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

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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!

 

Plum Pudding Murder: Hannah Swenson Book/Movie Comparison

Published December 10, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

25387684I’m not going to mince words here. This book was BAD! Let me put it in perspective for you. The Hallmark move was better. A HALLMARK MOVIE, YO! That’s says it all right there. I don’t mean to disparage Hallmark Mysteries and Movies because it’s my go-go channel for all things brainless and fluffy. But when has a made-for-TV movie ever done a book justice?

So hats off to Hallmark for taking the world’s most boring cozy mystery series and turning it into something fun and whimsical. I’m impressed that anyone bothered to pick up movie rights for this stink-tastic books series. Where do I even begin with the book-movie comparison? I’ll break it down for you like this.

Five reasons why the Hallmark movie rules and the book drools:

    1. 1. Hannah Swenson (played by Alison Sweeny) is waaaay more interesting. In the book, I kept picturing a gray-haired, mousey woman knitting socks on her time off. Aside from baking, what else is there? At least in the movie, Hannah is played by a gorgeous ex-soap star with fabulous hair and a twinkling smile. Away from the bakery, she’s out jogging and going on hot dates with two super cute dudes. I would totes hang out with the movie-Hannah (mainly to swindle her out of free cookies). As for the book Hannah, I think I’d rather join my grandma on an agonizingly long trip to the commissary.

2. The love triangle is so much more fun. OK, so in the book there is a hint of a love triangle, but clearly it is going to move along at the speed of molasses. I’d have to suffer through at least five more books until it actually goes somewhere. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.  Yes, Norman is safe and practical. It’s a no-brainier he’ll get dumped, which is VERY evident in the movie. However, in the book he and Hannah are the world’s most boring non-married couple. As for the movie, I love Hannah, but the woman needs to quit stringing these poor dudes along. Clearly she’s all about the cop bad-boy Mike, so let poor Norman go already! Personally, I would choose Norman in a heartbeat. He’s hot, he’s a dentist (ching ching $$$) and he’s clearly smitten with Hannah. If it were up to me, I’d pick the safe, good guy every time. I married an accountant. Need I say more?

3. The sister sucks in both versions, but she’s downright intolerable in the book. I’m not a fan of the fashionable, fast-talking, Type A sister. But at least the movie-version isn’t a helicopter mom…yet. I cannot deal with these control-freak soccer moms – in books and real life.

4. The plot moves soooooo much faster in the movie. I can’t believe that the murder didn’t happen until I slogged halfway into the book. HALFWAY, people! Here’s a fun analogy for you. You know that deflated feeling when you order something delicious at a restaurant and all you get is a few morsels atop a mountain of cheap French fries? Well that’s how I felt when the murder mystery was only sprinkled into this crapfest in small doses. At least in the movie, the dead body pops up right at the get-go and our intrepid sleuth sets forth on her crime-solving expedition.

5. In the movie, you get a sense of atmosphere and local color. The bickering elderly sisters are mainstays at Hannah’s adorable bakery and the local yokals drop in on a routine basis to gossip over a plate of delicious brownies. Plus there’s a lot of flirting going around between Hannah and her two boy-toys. Surprisingly, the movie does a better job painting the cozy small town scene and giving the viewers a sense of place. As for the book, it’s heavy on a lot of inane dialogue – and recipes galore. What good is a book without atmosphere? Especially a cozy mystery? I ask you.

So tell me, Hallmark movie fans, what do you think of the Hannah Swenson mystery movies? I’d love to know your book-movie comparisons!

Self-help for when things go terribly, horribly wrong

Published November 20, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

Hey, how’s it going? The reason I ask is that I know a lot of my fellow Americans are feeling pretty downtrodden now that their worst fears have been realized. The news keeps stoking the fire, reminding us of the catastrophic events that are sure to come now that a villain and a slew of goons are running our country.

These days, self-care is of utmost importance–and I’m not talking about a day at the spa (though that does sound quite nice). I’m talking about consciously taking care of your state of mind, your balance, your chi. I know that Facebook feed is calling your name. All those memes and horrrifying headlines are beckoning your time and attention. Don’t give in. Unplug, step away from your news app, detach yourself from the grim reality that is the Trumpacolypse…at least for a little while.

13793210I’m not saying you should stick your head in the sand and be blissfully uninformed for the next four years. Just be kind to yourself and lay down some boundaries. Consider time-blocking. This simple yet ingenious strategy got me through college. Here’s a fun piece of advice from It Takes an Egg Timer: Only visit the time vampire that is social media for 20 minutes, four times a day. It sounds impossible, but trust me, that’s more than enough time…maybe a little too much.

j-pdlxmld7wcAnother useful book for those of us who are already imagining World War III is Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong. I picked this up during a cancer scare (false alarm, thank God) and it really put my mind at ease. Lots of great techniques for tampering that insatiable beast called anxiety. If you’re unable to step away from the train wreck that’s unfolding on TV screens and news feeds, please do yourself a favor and download this book. If you’re not a reader, maybe practice some guided meditation and deep-breathing exercises. Or–and here’s the best advice–start becoming a reader! Books are my sanctuary from the storm. Even on my worst days, my soul gets restored when I step into Barnes & Noble and peruse all the many adventures atop the shelves. If I can’t talk you into reading, there’s always yoga, if you’re into that kind of thing. Hell, I might even give it a try–but I draw the line a kale smoothies and power cleanses! Let’s not get crazy now.

41g91rygxfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The topic of yoga is the perfect segway for my next recommendation: Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness. I don’t know about y’all, but isn’t it a little disconcerting that everywhere we look, people are completely glued to a five-inch screen. Whatever happened to daydreaming? Flipping through trashy gossip rags at the checkout aisle? Waiting 20 seconds at the elevator without a digital distraction? I’m not big on cell phones, but I could use some help in the mindfulness department, mainly to put a stop to that dang hamster wheel of gloom and doom in my head.  When I started pouring creamer into my tumbler instead of coffee–and wearing my clothes inside out–I realized that it’s time to find my balance again.

331879My best piece of advice: Get silly. That’s right – I’m talking about channeling your inner 10-year-old and doing things that make people laugh (mostly at you, not with you). Meditation is all well and good for experienced zen-masters, but my go-to strategy is silliness. I found some great pointers from this random book that I picked up at a work retreat. The author gave a fabulous tutorial on “making magic out of the mundane.” For instance, when a co-worker pisses her off, she Xeroxes that person’s photo until it shrinks into an oblivion. Then she takes delight in shredding the paper and watching it turn into pulp. Oh how I love her! And when she’s having a bad day, she goes out in public in her best formal dress and happily accepts every compliment that comes her way. While watching her speak, I noticed a lot of my surly co-workers were smirking and muttering sarcastic comments. If she heard their mutterings, I doubt she’d care. Neither do I for that matter because I fully embrace pure zaniness, like singing badly in the shower–or drunken Karaoke!–and dancing like a fool while walking the dogs (something I do on a nightly basis). Trust me, it really works!

170548And, of course, I must recommend my No. 1 go-to self-help book: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all Small Stuff. Broken into little vignettes, this book is great for those of us who only have time to read small chunks at a time. I keep a copy by desk for those things when it seems like I just can’ t get anything right! I have a tendency to lump all my problems into one big, ugly blob that hangs over my head all day long. I have to remind myself that in the broad scheme of things, IT’S NO BIG DEAL! I think it’s funny when critics say this book is too simple. They don’t realize that the genius of the book is its simplicity.

Whether you’re in a post-election fog, or just need some help finding your balance, I highly recommend visiting the self-help aisle. Yes, most of these books have a lot of useless filler, and some of the pointers are just common sense–but I’ve found some truly great nuggets of wisdom that come in handy when times get tough. Got a self-help book recommendation?  Post a comment and tell me all about it!