The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Hazel Wood

Information

Goodreads: The Hazel Wood
Series: The Hazel Wood #1
Source: OwlCrate Box Purchase
Published: January 30, 2018

Summary

eventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic 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 Hinterland, 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.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

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Review

I had no idea The Hazel Wood was going to be so dark. Before reading it, I had the vague impression it was going to be about fairy tales but also about modern-day America, a mix that can be very hit or miss for me.  I didn’t know anything else besides that a lot of my reviewer friends were raving about it. I was not expecting to be sitting up creeped out at night, worried I was going to have nightmares about the thing.  Melissa Albert is a powerful writer.

It took me a little while to warm up to the book, as it seemed to have some elements I’ve seen before: the ever-wandering teen with her single mother, travelers who never stay in one place for long.  Protagonist Alice is angsty about it, et cetera and so forth. The real magic starts once Albert introduces the idea of the Alice’s grandmothers half-famed/half-obscure book of fairy tales and the fan community that lives to track copies down.

The fairy tales interspersed through the main novel are dark and incredibly creepy, but what I really loved was that they were completely senseless.  There was no moral, no comeuppance, no reason.  Horrible things happened without logic or meaning.  They just were.  It’s not that I have some sort of cynicism about life that I saw reflected there or anything; I just thought it was a refreshing take on storytelling and kind of deliciously horrible.

Plot-wise, the book kept my attention, though the end of the book reminded me more of Ash and Bramble than I’d been anticipating (but in a way that makes way more sense than Ash and Bramble).  The middle of the book is the strongest, but the characters help drive the book even when the plot falters slightly.  I particularly enjoyed side character Finch, and Alice’s direct realization he’s an actual person and not just the sidekick in her story, and I hope the currently mysterious second book in this series will actually be a companion book about him.

My only real hang-up is that I thought the narrative voice came across like a thirty-year-old woman reflecting on her life, not a teenager. However, in world where I am frequently complaining that YA books all have the same (truly awful) prose style, I can live with this.  Perhaps it simply would have worked better in third person, rather than first person.

Finally, this is one of the few books I’ve read where I really like the literary allusions, perhaps because, while some are obvious, others are quite subtle, and I never felt as though Albert was beating me over the head saying, “Look at me alluding to literature! I just LOVE books! I am such a bookworm! Allusions everywhere!!!”  (I digress, but am I the only one who feels that way about some books?)

Bottom line: This is good. It’s a breath of fresh air in YA right now. I don’t really want a sequel because it feels nicely wrapped up to me, but, as I mentioned above, I’d be tempted by a companion book.

4 stars Briana

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The Song of Glory and Ghost by N. D. Wilson

Information

Goodreads: The Song of Glory and Ghost
Series: The Outlaws of Time #2
Source: Giveaway hosted by Shannon at It Starts at Midnight
Published: April 2017

Summary

Sam Miracle failed to kill the Vulture when he had the chance.  Now he and the Lost Boys are stuck in time while Peter Eagle attempts to learn the skills that will one day make him Father Tiempo.  But when Peter is injured, Sam’s best friend Glory will be the one who has to learn to wield the sands of time and help Sam take down the Vulture for good.

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Review

“Take up the life that is yours.  Walk the lonely winding roads to the deaths that are yours.  Live with open hands.”

I admit I am a little confused that this book wrapped up the Vulture arc.  Book One left me with the impression that Sam and his friends were about to embark on a Horcrux-like quest to find one of the Vulture’s six other gardens so that they could defeat him.  I assumed that this would take several books.  Instead, I found that this book moves from focusing on Sam to focusing on Glory and has the duo end the Vulture without their having to find another time garden at all.  This was all very unexpected and my state throughout reading was largely one of bafflement.

I have seen other readers remark that they find N. D. Wilson’s fantasies challenging and do not understand them.  I find N. D. Wilson’s works sophisticated and believe that they possess more depth than many middle-grade books being written today.  However, I have never been confused by Wilson’s work until now.  Perhaps I was reading too fast, but I really felt that I did not understand the dynamics of time travel or the ways in which the characters were manipulating time to slow down, speed up, hide, and so forth.  I just decided to take it on faith that it all made sense and followed the action without trying to figure out how it was all working.

This book really focuses on Glory, and that is a relief.  Wilson has always impressed me with his remarkable diversity of female characters.  They are strong, all in different ways.  But that did not come across for me in Book One.  Here, however, we get two lovely depictions of womanhood: Millie, who loves to cook and rule over her household domain, and Glory, who loves to adventure and fight.  They are very different, but both valuable and valued.  And Glory?  She is way cooler than Sam, whose main ability is as a sharpshooter, but only because he has snakes attached to his arms.  That is, Sam does not really possess skills; he is merely magically enhanced.  Glory earns her skills.

(As an aside, there is a third female character whose name I forget.  And I cannot figure out why she is included in this book.  Her main function is to follow the heroes around and get in the way because she thinks they are cool.  Typically characters appear in MG and YA books to forward the plot in some way, so I am not sure what is happening here.  Is her presence some sort of statement?  An indication that “ordinary” people can be in stories, too?  An experiment to see what will happen if random characters show up and do nothing?  I have no idea, but am welcome to hear other interpretations.)

The main attraction of this book, however, is really the prose.  Wilson has a talent for writing breathtaking and provocative lines.  Take this example from Empire of Bones: “Cowards live for the sake of living, but for heroes, life is a weapon, a thing to be spent, a gift to be given to the weak and the lost and the weary, even to the foolish and the cowardly.”  Wilson writes stories that encourage readers to be good people.  He is inspirational.  And that is a rare and precious thing.

I really did not like enjoy the first book in this trilogy, The Legend of Sam Miracle.  I thought Sam was a boring protagonist and Glory all but a nonentity.  I did not initially plan to read the sequel.  However, the writing in this book, along with Glory’s glorious transformation, makes me hopeful that the third installment will be worth reading.

3 Stars

Mini Reviews (8)

Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

The third and final installment in the Grishaverse trilogy brings back all the action and excitement of the first two books.  I did find myself confused by Alina’s motivations and her belief that she has to make a political alliance, as this seems to have sprung from nowhere considering her attitude in the previous two books.  Still, even though I found the ending surprisingly pat, I enjoyed the story and stayed up late at night to find out how it would wrap up.  (Source: Library) Four Stars.

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

The second installment of the Grishaverse trilogy is even more gripping than the first.  Leigh Bardugo expands upon her worldbuilding, introduces a couple of compelling new characters, and raises the stakes of the political game Alina finds herself enmeshed in.  As a bonus, the love triangle, fortunately, begins to fade.  Alina’s longing for the Darkling makes sense if one considers that she feels the struggle of being in an unequal relationship, one where she holds greater power and a higher social status.  But readers understand that her attraction to the Darkling is simply a symptom of her unease and a little bit of lust–she does not seriously consider herself as choosing between a man of integrity and a mass murderer.  If only we could have more YA books with no love triangles.  (Source: Library)  Four Stars.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

This is a debut!  In Nevermoor, Jessica Townsend introduces readers to a magical world where giant cats act as housekeepers, brave individuals ride dragons (or sometimes rhinoceroses), and shadows seem to come to life.  Morrigan Crow, treated as an outcast in her own world, where the community believes her cursed, longs to stay, but there is only one catch–she must pass four trials to become a member of the legendary Wundrous Society, or be sent back to die in her birth land.  Thus begins a marvelous, magical adventure where nothing is what it seems, everything is larger than life, and the characters grip readers’ heart from the start.  Add in Townsend’s laugh-out-loud sense of humor and perfect comedic timing and you have the perfect recipe for one of the most delightful middle grade fantasies on the market.  (Source: Library)  Five Stars.

Katana at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee

I had not planned on reading any more installments in the DC Super Hero Girls series after being put off by the first novel, which focuses on an annoyingly odd Wonder Woman.  Fortunately, the characterization seems to have improved.  Katana is not defined by one strange trait, as if she has no other facets.  Instead, she is allowed to be strong and confident, but sometimes unsure.  The plot is kind of random and I am not sure it really makes sense, but I do not think the younger readers this series is aimed at will care.  (Source:  Library)  Three Stars.

Mini Reviews (7)

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom is that rare sequel that matches its predecessor in ingenuity, action, and suspense.  I read both books in two days, glued to my seat as I wondered what would happen next.  Somehow, Leigh Bardugo always kept me guessing.  What is more, however, I cared about these characters.  They might be thieves, murderers, and blackmailers, but each grasped to themselves a little bit of goodness that I could not help but wish would have time to grow.  Usually I am glad to see a series end, but I wish I could see more of the adventures of this band.  (Source: Gift)  Five Stars.

We are okay by Nina LaCour

I see why this book won the 2018 Printz. It is a heartfelt exploration of grief that focuses on the protagonist and her emotion rather than the plot. Some YA readers will no doubt find themselves bored because the book breaks from the norm of the plot-driven novel and instead asks readers to experience the prose; skimming will ruin the experience. But I suspect many others will be drawn to the book’s quiet cadence and will be moved by the protagonist’s loss. Personally, I have difficulty connecting with characters who feel bad about their lives but are the reason their life gets no better. But I recognize that that problem is mine alone and I am not surprised an award committee gave accolades to a book that presents itself as poignant and deep. (Source: Library) Three Stars.

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

An apprentice to an apothecary during the reign of Charles II, Christopher knows that political tensions are high.  The king has been restored, but his festive lifestyle has some planning his overthrow.  Rumors of an alchemical substance that could be used in warfare are thus dangerous rumors indeed–but he is about to find himself tracking them to their source.  This is a pretty standard MG historical mystery, with the action focusing on our protagonist, a typical high-spirited boy who tends to get into trouble for his hijinks and his habit of mouthing off.  The puzzles and codes are not particularly difficult to solve,  making it suitable for a younger audience.  I enjoyed the book, but do not think it stands out among other MG stories.  (Source: Library) Three Stars.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 8: Mecca by G. Willow Wilson

I enjoy the Ms. Marvel comics, but sometimes feel like the same storyline keeps repeating.  Every volume brings a new reason for Ms. Marvel to doubt herself, to wonder if her city appreciates her, to think she is not good enough.  Though I appreciate that feelings of doubt are unlikely to vanish immediately and never recur, I would like to read a story that feel a little fresher.  Superheroes surely do not last for decades because they keep fighting the same problem.  (Source: Library)  Four Stars.

Krysta 64

Phantastes by George MacDonald

Information

Goodreads: Phantastes
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1858

Summary

After opening a drawer and finding a tiny woman, Anodos is transported to the land of Faerie.  There he has many adventures while he struggles to find a purpose for himself.

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Review

“It is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another; yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness.” —Phantastes

C. S. Lewis famously recounts in Surprised by Joy how he picked up Phantastes at a train station bookshop and subsequently found that it had changed his life:

“The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.”

He was still a teenager, but he writes that, “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.”  It would take him many more years before he became a theist and then a Christian.  However, it appears that he carried within him a conviction that what George MacDonald writes in Phantastes carries something of Truth in it.  For him, the store rings of something real, something more real than many an author ever achieves.

With such praise behind Phantastes, and from one of my favorite authors, I expected great things from the story.  Initially, however, I found myself bored.  The protagonist enters Faerie without any sort of quest, leading him to wander around the country aimlessly, inviting himself into residences, running into knights, and so forth.  The protagonist himself is not sufficiently likable to make these events of interest.  Indeed, he seems weak morally and physically, and generally insipid of character.

Of course, the point of the story is very much that the protagonist is far from being a paragon of virtue.  Ultimately, the point of his story will be to learn that he must let go of his pride and humble himself in order to love others truly.  In this, he represents Everyman, so it is perhaps ironic that he comes across as so unlikable: he is but a reflection of ourselves.  But it is only when his character development begins, in the last quarter of the story, that the story itself also becomes engaging.

Phantastes is one of those books that no doubt becomes more interesting with rereads and more interesting when readers really dig into it, discussing it with others or in a classroom setting.  However, its slow pacing and lack of end goal is likely to make it offputting to many contemporary readers, especially those accustomed to plot-driven books like the typical YA novel.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Information

Goodreads: Aru Shah and the End of Time
Series: Pandava Quest #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Aru Shah has never quite fit in at school.  Her peers are all fabulously wealthy.  She, on the other hand, never gets to travel on exotic vacations and lives, not in a swanky home, but in the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture.  She has taken to lying to try to be like everyone else.  But then her classmates dare her to prove than an ancient lamp really does contain a curse and Aru ends up waking an ancient evil.  Now she has only a handful of days to travel to the land of the dead, awaken some legendary weapons, and

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Review

“Tales are slippery, her mother had often said. The truth of a story depends on who is telling it.”

 

Aru Shah and the End of Time is a solid middle-grade fantasy, the first book published by Rick Riordan’s new imprint, dedicated to showcasing mythologies from various cultures.  While the story does not feel particularly new, it is exciting, fast-paced, and humorous.  Fans of Rick Riordan will obviously love it, but readers who enjoy fantasy in general will also find much to like here.

The story starts off briskly with Aru lighting the lamp that awakens the Sleeper and the end of time.  Though she has trouble fitting in at school because everyone there is fabulously wealthy except herself (I’m wondering how she got in this school, then?), readers do not ever see Aru in class. Rather, her classmates show up on her doorstep to challenge her for all her lies about being wealthy, too.  She lights the lamp on a dare because a schoolmate is filming her on his camera and she wishes to avoid her lies going viral.  (Pretty sure filming someone in their home without consent can’t be legal.  Isn’t filming a minor in their home without consent with intent to humiliate  going to backfire on this kid?  Seriously, I’m thinking Aru could have just threatened to get this kid expelled if he didn’t put his phone away.)

Anyway, the book pretty much starts with action and never flags.  The usual, expected plot bits happen, with Aru and one of her reincarnated Pandava siblings going to the otherworld to meet the Hindu gods and goddesses, be recognized by their godly fathers, and collect their weapons.  They are accompanied by a spiritual guide/humorous sidekick in the form of a pigeon, so the book takes on a bit of the feel of a Disney princess film.  Many adventures ensue, all with Aru still dressed in her Spiderman pajamas as she tries to save the world.  The bits of humor are often the most vibrant parts of the book.

Really, Aru Shah and the End of Time needs no reviews.  Fans of Rick Riordan, educators and librarians, and individuals who keep an eye on the book market were all expecting this book for a long time and I am sure it will sell well simply based on the fact that its from Riordan’s imprint.  Still, if you are wondering whether to read it, sure.  It’s a fun book and one that middle school children, especially, will find much to like about.

4 stars

The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

Information

Goodreads: The Empty Grave
Series: Lockwood & Co. #5
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Lockwood & Co. are drawing near to discovering the source of the Problem.  But powerful forces are at work and not everyone wants them to uncover the truth.  Who knew that ghost hunters had more to fear from the living than from the dead?

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Review

“Mr Lockwood, you’ve impressed a lot of people over the years. Personally, I expected you to be ghost-touched long ago, but your agency has flourished. Impress me again now… Let them forget about you… Even now, it’s probably not too late.”

The Lockwood & Co. series has been a wild ride, full of horror, suspense, mystery, and danger.  While I eagerly anticipated the grand finale and the revealing of the final mysteries, it is bittersweet to reach the end.  Where else will we get this superb blend of action, heart, and humor?

The Empty Grave lives up to its predecessors in the best possible way.  All the beloved characters are back and they are in fine form.  George reaches new heights as a researcher.  Lockwood charms with his signature devil-may-care attitude.  Holly reassures us with her poise.  And Lucy delights us with her humor.  Even Kipps and the Skull feel like dear old friends.   Never before have they seemed to work together so seamlessly.

The story works up, as always, from some smaller cases to the final, overarching mystery.  This gives us time to enjoy watching our friends in action and to get reacquainted with their methods.  The Belle Dame Sans Merci is an interesting case–a ghost who ensnares the spirit and thus can kill slowly and at a distance.  Still, she can’t hold a candle to the real case, the one we’ve been working towards for five books.  What is the source of the Problem?  And how far will people go to cover up the truth?

The climax is everything readers could hope for.  Jonathan Stroud somehow always manages to up the danger and the drama, far past anything readers could expect.  A new twist is always around the corner, keeping the audience on the edges of their seats.  If you’ve stuck with Lockwood & Co. this far, you won’t want to miss this satisfying conclusion.

5 stars