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.

 

CeeCee’s Audiobook of the Month: Lair of Dreams

I’ll start off by stating that Libba Bray is one of my most favorite YA authors. She knows how to spin an adventurous tale filled with young, angsty love and complex characters. Most impressive is her ability to weave dozens of characters into multiple storylines that seamlessly merge together when everything comes to a head. So much is packed into this 600-page tome, but yet I managed to keep it all straight throughout the wild ride of dream-walking diviners, evil eugenicists, dancing Folly girls and underground ghosts.

It took me a while to recall all the players from the first installment, but the author expertly injected brief recaps without bogging down the story. One thing I do remember is that Evie, is positutely obnoxious! She’s a self-serving, unapologetic party girl who loves being the center of attention. Essentially she’s a 1920s Kardashian. There’s a sad backstory involving absentee parents and a dead brother, but I’m not pulling out the world’s smallest violin just yet.

But who cares about Evie (aka Evil) when we can journey with so many other fabulous characters with fascinating abilities? There’s a pretty lengthy cast of diviners to follow–and they are all gravitating toward one place: A creepy underground subway station rife with malevolent ghosts. There’s a number of villains lurking within the waking and dream worlds including a shadow man in a top hat, a veiled woman and cult leaders. Plus there’s Evie, who violates the girl code. But I suppose she’s one of the good guys.

Of all the characters, my favorite is Ling, a half-Chinese girl who walks through dreams. A newcomer to the series, she’s not acquainted with Evie and her Scooby Doo gang of friends. But with her diviner powers, she finds her way into the fold when she meets Henry (one of the gang) in a dream. Together, they explore a strange dreamworld as they pursue their individual quests. It gets complicated, so I’ll leave it at that. But I will say that their unlikely friendship is the best part of this book. Neither of them fit into mainstream society, a relatable struggle for readers young and old.

Then there’s Theta, a very secondary character who deserves her own standalone novel. This multi-talented, wise-cracking Follies dancer is a force to be reckoned with. A survivor of a psychopathic husband, Theta’s a self-made woman who’s willing to sing and dance her way to the top. I admire her loyalty to Evie and Henry, even when though they leave her in the dark throughout most of the book. Rude much!

Despite Evie’s obnoxious gin-riddled antics, I must admit that I was sucked into her budding relationship with Sam, a pick-pocketing con artist with a soft spot for fame-hungry women. When she fakes an engagement with Sam to build her star power, their ruse turns into radio show candy. The brainless masses are hooked and soon the two con artists become the toast of the town at lavish red carpet events. But as they say, what goes up must come down. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching the train wreck unfold.

I could tell you what happens next, but you’ll have to read the book instead. Better yet, get the audiobook because the narrator is positutely jake! I should warn you that it does get rather creepy when the gang wanders into the ghosts’ subterranean lair! This book is much darker than the first, which makes me wonder about the third installment. This will be a tough act to follow up, but I have faith in Miss Bray because she always delivers.

The 31 Days of CeeCee-o-Ween: Midnight Jewel by Richelle Mead

Shiver me timbers! CeeCee just sunk her alligator teeth into this swashbuckling “alternative history” story filled with vigilante pirates, opulent balls, murder and mayhem!

Synapsis: A feisty independent young woman, Mira, must partake in the Glittering Court shenanigans so she can marry into wealth and rescue her brother from a life of indentured servitude. She, along with all the other glittering girls, must be auctioned off to the highest bidders to pay off their contract and ultimately live an unfulfilling, soulless existence in the lap of luxury. But lucky for us, Mira has other plans that involve sneaking off in the middle of the night and gallivanting with the dregs of society!

What worked: The Glittering Court concept is rather disturbing, yet intriguing nonetheless. Imagine living in an oppressed society, where your only chance of survival is to be married off to an aristocratic stranger. With my luck, I’d end up with an old fat man with halitosis.

But I digress…I enjoyed accompanying Mira on her many midnight escapades in the seedy underbelly of Cape Triumph. Through the author’s descriptions of the bustling port city, I felt like I was right there with Mira as she and her gang of spies carried out their covert missions. And, of course, there’s some fun romantic chemistry with her fellow spy, which soon shapes into a love triangle with a rather mischievous pirate. Ahoy matey!

What didn’t work: At the risk of sounding like a big dummy, I honestly don’t understand the reasons behind the spying and subterfuge. Amidst the world-building, the Glittering Court drama and Mira’s tragic backstory, I somehow got lost. Filled to the max with plot threads weaving in and out of Mira’s double life—not to mention her two friends’ unfolding storylines, the book is rather convoluted and disjointed.  I’d go back and read some parts again, but I have 50 million books on my TBR pile, so that’s out of the question!

Overall: This is a fun, action-packed story for fans of steampunk or dystopia. I’m not really into fantasy worlds or action adventure, but I might give this series another shot since I need to know if Adlaide and Tamsin (Mira’s besties) will ever get out of the Glittering Court unscathed!

31 Days of CeeCee-O-Ween: And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich


Synapsis:
Two sisters, Silla and Nori, seek refuge in their creepy aunt’s dilapidated manor deep in the dark, dark woods. What begins as a fun family reunion soon turns into a world of nightmares. Evil lurks within the woods and the encroaching trees seem to have a mind of their own.

What worked: If you’re looking for a creepy, atmospheric book, this is it! We’ve got a cursed English mansion, enchanted woods, spooky dolls and an evil entity hiding within the dark nooks and crannies. Of al the creeptastic elements in this book,  I was most unsettled by the aunt’s rapid decent into madness.  Could you imagine being trapped in a house with a crazy old lady pacing nonstop and speaking gibberish in the upstairs bedroom? Jeepers creepers!

Pretty soon, the line between reality and crazy town gets blurred when Silla starts questioning her own sanity.  Are the trees slowly but surely smothering the house that seems to be sinking into the ground? Is a “Slender Man” lookalike really stalking her and Nori? And what’s with the beautiful boy who seems to randomly appear out of thin air?  Does he really want to nourish them with red apples, or does he have other plans in mind?

Pretty soon, I was starting to feel like I, too, was slipping into a starvation-induced hypoglycemic fog.  My mind was spinning with questions throughout the girls’ dark and twisted journey into the unknown. Summed up in a word, this book is truly unsettling.

What didn’t work: The mute little sister was terribly annoying. Like all creepy little kids in horror movies, she quickly befriends the evil entity that’s vying for her soul. What’s wrong with these kids? Can’t they see that these fiends are pure evil!?! This “I see dead people” horror movie cliché is getting so old. By the mid-point of the book, I was ready for Mister Stickman to whisk her away so Silla could finally be free of the albatross around her neck. Yet, I know the moral of the story is sisterly love, so I guess I’m missing the whole point. What can I say? I’m heartless.

Overall: This is the perfect Halloween read for YA readers who are looking for a good spooky story without the standard monster mash tropes and obligatory love triangles.

 

A-Camping We Must Go! Summer Camp Reading Extravaganza

The summer may be over, but I live in Texas where the sun always shines, shines, shines! Since all of my best childhood memories stem from my many years at sleepaway camp, this will forever be my most favorite season. In honor of the dog days of summer, I bring you some short and bittersweet reviews of summer camp-themed books!

Camp So-and-So by Mary McCoy

Summed up: Magic and mayhem ensues as five cabins of campers fight for their lives in a series of paranormal events. Controlled by nefarious puppetmasters, they must out-smart the evil overlords in order to survive. Very “out of the frying pan into the fire.”

What worked: This book is nothing if not imaginative! It reads like a play, complete with a mysterious all-omniscient narrator, opening scene descriptions and theatrical actors. I’ve never read anything like this, so hats off to the author for pulling off a new and daring concept! Though the book is jam-packed with a multitude of campers, I had no problem keeping the characters straight. Well done, Ms. McCoy!

What didn’t work: I’m not a fan of action-adventure stories, so this isn’t really my genre. I mainly wanted a book that would trigger nostalgic memories of my Camp Marston glory days, but that didn’t happen since this story is a far departure from reality. Not necessarily a bad thing for fantasy readers, but not always my cup of tea.

Overall consensus: At nearly 400 pages, this book was well worth my time. This is the type of story that’s hard to forget and I look forward to seeing more YA titles from this highly talented author!

Perennials by Mandy Berman

Summed up: A melancholy coming-of-age story that follows dull and lifeless characters as they navigate their many emotional hang-ups in and out of summer camp. The series of unfortunate events culminate into a tragic mess involving a periphery character nobody cares about. Essentially, readers get punished for not chunking this heap of nonsense into the DNF pile right from the get-go.

What worked: To be honest, nothing about this book worked for me. Sorry but I can’t find anything generous to say about this dud.

What didn’t work: Oh lordy! Where to begin? To put this in colloquial terms, Perennials  is a hot mess. According to the whimsical synapsis, we’re supposed to be following two girls, Rachel and Fiona, as they navigate life and friendship in summer camp. What I got was a convoluted mess of time-hopping storylines following a plethora of characters—and their dysfunctional family members to boot! I couldn’t’ relate to any of them, nor their melodramatic sob stories. Rachel’s mother was—by far—the most repulsive of them all. I don’t know what she was supposed to add to the story and am still scratching my head over the emotionally-manipulating climax (if you could call it that).

Overall consensus: This book didn’t remotely come close to delivering on its promise to intoxicate readers with “A seductive blast of nostalgia.” If you want a light summer read that will transport you back to the carefree days of summer, please—for the love!—give this book a hard pass. Read Five Summers instead.

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane

Summed up: A grieving teenager, Zander Osborne, learns about life, love and resilience at a summer camp for at-risk youth.

What worked: I really didn’t care for this book, but I’ll try to tease out something worth singing about. Let’s see here…the cover is gorgeous so let’s go with that.

What didn’t work: Maybe I’m being extra harsh because I’ve lived at sleepaway camp four summers in a row and know all about this way of life! The author missed so many opportunities to immerse her readers into an exciting world of spooky campfire stories, dorky skit nights and epic food fights!  I question whether she, or the author noted above, even went to summer camp.

My biggest gripe is that she jumped on the John Green bandwagon and riddled her characters with so many gimmicks to turn them all into special little snowflakes. Zander likes to speak French in her head. The ever-annoying love interest (absurdly named Grover Cleveland)  likes to speak in riddles, spouting out statistics every chance he gets. Zander’s unlikely bestie, Cassie, shows affection by brutally insulting everyone she meets. But yet, Zander is wise beyond her 16 years and chooses to overlook every low blow Cassie throws at her. Come to think of it, their budding friendship was the worst part of this book. Until the very bitter—and I do mean bitter—end of this book, Cassie is an entirely repugnant human being. And Zander was more than happy to be a human doormat.

Overall consensus: I’m so over emotionally-manipulating books with gimmicky characters. Listen up, authors!  Slapping a character with a random OCD behavior does not instantly add depth and complexity. It’s just really annoying and I’m over it.

The Countdown to CeeCee-o-Ween! Another Sleepy Hollow Fail

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CeeCee is having a devil of a time with this fun Halloweenie book series! She regrets to inform you that we wasted our time on another craptastic rendition of Washington Irving’s seminal masterpiece, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Seriously, why didn’t we just re-read the original?

18400224Oh man…this book is quite bad. I see there are many glowing reviews by people who got what they needed out of this mess. If you’re in it for the paint-by-the-numbers harlequin romance, than you won’t be disappointed. It’s all about Katrina and Ichabod falling into insta-love and making out in secret hidey holes. The horseman was just a nuisance that got in the way of their forbidden trysts. BORING!

Needless to say, I learned my lesson about these YA Sleepy Hollow books. I need action, adventure, bloody headless bodies! Star-crossed love sagas, not so much.

As for anachronisms–and trust me, there are many–I’m pretty sure the term “time management” was not a thing back in Washington Irving’s day.

Now if you, like me, are a Sleepy Hollow purist, I highly recommend listening to a couple books on tape.

 

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Rabbit Ears: A Classic Tale
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Read by Glenn Close, a most talented voice artist, this is a terrific little audiobook full of sound effects and spooky atmosphere. A good G-rated version of the tale for the kiddos. I really must get my hands on this hardback because the illustrations are off the charts amazing!

 

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: A Radio Dramatization

61xtb2gmell-_sl300_There’s a lot of traditional Sleepy Hollow audiobooks out there, but this one is probably the best. It’s got sound effects, voice actors and lots of creeptastic scenes. It’s like watching a movie in your head! I listen to this one every year when I’m out walking dogs around the spooky lake at night!

 

‘The Walls Around Us’ Takes YA Horror to the Next Level

18044277Wowza! This is—hands down—one of the creepiest young adult books I’ve ever read. That says a lot because I’ve been a YA horror aficionado ever since Fear Street broke out back in the 90s. I just gave away my age, didn’t I? Oh to heck with it! I’ll say it loud—I’m a 90s child and I’m proud!

If you’re more of a movie-goer instead of a bookworm, I’ll break it down for you like this: Girl Interrupted meets Black Swan meets The Others. Heck, I’ll even throw in The Blair Witch because of the impending feeling of doom, and the anticipation of a horrifying cataclysmic paranormal showdown.

Told through shifting narratives, weaving from the past to present day, the story begins with Violet, a teenage ballerina on the verge of making it big. She is your quintessential “bunhead,” meaning she eats, sleeps and breaths ballet—and will stop at nothing to reach the top. On stage, she is the picture of perfection. Yet underneath that polished veneer lies an ugly green monster. This girl is BAD news! And as the story goes on, she gets even worse.

The story then shifts to another girl named Amber who is living in a completely different world. Trapped within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, she’s doing some hard time for knocking off her mother’s abusive husband. Shunned by her mother, she has no friends or family—just a bunch of animalistic teenage girls who torment her nonstop. Her only comfort is her book cart, which she dutifully organizes and pushes around the gloomy hallways.

“Our private tastes in books showed a hint of our secret selves.”

One girl is living a lie, concealing the ugliness deep down inside. The Aurora Hills girls, however, are doing quite the opposite. In order to survive, they must tamp down their humanity and only reveal their inner monsters. Either way they’re not who they seem. And let’s just face it. In real life, that could be said for just about anyone.

“I knew that just because people on the outside were free and clean, it didn’t mean they were the good ones.”

Enter Ori. The naturally gifted ballerina who rocks both of these divergent worlds. Unlike any of these girls, she hides nothing. Her inner beauty shines through—on and off stage. Only she wields the key to unlocking the girls’ innermost angels and demons. Trust me, once they begin to unravel, you won’t be able to put this book down!

I’ll stop right there before I give anything away. But I will tell you to dedicate an entire day to reading because this book is addictive! Clear that schedule and sink right into this dark, twisted, tragically beautiful tale of lies, deceit, murder and rage! There’s no doubting that teenage girls are a little frightening with their high drama and raging hormones. Teenage ballerinas, however, are downright terrifying. Throw in some homicidal lunatics and a pack of bunhead mean girls, and you’re in for a wild ride!

Might I add that this would be an excellent pick for book clubbers. I would love to listen to some discussions about the symbolism between Ori and the story of the Firebird (a coveted role she performed in ballet). Also it would be interesting to explore the meaning behind the red cup, and how it rekindled a sense of hope in a place of despair.

“Ori made it wanted. She acted like it was lucky. And forever after, it was.”

I you’ve read this book. Feel free to post a comment and share some theories.