Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

One of Sarah Gailey’s older works (relatively speaking – after this 2019 volume came a flurry of hits including 2020’s Upright Women Wanted and 2021’s The Echo Wife), Magic for Liars is a feminist gumshoe detective story set in the American version of Harry Potter’s world. While highly original, the story pays homage to a number of tropes: magic abounds in an impossible high school (complete with a boy convinced he’s the Chosen One of prophecy), our cynical narrator spends lots of time brooding in bars even while investigating a grisly murder that has shocked the community, and two estranged sisters forced together must finally face what has divided them. Best of all, a sapphic thread runs through the characters – women loving women is common and routine in this world, though it may have been a motive for murder…

Ivy Gamble is almost successful as a private investigator. She’s almost got a handle on her drinking. And she’s almost definitely not jealous of her magically-gifted sister Tabitha. When a suspicious death rocks the school where Tabitha is a professor of Theoretical Magic, Ivy is called in to investigate. Out of her depth in the investigation and in the world of magic, Ivy quickly starts to question everything she thought she knew about magic, the world, her sister, and herself.

Gailey has created such a unique character in Ivy – she’s a mix of Stephanie Plum’s flawed detective and Petunia Evans Dursley’s bitter resentment, but fully lucid of her flaws, and able to grow, change, and face her mistakes. Tabitha, meanwhile, has the charm of Lily Evans and the haughty emotional distance of Minerva McGonagall (if either of those icons had been lesbians) but the obsessive, secretive temperament of Severus Snape. Spoilers — this is a risky combination. I don’t know that I was totally convinced by the book as a whole — between the mystery, the sibling tension, the high school drama, facing personal demons, AND an unlikely romance, it seemed like the book was trying to do too much and didn’t do each component full justice — but as a reinvention of classic tropes it’s very clever and original, and the normalization of queer identities is very refreshing.

More than that, the pace of the book was addictive, and ended in a way that leaves the reader wondering whether the book was supposed to be part of a bigger, as yet unfinished, story. Will Ivy ever get a sequel to continue her journey? Only time will tell; for now I do recommend this book to all those who enjoy books with gumshoe murder mysteries, high school drama, estranged siblings, bizarre modern magic, and all the dark sides of love.

Phryne, Rhymes with Briney

I had long been attracted to the fun and stylish covers of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, and finally decided to give them a try when the Davenport Public Library’s new Youth Services Librarian, Liza Gilbert, told me they were some of her all-time favorite books. There was just one thing I needed to know before I curled up with the mystery series: how oh how do I pronounce the heroine’s first name?! A quick search online and I learned that “Phryne, rhymes with Briney” which is now stored safely in the corner of my brain right next to “Rowling, rhymes with Bowling.”

Phryne Fisher is the classic 1920’s saucy heroine; she has style, confidence, cleverness and unlimited funds to do with as she pleases, and apparently what she pleases to do is fly planes, outwit lovers, and investigate crimes. In Cocaine Blues, the first in her series, Phryne arrives in Melbourne, Australia to check on the condition of an English aristocrat’s daughter who had been writing worrisome letters home to her parents. Although she assumed her Melbourne visit would mostly involve watching a neglectful husband and testing the girl’s food for poison, Phryne quickly finds herself searching out heavyweight cocaine dealers and criminal abortionists (who are assaulting their patients and depositing them in taxicabs to die).

Despite the gritty, heavy subjects of these investigations, Miss Fisher still manages to wear fabulous gowns, make snarky conversation and have a sexy romp or two. Hurrah! My absolute favorite part about Kerry Greenwood’s writing was the fascinating setting of the growing city of Melbourne, Australia during the 1920’s. Since most of my favorite Twenties novels seem to take place in New York, Chicago or London, it hadn’t even occurred to me that other exciting locales were also having a roaring good time. I highly recommend the Phryne Fisher series to those readers who can’t get enough of bobbed haircuts, silk stockings and smart female characters.