Sunday Spookies: Horror Hotel

I’m sorry, but I didn’t like this, y’all. I LOVED the concept of a fictional horror story set at a hotel inspired by the Cecil and–my God would you look at this cover?! I want to blow that up and frame it on my wall! If only the story was just as glorious, but it was a dud. Here’s my list of gripes:

The multiple narrations: Each chapter is narrated by one of the members of the Scooby Doo gang of kiddos, and they ALL SOUND THE SAME! I had to keep flipping the pages back to see who was narrating what because their voices just morphed into one–same tone, same snarky commentary, same lingo, same self-serving decision-making, yada yada. As per usual with young adult books, it was hard to like any of the characters. Hmm…maybe I need to just stop with YA once and for all and just read the classics. Either way, I digress. I had a hard time caring about the poor little rich boy/wannabe YouTube viral sensation, the flirty fashionista “influencer” girl, the edgy nose ring girl, or the sensitive girl who sees dead people. They all sounded like one person to me in each of the short, choppy chapters, making this thing a real bear to get through.

The hiding of bodies: So, the gang stumbles upon not one, but two murder victims while staying at the Hearst Hotel. For me, personally, my kneejerk reaction would be to call the police because– oh, I don’t know, maybe because a murderer needs to get caught?! But that would throw a wrench in their plans to reach their 1-million hits on YouTube while investigating the Hearst, so it’s just best to hide the bodies, contaminate the crime scenes and continue on with the ghost hunt. Cool. I’m sorry, but this is just very strange decision-making, and I’m just not sure I’m understanding. Then again, we live in a weird “look at me!” society, so I guess this is just par for the course.

The whodunnit: So, this is supposed to be somewhat of a whodunnit with a killer on the loose and all. I was hoping to have the rug ripped out from under me at the end, but nope. The killer turned out to be the most likely suspect, so whomp whomp.

Sorry if that was a spoiler. I’m just keeping it real here. At the risk of sounding like an ol’ lady, YA books just ain’t what they used to be. I’m becoming more and more disappointed with these books filled with vapid characters, people speaking in acronyms and really flat character development. If you’re in the mood for a spectacularly spooky haunted hotel book, pick up The Shining by the dark master Stephen King. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James was also quite thrilling and atmospheric.

Meowder Mondays: Spirited Away by Lena Gregory

This is a ho-hum little cozy for us mystery fans who enjoy beachy tourist-trap settings and a teeny tiny dash of mystical magic added to the mix. I’ll start with the good: The Bay Island setting lured me in, making me think of my vacations in Port-A, where I love to spend my days at the tourist shops and licking ice cream cones on the boardwalk. I also really loved the gay male BFF who provided some comic relief here and there with his sass and charm.

Now onto the bad: The main character is a cardboard cutout of all the other amateur sleuths in traditional cozies. She’s just this super nice “Mary Sue” character who inevitably throws herself into the killer’s trap like a suicidal idiot. She also has the requisite detective boyfriend who constantly nags her about staying out of the murder investigation…blah, blah, blaaaaahhhhh. And OMG!!! What was this girl thinking in the opening chapter when she went through with her big psychic reading event while the a/c was on the fritz??? I live in Texas, so the very thought of this gives me the hives. And while her handyman is temporarily incarcerated, why oh why must she wait to fix her a/c out of respect for him?! Girl, I think he would understand since you’re trying t run a business during a heat wave.

I don’t know. Maybe somewhere deep in her subconscious, she wants to drive customers away. If so, that’s the way to do it! And speaking of customer service, I’m not understanding why she provides psychic readings to her costumers while simultaneously running the entire shop. I don’t know much about psychics, but don’t they need full concentration to look into people’s auras and stuff? If I was paying good money for a reading, I would be a little perturbed if the psychic interrupted a message from a dead loved one to greet a new customer.

I’m sad to say that the bad outweighs the good in this series, so I will just mosey along to something a little less cliched and a lot less crazy-making.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon

Oh my word, y’all! This book truly sings to me on so many levels. While reading this, I just kept thinking, “Yes, Queen!” Aubrey Gordon is venturing into a highly contentious territory and putting herself out there in defiance of the legions of fat-phobic haters and trolls who just don’t get it and, sadly, probably never will.

On a personal note, I have been dealing with my own fat-phobic beliefs against myself and others for many, many years. I’ve been giving money to the diet industry with hopes of chasing that high of losing a ton of weight and getting back into my size 8 jeans, which are still mocking me in my closet. Needless to say, I still have a lot of unpacking to do with my therapist, but I’m getting there. When she recommended this book, I knew it would be a cathartic experience, especially since I have been packing on the pounds over the years and dealing with many of the same issues Aubrey writes about in this amazing book that I’m going to call a tour de force! What issues, you ask? I will enlighten you by breaking it down like this:

Overly Praising Fat People

In Aubrey’s book, she talks about her experiences with “othering” when well-meaning people praise her for being “so brave” to wear a certain outfit in public. Mind you, the sensible belted black dress she’s wearing is far from risqué, but yet someone just had to point out that it takes “bravery” to wear it at a public event in a larger than average body. I cannot tell you how validating it felt to read about this awful experience because I’ve been there too. Just yesterday, I was pulled aside by a fellow athlete at an all-women triathlon who just had to tell me, “You did so great, and I’m truly inspired.” These are really nice words, aren’t they? I would’ve been flattered if I did something remarkable, like placing in the top three or just smoking everybody on the course. But to be honest, I did a mediocre job at best. So, what is it about my performance that “inspired” this person so much? Oh, I don’t know…is it because I’m a good 30 to 50 pounds heavier than the average triathlete? You may be thinking that I’m being overly sensitive and that her comments really were genuine, but I never received praise like this from strangers until I gained three extra dress sizes. Thanks so much, lady, for reminding me that I don’t look like I belong. Awesome.

Trauma Trolling and Food Shaming:

One of the many important lessons Aubrey points out in this book is that food- and fat-shaming people is counterproductive. All of my life, the “mother figures” have supervised my eating, telling me things like,” Honey, don’t put that much cereal in your bowl. That’s how people get fat.” I’d like to say that this is a thing of the past now that those women have been cut out of my life, but yet I still get that “concerned” friend who says at the dinner table, “So how’s Weight Watchers going?” or “You already had one mimosa, do you really want to add on more calories?” So yes, Aubrey, I see you and I hear you when you talk about those seemingly well-meaning strangers and family members who nitpick your food choices! All the while, our thin friends are eating just as much, maybe even more, without getting any heat from “concerned” friends. That must be nice, huh?

Now onto the trauma trolling. I never even thought of this concept until I read about it in this book, but it is A THING. Have you ever watched the voyeuristic fat-phobic-fueling TV show called “My 600 LB Life”? Well, if you have, you can probably recall that they make it a point to delve into a traumatic backstory that explains the person’s troubled relationship with food. Because fat people must be completely broken and shattered inside get that way, right? They couldn’t possibly have anything to do with genetics or other contributing factors.

 It’s so important for people to have all the answers as to why people are fat. It must all have to do with trauma because why else would they let it get so out of control? I found this chapter to be particularly fascinating because it unpacks the psyche of fat-phobia—and how people feel they need to have all the answers so they can judge others and, deep down, find ways to avoid their deepest fears of becoming fat themselves. And that’s really what this is all about, isn’t it? It’s about them, not the objects of their “concerns.”  Absolutely fascinating stuff, I tell you!

Being Fat = Less Than

All my life, I have been taught that thin people can have it all. My EXTREMELY fat-phobic aunt (no longer in my life, thank you very much!) would often say things like, “Oh, Jessie, if you could lose some weight, you can get a boyfriend.” When I did lose the weight—so much that I ended up losing my period—my uncle praised me for finally getting my act together and becoming a success. Let me tell you, my short-lived stint as a skinny college girl was quite nice. My coworkers wanted to hang out with me after work. I was scouted by modeling agencies at the mall. Cute boys would smile and open the door for me. I felt like I was really worth something. I was a success! If you can fit into the feminine ideal, the world is such a nice and inviting place. Why? Because the diet industry and corporate America in general has fed our beliefs into equating thinness as the pinnacle of success–a triumph, the American F*****G dream! Fat people, however, get to the butts of jokes in rom coms (even to this day), and they’re universally believed to be sexually undesirable, unless for those like “Shallow Hal” who have been hypnotized to see fat women as foxy ladies. Cringe.

“I choose to believe that fat people can be genuinely attractive, truly loved, actually lovable, sincerely wanted.”

― Aubrey Gordon

Fat-Phobic Doctors

I think a lot of people, even those who are just slightly overweight, can relate with the chapter in this book that delves into our ubiquitously fat-phobic medical industry. Back when I was just a tad over my “healthy weight” (whatever arbitrary number that is), my doctors were already pushing diets on me. Most recently, my primary care doc advised me to go on some Whole 30 diet, which I later learned is a short-term diagnostic diet not a “sustainable” weight loss program.  I use the word “sustainable” lightly because—guess what?! Just a tiny fragment of the dieters can actually sustain their goal weight for a lengthy amount of time, no matter what diet they’re on. Don’t believe me? Google it.

What bothers me the most about this is that people are not getting treated for real ailments that have nothing to do with their weight. In fact, people actually die from undetected conditions because their doctors attach all their symptoms to their “unhealthy weight.” This is some scary stuff, my friends. And good luck finding a doctor who gets it because they are few and far between.

“I’m just concerned for your health. I’m concerned for your health, so I have to tell you, again and again, that you’re going to die. I’m concerned for your health, so I have to tell you that no one will love you at your size. I’m concerned for your health, so I cannot treat you with basic respect.”

― Aubrey Gordon

The Everyday Haters and Trolls

When you’re fat, you are a member of an oppressed community. That’s just how it is. People have very, VERY strong opinions about what fat people should do, and how they should feel when they’re insulted and marginalized on a continuous basis. Guys, didn’t you know that it’s all very easy? Didn’t you know that the answer is to just get off your lazy ass and lose the weight? Didn’t you know that you are the result of your own victimhood? Didn’t you know that you’re just an annoying little snowflake? I’m being facetious here, but you get the gist, right? As an athlete, I am obsessed with cycling and love to get tips on the Bicycle World Facebook page. Unfortunately, that page is rife with fat-shamers who are enraged when they see stories about fat cyclists. They don’t bother to read the stories, but when they see images of 300-plus cyclists smiling and having fun on their bikes, they just see red! The fat acceptance movement is a very triggering subject for athletes, particularly the elite cycling community, which is comprised mostly of affluent white males. Against my better judgement, I scroll through the comments and find gems like “Oh great, we have to be woke about fat people on bikes?” or “More people finding reasons to be victims.” I’ve noticed that in a lot of people spouting their vitriol against oppressed communities often default to the word “victim.” It’s  a tried-and-true way to shut a conversation down by slapping a label on it. This is a great tactic for those who do not wish to think constructively or openly about a complex issue. Why? Well, hell, it’s just easier. Just slap a label on it, feel smug and superior, then crawl back under the rock from whence you came.

Don’t even get me started on the “biking for weight loss” success story posts that juxtapose the “before and after” shots depicting a sad, miserable fat person morphing into a “healthier” thin happy person. Heaven forbid people just bike, run and swim for fun without a means to an end.

Either way, our society has a very unhealthy aggression toward fat people that Aubrey alludes to in her book, especially in her opening chapter when she described the abject hostility she faced by her seatmate and fellow passengers on a plane. People are just furious about fat people, and they all have the answer: lose the weight and stop complaining. Well golly, I had no idea I could do that. Let me go flip the “lose weight” button on my brain and get rolling.

“I guess if you hate it that much, you should just lose weight. But despite its ubiquity in conversations about fatness and fat people, that is the logic of abuse. You made me do this. I wouldn’t hurt you if you didn’t make me.”

― Aubrey Gordon

I sure wish I could sit next to Aubrey on the plane so we could talk about this book for hours—and I would love to pick her brain on writing in general. Aside from the knowledge bombs she drops in every chapter, she is a phenomenal writer—way above my caliber.  I try to avoid using the word “brave” because it is almost always used in a backhanded way, but what she’s doing with this book and her podcast is indeed brave. She is speaking her truth—and the truths of many—knowing that she will have to face some really nasty trolls.  It’s hard for me to even write this post because it’s not easy telling the world that I’m fat. We have all been taught to be ashamed of how we look, to believe that we are less than, to apologize for inconveniencing others. This blog post is my first step to putting myself out there and speaking for my fat friends—and most of all—thanking Aubrey Gordon for writing this book and continuing this dialogue through her My Fat Friend podcast!

Stream It or Read It? Past Malice: An Emma Fielding Mystery

I must confess, I’m a sucker for those Hallmark mystery movies! Guilty as charged, officer! I especially enjoy the Emma Fielding mysteries starring Courtney Thorne Smith and the hunky James Tupper—my God, what a good-looking man! The plots are rather thin, and the acting leaves much to be desired, yet it all makes for fine Friday night brainless entertainment! I especially love the concept of an archeologist-turned amateur sleuth solving mysteries in a cozy coastal village, such fun! Usually, the books are far better than their cinematic adaptations, but this, I’m sorry to say, is an exception. Let me break it down for you like this:

The actual story: In the movie, Emma is called to a historic castle at the bequest of her gal pal, Adelle, who fears a thief is at large and—gasp—the family curse is wreaking havoc on the inhabitants. She needs Emma to do some sleuthing and digging to find the culprit! Oh, how I love a cursed castle mystery!! Sign. Me. Up! The book’s storyline, however, proved to be less than stimulating. Emma’s just doing some digging at a large estate (not a spooky caste) along with her team of grad students to find old pots and pans and whatnot…blah. She stumbles across a couple dead bodies and, in between squabbling with her husband and her sister, she starts searching for clues. I think the Hallmark movie makers realized that the book was a total snooze-fest, so they dramatically altered the plot and the characters to keep viewers intrigued. Honestly, I’m OK with this.

Fun fact: The Chandler Castle may look familiar to my fellow horror movie fans because it is the same spooky castle from “The Changeling,” located in in British Columbia, Canada!

Thoughts on the main character:  Although Courtney Thorne Smith seems to be dialing it in, she’s still likable and even has a little spunk. The literary Emma Fielding, on the other hand, has the personality of a sea slug. She reminds me of my elderly neighbor who is tired of people’s bullshit and is unabashedly cranky. I commend her for her authenticity, but that doesn’t mean I want to be around her much. Emma Fielding seems to have a similar vibe. The author paints her as a young, pretty red-headed schoarly woman, but I just picture a cantankerous middle-aged woman whenever she speaks. When I read this genre, I’m accustomed to fun, plucky women with quirky sidekicks and maybe even some kitty cats. This book has none of that. In fact, I don’t even think Emma Fielding is a friend to animals, which was evident in the beginning when she remarked on her impulse to throw some stones at a seagull but restrained herself because people tend to frown on those actions. What? I seriously should’ve DNFed right there.

The romance: Keeping true to the cozy mystery formula, the movies intertwine a little push-and-pull romance between Emma and her detective sidekick Special Agent Jim Connor. Sidenote: I would like to thank the casting director for selecting this man for the job because HE DOES IT FOR ME! As for the books, the romance is just not happening. Emma’s a tired married woman who is constantly getting lectured for putting herself in danger. It’s sweet that the husbands in these books are so protective, but it’s also extremely annoying. If they’re so worried, they need to get off their lazy butts and help their women solve the dang mystery!

The suspects: In the movie, I really love how the suspects in the movie played out like a game of Clue. We’ve got a bitter butler, an entitled playboy/heir to the Chandler Castle, an obsessively superstitious personal assistant, and many other quirky suspects. In the book, the manor’s inhabitants were a lot less colorful and rather forgettable. To be perfectly honest, I’m having a hard time recalling anything specific about the slew of suspects other than the fact that they were all unpleasant and distrustful of outsiders.

More Gripes: Toward the climax of the book, I was just astounded by the utter stupidity of this woman who is supposed to be a brilliant tenured archeology professor. Despite her husband’s incessant admonitions, she does something incredibly stupid—to the point where I’m convinced she just wants to get killed.  Obviously a killer is after her, but she elects to climb a latter to the rooftop of the manor—at night by herself—to get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding village. Why? So she can imagine what it must’ve looked like 200 years ago? I simply don’t understand this logic whatsoever! At this point, I was just rooting for the killer to take her out.

Overall assessment: Steam it! This book is too long, too dry and just too full of unsavory characters with piss-poor decision-making skills.

A Cure for What Ales You: A Sloan Kraus Mystery

I’m sorry, y’all, I did NOT like this one. Sloan is just killing me with her secrecy, and the anticlimactic reveal of the killer just had me beating my head against the table. OK, not literally, but I really was throwing an internal temper tantrum over this thinly plotted, insufferable hunk of garbage.

Let me ask you something. If you knew you were being stalked by a highly trained assassin, wouldn’t you want to tell all of your friends and loved ones to be on the lookout for suspicious strangers–especially if your kid was a target??? Sloan, being the notably private person that she is, waited until the mid-part of the book to tell her ex-husband to be on guard, and she made him swear to secrecy because heaven forbid anyone else know that someone is after her! I’m sorry, Sloan, but you’re a nimrod, and I’m sorry your kid had to suffer the consequences of your piss-poor decision-making skills.

The murder mystery is actually a subplot to this book, which seemed strange, but whatever. I can’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that the big reveal of the killer had me going, “OK, that person…huh.” It’s like the author just realized she needed to close the loop on the whodunnit part of the book, so she just picked a name out of a hat and shoehorned it into the final chapter.

While I’m on this tirade, I must ask why a highly sophisticated hitman decides to snuff out a woman who witnessed his crime over 40 years ago–when she was just a toddler??? Why is she such a threat at this random point in life? I do not understand this logic whatsoever.

I guess this is the end for me and the Sloan Krause mystery series. To use a beer analogy, it felt like I went into my favorite microbrewery and got served a Coors Light. Whomp whomp. I’m only giving this two stars because I love the town of Leavenworth and the microbrewery setting. But not even a lovely beer-infused escape to this Bavarian village is enough to keep me hanging on to this series.

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Well this book is…different. This is my first foray into Stephen Graham Jones’ writing, and I must say that he is in a league of his own. This is undoubtedly a horror story, but it is also a story about trauma, disassociation and the real-life slice-and-dice monsters who walk among us. I’ll break it down for you like this:

The gist:
Throughout the book, readers are trapped in the mind of deeply troubled 17-year-old girl who stomps angrily through life in coveralls and combat boots whilst telling anyone who’ll listen that the town of Proofrock, Idaho will soon be ravaged by a slash-and-stalk monster. Her mission is to convince the requisite “Final Girl” that she must accept her fate and save the townsfolk from impending doom.

What I liked: I must give the author props for conjuring up such a winning storyline that sings to my soul! Like Jade, I’m a huge fangirl of Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Meyers. As you can see in this photo of my sixth-grade self, Freddy was my 80s! I don’t think my sister will ever forgive me for terrifying her at night with my devilish singing of “One-two-Freddy’s coming for you….” So yeah, on that level, Jade was a very relatable character. All the horror movie references gave me great joy, and I bow down to Mister Jones for his doctoral knowledge of the slash-and-stalk genre.

What irked me: Probably the worst thing about this book is being trapped in the mind of a deeply, deeply traumatized teenager who may or may not be completely psychotic. It’s anyone’s guess if her prophecy is real, or if she’s a complete nut job. She went to some dark places that made me rather uncomfortable, which is why it became a bit of a chore getting through this 300-plus tome. I’m not a believer in disclosing trigger warnings in reviews because—hello, spoilers!—but  I will say she dealt with some abuse, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the underlying subtext to her obsession with revenge/justice horror flicks.

The suspense: This book is a sloooooooow burn, so I’m not surprised to see the many DNF reviews on Goodreads. If you’re looking for a fast-paced suspense novel, this isn’t the book for you. Many, many chapters are comprised of Jade’s long-winded soliloquies about the many intricacies of the slash-and-stalk genre. She writes at the level of an Ivy League philosophy professor, which was fascinating to read, but extremely unbelievable considering that she’s just a kid who basically sleepwalks through school on the rare occasions when she isn’t playing hooky. Also, the chapters are long—like novella long—which makes it hard to find a stopping point. Perhaps this is a way for authors to keep readers glued to the pages, but I just couldn’t get myself into that trance-like state until the very end when everything went BANANAS! Long story short, hang in there. You do not want to DNF this thing because the ending is dope!

Thoughts on the characters: I truly felt for Jade, but it got really heavy being inside her mind throughout her journey into the abyss. I feel like this book could’ve been way more interesting if it the chapters shifted narrators—especially since the sideline characters were so interesting! I really needed a break from Jade, and a chapter told by her empathetic history teacher Mr. Holmes would’ve added a nice element to the story. I loved his anti-establishment ethos on life—and how much he adamantly hated the developers encroaching upon Proofrock’s indigenous land. I have to say, the author did a masterful job weaving some subtext to Jade’s revenge/justice horror movie rants. Who knew that those cheap thrill slash-and-stalks could be so existential?

Overall thoughts: This story is a departure from the tried-and-true horror genre storyline, so it’s not for everyone. The dialogue is choppy and disorienting. The narrator is an unreliable mess. The long chapters of overly indulgent horror movie musings bog down the pace. Yet, despite all that, this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read.  And, like I said, stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with a wallop of a climax that will make you think twice about ever attending a movies-in -the-park event.

Useless sidenote: Stephen Graham Jones is extremely handsome, and it gives me a thrill to know that he grew up in Wimberely, Texas!

CeeCee & Lil Bootz’s 12 Days of Christmas Reading Extravaganza

On the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth days of Christmas (I got a little behind in my blogging!), we bring you a random array of holiday-infused books for mystery and romance lovers. There’s even a little something for the kiddos who enjoy fun and frothy stories about friendship and dreamy boys. Today, I give you permission to drop those hectic holiday chores and curl up by the fire with one of these festive books. You’re welcome!

Gingerdead Man by Maya Corrigan

Synapsis: A small town caterer lands in the center of a murder mystery when a rather unsavory Santa bites the big one after gobbling a poisoned gingerbread cookie at a Victorian tea party that she was catering. Working in cahoots with her sleuthing grandfather, she must ferret out the mysterious “Ghost of Christmas Past” killer before her catering business is sunk!

What worked: The best part of this book is the Christmassy cover with the skeletal gingerbread men and an equally horrifying Elf on a Shelf. Those things are creepy, right? The cover was enough for me to throw down the whopping $7.99 for a paperback of my very own! Aside from my impulse buy habits, I enjoyed the protagonist’s sweet relationship with her crime-solving grandfather. I also enjoy a good recipe that involves less than five ingredients—that’s the only way I’ll ever bother to cook!

What didn’t work: This is a very paint-by-the-numbers murder mystery, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for cozy lovers who enjoy knowing what to expect. However, I’m sad to say that it’s rather forgettable story.

Overall: This is a solid cozy that is sure to please fans of the genre…and lazy people like me who cannot handle cooking with more than five ingredients.

The Christmas Dress by Courtney Cole

Synapsis: Meg Julliard, a newly orphaned 20-something gets saddled with her deceased father’s crumbling-down apartment building in Chicago. She’s soon enfolded in a circle of kind-hearted elderly residents who help her find her way. With a magical Christmas dress, a new handyman boyfriend and—most importantly—an adorable kitten named Winter, she faces her challenges and follows her fashionista dreams.

What I liked: It started out a little too grim for my liking, but things started to pick up when Meg’s friendships blossomed amongst the elderly folks. I just love the idea of forging an unlikely friendship with an old, wise benefactress like Ellie Wade, the former owner of the mystical Christmas Dress. I don’t have a mother, so I like the idea of having a Jessica Tandy in my life. If you don’t know who I’m referring to, please do yourself a favor and read Fannie Flag’s “Fried Green Tomatoes”! Also, I enjoyed reading the sweet romance brewing between Meg and her handyman. The magical dress plot point was nice, but I most enjoyed the characters in this story.

What didn’t work: I get that Meg’s in her 20s, so I’ll give her a pass because I was A MESS at that age, but she really does wine a lot. Also, she let herself get manipulated by someone who she was explicitly warned about, which made me really doubt her intelligence.

Overall: If you are in the mood for a light holiday read that doesn’t involve too much concentration, read this one! This is my first book by Meg Julliard, and it will not be my last!   

Snow Day: A Holiday Romance by Julie Lipson

Synapsis: A train ride to Milan gets delayed, causing the travelers to take a detour in a charming little town in the Italian Alps—oh how I love train travel stories! During their misadventures, two passengers fall under the spell of Christmas romance, which could derail their carefully charted paths in life.

What I liked: I loved everything about this mini novella audiobook, which I scored for free from Audible. I hate that I keep giving money to Amazon, but these little freebies make it impossible to quit my subscription! Really, I’m a sucker for train travel stories, and this one is just fantastic. The elaborate production—complete with multiple actors and sound effects—turn this audiobook into a movie in my mind. Bravo!

What didn’t work: It’s too short! That’s my only complaint.

Summed up:  This is just a fun little holiday joyride that I plan on listening to every December to get in the Christmas spirit! It’s the perfect diversion from the hectic hustle and bustle of holiday chores.

Home for the Holidays: Mother-Daughter Book Club Series by Heather Vogel Frederick

Synapsis: Five teens in the Mother-Daughter Book Club must part for the holidays as they embark on their own excursions. Amidst their boy troubles and rifts, they find inspiration and clarity through the Betsy-Tacy stories. Will they resolve their differences before the big reunion shindig on New Year’s Day? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

What worked: I love the concept of a mother-daughter book club! How fun would that be to get together with your bestest friends and talk about books, books, books at a family-owned Jane Austen-themed “Pie and Prejudice” coffeeshop!? I would be so down for that. This was a very fun, yet lengthy, holiday read that took me back to my boy-crazy tween days. I also liked that the chapters revolved from one girl to the next, which helped me keep track of the dozens of characters in this book. Also, some of the girls got rather tiresome, so it was nice to take a break and jump to the next vignette.

What didn’t work: The length of this thing! In this digital age, it takes a lot to capture the attention of middle-grade girls, so I’m just not sure if this would be a hit for target readers. Even for me, it felt really long and slow-paced.

Summed up: This is a cute story about friendship, mother-daughter bonding and the power of literature! Despite it’s slow pace, I would recommend it to mothers of teens and tweens who enjoy G-rated feel-good stories.

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories, edited by Stephanie Perkins

Synapsis: Love is abloom in a dozen of teen-friendly holiday stories featuring a diverse array of characters of different religions, sexualities and identities.

What worked: As with all anthologies, some stories are worthwhile reads while others are entirely skippable. The opening story titled “Midnights” is probably the best in the bunch. I loved how the story jumped from one New Year’s Eve party to the next, allowing the reader to delve into the lives of the two would-be lovers as they sang “Auld Lang Syne” together year after year after year. It really would make for a fantastic Netflix movie! I also loved Stephanie Perkins’ contribution titled “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown,” which involved a down-on-her-luck girl who finds herself in a whirlwind romance with the boy from the street-corner Christmas tree lot. Those two stories were enough to make this book well worth my while.

What didn’t work: Well, like I said before, some stories just didn’t hit the mark, mainly because the characters and the storylines just weren’t relatable. At the risk of sounding like a persnickety old lady, some of the dialogue was little too crass for my taste as well. But that’s the beauty of short stories—you just flip on through to the next and find yourself some real gems!

CeeCee & Lil Bootz’s 12 Books of Christmas Reading Extravaganza 

On the third, fourth and fifth days of Christmas, we bring you three heart-warming books of holiday cheer, murder and mayhem! I’ve got quite an assortment here: a little something for the romance fans, a Victorian era mystery for history buffs and a Southern Belle mystery for all my fellow cozy readers! Grab yourself a hot toddy and read on for some quality book recommendations selected by my skilled editorial staff CeeCee Honeycutt and Lil Bootz.

A Garland of Bones by Carolyn Haines

The gist: Sara Booth Delaney and all her friends set forth to Columbus, Mississippi to enjoy the holiday festivities—including a parade, a mumming, dive bar karaoke (my fave!) and shopping galore! Just when they start to let their hair down, Clarissa Olson (the Queen Bee of the mean girls swingers club) insists on hiring Sara Booth and her BFF Tinkie (the best PIs south of the Mason/Dixon line!) to investigate who’s behind the string of accidents that are plaguing her nasty clique of husband-stealing frienemies. Personally, I would’ve given this case a hard pass, but money talks!

What I liked: When it comes to prose, character development, dialogue and overall storytelling, Carolyn Haines is the best in the contemporary cozy mystery business. That’s right—I said it! She’s the best. I always feel like I’m visiting with old friends in gator country whenever I pick up a book in this series—and I’m glad it’s still going strong throughout all these decades.

Oh, and you know what else is cool about these mysteries? I didn’t think about this until recently, but this author is ahead of her time. She included a trans-character in the cast long, long before LGBTQ+ inclusion became trendy in the mainstream literary world. This was a really bold move considering the genre’s very white-bread target audience.

What didn’t work: My only gripe is that Jiggy (the resident ghost) needs to calm down about Sara Booth providing heirs to the plantation homestead. Her nagging about “dried up eggs” is getting tiresome.

Favorite character: Sara Booth will always be my No. 1 girl! She is a lover of animals and a kind-hearted soul. I’m just so glad she finally found love with the hunky Sheriff Coleman Peters! I hope they both decide against having children just to spite Jiggy—HA!

Least favorite character: There’s a whole slew of unsavory suspects in this particular mystery, but I will have to go with Clarissa, Sara Booth’s client from hell. She is just pure nastiness with way too many hidden agendas.

Overall: This is, yet again, another quality holiday-themed mystery that I highly recommend to any cozy lover who enjoys a Deep South setting and colorful characters.

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by Lizzie Shane

The gist: This is some Hallmark channel gooey goodness wrapped up in a book filled with shelter dogs, Northeast Coast small town charm, romance and all the trimmings! The story follows a very tedious push-and-pull romance between a big city girl and a Grinchy small town city councilman who just pulled the plug on funding for Pine Hollow’s dog shelter. LAME! Fresh out of NYC, Ally arrives at her grandparents’ farmhouse/animal shelter to lend a helping hand and figure out what to do with her aimless existence. They’re obviously made for each other but, of course, snap assumptions and constant miscommunication keep them at odds. God, romance stories are tedious.

What I liked: The dogs, of course! I don’t think I could’ve muddled through this thing without wondering how Ally would ever find a way to save the shelter and get those adorable dogs into their forever homes. The author also did a really great job with the Christmassy setting, making me feel like I was right there gazing up at the lights twinkling from the snowy rooftop of the charming Vermont homestead. This book really played out like a Hallmark movie in my mind, which isn’t such a terrible thing when I need some comforting, brainless amusement.

What didn’t work: I was SO over the romance between Ally and Ben (aka the “Grinch”) before it even began. Ben has some serious pathological OCD tendencies that, in my humble opinion, require therapy and some long-term meds. He’s adamant about not taking help from anyone and not getting romantically involved ever to avoid hurting his orphaned niece. It got so irksome that I almost threw my book out the window when he said for the zillionth time, “I have to put Astrid first.” OK, fine, dude! Go be a monk and leave Ally alone! Seriously, she deserves so much better.

Also, why did I have to wait until the last few chapters of the book for Ally to realize she needed to take action to save the shelter??? I get that romance is at the forefront of this book (snore), but I want to know if the shelter is going to make it! Ally kept bringing up some small potatoes money-making ideas to keep it afloat, but what about applying for grants? Why not remove yourself from that shoddy city council and make it a nonprofit? Okay, I know, I know, this is a light-hearted romance with a dash of cute puppies, so I guess I should calm down. My dream is to start my own rescue, and I guess I’m just a tad jealous that Ally has all these opportunities right there for the taking!

Favorite character: Aside from Partridge (the bulldog described as “90% drool), I’d have to say that I was rooting for Ally all the way. I admired her quest to get all twelve dogs into homes before their final deadline. Although, to be honest, it seems unbelievable that so many pure-bred dogs (what we call in the rescue world “desirable breeds”) would have any trouble finding a home or end up in a shelter altogether. I appreciate that there was one pit-bull-mix in the bunch, but I feel like this was a missed opportunity to educate readers about the types of dogs that have the misfortune of dying in kill shelters.

Least favorite character: Ben is absolutely the worst. When he shoved Ally behind a curtain to hide her from his niece, I had enough! AND when she called him out on it, he was confused as to why hiding her like a dirty secret could possibly be upsetting. Ally really needed to swerve, but alas, the heart wants what the heart wants.

Overall: If you’re a romance lover who enjoys a light-hearted holiday read, this one’s for you. You can even let your grandmother borrow it since the hot-and-heavy scenes don’t get any farther than a quick peck under the mistletoe.

A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond

The gist: This is a fictional tale of the real Charles Dickens who solves a murder mystery that ultimately becomes the genesis of his seminal masterpiece “A Christmas Carol.” What a novel idea—ha! Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Anyhoo, we have three mysteries to solve here: who murdered Jacob Harley (a miserly countinghouse businessman and partner of the equally reprehensible Emmanuel Screws? Clever use of names, eh? Who hid his dead body and why? And why is a strange woman claiming Charles is the father of her sister’s baby? Oh my! Charles Dickens with baby mamma drama? This sounds saucier than a spiked bread pudding!  

What I liked: I loved so much about this book, particularly the idea that “A Christmas Carol” was spawned by murder and mayhem! There’s even a dash of spookiness when Jacob Harley’s ghost makes an appearance. This really is genius work, I tell you! Bravo to Ms. Redmond for pulling off this inventive nod to the late, great Charles Dickens!

Might I also add that the author clearly does her research on the mean streets of Victorian London. She really gives readers another perspective of how brutal—and freezing cold—life could be for the “have nots” of London society. It really makes me appreciate all of my blessings in life, and the fact that I’m typing this out on my computer on a cushy chaise lounge in a climate-controlled home. Just reading some of those scenes of Londoners with frost-bitten appendages had me reaching for my puffer jacket. BRRRRR!

What didn’t work: I was very disappointed in Kate, Charles’ fiancé, when she found out about the baby mama drama and didn’t even give him a chance to explain. Nope, instead she shut herself in her room and let her mean ol’ dad fire him from his newspaper job and toss him out into the frozen streets. That’s cold! Literally cold!

Favorite and least favorite character: Primary murder suspect Emmanuel Screws is the most repugnant yet fascinating character in this book. There are just so many layers to this Christmas trifle! It’s hard to find any forgiveness for a man who denied Charles’ father a life-saving loan, leaving him with no other option but to send his son to a workhouse ran by cruel, merciless child abusers. But yet, there’s a possibility of forgiveness that sends home a message that not all hope is lost. Ah, the miracles of Christmas! God bless us, every one!

Overall: Although the pace is a little on the slow side, this mystery is worth reading—especially for historical fiction buffs.  

CeeCee & Lil Bootz’s 12 Books of Christmas Reading Extravaganza 

On the second day of Christmas, my editorial assistants bring you “Death, Snow and Mistletoe,”  a blast from the past—circa Y2K! This book may be 20-plus years old, but it ‘s new to me, so why not give it a whirl? Also, it only cost me a buck, so why not add another paperback to my teetering stack of unread books. It’s a sickness, I tell you! 

Either way, this was a fun read that fit all the criteria for the tried-and-true cozy mystery formula: A wayward 30-something lady who’s unlucky in love and living in a small town far removed from her big city life; a cute little kitty cat who keeps her company on those lonely single-lady nights; a bunch of colorful, quirky townsfolk, and a quaint village that goes above and beyond with cutesy holiday festivities. Most importantly, there’s a dead body—actually multiple dead bodies—which makes it double the fun! Someone is bumping off the ol’ ladies who are starring in the town Christmas play—gasp! There’s also a missing toddler, a missing child cold case and all sorts of creepy Yuletide shenanigans.  

There’s a lot going on in this mystery, which kept the pace moving along at a fast clip. The main character Tori Miracle seems likeable enough, but I didn’t really appreciate her comments about heavyset women, and I especially didn’t enjoy her mentionings of things being “politically correct.” That subversive term really sets me on edge, especially when it’s applied to fur coats. Don’t even get me on my soapbox about that one! 

Also, while I’m griping here, I fear for this small Pennsyvlania town because the only qualified lawman is on a long sabbatical, and the others left at the cop shop are inept, sniveling imbeciles! I mean, yeah, Lucious, you are probably right that you will lose your job because you are sorely unqualified! If you have to rely on a small town newspaper editor to do your police work, something is wrong. Very wrong. 

And then there’s the gimmicky names. Why oh why do all the characters other than Tori have the strangest, impossible to pronounce names? I see this as lazy writing for authors who don’t want to bother fleshing out characters, so they just slap a gimmick on them and call it a day. Read a John Green book for more examples on that subject.  

Lastly, the kitty needed a bigger part! And when he was allegedly kidnapped—or catnapped, I should say—Tori didn’t put much effort into the search. I’d be going nuts and driving my car around the neighborhood all day and night  if my Lil Bootz was wandering the streets, but that’s just me. 

OK, I promise I’m done griping. I just needed to get that all off my chest! All of those minor grievances aside, this is a solid mystery with a lot of layers. I had fun trying to figure it out and was taken by surprise in the end! 

CeeCee & Lil Bootz’s Twelve Books of Christmas

Do you love those cloyingly festive, albeit brainless, Hallmark holiday movies but wish they featured more murder and dead bodies, preferably corpses impaled with items like sharpened candy canes or turkey carving knives? Well, you’ve come to the right place! Christmas cozies have all the comforting trappings of a made-for-TV holiday romance with murder and mayhem galore! That said, my editorial assistants–selected the most purrrfect mystery for your holiday reading list!

A Whisker of a Doubt by Cate Conte

My biggest dream in life is to own my very own cat cafe here in Austin. Alas, I have no head for business and get exhausted at the prospect of starting one up in one of the most unaffordable cities in America, but that’s why we have books! Thanks to Cate Caonte’s charming cat cafe mystery series, I can live out our dreams at the mere price of $7.99! Needless to say, I am a fan of these books and always enjoy spending the little East Coast hamlet of Daybreak Island. However, I am not too fond of Maddie James’ high society neighbors who don’t want to play nice with the feral cat colony volunteers. Lo and behold, one of the snooty neighbors gets bludgeoned, and all eyes are on Maddie’s cat-loving, socially inept friend Catrina. She has some explaining to do, but it’s going to take a lot of prodding to let the cat out of the bag. Maddie’s boyfriend Luke also needs to start talking because it is super uncool to ghost your new girlfriend while away on a personal sabbatical. Sadly, readers will have to wait it out to get some answers on that front because Maddie has decided to revert back to “I’M NOT SPEAKING TO YOU!” behavior and stonewalls the poor guy for days on end.

I thoroughly enjoy this series, mainly because I adore cats and love to fantasize about spending my day job slinging coffee surrounded by rescue kitties in a hazy catnip fog. However, this book is not my favorite because Maddie’s behavior is a little…much. If she wasn’t devoted to rescuing cats, I would almost call her a “Karen” because this girl throws fits over things she doesn’t quite understand. Take the legal process, for instance. Why would she get angry at a lawyer for not posting bail for her friend? Ummm…do lawyers typically do that? I’m not a legal eagle, but I’m leaning toward no. Also, this girl name drops her super important retired cop grandfather and hospital head chief father when she doesn’t get her way. The whole “Do you know who I am?!” mentality is a tad cringeworthy.

Aside from those gripes, I plan to continue on with this series and spend my afternoons in a cat cafe fantasy world, which is far more exciting than a nine-to-five desk job. I should also add that Lil Bootz says JJ needed way more parts in this story, so she’s only giving it two paws–or boots, I should say– up.