Jessica’s Cranky Corner: Still looking for reasons why I finished ‘Looking for Alaska’

Published January 31, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

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Oh wow…I don’t know where to even begin with this review. Okay, let’s start out by enumerating the most important elements of a good book. First and foremost a good read must have likeable, well-developed characters. Then, of course, there needs to be a plot. And let’s not forget that with every story, there needs to be believability. Even fantasy books have to be rooted in some semblance of reality, otherwise how are the readers ever going to relate to the story, the characters, the meaning of it all?!?

Now let’s dissect the many ways John Green ignored these key elements in this hot mess of YA fiction.

Likeable Characters

In this high school melodrama, I’m stuck with a whiny high school kid and his snarky clique of boarding school chums, all of whom are way too cool for school. Gee, does this sound vaguely familiar? Oh probably because the same annoying characters from Paper Towns were plopped into this book!

Remember that old MTV cartoon Darea? You know, the one about the emo monotone girl who mocked everything around her? Well if you enjoyed that, I suppose you might relate to these yahoos. I, on the other hand, got tired of the irony of it all. They were all so enveloped in their own little narcissistic worlds, save for the ringleader of the bunch, ironically named “The Colonel” who did have a few redeeming qualities. Come to think of it, this book might actually have been worthwhile if he was the lead character. But nope, we’re stuck in Pudge’s one-track mind throughout this sluggish journey of self-discovery. He’s that friend (we’ve all had one) who drones on and on about an unattainable crush, constantly ruminating about her mysterious ways. Who is the real Alaska? What’s driving her crazy mood swings? Why is she so self-destructive? WHO CARES?!? The girl in question—poetically named Alaska—is not in any way interesting, enigmatic or likeable. She knows poor Pudge has it bad, so she plays him like a fiddle, flirting, teasing and stringing him along just for fun. Playful and chummy one minute, downright evil the next (someone get this girl an exorcist!), Alaska is clearly surfing the extreme end of the bipolar spectrum. But, alas, this mysterious goddess rocks Pudge’s world, so he must make it his quest figure her out and ultimately get in her pants. And there, my dear readers, is your plot.

That's your cue to split, Pudge.

That’s your cue to split, Pudge.

The Plot

Halfway through the book I started to question when the plot would take shape. Come to think of it, that’s probably the point when you should call it a loss and toss it in the DNF pile. But like a good soldier, or idiot, I continued on. Like Alaska’s shameless teasing, the provocative chapter headings that counted down the “days before” kept me reading. What catastrophic even awaited this group of sardonic teenagers? Who’s gonna bite the big one? Please tell me it will be Alaska. Until we reach the aftermath chapters, the story slogs along at a snail’s pace. Here’s what we’ve got: Bored little rich boy demands to go to boarding school so he can find “the great perhaps.” He immediately joins the cool misfit clique (think Perks of Being a Wallflower). Then it’s nothing but chain-smoking, esoteric musings of “escaping the labyrinth” and pranks against the rich kids. When the catastrophic event finally hits, I’m already over it.

Believability

I’m sure Green has met a teenager at some point in his adult life, but it sure doesn’t show in this book. Though they were all absorbed in their narcissistic worlds (an intrinsic quality of this particular age demographic), these poetically minded kids were WAAAAY beyond their years. Apparently they are all child prodigies that can speak and think at a level that would put a 50-year-old philosophy professor to shame. That, my friends, is unfathomable. The sad reality is that kids express themselves in 60 characters or less, or whatever threshold it is that Twitter allows. I’m sorry, John Green, but the young Jack Kerouacs of the world are few and far between. I have no doubt that Mr. Green was one of those gifted kids who spent his Friday nights memorizing the famous last words of great American presidents (one of Pudge’s shticks). But the chances of finding a group of millennials who all have impressive academic hobbies such as this are slim to none. There’s this golden rule in writing called “write what you know.” Green clearly does not know teenagers. It would behoove him to spend a day studying them in their natural environment –a One Direction concert perhaps—and really listen to their dialect.

Could that be the vast wasteland of Alaska's inner arctic tundra? How very poetic.

Could that be the vast wasteland of Alaska’s inner arctic tundra? How very poetic.

On a happier note, I must admit that Green is a highly talented wordsmith. It’s easy to get lost in his lyrical prose and esoteric musings. But just like a movie can’t solely rely on all A-list actors, he can’t get by just on pretty writing. I know that YA is clearly a marketable genre for him, especially after his smashing success with The Fault in the Stars. But if he insists on creating these mythical teenage geniuses—who all seems to be cut from the same mold—these books are always going to miss the mark.

Derek’s Book of the Month: Woof by Spencer Quinn

Published January 18, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

PicMonkey CollageMove over, Lassie—there’s a new four-legged hero in town! Bowser’s his name and fighting crime is his game. Well actually his top priority is loving up on his little gal pal, Birdie. You see, this book is more than just a mystery. It’s a love story between a girl and her dog.  Derek (the handsome boy pictured above) thoroughly enjoyed watching their friendship come into full blossom throughout this puzzling little mystery. He hopes that maybe one day a cute little tomboy will stop by his kennel at Austin Pets Alive and insist on taking him home!

Like a shelter dog, Birdie feels lonely and out of sorts at her grandmother’s house in the Florida everglades. Her father died, leaving her mom with no other option than to work far away at an oil rig to make ends meet. Good thing her cantankerous grandma let her pick out a dog for her birthday—pretty much the best gift a kid could ever ask for! But Bowser isn’t just any dog. He’s a natural crime-fighter with a penchant for sniffing out clues. Whether he’s battling a behemoth alligator or chasing after a gun-wielding kidnapper, Bowser will stop at nothing to track down the perps and keep his little lady out of harm’s way.

The idea of a mystery narrated by a dog may seem a little silly—but fans of the author’s beloved Chet and Bernie series know that this style really works. Character development is everything. If you don’t’ care about the heroes of the story, why bother? That said, I dare you to read this book and not fall for Bowser and Birdie. Same goes for Chet and Bernie—a series I implore you to check out if you haven’t already! The love Bowser feels for Birdie is so powerful, and his soul is so pure and good. Sounds corny, but the author delivers this sugary goodness in a way that doesn’t give me a toothache.  It’s rather silly, but I got a little misty eyed when Birdie turned to Bowser as her only source of comfort. Back in the day, I wanted more than anything to have a dog just for this reason. Maybe that’s why this book really struck gold with me. I could see so much of myself in Birdie. She was at a point in her life when she knew that adults couldn’t be trusted—a rite of passage we all must go through at some point or another. Needless to say, it was her and Bowser against the world.

Their adventures begin when a stuffed fish goes missing from grandma’s bait shop. Unable to turn away from a good mystery, Birdie and Bowser go searching for clues to the missing marlin—breaking a lot of rules in the process…like not sneaking out at night and accidentally swimming in alligator infested waters! The dangers intensify when Bowser and Birdie find a connection between an old family rivalry and hidden treasure.

Although this book is for the youngsters, it’s sure to please readers of all ages who enjoy a good whodunit. And, of course, it’s a total win for dog lovers. In addition to the loveable characters and fast-pace plotting, the writing is—in Bowser’s words—off the charts! Just as I love how Spencer Quinn paints the Arizona desert scenery in his Chet and Bernie series, I really enjoyed his descriptions of the muggy Florida swamplands. Derek and I hope this will be the beginning of a new series so we can revisit grandma’s old bait shop and join these two adorable sleuths on their next adventure!

I should also note that like Bowser, Derek knows how to take a bite out of crime! Take him home and you’ll be safe, protected and loved forever and always! Hop on over to his bio page for more details.

Gizzy’s Book of the Month: Claws for Alarm

Published January 10, 2016 by Chick-Lit Cafe

UntitledThis cute little paperback has been sitting on our shelf for way too long. You see, during the holidays Gizzy and I are all about Christmas-infused murder and mayhem, and sometimes those touchy-feely yarns about hope and forgiveness. So now that January has reared its butt-ugly head (we’re not fans of this dreary month), it’s time dust off that TBR pile and get down to business! 

Of course, Mister Giz insisted on starting the new year off right with a magical cat mystery. Far be it from me to say no—I mean how could anyone dare to disappoint this guy?! Would you look at that fuzzy face! 

Anyhoo, this book was a heck of a lot of fun. Totally took my mind off of the sadness that comes after the holidays. No more tree, no more time off, no more nuttin! Okay, so maybe I’m being a little overdramatic. There’s got to be something good about January. Let’s see…less time shopping means more time reading, so that’s a pretty big win. Then there’s the after-Christmas sales…but I digress.  

Let’s get back to the book, shall we? Gizzy and I were most impressed with this puzzling whodunit. It was a lot of fun tagging along with Nick and Nora (an old-school TV show reference that is before our time) as she relentlessly hunted down clues to clear her hapless sister’s name. There are lessons to be learned here, people! If you find a dead body, please resist the impulse to pull the knife out of its back and then flee the scene when a witness arrives. It just looks bad.  

Anyhoo, as you can imagine, that’s what happened to Nora’s sister when she found her stuffy art professor’s lifeless body crumpled on the floor of his office. The coppers believe it to be an open-and-close case. I mean, who wouldn’t? So it’s up to our intrepid sandwich artist sleuth to hunt down clues, interrogate suspects and ferret out the murderer. Otherwise it’s orange jumpsuit city for poor little Lacey.  

With some help from her mystical four-legged feline, Nora soon finds that the professor had a lot of enemies with ample motives for murder. Could it have been the bitter ex-wife, the new gold-digging wife, the troubled son, the shady male model, or was it just an angry student out for revenge? Whoever it was, they sure were lucky to pin it all on a dimwitted art student. But of course, the killer’s dumb luck takes a turn for the worst when big sissy picks up the case!

Gizzy gives this whodunnit two paws up—mainly because he and I were stumped all the way until the very end when Nora and her Scooby Doo posse of crime-fighters caught the killer. We didn’t see that one coming! Cozy fans will love the puzzling mystery, and the swoony romance lovers will enjoy the early beginnings of a love triangle forming around Nora and two hotties. One is an old college flame, the other an FBI agent. Having to choose between the two will be tough…but not such a bad problem to have, if you ask me.  

I should also mention that this book is sure to please my fellow crazy cat ladies because Nick (a tubby tuxedo cat) plays a big role in the mystery. There’s something mystical about this enigmatic kitty. When it comes to finding clues, he’s always two steps ahead of everyone else. Perhaps it’s because he has more experience in the PI business. You see, after Nora found him as a stray, she discovered that his former owner was a womanizing private eye who mysteriously disappeared. Some believe he’s sleeping with the fishies, and others insist that he ran off and assumed a new identity. At some point, Nick and Nora will find some answers. That’s one of the many reasons why Gizzy and I are excited to read the next installment!

Spanky’s Special Guest Post: Flawed Dogs

Published December 30, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

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6523443Hey guys, Spanky here from Austin Pets Alive. Yep, that’s right, I’m a shelter dog in need of a good home. Know anyone who’d like a handsome young sprig of a dog that likes lap-time cuddles and kissies? I’m available! Anyhoo, my “big sister” asked me to stop by her funny little lady blog to say a few words about my new favorite book Flawed Dogs. I didn’t exactly read it on account of me being a dog and all, but she did give me the highlights and showed me all the hilarious illustrations by some hot-shot comic strip author.

It’s weird, I never met this Berkeley Breathed guy, but somehow it’s like he knows me and my kind at some higher level that humans couldn’t possibly grasp. Is it possible that he could be part dog? Let’s think about this for a moment. What is it with these artists? How come some people have this amazing ability to visualize things in their minds and put it all on paper so perfectly? Clearly this is not an easy task because my sissy can barely draw a sad little stick figure. Are these artists on some different cosmic plane? Could they be extraterrestrials? Whoa…all this deep thinking is making me dizzy.

Big sissy told me not to reveal any spoilers, but I can say that this book will take you on a dog’s heart-wrenching journey to his forever home. I can totally relate to Sam the Lion (the hero of the story) because I’ve been through the ringer too. There’s dog fighting, ugly fur-wearing humans and—worst of all—one evil poodle set on destroying Sam’s chance at happiness with the one human he truly loves. Although this looks like a fun book for the tiny humans, I think it’s more for grown ups who can understand Sam’s plight and take away a few deep thoughts about breed bias and the grim reality of shelter dogs.

Speaking of homeless mutts, this book’s full of them! They may be “flawed” but their so-called shortcomings come in handy when they join forces to take down the Westminster Dog Show. Who knew that a funny little dog with digestive issues could launch himself into the air—all through the almighty power of bad gas?! Me thinks that maybe it’s the flaws that make us unique and special—this goes for humans too! If you ask me, those pure-breds with their fancy papers are rather boring. Don’t even get me started on their owners. Why in the world would you want to spend an entire day primping a dog and prancing it around like a perfectly coifed robot? Humans are strange creatures.

But I digress. There’s so much about this book that my big sissy and I love so very very much. We were in awe of the love story of Sam the Lion and his little soul mate, who in some ways is like the human version of a shelter mutt. They were clearly meant to find each other, and I believe this will happen to me too some day…hopefully soon. Is it possible for dogs to imprint on humans? I’d like to think so. Even though Sam lost his way and was at the mercy of other humans—mostly the bad kind—he never let go of his unconditional love for little Heidi. Even when it looked like he found a new home, he never fully trusted his so-called benefactor. It’s like he knew that the man would ultimately betray him in the worst possible way. Even though what he did was despicable, this makes me think that sometimes people come into our lives for a reason. Whether they’re good or bad, they move us along in this strange journey called life.

I’ll stop prattling on to save you from spoilers–also because I have a peanut-butter kong waiting for me in my kennel!  I will say that this little book is going to stick with me and my sissy forever and always. We absolutely loved everything about it—even the really devastating parts. I was so worried about Sam the Lion, but I knew he would find his way back home. That’s because I’m a dog, and me and my kind are nothing if not hopeful. We know when we’re home. We know to have faith in our soul mates. And most importantly, we know that we were put on this earth to do one thing: Love.

I hope you loved my special guest post! Don’t forget to visit me at the shelter. Here’s my website!

Gizzy’s Victorian Christmas Reading Roundup

Published December 23, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

gizzyxmasJiminy Christmas! It’s already the eve of Christmas Eve and I have yet to post about one of the many Christmassy books I’ve been reading this month. Why does it feel like this month is always in fast-forward? Lucky for you, Gizzy and I put a hold on our holiday chores to bring you a bounty of festive reads. And just for fun, we paired each of these books with holiday drink recommendations!

Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue by Victoria Thompson

   24586778 WARNING: This is NOT a Christmas book. Don’t be fooled by the cover and the premise that offers a holiday-infused mystery. It appears as though the publisher took advantage of the season to sell more books. Boy was I duped! False marketing aside, I must admit that parts of the book were rather entertaining. Just when I was about to hit the return button on Audible, the plot took an unexpected turn and I was anxious to uncover the secrets that were hiding in a mansion full of gossipy scullery maids. This is my first foray into the Gaslight Mystery series, so I’m not familiar with the dozens upon dozens of characters. In addition to the nonexistent Christmas setting, my other big gripe is that there were WAY too many characters. So as you could imagine, listening to this on audio was not a good idea. When my mind drifted—which happens sometimes when I’m grumbling to myself in a traffic jam—I got completely lost in the vast sea of characters. Whether or not I’ll read another Gaslight Mystery remains to be seen. I’m not totally sold. This book is best paired with a very weak glass of steaming apple cider. Looks enticing, but lacks the powerful punch of holiday spice.

Away in the Manger Rhys Bowen

23848062If you only have time to read one holiday mystery this year, let it be this one! This I my first Molly Murphy mystery and it won’t be my last. Set in turn-of-the-century New York, Molly—a feisty red-headed Irish lassie—and her detective husband are preparing for a cozy Christmas at home with their two little kiddos. But, alas, their holiday plans go awry when the big-hearted Molly finds two stranded kids in dire need of their missing mother. Though homeless kids are often ignored on the harsh streets of New York, she can’t bring herself to leave them in the lurch and go about her business. Needless to say, she is a woman after my own heart. This is a fabulous little Christmas mystery with all the sentiments of the season. I’m excited to pick up the first book of the series so I can watch the love story unfold between Molly and her crime-fighting husband.

This book is best paired with my favorite holiday drink of all time: A gingerbread latte with extra whip cream. So worth the splurge!

Star of the East by Tasha Alexander

22718596This is a cute novella for those who don’t have a lot of time to read. An odd concept, but apparently this is an affliction that affects many of us during the dizzying holiday season. Funny…I can’t get my Christmas chores done in time (cards were sent out this morning), but I always manage to read oodles of books in four weeks. Guess it’s all about priorities. Anyhoo, this is a very G-rated whodunit that is devoid of murderous fiends and dead bodies. The Nancy Drew-esque mystery begins when a cursed ring disappears at a holiday gathering. The case is rather curious since the small pool of suspects have no motive for pilfering the priceless piece of jewelry. It’s up to Lady Emily to interrogate her fellow houseguests and ferret out the thief before Christmas morning. This is a nice little taste of the Lady Gray series, which is quite delightful. This book is best paired with a most pleasant glass of hot cocoa—whipped cream and all!

A Christmas Hope by Anne Perry

17568759Impatience got the best of me when I ditched this audiobook last year. Why they chose a pompous Masterpiece Theater-esque narrator is a mystery all onto itself. I decided to give it another chance, and eventually the stuffy old man grew on me. I can see why Anne Perry is so popular….most likely with the older ladies. The protagonists are all endearing and the Victorian setting is devoid of those pesky anachronisms. I enjoyed accompanying Claudine Burroughs as she doggedly hunted down clues and interrogated suspects to clear an innocent man’s name. I immediately felt for her when she described her dismal marriage to a heartless man who cares only about social status. Her only joy in life is her volunteer work at a clinic for downtrodden women. This book paints a grim yet realistic portrait of a time when women were treated like pretty little dolls and social climbing was a means for survival. I’m glad I forged through with the story, but my next Anne Perry book will be in paperback. This book is best paired with a steaming cup of earl gray tea. Rich in flavor, but could use a dose of cream to lighten things up.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

Published November 29, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

24187925This book has pretty much everything I crave in a good YA mystery: A fearless (albeight sometimes reckless) amatuer sleuth, a simmering star-crossed romance, and mysterious suspects galore! Set in 19th-century New York, this fish-out-of-water story follows the journey of Jo Montifort as she goes undercover to hunt down her father’s murderer. Though he appeared to die by his own hand, her investigative reporter insticts tell her that something is amiss.

When Jo discovers a cryptic note at the crime scene, she has no other choice than to go against the rules of high society and set forth on her investigation—gasp—without a male escort. As she roams the filthy city streets, she soon discovers more atrocities than her father’s untimely demise. Through her naïve eyes, readers get a feel for what life must have been like for the “have nots” of the world back in the dark ages of patriarchial oppression. Could you imagine wearing a suffocating corset on a daily basis? Biting your toungue in fear of sounding too sharp-witted? Or marrying a strange man just to maintian high social status? I may gripe about modern American culture, but I’m feeling rather fortunate to be living in a society that allows me to walk the city streets unescorted in my pajama jeans and Crocs!

At 500+ pages (or 13 hours on audio), the book is a little overwhelming, especially for those youngins, but the story moves fast. I “read” this on audio and it was hard pressing the off button when Jo stumbled across a new clue, or when the romantic tension simmered to a boil between her and the handsome newspaper boy from the wrong side of the tracks. With his help, she travels to the most forbidden places—from brothels to dive bars to shipyards—and has quite a few close encounters with some nefarious street urchins. Along the way, she makes a few friends in low places: A teenage pickpocket, and a budding forensic scientist. Both prove to be quite handy as she pursues her father’s killer.

I’ll stop right here to save you from spoilers, but I will say that this book is worth your while! I’m just bummed that it’s a standalone because I would love to know what adventures lie ahead for Jo as she navigates her life as a cub reporter.

Brutus’ Book of the Month: Bridge of Bones by Richard Gleaves

Published November 19, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe
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Brutus is a big fan of the Headless Horseman! He’s waiting at Austin Pets Alive for a haunted house to call his own.

Halloween may be just a memory but lucky for you, Brutus and I celebrate this spooktacular holiday all year round! Some may think it’s strange that I prominently display my Department 56 haunted village throughout all four seasons, but I scoff at their provincial ways.  After they swap their jack-o-lanterns for tinsel and twinkle lights, I’ll still be reading Sleepy Hollow-themed books underneath the glow of my faux Haunted Mansion candelabra.

23390914Without further ado, Brutus would like to bring you a review of the second installment of the Jason Crane Sleepy Hollow series – and boy is it a doozy! Wow, where to begin? This book is huge, and there’s SO much ground to cover.  How about I start by introducing you to the fearless and loveable hero, Jason Crane?  I applaud Richard Gleaves for bringing all of his characters to life in a way that only a few masterful storytellers can pull off. Jason is a hapless hero who appeals to anyone who hasn’t won the genetic lottery. A decendent of none other than Ichabod Crane, he’s long, lanky and rather awkward around girls. But what he lacks in good looks and social graces, he makes up for in bravery and wit.  It’s a good think he’s got a lot of true grit because in this next adventure, he’s got more obstacles than the Hobbit and Harry Potter combined! Okay, that may be an overstatement, but the dude’s got some major problems.

The story unfolds in the aftermath of Jason’s near-death encounter with the Headless Horseman. The town is in an uproar after he shattered the door of the old Dutch church. The townsfolk hate him so much, even his teachers are giving him the boot from their classrooms. To say that he is persona non grata would be an understatement. After his beloved grandmother’s untimely death, Jason is left under the care of his evil guardian, Hediwig (sorry about butchering his name, but that’s one of the drawbacks of reading via audio.) His family fortune is being siphoned into a nefarious political campaign and his grandmother’s old house has turned into a scene from Hoarders. Chips are down.

Things go from bad to worse when Jason and his crush Kate discover that they have been saddled with the Witches Curse. Isn’t it bad enough that they are both tortured by unrequited love?  Oh and they’re being hunted down by an axe-wielding horseman from beyond the grave.

This book may be long, but I finished it in a weekend because it’s one heck of a ride. I learned so much about the evil powers that control the Sleepy Hollow boneyard, and the evil entity that ultimately controls the Headless Horseman.  Murderous ghosts and malevolent witches are unsettling, but the most frightening thing about this book is the evil that lurks within Hediwig’s soul.  This is more than just a cat-and-mouse adventure story. It’s also a terrifying character sketch of the mind of a sociopath. There were points when Hediwick tried to fight his dark madness, yet his weakness was no match for pure evil. That, my friends, is far more frightening than a Headless Horseman lurking in the woods on Halloween night.

I’ll stop right here to save you from spoilers.  But I will leave you with one tip. I highly suggest “reading” this one of audio. The narrator is the best in the business, and it’s a lot of fun listening to the book while walking around a spooky trail at dusk. Happy reading—or listening—my friends!

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