The Dime by Kathleen Kent

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

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!

The Horror! Two Unsettling Reads for a Hot Summer’s Night

23019294I’m proud to say that I got my greedy paws on this book before it hit the shelves! This is the first time I ever tracked down the author to ask beg for an advance copy. You see, his most recent book Head Full of Ghosts was the scariest thing I’ve ever read. That’s saying a lot because I devour all things horror. Sorry, Stephen King, but this book even trumps The Shining and Salem’s Lot. I never thought there would come a day when I would say such a blasphemous thing!

This is not hyperbole. Even The King said it himself:
“A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” (Stephen King)

So you get the picture, right? I’m a Paul Tremblay fan girl. I’ll get to Disappearance at Devil’s Rock in a moment, but let me just give you some backgrounder on Head Full of Ghosts. That book scared the I-don’t-know-what out of me! It’s like the author knows that I’m a jaded horror movie/book junkie. He knew just how to hit that sweet spot—that part of me that is scared to pieces of the unknown, the uncanny, the dark forces that drift between this world and the great beyond.

There is nothing more unsettling than the thought of living under the same roof with someone who may or may not be possessed by demonic forces. However, I did have some doubts about my sister from time to time. Kidding! Well…sort of. Head Full of Ghosts got under my skin because it seemed so real. I could totally relate to the dysfunctional, blue-collar household because I lived in one. I could especially connect wit the two bickering sisters. I remember scaring my poor sister silly with my “demon voice” at night when we were forced to share the same room. To be honest, I even scared myself! Could you imagine the horror of hearing that voice, knowing that your sister really could be possessed by the devil?

Jeepers!! I’m giving myself the willies just thinking about that book…and how it all came to a head in the 27064358end. Don’t worry! I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that it’s the scariest—and most satisfying—ending. The genius of Tremblay’s storytelling is that he doesn’t spell it out for you. It’s up to the reader to pick up on the subtle clues and draw their own conclusion at the end. Like Mulder, I want to believe. Judging by the little hints—and one big nudge at the end—I got exactly what I wanted.

Now let’s get to Devil’s Rock, shall we? This book follows on the heels of THE SCARIEST BOOK EVER so I lowered the bar just a tad. That proved to be unnecessary. Though it’s an entirely different story, the same dark undercurrents course through the chapters, drawing questions about the possibility of demonic possession vs. mental illness. I have my own theory about what happened when Tommy met his fate at Devil’s Rock. I’m sure the Scullys of the world will draw their own rational conclusions. However, thanks to the final teaser in the very last chapter, I’m willing to bet my entire collection of Stephen King books that evil forces were at work.

It’s really hard to review this book without revealing any spoilers, but I will say that it is an addictive read that’s riddled with elements of the uncanny. I’ve always been creeped out by the idea of the doppelgänger. How creepy would it be to see an exact replica of yourself running around at night? Tremblay took this concept to a very dark place and I’m getting the pricklies just thinking about it!

Oh how I wish I could tell you more about the sequence of events, which are gradually unveiled through the pages of Tommy’s journal. What really happened the night he disappeared? Why does it seem that his friends are all hiding a deep-dark secret? Who or what is lurking outside in the shadows and leaving pages of Tommy’s diary on the living room floor? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

I’ll stop right here before I give anything away. Just please read this book and share your thoughts with me. I would love to compare theories! I’m still pondering the meaning behind the phrase, “The Devil’s in the Coincidence,” and whether or not life is just one big connect-the-dots puzzle.

In the meantime, I’m going to pick up a light and fluffy cozy mystery to balance things out a bit. Then I’ll embark on a book that reviewers have been comparing to Tremblay’s work: House of Leaves.

Chick Lit Cafe’s Pick of the Month: Sister Dear

27191173Since my big sissy’s turning the BIG FOUR-0 in just a few days, it’s only fitting for me to dedicate this one to her…not that she’s evil or nothing. Well…there was that time when I noshed on all the pizza at her slumber party and she tried to throw me out,  but that’s besides the point! In all honesty, my sister is pretty great and now I’m appreciating her even more. But I should note that I was the life of the party and she was just jelly that her friends were digging my vibe.

Moving on! Imagine, if you will, being on top of the world. You’re young, beautiful, privileged and ready to jump into medical school at a top university. Then, in one ill-fated night, that charmed life morphs into a nightmare. Someone frames you for murder and you’re suddenly in a hideous orange jumpsuit scrapping with real killers in a high-security prison. Enter Allie’s world. It’s not a good place to be.

The story begins when she gets out on bail and is immediately ostracized by her entire hometown, including her daughter. Everybody—maybe even her own parents—believe she killed the town’s beloved football coach. It’s up to Allie to clear her name. Not an easy task for someone who’s out on parole and under the scrutiny of the shady town sheriff.  There’s a lot of skeletons in that guy’s closet, and she’s determined to dig them out.

As she pieces together the clues—with a tiny bit of help from her former flame—she finds herself in a whirlwind of lies, deceit, conspiracy and drugs. To make matters worse, her sister—the one person who should be helping her fight for justice—is mysteriously out of the picture. But is she really? Us readers get in on her nasty little secrets because the  chapters are told through multiple perspectives. We learn early on that sister Emma was perfectly happy letting Allie rot in jail. It gave her the perfect opportunity to be a helicopter mom to her troubled niece. Boy this sounds like a Lifetime movie waiting to happen! Although we’re not sure who exactly orchestrated the perfect crime, it’s clear that Emma is one manipulative bitch, and I wanted more than anything to see her taken down and shipped away to the land of orange jumpsuits.

I’ve been reading Laura McNeil’s books ever since she published her debut novel Stay Tuned. I’ve always liked her lighter stories of romance and self-discovery, but I especially enjoyed her past two suspense novels. She’s taking a walk down the dark side and I like it! She does a fine job crafting some truly despicable monsters, making me wonder if she’s ever encountered people like this in real life…jeez, I hope not! Another art she has mastered is the cliffhanger chapters. The alternating POVs keep the story moving at a supersonic clip.   This is a pretty tricky maneuver for authors. Sometimes it works and sometimes it’s about as annoying as trying to watch TV with some jerk-0 constantly flipping the channels.

If I had to get nitpicky, my only piece of criticism is to take the characters to an even darker place. There’s no doubt that Emma is a twisted sister. Clearly that darkness has been there all her life, and I’d like the author to linger a little longer on the deep-seated evil that drives her to do such wicked things. As for the other antagonists, it’s clear that they are just weak-willed people who are only looking after themselves. But Emma is kind of a fascinating specimen—a bad seed I’d like to get to know a little more. That’s the kind of stuff that gets under my skin, keeping me up all night.

Either way, this book is definitely worth your time if you enjoy thrillers. There’s even a touch of romance for chick lit fans. The author really set the bar with Center of Gravity (read my review here), but boy did she deliver with her sophomore suspense novel. It’s safe to say that Laura McNeill is one to watch!

Gizzy’s Book of the Month: Claws for Alarm

UntitledThis cute little paperback has been sitting on our shelf for way too long. You see, during the holidays Gizzy and I are all about Christmas-infused murder and mayhem, and sometimes those touchy-feely yarns about hope and forgiveness. So now that January has reared its butt-ugly head (we’re not fans of this dreary month), it’s time dust off that TBR pile and get down to business! 

Of course, Mister Giz insisted on starting the new year off right with a magical cat mystery. Far be it from me to say no—I mean how could anyone dare to disappoint this guy?! Would you look at that fuzzy face! 

Anyhoo, this book was a heck of a lot of fun. Totally took my mind off of the sadness that comes after the holidays. No more tree, no more time off, no more nuttin! Okay, so maybe I’m being a little overdramatic. There’s got to be something good about January. Let’s see…less time shopping means more time reading, so that’s a pretty big win. Then there’s the after-Christmas sales…but I digress.  

Let’s get back to the book, shall we? Gizzy and I were most impressed with this puzzling whodunit. It was a lot of fun tagging along with Nick and Nora (an old-school TV show reference that is before our time) as she relentlessly hunted down clues to clear her hapless sister’s name. There are lessons to be learned here, people! If you find a dead body, please resist the impulse to pull the knife out of its back and then flee the scene when a witness arrives. It just looks bad.  

Anyhoo, as you can imagine, that’s what happened to Nora’s sister when she found her stuffy art professor’s lifeless body crumpled on the floor of his office. The coppers believe it to be an open-and-close case. I mean, who wouldn’t? So it’s up to our intrepid sandwich artist sleuth to hunt down clues, interrogate suspects and ferret out the murderer. Otherwise it’s orange jumpsuit city for poor little Lacey.  

With some help from her mystical four-legged feline, Nora soon finds that the professor had a lot of enemies with ample motives for murder. Could it have been the bitter ex-wife, the new gold-digging wife, the troubled son, the shady male model, or was it just an angry student out for revenge? Whoever it was, they sure were lucky to pin it all on a dimwitted art student. But of course, the killer’s dumb luck takes a turn for the worst when big sissy picks up the case!

Gizzy gives this whodunnit two paws up—mainly because he and I were stumped all the way until the very end when Nora and her Scooby Doo posse of crime-fighters caught the killer. We didn’t see that one coming! Cozy fans will love the puzzling mystery, and the swoony romance lovers will enjoy the early beginnings of a love triangle forming around Nora and two hotties. One is an old college flame, the other an FBI agent. Having to choose between the two will be tough…but not such a bad problem to have, if you ask me.  

I should also mention that this book is sure to please my fellow crazy cat ladies because Nick (a tubby tuxedo cat) plays a big role in the mystery. There’s something mystical about this enigmatic kitty. When it comes to finding clues, he’s always two steps ahead of everyone else. Perhaps it’s because he has more experience in the PI business. You see, after Nora found him as a stray, she discovered that his former owner was a womanizing private eye who mysteriously disappeared. Some believe he’s sleeping with the fishies, and others insist that he ran off and assumed a new identity. At some point, Nick and Nora will find some answers. That’s one of the many reasons why Gizzy and I are excited to read the next installment!

Brutus’ Book of the Month: Bridge of Bones by Richard Gleaves

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Brutus is a big fan of the Headless Horseman! He’s waiting at Austin Pets Alive for a haunted house to call his own.

Halloween may be just a memory but lucky for you, Brutus and I celebrate this spooktacular holiday all year round! Some may think it’s strange that I prominently display my Department 56 haunted village throughout all four seasons, but I scoff at their provincial ways.  After they swap their jack-o-lanterns for tinsel and twinkle lights, I’ll still be reading Sleepy Hollow-themed books underneath the glow of my faux Haunted Mansion candelabra.

23390914Without further ado, Brutus would like to bring you a review of the second installment of the Jason Crane Sleepy Hollow series – and boy is it a doozy! Wow, where to begin? This book is huge, and there’s SO much ground to cover.  How about I start by introducing you to the fearless and loveable hero, Jason Crane?  I applaud Richard Gleaves for bringing all of his characters to life in a way that only a few masterful storytellers can pull off. Jason is a hapless hero who appeals to anyone who hasn’t won the genetic lottery. A decendent of none other than Ichabod Crane, he’s long, lanky and rather awkward around girls. But what he lacks in good looks and social graces, he makes up for in bravery and wit.  It’s a good think he’s got a lot of true grit because in this next adventure, he’s got more obstacles than the Hobbit and Harry Potter combined! Okay, that may be an overstatement, but the dude’s got some major problems.

The story unfolds in the aftermath of Jason’s near-death encounter with the Headless Horseman. The town is in an uproar after he shattered the door of the old Dutch church. The townsfolk hate him so much, even his teachers are giving him the boot from their classrooms. To say that he is persona non grata would be an understatement. After his beloved grandmother’s untimely death, Jason is left under the care of his evil guardian, Hediwig (sorry about butchering his name, but that’s one of the drawbacks of reading via audio.) His family fortune is being siphoned into a nefarious political campaign and his grandmother’s old house has turned into a scene from Hoarders. Chips are down.

Things go from bad to worse when Jason and his crush Kate discover that they have been saddled with the Witches Curse. Isn’t it bad enough that they are both tortured by unrequited love?  Oh and they’re being hunted down by an axe-wielding horseman from beyond the grave.

This book may be long, but I finished it in a weekend because it’s one heck of a ride. I learned so much about the evil powers that control the Sleepy Hollow boneyard, and the evil entity that ultimately controls the Headless Horseman.  Murderous ghosts and malevolent witches are unsettling, but the most frightening thing about this book is the evil that lurks within Hediwig’s soul.  This is more than just a cat-and-mouse adventure story. It’s also a terrifying character sketch of the mind of a sociopath. There were points when Hediwick tried to fight his dark madness, yet his weakness was no match for pure evil. That, my friends, is far more frightening than a Headless Horseman lurking in the woods on Halloween night.

I’ll stop right here to save you from spoilers.  But I will leave you with one tip. I highly suggest “reading” this one of audio. The narrator is the best in the business, and it’s a lot of fun listening to the book while walking around a spooky trail at dusk. Happy reading—or listening—my friends!

A Lukewarm Review of Zak Bagans’ ‘I am Haunted’

22609198I’m so glad I bought the cheapo digital copy instead of the muy expensivo hardback because this book did not fulfill my wildest dreams. I want to like Zak Bagans. I really do. But it’s so hard to give him the benefit of the doubt when he’s constantly berating his “haters” and demonstrating his supperiority over other ghost-hunting crews.  Did he really have to insult Paris Hilton’s “clown feet” just because she “dissed his friend”?  I’m not really fond of celebutantes, but that was a low blow, dude.

After reading his first book, I was craving more behind-the-scenes stories about haunted buildings and the many backwoods weirdos he interviews. Sadly my thirst for inside knowledge was left unquenched as Zak continuted to regale his readers with stories about his impeccible work ethic, his psychic skills, his avante garde ghost-hunting techniques, etcetera, etcetera. Being the loyal fangirl that I am, I forged through the ego-pumping chapters and was rewarded by a few gems. Oh how I loved reading his stories about the ghoulish people who reside in some of the world’s creepiest murder houses.  I especially enjoyed the juicy tidbits about the weirdos who live in Fox Hollow Farms. Yikes!  I should also give him props for donating thousands of dollars to animal shelters. Anyone who supports homeless animals can’t be all that douchey, right?

The ghost stories I can do without, however, are the ones that involve his ex-GFs who claim to be taunted by his paranormal baggage. Come on, Zak, you know they’re just trying to bring you back into their lair. To say that I’m dubious of those alleged demonic attacks would be an understatement. Albeit he is super hot and I may be just a tad envious of his lady friends. Don’t mock me! I find his refusal to let go of the Backstreat Boys fashions to be quite endearing, OK! The spiked hair, the baggy FUBU pants, the Ed Hardy-esque attire—it all works for me.

But I digress…In short, this book seemed more like an angry manifesto than a memoir. While reading his tirades I just wanted to scream, “I bought your book, didn’t I? Doesn’t that mean I’m on your side?” For his sake, I hope at some point he can make peace with his naysayers, keep calm and ghost-hunt on. Until then, I will continue to dutifully watch his show because it is far and away more exciting than the snoozefest that is Ghost Hunters. The Dead Files comes in at a close second. Oh how I would love to see Zak Bagans and Amy Allen team up at a mega-haunted location. But of course, all other ghost-hunters pale in comparison so that will never happen.