Hugo Finalist Reading: Best Novella (2018)

We continue Hugo roundups with the Novella category! In some ways, this was an easy one for me as I’d read all six entries on the ballot before it came out. This is partly a reflection of how many 2017 novel and novellas read last year, but I think it’s also indicative of how much Tor.com currently dominates the category: anyone relatively up-to-date on their novella range, especially the buzzy ones, probably has a good idea of what’s going to make the cut. That said, the dominance of a single publisher here certainly doesn’t make the list any less strong, and this was one of the hardest categories to rank, as you’ll see soon enough…

Ratings

I’m continuing to include absolute ratings alongside my ballot ranking system, putting works in the following categories.:

  • Meh tier: I’m not sure why this is here, and I’d be pretty annoyed if it won.
  • Good tier: I liked this but it didn’t blow me away.
  • Great tier: Oh hey, this is really cool stuff. I might have nominated it and I would be happy to see it win.
  • Awesome tier: One of the best things I’ve read, deserves all the accolades.
  • Everyone Else Go Home: I would happily punch a thousand sharks to see this win. In fact, maybe I already have?? (I haven’t).

Adri’s Best Novella Hugo Rankings 2018

Good Tier

6. River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Alas, this is the one finalist I don’t quite “get”. Set in an alternate USA where a ridiculous plan to introduce hippopotami to the southern swampy bit of the USA actually happened, this is a caper novel where a bunch of misfits and ruffians have to go into dangerous hippo territory to carry out a cunning plan which… I’ve sort of forgotten the details of in the year since I read it. Blowing up a dam to stop total hippo domination, or something? What I am clear on is that there are good characters and prose here, but nothing that really grabbed me, and it’s not a sub-genre or aesthetic that naturally appeals, so… here it is. I liked it well enough but I don’t see myself going back for the second part any time soon.

Great Tier

5. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire. Here’s the second time a book I voted first last year has a continuation on the ballot which I’ve ranked fifth. It’s not you, authors, it’s your competition being so darn excellent (to continue the parallel further, both Machineries of Empire and Wayward Children have third instalments in 2018 that I unconditionally adore…!) Down Among the Sticks and Bones is actually a prequel to last year’s winner Every Heart A Doorway, and it’s a dark portal fantasy about twins forced into narrow gendered roles at home, who discover freedom at a very high price in a bleak gothic world called the Moors. It’s good, although the narration veers from fairytale into preachiness a little too often for my tastes, and some aspects of Jack and Jill’s upbringing are a bit… unsubtle. A worthy finalist but not my favourite this time.

4. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor. Just above the prequel of last year’s winner, we find the sequel of 2016’s winner. Binti: Home picks up the story of Binti, a Himba girl and mathematical prodigy who has become the first of her people to travel the stars and study at space’s prestigious Oomza University. We catch up with Binti after her first year of studies, and follow her as she returns home with her alien friend Okwu to an uncertain reception. The thing I like most about Binti is that the overall story doesn’t always go where you expect, but the twists that do happen always promote the growth of Binti as a character, making it feel original unpredictable without that sense of being cheated that one gets from books that have subversions for the sake of subversion. This entry’s major weakness is its cliffhanger ending, which means the story really needs the (excellent) third volume to be fully appreciated. Still, I’m really glad this series is still getting recognition.

Awesome Tier

3. The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang: An interesting side-effect of doing these roundups in reverse order of how good the entries they are means I get to frontload my nitpicky whining, as I try to explain why I think some of the best books of the year aren’t quite good enough to be the absolute best of the year. You’d think we’d be past this by the time I get to the “awesome” category but no, it’s about to get worse, because I have been nursing a sustained grudge against Tor.com for suggesting I could read the Black Tides of Heaven and its companion, The Red Threads of Fortune, in either order and I’m about to let it loose here.

“Most people are reading The Black Tides of Heaven“, I thought, “but I’m going to be edgy and go for the other one first because it’s got a woman riding a magical beast on the cover”. A great choice at the time, but it’s since left me in the odd position of 1) being the only person who thinks Red Threads is the absolute standout of this pair and Black Tides is merely a superb second and 2) suspecting that Red Threads, being chronologically second, actually did spoil me for Black Tides and that’s why I don’t understand why this one is on the ballot instead of its companion. Life is hard. 

But, yes, fine, Black Tides of Heaven is an outstanding story featuring a fascinatingly well developed culture and magic system: a feat which becomes even more incredible when you consider it’s done within novella, not novel, length. I know I keep saying this, but it’s a testament to how strong this ballot is that I’m only ranking it third.

Everyone Else Go Home

(Does it make sense to have two things in this category? Yes, because as far as you’re concerned I’m not choosing between them.)

=1. And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker. The only entry not published by Tor.com (it’s from Uncanny Magazine, which is also a Hugo favourite and for good reason) is a mystery with a fascinating premise. We follow Pinsker’s self-insert as she attends a conference for all the versions of herself from across a ton of different dimensions, because in one of the dimensions where she wasn’t a highly accoladed writer she invented interdimensional travel instead. When one of her other scientist selves is murdered, it’s up to her to unravel the mystery and figure out which version of herself committed the crime and why. I don’t know Pinsker at all, obviously, but I find the idea that she contains this world-changing hidden potential to be a plausible premise on the strength of her writing alone, and this is one of the best things I’ve read by her.

=1. All Systems Red by Martha Wells. This hilarious, smart, subtly emotive novella is very much on my mind right now as its sequels are in the process of coming out all at once, in publishing terms (we are getting no fewer than three Murderbots in 2018!). All Systems Red is categorically the best AI story I’ve ever read, and definitely in my top 5 favourite first-person narratives of all time, taking the perspective of a human-robot “construct” assigned to protect a survey team who ends up outing itself as a “rogue” unit. To Murderbot, however, being “rogue” means being able to sit in the corner watching TV and being left alone, and certainly not being forced by humans to have any sort of emotionally compromising, anxiety-inducing interactions. What follows is a magnificent blend of character study and action packed story that comes together perfectly by the end, forming a satisfying standalone while still leaving plenty to be explored in future volumes.


What I think will win: All Systems Red has taken the Nebula and I think it’s going to come out on top here too. I’d celebrate a win from literally any of the above, though.

My original nominations :

I’m still a bit salty about Reenu-You, the best of the novellas I read from the Book Smugglers’ Novella Initiative, being overlooked, but otherwise I seem to have had very representative novella tastes this year:

  • Reenu-You by Michele Tracy Berger
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells
  • And then there were (N-one) by Sarah Pinsker
  • The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang
  • Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
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Hugo Finalist Reading: Best Novel (2018)

Time for something a bit different! As many readers may know, for the past couple of years I’ve been taking an active part in the Hugo awards, one of the major literary awards given to science fiction and fantasy open to anyone willing to spend $40-$50 for a supporting Worldcon membership (and, if nothing else, there’s usually free ebooks involved that make that a worthwhile investment). For some reason, despite the fact I love reading other people’s thoughts on the process each year, I have yet to get off my bum and put my own thoughts down in any consistent way. Until now!

Ratings

Because almost everything that gets nominated for the Hugos is excellent (and, recent political dramas notwithstanding, I have to assume all of it is excellent to someone), I’m going to be using an absolute rating system alongside my rankings, reflecting even the “bottom” of my ballot is contains some excellent stuff. This year in particular, you can’t go far wrong with anything nominated in the fiction categories, and taken as a whole the ballot represents a wide range of storytelling styles, diverse voices and genre niches which is very exciting to engage with. The system is:

  • Meh Tier: Things where any awesomeness that got them nominated has passed me by entirely 😦 I’m not sure I’m going to be using this for any of the categories I’m writing about, though.
  • Good Tier: Things I enjoyed, but didn’t get the extra “spark” that makes me excited for them to win. Not things I’d nominate myself, although I won’t particularly mind if they win.
  • Great Tier: Things I really appreciated, top quality work. Even if it’s not in my favourite sub genre or style, I can objectively see why it impressed enough people to go on the ballot; or it might be something that really . My own nomination ballot included things I’d put in this category.
  • Awesome Tier: The best of the best in each category, and the stuff that grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. Things I really, really want to win.
  • Everyone Else Go Home: Here is the hill I will die on. It may not be entirely rational, or explainable, but it is happening. Quite rare (in books. Not that rare in real life.)

So, without further ado, here is:

Adri’s Best Novel Hugo Rankings 2018

Good Tier

299391606. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. It’s safe to say that while I enjoy John Scalzi’s writing, both on the internet and in the fiction I’ve read, he’s never going to be one of my favourite authors. This is OK, because the vast majority of successful authors have got where they are without becoming one of my favourites, and by all accounts Scalzi is doing extremely well for himself without this kid’s help. The Collapsing Empire actually might be my favourite book of his so far, and I’ve preordered the second half – but ah, there lies the problem. I don’t think this story actually holds up as a complete novel in itself, even within the tradition of closely-knit series; the book seems to stop just as the plot actually kicks in. What story there is, is great, with a range of fun, wise-cracking characters – and Scalzi is a really good author to pick up if you’re new to Science Fiction, by the way – but this wasn’t one of my best books of 2017.

Great Tier

RAVEN-STRATAGEM5. Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee. Let this be the first of many times I say “how am I ranking this so low?”! Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy – which is coming to a close this month with Revenant Gun, reviewed earlier on this very blog – is a weird and wonderful series set in a future where mathematics and reality-warping magic are effectively the same thing, and a galactic empire has been built off the calendrical system of an oppressive, caste-driven society called the Hexarchate. Once you get past the sheer weirdness of the politics and technology in this series – and, believe me, some of it just never makes sense – it’s a fantastic read, with the backbone being the disgraced, disembodied and ageless general, Shuos Jedao, who is occasionally woken from his eternal imprisonment to inhabit the mind of a subordinate officer and win difficult battles against “heretical” political dissidents. Raven Stratagem is the second book in this series and it’s a worthy continuation of Ninefox Gambit, but it’s not getting above fifth on my ballot because in some ways it’s a bit “middle book-y”: missing the shiny newness of an opening volume or the powerful impact of a good series close (and believe me, Revenant Gun delivers on that front), there’s just a certain nebulous something that’s not quite present here. I’m glad this series is still very much on the voter’s radar, though.

51LwIyIsWhL4. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. This is the only finalist that I hadn’t read before the ballot was announced (interestingly, I’ve seen a lot of people say the same thing), and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it despite my initial reservations. This is a big book which meanders through the lives of a cast of pleasant if slightly flat characters living in the titular city during the titular year, after climate change has massively raised the sea level and turned all but the upper portion of Manhattan into a semi-aquatic metropolis with its own. The musings on the nature of New York itself were well done but of minimal interest to me, but the climate fiction aspects came together really well and despite being quite a slow book, it never felt like a slog to read. I still don’t think I’d have nominated this if I’d read it earlier, but I don’t regret spending time on it.

289629963. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. Luckily, I was able to have this excellent space mystery delivered to my favourite bookshop in Bangkok last year, and have therefore been ahead of some other UK voters in sourcing what is officially a US-only title. And I’m glad I did, because this is a tense, interesting locked room mystery which absolutely deserves its place on the final ballot – I actually removed it from my nominations at the eleventh hour, but if I’d had one more slot it would certainly have been for this book. Strong characters, a compelling, tense plot and lots of interesting revelations all make this a really good choice, and one which I wouldn’t be surprised (or disappointed) to see win overall. (Full review)

Great Tier+

Provenance

2. Provenance by Ann Leckie. This is one of those awkward books where I feel I have to apologise for loving it as much as I do, even though objectively I know that apologising for the things you love is stupid and unnecessary in almost all cases. No, Provenance isn’t quite as good as Ann Leckie’s previous trilogy, but that’s because the Imperial Radch books – especially Ancillary Justice – is some of the best SF ever written, and not even a writer as brilliant as Ann Leckie has a 100% hit rate when it comes to genre defining novels.

Anyway. Evaluated on its own merits, Provenance combines superb worldbuilding – both humans and aliens have diverse, unique cultures which make for equally interesting interactions between them – with a hero, Ingray, who really resonated with me for being realistically out of her depth and making a lot of terrible decisions, but then having the resourcefulness and work ethic to figure things out and get it right in the end. She makes for an unusual lead (especially as a female character for whom readers might be less inclined to handwave away mistakes or poor decisions like they might do for equivalent male characters *cough* Miles Vorkosigan *cough*) and one that I fell in love with. In a different year I’d be backing Provenance all the way, but this year it’s going to have to settle for just being very highly recommended because there’s something rather special at number one. (Full review)

Awesome Tier

stone-sky-by-nk-jemisin (1)1. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin. So, confession time. Despite celebrating when each of the first two books in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy won this very award in the last two years, I didn’t actually put either of them top of my ballot – those honours went to Ancillary Mercy and Ninefox Gambit respectively. As observant readers may have noticed, Leckie and Lee are on the ballot again this year, but even for those fabulous authors it would have taken something really spectacular to budge the Stone Sky off my top spot. Jemisin’s bleak, brilliant trilogy, set in a world where extreme seismic activity is an ever-present threat, comes to an end in this book with a clash of ideals between traumatised orogene (an ostracised wielder of stone magic) Essun and her estranged daughter Nassun, in the process diving into past mistakes and atrocities and asking hard, unanswerable questions about the nature of oppression and fear of the unknown. It’s a fitting end to a very necessary series, and it’s the best thing on this list.


 

What I think will win: My money is on N.K. Jemisin taking home a historic three out of three for the Broken Earth, and The Stone Sky has already won the Nebula (although, to be fair, that hasn’t been a Hugo predictor for the last two years). While there are some other top authors represented here, I don’t think any of the other titles have the consensus behind them to overtake the Stone Sky – although if anything did, I’d expect it to be Six Wakes, as probably the strongest non-series entry here.

And, for the record, these were my original nominations:

  • The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
  • Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
  • In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

ROSEWATER-2

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Orbit, December 2017 (Kindle Edition) / September 2018 (Paperback)* 

Tade Thompson is an author I’ve been meaning to try for a while, and I was very pleased to get an advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in advance of its new (and very attractive looking!) paperback release later this year. Having already won the Nommo Award for best novel from the African Science Fiction Society, I was confident I’d be in for a treat with this and I was not disappointed by the science fictional aspects, although my enjoyment was tempered a little by the rather unpleasant main character.

In Rosewater, human technological progress has continued alongside inequality and poverty well into the 21st century, with people using implanted communications devices and . Eleven years ago, humanity was also confronted with an apparently alien object, a giant biodome covering a place called Utopicity, located in what was formerly a swamp in Nigeria. The dome emits a great deal of electricity, is impenetrable to outsiders and once a year opens with a “healing” burst of energy that cures many afflictions but can also go terribly wrong: knees might heal backwards, tumours may grow even more enthusiastically and recently dead bodies in the vicinity reanimate as mindless zombies. Naturally, many people see only the positive side to this, and a large city (named “Rosewater” as a joke over early stench before the installation of sewage pipes) has sprung up within a decade in a ring surrounding Utopicity. It’s an obvious point, but it’s great to read a story where first contact is dealt with not in Washington D.C. or Europe (in fact, Thompson takes the US almost entirely out of the equation by indicating the nation “went dark” after the dome arose), but in a random location in Nigeria that suddenly becomes one of the most important places in the world.

Our main character, Kaare, has apparently been dealing with supernatural, alien abilities since well before the appearance of the dome, and at the time we first meet him in 2066 he’s a weary, middle-aged man who quickly downplays his apparent claim to fame as the only person who has ever been inside the Utopicity dome. Kaare clearly knows a lot more than he lets on about the origins and true nature of Utopicity, but his first person narration is not going to give up its secrets easily. Instead, we get a non-linear narrative which alternates between events in 2066, where Kaare is a reluctant agent for a government department known as Section 45 (a role which seems to mainly involve psychic torture and interrogation), and his past as a kid with telepathic powers who grows up to be a thief, misogynist and all-around dickhead who initially comes to the attention of the authorities when his mother, of all people, reports him to the police.

The narration in both of these sections is present tense, by Kaare, and can occasionally be difficult to untangle (particularly if, like me, you are in the habit of putting your book down mid-chapter). While Kaare is a somewhat older and wiser person by 2066 – notably in his ability to maintain somewhat decent relationships with the people around him, including a woman called Aminat who he is introduced to early in the “present” chapters – his narration is similarly self-absorbed in both time periods, and the same characters and parallel events occasionally pop up in both the past and the present. The biggest difference is in the development of Kaare’s powers, and particularly his use of the “xenosphere”, an alternate space controlled by alien microorganisms that live on everyone but is only accessible to sensitives, who can manipulate their appearance, talk to each other and read the minds of non-sensitive individuals by using their connection. We see early on that this is not a power entirely in Kaare’s control, as the emotions and memories of others regularly spill into his daily life. The combination of temporal disjointedness and Kaare’s own decoupling from reality – both in his use of the xenosphere and his inhabiting of other people’s lives and emotions – gives the story in Rosewater a very detached and ominous feel, increasing the sense that humans are coming up against powers well beyond their control or understanding in what Utopicity represents.

There’s nothing wrong with Kaare’s characterisation from a technical perspective, but his narration and, by extension, the lack of likeable characters (because Kaare is an asshole and everyone else is being filtered through his self-absorbed asshole lens) was the part of this book I liked least. Fortunately, the alien mystery is well worth sticking it out for, and comes together through both the past and present strands of narrative in a well-paced and satisfying way. Rereading early sections of the book, I was struck by how clear Kaare makes it that he knows a lot more than anyone around him, and that his disinterest in current events is highly motivated by his experiences when the dome came up eleven years ago; I suspect this is a book that would benefit greatly from a full second read, although that’s sadly not something I can commit to in the middle of Hugo reading season. Rosewater’s alien menace, and its impact on humanity, is subtle but terrifying, and the parallels drawn about colonisation and the futility of resisting its effects are very well done.

I understand that there are two more books coming out in this series, and I’ll be interested to see where they take the story next – there is a strong sense by the end that Kaare’s story has been told, and I’d be cautious about picking up further volumes from his point of view, but there’s definitely more to this world and I’d love to see a new point of view take us through the next steps in its future.

Score: 7 weird Xenosphere interactions out of 10

* Rosewater was originally Published by Apex in 2016

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road.jpg

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Random House, 2018

This is not fair. Not fair at all. Tess of the Road is as close to perfect as a book can be, and yet for some reason that perfection is making it harder, not easier, to write about it. I feel the absolute greatest of responsibilities to this amazing book and it’s amazing heroine, and it’s hard not to write a thousand words of “please read it please read it please read it” instead of putting together some coherent thoughts. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.

Set in the same world as Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale, a duology about a half-dragon girl (the titular Seraphina) attempting to hide her illegal heritage and avert war while working as a court musician, Tess of the Road brings back the rich social and religious worldbuilding introduced in that series while shifting the focus to Tess Dombegh, Seraphina’s younger, human half-sister.  You don’t have to have read Seraphina’s books to jump into Tess’, but this volume contains spoilers for the ending of that series, and they are also excellent and worth enjoying unspoiled if possible.

Unlike her serious, talented older sister, Tess has been brought up to believe she has no particular talents or positive traits. Chafing under an emotionally abusive mother and a distant father, and constantly compared negatively to her compliant twin Jeanne, Tess is keen for new experiences and adventures. Instead she finds herself falling in with a nasty crowd and “ruining herself” at fifteen, undergoing a series of scarring, traumatic experiences which her environment gives her no tools or support to cope with.

By seventeen, Tess has helped Jeanne secure a good marriage but has no prospect of the same: her twin wants her to come live with her and become governess to her future children, but her parents are more keen to pack her off to a convent. By now desperate to escape by any means possible, Tess is finally given an escape route by Seraphina (who has gone into seclusion after becoming pregnant under what readers of her books will know are slightly complicated personal circumstances), and sets out on the road with only one goal – surviving each day as it comes.

Tess of the Road isn’t an unnecessarily dark read, but that doesn’t mean its not difficult. Tess carries her shame and trauma around with her every moment, and while they don’t affect her irrepressible personality, the audience sees first hand how often her exploitative relationship with an older boy and subsequent pregnancy come into her thoughts, often at rather inopportune moments. Tess’ shame is very much located in her body, with her mother’s strict interpretation of Goredd’s religion instilling utterly inflexible and misogynistic expectations about her purity and worth which allow no room for redemption or moving forward. For much of the first half of the book, Tess is explicitly struggling with suicide ideation, and her inability to find anything in herself to value is hard to read at times for anyone who has been through similar experiences.

Although its always present, however, this isn’t a book about Tess’ past – it’s a book about her journey, both literal and emotional. Like all good adventures of self-discovery, Tess of the Road is packed with a rotating cast of characters who appear at different points of her journey. Tess herself spends most of her time disguised as a boy, taking on several different identities as she believes the situation requires and apparently revelling in the freedom that a male disguise brings her (although we can’t help but notice that her strongest moments tend to happen when she isn’t acting a part, or when a sympathetic character sees through it). Her most constant companion is Pathka, who is a Quigutl: a misunderstood species of four-armed human-sized lizards, related to dragons but with their own highly distinct and alien culture. Tess first met Pathka when she was a child, and can understand and speak to them even though most humans never bother to learn their native language, an early sign that she is a far more generous and capable person than she gives herself credit for. Pathka’s quest to find a mythical world-snake called Anathuthia frames much of Tess’ quest, although there are plenty of sidetracks along the way – this is a book about the journey, not the destination.

While there are a few unpleasant characters on the road, they are by far outweighed by those who wish Tess well, even if they don’t have all the answers or make the right choices themselves. Some of Tess’ most profound moments come from characters – often adult women – who she assumes are going to be hostile or unpleasant to her, but who instead prove sympathetic, insightful, and help her overcome some of the internal prejudices that prevent her from processing what has happened to her. It is through these women, each of whom has had to deal in some way with the misogyny and prejudices which shape their expectations, that Tess realises the choices before her are much greater than her narrow, abusive upbringing gave her cause to believe, and that the traumatic events of her past, while they will never go away, will also never define her. Special mention also has to be given to Tess’ third-act romantic interest Josquin, a disabled man whose sexuality and desirability is presented as a complete non-issue, and whose relationship with Tess develops alongside a very sweet two-way bond of care without ever taking over the narrative.

In the end, there’s no big emotional payoff to Tess of the Road; no clear opportunity to confront the villains of her past or radically shift her family’s thinking so they suddenly learn to value her for who she is. Instead, we follow Tess through the slow, messy, incomplete process of healing and forgiveness, as she grows past her family and finds a new sense of self-worth and belief in her own aspirations. It’s fitting that, in some ways, the plot comes full circle on Tess, giving her an option for a future that in theory she could have always taken. But, of course, it took the experience and maturity Tess earned on her adventures to see that opportunity for what it was and learn to accept it, and herself.

While I can only speak to my own reactions to what I think is quite a personal book (and I should note that my personal experiences don’t include any of the worst elements of Tess’ youth) Tess of the Road completely succeeded for me in every way I think it set out to. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Please read it.

Rating: Ten steps in sturdy new boots out of ten

A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: From Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given by Natasha Devon

51dem7ntMeL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: From Anxiety to Zero Fucks Given by Natasha Devon (illustrations by Rubyetc)

Published 2018 by Pan Macmillan

I received A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental from Pan Macmillan in exchange for an honest review.

I suspect many people like myself, who have had to confront mental health issues at some stage in our lives, will recognise the way in which tackling our problems can force us to develop a broader understanding of how human thoughts, feelings, physical needs and interpersonal relationships function, and what it means when things go wrong. A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental takes that basic package of insight, adds a ton of expertise from author Natasha Devon’s career as a mental health educator, mixes in additional knowledge from mental health professionals and people with lived experience, and packages it into a concise, accessible read. The result, while not a traditional self-help tool (or, obviously, a substitute for medical support), is an invaluable collection of wisdom and demystification on a subject where straightforward information can still be hard to come by.

As one should expect from the title, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental organises its material in an A to Z format, with one topic per letter. This is a cute tactic, although it leads to a couple of contrived chapter names, including the very unfortunate choice to name the self-harm chapter “Just Attention Seeking” and cross reference it using this stereotyped phrase in several other chapters. While the J chapter itself addresses the misconceptions of this phrase straight away, I still found it uncomfortable to have it peppered throughout the book, especially when so much care seems to have been taken elsewhere to avoid unnecessarily harmful language and content.

Devon covers a lot of ground within her twenty-six chapters, addressing common illnesses and symptoms, the influence of external factors like youth and gender, and the kinds of treatment available (including both medical services like drugs and therapy as well as different forms of self-care). She also covers some UK specific ground about accessing mental health services, and is open about the inadequacies and gaps in the current NHS system, and her experiences as a government advisor on mental health. I apparently missed all coverage of her eleven months in the post while I was abroad, but this might not be news to everyone – and it probably won’t be news to most of my readers that the Conservative government were less than excellent about using Devon’s considerable expertise to genuinely improve the system.

One side effect of the A to Z format is that it frontloads Devon’s personal experiences with mental illness (anxiety and eating disorders), strengthening the feeling that this book is from someone who “gets it” from multiple angles. The chatty, informal style also helps, and makes this a readable and at times very funny book. At the same time, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental feels carefully written (“J” chapter name aside) and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the content. Personal experiences are recounted where it may overcome taboo or help a reader to feel less alone, but the text avoids anecdotes that could be voyeuristic or, in the case of self-harm behaviours and eating disorders, contribute to “competitiveness” among those who struggle with these conditions. There is one section in an early chapter with some unpleasant medical details, and potentially triggering content about Devon’s experiences with bulimia, which is given a clear content warning; otherwise, this book should be accessible to anyone not in a state of immediate crisis.

sit down
Seriously.

To further sweeten the deal, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental is illustrated by Rubyetc, who I believe is literally the most relateable artist ever (certainly the most relateable artist on my Twitter feed in 2018). I am strongly considering buying a physical copy of this book when it is released on the strength of the illustrations alone – and, of course, because I think this is a very important and timely book that I would like to be able to pass on to other people in my life.

Rating: Nine acts of radical self-care out of ten

Non-fiction: Sexism Ed by Kelly J. Baker

 

Hello lovely readers, from a jetlagged Adri who is back in the UK after 36 hours of ridiculous travel adventures. I have a couple of shorter non-fiction reviews lined up over the next few days while I recover, but I expect to be back on the fiction analysis very soon! In the meantime, please enjoy:

sexism ed.jpg
(Yet another book I can’t find a large cover image for…!)

 

Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labour in Academia

2018, Blue Crow Publishing

I received Sexism Ed through the LibraryThing Advanced Reviewer Programme in exchange for Opinions.

This is a strong collection of essays with a varied set of themes, largely drawing on Baker’s personal experiences both as a fledgling academic trying and failing to get onto the tenure track. Baker later left academia to become a full-time writer, including becoming the editor of Women in Higher Education, and the material in this book was created over a series of years.

The material is divided into three sections. The first tackles sexist bias in academia from multiple angles, concentrating on the hostile environment which universities often create for women who do not fit our stereotypical white-man ideal of what an academic should be. This is all interesting, if depressing, stuff, and I was struck by how well the material flowed despite the fact that even though these were separately written essays – I don’t know whether this was a happy accident, or the result of careful and highly successful editing, but it’s worthy of note either way.

The second, contains essays about the working environment in academia generally, and the way in which the system has become increasingly exploitative and difficult to navigate especially for younger workers, women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. This section was the least relateable, as I’m not in academia and have no experience with the US schooling system, so I only have a weak grasp of what the tenure system entails and how widely the model is used elsewhere, and I did get close to skipping a couple of these. However, it’s all still well written and passionately argued and it ended up holding my attention to the end.

It was the third, sadly shortest, section which contained my favourite material. The essays here are mostly longer and tackle personal elements of Baker’s career and life, including her struggle to accept her high-pitched, accented, feminine voice (I can relate), getting to a stage in one’s career where you wonder where your ambition has gone (…yeah), and the struggle of being an expert on white supremacist movements in 2017 when your expertise becomes depressingly relevant and likely to make you a target for online hate (thankfully not in my range of personal experience, but powerfully written nonetheless). All of Sexism Ed feels personal in some way, but this was the section where I fell like Baker was able to cash in on all the more objective ground covered in parts one and two and really bring home what it feels like to navigate a career path in an industry that, on a fundamental level, wishes you weren’t so… you.

All in all, I was surprised and impressed by the ground which this collection covered, and how well the material in Sexism Ed cohered together despite its origins as separate essays over a period of years. I’ll definitely be looking out for more non-fiction work from Kelly J. Baker in future.

Rating: Nine elusive tenure-track positions out of ten

Non-fiction: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

 

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Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

2017, Scribner/2018, Penguin

This is a book I’d had my eye on for a while, having read author Matthew Walker’s interview in the Guardian, so when it popped up on offer on Netgalley I requested it without giving too much thought as to where it would fit into my reading schedule. Too many months later, I’m a reformed reviewer and finally ready to share my thoughts!

Why We Sleep is, as is probably obvious from the title, about the scientific and health effects of sleep, an area which Walker points out is still bizarrely lacking from our understanding of health despite the fact we all spend a quarter to a third of our lives in this state. The initial chapters of the book tackle what we currently know about the process and functions of sleep, including what REM and non-REM sleep do for us. The middle of the book, perhaps more relevantly for most of us, deals with the effects of a lack of sleep, considering both the acute effects of the occasional missed night (reduced ability to form memory, weakened immune system) and the cumulative impact of chronic sleep deficiencies and the long-term mental and physical problems these cause, as well as the effects of alcohol, caffeine, sleeping pills and the simple process of ageing (all bad) to get the eight hours of sleep we all (with very few exceptions) need every single night.

It all builds up into a pretty grim picture for any of us with a lifestyle that involves stress, late nights, weekend lie-ins, caffeine, alcohol and/or the looming spectre of a family history of insomnia. Indeed, reading Walker’s interview last year was one of those rare instances where information on health caused an immediate shift in my behaviour: I stopped charging my phone in my bedroom, ditched my alarm clock in favour of waking up naturally (which turns out to happen between 6:30 and 7:30am, although I haven’t tested this in a Northern European winter yet…), and am now in bed by 10pm a much higher percentage of the time. The book has definitely reinforced my commitment to those habits, although to be honest the effect of most of the additional information has been to wince and shrug – I’m probably not going to give up my moderate caffeine or alcohol consumption even now I know it’s probably lost me more memories than just the obvious ones. Still, it’s good knowledge to have even if it’s not the advice we’d want to have.

Walker’s style is highly readable for the most part, although it is science-heavy and there were a few more data rich parts that were slightly dry. The occasionally rather dire health warnings are balanced out with cheesy professorial humour which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not particularly overdone. There were also a few moments involving cross-cutting areas where I rolled my eyes at some of the biases within the text: for example, the segment on sleep and reproductive health fixated heavily on the relationship between sleep and low testosterone and how that would be the worst thing ever for men (Cordelia Fine might have a thing or two to say about that?) There’s also an early section on autism which describes autistic brain function as “inappropriate” and puts out a (hedged) hypothesis about the links between “deficient” REM sleep patterns and the cause of autism. I’m no expert on the science of autism, but I strongly suspect Walker is not either, and the casual way this was dropped in for a page apparently just to underscore how “autistic people do sleep wrong and that’s why us normals need to get it right” really rubbed me up the wrong way.

Regardless, this is recommended reading for the subject matter alone, dealing as it does with an area of health most of us underrate and know very little about. That it’s packaged in a decently readable book form is an added bonus.

Rating: Seven sleeping hours out of ten (decent for a book, not for a night of sleep – afternoon nap recommended!)