Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

We’re officially past the halfway mark of the ‘12 Meses, 12 Libros‘ challenge, and I’m pleased to say I’ve stayed more or less on schedule, which I honestly did not expect to be able to do.

Do yourselves a favour, and pick up a copy here.

This month’s theme was reading a book based on the cover, and I chose The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, because look at this glorious bastard. I picked it up at Target on a whim, and boy, does it break the old adage. Good cover, good book.

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I’m going to start this review by saying that while I have enjoyed all of the books I’ve read on this challenge to varying degrees, this is far and away my favourite. Like 3 pages in, I could feel it changing me. Maybe not as a writer because voice is a very personal thing and I don’t think Melissa Albert and I see the world the same way, but, my god, I wish we did. She has an emotional insightful clarity about her descriptions that I just don’t. The way she describes some things, it feels like that’s the only way to describe them, and I know that I would never in a million years get that accurate and precise. I feel like the only way to describe the difference in style is that I would describe what a thing is (how it looks, sounds, smells), and she describes how it feels on an emotional, sense-memory level. I’m sure she could even describe the description better than I am.

But enough fangirling. Let’s jump into the discussion questions. *SPOILERS AHEAD* Proceed at your own risk.

Consider Alice’s narration. How would you describe Alice? What did you take away from Alice’s experiences? What do you feel Alice has gained by the end of the novel?

First off, I don’t usually like first person narrative. I find it a bit limiting. But there is so much going on inside Alice, so much visceral reaction and raw emotion and memory, that I think it was done really really well. I would describe Alice as hot-headed, obviously, but also driven, focused, curious, relatable despite her mood swings, clever and plucky, and introspective. So much of how she perceives the world is filtered through her memories and the books she read because she moved around too much to have friends. She sees herself kind of like a patchwork blanket, made of books and snapshots, removed from even her own life, at times. I can relate to that because my family also moved around a lot when I was young (though we moved for Dad’s work, not because bad luck followed us, lol), and I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was young, but I was an avid reader and even to this day, the books I read in those days formed who I am now. I refer you to the American Girl series and my obsession with historical fiction centred around feisty young girls.

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I took away so much from Alice’s experiences, which I will not mention here, but you may be able to guess by the end of this post :-p But I think the biggest thing she gained by the end was answers and some degree of closure.

What were some of the references you caught to classic children’s literature in the novel? Were any of your own favourites mentioned? How do you think these references influence the story?

Oh, so many. One that I thought was interesting was the appearance of Tam Lin, who I always thought was a man, but who showed up in this story as a woman. Which…changes the story drastically, lol, but artistic license is a thing, and when we’re dealing with oral tradition, folktales, and alternate universes, it’s easy to blame misunderstandings, mistranslations, and politics. We folklorists have all kinds of tricks for making the puzzle pieces fit 😉

I did notice a shout-out to one of my favourite books, growing up: Wise Child, by Monica Furlong. I recommend it for the budding magickal practitioner in your life!

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Overall, I think the presence of recognisable stories adds depth to the story and the feeling that Althea Proserpine has always been there, nestled between dusty volumes of the Grimms and Jacobs.

How are Finch and Alice different? How are they similar? Why do you think they bond so intensely when they’re thrown together?

Ahh, Finch. Ellery Finch is the opposite of Alice in many ways. Filthy rich and guilty about it, firmly rooted in the muck and mire of humanity, and unlike Alice, he knows everything about the Hinterland. He’s also pretty cool-headed and streetwise in a different way than she is. They work well because he keeps her grounded without stifling her, and she gives his idiosyncrasies legitimacy. Also, his money helps a lot, and he’s super obsessed with her family, so that’s a little unhealthy, but they work through it.

When did you first expect that the stories and characters from Althea’s book might be real?

From the dust jacket, lol. It’s hard to write a blurb without giving away the candy.

But within the narrative, the redheaded man was a hint, as was the bad luck. But the boy in the newsboy, the three gifts the redheaded man left, and the upstate murders clinched it.

Ella keeps the truth of Alice’s childhood a secret from her. What do you think of this choice? If you were Ella, would you have told Alice the truth?

Absolutely not. ‘You’re adopted’ is often damaging enough. How well would ‘You’re actually a fictional character I kidnapped from another universe where fairy tales are real and by the way you’re the monster of your story’ go over? I’d probably have gone with ‘you’re adopted, so I don’t know what your genetic make up is, please stop asking me to explain all the weird stuff going on with you.’

This is why I can’t have kids. No instinct for it at all.

How would you describe the Spinner?

The Spinner, hmm. She’s a godlike figure, isn’t she. But she’s not evil, she’s just a bit removed from everything, much like the Watcher in the Sims. You make the story and you make your little Simmies act out what you want them to do. And when they get a little too much autonomy, you have to redirect them.

But she also harkens back to that complaint a lot of writers have where we give our characters a little too much agency and personality, and it seems like they run off and do whatever they want. So I understand how the Spinner is the way she is.

How did you feel when you finished the novel? Were you surprised? Satisfied?

I was satisfied. There are things I wish had ended differently. I’ll try not to spoil too much. But there is a definite feeling of closure. I was satisfied.

I was very slightly disappointed by the turn it took, I’ll be honest. I expected a turn, obviously, but I expected a very different one and I think I’d have preferred it. I’m not criticising the book as a whole at all, just to be clear. It’s just that it’s very firmly fantasy up until she decides to break her story. And then you see the webbing of the world, almost like the Matrix, and then there are other alternate universes, and it gets a bit sci-fi for me very quickly.

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But this is why they say to keep writing, even if you have imposter syndrome. There are no new stories (hell, Albert and I are both retelling and reinventing fairy tales!), only new ways to tell old ones. And you may tell your old story differently that someone else writes the same story. She decided to go sci-fi universes, I’d have gone palace intrigue tabloid. So don’t put off telling your story your way, just because you think it’s been done before.

What 5 words would you use to describe The Hazel Wood?

Creative, deep, moving, immersive, visceral.

Would you want to read Althea’s stories in Tales from the Hinterland?

Absolutely. And I’m given to believe that Melissa Albert is in the process of writing them, and I can’t wait.

~~~~

Next month’s theme is a book over a hundred years old. I was going to try to be cheeky and read a book from 1917, but that is wartime, and the list is depressing, so I’m going a little further back. I haven’t decided yet, but I’m leaning toward Gulliver’s Travels.

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