Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: 'The Hazel Wood' - What We Liked, What We Didn't & Why It's Still Fairy Tale Catnip

We must begin with the book's premise because the atmosphere of The Hazel Wood and its promises are as much a part of the experience as the actual story. Based on this alone is easy to see why it quickly became a best-seller. Here's an excerpt from a wonderful summary by Caitlyn Paxson (of Goblin Fruit, NPR book reviews, Fakelore Podcast):
Official/promotional tarot card featuring quotes by characters

Alice has spent her whole life on the run with her mother, almost as if something terrible is chasing them. They can't ever seem to escape their family legacy: Alice's grandmother is a famous author, who wrote a book of dark fairy tales set in a mythical world called the Hinterland. It's a book so rare and compelling that it has die-hard fans who've never even read it — including Alice. Alice doesn't know her grandmother, who shut herself away in an estate called the Hazel Wood before Alice was even born, but she is secretly obsessed with her and the elusive world that she created. 
When the news comes that her grandmother has died, it seems like maybe Alice and her mother can finally catch their breath. They settle into a life in New York, but Alice keeps waiting for the darkness to find them. 
Sure enough, one day Alice goes home to find that her mother has been kidnapped by terrifying creatures who may be the denizens of the Hinterland come to life. The only clue is a torn page from her grandmother's book, and a dire message from her mother: "Stay away from the Hazel Wood."
Just reading this description has us wishing to re-read it, it's so compelling. How can you not be intrigued when the official blurb includes the phrase: "the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales"? It's clearly enchanting but we've been hesitant to review this book. The Hazel Wood made such a splash on social media, impressively got optioned for a movie even before being released, and so many fairy tale aficionados seem to really love it, we knew it would be a tough review, especially if we didn't completely love it too.

We wanted to love it. We expected to love it. We just... didn't - at least not "completely".

We do love the approach of debut author Melissa Albert and all she has to say about the story and why she wrote it, not to mention her "whys" of being drawn to fairy tales. Speaking to Bustle she said:
"Fairy tales seem, when I reread them now, almost shockingly spare. They’re more of a skeleton you can hang different skins on," Albert says. "The Hazel Wood isn’t a retelling, but it plays with elements of lots of the tales I loved as a kid." Among her inspirations: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” “The Juniper Tree,” and "The Little Mermaid."
It's obvious Albert is a talented writer with great ideas and her debut novel is clearly catnip for fairy tale folk; there's so much great fodder there to feed a fairy tale soul.

Czech cover
As Caitlyn says so eloquently:
This book is crafted with all the care that goes into spinning nettle shirts for your enchanted swan-brothers and all the agony and beauty of spitting up roses and diamonds. It looks head-on at trauma, and gives its compelling heroine the space to find her truth and begin the hard work of healing her wounds. It ponders fandom and the true nature of the places we idolized as children. It even has an Alan Lomax shout-out for all the folklore nerds in the audience.
And we do agree with the entire paragraph above.

Bulgarian cover
Unfortunately, our lasting impression is largely dissatisfaction. It feels strange to read a constant flow of gushing, glowing reviews when your takeaway is so different, so we are finally sharing our impressions via a "likes vs dislikes" summary. Perhaps there are readers that will relate here and there, or perhaps it just illuminates why, perhaps, we're just not the best audience for this novel.

That said we will be watching for more from Albert with great interest and will happily pre-order that promised book of tales, should it ever be completed! (More on this below.) So now to our lists:

What We Liked:
  • The gorgeous cover, very alluring to fairy tale folk
  • The "book within a book" that the story revolves around, Tales From The Hinterland, and the concept of a cult-followed fairy tale collection (*shivers of delight!*)
  • The unique take on a changeling' (a.k.a. an "ex-story")
  • Use of fairy tale motifs beyond the well-known ones
  • The idea and character of the grandmother, Althea Proserpine, and her interviews - we wanted more
  • Opening with, and interweaving Vanity Fair interviews, clippings etc - gave it a great flavor - this kept us reading, hoping for more
  • The potential for the online community/cult, to have a life beyond the book - for real-life readers to take up the torch
  • The idea of stories being alive (just like real fairy tales are)
  • Some of the initial imagery and use of language was unique and genuinely spell-binding
  • There are lots of folklore "easter-eggs" and allusions and parallels to myth and some fairly big (often inverted) fairy tales - the names of characters are chosen for good reason
  • Where the Hinterland encroached on the real world, it worked well and felt like a real force of "Otherness"
  • We saw lots of potential for inspiration a community of readers to create related ephemera: magazine clippings, story fragments, page fragments, endpaper designs, gate designs (& motifs used in the real world as an 'echo'), used library cards, old photos, scratchings of fantasy illustrations on modern coffee napkins, mentions on web pages like clues, discussion board transcripts by the 'cult following' etc
  • The telling of Althea's tales* (relayed by other characters) was truly magical and brought those tales to life. This is where the author shone; the tales and the telling of them, along with the  Vanity Fair reports of Althea's own story, were the absolute gems of the book. We kept reading in hopes of another tale and another... Sadly there were only two included. As another reviewer put it: If Albert wrote out the Hinterland fairy tales and published it, I would buy that in a heartbeat.
French and Serbian covers
That's a lot of like! You may even wish to stop here. If you're curious though (and what person interested in fairy tales doesn't have that trait), what follows is our "other" list.

What We Didn't Like:
  • That only two of the all-important twelve tales were 'told'/ included within the novel (and none of the others are available anywhere).
  • Too many fairy tale motifs used, particularly once Alice was in the Hinterlands.
    • the mentions were so constant and distracting (like "stream of consciousness") the text felt "overstuffed" - we felt like flagging all the mentions just to tally the number per page and chapter (Note: we realize a reader who isn't as obsessed with fairy tales wouldn't be so bothered. It might actually be useful and great for re-reads for most folks.)
    • the references felt a bit like name dropping rather than significant
  • Gratuitous bad language - it often felt out of place, unnatural, trying too hard to be edgy
  • The protagonist, Alice, was more than just "unlikable".  She was so relentlessly angry, often speaking venomously to those in her company. As with the "kick the puppy" syndrome in movies**, we didn't like spending time with her and so didn't care very much when things were tough for her.
  • Alice's obsession with her Grandmother's book of tales was such a driving force in all her actions it implied things would change for her (or change her), or perhaps things would be clearer - or more twists revealed - if she ever got to read the whole collection. As it never happened it felt the story was incomplete and the author reneged on a promise.
  • The author's use of language - at first unique and interesting - never quite settled into a natural rhythm and had a tendency to feel self-conscious.
  • There was not nearly enough about the grandmother - it's almost as if we were tricked into being obsessed with her too then had no avenues open to us when no more information was forthcoming.
  • Once entering Hinterland (aka Fairyland, aka Fairy Tale Land) it was often written like an extended, oversaturated dream sequence, and quickly became boring.
  • The lack of the complete fairy tale book  (Tales From The Hinterlands) either within the pages or somewhere in the real world or on the web to be found, meant possibilities beyond the book fizzled pretty quickly - like an unfinished idea - it felt like a huge missed opportunity.
  • Naming so many specific book and film (and music) titles pulled us out of the story; current novels especially (eg. Boy Snow Bird) are too recent a "reader experience" to see referenced without getting somewhat derailed.
  • While we didn't mind Hinterland being very dark, there really didn't seem much space left in Fairy Tale Land for wonder and enchantment; we missed that balance. Even the dark fae tend to simultaneously attract and repel their victims.
  • We didn't care a lot about the conclusion, especially once it was clear we'd never get to read the rest of Althea's book (set up as one of the main mysteries). The restless ending only served to amplify our ambivalence throughout.
We felt the book never completely settled into a confident rhythm and were left tired and sad at the end.
UK cover and Spanish cover
Readers can probably see that our second list isn't the usual set of reader criticisms. We were very conflicted reading this book. As we said at the outset, perhaps it's just that we're not the ideal audience for the novel.

It should be noted, that hasn't stopped us from remaining intrigued by the premise, and the promise of a new book of fairy stories. Despite our objections, we remain drawn to the catnip which is The Hazel Wood.

What We're Wishing For Now:
  • We feel like this book begs for a companion, namely, Tales From The Hinterland. Somewhere there needs to be a complete copy of the tales, even if it's via a difficult internet hunt to unearth them. A unique "re" published volume would be a great marketing tie-in and awesome collection of new and unique tales. Without the opportunity to read the tales it feels as though we're missing a large chunk of the story. 
    • Note: Since first writing this review, it has been announced that a companion volume, Tales From the Hinterland, that is, the entire collection of Althea Proserpine's tales will be published sometime in 2020. We will happily pre-order this as soon as it's possible. Though it will likely work fine as a standalone, perhaps it will also serve to give us more of a sense of completeness for The Hazel Wood. Before this much-anticipated volume, however, a sequel to The Hazel Wood will be published first sometime during 2019. The title just revealed as of January 11, 2019, is The Night Country.
  • A movie may very well make better sense of the great collection of ideas in the book and focus it better, especially if they're judicious with the design, in using/combining fairy tale motifs and in focusing on which characters to develop properly
We will probably give this novel a re-read down the line and believe we are likely to appreciate it more a second time around. For now, though, we will stick to re-reading Althea's tales. More than any experience of Alice's in "Fairy Tale Land", the tales, as dark as they are, were the sections that showed us that even in the darkest of woods there is hope. 

Bonus fairy tale article of the day:
Interested in how fairy tale tropes are challenged, tales are inverted and use of various myths mine the depths of this novel? You may be interested in:
by CS Peterson.

* The two tales are 'Alice-Three-Times' and 'The Door That Wasn't There'.
** It is said that once a character in a movie kicks a dog, the audience loses all sympathy for him (or her) and nothing they do to redeem themselves from then on  - even, say, saving a planet of orphaned baby pandas  - will make an audience be on their side again. The act crosses a "moral event horizon" and is essentially unforgivable.


  1. Great review! Although overall I loved the book, I had some of the same misgivings---specifically the relentless name dropping and the stilted "trying too hard to be edgy" language. As for the other tales of Althea, I had figured those would come in subsequent books and it looks like that will happen. I think this author has enormous potential and will likely improve as she goes along. Excited to see how these other books turn out!

  2. That's Great Review. Thanks for sharing