2017: a reading list

Somehow, despite a year spent working in a library with “Europe’s largest catalogued collection of SF material,” I’ve never quite got round to reading any. This is in spite of marrying a man who was reading Cryptonomicon when we met and has spent the intervening years patiently introducing me to classic TV Sci-Fi, and a friendship group whose appreciation of the genre ranges from keen readership to active fandom. My first (and, to date, only) real foray into the realm of speculative fiction came with a copy of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories By Women, which I picked up on a whim in the excellent News From Nowhere bookshop just over 18 months ago. Some of the stories in it blew my mind – fantastic explorations of colonialism and culture, intelligence, love and companionship, ethics and memory – and it left me hungry for more. So as 2016 limps towards its long-awaited close and I begin to think more hopefully of 2017, the time seems right to draw up a reading list.

When I put out a call on social media asking for suggestions, the response was overwhelming – over 50 comments, most of them suggesting multiple books and authors. From these suggestions, I have cherry-picked some favourites to track down after Christmas and devour on the long, dark train journeys into and out of Manchester…

Aliette de Bodard – House of Shattered Wings
Her short story, Immersion, was one of my favourites from the Mammoth anthology – a powerful tale about translation, identity, and the use and limitations of technology – so House of Shattered Wings was already on my radar. Though I was initially skeptical of “the hoary premise of fallen angels and ancient curses,” as one review puts it, the book received some great write-ups which prompted me to be more open-minded. I would love to get hold of On A Red Station, Drifting, too – a story which in its premise feels a lot closer to the world of Immersion.

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed
After trying and failing to read them in childhood, I finally read Le Guin’s Earthsea stories this year and loved them. Her masterful short story Mountain Ways, set on the planet O, was another highlight of the Mammoth anthology, so it was inevitable that some of her works would end up on this list. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are two that kept cropping up in recommendations, but I would be open to reading anything I come across by her.
N.B. dear Ursula, please don’t die in 2016.

Jo Walton – Among Others, The Just City
Well, for a start, she’s Welsh – and the idea of a “reverse-Harry Potter” tale is irresistible (boss witch!) – but what appeals to me most about Among Others is the idea of “a love letter to SF fandom”. It seems like the perfect ‘gateway’ book, introducing the great SF classics through the eyes of a strange Welsh girl who grows up feeling out of place (ahem). And The Just City, recommended by my Ancient History-professing and SF-reading  stepfather, is a must for this pub philosopher and Master of Myth.

C.J. Cherryh – The Pride of Chanur
As if turning the ‘human stranded among aliens’ trope on its head by writing from the alien point of view wasn’t interesting enough, Cherryh’s aliens are feline.  And they get Jo Walton speaking in Hani pidgin (“What want, stupid human?”). Not only am I completely in love with this idea, I also suspect I might gain some interesting new insights into the lives of my friends (and their feline overlords) by reading.

Naomi Novik – Uprooted
The Tor.com review describes this novel as “part of the modern fairy-tale retelling tradition, because it is very much concerned with which stories get told, why and how they are told, and what truths might underlie them.” This is exactly the reason for my love of folklore and fairy tales, and I am fascinated to find out how Novik uses them, in a novel which many of my friends have already enjoyed.

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice
At long last, we come to a novel set in space – in fact, a novel narrated by a space ship. The idea of sentient spaceships worked brilliantly in Boojum, one of my favourite stories from the Mammoth anthology, so I am already inclined to like it. Add to that an exploration of the concept of personhood, and language which forces us to confront our gender assumptions and constructions, and this sounds like a very exciting book indeed.

Ted Chiang – Stories From Your Life
And finally, a token male author, for the sake diversity. Actually, I have been fully intended to track down Stories From Your Life since reading the reviews of Arrival (did I mention that language and translation theory fascinate me?) So, in a way, Ted Chiang was always already on my reading list.

It is wonderful to think that this list is just a taste – barely a few morsels of the smorgasbord of suggestions offered up by friends and acquaintances. I am also keen to get hold of some Philip K Dick (“Dick, Dick and more Dick” as one friend suggested, possibly more excitingly than he intended), Asimov, Gibson, Zelanzy, Bester and Vandermeer. But these books feel like a good place to start. One of the things that put me off from reading SF for so long was the idea that there is a ‘right’ way to do it, a canon of things that must be read. The Mammoth anthology allowed me to follow my curiosity and get inspired by different approaches, which was exactly my approach in compiling this list. It also reminded me (because I sometimes need reminding) that reading should be fun, and this list looks like a lot of fun. To everyone who contributed suggestions: thank you!


List: some films I would like to watch

How on earth did I live before I started making lists? With extreme vagueness, probably. This is a reference work-in-progress for when I find myself staring blankly at the film streaming service of the moment. If it sparks a few conversations or recommendations, so much the better.

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opening up

Work and blogs have never mixed very easily for me – a legacy of sensitive jobs and some slightly unorthodox outside interests. But I am starting to relax my boundaries a little, as work edges closer and closer to the sorts of things I like to write about anyway. Right now, plants and history (and plant history) are the main points of contact.

My office is in what used to be the scutching room of an old Cheshire cotton mill, a Victorian addition to the Georgian factory. The windows look out onto the landscaped gardens of the mill owner and his family – keen plant collectors, whose legacy is one of the finest rhododendron collections in the country. In the warm and wet weather last week, the whole place erupted into blossom.

Take a look…

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William Morris’s birthday

William Morris is my kind of socialist – a utopian dreamer rooted in the very real beauties and pleasures of this world. He dreamed of a better way of living, and worked to make it a reality for his circle of family and friends. 


He may have worked himself into an early grave (the physician who pronounced him dead gave the cause as “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men”) but the legacy he left us has been a lasting inspiration to everyone from textile designers to fantasy writers.

I somehow doubt he would approve of Google, but I’ve enjoyed their tribute to him all the same.


Happy 182nd birthday William Morris!


the ring-spinning fairy

ring spinnerThe ring spinning fairy arrived on my desk this morning, in all her art nouveau glory. Who knew cotton production could be so majestic?

We have over 30 of these boxes in the stores, most of them full of tiny little ring travellers for cotton spinning (which, sadly, in real life, don’t have tiny wings). This particular box will probably find its way to another museum in greater need of paraphernalia from Cook & Co. Manchester Ltd. For the moment, though, I’m enjoying its presence on my desk. Much as I mistrust capitalism, period marketing design is fabulously evocative.