ARC Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood
The Hazel Wood
by Melissa Albert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow this book was good. So dark and creepy and just wonderfully well written. I found myself becoming lost in the story which considering how tired and stressed I was while reading it was pretty impressive.


THE BLURB

Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the strange bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate – the Hazel Wood – Alice learns how bad her luck can really get. Her mother is stolen away – by a figure who claims to come from the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: STAY AWAY FROM THE HAZEL WOOD. 

To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began . . .


MY REVIEW

I have to admit that while I initially had high hopes for this book, I did see some negative reviews that put a little bit of doubt in my mind. Thankfully though this book was right up my street. I am a huge fan of retellings and all things fairy tale and this, while not really being a retelling, certainly has the feel of one albeit a very dark and creepy one.

This is a story about stories where the lines between the real and the imagined become decidedly blurred. It’s a little confusing and frustrating at times and occasionally nonsensical but there’s so much mystery and so many twists that it’s difficult to put down. The world the author builds is incredible and draws you in so completely that it feels real. It’s dark and disturbing pretty much all of the time and I found myself getting genuine chill in places.

I’m not going to say much about the story as I think you really need to read it for yourself but essentially it’s a voyage of discovery for Alice as she tries to find her mother after she suddenly disappears. She uncovers a link to her recently deceased grandmother’s collection of dark fairy tales and has to find her way first to her grandmother’s estate, The Hazel Wood and then to the place that inspired her stories. She’s pretty much on her own with no other family and no money or resources so has to rely on a boy from school to help her but he seems a little too excited about going to the Hazel Wood.

The story is told entirely from Alice’s point of view and she is very much the focus of this story. There are other characters but they generally appear briefly, play their part and then move on. I’m not sure I would necessarily say I liked Alice but I’m not sure you’re supposed to. She’s cold, sharp and angry and not very nice but I did admire her determination and liked how the author developed her over the course of the story.

It was though, the other characters who left more of an impression on me despite only their relatively brief appearances in the story. They tended to the eccentric, with erratic sometimes violent behavior and talking in riddles (this is where it goes a little Alice in Wonderland). It’s rarely clear whether they are there to help Alice, are playing with her or using her for their own ends. I can understand some may find them frustrating and annoying but I just loved the mystery around it and found myself wanting more of them. There were a couple of characters in particular who I really wish we’d gotten to understand more about but if I’d gotten everything I wanted the book would probably be twice as long.

The one problem I will say I found with the characters however is that I thought the relationships between them were a little lacking. There just isn’t enough time spent fully developing them and consequently I didn’t feel their connection to each other. The relationship between Alice and her mother for example is key to the story, the whole plot is Alice trying to find her, but because her mother only appears briefly I didn’t feel any closeness. We have to rely on Alice’s assertions of how much her mother means to her which for me is not the same as showing it. Similarly the relationship between Alice and the boy who’s helping her just felt a little odd and uncomfortable. That may be intentional but even by the end there was something incomplete about it.

That being said though I did love the story. It drew me in completely, so much so that I almost missed my stop on the train. I especially loved the dark fairy tales that are told as part of the story and would really love it if the author wrote the whole complete collection at some point. Almost every story is left unfinished or interrupted and they were just so creepy and dark that I want to know how they end.

Overall, despite a few niggles over the relationships I have to say I really loved this story. It’s one I’d recommend to anyone who likes fantasy and fairy tales with a dark twist.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC. As always all thoughts are my own.

The Hazel Wood is due to be published on 30th January in the US and 8th February in the UK.

Advertisements

Review: Hunted by Meagan Spooner

HuntedHunted by Meagan Spooner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love a good retelling and this is a great retelling.

It’s based on Beauty and the Beast and sticks pretty close to the original version but is a little darker with a Beauty who’s possibly even fiercer than the Beast. It’s surprisingly light on romance but absolutely full of magic and mystery and weaves in more than a few fairy tales and magical creatures.

I’ve read many, many retellings and this is definitely one of the best. I literally couldn’t put it down.


Synopsis

Beauty knows the Beast’s forest in her bones—and in her blood. Though she grew up with the city’s highest aristocrats, far from her father’s old lodge, she knows that the forest holds secrets and that her father is the only hunter who’s ever come close to discovering them.

So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there’s no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas…or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman. But Yeva’s father’s misfortune may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he’d been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance.

Deaf to her sisters’ protests, Yeva hunts this strange Beast back into his own territory—a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of creatures that Yeva’s only heard about in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin or salvation. Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?


Thoughts

“She moves like beauty, she whispers to us of wind and forest—and she tells us stories, such stories that we wake in the night, dreaming dreams of a life long past. she reminds us of what we used to be.

She reminds us of what we could be.”

Beauty and the Beast is probably one of the most common retellings (I can instantly think of half a dozen) but while this sticks fairly close to the original it does somehow manage to bring something new and different. Both Beauty and the Beast feel like completely new characters and there are a few key differences which add a richness and depth to the story I didn’t expect.

One of the main highlights for me was the setting, which is based on medieval Russia. Russia always seems to have the most extreme weather, with the coldest and most brutal winters and this really brought a feeling of isolation, wildness and magic to the story which really worked.

Yeva made for a wonderful Beauty and there was a lot about her that I could relate to. She longs for independence and freedom and feels guilty for wanting more than the privileged life she has. In many ways she actually doesn’t know what she wants so just has this unsatisfied and restless feeling. The only time she really feels calm is when she’s hunting, something considered unladylike.

Want is something she has in common with the Beast. He wants something and believes he needs a hunter to get it but doesn’t expect that hunter to be Yeva.

I absolutely loved the relationship between Yeva and the Beast. There’s very little in the way of romance between them especially in the beginning as Yeva wants nothing else but to kill the Beast and he will go to any means to get her to do what he needs her to. It’s a relationship full of distrust, threats and betrayal but occasionally there are moments when they realize they may have more in common than they thought.

What was also fantastic was the way the author managed to weave in other fairy tales and stories. When they are first getting to know each other Yeva tells the Beast stories (something that reminded me of A Thousand and One Nights) and these stories of magic, curses and fantastical creatures become an integral part of the story.

If I had one minor quibble with the story it was that I really didn’t like the hunting (I know it’s called Hunted). I’m not a vegetarian so I know it makes me a total hypocrite but I’m very squeamish about killing and skinning animals, something that features quite a lot. I found it difficult to reconcile the Yeva who took pleasure in killing rabbits and deer and the Yeva was devoted to her dogs. I know it was necessary to survive but it was just a little too brutal and bloodthirsty for me.

Despite this however I would definitely recommend you read this book whether like me you’re completely obsessed with retellings or if you simply want a great fantasy novel.

ARC Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine  Arden
The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Based on Russian history and folklore, this is a beautifully written and atmospheric story that I liked a lot. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite wow me as much as I had hoped it would but it’s definitely one I’d recommend as it could be the beginning of a very interesting series.


Synopsis (from GoodReads)

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.


Thoughts

When I first finished this book I really couldn’t make up my mind about it and even now a few days later I’m still not sure. As a lover of fairytales, magic and tales of things that go bump in the night and lurk in the woods it should have been the perfect read for me. However, while I liked it a lot I found it to be missing that special something that would take it from good to great.

It is a beautifully written story. The author does a magnificent job of transporting you to a magical and wild land in medieval Russia. The writing is so evocative you almost feel like you are there, huddling around the fire, travelling across the cold and snowy wilderness or visiting the market and palaces of Moscow.

The characters are also very well created and believable and there is a unique and captivating story in there but for me it was missing the emotion I needed to really connect to it. When I was reading on the way home from work after a long day I found my attention wandering and had to re read certain pages more than once before I took it in.

This lack of emotion and connection to any of the characters was due, I believe, to the constantly switching point of view from one character to another. It moves from father to mother to nanny to Grand Prince to priest and on and on. I found this particularly bad in the first half of the book where I actually started to wonder who the main character was, if there was one and where it was all going. I also struggled a little with the different names used for the same character. I understand that this is accurate for the time and place and that the author had tried to make it easy for the English reader but I still found myself getting confused at times with so many different characters and so many names.

As a result of the switching focus and insight into each of the different characters the story felt quite slow in the beginning. It did give a real sense of time and place which was fascinating in some ways but I did feel like a lot of it could have been covered much faster without so many characters. I probably would have cut a whole part where the father visits Moscow as it didn’t really add much and I was close to giving up.

Thankfully however the story does turn around. There is a lot more focus on Vasilisa and the strange events that start to occur in the village where she lives. Vasilisa is a very likeable character. An outcast in the village due to some very unique abilities, she’s brave, a little wild and not cut out for the options available to her at that time (marriage or a convent). I loved almost every chapter she was in, I just wish the author had stuck with her  and the events around her throughout.

The pacing of the story was a little bit off for me, too slow in the beginning and too fast at the end but it is a good story. It is the first in a trilogy so I think there is some real potential. I will definitely be giving the next book in the series a try.

I think whether you love this book or not will come down to why you read. If you’re looking for a beautifully written and vivid world with a slow building story and a mix of Russian history and folklore I think you’ll love this book. Unfortunately for me, while I could appreciate it, I didn’t love it.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC. As always all views are my own.

ARC Review: Heartless by Marissa Meyer

HeartlessHeartless by Marissa Meyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, just wow.

I read this a couple of weeks ago but my emotions were so all over the place on finishing that I had to leave it for a little while before writing a review. I’m still not entirely sure I’ve recovered so I will apologize in advance if this is a little all over the place.

Having read, and loved, the Lunar Chronicles it’s safe to say I had high hopes for this book but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite that good. I laughed, I cried, I begged and I was jumping up in down in my seat with anxiety. I loved every moment.Read More »

ARC Review: Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige

Stealing Snow (Stealing Snow, #1)Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Maybe I really was crazy. I’d followed the word of a boy I didn’t know to look for a Tree in the woods to save the life of my boyfriend who had disappeared through a mirror”

Hmm…. where to start with this review.

I wanted to like this book so much but unfortunately it was a little bit of a letdown. I’m a huge big fan of any kind of re telling so I was very excited when I spotted this on NetGalley. I did begin to have some doubts about it when I noticed there were so many negative reviews but I was ever hopeful they were wrong.


Synopsis

The story is a re telling of the Snow Queen, which I have to admit is not a story I know particularly well, and begins with main character Snow in a mental ward where’s she’s been for most of her life after trying to walk through a mirror as a child. She has some anger management issues, which they try to control by giving her a cocktail of drugs she’s named after the seven dwarfs (sleepy, dopey, grumpy, happy etc). She also has a major attachment to one of the other patients, Bale, who she’s been forbidden from seeing after they kissed and he deliberately hurt her.

Frustrated, one night she manages to sneak out of her room to see him but when she gets there something very strange happens, a set of arms appear through a mirror in his room and pull him through. Unable to follow through the mirror she has to find another way to get to the land beyond to try to save the boy she loves.

When she gets there she finds that she is the lost Princess of the realm with a powerful destiny but all she really wants is to rescue her friend. She’s offered help by witches, monsters, robbers and others but who can she trust and who is after something from her.


Thoughts

I think there are the bones of a really good story in this book but frustratingly for a number of reasons it just didn’t quite work. It actually started quite well and I had high hopes that the other reviews would be wrong. The scenes in the mental hospital are probably the best in the book and did draw me in but unfortunately as soon as she made her escape the story somehow lost its way.

For me the main problem, I’m sorry to say, was the writing. The whole thing feels a little too rushed and a bit disjointed. It seems to jump from one scene to the next at breakneck speed and, while I like a lot of action and dialogue in a book, it felt like it needed to stop and take a breath. There wasn’t enough description and world building and definitely not enough character development, criticisms I very rarely make as I’m not a fan of lengthy and flowery descriptions.

Everything seemed to come too easily or be revealed too quickly. There was no struggle and therefore I didn’t feel any of the emotion. Characters immediately revealed their deepest, darkest secrets to each other, magic was instantly available and battles seemed to happen every few pages. There was so much going on and being revealed it was difficult to keep up.

Snow was ok as far as characters go. I did quite like her at the start but eventually found her to be so changeable and flighty that it became a little frustrating. She’s a little selfish and far too ready to give up and be rescued to make a convincing heroine.

The current dragged me down, and I could feel the pressure of the air I was holding in my nose and behind my eyes. I needed to get to the surface. I needed air. I felt myself give up.

The other frustrating thing about this book is the romance. I’m afraid I didn’t buy into the Snow and Bale relationship. Bale is abducted pretty much at the start so we mostly learn about their relationship through flashbacks but I just didn’t feel it and consequently couldn’t understand why she was willing to go to any lengths to rescue him.

This was further confused by the introduction of two further love interests. Yep there’s a love quadrangle. I’d expected this from the other reviews and wasn’t particularly against the idea but again it doesn’t quite work. I think it’s the fact that every single male she meets just so happens to be her age and seems to be in love with her and she’s attracted to them. I know being locked in a mental ward she hasn’t gotten out much but I’m still not convinced you would fall in love with every boy you met and get all confused about your feelings.

Despite these negatives it’s not a bad book. There are some good writing moments and at the start I did find myself highlighting the odd passage here or there that I liked. Some of the other characters are interesting and it would be good to see more of them. With some editing and a slower pace I do think this could be a really good story (it feels like it’s in there somewhere) but it’s not quite working yet. It may be different for younger readers (unfortunately I’m no longer a young adult) who’re looking for a story with plenty of action, romance and some magic so please don’t be put off by my review.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC.

Book Review: Fairest by Marrissa Meyer

Fairest (The Lunar Chronicles, #3.5)Fairest by Marissa Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another great story from Marissa Meyer this time from the point of view of the baddie.

Fairest is book 3.5 in the Lunar Chronicles and was intended as a bridge book between Cress and Winter. I somehow read them a little out of order and finished Winter before starting this but it probably doesn’t matter too much as this all takes place long before the other books.

Fairest tells the story of Levana and fills in a lot of the details of her childhood and how she became Queen of Luna. For anyone who has read the other books in the series you will already know a lot of it but this is the first time hearing it from Levana’s side. (For those who haven’t read the Lunar Chronicles, they are essentially retellings of classic fairytales with Levana the evil Queen from Snow White.)

I have to say it makes an interesting change to have a story told from the side of the villain. She does some truly terrible things in the other books (and in this one) but for most of this story I felt a lot of sympathy for her. She doesn’t have an easy time of it and comes across as lonely, damaged and desperate for someone to love her. While her actions are wrong you can understand why she acts as she does in both this and Winter, the final book in the series.

I think the “feels” in this book are definitely a mark of the quality of Marissa Meyer’s writing. It is, as always, fantastic and draws you into both the story and the emotions of the characters. I love how she always manages to work in references to the original fairytales while making the story and the world completely her own.

It is fairly short at just over 200 pages which is a pity as I could have quite happily read more about Levana but it’s a quick and enjoyable read. I look forward to seeing what Marissa does in her next series.

Book Review : King Arthur and her Knights by KM Shea

Enthroned (King Arthur and Her Knights, #1)Enthroned by K.M. Shea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love KM Shea books so much. They always have such fantastic characters and make me laugh.

This time it’s a retelling of King Arthur but with the major twist that King Arthur is really Britt Arthurs a girl dragged back to the past by Merlin when the real Arthur runs off with a shepherdess.

Britt originally thinks the whole thing is a wind up and pulls the sword from the stone as a bit of a bet with Merlin. She then decides that actually it must be a dream so why not go with it until it’s time to wake up. As a result she doesn’t take anything too seriously much to Merlin and the knights horror.

Merlin, who in this version is quite young and hot, takes on the role of instructor to Britt and teaches her all about the politics, rules and strategy. This is not particularly exciting to Britt who tries to dodge him when possible. They are very different as characters. Britt is looking for action and excitement and seems to live in the moment whereas Merlin is always plotting and scheming. It makes for a great dynamic between the two of them and a lot of the dialogue is hilarious as Merlin tries to boss her around and Britt totally disregards him.

Merlin like most of the men of the time has very little respect for women and thinks of them as silly, emotional and superficial. Britt is definitely a match for him though and proves him wrong so he is forced to develop respect for her (although not necessarily women in general).

She does a great job, slightly to her horror, of impersonating a 15 year old boy despite being “beardless”. Her whole attitude throughout is fantastic and funny and she may be one of my all time favourite characters.

The absolute highlight of the story for me was her meeting with the lady of the lake. This book is definitely worth reading for that alone.

They are really quick reads so I’ve already read the next four books in the series which are just as good. Britt continues to impersonate Arthur and gradually tries to recreate the legend of Camelot with the help of Merlin. Guinevere, Lancelot and a lot of the other well known characters gradually appear but aren’t necessarily as you would expect. Some supposed heroes have ulterior motives and Britt starts to run into the kind of relationship problems you would expect from being a 20 something year old woman impersonating a much younger male king.

The characters develop further in every story and despite being light reads there are some strong messages. I love KM Shea’s writing style and sense of humour and there is plenty of excitement and action. My only slight gripe is that there do tend to be spelling mistakes and missing words but these could be solved with a bit of proof reading.

The next book in the series is out next week and I’m really looking forward to it. I think romance will be in the air.