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.

CeeCee & Lil Bootz’s 13 Books of Halloween

Happy Halloween, folks! In honor of our most favorite holiday, my two little goblins CeeCee and Lil Bootz rounded up a dozen more dark and devilish reads for our 13 Books of Halloween extravaganza! Nothing like waiting until the last minute to deliver on our book blogging challenge. You know how it goes, so little time, so many horror books piled up on the TBR stack! Without further ado, here is our bubbling couldren of books filled with ghosts, ghoulies, serial killers and spooky woodland sprites!

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Hold onto your hats and glasses, folks, because this is a wild ride! This is my first foray into Lucy Foley’s books, and I can assure you it won’t be my last! So we all know from the dustcover teaser that this group of friends partying at an isolated snowy lodge on the Scottish moor is doomed. By New Year’s Day, one will be killed, another will be the killer–but who?! They all have deep, dark secrets that slowly unfold as the tensions roll to a simmering boil. These people may look like well-dressed Oxford-educated yuppies, but they are really just MESSED UP! Sit back, get some popcorn and watch the trainwreck unfold.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier 

In a word, the best way to describe my thoughts on this book is CRINGE! Yes, yes, I know that this was written way back in the days when women vacuumed around their husbands’ feet while wearing stilettos and hoopskirts, and this is all just a product of the times. Yet, I still couldn’t help hating Maxim de Winter so, so, SO much—and then there’s his whirlwind lover Rebecca, who expertly played the part of the child bride, emphasis on the word “child.” He speaks to her like an abuser chastising a beaten-down dog, and she just ingratiates herself over and over again. Their dynamic is terrible and awful and repugnant, and I hate it so very, very much. That said, I should give credit where credit is due to the author’s talent for prose, tone and foreshadowing. If the characters weren’t so utterly repulsive, I would have truly adored this Gothic “romance” (I’m using that term lightly since it’s more of a codependent, abusive relationship) with a stunning setting amidst the backdrop of a potentially haunted mansion ran by a creep-tastic battle-axe of a housemaid. Props to Mrs. Danvers for keeping me intrigued! That ol’ bitch got what she deserved in the end–HA!

Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie

Sorry, y’all, but his is another flop. The premise is great—a tweenage girl who is trailed by a ghost after joining her father on his haunted bus tour of Chicago. I did like the mystery behind the ghost, which provided some historical insights to an overlooked turn-of-the-century nautical tragedy, yet it did not offset the obnoxiousness that is the main character. This girl is a scientist—and she’ll keep telling you about it ad nauseam. However, I have yet to see her in a lab or doing anything to prove she is indeed a scientist. This is just another problem when authors forget to show, not tell. This girl is also a brat with some serious non-problems. I don’t get why she’s so upset about her father’s super cool ghost touring gig, and why she finds it so humiliating. What’s more, she refuses to go to him for help—a person who would truly believe her haunting—because of nonsensical reasons. Also, the dialogue seemed way too mature for a preteen, so I’m wondering why this was created for middle-grade readers. Either way, I’m over it and moving on to my tried-and-true middle-grade thriller authors.

Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn

This right here might be Mary Downing Hahn’s best piece of work! I love everything about this book—the murder mystery, the secretive small townsfolk, the spooky dilapidated theme park—it’s all good fun! I also just love a summer story involving kids tooling around town on their bikes looking for adventures and mysteries to solve. I really enjoyed watching the friendship flourish between the adorkable boy next door (think Kimmy Kibbler meets Erkle) and the new kid on the block Logan. They make a great crime-solving team, and I really enjoyed tagging along on their adventures!

The Haunting of Ashburn House by Darcy Coates

I’ve attempted to read a couple of books by Darcy Coates but had to DNF due to questionable, undeveloped characters. I wish I could say her shortcomings improved with this book, but alas, it was another dud. To her credit, she paints a great premise with a derelict old mansion, spooky nocturnal noises and unsolved mysteries. However, I have zero interest in any of this when the main character makes ZERO SENSE! How is it that a seemingly intelligent freelance writer cannot scrape together two pennies to even feed herself? I get that her deceased mother had medical expenses, but even in the toughest times, can’t some government programs assist? Like foods stamps, maybe? Also, since her clients aren’t even paying her, why not just get a job in town rather than sitting alone in a house night after night starving to death? I mean, even a low-paying, demeaning custodial job would be better than starvation, no? I just couldn’t make sense out of her situation. I also didn’t understand her lack of curiosity about her new house. It’s HER HOUSE, so why is she tiptoeing around the place like a tentative houseguest? Why isn’t she curious about the many cavernous rooms—hell if she looked around enough, maybe she could find some spare coins to go buy herself a Whopper. I could get into the haunted house part, but I’ll just save you the trouble by advising you to skip this mess. The climax was WAY too insane, and not in a good way. In fact, it was rather laughable, which is not what I want in a scary story.

Survive the Night by Riley Sager

If you’re going to read any of the books on this list, make it this one! Riley Sager is at the top of my list of favorite contemporary authors! Not once have I been let down—and this book might just be the most suspenseful out of them all! Imagine taking a red-eye road trip with a mysterious stranger behind the wheel after your BFF gets murdered by a serial killer on the loose. Through every twist and turn along the dark, desolate icy roads, I was on the edge of my seat wondering who exactly would survive this ill-fated night. This author is a master at character development, almost making me feel like I was the one in the passenger seat doubting my own sanity. Our main character Charlie has some…issues…leading readers to wonder what’s reality and what’s just a “movie in her mind.” I loved the throwback to the mid-90s back when Nirvana dominated the radio waves and cell phone distractions weren’t a thing. I’ll tell you one thing—I’ll never listen to “Come as You Are” the same way again. Such a perfect song for the theme of the book.

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Ugh…this was bad, y’all. I found this in the horror section, yet I think it needs to be moved to comedy. I’m not saying that to be mean; I just think humor (the dry, sardonic variety) is more in this author’s wheelhouse. I was lured in by the premise of a woman cleaning her dead grandmother’s house surrounded by spooky woods and malevolent entities scratching at the windows. Yet what I got was a hot mess of a story with an increasingly annoying main character who can’t help but crack jokes even while being led into the bellows of the forest by a murderous seven-foot-tall woodland sprite. At that point, I had to stop reading because it was just plain silly. Also, animal lovers, I should warn you that there are gratuitous scenes of animal mutilations in the woods, the worst of the worst of horror genre tropes. Thankfully the dog Bongo (the only character I was rooting for) was able to bypass the serial deer killer, so that’s something, I guess. Either way, this had the potential of being a very spooky story, but the humorous quips just kept throwing off the vibe. If the protagonist isn’t spooked enough to stop cracking jokes, how are the readers supposed to buy into it? DNF city, y’all!

The Haunting by Lindsey Duga

Confession—I love middle-grade horror as much as I love devouring candy-corn pumpkins on All Hallows Eve! Like a shiny lure, this cover hooked me in and reeled me right up to the checkout counter, where I told the clerk, “It’s for my niece.” Life is too short to begrudge ourselves of these guilty pleasures, no? These pocket-sized books are perfect for while I’m walking my dog, who moves at the speed of a geriatric turtle. Hmm…that would be a great costume for next Halloween. But I digress, this book is a fun, creepy read set in the horse-and-buggy times of the Victorian era, which I love! It follows a little orphan and her dog who hit the jackpot with wealthy adopters and a big, stately haunted mansion! Think Daddy Warbucks meets the Munsters. Spooky happenings ensue when a ghostly little girl keeps leading little orphan Emily into mischief, thus rocking the boat—or should I say yacht—and putting her in danger of being returned to the depressing orphanage and its slew of mean girls. I thoroughly enjoyed solving this little mystery with Emily and her pup amidst the spooky backdrop of a haunted mansion with hidden rooms and deep, dark secrets. I’m already planning on using my next audible credit on this author’s next book!

The Thirteenth Cat by Mary Downing Hahn

I love all of Mary Downing Hahn’s middle-grade thrillers…except this one. Aside from the fact that this gets the Cover of the Year Award, this book was a big, fat dud. It is such a big departure from her other ghost stories, and that’s not a good thing. If you’re into far-fetched fantasies involving humans being turned into cats and living together in some weird, witchy colony, this one’s for you. I honestly don’t know why I even finished this thing.

Apart in the Dark by Ania Ahlborn

This new-to-me author is one to watch! Both of the novellas inside this book are quality reads that are sure to win over fans of “Head Full of Ghosts.” The second novella, “I Call Upon Thee,” is so devilishly creepy—the kind of horror that gets under your skin and makes you turn on that extra bright night light before going to bed.  It follows Maggie, a marine biology student who begrudgingly rushes home to attend to her sister’s funeral arrangements. There seems to be a curse on her entire family—a curse that was set in motion when she made the grave mistake of befriending a creepy doll and playing the Ouija board with her friend. Very spooky stuff! The first novella, “The Pretty Ones,” is also quite unsettling, but in a different way. This one is more of a true crime thriller set amidst the 1970s backdrop of the “Summer of Sam” killer that follows a very questionable and fashionably challenged main character. This book is perfect for fans of Paul Trembley and Catriona Ward.

Cemetery Girl Trilogy by Charlaine Harris

I’m giving this two stars for the amazing production work on this “movie in your mind.” The actors and sound effects really took it to the next level! Now for the main character, Calexa. I get that she’s an amnesia victim, but she had the decision-making skills of a kindergartener. If your kidnappers believe you to be dead and dump your body in a graveyard, wouldn’t you want to flee the crime scene in anticipation of them coming back to bury their tracks??? Furthermore, why didn’t the kidnappers return to hide the body? Now on to my next befuddlement. She witnesses a horrific cold-blooded murder in the graveyard and manages to get ahold of the dead girl’s phone. Yet she just stashes the phone in her crypt/home and lies in wait while the search parties comb the neighborhood, all the while letting the killers roam free to murder again. She doesn’t want the police to track her down via GPS, but that could’ve been easily avoided if she just made an anonymous call from the girl’s phone outside of the graveyard and then dumped the darn thing. How hard is that to figure out? I’m sorry, y’all. I tried to enjoy this book for the amazing production value alone, but Calixa was 50 shades of stupid, so I will not be moving on to the next installments of this series. Hard pass.

CeeCee’s and Lil Bootz’s Thirteen Books of Halloween: What Lives in the Woods by Lindsay Currie

The gist: Little tweenage girl Ginny Anderson is forced against her will to live in a historic mansion in a quaint little Michigan tourist town—the horror! Wait…let me go find the world’s smallest violin. OK, I’m back. The struggle is real when she must give up her summer writing course to spend a whole month with her perfect family in a spooky manor surrounded by even spookier woods. Paranormal happenings commence, and it’s up to Ginny and her brother to prove the ghosts are real so they can convince their parents to return the whole fam back to their boring city lives in Chicago.

What I like: As I’m sure you can tell by my snarky tone, I’m not a big fan of this story. However, I must give credit where credit is due. I was drawn in by the overall storyline involving a haunted manor and enchanted woods. There was also an element of mystery behind the hauntings, which I always enjoy in a haunted house story. So hats off to the author for coming up with a winning premise that pulls readers like me in like catnip!

What irked me: I admit, I’m much, much, MUCH older than the intended target audience, here, so I should note that I’m rather detached from modern-day tweenage life. I do, however, remember what it was like to be a kiddo, so that should give me some merit, no? Either way, I could not relate to Ginny and her incessant whining about having to live in a haunted mansion for the summer. How cool would that be for a murder mystery buff who devours every novel by the Queen of Mystery? This girl claims to be obsessed with Agatha Christie books, but yet she couldn’t find it within herself to be the slightest bit intrigued by a century-old mansion shrouded in mystery? For me, an actual lifelong murder mystery fan, that would be THE DREAM! I mean, really? She’d rather be spending her summer months in a classroom learning about writing mysteries rather than actually solving one? This isn’t congruent with her self-proclaimed love for Agatha Christie, and I had a really hard time buying it.

Thoughts on the setting: I really enjoyed the spooky Woodmoor Manor with all its hidden mysteries—and the haunted bedroom with the creepy mannequin. The ghostly manifestations were about as scary as a Scooby Doo special, so it’s perfect for little readers who scare easily. I also love, love, love vacationing in Mackinac Island, so this touristy Michigan setting really took me back to those carefree days of eating fudge on Main Street and riding bikes around the entire village.

Overall: As far as middle-grade thrillers go, this one is mediocre to say the least. If you’re looking for a good spooky mystery in this genre, I recommend anything by Mary Downing Hahn. Start with Closed for the Season—that’s my favorite!

Four Paws Up for Lalani of the Distant Sea

This gorgeous book cover caught my eye while I was browsing the YA shelves at BookPeople with a friend—a fun little side-trip we take during our downtown Austin cycling excursions. After skimming the dustcover, I set it back on the shelf because fantasy adventures are so not my jam. My friend, however, decided to give it a whirl after the book clerk sang it’s praises, telling us she felt the need to hug the book after finishing the last chapter. How can anyone resist that hype? Long story short, I ended up borrowing it and realizing how much I’m missing when I pass up on books outside my favorite genres. Although, you really can’t go wrong with a classic Stephen King novel or a magical cat cozy mystery. Just sayin!

Either way, this is an AMAZING YA fantasy story with so much heart–and YES, I did want to hug it after finishing! This is a book I would recommend to young readers, especially young girls who, like myself, can relate to Lalani’s struggles with bullying. She faces a lot of cruelty—not just from the schoolyard bullies but also the sadistic uncle and cousin living under her thatched roof. Oooooh, how I could relate. Adolescence ain’t for the faint of heart, folks.

So yes, this is a wonderful book for young girls who feel powerless in the face of adversity. Lalani is here to show you that if you set your mind to it, anything is possible. That may sound like the world’s worst platitude, but this book had me feeling it!  You know what else made me happy? I took much enjoyment in the author’s subtle antifascist messaging. I’m pretty sure many of you reading this can find this passage particularly relatable:

“Never trust someone who wields power through fear. We have many opportunities in life to overcome fear and embrace courage. Once we seize the first opportunity, it becomes easier to seize the second.”

― Erin Entrada Kelly, Lalani of the Distant Se

As for the world-building, the author did a masterful job transporting me to the fantastical island village of Sanlagita. I felt like I was right there with Lalani watching the fishing boats drifting in the ocean amidst the backdrop of the forbidden mountain. I could envision the boats of sailors vanishing into the mystical fog in search of great fortunes, never to be seen again. And oh how I loved the little woodland and aquatic critters that were based upon Filipino folklore. My only gripe is that they needed to play a larger role in the story. Perhaps that could happen in the sequel? I sure hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Lalani and the islanders of Sanglagita.

If you love adventure stories, please give this book a chance. It truly is a brilliant story worthy of all the prestigious book awards. It’s more than just a story about a girl on a quest to save her village; it’s a story about hope, love and persistence. Imagine how much change we could make in this world if we didn’t just throw up our hands and say, “Oh well.” Imagine what could happen if we all braved the wilderness (Brené Brown, I’m channeling you!) and went against the flow to do what’s right? Just imagine the possibilities if more Lalani’s existed in this world!

“We have many opportunities in life to overcome fear and embrace courage. Once we seize the first opportunity, it becomes easier to seize the second.”

― Erin Entrada Kelly, Lalani of the Distant Sea

CeeCee’s Supernatural Saturdays

Hooray for Saturday!!! After another looooooong workweek, I never thought the weekend would come. I don’t know about y’all but the summer workweek doldrums are a real thing. I need a vacation STAT! Thankfully, I have plenty of books to transport me to far and distant lands—dark and spooky places filled with ghosts, werewolves and the occasional sparkly vampire! What more could a girl ask for? I ask you!

Here, CeeCee has rounded up some of our most recent spooktacular reads—some good, some not so much. Listed below are our hits and misses from our June/July reading list!

Read This!

The Ghost and the Haunted Portrait by Cleo Coyle

Cozy fans—you can’t go wrong with any of Cleo Coyle’s books, especially her Haunted Bookshop series! I just love the humorous quips among the leading lady Penelope Thornton-McClure and her two neurotic sidekicks Seymour and Professor J. Brainert. There’s also a hint of a romance brewing between the bookish sleuth and her resident ghost Jack Shepherd, a sultry PI from the ‘40s whose death is a mystery all unto itself! This is a rather welcome departure from the amateur sleuth/detective love-hate plot device that has been done to death in the cozy mystery genre. As for the story itself, I rather enjoyed the mystery of the cursed portrait—and how it was all tied to a cold case involving the untimely demise of a pulp fiction cover illustrator. Albeit, cold case mysteries can be rather dull, yet there were some rather suspenseful moments when our intrepid sleuth closed in on the case of the murdered book/art collector who fell prey to the cursed portrait! Oh how I love mysteries shrouded in deadly curses—such fun!

The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon

Let me start off by saying Jennifer McMahon is becoming one of my most favorite horror writers! She consistently churns out extremely creepy, slow-burning ghost stories that are often steeped in urban legends. This latest title did not disappoint! The story surrounds two sisters who spent their summers at their reclusive grandmother’s house, where they spent much of their time swimming in a pool filled with mystical—dare I say cursed—water. Adding to the creep-factor, their aunt drowned in that very pool due to mysterious causes. The author masterfully ratchets up the suspense by time-skipping from the girls’ early childhood to their present-day reality, to a time long ago when a happy couple moved to that property and fell victim to mysterious forces surrounding the “healing” spring waters. It all comes together in the end in the most horrific way possible! You know you’ve read something good when fellow readers post a “Please discuss your feelings about the ending” thread in a Facebook reading group. Hats off to Ms. McMahon for pulling the rug out from under me yet again!  

Hypnosis is for Hacks by Tamara Berry

Disclaimer: I received a free ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

As expected, this fourth installment of the Eleanor Wilde mystery series did not disappoint! This is absolutely a cozy mystery–but yet it is a welcome departure from the tried-and-true formula that makes this sub-genre tiresome. Eleanor, our leading lady, is unlike the typical sweet and lovable “Mary Sues” of the cozy mystery scene. She’s a wise-cracking charlatan who cons people into believing she speaks to dead people. Hey, sometimes you have to go to extremes to make a buck these days! In her defense, she resorted to this unsavory line of work to pay for her dying sister’s medical bills, so she can’t be all that bad. To be honest, I rather prefer a protagonist with some real flaws instead of the cliched “flaws” attached to female characters to make them “relatable,” such being a perennial klutz or a carb-fanatic. Is this really the only way women can relate with other women? Strange. Either way, I digress. Eleanor is a fantastic protagonist with some really fun sidekicks including magical cats (aka familiars) and some ghostly spirit guides. In this mystery, she’s vacationing at a posh hotel in a quaint coastal English village. Ahh…such bliss. The mystery begins when she and her brother witness a man being pushed off a boat by two shadowy perpetrators. Adding to the mystery, there’s a jewel thief afoot! Could the two crimes be connected? Will the salty head detective ever take her seriously? Could all of these wrongdoings be tied to Eleanor’s ex partner-in-crime and current blackmailer? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Not That!

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten

I’m sorry, but no. This book was such a dud, and I am kicking myself yet again for getting suckered into the “Blair Witch meets Midsomer” sales pitch. The only thing commonality between this book and the Blair Witch Project is the incessant bickering among the feeble-minded characters.  As for Midsomer (not such a great horror flick, in my opinion), the only link I can think of is that both stories are set in Sweden. What else is thee? I ask you! Either way, the false advertising and provocative book cover lured me in like a catfish to a plastic worm. The characters were all horrible, especially the flat-as-a-pancake leading lady. She kept so many secrets from the group for no apparent reason, and she kept moving forward with the documentary—or I should say pre-documentary photo shoot—when she should have been taking an injured member of the crew straight to the emergency room. There’s very little action other than the crew creeping around dark and gloomy buildings. The only hint of a ghostly presence in a sporadic shadow person just kind of hanging around…blarg. Everything about this book was sorely disappointing. I honestly don’t know how it received so many raves on GoodReads, but to each their own.

Goblin by Josh Walerman 

Again, I fell prey to a gorgeous cover. I mean look at this thing! The Alice in Wonderland motif set against the backdrop of a looming haunted mansion is like catnip! And then there’s the glowing review from none other than Stephen King, so this had to be a surefire hit, right? Wrong! Well, I guess for some people who like weird Twilight Zone-esque short stories, this is a winner. I, however, want a classic ghost story that will make me want to recheck my door locks and turn on all the lights. Aside from the first really spooky short story (or prelude? I’m not sure since I didn’t make it to the end), I could not get into the novellas that were just disorienting and strange. Even though the stories were relatively short, they felt long and rambling. Also, I should warn all my fellow dog lovers, and animal lovers in general, that there are some triggers in the “Man in Slices” and “Happy Birthday, Hunter!”. Some stories I wish I could just unread…sigh. Either way, this was a no for me, dog. DNF pile, all the way.

The Maple Murders by Micol Ostow 

Admittedly, I have not watched the show, so it took a while to get a grasp on the many, many characters. There are so many problems, I don’t even know where to begin. Ok, for starters, the book lacks a main character—making it impossible to connect with anyone or anything. Each chapter is narrated by a different member of the super duper diverse and inclusive Riverdale clique, and I am not digging any of them. Also, the characters and storylines are sooooo far removed from the Archie and Jughead comics, so why bother with this whole gimmick in the first place? I’m guessing that without this throwback, another random teen melodrama TV show couldn’t stand on its own two legs…am I right? I went into this book hoping for a good YA murder mystery about ghosts coming back to haunt a cursed town, but it seemed that all took a backseat to chapters upon chapters of mundane teenage crap. Some chapters teeter off into sub-plots that had zero ties to the story—like a lesbian love affair road trip to LA or a fruitless excursion to a gay bar. None of these little side trips had anything to do with the actual plot, but they did let all the readers know that this story is WOKE AF! I embrace diversity in mainstream fiction, but when it seems to be shoehorned in there with the sole agenda of check-marking all the boxes, I get a little annoyed. That said, this was a dud with a major let-down of an ending. By the time I got to the final chapters, it seemed very apparent that the author realized “Oh, whoopsies, I need to tie up this mystery, too.” At least she got her main message across.

Into the Pit by Scott Cawthon, Elley Cooper

I’ve been eyeing this Fazbear Frights series for quite some time now—again with the alluring book covers! Sometimes even middle-grade horror stories can be rather spooky, so I figured why not give it a go? All I can say is this is no R.L. Stine—not even close. All the little stories in here are life lessons for the kiddos in the guise of horror stories—cautionary tales like don’t take your parents for granted, don’t be a crummy, social-climbing friend, don’t fat-shame yourself and others, blah, blah, blah. What’s wrong with just writing a horror story with the sole intention of scaring the pants off of little children? Why can’t a story be just a story without an agenda? Either way, this is the first and last book I’ll read in this series.