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2 Wicked Women by Fay Weldon, Flamingo pounds 9.99. Weldon's stories pull no punches, and this collection (drawn from work over the last 20 years, but including much recent material) is destined to make no one, male or female, think any the better of themselves. The cruelties Weldon depicts in her favourite war-zone, the battle of the sexes, are simultaneously outrageous and completely credible, predictable but shocking. In these pages stumble and prance abandoned, belittled women; silly, lazy men; scheming, triumphant women; callous, uncaring men - the permutations are as legion as the kinds of damage they inflict on each other, but there is a terrible familiarity about every new torture.

At first, the creed seems a simple one: all men are bastards, and artists are the worst bastards of all: the section "Tales of Wicked Men" features several old-fashioned seducers for whom free love means free betrayal. But by then we have already met Weena, in "The End of the Line", a classic wrecker and bolter given a New Age spin, and other little sweethearts: victim or aggressor, man or woman, they are as bad as each other.

There is a lower species, though, in Weldon's world, than homo sapiens: the therapist. Echoing the preoccupations of her recent novel, a set of three stories that ends the book reserves special vitriol for the circles of hell therapists create. "Santa Claus's New Clothes", a chill tale of Christmas lunch with the new stepmother (father's therapist) in the divorced mother's place, plays on the word "civilised" - a Weldonism that, when applied to the gender wars, will always herald some truly blood-thirsty behaviour - while in "The Pardoner" Weldon shows her ability to turn a one-liner into a deeper perception. "Once we had witches, but now women are the ones who condemn, so it's the fathers' turn," quips one character, only moments before a gentle, loving, rather confused father falls victim to false-memory accusations of having abused his daughter.

Weldon has a merciless view of the human condition; there are very few chinks of light. But there is always humour in her stories, and (good for fortysomethings to hear) the wry and life-hardened smiles of middle age are often set in contrast to the po-faced enthusiasms and idiocies of youth.

Catherine Storey