Review: The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood
By Melissa Albert
Published January 30, 2018 by Flatiron Books

The Hazel Wood has gotten a lot of prepublication hype, and I always wonder if I’m actually going to like hyped books or if the the buildup is too much for the book to live up to. In this case, you can trust the hype, because The Hazel Wood is really good.

The Hazel WoodAlice is a teenager who lives with her mother Ella. Ella is the daughter of a reclusive writer with a cult following, Althea Prosperpine. Many years before, Althea published a book of fairytales about a place called the Hinterland. The book is long out of print and nearly impossible to find, but Althea has some extremely devoted fans. Ella is estranged from her mother, and Alice has never met her grandmother.

Alice and Ella live an odd life. They are constantly on the move, never staying in one place for too long, always trying to stay one step ahead of the bad luck that seems to follow them wherever they go. Bad things happen to and around them: their house is flooded, a wildcat enters their house through an open window, creepy people seem to follow them, and Alice was briefly kidnapped by a fan of her grandmother when she was 6 (she was returned unharmed). But now Althea is dead, they’re living in New York, and Ella has gotten married. Ella is hopeful that they’ve moved on from the bad luck, but one day, Alice sees the man who kidnapped her, and he doesn’t seem to have aged a day. She goes home to find her mother missing, and she turns to a classmate named Ellery Finch for help. Finch is one of Althea’s superfans, and the two set off on a quest for the Hazel Wood, Althea’s estate, which they hope will lead them to Ella.

This book is dark and creepy. Think the Brothers Grimm stories as they were originally written, before they were Disneyfied. Alice isn’t a particularly likable heroine. She has anger management issues and she’s very prickly. But I felt like she was realistic. Her behavior makes sense when you consider that she’s a kid who’s had no stability in her life. She’s had to move every few months, she’s never finished a whole school year in one place, and she has to take care of her mother. Of course, she has some anger issues.

Alice and Finch’s journey is weird and twisty. They start out in New York, looking for clues to the Hazel Wood’s location. Finch once owned a copy of the book, but it was stolen, and tracking down another copy proves problematic. They encounter all kinds of creepy people and it seems as though the Hinterland is coming after them. Finch tells Alice some of the stories he remembers from the book, and I loved this part. The bits and pieces of the stories in the book are deliciously creepy, and I would have liked more.

I really liked that this book had no romance, something that’s rather rare in YA. There’s nothing wrong with romance, and I read tons of YA fantasy with heavy romantic elements, so obviously, I have no issue with it, but this book is really about a mother/daughter relationship, and a romance was unnecessary.

This book has a really perfect ending. I often feel that book endings don’t live up the promise of the rest of the book, but I have no issues here. The resolution was exactly what the story needed.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

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Middle Grade Review: The Last Gargoyle

The Last Gargoyle
By Paul Durham
Published January 9, 2018 by Crown Books for Young Readers

The Last Gargoyle is an entertaining middle grade book with an interesting mythology and a creature that doesn’t get much fictional attention, gargoyles. Penhallow is a gargoyle (he prefers to call himself a grotesque) living in Boston. He’s one of three remaining gargoyles in the city, and the other two are killed off at the beginning of the book (it’s not much of a spoiler when you consider the title). Penhallow soon realizes that the city is facing a terrible threat, and he may the only hope of defeating this foe.

GargoyleWith his friends gone, Penhallow is the last of the city’s gargoyles, and it’s a lonely existence until he meets a mysterious girl named Viola. She’s cagey about who she is and why she can come and go as she pleases, but Penhallow finds himself warming to her and she’s his only companion in a lonely life.

The mythology is an interesting one. Gargoyles were carved by a Maker and they adorn various older structures in Boston. They were responsible for all inhabitants of the buildings they’re attached to, but all of the other gargoyles are just empty stones now. Penhallow can leave his gargoyle perch and take other forms to move around the city and to keep any eye on all the people who live in his building. He protects his wards from minor nuisances like imps, and the more serious threat of the netherkin, spirits of the dead who haven’t passed on to the next place (what exactly that next place is isn’t answered in the book because Penhallow himself doesn’t know).

This is a slightly dark middle grade book, since it deals with death and loneliness. Penhallow hasn’t been able to save everyone in his care over the years, and he bears the weight of that guilt. The nethekin are very creepy, and they want to steal children’s life force (what they’re stealing is never named, but the children who lose it are sad and troubled for the rest of their lives). Because of this, I would recommend this book for the older end of the age range.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner
By Lianne Oelke
Published January 9, 2018 by Clarion Books

This book is really funny and delightful, and it has mental health representation. Jane Sinner (what a name) is at a crossroads. She’s been asked to leave her high school for unknown reasons (she alludes to a big event, but we don’t learn what happened until well into the book), and she’s enrolling in a community college to finish out her high school coursework. When she learns of a reality show featuring students at the college, she decides that it’s the perfect opportunity to reinvent herself.

Jane SinnerHouse of Orange is a decidedly low-budget reality show. The grand prize is a used car. The participants get discounted rent in a house where they have to live together. There are periodic challenges for smaller prizes, like a restaurant gift card. The show is on YouTube, although it gains popularity quickly and ends up being broadcast on local TV, which leads to some complications for Jane. I don’t watch any reality shows, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal, but everything about House of Orange is very funny.

The novel’s format is entries from Jane’s diary. This makes her an extremely unreliable narrator since we only see things from her point of view, and she even admits at times that she’s not being entirely honest with herself. A big chunk of the diary entries are dialogue between Jane and the other characters, with unspoken commentary from her. Jane is hilarious. She’s snarky and awesome, and she’s determined to win the contest, so her behavior is pretty ruthless. She’s taking a psychology class, and she tends to treat the show like it’s one big psychology experiment. There are also conversations between Jane and her imaginary psychiatrist, in which she tries to psychoanalyze herself, which is hilarious.

Jane is dealing with some mental health issues, and she has quit therapy, so in a sense, she’s using the reality show as a form of therapy. As you can imagine, this is not terribly effective. Part of Jane’s issues is coming to terms with religious differences between her and her parents. Jane’s parents are very religious and think every problem can be solved by prayers, while Jane has come to realize that she no longer shares her parents’ beliefs. I liked the way this issue was handled

I did have a couple of issues with the book. My main complaint is that I found it unrealistic that Jane’s parents would allow their 17-year-old daughter, who has some pretty serious issues, to move out on her own. I also found that the book was a bit choppy in places. A couples of times something happened that confused me and I had to flip back to see if I had missed something. I read an advanced copy, so it’s possible that this issue will be tweaked before publication. In any case, neither of these issues were dealbreakers for me, and I really enjoyed the book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

My Reading Goals for 2018

It’s a new year, and it’s a clean slate for reading. I failed in many of my goals for 2017, so I’m going to try to be realistic about what I’d like to read in 2018.

I would like to read more nonfiction. I have a big shelf of science books, and I hope to get to at least a few of them this year. I’m hoping to read at least three nonfiction books.

I want to read some classic novels. This goal obviously didn’t work out for me last year, but I’ll try again. I think part of the reason I didn’t make last year’s goal is that I just wasn’t that interested in the five books I chose. I think that if I choose books I’m more interested in, I have a better chance of achieving this. I’m going to aim for three classic books. I have some titles in mind: Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights (I’ve read it before, but not in many years), and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

I would like to try to read fewer books than in 2017, emphasizing quality over quantity. We’ll see how that goes. In 2017, I read 125 books. This year, I’ve set a Goodreads goal of 75.

I’m hoping to post more on this blog. I did better in the second half of the year, and I want to maintain that momentum. I need to get back to the original purpose of the blog, re-reading my childhood favorites. I would like to alternate re-reads with new books.