2023 Pet of the Year Contest

Five picks for October

Cindy Burnett
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WHAT TO READ This month’s selections include a witty science fiction take on supervillains, a look at the rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, a historical Georgian saga, a fascinating glimpse into the impact of our obsession with true crime, and a historical mystery set in Philadelphia. (Photo: Cindy Burnett)

Buzz Reads is a column about books by reviewer Cindy Burnett. Each month, Cindy recommends five recently or soon-to-be released titles.

A Beautiful Rival: A Novel of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden by Gill Paul (historical fiction) – A Beautiful Rival chronicles the bitter feud between two beauty industry giants, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, the women responsible for launching the cosmetics industry we know today. Alternating between the two women’s points of view, Paul tells each woman’s story and then paints a vivid picture of their rivalry: copying products and ad campaigns, poaching employees, planting spies, spreading rumors, and more. Both women were extremely driven and motivated to succeed, sometimes no matter the cost, personal or professional. So much history is woven into the tale as the two women kept their businesses afloat during two world wars and the Great Depression. Paul has another winner on her hands as she continues to highlight strong historical women.

Kill Show by Daniel Sweren-Becker (mystery) – Structured in transcript format, Kill Show is set 10 years after a 16-year-old girl goes missing and the circus that ensued after a true crime show comes to town to try to “help” find the girl. The tale is relayed through “interviews” with all of the key participants in the tragedy and demonstrates how Hollywood and others exploit these tragedies for entertainment purposes. It is a compelling story that is also a commentary on the true crime industry, its dark underbelly, the lives that end up ruined by all of these amateur sleuths and online shaming, and why the country’s fascination with it is often problematic. Sweren-Becker says of the inspiration for the book: “I’m fascinated by our national obsession with true crime. How do we detach from the horrific facts to find it entertaining? How do people doing this professionally sleep at night?” Kill Show is a massive page turner and very thought provoking; I highly recommend this brief but powerful novel.

Murder by Degrees by Ritu Mukerji (historical mystery) – Set in 1875 Philadelphia, this stellar debut follows Dr. Lydia Weston, a professor at Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Anna, a patient Dr. Weston has been seeing in the college’s affiliated outpatient clinic, shows up one evening in a manic state and then disappears just as quickly. Lydia is dismayed to learn that Anna’s body was subsequently dredged out of the Schuylkill River, and her death deemed a suicide. Certain Anna’s death could not be a suicide, Lydia insists on participating in the postmortem, after which she is drawn into the investigation of her demise. Mukerji creates a strong sense of time and place as well as crafting realistic and authentic characters. She vividly depicts Lydia’s medical procedures and examinations as well as what it would be like to work as a female doctor during this time period. The crime will keep you guessing until the last pages – the best kind of mystery.

The Square of Sevens by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (historical fiction) – This multilayered, gothic historical saga is structured around cartomancy, telling fortunes using the ancient Square of Sevens method. The structure of the book itself is built around the Square of Sevens, with each chapter assigned a significant card with an explanation about the significance of that card. The story opens with 7-year-old Red traveling from place to place with her Cornish father, a “cunning” man who tells fortunes using the ancient Square of Sevens to make a living. Shortly before he dies, her father entrusts her care as well as an ancient Square of Sevens document to a gentleman to raise her. Eventually, Red’s desire to understand her past leads her on a journey across England to solve the mystery of her origins. This lengthy novel (it runs over 500 pages) incorporates history, twists and turns, cartomancy, intrigue and drama into a well-structured and clever tale with a fabulous ending.

Starter Villain by John Scalzi (science fiction) – John Scalzi’s latest novel is an engaging and witty romp starring Charlie Fitzer, an ex-journalist working as a substitute teacher, who discovers that his estranged uncle has died and left him his supervillain business. Suddenly, Charlie is thrown into the world of comical James-Bond-style villain societies, talking cats, laser death rays, dolphin labor disputes, a volcano island lair, and lots of double and triple twists. The book is chock-full of laugh-out-loud dialogue as well as Scalzi’s thoughts on modern day billionaires and who is actually running the world, making this both an enjoyable and intriguing read. This is a short book that will appeal to a wide range of readers; I highly recommend it. Note: Readers who aren’t usually drawn to science fiction may want to give this a try; it’s not heavy on the sci-fi and is a fun read.  

Editor’s note: Southside Place resident Cindy Burnett also writes our weekly Page Turners column. She hosts the Thoughts from a Page Podcast, is co-creator of the Houston literary event series Conversations from the Page, runs the Instagram account @thoughtsfromapage, and regularly speaks to groups about books.

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