Susan reviews Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Lia Cooper’s Essex Colony has the set up of a really cool survival horror movie: the first colony on Essex Prime went radio-silent almost a year ago. Soran Ingram, an AI whose lover was the Executive Officer of the colony, is part of the crew sent to investigate–only to discover that most of the colonists are dead, and the XO has become a sentient wolf-creature.

So what I’m saying is that if your life is missing a robot/werewolf romance in space, you’re welcome!

I found Essex Colony to be quite rushed; I was hoping for more suspense, more cat-and-mouse, more time spent on the build up of what went wrong, more pay-off for the characters who were blatantly being set up as working against the protagonists for Capitalism. There is some of that, but a lot is handled off-screen or summarised. A little disappointing for me, but it’s a very short book, so I’m assuming that there wasn’t the space for anything but the characters going from plot point to plot point, mostly stumbling across the plot rather than actively discovering it. It still works, and I was still invested in Soran and Aster getting off this planet alive, but it felt a little too straightforward.

Most of the world-building is interesting; the werewolf mythology works particularly well, and the explanation for what happened to the colonists appealed to my Doom-movie-loving heart! … I never thought I’d say this, but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go more Doom, because having every single human turn out to be a horrific bigot at heart was disappointing. I’m also morbidly intrigued by the world-building that isn’t explained; we’re told that the Earth is dying, but also humans are referred to as Anglo-Earthers, which sounds to me like some horrific western supremacist nonsense happened before the book even started.

I liked Soran as a character; she was a lot more human and human-like than I was expecting from the blurb (this is even called out in the text, because why would anyone make a robot that they couldn’t have sex with), but I can appreciate her being exactly what she appears to be. And Aster, the XO, was fun, and it was very easy to see why Soran liked her! I would have liked to see a little more of them actually interacting, rather than meeting up, exchanging plans, and then both running off in opposite directions all the time, but I’m assuming that the space constraints of a novella didn’t allow for it.

In fact, I think most of my issues with Essex Colony could have been worked out with a little more space. The climax is quite muddled, to the point where I’m not sure what the characters were trying to achieve, but everything was definitely exploding and on fire! Like the lack of build-up, it would probably have been improved by having more room to breathe, and the ending might have felt more tidy rather than leaving most of the threads unresolved. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the first book in a series–I didn’t see anything on the Nine Star Press website to say s –but if it isn’t, there’s a lot left unanswered, and I could see it being frustrating.

So it had some flaws, but I did enjoy Essex Colony! Sci fi/survival horror is one of those genres where I will read and watch everything I can in it, and this is a fine addition to that roster. But honestly, I might start recommending it for the sheer novelty of finding a robot/werewolf pairing outside of fandom.

[Caution warnings: bigotry, murder]

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 On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie WaldenTillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam is a beautiful f/f science fantasy graphic novel that started life as a webcomic. The first half is split between Our Protagonist, Mia’s, present, where she’s part of a crew that restores old buildings IN SPACE, and her time at boarding school where she has a fledgling romance building with the sweet-but-unusual Grace. The second half shifts up a gear into Perilous Adventure as the crew of the Sunbeam go looking for closure.

I’ve mentioned how much I like Tillie Walden’s art before, and On a Sunbeam keeps up the tradition. I love her use of colour and space, and the way her art carries so much of the world building and storytelling. Everyone lives on tiny chunks of land in space and spaceships are fish, it’s never explained, and I am quite happy to roll with that because it looks really cool! (Please recommend me more stories where space is treated like the sea, I’m always here for them.) There is a real sense of history and age to the buildings that Mia and the Sunbeam’s crew work on, and different architecture across the galaxy. Plus, Tillie Walden’s use of limited palettes across the entire story means that it’s always clear what time you’re in and which characters you should be expecting.

I was so fond of all of the characters – they all felt realistically complicated and had tangled relationships with each other, and I love them? And they all have their own things going on, or their own secrets in their pasts, and I like that! Especially the non-binary non-verbal badass, who is an actual force of nature. (As fair warning: for the most part, everyone’s really respectful of Elliot’s pronouns and not speaking, but there is one minor character who doesn’t even try, despite how upfront Jules is about making sure people know. She does get dressed down for it, and only has maybe three scenes total, but it is a factor.)

Spoilers in the next paragraph!

There’s something so realistic in the way that Mia talks about her life after Grace – it went on as normal, and the way she talks about that is refreshing and warming. Yes, there is life after whatever dramatic events happen to you, and sometimes they are ridiculously normal and boring! And the way the story opens up in the second half is like a magic trick; the Staircase comes across as a weird space full of culture and dangers that are completely alien to everyone. A lot of it went unexplained, but I thought that worked with the style of the story itself. We get bits and pieces from Mia’s memories of Grace, and from Elliot. It’s very character focused, even in the section that’s most full of action and drama, which means that we get the pieces of information most relevant to the characters, rather than getting all of it in chunks. And the ending is so hopeful, to me. I appreciated that Mia and Grace don’t fall straight into each other’s arms; they’ve grown into different people, and now they’ve got an opportunity to work out who the other one is!

End spoilers!

And because I’m me, I would like to take a second to wail about the families in On a Sunbeam! There are families of origin, families of choice, families who love each other and drive each other up the wall and will do whatever it takes for their family! It’s delightful and sweet, even with all of the drama and peril.

Basically, I adored On A Sunbeam in all its weird space-fish glory, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

[Caution warning: bullying, misgendering]

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 Not Dead Enough by J. M. Redmann

Not Dead Enough by J. M. Redmann

I didn’t realise until I was halfway through J. M. Redmann’s Not Dead Enough that it was a continuation of a series; I thought it was the first book in a series where all of the characters had very detailed backstories! Either way, Not Dead Enough follows Micky Knight, a private detective who’s been asked to track down a woman’s missing sister, only to find that someone matching her client’s description has been murdered.

The mystery is convoluted, with a tangled web of identities that could be Micky’s client or the client’s sister turning up in the unlikeliest places. I thought it worked really well, especially for the parts where Micky does the sensible thing and actually loops her detective friend in on what she finds! PIs who actually do the sensible and legal thing are still a novelty to me. Some of the twists seemed a little obvious to me, but for the most part the way that the different strands, cases, and Micky’s personal life all tie together stood up well! There were a lot of moving parts, and a fair amount of coincidence and overlap in the problems that felt a little too coincidental, although those were mostly minor niggles!

The fact that Micky’s backstory and friend group are explained well enough that I didn’t realise that I was starting with book ten of a series was really helpful, but I do wonder whether that means that people who are up-to-date on the series might be frustrated by the explanations. As part of that convoluted backstory, though, I do like that Micky’s non-crime problems are things like who gets custody of their friend group after she and her partner broke up, and that she does actually start to realise her flaws and work to fix them.

But anyway, it’s fun! I liked Micky and her circle, I liked how practical and done she was, and I liked this take on the classic pulp tropes! I don’t think it’s necessarily doing anything new, but if you’re like me and still revelling in people queering mysteries and giving characters happy endings, this one is pretty good!

[Caution warnings: Spousal abuse and murder, misogyny, homophobia, drug overdoses] [This review is based on an ARC from Netgalley.]

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 Changing Course by Brey Willows

Changing Course by Brey Willows

Brey Willow’s Changing Course opens with Jessa and her crew abandoning their damaged spaceship and crashlanding on Indemnion – a planet so ill-regarded that most shipping routes don’t go near it. Fortunately for her, she and her crew are rescued by Kylin, a scrounger with a heart of gold, who takes Jessa under her wing as they fly across the planet looking for survivors.

I had very mixed feelings about this. My intial reaction on twitter was “This feels like someone’s f/f Star Trek/Star Wars crossover fic,” which probably coloured my read of it as someone who’s only tangentially aware of Star Trek. It’s hard to say how much of that feeling was based on the background politics of space (which are conveniently ignored because the protagonists are stuck on a planet that no one wants to go to), and how much was based on the fact that Jessa is supposed to be from a planet where emotions are frowned upon so thoroughly that most people are able to ignore them entirely. We don’t really get to see that though, because she’s quite emotional and open even from the start, instead of the emotionally repressed robot I think that I was supposed to assume she was based on her character arc. It feels like Jessa’s almost a blank slate, especially compared to how involved and dramatic Kylin’s backstory is in comparison. I think its intentional, but it does give the impression that her life now revolves around Kylin.

It doesn’t help that the problems are set up and solved too quickly – Jess and Kylin run into a problem, a few paragraphs later they run into a helpful side character who can solve their problem while also making pointed observations about their relationship, and the problem is solved as quickly as it arrived. The structure is repeated all through the book, and it works for introducing more of the world and keeping the action moving, but it meant that it didn’t feel like there was much tension. Perhaps if the narrative had really leaned into that and built on its episodic bones, it might have been more consistent! And for all that a lot of the world was introduced, the actual world building felt a bit scant. Not in terms of how it was described, because some of the imagery in it is beautiful, but in terms of how Indemnion is structured socially beyond “rich people live here, lower classes live here,” which doesn’t work for a story where at least some of the problems are of a planetary scale. And quite frankly, I have questions about the ending though, because all of Jessa’s objection as to Kylin’s life as a fighter was resolved way too quickly. Jessa has SERIOUS qualms Kylin’s ability and choice to do violence, which feel like they’re shoved to one side rather than addressed. And I’m very disappointed in the epilogue, because it crams so many cultural and relationship changes into a small space, when that one chapter could have been an entire book on its own. … Also I’m assuming that “and lo the slavers are enslaved themselves due to the prison-industrial complex” is supposed to be dramatic irony, because otherwise what the hell.

All that said, it did move quickly and have some cool world-building and setting, and I was very fond of Asol, a young adventurer that they pick up while they’re travelling. I think my biggest problem with it was that it didn’t give the story enough time or depth to actually explore all of the cool things it set up.

[Caution warning: dying parent, slavery and enslavement, mentions of abuse and eating human flesh.]

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 Heathen Volumes 1 & 2 by Natasha Alterici and Rachel Deering

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Natasha Alterici and Rachel Deering’s Heathen follows Aydis, a lesbian Viking maiden trying to smash the patriarchy through the medium of rescuing a Valkyrie from a curse. In theory this is exactly my thing! In practice, I’m conflicted.

The art style feels rough and scribbly, which works perfectly for the narrative and gives it a real sense of motion and urgency. And I am absolutely here for queer warriors and women supporting other women and threatening bigots. But I do think that the story could have been set in a second-world fantasy (perhaps a magical apocalypse!) and it would have made more sense. HEAR ME OUT, it’s not for the reason you think! I don’t find the lesbian Vikings unrealistic, I find the homophobia unrealistic. The way that characters react to queerness feels anachronistic, because it sounds more like modern-day conservative Christian bigotry than anything else, which is weird enough for a historical setting, and doubly so for a setting where Christianity is explicitly only just making inroads, and thus shouldn’t have the infrastructure and laws to enforce that bigotry. I know the rule is that claiming things aren’t historically accurate when there are talking horses and mermaids is silly, I’m just confused as to how Odin became the mouthpiece of Christian values.

… Also for a comic that specifically called out Vikings wearing horned helmets as an inaccuracy, putting most of the female characters into bikinis was an odd choice! There is an in-universe explanation for it, but as written it sounds like the character designs came first and the reason came later. The fact that the crew of the ship that Aydis ends up on do manage to have real clothes, although again, they’re a mix of styles and influences that I would have accepted without question in a second-world fantasy, but was slightly surprised by when side-by-side with someone in fur and a bikini. (By the way, there is a crew of POC sailors and I am very invested in their story.)

All of that said, I do like stories about queer women banding together to punch misogyny in the face, and the way it specifically adapted the mythology of Odin’s missing eye and Brynhild works very well! When it’s being funny or sincere, it commits completely, and the panelling and art style evoke mood perfectly! It’s just that the story’s roots feel disconnected from what it actually is.

Caution warning: homophobia, misogyny, forced marriage, fridging, abusive marriages, mind control, mentions of slavery

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 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.