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!

Top 5 Wednesday: 2018 Reading Resolutions

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Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

January 3rd: 2018 Reading Resolutions: Self explanatory. Let us know 5 of your reading goals for the year.

1. Read at least 70 books. This year I read 75, which is more than I’ve ever read in my adult life (in a single year, obviously). I know perfectly well I can achieve this if I devote enough time to it. I already read on my long commute but I also want to dedicate extra time at home to read, like on the weekends, which I normally spend lounging around doing absolutely nothing.

2. Read more outside my preferred genre. I started doing this a bit this year, but the majority of my reads still fall within YA fantasy. It’s my comfort genre and of course there’s nothing wrong with it, but I think I really need to expand my tastes a bit.  Of course I want to branch out more into literary fiction and classics, but I also want to read more adult fantasy, women’s fiction, historical fiction, and mystery.

3. Read more non-fiction! I used to read non-fiction all the time  but for some reason halfway through this year I kind of just…stopped? I have a bunch of non-fiction books on my shelves and on my Kindle that I’ve been meaning to read , so I definitely want to incorporate a few of those into my reading schedule.  I still want to prioritize fiction because of course fiction is what I write, but I also like to learn!

4. Read one book in Arabic. I say one, because I know even reading just one will be a slog. I have a bunch of Arabic books, including one of short stories, and Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m technically bilingual and I can read Arabic but it takes a loooooot of concentration and asking my mom what various words mean, so it’s less of a “curl up under the covers with a book” situation and more like a “sit at a desk with a pen and notebook” situation. Still, I really want to keep my language skills strong.

5. Don’t be afraid to re-read! This year I kind of implicitly forbade myself from re-reading because I wanted to spend my time learning a new writing style, a new kind of worldbuilding, etc. I guess I thought of re-reading as a waste of time? But I also don’t want to forget the absolute joy of reading something I’m in love with. I haven’t re-read Harry Potter or Sweep in years, so this just might be the year I do that, especially since Goodreads has that fancy new re-read feature now.

Best Books of 2017

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It’s time for a compilation of the best books I had the pleasure of reading in 2017! The challenge in making this list was that rather than describing these book’s qualities, I just felt tempted to gush incoherently in all caps. I tried my best to rein that desire in.

And now — drumroll please!!! — we begin the countdown!Read More »

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!