Susan reviews Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

Sensible Footwear: A Girl's Guide by Kate Charlesworth

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide is Kate Charlesworth’s combination cook’s tour of 20th queer history in the UK and memoir of being a lesbian cartoonist born in 1950s Yorkshire. It covers attempts at local organising, queer publishing houses, and her experiences with trying to find a queer community, along with the shift in attitudes to queerness (and the massive amounts of work done to shift those attitudes) in culture and politics.

The cast is huge and frequently bewildering to me; Kate Charlesworth knew A LOT of organisers and creators, and I struggled to distinguish everyone and remember who they were and what role they had in her life. People are mentioned to have died, and I was left looking at the page blankly trying to work out whether it was anyone that had been mentioned before this! Despite that, I really did appreciate how well she managed to make it clear that she and her friends were aging, while keeping them recognisable. It helps that her drawings seem to be fairly accurate, based on the photographs and her depiction of celebrities, and I adored her ability to catch tiny, realistic expressions as well as the cartoonish exaggerations. And her depictions of the places she’s lived are excellent; her depiction of Manchester’s gay village was instantly recognisable! I also liked her coloured washes, and the way that they give immediate context for what time period you’re reading about.

The memoir parts are mostly done in comic form, while the history side of things is laid out like a scrapbook, full of sketches, photographs, activist badges, scribbled notes, and Gilbert & Sullivan parodies. I did have some problems with the panelling of the comics sections (there are sections where it’s unclear whether the page carries on across a double-page spread or not, which is a shame because those pages are often the best looking ones), but I really liked the scrapbook style. Some of it was chaotic, but for the most part it was full of visual interest and gave a lot of context to the movements and activism of the time. Her overviews were fascinating, especially of how there were wide gaps in opinions within the same activist groups, let alone the same queer communities. Plus, she does specifically acknowledge that bisexuality, trans people, and shifting cultural norms exist, which is such a change from the latest queer books I’ve read. It feels a little bit like discovering Dykes To Watch Out For as someone who wasn’t even born when it started being released; both of them are a steady, shifting acknowledgement of the way that our cultural approaches to queerness and gender are changing over time, both represent activism and politics as an integral parts of people’s identities, and both capture the historical attitudes of queer women, just in very different ways.

All that said, the ending itself didn’t hold up for me; I liked the idea of the aurora queerialis as an acknowledgement of how much things have changed and how many different ways there are to be queer, apart from the paths that she and her friends took, but I found its textual acknowledgement to be clunky. I’m also fundamentally suspicious of any narrative that posits that someone who was actively homophobic (in this case, Kate Charlesworth’s mother) was that way because they were queer themselves and in denial, but this is a memoir, and if that is how Kate Charlesworth chooses to remember and depict her mother, more power to her. I just found it tonally jarring, and a really odd note to end the book on.

What hits me hardest about Sensible Footwear is how much of it I didn’t know. I was at school during Section 28, which was a law the British government passed that banned schools from “promoting homosexuality”, and I didn’t even know about it until last year. Seeing it shown on page, seeing how angry people were about it, feels like validation of how angry I am knowing that “You are not broken or alone” was a message deemed too dangerous for me and other children. The recurring themes in queer histories is “We’re here, we’ve always been here,” and Sensible Footwear felt like Kate Charlesworth was throwing a guide rope back to give people like me – people who weren’t alive for most of this, people who don’t know where to look to find queer history – a link to the community’s past, and that is immensely valuable all on its own.

… Although let’s face it, as a queer lass from Lancashire, we all knew that I was going to give it the highest of recommendations from the moment it taught me that in 1960s Yorkshire, “bats for Lancashire” was a euphemism for being queer!

Caution warnings: Homophobia, the AIDs Crisis, sexual harassment, forced outing, references to historical treatment of queer people including aversion therapy and chemical castration.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi is a surreal, lyrical horror novel that follows generations of women haunted by their racist, xenophobic house, which wants to keep them all inside its walls forever. The story loops forwards and backwards through time to tell their stories and the house’s.

The language and imagery are beautiful, and work together well to create the surreal atmosphere of this house – to the point where when it switches point of view to someone who’s never been to the house, it’s like a breath of fresh of air. White is for Witching is excellent at leaving things unspoken and telling the shapes of stories between scenes; relationships, horrors, explanations, all told through gaps and the things people don’t say, which works so well for a narrative where reality is a hard thing to pin down. The sense of menace that works under the layers of the story are really well done, especially the scenes where it actually bubbles to the surface.

The characters can sometimes feel completely unknown to a reader, which is a function of the narrative and its spaces. I never felt like I understood Miranda or Elliot, but I don’t think I was ever really supposed to. Ore is the point of view character who makes most sense, the one who is not actually invested in this house or its inheritance, and she doesn’t show up until halfway through – that breath of fresh air I mentioned! And the way that the narrative loops and twists through all of the characters’ stories without snarling is really well done.

White is for Witching is very well-written, beautiful, and strange. It’s not a book that I would normally have picked up, and I’m not sure that it’s one I completely understood. But I absolutely recommend it if you like surreal literary horror.

[Caution warning: eating disorders (specifically pica), racism, xenophobia, children in danger.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Sawmill Springs by Gerri Hill

Sawmill Spring by Gerri Hill

Sawmill Springs, while not perfect, is what I’ve been wanting from Gerri Hill’s police procedurals all this time: a competent-enough mystery with less of the gender- and sexuality-absolutist nonsense that’s put me off her other books. Sawmill Springs is about Murphy, a former Houston homicide detective, and Kayla Dixon, a former FBI agent, who both independently decided to move to small town of Sawmill Springs in search of a quieter life… Which they don’t get, because shortly after their arrival, the murders begin.

The depiction of Sawmill Springs as a small town was pretty good for the first half of the book – Gerri Hill manages to create a real sense of a place where everyone knows everyone else (and their business), although sometimes the characterisation of the town as a small, quiet place goes a little too far – you really expect me to believe that a police officer doesn’t know better than to gossip about the details of the case? Or that people need to be kept out of crime scenes? Or that someone would extend their “But they can’t be the killer! I’ve known them all my life!” field to an entire town? As this lack of professionalism and lack of resources is the cause of half of the drama on the investigation front, it’s a bit jarring when the characters are isolated for the second half of the novel and suddenly no longer have to deal with these problems.

I also had a slight problem with the resolution of the mystery, in that it felt too obvious and too simple to me; it felt like the book was setting up a bigger, more emotional pay-off with the mysteries of “Who is Mr X? Is there more than one killer in town?” weaving into the actual murders, but no! I might just be disappointed because it means that a character that I thought was playing at incompetence while actually masterminding the whole affair is actually just really bad at their job, so the tension and the mystery just dissipated without any real payoff, and the plot holes than I thought were foreshadowing were never resolved.

As for the romance: I actually liked most of it! Kayla and Murphy actually have decent chemistry and bounce off each other well, but I wasn’t really impressed with the artificial drama created by Murphy’s assumption that Kayla was straight. In isolation, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me, but in the context of Gerri Hill’s other works it felt disappointing – especially because the assumption seemed to be based entirely on the fact that Kayla is femme and married a man once. Could the constant flirting Kayla did suggest that she was bi? Who knows, it’s never mentioned as a possibility. The other thing that bothered me was that the sex scenes and romantic confessions seemed really weirdly placed. “Running away from a serial killer” is maybe not the best time to evaluate your relationship? And the chapter transition that went straight from “discovering a corpse” to “in media res of a sex scene” without any pause or decompression was terrible pacing. So bad that I had to check the book to make sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped some pages!

Basically, the mystery was slightly disappointing, but the romance was probably one of the best in all of the Gerri Hill books I’ve read. I think if you want to read Gerri Hill’s works, this is the best place to start!

[Caution warnings: murder, hostage situations, homophobia]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews éclair

Éclair: A Girls’ Love Anthology That Resonates in Your Heart

éclair is ostensibly an anthology of lesbian romance manga, collecting stories whose protagonists range from primary school children learning about trust to young adults trying to juggle relationships and work. It’s got a generally high quality of art. However. There are perhaps sixteen stories included in this volume, and there’s maybe two that I would count as a functional relationship, which is a bad ratio for something advertised as romance.

Here’s a quick overview of the stories:

1) “Happiness in the Shape of a Scar” by Nio Nakatera follows a girl who tries to befriend a solitary pianist, and grows increasingly frustrated and jealous of her focus on the piano – to the point of actively fantasising about her hands being broken because of the rejection. The relationship that grows out of it is kinda sweet, but the fact that it’s rooted so thoroughly in the protagonist’s guilt and the love interest’s pain means that I’m not sold on it.

2) “Tears in the Clean Room” by Shiori Nishio is about a school girl finding out that her best friend has a girlfriend, and becoming overwhelmingly jealous. And her jealousy manifests as homophobia, the belief that her love is “purer,” and relief that her feelings were “neatly cut off without ever becoming corrupted.” Yeah, no, this wasn’t for me; I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect an explicitly queer anthology to drop a story where the protagonist is actively homophobic the entire way through. [Caution warning: homophobia]

3) “Human Emotion” by Shuninta Amano finds the protagonist – a woman is so good at everything that people have described her as inhuman and bullied her – starting to work with a woman who struggles with almost everything and decides to keep her. Like, explicitly comparing her to a pet and setting her up to fail for the protagonist’s enjoyment levels of keeping her. This was one of the relationships that I was suspicious of because of how unhealthy it was, and the way the protagonist’s mental state actually seems to be deteriorating over the course of the story. [Caution warning: bullying]

4) “Intro” by Chihiro Harumi follows a girl who immediately gets a crush on her oblivious new tutor, who happens to not notice anything that isn’t history, and decides to make her notice. If you like teacher/student romances, this is probably fine? I liked the way that the protagonist started to wonder more about the history her tutor loves as the story goes on, but on the whole it wasn’t for me. [Caution warning: teacher/student relationship]

5) “The Unemployed Woman and the High School Girl” by Kanno has an unemployed woman who gets money by being a sugar baby tying to fend off the advances of a teenage girl from a wealthy family who has a crush on her. I maybe like this one for the fact that both of the characters have someone they can be entirely honest around, and the woman is clearly trying to be a decent person despite all of her worst instincts, but I think that I like it solely because I’m not reading it as a romance, so take that under advisement. [Caution warning: adult/teen relationship]

6) “The Hairdresser” by Uta Isuki is about a girl who loves styling hair as she finally gets a chance to work on the model of her dreams: one of her classmates with long, silky hair. I think this one is quite sweet and silly, and does read as a sweet beginning to a relationship! The art is funny, and I enjoy Chika’s enthusiasm and her poses, even if I disagree with her hairstyle choices. It’s not bad!

7) “Alice in the Miniature Garden” by Sakuya Amano follows a maid responsible for tutoring an unwanted illegitimate child, and I have mixed feelings about it. When it’s being sweet about two unwanted girls choosing each other over and over again, I like it! But to get to those bits, you have to get through them both being needlessly cruel to each other, and I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.

8) “Master for 1/365” by Mekimeki has one of the few functional relationships in this book! The protagonist’s best friend volunteers to be her servant for a day and do anything she asks to make up for forgetting her birthday. It’s actually pretty cute and simple, which I appreciated after some of the other stories in this collection.

9) “Two Years and Eleven Months” by Kabocha is a melancholy story about childhood friends making a last ditch attempt to stay together after they start growing apart. It’s a quiet story with a bittersweet ending and both girls disappointing each other throughout, but it’s pretty well-told and I enjoyed how clear it was that the two of them still cared for each other even though it was hard.

10) “Game Over” by Kagekichi Tadano is about two school girls searching for a bed at the end of the world, and it manages to be equal parts atmospheric and silly. I like the way the reveal was handled, and I enjoyed how much the two girls seemed to like each other. [Caution warning: jokes about suicide]

11) “My Cute Bitch” by Izumi Kawanami was possibly one of the most frustrating stories in éclair. The protagonist moves in with a friend who likes casual sex with men, who then decides that maybe she’d like to date the protagonist! But as the love interest has no female friends, the protagonist decides that they can’t sleep together because a platonic friendship would mean a lot more. I… Have no idea why that’s in a girl’s love anthology when it seems extremely counter to that premise, but go off I guess! [Caution warning: cheating, slut-shaming]

12) “A Tale of Weeds” by Kazuno Yuikawa is the story about primary school kids I mentioned; a girl who adores her best friend starts to realise that maybe her best friend isn’t actually the nicest person when the friend starts bullying a new girl in class. It’s cute! It has characters learning about trust and friendship! I don’t necessarily understand why it’s in a romance anthology, but it is cute. [Caution warning: bullying]

13) “The Two of Us and Apples” by Taki Kitao is another sweet and goofy story; the protagonist has a crush on her best friend, who keeps asking for help learning to cook for men! The art is cute and squishy, giving everything a comedic tone that I think went well with the story and helped to show the protagonist’s frustration and fondness clearly! I think this might have been one of my favourite stories in the collection.

14) “Belle the Rabbit and the Wolf” by Hachi Itou is the only fantasy story in éclair, which makes it feel out of place. It’s a cute story about a bunny girl who owns a café helping a wolf-girl track down a delicious food that she can’t remember, and the art is lovely? The story is fine, there’s not a lot of drama? But tonally it’s very different from the other stories so I’m not sure how well it fits in.

15) “Your Jinx” by Fumiko Takada is so ridiculous that I’m honestly tempted to skip over it. A schoolgirl approaches her crush (who she has never even spoken to), to announce that she’s pregnant with the crush’s baby. I would like to stress the fact that they never even spoke before this! It’s ridiculous, the punchline is kinda gross, and if you do get a copy of éclair I’d suggest just skipping over this.

16) “My Idol” by Auri Hirao is another frustrating one. Two idols use on-stage fan service as an excuse for physical contact, which obviously ends in tears. I didn’t like this one, mainly because I didn’t see the point of it, especially not in an anthology that’s supposed to be about love?

I think the problem might be in the way that I interpreted the marketing. It’s advertised as a girl’s love anthology, which I took to mean it would be an anthology of romances, with the attendant happy endings and relationships that go with it. What I got was an anthology that didn’t seem to have a unifying theme or tone beyond having two female leads, some of which have a romance/romantic feelings and several of which don’t. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because sometimes you do need stories about unhealthy disfunctional relationships, and sometimes you do need stories about friendships between queer women! But in a manga advertised as a girl’s love anthology, I expected the stories to be similar in tone or structure or level of romance, anything, and they’re not, so I came away feeling quite disappointed.

Susan reviews Hell’s Highway by Gerri Hill

Hell's Highway by Gerri Hill

Hell’s Highway by Gerri Hill is the sequel to Devil’s Rock, a procedural following FBI agents Andrea Sullivan and Cameron Ross (that I reviewed here!). In Hell’s Highway, they are working and living together in Cameron’s fortified motorhome-slash-giant-mobile-computer-lab, when they’re sent to track down a possible serial killer preying on women along the I-40.

I… Had some problems with it. I’ll start with a problem that has carried over from Devil’s Rock, which is Cameron Ross. She freely acknowledges that she is a petty bully, but this acknowledgement doesn’t come with any particular change of behaviour, which makes her really frustrating to read about. There is even a scene where she makes another character surviving an assault all about her own feelings, to the point where more time is spent on Cameron’s fear of loss than the pain of character who was actually assaulted!

Which leads nicely to another problem I had – there is consistently very little emotional resonance. Characters are killed, and no one cares because they were pretty much blank slates. There’s no tension about the investigation, or the final scene where they confront the serial killer – the former because it’s suspiciously easy, with the serial killer practically walking up to them on their first attempt, and the latter because it’s accidentally defused by the characters not taking the confrontation seriously. The entire mystery feels too straightforward, which is regularly lampshaded by the characters going “But how are you using a computer to get this information?” and “But this is all speculation!” which does not help. If you’ve ever read the In Death series by J. D. Robb, where the police can get probability readings on their hunches, it feels a little like that, but without the scifi underpinnings to back it up. (Also, J. D. Robb actually allows her computers to be wrong occasionally.)

Apart from that, it managed to be a story about the murder of sex workers that never actually showed a living sex worker on page, which was impressive in a bad way, and it also highlights some of the plot holes in the novel and never resolves them, like “How did the killer get so much C4?” and “Why would an explosives expert aware of that the killer sets traps not check for booby-traps?” It feels lazy, to be honest, and I think that’s what’s frustrating about it. The author is clearly aware of the problems with Hell’s Highway, but never fixes them. It doesn’t help my frustration that it has characters who are law enforcement cheerfully planning extra-judicial killings from the get-go. I know the book was published in 2011, but seriously?!

(I am VERY frustrated by the way Gerri Hill presented Carina by the way; she finally gives us textual acknowledgement that bisexuals exist, after several books where characters have slept with both men and women, but have to be monosexual! But she seems to conflate Carina’s enjoyment of casual sex and polyamory with her bisexuality, and makes her an antagonist to Andrea and Cameron’s relationship in a way that telegraphed her eventual fate in big letters. It was Not Great.)

Hell’s Highway was written competently enough that I did read the whole thing, but I honestly couldn’t say I recommended it unless you enjoy yelling about things on twitter.

[Caution warnings: attempted rape; kidnapping; sexual assault; offscreen rape, murder, necrophilia, and mutilation]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Proper English by KJ Charles

Proper English by KJ Charles

KJ Charles’ Proper English is a country-house murder mystery following Patricia Merton, expert markswoman, as she attends a shooting party that is going wrong in every way it possibly can. The hosts won’t rein in their bullying son-in-law, they’ve accidentally had to host twice as many people as expected, and Pat’s old friend is ignoring his beautiful fiancée, Fenella, who Pat can’t take her eyes off. And that’s all before the murder!

(This is also a prequel to KJ Charles’ Think of England, an m/m country house mystery where Pat and Fen were first introduced, involving spies, blackmail, and betrayal!)

I enjoyed this Proper English very much! The narration is hilarious, especially when it assesses things like men, fashions for women, talking about the weather, the tropes of country-house mysteries… Pat is very sensible and practical, and seeing her respect and fall in love with Fen and see through Fen’s performance of frivolity warmed my heart. They have very different skill sets and approaches, and seeing them work together is brilliant! It helps that Fen gets to be fat and unabashedly femme, and the narrative never treats this like it’s a problem or something that she needs to change!

The mystery itself is very satisfying; there are so many subplots and sources of drama waiting to go off, and every character seems to have a secret that could be exploited by a blackmailer! And the victim is an absolutely horrible person, so it’s understandable why people might want him dead! I find it quite strange that the murder doesn’t happen until about two-thirds of the way into the book, although I can understand wanting to get the romance settled and not have to weave it around finding a man dead. The resolution is definitely worth it though, as it’s very satisfying.

In conclusion, it’s really good. If you like country-house mysteries and, like me, have been desperately hunting for queer versions of the tropes, this is the place to start.

This review is based on an ARC from the author.
Caution warnings: verbal abuse, blackmail, homophobia from a villain

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews A City Inside by Tillie Walden

A City Inside by Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden’s A City Inside is a short surreal book about a young woman growing into herself again and again.

As you’d expect from me reviewing Tillie Walden’s work, the art is beautiful; the protagonist’s various homes are especially well done, and the way that the art manages to tinge even the protagonist’s happier moments with melancholy is pleasingly visual. As with i love this part, the more surreal parts of the narrative are left for the reader to interpret as they will; the narrative is framed as someone telling the protagonist her own past and future, so the reader can take its accuracy and melancholy and hope as they will. And I did find it hopeful – even when the narrative takes the protagonist into an isolated city of herself, there is an underlying message of hope – it gifts her the hope of finding a place and a version of herself that she can live in and with, a future that she hasn’t seen yet and might not be able to, and that has value all of its own.

I found A City Inside to be a beautiful exploration of the different ways you can try for what you want (or what you think you should want), and the irreparable ways that these things sometimes contradict each other. I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In The Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard is a post-apocalyptic post-colonisation fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Yên is a rural scholar, who offers herself up to a dragon in her mother’s place to repay her village’s debts; Vu Côn is the dragon in question, trying to fix the world that the Vanisher’s destroyed and then abandoned. Together they live in the dangerous Escher-style nightmare that is the Vanishers’ palace, trying to raise Vu Côn’s teenage children and change the nightmare that the Vanishers left this world in.

The world-building is really cool; In the Vanishers’ Palace is set on a world that was modified beyond the inhabitants’ understanding by the Vanishers, who abandoned it when they grew bored – and people are actively trying to fix it. The scale of the problems are huge, and compounded by people like the leaders of Yên’s village, who are power-hungry monsters, but people are still trying, and that is something I need right now. And for all that the story is fantasy, it has science fiction elements woven in really well – yes, Vu Côn’s palace has impossible geometry, nonsensical architecture, and death lurking in every corner, but it also has a library that can just generate books, and a distinctly scifi room for Vu Côn’s patients. Plus, the magic of In The Vanishers’ Palace is language based, and the story gives Yên space to explore what is known about magic and the ways that common understanding isn’t always right made me happy!

The story itself takes the basic premise of Beauty and the Beast and focuses on it as a story of agency and independence. Vu Côn’s arc is specifically about her learning to trust people to make their own choices and have valuable knowledge and opinions of their own, and her romance with Yên is explicitly about them negotiating the consent and power dynamics of a relationship where one person starts as a prisoner/employee of the other. Vu Côn’s children are specifically trying to figure out who they are independent of their mother, and what role they can have in this world. And Yên is explicitly finding a role for herself after the danger of her village, where those not deemed “useful” and in danger from the village leaders. I enjoy the ways that motherhood, familial duty, and folklore are also woven into this story as integral threads as well, it really worked!

In conclusion: In The Vanishers’ Palace is the queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I didn’t know I needed, and it’s excellent. Definitely recommended.

[This review is based on an ARC from the author.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Sweet Blue Flowers Volume 2 by Takako Shimura

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume Two by Takako Shimura cover

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume Two by Takako Shimura expands Fumi and Akira’s worlds a little more; it covers the summer holiday and their move up to second year in school, with all the attendant new people that comes with it, as well as the fall-out from Fumi and Yasuko’s relationship ending.

The art continues to be very cute, especially with the addition of new students to the established friendship groups! The kids look believably young, which is adorable, and I really appreciate that! (It can be a little confusing to keep track of who’s related to who, however, which I’m not sure is a fault of the art.) And it continues to have more realistic reactions to things than I expect from manga – Fumi is completely understandably upset with Yasuko, and the ways it manifests feel sadly plausible (such as her need to prove herself in Sugimoto’s shadow)! Akira’s confusion about sexuality and relationships also feels completely genuine, considering her age! I like that a book whose drama hinges entirely on relationships makes it clear that Akira not knowing how she feels about them is fine! (It also specifically discusses the different expectations the girls have for relationships, which is a lot more frank than I expected Sweet Blue Flowers to be, especially considering the girls’ ages. It’s probably good that it is frank, because yay for modelling discussions? But also: wow, I did not see that coming.) And on the topic of realism: the “obligatory clueless person putting their foot in it” in this volume is played by a first year who is Earnestly Concerned about her unmarried sister and the friend she lives with. The scene where she’s trying to talk about it to Fumi, who visibly has no idea how to react or what she can reveal about her own queerness was hard to read, but it felt really familiar.

The side-stories in this book are a little more central and tied into the main plot than in volume one; there’s a relationship that actually lasts into adulthood, there’s more unfortunate teenage crushes, and there’s something of a train-wreck relationship that everyone involved acknowledges is a bad idea. I like that it shows a variety of relationships – there’s healthy and unhealthy relationships, reciprocated feelings and not, and seeing Sweet Blue Flowers show so many different ways relationships can work out makes me really happy!

In conclusion, it’s still a good series and I really need to know where it’s going next, because I just want all of these girls to be happy!

[Caution warnings: mentions of incest]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.