The Hazelwood – Review

“My mother was raised on fairy tales, but I was raised on highways.”

The Hazel Wood is a remarkable creative blend of urban fantasy and twisted fairy tales with a touch of mystery added for flavor. This combination is incredibly creative and takes you deep into not just a fairy tale, or it’s retelling, but something far better.

We begin this tale through the eyes of Alice, a teenager who has spent most of her life running with her mother. What they’re running from is less clear, and only really referred to as bad luck.

“When we traveled I kept an eagle eye on the cars behind us, like bad luck could take human form and trail you like a minivan. But bad luck was sneakier than that. You couldn’t outsmart it, you could only move along when it had you in its sights.”

Alice, in true child form, becomes obsessed with her grandmother, a woman she’s never allowed to meet, and the book she wrote. Tales From The Hinterland thrust Althea into the light, but the book itself is rare, obscure and impossible to find. (Side note: I would adore this collection of fairy tales released, because oh how dark and delicious these tales would be!)

And this is where the mystery comes to light. Because in the beginning we get glimpses of this bad luck. We see Alice’s obsession with these tales and with her grandmother. Her life has the vague sparkle of something mystical lingering on the edges, but nothing defined. Is it simply Alice and her perceptions? Or is something else at play?

Whether it’s the bad luck finally catching up, or simply fate stepping in, forces conspire to drive Alice to the Hazel Wood, the mysterious estate her grandmother has hidden in. Alice finds herself learning all about these mysterious fairy tales and the woman who wrote them. More than she ever wanted to know. But once you fall down the rabbit hole, Alice learns the only way out is through. If the fairy tales will let her, that is.

“Most books’ power is in the abstract, but occasionally you’ll find one with very physical abilities.”

The first half of this novel is very much building the mystery. The mystery of the bad luck. The mystery of Althea herself and this elusive book of fairy tales. The mystery of Alice, her deep tendency to rage. The mystery of her mother and what she is so terrified of.

The mystery is what baits us. It sets the trap so that we are entangled into the core of the obsession with Alice. We feel her desire for knowledge. For something more. And once we are entwined, guaranteed to not be able to leave, the mysterious edges of what could be paranoia or fantasy begins to sharpen and reveal itself.

“Her final words had an extra resonance to them, a blur. Like they wore a mask to hide their true intentions.”

Beyond the world of murderous and violent fairy tales, this book is about so much more. I love how through this journey of fairy tales, this book really is a look at how to control your own story, to take back your voice and create your own narrative.

Alice runs because her mother tells her to. Because she is a child growing up, and children have no choice but to embark on the life their parents set out on. But when she is older, when forces plot to remove her mother from the equation, Alice has to figure out which path to set herself on. She has to decide where to go, and what to do.

A lifetime of warning from her mother, never talk to fans, never read the book, all culminate with a final warning: stay away from the Hazel Wood. Within hours she betrays the first rule, turning to fan Ellery Fitch for help. And while the book remains as elusive as ever, Fitch once owned a copy and could retell the stories with chilling accuracy.

Alice decides that even though her mother warned her, action is the only way forward. That she is the only one who can reclaim her story, who can face the bad luck and vanquish it.

“I did it because a girl doing nothing in a fairy tale ends up dead or worse, but a girl who makes a decision usually gets rewarded.”

Sometimes as children we can feel voiceless. We can feel lost in a world we don’t understand. Where our parents make rules that feel arbitrary and unclear. And while most of us don’t wake up to find our mothers missing and our world a blur between fantasy and reality, often we do find that we understand our parents only by defying them. We see their rationale and reason only after we make the mistakes they attempt to protect us from.

Fairy tales are told to teach us lessons. To help us understand the world at large in a way that will stay with us. This book does the same. It helps us understand the helplessness we feel as both children and as parents. How being an adult can sometimes lead to a reality less than we once imagined. It teaches us that we each have a voice of our own, and can choose to use it, even if someone more powerful tells us we can’t.

I loved this book for the dark and twisted path it led me down. But I loved it even more for the empowerment it quietly taught me.

Thank you NetGalley and Flatiron Books for approving my request to read and review this book!

Good Me Bad Me – Review

“I thought you would own less of me after I handed you in but sometimes it feels you own more.”

From the very first pages, Good Me Bad Me grips you in the horrific world of Milly. A teenage girl deeply traumatized. Milly isn’t her real name, but protecting her identity is important since she has to testify against her mother. Who is a serial killer. And Milly is the one who turned her in.

Quick warning, there are triggers everywhere in this book, and while they aren’t exactly graphic in nature, they are there. Sexual abuse, violence and self-harm. This book is a dark look into a troubled mind.

Be prepared to dive deep into uncomfortable territory with this book. Everywhere you look there are murky morals and questionable characters. You would think the villain is easy to spot, the serial killer mother. But, life isn’t always quite so clear. Milly finds herself delivered out of the hands of a sadist, only to be placed in the direct line of fire of spoiled teenage girls.

“One day these boys and girls will run the world. In the meantime, they ruin it.”

And you would think that the comparison to those two realities is trivial and insignificant, yet Land writes both Milly’s new reality in relation to her old so boldly, that you frequently wonder if Milly is indeed in better hands. It’s quite brilliant how Land is able to capture both the inconceivable horror of being raised in such a brutal way, and then to show us the exhausting drain and torment of living with a bully.

The irony that the bully is the daughter of a prominent psychologist who has offered to foster Milly and help her prepare for the upcoming trial simply adds more realism to the book. It’s often those we love who can’t see us at all. Yet Milly seems able to see more clearly than everyone else. She is hyper aware of the hypocrisy and injustice around her. She sees the motives and lies the people around her tell not just each other, but also themselves.

“The world turns on a million different looks. Glances. I work hard to decipher them, harder than most.”

We see into Milly’s mind, her internal thoughts and struggles. She was raised in a world of pain and torment. She received and watched both given freely, taught that these things equal love. So even though she has been removed from this existence, her new life is just as isolated since no one except her foster parents know of her past. She is given a new life, but she can’t openly face her old one.

Being thrown into Milly’s head for the entirety of the novel lets us experience how her past and present conflict with each other. We see the torment she lives in her dreams and memories. Only to wake up and face a different set of torments in real life. Both realities have their own traumas. Both realities would shape a child irreparably as they grow. So it is a grisly fascination to watch how living through both could possible shape Milly.

“It’s the chapter on the children of psychopaths that interests me the most. The confusion a child feels when violence is mixed with tenderness. Push and pull. A hyper vigilance, never knowing what to expect, but knowing to expect something.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with Milly. To feel that she is being given a bad break all around. And yet, it’s still difficult not to be leery of her as well. She is the child of a killer. And openly worries that she’s a product of her environment. She is only letting her peers and teachers see one side of her, so is she only letting the reader see one side as well?

We can only watch, transfixed by Milly and her memories. The nightmares, and memories, daily bullying, and stress of being the sole key witness in a trial against her mother culminates to a breaking point in Milly. We are faced with the question, when she breaks, which Milly will win?

This book is phenomenal. While it is deeply disturbing, I love a book filled with moral ambiguity. Where good isn’t bad and bad isn’t good. Especially in cases where you think it should be. Life rarely is so clear cut, and I appreciate an author willing to dive into the depths of that grey area. I love it when they succeed, even if the result is haunting and chilling.

I was simply blown away with Good Me Bad Me. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe how this dark thriller crept into my brain and found a home. I’ve always been a firm believer in facing the worst in yourself to find who you want to be, and Milly does that to the extreme. Her worst is the makings of nightmares, and yet she still tries to be normal. To not be her mother. The effort alone is worth applause.

This novel is even more delicious with the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but talk about morally ambiguous! It took me awhile to even digest how I felt about what happened. These are the types of endings I live for in a novel! Make me think and wonder. Force me to really dive deep into my own skeletons and fears. Really make me face my demons.

Again, this is a dark novel, and while violence isn’t necessarily graphic, you tread down some twisted paths. But if you like to traipse on the dark side, and waltz with the devil on a foggy midnight from time to time, Good Me Bad Me is waiting for you.

Thank you BookSparks and Flatiron Books for sending me this intense thriller as part of the Fall Reads Challenge.

 

Truly Madly Guilty – Review

“It was interesting that fury and fear could look so much the same.”

Truly Madly Guilty is a book that dug it’s way deep under my skin and planted itself firmly in my heart. It explores the idea of what can happen on an ordinary day. A day where a group of adults, neighbors and friends can get together and relax while their children play. A day that we all recognize for it’s uncomplicated similarity to days we’ve all lived through. A day that can turn complicated in the blink of an eye. A day where everything goes right until it all goes wrong.

Erika and Clementine have been friends since they were little. But from the very start, their friendship was developed with complicated terms. These complications haven’t left their friendship over the years, and so Erika and Clementine find themselves in a relationship of habit more than endearment. Except, perhaps thats too simple, too easy.

This novel is about more than just a day gone wrong. Truly Madly Guilty really tackles the complexity of relationships we have as adults. Marriages, friendships, neighbors, even parents, can sometimes be made up of so many layers, we lose track of them. At least, we can lose track of the heart of them.

“Somehow she knew there would be an unspoken truce on their unspoken battle over God knew what when they were old.”

What I find so fascinating about Liane Moriarty’s novels, or the few I’ve read, is how they really make us look at relationships from the outside looking in. She always shows us how these characters view someone else’s life, often with envy, and then she gives us a look into the reality. And, as is true in life, the truth is often shocking.

The novel gives us a chapter from varying perspectives, Erika and Clementine play prominent roles, but we also see the view from Tiffany and Vid, Erika’s neighbors; from Dakota, their daughter; from Harry, the other neighbor, from Oliver, Erika’s husband; and from Sam, Clementine’s husband. Each adult has their own unfolding of events from that day, but also has their own struggles; both from before the BBQ and after. Moriarty is brilliant in her ability to offer us all of these perspectives. She is masterful in her execution and you are never confused or left unfulfilled. If anything, every page leaves you wanting more.

Each personality contributed to the BBQ, and each character was left changed by it. This isn’t a suspense novel, but it is full of suspense. In order to make sense of these changes, you need to know what happens. But by not giving us the answer first, Moriarty forces us to look at each character in their full humanity. We are forced to get to know them before we can judge them.

By the end of the novel, I found myself in tears. It wasn’t the shocking events that unfolded, or the result of those events. It was more the heartbreaking depth of each character. You felt what they were going through. We feel for them because of their reactions rather than react to a situation. I found that interesting. How would we feel about certain events, if we knew the emotional outcome rather than the cause. If we had to know the people and not the events.

“So this is how it happens, a part of her thought as she rocked and begged. This is what it feels like. You don’t change. There is no special protection when you cross that invisible line from your ordinary life to that parallel world where tragedies happen.”

I could hear their reactions echo in my own friends and family. I could see the tragedy of events not known, and actions never taken. It is difficult to describe how much compassion you will feel at the end, because that was what I was struck with the most. Compassion. Understanding. Empathy.

I think we often judge first and ask questions second. And, I think this novel did an excellent job of slowing that judgement down. What would you do if these were your friends? If this was you? Because, the truth is, this novel could happen to anyone. That really struck me as very powerful.

Each word in the title is emphasized and clarified throughout the novel. As adults we often do feel true. True to ourselves, to our spouses, to our children. And sometimes we feel mad, and very often we feel guilty. These emotions and reactions are within each character in this novel. These words capture the essence of their struggle, both before and after that ordinary day.

I adored this novel, and am positive that this story will stay with me for a long time.

Thank you BookSparks and Flatiron books for sending me this beautiful novel in exchange for an honest and unbiased review!

The Guineveres – Review

“Stories are like that; they seek to unravel.”

The Guineveres is a haunting coming of age story told by Vere, one of four Guineveres living in a convent, being raised by nuns. These four girls aren’t the only girls there, but they are all Guineveres, and so they form an unspoken bond through their shared name.

The Guineveres hate the convent. They want nothing more than to go home. The monotony of their daily lives is interrupted when four soldiers are brought to the sick ward. The soldiers are lost to the world, frozen in comas, no one knows who they are. The Guineveres see the soldiers as they see themselves: unfortunate souls sent to the convent to be forgotten. As their name bound the girls together, their shared fate ties the soldiers to the girls.

“Maybe thats the ordinary angst of teenage girls. the desire to believe their existences are worth something.”

While Vere narrates the story, this really is a story about all four girls. Slowly, we learn of their Revival Stories, the story of what brought them to the convent. Each story is heartbreaking and painful, the choices of adults delivering the consequences to the child. Some are understandable, some are horrific, but each story defines the girl who bears it.

It doesn’t take long for the idea of these comatose soldiers to become theirs, claimed in their hearts through the will of their imaginations. While they sleep, they can be anyone, do anything. The possibility of each boy is endless.

“Happiness, girls, is a matter of where you place your attention.”

The Guineveres is beautifully written, with gorgeous sentences that perfectly capture the brevity and beauty of growing up. While The War, and The War Effort are referred to frequently in the book, there is a historical ambiguity to which actual time period this book is set in. It could be World War I, it could be World War II, it could be Vietnam, there really is no way to be sure. And that also lends to the abandonment the girls feel. Time has no meaning in the convent, since the Sisters insist “they live on God’s time”.

This idea of timelessness also resonates in the idea of waiting. The Guineveres are always waiting. Waiting until they’re 18, waiting for their boys to wake up, waiting for something to happen. The irony in this notion, is that all teenagers mark their existence through this idea. We wait to start High School, to learn how to drive, to get our license, to graduate. The sense of time moving slow and of waiting is true of all teenagers to some extent, which only makes you feel for the Guineveres even more.

As teenagers are prone to do, The Guineveres find themselves in situations both confusing and exciting. These situations shape each girl, influence who they become. Each girl, Vere included, must find her own identity and her own path, not as a Guinevere, but as herself. Which is true of all of us, and again, the idea of timelessness aligns perfectly in this concept as well.

“We all hold ideas of who we are, images of ourselves that may or may not be accurate.”

The Guineveres is a novel about a girl growing into a woman. It is an orchestra of words, rising and falling to it’s own melody. It creates a rhythm and you can’t help but be enchanted with the result. Through Vere, we relive our own tumultuous teenage angst, we rediscover why growing up can be so difficult, so hard, and so deeply painful.

“There was no commandment governing the confusion of teenage girls nor the tempest of emotions that raged inside us at that moment.”

While religion is a major aspect of the plot, this book isn’t a religious book. Religion isn’t the point. The setting could have been an orphanage or a group home, and the journey of self-discovery would have been the same. However, the setting does serve for more dramatic moments that are made more shocking and more heartbreaking because of it.

To add another layer to the rich storytelling, Domet weaves throughout the narration tales of actual Saints. Each woman described lived through their own horrors and heartbreaks, and died in pursuit of their own truth. These stories give you a sense of Vere, who she is, as she is the most devout of the group. These stories also give you a sense of the heaviness being raised in strict religious surroundings can have on a girl. How they may rebel, or fall into the fold of faith, or somewhere in between.

I was left with the desire to hug these girls, to whisper that everything will be okay someday, because I felt the tragedy of adolescence within these pages. I remember wanting to believe in things bigger than myself, and letting my imagination and heart run wilder than was wise. I recognized that teenage longing to have someone assure you that life does get better, that this suffering too ends, and that to someone you matter.

The Guineveres is a stunning debut novel that will leave it’s imprint within you. Sarah Domat brings to life these girls, letting us see deep within their souls. Without needing a time or a place to hold the plot straight, or give her story relevance or meaning, she created a book that will last. She based her story around a universal truth, that growing up is difficult no matter where you are, or who you are, or when you happen to be living. It all feels the same, though the details vary.

I really enjoyed this book. The writing is beautiful as well as the story and I look forward to seeing what novels Domet writes next.

Thank you BookSparks and Flatiron Books for sending me a copy to read for review!