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.

 

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.

 

‘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.

Washington Irving Fans, Eat Your Heart Out!

18586140Another hot and muggy September has reared its ugly head in this inferno called Austin. That means I’ll be reading nothing but spooky ghost stories all the way through December! This year, I’m jump-starting the witching season with this fun YA thriller filled with ghosts, leering jack-o-lanterns and a sword-wielding fiend on horseback.

Sounds promising, but yet I went into this book with cautious optimism. After attempting to watch that blasphemous Sleepy Hollow series and suffering through the first installment of the Hollow Trilogy, I know that there’s so many ways a headless horseman story could go wrong. Oh and please don’t get me started on the Tim Burton movie. Who in their right mind would cast Johnny Depp as Ichabod? I’m sure poor old Irving is still rolling around in his grave over that one.

Here’s the thing. If you’re going to retell old Washington Irving’s masterpiece, you better use the spooky setting to your full advantage. Irving and Ray Bradbury mastered the art of intoxicating readers with lyrical descriptions of fall landscapes. Contemporary authors all seem to pale in comparison. That is until I took a chance on Richard Gleaves.

He is clearly a huge fan of Irving’s work, and it shows in his atmospheric descriptions of Ichabod Crane’s stomping grounds. His prose swept me away to the little hamlet along the Hudson River, where I could hear the soft autumn breeze wafting through the trees, smell the smoke drifting from burnt leaves, and see the moonlight shining upon spooky boneyard. Such fun!

With a hip hip and a clippity clop, he's out looking for a head to chop!

With a hip hip and a clippity clop, he’s out looking for a head to chop!

The genius of the story, is the parallels between the modern day characters and their direct descendants—Brom bones and Ichabod Crane. Our hero Jason Crane may be long and lanky, but he’s much cooler than his social-climbing ancestor. As expected, he falls in love with Kate (the new Katrina), who is unfortunately hooked up with the modern day Brom Bones, a school jock with lots of skeletons in the closet.

Of all the multi-dimensional characters in this book, I most enjoyed Jason’s newfound bestie—a wannabe Robin Williams who spends most of his waking hours manning the grounds of the local cemetery. This actually comes in handy when Jason finds that his grandmother is being conned into digging up a veritable Pandora’s box that has been entombed in the family crypt for two centuries.

I’ll save you from the gory details—and I mean that in every sense of the word! But I will say that this is one thrill ride that will get you in the Halloween spirit. Ever since I watched the Disney version of Sleepy Hollow—a masterpiece onto itself—I’ve been obsessed with this story. It was such a treat when Gleaves invoked bits and pieces from Ichabod’s last ride into the climax. I won’t tell you any more, but I will say that fans of the Disney classic will be most amused.

 

Gizzy’s Roundup of Witches, Warlocks and Weirdos!

gizzyGizzy and I have been going through a paranormal/fantasy phase lately. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because February and March are the crappiest months of the year and we need a total escape from reality. Or perhaps Gizzy thinks he’s a wizard now that he has his own Dumbledore hat. I’m not going to bother trying to make sense out of it all. Either way, here are a few books that we recently polished off. If you’re in the mood for magic, mayhem and swoonalicious love triangles, here ya go:

The Line by J.D. Horn

18010355I scored this audiobook for a song on Audible, and well you know that saying, “you get what you pay for”? Well that doesn’t apply here. This book is incredible!  The narrator, the rollercoaster pacing, the atmospheric Savannah setting—everything about it kept me glued to the story for hours on end. The main character, Mercy, is somewhat of an embarrassment to her family of powerful witches.  Unlike her magically-blessed twin sister, she has very little power of her own. Some major power players in her clan of witches seem to be harboring deep, dark secrets. And when the head matriarch (aka “the anchor”) is brutally murdered, Mercy starts piecing together some clues that eventually lead her to a series of bombshells about her family’s tangled web of lies. In the last third of the book, my jaw dropped at least 50 times when the skeletons came dancing the conga-line out of the closet. Aside from the shock factor, I really enjoyed the Deep South setting, and Mercy’s “Liars Tour.” As an unapologetic dorky tourist, I would love to tour around Savannah, drinking a hurricane while listening to outrageous fabrications and urban legends about the city’s landmarks. Too bad she had to hang up her tour guide hat in the second book.

The Source by J.D. Horn

18803931I’ll just come right out and tell you that this book was a big disappointment. Right from the get-go the story just seemed to be all over the place. In the first book, it was so much easier to immerse myself into the story as it gradually unfolded before taking off like a freight train. This book, however, went from zero to sixty. All of a sudden, I’m thrust into a series of crazy events full of a bunch of characters. Keeping track of it all was a struggle to say the least. Bombshells continue to drop at warp speed and the story just gets more and more convoluted with every chapter. The love triangle with Emmitt, the robotic golem, is a little too creepy for my taste. There was a point when I almost aborted the mission of completing this book, but morbid curiosity kept me going.  Why is Mercy’s supposedly-dead mother coming out of the woodwork? Can she be trusted? Is her entire family out to get her? Who can she trust?!?  Is it weird that I didn’t enjoy this book, but yet I’ll probably end up reading the third installment because I need answers to a zillion more questions? Clearly J.D. Horn must be doing something right since I’m inevitably going to read the whole trilogy.

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

23164983Again, here is a second installment that didn’t measure up to the first. It’s not that it wasn’t entertaining. Hmm…how should I put my finger on this? It’s just that the first book was SO amazing! The world building, the character development, the mysterious school of weirdo children with super-human powers—all of it was so mesmerizing. This next adventure moves along in the same fashion as The Hobbit. Lots of “out of the frying pan, into the fire,” action sequences.  Throughout the book, the kids are jumping into different time loops in their quest to restore Mrs. Peregrine back into her human form. Trapped in a bird’s body, she has only a short amount of time until her humanity withers away. Without Mrs. P., the kids’ sanctuary from the storm of hollows (evil peculiar children-eating monsters) and wights (double-evil peculiar children-murdering fiends) will be lost forever.  Gripes aside, I did enjoy learning more about the villains and finding out their reasons for targeting peculiar children. After that cliffhanger of an ending, I absolutely HAVE to read the next book. What can I say? I’m a total sucker for trilogies. Oh and I would be remiss not to give a nod to the author’s ingenious inventions with the found old-timey photographs. My favorite character, who I hope to see in the next book, is the pretentious pipe-smoking dog.  Anyone who has read his books would probably agree that Ransom Riggs’ imagination is a force to be reckoned with!

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahan

18007535Remember that old campfire story The Monkey’s Paw? That one never fails to give me the shivers, even though I’ve heard it about a bajillion times. There’s something very creepy about the concept of bringing a loved one back from the dead and not knowing who—or what—will be showing up at your doorstep. That’s why this book gave me the heebie jeebies, especially when dead creatures started coming back to life, scratching from inside the closet door. JEEPERS! This is not a book to read alone if you’re a chicken like me. So in terms of creepiness, I give this book four stars. As for the characters, well that’s a whole other story. Aside from the teenage girl and her baby sister, the characters who carelessly messed around with witchcraft all seemed to be a bunch of imbeciles, in my humble opinion. Yes, they were crazy with grief, but that didn’t give them the right to mess with black magic. To be honest, I was pleased when they all got what was coming to them. Aside from those fools, I have another issue with the book. Since the story revolved around death and bereavement, the gloominess of it all really bummed me out.  After reading this, I had to immediately cheer myself up with a light and fluffy romance.

Gizzy & CeeCee’s Halloween Treat: Asylum by Madeline Reoux

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What’s creepier than an abandoned insane asylum? If you, like me, are into those ghost-hunting shows, you already know those cavernous old buildings are full of bad juju. If walls could talk, would you really want to hear the stories?

In this book, our fearless protagonist Dan Crawford didn’t have much of a choice. Unless he unravels the mystery of his college dorm—formerly an asylum for the criminally insane—some very bad things would happen to all of his friends. A dark force looms above the campus, and it’s up to Dan and his two trusty sidekicks to put the genie back into the bottle before the body count rises—and they too become trapped forever within the hallowed halls of the asylum.13597728

On the scare-o-meter, I give this thing a 7.5, not bad for young adult. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood up a couple of times, and the unsettling photos of abandoned asylums and tortured patients really set the mood. Ransom Riggs jumpstarted this mixed-media trend with his book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and I must say it’s pretty effective for this particular genre. All of the photos are of real people and places from a bygone era, adding another layer of intrigue. With each chapter, I kept asking myself, “What’s the story behind the pale, haunted faces within these photos? What atrocities were performed on those rusty hospital beds?”  On second thought, I’d rather not know.

My only gripe is that the story was bogged down by all the typical YA junk (awkward flirtations, clichéd bullies, whiny self-loathing, etc.). The awkward romance between Dan and his fellow sidekick, Abby, really stunted the pace. This guy had no qualms about hunting for clues alone in a haunted basement, but he couldn’t muster the courage to ask a girl out? Please. I know these authors have to appeal to swoony girls, but sometimes the romance falls flat when it’s shoehorned into the story. I also could’ve done without the insatiably clingy Jordan. Dude clearly never heard of the term “cock blocker.”

Aside from those minor hangups, I have to say this is a quality read for ghost enthusiasts. But if you’re expecting any answers, you’ll have to wait until then next book in the series. Why were the trio of friends all brought to the haunted dorm by some unseen force? What’s the story behind the evil entity lurking within the dark recesses of the halls? Your guess is as good as mine.

Broken by A.E. Rought

13515848Oh how I love teen love stories filled with dark love, dead boyfriends and sadistic mean girls. And A.E. Rought delivers all this and more in her revamped version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It all begins with our tortured protagonist, Emma, who spends her days roaming the local cemetery where she and her dead boyfriend, Daniel, spent their happiest moments drinking whiskey atop gravestones. Huh…is it just me, or doesn’t that seem like a rather bizarre pastime?  Kids these days…

So Emma breaks out of her funk when the mysterious new boy, Alex Franks, enters the scene at the local coffee stand, Mugz and Chugz. Wow of all the names you could give a coffee place…really? Emma soon finds herself enraptured by his otherworldly connection to Daniel.

Keeping with the formula of most YA dark romances, Emma and Alex are bewildered by their instant connection, and after a lot of push and pull they eventually fall headfirst into the deep abyss of teenage love. Sorry if that was a spoiler, but I’m sure anyone who reads the synopsis will know where this is heading.

After encountering the enigmatic new boy in town, Emma’s obsession with the dead boyfriend ebbs away. For this I am very thankful because a lot of teen brooding goes a loooong way. Although she’s out of her funk, she still insists on clinging onto Daniel’s damned hoodie to the point of obsession. My god, the word “hoodie” must have appeared in the book at least 500 times! I was really tired of that effing hoodie. And wouldn’t you know it, Alex wears a hoodie all day, every day too. I’m willing to bet this author is a fan of The Gap.

So as Emma and Daniel grow closer, she finds that he possesses qualities that are intrinsic to the dead boyfriend. He knows her secret pet name. He has the amazing ability to open her temperamental locker with just a wiggle and a punch. It’s all very uncanny. Things get even weirder when she finds Alex’s father is the town’s resident Dr. Giggles. What is going on with Alex’s otherworldly connection to dead animals? What caused all of those ghastly scars that he’s hiding under that darn hoodie? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

To be fair, this book is made for teens, so I’m not going to get down on all the melodrama. Teens are hypersensitive drama junkies, so I’m sure they can totally relate to all the brooding and over-the-top descriptions of high school hell. I was, in fact, thoroughly entertained by the mean girl antics in the “Ugly Room.” Anyone who wasn’t a part of the “in crowd” knows that high school gym was created solely to torment young girls with body and self-esteem issues.

Overall, this is an entertaining book for teens, not so much YA-loving adults. Although the pacing was rather slow, I have to give A.E. Rought props for her lyrical prose. She does a fantastic job setting the scene – complete with moonlit cemeteries, undead night-walking creatures and leering jack-o’-lanterns. I’m not sure if I’ll read another book in this series, but I certainly will look out for other titles by this author because she truly is a gifted writer.