Review: “The Hazel Wood” by Melissa Albert

Ok.  So we have a main character named Alice and there’s a fairytale world, The Hinterland, that she has to find her way to via the Hazel Wood (Of course it’s to rescue a loved one.  I swear!  Why do you always ask questions you already know the answers to?)  But I know what you’re thinking, “Jaime.  This is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ retelling isn’t it?  C’mon.  You can tell me.  I won’t be angry.”

Hey.  Look at me.  First off, I know that you’re lying (your poker face isn’t as great as you think it is), but I want you to know that understand your concerns.  Every author, anyone who has even dreamed of becoming an author, anyone who has ever picked up a pen/pencil or who has sat in front of a keyboard should know by now that you don’t mess with Alice.  I mean, you can’t do anything to it that it hasn’t already done to itself and it’s already weird enough without a Tim Burton inspired rewrite.  While I realize that there will be those who will try, they should be aware that I will most probably hate on them a little bit for it.

Here’s the thing, “The Hazel Wood” is not an “Alice in Wonderland” retelling.  Naming the main character Alice was just a poor decision on Albert’s end.  I mean, I get it.  She likes the name Alice – that’s cool!  But you know that there were readers out there who opened that cover flap, saw the name Alice and were like, “Oh (excessive eye-roll).  Here we go…”

But don’t fret, my dear friends!  There is a girl named Alice to gets sucked into another world and that is where the similarities end.  Besides, look at that gorgeous cover!  How can you seriously pass it up?

The lowdown:  Alice has never met her grandmother, Althea Proserpine.  All she knows is that her grandmother penned a book of twisted fairytales entitled “Tales from the Hinterland”.  After the book’s initial success, however, Althea never wrote anything else.  She became a recluse, shutting herself away in Hazel Wood, her grand estate located in a rural, unmarked area in upstate New York.  Alice and her mother have always been on the run.  Bad luck follows them wherever they go and when it inevitably catches up to them, they pick up and move.  When Alice’s mother goes missing and the only clue left behind is a cryptic note warning her to “Stay Away from Hazel Wood”, Alice turns to Ellery Finch, a classmate of Alice’s and #1 Hinterland Superfan, for help.

Ellery Finch, huh?  He’s the love interest, right?

No.  No he is not.  That is not to say that there aren’t feelings developed but this book is completely devoid of the nefarious insta-love and sap that is often present in Young Adult novels.  On that note, Albert’s debut has so much going for it.  It’s gorgeously written and delightfully creepy.  It has all of the atmosphere of a Gaiman novel and a story that is solid and original enough to keep the reader invested.  I was completely enthralled with some of the Hinterland characters that I am hoping beyond hope that Albert’s upcoming book “Tales from the Hinterland” is just a collection of the stories introducing us to these various characters – characters such as Twice-Killed Katherine, The Briar King, and Hansa the Traveler – and their respective stories.  I will be honest:  this book was very close to a 5-star for me.  Following, however, are the slight drawbacks which ultimately dropped my overall review.

“The Hazel Wood” is slightly pretentious.  It’s very New York.  But it’s the New York of someone who has moved to New York from Podunk, Iowa and is telling their friends from high school – with nose raised and in a slightly sniffed manner – that they, “live in NEW YORK now”.  Adding to this is the number of proper nouns (brand names, book titles, locations, etc.) contained within the book, which it kind of a pet peeve of mine.  Look.  You can tell me that a character is wearing jeans.  You can describe the jeans, tell me what color jeans they are, how they fit, but you do not need to tell me that they are Bugle Boy jeans.  See there!  Look how dated your book instantly became!  I can see where authors might be tempted to use brands to make their books seem more relevant, more modern, but heavy-handed proper noun usage does not bode well for the timelessness of your book.

Then there’s the main character.  If you’re anything like me, you’re going to hate Alice.  She’s moody.  She’s distant.  She’s a bitch.  She’s just not likable (it’s kind of her thing).  I promise you that it does factor into the story, however, it doesn’t play out until the final chapters.

“The Hazel Wood” is very descriptive heavy book, often overwhelmingly so.  Don’t get me wrong, these are some seriously cool descriptions, but they feel like an acid-tripping teenager trying to describe Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to someone who has never ridden it before.  Look at that boy riding the bike!  Over there!  There’s a lady walking down some stairs!  And, OMG, here comes a little girl carrying a severed head over her shoulder like a sack!

Yeah…

Albert has so many fantastic visuals crammed into her novel.  I couldn’t help but feel as if they should have been thinned out rather than induce virtual whiplash upon the reader.  Not to mention that the reader is given no insight into these random characters.  I can only hope that they make cameo appearances in one of the sequels and that their stories are fleshed out a little more.

Anyways, those are my thoughts!  I promise you that my gripes about “The Hazel Wood” should be taken lightly because it really is a beautiful and wonderfully creepy debut.  I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the next installment in Albert’s fantastical story.

4 thoughts on “Review: “The Hazel Wood” by Melissa Albert

  1. i liked the story but hated the fact that a lot of things happened for unexplained reasons..maybe i didnt read the book carefully enough but theres a lot of stuff that shouldve been explained for it to be a compact story..for example why did twice killed katherine and the other dude stalk alice and what did they want from her?when finch was “killed” why didnt katherine go through the doorway herself and it was the hazel wood which had althea so i dont get why they needed a door to access the hinterland in the first place..sorry haha if anyone could explain this to me thatd be great.

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    1. Well, I think that Twice Killed Katherine and the other dude (haha, I forgot his name if he had one) stalked Alice because they were trying to return her to the Hinterland where she belonged. I don’t have the answer to your other question, although you make a good point! I do know that they are releasing a companion novel and a sequel to The Hazel Wood. Maybe it will help to fill in some of the plot holes =)

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