Review: The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich

The Love Interest Book Cover The Love Interest
Cale Dietrich

There is a secret organization that cultivates teenage spies. The agents are called Love Interests because getting close to people destined for great power means getting valuable secrets.

Caden is a Nice: The boy next door, sculpted to physical perfection. Dylan is a Bad: The brooding, dark-souled guy, and dangerously handsome. The girl they are competing for is important to the organization, and each boy will pursue her. Will she choose a Nice or the Bad?

Both Caden and Dylan are living in the outside world for the first time. They are well-trained and at the top of their games. They have to be – whoever the girl doesn’t choose will die.

What the boys don’t expect are feelings that are outside of their training. Feelings that could kill them both.

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for the review copy!

(Actual rating: 3.5 stars)

When I first heard the premise of The Love Interest, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy immediately. A novel about teen spies that pokes fun at the bad-boy-good-guy-love-triangle trope, and turns that trope on its head by having the two guys fall for each other? There was no way I could pass that up.

The Love Interest’s protagonist is Caden, a young man who’s spent his entire life being honed into a sweet, romantic, approachable “nice guy.” You know the type – the kind of guy who’s super cute in a clean-cut, non-threatening sort of way, who will bring you flowers, help you with your homework, charm your parents. The one who’s respectful, dreamy, and friendly. The kind of guy you think is way too good to be true – and, in Caden’s case, is.

Caden, you see, is no ordinary teenage boy. He’s an agent for a secret spy organization known as the Love Interest Compound, which trains kids to become either Nice guys or Bad boys. Once they’re through with training, these Nices and Bads are sent out into the world to compete for the affections of a Chosen, someone who is expected to become influential one day. The idea is that one of the Love Interests will win the Chosen’s heart, putting him in a position to mine the Chosen’s secrets, which the LIC will one day sell to the highest bidder.

What I Liked:

1) The tongue-in-cheek look at romantic stereotypes: Caden and his Bad rival, Dylan, are expected to adhere to the archetypal love interests portrayed in Young Adult fiction and teen romantic comedies. Dyl is required to act broody, tortured, dangerous, and scowly, whereas Caden is meant to be easy-going, good-natured, and supportive. Dyl is armed with a leather jacket and motorcycle; Caden’s supplied with a charmingly run-down pickup truck and a plethora of plaid button-downs. Even their physical attributes need to meet specific criteria:

“Bads can be as buff as they want, the bigger the better, actually. For a Nice, the aim of the game is lean. I need to look friendly and cute, but when I take my shirt off I need to be ripped. Just in an approachable way that doesn’t look like I work out much. Like these muscles happened accidentally, the result of playing outside with a golden Labrador or good genes or something like that.”

2) The fact that neither Caden nor Dyl fully fit their assigned personas: Part of what makes The Love Interest so entertaining is that watching Caden and Dyl play their respective roles is like watching someone try to fit square pegs into round holes. Being the laid-back, cheerful boy-next-door doesn’t come naturally to Caden, who has to bite back pissy retorts and refrain from ever asserting himself. Likewise, Dyl is too goofy and adorable to be a true Bad. It’s refreshing that he isn’t the quintessential tough guy, even though that’s exactly what he’s supposed to be. This disconnect between the characters’ required roles and their natural tendencies allows the book to play around with the tropes without getting mired in them.

3) The way the book flips gender expectations/stereotypes: As a woman, I found it fascinating to see the male characters in The Love Interest subjected to the sort of unrealistic expectations that women typically have to deal with. Dyl and Caden have to embody the ultimate fantasy boyfriends – even if it means going against their own desires and past their comfort levels. They’re treated like pieces of meat, constantly poked and prodded and critiqued, valued only for their looks and ability to adapt to whatever their Chosen wants. They get surgeries to alter their physical attributes so that their appearances match the Chosen’s tastes. They’re told their own opinions and interests don’t matter. Their diets are carefully monitored to ensure they keep their physiques drool-worthy. They put a lot of work into cultivating the right persona and image. All of this draws attention to the utter ridiculousness of living your life within the bounds of someone else’s opinions, which I found quite interesting.

“Her mother raises one hand and places her thumb under her chin, inspecting me like I’m a piece of art. Which I guess I am. All I’m missing is the doctor’s signature on my ass.”

What Could’ve Been Better:

1) The required suspension of disbelief: I had all sorts of questions about the logic behind the Love Interest Compound’s operations. Why teenage spies instead of adults? Why must the spies force themselves into stereotypes? Why are love interests always sent on missions in competing pairs, instead of going on solo missions? The author attempts to explain all of this in the beginning of the book, but I never entirely bought it. Several aspects of this story stretch credulity to its breaking point, though I was willing to overlook said aspects for the most part.

2) The plot holes: While I could mostly deal with the dubious nature of the book’s overall premise, there were a few plot points later on in the novel that nagged at me. For example, Caden is supposed to be posing as his Chosen’s childhood friend who moved away but has now come back several years later. I expected his Chosen to engage Caden in conversations about their shared history and catch him in a lie at some point, but she apparently never cares to bring it up. What about the questions she would’ve inevitably asked him about his family? Their old friends? His experiences while they were apart? I was also bothered by one of the plot twists in the second half of the book. It felt like was just done for dramatic effect and shock value, without really being needed or earned, and it was resolved so easily that it seemed superfluous.

3) The romance: While I had a fun time reading The Love Interest, I found myself wishing for a little…more. More drama, more edge, more physicality between Dyl and Caden. The book felt like it went by really quickly, and I would’ve liked to delve deeper into the relationships among Dyl, Caden, and their Chosen.

Although The Love Interest didn’t fully live up to my dreams of The Ultimate LGBT Love Triangle of Awesomeness, it still ended up being a fun read. Anyone looking to have a chuckle at YA archetypes’ expense should certainly give it a go.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly Want To Read A Book

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly Want To Read A Book.

1. Robin Hood: 

I am Robin Hood OBSESSED and will read any book I can find about him. I blame my obsession on Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood movie; its hero was my first crush, in spite of him being a cartoon fox. #sorrynotsorry

Book cover for Scarlet by A.C. GaughenBook cover for The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinleyBook cover for Greenwode by J. Tullos Hennig

2. Fairy tale retellings: 

I fell in love with reimagined fairy stories as a kid and am still entranced by them after all these years. In fact, I dedicated a whole month of blog posts to fairy tale retellings back in 2015.

Book cover for Ash by Malinda LoBook cover for Nameless by Lili St. CrowBook cover for Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay

3. Artificial intelligence:

If a book deals with androids or robots, I’m immediately sold on it. I love novels that explore the possibilities of artificial intelligence and raise questions about what it means to be human, have a soul, etc. If a robot is learning to love or is exhibiting a somewhat-troubling capacity for independent thought, I want to read about it.

Book cover for I Heart Robot by Suzanne van RooyenBook cover for Defy the Stars by Claudia GreyBook cover for The Body Electric by Beth Revis

4. Phantom of the Opera retellings:

POTR is one of favorite musicals (though I confess I wasn’t a big fan of the original novel), and I’m always on the lookout for a new take on the story. I haven’t found many that work for me so far, but I remain optimistic!

Book cover for Phantom's Dance by Lesa HowardBook cover for Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah FineBook cover for Roseblood by A. G. Howard

5. Thieves

I adore clever schemers and rogues, as evidenced by this April Fool’s Day post. I’m especially tickled when those schemers happen to be thieves. More brilliant heists and sleights of hand, please!

Book cover for The Thief by Megan Whalen TurnerBook cover for The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott LynchBook cover for Dodger by Terry Pratchett

6. Ancient Greece/Rome: 

I’ve been gaga over books with this setting ever since my Social Studies and Language Arts teachers taught a unit on Greek culture and mythology in seventh grade. Give me books about gladiators, gods and goddesses, and the Trojan War any day! Bonus points if Achilles figures into the storyline!

Book cover for The Song of Achilles by Madeline MillerBook cover for The Valiant by Lesley LivingstonBook cover for Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter

7. Arthurian legend:

When not otherwise dreaming of being a mermaid or a pirate or a ballerina, Young Angela wanted to grow up to be a knight one day. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize there’s not much call for knights errant anymore. Guess I’ll just have to become a wizard like Merlin instead.

Book cover for The Squire's Tale by Gerald MorrisBook cover for Henge by Realm LovejoyBook cover for Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

8. Scotland: 

My dad’s family originally comes from Scotland, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the culture, the history, the landscape…everything. For those of you who are also interested in all things Scottish, I did a post about books set in Scotland as part of my team’s contribution to the Book Blogger Creativity Project last year.

Book cover for Outlander by Diana GabaldonBook cover for Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen and Robert J. HarrisBook cover for An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughton

9. Oceans/seas: 

In real life I’m a little leery of large bodies of water, yet I love stories in which the ocean or sea is an important part of the plot or setting. There’s something about the wildness of the sea, the call of the ocean, that really appeals to me in fiction.

Book cover for Given to the Sea by Mindy McGinnisBook cover for When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat HellisenBook cover for The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

10. Princes: 

If a book’s synopsis mentions even a passing reference to a prince, I’m likely going to read said book. Princes in disguise, princes who need to be protected, bastard princes, exiled princes who are trying to reclaim their thrones…doesn’t matter. I want them all.

Book cover for Captive Prince by C.S. PacatBook cover for Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. JensenBook cover for Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

What topics/key words/themes make you immediately want to read a book? Let me know in the comments below!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Books On My Spring TBR

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR.

1. Given to the Sea by Mindy McGinnis: I read the first few chapters via Penguin’s First to Read program and am dying to find out what happens in the rest of the book. Thankfully there’s less than a month until its release!

2. The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron: I finally bought a copy of this purportedly hysterical tale about a smooth-talking wizard/thief, which has been on my TBR for a while.

3. The Witch of Painted Sorrow by M.J. Rose: One of my best friends read this book and loved it, so I picked up a copy from the local library. I don’t reach much adult fiction, but I’ve heard great things about this author and am excited to give her a shot.

Book cover for Given to the Sea by Mindy McGinnisBook cover for The Spirit Thief by Rachel AaronBook cover for The Witch of Painted Sorrow by M.J. Rose

4.  Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor: I don’t know much about this book’s plot or characters, but I loved Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and am excited to try her latest novel.

5. The Valiant by Lesley Livingston: Female. Gladiators. Need I say more?

6. A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro: I have no recollection of buying this modern-day Watson/Holmes story, but I recently found it amongst the other e-books in my Kindle Library, which was a weird but pleasant surprise.

Book cover for Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorBook cover for The Valiant by Lesley LivingstonBook cover for A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

7. Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare: So far I’m not loving The Dark Artifices series quite as much as the others Clare’s written, but I’m still looking forward to seeing how everything plays out in Lord of Shadows.

8. Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson: My mom’s convinced me to join her book club (she doesn’t actually read the books, she’s just in it for the wine and board games, no lie), and this is the book they’ve chosen for the next meeting.

9. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Cassandra Clare: My coworker lent this to me over a year ago, which means I should probably get around to reading it so I can finally get it back to her. Oops.

Book cover for Lord of Shadows by Cassandra ClareBook cover for Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas by James PattersonBook cover for The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

10. The Nethergrim by Matthew Jobin: I received a review copy of this middle-grade fantasy from Puffin Books and have high hopes for it, as the novel’s been touted as an “epic” read for The Chronicles of Narnia fans.

Book cover for The Nethergrim by Matthew Jobin

What books do you plan to read this spring? Let me know in the comments below!

Review: Never Never by Brianna R. Shrum

Never Never Book Cover Never Never
Brianna R. Shrum

James Hook is a child who only wants to grow up. When he meets Peter Pan, a boy who loves to pretend and is intent on never becoming a man, James decides he could try being a child - at least briefly. James joins Peter Pan on a holiday to Neverland, a place of adventure created by children's dreams, but Neverland is not for the faint of heart. Soon James finds himself longing for home, determined that he is destined to be a man. But Peter refuses to take him back, leaving James trapped in a world just beyond the one he loves. A world where children are to never grow up. But grow up he does. And thus begins the epic adventure of a Lost Boy and a Pirate. This story isn't about Peter Pan; it's about the boy whose life he stole. It's about a man in a world that hates men. It's about the feared Captain James Hook and his passionate quest to kill the Pan, an impossible feat in a magical land where everyone loves Peter Pan. Except one.

Review:

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As a kid, I watched a lot of Disney movies, and although I enjoyed the heroes and princesses, the characters that interested me the most were the villains. I don’t know what this says about me as a person, but I found Ursula, Scar, Hades, and the like far more compelling than their heroic counterparts.

Given my soft spot for fictional antagonists, it’s no surprise that Never Never pleased me as much as it did. It’s the origin story – or, I suppose, the entire life story – of Captain James Hook, Peter Pan’s arch-nemesis.

Much as I loved this book, the two of us didn’t initially get off to an auspicious start. Never Never is very slow at first, beginning with 12-year-old James’ family life in London and detailing how he meets Peter and is tricked into accompanying him to Neverland. The first several chapters are a slog, and it took me ages to get through the entire novel because I kept taking long breaks and having to go back and reread from the beginning. Once I finally made it to the end of the first section, though, I was completely hooked. (Pun intended! 🙂 )

I should warn you in advance: Never Never isn’t exactly what you’d consider an uplifting book. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it grim. Initially lured to Neverland with a promise that he can simply visit “on holiday,” James is dismayed when he realizes that he’s trapped in Peter’s fantasy world and can never return home to his family. Devastated, James joins the ranks of Lost Boys, where he remains until he commits Neverland’s gravest sin – beginning to grow up. Cast out by Pan, James soon realizes that options are limited in Neverland; if you aren’t with Peter Pan, you can only be against him.

“You were selected. So you could come and go from Neverland as you pleased, and so could your dreams…But the ones Peter likes, they stay here forever.”

Shrum does a fantastic job of imbuing James’ story with an air of wistfulness and loss. Lost family, lost home, lost friends, lost innocence…James has been robbed of just about everything good in his life, and the tragic thing is that he knows it. Peter and his Lost Boys wear figurative blinders; they’re childish and self-absorbed and don’t recognize what they’re missing. Nor are they troubled by conscience. In fact, they literally FORGET people and truths that are inconvenient to them and are therefore able to go on happily living in their little fantasy world. In contrast, James remembers everything that happens to him. He’s the only self-aware, memory-burdened person in Pan’s twisted world, and it’s a lonely and terrible thing.

What’s ironic about James is that he has all the makings of a hero…if only this were another world, another story. It’s Peter Pan’s treachery, and the madness that it drives James to, that makes him the villain in Pan’s Neverland. I couldn’t help but sympathize with James, even as I watched grief and bitterness drive him farther and farther down a path that I couldn’t condone. He transforms from James, a bright and noble boy, to Hook, a debauched, arrogant, ruthless pirate, and though it’s fascinating to watch, it’s also painful. He becomes less and less recognizable as he loses himself in revenge, guilt, and rage.

“‘Tell me, pirate,’ she said after he’d been silent for a while, ‘how am I to change what Neverland has willed me to be? You clearly couldn’t.’
Hook recoiled, ripped from his musings, struck by her words. ‘What did you say?’ […]
‘I’m saying that you were not a scoundrel when you came here. You were not a pirate. But it was your destiny, wasn’t it?’”

It’s not just James’ transformation into Captain Hook that makes Never Never so fascinating; it’s also Peter Pan himself. I’ve got to give it to Shrum – in Peter, she’s written a supremely infuriating, hateful little wretch of a character. He’s selfish, irresponsible, and cruel, and I found myself despising him almost as fiercely as James did. The thing about Peter, though, is that he has a strange allure. Neverland is his creation, having been manifested from Peter’s dreams. As a result, everything in his world is compulsively attuned to him. The land itself responds to his moods, which is scary given see how volatile he can be. It makes Neverland a place that is both wondrous and ominous, lovely and sinister.

“It was too beautiful to be real. But, everything in Neverland seemed too something to be real. Too beautiful, too horrible, too fantastic, too savage.”

Peter’s influence over Neverland and its inhabitants makes for great tension in the story. Think about it – what hope does James, Peter Pan’s sworn enemy, have for happiness in a world literally designed for and by Peter Pan? The odds are stacked against him. Even James himself feels the pull of Peter’s magnetism: “[S]omehow, in the darkest depths of him, as Peter was trying to murder him, a piece of James wanted to give him whatever it was that he wanted.”

Between James Hook and Peter Pan, Never Never has everything you need for a captivating story about the rise and fall of a villain. The only thing that might be considered missing is an element of hope and cheer, but I thought Never Never was better without it. The book is haunting and tragic, but that’s the kind of villain origin story that calls to me the most. If you have similar tastes, Never Never is definitely for you.