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.

Blog Tour, Giveaway, and Excerpt: Nora and Kettle by Lauren Nicolle Taylor

Tour banner for Nora and Kettle by Lauren Nicolle TaylorAbout Nora and Kettle

Book cover for Nora and Kettle by Lauren Nicolle TaylorWhat if Peter Pan was a homeless kid just trying to survive, and Wendy flew away for a really good reason?

Seventeen-year-old Kettle has had his share of adversity. As an orphaned Japanese American struggling to make a life in the aftermath of an event in history not often referred to—the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the removal of children from orphanages for having “one drop of Japanese blood in them”—things are finally looking up. He has his hideout in an abandoned subway tunnel, a job, and his gang of Lost Boys.

Desperate to run away, the world outside her oppressive brownstone calls to naïve, eighteen-year-old Nora—the privileged daughter of a controlling and violent civil rights lawyer who is building a compensation case for the interned Japanese Americans. But she is trapped, enduring abuse to protect her younger sister Frankie and wishing on the stars every night for things to change.

For months, they’ve lived side by side, their paths crossing yet never meeting. But when Nora is nearly killed and her sister taken away, their worlds collide as Kettle, grief stricken at the loss of a friend, angrily pulls Nora from her window.

In her honeyed eyes, Kettle sees sadness and suffering. In his, Nora sees the chance to take to the window and fly away.

Set in 1953, Nora and Kettle explores the collision of two teenagers facing extraordinary hardship. Their meeting is inevitable, devastating, and ultimately healing. Their stories, a collection of events, are each on their own harmless. But together, one after the other, they change the world.

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Excerpt

I snort, push my sleeves up, and lean back on my forearms. She watches me, her eyes on my bare skin, and I wonder what she’s thinking. “Dances. Really? What’s to miss?” My experience with dances was one forced event in the camps where we watched the grownups awkwardly shift in lines to scratchy music. It didn’t look very enjoyable.

She releases the button she’s been playing with and smirks. “Says someone who’s clearly never been to one.”

“How do you know that?” I say, raising an eyebrow and touching my chest, mock offended.

She laughs. It’s starlight in a jar. I blink slowly. “Oh, I can tell just by looking at you, the way you move. You,” she says, pointing at me accusingly. “Can’t dance.”

The candlelight twinkles like it’s chuckling at me. “I can dance,” I say, not sure why I’m lying to defend myself. I’ve never danced in my life.

She stands up and beckons me with her finger, and I think there’s something wrong with my heart. It’s hurting… but the pain feels good.

She looks like a pirate’s cabin boy, shirt billowing around her small waist, ill-fitting pants rolled over at her hips to stop them from falling down. She points her bare foot at me. “Prove it!”

Shit!

I cough and stand nervously. I don’t know what to do with my hands, so I put them behind my back. She giggles. Touches me. Runs her fingers lightly down my arms until she finds my hands. She grasps my wrists and I gulp as she places one on the small dip between her hips and her ribs, extending the other out like the bow of a boat. Her hand in mine.

I follow her small steps and we wind in circles, avoiding the clumps of debris, painting patterns in the dust.

I stare at my socks and her narrow bare feet, listening to the swish of them across the dirt. “You know, this is pretty weird without music,” I mutter, looking up for a moment and suddenly losing my balance.

She exhales and brings us back to equilibrium. She starts humming softly. It’s a song I’ve heard before, but I pretend it’s the first time. Her voice is sweet, cracked and croaky, but in tune as she gazes at the ground and leads us up and down the back of the tunnel.

This moment is killing me. I don’t want it, but I do. Because I know it won’t be enough and it’s all I’ll get.

The end of the song is coming. It rises and rises and then softly peters out. We look at each other, understanding that something is changing between us, and we have to decide whether to let it. Please, let it.

She sings the last few bars. “And if you sing this melody, you’ll be pretending just like me. The world is mine. It can be yours, my friend. So why don’t you pretend?”

Her voice is like the dust of a comet’s tail. Full of a thousand things I don’t understand but want to.

She stops and starts to step away. She’s so fragile. Not on the outside. On the outside, her body is strong, tougher than it should have to be. It’s inside that’s very breakable. I’m scared to touch her, but I don’t want to avoid touching her because of what she’s been through. That seems worse.

So I do it, because I want to and I don’t think she doesn’t want me to. Her breath catches as I pull her closer. I just want to press my cheek to hers, feel her skin against mine. There is no music, just the rhythm of two barely functioning hearts trying to reach each other through miles of scar tissue.

She presses her ear to my chest and listens, then she pulls back to meet my eyes, her expression a mixture of confusion and comfort. She breathes out, her lips not wanting to close but not wanting to speak. She settles on a nervous smile and puts her arms around my neck. I inhale and look up at the ceiling, counting the stars I know are up there somewhere, and then rest my cheek in her hair.

I don’t know how she is here. I don’t know when she’ll disappear.

We sway back and forth, and it feels like we might break. That we will break if we step apart from each other.

I can’t let her go.

I think I love dancing.

About the Author

Author photo for Lauren Nicolle Taylor

SONY DSC

Lauren Nicolle Taylor lives in the lush Adelaide Hills. The daughter of a Malaysian nuclear physicist and an Australian scientist, she was expected to follow a science career path, attending Adelaide University and completing a Health Science degree with Honours in obstetrics and gynaecology.

She then worked in health research for a short time before having her first child. Due to their extensive health issues, Lauren spent her twenties as a full-time mother/carer to her three children. When her family life settled down, she turned to writing.

She is a 2014 Kindle Book Awards Semi-finalist and a USA Best Book Awards Finalist.

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Giveaway

Clean Teen Publishing is giving away a mystery box full of swag, books, and more! To enter, please fill out the Rafflecopter form below. The giveaway ends March 10, 2016.

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Review: Second Star by Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Second Star Book Cover Second Star
Alyssa B. Sheinmel

A twisty story about love, loss, and lies, this contemporary oceanside adventure is tinged with a touch of dark magic as it follows seventeen-year-old Wendy Darling on a search for her missing surfer brothers. Wendy’s journey leads her to a mysterious hidden cove inhabited by a tribe of young renegade surfers, most of them runaways like her brothers. Wendy is instantly drawn to the cove’s charismatic leader, Pete, but her search also points her toward Pete's nemesis, the drug-dealing Jas. Enigmatic, dangerous, and handsome, Jas pulls Wendy in even as she's falling hard for Pete. A radical reinvention of a classic, Second Star is an irresistible summer romance about two young men who have yet to grow up--and the troubled beauty trapped between them.

Review:

If Second Star weren’t a retelling of Peter Pan, my rating of it would be entirely different. There are some pretty big detractors – frustrating romance, a second half that feels entirely off the rails – that would result in a low rating if this were your average book. Luckily for Sheinmel, her creative reimagining of Peter Pan enchanted me enough to appease the part of me that was irritated by the questionable parts of this story.

Wendy Darling is on a mission to find her brothers, 16-year-old surfers who ran away from home to chase the waves. Nine months later, they still haven’t returned, and the police and Wendy’s parents have given up the search, convinced that the boys have perished in a surfing accident. Wendy isn’t so sure, and as soon as she graduates she takes off in pursuit of her brothers, determined to find them and bring them home.

Wendy’s hunt leads her to Kensington Beach, where she meets a scruffy band of surfers – our Lost Boys in this retelling – who live in an abandoned mansion and spend their days on the water. Wendy finds herself enticed by the boys’ carefree lifestyle, drawn into their little world of salt and sun and sand. She’s especially beguiled by the group’s leader, Pete, who teaches her to surf and whose kisses make her feel like someone new, someone whose family and world haven’t fallen apart.

As delighted as I was by the Lost Boys, I was even more impressed by Sheinmel’s clever reimagining of Captain Hook. The role of the villain is played by Jas, a drug dealer who rules the opposite side of Pete’s beach. (What happens to people who take drugs? They get hooked. Get it? Huh? Like I said, clever!!) Wendy’s investigation reveals that Jas may have a hand in her brothers’ disappearance, and when she goes to confront him she soon realizes he’s an enticing as he is dangerous.

Jas is both a positive and a negative of this book for me. On the plus side, he has this dark pull that really appealed to me. He’s smooth and sexy and magnetic, and even though he’s a “bad guy” he’s charming and educated and polite, which adds great complexity.

The downside is that all this sex appeal makes Wendy fall for him, which I didn’t think was believable. It’s one thing to be attracted to him – I certainly was – and to accept his help in finding her brothers. It’s another thing entirely to trust him and fall in love with him. He is a drug dealer, Wendy! He ruins people’s lives and is fully aware of this fact! The stuff he does is unconscionable, and he shows no signs of changing his behavior! Yet you’re into him? Please.

Something else that detracted from the book’s appeal is the question of whether Wendy’s liaisons with Pete, Jas, and the like are real or a fantasy. I was so invested in the world of Kensington that I resented being distracted with questions like, “Is this a hallucination? Does anyone else remember ever seeing Pete? Or Jas?” It seemed out of nowhere and was the number one reason I didn’t award Second Star a higher rating.

Despite these qualms, I still really liked the parallels to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stories. I enjoyed seeing how Sheinmel wove elements from the book into her adaptation. A lot of the references were subtle, such as Jas stopping at a bar called The Jolly Roger, a description comparing Pete’s laugh to the crow of a bird, and Pete encouraging Wendy to think of something happy to help distract her while she’s trying to surf (which she says makes her feel like she’s flying). It’s a very smart and unique retelling.