“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.