UK sf of the 1990s and English-language sf of today doesn’t require much in the way of “re-alignment”. Female protagonists were common in male-authored sf by UK writers in the 1990s; the fact it took an additional decade for female protagonists to begin appearing in US male-authored sf is another matter. And, to be fair, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US published a great deal more women genre writers than the UK did. Anyway. In Binary System, Delia Kemp is the sole survivor of an explosion as a ship is translating through a wormhole type thing, and finds herself marooned on a world thousands of light years away. It is inhabited by several alien races – and Earth has yet to encounter any aliens. She is taken prisoner by insectoid aliens, but then broken free by gibbon-like alien, and with him she agrees to travel south to witness the ten-yearly appearance of his god. They’re helped by a “spider-crab” alien. The insectoid aliens, she learns, are invaders, devolved ones, it’s true; but the other races, native to the planet, would be happy to be rid of them, and Kemp is worried they might at some point reach Earth. Not that she expects to ever reach Earth herself as she’s marooned so far away. It’s all very trad sf, and there are few real surprises – other than wondering how they story could have been split into two – but it’s well-crafted stuff. And if some of the tropes are a little shiny around the edges, they’re at least used by someone who knows what he’s doing. This is not Brown’s best book, but it’s emblematic of the solid, heartland, unassuming science fiction that he writes when he’s writing moderate to good sf. He’s actually written some excellent sf, but has never been popular enough for it to be noticed. Which is a shame.

empty_quarterIn the Empty Quarter, G Willow Wilson (2021, USA). This was actually free, and I don’t think I’ve read anything by Wilson before – although I do remember she was flavour of the month some ten years ago, but has been writing comics the last few years. An American couple are in an invented city in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, as the husband is part of a team prospecting for oil. The wife, Jean, has been shown about town – as much as she can be – by a local contact of her husband, Mahmoud, and while she’s starting to harbour romantic thoughts toward him, she’s also bored. So she persuades her husband to allow her to accompany him on a trip into the Empty Quarter, the Rub Al-Khali. But she finds herself even more bored, standing around while he works, so she explores a cave she finds in a sabkha, gets trapped, and is rescued by a djinn. I’ve actually camped in the Empty Quarter, so I know what it’s like, and I’m not really convinced by Willow’s description (which does not mean she has never visited it, of course). For one thing, she doesn’t use the term sabkha, and her description of one doesn’t quite ring true. Despite all that, the entire novella feels like packaging for a single line, “You’ve been treating me like a guest, but I’m here without an invitation”. Which is, of course, true – of the Brits and French in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. But the novella’s story isn’t really a commentary on that one line, just its delivery vehicle. And that, I think, is where it fails. Jean sees Saudi Arabia as “exotic”, which fits her character, but Willow seems more interested in commenting on the US’s exploitation of the Arabian peninsula than US, or indeed Western, attitudes to the cultures of the region. Having said that, this is a novella. If it disappoints, it’s because it implies a wider remit than it actually delivers on.

pincherPincher Martin, William Golding (1957, UK). Some friends of mine have recently been writing about William Golding, although they initially encountered him many decades ago. I did too, in a fashion, as I read Lord of the Flies at school – at least, I’m pretty sure I did – but I didn’t try another Golding novel until only a couple of years ago. So I’ve not had that long an appreciation of his books, and the few that I’ve read so far have been somewhat variable: Rites of Passage is amazing, The Inheritors is very good, but The Pyramid and The Paper Men are only mildly amusing. Pincher Martin is a remarkable book, and I think if it had been one of the first books by Golding I’d read I might perhaps hold him in as high esteem as the aforementioned friends. The title refers to a RNVR lieutenant in a destroyer in a trans-Atlantic WW2 convoy. The ship is sunk – probably by a U-Boat – and Martin finds himself on his own floating in mid-Atlantic. He manages to land himself on a tiny rock island, and has to subsist on rain water and mussels until he is rescued. As he waits, and suffers from exposure and malnutrition, flashbacks, some of which are more or less stream-of-consciousness, tell something of his past. And he was not a nice man. Much of the novel recounts, in excruciating detail, Martin’s situation and efforts to keep himself alive. It’s hard reading. And then there’s the final chapter… I’ll say there’s a twist, but I won’t spoil it. Recommended.

mitfordChristmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford (1932, UK). The second of The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford, and it’s more of the same as the first. But much funnier. Some of the characters featured in Highland Fling (like Waugh, Mitford seems to have a stable of characters for her books), but this time they’re spending Christmas in the country. Amabelle Fortescue, rich widow and ex-sex worker, has hired a cottage in Gloucestershire. She invites the Monteaths to join her. Meanwhile, novelist Paul Fotheringay, a friend of Amabelle’s, whose tragic debut novel has been hailed as a comic masterpiece, deeply hurting him, has decided a biography of his favourite Victorian poet is what is needed to convince people of his serious literary nature. So he wangles a post, under a false name, as tutor to the poet’s descendant, a teenage baronet, whose home is near the country cottage rented by Amabelle. Some of the poet’s verse is reproduced, and it’s brilliant – “Think only, love, upon our wedding day / The lilies and the sunshine and the bells / Of how, the service o’er, we drove away / To our blest honeymoon at Tunbridge Wells.” The cast are grotesques, even when presented as relatively normal for the milieu, and it’s Mitford has a sharp tongue when poking fun at them and their world. But this is no social commentary – nor was Waugh’s, to be fair – and if Mitford’s humour is at the expense of her characters, it’s at least it’s  not Waugh’s contemptuous cynicism. They’re well put-together these novels. Recommended.

vanished birdsThe Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez (2020, USA). I’d given up on reading US genre debuts, but then I go and pick one up and read it. To be fair, I’d heard good things of The Vanished Birds from people whose opinion I trust, and I’ve not seen it mentioned often on social media, which means it probably doesn’t appeal to the sort of people who champion books I’ve found I definitely don’t like. (And it hasn’t made any award shortlists this year.) But, oh dear. Tricked again. On the plus side, it’s better written than is usually the case – but given it was apparently a thesis for a Creative Writing MFA, that’s hardly a surprise. Unfortunately, it fails pretty much everywhere else. It opens with a section set on a world which is visited by twelve spaceships every fifteen years, there to collect… a fruit which apparently stays fresh for up to fifteen years after harvesting. The economics make no sense – there are other villages, and hence more spaceships, on different schedules, so demand for this fruit must be huge. Except… the ships only appear every fifteen years, but for them the trip takes days, and they’re away from their destination for only months. (This time discrepancy in FTL applies nowhere else in the novel.) All this has little to do with the story, which is all about a mysterious boy one such ship picks up on a trip to the planet. There are a series of spacestations, in a universe that borrows most of its visuals from media sf, especially Star Wars, and which are shaped like birds because… because why? Their architect is treated more or less like an empress, for no discernible reason. She goes into cold sleep at regular intervals and has now lived for over a thousand years. She has determined the mysterious boy has the ability to “jaunt”, ie, travel from planet to planet without a spaceship. This ability could, understandably, upset the standard corporatist US-imagined space opera bollocks universe, with its serfs and one-percenters and child abuse and slavery, all of which exist because. For all its praise, The Vanished Birds is a creative writing exercise that strives more for effect than rigour, has a plot that makes little sense, and  a universe  cobbled together from a dozen ro so properties and overlaid with the usual US science fiction fascist nonsense. (In one scene, 2,500 innocent men, women and children are herded into a room and shot dead by corporate soldiers in order to “punish” the aforementioned architect who had created the secret complex where they lived and worked. Seriously, this fascist shit needs to stop. It’s a failure of imagination, and says more about US culture than it does English-language science fiction. And The Vanished Birds will definitely be the last twenty-first century US genre debut novel I ever read – at least until those authors have several more novels under their belt.

So, that’s it. The end of a blog. It had a good run – November 2006 to April 2021. I’ll keep it up, as there are one or two posts that still get visitors, like 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women. But I’ll no longer be adding new content. And the URL may change as I no longer see the point in paying to redirect to my own domain.


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Winter festival come early

Yet more books. The mantlepiece, incidentally, has all sorts of bits and bobs on it and I couldn’t be arsed to clear it off for these photos. So you’ve got the landing carpet instead.

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After watching Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, I fancied reading more by the author, and so picked up cheap copies of August 1914 and The First Circle on eBay. I may have shot myself in the foot with August 1914, however, as only two volumes of the Red Wheel series are available in English, out of possibly eight volumes in Russian. Accommodation Offered I also found on eBay, and bought for my Women’s Press SF collection… but I’m not entirely sure it is sf.

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Chernobyl Prayer and The Appointment I bought after a dicussion on Twitter about female Nobel laureates for literature. I’ve already read the Müller – see here. I had a copy of Labyrinths many years ago but seem to have lost it, so I bought a replacement. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I bought because Charnock was named alongside myself and Aliya Whitely and Nina Allan and a couple of others as writers to watch in a tweet, and I’ve now forgotten who it was who said it… I thought Nocilla Dream very good – see here – so buying the sequel, Nocilla Experience, as soon as it was published in English was a no-brainer. And I’ve always found Houellebecq’s fiction interesting, hence Submission.

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I contributed to the kickstarter for The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosenkreutz, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. But it’s a handsome looking book. Erpenbeck is a new favourite writer, and her books are readily available on eBay in hardback for low prices – which is good for me, if not for her or her publisher. Anyway, The Book of Words and The Old Child are two earlier works, currently published in an omnibus, but I’d sooner have them separate. They’re very short. I’ve already read The Old Child. It’s very good.

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Finally, some sf comics. I’ve been picking up the Valerian and Laureline series as Cinebook publish them in English. On the Frontiers is volume 13, which is just over halfway through the series. You should never return to childhood favourites, because it’s usually embarrassing to discover how fucking awful they were. I’ve always loved Dan Dare, ever since being given a reprint of two of Hampson’s Dare stories back in the early 1970s. Since returning to the UK, I collected all of the Hawk Publishing reprints of the Eagle Dan Dare stories. But I also have fond memories of Dare from the pages of 2000 AD – I even have a Dan Dare annual somewhere from that time. Hence, Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2. 2000AD’s Dare looks great – it was drawn by Dave Gibbons – but the various stories are the hoariest old sf crap imaginable. Oh well.


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The books wot I read, part the second

I seem to be spending more time of late documenting the books I purchase rather than the books I actually read. And though I do – mostly – read more books each month than I purchase, and I often want to write about them… I don’t seem to be doing so as often as I once did. It’s also that time of year when I belatedly realise that my choice of reading material hasn’t prepared me at all well for awards season. While I’ve read over a dozen books published during 2013, less than half were genre novels. Admittedly, one was Ancillary Justice, the book everyone has been talking about (see here)… But I’ve also been reading fiction from the second decade of the twentieth-century right up to 2012 during the year. Plus a lot of research – on Mars for The Eye with Which The Universe Beholds Itself, and on the Mercury 13 for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And I really haven’t read as much 2013 short fiction as I promised myself I would do…

Anyway, not including the books I’ve read and reviewed for SF Mistressworks, and the books I intend to review for Daughters of Prometheus, here is the second lot of my most recentest reading…

killerintherainKiller in the Rain, Raymond Chandler (1964) A collection of previously-unpublished short stories, this made for a weird reading experience as Chandler adapted many of the stories for his novels. So the precursor to Philip Marlowe and his adventures appears several times – which means the stories sort of hover on the edge of familiarity, without actually being familiar. At least two stories contain elements of The Big Sleep, but are different enough to make you doubt your memory of that novel. Otherwise, this is solid Chandler fare – iconic, and perhaps a little too over-exposed to wear its seminal status all that well.

lanzaroteLanzarote, Michel Houellebecq (2000) This is more of a novella than a novel and is pretty much a distillation of what Houellebecq does. Bored bureaucrat goes on holiday to the titular island, reflects on the strange volcanic landscape while engaging in graphic and detailed sex with a pair of German tourists, while Houellebecq himself reflects on modern society. Some of the ideas in Lanzarote were clearly later expanded to become the novels Platform and The Possibility of an Island. Incidentally, I read Lanzarote on the train while travelling to the World Fantasy Con, and it probably isn’t the best sort of book to read while riding public transport…

sweetheartseasonThe Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996) This was the novel I immediately started after finishing Lanzarote, and it’s a much better rail-journey read. The title refers to an all-female baseball team formed during the late 1940s in order to promote a brand of cereal. The women all work at the mill where the cereal is made – it’s the only industry in the town – and the novel is about them, their lives, the history of the town, and the events leading up to the team’s single season, and its after-effects. Not, you would have thought,  my usual reading fare – but this is Karen Joy Fowler, a writer whose works I have long admired (since I started subscribing to Interzone back in the late 1980s, in fact). The Sweetheart Season is really funny, contains some lovely writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

hook2The Boosted Man, Tully Zetford (1974) The second in Zetford’s Hook quartet. This is pure 1970s sf hackery, and Zetford – a pen-name of Kenneth Bulmer – probably banged out all four books in a weekend. It shows. Once again, Hook is forced to land on a planet not his chosen destination. Everything initially looks grim and dirty and horrible, but then he realises the world is really a paradise. Everyone has wonderful jobs, wears the finest of clothing, eats the most delicious food, and has access to the best leisure facilities in the galaxy. Except, of course, they don’t. It’s all a mirage, induced somehow by a drug or some electronic thing – it wasn’t really clear. In reality, they’re no more than slaves, clad in rags, eating slops and being worked until they fall over and die. But HOOK SMASH. And dig those crazy eyebrows too, man. Two more books in this series and I can send them back to the charity shop. Not keepers.

stonemouthStonemouth, Iain Banks (2012) I’m going to miss a new Iain (M) Banks appearing every year, but at least he left a substantial body of work ripe for rereading behind him. And I really must reread the Culture novels. Perhaps that’d make a good reading project for a summer. Anyway, Stonemouth is Banks’s penultimate novel, and it’s very much in the same space as The Crow Road and The Steep Approach To Garbadale. The narrator, Stewart Gilmour, left the eponymous Scottish town under a cloud five years before, but now he’s back to attend the funeral of one of the town’s two gangland bosses. He’s met with grudging acceptance – no one is going to ignore the old man’s dying wish – but he is clearly not welcome and staying longer than necessary is out of the question. It’s a while before Banks reveals why Stewart was run out of town and, to be honest, I kept on expecting something a little more shocking to subsequently be revealed. But it never came. Instead, the story builds up to a shocking confrontation. Stonemouth is classic Banks – it’s all there: the voice, the wit, the place, the semi-adolescent manglings of philosophy… It doesn’t quite have the zap of earlier works, and in places it does feel like a book written by a man in his late fifties about a group of people in their twenties. But Stonemouth does possess buckets of charm, and that’s more than enough to carry the reader through to the – surprisingly – upbeat ending.

cptmarvelCaptain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dextor Soy & Emma Rios (2012) I went off superhero graphic novels a few years ago, and I wouldn’t normally have bothered with this one – I mean, Captain Marvel? She’s hardly a frontline superhero (although, interestingly, Marvel was originally male but the mantle was passed onto a woman). But the story of In Pursuit of Flight features the Mercury 13, so naturally my curiosity was piqued… Carol Danvers, Ms Marvel but now using the name Captain Marvel, is left an old aeroplane by Helen Cobb, a pioneering woman pilot who inspired Danvers’ own flying career. While Helen Cobb’s career is clearly based on that of Jerrie Cobb, her character isn’t – she’s a tough-talking bar-owner in the flashback sequences. The plane is a North American T-6 and the plane in which Cobb allegedly broke a world altitude record. The real Cobb did indeed fly T-6s – she ferried them down to South America for Fleetway after the Peruvian air force had purchased them from the US – but she achieved her altitude record in an Aero Commander. Danvers decides to try and prove that Cobb’s record was possible, but loses control of the plane. As it descends in a spin, the plane travels through time and Danvers finds herself on a Pacific island during World War II, helping a group of crashed WASP pilots defeat a Japanese force which has Skrull technology. The WASP pilots turn out to be the Mercury 13. Unfortunately, In Pursuit of Flight is all a bit of a mess. DeConnick has played fast and loose with her inspirations, the time travel plot doesn’t quite add up, and the artwork is not very good. I also hate it when mini-series swap artists halfway through, as this one does. Annoyingly, I see the blurb for the sequel, Captain Marvel: Down, includes the line “what threat is lurking below the ocean’s surface?”. It’s almost as if DeConnick has read Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

strangersStrangers and Brothers, CP Snow (1940) This was the first book of the series written by Snow, and so the series is named for it – but the book is now better known by the alternative title of George Passant. And it is him the story is about. The narrator, Lewis Eliot, is one of a group of young adults in an unnamed East Midlands town during the late 1920s. The nearest city is Nottingham, but the town is certainly not Mansfield. Snow was from Leicester, so it’s more likely to be somewhere south of Nottingham – Loughborough, perhaps. Anyway, Passant is sort of a den mother to a group of twentysomethings. He works as an articled clerk at a local solicitors, but believes he should be made partner. When one of his friends, Jack, is let go by his employer, a printer, because the printer’s eighteen-year-old son has a crush on Jack, and the local technical college cancels Jack’s bursary, Passant argues that Jack should be allowed to complete his course. But Jack, it transpires, is a bit of a chancer, and when he persuades Passant to go into business with him… it all comes to a head a few years later when Passant, Jack and Olive are had up on charges of fraud, and Lewis is called back to town from his inn of court in London to defend them. Passant’s lifestyle – parties at a local farm, at which the men and women often partner off – is called into question. Though they win the case, Lewis doesn’t find out until afterwards that fraud had been committed – though, to be fair, the fraud of which they’re accused is no more than the typical sharp business practice you find happening now among fat cats and so-called captains of industry. Strangers and Brothers is a slow read, and while it paints an interesting picture of a past decade, it doesn’t appeal as much as Anthony Powell’s not-dissimilar A Dance to the Music of Time. But I think I shall continue to read them, anyway.


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The floorboards are creaking

Time for another book haul post, and it’s been a good month or so book-wise. Some new books from authors whose books I like, some good bargains picked up in charity shops, and some books that look really interesting and I’m looking forward to reading… Having said that, I’m going to have to purge my collection some time soon as it’s getting a little out of hand…

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Some heartland science fiction: Evening’s Empires, On the Steel Breeze and Proxima are all new this year. Navigator is from 2007, I found it cheap on eBay.

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A few collections and an anthology. Jagannath: Stories I bought at Fantastika in Stockholm, Getting Out of There is from Nightjar Press (it’s signed and numbered and a bargain at £3.50; get yourself a copy), and both the women-only anthology Space of Her Own and Cliff Burns’ extremely rare first collection, Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination, were from Cold Tonnage.

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The Luminaries, of course, won the Man Booker this year. The Kills and Unexploded were on the long list but didn’t make the short list. But these three seemed the most interesting to me of the listed books.

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A few for the collection. The jacket-less book is Too Many Murders, and is DG Compton’s debut novel – a crime novel as by Guy Compton. These are almost impossible to find in good condition. Escape from Kathmandu is signed. The Violent Century and Prayer are both new this year.

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A Tale for the Time Being was also short-listed for the Booker, I found this copy in a charity shop. Sea of Ghosts I bought new after reading Martin Petto’s review on Strange Horizons (plus it has a deep sea diver on the cover); and Ancillary Justice I bought because it’s been getting extensive positive buzz of late – deservedly so: I reviewed it here.

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These three books I bought on a recent visit to Harrogate. I’ve always fancied trying Nabokov and I’m told Pale Fire is his best. Jensen and Houellebecq I pick up whenever I see copies.

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Five books of Jo Clayton’s Diadem from the Stars series. I bought these at Fantastika. To be honest, they’re not great sf – I reviewed the first two books on SF Mistressworks here and here – but I’ll read them and review them anyway.

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Finally, a 1970s sf novel by a woman writer I’d never heard of (bought at Fantastika) and a humungous book on writing genre I have to review for Interzone. I shall be approaching Wonderbook with a healthy scepticism, but it’s hard not to be impressed by it.

Incidentally, I make this haul 15 books by men and 13 by women, which is pretty close to parity.