The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

Queen's Gambit book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Queen’s Gambit
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1983

Official Summary

When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing. 

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Review

It seems as if everyone has seen the Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit (even though it’s not everyone; Krysta hasn’t seen it!), and the miniseries is so brilliant and charming and engaging that I find it impossible not to compare the book to it in this review. The short version is: The book and the adaptation are astonishingly close – there’s practically nothing in the novel that isn’t in the miniseries – but I actually prefer the show. The screenwriters smartly streamlined the story in a couple places, and the actors brought the story to life in a way that made reading the book a better experience for me.

As I was reading, I was reminded strongly of the time I attempted to read Pride & Prejudice after watching the BBC miniseries about three times in a row; the stories seemed so close that I could recognize the word-for-word dialogue pulled from the pages for the show. Unlike with Pride & Prejudice, however, I did not abandon reading The Queen’s Gambit because of this but, rather, plodded steadily on, enjoying seeing the characters I’d become so invested in once again. There were only a few places that I recognized the show deviated from the book, and by and large I approve of the changes. For instances, the show eliminates a few minor characters and replaces them with major ones. The boy who yells profanities in the orphanage in the book becomes Jolene in the show, for instance, while a random man discussing chess at a tournament becomes Benny.

The book also has a few sexual scenes in the orphanage that were eliminated in the show, and I cannot emphasize how strongly I think removing these was a great decision. I was extremely uncomfortable watching Jolene make advances to Beth and imply that she had a relationship with a teacher at the school and later watching Beth masturbate by herself. I don’t know what the author was going for here, if he thought this would happen at an orphanage and was “realistic” or if he thought it was “artsy” or what, but it added absolutely nothing to the plot or character development.

The book was also full of chess, which means practically nothing to me. I had a friend explain some of the games that were narrated more in-depth, but understanding the chess was not necessary, nor did I feel that it was so confusing that it detracted from the book.

Mostly, however, I appreciate the actors’ interpretations of the characters in the show. Alma came across a bit flat to me in the book, but in the show one gets more of a sense that she did try her best to be a decent mother and that Beth was attached to her. Similarly, I think Beth’s and Jolene’s relationship comes across more clearly in the show; reading the book alone, it wouldn’t be clear to me why Beth might want to call her years after leaving the orphanage.

So is the book worth reading? Yes and no. It’s a good story, but it’s also so close to the adaptation that I think watching the show is “enough.”

Briana
4 stars

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Spoilers!)

Information

Goodreads: The Alchemist
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1988

Summary

Paulo Coelho’s enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and soul-stirring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried near the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles in his path. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

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Review

As I first began reading The Alchemist, I found it interesting, but I was skeptical it was going to be quite as profound as I’d heard. (Michael from My Comic Relief knows he convinced me to read it, but he’s only one of many readers who have found the book life-changing!) I was a bit worried that the book makes some good points but that the story lacks subtlety–that is, the characters literally going around spouting words of wisdom and spouting what the life lessons are supposed to be. This is okay, but not quite what I was expecting, even when the cover calls the book a “fable” rather than a “novel.” The ending, however, is what really makes the book work and what really made me think, which is why I don’t believe there’s any way I can write a meaningful spoiler-free review. Read on at your own risk!

I was definitely invested in the early parts of the story, as the shepherd decides to follow a dream that told him he would find a treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt. I love a good quest story, and the obstacles that the boy encounters and the interesting people he meets will have readers thinking that his journey is a treasure in itself. Surely travelling is a good reward, even if there’s no actual gold, even if things don’t always go quite in his favor.

I even did enjoy some of the life lessons that characters came into the story in order to impart. In fact, I think I would have found all of this far more inspirational if I’d first read the book when I was younger. I don’t think I’m actually cynical now, but all the things about following your dreams and finding omens that will show you what you ought to do and persevering even when times are tough would have been newer to me as ideas and would definitely speak to a young person’s dreams and hopes for the future. I particularly like the idea that one’s Personal Legend, or what one is “supposed” to do, can be the same as one’s dream; if your dream is to be an author, that can actually be your life’s purpose (as ordained by God) rather than something that you just want. Or, finding fulfillment or happiness can help you bring good into the world; you don’t necessarily have to be some kind of suffering martyr.

However, all these directly stated life lessons pale by the ending of the book, which I did appreciate because it was more subtle and what I learned from it was not something a character made a monologue or pithy anecdote about. The climax of the book is, obviously, when the boy turns himself into the wind. This might be somewhat surprising if, as I was, you were somewhat wondering if *everything* was some type of metaphor and the treasure wasn’t real and the alchemist can’t really turn lead into gold, etc. But everything IS real, and that turns out being the beauty of the story in an unexpected way.

I loved the ending of the book (where the boy “finds” the treasure by the Pyramids by meeting someone who tells him it’s actually buried right at home where he started) because I never predicted it, and it’s absolutely hilarious, and it does indicate the journey is worth more than the treasure. And that’s definitely what I learned, not because the boy traveled and saw the world but because he turned himself into the wind and spoke to God. That moment is so wild and unbelievable that it has the magic of making the treasure seem utterly unimportant. Yes, finding the treasure was the boy’s Personal Legend, and he did get it, but Coelho manages to make readers literally not care. The boy is rich and can marry the woman he loves and is happy, but it’s all anticlimactic after the wind scene. It should be satisfying, but in many ways it’s not.

So, I don’t know if I personally came away changed from having read The Alchemist, but I enjoyed it and found it thought-provoking, and I definitely see why so many people love it. (While I can also see why some people don’t!) Either way, I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Briana
4 stars

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Best Day Ever

Information

Goodreads: Best Day Ever
Series: None
Source: ARC (not sure; a giveaway?)
Published: September 19, 2017

Official Summary

I glance at my wife as she climbs into the passenger seat, and I am bursting with confidence. Today will be everything I’ve promised her…and more…

Paul Strom has the perfect life: a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb. And he’s the perfect husband: breadwinner, protector, provider. That’s why he’s planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them. And he’s promised today will be the best day ever.

But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise. How much do they trust each other? And how perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really?

Forcing us to ask ourselves just how well we know those who are closest to us, Best Day Ever crackles with dark energy, spinning ever tighter toward its shocking conclusion. In the bestselling, page-turning vein of The Couple Next Door and The Dinner, Kaira Rouda weaves a gripping, tautly suspenseful tale of deception and betrayal dark enough to destroy a marriage…or a life.

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Review

I’m not usually a reader of thrillers, but I give them a chance if one happens to come my way, but I have to admit that I have yet to be “thrilled.”  Best Day Ever is no exception; sure, it’s a bit creepy that it’s narrated by an abusive husband, but pretty much all the twists and the ending were predictable to me, which meant the psychology was really the only thing left of interest.

Yet I have reservations about that, too.  The author states in a note that she’s intrigued by unreliable narrators, so she was excited to write from the point of view of a guy who tells readers his story while leaving out pertinent information that might make him look bad.  After all, from his perspective, he’s not a villain; he’s a genius, and everything he does to other people is simply something that they deserve.  However, while I’m sure the author did her research into how the minds of people like her narrator work, a lot of it felt contrived to me.  It felt a bit like a woman’s interpretation of how an abusive man would think, and sometimes the detail was so overwhelming that it felt more like information the author was giving rather than something that a person would actually think to themselves.

The other characters are, of course, a bit bland, since the narrator’s whole perspective is that he’s the smart, charming, worthy one, and other people are just background noise who owe him things and deserve punishment when they don’t capitulate.  They’re not really people in his mind, which makes them not really people in the book.  One can see some sparks of life and cleverness in his wife, which is interesting and adds a bit of spice to the story.

Basically, I was underwhelmed.  Best Day Ever puts readers into the mind of a jerk, but that’s all it did for me.  I didn’t find him compelling, and of course reading about his abuse is not exactly what one would call “enjoyable.”  I wasn’t surprised by any of the turns the plot took, so this book kind of just was for me.  It’s fine, but I won’t be recommending it to others.

3 Stars Briana

Taipei by Tao Lin

Taipei by Tao Lin

Information

Goodreads: Taipei
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2013

SummarY

Lacking meaning and direction, Paul goes through the motions of life, failing at relationships, taking increasingly large amounts of drugs, and filming all his interactions in an attempt to make them real.

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Review

Taipei is a very modern book, the type of modern book that assumes that the current generation can all be lumped together into one disillusioned mass.  Life is meaningless, depression universal, and ennui the only constant.  Writing about these things makes your book deep.  This book is perhaps the quintessential “literary fiction,” if the excruciating (yet experimental) prose style does not disqualify it from that label.

One does not read Taipei for the plot, because it barely has one.  Rather, one reads Taipei to feel part of the cultured avant garde.  Perhaps writing about characters who wander around aimlessly having sex and taking increasingly large amounts of drugs is overdone.  But that apparently does not preclude a book from being “deep” and “edgy.”   If it does, Tao Lin chooses to distinguish his book by writing it in a prose style that can perhaps only politely be called “unique.”

If Lin were not a published author, it would be tempting to call his prose “amateur.”  Like many a new writer, he over-describes everything, adding as many adjectives as possible as he goes into excruciating detail about mundane moments.  This is, however, deliberate.  His adjectives tend to be overly clinical and sometimes a little bizarre; he makes the reader feel the weirdness of life, much like his main character Paul.  He even adds everyone’s age after their name (as in Michelle, 21, walked toward Chelsea”) as if writing a movie script.  This gives the reader a sense of removal, of alienation–they are observing life from afar, trying to piece it all together.

The clinical over-descriptions are paired with sentences that run on for ages, usually with clauses modifying nothing else in the sentence.  Rereading the paragraph does nothing to help the reader make sense of it all, because there is no sense.  Again, this seems to mirror Paul’s understanding of life.  He is trying to communicate, trying to find meaning, but there is no meaning for him to find.  He is going through the motions of life and he does not even know why.

The ending of the book might redeem it for some, as it tries to lift Paul out of his depression and give him something to hope for.  Personally, however, I found this to be cheap after a couple hundred pages of watching Paul get high and sabotage every single one of his relationships.  If a book is going to be about the meaningless of it all, I want it to have the guts to maintain that outlook through the end.

Taipei is your typical modern book about characters lacking direction and meaning in life, and turning to substance abuse in an attempt to escape their terrible reality.  Readers who find that sort of thing deep may want to pick up Taipei.  However, I tend to think joy and wonder are more difficult to write than despair–I’ve read too many college pieces on drug usage to be impressed–and I do not relate or subscribe to the idea that life is meaningless.  As a result, I was mainly frustrated by Paul and bored by the book.  I don’t intend to read another Tao Lin book, if I can help it.

2 star review

We Are Here Forever by Michelle Gish (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: We Are Here Forever
Source: BookCon
Series: None
Publication Date: July 30, 2019

Official Summary

A hilarious graphic novel in which the human race has been supplanted by a sweeter, kinder, happier species…but are they as innocent as they seem? In this post-apocalyptic comedy, it’s survival of the cutest!

After the most adorable apocalypse ever, the human race has vanished from the earth, replaced cute, innocent, playful purple creatures called the Puramus. In this hilarious and epic graphic novel, short interlocking stories follow the purple pals as they explore their new home, form a mini-monarchy, and develop a modern society on par with 21st-century humans. A final act pulls us across time and space in the search for clues to the origins of the Puramus. Along the way, humor and intrigue abound: Can King defend his village when nobody understands what war is? Will Jingle work up the nerve to read her poetry at open mic night? Will Puff Puff ever stop floating? Based on the viral Tumblr comic that gained 18,000 followers in just one year, We Are Here Forever is for fans of post-apocalyptic sci-fi blended with dry comedy and undeniable cuteness. Colorful and cartoony art will you rooting for these cute critters through their absurd adventures. But where did they come from, and what happened to all the humans?

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Review

We Are Here Forever is a cute collection of comics about an alien species called the Puramus who inhabit Earth after humans are gone (though the story suggests there was at least a brief period where humans and the Puramus lived together).  The book’s target audience will likely be fans of the web comic (which I have not read and had never heard of before receiving an ARC), but it is completely accessible to readers who have not read the comic before and is worth checking out if you would like a quick, cute read with a subtle undertone of darkness.

“Cute” is definitely going to be the selling point here, as the Puramus are adorable purple creatures who just don’t *quite* understand the world as humans left it.  They clearly speak English but don’t understand a lot of technology or have English words for every object.  They also have a penchant for directly stating their emotions, which is kind of charming, and like to do fun things like make Puramus stacks and go on quests.

The darkness of the book is related to its promise that it will reveal hints about the origins of the Puramus and how they came to live on Earth.  That’s the readers’ perspective.  The mystery from the Puramus point of view is where the humans went.  (This is a bit odd since they seemed to have lived *with* humans briefly, so there are times I think the logic of the comic doesn’t quite come together.  Perhaps it makes more sense in the context of the fuller web comic.)  At any rate, there are some things about the Puramus that are not quite cute that add a bit of edge to the story.

Overall, a quick read I recommend.

4 stars Briana

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

The Bride Test cover

Information

Goodreads: The Bride Test
Series: The Kiss Quotient #2 (companion novel)
Source: Library
Published: May 7, 2019

Official Summary

Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.

With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love.

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Review

I picked up The Bride Test because of the rave reviews, even from readers who normally stick to YA, and because of the enthusiasm I’ve seen from the author’s first book, The Kiss Quotient. Though I’m not normally a romance reader, I found myself agreeing with others that The Bride Test is a fun, feel-good story about two people coming together that also addresses issues of race, culture, and autism. Anyone thinks all romance is fluffy or non-serious would do well to pick up this book.

The premise is a little bit out there—a twenty-three year old women with a young daughter is given the opportunity to fly from Vietnam to America and spend the summer attempting to win the heart of handsome, rich young man whom his mother wants to see settle down. Wild scenarios, however, are part of the fantasy of a lot of romance novels; it’s nice to dream that a kind young woman with lots of potential, who currently cleans rooms at a hotel for a living, might get the opportunity to marry a rich man, get an American education, and provide for her family. So while I would file “flying to America with the money of a woman you don’t know to try to marry her son who doesn’t even want to date” as “definitely sketchy” in real life, it’s certainly an intriguing premise for a novel.

I have to say, however, that I liked all the characters—both the couple and the friends and family—and the general plot, the idea of the romance, more than the actual romance. I wanted the characters to get together because that seemed nice and because both clearly wanted to be with the other, but I’m not sure I felt the chemistry as much as I would like. Chemistry is such a subjective, ethereal thing in novels, though, that it’s hard for me to explain what exactly didn’t click.

However, the details really did make up for it. I loved seeing inside both the protagonists’ minds, one as she navigated falling in love while wanting to feel valued and confident in herself as an individual, the other as he fell in love and constantly denied it due to hang-ups with believing he’s incapable of real emotion (or, emotion as other people often experience it). The book is nuanced and brings a lot of different strands to the character arcs, and it was fun to read.

Admittedly, I don’t think I’m as obsessed with The Bride Test as many, many other readers seem to be. I enjoyed reading it. It’s a strong romance novel. I don’t think I’ll really be going around pushing it on other people and recommending they read it, though. If it seems like your thing, check it out. If not, it’s fine to pass.

4 stars Briana

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle Book Cover by Dave EggersInformation

Goodreads: The Circle
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Official Summary

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world–even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public.

What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge

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Review

I was initially intrigued by this book because it was mentioned in The Bestseller Code: The Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel as, well, a prime example of a bestselling novel.  Apparently, it gets a lot of ingredients right to get people buying it and reading it, everything from focusing on the popular topic of “technology” to having a captivating pace.  Notably, its success  earned it a movie deal in 2017.  Thus, it was with some surprise I found that I didn’t like this novel at all.

Although the novel was published only six years ago and even though the setting seems as if it’s meant to be near-ish future from 2013, parts of the premise and execution feel dated.  Our society is still facing concerns related to the two main ones raised — invasion of privacy and the threat of a single company (Amazon?) becoming an all-powerful monopoly — yet reading a novel fear-mongering about these these seems almost cliche in 2019.  The message also seemed heavy-handed; this is a novel about an idea, a warning that Big Tech and loss of privacy are bad.  Characterization, plot, setting, etc. are all secondary to the message.  So when the message seems like old news?  The book becomes boring.

The heavy-handedness also makes many of the characters irritating (at least to me).  Sure, Eggers strives to give some of them layers, particularly protagonist Mae, but the reality is that most of them are just representing something, almost like a modern-day allegory.  Mae, although she likes kayaking and has a few other interests to make her “real,” is basically the representation of the “average” person; she likes technology but initially doesn’t start out photographing, “zinging” about, or otherwise “sharing” literally every single thing she does.  Then there are the people working at the Circle who want *everything* recorded, the character who hates technology and wants to go off-grid, etc.  And they all make speeches explaining their points of view.  Some write letters.  It’s almost like reading a George Orwell novel with all the monologues about idealogy.  Except more annoying because people keep repeating the idealogy.

Plot-wise, there may be something to the theory that the pacing keeps readers turning pages because I didn’t like the book, but I did finish it–albeit by skimming here and there.  Awkward sex scenes interrupted the pacing rather than helping it (and the asides about characters “ample chests” made me think of all those Twitter and Reddit threads about “men writing women”).  The end is also predictable because, well, the book has one point and one point only to make about the badness of technology developing in this specific way.

So, do I recommend this?  No.  It was a bestseller, but the ratings on Goodreads actually aren’t that generous, and the movie adaptation didn’t fare much better.  The public might interested in technological dystopians and the loss of privacy, and that’s enough to get people to buy the book or pick it up, but the execution just isn’t here.  This book isn’t that good.

2 star reviewBriana

 

Death Comes As the End by Agatha Christie

Death Comes As the End

Information

Goodreads: Death Comes As the End
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1944

Official Summary

In this startling historical mystery, unique in the author’s canon, Agatha Christie investigates a deadly mystery at the heart of a dissonant family in ancient Egypt. Imhotep, wealthy landowner and priest of Thebes, has outraged his sons and daughters by bringing a beautiful concubine into their fold. And the manipulative Nofret has already set about a plan to usurp her rivals’ rightful legacies. When her lifeless body is discovered at the foot of a cliff, Imhotep’s own flesh and blood become the apparent conspirators in her shocking murder. But vengeance and greed may not be the only motives…

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Review

Last year it was announced that the BBC would be adapting Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As the End for a TV miniseries, so of course I had to read the book (even though I am unlikely to actually watch the miniseries….).  I enjoyed both Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None, so I was excited to see what Christie would do with a very different setting–Egypt in 2000 BC.  Christie says in in introduction to the novel that the setting is fairly irrelevant and the mystery could take place anyway (and, to a degree, sure), but I actually think the setting adds a lot in terms of atmosphere and in even in contributing to facets of the mystery.  Death Comes As the End is not necessarily the best Christie book I’ve read so far, but it certainly got me thinking about both who the culprit is and about life and death in general, which I call a success.

The one aspect I didn’t love about the book is that the characters are annoying, with about two of them as an exception.  The “main” character Renisenb isn’t given an exact age, but she says she was married for eight years before recently becoming widowed, though she was close to a child when she was married.  Presumably, this makes her about 22.  Yet she acts and thinks as if she’s 12.  She’s the one character everyone likes, the one everything thinks must be safe because, well, everyone likes her, but she drove me nuts with her simplistic thoughts and dialogue.  Though she left home, married, had a child, and lived her own life, she seems baffled by obvious facts of life like “people change” and “not everyone is what they seem.”  She’s immature, and frankly not believable as a character in her young twenties.  I’d say she’s so initialized that it’s almost insulting to women, but Christie can and does write more mature and complex female characters, so presumably she just wanted the main character here to be wildly naive.

Most of the other characters are equally irritating–often, intentionally, it’s true.  For example, Renisenb’s father is a pompous old man who like to talk about his own importance, hoard authority for himself, and constantly remind his children how much they depend on him.  Bringing home a concubine younger than his own daughter, the impetus for the plot, is indicative of his character.  In a book where I suspected a bunch of people were going to die, I was sort of hoping that some of them would, so I wouldn’t have to read about them anymore.  A sharp-witted grandmother and a perceptive family employee helped make the cast of characters more bearable, however.

I also did like the setting, and while Christie is perhaps correct that the mystery did not have to take place in Ancient Egypt, I think it helped.  This setting allows for things like the complex relationship between life and death related to the Egyptian culture, as well as for the specific family dynamics of an estate where multiple generations live together and for the complicated role of women, who don’t have obvious power but must grasp and wield it where they can.  All these things allow for various suspects and various motives related to the mystery.

As for the mystery itself, I did not solve it.  I think there are adequate clues that a reader who wanted to probably could (I’ve seen other reviews where people said they did).  I must personally not be great at being a detective, but I had a fun time trying to parse out what was happening and why.

Altogether, this is definitely worth a read for any Christie fan or mystery fans

4 stars Briana

Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen (ARC Review)

Park Avenue Summer

INformation

Goodreads: Park Avenue Summer
Series: None
Source: Giveaway
Publication Date: April 30,2019

Official Summary

Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada as Renée Rosen draws readers into the glamour of 1965 New York City and Cosmopolitan Magazine, where a brazen new Editor-in-Chief–Helen Gurley Brown–shocks America by daring to talk to women about all things off limits…

New York City is filled with opportunities for single girls like Alice Weiss who leaves her small Midwestern town to chase her big city dreams and unexpectedly lands the job of a lifetime working for Helen Gurley Brown, the first female Editor-in-Chief of a then failing Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Nothing could have prepared Alice for the world she enters as editors and writers resign on the spot, refusing to work for the woman who wrote the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. While confidential memos, article ideas, and cover designs keep finding their way into the wrong hands, someone tries to pull Alice into this scheme to sabotage her boss. But Alice remains loyal and becomes all the more determined to help Helen succeed. As pressure mounts at the magazine and Alice struggles to make her way in New York, she quickly learns that in Helen Gurley Brown’s world, a woman can demand to have it all.

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Review

Park Avenue Summer is an interesting fictionalized account of the first months that Helen Gurley Brown took over a dying Cosmopolitan magazine and, against the wishes of Hearst executives, turned it from a women’s magazine about the home into one about sex and relationships.  The protagonist is actually Alice, Helen’s new secretary who is completely unqualified for the position but gets it through personal connections (such is the world of publishing, I supposed).  However, though the book does deal with Alice’s personal life including her friendships, sexual flings as she tries being a modern girl who has sex without ties just for fun, and her family secrets, the book really does revolve all around Gurley Brown and her vision for Cosmopolitan, and readers get a sense of how Alice is sucked into a mentality of “work and the magazine before all else,” trapped in the cult of Helen Gurley Brown, a bit like in The Devil Wears Prada.

My personal issue with the main tension of the book being “Will the new, sexy magazine succeed?” is that I didn’t really care either way.  Rosen does a fantastic job of portraying Helen as the underdog fighting an entire executive board, even an entire industry to launch a “modern” magazine for “her girls” that will touch on topics that are rather taboo.  When readers see how far people (mostly men) go to sabotage her, her career, and the magazine (which Hearst actually wants to fold, not revive, as they stated when they hired Gurley Brown), they won’t be able to help rooting for her.  However, beyond the “I like when underdogs win” feeling, I wasn’t invested in either Gurley Brown or her vision.

Alice talks about Gurley Brown as if she’s a force of nature, strong-willed and able to get her way even when people don’t want to give it to her.  However, those moment are represented rarely in the book.  Instead we see her crying (fair, considering what people are doing to her), calling other female employees things like “pussycat” (which seems the opposite of empowering), and, worst of all, frequently calling her husband to bail her out.  She got the job through her husband’s influence, then she calls him every time something goes wrong. She leaves the office to spend time with him so he can calm her down.  He is at every restaurant she hosts an important meeting at, ready to bail her out.  He writes parts of the magazine and solves her problems for her.  There’s nothing wrong with relying on a spouse for support, but I don’t know how much Gurley Brown was a strong, insightful woman with a vision. vs. a woman with a powerful, confident husband who did half her work for her.

I also balked at really rooting for the vision of the magazine.  Gurley Brown talks a lot about the modern, career-oriented woman and how she wants to help them (ok, “her girls”) succeed, but none of the stories she pitches are ever about careers or general empowerment. She tells Hearst executives that she’s going to write about how to touch a woman’s breasts, how to best masturbate, how to have an affair with a married man, etc.  Every other word out of her mouth was about having sex and sexual pleasure.  Being sex positive is one thing, but I could kind of see why the other magazine employees thought she was crazy and incredibly vulgar.  She seems more sex-obsessed than interested in actual female empowerment.

The fact I didn’t personally like Helen Gurley Brown or her vision for Cosmopolitan doesn’t mean the book was bad, of course.  I don’t need to find characters likable or relatable.  However, I do think the book struggled with the balance of focusing on Gurley Brown vs. focusing on the actual protagonist.  Alice herself is, frankly, a bit dull.  She gets all of her big breaks from nepotism, which is irritating, but, worse than that, she’s a bit dull.  Things seem to happen to her or at her, rather than because she herself took any action.  If she weren’t working for Gurley Brown and getting dragged into things bigger than herself because of luck and personal connections, she’d be incredibly uninteresting.

So, as a story, I think Park Avenue Summer is a bit dry. As an account of an interesting period in the magazine industry and the history of Cosmopolitan in particular, it’s worth a read if you don’t know much about this topic.

3 Stars Briana

The Dwarf Name Generator

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts and interviews!


Middle-Earth Dwarf Name Generator

Find your Dwarf name by following the directions below!

Pick the first letter of your middle name to discover your name.

A: Fundin
B: Grór
C: Thorin
D: Farin
E: Nain
F: Azaghâl
G: Frór
H: Dain
I:  Frár
J: Mim
K: Borin
L: Nori
M: Bombur
N:  Telchar
O: Durin
P: Náin
Q: Dwalin
R: Frerin
S: Dís
T: Gloin
U: Dori
V: Bifur
W: Kili
X: Ori
Y: Fili
Z: Lóni

Pick your favorite number to discover your title.

1. Ironhelm
2. Silvershield
3. the Craftsman
4. Stonehelm
5. the Matchless
6. Oakenshield
7.  the Smith
8. the Deathless
9. the Broad
10. Ironfoot
11. the Mighty
12. Heavy-Handed
13. the Skilled

Pick your favorite color to discover your home.

Red: Iron Hills
Orange: Dunland
Yellow: The Blue Mountains
Green: Erebor
Blue: The Glittering Caves
Purple: Khazad-dûm
Black: Gundabad
White: Belegost
Brown: The Grey Mountains
Pink: Nogrod

What’s Your Dwarf name? Tell us in the comments!

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