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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this Not That! Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Vs Haunting Violet

Read This!

This may very well be my most favorite YA paranormal novel.  Set amidst England’s lush and foggy countryside, this is the perfect atmospheric gothic romance for a blustery winter’s night. The mystery behind the drowned ghost girl kept me glued to the pages as Violet searched for clues in a stately English manor. Complete with masquerade balls, danger and romance, this book is everything I could ever ask for in a paranormal mystery. If you love Barbara Michaels (how could you not?), I highly recommend this one!

Not That!

You know that old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Those are wise words, my friends! Please do not be fooled by this gorgeous cover depicting a gothic suspense thriller with a twinge of romance. The synapsis is just as misleading. After reading the dustcover, I was hooked. There’s a mansion filled with family secrets, a mysterious boy with paranormal powers and a spooky seaside town plagued by a diabolical force. What more could I ask for?

What I got was nearly 400 pages of Harlequin romance cheese filled with idiotic characters, inane dialogue and nauseating insta-love nonsense.

As for the plot, where was it? The only plot device—and I use that word loosely—is Violet’s unwavering attraction to a boy who likes to manipulate and ultimately kill people with his Jedi mind-tricks. She knows he’s a baaaad boy, but yet she can’t help but cuddle up with him every chance she gets. Here’s how the story goes. “I want to stab River in the heart for setting all those people on fire…..but then I melt when he gives me that crooked smile.”

Ugh! It’s no wonder why Violet lives a life of solitude in a mansion by the sea. Who would want to be her friend? Hey, I’ve been there, done that with a friend who chose to stay with a toxic man. At first you just want to shake them and force them to listen to reason. Then you eventually have to throw up your hands and walk away. That pretty much sums up my issue with Violet.

But to be honest—with or without the “glowing,”mind-bending boyfriend—she’s pretty darn lame. The author attempted to give her some depth by describing the many leather-bound books on her shelf. On paper, she’s quite the intellect, yet where does all that existential wisdom come into play when she’s faced with a moral dilemma? This is what I call lazy character development. Authors slap characters with a gimmick and—boom—you’ve got a multi-dimensional character. Read John Green’s “Paper Towns” and you’ll see what I mean.

Speaking of gimmicky characters, the most perplexing sidekick in this book is Sunshine. Essentially, she’s the provocative version of Kimmie Kibbler (Full House fans, you know who I’m talking about), who serves as Violet’s twin brother’s brainless sex toy. I was waiting for the author to peel back the layers and portray Sunshine as something more than a vacant-eyed nymphomaniac. Nope, not so much. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems like this character existed for the purpose of slut-shaming. She just seemed odd and out of place, but then again, so did everything else in this story.

In retrospect, I should’ve stopped at the very beginning when the book took a bizarre turn for the worst. Why would two underage kids be living on their own in a mansion by the sea? Wouldn’t social services be an issue? Then a girl goes missing and a bunch of kids brandishing wooden stakes go hunting for the devil in a graveyard. Huh?

So many questions, but yet I have no desire to seek answers in the following book. What I truly want to know is how this hunk of garbage got picked up by a respectable publisher. I know this is harsh, but I want to save you from wasting your time and money on this turkey. But if you’re into Bella Swann-type characters and insta-love romance, maybe it’s for you. We all have our guilty pleasures, so who am I to judge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

I discovered this book at a BookPeople event starring none other than the legendary East Texas noir author Joe Lansdale. He was joined by Kathleen Kent, a historical fiction author who is new to the shoot-em-up Texas thriller crime scene. I don’t typically gravitate toward hard-boiled mysteries. I’m more into magical cats and ghost-whispering amateur sleuths. But Joe’s rants and raves about the prose, the plot twists, and the larger-than-life characters had me lured in–hook line and sinker!

Turned out, Mister Lansdale’s gold-plated endorsement was not all hyperbole. The book lived up to his rave reviews–and then some. It was a rip-roaring ride from the first chapter all the way through the cliff-diving finale! The suspense was great–but I was most enthralled by the characters.

I’m telling you, character development can make or break a story. If they fall flat, or the protagonist is a tool, I’m out. Betty Rhyzk is anything but a tool. She is a total bad ass!  I have absolutely nothing in common with her, but we could totally hang out! In a way, she reminded me of Debra Morgan–my favorite character from the Dexter series. Working in a man’s world, she’s got a tough-as-nails exterior and has a knack for shutting down masagonistic “jokes” with witty comebacks. A six-foot-tall lesbian, she’s a walking target for sexist remarks from the good ol’ boys club. But she takes no prisoners and shows them who’s boss! Seriously, she will kick a man through a wall in a wrestling match. This is girl power to the extreme and I absolutely love it!

You know what else I love? The way this author is bringing lesbian characters into mainstream fiction. It’s about time we see more of these characters outside the “LGBTQ Fiction” section of the bookstore. Outside the cop shop, Betty shows her other side when she’s with her partner. When her guard is down, you get to know her vulnerabilities and the scars left behind from her traumatic childhood. As a Texan, I know this is a risky move for a Lone Star noir author. Judging by the very few one-star reviews, it’s clear that some people just can’t be open to something that challenges their narrow-minded religious beliefs. Oops, did I just get a little controversial just now? Sorry not sorry, bible beaters.

Anyhoo, I really loved Betty and Jackie and hope they keep going strong throughout the series. Despite their contrasting day jobs (Betty’s a narcotics detective and Jackie’s a doctor), they share one common bond: saving lives. At a gruesome crime scene, Betty described it beautifully when she noted,  “I have to pick up the pieces and Jackie has to put them together again.”

Another multi-faceted character in this book is The Big D. When non-Texans think of Dallas, they probably envision Longhorns and sprawling ranches owned by oil tycoons. I get so annoyed when books and TV shows portray Texas as this cowboy-infused land of bluebonnets and rodeo queens. And don’t even get me started on the Southern drawl versus the Texas twang. Seems like nobody these days can get the Texas vernacular right.

But I digress…the scenery in this book is on point. Just like the characters, the locale has many dimensions–from the pristine upper-class suburbs to the crime-infested city streets. There’s even a side-trip to the piney woods of East Texas, where the plot takes a serious cliff dive! It was fun joining Betty and her womanizing partner Seth as they tracked down perps in search of a demented drug lord. It was a wild ride, and I’m excited to get back on the crazy train when the next book drops!