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!

CeeCee and Gizzy’s Dog Days of Summertime Reading

11202127_715143938614409_7969814030943674844_nWe are in the dog days of summer—my favorite time of year! I know that sounds crazy since I must weather the brutal Texas heat, but I say bring it on! I love the long days of sunshine, the big sweaty pitchers of sweet tea, and the sounds of summer bugs. Sometimes I just sprawl out in the grass and gaze up at the trees that are practically shimmying to the constant rhythm of the cicadas’ summer melody. Everything just feels so alive! Maybe it’s all the vitamin D talking, but I truly mean it when I say that summertime in Texas is the best!

To soak it all in and stretch out my lazy Saturdays as much as possible, I lounge on my back porch for hours with a good summertime read.  So far I’ve read a few hits and misses. Here’s a couple from both categories.

Read This!

Three Times Lucky by Shiela Turnage

11737313Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t you a little long in the tooth for middle grade books? I’ll have you know that the plot and the characters are far more interesting and complex than anything you’d read in a formulaic Heather Graham or Nora Roberts thriller. Sometimes, in a world that seems to have gone crazy, it’s refreshing to read a book told by characters who are in that sweet spot of youth. Too young to be boy crazy, but old enough to think critically and go off on their own adventures. Ah the good old days!

It was fun getting lost in nostalgia and fully immersing myself in the down-home Tupelo Landing setting—complete with farmhouses, tobacco fields and colorful characters. It’s like Stars Hollow meets the Secret Life of Bees. There’s a whodunit murder mystery intertwined with the mystery of Mo’s “upstream mother” and her surrogate father’s mysterious past. You see, she and her new daddy, “The Colonel” were displaced after a torrential hurricane. Back when she was a baby, she floated away from her “upstream mother” and he washed ashore with a spotless mind. Who are they and where did they come from? Guess I’ll have to keep reading the series to find out!

I loved her connection with the Colonel and Miss Lana, who took them both into her loving home. They all worked together at the family diner, an opportune place for Mo and her best friend to interrogate suspects. Who killed the town curmudgeon? Were hidden treasures involved? Leave it to Mo and her BFF to figure it out!

This book really took me back to my carefree summer days when I had absolutely nothing to do but ride my bike and jump on the backyard trampoline. Even though this book is set in present day, I could tell the author made a conscious effort to leave out cell phones and other gadgets that are slowly sucking the souls out of little children—and their parents—on a daily basis. Thank you, Shiela Turnage, for taking me back to a time when kids can just go outside and make their own, non-computerized adventures!

Not That!

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson


I have a hard time believing these 500-plus pages full of petty high school drama were authored by the same woman who wrote Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour. What happened, Morgan Matson? Your teenage characters used to have depth and interests that superseded dreamy boys. I zeroed in on that amazing cover featuring adorable pups and assumed this was going to be about a girl finding her way through this crazy game of life with some help from her newfound dog friends.

Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge animal lover, but I feel like the author really missed an opportunity to use the dog-walking aspect to her full advantage. This could’ve been a beautiful story if the dogs helped Andy overcome her emotional hang-ups. Unfortunately in this story, the dog-walking job was just a means to an end. Andy dealt with her dog clients with the same enthusiasm as a gum-smacking Subway sandwich artist flopping together a cold cut trio.  Needless to say, I didn’t connect with Andy, or any of her friends for that matter.

As for the plot…well there isn’t one. Readers get to follow Andy and her clique of gal pals as they ruminate about their crushes, go to pool parties and hang out in the drama room. Boooorrrring! And what’s with all the girls having boy names? Is this a gimmick to make them more unique? I got tired of trying to figure out who was who, but in the end I guess it didn’t matter. I could skipped multiple chapters and never missed a beat. Come to think of it, I probably should’ve.

Aside from the nonexistent plot, I was amazed by how fast Andy and her absentee father resolved their differences after one major argument. My guess is that the author got tired and bored (totally understandable) and had to wrap up this non-story in a jiffy so she could get started on her next book, which I will not be reading. Ouch! That was cold. Sorry guys, just telling it like it is.

Derek’s Book of the Month: Woof by Spencer Quinn

PicMonkey CollageMove over, Lassie—there’s a new four-legged hero in town! Bowser’s his name and fighting crime is his game. Well actually his top priority is loving up on his little gal pal, Birdie. You see, this book is more than just a mystery. It’s a love story between a girl and her dog.  Derek (the handsome boy pictured above) thoroughly enjoyed watching their friendship come into full blossom throughout this puzzling little mystery. He hopes that maybe one day a cute little tomboy will stop by his kennel at Austin Pets Alive and insist on taking him home!

Like a shelter dog, Birdie feels lonely and out of sorts at her grandmother’s house in the Florida everglades. Her father died, leaving her mom with no other option than to work far away at an oil rig to make ends meet. Good thing her cantankerous grandma let her pick out a dog for her birthday—pretty much the best gift a kid could ever ask for! But Bowser isn’t just any dog. He’s a natural crime-fighter with a penchant for sniffing out clues. Whether he’s battling a behemoth alligator or chasing after a gun-wielding kidnapper, Bowser will stop at nothing to track down the perps and keep his little lady out of harm’s way.

The idea of a mystery narrated by a dog may seem a little silly—but fans of the author’s beloved Chet and Bernie series know that this style really works. Character development is everything. If you don’t’ care about the heroes of the story, why bother? That said, I dare you to read this book and not fall for Bowser and Birdie. Same goes for Chet and Bernie—a series I implore you to check out if you haven’t already! The love Bowser feels for Birdie is so powerful, and his soul is so pure and good. Sounds corny, but the author delivers this sugary goodness in a way that doesn’t give me a toothache.  It’s rather silly, but I got a little misty eyed when Birdie turned to Bowser as her only source of comfort. Back in the day, I wanted more than anything to have a dog just for this reason. Maybe that’s why this book really struck gold with me. I could see so much of myself in Birdie. She was at a point in her life when she knew that adults couldn’t be trusted—a rite of passage we all must go through at some point or another. Needless to say, it was her and Bowser against the world.

Their adventures begin when a stuffed fish goes missing from grandma’s bait shop. Unable to turn away from a good mystery, Birdie and Bowser go searching for clues to the missing marlin—breaking a lot of rules in the process…like not sneaking out at night and accidentally swimming in alligator infested waters! The dangers intensify when Bowser and Birdie find a connection between an old family rivalry and hidden treasure.

Although this book is for the youngsters, it’s sure to please readers of all ages who enjoy a good whodunit. And, of course, it’s a total win for dog lovers. In addition to the loveable characters and fast-pace plotting, the writing is—in Bowser’s words—off the charts! Just as I love how Spencer Quinn paints the Arizona desert scenery in his Chet and Bernie series, I really enjoyed his descriptions of the muggy Florida swamplands. Derek and I hope this will be the beginning of a new series so we can revisit grandma’s old bait shop and join these two adorable sleuths on their next adventure!

I should also note that like Bowser, Derek knows how to take a bite out of crime! Take him home and you’ll be safe, protected and loved forever and always! Hop on over to his bio page for more details.

CeeCee & Gizzy’s Dog Days of Summer Reading Roundup

UntitledThe days are getting shorter and the weather is getting cooler—dipping down to below 90 here in Austin! Time for me to say so long to my beach reads and hello to all the ghost stories that are ripe for the picking on my bookshelf. Before I jumpstart my fall reading list, Giz and CeeCee would like to share some highlights from this summer’s crop of beach reads.


Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

18189606I have to give myself a little pat on the back for choosing this book for one of my precious monthly Audible credits. Is it just me, or is YA lit getting better and better? John Green really threw down the gauntlet with his masterful tales of love, loss and teen angst. The bar has been set and Morgan Matson is delivering the books that readers—both young and old—crave. I was sucked in my the mystery of Sloan’s vanishing act, wondering what on earth could cause a girl to ditch her BFF for an entire summer with no explanation. Is she dying a slow death? Did she get kidnapped my martians? What’s the deal, Sloan?! The story moved along quickly as Emily embarked on her scavenger hunt-like mission that would hopefully lead her back to Sloan. To help Emily come out of her shell, Sloan left her an ingenious list of tasks—from horseback riding (Emily’s biggest fear), to skinny dipping, to kissing a stranger in the dark! It was a lot of fun tagging along as she tackled her to-do list and fell in love with the boy next-door along the way. This is one summer read that is sure to win over fans of John Green, Maureen Johnson and Sarah Dessen.


Murder She Wrote: Aloha Betrayed by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

18114236This is a tried-and-true mystery series that never ever disappoints. I absolutely adore Murder She Wrote, and I’m almost ashamed to say these books are even better than the TV show. Maybe it’s because the novels are less rushed and confusing than the hour-long whodunits. Either way, I love it all! This book is especially fun because Jessica is jet setting yet again to a Hawaiian island where she’s guest lecturing a criminology course at a local college. Where do I sign up?! Lo and behold, a professor is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, and all signs point to murder. I had a lot of fun joining J.B. Fletcher as she questioned suspects at luaus, on dinner cruises, and even on a treacherous bike tour to a sacred volcano. Half the fun is exploring the wonders of Hawaii vicariously through the eyes of a most perceptive sleuth. There’s oodles of suspicious characters with possible motives for knocking off an ambitious professor who wanted to put the kibosh on a lucrative telescope project. Such fun! I’m so glad I stashed this book in my carry-on bag on my trip to San Diego. Jessica Fletcher is by far the best traveling companion for this wannabe amateur sleuth!


Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer

18525774Why am I still listening to this audiobook? That’s the question I kept asking as I commuted to and from work every morning. Even when a book is bad, I get really stubborn about sticking it through. In retrospect, I wasn’t doing myself any favors wasting my time on this heap of sappy garbage, I was allured by the premise of two best friends growing up on a charming little East Coast island and bonding through decades of hardships and heartbreaks. What can I say? I’m a girl who loves sisterly bonding. I blame the fans on Goodreads who claim that it’s the perfect book for fans of “Beaches.” What a crock! This book had nothing to do with sisterly bonding, soul searching and female empowerment. It was all about vapid, idiotic women chasing men. The feminist in me screamed at these utterly naïve women who couldn’t find fulfillment in their lives without locking a noncommittal man into marriage. The poor little rich girl character even cried in delight when her man admitted that he was willing to marry her even though he could never love her. WTF? I’ll stop right there before I roast this book into an oblivion. I hate being so nasty, but I do want to save my fellow readers from being insulted by this total time waster.

Gizzy’s pick: Neighing with Fire by Kathryn O’Sullivan

10982781_681149715347165_297454266350883030_nIt isn’t summertime without a new installment from the Colleen McCabe mystery series! Set in a tranquil coastal town where wild horses run free and dead bodies pop up from underneath the sand, how could I ask for a better beach read?

23014755In this much-anticipated third installment, the mystery begins when a hurricane swoops into town, unearthing a carefully buried dead man from underneath a boardwalk. Turns out, it’s just some random dude with no personal connections to anyone in town. When an arsonist starts running amok, Colleen—the local fire chief—must piece together the clues before the whole town goes up in smoke.

Can we just pause for a moment and reflect on how awesome it is that our leading lady is the head honcho of a firehouse? She’s not the queen of a quilting bee, or an owner of a scrapbook shop. Nope, this red-headed sleuth is out there saving lives and delegating orders to an all-male team of firefighters. You go girl!

With some help from her trusty sidekicks, she pieces together the clues that all seem to lead to the town’s wealthy developer, Pinky Salvatore.  In true Murder She Wrote fashion, Pinky becomes the prime suspect after he has a heated confrontation with a soon-to-be dead man. But why would Pinky—the town’s beloved benefactor—burn a man to death in one of his own properties? What motive would he have for killing a virtual stranger?

Nope, I don’t buy it. Neither does Colleen, who may or may not be crushing on Pinky. You see, despite her budding romance with the town sheriff, Bill Dorman, there seems to be a spark –pun intended—between those two. As her romance fires up with Bill, she’s also feeling a pull toward the flirtatious Italian stallion. Don’t get me wrong, I think Bill is sweet and all, but I’m really rooting for the dark horse waiting in the wings. I’m hoping that in the near future, wild horses won’t keep those two from giving into their desires. Oh how I love a good pun!

I did some goggling and decided that this will be my beach house in Corolla.

I did some goggling and decided that this will be my beach house in Corolla.

As I write this with my little gray cat in my lap, I should note that this book is a surefire (oops, another pun!) hit for animal rescue enthusiasts. There’s a slew of loveable characters who are putting their lives at risk to save endangered birds and horses.  And, of course, Colleen has a couple four-legged partners in crime: a border collie named Sparky, and a feisty kitty named Smoky. Notice a theme here with the names?

Pea_Island-Corolla_10-2-08_0240 If you love a good light-hearted mystery with romantic tension, beautiful scenery and eccentric, animal-loving characters, this mystery series is for you! With so many suspects to choose from, I enjoyed playing the guessing game until the very last chapter. I always get fooled by those darn red herrings!