Let’s Take a Cruise Part II: All by Myself, Alone by Mary Higgins Clark

Published May 22, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe

Ahoy mates! Captain CeeCee grants you permission to step on board and check out our latest maritime conquest. This is the second book in our three-part series of mystery cruise thrillers.

Synapsis: A filthy rich old lady with a boatload of priceless jewels gets the axe on a luxurious cruise ship and everyone’s a suspect.

What worked: This book is what I call, “Cheetos for the brain.” So if your brain tunes out while listening to this on audio (like mine did several times), you won’t miss a thing. Seriously, that’s the only generous thing I can say about this mess.

What didn’t work: Oh pretty much everything. What happened, Mary Higgins Clark? You used to write the most alluring Lifetime Movie-esque tales of obsession, deceit and murder. I used to love your trademark cliffhanger chapter endings and you’re multifaceted characters with twisted backstories. It’s hard to even believe you are the mastermind behind this embarrassing piece of drivel.

Probably the worst aspect of the book is the revolving cast of characters.  The third-person narrative bounces around from one undeveloped character to the next, all of whom are annoying and uninteresting. Without a main character, who am I supposed to root for? I suppose the anchor characters are the lottery-winning middle-aged couple, Alvirah and Willy, but really they’re just background noise. Sure, Alvirah saves the day in the end, but at that point I wouldn’t have cared if they all walked the plank.

And then there’s the dialogue. Oh dear. I’m having a hard time believing that a seasoned mystery writer could string together such clunky, intermediate-reader level nonsense. Seriously, I’ve read better dialogue in The Babysitter’s Club.

Yeesh…this is turning out to be quite the roast. I hate to be such a buzzkill, but if I can prevent my fellow mystery lovers from wasting their time and money on this hunk of garbage, I’m doing a good public service! If you want to read a good mystery cruise thriller, check out Woman in Cabin 10.

Let’s Take a Cruise Part I: Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Published May 20, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe

Ahoy matey! Lately my fur-babies and I have been cruising through a bunch of mysteries set on the high seas. Here is the first in a series of reviews about our latest swashbuckling adventures!

Synapsis: Ambitious travel magazine writer with anxiety issues gets trapped on a luxury cruise ship with a motley crew of unsavory journalists and elitist snobs. One of whom may have thrown a mysterious woman overboard and just might strike again!

What worked: The suspense! Right from the getgo, readers get a little teaser of Lo Blacklock’s ill-fated maiden voyage as the author opens the chapters with emails and news articles about her inexplicable disappearance. This plot device worked like a charm, forcing me to forgo my daily activities to find out what really happened to our hot mess of a protagonist. With every chapter, the sense of impending doom amplified as Lo searched the ship’s intricate maze of rooms for clues. The way the author juxtaposed the ship’s opulence with a vertigo-inducing sense of dread is nothing short of ingenious. The house-of-mirrors effect had me reaching for some Dramamine  throughout Lo’s waking nightmare on the high seas.

What didn’t work: It was incredibly hard connecting—heck even liking—the main character. This seems like a growing trend in books like “Girl on a Train” and “Gone Girl,” in which the unreliable narrators are riddled with character flaws and sour dispositions. In short, Lo is a total Debbie Downer. Yes, the ship oozed capitalist greed, but couldn’t she indulge in just a little fun at her employer’s expense? Nope, not so much. If she had it her way, she’d hole herself up in her room with a bottle of booze. If it wasn’t for the loud splash of a body going overboard, she would have done just that. Good thing the cliffhanger chapters and ingenious foreshadowing kept me going. Otherwise this book would’ve been dead in the water.

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

Published April 1, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe

I discovered this book at a BookPeople event starring none other than the legendary East Texas noir author Joe Lansdale. He was joined by Kathleen Kent, a historical fiction author who is new to the shoot-em-up Texas thriller crime scene. I don’t typically gravitate toward hard-boiled mysteries. I’m more into magical cats and ghost-whispering amateur sleuths. But Joe’s rants and raves about the prose, the plot twists, and the larger-than-life characters had me lured in–hook line and sinker!

Turned out, Mister Lansdale’s gold-plated endorsement was not all hyperbole. The book lived up to his rave reviews–and then some. It was a rip-roaring ride from the first chapter all the way through the cliff-diving finale! The suspense was great–but I was most enthralled by the characters.

I’m telling you, character development can make or break a story. If they fall flat, or the protagonist is a tool, I’m out. Betty Rhyzk is anything but a tool. She is a total bad ass!  I have absolutely nothing in common with her, but we could totally hang out! In a way, she reminded me of Debra Morgan–my favorite character from the Dexter series. Working in a man’s world, she’s got a tough-as-nails exterior and has a knack for shutting down masagonistic “jokes” with witty comebacks. A six-foot-tall lesbian, she’s a walking target for sexist remarks from the good ol’ boys club. But she takes no prisoners and shows them who’s boss! Seriously, she will kick a man through a wall in a wrestling match. This is girl power to the extreme and I absolutely love it!

You know what else I love? The way this author is bringing lesbian characters into mainstream fiction. It’s about time we see more of these characters outside the “LGBTQ Fiction” section of the bookstore. Outside the cop shop, Betty shows her other side when she’s with her partner. When her guard is down, you get to know her vulnerabilities and the scars left behind from her traumatic childhood. As a Texan, I know this is a risky move for a Lone Star noir author. Judging by the very few one-star reviews, it’s clear that some people just can’t be open to something that challenges their narrow-minded religious beliefs. Oops, did I just get a little controversial just now? Sorry not sorry, bible beaters.

Anyhoo, I really loved Betty and Jackie and hope they keep going strong throughout the series. Despite their contrasting day jobs (Betty’s a narcotics detective and Jackie’s a doctor), they share one common bond: saving lives. At a gruesome crime scene, Betty described it beautifully when she noted,  “I have to pick up the pieces and Jackie has to put them together again.”

Another multi-faceted character in this book is The Big D. When non-Texans think of Dallas, they probably envision Longhorns and sprawling ranches owned by oil tycoons. I get so annoyed when books and TV shows portray Texas as this cowboy-infused land of bluebonnets and rodeo queens. And don’t even get me started on the Southern drawl versus the Texas twang. Seems like nobody these days can get the Texas vernacular right.

But I digress…the scenery in this book is on point. Just like the characters, the locale has many dimensions–from the pristine upper-class suburbs to the crime-infested city streets. There’s even a side-trip to the piney woods of East Texas, where the plot takes a serious cliff dive! It was fun joining Betty and her womanizing partner Seth as they tracked down perps in search of a demented drug lord. It was a wild ride, and I’m excited to get back on the crazy train when the next book drops!

Death by Chocolate Lab by Bethany Blake

Published January 29, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe

30324914I’m a big fan of this lovely author’s YA books, mainly because her leading ladies are plucky, adventurous and perfectly adorkable. She also has a knack for weaving puzzling mysteries filled with red herrings, shady suspects and even a dash of romance. So you can imagine my delight when she offered me an advance copy of her very first adult cozy mystery! #Blogperks!

Let me begin by stating that The Lucky Paws Petsitting mystery series is off to a great start. It has everything I need in a cozy mystery: Doggie sidekicks, a feisty animal-loving sleuth and a handsome detective with a mysterious past. Aside from all the essential ingredients, I really love that this book isn’t filled with a bajillion suspects. Seriously, I have no qualms about chucking out a cozy mystery if the waters are muddied with too many characters.  How am I supposed to be surprised if the murderer is just one of dozens of secondary characters? I ask you. Thankfully, this author didn’t have to rely on lazy-plotting tactics to deliver a surprise ending – and boy is it a doozy!

It was easy sinking into this book and getting wrapped up in Daphne’s world, which basically revolves around dogs, pie and coffee. A girl after my own heart! She’s living the single life with a stoic basset hound and a goofy little chiquahuah. They all live together in a cozy little cottage on her sister’s sprawling farm. Aside from their love of animals, she and her sister couldn’t be more different. Daphne’s a cowgirl boot-wearing free spirit, and Piper is a pragmatic veterinarian who wears sweater sets and pencil skirts. I could totally feel Daphne’s pain when she was roped into wearing toe-crunching pumps and a confining pencil skirt. Yeesh.

Yet despite Piper’s straight-and-narrow ways, she somehow ended up becoming suspect No. 1 in the case of the murdered Cesar Millan-wannabe. Yes, he is her ex-boyfriend and was the last to see him alive. But that guy really got around and had plenty of other exes with ample motives for snuffing him out. Or maybe it was someone who didn’t appreciate his authoritative dog-training methods. A logical motive in my book. Dogs are not robots, people!

The recently-adopted Buford T. Justice approves this post.

The recently-adopted Buford T. Justice approves this post.

There’s no doubting Piper is innocent, but the mounting evidence says otherwise. It’s up to our intrepid dog-toting sleuth to find out who’s railroading her sister before the killer strikes again! Otherwise that poor girl will have to trade in her cardigan sets for an orange jumpsuit. Come to think of it…I think I’d rather take the jumpsuit, but that’s just me.

Dog lovers are sure to enjoy this fun little mystery. Unlike other dog-themed cozies with very little animal action, Daphne’s pups, Socrates and Artie, are given a lot of love throughout the book. The odd couple are constantly by her side as she tracks down clues. There’s also a slew of rottweilers that answer to Shakespearean commands and – of course – a prize-winning chocolate lab (swoon!) that went missing after the murder went down.

I hope I convinced you all to read this book when it drops later this month. If you’re a dog-crazy mystery fan like me, I promise you’re going to love it!

Starting 2017 with ‘A Curious Beginning’

Published January 16, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe

23160039As I carefully selected my first book of 2017, my eyes landed on “A Curious Beginning.” Could this title be any more fitting?! No, the story has nothing to do with the tensions we’re all feeling in this rocky political climate. It’s a total departure from modern times, which is exactly what I need right now. I’m not a big fan of fantasy books, but lately I’ve been craving stories that take me to a land before highway bottlenecks and cell phones!  What better departure from reality than a Victorian-era mystery? Here’s a short and sweet review of “A Curious Beginning,” the first book in Deanna Raybourn’s infectious Veronica Speedwell series.

The gist: A Feisty female sleuth/butterfly scientist with a mysterious past joins forces with a hunky taxidermist to ferret out the fiend who murdered the German Baron who inexplicably brought them together.

What worked: The author has a knack for world-building and character development. She expertly painted the scene of gloomy ol’ Victorian London, making me feel like I was tagging along with Veronica and Stoker as they combed the foggy, cobblestone streets in search of clues. All of the characters are shrouded in multiple layers of mystery that will slowly unfold in the following books. I have to hand it to the author for drawing me into the fold. I have no choice but to read the next book to figure out how Veronica will elude her many assailants with some help from her hunky sidekick. I also must know about Stoker’s haunted past. What happened to him in the Amazon? What’s the story with his dead wife?!? Will he and Veronica ever get together despite their lack of romantic tension? Sorry, y’all but I wasn’t feeling it.

What didn’t work: I can’t give this book a four-starred review because there are a few problem areas. First, I’m most annoyed by Veronica’s over-the-top “I am woman, hear me roar” attitude. I’m all about girl power, but Veronica’s defiance against Victorian-era ettiquette was hard to believe. It’s as if a woman from the 21st century was dropped into the 1800s. I must admit, I really didn’t like her. In her quest to tear down the patriarchy, she’s constantly putting people in their place, and I kept feeling sorry for Stoker for having to put up with her snarky attitude.

Also, why must she be a butterfly scientist? I mean, I get that butterflies are symbolic and beautiful, but she’s living in an era rife with disease. Seems like a waste of time and talent when she could be finding a cure to scarlet fever or smallpox.

In short: Despite my grievances, this book is a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys a good historical mystery. Judging by all the rave reviews on Goodreads, a lot of ladies love Veronica’s sardonic wit. I suppose I can get past her annoying qualities to get through the next book. As for whether I’ll finish the series, that remains to be seen. A curious beginning indeed!

Goodbye, Mister Giz

Published January 7, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe
Giz and I in our first apartment in San Antonio. A point in our lives I will never forget.

Giz and I starting life anew in San Antonio

As many of you know, I lost my sweet Gizmo last November. For more than half my life, that tubby little gray cat has been my baby. Now he’s gone and I must make peace with it and move onward. That’s the key message in Jon Katz’s book “Going Home,” which I listened to on audio while curled up in the fetal position next to my dying cat on Thanksgiving morning.

I couldn’t get through the book because the very notion of moving on was unfathomable.  I’ll carry on, but I will never move away from this precious gift that came into my life when I needed it the most. Gizzy wasn’t just a cat I brought home and kept alive for nearly two decades. He was my little soul mate. The moment I brought him home, he curled his little malnourished body in the crook of my neck and purred.

I was mom and he was home. As it happens, I also found my home in Gizmo.

I’m having a hard time writing this because Gizzy’s story of survival is also my own.  When I see those paw-shaped bumper stickers with the words “Who rescued who?” I’m reminded of how Gizzy saved me from myself during what I call the dark days. Like Gizzy, I was abandoned by my mother and left in a state of limbo.  I wasn’t in a good place, and let’s just leave it at that. But everything changed when I swooped baby Gizmo off the scummy streets of El Cajon.

My dad didn’t think the scrawny little kitten would last more than a week, but I had faith that the little guy would pull through. Sure enough, Gizzy was a fighter. As it turned out, so was I.

As the years progressed at warp speed, I watched him grow into a happy little crunchy-obsessed butterball. During his senior years he developed some old man ailments, but he kept fighting and surprising the vet along the way. I remember telling the vet, “He’s very important to me,” and wincing at how generic that sounded. How can I put in words how much this cat means to me? How can I even think of Gizzy being gone for good? Those thoughts swam through my head, giving me a sense of vertigo. Even now, I get that loopy “I’M GOING TO FALL!” feeling when I realize he’s no longer on this earth.

More years went by and I kept sweeping that thought under the rug. Why? Because we have to enjoy our animals while we have them. They show us how to live in the present and to enjoy what we have right now at this very moment. Think about it. How can we enjoy a perfectly good Sunday while dreading the Monday lurking around the corner? How can we enjoy the holidays knowing dreary January would soon rear its ugly head?

Living in the present. That’s a lesson our animals teach us, if you listen to them. Another lesson Gizzy taught me was the power of resilience. Even until the bitter end, Jarred and I didn’t give up hope because he had a way of bouncing back from a serious illness. So we did everything we could to give him his second wind. Hundreds of dollars later, we realized there was no second wind. It was his time.

It was also my time to let go…but not entirely. I think of him every day. Sometimes I’ll laugh at the memory of him kicking himself under the chin with his big ol’ bunny feet, or I’ll make space on my pillow at night expecting Gizzy to hog it with his bulky body. I can almost feel him with me when I sit outside and stare at his favorite spot under the tree. Sometimes I just sit out there and sing my silly Gizzy songs. What can I say? I’m a crazy cat lady.

His favorite little ditty went like this

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy because you’re gray. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

I sang that song, well attempted to anyway, when he peacefully sailed across the rainbow bridge. I truly hope the rainbow bridge exists and that I will get to cross it on my final journey and be with him again. Until then, I will carry on and continue doing the things I love just as my sweet boy–the love of my life–did until the end.

CeeCee’s Christmas Cozy Roundup!

Published December 24, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When it comes to Christmas, there’s nothing like waiting til the last minute. Cards, presents, cooking supplies – all those things are purchased in a mad flurry a couple of days before Santa wiggles his butt down my imaginary chimney. As for Christmas cozies – I get started on those before Turkey day! What can I say? Priorities.

So without further ado, here are CeeCee’s top picks from this year’s Christmas cozy roundup!

Mrs. Jeffries and the Merry Gentlemen by Emily Brightwell

17166223One look at this cover and I knew this book had to be mine. How could I turn away from a British version of Murder She Wrote set in Victorian London? It was fun tagging along with the many amateur sleuths as they all questioned suspects. Many of whom had ample motives for killing a high-society “stock promoter” who pushed a number of people to invest their riches into a faltering foreign mine.  Who was angry enough to whack him with a shovel? Was it a bitter mistress? An unhappy investor? Or could it have been one of his servants? It’s up to inspector Witherspoon and his intrepid team of housekeepers to ferret out the killer before another goose is cooked!

Though I had a hard time keeping track of the zillions of characters, I enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions of Victorian London. I really felt like I was joining Wiggins for a merry drink of grog at the working-class pub. I could practically smell the good ol’ fashioned English cooking in Mrs. Goodge’s kitchen. And I could clearly envision the bustling city streets as Witherspoon’s underground spies set forth on their mission.

As for Mrs. Jefferies, I’m wondering why she only popped up sporadically throughout the book. Come to think of it, there really isn’t a main character to follow. Maybe that’s why I had a hard time connecting with anyone in the story. I wonder if that’s the case for other stories in this series. Guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out. Whether I’ll become a loyal reader of this series, the verdict is still out.

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by David Rosenfelt

28220750Here’s a fun book for legal thriller fans. The cover threw me off because I was expecting a cozy mystery filled with cute little puppies romping under the Christmas tree. This is really more of a hard-boiled mystery in the guise of a holiday-infused whodunit for animal lovers. I have to hand it to the marketing team, they had a target audience in mind and I was lured in—hook, line and sinker!

Though the story was lacking in puppy action (seriously, where are the twelve dogs of Christmas?), I really enjoyed the puzzling mystery. It’s told by a dog-loving lawyer, Andy Carpenter, who sacrificed his holiday downtime to clear the name of a longtime friend who inexplicably got framed for multiple murders.

The woman in question, Martha “Pups” Boyer, is a big-time misanthrope who dedicates her life to rescuing puppies (cool points!). Someone framed her for murder and it’s up to Andy to find the real killer before the dying woman keels over alone in her cell.

Since I just had to say a final goodbye to my 19-year-old furbaby, I wasn’t in the mood for a heavy-hearted  story about a dying animal rescuer. But alas, I was glued to the mystery when more and more mounting evidence pointed to none other than Pups as the killer.

I have to hand it to the author, he’s very crafty and has a knack for red herrings and snappy dialogue. The mystery was great, but I most enjoyed the hilarious quips between Andy and Pups. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this series again in the near future.

Rest Ye Murdered Gentleman by Vicki Delany

24611862This fun series has Hallmark Mysteries and Movies written all over it! It’s set in an idyllic Main Street USA town with snow, quaint shops and colorful characters galore. The author has the formula down to a science, and I couldn’t ask for anything more!

Set in an upstate New York town called Rudolph, the story is brimming with Christmas cheer. Adding to the yuletide merriment is the dead body of a travel writer! He came to Rudolph to write a fluff piece about holiday hotspots. Who in their right mind would want to snuff him—and his free marketing—out? Who poisoned him with a toxic cookie from Vicky’s adorable bakery? Was it a rival baker vying to put her out of business? Or maybe it was the town’s resident mean girl who failed to charm the dead man into writing a fluff piece about her knickknack store. It’s up to the town’s head Mrs. Claus to solve the mystery before her best friend loses her bakery—and more!

Needless to say, this book hit the spot. I’ve been through a lot in 2016 (who hasn’t, right?), so this was the perfect light read. I highly recommend it to all my fellow cozy fans.

Bootseez, the newest member of the Sinn family, approves this message.

Bootseez, the newest member of the Sinn family, approves this message.

On this balmy Christmas eve, CeeCee, Bootseez and I wish you all a joyous holiday—and a very happy 2017! May Santa bestow you with lots and lots of wonderful books!