Published by Flatiron Books, Penguin Random House Australia on January 30th 2018
Source: Publisher, Netgalley
Genres: Contemporary, Fairy Tales & Folklore, Young Adult
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Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother's stories are set. Alice's only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”
Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother's tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.
I feel like The Hazel Wood is definitely a hit or miss kind of book. Readers will either be enchanted by it or not care either way, like I did. The first half of this book was really hard for me to continue: it was slow and tiring and full of dialogue with no explanations. The second half is when things pick up and become more like the fairy-tale that the blurb promises. Most of my qualms throughout the beginning of the book was actually resolved nicely with the explanations in the end. However, the unsatisfying first half makes me want to have readers come in with hesitancy. It’s not wholly a dark story – although it is quite intense – and follows the same vein that fairy-tale stories have, where many strange things happen with a brush of an explanation. I think many readers will enjoy the writing, however, and like I said, the ending was resolved really well.
Alice is an angry narrator, and following her first person POV was extremely exasperating for the majority of the book. She comes off as very caustic and has this aggressive personality for almost no reason at all (at least, not justified until the climax). I’m good with angry narrators, but she was just so unlikable for almost the whole book, until the last 20% or so. (And yes, I do realize that authors purposely create unlikable characters, but there’s a difference between unlikable in a way that suggests growth and unlikable for the sole point of plot, although Alice’s personality has bits of both.) Alice is always on the run with her mother, Ella, and basically hates everyone around her. She doesn’t really have any friends, except for this really rich peer named Finch. And she even treats him pretty bad during situations.
My mom and I lived like vagrants, staying with friends till our welcome wore through at the elbows, perching in precarious places, then moving on. We didn’t have the luxury of being nostalgic. We didn’t have a chance to stand still.
Alice has this strong fascination with her grandmother’s book of fairy-tales, but her mother has always steered her away from it her whole life. When they get a letter that her grandmother Althea has died however, things start becoming strange. Alice’s mom gets kidnapped and she has to follow a trail of lost stories to follow the trail and find her. Alice is helped by her classmate Finch.
I assumed Althea’s work would have a strong feminist message, allegorical undertones, a clean arc of story… But this story had no allegiance to anything. It was winding and creepy and not even that bloody. There were no heroes, no wedding. No message.
Alice and Finch follow all these clues in the first half of the book that really drags, and in my opinion, could have been cut shorter. As they reach Hazel Wood, the place of Althea’s residence, things turn darker. Throughout their adventure they’re also faced with several strange stalkers and an unending sense of distrust from Alice’s end. I think some parts of her were really too much and could have been expressed better. For example, there is this scene where Alice gets angry at a police officer and snaps back at him. Finch is telling her to go back, and she gets angry at him. He calls her privileged and she gets even more angry. If it were Finch snapping at the officer, he would have gotten more severe repercussions as his is black, but Alice finds herself immune to this explanation because she’s too angry at the world. She also calls the girl Finch lost his virginity with a “bitch,” and this quote comes to mind:
‘And who uses a car game as an excuse to brag about having sex with some bitch in a park?’
‘Some bitch? She was my girlfriend for eight months. It’s so ugly when girls call each other that word.’
‘Oh, my god, Finch, go get a liberal arts degree.’
Do you see why this narrator is so unlikable?
Readers understand where her coldness comes from as they continue the story, but I really feel like there was a better way to write these parts of dialogue. Even if Alice is supposed to come off as insensitive, I think she deserved to be called out, or at least regretful about what she said. (And at least fix it!) It’s not always up to the reader to go like “Wow, this is pretty wrong,” because I’m positive there will be someone out there who agrees with her. Anyway, I am calling her out in this review. This may be a fairy-tale-based story, but I feel like if an author is going to add these commentaries, it should be added better.
Finch himself is total hipster material. He also has a huge fascination with Althea’s stories and becomes heavily invested in finding Alice’s mother for unknown reasons. The friendship bent that their relationship turn is refreshing, rather than a strong romance. I still can’t get over some of their dialogue though.
The last quarter of the story was actually pretty enjoyable as everything gets unraveled and more fantastical elements are incorporated. Yes, most of it is explained through dialogue, but it comes easily and doesn’t feel like much of a cop-out. I was also expecting a deus ex machina twist, but there pleasantly isn’t. Albert answers all questions in the end and although the Hazel Wood remains mysterious, there aren’t any plot holes to poke at. Also, the mother-daughter relationship is very strong but could have been better executed if we saw more of their interactions, rather than all the flashbacks that Alice describes. Lots of telling and not showing in regards to that aspect of the story. I like that it’s a stand-alone though so everything is wrapped at the end.
I would call myself a fairy-tale lover, for darker ones and the happy ones, and The Hazel Wood is one that has aspects of both. It really reminds me of the themes of the musical Into the Woods (which I love!). Not everything gets a happy ending, we just are sometimes. There’s enchanting writing with long-forgotten stories and a missing mother like Wicked Like A Wildfire by Lana Popović. There’s a magical setting with hidden secrets like The Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser. Wrapped around it is a sweet mother-daughter relationship and the countless possibilities that stories can take.
Content Warning: cutting, mild violence
Rating: 2 out of 5
Thank you Netgalley and Flatiron Books (US), and Penguin Random House (AUS) for the review copy!
The Hazel Wood will be released on January 30th in Australian bookstores for AU $17.99 and US bookstores for US$16.99.