I’m delighted to welcome my fellow reviewer to the site – Nick Hedges. Nick is a seasoned book-reviewer, a fellow reading-obsessive, and all-round top banana; and he’s here with me today to debate about / review The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert.
For those of you who haven’t yet heard of this novel, it tells the story of Alice; a girl alone with her mother Ella, travelling aimlessly across America. Bad luck seems to follow them, and they're never able to stay still for long, for fear that it'll catch up with them. Alice is gagging to learn more about her mysterious grandmother Althea - an author who created a book full of eerie fairy tales (which is almost impossible to get a copy of), and who lives in a place known only as Hazel Wood.
Ella finally marries a rich man in New York, and Alice thinks they've finally found a place to settle... until her mother goes missing. With the help of Ellery Finch, a rich kid from her school, she goes in search of Ella, only to find a place that's way beyond anything she ever could have imagined...
Lucy: So, Nick; thanks for agreeing to chat about this book. I personally loved it, but I know you didn’t feel the same way.
Nick: I was a bit disappointed, if I’m honest. I was expecting so much from it, especially given how many positive reviews there are online.
Lucy: People have been totally raving about it.
Nick: Including you!
Lucy: Yep, including me; I loved the sheer creativity of it, and the spookiness. At the centre of every fairy story there’s usually an eerie heart beating out darkness; and this book caught the essence of that really well.
Nick: I’d agree with you there; to an extent. Just to explain to anyone out there who hasn’t read the book – Alice’s grandmother Althea has written a creepy book of fairy stories called Tales from the Hinterland; and the tales within that book are told throughout the novel. Now, they were brilliant. The story of Alice Three-Times; that was 100% eerie fairy story telling at it’s best. It’s just the other parts that fell flat for me.
Lucy: I totally loved the fairy stories too – they were stand-out. Which parts did you dislike, then?
Nick: The whole section at the start, which was set in New York; that felt really laborious and drawn-out. I was struggling to stay focused.
Lucy: What about the family dynamics that are explored? E.g. Alice’s relationship with her strange mother, or her friendship with Ellery Finch (a rich boy who is obsessed with Althea’s book)?
Nick: I didn’t have a problem with exploring the family dynamics, though I did find the characters a bit one-dimensional. I think my biggest problem was with Alice herself. She just wasn’t likeable. I didn’t connect with her in any way.
Lucy: Wasn’t that the idea, though?
Nick: I take your point, but as a reader, you still need to care about the protagonist, otherwise it doesn’t inspire you to read on.
Lucy: See, that’s really interesting, because I did connect with her – that internal rage, that prickly personality…I quite liked that.
Nick: (laughing) Maybe that’s because you’ve been a teenage girl and I haven’t.
Lucy: What about the second half of the book, then; when they enter the Hazel Wood? I personally enjoyed this part, I thought it was wildly inventive, and I loved all the fairy-story characters roaming around.
Nick: I’m glad you liked it, but for me, it was a big, confusing mess. There’s a fine line between inventive and completely weird, and I think this section of the book was definitely the latter.
Lucy: You know me, I’m always happy to embrace the strange!
Nick: Me too, normally – but this didn’t strike the right note. As for the person weaving the stories..
Lucy: Well, we mustn’t say too much about that, as it might spoil the surprise for people who haven’t read the book yet. But yes, I agree with you – that aspect could have been explored more. I was left with a few questions at the end.
Nick: Yeah, for me, it was a lacklustre book all round, without the darkness it promised. I simply didn’t care what happened, and that’s a great shame.
Lucy: And for me, it was one of the stand-out books that I’ve read recently, with plenty of darkness, lots of intrigue, and a clever storyline! Just goes to show how subjective it is, doesn’t it?
Nick: Oh god, yes. That’s half the fun of reading – having fierce debates about it afterwards!
Lucy: So, to conclude – what did you give it out of five, Nick?
Nick: I saw some good in the novel, mainly in the Tales of the Hinterland stories, but other than that, it didn’t deliver for me. So I’m giving it a 2/5 stars. What about you? I think I probably know the answer already!
Lucy: Yep, as predicted, it’s a full 5/5 stars from me. I loved it. Wouldn’t you love it if the author decided to create a spin-off book called Tales of the Hinterland, which just told the dark stories of the creatures there?
Nick: Now that would be really good, I’d definitely be up for reading that! And, just to clarify, I think the author writes some beautiful prose – there were several descriptions that were fantastic, it was just the storyline and the characters that let it down for me.
Lucy: I agree about her style of writing, it is very rich and descriptive. Thanks so much for having this debate with me, it’s always great to chew the fat over books.
Nick: Agreed, nice to talk to you too!
Both Nick and I received a copy of this book via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest opinion (and spirited debate!).