Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: 180 Seconds by Jessica Park

180 Seconds Cover Fabulous, slow-burn, New Adult romance

180 Seconds by Jessica Park

Reading Level: New Adult Romance
Release Date: April 25, 2017
Pages: 302 pages
Publisher: Skyscape
Source: Purchased
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

Allison Dennis is an emotionally damaged loner. After years in foster care, she was miraculously adopted at age 16 by a wonderful gay man, Simon, who remained committed to her even when his long-time partner deserted him because he did not share Simon's desire to act as a father to a vulnerable teenager. As Allison begins her third year at university, she is still entrenched in the habit of barely looking beyond her nose at her fellow students when, without warning, she is hailed by a bubbly young woman and inexorably talked into participating in a social experiment near campus. The premise of the experiment is that she will stare into the eyes of a complete stranger, handsome Esben Baylor, for a full 180 seconds while a crowd looks on. Putting herself on display like this is so far out of the ordinary for Allison, it feels as if she's stepped into another dimension.

Fellow university student, Esben Baylor, has become a social media star because of his unconventional social experiments, and prior to sitting opposite to Allison, he has engaged in this particular experiment already that day with multiple other strangers. Each time it was a moving encounter, but with Allison, the intensity of the experience is overwhelming.

Staring into Esben's eyes, Allison undergoes a massive range of emotions, from pain, to fear, to joy, to excruciating passion, and becomes completely overwhelmed. When Esben reaches out to her to further explore the powerful connection between them, she flees from him. But the campus is a small, enclosed world, and inevitably, she runs into the fascinating Esben again.

The voice of the author of this New Adult romance novel is rather like Sarah Dessen, which is a semi-lit-fic style that I'm normally not a fan of when it is applied to romance, which such authors invariably fumble. Mainly because they rarely provide the happy ending that romance readers expect. If they have a romance at all, it is usually a secondary plot undergirding a main plot about a young woman's melodramatically messy coming-of-age.

It seemed distressingly clear to me, on reading the first chapter of this book, that this was going to be a classic, lit-ficky, coming-of-age melodrama, which strongly contrasted with the premise of the story, as stated within the blurb for the book, which stresses that the romance is the core of the story. Given this contradiction, and the fact that I've been disappointed before, to be safe, before committing to reading this book, I skipped ahead on purpose to the very end and checked for a happily ever after. Once I saw that it is a traditional romance with the requisite HEA, I was willing to commit myself to reading it. An unhappy ending to a supposed romance novel is simply not to my taste.

Once I got past the very beginning of the novel, which exists to show us how alienated the heroine is, I soon came upon one of the best Meet Cutes I've ever read. In a romance novel, that first meeting is always the inciting incident that gets the story rolling and, wow, did it ever in this book!

What is amazingly out of character for the New Adult genre, which is more erotica than story most of the time these days, and which almost always has a "manwhore" hero, is that Esben is the dead opposite of that. As for graphic content, there is no overt sex between these two innocent protagonists, and what there is, is extremely tender as well as passionate, and it occurs toward the end of the book. Before that there is nothing but kissing. In other words, this is a "slow burn" romance--my favorite kind.

There is also essentially no cussing, in a world of New Adult fiction which is usually endlessly and irritatingly peppered with f-bombs. There are no bacchanalian drinking parties, which is another over-the-top convention in most New Adult novels. In fact, Allison only gets drunk one time with her best friend in her own dorm room, and it is used in the story in a non-destructive way, to loosen up the extremely socially anxious, introverted Allison so that she can confront Esben and have a crucial, emotionally open conversation that she would never normally be able to do. In other words, the drunkenness is used as, "in vino veritas," rather than "in vino erotica."

Also, though Allison's best friend is a proudly promiscuous counterpoint to the virgin heroine, unlike every other Young Adult and New Adult novel I have read with this now very hackneyed confidant character, she does not push Allison to join her in her self-destructive lifestyle. Which, of course, in cliched sex-obsessed, romance plots is an extremely common means to push the heroine to decide to have a one-night-stand with the hero as the Meet Cute that kickstarts their romance. A trope, by the way, I am utterly sick of seeing, and have been since the early 90s soon after authors first began offering it in the Harlequin Blaze erotica-romance line of short, contemporary romance novels.

Throughout this book, the presentations of masculinity are extremely positive, particularly Esben and Allison's adoptive, gay father. Though some romance readers, who prefer "Bad Boy," alpha, promiscuous heroes (not me!), might consider Esben too saintly, in my humble opinion, there is dramatic leavening throughout the book, especially toward the end of the book, which adds great depth to Esben's character and which is quite poignant and well motivated. As for the adoptive father, I'm quite envious of anyone who has a compassionate, attentive, affectionate father like Simon.

All in all, this is one of the best romance novels I've read in years.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 5

Hero: 5

Subcharacters: 5

Romance Plot: 5

Coming of Age Plot: 4

Writing: 5

Overall: 5

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Review: Finding You by Maureen Child

Finding You Cover A pleasant, small town, family-centered read

Finding You (Candellanos #1) by Maureen Child

Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: April 19, 2018
Pages: 334 pages
Source: Purchased
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

Two years ago the heroine, Carla, who is 28, dropped out of her job as a rescue tracker, a job which involved travel to disasters all over the world with her highly trained Golden Retriever dog, Abbey. She was too depressed to continue with her previously highly successful career after she failed to save a 7-year-old boy, who got lost during a scouting camping trip in the mountains, and whom she was personally attached to, as a friend of his family. She blamed herself for her failure, quit her job, and has been hiding out ever since, wallowing in guilt, in her hometown, Chandler, a quaint tourist destination by the ocean in Northern California, which is a small, insular community. She has been making a living training and selling Golden Retriever rescue dogs like Abbey to her former employer.

Carla's widowed mother and two of her three older brothers live in Chandler, and the third brother lives 30 miles away. Her mother is a cliche, Italian, Catholic matriarch, who insists that her children come to a huge, home-cooked dinner every Sunday, and whose biggest ambition in life is to see all her children married and producing grandchildren, for whom she is willing to endlessly offer free babysitting. Most especially she is willing to do whatever it takes to get Carla, as her only daughter, married off, even going so far as to suggest that the local, unattractive butcher, who is 20 years Carla's senior, might be a viable catch. She has informed Carla, only half-jokingly, that her life will be ruined if she makes it to her 30th birthday without being married.

Carla's oldest brother Tony is the local sheriff, and he is married to his high school sweetheart Beth. They have a 2-year-old daughter. Carla's best friend Stevie still lives in town and owns and runs a coffee shop. Her other two brothers couldn't be more different even though they are twins. Paul is an IT genius and Nick is a pro football player who just suffered a career-ending knee injury at age 32.

The romantic interest for Carla, Jackson, is a 30-something (his age is never directly stated) attorney from Chicago whose wife died in a car accident a year before. His then five-year-old daughter, Reese, was in the back seat. She has not spoken or even laughed during the entire year since then, in spite of therapy and Jackson constantly hovering over her. His wife was from a very wealthy family, and her parents blame him for her death. He doesn't defend himself against their verbal insults because he has survivor guilt and blames himself for his wife's death, even though he wasn't in the car when she died. His rich in-laws are cold, callous people who have threatened legal action, in the process wielding their enormous economic power and political influence to guarantee an outcome in their favor, to take Reese away from Jackson if she is not speaking by the 1st of September, only three months away. At that time they plan to stash her away in some kind of residential mental institution that is presumably going to help her get her speech back, but which is presented from Jackson's point of view as something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

As a last-ditch effort to save his daughter, Jackson has taken a leave of absence from his big, corporate law firm in Chicago and come for the summer to live in Chandler. He is renting a house across the street from Carla and her mother, who live next door to each other.

Right from the start, Reese is attracted to the litter of Golden Retriever puppies that Carla keeps in a kennel in her backyard. Reese is also attracted to Abbey and to Carla. Jackson is amazed when the puppies cause Reese to laugh, the first sound she has made in a year. Even her frequent, depressed crying has been silent.

In spite of the fact that it is blatantly obvious to Jackson that it is incredibly healing for Reese to be around the dogs, and Carla as well, who is extremely warm and caring, Jackson is rude and unfriendly to her because he resents the fact that he is physically attracted to Carla. He is wearing a hair shirt of guilt, and believes that any experience that feels less than punitive to himself is something he doesn't deserve. Therefore, he initially tries to keep his daughter away from the dogs and Carla. Fortunately, his heart isn't that egocentrically closed off for long, and he soon surrenders to Reese's need to be around the dogs and, eventually, not just Carla, but her loving mother and boisterous family as well.

There is a strong theme in this book of both Jackson and Carla living with guilt and shame. Both have withdrawn from life and are punishing themselves for an imagined failure to save the life of someone close to them. In short, this is a classic, Harlequin, contemporary romance with the theme of redemptive love, in which the relationship of the protagonists with each other, with the pitiful, little child Reese, with Carla's dogs, and with Carla's affectionate and loyal family bring emotional healing to Jackson and Carla.

This book was originally published in 2004 as Book 1 of a trilogy. Book 2 is a romance between Carla's brother Paul and her best friend Stevie. Book 3 is a romance between Carla's brother Nick and the foster mother of an illegitimate 10-year-old son whose existence he was not aware of until the boy takes him to court for paternal support.

This book has the pluses of lots of heartwarming schmaltz, between the cute little girl, the adorable dogs, and the big, loving family of the heroine. It also portrays small-town life in a very positive way, though we only get to know a handful of stock figures in this imaginary town.

Another plus is that this is a slow-burn romance, with only one tender sex scene toward the end of the book.

I also liked that, contrary to an utter cliche of romance novels, the white hero did not have an unearned tan.

On the negative side, and some readers may not find this a negative, there is a lot of head hopping in the story. In addition to the points of view of Carla and Jackson, the author jumps into the points of view of Stevie, Tony, Beth, Carla's mother, and Reese. The shift to these different points of view sometimes happens from one paragraph to the next, with no warning transition, which is rather confusing. Every romance must have romantic conflict, that is, we are told or shown immediately that these two people are soulmates, but something stands in the way of them leaping wholeheartedly into each other's arms and running off into the sunset. In the case of this particular story, almost the entire romantic conflict comes from Jackson's self-flagellating guilt, which frankly, in my perspective, makes him at times quite irritatingly passive.

Another personal pique of mine is when the author vicariously lives out through her female protagonist what is obviously her own personal fantasy, the ability of the heroine to never exercise and eat enough junk food to make a normal human female enormously overweight and seriously unhealthy while maintaining a gorgeous, slender figure and glowing health. This particular heroine seems to live off cookies, chocolate, ice cream, pizza, and massively fattening Italian pastas.

In a similar, standard cliche of romance novels, that the hero must have a ripped physique, Jackson is certainly described in that way. However, he too has an unearned beautiful body. He also never exercises in any way.

Another irritating, automatic-pilot phrase that far too many romance authors unthinkingly include in their stories unfortunately appears in this novel: Jackson refers to his blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter as an "all-American girl," which is a subtly racist term that I would love to see romance authors (and makers of dolls for children) dump forever. The implication of that obnoxious term is that anyone who is not as white as white can be is only partly American or, worse, not a "real" American.

All in all, though, in spite of these issues, which most readers probably won't even notice, fans of pleasant, lightly dramatic, Harlequin American type romance novels will probably enjoy this book. Because that is not specifically my cup of tea, I am not grading this book down for being what it is. What I see as cliche are classic, expected tropes that fans of this particular genre expect and demand.

I grade this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero: 3

Subcharacters: 4

Setting: 3

Romance Plot: 3

Child Plot: 4

Dog Plot: 5

Writing: 3

Overall: 4