Cell Block Tango, the Thriller Novel: Speak of the Devil by Rose Wilding

Speak of the Devil by Rose Wilding cover

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Rose Wilding’s Speak of the Devil is a thriller with a simple premise: seven women (three of them queer) had very good reasons to murder Jamie Spellman, but only one of them left his decapitated head in an abandoned hotel room. Which was it?

Before we start: heed the content warnings listed at the end of this post! There is a lot going on in this book, and despite all my jokes about “Cell Block Tango” being its anthem, it is all presented seriously. Handle with care if you need to.

As for me: my feelings are so, so mixed on this book. On the one hand, I ripped through Speak of the Devil in an evening because I couldn’t put it down. It’s written in a very literary fiction style; the emphasis is on the almost modern gothic tone and rhythm of the prose, sometimes at the expense of individual character voices. (Josie’s voice stood out to me as the most realistic, in that she’s a very good depiction of the mortifying ordeal of being a teenager with emotions, and I adored her.) Speak of the Devil is compelling! The various ways these women are connected to Jamie and to each other all build on each other until it all clicks into place.

On the other hand, there was a run of about thirty consecutive chapters of trauma. This is absolutely a me problem; I keep forgetting that thrillers aren’t structured like mysteries. The trauma all needs to be explained up front so that I understand where the characters are coming from, rather than being revealed in the end game to recontextualise the story up to that point. But it means that most of the book is exploring the reasons each woman might have murdered Jamie, so a huge chunk of it is about their trauma and their complexity. It’s fascinating, because several characters have committed their own wrongs, sometimes even against other members of the group, but that’s not how they’re defined. Ana, for example, has heavily impacted Kaysha’s life, but is an incredible friend and support for Sadia. Maureen was monstrous as a maternal figure, but adores her husband. All of this build-up does work, because the narrative manages to show why each character is the way that they are without excusing them (even Jamie!), it’s just A Lot when it’s back-to-back.

Did I enjoy it though? I honestly don’t think so. Some of the plot beats Speak of the Devil feels very contrived, especially the ending. Rationally, I understand that the emotions and the atmosphere are the point, rather than the plot, but it doesn’t land for me emotionally. Someone who enjoys literary fiction and/or thrillers more than I do would probably have a great time with it! It is very much not a bad book! It’s just a bad match-up with me.

The author’s note, though, is a beautiful thesis statement:

“I wrote this novel because I am always, under the skin, under the polite smile, absolutely furious.”

Content warnings: rape and rape apologia, abuse (physical, emotional, neglect), manipulation and gaslighting, transphobia and queerphobia, suicide, murder, substance abuse, grooming, infertility, teen pregnancy, mental health crises, self-harm, police misconduct, adultery, off-screen animal death

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistant. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

A Sapphic Marriage of Convenience Manga: I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Kodama Naoko

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama cover

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Machi has been going along with what other people want for as long as she can remember, but she’s so sick of her parents nagging her to find a husband that she’s ready to marry someone they’d hate to spite them. She wasn’t expecting her (female) best friend Hana to volunteer for the role, though!

Yep, we’re skipping the fake dating and going straight to marriage, that’s how we roll here.

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up is a fast, tropey read with a really cute art style. Machi and Hana have been friends for a long time, and work as a classic “the grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one” pair, so their teasing and support for each other is lovely! And while the relationships starts off feeling unbalanced due to Hana’s pushiness and Machi’s passivity, its gradual evening out is fun.

I have so many mixed feelings about Hana’s pushiness, by the way; she’s mostly a cheery and flirty character, with her arc being all about revealing the serious core beneath that. But her response to Machi’s internalised homophobia (or what looks like homophobia) is sexual aggression that borders on harrassment. It’s presented as her issuing a challenge in the face of Machi’s previous knee-jerk reactions, and she always backs off without needing to be told, but it’s such a weird off-note with the rest of the manga. The manga’s tone is mostly funny, with jokes about boobs and playing with the stereotypes of heterosexual marriage! Hana pinning Machi to a bed to prove a point didn’t fit with that, to me.

But there is a serious core to I Married My Best Friend, in the form of Machi’s character arc—it’s my favourite part of the book. Machi grows so much as a result of living with Hana. She starts out completely detached from her own life, only doing what’s convenient and never actually thinking about what she wants. Her growth is entirely realising that there are things she cares about, and she’s allowed to say so! Whether that’s asserting herself at work, standing up to her homophobic mother for the first time, or trying to move from fake dating Hana to really dating her, she’s growing and changing for the better!

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up is a lot of fun. If you’re in need of some f/f fake dating in the new year: this is a good place to start!

Caution warnings: homophobia, sexism, parental abuse

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistant. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Alone in Space by Tillie Walden

the cover of Alone In Space

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Alone in Space is a collection of short comics and standalone pieces by Tillie Walden. Some of the pieces have already been released as graphic novels, so they might be familiar to you already.

“The End of Summer”

A royal family and their servants lock themselves away to survive three years of unending winter ahead of them, and the entire family unravels at the seams… I’m not gonna lie to you, I don’t get this one. I understand what is happening, I get all of the individual threads and events, but not the point that it’s building to. And I expect that to a certain extent with Tillie Walden’s work! She’s very good at stories where internal conflict is externalised into a fantastical landscape! I’m quite happy to let them wash over me and figure out the meaning once I’ve got the full picture. But I’ve read The End of Summer three times now and I still can’t tell you what it’s about.

All that said: the art and composition is fascinating. The backgrounds are detailed and intricate, the figures are rougher. The amount of space the cold, swooping architecture takes up on any given page compared to the characters really enhances the loneliness and isolation of the story! And it means that the contrast when the characters are constrained to smaller spaces or places with more texture or a hyper-specific close-up really stands out. I can’t work out if the characters being so much rougher than the objects was an intentional part of the storytelling – a way to show their impermanence or self-destruction, maybe? – but thanks to that I found it hard to tell the characters apart visually. It’s definitely a story that I’ve pondered over, as you might be able to tell. I think I like it on a technical level; I can definitely appreciate it as a demonstration of skill. But on an emotional level, it left me cold…

WAIT, NO, THAT PUN WAS NOT INTENTIONAL —

“I Love This Part”

I’ve been wanting to revisit my review of “I Love This Part” for a while now. It was my first ever review for the Lesbrary, waaaay way back in 2016, and at the time an unhappy ending for queer characters felt like a betrayal of trust. (If anyone else remembers the conversations about dead lesbians in media we were having that year: it made an impression!) Seven years later, I’ve read a lot more media with happy queer characters, so I can better live with the sad ones. I’ve read more of Tillie Walden’s work, so I recognise a lot more about the themes and logic behind her narratives. And with that perspective, I feel like I was unfair about “I Love This Part”. Characters ripping themselves apart on their own internalised homophobia? Still not my preference! But now I can appreciate what the narrative is doing and accept that it’s just not for me, rather than it being a fatal flaw in the work.

This is still a great visualisation of how a relationship can make you feel like the only ones who matter, still a short introduction to Tillie Walden’s style of surreality. It’s just not one that I’m the target audience for, and that’s fine.

“A City Inside”

I’ve also “A City Inside” before, and I’m going to stand by that initial review. It’s full of quiet and melancholy and hope, and I’d definitely recommend it on its own.


The rest of the book is mostly one or two page comics. Some of them are assignments from her studies at the Center for Cartoon Studies, some of them are posters or art pieces. (It blows my mind that Tillie Walden is willing to share the comics she made when she was a teenager. Respect for that courage!) Generally the art and the composition is really good – even the stuff from when Tillie Walden was a teen, what the hell – and it’s really cool to see elements from her later works taking root in these pieces. The limited colour pallettes are often a stand-out piece in her art, so seeing where they started sparked joy for me.

I will say that I had a harder time wrapping my head around some of these stories. They’re all visually striking, and the stories about teens and children feel realistic in their voices! Just some of them need a bit more thinking about. I will say that “Lars and Nemo” and “What It’s Like to be Gay at an All Girls Middle School” are my favourites of the short comics. “Lars and Nemo” shows the protagonist of “The End of Summer” meeting his giant riding cat (!!!), which is obviously great. As for “What It’s Like to be Gay at an All Girls Middle School”: I too went to an all-girls secondary school, so this was uncomfortably familiar! I was surprised by how frankly Tillie Walden showed using heteronormativity as a cudgel to pass under the radar, despite having read Spinning and knowing how upfront she is in her autobiographical works.

Long story short, Alone in Space is a very technically accomplished anthology that’s a great snapshot of how Tillie Walden’s art and storytelling has evolved over her career. If you want to see her short works in context, or if you’ve read On a Sunbeam and want to know what her other stories are like, this is a really convenient collection! But tonally most of the stories are bleak, so be aware of that before you go in.

[Caution warnings: abuse, bullying, confinement, mental illness, terminal illness, murder, suicide, child death, animal death, homophobia, off-screen rape and incest]

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistant. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Above All Things by Roslyn Sinclair

the cover of Above All Things

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Above All Things is the second part of Roslyn Sinclair’s Carlyle series. Vivian and Jules have committed to each other, and now they have to find a way to stay committed to each other during upheavals at work, family drama, and the small matter of Vivian’s pregnancy.

To start off: this really feels like the second half of Truth and Measure, and it benefits from reading it as soon after as you can. Again, this is a 200k fic that’s been rewritten and split into two books, so this isn’t a surprise! But it’s still something to be aware of going in.

Above All Things does something that feels rare to me, in that the characters are out of the getting together phase. A lot of romances focus on how the characters get into a relationship and not how they stay in it, so seeing Jules and Vivian have to negotiate and renegotiate their relationship is really satisfying. There are so many obstacles – Vivian’s fame, Jules’ family, their own ability to communicate—but they choose each other, and they keep choosing each other in the face of all of them! It helps that the characters are still very much themselves as well. Being in love doesn’t soften Vivian at all; she is still ruthless and terrifying, and not always in a way that Jules enjoys. Jules desperately wants to prove herself, and that she doesn’t need Vivian’s help, despite how much Vivian would help her. They have to negotiate the power dynamics, the perception of their relationship, and their contradictory wants, and seeing the way it balances is glorious.

The scenes with Jules’ family are quite hard—well-written, but hard. Being understandably worried about your daughter in a relationship with heavily skewed power dynamics is fine, but the undercurrent of homophobia that her parents have carried from the previous book is there in force. There are some supportive and affirming reactions from other characters, but I thought it best to highlight that Jules’ parents are a whole thing.

For those who want to know how it compares to the fic version of Truth and Measure:

  • Above All Things doesn’t have as much of Jules being aggressively competent as T&M did Andy, but what we get is very good.
  • There’s an actual discussion of heteronormativity and the optics of Vivian and Jules’ relationship in light of the #MeToo movement. I’ve really appreciated how much more casually queer the New York of the Carlyle series is than that of The Devil Wears Prada, so I enjoyed that the characters could be out—even if only to have a media strategy in place to prevent abuse allegations. (Feel free to join me in feeling old because T&M came out in 2013.)
  • “Does [x] big confrontation still take place?” Yes and it’s GREAT. That is the least spoilery way I can put that.
  • If you were like me and appreciated that Miranda didn’t give birth on-page: I’m so sorry.

The long and short of it is that I enjoyed the level of drama and relationship dynamics in Above All Things. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as Truth and Measure, but I enjoyed the novelty of what it was doing and the finely tuned drama of it all. If you want fashionable queer women earning their peaceful ending, you should definitely pick up this series.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, pregnancy, birth, age gap romance, coming out

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Truth and Measure by Roslyn Sinclair

the cover of Truth and Measure by Roslyn Sinclair

If you’ve been in the Devil Wears Prada fandom at any point since 2013, you might be familiar with Truth and Measure as Telanu’s 200k epic post-canon Andy/Miranda fic – featuring Miranda’s nasty divorce, her surprise pregnancy, and Andy weaving herself into the heart of Miranda’s life. Or, you might know Truth and Measure as the first part of Roslyn Sinclair’s latest office romance, featuring an all-capable assistant who’s devoted to her terrifying magazine editor boss, and only finds herself growing more so as she supports her through her nasty divorce and a surprise pregnancy.

What I’m saying is that I’ve been desperate for this to come out ever since I found out Roslyn Sinclair has been rewriting her fic as original stories, and the wait paid off!

I went into this with high expectations, and they have been exceeded. For those who aren’t coming to this from a fandom background: Truth and Measure is an incredibly satisfying romance with brilliantly drawn characters. Vivian particularly is great; Sinclair does a beautiful job of showing all of her different facets, from the terrifying and spiteful goddess, to the competent and ruthless editor, to the magnetic mentor, to the very vulnerable woman who only has one (1) person she trusts. Jules, Vivian’s assistant, is relentlessly charming – she’s believable in her reactions and attitudes, and she is absolutely earnest and competent, which I adore. And the chemistry between them is excellent. Even before the romance really kicks in, the slow reveal of respect and empathy they have for each other delights me. The grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one – if you look closely enough.

It helps that Truth and Measure does explore how healthy it is to a) date your boss, and b) be so mutually obsessed with each other that spending a day apart is anxiety inducing. Jules’ life revolves around Vivian in so many ways, so her impatience with people questioning whether it’s a good idea versus her own assessment of how deeply she’s involved feels like a delicate balancing act. This isn’t completely resolved in Truth and Measure, only partially, but there’s enough set-up that I’m assuming the balance of their relationship is going to be the linchpin of the sequel. (For bonus points: Jules’ mother is somewhat homophobic, which is a Chekhov’s gun that hasn’t gone off by the end of this book, so brace yourselves for that going off in Above All Things.)

Possibly my favourite part though is how much the characters value their work. The scenes where Jules explores queerness and fashion and how she wants to write about that warmed my heart, because that is what I want. People who care deeply about what they’re doing getting to the root of what it is they care about! And Vivian is consistently terrifying and demanding, but also really good at her job. Characters who fall in love while doing things that are important to them, and understanding how important that is to their partner? Yes.

For those who read the fanfic original: the storyline cuts are seamless. The twins have been excised completely, which has trimmed down the book immensely from the behemoth we know and love, but Ellie is still there! The duology is split after Jules’ birthday, so brace yourselves for that emotional whirlwind and maybe make sure that you have Above All Things ready to go immediately. Most of the changes are updating the story to reflect 2022 instead of 2013 – Jules is openly bisexual, the tech level has been updated, the real life publications and websites have been modernised. Honestly, I’d say that Truth and Measure is anchored by the most important scenes you’d recognise from the fic, but the journey to and from those scenes is different enough that it feels new.

My biggest reservation about Truth and Measure is that I don’t know how it would read for someone completely new to the story. I’ve read the fic version too many times to be unbiased on that front! But having read it that many times means that I can say Roslyn Sinclair has done the impossible, which is packaged up one of my favourite stories and given me a way to read it again for the first time. I can’t recommend it enough.

This review is based on an ARC from the publisher.

Caution warnings: mentions of homophobia, infidelity, boss/subordinate relationship, age gap romance, pregnancy

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge by Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert

the cover of The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge

Clement Vanderbridge is acting suspiciously; he’s a well-known architect in prohibition-era New York and famously teetotal, but disappears every Friday night only to turn up smelling of alcohol and cigarettes. Fortunately, Stella Argyle and Flora Fontaine are on the case – reporters working for rival newspapers, competing for the scoop.

Or, to put it another way: The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge is a short rivals-to-lovers story from Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert, one that races from one speakeasy to the next with charm and glee. The art is great. The characters are super expressive, and the flat colours really make the details of the outfits pop. The flapper dresses! The hats! The butch musician in a suit! Excellent work on all fronts, especially with how much of the comic is wordless montages. The montages are really effective – see also: how expressive Stella is whenever Flora’s ahead of her – but they’re skimming over quite a lot considering how much the creators are fitting into thirty pages. An investigation, a rivalry, a low-key romance, a suspiciously secretive friend group, and a space that’s warm and affirming of queer people in a historical setting? That’s a lot for one comic!

Honestly my only real complaint is that the story is a little light. Again, it’s only thirty pages long, it’s to be expected, but The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge feels like a glimpse into a series that I’d gladly read more of. Flora and Stella are fun characters, and I’m absolutely here for more queer intrepid reporters.

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews My Alcoholic Escape From Reality by Nagata Kabi

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality cover

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Nagata Kabi is back with My Alcoholic Escape From Reality! The mangaka behind My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary returns with another memoir, this time about being hospitalised for acute pacreatis resulting from her alcoholism.

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality feels a lot more like a diary comic than any of her previous works. The art style hasn’t changed, although the monochrome colour scheme has shifted to orange now, but the manga as a whole feels tonally lighter and more consistent. I assume that this is a side-effect of it being written as one piece rather than a collection, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Despite the lighter tone, the frankness that she has in her previous books continues here. She is very open about her alcoholism and her depression, neither of which is resolved by the end of the book. She’s not a perfect patient by her own admission – she relapses, she gets angry about the restrictions on her life, she lies to her doctors – and she’s very explicit about her understanding of what would make a satisfying narrative about her experience and how it compares to what she’s living. They way Nagata Kabi personifies and visualises her conditions is more emotive than medical, which works great and stops the entire manga being medical professionals explaining things. There is still a lot of medical details involved – if you, like me, have no idea what pancreatis is, look forward to being educated! But the explanations aren’t overwhelming, which I appreciated.

One of the threads of My Alcoholic Escape From Reality is creating while dealing with not only serious medical conditions but also guilt about her work. She feels guilt for creating memoir at all, and for enjoying it when she knows how negatively her family feels about her work. (Her compromise seems to have been only involving them in the most surface-level scenes, rather than delving back into her feelings about them.) The realisations she goes through about her work and what it means to her to do that work is lovely to read.

My general recommendation for Nagata Kabi’s memoirs are that they’re good in the same way that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is good. They are both queer creators using their most raw edges and pain as entertainment, and cast an uncomfortable reflection back on the audience consuming that entertainment (… and the reviewer rating how well they depicted that pain, yes, please enjoy the mental knots I tie myself into). They are both funny and insightful, and that humour only makes their more serious points hit like a train. This ties into the point Nagata Kabi makes about narrative satisfaction – as a story, the most satisfying endings are the ones where she either relapses or recovers, and life isn’t that tidy; instead, it’s a narrative in progress, where she’s trying to be well and at least writing herself a smidge of hope for the future, and I respect that a lot.

If you want an untidy memoir told with Nagata Kabi’s usual bluntness and humour, I’d definitely recommend picking this up.

Content warnings: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation and medical treatment

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 The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

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Olivia Waite’s The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is the latest in the Feminine Pursuits series, and just like last time, I’m in love. The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows explores family, the perceived legitimacy of relationships, and the hazards of marriage through the trial of Caroline of Brunswick, and the complicated relationships going on in a small seaside town.

Agatha Griffin is a sharp business woman, running her printing shop after the death of her husband and trying to keep her radical son from getting himself arrested. Penelope Flood is a beekeeper with strong opinions and an unfortunate desire to please, who Agatha turns to when she discovers that bees have taken over her warehouse. Together, they care for bees, attempt political change, and mutually pine. As a sucker for mutual pining, this got me exactly where I lived – even though I had a horrified moment near the end of the book when I realised they didn’t know they were pining.

The pacing was a little off for me; there were dramatic points where it seemed like the characters were angry about a (missing, expensive) snuff-box or (missing, beloved) statues and about to investigate – and then the chapter would end and the subject was dropped for another few chapters. The time between was used very well, mostly for slowly building Agatha and Penelope’s relationship, or bringing in more of the political context, but it was jarring to go from justified fury to peaceful scenes with bees and printing. I had a similar problem with the historical explanations and scene-setting; it was useful, but sometimes hard to tell which character was narrating or where it fit into the story because it was functionally a recitation of facts.

It was very satisfying once the story got into the voices of the characters and their political activism; reading Agatha’s hope that things might change, in 2020 of all years, was emotional and relatable! The story centres people with no right to vote at that time (women and men who don’t own property), so the character’s ability to directly influence proceedings was minimal, but the activism, organisation, and use of public sentiment felt realistic to what’s going on now.

Marriage and divorce are one of the anchors of this book; it explores the hazards of marriage for women through different relationships. George IV trying to discredit and divorce his wife is rooting the story in time; there are subplots about abusive husbands, the social pressure on Penelope to behave in a way that reflected well on her husband, the sheer luck involved in Agatha having a husband that respected her, the pressure Agatha feels to have her son get married despite her own reservations about marriage as an institution, a widow with no legal rights after her female lover dies… All of these secondary and tertiary relationships are well presented and developed, and all of them circle back to this theme.

One of my favourite things about the Feminine Pursuits series is that it explicitly argues that marriage isn’t the only avenue for formalising relationships. Characters who want ways to legally bind themselves to each other when there aren’t any publicly acceptable avenues find them or make them, which is so validating to read! There are so many people in this book who are making different choices about how they want to live and be known – and the book doesn’t shy away from how those choices are made easier by wealth and privilege. It’s genuinely heart-warming to see all of the ways characters commit to and choose each other! I’d also like to point out that these decisions aren’t only between queer couples – there are couples who do have the option of legitimacy and respectability through marriage, who choose individual freedoms instead. It means a lot, especially when as recently as 2019, RITA award panels were rejecting queer historicals as “not romances” because the characters couldn’t get married at the end.

There are some cameos and references to The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics but for the most part The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows does stand on its own. There is one scene involving Catherine from the previous book that might not be clear if you don’t know who she is or what her relationship to Agatha’s shop is, but for the most part it works! (Plus, as a book nerd: the details of how the printing shop works are great and I love them.)

But the best part of the book is how funny it is! There were several points where I had to put it down and cackle – Agatha solidly roasting the concept of gal pals in a book set in the 1820s was such a brilliant moment! And Agatha and Penelope consistently going “Oh no” about how much they adore each other was delicious.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows brings through all of the beauty and political commentary that I loved in The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, while focusing it in a different direction. I absolutely recommend it.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, spousal abuse, political demonstrations, morality policing, military-enforced censorship

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 Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

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I believe the entire summary I gave of Eve and Eve on GoodReads was “This is the level of weird horniness I usually find in m/m manga and I almost respect it for that.” The actual summary is that Eve and Eve is Nagashiro Rouge’s single-creator anthology of f/f manga, and this is honestly a first for me! I usually have an easier time finding anthologies like this of m/m manga! … But I am seriously not kidding about it being weird and horny. The stories are mostly scifi, but there are a couple of slice of life stories, and the tones range from serious to incredibly silly. The art is mostly fine, but I have two major quibbles with it. The first is that the anatomy is notably out of proportion, especially when it comes to hands – I’m not saying that there’s panels where characters have hands about the same size as their eyes, but it’s close. The other is that all of the characters have invisible vulvas (presumably as the distaff counterpart to invisible cocks, a known hazard of m/m manga), so the sex scenes are dangerously close to mashing Barbies together.

I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love — I am unbearably amused by Nagashiro Rouge cramming every single possible apocalypse scenario into one page. When I first read Eve and Eve in 2019, that was just a funny joke, but here we are in 2021 and I’m just like “Yeah, actually, that sounds right.” As for the story itself: two women in Japan who barely share a common language fall in love after at least five apocalypses, which they are the only survivors of! I found it quite odd, tonally! The motivations of Sayu, the POV character, confuse the daylights out of me, because she is specifically pre-occupied with having children with Nika so that whoever dies first isn’t leaving the other alone with no record of their relationship. I appreciate that this is the thin veil of causality that’s excusing the sex scenes, but the specific fixation on having kids instead of any other form of record-keeping or looking for other survivors baffled me.

(If you’re wondering what the pay-off is for that narrative thread, I’m just going to tell you that one of the apocalypses involved technologically advanced aliens leaving their human-creating tech behind, and you can fill in the rest. Just know that the invisible vulva aspect is especially egregious here.)

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of stories where people fall in love because they’ve got no other options, and between the language barrier and Sayu’s point of view so I felt like we don’t get much about Nika at all. So I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love wasn’t necessarily bad but I really wanted more build up of the relationship than it had space for in a short story.

The Case of Eko and Lisa — Eko creates erotic manga and uses her sexbot, Lisa, exclusively as a model and art assistant, much to Lisa’s dismay. The story pretty much follows your expectations for a romance between a human and a robot, especially one where the robot is the instigating partner. Lisa’s cheerful pursuit and reaction to rejection is what I’d expected, but Eko’s profound discomfort with the idea of sex that involves more than one person (both in her work and in her own life) was honestly the thing that made this story stand out for me! She’s not put off by the idea of having sex with a robot, but she hates the idea of sex without emotion behind it, and that got me right in my grey-ace feelings. The Case of Eko and Lisa isn’t doing anything I haven’t seen before in terms of robot/human relationships, but for the most part it’s fun and I enjoy how done Eko is with everything, so it’s worth a look! … Although the visual distinction between humans and robots literally just being one seam line at the neck feels like such a cop-out.

Top or Bottom? The Showdown! — Okay, so much about the premise of this story was going against it; it’s school girls who move on from arguing about their RPS shipping of boys in their class (one of my squicks) to arguing about who in their group of friends would be a top or bottom (which I am done with as a fandom argument, because I did my time on this back in the 00s!) However, the end result is mostly cute and silly, and gets a little meta with the two main characters trying to fluster each other with the tropiest moves from romance manga, so I came away really fond of it!

An Infidelity Revisited — Two women who cheated on their high school boyfriends with each other meet up again as adults… And immediately cheat on their girlfriends with each other. The glimpse of the messy relationship the two main characters have is interesting, especially when one pushes back on any attempt to make it less messy. I would have really liked more of that aspect, although the level and drama and ambiguity is pretty solid.

[Caution warnings: infidelity]

Heir to the Curse — A web designer returns to her home village to see her childhood best friend announce her marriage – only to discover that her (cis) best friend has inherited a family curse that all women in her family must marry and impregnate a woman, regardless of their own feelings on the matter.

Oh boy, where to start with this one.

Okay, so, first off, there are parts of the relationship between the two protagonists that are really sweet at the start and the end, where they’re shown as loving and supportive and able to have fun together. Those bits are cute! I like how much they care about each other! But one of them is being held prisoner by her own family (grim), who drug the protagonist so that the love interest can rape and impregnate her (also grim), until they confess their love and have consensual sex as a follow-up. The shift from rape to a romantic relationship is in line with some of the genre conventions, but the nature of it being a short story rather than a series means that the switch feels really sudden and highlights how the problem could have been solved by them talking to each other. … I would also like more explanation of the origin story of this curse, because I feel like there were a couple steps that got missed out in the initial explanation, and in why the family continued the tradition! An explanation is suggested in the final panel, but it’s a bit slight. Heir to the Curse could have been my thing, but I’m very tired of stories where “Well it’s okay apart from the rape scene” is a valid response.

[Caution warnings: imprisonment, homophobia, drugging, rape, magic pregnancy]

Eternity 1 and 2: Eve and Eve — A loving couple decide that the best way to immortalise their love is to… Become a living akashic record… By becoming the heart of a pair of satellites…? Look, I told you this was weird scifi, I have no explanations for you. It circles back around to the theme that I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love suggests; leaving a record of yourself so the future knows that you were there and you were loved! Eternity 1 and 2 giving up their human lives and bonds specifically to lock their bond to each other in place is such a different answer to the one Sayu thinks of in the first story. I think I enjoyed it, but I will say that it has one of the most unnerving two-page spreads I’ve seen in a comic in quite a while. I promise, you will know it when you see it.

[Caution warnings: suicide]

Eve and Eve: Epilogue — One of the things I liked about Eve and Eve was the way that the stories interweaved. Between Eternity 1 and 2 spying on the relationships from other stories, or Sayu and Nika finding newspaper articles about the satellites, it gives the anthology a sense of unity despite the vastly different tones, settings, and storylines. This epilogue rounds that out really well, and I appreciated that it has the characters considering a similar dilemma to Eternity 1 and 2, and making a different choice.

[Caution warnings: implied suicide]

… So you see why my summary is that Eve and Eve is a weird anthology. It wasn’t my thing overall, but I think at least half the stories are worth a look – and I had a lot of fun overthinking its narrative structure, so it was worth the price of entry for that alone!

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 The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a historical romance that revolves around two queer women creating a space for themselves in art and science. Lucy Muchelney’s lover has just married someone else, and her brother is trying to get her to give up on astronomy; her only recourse is to fling herself on the mercies of Lady Catherine St Day, who’s seeking a translator for a french astronomy text so that she can wash her hands of her late husband’s legacy once and for all. Lucy, with her excellent French and understanding of mathematics and astronomy is the perfect person for the job! … If she can convince the scientific establishment to accept that.

I adored The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, but it was so stressful as a reading experience! I was absolutely certain the whole way that there couldn’t be any true catharsis in it, because every sympathetic character is up against structural oppression and the sheer societal weight of white men and their gatekeeping. Over and over people who aren’t white men get dismissed and undermined, both professionally and personally, and it’s as infuriating in fiction as it is in real life! Especially because Olivia Waite does such a good job of showing the way that this form of bigotry wields politeness and reputation as weapons against marginalised people having the audacity to, say, want credit for their work! Or to be accepted as experts in their fields! But there is some catharsis – not just individual victories, characters explicitly doing the work to make science and art more welcoming, and I’ll accept that as a start.

It helps that the characters have believe in each other throughout the book. Lucy believes that Catherine’s embroidery is as much art as anything her brother has done with paint and canvas, and Catherine knows that Lucy – and many other marginalised people she knows, including herself! – are knowledgable scientists or talented artists, and while she might not always know what the best way to encourage those skills, she tries. The supportive relationships are such a good counterpoint to the Polite Science Society.

(And the descriptions are so lush! They give the book so much texture, and the characters so much depth just from what details they notice. Honestly it’s worth reading just for the gifts Catherine makes for Lucy.)

But it’s also a romance, so let’s talk about that! Lucy and Catherine are both freshly out of terrible relationships; Lucy’s ex-girlfriend is petty and manipulative even after they’ve broken up, while Catherine’s late husband was explicitly abusive. There’s no abuse explicitly on page, but Catherine’s reactions to relationships are heavily influenced by the abuse, and are completely believable to me! But if you’re in the market for a romance that’s supportive and kind, where the power difference between characters is actually acknowledged, and the characters find beautiful ways to demonstrate their commitment to each other, this is the book for you! I adored both of the characters and the ways that they tried to make their worlds and interests more accessible for each other! The ways that they work together warmed me right through. Honestly, my biggest frustration with the romance is that there’s a conflict between them near the end that could be solved by actually talking to each other that they just don’t deal with, which felt a little artificial considering that up until that point they’d tried to communicate! But on the whole, the romance was wonderful!

At its heart, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is about recognition and community. At every turn, the characters are asked to choose whose recognition they value – whose recognition is valuable – and what they want their community to be. Watching them answer those questions and discover a community that they didn’t even know was available is beautiful, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

[Caution warnings: racism, misogyny, past abuse, structural oppression, manipulative exes, dubious consent in backstory]

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.