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

Monday, May 28, 2018

Book Review: The Perfect League by Maggie Dallen

The Perfect League Cover G-rated, young-adult (YA) contemporary romance

The Perfect League (Briarwood High #3) by Maggie Dallen

Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Pages: 160 pages
Source: Purchase
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

This is a G-rated, young-adult (YA) contemporary romance between two 16-year-old, high school juniors. There is no on-stage, underage drinking, drugs, smoking, cussing or sex. It is told in first-person point of view (POV), alternating between the POV of the heroine, Juliette, and the hero, Connor, in alternating, clearly labeled chapters.

The "bad boy" (which is how the heroine refers to him) hero Connor is a handsome, brooding, loner type who is very tall, and who has massive muscles, in spite of his never having participated in sports or ever having lifted weights. (I freely admit that unearned male muscles is a pet peeve of mine in any romance novel, not just this one, right up there with heroines who eat with the appetite of a 600-pound sumo wrestler but are only size 2.)

He also has tattoos on his arms that he somehow, somewhere, obtained while very drunk and only age 15, and he miraculously--and not very believably, given that he would have had to go to a legally questionable tattoo parlor to find someone willing to give an intoxicated, underage teenager tattoos--ended up both free of hepatitis and with tattoos that he considers "works of art." This event happened during the previous school year in another town, where he also experienced casual sex with multiple girls. At the start of this story, however, he has been avoiding relationships of all kinds for nearly a year, including friendships as well as romantic or sexual relationships.

Connor's face is frozen in a permanent scowl, and everyone at his high school is intimidated by him. All kinds of sleazy rumors have circulated about him, but in reality, he is nothing like his tough-guy image. He is nurturing to his young sister and a supportive son to his single mother. He is also very intelligent and has good grades, but he needs extracurricular activities to put on his college applications in order to have a chance of earning a scholarship. Without that, he will not be able to afford university tuition. Of the multiple suggestions for potential activities by the school guidance counselor, the only one he can bear to contemplate is serving as a volunteer tutor at his high school, and only because he assumes no one will choose him as a tutor.

In contrast to Connor, Juliette has never dated or been kissed, despite being beautiful, athletically slim, and a bubbly, popular extrovert whom everyone adores. She's much too busy for dating and doesn't want to get distracted by romance until she's in college. She is captain of the varsity basketball team and heavily involved in community service, including assisting the coach of Connor's little sister's basketball team. But she has a deep, dark secret. She struggles with her schoolwork and is in danger of flunking all her classes except English. If she cannot immediately and drastically improve her grades, not only will she have trouble getting into college, but she will be thrown off the basketball team. She tells herself that no one must find out how much she is struggling, because everyone she knows, especially her basketball teammates, considers her to be a Rock of Gibraltar and basically perfect. Preserving her image as a girl without problems is essential to her. She knows she needs a tutor, but she wants it to be someone whom no one within her extensive circle of friends and acquaintances knows, to enable her to keep her secret. She views Connor, as an alienated loner, to be her best option to achieve this goal. He never talks to anyone, so he's not going to blab her humiliating secret all over school.

The main focus of this story is on the internal dialogues of both Juliette and Connor as each, in their own way, struggles to overcome low self-esteem. This is a typical trope for a YA novel, to the point that it is almost expected and demanded. It's also a common trope in any romance novel, so the two genres blend together well in that regard in this book.

It was sadly believable to me, and this is the teacher and therapist in me speaking, that it has not been realized by the school counselor or any of her teachers that Juliette is either an extreme auditory learner, or has attention deficit disorder (ADD), or both, which is obviously why she has been struggling so much in an underfunded and understaffed public school system that intensely focuses on visual learning methodology for teaching students. Also, it is difficult, even for the most intelligent, visual learner, to stay focused in a teaching environment where the curriculum is consistently aimed at the lowest common denominator of human learning, rote memorization, which has little to do with actual intelligence, and very much to do with utilizing memory-enhancing parlor tricks, which are accurately depicted in this book. In such a situation, even the most brilliant, visual learner would frequently find their attention wandering due to boredom. But someone like Juliette would find the struggle to stay engaged in class excruciatingly painful. Which is also accurately depicted in this book.

I noted that this book, like so many other YA novels I have read, never brings up the possibility of someone who struggles with low grades in high school, as Juliette does, planning to attend community college, where there is no entrance requirement other than being over 18 or, if under 18, having graduated early from high school and received a diploma. In addition, for a YA protagonist who is struggling to pay for higher education, community colleges, particularly if attended in one's home state with in-state tuition, are massively less costly for completing the first two years of post-secondary education, and then entering a (hopefully, also in-state) university as a transfer student to obtain a four-year degree. Completing an associate's degree at a state community college allows one to be automatically accepted for transfer at a state university. Since most YA novels are invariably didactic to some degree, that valuable information might be useful for teenagers reading YA novels to encounter from time to time.

Aside from that quibble, it is unusual enough these days to see a YA novel without a promiscuous, male romantic protagonist that this in itself will engage most of the reader's attention. It certainly caught mine.

It is also enjoyable that the author has avoided the all-too-common cliche of echoing John Hughes, 1980s, teen-movie plots, with their bacchanalian underage drinking parties, meaningless underage sex, and Mean Girls bullying a hapless heroine.

Another unique element of this novel is that neither the hero nor the heroine has a Confidante, the best friend subcharacter that is so prevalent in YA novels. The vacuum this leaves in their lives provides room in the story for them to believably become each other's Confidante instead. As a result, they become friends before they develop romantic feelings for each other, which is my favorite kind of romance. In a romance novel that has sex scenes, this would be called a "slow-burn" romance. This story is the G-rated version of that.

Speaking of a G-rated romance, one of the best parts about them, in my view, is that without sex scenes taking up a third to a half of a romance novel, there's a lot more room in the story for tenderness and affection between the romantic protagonists. Far too often in sex-obsessed romances, the only emotions exhibited between romantic protagonists, until virtually the final wrap-up scene, are lust, insecure anxiety, and jealous anger. In other words, it is far too easy to fall into overblown melodrama when lasciviousness is the driving force within a fictional romantic relationship. The author in this book does an excellent job of showing real connection and caring between her romantic protagonists, and even without any sex, there is plenty of sexual chemistry.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero: 4

Subcharacters: 3

Romance Plot: 4

Coming of Age Plot: 3

Family Drama Plot: 3

Writing: 4

Overall: 4