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: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

17163123Title: TIPPING THE VELVET
Author: Sarah Waters
Release Date: 1998
Pages: 472
Publisher: Virago Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

How do I even begin to describe and review this mountain of a book, on which tomes of literary analyses have been written? Tipping the Velvet has been, alternately, described as a bildungsroman, a picaresque novel, literary smut, lesbian fiction…and I would say that all those descriptions are very, very accurate. It was a very rich, intense read, and also a rather raunchy and bawdy one.

Tipping the Velvet is styled as an autobiographical narration of one young woman’s coming of age in London. Nancy Astley, Whitstable-oyster girl, finds herself captivated by male-impersonator Kitty Butler, and leaves her home to join Kitty in London, where she soon joins Kitty on the stage. There is no traditional plot, such as it is; like a picaresque novel, this is mostly a series of loosely connected events. This, I will admit, tempered my enjoyment slightly; I’m a fan of the traditional plot structure. Without it, Tipping the Velvet seemed to drag on quite a bit in some places. However, this flaw is easily excused when one looks at the novel’s other qualities.

Sarah Waters has said that this is a “re-imagining” of of Victorian London rather than a recreation; that is, this is not so historically accurate as I had hoped. Waters has said that there is precious little evidence of such a flourishing lesbian underbelly to 1890s London, and that she has built up her version of the time period from little snatches of evidence. It’s disappointing, to be sure; I was rather under the impression that I was reading a historically accurate and well-researched recreation (given Waters’ Ph.D in 19th century gay and lesbian fiction). In hindsight, had I been a more critical reader I may have noted all the winks and nods Waters gives that point towards various embellishments.

The historical accuracy in this novel comes in the form of rich, vivid, sensory description of 19th century London; Waters brings to life the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of the city, from music-halls to pubs to slums to socialist union houses. I felt like London had come to life before my very eyes, and I found myself aching to walk the streets of the city to look for the remnants of history that Waters describes with such care and detail. 19th century London itself becomes a character in its own right, as Nancy navigates its various neighborhoods and social spheres and becomes a different person in each one.

Nancy’s malleability as a character is off-putting and makes her rather difficult to like. She flits from one life to another with relative ease, casts her family aside and never thinks of them, and is on the whole rather self-absorbed and with little self-awareness of the fact. She is, however, a compelling narrator, and her distinct voice engaged me from the very first page of the novel. Her character is also refreshing; no shame regarding her love for other women or her desire to dress up like a man. There is no tortured coming out story here; from the start Nancy acknowledges her love for women and is scornful of those who don’t accept her. Her open embrace of non-normative sexuality and lifestyles is what contributes to her eventual split from her first lover, who is fearful of losing herself to such predilections. As time goes on Nan embarks upon a sexual awakening, going from shy, hesitant sex in the dark with Kitty, to prostitution while dressed as a man, to playing mistress to a predatory wealthy woman who engaged in abusive behavior.

The sex is always explicit, and it’s revelatory. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like this novel; its contributions to the canon can hardly be understated. It was probably a bit too raunchy for my tastes, however, verging very close to erotica at various points (apparently Waters read a lot of 19th century pornography when studying for her Ph.D). I found myself exhausted that so much of Nancy’s life revolved around sex and sexual encounters. Not that I necessarily wanted something more chaste, or that I wasn’t giddy to finally read a depiction of lesbian sex in literary fiction, but there is just something I can’t articulate that made me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps it seemed that the eroticism was given more weight than actual love between the women? I’m not quite sure.

For all that, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this novel in all its incredible detail; I hardly have the words to describe how much 19th century London comes alive here. Despite the loose plot structure of the story it was nearly always compelling and intriguing, exploring class, gender, and sexuality through the eyes of a sexually brazen young woman who is unashamed of her desires. I will also say, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, that the novel ends quite happily and provides the appropriate amount of closure, allowing Nancy to acknowledge how much she values her openly lesbian lifestyle and to settle down with a woman she loves.

Book Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

30319086Title: IF WE WERE VILLAINS
Author: M.L. Rio
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m not quite sure how to start this, because this book was an unexpected emotional roller coaster for me. It’s incredible to me that I started this book struggling to tell the characters apart and by the end I found myself loving each and every one of them. Inevitably, my review is not going to properly express the admiration I have for this book, which was all at once captivating, humorous, and tragic. I will do my best to express how much I loved it without spoiling anything, as I think this book is best read knowing as little about it as possible.

At Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an exclusive school for the arts, only Shakespeare is performed. Seven fourth-year theater students have played the same archetypes, both on and off the stage, throughout their years at Dellecher. In their fourth year, however, a reshuffling of the cast roles unsettles the carefully constructed dynamic in this group, and soon one of their number is dead. The narrator, Oliver Marks, has spent ten years in prison for this crime, and as the book opens he begins to tell his story.

Rio has crafted seven individual characters and breathed life into each and every one. Yes, some characters were weaker than others, but ultimately it is the clash of these personalities, as well as their affections for and resentments towards one another that propel this narrative forward. One of my favorite tropes is that of “found families” and that is what you will find here – a slightly dysfunctional family, perhaps, but a family nonetheless. It is this utter familiarity with one another that makes it so easy to get to know these characters and love them. True to its artistic inspiration, this book is an investigation of monumental themes like guilt and villainy, love and loyalty, and the boundary between art and life. The tangled relationships between this group of characters is the driving force of the narrative; the complexity and ambiguity between the seven of them is unabashedly human, delightfully endearing, and, of course, occasionally uncomfortable. It makes for intense, rich reading.

This book is also an examination of the havoc wreaked by toxic masculinity and a subversion of normative expectations, neither of which is immediately obvious, but both of which are as integral to the plot as Shakespeare. The critique of toxic masculinity is remains somewhat obscure, unfortunately, and I do wish that it had been more clearly interrogated, though I also understand why the author chose to leave things more ambiguous. Wonderfully, however, the subversion of normative expectations (and that’s as specific as I’ll get) is unequivocal.

Speaking of richness: the prose is incredible. More than once I found myself pausing to re-read paragraphs for the sheer joy of the language. Rio uses words to paint vivid mental images of Dellecher, deftly crafting a dramatic and atmospheric setting. It’s rare that I feel so utterly transported to a place I’m reading about, but in this book, I could feel the beauty and the claustrophobia inherent in a small, enclosed campus like Dellecher. I can still picture the cold, still lake, the stars reflecting on its surface, with a tower rising out of the trees in the background. The author’s uses of analogy and metaphor are also absolutely superb, lending elegance to a narrative that could have easily devolved into melodrama given its lofty inspiration.

There’s a lot of Shakespeare in here, both literally and intertextually. Not only are there huge chunks of Shakespearean quotes as part of extended, lovingly described performances, and not only do the characters often speak in Shakespearean quotes to one another, the entire narrative is framed as a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespearean themes lurk in every corner, discussed by the characters and hinted at by the author. That is not to say this book is only for Bardolators, however: personally, I’m not Shakespeare’s biggest fan, and yet I was able to enjoy this book immensely. It certainly won’t hinder your reading experience, in my opinion, only enhance it. If you’re worried it makes things melodramatic and pretentious, don’t be – yes, there is an inherent pretentiousness to characters speaking in Shakespearean sonnets, but it is something the characters and the author are all too aware of. It is this intense self-awareness that makes the book – and the characters – much more likable than their counterparts in The Secret History, a book with similar events but radically different themes.

By the end I was surprisingly emotional. As a person, the ending made me want to curl up into a ball and sob, but as a reader and a writer, I thought it was very fitting, artistically and thematically. This is a thrilling, engaging read, with gorgeous prose, likable characters, and plenty of literary allusions. What more could one want? I highly, highly recommend this book, even if literary fiction isn’t normally your jam (it certainly isn’t mine). M.L. Rio is definitely an author whose career I will be keeping a close eye on.

Wrap-Up: December

  • The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman (★★★★★)
  • The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (★★★☆☆)
  • The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan (★☆☆☆☆)
  • Court of Fives by Kate Elliott (★★★☆☆)
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee (★★★☆☆)
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (★★☆☆☆)

MONTHLY TOTAL: 6
YEARLY SO FAR: 75

Okay, so first of all, hats off to me for finishing off a whopping six books this month! I know for a lot of folks here in the book blogging sphere that doesn’t seem like much, but I haven’t accomplished this in a long time! I definitely tried to dedicate more time to reading than I usually do this month, and because I read so many books I didn’t love, I was in a hurry to finish them and get on to something better.  Funny how that works.

So let’s talk about that, huh? This was…not a great month! It started off amazing with The Dark Days Pact, but it very steadily went downhill from there. I finally finished off The Bloodprint, which was as terrible as the first chapter promised; I’m actually surprised and proud I managed not to DNF it.  Then I wanted to try some Kate Elliot, and though Court of Fives wasn’t as terrible as some reviewers make it out to be, I didn’t love it.  The Abyss Surrounds us, a f/f sci-fi that everyone purports is the greatest thing ever, was only just okay.  Jade City, a highly anticipated fantasy, was not for me. And finally, my classic read of the month, Northanger Abbey, was dreadful.

I’m really hoping I start off the new year with better books! Currently I’m reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’m only one chapter in, so I don’t have too much of an opinion yet, but it seems entertaining.  And…that’s it! It’s been so long since I was only reading one book at a time. I’m sure that won’t last long, though.  I’m meant to be starting a buddy read of The Lymond Chronicles, beginning with The Game of Kings.  I’m also thinking to read Jane Eyre, but I’m not 100% on that yet; I think I might need a break from classics for a bit! Other than that, I don’t think I have any specific plans!

We’ve come to the end of the year, however, so stay tuned for a) a best books of the year post and b) a more reflective end of the year post including some bookish resolutions.

Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

3047636Title: NORTHANGER ABBEY
Author: Jane Austen
Release Date: 1817
Pages: 241
Publisher: Vintage Classics
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(2/5)
Review on Goodreads

Before Northanger Abbey, the only Jane Austen I had read was Pride & Prejudice. This was way back in high school, but I distinctly remember not hating the book! This might have been because I am obsessively in love with the 2005 movie (I’ve seen it over ten times), but I didn’t find the book boring or the prose unbearable. I had the exact opposite situation with Northanger Abbey, unfortunately.

First of all, despite being so named, the characters don’t even arrive at the abbey until like 60% into the book! Ostensibly about a young girl named Catherine whose love of Gothic novels leads her into awkward situations at said Abbey, it is actually just the tale of Catherine hanging out in Bath, making some friends, hanging out at the Abbey for like half a minute, then getting married. I was bored out of my goddamn mind. I mean before she gets to the Abbey it’s literally just a bunch of people taking walks and going to parties and dancing and getting to know each other. When she does get to the Abbey, her imagination runs wild for like a chapter, and then everything is fine again. There’s some drama with her brother being engaged to a friend of hers which was probably the most interesting thing to happen in the book.

I will grant that the story had some well-developed characters and clever tongue-in-cheek humor (at times). Isabella in particular has to be the most Extra character I’ve ever seen, kind of like Vampire Diaries’ Caroline Forbes on Adderall. She and her brother are both insufferable in a very entertaining way, especially when Catherine is totally ignorant of their faults. There’s a lot of funny commentary on the way women are perceived and various mocking of Gothic novel tropes which I enjoyed.

Unfortunately his could not save it for me, especially given the state of the prose. The prose twisted and turned and was never-ending – finish a goddamned sentence for God’s sake! The long, overbearing sentences made it very difficult to focus. I also really hated the narration, which often referred to “our heroine” and talked directly to the reader in such a way that was jarring and consistently forced me out of the narrative. Add to that was boring and uneventful the story was, the book ended up being one hell of a slog that I had to force myself to finish.

Book Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

24790901Title: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 273
Publisher: Flux
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

Unfortunately this book did not turn out to be as mind-blowingly awesome as I’d been led to believe, but I did still enjoy it. There were a lot of aspects to it that I absolutely loved, but there was also plenty I did not like. I can’t help thinking this book would make an incredible film or TV series, but as a book it just didn’t click with me. Which I know is a weird thing for a book blogger to say, but I it’s so rare that I feel this way about a book that I’m gonna say it anyway.

What I Liked:

→ There’s a f/f romance! This is the main reason I picked up this book. The main character, Cassandra, is gay, and this isn’t harped on about, it’s just something that is what it is. Same with her love interest, Swift.

→ The worldbuilding. The book is set in the near-future, in world ruined by climate change, a world where floodwaters have eaten up most coastal cities. The United States has split into smaller governments to better take care of their people (in theory). Also, there’s freaking sea monsters! They are genetically engineered and bred specifically to defend ships and I though this was super cool and creative.

→The book is certainly engaging! It’s a light, quick, easily digestible read, and so I was able to get through it quickly and I certainly thought it was fun!

→The protagonist. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Cassandra Leung at first, but now I think she’s the best thing about this book. She starts out pretty quiet and unassuming, mostly reacting to things around her, but she quickly goes from an ordinary morally upstanding character to the fringes of moral complexity. I really enjoyed watching her go through the stages of that moral development. Her ruthlessness just seemed to increase and increase, and I think she has it in her to be a pirate queen of her own.

→The villain. I use the word villain loosely, but Santa Elena, the pirate queen, is pretty damn cool. She took over a ship with her baby son strapped to her back and now everyone is terrified of her. She rules with an iron fist, she’s vicious and ruthless, she’s selfish and cunning, and I absolutely loved her. In fact, I would have liked this book a lot more if Cas had been aged up and Santa Elena had been her love interest, because I found her a hell of a lot more intriguing than Cas’s actual love interest. I also thought they had way more chemistry. I realize things would have been even more dubious in terms of consent and healthy relationships, but this book already veers towards the dark, and I think this would have made it more interesting.

What I Didn’t Like:

→ The romance. Ugh, I hate that I didn’t ship these two, but I hated Swift. She’s a fine character, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like her. She’s a jerk most of the time, and she’s volatile and just…I don’t know. I didn’t like her at all and so I had trouble shipping her. And I just couldn’t feel any chemistry between Cas and Swift that wasn’t contrived.

→The worldbuilding could have used a little bit more meat. This is the start of a series so I won’t harp on about this too much, but I would have liked to know a little bit more about the international world and more about the damage climate change as wrought. Just some more context would have helped.

→The writing. This book is written in first-person present tense, which is one of my least favorites, so I found it kind of jarring. Plus the writing is YA, and by that I mean there’s a lot of “something dark rose inside me” or “I felt a storm rising inside me”, that kind of thing, and it got annoying after a while. The writing is also quite bare, very straightforward, yet somehow often melodramatic.

→The action scenes and jargon. This is probably just a personal thing, but I get really put off by intense action scenes that feature a lot of jargon. In this book, there’s a lot of futuristic ship jargon and techy stuff that I found myself glazing over, which led to me being confused later on. Again, more of a personal hangup than anything.

→ Minor characters. First off, there’s really only four minor characters who even get names, and these are the ones vying with Swift for the chance to inherit the ship. The rest of the pirate crew is faceless and nameless; they’re just there. Even those four characters were barely developed. And in the case of one character in particular, he does something that gets him in trouble but it’s never really explained why he does it? What his motivations were? It just seemed like something thrown in to add more excitement to the plot.

→The ending. I won’t spoil it, but I just could not understand Cas’s decision in the end. She had the chance to take charge of her own fate but she didn’t. At all. And if we’re meant to believe she did this for ~love~ then I’m gonna need the relationship to be a little more convincing.

Overall I did have a fun time reading this book, but I didn’t enjoy the romance as much as I had hoped to, and I doubt I will be picking up the sequel. However, I will definitely be checking out other things this author writes!

Book Review: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

15993203Title: THE DARK DAYS CLUB
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 482
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I. Love. This. Book. You know when you’ve come to enjoy a book so much you don’t want it to end? I was torn between finishing this book quickly to find out what happens, and reading it slowly to savor every scene. I was hooked from the very first chapter, where the setting is quickly and fastidiously established as Regency England. A fascinating time period, and the skill of Alison Goodman’s research shines from every page! I truly felt like I was in Regency London; Goodman pays close attention to fashion, smells, common foods, popular dances, weather, locations, and so on. It all lends the book an extreme authenticity that makes it an absolute pleasure to read. I feel like I’ve just received an intriguing history lesson on Regency London! When I say this I don’t at all mean to indicate that this felt dry or textbook-like! On the contrary! But as a history nerd I do enjoy all the little details that popped up.

In The Dark Days Club, Lady Helen Wrexhall discovers that there is more darkness in the world than she first thought, and that she is inextricably bound to it. As she is introduced to this underbelly she discovers her new powers and abilities, all under the guidance of the mysterious and detested Earl of Carlston, a man who shares Helen’s powers but is also suspected of killing his wife. He and Helen share a budding but unresolved romance – in true Regency fashion, it is quite a slow burn and for the most part remains within the bounds of propriety. I think he’s a little bit of an asshole, but for me that’s what makes him interesting, that he’s so imperfect – he’s a good person, but he doesn’t have great bedside manner, so to speak.

Helen is a much more pleasant character – bright, curious, kind, but also not the stereotype I expected. She is more realistic than that: not quite rebellious, not quite so eager to shirk the boundaries of normal life and society, merely tiptoe around them. She’s a modern day women magically inserted into a Regency-era world to be the ~Exceptional Woman~. Rather, she is a realistic Regency-era woman who is heavily shaped by the customs of her time and place. She also shares a camaraderie with her maid (who becomes her partner in crime in a way), which was so refreshing to see! Female friendship is always appreciated.

The mythology here is fantastic! Not supremely original, but executed brilliantly, in a way that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details. Goodman created such an interesting world here, one with suitably high stakes that kept the tension high throughout the novel. By the 80% mark I was walking around my house doing things with my Kindle in my face because I simply could not put the book down! I absolutely love books that turn into compelling page-turners, and I love books that feel like home, which this book did. I’m a sucker for period drama set in England, and this book hit on everything I ever wanted: high-society drama, historical accuracy, the supernatural, loads of gory murder, sardonic dialogue, and nail-biting mystery!

I’m going to stop babbling because this review is long and effusive enough, but hopefully it has managed to convey the depth of my enjoyment of this book!