July 27, 2018

Stories about Stories | Mini-reviews with a side of inception

Since I do not have a Time-Turner, a TARDIS, or a cloning machine, I just do not have time to write a full review for all of the books that I read. So, I have decided to write mini-reviews to discuss the books that I do not have as much to say about. That does not mean that I did not like these books, but sometimes, as creative and amazing as my brain is, I just cannot think of that much to write about a book.

This round of mini-reviews is about an oddly specific facet of fantasy, a story focusing on other fairy-tales as if they are real. Essentially, these are stories within stories, within stories in the true sense of inception. This concept of interwoven and layered stories can be hard to wrap your head around and even harder to get right. So, let's see what I thought about these ambitious books that exist in different layers of storytelling.

The Story Traveler
Max Candee
Published on March 28, 2016
239 Pages
Middle Grade, Fantasy

This book was provided to me from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I swear on my bookshelf that this has not affected my opinion of the book.

Stories aren’t real ... or are they? 
Fifteen-year-old Haley Spade is enrolled in an exclusive boarding school in Connecticut. This school has a grim mythology: Everyone believes that the angry ghosts of six students who committed suicide decades ago still haunt its halls. 
On a dare, Haley spends a night wandering through the “haunted” building. But she takes a wrong turn into a dizzying adventure of stories made real, stories within stories, worlds within worlds. She encounters magical creatures like the King of the Cats, a shapeshifting crow, elves—and a menace far more terrifying than any ghost. 
Suspenseful, fast and rooted in several fairy tales, The Story Traveler captures our yearning to be more than what we are. Haley’s bizarre journey will leave her and the reader wondering: What is reality? 
Sometimes stories are just stories. Sometimes stories are more than stories. In The Story Traveler, the stories are tried to be made into more than they actually are, which led to confusion and frustration on the reader's end.

The concept of the book is intriguing, like how many levels of inception can you reach in a story until you get back to the beginning. Unfortunately, that premise was not lived up to.

Here are my listed (and, therefore, hopefully controlled) issues with this story.

1. Too heavy-handed with the message

I am not opposed to a strong message or theme in a novel. In fact, I like to know what I should be getting out of a book. However, when a main character constantly poses rhetorical questions, effectively hitting the reader over the head with the questions they should be asking on their own, there is no room for the reader to think for themselves.

I realize that this is aimed for a younger audience (maybe, but I will get to that soon), but younger readers aren't stupid either.

2. Confusing mixture between middle grade and young adult

On Goodreads, it is categorized as both middle grade and young adult. However, I am classifying it more as young adult due to the mature language and violence. It;s a tricky line though. The Story Traveler acts like an MG book that is wearing its older brother's clothes to try and look cool.

Haley's voice sounds straight out of a MG book, expect for her love of swearing and stereotypical "tough" teenager tropes. She claims to have experience with the "gangstas" in New York (yes, that was the exact phrasing) and has fun outrunning cops, swiping alcohol, and doing misdemeanors for funnsies.

Haley's background with crime and the grittiness of "city life" was lightly brushed off as healthy characterization instead of something serious.

3. Confusing and hard-to-follow storyline

As I mentioned, the inception of stories is by nature complicated. I am not going to fault the story for the difficulty of its nature, but I can fault it for the lack of explanation and cohesion. 

Throughout the first half of the novel, I felt as if the characters were just jumping into random stories for the heck of it. I had no idea where the book was going, or if was ever going to get there. A lot of different characters and settings were thrown out and entire story universes that were brushed off. 

The whole concept of "story-traveling" (which is so important that it is in the title) was really never fully explained. Not only did I have to suspend my belief, but I had to suspend all logic and hopes of comprehension to follow the story.

Ultimately, the unique premise was not enough to save the book for me. The novel couldn't pick a side between MG or YA. There were too many stories with not enough explanation. If you are craving a taste of inception, I would recommend just watching DiCaprio's version and calling it a day.

The Hazel Wood
By Melissa Albert
The Hazelwood #1
Published on January 30, 2018
368 Pages
Young Adult, Fantasy

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.
This hyped novel also incorporates multiple layers of stories--particularly fairytales--into the plot. However, the conflicts between reality and fantasy was more nuanced and carefully crafted than in The Story Traveler. 

What I Didn't Like

1. I know that this is a story about stories, but I still felt lost at some points

Like with The Story-Traveler, there are characters who I still have no idea who they are. There were entire scenes when I didn't know what was going on or why it was important. Some of the supposedly "interconnected" stories felt disjointed and I couldn't put the pieces together. There is a strong possibility that this could have been a conflict between my reading style and the novel, not the fault of the book itself. Some scenes I just didn't "get", some that seemed too whimsical for my brain to handle. 

2. No closure or impactful ending

The ending was very anti-climatic to me. There was all of this build-up about who Alice really was and about her grandmother, but I don't feel as if it was capitalized on. There was no closure really whatsoever, but I still don't feel motivated to read the second book.

What I Liked

1. The characters

Ellery Finch is a great character. To be completely honest, I liked him more than Alice. I connected on a personal level to his desire to chase stories and wanderlust when it came to fantasies. His character arc was well-rounded and even though he seemed like a static character in the start, he definitely proved me wrong.

In her own way, Alice is also an interesting and complex character. Her story just didn't end up complete for me (see Con #2). She definitely grows as a character in ways that I never really imagined at the start of the book, despite her coldness throughout the story.

2. Beautiful writing

The writing of the fairytales reminds me of Holly Black and her creepily beautiful writing style. Albert takes the trope of the stereotypical, beautiful fairytale and twists it into a tale more fitting of a nightmare than Disney. The story is brutality with a purpose, the perfect method to fabricate a creepy fairytale world that will give you nightmares instead of daydreams. 

If you are in the mood for a twist on the traditional fairytale with a splash of dark reality thrown in, then The Hazel Wood might work for you. I enjoyed the writing and the characters, but the plot was too whimsical and "out there" for me at times.

What do you think about story inception? Do you have any recommendations for other books that fall into this mind-bending category? Have you read either of these books? If so, what did you think?

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