Saturday, August 11, 2018

Book Review: Accidentally Perfect by Elizabeth Stevens

Accidentally Perfect Cover Mature-content, YA/NA romantic drama

Accidentally Perfect by Elizabeth Stevens

Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Publisher: Sleeping Dragon Books
Pages: 398 pages
Source: Purchase
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

This contemporary novel is a mature-content, young-adult (bordering on new-adult), romantic drama. The story is told exclusively from the first-person point of view of the female protagonist, Piper Barlow. She and the romantic hero, Roman Lombardi, are both 17, almost 18, years old. They live in a small town near Adelaide, in South Australia. They are in Year Twelve (the equivalent of 12th grade or senior year in high school in the USA). Piper has a deep, dark secret that she refuses to reveal to anyone: she suffers from crippling social anxiety. Her entire life is a continual, uphill effort to never inflict her inner pain on anyone or disappoint anyone's social expectations of her. As a result, even though she has loving parents, a loyal best friend and a coterie of lesser friends and friendly acquaintances as a popular girl at her school, she feels excruciatingly lonely.

To everyone besides herself, Piper appears to be a beautiful, sweet-natured, innocently fragile girl. Two of the most attractive boys in her school, fellow seniors, Roman and another boy named Mason Carter, seem to be utterly fascinated with her--or so her best friend Hadley assures her, because both boys constantly stare at Piper. Hadley informs Piper that Roman in particular has been "eyeing" her for years, in between dozens of casual "hookups" with other girls, all of which involve a one-night stand and a casually cruel brushoff afterwards. He never buys any of these unfortunate girls so much as a slice of pizza, because he won't commit even to a single date. Mason is much more conventional than Roman, in that he actually does date, and he has been committed enough to be sequentially monogamous. But he doesn't have extraordinary staying power in that he has had five or six girlfriends over the course of only three or four years. This, however, is acceptable "good boy" behavior because, miraculously in Piper's opinion (and mine!), none of these girls seems to bear the ultra-desirable, gorgeous Mason the slightest resentment after these breakups.

Given that these two boys seem to be Piper's only choices for dating (for unspecified reasons), Hadley pushes virginal Piper, who has barely ever dated and possibly not even been kissed, toward Mason, whom Hadley feels is more Piper's slow-and-cautious speed than Roman. Hadley claims that she herself is the female version of Roman, and she could easily handle what he is offering, hot, casual sex, but Piper definitely could not. Hadley, in fact, has no hesitation examining their male classmates and analyzing their private anatomy and potential as casual, sexual-intercourse hookups in a manner very similar to the crudest remarks made by misogynistic men sizing up women as possible bedmates.

In the normal course of events, Piper would have continued waiting, indefinitely it seems, for pleasant, studious, athletic Mason to finally ask her out, and never had anything to do with raunchy Roman. Until Roman, his divorced mother, and his older sister's five-year-old, illegitimate daughter move in next door to Piper and her parents in a quiet neighborhood outside the city limits with no other nearby houses. Suddenly, Piper is running into Roman every day. He owns his own car, but he rides the bus with Piper instead, walking the half-mile to and from the bus stop in the morning and afternoon, and she views approvingly the tender way he interacts with his little niece. In the process, Piper gradually learns that Roman isn't the heartless cynic he appears to be. He sees beyond Piper's smiling false front to the insecure anxiety beneath, and he doesn't judge her for it. Instead, he goes out of his way to cheer her up, including making her laugh and, wonder of wonders, laughing along with her. Then comes the night that they accidentally meet at Piper's favorite de-stressing place, by the shores of a lake near her home. And their unlikely friendship really begins to take off.

I had just read Keeping Up Appearances by this author prior to reading this novel and was expecting it to also be a PG romantic comedy without sex. It was a bit of a shock, therefore, to find that this book is written very much in keeping with the norms of the New Adult subgenre of romance--heavy on internal angsting and containing multiple sex scenes. However, because these protagonists are still in high school and the author has marketed this book as "mature young adult" fiction, the sex scenes are not remotely as graphic, or as frequent, as in a typical NA romance. But since I had never before now read this degree of sexual description in a YA romance, I was quite taken by surprise when the first sex scene happened. Hopefully, other potential readers will do what I did not do and carefully read the clear warning that the author responsibly provides in her description of the novel: "Not recommended for younger readers due to mature content."

Roman is a dark YA hero of the sort typically found in "edgy" YA fiction. He is a brooding, "rebel without a cause," James Dean hero who views the world with a heavy-lidded, cynical sneer, and mood-alters his angry alienation with cigarattes, drunkeness, sex with groupie-like girls, brawling, and vandalism. He has been frequently arrested for disorderly conduct, both for his own misdemeanor crimes and taken in for questioning about the misdemeanor crimes of his best buddy, Rio, who is as Byronically dark-natured as Roman. To date, though Roman rarely attends class, and constantly flunks tests, he has never been held back a grade in school, and even seems in line to graduate high school. We are given to understand this is because he has always been bailed out of his educational and legal difficulties by his wealthy, emotionally distant father, whom everyone in his town is in awe of. Roman's mother is sweet and loving, but no more willing or able than Roman's father to make sure that Roman receives the anger-management therapy he so obviously, desperately needs. His only relatively harmless angst-relieving activity is skateboarding. (Which seems an oddly, geekishly boyish pursuit for a macho male.) I personally am not a fan of romance protagonists who smoke and drink to excess--whether in YA, NA or adult romance. This book, in fact, is the first one I've read in over 25 years with a smoking hero. However, the author attempts to mitigate readers' being repelled by Roman's smoking, and its inevitable health and hygiene issues, by having Piper not be repelled by it. She comments, midway through the book, "Funny how he smoked so much but never smelled like it."

I also personally enjoy a classic, "us against the world" plot where two disaffected loners find a home in each other, and this story certainly delivers a strong version of that plot.

Ms. Stevens is a very talented writer and particularly excels at presenting a romantic hero who, while displaying an obnoxiously alpha, choleric disposition to the rest of the world, interacts with the heroine like a lovable, beta male who is sensitive, affectionate, a good listener, and basically, very nurturing.

Ms. Stevens also writes a traditional romance-novel structure, which we diehard romance fans adore: the essential romantic conflict of distrust slowly evolving to trust through a personal-growth arc of one or both protagonists, and a happily ever after (HEA) ending which is, of couse, in protagonists this young (and likewise for NA romance) more of a "happy for now" ending.

Hadley is a familiar BFF confidante found in the "erotic romance" genre since Harlequin Blaze first started, back in the 90's, offering the now very familiar plot device of a good-girl heroine encouraged by her down-and-dirty BFF to be more adventurous about sex. Given that this is YA, Hadley is a less extreme version of this type of BFF in that she doesn't push Piper to have sex, and she herself seems to be more talk than action regarding engaging in sex herself.

I was glad to see Piper, in particular, work beyond a self-protective over-reliance on the stereotypical female role of people-pleasing doormat who lives to fulfill the every need and demand of the people in her life. As for Roman, his major defining attitude and life motto is the self-fulfilling prophecy, "What you see is what you get with me....I can't be changed." This declaration sounds obnoxiously egotistical, except for the fact that his chief virtue is wrapped up inside it: He has no desire to try and change anyone else because he doesn't believe other people can change and grow either. Piper accepts his world view when they are together, and is liberated by it because it gives her the freedom, for the first time in her life, to act in a way that she otherwise has always considered terrifyingly risky in that she has believed it will inevitably bring judgment and rejection. She tells Roman that they are "two people having an extended pity party" together. This ironically is healing for both of them, because it allows them to externalize their deepest blind spot--that they both are suffering from anxiety due to unconsciously wallowing in self-pity and resentment--un-enmesh from it, and thereby begin to grow beyond it. As the two of them for the first time, with anyone, share their deepest hopes and fears with each other, this acts to deliver the most significant element that the very best romance novels manage to achieve: The romantic conflict between the protagonists is the clash between their socially created, false selves, which cover up and hide their authentic, true selves. Only if they can reveal to each other their true selves--which is the ultimate sacrifice to "earn" true love--can they become worthy of true love.

For fans of angsty, sexy NA romance, this book will be a fun read.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero: 4

Romance Plot: 4

Social Drama Plot: 3

Writing: 4

Overall: 4

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Book Review: Just For This Moment by Kait Nolan

Just For This Moment Cover Fun, small-town romance

Just For This Moment (Wishful Romance #4) by Kait Nolan

Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: March 31, 2016
Pages: 214 pages
Source: Purchase
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

This is Book 4 in a series of contemporary romance novels that remind me of the Harlequin novels that used to be called "Harlequin American" and these days are called "Harlequin Heartwarming." Per Harlequin guidelines, these are novels in which "romance, family and community are strong features of these stories." This series is set in an imaginary small town called Wishful, Mississippi. Because this series is light drama with touches of humor, small town life is presented in a very positive light. The link between the books are continuing characters and the town itself. However, the books can be read independently of each other. I myself read this particular book without having read any others in the series, and I had no problem following the story.

I learned from the backstory presented in this book that the two protagonists, Piper Parish, age 29, and Myles Stewart, age 31, appear in a previous book in which they fall hard for each other when they co-star in a community theater production of White Christmas, the classic 1954 musical comedy movie starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. Myles plays Bob (Bing's part), and Piper plays Betty (Rosemary's part). Having mistaken real romance for the fake romance of a play in the past, Piper informs Myles that she has a firm rule that she will not date her leading man ever again until at least three months have passed after the close of the play. This will, theoretically, allow fakery to fade away sufficiently to allow her to make a clear-eyed assessment if any attraction worth exploring remains. (Note: According to the blurb of this book, Myles and Piper are in the play White Christmas in BE CAREFUL, IT'S MY HEART, and Piper also appears in ONCE UPON A SETUP.)

Piper's day job is at a local doctor's office as a nurse. Myles has a master's degree from prestigious Columbia University in New York, and had been living up north in New York City until about a year ago, when two things brought him home. He missed small town life in his hometown, Wishful, and he had a chance to fulfill a major life ambition, buying the local newspaper and becoming the editor-in-chief. He invested all his savings, but the purchase ultimately was only possible because of a crucial loan from of a mysterious, anonymous investor.

Myles has been counting off the days until he can finally date Piper, and his attraction has only grown. The fact that he has been willing to patiently wait for Piper, and not date anyone else in the meantime, has definitely increased his real-world appeal to her. During those three months they have seen each other in group settings, especially doing karaoke performances together at the local bar, and they have also been texting each other. So they've had a chance to develop a friendship. As the book starts the three months are just now up and Myles is ready and eager to ask Piper out and move from platonic friend to romantic partner. Their dating life gets off to a very promising start until Miles suddenly develops overwhelming financial problems.

The lawyer representing his unnamed investor notifies Myles that the investor is calling in the loan because the investor has lost faith in Myles's ability to bring the paper out of the red. If Myles doesn't repay the loan in full within 45 days, the investor will take over ownership of the paper. Myles has no desire to humuliate himself by asking his wealthy parents or his even more wealthy paternal grandmother for money, because they don't support his dream, and he is positive they will turn him down. He jokingly tells Piper that the only hope for him is to head to Las Vegas and bribe a showgirl to marry him. This would allow him to access a trust fund set up for him by his deceased paternal grandfather, which can only happen if he gets married. Piper surprises him by taking him seriously and volunteering to participate in a marriage of convenience, for which she says she would insist on signing an ironclad prenuptual agreement, and promises that they can get divorced down the road, no muss, no fuss.

Piper's plan is that after a quickie, courthouse marriage, they would carry on dating, because they both think they have potential as a relationship for the long haul. But they would tell no one about the marriage and not live together, because that would endanger the natural development of their romance by rushing it. Unfortunately for them, on the day that they get married, a friend of Myles's grandmother spies them coming out of the courthouse of a neighboring town. She figures out they just got married, reports it to his grandmother, and the proverbial fat hits the fire. The secret, fake marriage must now appear real, requiring the acting job of both their lives, as they fake marital bliss to their families and the entire, gossipy town.

I've been a big fan of White Christmas and have watched it as a family ritual every year for decades. Therefore, I personally found it fun that this story echoes the romantic conflict of that 1950's movie. In addition, Piper's mother often sounds like a stock character from other typical 1950's movies, with her maternal advice to Piper that she should keep her home a haven for Myles as her husband and not bother him with her petty, female problems. Myles's grandmother is also a classic Southern matriarch right out of an old movie.

I liked the theme that both Myles and Piper see themselves as outsiders in their own family who are not like everyone else. The idea of "us against the world" is an ever-green staple of romantic comedy.

In terms of graphic content, this too is similar to Harlequin Heartwarming. There is no coarse language, and the sex is very limited and only happens after they are legally married. The sex is tender rather than lusty, and it's not at all graphic. There is a lot of drinking and some drunkenness.

This is a fun read with very little melodrama.

I rate this book as follows: Heroine: 4 stars Hero: 4 stars Subcharacters: 4 stars Romance Plot: 4 stars Small Town Plot: 3 stars Writing: 4 stars Overall: 4 stars

Heroine: 4

Hero: 4

Subcharacters: 4

Romance Plot: 4

Small Town Age Plot: 3

Writing: 4

Overall: 4