Vanishing Point – Michaela Roessner

Like most of you reading this, I do have a penchant for recommending books I’ve enjoyed and that I sometimes think of as my pet discoveries.  One author I am particularly keen to draw attention to is Michaela Roessner, and especially her remarkable second novelVanishing Point.

I enjoyed Roessner’s unusual debut, Walkabout Womanwhich pits a young aboriginal woman against both dangers within her tribe and the attempts to ‘civilise’ her by a white teacher.  I’d be interested to hear how native Australians view Roessner’s depictions of their culture,the Dreamtime and their lives, but the author appears sympathetic to my uninformed eye.  It is certainly an unusual work, with two strong female characters in competitive alliance.

More recently Roessner has published a pair of Florentine historical fantasies, The Stars Dispose and The Stars Compel, involving Catherine de Medici which are rich in detail (especially the food) and subtle magic.  It’s been fifteen years since the second of these, but there may be a third in the works which I know will please many.

Good as these books are, Vanishing Point is something else again.  I defy you to come up with a post-apocalyptic scenario like Roessner’s.  Overnight, without warning, 90% of the human race vanished.  Nobody knows why – or where – they went, and why some were left but not others.  Now, thirty years later, the remnants of society have settled into enclaves and roving fanatics.  Communities struggle to make sense of the disappearances and to ensure both their survival and some feeling of hope should their families ever return.  One such community has colonised a real-life setting as remarkable as any in SF: The Winchester House in San Jose.  Originally a 19th century house, the owner became convinced that spirits were directing her to maintain building work night and day, non-stop, for the rest of her life.  Stairways going nowhere, rooms that are incomplete, stained glass windows that get no direct light and other building eccentricities have inspired several authors including Tim PowersAlastair ReynoldsAlan Moore and others. I particularly thought of Heinlein’s short classic ‘…And He Built a Crooked House…’ but Michaela Roessner has taken on the house and expanded on it offering up a genuinely science fictional ‘explanation’ for the house’ mysteries.

The story itself begins with a loner setting fire to houses he considers ‘tainted’ by the post-Vanishing changes.  At the House, a young woman, Renzie, is part of teams rebuilding society and researching the Vanishing.  From across country the elderly woman scientist Nesta arrives with new theories and new approaches.  These two strong female leads offer leadership through physical strength and morality in Renzie’s case, and intellectual rigour and willingness to face the challenge from Nesta.

As Nesta explains:

“So you think all of the research of the last thirty years is pointless?” said Pax.

“No! I believe it’s vital. But as I said before, I think it’s been misdirected.”

“The Vanishing didn’t just happen and stop.  We’re so overwhelmed and distracted by its psychological consequences that we can’t see its actual, physical effects. It started chains of events that continue, have maybe accelerated, that haven’t been examined except as possible clues to the Vanishing’s source.  We’ve got our heads buried in the sand and don’t even know it.”

Later in the same speech, “The effect is endemic on every level of reality.”  Most post-apocalyptic fiction defines one, maybe two, significant changes in society and environment.  Roessner recognises and insists on the bigger, more nuanced, picture.  The survivors of the Vanishing display myriad reactions to events, the range of symptoms associated with grief, guilt and anger.  Their relationships with their environment, friends, lovers and colleagues are not uniform. Society has changed but the past has not been discarded, some vehicles and technology remain, there are computers and communication tools though these are limited. Roessner sharply contrasts those who live and work together around the House with the more cultish groups who they interact with, particularly the Heaven Bounders who view the Vanishing as the Rapture.

Nesta’s research and her conversations with others also incorporate depths often missing in similar works. Theories are discussed, revised, disproved, and evolve. Through Nesta and the others Roessner draws on multi-disciplinary approaches both social and scientific to bring up questions as well as answers.  For me that makesVanishing Point an important work of SF. Her thoughtful characters make it a fun, immensely readable and meaningful novel too. And the scientific answers she comes up with?  Well, no spoilers but Roessner’s speculation is grounded in knowledge of contemporary theories and contains enough detail to step beyond hand waving abstractions.    The House is explained with reference to, amongst other things, quantum physics, The Muppets, and Jorge Luis Borges.

It is, as Chery Morgan says “wonderful stuff”.

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Hotel Arcadia – Sunny Singh

If 2015 is to be a year defined by refugees and terrorism, Sunny Singh’s remarkable novel Hotel Arcadia should play a part.  Although brief and nominally a thriller, Singh’s third novel is equally a deep meditation on empathy and engagement.
The eponymous hotel in an unidentified middle eastern (I think) location is the subject of a terrorist attack, leaving many staff and guests murdered, and the remaining few hiding desperately.  Somehow hotel manager Abhi survives and tries to warn the guests discreetly by phone. One guest is acclaimed war photographer Sam on holiday after her latest assignment, who ignores warnings and heads out with her camera. Over the next 67 hours Sam explores and reports, whilst Abhi liaises with the army outside.  Gradually they develop a trust and affection that helps them focus.  Then Sam finds a young boy, Billy, injured but alive and is forced to take care of him whilst awaiting rescue or discovery and death.  Tensions increase as chapters countdown, the first is labelled ’67 Hours Ago’ the last, ‘Now’.  The thriller aspect is carefully weighted as the time progresses, as fear shifts through exhaustion to acceptance.  Early chapters are set hourly, later at increased intervals reflecting events.


Against all of this are fascinating backstories for Abhi and Sam which not only add poignancy and make us care more, but also serve as metaphor for the situation in the hotel and beyond.
Immaculate, formal, respectable manager Abhi is gay, involved with a regular guest, spending illicit nights together. His enhanced formalities are a cover for his love, but alongside are memories, idolising his soldier hero brother Samar.  Recurrently it is Samar’s voice he hears as he debates action.  Childhood realisation that he can’t be like Samar give way to understanding at the cost of a relationship with his father.
Sam meanwhile, is emotionally detached, holding her lover at a distance, photographing only the dead, only really seeing the world through a viewfinder.


In this she is joined by Abhi, watching her creep through the hotel on cctv, anxiously building pictures outside the camera angles as Sam tries to occlude them.  In this structural sympathy Sam and Abhi develop an empathy that surprises both.  Sam finds that she feels things for lover David she has tried to avoid, Abhi tries to avoid the knowledge that his lover Dieter is one of the bodies in the bar. 
Sunny Singh has deftly, evocatively, tied our personal lives to global political situations. There’s a fleeting encounter in Sam’s past with refugees that captures this perfectly.  And in the present, we are almost never shown the terrorists only their impact.
Hotel Arcadia isn’t perfect, plotwise. I wondered how Abhi was able to hide and observe from reception, for instance.  Emotionally it works very well, right up to a movingly ambiguous ending. Politically Singh asks subtle questions about how we engage with each other on individual and global scales, and the similarities between the two.  It’s a rare novel that succeeds as well as Hotel Arcadia as entertainment, with such emotional and political insight.

Hotel Arcadia is published by Quartet Books.

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Bathymetry album review

As the sun, or indeed the moon, sets across the sea the surface shimmers and flickers with a magical road to…. where? There’s no map, nor any guide to the dark depths that walking that road will surely lead you to.  That road is a trap, or maybe a dream path to an unconscious reality. 
And so it is with the debut album from north west based band Bathymetry.  It shimmers, with golden harmonies, across the darkling ripples of something familiar, something just off the edge of the map. You’d know it if you could find it again, but it’s gone, replaced by its near twin, its next iteration. 


I’ve listened to album opener and single ‘Goblin Fruit’ a dozen times or more, and I swear that twinkling percussion is new this time. And is that a child-like giggle at the start of ‘Liliput’?  As Ariel sings though, there’s something disturbing in the sweetness.  ‘she sucked until her lips were sore’, ‘she smiled then she laughed at me’, the way the apparently innocent line ‘I’ll be waiting down below’ is sung as the guitar drops away to leave Emily’s creeping bass line, all have an edge of concealed menace.
There are moments when, if you don’t listen closely, Bathymetry’s songs float by, gorgeous dream pop psych folk.  All chiming, wavelike guitars, and sweet female harmonies with a hint of swing.  But ‘Honey dripping off your tongue’ according to ‘Sweet Tooth’ leads into ‘hiding rotten gums.’

The calm sea conceals the jagged reef, and can change in moments to a tempest. The songs on this album are laden with hooks to pull you in, and barbs to cut you deeply.  Bathymetry move seamlessly from reflecting 60s psych pop to early New York New Wave.


Ariel’s guitar has hints of Marr & Quine, a flavour of acoustic folk picking, maybe a shoegaze nod or two. Her voice, innocent and wild eyed at times, becomes desperate and decadent on a chord change. 
Emily, who also sings, and whose voice matches Ariel’s throughout, is the undercurrent. Her basslines not just a pinion for the rest, but the lead at times, holding the road where the map is ambiguous.  They’re fluid, that edge of swing I mentioned, teasing out an impish dance.  Drummer Dave meanwhile is almost unnoticed at times, playing superficially simple roots for the rest. Then suddenly you realise that magical glimmering tone is his delicate work. 
The word dream-like is overused, but Bathymetry’s songs are awash with allusions to sleep, to dream, to the astral plane, whilst the music has that disconcerting knack of being utterly familiar and totally strange simultaneously.


45 minutes, 12 tracks, more ideas per track than many careers.  And my favourite track? Could be any one of five or six. Let’s say ‘Evil Leather Jacket’ right now for its catchy, jazzy riff, and that disturbing cackling in the middle. And ‘Goblin Fruit’F is sublime, in the full blown Romantic sense, for me.
But it could be ‘Clementine’ with its nursery rhyme rhythm breaking out into rocking midsection. Or ‘Doldrums’ or… Well, that’s why Bathymetry might be the best band you’ve not yet heard.  Go off map, explore the depths, follow the moon road. Float, dive, swim, drown, absorb yourself in the best debut album of 2015 maybe in years.

You can get the album from Bathymetry on their website or at a gig. They’re charming live too. 

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Jessica Hopper — The First Book Of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

The thing about critical assessment of criticism is the near inevitable meta nature of it, the way our response is both a response to the critic and the subject.  We admire, because we feel validated by, the critic who shares and articulates our views.  Jessica Hopper, writing as fan and pro separately and together, hints at recognition of this as she interprets art, packaging of art, marketing of art and personal/group response to art in one review after another. 
The pieces collected in the admittedly hyperbolic, misnamed but justified banner raising The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic appeared first in venues as diverse as Punk Planet, Spin, Pitchfork, The Chicago Tribune, and Hopper’s TinyLuckyGenius blog.  They cover the likes of Kendrick Lamar, MIA, Springsteen, Pearl Jam (then and now), Rollin Hunt, Chief Keef and Mecca Normal.  The approach, style and subject matter varies therefore but, for most of this collection there is a consistency of theme and developing worldview on show.  The title stresses a feminist aspect typified by a scathing without ranting assessment of the male dominated emo scene and references to Guyville and Riot Grrrl, but equally crucial in this is that titular Living.  A long quote from the blog post “You Know What?” lays out both Hopper’s attitude and her credibility:
    “Older-generation female rocker ladies making uninformed judgment calls about women making music today, and how no one is angry anymore, how the ‘90s were so much better, when we had Liz Phair and Hole and Belly and L7 on MTV (a.k.a. the blinded nostalgia trope of the aging rock ‘n’ roll feminist) IS REALLY FUCKING UNPRODUCTIVE. It also shows they are not digging deep enough, or seeing the forest for the trees. If you think “angry women in punk” is a faction that has somehow receded, or that L7 in its day was some how better than the generation of women now in all manner of metal bands, you’ve gotten too far removed from the action. Go browse the 7” new arrivals like you did last in 199X and you’ll see a lot more women in the bin now than you ever did then. Spend 11.4 minutes online and catch up. It never disappeared, we just missed it because we were so busy clinging tight to copies of Guyville; we refused new ideas as relevant or good enough. Riot-grrrl wasn’t the end result, it was the catalyst. That’s what it was supposed to be, that’s what it was meant as— not a static thing. It didn’t have to stick around forever to count as successful— movements come in waves— it did its job perfectly. So much is different post-RG, so much permission and power and inspiration was funneled down steadily— whether it’s to the league of young girl shredders, or rock camps, or queer show collectives whose tether to RG was simply catching the tail end of Sleater-Kinney. Feminism has to move on, salute new icons, be excited by the varieties of archetypes of women in music that are self-directed, self-produced, not operating under the shadow of a Svengali hand. To not appreciate the difference in agency, or appreciate the different struggles of women now, turns it to a game of radical one-upsmanship. Our battles are not to be hung on the necks of the new waves of girls like an albatross.”

For me that is where Hopper is strong, when she writes with a controlled passion for her subjects.  Occasional pieces here are overly descriptive, insufficiently evocative and slightly less weighted insight.  Given the glossier commercial venues commissioning here some compromise may be expected as the price of getting 17 year old rapper Chief Keef into the Tribune, perhaps.  Mostly though Hopper writes with an edge that is personal and feels genuine.  Her punk roots are openly displayed as she questions the ‘community’ of Lollapalooza and large festivals, a sort of Woodstock myth shared with Glastonbury in the UK, and contrasts a range of gigs with double digit attendance.  She challenges yet another Nevermind reissue with the cutting lines
“if you squint, you can see the “Heart-Shaped Box in an Actual Box Shaped Like a Heart 25th Anniversary Boxset” and “Nevermind in Mono” galloping this way on the horizon.”
“Revisiting Nevermind is like flexing a phantom limb made up of Nirvana records that never were. That’s all it means now, all that’s left— fantasy. The tomb is empty; let the dead buy the dead.”

Hopper revisits her early years in the punk scenes of 1990 with clear eyes and humour.  An aside on her early school crushes notes that one boy was unsuitable because of his subtly wrong choice in music:
“[He] wore a Jane’s Addiction T-shirt; he thought All Shook Down was the best Replacements record— making him a no go”

Rock criticism, the good stuff, tends to a few strands, the more rarefied almost academic sociological analyses of Greil Marcus, the rants of Lester Bangs, the personal depth of the great Paul Williams, and the sensational biography of, well, too many really.  Jessica Hopper at her best combines Williams ability to convey how music you’ve never heard feels, with a mainstream awareness of trends and commercial pressures. She can deconstruct Lana Del Rey  and M.I.A. and provide context for Springsteen and Mecca Normal alongside more personal perspective on Eddie Vedder. 

The First Book of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is uneven, unsurprisingly so given its chronological range and sources, but is frequently stimulating in its politics, its evocation of new to me music, and its new insight into the more familiar.  Mainstream rock criticism is frequently bland but by maintaining feet in several camps Jessica Hopper remains interesting and this is a welcome volume. 

Note: Thanks to former Willard Grant Conspiracy/Walkabouts/ Transmissionary Six guitarist Paul Austin for pointing this book out on Facebook. 

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Josephine Saxton

Let me put in a plea, not just, as is sometimes necessary with Fantasy and Science Fiction, for a suspension of disbelief, but for a suspension of strictly labelled parameters.” (1)


Thus Josephine Saxton prefaced her collection The Travails of Jane Saint and Other Stories.  What she didn’t say at that point was that she herself doesn’t exactly suspend disbelief.  Saxton’s novels frequently take wild flights of fancy yet treat this in a thoroughly realist manner. 

Both Jane Saint and Magdalene Hayward, the eponymous Queen of the States partake in Gothic quests through their subconscious and the Collective Unconscious looking at the real from within.
Magdalene explains it to her psychiatrist Dr Murgatroyd at one point:

“As a doctor I can’t really encourage you in what are clearly fantasies.”
“Not fantasies, modes of existence. I move from one existence to another, on several planes at the same time. I am a traveller in time and space. I suppose the nearest you could get to it in your ideas would be to call it a metaphor.” He looked alert and scribbled.
“A metaphor is not an actuality.”
“To me it is. I’m very intense you know, it makes everything more real.” (2)

There’s a knowingness there that, as well as stressing the real, stresses the meaning.  Magdalene is in a psychiatric hospital, Jane has been brainwashed as punishment. Magdalene may have been kidnapped by aliens, Jane may be exploring a blank landscape.  They are, at this point, both the madwoman in the attic placed there by men.


Gwyneth Jones notes that Saxton (along with Angela Carter and Tanith Lee) ‘build their fantasies in full recognition and acceptance of male/female, masculine/feminine archetypes’ (3) but Saxton explicitly states her use of Jungian archetypes reacts against his idea of a ‘completely different canon of symbology for the interior psychological landscapes of a woman from those of a man.’ (4) So Jane progresses through the Collective Unconscious with new friends, including Simone de Beauvoir and Joan of Arc, archetypes carefully selected to challenge the Anima/Animus divisions. Saxton makes her points further when Jane meets a philosopher’s dog called Merleau-Ponty. Jane comments on the name and finds her own name queried back for its implications of ‘the mate of an apeish type in the jungle.’ The charm of these encounters is a layering of unsubtle satire and deep allusion and nuance.  Witty, pacey dialogue and introspection and analysis entwine comically as the down to earth, determined and intelligent red haired Jane completely fails to match the stereotype helpless ‘dumb blonde with enormous titties.’ She is a mother of three grown children, that rare middle aged SF heroine, and very much her own woman seeking to improve the lot of women but not representative of all.  As she develops awareness she expands on this “Maybe if she met the right archetypes she could do something about overthrowing the oligarchy.”

Magdalene too is questing as a woman, though at least superficially hers is a personal question of self-identity as she translates through states of being defined by others, Dr Murgatroyd, her haplessly unfaithful husband Clive, the aliens and others.  There’s an element of Housewife SF in Magdalene, albeit 70s middle class housewife. I’ve noted before that she is best imagined as Wendy Craig’s character Ria in the sitcom Butterflies rather than a working class heroine of the revolution. Magdalene has no children but like Jane she is a middle-aged woman, a challenge to existing SF characterisation of women.  Both women ultimately reject their definition by men to assert theirselves. 


Virginia Woolf famously said a woman needed ‘A Room Of Her Own.’ Josephine Saxton has taken two women shoved into an attic metaphorically by men and allowed both to make from that not just their own space, but crucially expanding on Woolf, a room of their own devising.  Perhaps the strictly labelled parameters she said she wanted suspended were not merely of genres, but of genders and roles.  Certainly this is an area explored when Jane returns in Jane Saint and the Backlash. Now Jane has a boyfriend, a ‘New man’ and is drifting, until she realises the battle and the quest aren’t done yet and returns to The Collective Unconscious for more travels and travails.  Progress doesn’t have an end point and Jane must regroup and strive on. Again she meets significant archetypes, including the return of Mr Rochester the cat and Agatha Hardcastle the witch of Heptonstall.  It is Agatha who in the end openly disputes the necessity of male/female attributes.
Without male and female there can be no Alchemy.”
“So bleedin’ wot. I’ve been practicing Alchemy for thousands of years and where has it got me.” (5)

There’s a great comic streak throughout these short novels again despite Saxton referring in an introduction to ‘how funny women were viewed.’ It’s as though she’s exploring and challenging the assumptions of society, SF, philosophy and psychiatry all in one glorious free wheeling romp, and yet inside is a careful, thoughtful, analytical structured approach.  Fantasy rooted deeply in the reality of our minds.  “Time, unlike truth, appeared to be relative.” Jane thinks. Truth is the realism here, the fantasy highlights that.

1 The Travails of Jane Saint and Other Stories, The Women’s Press 1986 preface
2 Queen of the States, The Women’s Press 1985 p88
3 Deconstructing the Starships, Liverpool University Press 1999 p124
4 Jane Saint and the Backlash, The Women’s Press 1989 p2
5 Jane Saint and the Backlash p163-4

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BREED – K T Davies (Fox Spirit)

This novel stinks. 
KT Davies’ second novel is foetid with ordure and miasma and Davies revels in it.  Breed is a fantasy novel, A Novel of the Fantastical as the cover has it, but as the eponymous Breed curses inventively through sewers, dragon vomit and worse, the first author that comes to mind is Iain M Banks and scenes in Consider Phlebas. Later we will see explicit echoes of Tolkien and even Bond movies all taken somewhere new and ultimately Breed (the novel) becomes a remarkable, vivid, filthy and violent post-apocalyptic comic grimdark novel.
Several hundred years after some magical war called the Schism, in a criminal underworld Breed (the character) is heading home to the grotesque Mother Blake with several problems, not least of which is the demon unwittingly freed whilst Breed fled the dragon with stolen jewels.  Mother sets Breed a task to assassinate her big rival, Pork Chop Jing, to get back in favour.  It’s a set up that goes further wrong for Breed resulting in a rigged trial and a sentence to the calthracite mines.  Unfortunately the aforementioned demon has put a geas on Breed to acquire the legendary Schism-era magical weapon the Hammer of The North, and then the mysterious priest Brother Tobias buys out Breed’s sentence as a magically bound indentured slave. 
Confused yet?  It gets more complicated, whilst Davies’ witty prose keeps it all perfectly clear.  Breed wisecracks into and sometimes out of trouble,  The full-pelt plot progresses through accident, diaster, crises and more than one demon ex machina.  Breed (book and character) is brutal and impetuous. Davies knows fantasy and is gleeful in her evisceration of trope after trope, conniving demons, magic weapons, mysterious stalking characters (this novel’s Gollum is the delightfully named, by Breed at least, Tosspot.)  and plotting, feuding clerics.
This isn’t a perfect novel, whilst the breakneck pace works, the occasional slower episodes are less effective and disrupt the dynamic rather than enhancing it.  The worldbuilding isn’t a major aspect here but even so there are gaps.  I would like to know more about the assassin Sebastian Schiller, the demons and Schism but there’s room for a sequel.  On the other hand, Breed is a hugely memorable, grotesque character with a superbly fruity vocabulary.  Davies isn’t shy about cursing, abusing, and insulting her characters through Breed’s foul mouth, but she maintains a pattern to it that fits the character and contributes to the pace and the humour.  The post-apocalyptic element is possibly undercooked, but the comic grimdark plot and exuberant filth can’t be understated.  The unlamented CleanWrite app would have a meltdown bowdlerising Breed. 
KT Davies first novel The Red Knight is more straightforward epic fantasy with a memorable, powerful but not always self-confident heroine who fights and fucks with equal need and commitment, and anguishes about doing right for her knights and her nights as well.  Breed pares the epic down to basics, the squalor of the sewers, the vindictiveness of Mother and Jing’s feud (and I’m reminded too of The Wire here), the raw demotic language, the abrupt, random violence and regardless of the rich scatological comedy in this, produces a grimdark that is more real in its common lives than all the court feuds and throne wars of certain big names. 
Breed the character is an assassin, amongst other, fouler things, and remains, largely, selfish and unrepentant throughout.
Breed stinks and that is very refreshing.

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Notes From Elsewhere

I’ve not posted much here recently, most of my blogging has been specific to my column at SF Gateway.  A couple of people (Hi Leigh!) asked about links there though, so I thought a post tying things up might be useful.

The column, for those who have not yet seen it, focusses on SFF by wiomen, particularly those who have been neglected by history and critics.  Called From The Attic it runs approximately monthly.  The first edition set out my stall, and highlighted some of the issues surrounding women’s unduly low profile in genre.

After that I began with a couple of authors already part of the SF Gateway stable, one a particular favourite of mine the brilliant Pat Murphy, the other the hugely successful but rarely analysed Connie Willis.  Shortly after the Murphy piece, which I think of as my best so far, I found that she had a new collection out, Women Up To No Good.  Come on, how can you resist that title?

Next up was a look at a hugely underrated novel Michaela Roessner’s superb and unique post-apocalypse tale Vanishing point  before I ran a piece picking out Seven titles I felt needed a UK edition.  Two days later Gollancz announced a deal with one, Elizabeth Bear, and a couple of weeks later another, Judith Moffett.  I’m delighted to note that my comments prompted several long, warm and interesting emails from Moffett.  

This year’s Nebula Awards had a pretty good mix of genders, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, so having already read a couple of them, I took a look at the women on the Best Novel Shortlist  I picked the wrong winner, as you probably know Ann Leckie is winning everything going for her Ancillary Justice, whereas my strong preferences was for the gorgeous prose of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger In Olondria.

One past Nebula & Hugo Winner who gets forgotten is Vonda N McIntyre so hopefully the column on her work will draw attention.  Twitter comments already point out great looking series by McIntyre that I have so far missed.

That, for me, is a large part of what it’s about.  Spreading the word, getting feedback, new ideas, new authors, and growing further.

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