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.

 

Thirty-One Days of CeeCee-O-Ween: The Mist in the Mirror


Synapsis:
A brooding Englishman spends his days skulking inside a haunted estate on a quest to understand his enigmatic childhood hero. Like a silent movie, readers must endure his inner monologue as he deciphers who—or what—is behind the bumps in the night.

What didn’t work: The story was drowning in the pages upon pages of setting details. When James Mommouth walks into a room, we get flooded with every painstaking detail – from the wallpaper patterns to the specks of dust on the bookshelf. Typically with audiobooks, I tend to appreciate these long, meandering riffs because I don’t miss out on anything important when my mind wanders. But geez – this lady takes mood and setting to a whole new level of overindulgence. After the first couple chapters I was already tired of this stuffy man’s inner monologue as he crept around dark rooms. I really didn’t care for this dude, especially when he likened himself to a “scared silly woman” in one of his many eventless eerie interludes. Needless to say, this is my first and last Susan Hill book. For gothic horror, I’ll turn to Barbara Michaels or Wendy Webb.

What worked: If your mind tends to wander while listening to audiobooks, this one’s for you. Trust me—you can space out for a half hour and not even miss a beat! Also, the dramatic prose is most impressive and I thruoughouly enjoyed the British narrator’s posh accent. Bloody brilliant—I dare say, good man!

Overall: I think you’d have to be a die-hard fan of Susan Hill to appreciate this book. I, for one, need more action and bloodshed!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.