Danika reviews Murder Most Actual by Alexis Hall

Murder Most Actual cover

Clue is my all-time favourite movie, and I’m a sucker for any kind of snowed in story, so when I heard the premise for Murder Most Actual, I was immediately hooked. It follows Liza and Hanna, who have booked a getaway in a fancy hotel in the Scottish Highlands to try to patch up their marriage. Liza’s true crime podcast has recently taken off, which has left them less time to spend together. Now, they seem to constantly be bickering, especially since Liza feels like Hanna can be overbearing as well as judgmental of her passion for true crime. Hanna booking this trip without asking her didn’t help. But what is supposed to be a romantic getaway quickly turns dark as a guest turns up dead—and that’s just the beginning. Liza dives into trying to solve the mystery, but Hanna would rather lock the two of them in their room until the snow clears and they can escape.

I completely understand the Clue comparison: this is a murder mystery that is more wacky hijinks than serious drama. Many of the characters are over-the-top, including a femme fatale seducing everyone in sight and a private detective who speaks in a thick (fake?) French accent and refers to himself in the third person. There’s also more direct references to the game, including chapter titles that follow the format “[Character] in the [location] with the [object]” and characters being associated with colours (the colonel with mustard yellow, for one).

The writing also reminds me of the wit and weirdness of Clue dialogue. Hanna remarks, “It’s like she’s come to a costume party as the abstract concept of heteronormative sex.” An awkward moment is described as: “the words still hung in the air like really unwelcome snowflakes.” All together, these elements make it feel like a murder mystery party performance.

There’s an interesting contrast between this theatrical setting and characters with the sometimes painfully realistic depiction of a marriage on the rocks. The know each other deeply and care about each other a lot, but every disagreement is connected to every other argument they’ve ever had. There are layers of subtext to conversations. They walk on eggshells and take offence easily with each other–while also being protective of the other to anyone else. I think it worked well to ground the story and it gave it stakes, even when the murders don’t have that same gravity.

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, partly because I don’t pick up on the little details that would allow me to piece the mystery together. When I do, I tend to not try to solve it and just allow myself to be immersed. So I can’t really evaluate how well the mystery element worked, but I will say that I didn’t see the ending coming. It isn’t a neat and tidy wrap up at the end: it’s messy and human.

There were lots of elements I loved about Murder Most Actual, but I did feel like the middle dragged a bit. I was expecting to rave about this, but I didn’t connect quite as much as I expected to. That’s an intangible, vague complaint though, and I still liked it overall. It was a fun read during December (even though this is actually set around Easter!), just as the snow started coming down!

Note: this is a Kobo exclusive title, so you won’t find it on other platforms.

Danika reviews Snow Falls by Gerri Hill

cover of Snow Falls

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Every year, I plan on spending December reading seasonal books: Christmas romances, wintry fantasy novels, snowed in stories, and so on. And every December, I find myself with an “urgent” TBR that pushes those books off my reading list. There are always ARCs to review, books to read for the next All the Books podcast recording, or library books with encroaching due dates. Although about 98% of my reading comes from ARCs or library books, in 2016 I was so excited by the premise of this novel (a snowed in sapphic romance) that I ordered it on the spot. And there it’s sat on my shelves for the last 5 years.

This year, though, I finally said enough was enough, and although I still have books I should be reading, I carved out some space for seasonal reads. After all this time of anticipation, I pulled down Snow Falls from by TBR shelves and picked it up. Immediately, it was exactly what I wanted from it: an F/F romance about two strangers who get snowed in together for weeks. One is a grumpy and secretive recluse, the other sheltered, clueless, and chatty. There’s only one bed! There’s two huskies!

Unfortunately, there were also aspects of this book that just didn’t work for me. The romance itself was nice, slowly building a relationship between them, but other plot points fell flat for me. There’s a lot of references to a scandal Ryan went through that leads to her living in anonymity in the middle of nowhere, but when that scandal is revealed, it felt anticlimactic for how much weight was being put on it. The sex scenes also didn’t work for me, and sometimes the dialogue felt stilted. I know Jen is sheltered (she grew up in a controlling, religious family and was homeschooled), but “I was apparently conceived at a drug party where she had sex with as many as seven different guys” is a sentence that does not sound natural.

On top of that, there were a few things I took issue with. Let’s go in escalating order of alarming: first, Ryan makes a joke about how she might have “mental disorder” and that Jen should be worried (this is after also joking about being an axe murderer), which is an ableist joke that I wish had been left out. Then there’s an issue I find with many lesfic titles: no acknowledgement of bisexuality. Jen is questioning her sexuality—she’s currently in a relationship with a guy—but the word bisexual isn’t mentioned. She just wonders if she’s straight or gay. That I could let slide, since she is very obviously gay (she’s never had any sexual attraction to her boyfriend), but it’s reinforced later with another character.

In fact, let’s give Presley her own character, since she’s involved in the most alarming/weirdest part of the book. Presley is Ryan’s brother’s date, and she’s openly hitting on Ryan. Ryan asks her why she’s doing this, since “you’re straight.” (They’ve never interacted before this, so Ryan seems to be assuming any woman who dates men is straight.) Worse, Presley then agrees that yes, she is straight, and that she’s had men and women lovers. She proceeds to keep hitting on Ryan. Now, I’m not denying that there are women who call themselves straight and also frequently sleep with women, but again, the word bisexual doesn’t come up at all. This isn’t the alarming part, though.

Charles, Ryan’s brother, takes her aside at the party to say that his date is flirting with her:

[Charles:] “You interested?”

[Ryan:] “In her?”

He raised his eyebrows. “I could watch.”

“You’re insane.”

“We did it before. Remember that chick I brought home from college? What were you? Eighteen?”

“The difference is, I didn’t know you were watching,” she reminded him. She’d never been more embarrassed in her young life when she found out he’s been hiding in the closet. . . . She was, however, careful to check her closet from then on.

To be clear, Charles is presented as a laidback, playboy type. They get along. They both laugh this off. This is… not normal. I get the whole “straight men are into watching lesbians” thing, but your sister??

Needless to say, I can’t give this a glowing review. There were some parts I really enjoyed, including [spoiler, highlight to read] that the breakup with Brad was so civil and that he was a really great friend–it’s so easy to make this character villainous for no reason at all. [end spoiler] But they don’t outweigh the problems I had with it.

Despite this not being to my taste, I loved the reading experience, because it was exactly that snowy, seasonal sapphic romance that I was looking for. It really reinforced that I want to make this time for myself, because I enjoy it just as much as I imagined I would. If I can get that from a book I had so many problems with, I can’t wait for when it’s a book I click with.

Content warning: Homophobia, including from family as well as internalized homophobia.

If you’re looking for seasonal sapphic books to add to your winter TBR, check out: Wintry Sapphic Reads to Cozy Up With!

Maggie reviews No Parking by Valentine Wheeler

No Parking by Valentine Wheeler

I received an ARC of No Parking by Valentine Wheeler and was instantly intrigued by the description. Older main characters, bi and ace characters, they’re snowed in together? I’ll pick that up! And No Parking delivered. I found it a delightful read that had me cackling with delight as legal shenanigans and small town drama were added to the mix.

Marianne Windmere and Rana Wahbi run neighboring businesses, but both of them think that the other’s customers are hogging their shared parking lot. When a snowstorm traps them both in the building overnight, not only do they find out there’s more to their parking problems than they thought, they both have unexpected feelings ignited. When Marianne’s subsequent investigations into just what is going on with her parking and the building her family bakery has been in for generations kicks up town secrets and drama, Marianne and Rana are left to negotiate not only the future of their businesses, but their growing feelings for each other.

One of the things that I loved best about No Parking is how cute the romance is between the two main characters while at the same time giving them both full and rich romantic histories. Marianne and Rana are both older and both are bi and had been married to men in the past. Rana is widowed and Marianne is divorced and also identifies as ace. Their romance, which starts as soon as they get snowed in together, is very sweet, full of blushing and wanting to spend time together and feeling like kids with a crush, but the story also shows them as adult characters with full lives. Marianne is working towards a more amicable relationship with her ex-husband, and we also meet one of her past relationships that causes her to consider how her life would have gone if things had gone a bit differently. Rana has dealt with her feelings about her husband’s death, and has a whole life with friends and her kids. It was very nice to read a story with a very sweet relationship that didn’t consume their whole lives and where they were mature enough to make thought-out decisions about it.

I also really enjoyed the legal and political subplot. There is something incredibly satisfying to me about see a family that thinks it can run a small town get their comeuppance, and Luke Levent definitely deserved a comeuppance. From the start, there is something slimy about Levanti, who is running for the district House of Representatives seat. He’s incredibly condescending, and from the start it is clear that he is doing something fishy with the fact that he owns part of the building with Marianne’s bakery. The whole reveal process was very dramatic and satisfying with all the plot elements you could desire. Hidden wills! Lesbian lawyers! Non-sanctioned parking signage! It was all here.

An underrated part of romance, and queer romance in particular, is building not only a fantasy relationship, but also a society that the relationship can reasonably take place in. No Parking built a small town that was an idealized version of itself, but is also well within the realm of possibility and hope for other queer women who live in small towns, and it spoke of the support networks of friends and family that are necessary in a small town. Wheeler builds a whole network of queer characters who support Marianne and Rana and who are supported in turn. Marianne’s sole employee is a black trans teen named Zeke, who Marianne gives both a job and emotional support to. Marianne also receives research help from the town’s librarian who is both trans and her ex. When, at the end of the novel, two young ladies wander through the bakery, delighted to know that there is a queer bakery in this town and wondering if they should move there, it shows not only the idea that the threat to the town’s character in the form of corrupt politics has been defeated, but that queer community and support in small towns is viable and necessary.

My only, slight, quibble is that I wish this book would be longer. Marianne would refer to events that happened when her search collided with small town politics that I wish I could have actually seen, like what was clearly a retaliatory visit from the health inspector. Sometimes I would page back when she referred to something, thinking that I had missed it. There was a lot that felt glossed over. But overall seeing all those details would be my preference, and I respect the intent of the author to try to balance the legal shenanigans with the rest of the plot and not let it overwhelm the romance.

In conclusion, I found this book fun, cute, and full of the kind of energy that I need going into 2020. Arrest your corrupt politicians, reach for your ideal relationships instead of society’s, support your community members, and patronize your local queer businesses.