‘The Walls Around Us’ Takes YA Horror to the Next Level

Published August 21, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

18044277Wowza! This is—hands down—one of the creepiest young adult books I’ve ever read. That says a lot because I’ve been a YA horror aficionado ever since Fear Street broke out back in the 90s. I just gave away my age, didn’t I? Oh to heck with it! I’ll say it loud—I’m a 90s child and I’m proud!

If you’re more of a movie-goer instead of a bookworm, I’ll break it down for you like this: Girl Interrupted meets Black Swan meets The Others. Heck, I’ll even throw in The Blair Witch because of the impending feeling of doom, and the anticipation of a horrifying cataclysmic paranormal showdown.

Told through shifting narratives, weaving from the past to present day, the story begins with Violet, a teenage ballerina on the verge of making it big. She is your quintessential “bunhead,” meaning she eats, sleeps and breaths ballet—and will stop at nothing to reach the top. On stage, she is the picture of perfection. Yet underneath that polished veneer lies an ugly green monster. This girl is BAD news! And as the story goes on, she gets even worse.

The story then shifts to another girl named Amber who is living in a completely different world. Trapped within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, she’s doing some hard time for knocking off her mother’s abusive husband. Shunned by her mother, she has no friends or family—just a bunch of animalistic teenage girls who torment her nonstop. Her only comfort is her book cart, which she dutifully organizes and pushes around the gloomy hallways.

“Our private tastes in books showed a hint of our secret selves.”

One girl is living a lie, concealing the ugliness deep down inside. The Aurora Hills girls, however, are doing quite the opposite. In order to survive, they must tamp down their humanity and only reveal their inner monsters. Either way they’re not who they seem. And let’s just face it. In real life, that could be said for just about anyone.

“I knew that just because people on the outside were free and clean, it didn’t mean they were the good ones.”

Enter Ori. The naturally gifted ballerina who rocks both of these divergent worlds. Unlike any of these girls, she hides nothing. Her inner beauty shines through—on and off stage. Only she wields the key to unlocking the girls’ innermost angels and demons. Trust me, once they begin to unravel, you won’t be able to put this book down!

I’ll stop right there before I give anything away. But I will tell you to dedicate an entire day to reading because this book is addictive! Clear that schedule and sink right into this dark, twisted, tragically beautiful tale of lies, deceit, murder and rage! There’s no doubting that teenage girls are a little frightening with their high drama and raging hormones. Teenage ballerinas, however, are downright terrifying. Throw in some homicidal lunatics and a pack of bunhead mean girls, and you’re in for a wild ride!

Might I add that this would be an excellent pick for book clubbers. I would love to listen to some discussions about the symbolism between Ori and the story of the Firebird (a coveted role she performed in ballet). Also it would be interesting to explore the meaning behind the red cup, and how it rekindled a sense of hope in a place of despair.

“Ori made it wanted. She acted like it was lucky. And forever after, it was.”

I you’ve read this book. Feel free to post a comment and share some theories.

Gymnastics Fans, Eat Your Hearts Out! Caela Carter’s ‘Tumbling’ Wins the Gold

Published August 14, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

26795703I don’t know about y’all, but for the past few days I’ve been glued to the screen, watching in total awe as Simone Biles and Ally Raisman obliterate their competitors. Never have I seen elite gymnasts compete at this level of pure awesomeness. I love watching them tumble their way across the mat, effortlessly reaching unfathomable heights and landing delicately on their feet, just mere centimeters from the white tape.

When I watch the “Final Five” girls giggling with each other between events, I wonder what’s really going on behind the scenes. Are they hiding any serious game-changing secrets? Are they cheering on their teammates, yet secretly wishing for them to fall? Are they working under the pressure of a Tiger Dad coach? How cool would it be to spend a day in their shoes—or ballerina beam slippers—while competing in the Olympic trials?

Well lucky for me, I got to do just that while reading Tumbling. Told through alternate narratives, the book follows several elite gymnasts during the Olympic Trials. Some are shooting for the gold while others are vying to compete in the NCAA. You’ve got the typical “bunhead” athlete who eats, sleeps and breathes gymnastics. There’s also the comeback kid ready to make one last go at the Olympics. And, of course, there’s the underdog who might just surprise everyone and win it all.

The goal: Total perfection. However, their lives are anything but. The girls are all dealing with some weighty issues, such as anorexia, chronic self-doubt, closeted homosexuality, and overpowering stage-parents. And if that’s not bad enough, a dreamy boy-band heartthrob is throwing them off their game via Twitter. Good thing flirtatious tweetering wasn’t a thing back in the day when I obsessed with the boys of NKOTB!

My euphoric post-gymnastics meet bliss. I could've been a contender!

Here I am in my snazzy varsity jacket, back in my Shannon Miller wannabe days.

But I digress…this book is a lot of fun, especially for Olympic-hopeful wannabes like me who can only fantasize about the world of elite gymnastics. My only gripe is that there’s’ a little too much behind-the-scenes drama and not enough action. I wanted to be right there with them as they twisted and catapulted their tiny bodies on the beam, floor, vault and bars.

Other than that, this is a quality read for gymnastics fans. If you, like me, need something to fill the void now that Simone and Ally tore up the Olympic Games, go ahead and treat yourself to this book. Now I’m moving on to my next rotation: Shawn Johnson’s new title, The Flip Side.

Dog Rescue—Not for the Faint of Heart

Published July 21, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

12310553_769685853160217_3841760361102584602_nToday I received some heartbreaking news. One of my most favorite shelter dogs is no longer with us. This afternoon he was euthanized, hopefully in the arms of his loving foster parents. I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t strong enough to be there to say my final goodbyes.

I’d like to think of myself as strong, as someone who can tamp down the sadness and keep moving forward with a big smile on my face. But sometimes those emotional blinders aren’t airtight.

You see, I’m the cheerful one. I’m the girl who’s always cracking jokes and dressing the poor dogs up in tutus and boas. Nothing gets me down! Well that’s what people see anyway. Today is a different story.

I'm reading this book in Derek's honor.

I’m reading this book in Derek’s honor.

I guess there’s a reason why they call crazy dog people like me “bleeding hearts.” Right now it feels like my heart has been squeezed, resulting in sporadic crying jags and a daylong headache.

It’s a reminder that this work that I do is not easy.

It’s not easy when I say goodnight to my BFF, Spanky, and he looks back at me in total confusion. Night after night, I put him back in his kennel and he offers me a fluffy toy with a look that says, “Where you going? I’m still ready to play!”

It’s not easy when I’m short on time and Miss Mary (a beautiful chocolate lab who has gone overlooked for months) whimpers when I walk by, begging me to take her out just for a quick dip in the lake. I drive home feeling like the biggest creep on earth for not giving in.

It’s not easy when I start to see the effects of shelter life on the dogs that have been there for months—even years.

It’s not easy taking a day off from the shelter knowing that my little buddies are expecting to see me promptly at 7 p.m.

It’s not easy when I’m hustling to get home for dinner and I see a restless dog bouncing and spinning like Tigger on speed.

It’s not easy when it’s 100-plus degrees outside and there’s still a dozen more dogs that need to be walked.

And selflishly, it’s not easy when they get adopted. It’s both wonderful and heartbreaking to say my final goodbyes. This, of course, is the ultimate goal. I want my babies to get adopted, believe me! But it’s still hard letting them go and not having any control over their lives. What if they get left outside in the pouring rain? What if their adopters don’t follow the rules and put them in a dangerous situation? I can drive myself bonkers ruminating about the worst-case scenario, or I can just move on. So that’s what I do.

People outside of my amazing circle of APA friends often ask me how I can spend so much time in such a depressing place. I’m often perplexed when I see visitors with tears in their eyes and then realize that I’ve been desensitized to it all.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t see it as depressing. I think of it as a sleep-away camp for dogs. They’re just here for a short while to make some new friends, learn some skills and play games.

Compared to most other shelters, these dogs are getting out a lot more—on field trips, sleepovers and runs around the lake. They’re even working on their behavioral skills so they’ll be good to go when their adopters come. Derek was my “Behavioral Buddy,” meaning we worked together on some of his problem areas –all stemming from his silliness and ADD. Luckily he was obsessed with treats, so it didn’t take a lot of convincing to get him to mind his manners. That little twerp figured out pretty fast that eye contact would get him treats. So while walking on the crowded trail, he would stare at me the entire time while I popped treats into his mouth. We were the two stooges of Town Lake, making random strangers smile and laugh at the sight of a doofy dog walking sideways.

I have so many good memories of this gorgeous hunk of a dog—costume contests, cuddling sessions, field trips to Sonic—that I will always keep close to my heart. I’m sad that his behavior took a drastic turn for the worst, and it’s frustrating knowing that it was completely out of my control—or the control of his foster parents. Sometimes they are their own worst enemies. There’s only so much we can do to keep them happy and safe. That feeling of powerlessness can be overwhelming.

While the blinders are temporarily down and I let myself give into the tears, I will acknowledge that I’m dealing with some heavy issues. The sadness is there, but it is almost totally eclipsed by the joy those dogs bring into my life. If anything, my mental health has vastly improved thanks to all those wonderful creatures who greet me with smiles and tail wags every night. That goes for my APA friends as well! They are the only ones who truly understand what I’m going through right now. Plus, they are totally cool with being seen with me in public while I’m wearing my crocs and dirty dog clothes…sometimes even a tutu. I love them. I love my APA dogs. And I love who I have become since I began my volunteer work in 2009.

Rest in peace, my sweet Derek. Run free!

CeeCee and Gizzy’s Dog Days of Summertime Reading

Published July 18, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

11202127_715143938614409_7969814030943674844_nWe are in the dog days of summer—my favorite time of year! I know that sounds crazy since I must weather the brutal Texas heat, but I say bring it on! I love the long days of sunshine, the big sweaty pitchers of sweet tea, and the sounds of summer bugs. Sometimes I just sprawl out in the grass and gaze up at the trees that are practically shimmying to the constant rhythm of the cicadas’ summer melody. Everything just feels so alive! Maybe it’s all the vitamin D talking, but I truly mean it when I say that summertime in Texas is the best!

To soak it all in and stretch out my lazy Saturdays as much as possible, I lounge on my back porch for hours with a good summertime read.  So far I’ve read a few hits and misses. Here’s a couple from both categories.

Read This!

Three Times Lucky by Shiela Turnage

11737313Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t you a little long in the tooth for middle grade books? I’ll have you know that the plot and the characters are far more interesting and complex than anything you’d read in a formulaic Heather Graham or Nora Roberts thriller. Sometimes, in a world that seems to have gone crazy, it’s refreshing to read a book told by characters who are in that sweet spot of youth. Too young to be boy crazy, but old enough to think critically and go off on their own adventures. Ah the good old days!

It was fun getting lost in nostalgia and fully immersing myself in the down-home Tupelo Landing setting—complete with farmhouses, tobacco fields and colorful characters. It’s like Stars Hollow meets the Secret Life of Bees. There’s a whodunit murder mystery intertwined with the mystery of Mo’s “upstream mother” and her surrogate father’s mysterious past. You see, she and her new daddy, “The Colonel” were displaced after a torrential hurricane. Back when she was a baby, she floated away from her “upstream mother” and he washed ashore with a spotless mind. Who are they and where did they come from? Guess I’ll have to keep reading the series to find out!

I loved her connection with the Colonel and Miss Lana, who took them both into her loving home. They all worked together at the family diner, an opportune place for Mo and her best friend to interrogate suspects. Who killed the town curmudgeon? Were hidden treasures involved? Leave it to Mo and her BFF to figure it out!

This book really took me back to my carefree summer days when I had absolutely nothing to do but ride my bike and jump on the backyard trampoline. Even though this book is set in present day, I could tell the author made a conscious effort to leave out cell phones and other gadgets that are slowly sucking the souls out of little children—and their parents—on a daily basis. Thank you, Shiela Turnage, for taking me back to a time when kids can just go outside and make their own, non-computerized adventures!

Not That!

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

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I have a hard time believing these 500-plus pages full of petty high school drama were authored by the same woman who wrote Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour. What happened, Morgan Matson? Your teenage characters used to have depth and interests that superseded dreamy boys. I zeroed in on that amazing cover featuring adorable pups and assumed this was going to be about a girl finding her way through this crazy game of life with some help from her newfound dog friends.

Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge animal lover, but I feel like the author really missed an opportunity to use the dog-walking aspect to her full advantage. This could’ve been a beautiful story if the dogs helped Andy overcome her emotional hang-ups. Unfortunately in this story, the dog-walking job was just a means to an end. Andy dealt with her dog clients with the same enthusiasm as a gum-smacking Subway sandwich artist flopping together a cold cut trio.  Needless to say, I didn’t connect with Andy, or any of her friends for that matter.

As for the plot…well there isn’t one. Readers get to follow Andy and her clique of gal pals as they ruminate about their crushes, go to pool parties and hang out in the drama room. Boooorrrring! And what’s with all the girls having boy names? Is this a gimmick to make them more unique? I got tired of trying to figure out who was who, but in the end I guess it didn’t matter. I could skipped multiple chapters and never missed a beat. Come to think of it, I probably should’ve.

Aside from the nonexistent plot, I was amazed by how fast Andy and her absentee father resolved their differences after one major argument. My guess is that the author got tired and bored (totally understandable) and had to wrap up this non-story in a jiffy so she could get started on her next book, which I will not be reading. Ouch! That was cold. Sorry guys, just telling it like it is.

Jessica’s Cranky Corner: The Most Un-Inspiring Running Memoir Ever!

Published July 5, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

13152949This is going to be harsh, so I’ll begin on a good note. Rich Roll’s story of transformation is nothing short of remarkable. It really shows how substance addiction can overpower even the strongest of people. Let’s put it this way, if a man has the fortitude to complete five back-to-back Ironman races on five different Hawaiian islands, overcoming alcohol addiction should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong! It took years and years until he conquered his demons and came into his own. Anyone who believes all drug an alcohol addicts are weak-willed are sorely mistaken.

That, in my opinion, is the most positive takeaway from this book. I’m amazed by Rich Roll’s accomplishments. Yet on a personal level, I’m less than impressed. There are some people in this world who are born into a life of privilege. They take their luxuries for granted and go through life always wanting more, more, more! Rich Roll is one of those people.

The child of two loving, well-to-do parents, he had everything he needed on a silver platter. Problems with bullying? No matter. He can just go to special private school. No swimming program? That’s cool. Just get a private coach.  Accidentally got drunk before meeting up with an Ivy League swim coach? No sweat, the welcome mat is there for the taking. Turns out, his Get Out of Jail Free card even works in DWI cases. Somehow he managed to avoid jail time when his case file miraculously went missing. What luck!

Okay, maybe I’m bitter because I’ve never been blessed with such dumb luck. Seriously, it’s not fair! The tipping point happened when Richy Rich rear-ended a poor woman while he was slugging back a cold one on the way to the office. She was hospitalized, yet he didn’t go into detail about her injuries. Of course, he was exempt from showing any remorse because “his addict brain could not process the consequences of his actions.” Since that was the case, he just kept drinking and driving until his boss got a call from the police. Funny how he owned up to his problem and decided to get clean when his livelihood was threatened.

According to his track record, this was the first time he landed in some serious trouble. Prior to this snafu, he never really had a wake-up call. After acing his way through law school in a drunken haze, he gave his school and his parents the finger at graduation by staggering barefoot across the podium. Why? Because he looked around at his fellow graduates and realized they were all mindless sheep. He had to do something totally off the wall to prove that he’s so very special. In his defense, he felt remorse for embarrassing himself and his parents. Yet even after rehab, after becoming a devout vegan, after completing the “Epic Five,” he’s still that same self-important asshole trying to prove to the world that he’s better than everybody else.

Albeit he accomplished an amazing feat—impossible even. But why? What’s really going on there? Being a type-B person (at the far end of the spectrum), it’s hard to wrap my mind around this obsessive desire to risk life and limb to break a world record. Of course, it’s not a morally reprehensible thing to be the first to climb a mountain or finish a grueling race. I just don’t understand the psychology behind the fanaticism of it all.

My theory is that Rich channeled his addiction into racing and extreme dieting. When it comes to eating, it’s either his way or the highway.  We can either become followers of his squeaky clean eating program or die young from a horrible gluten-induced disease. Sorry, Rich. Scare tactics don’t work with me. They only piss me off. Dieting aside, you piss me off. I bet that lady you rear-ended feels the same way.

If you want to read an inspiring ultra-running memoir, skip this one and read Eat and Run or Born to Run. Sure, both of these books delve into lifestyle advice that I choose to ignore. However the focus isn’t on being the best in the world. These authors run 100-plus distances because they genuinely love the sport. Reading their books, I got the sense that they ran like wild mustangs to feel happy and free.  In Rich’s book, I just felt like he needed to prove something. Even after becoming one of the world’s fittest men, I have a feeling that still won’t be enough.

Goodbye, Chick Lit Café!

Published June 25, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

It’s official! Chick Lit Café is no more. Say hello to Bubble Bubble Books and Trouble—you’re one-stop-shop for all things dark and spooky! Change isn’t easy, and I really hate letting go of such a catchy name. Yet let’s face it—I grew out of the chick lit genre years ago. I feel like such a jerk when authors keep offering me their Sex in the City-esque books. Why must they keep pitching these clichéd stories about label-loving ladies looking for love in the big city? Hey, that’s kind of a tongue-twister! Oh…I know why. It’s because my blog is named Chick Lit Café. Well no more!

So off with the old and in with the new! Well…actually the only thing that’s new is the name. I’m still posting reviews—and the occasional Cranky Corner rant—about ghosts, fiends with fangs, amateur sleuths and magical kitties. Okay, okay, I’ll even throw in a fluffy romance here and there just for old time’s sake.

I should note that my new graphic was made—totally gratis!—by my designer friend/colleague. Don’t you just love the magical Austin skyline? I’m totally bewitched! Go to his Los Outsiders website to see how he’s shaking things up in the Austin art scene.

Now I must be off. I have to go dig into my book cauldron for my next weekend read!

The Horror! Two Unsettling Reads for a Hot Summer’s Night

Published June 12, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

23019294I’m proud to say that I got my greedy paws on this book before it hit the shelves! This is the first time I ever tracked down the author to ask beg for an advance copy. You see, his most recent book Head Full of Ghosts was the scariest thing I’ve ever read. That’s saying a lot because I devour all things horror. Sorry, Stephen King, but this book even trumps The Shining and Salem’s Lot. I never thought there would come a day when I would say such a blasphemous thing!

This is not hyperbole. Even The King said it himself:
“A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” (Stephen King)

So you get the picture, right? I’m a Paul Tremblay fan girl. I’ll get to Disappearance at Devil’s Rock in a moment, but let me just give you some backgrounder on Head Full of Ghosts. That book scared the I-don’t-know-what out of me! It’s like the author knows that I’m a jaded horror movie/book junkie. He knew just how to hit that sweet spot—that part of me that is scared to pieces of the unknown, the uncanny, the dark forces that drift between this world and the great beyond.

There is nothing more unsettling than the thought of living under the same roof with someone who may or may not be possessed by demonic forces. However, I did have some doubts about my sister from time to time. Kidding! Well…sort of. Head Full of Ghosts got under my skin because it seemed so real. I could totally relate to the dysfunctional, blue-collar household because I lived in one. I could especially connect wit the two bickering sisters. I remember scaring my poor sister silly with my “demon voice” at night when we were forced to share the same room. To be honest, I even scared myself! Could you imagine the horror of hearing that voice, knowing that your sister really could be possessed by the devil?

Jeepers!! I’m giving myself the willies just thinking about that book…and how it all came to a head in the 27064358end. Don’t worry! I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that it’s the scariest—and most satisfying—ending. The genius of Tremblay’s storytelling is that he doesn’t spell it out for you. It’s up to the reader to pick up on the subtle clues and draw their own conclusion at the end. Like Mulder, I want to believe. Judging by the little hints—and one big nudge at the end—I got exactly what I wanted.

Now let’s get to Devil’s Rock, shall we? This book follows on the heels of THE SCARIEST BOOK EVER so I lowered the bar just a tad. That proved to be unnecessary. Though it’s an entirely different story, the same dark undercurrents course through the chapters, drawing questions about the possibility of demonic possession vs. mental illness. I have my own theory about what happened when Tommy met his fate at Devil’s Rock. I’m sure the Scullys of the world will draw their own rational conclusions. However, thanks to the final teaser in the very last chapter, I’m willing to bet my entire collection of Stephen King books that evil forces were at work.

It’s really hard to review this book without revealing any spoilers, but I will say that it is an addictive read that’s riddled with elements of the uncanny. I’ve always been creeped out by the idea of the doppelgänger. How creepy would it be to see an exact replica of yourself running around at night? Tremblay took this concept to a very dark place and I’m getting the pricklies just thinking about it!

Oh how I wish I could tell you more about the sequence of events, which are gradually unveiled through the pages of Tommy’s journal. What really happened the night he disappeared? Why does it seem that his friends are all hiding a deep-dark secret? Who or what is lurking outside in the shadows and leaving pages of Tommy’s diary on the living room floor? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

I’ll stop right here before I give anything away. Just please read this book and share your thoughts with me. I would love to compare theories! I’m still pondering the meaning behind the phrase, “The Devil’s in the Coincidence,” and whether or not life is just one big connect-the-dots puzzle.

In the meantime, I’m going to pick up a light and fluffy cozy mystery to balance things out a bit. Then I’ll embark on a book that reviewers have been comparing to Tremblay’s work: House of Leaves.

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