Four Paws Up to ‘Throw the Texas Dog a Bone’

Published July 30, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe

Al Quinn is a man after my own heart. He’s a dog rescuer, a deer lover and an ace detective to boot! He captured my heart in the opening chapter when he swooped up a condemned shelter dog while investigating a crime scene. Needless to say, Al earned some major cool points right from the get-go.

Though this is a hardboiled Texas mystery, Al is anything but a puffed out gun-toting good ol’ boy. At home, he knows the women rule the roost, especially his main squeeze, Fergie. I say main squeeze, due to his….shall we say… alternative lifestyle. He has a couple of squeezes, per say, in his love-triangle household. The swinging lifestyle isn’t my cup of tea but it made for an interesting subplot.

But I digress. Let’s get down to the mystery, shall we? Our leading man is a retired detective who refuses to start living the sweet life in an RV, so he spends the majority of his free time consulting at crime scenes. This time around, he’s responding to a puzzling scene at the local animal shelter, where human remains are found in the incinerator.With his team of sidekicks—including Tanner, his loyal rescue pup, and a cantankerous rookie detective—Al is hot on a trail that leads to Austin’s seedy underbelly of human trafficking, a burglary ring and rural bordellos. I’ll stop right here before I reveal too much!

I will say that this Al Quinn mystery series is a hidden gem. These books fill the void that Rick Riordan left behind when he stopped writing Austin-based mysteries to become a world-famous children’s fantasy author. Being a native Austinite, I love how the author gave his readers a sense of place in a city that is a character in its own right. Through his atmospheric descriptions, I could picture myself at Al’s lake-front homestead on the rural outskirts of the city. I felt like I was riding in the backseat of Cam’s cruiser as she and Al drove along the perennially congested highway to interrogate suspects. We went on some wild rides together (in my head) and I can’t wait for the next one!

As for Cam, Al’s reluctant partner, talk about a complicated character! Trust me, you’re going to loathe her at first, but then you’ll see there’s many layers to that onion. This is a highly character-driven mystery that just keeps getting better with every book. Hats off to Russ Hall for delivering another quality Texified mystery. May I suggest a spinoff narrated by none other than little Tanner? How fun would that be!?

Go here to read my review of Al Quinn’s previous adventure in To Hell and Gone in Texas.

Read this Not That! Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Vs Haunting Violet

Published June 3, 2017 by Chick-Lit Cafe

Read This!

This may very well be my most favorite YA paranormal novel.  Set amidst England’s lush and foggy countryside, this is the perfect atmospheric gothic romance for a blustery winter’s night. The mystery behind the drowned ghost girl kept me glued to the pages as Violet searched for clues in a stately English manor. Complete with masquerade balls, danger and romance, this book is everything I could ever ask for in a paranormal mystery. If you love Barbara Michaels (how could you not?), I highly recommend this one!

Not That!

You know that old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Those are wise words, my friends! Please do not be fooled by this gorgeous cover depicting a gothic suspense thriller with a twinge of romance. The synapsis is just as misleading. After reading the dustcover, I was hooked. There’s a mansion filled with family secrets, a mysterious boy with paranormal powers and a spooky seaside town plagued by a diabolical force. What more could I ask for?

What I got was nearly 400 pages of Harlequin romance cheese filled with idiotic characters, inane dialogue and nauseating insta-love nonsense.

As for the plot, where was it? The only plot device—and I use that word loosely—is Violet’s unwavering attraction to a boy who likes to manipulate and ultimately kill people with his Jedi mind-tricks. She knows he’s a baaaad boy, but yet she can’t help but cuddle up with him every chance she gets. Here’s how the story goes. “I want to stab River in the heart for setting all those people on fire…..but then I melt when he gives me that crooked smile.”

Ugh! It’s no wonder why Violet lives a life of solitude in a mansion by the sea. Who would want to be her friend? Hey, I’ve been there, done that with a friend who chose to stay with a toxic man. At first you just want to shake them and force them to listen to reason. Then you eventually have to throw up your hands and walk away. That pretty much sums up my issue with Violet.

But to be honest—with or without the “glowing,”mind-bending boyfriend—she’s pretty darn lame. The author attempted to give her some depth by describing the many leather-bound books on her shelf. On paper, she’s quite the intellect, yet where does all that existential wisdom come into play when she’s faced with a moral dilemma? This is what I call lazy character development. Authors slap characters with a gimmick and—boom—you’ve got a multi-dimensional character. Read John Green’s “Paper Towns” and you’ll see what I mean.

Speaking of gimmicky characters, the most perplexing sidekick in this book is Sunshine. Essentially, she’s the provocative version of Kimmie Kibbler (Full House fans, you know who I’m talking about), who serves as Violet’s twin brother’s brainless sex toy. I was waiting for the author to peel back the layers and portray Sunshine as something more than a vacant-eyed nymphomaniac. Nope, not so much. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems like this character existed for the purpose of slut-shaming. She just seemed odd and out of place, but then again, so did everything else in this story.

In retrospect, I should’ve stopped at the very beginning when the book took a bizarre turn for the worst. Why would two underage kids be living on their own in a mansion by the sea? Wouldn’t social services be an issue? Then a girl goes missing and a bunch of kids brandishing wooden stakes go hunting for the devil in a graveyard. Huh?

So many questions, but yet I have no desire to seek answers in the following book. What I truly want to know is how this hunk of garbage got picked up by a respectable publisher. I know this is harsh, but I want to save you from wasting your time and money on this turkey. But if you’re into Bella Swann-type characters and insta-love romance, maybe it’s for you. We all have our guilty pleasures, so who am I to judge?

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!