Saturday, July 28, 2018

Book Review: Keeping Up Appearances by Elizabeth Stevens

Keeping Up Appearances Cover Delightful, YA, PG, Romeo-and-Juliet, fake-boyfriend, romantic comedy

Keeping Up Appearances by Elizabeth Stevens

Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: June 1, 2018
Pages: 396 pages
Publisher: Sleeping Dragon Books
Source: Purchased
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

The protagonists of this delightful, young-adult, romantic comedy, Xander Bowen and Holly Aberdeen, are both 17 years old. They live in in Adelaide, the capital city of the state of South Australia, and they attend a secondary school called Maple Ridge Grammar. They are in Year Twelve (the equivalent of 12th grade or senior year in high school in the USA).

After a weekend of peptalks and rehearsals with Nancy Milligan, Holly's best friend for the past five years, Nancy has convinced Holly it is way past time that she proclaim her true feelings to Jason Thomas (AKA "JT"). Jason is Holly's long-time crush and best friend of ten years' duration, and Nancy has assured Holly that she is positive that Jason will reciprocate her feelings. But when Holly approaches Jason at school, bright and early Monday morning, she is stunned to encounter him hugging and kissing Nancy. Her sense of betrayal is overwhelming. Not only is she apparently the last one at school to find out that her two best friends are now a couple, but they have been together since early last weekend--a full day before Nancy began encouraging Holly to approach Jason! The sneer on Nancy's face when she catches Holly's eye makes it obvious that Nancy's intent was to cruelly set Holly up for public humiliation, basically sticking in the knife and then giving it a twist.

Desperately blinking away tears, Holly pushes her way through the crowded, school halls, blindly seeking a place to be alone and cry her eyes out. When she randomly shoves open a door and plows into a half-naked, very buff male body, she suddenly realizes she's alone in the boy's locker room with none other than the "King of the Bows" AKA "King Douche." Xander Bowen is the star striker for the soccer team, and one of the two most gorgeous and popular boys at her school--Jason being the other. Each leads a clique of attractive and popular followers. Xander's followers call Jason's friends, "JT's minions," and Jason's followers call Xander's, the "Bows," The two boys are bitter enemies and, in fact, for many years, out of loyalty to Jason, Holly has taken it as a given that Xander is a worthless "manwhore" and everyone in his clique is a horrible human being as well.

Holly is understandably surprised and suspicious when Xander suggests that if they pretend they are dating, both of them could achieve mutually beneficial ends. Xander is tired of girls throwing themselves at him, wasting time he needs to dedicate to soccer and his studies; Holly's pride could be saved and a mild retribution achieved by making Jason jealous, and Xander would definitely enjoy helping her stick it to that "git," Jason.

At first Holly has no intention of taking up Xander on such an outrageous offer, but when Nancy brazenly taunts Holly one too many times at school, right in front of Jason, and he makes zero effort to stand up for her, Holly has had it! Revenge, even if it's the rather doubtful possibility of making Jason jealous, is too inviting to resist. And so begins the agreement that she and Xander will be indefinitely "Keeping up Appearances" that they are a couple who are mad about each other.

I am a huge fan of romantic comedy novels, and sadly, there are far too few of them written for either adults or teenagers. This YA novel is a brilliant example of rom com, and the author, Elizabeth Stevens, is highly skilled at creating the best kind of comedy, based on witty repartee rather than the humiliation humor of slapstick. She also is outstanding at writing romance, utilizing the very best themes of a long tradition within adult romance novels, including: a terrific Meet Cute, no cheating, the essential romantic conflict of distrust slowly evolving to trust, a powerful personal-growth arc of both protagonists, and a happily ever after (HEA). Holly and Xander are both extremely sympathetic characters, and so are many of the subcharacters among Xander's close friends, the Bows.

As a brief parental warning, I would rate this story PG-13 because there is a lot of frank talk between Xander and Holly, with a bit of semi-coarse language and multiple somewhat risqué discussions of teen-male sexual attitudes and behavior. However, there is no more sensuality between the protagonists than a few kisses. If this were an adult romance novel with sex, I would call this a "slow burn" story, because it takes most of the book before they engage in the G-rated version of sex, kissing. Also, refreshingly for the YA genre, though there is mention of underage drinking, there is none onstage.

My only mild complaint is that it is not entirely clear what the geographic location of the story is, other than the use of British slang, until halfway through when the author finally mentions Adelaide. It would be nice if there had been more attention to setting by providing a bit of local color.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero: 5

Subcharacters: 5

Romance Plot: 5

Comedy: 5

Writing: 5

Overall: 5

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