Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date Is a Satisfying End to Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls Series

the cover of  iris kelly doesn’t date

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First, a confession: I never liked romance novel covers. For the first thirty-five years of my reading life, I had no idea what went on between the covers of romance novels (well, okay, I had some idea), but if it had anything to do with what was on the cover—hard pass. Now, I am aware that some genre purists detest the illustrated cover trend, and I get that. For how many readers, though, has the illustrated cover been a gateway drug to the romance novel? It was for me. And that brings us to Delilah Green, the town of Bright Falls, and their creator, Ashley Herring Blake.  

From the very first chapter of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care (2022), I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Delilah Green, Claire Sutherland, Iris Kelly, Astrid Parker, and anyone else to whom Blake would introduce me. Yes, even Astrid—who, by the way, gives off such extreme Lemon Breeland vibes that I’ve since had to go back and rewatch a few episodes of Hart of Dixie. Blake balances the sibling tension between Delilah and Astrid with the main romance plot between Delilah and Claire, all the while developing the setting of Bright Falls, Oregon. Another confession: I have been trying to escape from coastal Georgia for a while now, hoping to end up in Oregon. If the Bright Falls that Blake wrote about was real, I would have moved there immediately. Delilah needs a GenX friend who can go toe-to-toe with her sarcasm and eyerolls, right?

Imagine my surprise when I discovered what was waiting for me in the sequel, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail (2022). Blake introduces her readers to a new character, Jordan Everwood, who has arrived from—yes, serendipity and irony are real things, folks—coastal Georgia. (It is less surprising if you know that Herring lives in coastal Georgia. But no less serendipitous.) After a crushing breakup that challenged her sense of self, Jordan finds herself an unlikely match for Astrid. Astrid learns to loosen up (sort of), and everyone in Bright Falls is happy. Almost everyone. Something truly unfortunate happens to Iris Kelly in Astrid Parker, which serves as the setup for the third Bright Falls novel. 

Oh, and the plot of Astrid Parker revolves around an HGTV-esque renovation reality show. If that sort of thing matters to you.

Blake is not the first person to create a charming small town in which romance and hijinks occur. I know I said that I didn’t know what went on within the pages of romance novels, but I’ve seen Hart of Dixie, remember? For what it’s worth, though, I’d take Bright Falls over Bluebell, Virgin River, or even Stars Hollow (yes, Stars Hollow) any day. The best feature of Blake’s Bright Falls series is the way that she examines the trauma that her characters have had to face. Whether it’s the death of a parent, an overbearing mother, a devastating breakup, or a bad reputation, Blake takes her readers through what it means to be wounded by life and by the people in it. Trauma doesn’t just “scar” us; it lives on, at least until it is dealt with. Nothing, and I mean nothing—not even the illustrated covers—gets me more in a romance novel than one character telling another that their trauma is real and then helping them deal with it. 

Iris Kelly doesn’t date because anyone she dates will inevitably let her down. Blake provides us with a catastrophic example of this maxim in Astrid Parker. When we meet up with Iris at the beginning of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date (2023), she’s done with it all: cheaters and liars, people who think being bisexual means being greedy or hypersexual, and people who are convinced that Iris does not have her life priorities straight. And that is how Iris ends up at Lush, a club in Portland, where she spots her next one-night stand. All is going to plan until the stranger responds to Iris’s seduction technique by vomiting all over her. 

I wonder sometimes if there are people out there who are as forgiving as the characters in romance novels. I’m sure there are, but I have no interest in the world of people who are securely attached. Another thing I’ve learned about what goes on between the covers of romance novels: no one seems to have a secure attachment style. And I am here for it. Because the fantasy (or heightened reality) of people helping each other process their traumas while finding love is one I can wholeheartedly support. 

I almost didn’t write this review because, as I suspected, it was too easy to discuss what has resonated with me in the Bright Falls series rather than actually review Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. I would argue, though, that those are not two separate things. I felt a lot of sympathy for Iris, but Stevie’s anxiety is something that I have actually felt. (Not in the way that she felt it during her first interaction with Iris, I should clarify.) Stevie is a fawner who is still friends with her ex. She also lets people tell her what she thinks (or should think), and she struggles with who she is on multiple levels. I am much more interested in those issues than I am with the fake dating plot of the novel. As far as fake dating plots go, this one’s pretty good—it involves an extremely queer production of Much Ado about Nothing.

If that sort of thing matters to you.

What I am going to remember about the Bright Falls series is thinking about how it must have felt for Delilah, Jordan, and Stevie to (re)discover a magical place that is a thousand times better than Narnia. (There is a White Witch—it’s Astrid. And Delilah and Iris have some fierce manes. Also, Astrid makes a caramel dark chocolate seven-layer cake, so those Narnia kids can just keep their Turkish Delight to themselves.) I don’t want to leave Bright Falls, and Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date certainly lives up to the first two novels in the series. As a standalone novel, Iris Kelly would still merit a solid four stars. The Bright Falls series, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. Five stars for six people who I would be glad to know in real life.

If I have to, though, I’ll settle for Delilah Green cameos in every single one of Blake’s future novels.

Content warning: manipulation, panic attacks

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

GBBO, but Sapphic and Bangladeshi: The Dos and Donuts of Love by Adiba Jaigirdar

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Adiba Jaigirdar, author of The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, has become known for her compulsively readable teen romances centering queer Bangladeshi-Irish characters. Her newest novel, The Dos and Donuts of Love, tackles fatphobia, racism, and familial expectations, this time on the set of a nationally televised baking competition. 

Seventeen-year-old Shireen Malik is at a low point heading into summer vacation. Her best (and only Bangladeshi) friend Fatima is spending most of summer vacation visiting family in Bangladesh, and Shireen is recovering from a recent breakup. Between shifts at her parents’ struggling donut shop You Drive Me Glazy, Shireen barely leaves her bedroom, marathon-watching Great British Bake Off, FaceTiming with Fatima, and obsessively checking her email for news from Junior Irish Baking Show

When Shireen receives a congratulatory email inviting her to be on the show, she feels like she has no one to celebrate with—her parents seem wary of the pressures of reality TV, Fatima is in a different time zone, and her ex is out of the picture. But Shireen is determined to prove herself as Ireland’s most talented young baker, and to represent her South Asian identity amid a mostly white pool of competitors. 

But when Shireen shows up to the first filming, she finds herself face to face with her ex Chris Huang. Chris is not just her ex, but also the daughter of her family’s rival donut shop owners. Shireen has to navigate the next few months of high-pressure competition confronting the hostile feelings from her recent breakup, and to complicate matters, she has developed feelings for Niamh, another charismatic contestant on the show.

I’ll be honest—I typically do not go for the increasingly popular baking/romance genre. But as a recent (and very late to the game) fan of Great British Bake Off, I was sucked right into this baking competition setting, the coziness and high stakes of which Jaigirdar very realistically brings to life. Shireen is a tenacious, lovable, fat-positive main character who, despite her self-confidence, falls prey to the toxic culture of reality TV fame and to the overwhelming feelings of teenage romance. Jaigirdar does a flawless job of balancing interpersonal drama with the more sobering issues of body standards and anti-Asian rhetoric thrown at Shireen and Chris as they progress through the competition. I look forward to working my way back through Jaigirdar’s previous books, which I suspect are equally fun, thoughtful, and heartwarming. 

A Sapphic Ice Queen Reality TV Romance: Reality in Check by Emily Banting

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Emily Banting’s latest release, Reality in Check, came out August 12, 2023 and I couldn’t wait to get my hands (and eyes) on it. If you haven’t already, you should absolutely check out Broken Beyond Repair, Emily’s preceding novel in the South Downs Romance series.  It’s not necessary to have read that before diving into Reality in Check, though if you have, you will certainly appreciate the cameos in the epilogue of the book. 

Reality in Check follows two women, Arte and Charlotte, on their journeys to find happiness, both professionally and personally. We meet Arte as she is returning “home,” to the hotel her grandmother and grandfather used to run and own. Arte, and her sister Sophie, have been left the hotel after the death of their Gran. While Arte’s sister is not really interested in running the hotel, Arte is determined to honor their Gran by getting it back up and accepting guests as soon as she can. Arte, unlike Sophie, had spent a significant amount of time in the hotel. For all intents and purposes, it had been her home and it’s filled with memories. Arte is so committed to making things work and honoring the woman who had been there for her when she needed it most, she leaves her work and life in Rome. What meets Arte is a wall of memories, a pile of bills, and a hotel in desperate need of work—maybe more than Arte can do alone. Arte is also left with her Gran’s lab, Rodin. (You just know a book is going to be good when there’s a dog involved.)

It seems Arte’s Gran knew the hotel needed help and that things had gotten to a point where she could not do the updates that needed to be done on her own…if only Arte had known that. 

Before Arte’s Gran had passed, she contacted the reality show to help revamp parts of the hotel. Enter Charlotte Beaufort—host of Hotel SOS.  “A formidable woman with a trigger. Colour me intrigued.” Color me also intrigued. I have never read a description that had me ready to meet someone so badly.   

Charlotte has been the host of Hotel SOS for the last several years. She has a reputation for being honest and a tad bit brutal in her commentary about the state of the hotels she has been sent to help. Prior to that, she was managing one of her family’s Beaufort Hotels. We come to meet Charlotte at a time in her life when she’s unhappy in her marriage and all she wants is for her mother to trust her enough to take over the family business. But, Charlotte’s mother, Claudette, seems bound to stay at the helm. Before I go any further, it is no secret to anyone that knows me that I love an Ice Queen. Any shape or form, I am here for a woman with an icy exterior who is competent, a tiny bit (or a lot) bossy, and who has a lot going on under the surface no one knows about. With Charlotte Beaufort, it was as if I went to a Build-An-Ice Queen brick and mortar and picked her out myself. A fifty-one year old woman who has worked hard, is incredibly good at her job, hot, AND mommy issues?? Sign me up! That is the roundabout way of saying to you, dear reader, that I loved her.

When Arte and Charlotte first meet, it goes…poorly. Charlotte doesn’t know who Arte is and in an effort to make small talk, absolutely steps in it. What follows is a dynamic involving a woman who is still dealing with the loss of her grandmother, contrasted with a woman who has been wearing a persona for so long it’s hard for her to know whether that’s who she actually is, or whether it has just become like second nature because she’s gotten so good at being that way.

The thing about “Ice Queens” is that there is always more than meets the eye, and perhaps that’s why I love them so much. Charlotte is no different. We see examples of that told through her assistant. After all, an Ice Queen would never directly tell us they have a big ol’ heart filled with kindness under that icy exterior, now would they? 

Woven into the potential blooming romance, there is the very fresh grief Arte is experiencing. Emily writes so beautifully about grief, and how that process is never a linear line. There is a line in this book that I immediately loved and highlighted: “If it represents your grief, it’s unlikely to ever be finished.” That is absolutely the thing about grief. It’s never gone, and when we lose someone we love, that grief will always be present. This is a gorgeous story about the things people do to honor those they have lost, the ways humans try to ease the grief they are feeling, and the very real acknowledgement that it never really goes away. It also shows us that grieving does not always look the same for everyone, even within the same family. Through Arte, Emily wrote a character that was doing her best to honor her grandmother, while also honoring the dreams she has had for her life and being true to those, as well. After all, those who truly loved us would want that above all else. 

Where Arte has been given the freedom from a young age to pursue the things that made her happy, Charlotte had been set on a path for one thing only: take over the family company. That was her father’s intention for her before he died. And for many years, that was what Charlotte was working toward. She worked hard for it, and she was very good at everything that was set (intentionally) in her path. Charlotte is a prime example of someone that was born with expectations put on her, and when you’re born with those, sometimes it is easy to conflat those expectations with your own dreams. What I loved about Charlotte’s story was that while in many ways meeting Arte may have been the catalyst for her to re-evaluate things, it was her that took the steps needed to change what she didn’t like about herself and her life. But I think that is what good matches do: they allow us to see ourselves in a way we may have been afraid to and give us the push we need to be a little (or a lot) brave.

I absolutely adored this book. In many ways, it was reminiscent of all the things I love about a Hallmark movie, which I mean to be the highest of compliments. Only, this book was gayer, better written with more depth, and tackled serious parts of the human experience with beauty and realness a Hallmark movie could never. I consider it to be an aspirational Hallmark story where if I could make a sapphic one, it would look like this. There is growth for both of these characters, not just Ice Queen Charlotte. Charlotte helps Arte broaden her view of the world just as much as Arte helps Charlotte get in touch with what is most important to her. There is a balance each character offers the other. Did I mention I love Charlotte Beaufort? 

I highly recommend Reality in Check for you to discover for yourself the beautiful story of Arte and Charlotte.

Nat reviews D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins

the cover of D'Vaughn and Kriss Plan a Wedding

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One of my favorite romance tropes is the fake relationship – I just can’t resist it. So there was little doubt that watching D’Vaughn and Kris plan a fake wedding would be absolutely delightful. 

The story is centered around a reality show called Instant I Do and told through the first person perspectives and solo camera interviews of D’Vaughn and Kris. The premise of the show is to convince your closest friends and family that you’re getting married to the person you’re paired with — in six weeks. Framing the book in the context of the show means we also experience our main characters in a sort of vacuum, removed from their everyday lives and jobs while they focus on their goal. 

Curvy, femme and very closeted D’Vaughn is hoping to diversify the cast of this season of the show with her presence as a queer, Black, full figured contestant. Her main motivation for going on the show is to come out to her family, which she’s never been able to bring herself to do. She just needs to convince her conservative, judemental mom that she’s about to get gay married! Bold move, D’Vaughn.

Kris is a social media influencer, a stud who’s got a rep for being a bit of a player. She’s looking to find true love and a real connection, and thinks going on this show will help her do just that. She’s been out to her big, boisterous Afro-Latinx family for ages, but the trick will be convincing them she’s serious about settling down, and with someone they’ve never met or even heard of. 

As a couple, D’Vaughn and Kris are adorable, and I love the support Kris gives to D’Vaughn as she comes out to her family even though they’ve just met. I really enjoyed the narrative expressed in the Jitter Cam sections, giving us a bit of an extra perspective on what the characters were thinking and feeling. The story has great pacing, and you experience things in the moment, a bit like it would be if you were watching the show. 

The only real problems for me came from consistency issues surrounding the technical reality show aspects that I think should have been caught by an editor. Obviously in Romancelandia we are opening our minds and hearts to things that prooobably would not happen in real life. That’s why those little world building details are so crucial. Mentions of the mics and cameras that clarify some issues are provided later in the story, but would have better been served at the beginning of the book. At some points it kind of felt like the author was figuring things out as she went along, but didn’t go back to shore up any leaks that may have been caused in the story. I even had to go back a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed something. These were the sort of details that kept pulling me out of the book. 

So while I can get behind our characters falling in love in six weeks, I’m totally chafing about not being able to tell when they were on film or being recorded vs when they were alone having private moments. I personally don’t have much experience watching reality shows, so I don’t know if that helped or hurt my perspective on how that was shown to us on the page. My writer’s brain understands how these problems developed, but a fresh set of editing eyes could have caught these little inconsistencies. 

Despite those few hiccups, this is a fun romance with lovable characters and definitely worth a read! 

Kayla Bell reviews Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera

cover of Mangoes and Mistletoe

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Another holiday season, another sapphic Christmas romance. Cozy up with your favorite holiday baked goods and a cup of hot chocolate, because Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera is an awesome addition to the genre.

Our story begins in Scotland, where our protagonist, Kiskeya Burgos, is getting ready to compete in the Holiday Baking Championship. She wants to prove to the world that she is a amazing baker that deserves professional acclaim, and is laser-focused on winning the contest. To Kiskeya’s chagrin, she gets paired with Sully Morales, another Dominican baker who is the bubbly, optimistic extrovert to Kiskeya’s serious, driven introvert. As the contest begins, the two bakers have to learn how to work together if either of them want the chance to win. And, as you can imagine, romantic misadventures ensue.

While this novella definitely served up the holiday fun and whimsy, it also touched on some genuinely powerful themes. Kiskeya and Sully are both Dominican, but they both have very different experiences of the culture and desires for how to showcase that in public. The discussion of how queer people can love their culture but also feel pain at homophobia within it really hit home for me. And the plotline with the Holiday Baking Championship TV show also managed to explore ideas of tokenization and how culture can become commodified. For a novella that was jam-packed with plot as it was, I found it impressive that the book managed to touch on such an important topic in a nuanced way.

At the same time, Mangoes and Mistletoe was also an adorable romance novella. Personally, grumpy sunshine (where one partner is bubbly and happy while the other one is, well, grumpy) might be my favorite romance relationship dynamic, and this story executed it so well. Instead of having flat characters, this book really went into the backgrounds of why Kiskeya and Sully became the way that they are. I really enjoyed seeing them go from being at each other’s throats to truly understanding and relating to one another. Plus, the book is chock full of your favorite romance tropes. There was only one bed! If you aren’t into these tropes, your mileage may vary, but I love seeing couples who historically have not had the chance to star in romances get their turn.

Because I enjoyed the book so much, my only gripe was that I wished it could be longer. Don’t get me wrong, the pacing was great and I love reading a lot of shorter books during the holiday season, but I just wish I had more time with the characters. The author did such a great job of exploring backstory at this length that I wish she had more room to do so further. Hopefully, if books like this are successful, publishers and authors will realize that there is a market for longer f/f romance novels, especially holiday ones.

Based on Mangoes and Mistletoe, I can’t wait to dive into Adriana Herrera’s other books and see what she does next. Happy holidays, readers!

Shannon reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake cover

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I’m not someone who watches a lot of TV, so I was super surprised to find myself gravitating toward books centered around reality tv shows. There’s something about these stories that captures my attention in a way the actual shows airing on television never have. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, the first book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, is a gem of a novel I read earlier this year, and something I’m beyond pleased to recommend to anyone looking for a story full of fun, tears, and a healthy dose of self-discovery.

Rosaline Palmer is tired of sacrificing her own dreams to make others happy. She got pregnant young and decided not to go to medical school, choosing instead to devote the bulk of her time and attention to raising her daughter. Her parents, who are classic overachievers, don’t fully understand or approve of Rosaline’s choices, and she’s pretty sure she’s a huge disappointment to them. Still, she knows she has to find a way to live life on her own terms, even if it turns out to be the hardest thing she’ll ever do.

To this end, she decides to harness her love of baking and becomes a participant on a new reality show for bakers. She’s pretty sure she won’t win, but winning isn’t as important to her as building her confidence and gaining some valuable baking experience. However, as things heat up both in and out of the kitchen, Rosaline begins to take her spot on the show much more seriously than she ever thought she would. Suddenly, winning the whole thing seems like a distinct possibility, and it’s a possibility she likes a lot.

One of the best things about this book is Rosaline’s journey toward self-acceptance. She’s bisexual, but has done her best to keep this part of her identity under wraps until now so as not to offend her parents or confuse her young daughter, but now that she’s fully committed to living life the way she wants, she’s unwilling to keep hiding who she is. Rosaline is smart, warm, and incredibly funny, but those aren’t the characteristics that drew me to her. Instead, I fell in love with her vulnerability and I found myself cheering her on from practically the first page of the book.

There’s definitely a romantic arc here, but I can’t say too much about this aspect of the story without spoiling some of the fun. Still, I think it’s important to be aware that this book feels more like women’s fiction than contemporary romance. Love is a big deal for Rosaline, but it takes a back seat to her own inner journey, and I loved the way the author chose to put the focus solely on Rosaline.

This book stirred up so many emotions as I read, some that were light-hearted and pleasant and others that were a little more difficult to sit with. The author packs a lot into the story, but it’s handled in a way that makes it super easy to read even if some of the subject matter is on the heavier side. Hall’s writing hooked me in right away, and I’m really excited to see what he has planned for the rest of the series.

Shannon reviews I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee

If you’re looking for something to make you smile just as much as it makes you think, Lyla Lee’s debut I’ll Be the One is the perfect book for you. It’s categorized as young adult romance, but don’t let that put you off. I’m in my forties and I loved every second I spent with these characters.

Skye Shin has grown up knowing she wants to be a K-Pop star. She’s devoted every spare moment to practicing both her singing and dancing, and even though those around her haven’t always been as supportive of her dreams as she might like, she’s determined not to let this get her down. Sure, she’s a self-professed fat girl whose mother is constantly telling her to lose weight before taking the world by storm, painful to be sure, but if her deep love for K-Pop has taught her anything over the years, it’s that she has to believe in herself one-hundred percent, even if she’s the only one who does.

When You’re My Shining Star, a talent competition focused on K-Pop, holds auditions in her area, Skye knows she has to try out. So, she skips school and shows up for what she hopes will be her chance to totally wow the judges. Unfortunately, while her performance is one of the best she’s ever given, some of the judges aren’t eager to take a chance on Skye. Suddenly, in front of tons of other would-be contestants as well as a camera crew, Skye is forced to defend not only her lifelong dream, but the right for anyone who isn’t extremely thin to create art.

What follows is not only a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a reality TV show, but a deep and often heart-wrenching look into one young woman’s journey toward self-acceptance. Skye is a remarkable heroine, more self-assured than I could have even dreamed of being at her age, smart, resourceful, and unwilling to back down. She knows what she wants, and even when things get rough, she plows ahead, sometimes making mistakes, but always seeking the best, most fulfilling way to be who she’s meant to be, and lest she seem too good to be true, let me assure you that she’s not always sure of her identity. She considers herself bisexual, but because of her contentious relationship with her mother, she’s afraid to come out to anyone but her closest friends, and yet, her unwillingness to come out makes her feel hypocritical at times.

As the competition heats up, Skye throws herself wholeheartedly into a grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances. Plus, she’s still in school and letting her grades fall is not an option. Needless to say, she’s busier than she’s ever been, but things aren’t all work and no play for her and her fellow contestants. Fast friendships are formed, and Skye even gets a shot at first love, even if that love comes from a direction she never anticipated.

If you’re sensitive to fat-phobic commentary, I’ll Be the One might prove difficult for you to read. Skye is bombarded with anti-fat rhetoric from her mother, from the judges, and from several of the other contestants, so proceed with caution if you decide to pick this book up.

Nothing I can say can adequately convey my love for I’ll Be the One. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a teenager struggling to fit into a world that didn’t always feel welcoming. Lee has created the perfect combination of lighthearted fun and introspective wisdom, making this a great book for readers both young and old.

Trigger Warning: Fat-phobia

Danika reviews Space Battle Lunchtime Volumes 1 & 2 by Natalie Riess

All ages queer lady-type comics are probably my favourite thing to read. Specific? Sure. But not only are they fun to read and usually have adorable art, they also make my heart full to think about how that exists in the world now. You can pick up (multiple!) comics as a kid and see queer representation in them! That would have blown my mind at 10 years old.

Another niche I love hanging out in: reality cooking shows. I love watching TV that is low stakes, and usually this is perfect. Just enough drama to keep you watching, but not enough to actually worry you. This comic is an all-ages queer women comic about a competitive cooking show… in space. What could be better?? Peony agrees to be in a competitive cooking show, only to be transported onto the spaceship it’s being filmed on. That’s when she realizes that this isn’t space-themed, it’s literally in outer space. But she takes the existence of aliens in stride, and concentrates on the competition. And, okay, maybe one of the cute alien contestants.

When I finished volume 1, I thought “Sure, it seems pretty obvious it’s queer, but is it technically subtext?” Which would be okay! I still would have liked it! But volume 2 instantly makes it very clear that it’s queer. This is so cute and fun, and I wish there was more, but also it’s perfect as it is. The romance is sweet, the plot is full of hijinks and over-the-top action (“Cannibal Coliseum, where chefs compete to cook… each other.”) I don’t feel like I can say much more about it. If that premise doesn’t grab you, what can I say to convince you?