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


Book Hauling and Chain Reading – a Three Week Wrap-up (Part 1)

So after several weeks without a review, I think I’ve identified one of the big problems I have with scheduling: I tend to do the most reading and book buying when I’m on holiday, but I find it hard to review when I’m away, so I end up with intimidating backlogs which then stop me from reviewing any more recent stuff.  To overcome this, at least for now, I think another short roundup is in order!

I also do the vast majority of my book buying on holiday, especially when I pass through my favourite bookstores in Bangkok. I was there twice in a week at the beginning of February and, uh, this happened:

bookhaul Feb18.jpgNot a sensible move for someone who needs to figure out intercontinental shipping in the next two months, but this pile – and the other things on my Physical TBR, which is my current priority – has been very good to me so far!

Instead of going chronologically (you can read my Librarything thread for that, if you want), I thought I’d organise most of the last few weeks into thematic areas. It turns out I’ve read a ton of fantasy of all different stripes recently, from pure secondary world goodness to portal fun to the magic of our own planet. It’s mostly been very good, as the ratings attest:

Falling through doors

I picked up Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018, in audiobook and was not disappointed. This is the third in the Wayward Children series of novellas, which centres around a boarding school for teenagers who have returned from different magical lands and are unable to adjust back to the “real” world. Where the first book in the series was a murder mystery, and the second a horror story, BtSS is a straightforward quest narrative, involving a band of wonderful characters hopping through portals to try and resurrect a girl who died before her daughter could be born. Complicating this quest is the fact that the instigator, Rini, is the daughter, and exists anyway thanks to her belonging to a logic-free reality called Confection. I loved the musings on baking in this, as well as the viewpoint of Cora, a fat girl who fell into an ocean world and became a mermaid. The Wayward Children books can be read out of order, but be warned that this one contains spoilers for the first – start with Every Heart a Doorway if this series appeals. 9 out of 10.

Another knockout success was In Other Lands (2017, Small Beer Press) by Sarah Rees Brennan, a story I found and lost again when she was self-publishing it on her LiveJournal a few years ago. This standalone follows Elliot Schafer, a prickly 13-year-old from our world who is brought over to the magical Borderlands and offered a place at an exclusive training camp for humans seeking to defend their territory from the elves, dwarves, mermaids, harpies, trolls and other peoples of this world. Despite being a resolute pacifist, Elliot joins the school’s (highly undervalued) diplomatic training course and proceeds to cause constant headaches for staff and other students alike, while navigating awkward teenage relationships with Serene, the female chauvinist elf girl, and Luke, the handsome, talented son of the Borderland’s most prominent fighting family. This setup could easily have been a recipe for disaster, but Brennan balances it all perfectly, lovingly eviscerating the tropes involved in fantasy teenage warrior school and foregrounding the personal development of a difficult and yet usually sympathetic main character, showing how we are all worthy of love without making excuses or rewarding the character for his more unpleasant moments. A glowing, borderline incoherent 10 out of 10.

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows (2017, Angry Robot Books) was more of an impulse buy, based on my desire to support the author after she became the focus point of some nasty internet attacks from right-wing morons. This is the sequel to an Accident of Stars, which I honestly didn’t love – I found the main character, a white Australian teenage girl called Saffron who falls through a portal to a country called Kena, too unrealistically “woke”, and some of the things that happened to her felt rather laboured. I’m happy to report, however, that I didn’t have the same problems with this sequel at all. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Saffron, who was sent back to our world at the end of the first book with some literally inexplicable scars and injuries, is forced to return to a school where her value as a young woman is being constantly dismissed or used to benefit other students above herself, and finds herself much less able to simply swallow the tiny injustices being perpetrated against her. I don’t know if I liked this more than its predecessor because the narrative is different, or because I look for different things in books now, but either way I liked all of the characters and their journeys here, and I appreciate why Meadows chose to have an open minded protagonist whose learning journey isn’t foregrounded relative to the struggles of the other characters around her. An enthusiastic 8 out of 10.

Not Quite Our World

Like the books above, Exit West by Mohsin Hamad contains doors through which the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, escape from their war torn Middle Eastern city into another world. Unlike the above, however, this other world is not a fantasy domain but other locations on our own planet – first Mykonos, then London, and then, eventually, something better. Using the speculative conceit of doors which proliferate throughout the world and cannot be controlled or policed, Hamad explores the experience of refugees and what might happen if more fortunate countries were literally unable to prevent them from entering. It’s a short book – basically novella length – and Saeed and Nadia’s relationship development suffers from the lack of space, but the political aspects of this are excellent, and I felt the worldbuilding was much more interesting than the similar conceit in the Underground Railroad, which also adds a fantasy touch to migration and escape but without changing the fundamental shape of the history it is telling. 8 out of 10.

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (2005, Small Beer Press), is a collection of short stories which mainly fall into the slipstream/magical realism category, where everything is 80% our world and 20% strange dreamlike happenings which still have a strange logic behind them. The stories in this ranged from fantastic – the titular Magic for Beginners, about a group of teenagers brought together for love of an odd fantasy TV show, was beautiful, and The Faery Handbag and Stone Animals were also very strong – to “yeah, OK” (the cannon thing…?) – overall, I was left with a strong positive impression. 8 out of 10.

I was, however, reminded that not everything in the magical realism wheelhouse works for me, when Frontier by Can Xue sadly left me behind. This is a series of interlinked “stories” – although there’s not much in the way of identifiable plot, to be honest – from the perspectives of people living in Pebble Town, a Chinese frontier town with a mysterious Design Institute, some weird animal interactions, a park (?) and not much else. There were some excellent images in this, and, having spent time in far west China, I did recognise the “we are trapped in a desolate corporate town without a purpose, while there are actual communities somewhere around here that ours knows nothing about” vibe. But although the imagery kept me going past the point I felt I should DNF, and I’d try Can Xue in short form if the opportunity arose, I wouldn’t recommend this to casual readers. A confused 5 out of 10.


(Stay tuned for part 2, in which I muse on the wintry books I read while bathed in tropical heat, apologise for not going to space enough, and attempt that rarest of feats (for me): reviewing non-genre books…) Edit: Part 2 is here! I do, uh, two of the things I promised…

Winterglass by Benjanun Sridaungkaew

I know I haven’t been very good at this own-site reviewing thing! But it’s a resolution for this year, and I’m going to do my best to work towards Reviewing All the Things – even when it’s a bit short like this one is.


Winterglass by Benjanun Sridaungkaew (Novella)

Published 2017 by Apex

Received as a review copy through Librarything’s Early Reviewers Programme in exchange for an honest review

Sridaungkaew brings the Snow Queen myth to southeast Asia, in a story about a woman who has grown up with a shard of glass in her heart and what happens when the Queen and her General pay a visit to find her. The city of Siraparit was once tropical, but since being conquered is now a distant frozen colony full of oneiromancy and technology powered by executed ghosts; main character Nuawa is a professional fighter who enters herself into a dreamlike tournament to become the first Siraparit citizen to gain an officer’s commission in the empire. We follow Nuawa as she enters into the tournament and is thrown into intrigue and romance with the Queen’s general, Lussadh, and eventually into the orbit of the Snow Queen herself.
As the description above makes clear, the book has no shortage of compelling, if generally awful, characters, most of whom are women who love women (cis and trans), with nonbinary and genderfluid representation also present. While Nuawa’s motivations could be clearer, her journey into Lussadh’s confidence is interesting – although most of the actual tournament fighting is barely described at all – and the conclusion is brutal but fitting for the kind of story this is. While the worldbuilding is also interesting, it’s unfortunately obscured by a descriptive style which I can only describe as Too Much. We are given paragraphs of prose about details of the city which for me just made it less clear in my mind where we were – yes, the shadows on this building are isosceles triangles, but what does it actually look like? These overdescribed and sometimes obscure details also spoil what I think is supposed to be deliberate nonsense when we get into the dream world where the tournament is held, meaning it’s just not obvious that walls “made of pomegranate stone, gravid inside with thorn-knitted bones” is meant to be absurd – because a sentence like that wouldn’t have been out of place in descriptions of Siraparit itself. I also find it frustrating to run into these sorts of descriptions at novella length, when so much of the action seems to be glossed over, because it feels like a misuse of space – although I accept that others may enjoy the slower pace which this style brings!
Ultimately, I don’t regret reading this, but failing to gel with the author style is a tricky problem to overcome, and I probably would have DNF’d the book if it had been any longer. Recommended for those looking for dark, slow burning fantasy with lots of lesbians, but be aware that patience is also a must.

Rating: 6 Shards of Heart-destroying Glass out of 10

(Note: I can’t post this review without noting that this author has a well-documented history of conducting online harassment, disproportionately against women of colour, and most prominently as blogger Requires Hate – see for example here and here. Obviously I still chose to read this book and have made every effort to keep my opinions on the author’s behaviour separate from my review of its contents; however, I think this is still something potential readers might like to be aware of before picking this up.)

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper



Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Bantam Press 1989)

The Short Version: There are creepy horse-like animals and rainbow grass on the planet everyone conveniently needs to be on to try and stop a devastating interstellar plague. Marjorie Westriding-Yraier and her family are sent from Terra, along with their actual horses, to try and uncover its secrets, which involve a bewildering array of sci-fi tropes that don’t completely obscure the central mystery of the Hippae and deeper questions about relating to alien life.

Grass is a book about creepy horses.

On some level, of course, all horses are creepy. This is not to suggest they are not also beautiful, worthy animals, without whom the development of global civilisation would be very different, but come on. Horses are giant creatures with giant, alien eyes, walking around on giant single fingers. They appear to sleep standing up, and die of inexplicable things like “not being able to burp” or “tripping over”. They have a bizarre combination of fragility and power, and long, weird eyelashes. There is a reason the first suggested filter when you Google “horse masks” is “creepy”. There is a reason they consistently lag behind wolves and cats in fursona popularity, despite the cultural obsessions with horse-related children’s literature and My Little Pony. There is a reason why Horse Master exists.


So, the planet Grass has a lot of grass, in various colours, and it also has creepy horses – who, we quickly ascertain, are actually aliens that look somewhat like horses, except bigger and covered in lethal bone knives. Completing the picture, we have a society of aristocratic families living on the grassy plains, who spend half of the 2000-day year going out on hunts tailored to the natural wildlife. Grass opens with one such hunt, with the youngest daughter of the bon Damfel family going on her first Creepy Alien Horse ride, to the concern of some members of her family. The alien horses, or Hippae, collect her and her family for a ride, along with equally creepy alien Hounds, in order to catch a “Foxen” which, you guessed it, probably isn’t a red fuzzy mammal (but like British foxes has done equally little to deserve their fate). Dimity bon Damfel survives her hunt, but has mysteriously disappeared by the time our main story opens.

For all its flaws, Grass the Creepy Hippae planet has two things going for it. First, it is apparently one of the few human planets not under the control of Sanctity, an oppressive and vaguely Catholic religious order with a stranglehold on the now-ravaged Terra and the rest of human spacefaring. Second, it is apparently the only planet on the galaxy not being affected by a mysterious plague with a 100% fatality rate which causes humans to literally decay in their own skins. Sanctity is almost as desperate to cure the plague as they are to stop its existence from becoming common knowledge, so to treat with the Grassians they send the Yraier family, whose collective love of horses supposedly make them ideal diplomatic material despite the abusive tendencies of father Rigo and the liability of two teenage children, Tony and Stella, who aren’t told the true purpose of their visit to Grass. Only wife Marjorie comes across as an interesting and sympathetic character from the outset, and we spend most of our time with her point of view as she unravels the secrets behind the Hippae, the plague and why entire families have dedicated themselves to riding what appear to be intelligent and sadistic knife-horses through a plain for fun.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and some of the many tropes deployed fit better than others. There’s a long-dead alien civilisation whose demise on Grass appears to have been different to their deaths everywhere else, whose history and interaction with the Hippae makes an interesting counterpoint to the humans’ own interactions with them, and with other apparently alien intelligences. There are tensions between the aristocratic Bons and the “commoners” of Grass, who are actually much better educated and closer to the galactic norm. There is a Sanctity presence on the planet, whose story is told mostly though the eyes of Rillibee Song, an acolyte who was packed off to the order after his family died of plague. Here, Sanctity appears to operate more as a weird cult than a political force; the younger members have a bizarre hierarchy of their own related to climbing towers and violence, which both their seniors and the narrative seem quite happy to explain away with a “boys will be boys!” shrug. There is also a mercifully brief introduction of an intergenerational love triangle, which combined with the other sexualised elements of the book (particularly the young women going missing on the hippae hunts and one other spoilerific thing) does not endear Sheri S. Tepper’s sexual politics to me.

Ultimately I felt that Grass would benefit from being either half as long or twice as long. A pithy exploration of the bits of the narrative that really go somewhere – the plague, the contact with the Hippae, the discoveries about their life cycle and the relationship between humans and the alien planet they have settled on – would have made a fantastic and thought provoking read, without the religious baggage or teen antics getting in the way. As it stands, the “humanity oppressed and directed by extreme Catholicism” element does find some synergy in the book’s later mysteries, but its a fairly tortuous connection and the treatment of religion in general holds up very poorly compared to something like The Sparrow, so I don’t think that element would be missed. Cutting this out would also focus the book better on the suspense and atmosphere of the main narrative, as the presence of the Hippae in their search becomes more unavoidable to the Yraier family and the nature of their relationship with the Bons becomes clearer.


On the other hand, I could see Grass going the other way successfully – fleshing out the interesting aspects of the worldbuilding related to the Sanctity and their Grassian order, giving more space to Rigo and Marjorie’s relationship and to their children (though please not to the intergenerational love triangle), giving the women of the Bon Damfels family and the commoners a greater voice. As it stands, the political intrigue and family drama in this novel are far outclassed by the horror and alien contact elements, but there are enough interesting elements in the former that could be woven more effectively into the narrative if given space to do so. Rillibee, in particular, is an enjoyable character to spend time with right up until weird spoilery sexual politics rear their head at the end, and I enjoyed his building a relationship with Brother Mainoa, the man who has been tasked with exploring the ancient alien ruins, and coping with his grief at his family’s deaths and his unwanted new status as a celibate religious acolyte. While I hesitate to suggest that Science Fiction needs more intricately plotted political doorstops, I can’t help but feel that Grass would be better as one of those, rather than the marginally lighter book it actually is.

In theory, Grass is the first book in the Arbai trilogy, but I get the impression from write-ups of Book 2 that it has little in common with the first, and in particular that the creepy horses and rainbow grass are out (but the ancient gods of a long-dead people are in). Based on what I’ve read, Raising the Stones is on my “someday” reading list, but given the length of that list I doubt I’ll be getting to it very soon. As a standalone, Grass has elements which are up there with some of the best science fiction I’ve read, but Tepper makes the reader work for them by throwing in a whole lot more that ultimately doesn’t come together as a fully realised whole in a way that does the central idea justice.

Two thumbs up for the creepy horses though.

Rating: Seven “Stop Making This A Thing, Adri”s out of Ten


Audiobook Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norse mythology.jpg

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (Narrated by the Author)

Released 24/02/2017 (Audible UK)

The Short Version: An extremely enjoyable if man-heavy set of tales, well suited to Gaiman’s prose style and to audiobook format. But will humans of the future think his are the only versions? (Probably not.)

Rating: 8 strands of magical hair out of 10

How does one come to appreciate a mythology that no longer exists in any complete form? If I’m to understand Neil Gaiman and the rest of the internet correctly, the answer in the case of the Norse Gods is to turn to Marvel comics, and their loving adaptation of Thor and friends as part of their superhero stable over the past half-century. Certainly, Gaiman is very open and unapologetic (rightly so!) about arriving at the stories from that angle, but he’s obviously come to a rather fuller understanding of the surviving texts to write this retelling of the Gods of Asgard and the little we know of their soap opera lives. To be fair, I wouldn’t know if he’d only read/watched Thor before writing this, given that I haven’t read/watched Thor (or read the Poetic Edda), but I’m going to assume that Marvel has less high stakes blacksmithing and salmon fishing in their versions, whereas Gaiman and his literary predecessors have us well covered there – hurrah!

Norse Mythology weaves together an overarching narrative out of a patchwork of myths, mostly starring Odin, immensely wise father of the Gods; his hammer-wielding and considerably less wise son Thor; and Loki, the original* That Fucking Guy We Can’t Just Stop Hanging Around With. There’s also a rotating cast of godly relatives, giants, animals, love interests, animal love interests, and (most controversially) dwarves without Scottish accents, taking us all the way from the birth of the world to the end days of Ragnarok, and beyond into the next world to come.

I’ve had mixed success with Neil Gaiman in print, but Norse Mythology works brilliantly as an audiobook with the author’s narration – this is literally the perfect fit for his matter-of-factly magical prose style. The tales are mostly around half an hour long, which is a great length for making bread dough, tidying a single cupboard (if your cupboards look like mine), filling a moderate commute or giving yourself a bedtime story. Having come to this from the full-cast recording of Dune, which spared no expense when it came to odd background noises, I would have loved some 5-second musical interludes between chapters to demarcate them better, but that’s hardly a substantive criticism. The stories themselves hold up well, with lots of trickery and suspense and bizarre magical happenings and a sense of good mostly triumphing at the end of each story, although with enough creeping victories for evil to set up the total devastation of the finale.

Gaiman notes in the introduction that the stories that have been recorded are disproportionately those of the men of Asgard, and that the tales behind many of the women have been lost entirely. That imbalance is very clear here: Freyja shows up a few times as a loudly unwilling prize to giants who come seeking her hand in marriage, and other women like Sif and Hel also have moments, but the actors are almost exclusively men. I assume from the mention in the introduction that Gaiman is very conscious of this lack, and that it was likewise a conscious decision to remain true to the source material at the expense of using artistic license to give these ladies more screen time. On a purely personal level, I’d have liked to read “Gaiman’s newly invented version of Frejya and Sif and Frigg’s fabulous lady happenings”, but I understand why objectively that would be a much more controversial and upsetting choice – I have seen concerns elsewhere that having an author with a profile as high as Neil Gaiman risks “canonicising” this version of Norse Mythology at the expense of other interpretations.

I get this – I had only vague knowledge of any of these stories before the audiobook, and as I’m unlikely to ever seek out older versions for fun, for me this is the primary lens through which I’m going to think about these stories for the foreseeable future. One of the limitations of audiobook in particular is that you can’t easily add a bibliography for people looking to seek out more information (does the print book have one?), and I came away feeling like I had only a slightly clearer idea of where I’d go looking if I were to suddenly decide to start studying original texts and scholarly introductions to the myths. But then, far more kids since 1962 have only ever met this Thor:


Or, as of 2011, this one:


And yet the fuller, more nuanced version survives for as long as there are people to curate and look after the information we have left. If Neil Gaiman serves as another conduit for interpreting these stories at the expense of complexity for casual readers, I’d hope he acts as a gateway drug for enough future mythology nerds to keep any long-term flattening of these myths at bay. Until we all turn on each other and then get drowned by the Midgard Serpent, that is.

*Probably not the original, I think this guy has been around for all of human history.