Chick Lit Cafe’s Book of the Month: Murder and Moonshine by Carol Miller

Published April 12, 2014 by Chick-Lit Cafe

murder-and-moonshine-a-mystery-416948-3d2bd95f279b0f78a91eI must confess, I totally bought this book based on its cover. It looks like a Sookie Stackhouse story—sans the bad boys with pointy fangs. I just love mysteries set in the rural South, so when I saw this gorgeous cover on the new release shelf at BookPeople, it was a done deal. Was it worth the hardback price? Keep on reading my review to find out!

The mystery begins one fateful morning at the H & P Diner, a greasy spoon known for Daisy’s prize-winning pastries. It’s the kind of place you see in the movies where all the local yokels stop and stare at any strange interloper who walks through the door.  Daisy’s busy going about her morning routine when an old hermit, Hank Dickerson, staggers up to the counter, mutters the word “burger” and drops dead.

Soon, people start talking about death-by-poison, and the possibility of H&P closing down for good. This doesn’t bode well for Daisy, who has been left penniless after her no-good husband skipped town. She depends on her meager paycheck to pay for her ailing mother’s medical bills and hopes to save up enough money to open her own bakery. But without a steady job, how will she ever scrape by? Little did she know, that was the least of her problems.

Things go from bad to worse when she makes connections between her boss, Hank Fitz, and the dead man. Still grieving over her father’s tragic death at her former family homestead, she’s unwilling to believe that a longtime friend could be capable of cold-blooded murder. Why would he have any reason to poison the town recluse?

Hank’s stories aren’t adding up, but Daisy just can’t find a motive. The local bad boys, however, certainly seem capable of murder. Somehow, the tobacco-chewing Balsam brothers managed to buy her family property, acres upon acres of valuable rolling green hills and cornfields. According to local gossip, they’ve been doing some dirty dealings with some city folk. There sure seems to be a lot of interest in her childhood stomping grounds, and somehow old man Dickerson got in the way of their money-making schemes.

The plot thickens when a handsome stranger from the city walks into the H&P. When Daisy finds out that he’s an ATF agent, she immediately regrets flirting with him over a hot plate of peach cobbler. You see, she has some bad history with the ATF and refuses to have anything to do with a member of a federal agency that ripped her family apart.

But as the mystery intensifies, she reluctantly enlists his help in hunting down clues, which all seem to lead straight to her old family homestead. How did the Balsam brothers manage to buy such an expensive piece of land? And why would a dying man order a burger in his final moments on earth? You’re going to have to read the book to find out!

Aside from the murder mystery, Daisy sure has a lot to figure out. She’s got a sexy bad boy on one side and an irresistibly handsome federal agent on the other. They’re both hers for the taking, but she’s too mixed up with bad memories to make a move. Plus she’s got to look after an invalid mother and a zany, gun-toting aunt. To say that she has a lot on her blue plate special is an understatement!

What I love about Daisy is that she puts family first and is willing to stop at nothing to clear her beloved boss’ name. I was rooting for her every step of the way. Hopefully we’ll get to see her open up a bakery in the next book. As for the love triangle, the jury’s still out on those guys. If she ends up with the Balsam brother, I hope he changes his redneck ways. I may live in Texas, but I’m sorry, there’s nothing sexy about a wisecracking good ol’ boy who whores around with the town tramps and makes unwanted advances toward hard-working waitresses. No thank you!

All in all, I must say that this is a mighty fine mystery that is sure to win over fans of authors like Jana Deleon, Cathy Pickens and Riley Adams. There’s romantic tension, small town mystique, and downhome Southern cooking. Who could ask for anything more?

Short & Not-So-Sweet Sundays

Published March 30, 2014 by Chick-Lit Cafe

sundaysI don’t know about y’all, but this year seems to be going by in a whirlwind! In between road trips, bluebonnet peeping and animal rescuing, I haven’t had much time to review all the books I’m reading! To keep you up to speed on my latest reads, here’s a small smattering of reviews. What’s on your weekend reading list? Post a comment and tell me all about it!

The Good

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

imagesI’ll tell you right now that Unspoken has earned a spot next to all my other “to read again” books on the shelf. When authors take on a gothic ghost story, they absolutely must use the dark and gloomy setting to their full advantage. Pick up a Barbra Michaels book and you’ll see just what I mean. This talented author has clearly mastered the art of mood and atmosphere. Through her lyrical prose, she creates a sense of poetic dread as the protagonist hunts down clues in her sleepy little English village. I felt like I was right by Kami’s side as she investigated the dark English manor filled with secrets and shady suspects. Trust me, this book is definitely worth your time if you’re a fan of gothic mysteries filled with romantic tension, quirky gal pals and magical creatures.

The Bad

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

17987665I love books about road trips, so I didn’t even think twice about spending one of my precious Audible credits on this one. It has all the right ingredients for the perfect cross-country journey of self-discovery: A troubled family, an anxiety-ridden teenage girl, and a good ol’ American road trip. But alas, the book didn’t even come close to delivering on its promising premise. To be honest, I’m rather surprised by all the five-starred reviews. I was expecting the two teenage sisters and the oblivious parents to evolve at some point, but nope. I was looking forward to exploring the weird roadside attractions as the holy rolling family traversed across the American Southwest. Not so much. The characters are pretty much restricted to generic greasy spoon restaurants, dingy motel rooms and vending machine snacks. I was bored after the first chapter but hoped that the plot would develop at some point. Didn’t happen. I’m used to feeling let down like this when I read short stories with abrupt, unresolved endings. It sucks when you invest a lot of time into a book and end up getting duped in the end. No more titles by this author for me, thanks. If you want to read a great road trip book, give this one a pass and pick up Amy Roger’s Epic Detour.

The Ugly

The Collection by Bentley Little

untitledEgads! There aren’t enough adjectives to describe this repugnant piece of garbage. I wanted to listen to something spooky on our road trip to East Texas and didn’t want to commit to a full novel. So what better than an audiobook of short horror stories by an established novelist? I’m familiar with Bentley Little’s books and really thought his short stories would be just as solid as his traditional ghost stories. Boy was I wrong! Little did I know, these are horrible – not horror – stories. Trust me, there’s a difference. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I will say that if torture porn makes you uncomfortable, don’t pick up this book. Very awkward when you’re traveling with your father sitting in the backseat! Seriously, how does this shit get published?

Jessica’s Cranky Corner: Beauty Pageants, the Media and Corporate Greed

Published March 8, 2014 by Chick-Lit Cafe

541919_3911362915034_469792480_n121This post started off as a book review for Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens…but then I ended up going into a tirade about our society’s disturbing obsession with beauty and weight loss.  Read on if you’d like to join me as I shake my crusty old lady cane at the downward spiral of pop culture in our country!

First off, I must tip my hat to Libba Bray for taking a satirical jab at the media—and how our society is still so accepting of archaic, patriarchal customs like beauty pageants. How these things are still accepted in modern times is beyond me. Now dog shows, I totally support. There’s nothing wrong with judging dogs based on good looks and obedience. But women? Call me crazy, but does it seem fundamentally wrong to anoint an “All-American” woman based almost entirely on how well she can sashay down a runway in sequined evening gown and skimpy swimwear?

In Beauty Queens, the author does a bang-up job showing how the teen castaways 9464733were programed by the media (and their equally brainless stage moms) to strive for nothing more than to become the next “Teen Dream.” They were taught to only worry their pretty little heads about being the most beautiful, thinnest shining star at the pageant. I loved watching them evolve from starry-eyed “Teen Dreamers” to survivalist renegades. The longer they were removed from their self-obsessed worlds, the more they were able to see themselves for who they truly were.

Even though this book is about as deep as Wiley Coyote/Roadrunner cartoon, it will get you thinking about everything that’s wrong with the media and corporate greed. I hope it will help teens realize that there’s more to life than what they see on in the mirror.

Admittedly, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life nitpicking my appearance, but now I’m starting to let all that crap go. My first step is to put up my blinders in the checkout aisle. Those magazines that promise us women folk that we can lose 20 pounds in one month can be oh so very tantalizing. Especially when your eyes flit to another magazine cover shaming a slew of celebrities in unflattering bikinis with cellulite dimples on their legs. And right next to that tabloid is a cover of US Weekly depicting “scary skinny” celebs. Too fat! Too skinny! Lose Half Your Body Weight in One Month! Good God, there’s no escaping these anxiety-provoking messages!

Funny how magazines like The Atlantic or The Economist aren’t ripe for the picking at the checkout stands. It’s sad to think that people are more prone to impulse buying a magazine about weight loss and burned-out celebs instead of something more substantial that will challenge their views about the world outside an ULTA store.  

And how come we don’t see these weight-obsessed magazines marketed toward men? It’s 2014, people! Women have come a long way, but the media still wants to keep us trapped in the 1950s mindset. Statistics show that more women are getting college degrees than men. They’re running board rooms, bringing home the bacon and frying it in the pan! They’re running for governor and filibustering for women’s rights (thank you, Wendy Davis!), so should we still be worrying about being pretty to find and keep a man? I think not.  

So kudos to you, Libba Bray, for giving this issue some much-needed attention—and in a very entertaining way no less! Ya Ya Sistas!

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan

Published February 22, 2014 by Chick-Lit Cafe

11100477Oh man, I don’t even know how to even begin describing how much I adore this book. I just want to climb to the top of one of Tom’s beloved mountain peaks with a bullhorn and tell the world to read Following Atticus. It’s that good, people!

This is just a beautiful story about the bond between a man and his dog, and how they both found inner peace in the enchanting New Hampshire Mountains. In defiance of what’s expected of an overweight middle-aged man and a 20-pound dog, they achieved the impossible. Not once, but twice, they conquered all 48 of the great White Mountain peaks in one winter.

I poured through this book in sheer amazement as these two adventurers hiked up and down the majestic mountains in the freezing cold—an amazing feat for even the most elite mountain climbers.  They didn’t do it for fame or to break a world record. They did it to pay tribute to fallen cancer victims, and to raise money for charity. But ultimately some higher power—some inexplicable force that only the readers can decipher for themselves—drew them into the wilds. Tom & Atticus

What I love about this story is how Tom made a complete turnaround after meeting Atticus. A busy newspaper man, he was constantly running around town to get the latest scoop. There was no time for pets, no time for exercise, no time for sitting still. He seemed happy in this lifestyle until a little mini schnauzer came into his life and changed everything.

“In the mountains Atticus became more of what he’d always been, and I became less—less frantic, less stressed, less worried, and less harried. I felt comfortable letting him lead, and he seemed to know what I needed. He always chose the best route, if ever there was a question, and my only job was to follow.”

I can tell you from experience that animals have a way of making us live in the present. Like standing atop a majestic mountain and looking down at nature’s splendor, seeing the world through a dog’s eyes can allow us to take in the bigger picture. All those trivial things—the office pettiness, the family melodrama, the overloaded inbox—seem so insignificant when you can truly understand the broad scheme of things. That’s why this book really hit home. Through Tom’s lyrical prose of the gorgeous mountain scenery, I could feel his day-to-day stress ebb away. I, too, was hit by this feeling while hiking through Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s amazing how our natural surroundings—the scent of fresh evergreens, the rhythmic trickling streams, the rustling of leaves overhead—can instantly put us at ease.

“…It was like stumbling into C.S. Lewis’s magical wardrobe and pushing through the rows of clothes, knowing that there was something thrilling beyond it all. Stepping out of the trees and onto an open ridge or peak was like exiting the back of the wardrobe and entering our own special Narnia. It was a world apart, a world that belonged only to the two of us.”

 And sometimes the stillness and solitude of nature can make us confront our own demons. Perhaps that’s why so many of us have to be constantly plugged into those little flat-screen devices. I’ll never forget the intense moment when the eerie winter woods forced Tom to face his darkest fears while hiking alone at night.

“It was eerie and sad, and I found myself falling into a deep malaise where all the warmth in the world had been drained away, and I thought, this must be what death is like—brittle, unyielding, frozen…The higher we climbed, the more ghostlike it felt and the heavier I sank into the night, spiraling deeper into memories that wouldn’t let go of me—the kind that haunt your subconscious, that surface ever so rarely in your dreams and wake you up in a sweat with a breathless gasp.”

 There’s so much more to this book than just a feel-good pet story. Tom’s incredible transformation is truly inspiring. His story makes it hard—almost impossible—to question fate and the possibility of soul mates. The next time I climb a mountain top or set foot in a state park, I’ll always remember Tom’s spiritual epiphanies. At that, I’ll leave you with one of my most favorite quotes from the book.

“Magic is where you find it; the only thing that matters is that you take the time to look for it. It can be the wonder in a little dog’s face or the memory of an old man. People continued to ask why I’d taken to hiking alone with Atticus. It was because such thoughts come to me on a climb or at the top or walking through the thick woods on the way down under a golden sun or bright stars. When there was no one to talk to, I found myself in a walking meditation. I was not a religious man, but if I were, the woods would be my church, the mountain tops my alter.”

Short and Sweet Sundays

Published February 9, 2014 by Chick-Lit Cafe

sundaysTime isn’t on my side this month. With all the networking mixers, marathon training and dog babysitting, my calendar leaves very little time for blogging. It would be a travesty to let these standout books go unnoticed, so here are some short five-star reviews!

Orphan Train by Kristina Baker Kline

15818107I can tell you right now, this is going in my Best Books Read in 2014 list! This is one of those stories that sucks you in and keeps you glued to the pages until the very end. The tragic characters were so real, it felt like I was right there on that train as it trudged its way to the Midwest, hungry, belittled and afraid of the unknown.  Even when I wasn’t reading, I found my mind drifting to little orphan Niahm, wondering how she was going to survive her current horrifying foster-home situation. I would also think of Molly’s unlikely friendship with a 91-year-old widow, wondering how they would eventually help each other overcome their hardships and find closure in the end. The author did a fantastic job unfolding both Molly’s and Niahm’s narratives as the chapters jumped from present day to the Great Depression. It was almost impossible setting down the book because I was dying to see their stories converge.

Favorite quote: “So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason – to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?”

Ghoul Interrupted by Victoria Laurie

12486238After reading Orphan Train, I was ready to switch gears and dive into something fun and fluffy. This book was just the ticket! There’s romance, adventure, monsters and zany shenanigans.  I really dig this mystery series because it’s somewhat of a Scooby Doo/Ghost Hunters mashup. In each book, MJ and her gang travel to far and distant lands to investigate supernatural happenings for their ghost-hunting TV show. I really love this concept, mainly because I love travel adventures and—of course—ghost hunting shows!  This time, they’re hunting down a murderous demon that is stalking and killing Heath’s (MJ’s boyfriend and fellow ghost hunter) family in New Mexico. They uncover all sorts of family secrets and find that there might be some truth to a spooky bedtime story steeped in Native American folklore.

Favorite scene: When MJ and her uber-flamboyant best bud, Gilley, get thrown into a holding cell for trespassing on a Native American reservation. Things go from bad to worse when a fiendish monster with ginormous claws finds them trapped behind bars!

A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn

13259975I so adore these Chet and Bernie mysteries! The stories are told through the eyes of a Chet, a big lug of a dog with distinctive black-and-white markings. He’s Bernie’s co-private investigator and all around best friend. There’s something very beautiful—even eye opening—about the way Chet views the world and his owner. He observes everything that’s going on around him, yet he doesn’t overanalyze or internalize the things he doesn’t understand.  When his mind starts wandering into dangerous territory—like why humans can be so cruel to each other—his attention gets diverted by something fun and flighty. He knows who he is and that he absolutely, positively adores Bernie. Oh how I wish that I could have a Chet of my very own! This might sound a little strange, but I mainly read these books because of the dog perspective. The mysteries are just the icing on the cake. This one involves a mixed-up Hollywood actor with lots of skeletons in his closet. When he returns to his hometown in the Nevada desert to shoot a Western movie, Bernie is appointed by the Mayor to watch over him. Trouble inevitably follows, and the dynamic duo is thrust into a tangled web of murder yet again!

Favorite quote: “Anything’s possible with perps, believe me. We’ve taken down lots, me and my partner, Bernie. That’s what we do at the Little Detective Agency. He’s Bernie Little. I’m Chet, plain and simple.”

Musing Mondays: Vampire Academy

Published February 3, 2014 by Chick-Lit Cafe

musingmondays51 Musing Mondays, a weekly meme hosted by Should be Reading, asks you to muse about one of the following each week…

• Describe one of your reading habits.

• Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).

• What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it!

 • Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.

• Do you have a bookish rant? Something about books or reading (or the industry) that gets your ire up? Share it with us!

• Instead of the above questions, maybe you just want to ramble on about something else pertaining to books — let’s hear it, then!

My Musing: 

345627I’m currently reading Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. I have to confess that I’m only reading this because the movie’s coming out. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good teeny bopper vampire flick!  It’s been a while since I’ve read another Twilightesque book, mainly because the whole vampire/boarding school sub-genre is getting tiresome.

Just 100 pages into the story, I’m already sensing that a love triangle and an epic vampire clan showdown are in the midst.  Yes, this series appears to be following the formula, yet the author is shaking it up a bit with some creative twists on the vampire lore. I’m interested to see how things pan out for the main character, Rose, who is getting a lot of one-on-one time with her personal defense-against-the-Strigoi trainer, Dimitri. They’re currently in the love-hate stage, which I’m sure will turn into a forbidden love affair. You see, Rose is at the bottom of the vampire totem pole and is forbidden to canoodle with members of the royal class. 

Oh how I love a scandal! Stay tuned for the book/movie review.

“Dance on His Grave” Review & Audiobook Giveaway!

Published January 20, 2014 by Chick-Lit Cafe

14538706Well butter my buns and call me a biscuit! Oh how I love Southern mysteries set deep in the heart of the hauntingly beautiful East Texas-Louisiana borderlands.  Sylvia Dickey Smith has mastered the art of evoking a sense of dread in her lyrical atmospheric descriptions of the mysterious bayou country.  Moody atmosphere, colorful characters, good food and one heck of a strong-willed protagonist are all key ingredients for a quality Southern fiction novel. This author delivers all of these things in spades in her Sidra Smart mysteries. That’s why I put Sidra Smart on the top of my list of favorite Southern detectives—right next to David Robichauex, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. If you haven’t heard of those other guys, I advise you to Google James Lee Burke and Joe Lansdale immediately!

In this first installment of the Sidra Smart Mystery Series, Sid has emancipated herself from a loveless, sheltered marriage. No longer an obedient preacher’s wife, she’s thrust into a whole new world of independence and opportunity.

She reaches a crossroads when she inherits her dead brother’s PI business. With zero knowledge of how to run a business—let alone solve mysteries—she’s ready to sell it off to the lowest bidder. Yet when her controlling ex-husband tries to push her into doing just that, she decides to slap on her gumshoes out of sheer defiance! And really, that’s what I love about Sidra Smart. She’s bold, brave and ready to take on new adventures, despite the legions of naysayers who will stop at nothing to watch her fail.

Before she’s ready to pick up a  copy of “How to Run a PI Business for Dummies,”  her first client walks in with a cold case that would stump even Sherlock Holmes. Despite her best interest, Sidra agrees to look into the 30-year-old mystery revolving around two innocent girls caught up in an unimaginable world of horrors.  The horror show intensifies as she looks deeper into the case and discovers a tangled web of town secrets, torture and arson. Trust me, once you get to know the villain, you’ll understand the meaning of the book’s title, “Dance on His Grave.”

The plot thickens when Sid finds a connection between the bizarre cold case and her brother’s mysterious car accident. And just with any good thriller, the danger heats up as our heroine gets closer to the truth. Who is sneaking into her home and leaving ominous threats? Is it her ex-husband’s God-fearing disciples, or could it be a demented child-abusing killer? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

With some help from her newfound friend and fellow PI, George Leger, she carries on with the case—even when all hope seems to be lost.  She also gets a little help from her meddlesome Aunt Annie, who is always there to help Sid pick up the pieces when the chips are down. I’m especially fond of the Cajun-speaking George, who’s interesting enough to have his own spinoff story.

This is not your typical amateur sleuth mystery, mainly because there are some really weighty issues at the core of the story. Some of the descriptions of are rather dark and disturbing, so this book is not for the squeamish. Filled with punchy dialogue, cliffhanger chapter endings and unspeakable crimes, this book is somewhat of a mash-up of Karin Slaughter meets Gillian Flynn with a Cajun twist. Hard-boiled mystery fans are sure to enjoy this puzzling whodunit.

Enter to Win a Free Audiobook!

imagesU9JY9PEDI should also mention that the author gave me this book via Audible.  The narrator did a fantastic job unfolding the story in a somber tone. Unlike other narrators who drive me bonkers with their rapid-speed chipmunk-on-crack storytelling, she did a stellar job keeping the pace and capturing Sid’s voice.  I highly recommend listening to this on audio. In fact, the author has offered to give away a free audiobook. All you have to do is post a comment answering the following question and the winner will be picked at random. Don’t fret if you’re not an Audible member.  You can still receive the audiobook without an account.

Who is your favorite thriller author?

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