Book Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

34275232Title: THE HAZEL WOOD
Author: Melissa Albert
Release Date: January 30th, 2018
Pages: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is an odd book, so odd it took me some time to decide if I liked it. I think I did, despite its strangeness, and despite the fact that it set itself up as one thing and turned into something else entirely (what I like to think of as Mara Dyer Syndrome).

We begin with the main character, Alice, explaining that she has spent her life on the run with her mother, Ella. What are they running from? It’s not quite clear – they call it “bad luck.” Ella thinks it has something to do with her mother, Althea Proserpine, the author of a strange book of fairy tales called Tales From the Hinterland. Ella doesn’t talk about her mother and Alice has never met her grandmother. Her life is strange, but she doesn’t think too hard about it. When Ella vanishes, seemingly kidnapped by real-life Hinterland characters, Alice has little choice but to team up with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland fan.

The first half of the book, which I actually enjoyed more, is half scavenger hunt, half road trip. It plays itself out like a variety of different genres – psychological thriller, mystery, supernatural horror – yet never quite settles into any one of them. It is only a bit past the halfway mark when this turns into the incredibly weird portal fantasy it was always meant to be, as Alice navigates her way through the Hinterland, which is kind of a creepy Wonderland. There’s a lot of really clever and shocking twists that I enjoyed, and a lot of strange fairy-tale logic that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, which I didn’t love. A lot of the time I felt like my brain was struggling to wrap itself around what exactly was happening, but it almost seemed like the book was trying to tell me the logic of it all isn’t important, because it’s a fairy tale, and it’s magic.

I want to address something I’ve seen in a lot of reviews so far: Alice’s character. Yes, she’s extremely unpleasant. But she isn’t meant to be likable. She is specifically written as horrible because there is a specific reason for how horrible she is, which is revealed towards the end. Plus Alice is aware of her bitterness and her rage, aware of how she can’t control it no matter how hard she tries, aware of how it claws its way up into her throat from her belly like a beast she has no power over. Basically, the narrative foreshadows the fact that her anger isn’t normal and that it makes her horrible. Besides, it makes her a compelling character, even if I didn’t like her (and I really, really, really didn’t like her).

I was much more fascinated by her mother, Ella, and more than once found myself wishing we had gotten to know her better. More is revealed about her towards the end, but I still wanted more. What I appreciated, though, was the bond between her and Alice, and how it essentially formed the crux of the entire narrative. Mother/daughter relationships like this are quite rare to see, and I loved that Ella and Alice’s love for each other was the backbone of this story. The budding romance with Ellery Finch is slight and ends up subverting the YA romance trope in a really intriguing way.

This book is compelling, mesmerizing in a weird way, and vaguely creepy. I finished it in two days because it’s such a quick read (but with lovely, occasionally dreamy prose) and I was pulled in by the mystery. The story keeps you guessing again and again and even when you think you understand what’s going on there’s more to learn. Again, it’s an odd book, and I’m not entirely sure I completely understood it. Like I said, it operates on fairy tale logic, which to me often feels nonsensically metaphorical and slippery, like it’s not meant to make any kind of sense.

Despite this, I enjoyed it very much, mainly because it’s rather unique! I really have never read anything quite like this before, and it was gripping, so it gets a high rating from me.

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

31434883Title: ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE
Author: Gail Honeyman
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 327
Publisher: Viking Pamela Dorman Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. She’s had the same job for nine years yet has no friends, drinks vodka everyday to help her sleep, is convinced a musician she’s never met is her soul mate, and is repressing some horrific unnamed trauma from her past.

In case you haven’t guessed: Eleanor Oliphant is not fine.

Socially clueless and out of touch, thirty-year-old Eleanor’s narrative voice is incredibly engaging; it’s what makes the story so unique. She takes things literally to a bizarre degree, which places her in some hilarious situations while doing ordinary things like waxes and manicures. At first the crux of the novel seems to be Eleanor’s obsession with an obnoxious local musician, and then it seems like it’s going to be about an office romance, but, thankfully, it is neither of those things.

To me it felt like a kind of coming-of-age story of an emotionally stunted young woman. The focus of the novel is Eleanor’s voice, her development, her struggles, and her past. As the novel progresses, Eleanor develops a friendship with a coworker named Raymond, and it seems this is just the push she needed to bring things to a head, to make her realize that her monotonous existence could do with some human companionship. Raymond, the antithesis of the Handsome Male Lead, is a very ordinary person but an absolute sweetheart; I loved how patient and understanding he was with Eleanor.

The mystery of Eleanor’s past is dangled like a carrot; I found myself racing through the pages because I was desperate to find out what happened. The author reveals little clues bit by bit, and this is organically reflective of how much Eleanor has repressed her painful past. It is artfully done, and by the end, Eleanor starts to heal. Her strangeness and quirkiness does not magically disappear into thin air, either; she retains her personality but develops into it, if that makes sense. She grows. It’s very subtle and very well done.

If I had to sum up this book in one sentence, it would be with one of my favorite quotes from The Office: “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” For though this book is at times deeply depressing, even bringing me to the verge of tears several times, it makes a point to emphasize the beauty of the small, ordinary things that make life worth living. Lunch with a friend, a beloved pet, an oversized sweater. Little things, without which life would have little meaning.

Suffice it to say, this book was a hopeful, bright story of friendship and survival that I enjoyed very much!

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

18498558Title: BIRD BOX
Author: Josh Malerman
Release Date: 2014
Pages: 262
Publisher: Penguin Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I both love and hate dystopic fiction. I love it because it’s a fascinating exploration of survival. I’m always intrigued by how humans manage to survive without technology, without society, without order. Does the social contract break down? Where do people get food? What becomes important in a new world? Is survival enough?

I hate dystopic fiction because it’s depressing as fuck, and Bird Box certainly delivered on that.

I loved this book’s concept, which had notes of Lovecraftian horror all over it. Basically, there is something – some creature, some unknown, just something – outside. When you see it, you go mad and start tearing yourself apart until you die. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from or what it wants. Or how to stop it. But it’s trapped the survivors indoors, and if they venture outdoors they must have their eyes shut at all times. There are certain passages which were absolutely seeped with Lovecraftian influence – characters talking about our minds having a ceiling and the unknown creatures being beyond that ceiling, beyond human capacity to understand…it’s juicy, creepy stuff.

The narrative is centered on Malorie as she and her two children row a boat down a river attempting to find better shelter. The story is told in alternating timelines, between Malorie in the present and Malorie in the past, with a ragtag group of survivors who have holed up inside a house together and are just trying to survive. Even ordinary scenes in this book drip with tension; I was completely sucked in. When reading this book the world around me ceased to exist. There were some scenes that had my heart racing with anticipation. There is plenty of gore, but there is also a ton of psychological horror, building on the fear of the unknown.

I have some criticisms. The dialogue I found was often stilted, a bit unnatural. Malorie’s ragtag group of survivors were difficult to tell apart. There was Tom, the leader, and Don, the combative one, and then…a bunch of other people who were just there. In horror novels like this it’s important for characters to be distinct and interesting, and they weren’t. We don’t know what these people look like, what they did in their old lives, how they think and feel now. And there is zero diversity – all the characters are white. I felt like they were all cardboard cutouts, not characters but plot devices, there as a means to an end. Even with Malorie, I felt like I had a hard time getting into her head and getting a sense of her as a person. I felt her fear and desperation, certainly, but everyone in this world is afraid and desperate – what more is there to know about her?

Otherwise, I loved this book. I could not put it down for a moment, and it made my 90 minute commute feel like 10 minutes. I missed my train stop when reading the ending, because it was just so damn intense! I had been in an utter reading funk lately, and this book wrenched me out of it. Highly, highly recommend this creepy, intense, and thrilling read!

Thanks to Rachel @ pace, amore, libri for the recommendation!

Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

33958230Title: FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS
Author: Julie C. Dao
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I had almost forgotten that this is supposed to be an East Asia-inspired retelling of Snow White’s Evil Queen. In the beginning there are few allusions to the tale, but as the story progresses the narrative reflects the fairy tale in subtle, clever ways.

Xifeng is beautiful. Growing up in poverty with her abusive aunt Guma, she clings to her beauty, her only power as a woman in a world of men. But according to Guma, Xifeng has a great destiny: she is fated to become Empress of Feng Lu, if she plays her cards right. After some prodding from Wei, Xifeng’s childhood love, she finds the courage to flee Guma and head to the palace, planting herself in court and clawing her way to the top.

Some minor technical complaints first: the story takes a long time to get going. This is partly necessary, as it is the first in what I assume will be a trilogy, and Xifeng needs time to leave her old life behind and rise to become Empress. Still, it was a bit slow, and most of the action takes place in the last third of the book, with reveals and plot advancements occurring in nearly every chapter. It felt a bit unbalanced.

Otherwise, damn, I love my complex unlikable anti-heroine stories! Xifeng is selfish, vain, arrogant, and ruthless. Eventually, she becomes a murderess. In short, she’s not someone you want to have much to do with. But she revels in her power and ambition, she is unapologetic about what she has to do to claw her way to power, and I loved her. She’s such an unusual protagonist; we don’t see too many women like her in YA. Speaking of unusual, this book does away with a lot of YA tropes. It’s quite adult in a lot of ways. Xifeng chooses power over love and ends up with a man much older than her. The violence in this book is bloody and raw; it was spectacularly gory.

Others have mentioned Xifeng’s disdain of all other women, so I have to mention it. This is a very prominent thread running through the book, but it makes sense: Xifeng is deliberately unlikable, deliberately arrogant, and the reader is left with the certainty that Xifeng is unreliable in her determinations of these other women. They are all humanized by the narrative despite Xifeng’s scorn. Even Xifeng’s foremost enemy is humanized in such a way that her cruelty is understood to be her shield; in fact, in this antagonist I saw a reflection of Xifeng.

The worldbuilding ties in directly with Xifeng’s plot (and the Snow White tale), and it was gloriously epic. Xifeng maintains her youth and beauty by eating hearts, a gift granted to her by a dark god who longs to rise again. I won’t say too much because spoilers, but it seems like this series is foretelling the reincarnation of an ancient feuds between gods in the form of a feud between two women, one of them Xifeng. I am so here for this.

In short, this book is gory and creepy and features a delightfully unlikable anti-heroine who chooses power and ruthlessness over love and goodness again and again, while becoming hopelessly mired in a dark god’s vengeance plot. While this first book was dragged down somewhat by the inauspicious beginning, I’m certain the second book will be even better, now that Xifeng has been established and we can do away with all that exposition. A promising beginning to a promising series!

Book Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

31817749Title: THE STONE SKY
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 396
Publisher: Orbit
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I will begin with my one complaint, which is not even completely a complaint. But I spent nearly the entire book feeling vaguely lost, unsure if I was lost because I didn’t remember enough of book two or because things were just getting confusing. For in the conclusion to The Broken Earth trilogy Jemisin does give you all the answers you want about the origin of the world and the Seasons and the stone eaters – I’m just not sure I understood all of it. That is a testament to the complexity of Jemisin’s worldbuilding. It is the type of book that, once you finish, you want to begin all over again just to absorb it properly. In fact I feel like I want to re-read the whole trilogy, making highlights and annotations and using post-its to connect things and truly understand. That is what I mean when I say my complaint isn’t really a complaint, but rather an appreciation for the richness of the story. But I do think there could have been a way to make things more clearer, more straightforward and blunt, to help hammer in understanding.

Like the first two books in the series, The Stone Sky deals in tragedy, in exploitation and cruelty, justice and injustice. There are so many themes and incidents and characters in this book that resonated so strongly with me; they so powerfully mirror the current state of the world that I was utterly mesmerized. Essun and Nassun are finally reunited, in the last chapters, and it is as heartbreaking as you might imagine. Mother and daughter have both been through unimaginable horrors, and come out the other side hardened. But underneath all the tragedy, there is a tide of furious, fierce hope, a hope that things can be better if you force them to be.

The worldbuilding is spectacular. I know this even if I didn’t completely understand it. Jemisin showcases a society rooted in biotechnology, that uses the Earth’s magic to create tech that will grants convenience, a strong metaphor for our world’s use of fossil fuels and the like. It is an impressively creative way to combine science and magic. Like all of Jemisin’s books, and the reason why she is heralded as one of today’s best fantasy writers, The Stone Sky’s worldbuilding borrows little from existing societies or histories. It is wholly original, fresh, truly fantastical, the sort of fantasy that isn’t just faux-(insert historical civilization here), but completely unique.

At the close of the trilogy, the story wraps up beautifully, in a way that explicates the series’ narrative style, which, as I have come to understand, is Hoa weaving a complex story. It’s absolutely brilliant. The entire series is a masterful achievement of epic, that quality in fantasy that makes chills run down your spine from the awe of it all. What a grand, epic adventure.

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

594139Title: REBECCA
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Release Date: 1938
Pages: 387
Publisher: HarperCollins
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’ve never read any classic Gothic literature before, but if they’re all like this, sign me up. Du Maurier absolutely excels at atmospheric writing; the setting of this novel is so palpable I could feel the oppressive heat in my own room, could smell the grotesquely huge rhododendrons, could hear the ebb and flow of the waves. From the very first page of the book I could feel myself sinking into its cozy depths. I read it slowly, savoring the rich prose, wanting to curl up with a blanket and a cup of warm tea. It’s that type of book.

But lest you think that it rests on its pretty prose and succumbs to its own Gothic atmosphere by dragging on dully, I have to tell you that Rebecca is truly a thriller. Part psychological, yes, but part straight-up noir thriller! You could sense there was some big reveal coming up, and by the middle of the novel I was turning pages so fast I had to pause and make sure I was truly reading every line carefully, savoring the prose. Du Maurier builds plot tension as well as she constructs atmospheric tension, and I’m sure many an English major has written about how her descriptions of the weather parallel the plot. It’s brilliant, with reveals I did not see coming.

I was very frustrated with our nameless narrator for much of the book, and even more so after the reveal, which I shall not divulge here. What I will say is that I can understand why she feels so small in Rebecca, who looms larger than life over the narrator’s relationship with her new husband Maxim. She looms over Manderly, over the servants, over the town, over the acquaintances…and so the narrator, already shy, shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until she barely exists.

All that’s there is her love for Maxim, despite the way he treats her almost as an afterthought, and I’m not entirely sure the reveal explains all that away. She is infuriatingly passive, very shy, and rather a daydreamer. All this makes for an fascinating, if not particularly engaging, heroine, but she was certainly a change from the usual female leads I usually read. That was refreshing. I haven’t read enough classic literature to say if this is because of the book’s era, though.

Overall, a rich, atmospheric, and utterly thrilling read!

Book Review: Now I Rise by Kiersten White

22817331Title: NOW I RISE
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 471
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

One of the weaknesses of book one was that, being the first in a series, it had a lot of introductions to make. That lent itself to a lot of expository narrative that wasn’t particularly gripping, and as a result the plot was somewhat slow. This second book suffers no such issues

Picking up right where book one left off, Lada is back in Europe, trying to win back Wallachia, while Radu is by Mehmed’s side at all things. Alternating between both Lada and Radu’s perspectives, the narrative serves us two climaxes in paralleling story lines that leave us with a pair of disillusioned siblings.

From the get-go the plot races. Radu is sent to Constantinople to be a spy for Mehmed, while Lada tries to win alliances to get her throne back. Radu does so many things that weigh on his conscious that he grows disenchanted. Lada’s cruelty and viciousness grows even stronger, but in the process she also becomes jaded. The two siblings constantly think of one another, of how the other might do things, of how they need one another, and by the end I was longing for their reunion. Both of them also develop more complex feelings for Mehmed, still love, but mingled with other, more negative feelings as well, feelings that result from Mehmed’s actions as he himself grows in ambition and viciousness.

I’m also very pleased that all our characters continue to grow in complexity. I didn’t think I could love Radu more, but as we continue to learn more about him I find he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite male characters in literature. I appreciate Lada just as much, as well as Nazira, Radu’s wife, and the new character of Cyprian. White does such a fantastic job capturing the nuances of various characters. I’ve read a lot of books with forgettable characters so I love that the characters here are all so memorable and unique.

This is going to be a rather short review, as I don’t have too much to say other than that this book is just as well-written as the first only with a faster, more engaging plot. I will, however, say that the book ends with a spectacularly badass scene on Lada’s end, a scene that showcases how much her viciousness has grown. It was bloody beautiful. I’m so excited for the third part in this trilogy.