Twisted fairy tales: The Hazel Wood and beyond

If you’ve ever read real fairy tales, you’ll know the concept of a fairytale ending is far from perfect. Before Disney got his sugar-coated hands on them, they were dark, stark teaching tales – some of them with an obvious moral, others simply twisted stories that people passed around at night to scare the petticoats off each other.

page from a fairy tale book illustrating rapunzel including a picture of a witch and tangled treesBluebeard’s chamber was full of the corpses of his former wives, characters are blinded, torn apart by wild animals. It’s worse of course if you’re the stepmother. You could be tricked into eating the minced-up body of your own daughter, rolled down a hill in a barrel lined with nails or, if you were foolish enough to be cruel to Snow White, you could end up with your feet being forced into red-hot iron shoes and dancing yourself to death.

Nope, real fairy tales – not so nice.pages from a fairytale book pictures of two giants on the rampage

Over the years many authors have drawn inspiration from this fairytale darkness, but Melissa Albert takes it to a new level. Her novel, The Hazel Wood, manages to out-grim the Brothers Grimm.

Seventeen-year-old Alice spent her life on the run across America with her wonderful but erratic mother, who was always bundling her into the car and hitting the road at the first sign of trouble. It’s no wonder that she becomes obsessed with her rich, eccentric grandmother, Althea Prosperine.

The Hazel Wood manages to out-grim the Brothers Grimm

Althea’s book of fairytales became a cult hit in the postwar years, enabling her to buy a huge estate north of New York, called The Hazel Wood. She since became a recluse, and her book mysteriously vanished from shelves which only feeds Alice’s fascination.

Then Alice’s mother is kidnapped and Alice herself begins to realise that the frighteningimage of a fairytale book open at an illustration of the wild swans creatures from her grandmother’s tales might not be fictitious after all.

The Hazel Wood’s strength is that Melissa Albert has weaved a whole host of new tales rather than relying on the ones we grew up with, so they feel oddly familiar but warped and twisted. Some of the stories are woven into the book, but others are just alluded to, with horrific names such as Twice Killed Katherine.

I’d like to have read more of the actual fairytales themselves, although it could be the author decided to keep us in the dark to add to that sense of the unknown. Perhaps there’ll be a spin-off volume later, JK Rowling style.

Cover of The Hazel Wood by Melissa AlbertIt’s a hugely accomplished book for a debut author, beautifully written and atmospheric. The heroine is tough, scrappy and flawed – although her anger issues are more talked-about than experienced, it would have been fun to explore them more. I had a bit of a crush on her sidekick, Ellery Finch. I’m not at all surprised that the film rights have been sold already.

After finishing The Hazel Wood I immediately went to my fairy tale shelf (yes, I have one) and dipped into The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by the incredibly knowledgeable Maria Tatar. Re-reading Tatar’s matter-of-fact tone and footnotes, plus ominous titles such as The Hand With The Knife, the link with The Hazel Wood is clear to see. Pick up a copy of both and dive in… Just don’t read them to your children.

The Hazel Wood is out now

The images are from my 1970s volume of Classic Fairy Tales, which is what started this whole thing for me in the first place.

Book review: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

I would defy anyone to get a copy of Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend through the post and not think: this has to be some kind of joke.

After all, the world of YA semi-mythical romantic fiction has been aching for a good parody for some time. What started with sexy vampires went onto encompass fairies, gods and strangely attractive trolls until pretty much any mythical beast you can think of started turning up at high schools across America, trying to blend in and falling for clumsy innocents along the way.

Add to that the sub genre of cross-species erotica which had a little moment last year – Taken by the T-Rex, Ravished by the Raptor, and the many, many works of Chuck Tingle – and you’ve got the recipe for a pretty funny send-up.

The problem with books like that is that the joke wears thin by page 35 and starts to feel like a waste of your valuable reading time. But something about the blurb on this one made me want to pick it up, and after the first few chapters I started wondering, where the hell is he going with this?

Because HPtB isn’t a joke book – author Alan Cumyn (his actual name) is perfectly serious.

Well, semi-serious.

Well, he keeps a straight face.

So the plot: Sheils Krane is a control freak, the student body president at her high school who has everything under control – the

Author Alan Cumyn is serious. Well, semi serious.

Principal, her grades and her obedient but not-very-exciting boyfriend Sheldon. Then Pyke, the world’s first Pterodactyl high school student lands on the school running track and suddenly everything changes.

This is HUGE, right? A freaking pterodactyl! Where does he come from? How is it that he has the torso of a human being? Why the hell does he need a high school education? And why does Shiels’ nose turn purple after dancing with him? Don’t think you’re going to get an answer to these questions, Cumyn doesn’t bother. You just have to go with it.

hptbAnd that is what Shiels learns she has to do too as her attraction to Pyke pulls apart everything she thinks she knows about herself and forces her to ask herself what she really wants out of life.

And that’s the thing about this story. Rampant dino aside, it reflects many of the pressures on teens today: that tightrope walk between staying focused on your future – grades, college – and letting go and enjoying the crazy, intense, hormone-raging high of being young.

What isn’t there – thankfully – is the appearance-obsession you see in so many High School YA books. Sheils takes up running (initially) to compete with her love rival but she doesn’t measure the circumference of her thighs or bemoan her freckles/untameble hair/tendency to blush. It actually doesn’t matter what Shiels looks like – although there are many lyrical descriptions of Pyke’s ripped (and mysteriously furry) abs. And the scene where Pyke is in bed and there may or may not be an extra lump sticking up under the blanket made me laugh out loud.

I found it tough going sometimes – some of the sentence construction made it a bit of a tricky read and the style is a bit repetitive. Still. I stuck with it out of sheer fascination – I just wanted to know where the hell he was going with this story, and the result was pretty intriguing.dino1

So, as an offbeat YA treat Cumyn pulls it off – after a fashion. I see this one being a cult hit – I don’t see a movie starring Vanessa Hudgens as Shiels, but frankly that’s a bit of a relief.

Are we seeing the spawning of a new hot-dino-romance genre? Maybe not, but there’s definitely room for this kind of weirdness on my bookshelf.

Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn is out now.