Unfinished Business by Roxanne Hensley

Happy New Year, everybody! Do any of you have any literary-themed resolutions to tackle in 2020? I’m all about setting achievable goals like eating more chocolate and reading more books that make me happy. My big challenge this year is to read at least half a dozen classics  starting with Little Women. I’m about halfway through and boy is it ever so charming.

Speaking of feel-good books, I would like to introduce you to Roxanne Hensley, a brand new author who is ready to become the next Kristin Hannah–or maybe even Nora Roberts! Hmm…perhaps I should suggest she write a steamy vampire romance trilogy.

But I digress. Without further ado, here’s my review of her debut book Unfinished Business.  If you’re looking for an uplifting read to start off the new year, this is it!

The gist: Adrian, a high-powered career gal, abandons her corporate job and city lifestyle to take care of her ailing mother in the wake of a horrific car crash. Throughout her journey of self-discovery, she makes new friends–including a most handsome eligible bachelor–and reconnects with her cantankerous mother.

What I liked:  Grab you popcorn and a cuddly blanket because this book is the literary equivalent of a Hallmark romance movie, only with much better, more likable actors. If I could choose just one thing to highlight it would be the pacing. Almost every chapter ends with a “WTF!” ending, leaving me with no other option but to keep zipping through the pages until I know that things are going to end up rosy for poor Adrian, who just keeps getting hit with one bombshell after another.

What needs work: There were some moments when Adrian and her mother could’ve had some knock-down-drag-out fights, but they resolved their tiffs a little too quickly. The mother was a real pistol, so I know she had it in her to smash a glass against a wall or–at the very least–smash a magic brownie (yes, those are involved!) in her daughter’s face. Or maybe this is just me speaking from my own personal experiences. Let me tell you, the struggle was real back in the day.

Most favorite character: I appreciate Adrian in many, many ways. Life threw her some curve balls–big time–and she just kept forging onward. Given the circumstances, she could’ve justifiably turned away from her mother, but she chose the high road instead. This, of course, is not necessarily the best route to take for everyone (toxic is toxic!), but the mom had some redeemable qualities and by the end of the book, she actually started to grow on me.

Overall opinion: This is a quality read for anyone who enjoys a good story about self-discovery, forgiveness and second chances. There’s also a sweet romance thrown in the mix! Fans of Kristin Hannah and Susan Mallery are sure to enjoy this one.

 

CeeCee’s Book of the Month: Making it Rain in Texas


Well howdy there, folks! Are you ready for a rootin’ tootin’ good time deep in the heart of the Lone Star State? Well saddle on up to the couch, grab yourself a Shiner brewski and crack open (or tap your screen) this wild ride of a Texas mystery!


The gist: Book five of the Al Quinn mystery series is one heck of a roller coaster ride—chock full of gun-toting con artists and car chases across the scorching Hill Country landscape. In this latest installment, our hapless hero Al must track down a rather talented con artist, trap a goat-killing Chupacabra and sort out his feelings for Fergie (the love of his life who has been waiting too dang long for that ring).

What I liked: This book begins and ends with a bang—and I couldn’t rip through the chapters fast enough. I felt like I was right there with Al and Fergie while they were running from the bad guys—with a few touristy pit stops along the way. I especially liked the scene at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company—my most favorite touristy restaurant in Texas German country! As they say, write what you know, and Russ Hall knows the Texas Hill Country like the back of his hand. Interested in learning more about Texas Germans? Check out my magazine story here.

Thoughts on character development: I’ve been following this colorful cast of characters since To Hell and Gone in Texas (book one in the series), and they just keep getting more interesting. I like my protagonists a little on the messy side. They need to have some character flaws and terrible habits–because how else am I supposed to relate?! Needless to say, Al has issues, especially with his brother, Maury, who did a very bad deed back in the day– a real deal breaker, if you ask me. Yet despite his misgivings, I can’t help but to like him, dammit!  As the books progress, it’s interesting to see how their relationship evolves. Even more interesting is Al and Fergie’s blossoming romance. Will they get past their commitment issues and finally tie the knot? Guess we’ll have to keep reading to find out!

What needs work: More dog action, please! Tanner got very little airtime in this book and it would’ve been great if he could ride shotgun–or maybe just drive the car– in the next novel.  Also, I love that Fergie is a fearless, gun-toting Texas woman, but she does a whole lot of, “Where we going next, Al? What’s happening now?” Next time, let’s get her in the driver’s seat. I bet she’d take Al on one heck of a thrill ride!

A word of warning: Be sure to clear your schedule when you get down to the last few chapters. When it hits the fan, it REALLY hits the fan and you won’t be able to stop reading until the very end! Thanks, Mister Hall, for almost sending me and my palpitating heart to the ER! I’m exaggerating…but only slightly. 😉

Summed up: Another solid action thriller that is sure to please fans of old school Rick Riordan (Tres Navarre, I miss you!).

CeeCee’s Book of the Month: Fatal Cajun Festival by Ellen Byron

CeeCee and I love zydeco music, gumbo and scrumptious pralines! So naturally, we just had to read this fun little whodunit set in the one of our most favorite fictional Southern towns, which could quite possibly be the murder capital of Louisiana. As expected, this newest installment of the Cajun Country Mysteries proved to be another fast-paced adventure filled with live boot-scootin’ music, scrumptious Southern cooking and a dash of romance as steamy as a pot of Tugg’s famous jambalaya! Will we see wedding bells in the next book? I hope so!

Summed Up: Maggie Crozat is on the case once again—and this time it’s happening at a music festival starring the illustrious Tammy Barker, a small town mean girl-turned country sensation superstar (think Taylor Swift meet Miley Cyrus…yuck).  The mystery begins when Tammy’s sleazy manager gets zapped to death on stage, and all eyes are on Maggie’s best bud, Gaynell!  It’s up to Maggie to piece together the clues (with her hunky cop boyfriend, of course) to find the real killer before her songbird bestie becomes a jailbird. Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.

What worked: The mystery proved to be quite a puzzle with loads of suspects who all have ample motives for electrocuting the womanizing manager. As with all cozy mysteries, there’s a tangled web of characters thrown into this big ol’ spicy pot of jambalaya, but thankfully we have a character map at the front of the book to sort them all out. I’m sure that all my fellow cozy mystery lovers would agree that this is a highly necessary tool. Either way, this was another clever whodunit with a surprise ending—even for this seasoned mystery fan.

What didn’t work: I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of the sub-plot involving Maggie’s granny doing her “death cleaning,” meaning downsizing her belongings to prepare for the great beyond. I know it’s practical and worth doing, but yeah…it made me squeamish.

Favorite Character:  CeeCee and I love a strong, dog-loving heroine with a penchant for mischief! What we love most about Maggie is her loyalty to her friends and family. Gaynell is a lucky girl to have such a talented super sleuth for a bestie. Let’s face it, in a town with such a high body count, you just never know what’s going to happen!

Least favorite character: Tammy Barker is—hands down—the most deplorable character in this book. She’s everything that’s wrong with country-crossover-pop music these days, and I couldn’t wait for her to become the next victim. Did she end up on the killer’s hit list? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

This book is best pared with: A giant homemade praline and a cold glass of sweet tea.

Mandatory disclaimer: I got an advance copy for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Stephen King’s ‘Pet Sematary’ Reviewed by a Crazy Cat Lady

Message from Lil Bootz: SPAY AND NEUTER YOUR PETS! Seriously, it’s not that hard.

First off, Lil Bootz wants to note that ALL of this madness could’ve been avoided if these two bonehead pet owners fixed their tomcat ahead of time and didn’t let him roam free range!!! For Christ’s sake, they moved to a rural farmhouse that sits atop a major  thoroughfare for speeding truckers! How did this guy get through medical school?

While I’m on my soapbox, PLEASE do not adopt an animal for your child. If you’re not an animal lover, just buy the kid a stuffed animal and call it a day. It doesn’t end well, folks. Children have short attention spans and when the novelty wears off, the poor animal ends up living an ignored, lonely life.

If you’re still reading this, I just want to thank you for letting me indulge. I volunteer for a local No Kill shelter and have a lot of angst. As for the story, this is on my Top Ten List of Creepiest Books on Earth. If you saw the Hollywood adaptations and assume the book is redundant, think again!!!

The movies are fun and campy, but they completely skip over the scariest parts of the story. For instance, Hollywood did a real botch job on the Mikmac burial ground. It’s not just a hop-skip-and-jump away from the Pet Sematary.  Nope, you have to do some serious hiking and mountain climbing to get to that soured land where dead things are resurrected by the “Great and Terrible Oz.”There are also things with hooves and horns lurking within the shadows, watching and waiting for the unspeakable necromancy to unfold.  It was one thing when Judd took Louis there at dusk, when the night creatures started to stir. But the creep-factor ratcheted up about 10 knots when the idiot doctor made the trek alone in the dead of night with his dead son.

“Now the thing out there seemed so close that Louis expected to see its shape at any moment, rising up on two legs, perhaps, blotting out the stars with some unthought-of, Immense and shaggy body.” Then, “a shrill, maniacal laugh came out of the darkness, rising and falling in hysterical cycles, loud, piercing, chilling.”

The best, most creepiest part happened on Louis’ solo mission, when he started seeing and hearing the dark entity that ruled the land where no man should roam. Leave it to the King to deliver scares that can shake even the most jaded horror movie fans! Needless to say, I’m in awe.

You know what else is missing from the movies? The foreshadowing! Good ol’ Judd spins some foreboding yarns about the fabled Wendigo that is rumored to roam the woods at night. He knows quite a bit about this place because he, too, has been ensnared by its dark forces.

 “Don’t go beyond, no matter how much you feel you need to, Doctor. The barrier was not made to be broken. Remember this: there is more power here than you know. It is old and always restless. Remember.”

You know, while watching the movie (the old one with Herman Munster playing Judd), I always wondered what compelled the kindly old man to take Louis up to the Pet Sematary. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that my questions have been answered.

As for Louis and Rachael, I’m not too torn up about their demise.  A LOT of bad decisions led them to that point. Also, they were so mean to poor little Church–in life and in death. The poor little guy kept getting kicked and flung out of rooms just for existing. My heart went out to the undead critter because he didn’t ask for that afterlife. Zombie cats need love too, people!

 “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.”

Like Dr. Frankenstein, Luis thoughtlessly brought a life (well, sort of) into the world without any plan to nurture it. Clearly Judd’s admonition fell onto deaf ears. Let me put it this way, Luis isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer…ooh perhaps that’s a bad choice of words.

Reader beware: This book is incredibly dark, so I highly recommend cleansing your palate with a light and fluffy beach read. I honestly don’t know how Stephen King could put himself in such a dark place for so long while writing this book. There are a LOT of really uncomfortable conversations about death and evil entities lurking in the hereafter. At one point, I had to take an intermission just to stop my imagination from wandering down the dark and twisted rabbit hole that Stephen King so willingly plunges into while writing these page-turners. As I said, I’m in awe.

Now I’m off to go read a magical cat mystery with baked goodies and hot detectives. Meow!

 

CeeCee’s Book of the Month: The House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin Craig


A big thanks to Delacorte Press for granting me a free advanced copy of this fantastical book that has all the makings of the next big Guillermo del Toro movie! I was getting some Crimson Peak vibes with a dash of Disney princess magic! After reading the premise on NetGalley, I was all in. How could I resist a Gothic mystery packed with mournful ghosts, dashing suitors and fantastical masquerade balls?

Set in a land far, far away, the story follows a beautiful young maiden, Annaleigh, who lives with her litter of sisters in a stately manor overlooking the sea. The story begins with a seaside funeral for one of several sisters who have fallen victim to the dreaded curse. Year after year, the girls are forced to dress in black as they mourn the fallen ones who left the ethereal world to be with Pontus, the God of the high seas.

Trapped beneath the dark cloud of impending doom, the girls live solitary, sheltered lives within the walls of Highmoor manor. No suitor will dare to go near them in fear of becoming ensnared by evil forces. Thing get spooky when ghostly apparitions start beckoning to the girls at night, reminding them that death is near.

With an absentee father and a very pregnant stepmother running the show, Annaleigh must take it upon herself to root out the origin of the curse before tragedy strikes again. When she and her sisters discover a magical passageway to a mysterious land of never-ending masquerade parties, more nefarious characters enter the scene. Like Dorothy entering the land of color, the girls shed their mourning clothes and immerse themselves in the enchanting party scene–replete with with twinkling fairy lights, dashing mystery men and bottomless champagne flutes.

It’s all fun and games until Annaleigh’s sisters start dancing their lives away, shredding all of their fancy shoes night after night after night. After a creepy encounter with a sinister masked man, Annaleigh, she hangs up her tattered dancing shoes and sets forth on a mission to vanquish the family curse.

I won’t spoil the fun by going any further, but I will say that this is a solid mystery with a couple unexpected plot twists! The mystery and the characters–even the evildoers–were great, but what sets this book apart from the rest is the setting..  I just loved envisioning the Gothic manor set atop a craggy, salty landscape overlooking the choppy ocean. The feeling of isolation adds to the spook-factor when the ghosts make themselves known within the dark, cavernous rooms. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys those twisted tales by the Brother’s Grimm. Here’s hoping for a sequel!

Four Paws Up for Tia Torres’ ‘My Life Among the Underdogs’

I’m amazed this book came out because Tia Torres—in the living, breathing, flesh—told me that she’s a private person and that a memoir would never happen. I’d love to post a photo of Tia and myself at her speaking event, but sadly my tech neophyte husband had some difficulties with my phone. Needless to say, I’m still a little bit of a salty dog about that. But don’t worry, Tia. One way or another, I will find you! Hmm…that sounded a little creepy, didn’t it?

Either way, I’m SO happy she finally shared her story in this slim volume chronicling all of the special dogs she loved and lost. That said, grab some tissues because every chapter ends with the inevitable conclusion we all fear in dog books. If this wasn’t penned by Miss Torres—my idol, my moral compass, my muse—I would give it a hard pass due to the pain that comes with saying goodbye. But I’m glad I stuck it through because I learned so much about Tia’s journey from wolf rescuer to Hollywood animal trainer to her own Pit Bulls and Parolees rescue/TV show. Wow—what a ride!

The best way to read this book is via audio because Tia narrates the story herself! I’ve always been curious about her family life and had a theory that her parents failed her. This seems to be the case for a lot of us dog rescue diehards—myself included—and sure enough, my theory was correct. She had her ups and downs while growing up in East LA (again, relatable) but yet, somewhere along the way she discovered her higher purpose. That, right there, is one of life’s little miracles.

Let me tell you, this woman is incredible. I’m just amazed at how someone from a hard-scrabble background could have the time, energy and resources to build the nation’s largest pit bull rescue ranch. This is an accomplishment I could only fantasize about—but she just went and did it! Not only is she rescuing thousands of dogs’ lives, she’s also rescuing the humans that society has thrown away. She is virtually lifting up, rescuing and rehabilitating traumatized—not to mention stigmatized—dogs and humans. Give this woman a Nobel Peace Prize, please.

My only disappointment is that this book didn’t delve into the parolees aspect of her story, probably because that journey needs to be told in a separate book.  I would’ve loved to have learned more about some of the longtime parolees-turned dog rescue heroes. Several of whom have gone on to live happy, successful lives after they left the ranch. I’m much more interested in dogs than humans, but let me tell you, it’s Niagra Falls when I watch the former parolees thanking Tia at their weddings. And then there’s her two twin sons whom she rescued from a terrible family situation that, of course, she didn’t delve into out of respect for their privacy. That chapter really tore me up because her love for them, and vice versa,  is truly beautiful. I’m not ashamed to say that when I talked to my therapist about this book, I cried like a little baby when I mentioned this part.

If you guys haven’t watched the show, get on your DVR and record the series right now! This book and the TV series is everything the world needs right now. It’s disheartening when I speak to seemingly educated people about pit bulls and they shock me with ridiculous statements like, “I could never trust one with my kids,” or “they are bred to fight.”

Hmph! I will not get on my soapbox and rant about the horrors of breed discrimination, but I will say that it needs to stop right now. Tia and her kids (aka “skin-babies”) are doing an amazing job debunking all of the false beliefs people hold against these “muscle dogs.” Just read the chapter about her youngest daughter taking a bubbly bath with her new best friend—a pit bull that was just pulled off the streets—and maybe your perception will change. I hope it will.

There’s a lot of great dog stories in this book—from the ill-fated J-Lo music video (LOL!) to Blue’s last final farewell at Tania’s wedding. She had me in tatters at, “Til death do us part.” As with everything in life, there’s a lot of joy and pain that comes along with dog rescue—but boy is it all worth it. As they say, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

On that note, I’ll just say this book gets four paws up! Watch the show, read the book, send them money and hug your dog every chance you get.

Starts with a Kiss by Russ Hall

I just took a trip to my favorite little R&R spot on the Texas coast and decided to take this scandalous read along with me. There aren’t any magical crime-solving cats or amateur sleuths caught in love triangles, so this isn’t really the kind of book I’d choose for myself. But sometimes it’s good to try something new and different.

The word “different” is a good description for this book since the storyline is a departure from the standard beach-read thriller.  It’s really more of a character sketch of a very complicated young guy (unfortunately named Dudie) who’s navigating apartment life with a sociopathic, nymphomaniac roommate named Barrett,  and a slew of horny housewives.

As traveling salesmen, they spend their weekdays lounging around the apartment complex pool, where all the desperate housewives in string bikinis flirt shamelessly with Barrett. Of course, the husbands aren’t too jazzed about all this and, well you can imagine how it all comes to a head.

The story is a little odd, but I couldn’t stop reading due to the “Why” factor. I just kept asking, “Why tiptoe around a small apartment full of naked people when you can just move? Why hole yourself up in a pup-tent to drown out the boom-boom noises?” I cringe just thinking about the germs alone. Yeesh.

Either way, Dudie’s sticking it out at the cesspool of adultry because he’s oddly devoted to his frienemy roommate. But mostly he’s got this weird voyeuristic habit of watching the scandalous events unfold.  Poor Dudie doesn’t have much of a personal life, which we get to learn more about in bits and pieces throughout the book. I found him to be extremely frustrating, a little creepy, and oddly endearing. Despite my misgivings about this young, tragic character, his observations about human nature were spot on.

“…When I started my career in sales, I wasn’t a good listener. None of us are. We like ourselves too much. The big leap is forcing yourself to close the mouth, stare back at the other person and embrace the spirit of the other person talking–that is, get what the person is about; the words behind the words. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Then why do so many people fail?”

Despite my love/hate relationship with Dudie, I had to keep watching the train wreck unfold—and boy does it ever go up in flames! I’ll stop right here before I give it all away, but I will say that the last chapter left me with more questions than answers, which makes me wonder if there’ll be a sequel.

The Painted Ladies by Sylvia Dickey Smith

I have been a Sidra Smart Mystery fan since book one, so when this lovely author offered to send me a copy of her newest installment, I told her, “GIMMIE!” I love this series because it’s a departure from the tried-and-true cozy formula. You know the drill: wayward 30-something single gal in a small, touristy town finds a dead body and searches for clues with the hunky town sheriff. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy these formulaic thrillers; I just need a break from the monotony every once in a while.

Enter Sidra Smart! Unlike her young, single, unlucky-in-love counterparts, she’s a little older and wiser than the average sleuth. I hazard to say she’s on par with the great J.B. Fletcher!  You won’t find any love triangles or hunky detectives nagging her to stay out of the way.  Sidra’s not wasting her time with all that bologna. She’s a one-woman-show…well that’s if you’re not counting her ghostly brother and her pup Slider. And in this book, she’s got a mystery to solve on two planes: the earthly world and the great beyond.

It all begins when a newly orphaned young woman named Belle  enlists Sidra’s help in discovering the mysteries behind her mother’s three historic houses in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Why would her mother keep those beautiful “Painted Ladies” under wraps for all these years? And why didn’t her father—a mega-church preacher/conman—ever mention this little family secret? Now the sole heir of her parents’ assets, Belle must get to the bottom of this mystery to discover what lies beneath her family’s gleaming facade.

Together, Belle and Sidra grab their pups and embark on a road trip from Dallas to Hot Springs. Side note: I’ve visited this charming little town and absolutely loved revisiting the historic bath houses, kitschy tourist shops and gangster museums through Sidra’s eyes. After reading this, I’m going to bug Jarred into taking me back there so I can prowl around the majestic Arlington Hotel with my ghost radar app!

Back to the story! So along their journey, they meet some colorful characters, including a reclusive old woman who lives alone in a hut-like cottage near the three Painted Ladies. While speaking with the locals, Bella and Sidra learn that these houses have quite the reputation! Don’t be fooled by their cheery, colorful exteriors, they aren’t happy about visitors and they’ll let you know when it’s time to get out! In fact, the Painted Ladies have voices and personalities of their own–and boy can those walls talk!  This time, someone is going to stick around long enough to hear them out. It’s going to take a lot more than a few bumps in the night to scare Sidra Smart away!

I’ll stop right here before I give away any spoilers, but I will say that you’ll learn some fun trivia facts about Hot Springs history. And while unearthing (literally) clues to Bella’s family history, Sidra discovers a doozy about her own lineage as well. Oh such fun!

A big thanks to Miss Dickey Smith for sending me a free copy in return for an honest review. It was a pleasure, as always, accompanying Sidra and her hound Slider on their latest adventure. I look forward to the next installment and hope to see more of the new ghostly sidekick since I’m not sure if this entity is a friend or foe!

The World Breaks Everyone by Lauren Clark

When this author offered me a free copy of her new mystery set in New Orleans, I couldn’t say, “Yes please!” fast enough!  I’ve always been fascinated with this beautifully haunted city filled with smokey blues joints and creepy above-ground cemeteries shrouded in Spanish moss.  I could do without the half naked, bead-throwing party revelers, but supposedly it’s all a part of the city’s grimy charm. Either way, NOLA is the perfect setting for vampires, shape-shifters and things that go bump in the night. You won’t find anything paranormal in this book, but there are definitely some monsters of the human variety.

It all begins at a swanky restaurant opening in the midst of Mardi Gras week. Everything is champagne and roses until the guests leave and all hell breaks loose. Theo, the sexy restaurateur with a haunted past, disappears and his teenage daughter, Olivia,  is forced to go on the run. Meanwhile, Theo’s girlfriend is caught in the middle of some serious family drama involving Olivia’s highfalutin control freak grandmother. They all have secrets that slowly unravel as the chapters progress.

So many sketchy characters, so much drama, so much deception and manipulation! This seriously needs to made into a Lifetime movie—asap!

I’ve been following Lauren Clark’s writing career since her very first romance novel, which was quite impressive for a rookie author. This book, however, is her best work yet! Not all writers can capture the eccentric charm and mystique of New Orleans, but this author managed to transport me to the land of bustling streetcars, historic mansions and smoky blues joints.

While traveling alongside Olivia on her misadventures across the city, I could practically smell the creole spices wafting from the French Quarter restaurants and taste the powdered sugar fat bombs at the iconic Cafe Du Monde. To that I raise my obnoxiously tall hurricane sippy cup to you, Miss Clark, for transporting me to my favorite tourist trap on earth! Although…it’s kind of your fault that I made some unnecessary trips to the local bakery to get my King Cake fix!

So grab yourself some chicory coffee or a hurricane (I’m not one to judge!), crank up some zydeco classics and sink into this book. If you, like me, enjoy atmospheric mysteries with a touch of Danielle Steele-esque drama, you won’t’ be disappointed.

CeeCee’s Cozy Christmas Corner


I’ve been a busy bee this holiday season reading more books than I can possibly review in this lifetime! And though Christmas is over, you can still enjoy the festive season all year round with these mysteries and romances filled with murder, mayhem and stolen kisses under the mistletoe! That’s the magic of reading. No matter where—or when—we are in life, we can always transport ourselves through books! All it takes is a quick stop at the library or bookshop to map out a destination. This year, CeeCee and I traveled across the globe—sometimes back in time—through these glorious reads. Here, she is spotlighting some highlights and lowlights from our travels. So sit back, grab some spiked cider and enjoy our annual holiday reading roundup!

Murder, She Wrote: Manhattans & Murder

I’ve read a lot of fabulous Murder She Wrote books but this one might just be the best! Once again, the perennially classy JB Fetcher is the first to witness a multitude of murder scenes during her glamorous book tour in Manhattan. What a glamourous life she leads! We’re talking interviews with the New York Times and one-on-ones with Oprah and Donahue. In between press conferences and book signing events, she was pulling off some cloak-and-dagger stunts in the bellows of New York’s seediest neighborhoods as she pursued her mission to solve the mystery of the gunned-down sidewalk Santa. And this wasn’t just some random stranger peddling for loose change on the busy New York streets. Oh no–he was, in fact, one of Cabot Cove’s most infamous residents who fled the town in disgrace after an ill-fated drug-smuggling operation. And just by some stroke of luck, JB happened to be taking random tourist photos right when the murder went down. I mean, what are the odds? If I didn’t love her so much, I’d tell people to avoid her like the 2017 flu because she’s essentially the harbinger of death. Either way, I got a kick out of this book–especially the part when the media dubbed her as the “Madame of Mayhem.” Even in the age of fake news, it’s impossible to deny the truth to that story. Summed up, this is one of the best Christmas cozies I’ve read in a while, mainly because JB is such a delight and that there’s so much action packed into this fun adventure—from death-defying plane rides to corner store holdups!

Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

I had to buy—not download—this book because the cover is gorgeous and there’s even illustrated maps of the Cambridge campus! Needless to say, it was well worth the price of a hardback. Essentially it’s the British version of a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys super thriller with a twinge of swoony teenage romance. I absolutely loved the scenes of our two sleuths, Daisy and Hazel, strategizing their crime-solving plans over tea and crumpets at the cozy little coffee shop. I felt like I was right there in jolly ol’ England celebrating the season in the midst of murder and mayhem! Since this is technically a children’s book, I was surprised that Daisy and Hazel encountered not one—but two—dead bodies! In true Nancy Drew fashion, they keep copious notes and character sketches of all the boys—and one very suspicious girl—who all have motives for knocking off a rather uncouth prankster. They reluctantly team up with two of their male rivals (and crushes!) who have the freedom to roam about the university without a babysitter. Why? Because they’re boys and girls needed to be chaperoned at all times in 1930s England. As for the murder mystery, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was kept guessing until the very end, which is a hard feat for authors to pull off! All in all, this is a Jolly good read for young adult (at heart) readers who love holiday-themed whodunnits.

In Peppermint Peril by Joy Avon

Thanks to NetGalley, I scored this e-book for free (in exchange for an honest review) before it hit the book shelves! This is the first book in a new series that follows the tried-and-true cozy mystery formula. You know the drill: single young professional returns to her hometown to work at a cute little shop and stumbles upon the dead body of someone from her past. Lo and behold, the victim in this mystery is a longtime caretaker of Haywood Hall, the town’s most illustrious estate. It appears as though he was involved in some shady dealings with a blackmailer who wants a cut of the Haywood family fortune. It’s up to our amateur sleuth, Callie, to ferret out the killer before an innocent man gets locked up for life! The story takes an interesting turn when Callie develops feelings for a displaced Boston Terrier and the town sheriff. Like I said, it’s true to the formula. I have lukewarm feelings for Callie, mainly because she sticks her nose in other people’s family business, which really isn’t cool. Also she’s on the fence about adopting the most adorable homeless dog that bonded with her since the moment they met. Other than that, the mystery is well plotted and there’s plenty of suspects (maybe too many) to sort out. My biggest gripe is that the book is mostly comprised of dialogue, which left a lot to be desired in terms of scenery and character development. Maybe it’s just time for me to take a break from the cozies and sink myself into an atmospheric thriller by Wendy Webb or Amanda Stevens

A Gift of Bones by Carolyn Haines

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book in this long-running series, so this was like reconnecting with old friends! After reading a few formulaic cozies, I realized that the Bones books offer so much more in terms of character development and a sense of place. Ms. Haines knows Southern culture and her expertise shows in the distinct Mississippi dialect. And then there’s the small town setting! I felt like I was right there with Sarah Booth on midnight horseback rides through the dark and spooky woods, or on the dancefloor at the local honkytonk with Tinkie by our side! In this 19th installment (wow!), she and her bestie Tinkie are on the case again—this time to find a kidnapped pregnant lady before she gives birth on Christmas Eve. The clock is ticking—in more ways than one as Sarah Booth navigates this tricky mystery as well as her fledgling relationship with the town sheriff. Let’s just pause for a moment and acknowledge the miracle of those two finally getting together after so many years of push and pull. Please, Sarah Booth, I bet you to not mess this up! I must admit that I wasn’t on board with her lying by omission to Sherriff Coleman when her other BFF CeeCee asked her to solve the case on the sly. But then again, I can’t fault her too much for being loyal to her friend. I could go into detail and give away spoilers, but what fun would that be? All I can say is that this is one of my most favorite books in the series and that I highly recommend it to fans of Southern mysteries. Once again, Sarah Booth and Tinkie are forces to be reckoned with and I loved every moment we spent together on this wild ride! Side note: this book is best “read” on audio because the narrator Kate Forbes is the best in the business! Another side note: mad props to Ms. Haines for taking a risk by addressing some heated political issues that may or may not please her target audience.

A Holiday by Gaslight by Mimi Mathews

I wish I didn’t listen to this on audio because the narrator pretty much ruined the whole experience. Let’s see…how can I describe this? Oh, I know—imagine what it would be like to have a funeral director read an entire book to you in a hushed, somber tone. And then there’s the whiny female voices…egads. Aside from that snafu, the novella is a sweet love story that paints the grim reality of advantageous, loveless marriages in Victorian England. In this tale, Sophie, a woman with a strong pedigree (because women were in the same class as dogs back then) and Edward, a nouveau riche businessman, are coupled up in a courtship of convenience. He needs to enter London’s polite society and she needs his money. You see, she and her family are house poor because her father can’t stop spending all their money on lavish home improvements. He even spent his daughters’ dowries (a woman’s only means for survival!) on Gaslamp expenses. Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on the oppressive lives of women back then—and how they needed to be sold to husbands like cattle at an auction. That said, this relationship is as good as dead right from the get-go because they’re both using each other. However, things take an interesting turn when Sophie puts the cards on the table and they’re forced to be honest with each other while celebrating the holidays at her family’s homestead. Soon enough, the dashing Mr. Sharpe is whispering sweet nothings to her on moonlit strolls and the tension between them really starts to simmer! I’ll stop right here before I give away the ending but since this is a holiday romance, I’m sure you can guess how it’ll be tied up in a neat little bow!

A Nancy Drew Christmas by Carolyn Keene

I must confess that, yet again, I bought this book because of glossy cover depicting the lovely Nancy Drew on a horse-and-buggy ride in a winter wonderland. I really shouldn’t let myself be romanced by a gorgeous cover, but how could I refuse a Nancy Drew mystery set at a posh ski resort in the midst of the Christmas season? There’s a lot packed into this book…maybe too much. In fact, I must admit that I got a tad confused—OK a LOT confused—with the storyline. There’s corporate espionage, insider trading, workplace sabotage and dozens upon dozens of suspects. I was hoping for a light and fluffy YA mystery for my morning commute; instead I got a tangled web of clues and red herrings that would likely befuddle Miss Marple! Needless to say, it’s rather demoralizing to get completely lost in a book that I found in the intermediate readers section. Best to stick to the classic Carolyn Keene mysteries from here on out.