The Painted Ladies by Sylvia Dickey Smith

I have been a Sidra Smart Mystery fan since book one, so when this lovely author offered to send me a copy of her newest installment, I told her, “GIMMIE!” I love this series because it’s a departure from the tried-and-true cozy formula. You know the drill: wayward 30-something single gal in a small, touristy town finds a dead body and searches for clues with the hunky town sheriff. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy these formulaic thrillers; I just need a break from the monotony every once in a while.

Enter Sidra Smart! Unlike her young, single, unlucky-in-love counterparts, she’s a little older and wiser than the average sleuth. I hazard to say she’s on par with the great J.B. Fletcher!  You won’t find any love triangles or hunky detectives nagging her to stay out of the way.  Sidra’s not wasting her time with all that bologna. She’s a one-woman-show…well that’s if you’re not counting her ghostly brother and her pup Slider. And in this book, she’s got a mystery to solve on two planes: the earthly world and the great beyond.

It all begins when a newly orphaned young woman named Belle  enlists Sidra’s help in discovering the mysteries behind her mother’s three historic houses in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Why would her mother keep those beautiful “Painted Ladies” under wraps for all these years? And why didn’t her father—a mega-church preacher/conman—ever mention this little family secret? Now the sole heir of her parents’ assets, Belle must get to the bottom of this mystery to discover what lies beneath her family’s gleaming facade.

Together, Belle and Sidra grab their pups and embark on a road trip from Dallas to Hot Springs. Side note: I’ve visited this charming little town and absolutely loved revisiting the historic bath houses, kitschy tourist shops and gangster museums through Sidra’s eyes. After reading this, I’m going to bug Jarred into taking me back there so I can prowl around the majestic Arlington Hotel with my ghost radar app!

Back to the story! So along their journey, they meet some colorful characters, including a reclusive old woman who lives alone in a hut-like cottage near the three Painted Ladies. While speaking with the locals, Bella and Sidra learn that these houses have quite the reputation! Don’t be fooled by their cheery, colorful exteriors, they aren’t happy about visitors and they’ll let you know when it’s time to get out! In fact, the Painted Ladies have voices and personalities of their own–and boy can those walls talk!  This time, someone is going to stick around long enough to hear them out. It’s going to take a lot more than a few bumps in the night to scare Sidra Smart away!

I’ll stop right here before I give away any spoilers, but I will say that you’ll learn some fun trivia facts about Hot Springs history. And while unearthing (literally) clues to Bella’s family history, Sidra discovers a doozy about her own lineage as well. Oh such fun!

A big thanks to Miss Dickey Smith for sending me a free copy in return for an honest review. It was a pleasure, as always, accompanying Sidra and her hound Slider on their latest adventure. I look forward to the next installment and hope to see more of the new ghostly sidekick since I’m not sure if this entity is a friend or foe!

The World Breaks Everyone by Lauren Clark

When this author offered me a free copy of her new mystery set in New Orleans, I couldn’t say, “Yes please!” fast enough!  I’ve always been fascinated with this beautifully haunted city filled with smokey blues joints and creepy above-ground cemeteries shrouded in Spanish moss.  I could do without the half naked, bead-throwing party revelers, but supposedly it’s all a part of the city’s grimy charm. Either way, NOLA is the perfect setting for vampires, shape-shifters and things that go bump in the night. You won’t find anything paranormal in this book, but there are definitely some monsters of the human variety.

It all begins at a swanky restaurant opening in the midst of Mardi Gras week. Everything is champagne and roses until the guests leave and all hell breaks loose. Theo, the sexy restaurateur with a haunted past, disappears and his teenage daughter, Olivia,  is forced to go on the run. Meanwhile, Theo’s girlfriend is caught in the middle of some serious family drama involving Olivia’s highfalutin control freak grandmother. They all have secrets that slowly unravel as the chapters progress.

So many sketchy characters, so much drama, so much deception and manipulation! This seriously needs to made into a Lifetime movie—asap!

I’ve been following Lauren Clark’s writing career since her very first romance novel, which was quite impressive for a rookie author. This book, however, is her best work yet! Not all writers can capture the eccentric charm and mystique of New Orleans, but this author managed to transport me to the land of bustling streetcars, historic mansions and smoky blues joints.

While traveling alongside Olivia on her misadventures across the city, I could practically smell the creole spices wafting from the French Quarter restaurants and taste the powdered sugar fat bombs at the iconic Cafe Du Monde. To that I raise my obnoxiously tall hurricane sippy cup to you, Miss Clark, for transporting me to my favorite tourist trap on earth! Although…it’s kind of your fault that I made some unnecessary trips to the local bakery to get my King Cake fix!

So grab yourself some chicory coffee or a hurricane (I’m not one to judge!), crank up some zydeco classics and sink into this book. If you, like me, enjoy atmospheric mysteries with a touch of Danielle Steele-esque drama, you won’t’ be disappointed.

Lil Bootz’s Book of the Month: The Persian Always Meows Twice

Meowza! Lil Bootz and I are super excited about this new mystery series that is just purrfect for people like me who are crazy for crime-solving kitties! Much to my delight, I found this book in a “get well” gift basket filled with pink balloons, chocolate bars and dog toys. Needless to say, my friends know me well! And lucky for me, I had a whole week off from work to polish off the book and all my chocolate goodies. What can be better than books, chocolate and days upon days of free time? I ask you!

What I love most about this new series is that the cats have a starring role! Normally in my magical cat-themed mysteries, the critters rarely share the limelight with the main characters. But in this mystery, the story revolves around Cassie, a professional cat groomer, and her feline clients. In fact, a fluffy Persian becomes the main attraction when her owner gets bludgeoned in his stately mansion. Soon after discovering his lifeless body in the foyer, she swoops up his gorgeous Persian, Harpo, before she ends up at a shelter–or worse–in the hands of a shady family member who has something to gain from the mysterious man’s demise.

Why did someone snuff out a seemingly harmless millionaire? Did it have something to do with a potential client who is on the verge of patenting new technology that could change the face of data encryption? What do all of these so-called bereaved people have to gain from adopting poor little Harpo?

It’s up to our intrepid cat groomer, Cassie, to answer these questions before the fluffball ends up in the wrong hands. Lucky for Harpo, nobody can claim her until the will is out of probate. That gives Cassie plenty of time to question the many shady suspects–from the bitter wife to the schmarmy executive assistant to the greedy, entrepreneurial  sister. And if that’s no enough fancy feast on her plate, Cassie also has do deal with a stalking ex-boyfriend who is seriously cramping her style with her new crush, the hot veterinarian.

Like a cracked-open can of seafood medley, there’s a lot going on here! And there’s definitely something fishy about Harpo’s many potential adopters. But have no fear! No cat will be harmed under Cassie’s watch–and you better believe she’ll fight tooth and nail to save her furbabies and four-legged clients from abusers. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of this leading lady and I can’t wait to see what’s for store for her in the next installment. This is definitely a win for all my fellow cat ladies out there who enjoy a good whodunnit. Four paws up!

Read This, Not That! CeeCee’s Roundup of Library-Themed Mysteries


I think every cozy mystery lover’s dream is to run a super cute bookshop in an idyllic little hamlet rife with tourists, magical cats and murderous fiends. That must be why there’s a plethora of bookshop-themed mysteries with adorable kitties on the cover. As you can see by my book selections, this clever little marketing ploy works for a select target audience.  Slap a kitty or a haunted mansion—preferably both—on a cover and I’m in! So here’s a few hits and misses from my latest impulse buys, thus proving that the old adage rings true: Don’t judge a book by its cover.


Read This! Lending a Paw

I love this series for several reasons. One: the picturesque Upper Peninsula setting invoked my happiest summertime memories at Mackinac Island. Oh how I was craving homemade fudge while reading this thing!

Two: the leading lady, Minnie Hamilton, is a cat-rescuing, bookmobile-driving, crime-solving librarian. Enough said.

Three: Minnie’s rescue kitty plays a big role in nabbing the killer. I’ll stop right there before giving anything away, but I will say that this little hero has some seriously impressive sleuthing skills. It’s also very amusing when he responds to his humans with a resounding “merr.”

Four: There’s a twinge of spookiness when Minnie discovers her houseboat neighbors might be potential killers. How very Cape Fear! Okay, so maybe there isn’t a blood-soaked Robert De Niro clinging to the undercarriage of her car, but there’s still something very creepy about sleeping alone in a houseboat with a killer on the loose! And need I say that the story revolves around a library on wheels? What more could any cozy fan ask for?

Not That!  Murder at the 42nd Street Library

This book took me on a weird, herky-jerky ride that I was relieved to jump off. I feel really mixed up because the story was quite interesting, but the style was super painful to follow.

Told in third person, the story constantly hopscotches from one narrator to the other.  Just when I was getting into a scene—boom!—it would shift into a different narrative. I felt like I was trapped in a car with a driver learning how to use the stick shift. Somebody hit the cruise control already!

Other than the discombobulating ebb and flow, I found myself disliking all of the characters more and more. I knew it was all over for the main character, Ambler, when he reflected on how he used to have sympathy for abandoned animals and wingless butterflies before the evils of the world gave him a reality check. That did not sit well with me AT ALL. And then I learned about his hands-off parenting technique that led to disaster for his poor kid. I like my characters a little rough around the edges, but enough is enough.

I can’t deal with jaded, haunted protagonists with somber dispositions–and this book is riddled with them. I suddenly remember why I’m such a fan of the cozy mysteries. At least the amateur sleuths can lighten up and have a little fun. Plus there’s cute kitties and sweet little love scenes on the side. There seemed to be a little romance brewing between Ambler and Adele, but the spark just wasn’t there. They seemed more like sad and lonely middle-aged people in need of companionship.

And then there’s the rest of the crew who are all navigating their issues with adultery, negligent parenting, greed and other indiscretions that make me squirm.  Geez, if I wanted to feel depressed about mankind, I’d pick up another book by Gillian Flynn.

But hey, the murder mystery was actually pretty good. So if you like a well-plotted mystery with a cool Manhattan setting and enjoy this particular style of storytelling, I say go for it. This definitely isn’t my cup of tea.

Not That! By Book or By Crook by Eva Gates

Now don’t get me wrong, I love cute cozy mysteries filled with hunky detectives, crime-solving kitties and quaint little bookstores. However a little goes a long way and I got the sense that this author had to throw all of the ingredients into this undercooked stew of clichés. Let’s see, everybody loves lighthouses, so let’s turn one into a bookstore! Umm…how does this work exactly? Has the author even seen the tight quarters inside a lighthouse? And then there’s the love triangle among the sleuth, the beefcake cop and the boy-next-door. Throw in a crime-solving cat, a control-freak mom, a Machiavellian mean girl and some Jane Austen books and you’ve got yourself the perfect cozy mystery! Eh, not so much.

This book was just a little too cutesy for even me—and that says a lot. A murder mystery is tucked in there somewhere, but much of the focus was on the missing Jane Austen books and the mundane day-to-day motions of a small-town librarian. Lucy never really stepped up her game in the sleuthing department. She came across most of her finding by happenstance, not from gum-shoe detecting. Perhaps it would behoove her to set aside the Jane Austen drivel and pick up an Agatha Christie mystery. Just a suggestion.

To be honest, it’s hard for me to write this review because the book has practically vanished from my memory. So if you want a good library-themed mystery, I suggest picking up a title by Laurie Cass or Charlene Harris. You can’t go wrong with bookmobiles or Aurora Teagarden!

Best Books of 2017 Reading Extravaganza!


Good morning, 2018! Time to scour my reading list and shine the spotlight on books that rocked my 2017. This past year has been all about Victorian mysteries, gothic ghost stories, mystical cozies and even a dash of Texas noir!

So here you have it, the best of the best books (in no particular order) that I’ve read in 2017! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get cracking on my new pile of literary adventures that arrived under the Christmas tree. Apparently I’ve been a very good girl. 😉


Best YA Dystopian Thriller

All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry

I bought this book on a whim at the Texas Book Festival and had no idea it was a dystopian thriller. Had I have known this was a survival story set in a post-global warming ravaged world, I probably would’ve chucked it back on the shelf. Yet despite my distaste for post-apocalyptic books, I was mesmerized by the lyrical prose, the star-crossed love story, the brutal desert landscape. This new author clearly has a knack for world-building and character development. My heart poured out to Sarah Jac, who lost just about everything—and then some—in a series of traumatic events. In order to survive, she and James (her scheming soul mate) must resort to lies, betrayal and theft. Once you start peeling back the many layers to these onions, it’s not going to be pretty.  Part coming-of-age, part romance, part survival story, this is one heck of a journey I won’t ever forget! Needless to say, this new author is one to watch!


Best YA Gothic Thriller

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather (a real-life decedent of Cotton Mather!)

If you’re looking for a good ol’ fashioned YA ghost story, this is it.  I was in the mood for a Lois Duncan-esque teen thriller and this book delivered! Similar to Duncan’s “Gallows Hill,” the story follows a hapless teenage girl with an otherworldly connection to the fallen witches of Salem. A descendant of Cotton Mather, the tables are turned and she’s the odd-girl-out at a school filled with superstitious mean girls. A love triangle ensues as she develops a love-hate relationship with a 300-year-old ghost and the boy next door. I know, I know, love triangles are so cliched. But yet, I still enjoy the bad boy vs. good boy dramarama. Is that so wrong? Either way, this is a super fun and campy teen thriller set amidst the spooky backdrop of the bewitched Salem woods. Hocus Pocus fans, eat your hearts out!


Best Indie Author Discovery

With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

Every once in a while I’ll give an unknown indie author a whirl. They have one chapter to win me over, and I’m a tough customer! If the pages are blemished with grammatical flaws or stilted dialogue, I’m done. Thankfully, Miss DeWees didn’t let me down. She’s a masterful wordsmith and –my god—how did she develop such an impressive vocabulary? I’m a little ashamed to say that I had to look up some of those words in my trusty Nook dictionary. I expected to find some anachronisms in this Victorian-era mystery, but alas, it was historically correct. Mechanics aside, I enjoyed the spooky atmosphere of the cursed manor and watching the romance unfold between Clare and her golden goose of a husband, Atticus. There’s multiple mysteries to solve—and when they all come to a head she finally gets to see Atticus for who he truly is. All in all, this author has a flare for drama and atmosphere. The only major flaw is Clara. Sadly, I did not like the main character at all. She was always mad at her subservient husband, who plucked her off of skid row and catered to her every whim. Her imperious demeanor was incongruous with her humble roots, which is something I hope the author will work on in the next book. That said, this series has a lot of potential. Bring on the next installment!


Best New Cozy Series

A Dark and Stormy Murder by Julia Buckley

This fun little cozy is proof that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover! This was a Barnes & Noble impulse buy that shaped out to be the most perfect book for Halloween. How could I go wrong with a murder mystery set amid the spooky backdrop of an cliff-side haunted mansion with hidden rooms? The main character—a fledgling writer—gets to live out two of my fantasies: co-writing a book with a best-selling author while living out a Nancy Drew mystery in a haunted mansion. Be still, my heart! Throw in two eligible bachelors, four-legged sidekicks and a slew of suspicious townsfolk, and you’ve got all the ingredients for the most perfect cozy mystery evers! Another new series to add to my list! Read the full review here!


Best Gone Girl-esque Thriller

Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

I just finished reading Miss Ware’s other title, “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” and it was almost a tossup over which book would make the list. But alas, this cruise ship murder mystery is hands-down the most suspenseful book I’ve read this year. In the vein of Gone Girl, we’ve got a VERY flawed and complex narrator on our hands. There are a multitude of variables that draw question marks about her credibility. This is one of those books that requires hours of binge-reading because the suspense is through the roof! Trust me on this, the final chapters are insane! What I love most about this author is her ability to distort objects of beauty into omens of impending doom. She can turn an opulent room into a sinister funhouse of mirrors, creating a sense of dread and claustrophobia. I really felt like I was on that luxurious—yet off-kilter—cruise ship amid shady rich folk with hidden agendas. Come to think of it, I think I’ll just stick to planes, trains and automobiles from now on. Read the full review here!


Best Texas Noir Thriller

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

I met this author at a BookPeople event starring my favorite hard-boiled Texas crime writer, Joe Lansdale. He raved about this new series, so I decided to give it a whirl. As I expected, Mister Lansdale didn’t steer me wrong. This book is far and away the best Texas thriller I’ve read in a while. Sorry, Hap and Leonard. The lead character—a six-foot-tall red-headed lesbian—is the quintessential Strong Texas Woman with a tough exterior and a soft heart. I enjoyed the drug-cartel thrillride, but what I love most about this book is the cast of characters and the witty dialogue. Just when I made my mind up about someone (like Betty’s womanizing partner, Seth) something cracks within their cliched exterior and you get to see that not everything is black and white. Read my full review here!

 

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!

Starting 2017 with ‘A Curious Beginning’

23160039As I carefully selected my first book of 2017, my eyes landed on “A Curious Beginning.” Could this title be any more fitting?! No, the story has nothing to do with the tensions we’re all feeling in this rocky political climate. It’s a total departure from modern times, which is exactly what I need right now. I’m not a big fan of fantasy books, but lately I’ve been craving stories that take me to a land before highway bottlenecks and cell phones!  What better departure from reality than a Victorian-era mystery? Here’s a short and sweet review of “A Curious Beginning,” the first book in Deanna Raybourn’s infectious Veronica Speedwell series.

The gist: A Feisty female sleuth/butterfly scientist with a mysterious past joins forces with a hunky taxidermist to ferret out the fiend who murdered the German Baron who inexplicably brought them together.

What worked: The author has a knack for world-building and character development. She expertly painted the scene of gloomy ol’ Victorian London, making me feel like I was tagging along with Veronica and Stoker as they combed the foggy, cobblestone streets in search of clues. All of the characters are shrouded in multiple layers of mystery that will slowly unfold in the following books. I have to hand it to the author for drawing me into the fold. I have no choice but to read the next book to figure out how Veronica will elude her many assailants with some help from her hunky sidekick. I also must know about Stoker’s haunted past. What happened to him in the Amazon? What’s the story with his dead wife?!? Will he and Veronica ever get together despite their lack of romantic tension? Sorry, y’all but I wasn’t feeling it.

What didn’t work: I can’t give this book a four-starred review because there are a few problem areas. First, I’m most annoyed by Veronica’s over-the-top “I am woman, hear me roar” attitude. I’m all about girl power, but Veronica’s defiance against Victorian-era ettiquette was hard to believe. It’s as if a woman from the 21st century was dropped into the 1800s. I must admit, I really didn’t like her. In her quest to tear down the patriarchy, she’s constantly putting people in their place, and I kept feeling sorry for Stoker for having to put up with her snarky attitude.

Also, why must she be a butterfly scientist? I mean, I get that butterflies are symbolic and beautiful, but she’s living in an era rife with disease. Seems like a waste of time and talent when she could be finding a cure to scarlet fever or smallpox.

In short: Despite my grievances, this book is a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys a good historical mystery. Judging by all the rave reviews on Goodreads, a lot of ladies love Veronica’s sardonic wit. I suppose I can get past her annoying qualities to get through the next book. As for whether I’ll finish the series, that remains to be seen. A curious beginning indeed!