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!

Ocean’s Fire – Review

“Your beliefs shape the world we see. Change your beliefs, change your world.”

Ocean’s Fire follows the journey of Skylar Southmartin picking up the pieces of her life after her mother’s death. Choosing to stay closer to home to finish her degree, Skylar wants to figure out why the plan to resurrect her mother didn’t work. She did everything right, and still it didn’t work.

The good news is that her position at the local University reunites her with her childhood love, Argan, and their connection from childhood graduates to a far more adult relationship. Unfortunately, local rockstar, Joshua, also has an alluring connection to Skylar that she can’t seem to fight.┬áTo top it all off, there is a powerful force working to ensure a centuries long prophecy comes true.

“Everyone is capable of great love and great destruction. You feed one flame or the other.”

I am decidedly on the fence about this book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the supernatural premise and mysticism that the author created. On the other, there were so many side plots and rushed character development that I spent most of the book very confused.

I’m not against romance, or love triangles, or even a steamy sex scene in books. However, they have to serve a purpose in driving the plot forward. The triangle between Joshua, Argan and Skylar just felt like it was there to write a few sex scenes (a few that bordered on abusive in nature), and nothing else. I understand what the author was trying to do with these characters and the tension, but I just didn’t feel it.

The pacing of the story also lends to the rushed feeling. We jump forward in time quite a bit, so we are told that dramatic things are unfolding, but we don’t really feel it. The emotional connection to the entire story, and specifically to Skylar’s struggle wasn’t there for me at all, which made the book feel very flat and one-dimensional to me. Insane things happen but rather than build into these discoveries, we are presented them in a sentence or two and everyone accepts it and moves forward. It’s a case of too much “telling” and not enough “showing”. We are told a lot, but the depth of emotion just isn’t shown so that we feel it along with the characters.

There were a lot of great moments in the book. And for those parts I was swept away into the reading. But there was just so much happening in this plot, it was hard to stay in that swept away feeling.

It’s difficult to give examples of what I liked and what I didn’t, because they are so mixed together and intricate to the plot, that I feel I would be giving away massive spoilers if I tried. I really think this is an example of why Stephen King famously says, “Kill your darlings”. There is a lot to process, in terms of plot, unnecessary characters and side interactions that don’t drive the overall story forward or help with individual character development. This book could have been so much better with those moments removed and the plot line tightened up so that we felt this tension and stress and more of the supernatural feel of the novel. Too much of it felt like a contemporary novel with the characters playing at mysticism, rather than actually being about the mysticism.

Ocean’s Fire is the first in a trilogy, and perhaps the second and final book will help develop the characters to be more in depth so that all the details in the first book make sense. I am curious about how the story progresses, and what happens next. Especially that with the ending we are given, who is good and who is bad seems a little undefined. I’m not sure if that’s to set up for future redemptions but would like to find out. I hope the original disaster that we are presented with gets more explanation too, as I really have no idea what happened there.

Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending a copy to read and review.