CeeCee’s Dog Days of Summer Reading Roundup

The dreaded back-to-school season has reared its ugly head, but the dog days of summer are here to stay in the great state of Texas! Most people bemoan the long, tipple-digit days of interminable sunshine, but my pooch and I don’t mind it one single bit. I mean, what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than by lounging on the back patio with a sweaty glass of sweet tea and a good book? And when dusk comes, CeeCee and I stroll along the open fields listening to the cicadas buzzing up in the trees. This is the time of year when I wax nostalgic about my summer vacays in Gladewater, where I’d chase lightning bugs and chase after those big, silly cows. Aww the good ol’ days before social media and the many portals of information I have to attend to on an hourly basis.  Now that I think about it, I think I owe someone a text…or was it a Facebook DM? Eh, forget about it. I think I’ll curl up with the new Stephen King instead.

But I digress. In ode to the dog days of summer–the wonderful season that keeps giving and giving– CeeCee and I rounded up a few books that will take you back to the good ol’ carefree days of flip-flops, night swims and mounds of ice cream.


Summerlost by Ally Conde

First I have to say that I am a total idiot for missing this author’s book signing when she came to BookPeople. I wish I could’ve told her in person how much this little story about love, loss and mystery sang to my soul. Yes, this is classified as “middle grade,” but the story of heartbreak and healing appeals to readers of all ages. Through the atmospheric descriptions of the small college town of Iron Creek, I felt like I bike-riding alongside Cedar and her theatrical friend Leo on our way to the Summerlost theatre festival. In the wake of a family tragedy, she finds a welcome distraction in the whimsical world of Shakespeare. She soon discovers that Leo also needs the distraction–and their newfound friendship–to deal with his own problems at home.  Together, they start moonlighting as unofficial tour guides for fans of a tragic starlet who took her final bow way too early.  Adventures ensue as they unravel the mystery, getting themselves in a heap of trouble along the way! I wont’ give it all away, but I will say that the ending is a real tear-jerker, so keep some tissues close by.

 


Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian 

I’m drawn to gorgeous book covers and this one really caught my eye. What can I say? I’m a sucker for heaping ice cream cones! Also, I needed to cleanse my mental palate after reading a super heavy-duty apocalyptic thriller. And just as I predicted, this fun and fluffy book was the perfect antidote for my zombie-infused nightmares. The main character, Amelia, is a girl after my own heart. She’s got strong work ethic and cares deeply about keeping the old-fashioned Meade Creamery stand alive for future generations of Head Girls. You see, being a Head Girl is an honor on par with the captain of the cheerleader squad. Only the cool girls get picked for the job, so Amelia is thrilled to spend her last carefree summer slinging homemade ice cream at the top of the creamery’s social stratosphere. But just as she prepares for her first shift, her dreams of ice cream nobility melt into a nightmare when she finds the geriatric owner faceplanted on the floor. Now it’s up to her to keep the business alive–even if it means going head-to-head with the new hotshot owner who wants to cut costs by turning the stand into a soulless Baskin Robbins. Things get extra sticky–and I’m not about chocolate syrup–when she starts feeling the feels for the cute new owner. Like a heaping triple-scoop ice cream cone drenched in sprinkles and goopy caramel, there’s a lot packed into this story. While struggling to keep the stand afloat (pun intended) Amelia is also walking a fine line between “friend” and “boss” with her group of scoopers, many of whom she needed to fire on the spot, but that’s just me. Either way, I had a lot of fun following Amelia’s adventures and look forward to the sequel! I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of the Meade Ice Cream Stand–at least I hope not!


Deep and Dark and Dangerous by Mary Downing Hahn

The illustrious Mary Downing Hahn is the Barbara Michaels of children’s books. I’ll download one of her titles whenever I have a hankering for a gothic ghost story devoid of predictable romance. As expected, this book is heavy on atmosphere and light on the mystery. But hey, this is for middle-grade readers, so I’m not going to hate too much on the plot twist. I will say that any astute ghost story aficionado will immediately figure out the situation with Sissy, the world’s worst girl-next-door who will never go away. Seriously, she makes Kimmy Kibbler of Full House look like a respectable houseguest, and that’s not OK! Aside from my gripes, this is a great G-rated book for young readers who, like me back in my misspent youth, like to walk on the dark side. Parents, have no fear! I’ve seen scarier Scooby Doo cartoons, but the gloomy scenes in the overgrown graveyard and on the misty bank of the haunted lake were enough to give me the shivers on a hot summer’s day.

 

Thirty-One Days of CeeCee-O-Ween: A Dark and Stormy Murder


Synapsis:
A 30-something woman is at a crossroads in life until she gets a call that all of us whimsical, aspiring novelists can only dream about! A super famous (we’re talking Nora Roberts level!) author, Camilla Graham, needs a live-in assistant who can walk dogs and help research/write bits and pieces for her forthcoming book. Needless to say, our leading lady, Lena London, signed very quickly on the dotted line, packed up her goodies and moved to a cozy little touristy town in the wilds of Indiana. Soon enough, her dream turns into a nightmare when a dead body washes up on the author’s lakefront property. Unable to turn away from a good mystery, Lena pieces together clues and finds herself embroiled in a mystery within a mystery. Turns out, the hot boy next-door is the No. 1 person of interest in a missing person’s case. The plot thickens when she finds that the missing person in question is his soon-to-be ex-wife!

What worked: This book is like pumpkin spice for the soul! I loved the atmospheric descriptions of the stately lakeside mansion and the touristy storefronts festooned with fall décor. It’s just so easy to sink into the story as Lena gets acquainted with her new town—and the two hot men vying for her attention! Yes, ladies, there is a love triangle at work. Since the detectives usually get the girl in the end, I’m on Team Sam. But maybe that’s just because I kept picturing him as the smokin’ hot kilt-wearing Scot from Outlander.

But I digress…I also really liked how the author weaved two little mysteries within the mystery: The case of Sam’s missing wife, and Camilla’s book in progress, “The Salzburg Train.” With each chapter, we get a little teaser from her book which I hope will actually become a real thing I can pluck off the shelf at Barnes & Noble!

What didn’t work: Hmmm…if I had to get picky, I’d say that Lena’s unwavering devotion to Sam—a man she barely knew—was a little over the top. At some point, she should’ve entertained the thought that she was flirting with a madman, but she had complete and total blind faith in the man. Other than that minor snafu, I can’t think of anything to nitpick. This is a fabulous start to a fun and adventurous series!

Overall: I’m ready for the next book. Sign me up!

Thirty-One Days of CeeCee-O-Ween: Crime and Poetry by Amanda Flower

Greetings, mortals! Are you in the mood for a Halloweenie read filled with witches, magical books and otherworldly cats? Well you’ve come to the right place!

Synapsis: Big city girl, Violet Waverly, returns to her small town to take care of her supposedly “dying” grandmother. When her perfectly healthy—and manipulative—grandmother reveals her big lie, Violet decides to pack up her goodies and jump a flight back to Chicago—and rightfully so! But alas, she must stay put to solve the mystery of the murdered carriage driver. Slowly but surely it becomes clear that the prodigal child must return to her stomping grounds to take over the reins of her grandmother’s magical bookstore and find the killer before the killer strikes again!

What worked: I really enjoyed the cozy upstate New York setting. I felt like I was right there with Violet as she biked around the touristy village with her adorable kitty stowaway in her basket. I was also enchanted by the bookshop—complete with a magical tree and books that just flutter  open on their own. It’s like Beauty and the Beast and Murder She Wrote had a love child!

What didn’t work: When I discovered the reason why Violet refused to set foot in her hometown again, I agreed that she really should hightail it back to the city. I can’t reveal any spoilers of the mystery within the mystery, but I will say that someone committed a VERY unforgiveable act. Yet I have a sneaking suspicion this yellow-bellied loser is going to become a major love interest later in the series. Also, I was annoyed with Violet for keeping so many secrets from the police. Why on earth would someone not report a violent assault? That happened more than once in the book and it drove me nuts. And then there’s the burgeoning love triangle…sigh.

Verdict: Despite its many kinks, this is a fun mystery that will keep you guessing. Perfect for readers who enjoy witches and magical cats in their cozy whodunnits!

This book is best paired with: The musical score of Hocus Pocus and a purring cat.

Thirty-one days of CeeCee-O-Ween: Dial Meow for Murder

The holiday-infused lattes are in full effect, the pumpkin towers are piled high outside H-E-B and the temperature has dipped down into the lower 90s. It’s Halloween in Austin! In honor of the best holiday ever, CeeCee and I are hosting a Texas-sized costume party—and you’re all invited! Throughout the entire month of October, CeeCee will be dressing up in her most spooktacular costumes and sharing bite-sized book reviews for fans of vampires, werewolves, ghoulies and crazed killers!

Today, we’re kicking off the 31 Days of CeeCee-O-Ween with a little soft-boiled murder and mayhem.

Synapsis: The second installment in what I hope will be a long line of mysteries, this story is set in the thick of Halloween season. While preparing for a big fund-raising gala, our leading lady, Daphne Templeton once again stumbles upon a dead body. Somebody snuffed out the town philanthropist at her stately, yet rather spooky, mansion. When Daphne’s mother becomes suspect No. 1, she—along with her doggie sidekick—must act quick to ferret out the murderer!

What worked: Oh where to begin? Like a pillowcase full of trick-or-treat candy—so much goodness is packed into this book. Despite her shortcomings (which I will mention below) Daphne is a loveable protagonist. Her life revolves around dogs, cats, books and yummy pastries. Funny–mine does too!

I’m also very thankful that there aren’t a bazillion characters to keep track of, which is a rare treat in the cozy mystery genre. I especially loved the atmospheric Halloweenie scenes that immersed me into the season. The hilarious dog costume parade was oodles of fun, but I think my favorite part of the book was when Daphne and her basset hound, Socrates were chased through the woods after a creepy run-in with a chainsaw-brandishing madwoman!

What didn’t work: My one and only problem with Daphne is that she can be grossly inconsiderate of others. I’m not a fan of people who are habitually late, which is one of her many bad habits. I just about had it when she rudely ran off in the middle of a date—not once but twice—with her sort-of boyfriend. Throughout the entire book he’s been trying desperately to give her some big news, but she keeps blowing him off. UGH!

Overall verdict: This is the perfect Halloween read for cozy mystery lovers. Two paws up from CeeCee!

This book is best pared with: Pumpkin cider donuts and a snoring dog.

Many thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this fabulous book!

Four Paws Up to ‘Throw the Texas Dog a Bone’

Al Quinn is a man after my own heart. He’s a dog rescuer, a deer lover and an ace detective to boot! He captured my heart in the opening chapter when he swooped up a condemned shelter dog while investigating a crime scene. Needless to say, Al earned some major cool points right from the get-go.

Though this is a hardboiled Texas mystery, Al is anything but a puffed out gun-toting good ol’ boy. At home, he knows the women rule the roost, especially his main squeeze, Fergie. I say main squeeze, due to his….shall we say… alternative lifestyle. He has a couple of squeezes, per say, in his love-triangle household. The swinging lifestyle isn’t my cup of tea but it made for an interesting subplot.

But I digress. Let’s get down to the mystery, shall we? Our leading man is a retired detective who refuses to start living the sweet life in an RV, so he spends the majority of his free time consulting at crime scenes. This time around, he’s responding to a puzzling scene at the local animal shelter, where human remains are found in the incinerator.With his team of sidekicks—including Tanner, his loyal rescue pup, and a cantankerous rookie detective—Al is hot on a trail that leads to Austin’s seedy underbelly of human trafficking, a burglary ring and rural bordellos. I’ll stop right here before I reveal too much!

I will say that this Al Quinn mystery series is a hidden gem. These books fill the void that Rick Riordan left behind when he stopped writing Austin-based mysteries to become a world-famous children’s fantasy author. Being a native Austinite, I love how the author gave his readers a sense of place in a city that is a character in its own right. Through his atmospheric descriptions, I could picture myself at Al’s lake-front homestead on the rural outskirts of the city. I felt like I was riding in the backseat of Cam’s cruiser as she and Al drove along the perennially congested highway to interrogate suspects. We went on some wild rides together (in my head) and I can’t wait for the next one!

As for Cam, Al’s reluctant partner, talk about a complicated character! Trust me, you’re going to loathe her at first, but then you’ll see there’s many layers to that onion. This is a highly character-driven mystery that just keeps getting better with every book. Hats off to Russ Hall for delivering another quality Texified mystery. May I suggest a spinoff narrated by none other than little Tanner? How fun would that be!?

Go here to read my review of Al Quinn’s previous adventure in To Hell and Gone in Texas.

Let’s Take a Cruise Part II: All by Myself, Alone by Mary Higgins Clark

Ahoy mates! Captain CeeCee grants you permission to step on board and check out our latest maritime conquest. This is the second book in our three-part series of mystery cruise thrillers.

Synapsis: A filthy rich old lady with a boatload of priceless jewels gets the axe on a luxurious cruise ship and everyone’s a suspect.

What worked: This book is what I call, “Cheetos for the brain.” So if your brain tunes out while listening to this on audio (like mine did several times), you won’t miss a thing. Seriously, that’s the only generous thing I can say about this mess.

What didn’t work: Oh pretty much everything. What happened, Mary Higgins Clark? You used to write the most alluring Lifetime Movie-esque tales of obsession, deceit and murder. I used to love your trademark cliffhanger chapter endings and you’re multifaceted characters with twisted backstories. It’s hard to even believe you are the mastermind behind this embarrassing piece of drivel.

Probably the worst aspect of the book is the revolving cast of characters.  The third-person narrative bounces around from one undeveloped character to the next, all of whom are annoying and uninteresting. Without a main character, who am I supposed to root for? I suppose the anchor characters are the lottery-winning middle-aged couple, Alvirah and Willy, but really they’re just background noise. Sure, Alvirah saves the day in the end, but at that point I wouldn’t have cared if they all walked the plank.

And then there’s the dialogue. Oh dear. I’m having a hard time believing that a seasoned mystery writer could string together such clunky, intermediate-reader level nonsense. Seriously, I’ve read better dialogue in The Babysitter’s Club.

Yeesh…this is turning out to be quite the roast. I hate to be such a buzzkill, but if I can prevent my fellow mystery lovers from wasting their time and money on this hunk of garbage, I’m doing a good public service! If you want to read a good mystery cruise thriller, check out Woman in Cabin 10.

Let’s Take a Cruise Part I: Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Ahoy matey! Lately my fur-babies and I have been cruising through a bunch of mysteries set on the high seas. Here is the first in a series of reviews about our latest swashbuckling adventures!

Synapsis: Ambitious travel magazine writer with anxiety issues gets trapped on a luxury cruise ship with a motley crew of unsavory journalists and elitist snobs. One of whom may have thrown a mysterious woman overboard and just might strike again!

What worked: The suspense! Right from the getgo, readers get a little teaser of Lo Blacklock’s ill-fated maiden voyage as the author opens the chapters with emails and news articles about her inexplicable disappearance. This plot device worked like a charm, forcing me to forgo my daily activities to find out what really happened to our hot mess of a protagonist. With every chapter, the sense of impending doom amplified as Lo searched the ship’s intricate maze of rooms for clues. The way the author juxtaposed the ship’s opulence with a vertigo-inducing sense of dread is nothing short of ingenious. The house-of-mirrors effect had me reaching for some Dramamine  throughout Lo’s waking nightmare on the high seas.

What didn’t work: It was incredibly hard connecting—heck even liking—the main character. This seems like a growing trend in books like “Girl on a Train” and “Gone Girl,” in which the unreliable narrators are riddled with character flaws and sour dispositions. In short, Lo is a total Debbie Downer. Yes, the ship oozed capitalist greed, but couldn’t she indulge in just a little fun at her employer’s expense? Nope, not so much. If she had it her way, she’d hole herself up in her room with a bottle of booze. If it wasn’t for the loud splash of a body going overboard, she would have done just that. Good thing the cliffhanger chapters and ingenious foreshadowing kept me going. Otherwise this book would’ve been dead in the water.