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.

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.

Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch Book Cover The Bone Witch
Rin Chupeco

The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Review:

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

I am more than a little irritated right now.

If you’ve read my review of Courvalian: The Resistance by Benjamin Reed, you know how enraged I get when I feel like I’ve been cheated by a book’s ending. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s enough to send me over the edge. Hence, the single star for The Bone Witch.

The book’s pacing is terrible, the protagonist has about as much personality as a dead fish, and the plot is buried under a mountain of tedious and unnecessary details. And yet, Chupeco doles out just enough promising tidbits to make you think you’re being set up for something epic to eventually happen. Even as I grew increasingly bored and impatient, I forced myself to keep reading because I just KNEW there had to be payoff in the end.

I was wrong. This book is just a giant tease.

The novel is presented as a tale told to a traveling bard by a 17-year-old girl named Tea. Tea is a bone witch, capable of commanding the dead. Once a rising star in the world of asha (women who can wield magic and are highly sought-after members of society), Tea has fallen from grace and is living in exile. At the bard’s request, Tea agrees to share her story and explain how she ended up where she currently is. But here’s the thing – she never actually gets around to revealing what happened and why she’s been exiled.

The book alternates between the present, where the bard watches Tea ostensibly prepare for some kind of battle, and the past, which shows Tea’s discovery of her powers and her induction into the world of asha. Whereas past Tea is relatively pleasant and naïve, present-day Tea is bitter, sad, and set on revenge. You’d expect to learn, over the course of the book, what made her this way, what journey she took to get from Point A to Point B. Instead, you just get endlessly dull descriptions of Tea’s magical training and the duties of the asha. There are no actual answers. The tragic love story that present-day Tea keeps alluding to? It never transpires. The big event that ostensibly leads to Tea cutting ties with everyone she’s ever cared about? You never see it happen.

I’m not kidding – you get zero answers. At the end it’s basically like, “Now that you know everything you could possibly need to know about asha clothing and parties and the countries that make up this fictional kingdom, the book is going to end. Hope you don’t mind waiting until book two to actually learn something worthwhile!

What a complete and utter cop-out. I am a flaming ball of rage.

I might have been mildly appeased if the book at least had strong characterization and writing, but that isn’t the case. The only characters who are remotely interesting get very little page time, and the ones we see the most of – Tea and her resurrected brother, Fox – are insipid. The writing itself is just meh. This could have been because I was reading an ARC, but certain phrases were confusing and awkward, and I felt like a lot of sentences could’ve been reworded.

One last frustration, and then I’ll give it a rest: the world-building didn’t do it for me. There are so many details, so many kingdoms and cultures and clothes and politics, that it’s just too much to take in. It’s evident that Chupeco invested a lot of time and care into her world and its inhabitants, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it.

I was especially bewildered by the asha, who are essentially fantasy-world versions of Japanese geisha. I couldn’t wrap my head around their purpose. These women have magical abilities and are trained to be bad-ass fighters, but 95% of the time all you see them do is paint their faces, arrange flowers, play the sitar, and attend parties. They are highly popular and are paid to attend dinners and soirees, though I’m not really sure why. They’re basically just fashionable, glorified party guests, who happen to be able to work magic. Again, I don’t really get it. All I know is that if I have to read one more description of an asha’s elaborate hairpins or decorative waist wrap, I’m going to expire of boredom.

Review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Alice and the Fly Book Cover Alice and the Fly
James Rice

A spellbinding debut novel by an exceptional new young British talent.

This is a book about phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. It's about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it's about love. Finding love - in any of its forms - and nurturing it.

Miss Hayes has a new theory. She thinks my condition's caused by some traumatic incident from my past I keep deep-rooted in my mind. As soon as I come clean I'll flood out all these tears and it'll all be ok and I won't be scared of Them anymore. The truth is I can't think of any single traumatic childhood incident to tell her. I mean, there are plenty of bad memories - Herb's death, or the time I bit the hole in my tongue, or Finners Island, out on the boat with Sarah - but none of these are what caused the phobia. I've always had it. It's Them. I'm just scared of Them. It's that simple.

Review:

I received a free copy of this book from the author via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I’m hard-pressed to express my feelings regarding Alice and the Fly. If I were to rate this book purely on enjoyability, I would only be able to grant it 2 stars – it’s definitely not a cheery novel, and I wouldn’t classify it as a pleasant reading experience. In fact, I’m not sure I can even say that I liked this book. That said, I have to credit James Rice for his storytelling abilities – this book is original, surprising, and boasts a thought-provoking plot.

Alice and the Fly is narrated by Greg, a young man who suffers from a crippling phobia and extreme social awkwardness. Nicknamed “Psycho” by his peers, Greg is an outcast at school and at home. The only bright spot in his miserable world is his classmate Alice, to whom the book is addressed in the form of a letter/journal.

Alice and the Fly gets major points for being completely unexpected. I confess that, at first, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going. The book has a distinct The Perks of Being A Wallflower vibe, and I couldn’t help comparing the two stories at every turn. There are lots of parallels between the two: an epistolary format, a lonely narrator on the fringes of the social scene, a concerned teacher who tries to guide him through life, a childhood friend who’s passed away, etc. Also similar to Perks is the feeling that there’s some sort of buried trauma, though you don’t know what it might be.

The more I read, though, the more I realized that Alice and Perks are two very different books. One major difference is that Charlie, the protagonist in Perks, is endearing; Greg is harder to feel close to. Even though the majority of the book is written from his perspective, I always felt like he was a million miles away. And, though I sympathized with Greg, I can’t say that I empathized with him. In fact, at times he made me downright uncomfortable. He fixates on Alice, secretly following her around, lurking outside her home, and relying upon proximity to her (without her knowledge) for comfort. There’s one scene where Greg picks up Alice’s discarded cigarette butt and puts it in his mouth in order to feel close to her, then holds the smoldering nub of the cigarette in his hand until it burns a crater in his palm, because he’s unwilling and unable to let it go.

Another big difference between Alice and Perks is the family dynamic. The characterization of Greg’s parents is masterful, one of my favorite things about Rice’s book. The best words to describe them would be “preoccupied” and “self-absorbed.” Greg’s dad, a plastic surgeon, is a workaholic who’s so immersed in his work that he brings pre- and post-operative photos to the dinner table, and eats with only one hand so he can shuffle through his paperwork with the other. Greg’s mom is even more fascinating. She’s an anxiety-ridden social climber who’s constantly redesigning and renovating the house, fussing over gourmet coffees, and perfecting her charred salmon entrée to impress her hoity-toity, high society friends.

I would go so far as to say that Greg’s mom is one of the book’s biggest testaments to Rice’s talent as a writer. She’s got all the elements of your typical rich, appearance-obsessed housewife, but without being a cliché; Rice rounds out the stereotypical characteristics with other traits that show the complexity of the mother’s character. Her positive attributes are pronounced, as are her flaws and vulnerabilities. She’s surprisingly tender at times, shockingly fragile at others. I’d happily read an entire book about Greg’s mom, just to learn more about what makes her tick.

Something else I liked about Alice is that Rice does a great job of keeping you guessing up until the end. Given how distant Greg is, you get the feeling that you’re missing pieces of the narrative, or at least pieces of what you should know about his life. There are his frequent allusions to the unnamed “Them,” as well as hints about something that happened to his sister at some place called Finner’s Island. Interspersed with Greg’s narration to Alice are transcripts of worrisome interviews with Greg’s family, which build a sense of mystery and anticipation, giving you the impression that the story’s leading up to something big.

My biggest rub with Alice and the Fly is its bleakness. I get that novels can’t – and shouldn’t – be rainbows and sunshine all the time, but the ugliness and grimness in this particular book were oppressive and unrelenting. There’s little to no brightness to mitigate the awfulness, and because of how distant Greg is, you can’t even turn to him for comfort or solidarity.

This bleakness, coupled with how hard it was for me to connect with Greg, made me hesitate before I finally gave Alice and the Fly a 4-star rating. To be perfectly honest, I don’t see myself ever rereading this book, and I admit I’d be happy to put it behind me. That said, I can’t deny that it’s fantastically plotted and written. The story is admirably crafted by a very talented author, and I did not see the ending coming (I’m always pleased when a book can surprise me that way). My suggestion is that if you’re at all intrigued by my review of Alice and the Fly, you should give the book a shot. It may not make you feel good, but it will keep you thinking about its characters and plot long after you put it back on the shelf.

Review: Dead and Breakfast by Kimberly G. Giarratano

Dead and Breakfast Book Cover Dead and Breakfast
Kimberly G. Giarratano

Despite living in Key West his whole life, 18-year-old Liam Breyer is a skeptic of the supernatural until a vengeful spirit, murdered fifty years ago, nearly drowns him in a swimming pool. Luckily help arrives in the form of pretty — albeit homesick — ghost whisperer Autumn Abernathy, whose newly-divorced mom has dragged her to the island to live and work at the Cayo Hueso, a haunted bed and breakfast.

Although they initially mistrust each other, Autumn and Liam team up to solve the decades-old mystery. But on an island where every third resident is a ghost, dealing with an unstable spirit has deadly consequences. If Liam and Autumn don’t unmask the killer soon, they’re likely to become Key West’s latest haunted attraction.

Review:

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

A free ARC of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

After finishing Dead and Breakfast, I confess to feeling a little underwhelmed. The novel started off strong, with intergenerational drama and a vengeful, violent ghost, but it was ultimately undermined by instalove, lackluster characters, and a way too convenient ending.

For the first several chapters, Dead and Breakfast does well. The action begins when Autumn Abernathy, one of the novel’s two protagonists, relocates to Key West with her divorcee mother to manage the Cayo Hueso Bed and Breakfast. Autumn, who has always been able to see and communicate with ghosts, soon discovers that the Cayo is inhabited by the spirit of a young Hispanic girl murdered in the 1950s.

The Cayo’s spooky resident isn’t your friendly Caspar-like ghost – she’s out for blood, and she’s fixated on Liam Breyer, the cute young handyman who does odd jobs around the bed and breakfast. Autumn and Liam join forces to try to resolve the ghost’s unfinished business before she ends up harming them and/or destroying the Cayo.

Dead and Breakfast will feel pretty familiar to those who’ve read Giarratano’s other works to date, which also focus on girls who can speak to ghosts and must try to discover how they died. One thing that differentiates this book from the others, though, is that the ghost in question is a badass. She’s not content to sit back and wait while Autumn investigates; she takes matters into her own hands in whatever ways she can, and she isn’t afraid to possess people or cause them harm. An aggressive, pissed off, violent ghost was a nice way for Giarratano to change things up.

Another thing I enjoyed about Dead and Breakfast was the setting. After reading this book, I’m dying to take a trip to Key West. The atmosphere, food, music, and culture seem like a lot of fun, and I’d love to attend a street festival, take a midnight ghost tour, or eat seafood from a roadside stand. I will say, though – for a book that’s set in one of the most haunted cities in America, featuring a B&B whose main attraction is supposed to be its spooky tenants, I expected to see a lot more ghosts than I did. There were only two, and that was kind of disappointing.

One of my biggest complaints about Dead and Breakfast was the romance. I didn’t mind the attraction that formed between Autumn and Liam, but the depth of it wasn’t realistic. I found it hard to believe that they’d developed such an all-consuming relationship in such a short time, falling so deeply in love that they were willing to sacrifice their goals and drastically alter their life plans. It felt out of character and majorly detracted from the book. Certain interactions felt melodramatic, too, like [START SPOILER]Liam’s drinking and his temper tantrum about Autumn leaving for college[END SPOILER].

This, plus the fact that the book wrapped up far too neatly (it was super unrealistic and didn’t do justice to the story or the characters) prevented me from being able to give Dead and Breakfast as high a rating as I originally anticipated. That said, I still have high hopes for the next Cayo Hueso Mystery book. Maybe I’ll get more of those ghosts I wanted as the series continues!