Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow twists and turns and twists back again  – setting up expectations and then redirecting them. Nora discovers the brutal murder of her sister – which leads to a reexamination of their trauma-filled past. Both women have had issues with impulse control – and Nora, especially, becomes increasingly volatile.  Readers begin to doubt the reliability of just about everyone – suspects, investigators, and people from the past.

There is something very compelling about the slow reveal of the very close bond the two women have. The many idyllic meals and trips are told in flashback and each one reveals a bit more about the sisters’ relationship and complicated history. As close as they were, Nora keeps uncovering secrets – making the trauma she’s experiencing even more complicated.

The notable thing about Berry is her skill in understatement. She’s the master of “show don’t tell.” Nora narrates events and her own actions, but never indulges in emotive drama. For example, during the early stages of the murder investigation, Nora destroys property in the hotel where she’s staying. From this, we can intuit the unbearable pain and loss she’s suffering but she doesn’t explicitly tell us.

London and the seaside settings in England are revealed the same way – through the peregrinations of Nora, not through descriptive words and adjectives. The one exception is a trip to Cornwall.  The scene of a happy time in the past, this part of the book has a magical glow, which makes what follows even darker.

In some ways, this book is a classic who-done-it – readers are kept guessing until the last pages.

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.

When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal

“This happens all the time. Anyone who has lost somebody they love has experienced it—the head in the crowd on a busy street, the person at the grocery store who moves just like her. The rush to catch up, so relieved that she is actually still alive . . . Only to be crushed when the imposter turns around and the face is wrong. The eyes. The lips.”
― Barbara O’Neal, When We Believed in Mermaids

When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal is the story of a family ripped apart by tragedy and how the ones left behind try to pick up the shattered pieces.

The Bianci women are the only ones left. Josie, the older sister, was killed fifteen years ago during a terrorist attack while on a train overseas. Her younger sister Kit works as an ER doctor in Santa Cruz. She was left to help their mother as the two worked through their grief. Kit’s steady life comes to a crashing halt when she sees Josie on the TV news during a broadcast from New Zealand. Her mother saw Josie too. Doubt comes creeping in. In the background of television news coverage of a club fire in Auckland, the two saw a woman walking through smoke who bears an uncanny resemblance to Josie. It has to be her.

Kit is slammed by a flood of emotions: anger, grief, and loss. How could Josie lie to them for the past fifteen years? How could she abandon them? She let them believe she was dead. Kit has to find Josie and get answers. She has to go to Auckland.

After landing in New Zealand, Kit is unsure where to start. Once she is in the country where she thinks Josie is, she isn’t even sure if she really wants to search for her. As she begins the physical process of looking for Josie, Kit allows herself to fall into past memories. Josie and Kit’s childhood was far from idyllic, but there were some good parts: days (and nights) spent on the beach and a lost teenage boy who showed up one day and then never left. Among the good lie the bad: multiple tragedies and traumas that scarred the girls and left their family in ruins. Each family member carries their own baggage, their own secrets from long ago that they have carried for years.

Cozy Mystery Reads: Noodle Shop Mystery series by Vivien Chien

Cozy mysteries have become one of my comfort reads in the last couple months. One of my favorite series that I have been reading is the Noodle Shop Mystery Series by Vivien Chien. Chien was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio where she grew up in a mixed-race home. She first started writing adventure stories in elementary school. Her love of writing and books only increased in the coming years. She attempted her first novel when she was 16. Now she is the author of the Noodle Shop Mystery series, which has seven published novels and an eighth scheduled to be published in January 2022.

All of the Noodle Shop Mystery series books can be found at one of the Davenport Public Libraries. A complete list of the books in this series can be found at the end of this blog post.

The first book in the Noodle Shop Mystery series is Death by Dumpling. Lana Lee never thought that she would end up back working at her family’s restuarant, Ho-Lee Noodle House. After a bad break-up and a dramatic walk-out from her last job, Lana’s life is in tatters. Not sure what to do, she decides to head back home and start waitressing at the restaurant as a way to begin putting her life back together. The downside: her mother. She wants to find Lana a husband and has been hinting towards various men around Asia Village that they would be perfect for her.

All thoughts of finding Lana a husband are put on the back burner after Asia Village’s property manager is found dead in his office. The restaurant is in the hot seat after it becomes known that an order of shrimp dumplings from Ho-Lee is found next to the body. Mr. Feng had a severe, life-threatening shellfish allergy that everyone in Asia Village knew about, so the discovery of the shrimp dumplings causes major concern. The whole restaurant is under suspicion and that of course causes the local media to descend upon the plaza searching for clues. Lana must find a way to clear the family and their employees, and restore the restaurant’s name.

Noodle Shop Mystery series

  1. Death By Dumpling (2018)
  2. Dim Sum of All Fears (2018)
  3. Murder Lo Mein (2019)
  4. Wonton Terror (2019)
  5. Egg Drop Dead (2020)
  6. Killer Kung Pao (2020)
  7. Fatal Fried Rice (2021)
  8. Hot and Sour Suspects (2022)

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

“In love and life, we never know when we are telling ourselves stories. We are the ultimate unreliable narrators.” – Jean Kwok, Searching for Sylvie Lee

Searching for Sylvie Lee is a mysterious suspenseful drama that tugs at the complicated lives of three women – two sisters and their mother. Every person in this story is full of secrets – some more deadly than others.

Sylvie is the beautiful and successful older daughter. She can do no wrong. Sent to the Netherlands by her parents when she was a baby, Sylvie spent the first nine years of her life living separate from her family. Sylvie is heading back to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother who raised her. Now Sylvie has vanished.

Amy is the baby of the Lee family. She looks up to her older sister Sylvie. Sylvie may be seven years older, but she basically raised Amy. The younger sibling who never quite measures up to her sister, Amy is trying to figure out what to do with her life. She has dropped out of college and moved back into her parents’ tiny apartment. When Amy learns that Sylvie is missing, she will do whatever it takes to find her. It is time for her to step up and help Sylvie. The more she explores Sylvie’s disappearance, the more secrets she discovers.

Ma is broken. When she moved to the United States from China, she and Pa were newly immigrated and too poor to raise their eldest daughter Sylvie. They made the difficult decision to send her to the Netherlands to be raised with family. She was only supposed to be there for a little while, but it was nine years before Sylvie brought home to help take care of Amy. Their relationship has been a bit strained as a result, but Ma loves Sylvie and Amy.

When Sylvie disappears, the whole family is thrown. She is the solid middle of their family that they all revolve around. They have to find her. She wouldn’t just disappear without letting one of them know.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Dark Roads by Chevy Stevens

Chevy Stevens’ latest novel Dark Roads is a dark and unsettling novel. It tells the stories of the missing and the dead, those left behind and those struggling to prove the truth.

Women have been going missing for years in British Columbia. The Cold Creek Highway runs almost five hundred miles through the wilderness in British Columbia. Locals pass warnings to women who decide to travel along the highway. Hitchhiking is strongly discouraged, but both motorists and hitchhikers alike have been disappearing for decades. No one has been brought to justice and women continue to live in fear.

Hailey McBride and her family have lived in Cold Creek for years. Her father instilled in her many truths: how to respect the wilderness, survive the land, and to, most importantly, never travel the highway alone. After he died, Hailey spiraled out of control. Stuck living with her aunt, her young cousin, and her aunt’s police officer husband, Hailey yearns for some normalcy. Her aunt’s husband wants to control Hailey. He keeps showing up wherever she is, issues vague threats, and gives off strong menacing vibes. Hailey starts traveling the highway alone to hangout with friends. Soon she becomes overwhelmed with everything and decides to vanish into the mountains with the help of her friend. Hailey hopes that the locals will believe she left town, but rumors start spreading that she was instead taken by the highway killer.

Flash forward a year – Beth Chevalier arrives in Cold Creek. Her sister Amber, who was friends with Hailey, was found murdered in Cold Creek and Beth needs closure. Beth starts waitressing at the local diner, just like Amber had done. Beth needs answers, but as she begins digging, the truth she seeks puts her in incredible danger. If Beth isn’t careful, she could end up a victim of the highway killer too.

This book is available  in the following formats:

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

How do you choose what books you want to read? When I’m not diving through my massive to-read pile, I find myself seeking out books with interesting covers first and then I read the book description. This is how I stumbled upon my last read, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. This fantasy novel wrapped me in a cocoon of alternate histories where witches are real and they are tired of being hunted. Magic and the suffrage movement become tightly tied together as Harrow tells the story of witches who will do anything to survive.

The Once and Future Witches tells the story of the three Eastwood sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. It’s the late 1800s and the sisters are struggling. They haven’t seen each other in seven years when their father tore them apart and scattered them to different places. They have been feeling a tug in their bodies that something isn’t right. Their grandmother taught them the words, the ways, and the will to practice magic, but it always seemed small.

In 1893, magic and witches don’t exist. In the past before the burnings began, magic ran wild throughout the world, but man ruined it. They started burning the witches who opposed them and those that fit their idea of what a witch was. Today’s witching is smaller. It’s hidden in nursery rhymes and the charms that are done to keep the home tidy and appearance perfect. It’s not the witching of old. In this escape from the past, women have decided that it’s safer to seek power by fighting for the right to vote and joining the suffrage movement.

Juniper, Agnes, and Bella end up joining the suffrage movement in New Salem, but finding that it isn’t quite what they expected, they start looking for magic in the unexpected. The three start gathering the forgotten words and ways of witches hidden in the obvious places. Talking with other women, they discover that everyone has their own magic and start compiling their magic together. Magic and the women’s movement begin to converge leading to a witches’ movement that puts the women of New Salem at risk. The deeper they dive into magic, the more dangerous it becomes. Stalked across the city by those who want to destroy them, the sisters must forge new alliances, dig for old magic, and bind themselves closer together if they want to survive.

This book is also available in the following format:

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo has written a new young adult novel detailing the stories of two sisters grieving the loss of their father. Clap When You Land  weaves together their two separate stories into a tight tale of sorrow, loss, and finding a bright spot amidst immense grief.

Camino Rios only sees her father in the summer. Every June, he flies to visit her and her aunt in the Dominican Republic. Papi lights up her tiny community and his presence is everywhere she looks. Even when he’s not there, he protects her. This time when Camino goes to the airport to pick him up, she arrives to see groups of people crying and watching the news. Not her papi…

Yahaira Rios lives in New York City with her father and mother. Papi is her hero. He taught her to play chess and nurtured her talents. He has left every summer to go to the Dominican Republic on business for as long as she can remember. It’s almost the end of the school year and papi has just taken off. Yahaira is called to the principal’s office and notices teachers clustered in corners, crying, and stealing glances at her. A disheveled mami is in the office with devastating news. Her father has died in a plane crash. Her hero is gone.

Grieving their father’s death, Yahaira and Camino struggle to find a new way through life. Without money, Camino doesn’t know how she will keep going to high school and college seems to be now firmly out of the picture. Without her father, Yahaira and her mother are unmoored. Her mami and other relatives spend hours whispering and stop talking as soon as she walks in the room.

Separated by distance, both girls have to figure out a new reality without their father. He’s gone and nothing they do can bring him back. The deeper their grief, the more they struggle to find a new purpose. Just when it feels like they have reached their breaking point, they each learn the other exists. Papi had many secrets.

This book is available in the following formats:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Family and relationships are a major deciding factor in how a person turns out. Our past influences our desires and the decisions we will make in the future. Brit Bennett discusses how we choose our own fate and how that fate may be different than the ones our families had previously thought we would take.

The Vanishing Half  by Brit Bennett tells the story of the Vignes twin sisters. Growing up, the two were inseparable and identical. People in the community found it hard to tell the two apart, but knew that wherever they saw one, the other was not far behind. Living in a small, southern black community with rigid ideals, the Vignes sisters run away at age sixteen to escape the less than perfect notions the community had about who they should be. Struggling to make out a new life for themselves, one twin makes the difficult decision to leave the other behind. Her decision sets the family on a rocky path that none of them could have predicted.

The Vignes sisters’ life decisions at the age of sixteen shape their daily lives for years. As adults, their lives couldn’t be more different. Their families, their racial identities, and their communities know them as separate individuals with vastly different pasts.

Fast forward many years and one of the sisters has come back to her hometown with her daughter. Separated by states, the other sister has been secretly passing as white for many years and her white husband doesn’t know anything about her past. Even though the twins are living vastly different lives, their fates are still intricately connected.

This novel follows the Vignes twin sisters from the 1950s to the 1990s, spanning many areas across the country from the Deep South to California. As the twins grow, many generations of the Vignes family come alive to tell their tales. Both the older generation and the younger generation work to create lives that they can be proud of with the sisters sandwiched in between. When the twins’ daughters grow up, their lives are bound to cross. The delicate life balance full of truth and lies the sisters have created is destined to come crashing down at some point. It’s only a matter of time.

This book is also available in the following formats:

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is a crime novel that quickly draws you into the story and has you looking closely at how far you would be willing to go to help a family member.

Korrede is just sitting down to dinner when she gets a frantic phone call from her sister, Ayoola, desperately needing her help. Rushing out of the house, Korrede hopes that her sister hasn’t done what she thinks she has done. Ayoola, Korrede’s younger sister, has a rather inconvenient habit of killing her boyfriends. She always draws Korrede into the mess, asking her to help her cover up the crime.

Korrede is bitter. Ayoola is her younger sister and clearly her mother’s favorite. Ayoola is beautiful and can get any man to love her. Men flock to Ayoola and she always has a next man lined up.

Helping her sister through all her problems, Korrede is still hopeful that eventually Ayoola will stop and change. Korrede’s saving grace is her job as a nurse at a local hospital. While some of the people that she works with get on her nerves, Korrede looks forward to working with the kind and very handsome doctor who treats her as an equal. She hopes that one day he will realize that they are perfect together.

All of Korrede’s hopes are shattered the day that Ayoola stops by the hospital uninvited and catches the attention of the doctor. They instantly connect and Korrede is forced to deal with Ayoola’s past. She needs to figure out what to do before Ayoola slips and attacks the doctor.

This book is also available in the following format: