Fava Bean’s Christmas Reading Roundup Extravaganza!

Ho ho ho! Meowy Christmas to all our dear readers! Today, I would like to introduce you all to my newest assistant editor Fava Bean! She and her sister, Cinnamon, are the newest members of the Bubble Bubble Books and Trouble team, and I’m over the moon to have them on board…even though they are constantly hiding and sleeping on the job. Here are a few hits and misses from our holiday reading list.

The Noel Diaries by Richard Paul Evans

After watching the Netflix movie, I was thrilled to see in the credits that it was based on a book! I love the whole story of self-discovery happening with both the male and female leads—and the mystery of Noel’s whereabouts! There’s romance, mystery and an adorable doggy sidekick! And then there’s the book…oh boy. Judging by another book I read by this author (The Mistletoe Inn), he seems to have a knack for crafting whiny, weak-willed women characters who need a preachy male love interest to help them see the light. In this book, the leading lady, Rachael, is a meek, sweet-natured lady who is clearly not living her best life due to low self-confidence. I much more enjoy the movie version of Rachel, who is ready to take the bull by the horns to find her biological mother—even if it means driving across country solo. The book also lacks the dog sidekick, which was a total bummer. Long story short, the movie was better!

Once Upon a Christmas Carol by Karen Schaler

This was a super cute, albeit predictable, Hallmark Channel-worthy novella (another Audible subscriber freebie) about a pop star who’s aging out of the cruel world of showbiz. While the tabloids are ripping her apart, she’s rekindling her love for Christmas in her quaint small town. There’s a mystery to solve as she keeps finding anonymous Christmas cards with cryptic scavenger hunt clues (such fun!). With some help from her old beau (the one who got away!), she searches for clues and discovers what she wants in life. Have you heard this story before? Probably, but who cares? Tis the season for recycled holiday-themed romance plots!

Slay Bells Ring by Karen Rose Smith

This was my first foray into the Caprice De Luca Home Staging Mysteries and probably my last. Sorry, but I must keep it real with y’all! I loved the cover, but everything else—the story, the characters, the romance—was mediocre at best. I love me some cozy mysteries, but this one was way too paint-by-the-numbers, and the main character was a big time goodie two-shoes. For me, it’s fine for these books to follow the formula as long as they make the characters interesting and likable. Otherwise, I’m bored. Also, (possible spoiler alert) the big reveal was so unfair to the readers. I hate it when some rando gets pegged as the killer. I had to go back to the beginning of the book to figure out who that person was! So not cool.

Rose and Helena Save Christmas by Jana DeLeon and Denise Grover Swank

Ugh…I didn’t like this one. Maybe I’m just not a fan of slapstick comedy, but the zany characters were way too over the top for me. The story follows a foursome of women (including a flamboyantly dressed granny ghost) who haphazardly find themselves in the center of a jewel heist while visiting a psychic shop. This isn’t really a whodunnit, but a series of mad-capped hijinks as the women track down the killer and deal with a horrible redneck sheriff. This played out like a Scooby Doo cartoon in my mind, making me reach for my bottle of Tylenol.

Christmas Cat Café by Codi Gary

My fantasy is to own a cat café here in Austin, but I have no business sense—and have you seen the price of living and renting in this city?! It’s just not pawsible, so the next best thing is to read A Cat Café Christmas! This was surprisingly an enjoyable, Christmassy read, and it really helped me get through my grief so soon after Lil Bootz’s passing. I loved that each chapter started off with a cute little kitty sketch and a bio for an adoptable kitty at the café. There’s a silly little kitten aptly named Chaos who steals the show right at the beginning, filling my crazy cat lady heart with such joy! There’s a enemies-turned-lovers romance brewing between the female and male leads—and also an evil villain waiting to pounce (see what I did here?) on their happiness and destroy the cat café’s reputation. If you’re looking for a sweet holiday romance, this is the cat’s meow! Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Oh, and fun fact: Codi Gary is actually a penname for Codi Hall, so I was surprised by how much I liked this book after reading There’s Something About Merry. I chalk it up to the power of cats!

There’s Something About Merry by Codi Hall

I must confess, I only got through about 80% of this book before I JUST COULDN’T EVEN anymore. The male lead was just too insufferable with all of his self-imposed barriers holding him back from embracing his true love. The book copycats the “You’ve Got Male” plotline of two strangers falling in love over the internet without knowing they already have some sort of relationship in real life. When this idiot realizes his online soul mate is really the woman he loves and wants, he freaks the F**K out and stands her up on their first date. His reasons were asinine, and I had to abort the entire book because redemption just isn’t possible for characters like this. I’m sure they all lived happily ever after, but I honestly don’t care.

Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: Peril at Owl Park by Marthe Jocelyn

Holiday romances can get…shall I say repetitive, so to break up the monotony, I downloaded this fun little middle-grade whodunnit set in jolly ol’ England starring fictional child versions of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. The mystery begins when Aggie and her BFF Hector discover a dead body in the library of her sister’s stately manor house. Then, a cursed jewel goes missing and so does its owner! Since the lead detective is a bumbling fool, it’s up to a couple of pre-teens to solve the whole thing. As with the other books in this series, Peril at Owl Park is a charming and puzzling whodunnit, but maybe too puzzling for young readers. With so many characters and intricate clues to tease out, I wonder if this might be a little too much to ask for middle-graders. In fact, I found it to be more puzzling than some of the cozy mysteries I’ve read. Also, I know everyone is cooped up inside due to a raging blizzard, but things were feeling a bit claustrophobic. It would’ve preferred no blizzard (was it really necessary for the plot?), and more scenes of the kiddos running through the snow or visiting the shops in town. Either way, this was a delightful mystery, and I will continue to read more in the series.

Mutts and Mistletoe by Natalie Cox

This was a no for me after the first few chapters of the book! I spent actual money on this e-book and feel a little bad about DNFing so early into it, but I just COULDN’T WITH THESE CHARACTERS ANYMORE!!! Let me preface this by saying that I have spent over a decade volunteering at a dog rescue, and it infuriates me when ignorant, negligent dog owners don’t fix their animals and let them breed! When the character’s cousin says “Oopsies, my beagle got out and had a midnight shag behind the barn. Now I have to give the puppies away for free,” I had to just put a hard stop on this. Nothing about this is funny or even forgivable. I’m not interested in reading about an elitist five-diamond dog hotel for the ultra wealthy, and I really did not like the main character’s terrible attitude. The book’s first chapter featuring a litany of stupid reasons why she hates Christmas already left a bad taste in my mouth. Obviously this woman is a brat, and I don’t care about whatever journey lies ahead at the exclusive doggie hotel. Hard pass!!!

Snowball’s Christmas by Kristen McKanagh

I couldn’t resist this ridiculously adorable cover that was screaming my name from the Barnes & Noble Christmas books endcap. Sure enough, this little story about a matchmaking kitten was simply charming. I loved the blossoming love story between Lukas, a handsome globe-trotting photographer, and Emily, the fledgling bakery owner and longtime cook at the local B&B. I’m not really a big fan of romance, mainly the stories are so hyper-focused on the two lovebirds. This was not the case for Snowball’s Christmas. Sure there’s a romance brewing, but there’s also much more to the story besides the standard push-and-pull relationship. Not only is Aunt Tilly’s beloved B&B falling into disrepair, both Lukas and Emily have some serious life struggles of their own. Despite his glamorous photographer lifestyle, Lukas roams through life on empty without any living parents or a place to call home. Emily dreams of owning her own bakery yet finances and unsupportive parents stand in her way. Thankfully, they have a manipulative little kitten named Snowball on their side. It’s up to her to bring these two lovebirds together, rescue the B&B from greedy developers, and ultimately save Christmas! It’s a lot to ask of a little kitten, but you’d be surprised what a little mischief and a lot of cuteness can pull off!

It’s a Wonderful Woof by Spencer Quinn

It has been WAY too long since I’ve read a Chet and Bernie mystery—which is just inexcusable! I forgot how these mysteries—all narrated by Chet the dog—amuse me to no end! As per usual, Chet and Bernie are cruising around The Valley in their vintage Porsche convertible, following perps and interrogating shady suspects in local dive bars and seedy motels. This time around, it’s Christmas—and a fellow PI Victor Klovsky has gone missing before he could help his mother light the menorah! The case leads our intrepid investigators to an ancient Spanish mission and buried treasure. Oh, how I love treasure hunts! This turned out to be quite the adventure complete with a high-speed shoot-em-up car chase amidst a blizzard in the desert canyons. There’s also some romance drama between Bernie and his new flame Officer Wheatherly. I’m rather sad that it didn’t work out between him and Susie, especially since she saved Chet from a kill shelter in the very first book. I’m holding out hope that they’ll reunite once again! As for the mystery, it was well threaded and full of unsavory suspects including a weirdo in a Santa suit. Best of all, though, is Chet’s narration. Only Spencer Quinn can capture a dog’s voice so perfectly, making me wonder if he might be part of the Nation Within the Nation himself! I love Chet’s little side-tangents when he’s trying to make sense out of human conversations—and when he’s analyzing body language in a way that only dogs can decipher. I honestly believe that dogs are on a higher level of consciousness with their hyper-tuned senses and instincts. I love seeing the world through Chet’s eyes—a dog that always lives in the moment, looks up to Bernie with pure love and adoration, and cherishes every moment on earth that we humans take for granted.  For Chet, it truly is a wonderful woof.

Lil Bootz: Mine for Just a Little While

Last month, I endured a cat mom’s worst nightmare. I took my 6-year-old Lil Bootz in for her check-up— and to see if maybe she had a little virus going on—only to get sucker punched with the worst news ever: she was dying of kidney failure and anemia. The numbers were off the charts, and the vet told me there was nothing I could do but palliative care. Next to putting my 19-year-old Gizzy down (due to, once again, kidney failure), this was the worst moment of my life, and the word “shocked” doesn’t even come close to the feelings rushing over me. Hell, I’m still in a state of shock in this weird, empty cat-free life that I’m living.

The following weeks after putting my sweet Bootz down have been agony, but I’m finally at a place where I can document some highlights from her six short years on this planet. Though she wasn’t a cuddle-bug or overly affectionate, her quirky personality made me laugh constantly. I had to earn her love and her trust, and eventually I got there! It’s hard to describe how much I love this cat, and what it meant to me when she would show her affection. We had such a special bond that I will forever and always cherish. I know every pet parent says this—and they’re all 100% correct—but this cat was one of a kind, and I will never find one remotely like her. I’m a little angry right now about the cards we’ve been dealt, but I’m also so incredibly grateful that she was mine.

Lil Bootz’s Gotcha Day! 

This wide-eyed, scared-stiff (literally!) little 6-week-old kitten came into my life one fateful day while we were fishing with our guide at Lake Livingston on December 11, 2016. Gizzy recently passed away, and we were ready to fill the void with a new kitten. Our guide told us this tiny baby was found in the engine compartment of his wife’s car. Throughout the three-hour ride back to Austin, she was frozen still with fear. I remember looking at her and thinking, don’t worry little girl. I’m going to make sure you have the best life ever in our little home. Back then, I thought I had at least two decades with her, but…well…life has other plans. 

Baby’s First Vet Visit!

I’m pretty sure the vet was a little surprised to see I adopted a new baby so soon after Gizmo’s passing, but the heart wants what the heart wants. And this heart wants a cat in the house at all times!!! Needless to say, her perfect little boots and adorable fluffy face charmed all the staff. Every time she meets a new person, the first thing I hear is “cute face!”

Costume Party Pooper

I was able to barely get away with it during her kitten days, but it didn’t take long for Lil Bootz to put a hard stop on costume parties. Fortunately, I have just a few photos of her looking absolutely precious in her little outfits. I tried to tell her that with a face like that she could write her ticket to the elite kitty fashion shows, but she said she’d rather stay at home and eat lizards.

Bouncing off the Walls!

After hiding in the upstairs office for three whole days, the little weirdo put her brave-girl boots on and ventured out into the big, scary townhouse! It didn’t take long until she started flinging her tiny body off the walls and ambushing her sister and daddy with a fierce battle cry. 

Early Morning Fight Club

Most cats show their affection by cuddling, but this thing was more of a fighter! If I had to wake up super early in the morning for some God awful reason, she’d be ready to rumble!

A Hunter Waits for its Prey

Although she wasn’t much of a climber, Lil Bootz loved hanging out up high in Gizmo’s old cat tree, where she would hang her head over like a tiger looking for its prey. 

Cuddles with Big Sissy 

Lil Bootz would never stoop to cuddling with her human parents, but she loved being close to her big sis, CeeCee Honeycutt. I’m pretty sure the feeling wasn’t mutual, but CeeCee was kind enough to coexist with the little critter. Every once in a while, I’d even see CeeCee eliciting nose bumps, which made my heart sing! 

How Cute is the Kitty in the Window?! 

To this day, I gaze at this window when I walk up to the front door in hopes of seeing my Lil Bootz. It’s an auto-pilot thing, I suppose. Although she pretended to hate this window perch at first (because I spent money on it at the pet store!), she soon made it her morning and afternoon hangout every day of her life.

Nose Bumps, Guys! 

A walk with CeeCee wouldn’t be complete without Lil Bootz greeting us at the door and asking for nose bumps. CeeCee wasn’t totally into it, but she humored us. 

Nap Queen!

When she wasn’t ambushing her father and sister or tearing up the couch, Lil Bootz spent most of her time cat-napping in her favorite spots. Obviously, she needed her beauty sleep to maintain those good looks. It’s hard to articulate her weirdo sleep position, but she tended to catch her zzzs with her head plunged downward. Such a little freak.

Scared of Literally Everything!

I’m not kitty psychologist, but it’s safe to say Lil Bootz survival experience in the wilds of East Texas caused some serious PTSD and agoraphobia. Unlike Gizmo, who tried to bolt out the door every chance he got, Lil Bootz wanted NOTHING to do with the outside world, which made going to the vet a real picnic. Poor little thing was so scared, she’d freeze into a statue. That’s why we chose to do at-home euthanasia with the most amazing vet ever (Dr. Kelly) with Lap of Love Hospice Vet. I highly, highly recommend them.

Kitchen Cuddles!

Nothing brightened up my day more than those moments when Lil Bootz would wrap her little bunny body around my legs, asking for her kitchen cuddles. As a rule, she did not allow humans to cuddle her, but she made exceptions when mamma was making coffee in the morning. I never ever passed up on her offer for hugs and kisses because I just loved holding her so much and laughing as she fanged my glasses, which is kitty language for you’re my property, human!

Video Snippets

Lil Bootz often turned into Lil Miss Bossy Pants when she had a hankering for Party Mix (aka kitty crack).

Lil Bootz was never too shy to let mamma know that she was annoyed by her presence. This just motived me more and more to keep doting on her during her “me time.”

During her kitten years, Lil Bootz loved playing cat-and-mouse games on the ol’ tablet. It didn’t take her too long to decide that human-created cat toys are beneath her.

This is one of those rare moments when Lil Bootz would almost get in my lap! She showed her love by attacking either my hand or her tail!

Another rare moment of Lil Bootz actually playing like a normal cat! She did enjoy her gutter ball toy for a good long while until she became too cool for it.

Moments like these had mamma running for her camera! As you can see, there were hundreds of these moments. I look back a this video with so much yearning for my little bug to be right here at home, where she’s supposed to be. God, I miss her. Please let the rainbow bridge be true so I can see my salty little striped creature and my Gizmo again. Rest easy, my Lil Bootz. You were a gift that I will always treasure.

One Paw Up for Nick and Noel’s Christmas Playlist by Codi Hall 

Let me begin by saying this book is atrocious. However, it was everything I needed to stay sane while my cat was dying and after we had to put her to rest. Lil Bootz, my editorial assistant, was quickly taken away from us by this horrible monster called congenital kidney failure, and I’m not processing any of this well. That is why I can’t listen to anything but brainless fluff until my world uprights itself again. Thankfully, Codi Hall helped stop the downward spiral by giving me 10-plus hours (soooooo many hours) of excessive push-and-pull romantic shenanigans with mean-girl antics and frat-daddy bro-banter. Like I said, it’s atrocious, yet oddly cathartic. 

Here’s what I liked: The brainless storyline that took zero brain cells to follow. While my mind kept torturing itself with the things I should’ve done differently to save my Lil Bootz—or the things I wish I did on her very last day—I missed out on some of the story unfolding between the hapless young lovers. Yet that’s totally OK because most of it was filler and repetitive dialogue that totally should’ve been edited out. Winning! Also, I have to admit that some of the dialogue—even the bro humor—made me chuckle just a bit. The best part of this book, or I should say audiobook, are the multiple narrators—absolutely stellar work! Brooke Bloomingdale sounds so much like Brittany Pressley (my all-time favorite narrator), and her narration really saved the whole audiobook. 

Here are my questions: 

Why is Gabbie supposed to be likeable? 

How is Gabbie, the best friend who plays “Switzerland” between Noel and Amber considered to be a good person in this book? I get that she’s getting married, and the bride should get her way, but isn’t it just plain cruel to ask your very bestest friend in the world to “play nice” and coordinate excessive bridesmaid activities with her high school bully??? Amber is nothing more than the cliched sadistic mean girl who will stop at nothing to sabotage and humiliate Noel. Everyone is aware of this, but yet Gabbie does the whole “can’t you just play nice for little old me and my wedding” thing, putting Noel in a position of failure. Ugh. I can’t. 

Where is the music? 

Given the title and cover depicting a playlist theme, you would think this book would be steeped in symbolic musical references and musings about artists and lyrics. Nope! The whole playlist theme is just a gimmick to catch readers’ eyeballs, and it worked for me because I’m a sucker. I mean, yeah, there were a few scenes where Nick or Noel would interrupt something by dropping each other a Spotify song, but that’s kind of it. The author summed up the plot-points at the very end (not a spoiler, I promise!) by reading off the songs on their Christmas playlist as a way of saying “Oh yeah, don’t forget that this is a ‘playlist’ music-themed book.’” Big eye-roller, I know. 

What’s with the anti “girly girl” vibe? 

Apparently, we are all supposed to like Noel because she’s sooooo not into girly things. She’s a tomboy who just likes to hang with the guys, which makes her so very special and unique from the rest. All the other girls with their painted nails and accessorized outfits are just a dime-a-dozen, but not our rough-and-tumble, Noel! Y’all, this trope needs to end. There’s nothing wrong or unlikable about enjoying makeup, spa days, shopping and all the fun, frilly things we like to do to spoil ourselves. Noel is just so very special because she doesn’t care about diamonds or eyeshadow, but she’s also a big drag who sets impossible standards for herself and others. It’s tragic that she lost both of her parents at a young age, but is it really logical to avoid getting hurt again by swearing off marriage or any romantic relationship ever? If you’re nodding, I’m just going put it out there that talk therapy is a good thing. If you’re actively setting up barriers that keep you from living your best life, get some professional help! 

What’s with the false advertising? 

First off, if you’re looking for a festive, Christmassy setting, find another book. There really isn’t a hint of Christmas in this thing until the very end. Also, PLEASE NOTE that this is not a G-rated Hallmark romance with fade-to-black love scenes. I’m totally fine with all the swear words, but the pornographic scenes were not my cup of tea. I’m in grieving right now, so this is NOT what I want…now or ever. I’m just not into X-rated books unless if it involves the Black Dagger Botherhood, so no thanks. 

Will I read a book by this author again? 

I’m going to say no for now. I do love the mindless entertainment that keeps my brain and heart from shattering. However, I’m not really a fan of gimmicks and descriptive sex scenes that don’t involve vampires or werewolves. That said, my Audible Plus account gives me these things for free, so maybe I’ll give this author one more shot down the road. I mean, you can’t argue with free, right? 

Summer’s Edge by Dana Mele

The gist: In the wake of a fatal tragedy, a group of frenemies get together at their favorite summer-time lake house/mansion. Eerie happenings ensue when the a vengeful spirit leaves cryptic messages in the dead of night. Someone or something caused that fire and the culprit might be among them…dum dum duuuuuuuum! 

What I liked: Well..to be honest, I didn’t like much about this book except for the cover. When I saw this beautiful hardback on the “Spooky Reads” endcap at BookPeople, I just had to have it! Let’s see…what else? I guess the isolated lake house setting was cool and creepy, but that’s about it. 

What irked me: All the bickering!!! Aside from innocent animals getting killed in horror stories (thankfully, that didn’t happen in this one), my biggest pet peeve is incessant bickering and petty arguments amongst insufferable teenagers. While reading this, I kept wondering WTF did these people agree to get together when they clearly despise one another? And why return to the scene of a horrific tragedy? Why not just reunite at, say, a Dave N Busters or something? To be fair, the author answered this question in the very end, and I’m really surprised I even made it that far. 

The multiple narrators: This book is primarily told by Chelsea, who is beset by psychological trauma in the aftermath of the fire that killed her childhood friend Emily. Then it flits from one narrator to the next–and good luck trying to tell them all apart because their voices all sound the same. We’ve got the creepy loner guy, Ryan; the rich girl and hostess with the mostest, Kennedy; and Mila, the interloper who nobody wants around except for her problematic boyfriend, Chase. And yes, there is a love triangle. Sorry, just had to warn you in advance…groan.

The whodunnit: In the vein of “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” we’re dealing with a whodunnit involving a dead girl who may or may not have been the victim of premeditated murder. This is probably the best aspect of the entire book, but I pretty much saw the “Gotcha!” plot-twist ending well before the final chapters, so no shockers for me. 

Overall: If you’re looking for a campy, spooky lake house mystery, I suggest giving this a pass and picking up “The Lake” by Natasha Preston. Or, if you really want to scare yourself silly with a lake house-themed horror story, I HIGHLY recommend “Where They Wait” by Scott Carson.

Clown in a Cornfield 2: Fendo Lives! by Adam Cesare

Let me start on a positive note. I love a good horror story set amidst the backdrop of a creepy cornfield. I picked up the first installment of Clown in a Cornfield in an effort to chase that same chilling high I got from tale of Harold the killer scarecrow. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fans, you know who I’m talking about! Although Frendo the Clown can’t hold a black-flaming candle to Harold, he still delivered an entertaining romp around the cornfields in the first installment. This second book, however, was a mess–and by “mess,” I mean the polar opposite of scary.

Gripe No. 1: The multiple POVs made the story choppy and the characters both unlikeable and uninteresting. I mean, they weren’t that great in book one either, but I gave them a pass because this is a slash-and-stalk, a genre that doesn’t spend much time on character development. You have to accept it for what it is, right?

Gripe No. 2: This book is a slooooooow burn, but not in a good way. The action doesn’t really start until you get halfway through the many chapters of whiny teenage angst. At this point, I was rooting for the multiple copycat clowns to end it all. Confession: I got about 80% through this thing until I had to pluck it in the DNF pile.

Gripe No 3: The pitiful attempt at character development involved too many scenes of bickering teenagers who forged their unlikely romance in the first book, a side-plot that I just didn’t care to remember. Frendo really needed to step it up fast to save me from the boredom of insecure puppy love drama.

Gripe No. 4: Here’s my biggest gripe of all: This book is social commentary in the guise of a horror story. I get it, we live in a F***ED up society full of fake news, proud boys and Trumplicans. Turn on the news and you’ll see we’re living in a dystopian story with all the weirdos drinking the Fox News Kool-Aid. I like to read books to escape our sad reality, not to be beaten over the head with the author’s political agenda. In all honesty, I lean the same way as this author; I just didn’t like the way he shoehorned his politics into what’s supposed to be a campy horror story about a killer clown. I just want a mindless slash-and-stalk in a creepy cornfield. Is that too much to ask???

Thanks for reading my soapbox rant. I would love to know your thoughts as well, so post a comment!

The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon

The gist: Inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this time-skipping monster-hunting story revolves around the Vi, Eric and Violet—the grandchildren of a prominent scientist who runs a treatment facility for the mentally ill. Their story slowly unfolds as the chapters jump from their childhood years in the late 1970s to their middle-age lives in 2019. In between chapters, we get snippets from a true crime-type novel documenting the horrific happenings up on that hill those many years ago. Obviously, things didn’t end well for the adventurous grandchildren, but you’re going to have to wait until the very end to find out what went down. Trust me, it’s worth the wait!

What I liked: OK, so I know a lot of reviewers knocked this book for being disjointed with the time-hopping chapters, but I rather liked this rhythm and flow. In one chapter, I’m hunting for monsters with a bunch of pre-teens, and then I’m whisked into year 2019 with the grown-up Liz, who is now a renowned monster hunter podcaster. I’m a big fan of paranormal podcasts, so this added an intriguing element to the story. And, as always, the author did an incredible job painting the scene with the spooky backdrop of the backwoods of Vermont….where the evil “Rattling Jane” roams.

What irked me: I promise, this isn’t a spoiler, but there was a kissing scene between the two “sisters” that didn’t make any sense whatsoever. I have nothing against girl-girl kissing scenes, but I just don’t know how this added to the story. It just seemed like something the editor could’ve cut out since it just came out of nowhere for no reason. Am I missing something here?

Overall: As with all of Jennifer McMahon’s books, this is an atmospheric, creepy read for spooky season. She even throws in an eerie urban legend involving a witchy woman made of fish bones and moss who crawls out of the lake to drag children into a watery grave—ooooooooh! That’s what I love about her books—she always weaves in a creeptastic urban legend that will forever haunt my dreams. There’s also a plot twist that most readers probably won’t see coming. I am rather proud to say that I had it figured out…well, mostly…but there were still a few more surprises I didn’t see coming in the final chapters.

Joyland by Stephen King

Oh my word, what a story! I finished this thing in two days, which is rare for a Stephen King book because the man writes loooooong! This is just a beautiful, nostalgic coming-of-age mystery/drama that had me hooked from chapter one. I’ll break it down for you like this:

The nostalgia: The book is narrated by a hapless, heartbroken college kid who’s in that sweet pocket of time that I like to call “real world limbo.” It’s that point in time we all take for granted when we’re fresh out of high school, working minimum-wage jobs we don’t care about, and still enjoying those carefree days before the nine-to-five desk job dominates your life. Maybe that’s why this book really hit home for me. The main character, a temp summer carnival worker, and his fellow college friends are having their one last hurrah or as Stephen King says, “that last good time” before heading off into adulthood.

The main character: I loved Devin as well as his little circle of friends who took him under their wing. If anyone other than Stephen King created this character, he would probably come off as really annoying goody-two-shoes. He’s just that all-around good guy who works hard, loves his girlfriend with all his heart, and takes joy in doing the hokey pokey dance for little kiddos in a sweltering dog suit. Of course, he’s not all sunshine and roses because, with all Stephen King characters, he has some serious demons to conquer, mainly his inability to get over a traumatic breakup. Poor guy just needs all the hugs!

The supernatural element: Stephen King gave his horror fans a little something-something by adding a dark twist to the carnival’s horror house. Legend has it, the dark ride is truly haunted by the ghost of a murdered girl—and her killer is still on the loose! If I worked at this carnival, you better believe I’d be investigating this spooky business!

The murder mystery: Even though the murder mystery didn’t really get cooking until the last third of the book, I’m good with it. Have patience, my friends, and you’ll see the climactic surprise ending is certainly worth the wait. It’s a fun whodunnit that may or may not surprise you, depending on your sleuthing skills.

The love story: I promise, no spoilers, but I will say Devin did find love toward the end. He even befriends a little dying boy with supernatural gifts—a Stephen King trademark that I know and love!

This is one of those books that I was truly sad to put down. Here’s hoping Stephen King will write a spinoff one of these days!

The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay

The gist: The story follows the life and times of Art Barbara, starting from his high school days through middle age. Written as a memoir, the book chronicles Art’s many struggles, including his decades-long sort-of toxic friendship with a goth/hipster girl named Mercy. Since the first day she joined his Pallbearers Club (a most intriguing extracurricular activity, I might add!), it’s anyone’s guess if she’s a friend or foe. But then again, that could be said about most people, eh? They just don’t wave as many red flags out in the open. But I digress. This girl is truly odd, and as the story progresses, you may start wondering if she may in fact be an evil incarnation of a 19th century vampire—dum dum duuuuuum!

What I liked: As you flip through the pages, you’ll see Mercy’s red-inked notes scattered throughout the margins. Somehow, she got ahold of this manuscript before it went to press, and she has a few things to say! This was a brilliant move on the author’s part because her side-jabs added some humor to many pages of dark, troubled ruminations. And just when you think you might have Mercy or Art Barbara figured out, the annotations will add another twist, leaving you with even more questions.

The scare factor: I’ll admit that I’m still chasing that high I got from “Head Full of Ghosts.” Even though this one wasn’t as spooky, there were some disquieting elements that gave me the willies. Do any of these bizarre events have anything to do with the supernatural? Maybe. Rationalists (like my husband) will chalk it up to paranoia. But, since I still hold true to the belief that the headless horseman spirited Ichabod Crane away on that fateful Halloween night, I’m banking on supernatural forces here. But that’s the kind of reader I am. It’s really up to the readers to choose their own adventure!

What irked me: So, I must confess. I’m not a music aficionado, so a lot of the punk rock references were lost on me. Reviewers have surmised that Art Barbara and Paul Tremblay are one and the same, and perhaps that’s true. Obviously, Mr. Trembley is a punk rock maven and grew up listening to this music. So yeah, there were many pages devoted to rock and punk and garage band stuff that didn’t really interest me. However, I did appreciate his reference to Rocket from the Crypt—and oldie but goodie from my San Diego days! Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy punk music. My eyes just glaze over when people start going on and on about the nuances of the genre and blah, blah, blah…snore.

Overall: A reviewer once said that looking for answers in a Paul Tremblay story is like trying to hold water in your hands. I couldn’t think of a better analogy to describe his style. Was this book meandering and a tad overindulgent? Perhaps. Yet, I somehow read it in one day! Seriously, y’all, I could not put this thing down because I kept searching for answers behind all of the bizarre happenings—from the levitating dresser to the animated jackets to the polaroid photos with ghostly green blobs. Did I get my answers? No, but I do have some theories.

Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade by Nancy Springer

Disclaimer: Snaps to the publisher and to NetGalley for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Synapsis: Our sassy, headstrong teenage sleuth, Enola Holmes, is practically all grown up! Where does the time go? She’s living independently in a boarding house of sorts with a bunch of likeminded women who refuse to bow down to the patriarchy—YA YA, sistas! This time around, she’s on a mission to rescue her good friend Lady Cecily, who’s on the run from her nefarious father/prison guard. It’s up to Enola to rescue her poor friend from a life of sadness and confinement.  

What I liked: If you’re a fan of audiobooks, the narrator is top notch! Also, it’s just a little over four hours long—perfect for those long commutes.  Also, the cover art is gorgeous!

Thoughts on the mystery: Actually…correct me if I’m wrong, but this isn’t really a mystery, is it? From what I gather, this is just a wild goose chase for a mentally ill girl who is trying to escape the clutches of her sinister father. I mean…I guess there was sort of mystery happening on the down low regarding the father’s side-hustle, but really this story is just one big chase scene across the streets of London. I couldn’t’ really get into it, mainly because Cecily wouldn’t let anyone help her. Also, I’m just pain exhausted.

Thoughts on the main character: Enola is everything a young girl should strive to be—and more. She’s bright, ambitious, headstrong and always up for a challenge. But here’s the thing: Enola—and so many other Victorian era characters crafted by modern day writers—is highly anachronistic. It’s nice to think that women back then so brazenly fought against the patriarchy, took their careers by the horns and championed social justice with the moxie of a 21st century feminist. But let’s be honest; aside from a few exceptions, this was not the norm. It also gives young readers a very skewed version of women’s history. I’ve seen this trope in so many other Victorian era mysteries and it’s rather annoying. I think these books would be more believable if these characters were plopped into Victorian London via a time machine. Otherwise, it’s kind of hard for me to buy any of this.

Pro tip: I read this out of sequence and quickly learned these books need to be read in chronological order. Do not attempt to read this as a standalone because you will get lost!  

Fun trivia fact: Did you know that left-handed women were considered unhinged and untrustworthy back in the day? That’s just one fun fact I learned while reading about the ambidextrous Lady Cecily.

Overall: If you’re a fan of this series, this book is for you. Enola is just as quirky as ever and always two steps ahead of her famous brother. However, if you’re looking for a good whodunnit, you’ll be sorely disappointed in this installment.

Read It or Stream It? Love & Gelato

I’m not even going to sugar coat this for you guys; the Netflix movie was a DISASTER! They turned a beautiful book about a girl’s journey of healing and self-discovery into a romcom about a goofy teenager (more like a terrible two-year-old) caught up in a love triangle! No, just no. Everything about the main character was terrible, particularly her constant temper tantrums. That’s not how it went down in the book, people! Please do not watch this movie and vow to never read the book. I promise you, the book is nothing like this Netflix botch-job. Hell, they didn’t even set it in the same city for reasons unknown. Aside from a few problem spots, this is a quality read that is sure to satisfy escapists like me who yearn for world travel but prefer to do it vicariously through books. Hey—airfare is expensive! And then there’s the actual awful experience of airports and security checks. Na-Ma-Stay at home with my books, thanks.

Why I liked it: I’m a sucker for “girl abroad” books and have been chasing that high I got from 13 Little Blue Envelopes for quite some time. Finally, I found another fantastic summertime escapade to Europe, this time in Florence, Italy! I loved traveling with Lina and Ren (her soccer-playing love interest) on their motorcycle adventures as they trapsed across the city on clue-solving missions. If this was a book about a girl falling in love in Italy, I would’ve given it a hard pass, but this one is all about the mystery of Lina’s recently deceased mother. Why did she send Lina to live with a father in a foreign country–a father she never knew existed? And why couldn’t she have at least warned her that he lived in a cemetery??? I mean, she had some time on her deathbed to share some of this pertinent information, so why all the secrecy??? To be honest, I’m still a little mad about that, which brings me to my next section…

What irked me: All the miscommunication and secrecy!!! My God, it makes zero sense why Lina’s mother would leave her in the dark about her baby daddy. Did she just assume it would be better for Lina to read about it all in her journal? If so, that’s really lame. And let’s talk about the journal for a moment. When Lina arrives at the cemetery house, she is given her mother’s journal, which contains everything she needs to know about what went down in Italy those many years ago. What does Lena do? She obsesses about her mother’s past, but yet she can only read the journal in tiny little increments. While the answers are all just right under her fingertips, she spends her days in turmoil agonizing about what happened. To get answers, she makes Ren drive her around the city and go on desperate scavenger hunts for clues—clues that are all there for the taking in THE DANG JOURNAL!!! So yeah, this part really bugged me.

Thoughts on the main character: I have lukewarm feelings for Lena, mainly because she was just a little too aloof around Howard, the mysterious new dad. He tried so hard to make her feel comfortable in her new home, but she just kept blowing him off. Until the concluding chapters, she only asked him a couple very tentative questions about her mother, which kind of drove me bonkers. You’re desperate for answers and this man is the key! Also…have I mentioned the journal???

Thoughts on the setting: I loved, loved, loved that Lena’s new home was situated smack dab in the middle of a WWII memorial cemetery. It was interesting to see how, during the healing process, she started to see this place as less creepy and more peaceful and homelike. I really thought this symbolism of bereavement and healing was really beautiful. Of course, the movie had to be as generic as possible, so they stripped this part out and plunked loudmouth, goofball Lina in Francesca’s opulent apartment. Mind you, Francesca, her mother’s old college friend, didn’t even have a big role in the book. . This is a story about father-daughter bonding, and they couldn’t even get that right. But moviemakers do what moviemakers do, I suppose

The romance: I do love a splash of romance in YA stories, so I enjoyed Lina and Ren’s blossoming love affair. However, I could’ve done without the third potential suiter. Love triangles are annoying for so many reasons—one being the leading lady gets super annoying with her indecision. I hated how Lina strung the other guy along when she knew full well that she only had lukewarm feelings toward him at best. Really, this book would’ve been better without that unnecessary tension. The mystery of her mother was enough to keep me reading.  

Overall: If you love Italian escapades, fun summer reads and gelato, you really must read this book. It’s not perfect, but well worth a read. I must warn you though, you will be yearning for gelato, cannoli and all the sugary sweets while reading this thing!