SeaKat’s CBR5 Review #10 The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss

Book review 3“So you’ve got this Regency-era heroine, some kind of minor gentry – total Jane Austen, right? And, now here’s the hook: there’s a WHOLE magical world that she doesn’t even know about, but her magical powers are the key to saving all of England! It’s Pride and Prejudice meets Harry Potter!”

It sounds like a parody of a film pitch—take two vastly different concepts and mash them together, hoping to somehow come up with a winner. But in the case of The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss, IT TOTALLY WORKS.

The Twelfth Enchantment is the story of Lucy Derrick, an orphaned gentlewoman living in her uncle’s home on sufferance. After an aborted elopement in her youth, Lucy’s marital prospects are slim. When the cold but prosperous local mill owner courts her, Lucy’s uncle makes it clear that she will be forced to accept that joyless marriage. After a series of strange occurrences, including the appearance of a cursed Lord Byron, Lucy learns that the world—and even her own personal history—are not be as she has always assumed. And her choices are deeply important to several powerful occult beings and, in fact, to the future of all of England.

Liss is a talented author and his ability to evoke the tone and time of Jane Austen while writing a story that is so far removed from anything Austen would have considered is impressive. There were moments (especially in the beginning of the book, before all of the magical happenings) that I forgot I wasn’t reading a book written by Austen herself! This is no tongue-in-cheek parody a la Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but an impressive nod to Austen’s classic heroines.

The fantasy world is compelling and Lucy’s reaction to it is believable. While the primary villain was obvious from early on, Liss kept me guessing as to whom Lucy should trust. This was an effective device, as Lucy herself isn’t sure who can be relied upon and who is using her for their own ends. As such, my sympathy for and sense of connection with her character remained strong throughout the book. I was definitely rooting for a happy ending for not just Lucy, but her sister and niece as well. The inclusion of several historical personages (Lord Byron and William Blake and even the Prince Regent himself) were fun, although I suppose others may find them unnecessary or even distracting.

All told, I would highly recommend this book to anyone that enjoys both Austen and fantasy. And Iwill definitely be seeking out other books by Liss for myself.

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SeaKat’s CBR5 Review #9 First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones

First Grave on the RightI was beginning to think that paranormal romance novel writers were running out of supernatural characters to star in their steamy tales. Vampires have been played out for a while. Werewolves aren’t quite as overdone, but that’s because there’s a fundamental difficulty in making a sprouting hair and a snout sexy. Ghosts and witches have been staples for a while, so they’re not particularly fresh. Speaking of “not fresh”:  Zombies? Come on. No one wants body parts falling off in the middle of a love scene. So I have to applaud First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones for coming up with the Grim Reaper 2.0 – sexier, sassier, and scythe-free.

First Grave on the Right is the RITA-award winning first in a series of books about Charley Davidson, a PI and single reaper-about-town. Charley doesn’t guide souls to the light; she literally IS the light—the dead pass through Charley in order to move on to the next plane of existence. And because Charley can see and converse with the departed, she’s also pretty darned good at solving murders. Charley assists the Albuquerque police department on difficult cases and has developed a reputation as a spooky but effective asset to the police force. While Charley is working to solve the murder of three lawyers, she is also trying to solve the mystery of the phantom lover who shows up in her dreams and later while she is awake…leading to some awkward-sounding make-out sessions in front of various witnesses.

Overall, this was a decent escapist read. Jones does a good job keeping the pace of the two mysteries moving along. While I don’t think the story would stand up as a straight mystery, it served well enough for the mystery-within-a-romance-novel format. It was also pretty clear that Jones was setting up for a series (I’ve since learned that she is up to book four.) The lawyers’ murders was a one-book arc whereas the story of the phantom lover (who is revealed in this book, but larger questions about him remain) seems likely to stretch over at least one more book.  In addition, Jones has thrown in an attractive skip tracer, Garrett, against whom Davidson strikes sparks. It seems likely that a “Team Edward/Team Jacob”-style romantic triangle is coming at some point in future books as well. The reaper side of Davidson’s life was well-imagined and unlike any version of the grim reaper character I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t love the reveal about the real identity of the phantom lover. I can’t say much more without spoiling the book, but the dark-and-tragic lover thing has been done many times before by others, and done better to boot.

Jones’ heroine had a smart mouth and sassy attitude and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Jones was going for a Buffy/Veronica Mars feel for Charley Davidson. Unfortunately, Jones got a little TOO quip-happy at times, and the constant barrage of one-liners and snark became annoying and distracting. Jones did populate her book with a number of entertaining side characters—she would do well to tone down her heroine for future books and let the side characters bring the quirk.

Overall I give First Grave on the Right 2 stars. It was fine, but nothing special. I’m a little shocked it won a RITA award, all things considered. While it had plenty of decent aspects to it, there was very little that felt truly new or fresh. Which Is a real waste of the first new take on a supernatural/paranormal romance character that I’ve seen in a while.

SeaKat’s CBR5 Review #8 Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar by Pamela Morsi

Book review

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Oh, come on.  I gleefully judge books by their covers. And there is one cover element that experience has taught me is an indicator of a deliciously terrible book:  the phrase “USA Today Best Selling Author” emblazoned on the front.

Man, I don’t know if it’s merely a coincidence but the books that I’ve read that trumpet THAT particular achievement… Oof. They’ve been bad. Throw-‘em-at-the-wall bad. So I had very low expectations for Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar by Pamela Morsi when I saw it in the library. But I figured it would be a quick read and maybe fun to review (and savage) so I put it in the basket.  Well, I was in for a surprise.

Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar delivered a sweet (but not saccharine) story of a woman scarred by her past and who isn’t quite sure what to do when presented with the opportunity to right some of her regrets.

Red is a 40-something honky-tonk bar owner in small town Texas. She’s also a grandma but she neither looks nor lives the part. The sexy redhead hasn’t seen much of her grandkids, preferring to spend her time pulling drafts, tossing drunks, and occasionally picking a musician to share her bed. One night she gets a phone call from her daughter, a soldier serving in Afghanistan, informing Red that the children’s guardian (their other grandmother) has had a stroke and that Red is “on” as the backup caregiver.  Red reluctantly steps up her responsibility but fully expects this change to push Cam, the younger fiddler she has been dating, out of the picture. Instead, Red finds that both her grandkids and her fiddler have something to teach her about growing up.

With this sort of story, the obvious romance novel heroine cliché would be a “feisty heroine with a heart of gold.” Morsi instead gives us the genuinely flawed Red. Prickly and occasionally manipulative with Cam, wary and guilty around her grandchildren, Red can be downright frustrating but she absolutely felt real. The grandchildren were another pleasant surprise: they were neither too cutesy nor too grown-up for their ages (9 and 6), but instead reacted to Red’s sudden appearance in their lives like kids actually would.

My one quibble in terms of the characters is that Cam was a little too perfect. From his instant rapport with the kids to his verging-on-saintly patience with Red…it never quite made sense why this great-looking guy who is beloved by everyone he meets would be quite so committed to the damaged Red. Add in the fact that he’s some kind of virtuoso musician who gave up a promising career as a classical violinist to play fiddle in honky-tonks…it’s all a bit much to swallow. (He does get to reveal a few dark secrets of his own later in the book to be fair… but by then I had already had my suspension of disbelief broken in terms of Cam+Red.)

Some of the plot points were more interesting than others but Morsi handled the many side stories deftly and paced her reveals judiciously. For every minor crisis overcome, another had already begun to brew, with the major issue—Red’s past—looming overhead as the final challenge.

It’s a romance novel, so of course it has the required happy ending. But even there, Morsi ends with some questions unanswered and some worries still on the horizon. But Red’s growth from a woman who lives only in the moment because the past is too painful and the future too bleak into one who chooses to seize the joy she can for as long as she can… that was a journey that was far more rewarding than I had expected to find behind this particular cover.

SeaKat’s CBR5 Review #7 Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament by S.G. Browne

Breathers

Breathers opens with the undead narrator’s discovery that he has killed and dismembered his parents, storing various parts neatly in the freezer/refrigerator. So I didn’t expect to find myself sympathizing with the zombie by the end of the book. And yet, I did. Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament, by S.G. Browne is described on the cover as a romantic zombie comedy (or rom-zom-com) and while I wouldn’t say it was terribly successful as a comedy, it was an interesting and rewarding read.

Andy, the zombie narrator, is a recently reanimated zombie. No one in his life is very happy about his unexpected return from the dead—most especially Andy. He is living in his affluent parents’ wine cellar and spends his days watching terrible television, drinking his parents’ wine (which he can barely taste) and Undead Anonymous (UA) meetings just to have a place to go. Andy can’t talk, thanks to a combination of damage from the car accident that killed him and the fact that the embalmer sewed his mouth shut, so he communicates through grunts and notes on a dry erase board. He misses his late wife (killed in the same car accident) and his young daughter (who was sent to family in another town and was not informed of Andy’s reanimation) but is growing increasingly attracted to a sexy young zombie in his UA group, Rita. A chance encounter with a renegade zombie living “off the grid” helps Andy to find his purpose as a zombie and he begins fight back at the society that has literally thrown people like him away. He also begins a relationship with Rita, finding unexpected love after death. Of course, as one might expect in a zombie novel, the course of true love runs anything but smooth.

Breathers works best as an imaginative piece of genre-adjacent fiction. I call it genre-adjacent because it certainly isn’t pure horror or apocalyptic fiction, and the perspective switch from human to zombie takes it outside the realm of standard zombie stories (at least the few that I’ve read – maybe there’s a whole sub-genre of sympathetic zombie protagonists out there but this was a first to me.) Because Andy can’t speak, the entire first half or so of the book is Andy reacting silently to the world around him. This certainly brought me close to Andy and allowed me to understand his sense of hopelessness and frustration. But it created that frustration in me as well.  I wanted Andy to be a greater participant in his unlife rather than simply observing and mentally reacting. That may have been intentional and thematic, but it certainly diminished the “comedy” aspect of the book, for me.

Browne’s take on how society would react to the awareness of zombies feels spot-on. Zombies are reviled, used as crash test dummies, or sold as medical testing subjects when no next-of-kin is available or willing to take on responsibility for them. Even walking (shambling) down the street is risky for the zombies, as passers-by pelt them with garbage and insults. After dark, it’s even worse, with frat boys attacking and taking souvenir body parts on a depressingly regular basis. The zombies have no protection and no rights. Even simple existence is on sufferance.

Andy’s relationship with his parents reflects this mindset. His mother’s fluttering attempts to continue to support and nurture him war with her innate disgust and embarrassment at having a zombie son. His father’s vocal contempt and increasing resentment of Andy’s state grow in pace with Andy’s refusal to hide away from the world. In some ways, it reminded me of how I’ve seen some families deal with family members suffering from mental illness/addiction: the shame, the helpless longing for a more normal life, the anger disguised as “tough love.” Again, it was very well done but very sad despite the absurdist comedy touches. By the time the book catches up to its grisly opening, I was relatively on-board with the whole parent-killing-and-preserving thing. (Mostly just the dad. Man, what a jackass.)

Andy’s relationship with Rita and all of the UA members were much more rewarding and entertaining, and the source of much of the comedy. From Jerry, the Playboy-loving zombie who invited people to touch his uncovered brains, to lipstick and nail polish-eating Rita (she needs the formaldehyde to keep from decomposing), Browne does a great job of moving the action along while crafting memorable, believable characters. And I’m talking about zombies here, so that’s impressive.

Overall, Breathers has a number of sardonic moments and even some laugh-out-loud funny ones. As a work of imaginative fiction, it works very well, but its overall melancholy tone and tragic moments are at odds with its marketing as a light-hearted comedy. That said, I would absolutely recommend it, just with the warning that—much like Andy and his zombie compatriots—what you’ll find inside is very different from what the exterior  may lead you to believe.