Susan reviews Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Iron and Velvet by Alexis Hall is the first book in the Kate Kane series, following Kate Kane, private investigator, as she attempts to investigate the magic-induced murder of a young werewolf at a vampire nightclub (and hopefully avoids the three-way supernatural war that would result).

I absolutely loved it.

It’s very trope-heavy–Kate isn’t just a private detective, she’s a human(ish) disaster of a private detective; hard-drinking, hard-living, has just lost her (work) partner, constantly on the edge of going bankrupt, unlucky in love and everything else. She is also apparently catnip to the leaders of every supernatural faction that we meet, who all want her involved in their politics, on their side, within five minutes of meeting her. Absolutely tropey, but so refreshing to see this happen with a female character.

On top of this, many of the tropes it uses are subverted; for example, there is a casual take-down of the Vampire In A High School Dating Teenage Girls trope where the narrative makes it explicit that this is creepy. Plus, the the world building is really well done. The way the politics fits together is interesting, as is how werewolves work socially and how urban mages work at all, and seeing how the system maintains itself from the point of view of someone on the fringes is fun. Plus: most of the cast is queer, in all different ways! And the story manages to have both pulpy action, humour, and serious emotional moments all mixed up together!

I think I liked the romance–Julian, the vampire prince that Kate falls in love with, is charming and funny, even if their relationship gets intense really fast. I was not kidding about how quickly all of the leaders move! The way that she narrates her past as a story feels like obvious telegraphing, and in some ways it feels like her actions don’t always have the repercussions or impact I’d expect, but I really like the emotions around hers and Kate’s relationship, and the way the Iron and Velvet does specifically deal with the ripple effect this has on Kate’s social circle.

It’s not perfect, of course – I’ve mentioned that Julian’s narration sometimes tends to telegraph, but there are also developments that come straight out of nowhere to counterbalance them, and the ending is a jumbled mess. But it’s a jumbled mess that I love despite its flaws! In some ways, I love it because of its flaws, because Iron and Velvet is fun, pulpy urban fantasy, revisiting familiar tropes and making them queer. It’s excellent.

Caution warnings: Centuries old vampire dating a high-school girl; references to past stalking and abuse; assault.

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Partners by Gerri Hill

Partners is the conclusion to Gerri Hill’s Hunter trilogy (the previous books reviewed here and here.), and it brings the trilogy round full circle. Casey, the detective introduced in In the Name of the Father, has officially joined the homicide department and has been assigned to partner new detective Leslie Turner on a serial murder case, which would go better if they didn’t find each other intensely distracting.

Okay, this book.There are things I genuinely quite like about it, so let’s start there. Sam and Tori, the detectives who started this series have hit a delightful stage of warmth and commitment–they’re buying a house together, Tori has adopted Casey as a sister, everything about the family that they’ve built is lovely. The revelations about Casey’s backstory and family history are very well done, because I was absolutely furious about it; “I don’t have a problem with homosexuality as long as it’s not my daughter” is an awful thing and the book acknowledges that very well. The way that Casey deals with it by building her own family felt very true to me. Plus I feel like the “hurry up and wait” pace of the investigation works quite well for building the character relationships and for representing police work a smidgen more realistically. It’s tense and dramatic when it needs to be!

(I think this nod to realism is why no one’s backstory gets resolved; Tori’s backstory was deemed unsolvable in the first book, and Casey’s officially given up on hers, which I can respect from a writing standpoint but am somewhat frustrated by as a reader.)

But despite the things that I like about it, it has some quite significant flaws that I have to mention. Please bear with me.

First and most obviously: the relationships. I mentioned above that I appreciated the family that is being created, but the beats Casey and Leslie’s relationship hit are remarkably similar to the ones that Tori and Sam hit in Hunter’s Way. Stop me if this sounds familiar: an openly queer detective falls reluctantly in love with a woman who a) is in a relationship with a sexist man that she does not love and b) has to contend with the fact that she is actually a lesbian. (Once again, bisexuality isn’t an option!) The reasoning for the characters is different, but it’s very similar, and I couldn’t honestly tell you if it’s a deliberate contrast of the value of support networks and/or realising that not being straight is an option, or just a retreading of the same story.

Second of all, I have some issues with the representation in this book. There is one (1) person of colour in this book, who does not any lines and is regarded with active hostility from one of the main characters for someone else’s actions in the first book. The depiction of mental illness is not great, with the character in question treated as a childlike innocent by both characters and the narrative (even though he is a peeping tom?) and SPOILERS: he is thrown under a bus for a neurotypical woman. And while we’re still doing SPOILERS: the murderer is assigned male at birth (it’s not clarified how they actually identify) and wears a dress to gain access to women’s apartments so they can commit murder. I know the book was written in 2008 and the author had no way of knowing that would be the core surface-justification of awful transphobic panic in 2016/17, but seriously. I am willing to anti-rec Partners on basis of that alone.

… Also while we’re doing SPOILERS, the ending is full-on “DON’T GO INTO THE BASEMENT THIS IS A HORROR MOVIE!” levels of nonsense, and it’s completely out of character. I was so annoyed.

The long and the short of it is that I don’t think I can recommend this book. There’s nothing wrong with it on a technical level, and the depiction of friendships and romance between the lesbian character’s is fine? But there’s enough going on around those relationships that I’d be uncomfortable recommending it.

Caution warnings: homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sexual assault.

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews In The Name of The Father by Gerri Hill

In The Name of The Father by Gerri Hill is the sequel to her 2007 novel Hunter’s Way (which I reviewed here at the Lesbrary!), with Hunter’s newest case being investing the murder of a Catholic priest, complicated by publicity issues, homophobia, outside interference, and the attempts to bury any suggestion that the victim may have been in a consensual gay relationship.

In The Name of The Father is… Definitely not as enjoyable as Hunter’s Way, but it does have plus sides. For example, there is less onscreen rape and transphobia here, which I will take as a win. It does also resolve the potential issues that come from Hunter’s and her girlfriend Sam being work and romantic partners. (This solution does manage to effectively sideline both her and one of the two named PoC on the main cast, which isn’t a great look.) The fact that Tori and John (one of the other detectives) have mellowed in the year since Hunter got together with Sam is also a nice touch, although it might disappoint people who were enjoying an angry, aggressive heroine. Plus, In The Name of the Father introduces a new detective, Casey O’Conner, who is smart and energetic, and who I find quite charming! The way that this book expands the cast and its focus works quite well for me, especially because seeing how all of the different characters react to the PR manager for the church is really interesting.

I think that the relationship are quite well-handled too, and quite different – Hunter and Sam are an established couple, very much in love, having to deal with being separated for the first time since they got together and the insecurity that comes from that, while’s Casey’s romance is much more focused on the physical side of things. Plus, the friendship between Hunter and Casey is pretty great.

However, I have so many problems with the constant attempts to cover up and dismiss the murdered priest’s life, both on the part of the church and on… Pretty much anyone who is not a police officer? If you have hit your limit on how much pearl-clutching you can deal with, I would give this one a miss, seriously, especially as there’s some really repugnant views expressed (Like bringing in Casey from the Special Victims Unit, to give the impression that the victim wasn’t in a relationship). I’ve also mentioned that the way this book handles its PoC bothers me; one character is sidelined with Sam, one barely gets any lines, and and rest I feel are handled quite stereotypically.

As a note: I found that the ending just didn’t hold together. Without spoilers: I like denouements where the villain’s master plan is revealed, but the way that In The Name of The Father handles it is infuriating. The way that the mystery shakes out makes everything that led to it feel entirely wasted! The way that the book itself ends feels like the narrative was trying to have the moral of “You can’t beat the system” to go with Hunter’s storyline, while also having emotional catharsis, which means that doesn’t deliver either. Your mileage may vary!

On the whole, I’d say that it’s worth picking up if you enjoyed the previous book, but it has some significant flaws to be aware of!

Caution warnings: constant consideration of sexual abuse and rape, mentions of child abuse, homophobia (in the church and out of it).

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Hunter's Way by Gerri Hill

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Hunter’s Way by Gerri Hill revolves around two homicide detectives: Tori Hunter and Samantha Kennedy. They are the classic opposites buddy-cop duo: Hunter is aggressive and antagonistic, burning through six partners in seven years but apparently being a good enough detective alone to make up for it. Samantha Kennedy is on the surface a much more personable officer who has to juggle a new job, a demanding boyfriend, and Hunter.

There are a lot of moving parts to this book; the relationships between both Sam and Tori and Sam and Robert, a suspected terrorist attack, drug busts, and a serial killer attacking young lesbians. With so much going on, it’s only inevitable that pacing seems a little odd – beats of the crime that you’d expect to have more resonance or time spent on them (for example, the death of a named character who had been helping the investigation gets barely a page and is never mentioned again), and some scenes are repeated over and over (such as Tori’s emotional conflict about getting close to Sam, or Robert’s constantly contacting Samantha and saying he’ll take it to dinner.). I appreciate that the former is presumably to make room for everything else, and the latter is to emphasis how terrible Robert is as a partner, but taken together it seems odd.

The pacing does leave enough room for Sam’s slow realisation of her own sexuality, which I appreciated a lot. Sam trying to work out her own feelings by talking to people and reflecting on what she wanted seemed quite reasonable and realistic to me, even if some of the responses were disappointing. It especially entertained me that some of Sam’s ideas about lesbians appeared to be quite stereotypical; there’s a scene where she has to go undercover at a gay bar, and her idea of appropriate wear is mostly her normal clothes, but no bra; other people’s feelings may vary!

I like the way the relationship between Tori and Sam builds as well; they have complementary skills, and once they start bonding (over escaping from armed men!), I enjoyed reading about them getting closer. The characters of everyone who isn’t Tori, Sam, or their commanding officer are left a little sketchier though; even some of the plot critical characters like fellow detectives Adams and Donaldson are given only the barest scrape of personality. I don’t feel like the mystery seemed to be handled quite as well; the resolution seemed rushed and the escalation to be very sudden; there are quite a few revelations that could have been seeded into the story before the last couple of chapters, and that might have evened the pacing up a little and given some of the blander characters a little more depth.

(Or a related topic: all of the murder victims are queer. There are a number of young lesbians who are murdered, and a trans person is murdered and the investigation is handled badly. Please bear that in mind if you’re going to read it!)

SPOILERS AND CAUTION WARNINGS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: Sam is raped in the middle of the book, and I’m not going to lie: it’s not great. I can’t shake the impression that it was put in as a way to establish that Robert is an awful human being (his immediate response is to make her rape all about him and his feelings, I hate him.) and force Tori and Samantha to get closer. I feel like the same effect could have been achieved from the scene where Tori getting shot? But on the plus side, no one suggests that the attack on Sam has anything to do with her lesbianism, which is something that I was braced for all the way to the end of the book.

Hunter’s Way is mostly enjoyable; it’s a queer police procedural, and that’s what I want. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and I’m very excited to read the rest of it!

Caution warnings: murdered lesbians, there are some transphobic comments and police mishandling of a trans person’s murder; onscreen rape.

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Mahou Josei Chimaka by Kaiju

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Mahou Josei Chimaka by Kaiju is a graphic novel riffing on all of the magical girl stories you know and love: as a teenage magical girl, Chimaka collected all of the artifacts she needed to save the world, went to battle her Destined Foe… And lost. Badly. After that, she broke up with her Destined Boyfriend From Their Past Life, failed most of her classes, and now Chimaka works as a Somewhat Bitter chemical engineer – at least until her Destined Foe wakes up again, and she is called upon to try to reclaim the magical powers she had as a teenager.

The core of the story revolves around Chimaka and her best friend/coworker, Pip; Chimaka confesses that she’s a magical girl to Pip (in a scene that made me laugh quite a lot) that she was a magical girl and now can’t access her magic, which Pip takes as a challenge to introduce Chimaka to the magic in the life that she is living right now. It’s really sweet and becomes a slow building romance of Pip putting so much thought and effort into impressing Chimaka, and Chimaka realising how much she appreciates Pip and her efforts. It’s really cute and sweet, and I enjoyed how it progressed!

To be perfectly honest with you, this is what I wanted from Sailor Moon: a consideration of how a character’s past life does not necessarily affect who they are in their present one. Plus, it explicitly engages with the idea of fulfilling a destiny and whether that is something that works for the character. It was so nice to read! (Although, without spoilers: I’m not sure how I feel about the creator’s use of a real world religion in the ending, even though I do enjoy the trope that they use when it’s in the context of a fantasy religion. Your mileage may vary!)

A quick word on the art – I quite liked it! The best parts for me were probably the costumes (very cute) and the facial expressions, because this comic has such a great sense of humour, and a lot of that is carried off visually. Chimaka makes exactly the right right faces for having to get her reports done and deal with the end of the world.

In summary: I think that this is a really cool take on magical girl tropes and on the question of “What do you do after you’ve saved the world?”, with a sweet queer romance holding it all together. Definitely recommended.

I read the paperback version of this, but it can also be read for free online. My copy had a misprint that lost page 26 from chapter one; if you end up in the same boat, it can be found here.)

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire by Jules Grant

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We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed by Fire by Jules Grant is wonderful. It revolves around a group of lesbian gangsters in Manchester, which is the perfect intersection of two of my interests and my hometown in ways that I didn’t even know I wanted. Donna and Carla lead the Bronte Close Gang, an all-female and all-queer group of gangsters who sell drugs and work with other gangs in the area… Until Carla helps her lover, the wife of a rival gang-leader, escape an abusive marriage and gets killed in retaliation. From there, Donna has to try to keep her gang together, support Carla’s ten-year-old daughter Aurora, and get revenge for Carla’s death.

It’s really good.

The story itself is tense and dramatic, although I don’t feel like it sticks its landing (Aurora’s storyline wraps up a little too easily, and the ending of Donna’s was actively disappointing in how it resolved.)
The characters are really well-handled; even the minor characters are built up from tiny details lthat layer and layer until the story ends up with a gang of fierce, supportive women who are well-described and well-built as characters. Donna and Aurora especially are so believable in voice and character – Aurora in particular feels like such a kid, trying to be responsible for the adults around her and messing it up because she is ten. Believably and convincingly ten, and her reactions to everything that happens breaks my heart. (She does make some unintentionally racist assumptions while trying to prove that she’s not racist though, fair warning.)

The relationships are amazing. Donna and Carla’s relationship is complicated because of all of the things they had and were to each other (there’s so much trust and love and history and frustration in their relationship) and all of the things they weren’t. Donna loves Carla painfully and can’t admit it; Carla adores Aurora; and the Bronte Close Gang are so close and protective of each other. Speaking of the gang; I was so delighted by the fact that the Bronte Close Gang is also part of a network of queer communities! I’m used to stories that have tiny queer communities, maybe half-a-dozen people at most? Even in the specifically queer lit! So having this beautiful network of groups and individual communities blew my mind, especially the moment when Donna put the call out and got such a response.

The narrative voice and style were my favourite parts, and they really worked for me. It is a very stream-of-conciousness narrative, which may not work for everyone. The entire book is in present tense and there is no speech marks at all; the dialogue is entirely woven into the narration ( never got confused about what was speech and what was narration, but your mileage may vary). The effect is quite lyrical, and feels a little like someone sitting down with you and just talking. Plus, the voices of this story sounded right to me, this was recognisably how my family and I talk. (I’ll be honest; I don’t live in Manchester any more, but reading this book made my accent revert like I’d never been away, and I don’t think I can praise a book’s voice higher than that!)

Jules Grant also writes very recognisably about Manchester; I knew so many of the places and streets the characters go through, and my specific part of Manchester even got a brief nod! I can’t speak to how it reads to someone who isn’t familiar with the city, but for me it felt very true to life.

I have seen concerns before that the inciting incident for the plot is the murder of a queer woman, but I think that We Go Around In The Night handles it the best it could be handled. Carla dies, but it is treated as the tragedy that it is. Plus, it doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” death; Carla’s death is not specifically because she’s queer, nor is she the only queer character in the story. All but maybe two of the adult women in this book are queer, which meant that Carla’s death didn’t feel like a point about queer characters and their role in fiction.

I genuinely enjoyed this book, and if you enjoy lesbian crime fiction with strong character voices, I definitely recommend it!

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Queer death, offscreen spousal abuse, drugs, violence, child endangerment (runaway, kidnapping, neglect), unintended racism

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews 1st Impressions by Kate Calloway

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First Impressions by Kate Calloway is the first in the Cassidy James series, about a lesbian private investigator hired to find out who murdered the most loathed man in town… by the prime suspect.

Cassidy James is our heroine, a former teacher who moved out to Cedar Hills and trained as a private investigator after her lover, Diane, died of cancer. Her best friend brings her the case of Erica Trinidad, a beautiful woman whose uncle was murdered and mutilated, which may or may not be connected to things like a break-in at the school (involving Nazi insignias) and a case of arson.

I did enjoy this one; the mystery was compelling and I enjoyed the way the main characters (particularly Cassidy, Erica, and Cassidy’s best friend Martha) bounced off each other; the escalation of incidents and the way it juggles mysteries of people’s pasts and the present conflicts works quite well.

The fact that both Erica and Cassidy have dead partners in their backstory (albeit under wildly different circumstances) surprised me quite a lot. While the deaths aren’t lingered on, if that’s a deal breaker for you then please bear it in mind. I would say that Diane’s death mainly seems to have left Cassidy James incredibly wealthy, which removes the usual motivator of “having to pay rent” from a private detective. But this does affect the tone! Cassidy’s pressure to succeed at the case is for the most part driven by personal satisfaction and Erica, which is quite a different experience to the books I usually read. In some ways, it actually feels like a hybrid between a PI mystery and a cozy crime mystery, in that it does the thing a lot of cozy crimes do, focusing a lot on the nature of the small town Cassidy lives in, the people she knows, and the food that she cooks. (I don’t know why cozy mysteries always seem to focus on food, but it makes me hungry, I can tell you that much.) The small-town aspect mainly manifests in everyone knowing each other’s business and being willing to share, and in the way that despite Cassidy having lived in town for three years she still feels like an outsider.

There were some aspects of the characterisation that I found really hard to believe; the villains of the piece are cartoonishly evil, and the supporting cast tends to be a bit one-note. (On the flip side, though, the kids are SUPER GREAT, I am very fond of Jessie and Mollie and would wholeheartedly endorse their crime-solving adventures.) Plus, there are parts of the ending that I struggle with, such as the Cassidy deliberately imperilling herself and Erica for the sake of her pet cats, or the author’s choice for who finally dealt with the murderer.

The prose is pretty good; there are some evocatively gross descriptions of corpses, as a fair warning, but for the most part it’s well-handled and the story manages to juggle high drama relationships with its mystery (despite all of the food breaks.)

I did very much enjoy reading First Impressions, and I’m looking forward to tracking down the second one.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Neo-Nazis, attempted rape, attempted incest, homophobia, backstory dead lesbians

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Stranger on Lesbos by Valerie Taylor

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Valerie Taylor’s Stranger on Lesbos is an example of classic pulp lesbian fiction. It was published in 1960, at the midpoint of the genre, and it seems like a really tropey example of it!

Frances Ollenfield escaped a childhood of abuse and poverty into a marriage that is slowly becoming more and more loveless as the family’s fortunes improve. When her husband suggests that she go back to university to finish her degree, Frances leaps at the chance – which happens to bring her Mary Baker, Bake to her friends, who soon becomes her lover.

When I say that Stranger on Lesbos a tropey example, I’m not exaggerating; my understanding of lesbian pulps is that the repeating tropes include bar crawling, jail time, and often a dark-haired worldly woman somehow “leading an innocent astray”, and an ending where the lesbian characters must be separate – all of which is present here, in a fast-paced and melodramatic story, as I’d hope a pulp story would be. The story focuses on the conflict between Frances’ love of her husband and son (and her boredom and disappointment with the life they’ve built as her family’s interests move away from her) and her love for Bake (with its excitement and danger, which brings her new friends and experiences, even if they sour for her as well).

The narrative is at times quite distant, which I think is a stylistic choice as it matches fairly well with Frances’ feeling of disconnection from her life and the people around her. However, there are strange time skips, in one case of two years between chapters, which don’t seem to have changed much in the character’s lives except that Frances abandons her degree again in favour of a job and the conflicts in her relationship with Bake to start to bubble through. There are also scenes that revisit Frances’ past in a mining town with her abusive father, and the emotions in those scenes are harrowing and explain a lot about where Frances came from. (I was not kidding about the melodrama!)

I have to admit though that I genuinely rooted for Frances to leave all of her relationships in the dust and walk away from about halfway through. While it’s easy to see why she fell in love with Bake (she is charming and intelligent, and presents herself as very confident and controlled), and Bill, Frances’ husband, clearly had moments where he was sweet and affectionate… None of Frances’ friends seem to make her happy, and by about half-way through both of Frances’ romantic partners treat her terribly. Bake is charming and intelligent… But also a drinker, a cheater, and lets Frances down in the worst ways when she needs her. Bill alternates between distant and actively abusive (more on that later.). Frances wants to stay with her husband for the sake of her son… But her son seems to feel contempt for the women she keeps company with, and by extension her. There is a point in the book where he asks her to give up her queer friends, with every expectation that she’d comply, and while that’s depicted as selfish and awful on his part,

(Caution warning for this paragraph: rape) As a fair warning, there are minimum two rapes and a third attempted one in this book; strangely though, the marital rape is never referred to as such, whereas the lesbian one is clearly stated to be rape. I don’t know if it’s just the time that the book was written (marital rape didn’t become a crime in the states until the 1970s), or if it’s because the circumstances around the lesbian rape (it was by a stranger, with violence, and she was drunk), but it seems really odd that they’re treated so differently. Especially because one is treated as actively reprehensible, and the other as something that could be worked past. That sound you heard was me angrily shrieking at the book.

Without any spoilers; the ending is infuriating, to the point where I had to put it down and walk away for a while. But the afterword assures me that Stranger in Lesbos is the first book in a series, and that my problems with Frances’ romantic choices might be mitigated by the third book. And while parts of this book made me angry, the writing was good enough and I was emotionally invested enough that I am considering seeing if I could track down the rest of the series. So, if you’re interested in lesbian pulp fiction, this is a solid example of it, but there are parts of it that I have significant reservations about.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, adultery, abuse, incest, rape.

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews "i love this part" by Tillie Walden

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i love this part is a graphic novel by Tillie Walden, which effectively serves as snapshots of the romance and relationship between two American schoolgirls. It was described to me as a sweet queer romance… Which is half right.

For the most part, it’s simple and straightforward. The two girls are in love, and spend their days doing homework together or listening to music and playing on their computers and talking about their families and hopes for the future! There are some really interesting style choices here though. For example, the girls aren’t actually named for most of the book; I’ve been calling them Elizabeth and Rae based off a panel showing Elizabeth’s email inbox towards the end, but that might not actually be right. The spelling and capitalisation sometimes becomes text-speak during dialogue in a way that I think is deliberate but can’t be sure of. But the format of the story is what’s really novel; it’s not structured as a traditional comic! It’s a collection of one-page illustrations that tell a story individually and sequentially, and by necessity it’s done slowly and in pieces.

On the topic of the art; it’s pretty good! It’s predominantly monochromatic, with purple or grey washes for colour. The application of colour feels thematic to me — the flashbacks to how Elizabeth and Rae met and grew close are in grey, with more purple creeping in the closer they get to each other. The backgrounds are really well done; whether it’s nature or buildings, the backgrounds are really detailed and well put together. The art does some really cool things with scale as well — when Elizabeth and Rae are happy and together, they’re drawn like giants, doing their homework against the rooftops of buildings and leaning against mountains to listen to music. It read to me as a good visual way of representing how much bigger their emotions make them feel, or possibly how everything that isn’t them seem smaller and less important. (I have to admit, I really enjoy how, despite there being no other people visible when the girls are together — there are people before they get together, but after that they’re a world of two — the art still makes them feel like they’re part of the world; this change of scale and positioning contributes to that.) The way that both girls seem to shrink or the world gets bigger as the story goes on is such a good continuation of this theme. And the use of empty or silent panels (landscapes with no people, or panels of the girls not talking) works well to show time passing and contrast the spaces Elizabeth and Rae filled with each other.

Where the Much of the characterisation is handled in the same way — we learn that Elizabeth is Jewish, for example, and Rae has a stepmother she doesn’t get on with, that both of the girls play music and love instruments — but that information is parcelled out in dribs and drabs. They’re both believable teenage girls! And their love for music is really clear, even though we’re not told what music they listen to; it’s not like The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal where the songs they’re listening to are as important as what’s going on in the page, but music is part of how Elizabeth and Rae bond and relate to each other and show their feelings, and it’s really cute.

But I need to explain that “half right”, don’t I. There will be spoilers from here-on out, I’m afraid, so for anyone who wants to go into the book mostly unspoiled: I have some mixed feelings about this book, based on the second half of it, but everyone lives. Most of it is the very sweet, peaceful story with a cute romance that I was promised! I just don’t think that the last third of it lives up to that.

See, about a third of the way through, cracks start showing in Elizabeth and Rae’s relationship. There are panels where neither of them appear (the time passing that I mentioned earlier), or where they fight about boundaries. There’s a panel where they ask each other “Do you think we’ll ever be able to tell anyone?” and conclude “Probably not,” There are panels of Elizabeth waiting for Rae, asking if she’ll be there soon — and Rae never replying. All of which culminates in Rae breaking up with Elizabeth.

Points to Tillie Walden; the way that she handled the relationship and its ending is wrenching. The panels of them arguing, and the panels of them after the break-up are genuinely affecting and thoughtful. Tillie Walden makes good choices with how she handles it; both girls are clearly broken-hearted, even Rae, and the choice she made to have the pages of them at their happiest while they were together facing the panels where they’re sobbing after they’re broken up is really effective. (Yes, guess where the titlular panel falls.) Plus, everything about it — including Rae sending a mixtape! — rings as plausible to me. But for however well it’s handled, I have two major problems with this. The first is that I am really ready for people to stop trying to sell me on queer romances where the main couple don’t make it to the end for whatever reason. We did our time on that trope, I am ready for it to be laid to rest! The second is why they break up.

See, Rae instigates the break-up because “I’m not… Like you. This — this is wrong.” And even if it’s later clarified a little more (I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you. but im just not ready for this rn” [sic]. And for some reason — perhaps the space of format of the book was a limit — that’s just… Left there. There’s no rebuttal, there’s no exploration, there is just a teenage girl whose internalised homophobia is cutting her heart to ribbons, and the story leaves her there. No matter how well i love this part handles everything else, that is disappointing.

I honestly have difficulty summing up how I feel about this one. On a technical and emotional level, I can’t fault it. The art and the way it handles its characters emotions are pretty good, and I really enjoyed the way it presented the story it was telling! However, the story that it was telling was one that is really familiar to me in its beats and structure, and no matter how well done it is, I’m not sure I need that story again.

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.