YA Book Club is back! And this month, we’re presenting to you (with the help of Mary’s sweet kitty Edward) The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. Read on to see what we thought, and yes, there will be spoilers.
Mary: Hello! This month, we read The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. The basic premise is that a girl named Alice comes from a long tradition of fairy tales--her grandmother Althea Prosperine wrote a famous collection of stories called Tales from the Hinterland. But Alice never met Althea, and figured that Althea wanted nothing to do with her or her mother, Ella. After Ella receives a letter that Althea has died, Alice thinks she can finally stop wondering about her grandmother. But that's when weird things start to happen. Ella goes missing, and Alice must discover what happened to her mother, and discover who she is along the way! Spoilers to follow, of course!
Emily: All the spoilers.
Mary: This book is VERY fairy-tale-esque, and I really enjoyed that. It took it a bit to get started, but I ended up being hooked by the fairy tales-come-to-life aspect of it.
Emily: Yes, this book is a slow devolve into weirdness. We start very grounded in reality, and then by the end, you're like "We're in Lewis Carroll territory.”
Mary: Carroll with a Grimm Brothers tinge. The tales are very dark.
Emily: And I want to talk about that too, because as much as this had a fairy tale vibe, I also thought it was very Alice in Wonderland.
Mary: Oh yeah! Definitely.
Emily: Alice in Hinterland.
Mary: Yessss. It fits so well honestly. And Albert had to be thinking of that a little bit. But it takes a while to get to that point.
Emily: Can I just say one thing that I really loved?
Emily: This is kind of jumping the gun but I want to get it out of the way because this is a book that's hard to have an opinion on until you take in the whole thing. Because the ending really changes how you read everything else. I was kind of annoyed with this book at first because Alice comes off as your typical bitter teenage main character who feels like nobody GETS her. And I'm SO OVER IT because most of the time, YA books serve us this kind of character without any sort of commentary of how annoying and childish this attitude is.
Emily: BUT. With Alice, by the end of the book, when she discovers who she is, she understands why she's been such an asshole all her life. And she comes back less of an asshole. For lack of a better way to explain it.
Mary: Yes, I think that's true. Alice has more of a reason to be a jerk than just being a teenager. And once she discovers her true origins, she does change a lot, as you say!
Emily: Right. And maybe the reason nobody GETS HER in her world is because she's actually a literal fairy tale monster. And this is the big twist in the book.
Mary: Yesssss. Alice is "Alice Three Times," a fairy tale character from the Hinterland who is BAD NEWS. She essentially turns into an ice zombie and goes on a killing spree in her tale.
Emily: I mean, but in all fairness to Alice Three Times, her family was kind of awful, and she had to look out for herself by becoming an ice zombie. But yes continue.
Mary: And once she goes to the Hinterland (in an attempt to find her mom--who is not her mom!) she has to act out her story and find a way to escape. That's the thing--the Hinterland runs on stories, and stories just continuously play on repeat, starting over once they get to the end. That's a really cool concept, I think.
Emily: Honestly, I think the brothers in that fairy tale were the real bad guys, because Alice just wanted to get married and they just wanted a slave. They were basically Jed from The Bachelorette. They were just there for their music career.
Mary: But were they bad because they were bad or because--as Jessica Rabbit would say--they're just written that way?
Emily: Yes. Good point. So let’s chat about that.
Mary: There's an author to the stories that is not Melissa Albert called The Story Spinner. This woman--which, we don't know where she comes from, right?--weaves these stories that power the Hinterland. And she's invested in having Alice return to her story and live it out again and again. This adds an interesting meta aspect, to me, and sets up a world within a world within a world, which I like.
Emily: We kind of see that when something is displaced in a story, it kind of sets everything out of order, for better or for worse.
Mary: Yes, and everyone within the story has to fight really hard to break free and do something not written out for them. So in Alice's story she's born weird--black eyes, kind of angry--and she eventually sets a bunch of dudes out into the world to get her ice from a very specific place and bring it back to her without melting. Whoever does this successfully gets to marry her. And these two brothers end up bringing the ice, but they--as you said--just want her to be their slave, their maid, and so they take her off and she ends up killing them on the way to their home. She freezes them and becomes an ice zombie. One of the brothers in the story apparently got out at one point and tried to kidnap Alice from the real world. And eventually he escapes with Alice from the story when Alice's friend Finch comes to rescue her. Whew that was a lot of explanation, but there’s a lot going on there!
Emily: That was a good explanation. Well done.
Mary: Outside the story, this brother seems like an OK dude but like...is he? It's an interesting question I don't know I have the answer to.
Emily: I felt like he wasn't a bad dude, but IDK... maybe I misread? Because now I'm like... why was he trying to kidnap her then?
Mary: He seemed bad, but then he had kind eyes or some crap and we were supposed to feel bad for him.
Emily: Yeah, like at the end I was like, “Wait? Was he good?”
Mary: I was very interested in how the Stories had to break out, and once they were out they had problems coming to terms with things they did in their stories. But all of that set up seems like an explanation for things that could potentially happen in the next book.
Emily: Yes, so we know there’s going to be a second book. What do you think is going to happen in that one? Or what are your expectations?
Mary: Well, the end of The Hazel Wood has Finch (who I really enjoyed and we haven't talked about yet) going off to be like, a planar traveller or something. Hopping between worlds. And I'd really love him and Alice to go on some planar adventures together. Discover another world!
Emily: And Finch was like this skinny nerdy dude when we first meet him but then Alice disappears in her story and comes back and she's like whoa he got buff.
Mary: Yeah! He got swole!
Emily: Okay, so let’s go back and talk about FInch. Because like Alice, his story has a little twist to it.
Mary: Yes! I love him.
Emily: What do you like about him? He’s a book nerd. Is that it?
Mary: I appreciated that Finch is a distinctly black character, and that race did have something to do with his character. It was done well, I think. And yes, he's a book nerd and just very sweet. He’s respectful but still into Alice!
Emily: Yes, there’s the scene with the cops, of course. Alice just assumes Finch will be fine because he's rich, and he's like, yeah, that's not what they see when they look at me.
Mary: And in that moment Alice is like, whoa. And I as the reader was also like, whoa. He’s absolutely right.
Emily: Right. I think what I like best about his character arc is Alice's realization that he's not just her sidekick character. He's in it for his own adventure, because in real life there are no sidekicks. We’re all heroes in our own story. That does mean sometimes what he does doesn't align with what is best for Alice, but that doesn't make him a bad person.
Mary: Yes, he's in his own story just like she's in hers. You’re absolutely right. And I wonder if he'll be the narrator for the next book, honestly. I think that could be cool.
Emily: Yeah, just based on the comments on Goodreads on the second book, it seems like a lot of people want a Finch-narrated book.
Mary: Do you want to talk about his twist?
Emily: Yes. So as it turns out, Alice thinks she and Finch are working together, but actually, he's kind of made a deal with the Hinterland people.
Mary: Which I did NOT see coming.
Emily: And a lot of his motivations are based on his own obsession with these stories, because he turned to them after his mother died by suicide and found comfort in them. So he's sort of allied with the stories more than he is with Alice.
Mary: I love that part of his story. He found comfort to work through his grief in these stories. Which is something that I've experienced, though not to the degree Finch has to. There are stories I've read at specific times in my life that are very dear to me just because of what else was going on around them and how they helped me cope.
Emily: Absolutely. I think anyone who loves literature and stories understands that.
Mary: Like, Harry Potter 100% helped me get through my parents' divorce.
Emily: For sure, I think lit nerds identify with Finch in that way. Which is probably why the fans want a Finch book.
Mary: Definitely. I want to know more about him. I know Alice's story, and now I want to know more about Finch. Especially because he just peaced out on his family.
Emily: At the end of the day, not even Alice faults him for his actions because she understands he's on his own journey and in the end she has to find her way home alone.
Mary: Yes, and it's so good. They end on a good note, which I like. And Finch has a girlfriend in the end! A girl he likes in the Hinterland!
Emily: Yeah but obviously I was sad he was with some other ho. But I guess it makes more sense. Even though there was sexual tension.
Mary: But even still, Alice acknowledges that he's happy and seems good, so she's happy for him.
Emily: But she’s also like, “I wish we could hang still.”
Mary: There could still be something in the future for them, but who knows? I think there probably will be, but it would also be refreshing if they don't have a romantic relationship.
Emily: I think Alice is happy for him, but she’s also like, “Dang. Why didn’t I make a move?” Because she was clearly into him from the beginning.
Mary: For real. In an interesting way. I like that she starts off being like, who is this dweeb.
Emily: But also clearly her awkwardness around him stems from sexual tension. Just sayin.
Mary: Aw yeah for sure. I HAVE BEEN THERE.
Emily: Even their teacher ships it.
Mary: Bahaha true.
Emily: So we’ve been heaping praise on this book. Any critiques?
Mary: Hmm...when we talked IRL about it earlier today, you mentioned that it was overwritten in parts, and I agree. I tried to listen to the audiobook and had a really hard time focusing on it. I also--and this isn't really a critique--wanted more Hinterland stories! I would love a book of tales.
Emily: Yeah I found a lot of this very overwritten in a way that was distracting. And I think she is releasing a book of tales, Mary, so stay tuned for that!
Mary: Oh dang! She is releasing the tales!
Emily: Is this her first book? If so, maybe she'll get the overwriting out of her system and calm down with the next one.
Mary: I think it's her first book.
Emily: As much as I love Jeffrey Eugenides, I feel like The Virgin Suicides was a little overly writerly. And then he calmed down a little bit for Middlesex. But then maybe he calmed down too much for The Marriage Plot because that book was NOT GOOD. Anyway, that is my Jeffrey Eugenides tangent.
Mary: The thing is, the writerly stuff wasn't so much for me that I was completely turned off. So I think Albert will find her footing with her next book for sure, and her fairy tale writing was on point. I also was really interested in Ella and Alice's mother/daughter relationship. Because we find out late in the novel that Ella (actually Vanella...which sounds like Vanilla, doesn't it?) kidnapped Alice from the Hinterland and took her to the real world. And even though Alice isn't Ella's actual daughter, she still views her as her mom, even after she finds out the big secret. And I really enjoyed that surprise confirmation that adoption is good and the love there is real. I always like stories about found family.
Emily: Yes, and it ends on that note, with Alice reaffirming that no matter what, Ella IS her mom.
Mary: Yes! It's so good.
Emily: When she wakes up in the hospital, Ella is there waiting for her. It's very sweet.
Mary: Ella is even MORE her mom for caring for her all those years and being there for her than her actual mom, who was just hating her somewhere in a story.
Emily: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the TRUE LOVE STORY here.
Mary: Yes! The truest!
Emily: What did you rate this?
Mary: I really enjoyed this book, obviously, and I'm excited to see where it goes. I gave it 4/5 stars!
Emily: I gave it 3.5/5 stars in my heart, but on Goodreads I rounded down to a 3. After some distance, I might round up. Although I enjoyed it, it was slow in parts, and I am looking forward to a sophomore novel where the author calms down on her flowery language.
Mary: That is definitely fair. The stories just got me and bumped it up to a 4--I probably would do 3.5 in my heart as well.
Emily: I think this shows promise, and I would definitely read more from this author!
Mary: Yes! And next time on YA Book Club, we’re reading Warcross by Marie Lu.
Emily: YES! FINALLY! It’s been a long time coming, and here it comes. So look for that at the beginning of September. See you then!