Murder Mondays: Never Look Back in Texas by Russ Hall

Hello and happy Memorial Day Weekend to you all! While the hordes of freedom-loving ‘Mericans are out flooding the beaches and communal pools (ick!) without their face masks, I’ll just stay here behind my laptop to catch up on my blog. Maybe I’ll even get started on this dang book project while I’m hiding away from the world! Someone told me that Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls fans, you know who I’m talking about!) wrote her book by just plugging away one hour per day. That sounds doable, yeah? We shall see…

But I digress. I’m here to talk about Russ Hall’s latest Al Quinn mystery, Never Look Back in Texas. As expected, it was a super fast read filled with Texas shootouts, wise-cracking humor and a small dash of romance.

Disclaimer: I received a free advance copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. The book will be out on the Amazon shelves soon, so keep your eyes peeled!

The gist: Our crime-solving heroes Al and Fergie head out to the Texas ranchlands to rescue a dysfunctional family caught in the crosshairs of a Mexican drug war. They’re up against an armada of sadistic gangsters as they pursue their mission (suicide mission, really) to rescue a hostage. We’re talking machetes, machine guns, snipers and missiles!

What I liked: I’m not the biggest action-thriller fan, but these books are always a good break from the norm. Where this author shines is his knack for character development and punchy dialogue. Also, I love his descriptions of the various Texas settings—from the rolling hill country peppered with bluebonnets to the congested Austin cityscape to the long and lonely desert roads. I can’t wait to see where they will land in their next adventure—perhaps a fishing trip turned bad on the Texas Coast!

The setting: In this newest shoot-em-up adventure, we’re heading to the outskirts of Houston, where there’s nothing but scrubby bushes, sprawling cattle ranches and coyotes howling at the moon—yehaw! I’ve traveled these roads, so it was easy picturing Al and Fergie’s escapades in my mind.

What irked me: I’ll be honest, I was slightly annoyed by Fergie’s willingness to take on a case without discussing money matters ahead of time. In the real world, there ain’t no way anyone would throw themselves into the line of fire pro bono. I get that the victim was the son of her old high school frenemy, so there’s sort of a personal connection there. But really, she never really liked this person to begin with, so why should she risk everything to help her—and without any guaranteed pay? We’re talking blood-thirsty drug cartels here! And, of course, Al is ready to tag along on Fergie’s first case, but come on! I would’ve been out of there the second that motorcycle-riding lunatic assaulted me on the road. I get that there was an innocent little girl caught up in the middle of this, but couldn’t they have called in the authorities instead? How can two people take on an entire Mexican cartel? I’m just SO glad they didn’t drag Tanner into this one!

Overall: Aside from the suspension of belief, this is a quality read for anyone who enjoys a good Texas thriller. Fans of old school Rick Riordan are sure to be pleased!

Murder She Wrote Reading Roundup

I don’t know about y’all, but I find myself flipping through old photos of past vacations, wistfully dreaming of jumping on a plane to Florida. I can hear the grouper sandwiches and Disney World’s haunted mansion calling my name…sigh.

There’s a point to these ramblings, I promise! These Murder She Wrote mysteries are the perfect escape to vacation spots all across the world! This lady rarely stays put in Cabot Cove. Oh no, she has many, many cousins, nieces and nephews and friends in very high places to visit….leaving multiple dead bodies in her wake. What a life!

In these two mysteries, our famous senior citizen sleuth is schmoozing with the wealthy elite in spooky castles. Oh how I do love a castle! There’s hidden rooms, treacherous moats, money-grubbing aristocratic family members and multiple body counts. What more could you ask for? I ask you!

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on JB Fletcher’s castle-themed mysteries.


Death of a Blue Blood

Move over, Downton Abbey! Castorbrooke Castle has more nefarious blue bloods and manipulative housemaids than you can shake a stick at! JB Fletcher and her sort-of boyfriend George Sutherland got more than they bargained for when they arrived at the castle for a posh New Year’s Eve ball. Before the champagne is even popped, she’s already stumbling upon her second dead body. I mean, at some point, she should quit acting surprised when this happens. Without fail, someone croaks when she makes an appearance at a party. I love you, JB, but if I see you entering the room, I’m out. Either way, her festive vacation soon turns into a game of Clue and it’s up to JB and George to solve this thing because the local law enforcement is as worthless as a dead slug.

If you love a good old fashioned whodunit, you’ll enjoy this mystery. There’s even a dead body in the conservatory! There’s a good chance you’ll guess the killer early on, but who cares? It’s all about traveling to far and distant lands (with high murder rates) alongside the ever delightful and fashionable JB Fletcher.

Blood on the Vine

In this wine-infused mystery, I get to travel to Napa Valley! I’ve always wanted to go there but never got around to it…maybe because my husband’s more of a beer guy. Either way, I was able to experience the sites through JB’s eyes as she explored the tranquil vineyards, tasted delicious wine at lovely candlelit restaurants and traversed the touristy village with her Scotland Yard detective buddy George Southerland. If you’re expecting their romance to heat up amidst all the wining and dining, don’t hold your breath. Let’s face it, poor George is and will forever be friend-zoned. JB needs to stop stringing the poor ol’ chap along. There are plenty of single grannies out there who would snatch him up in a heartbeat.  Aside from that minor grievance, I absolutely loved every bit of this book. Similar to her adventures in Castorbrooke Castle, JB is surrounded by a bunch of greedy vultures who all have ample motives for killing off the infamous Bill Laddington. He made a lot of money-—and enemies—during his stint in Hollywood as a big-time movie mogul. And, wouldn’t you know, just hours after JB Fletcher joins him for dinner at his winery/castle, he’s floating dead in his moat! Local law enforcement, again, ain’t worth a hill of beans, so she and George must solve the case…while enjoying a taste of the grape here and there. This was a fun puzzle to piece together, and I must admit that the big unveiling was a surprise this time! This book ranks right up there at the top 10 Murder She Wrote installments, definitely worth a read!

CeeCee’s Book of the Month: Notorious by Gordon Korman

Confession: I’m a sucker for middle grade mysteries! They take me back to the days of yore when I had nothing to do with my time other than climbing trees and riding my beloved mountain bike around the neighborhood. Boy do I wish I held on to that old bike. We had us some good adventures around the mean streets of Santee, California (the armpit of San Diego).

But I digress, this is a quality read, even for the not-so-young adults who love a good dog-themed mystery. CeeCee especially loved the two preteen detectives who stopped at nothing in the name of canine justice. Woof!

The gist: Two kiddos, ZeeBee and Keenan, form a friendship while tracking down the murderer of ZeeBee’s beloved neerdowell dog Barney. They have their work cut out for them because practically all the Centerville Island townies have ample motives for snuffing out the massive beast.

What I liked: What didn’t I like about this book? It’s got everything I love about YA fiction: mystery, treasure hunts, bike—riding adventures and puppy sidekicks. What really makes this book unique is the little island of Centerville. Located on the Canadian-Michigan border, it’s a hop, skip and a jump from one country to another. I just loved the descriptions of the quaint little touristy village, which took me back to my vacations in Traverse City and Mackinac Island. I also really loved that it is packed with gangster legends and lore—such fun!

Favorite character: I saw SO much of myself in ZeeBee, so she won my heart. Although I wanted to smack her upside the head every time she ignored her poor little dog, Barney Two. Wracked with grief over her murdered dog, she couldn’t bring herself to love another pooch, but despite her indifference, that poor little fluffy spaniel loved her fiercely. Alas, the heart wants what the heart wants. Dogs are kind of funny that way, aren’t they?

Aside from ZeeBee’s misguided ways, I truly felt for her when she was the outsider looking in at all the cool kids having fun at the park. Branded as “that weird girl who is obsessed with gangster history,” she gave up on making friends (of the human variety) until Keenan came along. She was further isolated by the wonky school districting that forced her to attend a school across the island, away from all the kiddos in her hood. So yeah, it’s hard not to empathize with a lonely social outcast like ZeeBee. But don’t worry, dear readers, things have a way of working out. This is a YA book after all.

Thoughts on the mystery: I have to hand it to the author, this is a solid whodunit that really kept me guessing! Could the murder have been committed by the elderly sisters who hated Barney for trampling their prize-winning plants? Could it have been the local grocer who was terrorized by the massive beast in search of snacks? Or perhaps it was the uptight soccer dad around the block who was bitter about Barney demolishing his fence! There are so many suspects, so many clues—and it all leads back to the fascinating prohibition-era gangster lore. Such fun!

Overall: This is my first introduction to Gordon Korman’s mastery of children’s fiction, and now I know why he’s so wildly popular. If you enjoy a good story with lovable, quirky characters, snappy dialogue, fun settings, mystery and lore, this book is for you!  I would love to see more adventures of Barney Two, ZeeBee and Keenan, but sadly I think this is a standalone.

Three-and-a-Half Paws Up for The Sundown Motel by Simone St. James

Hello and happy Saturday, my lovely readers! I don’t know about you but weekends are feeling rather anticlimactic as of late, no? The only difference between today and a Monday is that I don’t have to be chained to my home office until quitting time, which means many long hours of reading and blogging. Heck–maybe I’ll even get started on my very own book project! It’s not like I have any “there’s no time” excuses anymore.

But I digress. This post is not about my incurable chronic procrastination disorder. Nope, I’m blogging today to encourage you all to pick up a paranormal romance by Simone St. James! I’m a sucker for atmospheric ghostly mysteries with a dash of romance–and this author always delivers! Most of her stories are set in the Victorian era or the Roaring Twenties, so this one is quite a departure. But one look at this magnificent cover and I was sold.

There’s just something really creepy about old no-tell motels with those flickering neon “vacancy” signs standing sentinel on the side of a dusty country road. Am I right?

The gist:  It’s rather hard summing up this book in a blurb since we have two main characters in two decades. I’ll start with the most prominent character, and that is the Sun Down Hotel, a spooky motor lodge in a remote hamlet of upstate New York that would give Norman Bates a run for his money…or shall I say mummy—HA! Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Either way, both of our protagonists become sitting ducks while working as night clerks at the rundown motel, tending to sleazy traveling salesmen and drunkards. The mystery begins when Carly Kirk—a true crime enthusiast–follows in her aunt’s footsteps by taking on a job at the derelict motel. Ghostly visions ensue as she tracks down clues to her aunt’s final days those many years ago when she vanished one fateful night while working the night desk.

What I liked: Normally I read this author’s books for the rich, atmospheric settings and haunting prose. Yet with this book, she delivered something even more thrilling: a cold case mystery with a girl power twist! Our two intrepid sleuths get a little help (albeit, reluctantly) from a couple of female crime-stoppers, Alma and Marnie. One is a cop trying to keep her job and her sanity in a man’s world; the other is a working mom trying to make ends meet as a PI. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that the underlying message here is that we all have to stick together, ladies, to help each other out and fight for what’s right—YA YA, sistas!

What irked me: More ghosts, please! I absolutely loved the ghostly encounters in the seedy motel’s darkened corridors and rooms, but yet these scenes were few and far between. Ms. St. James, this is your wheelhouse, so please indulge just a tad more! I mean really, you guys, this author right on par with Susan Hill—the British queen of Gothic ghost mysteries. She’s also in the same league as Barbara Michael…with perhaps a little less harlequin cheese. Sorry, Barbs, love you!

The romance: The plot thickens when our sort-of-present-day (2015), protagonist, Carly, discovers some romance and intrigue with a rather lethargic, disheveled resident hotel guest. The romantic tension amps up a few watts when Carly learns of his dark past and questions his intentions. A dark horse enters the scene in the form of a preppy college boy, thus completing the ubiquitous good boy/bad boy love triangle. Normally this plot device gets rather tedious, but both of these suitors appear to have some secrets of their own, adding to the many, many question marks swimming around in my head!

Overall: This is a quality read for anyone who enjoys cold case mysteries with surprising twists. You’ve ripped the rug out from under me once again, Miss St. James. Was it a believable ending? Eh, perhaps not, but thrilling nonetheless!

CeeCee’s Book Bites: Now Entering Adamsville

image of Now Entering Adamsville
In this new age of social distancing, disinfecting and chronic hand washing, CeeCee and I are turning to our towering bookshelf (this thing is massive!) to escape from this grim reality!

Since we’re knocking out our TBR list at a breakneck pace, there’s little time left for reviewing. Therefore, we bring you the first in our new Book Bites series, in which CeeCee is taking a bite out of crime—crime fiction that is!

The gist: Zora, an angry, demon-slaying teen on the wrong side of the tracks, must save the town of Adamsville from fiendish pyromaniac beings that are claiming the lives of townsfolk and tourists—including a rather unlikable team of celebrity ghost hunters who are quite literally playing with fire!

What I liked: Ever since Jarred finally hooked up our TV to Netflix, I’ve become obsessed with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The Gothic setting in this book is right on par with the creepy visuals in Sabrina’s world. I just loved the descriptions of the many haunted homesteads, the creepy caves and the haunted woods surrounding Zora’s trailer park. I also enjoyed the witty quips and snarky banter among the teenage sidekicks.

I would be remiss to not point out something truly special about this author’s gift. She has a way of articulating some really heavy emotions that had me shouting, “Yes! This!” After the week I’ve had (I work in dog rescue), I can certainly relate to this musing:

Sometimes you have so many thoughts and feelings that your brain decides to ignore every single one of them. It hangs a Closed for Business sign and walks out. No more worrying whether you did right or wrong. No more flashes of the only home you ever had reduced to beach wreckage. No more fear. No more anger. No more tears. You can’t look inward anymore, so you look out and see what’s left, and you’re happy to take it, no matter what it is. And if you’re lucky, you find exactly what you need. 

What irked me: I enjoyed the story, but yet it took me a long time—a whole month—to finish this book. I think a big part of the problem is the main character. I really didn’t connect with Zora, and it was rather unpleasant being inside the head of a bitter, angsty, hot-tempered teenage girl. I get her reasons for being this way, but it would’ve been helpful if the author softened her up just a tad. Maybe this book would’ve been a faster read with multiple narrators.

Favorite character: Zora’s historian/ghost-hunting cousin Artemis stole the show. I would love her to narrate the next book, if this becomes a series. Considering how it left off, I’d be surprised if I didn’t see book two on the shelves sometime soon.

Overall: This is a quality YA paranormal thriller that is sure to please fans of Buffy and Sabrina. There’s even a few LGBTQ+ characters thrown into the mix (about time this becomes mainstream!) and no annoying love triangles—hallelujah!

CeeCee’s Book of the Month: ‘The Dog I Loved’ by Susan Wilson

Heyo! How’s everyone doing out there? Are you limiting your news consumption? Staying far away from crowds? Disinfecting those groceries? Giving your four-legged co-workers bonus treats for fulfilling their duties as essential staff?  I sure hope so!

Now that social distancing has become our new way of life, I feel it is my civic duty to recommend some great literary escapes. Time to turn off the news, wash those hands another time, and pick up a good book! For all my fellow dog lovers, I highly recommend anything by Susan Wilson. Here’s my thoughts on her newest title The Dog I Loved.

The gist: The story follows two women in crisis, Rosie and Megan. Their lives intertwine when Rosie joins a therapy dog-training program while serving time for killing her repugnant boyfriend (good riddance!) at the state penitentiary. Spoiler alert, we don’g get to find out how that all went down until the very end. Way to dangle that carrot, Miss Wilson!

Anyhoo, our hapless protagonist begins to feel human again while training a cute little fellow named Shark. After graduating from the program with flying colors, Shark works his magic on Megan, a paraplegic vet wounded in the line of duty. Both women are wracked by misery, guilt and grief, but with some help from their four-legged guardian angels, things take a turn for the better.

Life definitely starts looking up when Rosie gets released early–thanks to a mysterious benefactor who hooks her up with a project management job at a historic homestead called Dogtown, an enigmatic place where wayward women lived in harmony with dogs. Like the women who came before her, Rosie takes in a big, shaggy wolfhound named Shadow, who arrived at her doorstep at just the right time.

What I liked: The dogs, of course! Here and there, they get to narrate a chapter, bringing simple yet poignant perspectives about their owners’ lives—and how they solemnly vow to stick by them through thick and thin.

What irked me: I’m just going to come right out and say it! Rosie was a complete asshole before she was sent her behind bars. I get that she was enchanted by the rich boyfriend, and the extravagant lifestyle that was so different than her humble, blue-collar upbringing. But damn, girl! Why would you stay with a man who’s insisting on throwing your whole family under the bus? Why continue living with a man who treats you like garbage? And THEN, why would you go to a breeder (again, judging!) and bring an innocent dog into the home of a sadist???

I’m sorry, but I think six years in prison was justice well served. That girl needed to do some serious soul searching.

Most favorite character: Well that would have to be Shadow. I love the mystery of his past, and how his life parallels with the mystical dog that popped up in Rosie’s research on Dog Town’s history. I love how attuned he was to Rosie’s feelings—and how he knew exactly how to comfort her when she needed it most. I just love that the author captured this phenomenon with dogs.

Overall: This a quality feel-good story about redemption, resilience and friendship for dog lovers. Best of all—no dogs die in the end! However, I must admit that I enjoyed Two Good Dogs much more, probably because there was a cat-and-mouse chase  component that kept me on edge. I recommend this one to any dog lover who enjoys good books with tail-wagging endings.

Unfinished Business by Roxanne Hensley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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