Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book Reviews: 'The Hazel Wood' by Melissa Albert and 'Where the Heart Is' by Billie Letts

1. The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
This book was equal parts strong and weak. Seventeen-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. I was first interested in The Hazel Wood because, like a lot of bookworms, I love fairy tales. I once took a class all about fairy tales and got way too into it. A lot of readers seem to be divided about their opinions toward this book, and at first I just figured it was going to be one of those books that ended up getting negative reviews because it was so hyped up and people were bitter because it didn't live up to their expectations. But after reading it, I understand the mixed reviews. It's worth the read because it's very imaginative and brings fairy tales into the real-life realm (I especially liked the Vanity Fair articles about Alice's grandmother, as well as the eery fairy tale excerpts of hers), and it's especially good for people who like lyrical prose that is heavy on the metaphor. The pacing of the story, however, was very all over the place; the first half is very slow and longer than necessary and the ultimate climax felt very rushed, but after I found out that The Hazel Wood will be the first in a series, perhaps the author paced it that way because she wants to leave story to explore in future novels. It's also clear by the end that The Hazel Wood is a Wonderland retelling - didn't the main character's name fool you? - so if you don't like modern YA retellings of fairy tales, you should just avoid this one altogether. I would also avoid it if you aren't a fan of fantasy novels where strange and magical things happen only to go unexplained because those are just the rules of fairy tales, apparently. Not the best, not the worst. I'm not sure if I'll check out the sequel when it comes along. 3/5 stars.

2. Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts:
Much like me and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Where the Heart Is is another older book that's also a movie and I hadn't read or seen either, so I figured I would start with the book and then see the movie. This is totally the kind of book I would expect Oprah to choose for her book club in the '90s. It's almost a cliché just because of that. Where the Heart Is follows pregnant seventeen-year-old Novalee Nation, who is abandoned by her boyfriend Willy Jack in a Walmart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. Having nowhere else to go, she secretly moves into the Walmart where she eventually gives birth to a daughter named Americus. Novalee and her daughter receive significant media attention as the girl who delivered a baby in a Walmart, and having also been abandoned by her mother several times, Novalee is taken in by the town's colorful characters. For the most part, Where the Heart Is reminded me a lot of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd...just a weaker, whiter version. The first half of the book is cute and sweet in an innocent, childlike kind of way; Novalee is so young and naive but still manages to give her daughter the best life she can. Ultimately, though, the book's plot is an absolute mess: not a lot happens in the second half, and the story's timeline goes all over the place. Some chapters also follow Willy Jack, who ends up in prison where he writes a country song that becomes a hit after he's released and he goes on to have a career as a country music star? That was just random. I feel like Where the Heart Is is an okay book that can stay nostalgically with the rest of our feels from the '90s, because it doesn't hold up with the classic books of today. The story is dated in so many little ways, most importantly with the fact that Novalee just lives in a Walmart unnoticed for months? I guess chain department stores didn't have alarm systems and security in '90s Sequoyah, Oklahoma? The writing style was also amateurish and immature, but I won't criticize Where the Heart Is too much more. For what it is and when it was popular, it's an okay book and I will happily leave it at that. 3/5 stars.

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