Audiobook Pick of the Month: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty

10960383Summary (from the publisher) A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY is a powerful saga of three generations of women, plagued by hardships and torn by a devastating secret, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of family. Fifteen-year-old Mosey Slocumb-spirited, sassy, and on the cusp of womanhood-is shaken when a small grave is unearthed in the backyard, and determined to figure out why it’s there. Liza, her stroke-ravaged mother, is haunted by choices she made as a teenager. But it is Jenny, Mosey’s strong and big-hearted grandmother, whose maternal love braids together the strands of the women’s shared past–and who will stop at nothing to defend their future.

 Why I liked it:  There’s a lot of really good women’s fiction writers out there, but Joshilyn Jackson is in a league of her own. She has a knack for describing incredibly complex thoughts and feelings in a way that really connects readers with the characters. For a while there, I almost felt like I was Mosey. I hung on to the narrator’s every word as the story slowly unfolded, always teasing me with more questions than answers about Mosey’s sordid family history.

This author never ceases to amaze me with her intoxicating stories about Southern women with haunted backstories and serious psychological issues. As a fledgling author, I have to admit that I’m rather intimidated by her raw talent for lyrical prose. The last chapter is sheer poetry. I guess if I had to put her in a league, she’d be in the dugout with the likes of Stephen King, Janet Fitch and Robert McCammon

The narrator: You’d think that authors would be ideal narrators, but typically their performances fall flat. They tend to sound like a bored librarian entertaining little kiddies at a story-time reading circle. But much to my surprise, Joshilyn Jackson did a standup job narrating this book. Her authentic Southern drawl really added to the characters’ personalities. There were quite a few characters in this book – which can be really confusing on audio – but she gave each of them a distinct tone. I really loved how she’d lower her voice a few octaves to drum up the suspense. Really well done!

Favorite character: There’s a lot of fascinating characters in this story, but Big (aka Ginny Slocumb) really stole my heart. She is everything a mother should be: Protective, loving and self-sacrificing. I loved how she stopped at nothing to rehabilitate her daughter in defiance of naysayers who swore she’d be a vegetable for the rest of her life. She’s headstrong, feisty and incredibly smart. I especially enjoyed how she handled her family’s tormenter toward the end of the book. Well played, Big!

Summed up in three words: Mesmerizing. Heart wrenching. Poetic.

Short & Sweet Sundays: Trouble in Mudbug by Jana Deleon

In honor of Sunday – a day I reserve for reading and lollygagging – I bring you a short and sweet book review! 

The gist (from the publisher): Scientist Maryse Robicheaux thought that a lot of her problems had gone away with her mother-in-law’s death. The woman was rude, pushy, manipulative and used her considerable wealth to run herd over the entire town of Mudbug, Louisiana.

Unfortunately, death doesn’t slow down Helena one bit.

DEA Agent Luc LeJeune is wondering what his undercover assignment investigating the sexy scientist has gotten him into – especially as it seems someone wants her dead. Keeping his secrets while protecting Maryse proves to be easier than fighting his attraction for the brainy beauty.

Why I picked this book up: I love cozy mysteries, especially if they’re set in the South. Throw in a ghost, a psychic best friend and a smoking-hot mysterious man, and I’m sold! Plus the hot pink pickup truck on the cover really caught my eye.

What I liked: The quirky main character and her wise-cracking ghostly sidekick really stole the show. Maryse has a deep connection to her friends, her town and the Louisiana bayou. She’s also a science wiz and a hermit, which really sets her apart from most chick lit protagonists. What I really love about Maryse is her selfless passion for finding a cure for cancer. Sometimes I read books involving self-centered protagonists who are a little too wrapped up in their own melodrama. If the leading protagonist rubs me the wrong way, the book is going straight to the used bookstore bin. After the last dud I attempted to read, which I won’t even bother reviewing, this book was a breath of fresh air.

What irked me: The mystery is just a tad bit on the light side. It doesn’t take a Miss Marple to figure out whodunit early on in the story. But the well-developed characters, laugh-out-loud quips and smoking-hot sex scenes offset the soft mystery plot. If you’re looking for a fun, fast read, pick this one up.

The romance: Luc LeJeune is H-O-T! And wowza, I’ve got to hand it to the author, she sure knows how to write a scorching baby-making scene. Holy smokes – I was not expecting such a cute little cozy mystery to make me blush.  

Will I read another book by this author? Heck yes! She really left me hanging in the last chapter. I need to find out how Maryse’s psychic best friend, Sabine LaVeche, is going to overcome her medical crisis. She needs to find a blood relative – and fast! I’m also looking forward to more zany antics by Maryse’s ghostly mother-in-law. That prissy little old lady really cracks me up!  

If you like this book, you’ll also enjoy titles by: Carolyn Haines, Carolyn Hart, Casey Daniels and Victoria Laurie.

Bonefire of the Vanities by Carolyn Haines

 In this 12th installment of Carolyn Haines’ Bones series,  Sarah Booth Delaney slips on her high-heeled gumshoes yet again to investigate a possible scam involving a porn-star-turned ghost whisperer and a “psychic healing” resort. Promising reunions with dead loved ones and opportunities to “invest” in good causes, the shady psychic preys upon emotionally fragile rich people. And their new billionaire client, Marjorie Littlefield, certainly fits the profile.

Shattered after her daughter’s “accidental” drowning, she’s desperate to get some answers. Considering her fragile state, the psychics have ample opportunity to throw her off the deep end. And to make matters worse, she plans on leaving all her riches to her scrappy cat, Pluto.  Sounds pretty cold, right? Well considering her only son is the No. 1 suspect in his sister’s death, he’s pretty much on his own.

 Now on to the tricky part. How can a girl detective probe into the case if she can’t get inside the high-security estate?  Nestled in the backwoods of the Mississippi Delta, the sprawling resort is surrounded by an army of security guards and burglar-proof fences. With no other option but to pose as a member of the staff, she and her fellow PI, Tinkie, grab some brooms and masquerade as maids. In between laundry duty and window washing, the two sassy sleuths snoop around the spooky halls of Heart’s Desire and unearth some rather some rather unsettling clues. Are the disembodied voices a part of the scam? Or are supernatural forces at work? As the body count rises, Sarah Booth and Tinkie must stop at nothing to ferret out the killer and put an end to the charade.  

What I liked most: The creepy atmosphere. Confession – there are some parts in this book that really raised the little hairs on the back of my neck. I didn’t expect Carolyn Haines to creep me out with one of her cozy little Bones mysteries, but she never ceases to surprise me! Some of the happenings in the psychic reading room, located in the bellows of the resort, were really spooky. This particular scene gave me some serious goosebumps:

A soft moaning emanated from the end of the hallway. My mind leaped instantly to the classics of horror written by Edgar Allan Poe. This was a moment the melancholy master would employ to great effect. Corpse in the wall, living person in a coffin, pendulum. Black cat!

Favorite secondary character:  This mystery series is packed with a slew of colorful characters – from a sassy transgender reporter to a local resident psychic to a Southern belle best friend. But of all the eclectic characters, Jitty is my fave. The resident ghost of Sarah Booth’s beloved Dahlia house, Jitty has a way of making surprise appearances in unexpected places.  I especially love her outlandish disguises – and in this book she dresses up as two of my favorite detectives: Jessica Fletcher and Nancy Drew!

The romance: Yes, the romantic tension between Sarah Booth and her actor fiancé Graf Milieu, is pretty hot, but I still hope in my heart of hearts that she gets back together with Cole. They’re destined to be together, but whenever they find a happy place a stupid wrench gets thrown in the works. In Cole’s case, the wrench is his psychotic, control freak ex-wife. But being the Southern gentleman that he is, Cole must always save the perpetual damsel in distress whenever she has a meltdown. Ugh!  That kind of thing can really wear on a girl, so I don’t blame Sarah Booth for calling it quits. But hopefully someday, they’ll find their way back into each other’s arms!

This book is best paired with: A super-sweet glass of iced tea and a Rosanne Cash playlist.

Overall: As I expected, Carolyn Haines delivers a tightly-plotted mystery filled with rollicking adventures, loveable characters, four-legged sidekicks and surprise twists! I’m really good at pinpointing the killer, but this author always gets me at the end! Of all the cozy mystery series out there, this is my absolute favorite. That says a lot because I read a TON of mysteries! The author’s love of the Mississippi Delta clearly comes through in her writing. Through her lyrical prose, I can smell the earthy scent of red dirt, see the sun sparkling through the moss-covered trees, and hear the humming of cicadas on a hot summer’s day. Oh how I love Southern fiction! Want to know more about this fabulous author? Check out her Q&A!

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Howard

Dare I say it? Could Saving CeeCee Honeycutt be one of my most favorite books of all time? Since I gave it a special place on my favorite bookshelf and plan on reading it again and again, I guess it’s safe to say that yes, this book has earned a spot in Jessica Sinn’s top ten most favorite books. It’s been while since I’ve claimed an inductee, so this is a pretty major event for Chick Lit Café!

It’s actually kind of funny how I stumbled across this book. While shopping at Barnes & Noble for a Father’s Day gift, I swore that I wouldn’t buy myself another book. I was doing really good up until I reached the checkout aisle and noticed Saving CeeCee Honeycutt on top of the impulse buy table. The hummingbird on the cover caught my eye, so I gave in and read the dustcover. And wouldn’t you know, it’s like the book was custom made just for me. It has all the elements I look for in a women’s fiction novel: A haunted protagonist, female bonding, self-discovery and a small Southern town. This was one impulse buy that I will never regret!

Now on to the hard part. I’m sure many of my fellow bloggers would agree that it’s not easy writing a review about a favorite book. There’s so much I want to say, but how do I even begin? I guess I’ll try to give it a shot without getting too carried away. Here’s how it all goes down:

Set in Savannah Georgia in the 1960s, the story revolves around CeeCee Honeycutt, whose life has been shaped by her traumatic childhood with a psychotic mother and absentee father. A former Southern beauty queen, her mother spent her days prancing around the front yard in thrift store prom dresses. Unable to deal with his crazy wife, CeeCee’s dad constantly skips town on “business trips,” leaving her alone to deal with the tantrums and kitchen fires.

Shunned by the neighborhood kids, she longs for a best girlfriend more than anything in the world. To shut out her grim reality, she devours books – especially Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew mysteries.

When tragedy strikes, CeeCee’s great aunt Tootie scoops her up in her Packard Victoria convertible and whisks her off to Savannah, Georgia. Soon she finds herself completely enveloped in a colorful world of lush gardens, historic mansions and Southern hospitality.

This is how I picture aunt Tootie’s mansion on Gaston Street.

But despite her new posh surroundings and blossoming circle of friends, CeeCee’s life isn’t all sweet tea and roses. She has a lot of issues bubbling under the surface that can’t be ignored. Why can’t she cry over her mother’s untimely death? And will she ever be able to forgive her father? With some help from her aunt Tootie, and a bevy of eccentric Southern ladies, she slowly learns how to confront her past.

Like Dorothy entering the Land of Oz, CeeCee meets fascinating new friends along her journey – from a mysterious neighbor who takes moonlit baths in her garden, to a promiscuous town gossip, to a voyeuristic peacock!  But of all the characters, my favorite is Aunt Tootie’s longtime housemaid, Oletta Jones. Similar to Mabel in The Help, she’s haunted by the death of her only child and finds a renewed sense of joy by befriending young CeeCee. As their friendship deepens with every chapter, it becomes very clear they both were destined to find each other. I got really choked up when I read this exchange between Oletta and CeeCee while they were skinny dipping in a neighbor’s pool:

Over and over I practiced saying the words in my mind: I love you, Oletta. I love you. But when I gathered the courage to say them out loud, the words that popped out were, “Oletta, if you and I had met when we were both kids, would you have liked me?”

That question seemed to surprise her as much as it did me. Then in the darkness I could see her eyes crinkle up when she smiled. “Oh, yes, I’da like you just fine, but I’d probably been a little scared of you too.”

“Scared? Why?”

“Because you’re so smart and pretty. Sometimes them two things in one person can mean a whole lot of trouble.”

Call me a sap, but this moment really melted my heart. How I wish I could spend a day with these two kindred spirits eating beaten biscuits and chatting about Nancy Drew!

What I really love about this book is how these women surrounded little CeeCee like a warm hug and lifted her out of the darkness. They cared for her when she was hurting. They listened to her when she unleashed her anxieties. They made her feel wanted after years of neglect. And best of all – they gave her the one thing she always wanted, true friendship. We should all be so lucky to have a strong woman like Oletta or Aunt Tootie in our corner. There’s something very special about a true friend who wholeheartedly wants for your happiness – someone who will go above and beyond to make sure everything is okay.

Overall Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is an exceptional debut. This is a book from the heart, full of strong female voices and bits of wisdom. Beth Howard brilliantly tells the story through the innocent eyes of a 12-year-old girl,  taking readers on a mesmerizing journey of self-discovery. Whatever you do, don’t rush through this book. Like a great vacation, you want to savor each and every moment before it’s over! Fans of Kathryn Stockett, Cassandra King, Rebecca Wells and Billie Letts are sure to be impressed.

Sundays in Bed with…(#1)

There’s nothing I’d rather do on a Sunday than laze around in bed with a good book and a pudgy cat. While everyone’s off running errands, working out and being productive, I’m unashamedly still in my PJs sipping coffee and immersing myself in a new story. When I came across the Midnight Book Girl’s cool meme, I couldn’t resist joining my fellow book bloggers – my soul sisters – in their blissful Sunday morning reading adventures!

This morning I’m completely wrapped up in Beth Hoffman’s debut novel, Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt.  One hundred pages zipped by in a flurry and now I’m in need of another box of Kleenex!  I haven’t been this moved by a book since I read The Help.

The story revolves around Cee Cee Honeycutt, a lonely little girl who really got the shaft in the parent department. The first riveting chapters take you through Cee Cee’s plight as the daughter of a bat-shit crazy mother and absentee, alcoholic father.  Shunned by the neighborhood kids, she longs for a best girlfriend more than anything in the world. To shut out her grim reality, she devours books – especially Nancy Drew mysteries.

When tragedy strikes,  Cee Cee’s great aunt Tootie swoops in and whisks her off to Savannah, Georgia. Like little orphan Annie, Cee Cee instantly goes from an abusive, loveless existance to a wondrous world of prosperity, hope and friendship.

A huge lump formed in my throat when I read this exchange between Aunt Tootie and Cee Cee.  

“Your mind must be swimming right now, but I want you to know that I’ve got a big ole house with plenty of room, and I’d love to have you.”

Those six simple words echoed around me and filled the room with light: I’d sure love to have you…I’d sure love to have you…

My shoulders began to shake, and to my disbelief, hot tears spilled from my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Aunt Tootie wrapped me in her arms and pulled me close.

Wow! I can tell you right now that this book is going to be one of my faves!

So what are you reading this morning?

Top Five Books of 2011

The Times Square ball has dropped, the confetti has cleared and millions of partygoers are nursing their hangovers. 2012 has arrived – and like clockwork we are bombarded with guilt-inducing gym equipment ads and a plethora of “best of” lists. So here’s my contribution to the annual tradition of cherry picking. These fabulous books –packed with family dysfunction, strong, revolutionary women, and personal transformation – are my top five faves of 2011.

1.) The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Some nay-sayers claim that this book is nothing more than “white liberal self-congratulation,” but for me, it’s an eye-opening account of prejudice and ignorance in the Jim Crow South. Sure, I’ve read about the civil rights movement in politically-correct history classes, but this book gave me a more insightful perspective of what it was like to be a black maid in a racially-divided Mississippi.  Read my review here.

2.) A War of Her Own by Sylvia Dickey Smith
Like a hearty plate of beef brisket, this book will stick with you long after you devour it in one sitting! In true Sylvia Dickey Smith style, the story centers around a strong, gutsy woman who strives to make a life for herself in defiance of adversity. Set in a small East Texas town during World War II, Bea Meade (the Texified version of Rosie the Riveter) must fight her own battle against a philandering husband and sexist men in the shipyard. As she struggles to find love and happiness as a single working mother, she must solve the mysteries of her past. Sylvia’s skillful unraveling of family secrets and betrayal left me breathless. Bea is an enduring character with a fierce and unstoppable spirit. This is a beautifully written story about an important time in American history. You must read this book!  Read my review here.

3.) Backseat Saints by Joshylin Jackson
This is one heavy-duty read that will make you think differently about women who suffer from domestic abuse. Trapped in a marriage with a dangerous psychopath, Rose Mae Lolley lives in a torturous world of misery and fear. After enduring a near-fatal blow to the head, she finally snaps and hits the road running. On a quest to find a murderous ex-boyfriend who can do her husband in, she heads back to her hometown in Fruiton, Alabama. When she reluctantly meets with her estranged father, she realizes she must come to terms with her past in order to break out of the vicious cycle of abuse and neglect. This is one heart-wrenching story of family psychodrama that will linger on with you long after you read it.

4.) Fever Moon by Carolyn Haines
Carolyn Haines is well known for her light-hearted Bones Mysteries, but she also has a few darker stand-alones that rival James Lee Burke’s and Joe Lansdale’s Deep South detective novels.  Set in New Iberia, Louisiana during World War II, the mystery begins when a stark-raving wild woman is found hovering over a ravaged murder victim in the woods. The town is convinced she’s the loup-garou, a legendary shape-shifting monster, yet Deputy Raymond Thibodeaux knows she’s been set up.  Haunted by the ravages of war and the loss of his kid brother, Raymond feels a strong connection to the feral woman who lost her mind after the death of her sister and two twin sons. On a quest to clear her name, he puts his life on the line and faces his own demons in the process. Whether I’m reading a cozy whodunit  or a dark and atmospheric thriller, I’m always swept away by Carolyn’s world of sprawling horse pastures, sugar cane fields and spooky bayous!  Read my review here.

5.) Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore
They say you can never come home again, but for Catherine Grace Cline, that’s perfectly okay. Restless and bored of small-town life, she spends her days plotting her great escape out of Ringgold, Georgia. Every Saturday afternoon, she sits with her best friend outside the DQ licking a Dilly Bar and daydreaming about her new life in the big city of Atlanta. When her dream finally becomes a reality, tragedy brings her back home. Shortly after her arrival, she discovers an earth-shattering betrayal and must find it within herself to forgive the ones she holds most dear. Brimming with sentiments of love, redemption and perseverence, this book had me reaching for the Kleenex and made me want to hug my daddy. I know, I’m a total sap. If you’re into books by authors like Billie Letts or Fannie Flagg, you’re bound to enjoy this sweet Southern yarn.

What’s your favorite book of 2011?