Book reviews: New mysteries, magazine writing, and non-fiction

The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus by Alanna McFall. 5/5
A quirky and lovely book about friendship, grief, anger, and love. When Chelsea, a ghost, decides to travel from New York to San Francisco for her brother’s wedding–which was delayed because of her death two years earlier–she’s unexpectedly accompanied by Carmen, also a ghost, and Cyndricka, a mortal woman who is one of the few in the world able to see and hear ghosts, and who is a mime. Together they encounter other ghosts, some in need of help and others who are a threat; a kitten; helpful and malicious people; and, finally, some truths about themselves, their pasts, and their futures. The characters are diverse in race, sexuality, disability, and more; there’s a lovely emphasis on the value of learning languages and on questioning cultural norms. This would be a great book club read, or a parent-and-kids read.

Mortal Music by Ann Parker. 2/5
A historical mystery set in San Francisco among the upper class, involving musicians and PIs. While the setting was interesting and the musical details handled well, the plot wasn’t terribly captivating and none of the characters were appealing enough for me to end up caring much what happened.

Fear on the Phantom Special by Edward Marston. 2/5
A rather slow-moving mystery that focuses on the disappearances of two men in the same location, ten years apart. A railway detective and his railway-hating assistant spend many hours interviewing and investigating a small town and its populace; the author provides several suspects but in the end reveals he culprit to be one mostly ignored the rest of the time. A side plot of equal tedium adds nothing to the novel overall.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2019 by Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. 4/5
Solid investigative articles on everything from health issues to drug dealing to immigration, culled from major magazines in 2019. I could have done without the editor’s overly self-praising introduction, but the rest offers interesting and good reads from excellent journalists.

Music by Ted Gioia. 2/5
Gioia notes early in this book that he’s been writing it for 25 years. That shows: his conception of how music history is taught and written about and discussed is about 25 years out-of-date, and his work in this book suffers badly from it. The book would have been a powerful call to action and change two decades ago, but today, with hundreds of fantastic, progressive, new, and radically different approaches to music historiography in practice, both for “art” and “pop” musics, Gioia’s work is out of touch, and the book’s claims come far too late for it to be relevant or useful.

The Death of Baseball by Orlando Ortega-Medina. 4/5
A compelling novel about the early and late lives of two queer men, about abuse and abusing, about trauma and toxic masculinity. Intense and real and wrenching, this is a meditation on parent-child relationships, families, and desire in many forms. CW for violence.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis. 5/5
I really enjoyed this adventure story about a group of young women who have escaped servitude at a brothel and are on the run to freedom in a fantasy world not unlike the American West in the 1800s. The presence of ghosts, magic, underground railroads, and class and gender conflict are all well-realized and help develop a fascinating world. I was also really pleased that there were protagonists who were people of color and that there were queer protagonists, and yet weren’t treated as “magic Negros” or other stereotyped tropes. I’m looking forward to a sequel focusing on the one character who stays behind when the others escape so that she can help others.

Thin Ice by Paige Shelton. 4/5
A very solid thriller about a writer who, having been abducted by an unknown person and escaped, flees to Alaska to recover. There she assists the local police in solving a mystery and begins to remember more of what happened to her when she was abducted. The author points strongly to the perp, but ends the novel without confirming it, as the protagonist is launched into another police investigation that undoubtedly leads to the next novel in this series. The characters are interesting and well-written, and the descriptions of Alaska add nice details.

Cartier’s Hope by M. J. Rose. 2/5
A little revenge story, part of a series offering free publicity for various high-end jewelers. Protagonist Vera is a society lady with some sad love affairs in her past. She works in disguise as Vee, a working-class reporter who chronicles New York’s tenements, unsafe factories, and other social issues. When Vera discovers that her father and her mother’s brother were lovers being blackmailed by a publisher, she comes up with a plan to expose the publisher for his nefarious deeds without exposing her family to scandal. Along the way she has a romance with a jeweler who works at Cartier’s, learns about paste gems, and gets beaten to revenge by her mother. The romance elements are either cringe-worth (the narrator recounts having her cellist lover play her like his cello) or without chemistry (her relationship with the jeweler seems added just so there can be an element of sex). The family relationships are messy and come and go in importance to the rest of the plot elements. The plot overall is convoluted and silly. For such smart and potentially interesting characters, I expected more intelligent thinking.

Bubblegum by Adam Levin. 1/5
I am sure that there are people who will love this novel set in an alternate America, but I found it tedious. The narrator, a schizophrenic, details his life in a very meta memoir filled with fantasy, memories, rants, and pithy commentary, but it’s a slog to read and not terribly original.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva. 4/5
A terrific set of short stories about characters connected through their place of residence before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this book offers outsiders great details about the absurdities and tragedies of life during this period, sprinkled liberally with sardonic humor in the Russian vein. For readers who have enjoyed writing by the satirical Russian masters and post-USSR fiction and memoir, this will be welcomed.

The Dozier School for Boys by Elizabeth A. Murray, PhD. 1/5
This book suffers from not knowing what its target audience is. It gives in-text definitions for very basic terms, yet seems geared for an adult audience. It’s also poorly organized and lacks cohesion, detail, and context. It reads like a bad synopsis of police and scientific reports.

Silo Boys by Amy-Brooke Odell. 1/5
A mediocre small-town mystery, where the high school football players are heroes to everyone and the young women who date them are defined by their relationships with the team stars. The characters were unconvincing, as was the first-person voice that was more appropriate for a third-person omniscient narrator.

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