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