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 #6 The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

ImageThe Night Circus is one of those books that suddenly seemed to be everywhere: promoted in book stores, offered for special pricing on my Kindle, and gripped in people’s hands as they waited somewhere or other. So it had been on my radar for a while when I found a hardcover copy of the book at a used book sale. $1 seemed like a pretty good investment to see what the hype was about.

The Night Circus is the story of a travelling circus that operates as the scene for an ongoing duel between two magicians, Celia and Marco. Both magicians were bound to the duel as children by their shadowy guardians and the duel has no defined rules other than “keep performing.”  The circus attracts a passionate following of “reveurs,” as the circus’ most devoted fans call themselves. But as the duel goes on, Marco and Celia fall in love and seek a way for both the circus and their forbidden love to survive.

I’m somewhat torn on how to rate this one because it is amazingly good in some ways but really disappointing in others. First the good:  Morgenstern has an incredible way with imagery, allowing me to vividly “see” the circus in my mind. And not just see, but smell, taste, and hear it too. She truly has a gift for descriptive writing and the magical circus comes alive at her hands.

Another aspect of the book that deserves special mention is the design of the book. My copy (a Costco purchase, according to a sticker on the dust jacket) had lovely black and white flourishes, including tent-striped endpapers, section breaks with a quote on one side and the image of constellations in a night sky on the other, and delicate, Victorian-feeling motifs alongside each page number. These artistic touches really added to the experience of reading the book as an Event of some sort, rather than just another book. It makes sense that Morgenstern is not only a writer, but also a multimedia artist, according to her bio.

The plot itself is middling. The book starts out as the two magicians come into their overseers’ clutches (yes, this story of orphans committed to and trained for a magic duel warrants the use of such a melodramatic word!) and gains momentum rapidly as the circus becomes real. The best parts of the book, in my opinion, are the scenes in which Morgenstern allows the reader to experience through the eyes (and ears, etc.) of different people: performers, guests, and reveurs. This part is like a dream: meandering, confusing, but vivid and beautiful and utterly fascinating. As the book continues the details begin to overwhelm, the changes of point of view and the breaks to experience one magical event after another, it all becomes unwieldy and tiresome to keep straight. Not unlike the job of keeping the circus itself running, I must note, so perhaps this was intentional. But it still negatively affected my enjoyment as I continued reading the book.

Where the story faltered the worst, in my opinion, was in the characterization. In contrast to the fully-realized circus, most of the characters themselves were flat and lifeless. There were a few exceptions: Herr Frederick Theissen, the clockmaker who establishes (and comes up with the name for) the reveurs, Widget and Poppet, the twins born at the circus, and to a lesser extent, Bailey, a young farm boy who becomes a reveur and then much more. Morgenstern imbued these characters with a sense of self and personality and I really cared about what happened to them. But the majority of the book’s population did not fare as well. Celia and Marco, the dueling magicians and the protagonists of the story, were the biggest problem. I didn’t particularly feel like I knew them, and as a result I didn’t care about them. And I really didn’t care about their love. Given that their struggle to end the duel without either dying or killing the circus was the climax of the plot…that was a problem.

Overall, I give the book three stars. It was a worthwhile read due to Morgenstern’s deft touch with the circus and its dreamy imagery. I suppose the sense of let-down comes from realizing how much more the book could have been.

SeaKat’s CBR5 Review #3: Red by Kate SeRine

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RedThe “fairy tales re-told” sub-genre has exploded in the last several years. On television, in the movie theater, and most of all on the bookshelf, characters once relegated to Disney animated movies and classic fairy tale compendiums are suddenly pop culture’s favorite offering. I am a huge and mostly unapologetic fan of the genre. I just like my escapism frothy and fantastical sometimes, OK?! Stop judging me!

Ahem.

Anyhoo, when Red, an urban fantasy/romance and fairy tale re-telling by Kate Serine showed up in the Amazon Top 100 Free Book list and showed mostly 4- and 5-star ratings, I was curious to see if the book lived up to the high ratings. Continue reading

SeaKat’s #CBR5 Review #1: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

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Graceling.  I’d heard this title being bandied about by Pajibans whose taste I admire for some time now. Finally I remembered to request it from my library. Good call, ‘Jibans. I knew I trusted You People for a reason. Graceling … Continue reading