Tag: FairyTale

Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic, where shity things happen. And they don’t happen for a reason, or in threes, or in a way that looks like justice. They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any. And the author’s voice –your grandmother’s voice—is perfectly pitiless. She’s like a war reporter who doesn’t give a fuck.
-Ellery Finch on The Tales from the Hinterland

For as long as she can remember, Alice and her mother have been running, running from bad luck, running from recognition. Until one day they can’t run far enough and Ella is taken, leaving no clues except the warning to “Stay Away from the Hazel Wood,” the estate of Alice’s reclusive fairytale-telling grandmother. As one would expect, Alice promptly sets out for The Hazel Wood in search of her mother, only to find truths about herself instead.

I came to The Hazel Wood with some anticipation. I loved Girls Made of Snow and Glass and this was recommended as an up-and-coming book for fans who enjoyed Girls. With that said, the books are very different. Even having read the description, I didn’t anticipate how dark The Hazel Wood would be. The Hazel Wood is more Grimm Brothers than it is Hans Christian Anderson.

At the heart of The Hazel Wood is a fictional book—Tales From The Hinterland—written by Alice’s grandmother. Several of the stories are retold as vignettes in The Hazel Wood and others’ characters assert themselves into the narrative often enough for me to draw the conclusion that absolutely none of them end happily and not usually for any particular point. There is no allegory to the Hinterland Tales. Just usually misery. With these tales as the backbone of The Hazel Woods’ narrative, it’s not surprising the book starts pretty dark and only gets darker. (Which is not to say the narrative doesn’t have a satisfying resolution—there isn’t darkness for darkness sake and the characters do each have arcs that resolve, even if everything isn’t Happily Ever After.)

The main character Alice was someone designed to have the reader identify with her—she isn’t in the popular crowd, she’s a little weird, and she feels disconnected from people around her. In this way Alice is the EveryGirl of YA books and could easily have felt a bit like a trope of the damaged teen girl with shades of Alice in Wonderland (though the author says this name-nod isn’t a choice to give the Alice in Wonderland tale any more weight than any other fairytale reference). Despite this beginning, as Albert spun The Hazel Wood, I grew quickly more connected to Alice and invested in her story. Alice didn’t feel overwrought or like a recycled character but her own person. Indeed, through Alice, Albert introduces themes of agency in one’s story that felt all the more powerful with the parallels to fairytale Alice, who had little control over her story in Wonderland. Alice did strike other reviewers as unnecessarily rude, self-centered, and prone to violence; however, this aspect of Alice’s character is explained as you learn more about who she is—these characteristics are part of the overall larger point about agency in one’s story and even in one’s person. I didn’t find these to detract and, in my reading, they served a purpose. With that said, if you can’t get into this story after about fifty pages and Alice is your hangup, this isn’t the book for you.

The other two significant characters (in terms of their impact on Alice and/or time in the narrative) are Ellery Finch and Ella, Alice’s mother.  Ellery is a bit of a fairy godmother, if one’s fairy godmother were a teenage boy with an unlimited charge card. His money took the place of the godmother’s wand and made what would have been otherwise expensively impossible leaps in the story more plausible (to the extent that its plausible to have a friend with this kind of money—although, fairytales aren’t usually known for their plausibility so it works.) He is, to an extent, a love interest for Alice though that never goes deeper than a crush and awkward request for a first date that doesn’t really happen (unless you count going on an epic quest where someone might be killed a date. Then there’s one date.) Romance isn’t the point of the book and Albert doesn’t go there just to go there, which I appreciated. When there comes a point at which it looks like Alice might need rescuing, her rescuer isn’t Ellery alone—he’s not the Prince Charming in this book, nor does Alice need one. A potentially problematic point raised by other reviewers is Alice’s description of Ellery as someone she doesn’t find attractive—I didn’t particularly pay attention to this, interpreting it as Albert’s way of making it clear this wasn’t a romance and Alice doesn’t need a man. With that said, Ellery is also the only character described as being black/bi-racial so having the only character of color be someone the narrator specifically mentions she isn’t attracted to is understandably problematic. If Albert’s point what was I interpreted it as, she needed more characters of color so that this didn’t stick out.

I didn’t get quite enough of Ellery or of Ella, frankly. We spend very little time with Ella and only come to care for her by rooting for Alice and coming to love what (and who) she loves. Both of them were present enough for me to think I liked them but I don’t feel like I have enough information. What I’d like is a novella from each—Ellery of his experience of the same events told in The Hazel Wood and Ella as a prequel to the events that laid the foundation for the events in The Hazel Wood. (If someone knows Melissa Albert and would like to make that happen, thanks in advance.)

Easter Eggs
You’d be hard-pressed to catch every fairy tale, fandom, or feminist reference here. I’m pretty sure at one point there’s a nod to The Yellow Wallpaper and Harry Potter references abound. Outside of the narrative, these were fun little easter eggs, though some of the obvious ones that came in clusters here and there felt a touch like namedropping or trying to hard to curry favor with the fandom crowd. The annoyance I felt over this was more the feeling that these clusters that caught my attention pulled me out of the narrative, forcing me to surface when I had been deep in the story up to that point. The best books are the ones where you’re so immersed you forget you’re reading and not living the story. The Hazel Wood had this quality at points, though when these references were clustered and about fandoms (as opposed to about fairytales), it detracted a bit. With that said, if you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you won’t miss anything if you miss each and every reference. While they mostly add detail to the narrative, they aren’t necessary to any part of the plot or character development such that you’d miss anything if you missed them all.

The book read a bit like an older YA book in themes and style. Unless an adult reader has a particular interest in either YA or fairytales, this one will likely miss the mark for an adult reader who doesn’t usually read YA. For actual young adults and adult readers of YA, I do think this is a book that will worth the time investment of reading.

Alice as a protagonist is strong and capable and the twists in the plot felt original. I’m a sucker for books that raise the issue of agency and the control we have over each of our stories, so that stood out for me as a strength. The book is plot-driven enough that if you’re looking for a fun diversion (as opposed to something that will force you to ponder the secrets of the universe and the meaning of life), I do think this book will still be engaging and worth your time (though you may find it drags a bit through the last chapters as time passes differently and the plot literally slows down). If you do prefer to ponder the meaning of life, there’s also substance in this fractured fairytale for you.

Published: January 30, 2018 by Flatiron Books (@flatiron_books)
Author: Melissa Albert (@melissaalbertauthor)
Date read: March 11, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Flatiron Books and Top Shelf Text for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Scared? She had never wanted to admit when she was scared. Mina was never scared, or so she had believed. “I’m only scared it won’t work,” Lynet said, her throat dry from having been silent for so long. She stared straight ahead at the outlines of the dangling willow leaves. I’m scared I won’t be enough. “I’m scared that some wounds can’t be healed.”

“Some wounds never heal,” Nadia said. She shyly reached for Lynet’s right hand, turning it over so her palm was facing up. “But many do.”

In this feminist re-telling of the Snow White fairy tale, the kingdom is ruled by King Nicholas, still grieving his lost wife, and clinging to Lynet, the daughter who looks just like her. In the background stands Mina, the stepmother with the heart of glass crafted by her father, unable to love or to be loved. Just as Lynet is starting to discover who she is and who she wants to be, her father is gravely injured during a hunting accident. When Nicholas dies, Mina and Lynet are pitted against one another—after all, only one can be queen. Told in alternating views between Mina and Lynet, Melissa Bashardoust upends the tropes of the evil stepmother and the shrinking violet princess to bring a story of what it means to be true to oneself and to love and be loved.

Reading Level—Writing and Themes
The writing in Girls Made of Snow and Glass is simple—the reading level is 7th grade and up, yet the story is crafted well enough to hold the interest of an adult reader, even with the somewhat low reading level. The tone and pitch of the writing match classic fairy tales without erring to the side of being sing-songy in wording. The simple writing never distracts from the overall story and the pace is perfect—not too fast or too slow.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is not a Grimm fairytale by any stretch. There is limited violence (there is one particularly violent scene almost at the end when the battle between good and evil comes to a climax, but it is not terribly graphic) and no romantic overtures beyond kissing. Thematically, Bashardoust manages to convey more complicated concepts than you would typically find in a novel written at a middle school reading level, yet she handles them in ways that feel accessible to parents and children exploring and talking about these themes.

Being at home in your own skin
Lynet, born as her mother was dying and eerily similar to the departed queen, chafes against the expectations placed on her—the requests that make her feel as if she is being forced into the mold of her mother. There are several instances where Bashardoust raises Lynet feeling this way—

Lynet was overlooking the courtyard now, but she still felt like she was running from something, and that if she stopped, it would catch her. It was a restless feeling, an itch that made her feel like her skin didn’t fit over her bones correctly. She thought that she might leap out of herself and become someone new, and then she’d be at peace.

The feelings Lynet has—of not feeling like she is herself in her own body, feeling that her forced outsides don’t match her insides—seem like they would have resonance with a teen who identifies as LGBTQ or has friends who do. Lynet feels that to embrace these feelings would be to disappoint her father, whom she loves dearly.

In other scenes, Lynet grows closer to Nadia (the newly arrived surgeon for the castle, slightly older than she), she marvels that Nadia can be a stoic surgeon in the castle and also her caring, radiant friend. Later, Lynet is put in the position of forgiving Nadia and having to decide if she trusts her. Lynet’s experiences with Nadia speak volumes about female friendship. Bashardoust avoids the trope of the Mean Girl altogether—she presents Nadia making a significant mistake, one that she had reasons to make but was still altogether an error, but owning her mistakes. The error-apology-acceptance storyline is one that isn’t often done well in literature aimed at teen girls but shines here. Bashardoust handles these revelations and lessons gently, hitting the balance between being subtle and still being clear enough that the message hits home. Ultimately, the relationship between Lynet and Nadia looks like it will become something more than just friendship—Bashardoust writes this beautifully and tenderly without unnecessary handwringing about what this might mean. Lynet and Nadia just are and the book is better for it.

Loving and being loved
While Lynet is, in many ways driven and initially defined by her relationship with her father, the main relationship in the book is between Lynet and her stepmother, Mina. Mina feels incapable of loving anyone or being loved in return. Mina’s limitations here harm and confuse them both, with Mina discounting her feelings for Lynet and Lynet feeling that her stepmother has only ill will towards her.

I never had stepparents so I give my opinions here with that caveat. Amazon classifies the book, among other options, within the subcategory of “Blended Families”—while this isn’t a category that immediately occurred to me, it’s absolutely appropriate. Mina and Lynet make mistakes—both in their expectations and desires of what they want the other to be. I don’t want to give anything away, but here too, there is so much fodder for good discussion of what it means to be family and love a family member who might not be blood-related to you.

Free will
With everything going on when you’re a teenager, it is easy to feel that you don’t have agency over your own life. Everyone from your parents and friends to society generally have expectations and labels. It sometimes feels easier to go with the flow and forget that you have choices. One of the strengths of Bashardoust’s tale is that her characters are ultimately the masters of their own destinies. This is not Snow White saved by seven (little) men. While the women in the story—Lynet and Mina in particular but Nadia as well—have to grapple with the impact caused by the actions of the men in their lives, how those choices impact them and what they do next is entirely within their control. I wanted to stand up and cheer. Bashardoust’s characters are believable—they absolutely have flaws—but they have power (figuratively and literally), they make choices, and they live with the consequences. Mothers, here are some good role models for your daughters.

Accessible Feminism
(I’m going to start by saying that I generally identify as feminist. That’s a loaded word and I’m not going to unpack it here, but I do feel it’s worth saying so that the next part doesn’t come across as possibly sarcastic.)

I knew going into this book that it was a feminist re-telling of Snow White. I wasn’t sure how that would fit in with the dwarves (spoiler….there are no dwarves) or what it would mean for the evil stepmother character. I was expecting, frankly, to be a little hit over the head with the moral lessons (otherwise, why emphasize that it’s so feminist).

I was pleasantly surprised with how beautiful the story of Girls Made of Snow and Glass ultimately was. The “F” word appears nowhere in the book—there are no asides or speeches about feminism or girl power. Instead, Bashardoust simply depicts women and girls who have agency, have self-respect, and make choices that affect themselves and others. There is no fanfare over the feminism here, it just is. The book is better for not having made a fuss, but rather presented the themes and the powerful female characters as just the way things are. Because frankly, women having agency and power is/should be just the way things are.

Throughout Girls Made of Snow and Glass there are little gems that can spark great discussion between parents and children about being comfortable in your own skin, the expectations people (often unfairly) have of you, and what it means to be a friend (even when you’ve been betrayed or been the betrayer). The moral lessons never feel overbearing but are cleverly and clearly conveyed so that there is no missing the message.

Even though I am not a parent (or even close to becoming one), I adored this book. It was an empowering and fun read, well worthy of my time investment.

Published: September 5, 2017 by Flatiron Books (@flatiron_books)
Author: Melissa Bashardoust
Date read: August 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars