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Review: MY NAME IS VENUS BLACK by Heather Lloyd

Review:  MY NAME IS VENUS BLACK by Heather LloydMy Name Is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd
four-stars
Published by Dial Press on February 27th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Set in the 1980s, Heather Lloyd’s moving debut My Name is Venus Black follows the story of Venus Black, a thirteen year-old straight A student who dreams of becoming the first female astronaut in space.  When the story opens, Venus is being placed into the backseat of a police car and taken away from her home and subsequently charged with a horrific crime.  Venus refuses to talk to anyone about what happened or why it happened, but she is adamant that her mother is to blame and refuses to speak to her as well. Ultimately Venus is convicted and sentenced to a juvenile detention facility for more than five years.  As if Venus’s crime and imprisonment wasn’t enough to tear apart the Black family, Venus’ seven year old brother Leo, who is developmentally disabled, also goes missing.  One minute he’s playing in the neighbor’s sandbox, the next he vanishes without a trace.  During one of their infrequent meetings, Venus’ mother Inez blurts out that she holds Venus responsible for the fact that Leo has gone missing.  Thus an already strained relationship becomes even more strained.

When Venus is finally released, she chooses not to go back home.  Instead, she decides she needs to make a fresh start so she obtains a fake id and thus tries to escape from her past and start over.  At first Venus is completely alone and refuses to trust anyone around her, but as she finally starts to meet new people, she finds herself opening up and letting more people in.  She makes a friend at the local coffee shop where she lands her first job, becomes like a big sister to the young daughter of a man she rents a room from, and even begins a bit of a flirtation with one of the regular customers at the coffee shop. What Venus eventually realizes, however, is that she can’t have these new relationships while living a lie and constantly looking over her shoulder wondering if someone has figured out who she really is.  This realization causes old wounds to reopen and Venus realizes that she has to face her past head on, including her estranged relationship with her mother as well as the disappearance of her brother (who is still missing), if she ever hopes to move past it.

Can Venus come to terms with the actions from her past and go after the second chance she deserves?  Can she forgive her mother for looking the other way when Venus needed her the most?  And most importantly, can Venus learn to forgive herself?

My Name is Venus Black is a moving coming of age story about second chances, forgiveness, facing up to one’s past, and most importantly, about family.

 

The focus on family was one of the themes that really resonated with me.  Whether it’s the family you’re born with or a family that you’ve made because you all happen to be living under one roof, this book is all about the connections we make with those around us.  Even though she is alone and has every intention of remaining so when she is first released, Venus slowly but surely finds herself forming an almost sisterly bond with a young girl named Piper that she lives with for a while.  Venus is also constantly reminded of the family she has lost and left behind.  She misses Leo and is always thinking about him and wondering if he is okay.  This story also strongly focuses on the idea that no matter how badly you think you’ve messed up, your family is always there for you and it’s never too late to start over if you’re willing to try.

What really got to me about My Name is Venus Black is that it was told mostly from the perspective of the two children, Venus and Leo.  Because some of the events of the story are so dark, it’s just all the more poignant to see them unfold through the eyes of a child.  All of the emotions, the fears and the uncertainty just got to me even more than they probably would have if the story had been presented to me differently.

I also loved both Venus and Leo.  Venus is such a strong voice in this story and her character development is incredible.  I felt bad for her in the beginning because she just wouldn’t talk about what happened and in some ways probably made things harder for herself by refusing to tell her story.  Venus’ story is all about growth though and what she goes through in this story takes her from being basically a terrified little girl in the beginning to a fierce young woman ready to take on the world by the end.

And even though this is mainly Venus’ story, Leo also plays a huge role.  He isn’t given a diagnosis in this book but based on the way he needs structure and the way he panics when his routine is disrupted, I think he is quite possibly autistic. Leo is such a vulnerable character that I immediately felt protective of him because he’s caught up in the middle of something he can’t even begin to comprehend.  Leo is important to the story primarily because of how his disappearance impacts Venus and Inez.  No matter how many years have passed, neither of them give up on the idea that he is still out there so he remains a connection between them no matter how estranged they are from one another.

 

I only had one real issue with My Name is Venus Black and that had to do with the way it would sometimes switch from one character’s perspective to another without warning right in the middle of a chapter.  Hopefully this is just an ARC formatting issue that will not be in the finished copy, but in the review copy I read, occasionally it would just randomly switch from Venus’ perspective to Leo’s from one paragraph to the next.  I found that a little odd, especially since the chapters themselves were told from different perspectives.  Why add further switches within the chapters instead of just making more chapters?  Anyway, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the book but it did slow me down a few times while reading since it was a little jarring each time it happened.

 

My Name is Venus Black is an incredibly moving story about family and forgiveness.  It’s about learning that your actions have consequences and that you have to accept responsibility for them, but it’s also about second chances and how we’re all entitled to them.  If you’re looking for a poignant story filled with memorable characters, I’d highly recommend My Name is Venus Black.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Venus Black is a straitlaced A student fascinated by the study of astronomy—until the night she commits a shocking crime that tears her family apart and ignites a media firestorm. Venus refuses to talk about what happened or why, except to blame her mother. Adding to the mystery, Venus’s developmentally challenged younger brother, Leo, goes missing.

More than five years later, Venus is released from prison with a suitcase of used clothes, a fake identity, and a determination to escape her painful past. Estranged from her mother, and with her beloved brother still missing, she sets out to make a fresh start in Seattle, skittish and alone. But as new people enter her orbit—including a romantic interest and a young girl who seems like a mirror image of her former lost self—old wounds resurface, and Venus realizes that she can’t find a future while she’s running from her past.

four-stars

About Heather Lloyd

Heather Lloyd, who has spent many years working as an editor and writing coach, lives with her husband in New York City. My Name Is Venus Black is her first novel.

Book Review: The Hazel Wood

Book Review:  The Hazel WoodThe Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
three-half-stars
Series: The Hazel Wood #1
Published by Flatiron Books on January 30th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood is not your average story about fairytales.  Instead, it’s an edgy, dark, creepy, tale that at times, reads like a horror story.  That said, it was also one of my most anticipated reads of 2018 because it sounded like such a unique storyline. While I don’t think The Hazel Wood will ultimately end up on my Best Reads of 2018 list, it was still a pretty solidly entertaining read for me.

The Hazel Wood follows the story of seventeen-year old Alice and her mother, Ella.  They have spent most of Alice’s life moving from place to place, never staying in one spot for too long.  Why?  Because everywhere they go, bad luck seems to follow.  Ella and Alice are also a close-knit pair.  For as long as Alice can remember, it has just been the two of them, even though Alice knows she has a grandmother. Alice’s grandmother, who lives as a recluse at her estate, The Hazel Wood, wrote a book of dark fairy tales called Tales from the Hinterland that became a cult classic. The book is now nearly impossible to find but it still has a loyal fan following.  When Alice’s grandmother dies, Alice and Ella’s luck goes from bad to worse, and Tales from the Hinterland seems to somehow be at the center of their troubles.  Ella is kidnapped by someone who claims to have come to them from the Hinterland, the supernatural setting of Alice’s grandmother’s book, and the only clue Ella leaves for Alice is “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has no idea what to do, but when she realizes that one of her classmates, Ellery Finch, is a Hinterland fanboy, she turns to him for help.  He knows more about the Hinterland than anyone she knows and because he’s so obsessed with Tales from the Hinterland, he is more than willing to offer up any assistance he can provide.  When creepy, inexplicable things start to happen all around them, all signs point to the Hinterland and Alice and Ellery quickly realize that the only possible way of saving Ella is to travel to the one place Alice has been told to stay away from, the Hazel Wood. Since it’s not exactly located on any map, will Alice and Ellery be able to even find their way to the Hinterland?  And if so, will they be able to find and save Ella?

 

My absolute favorite part about The Hazel Wood were the actual fairytales from Tales of the Hinterland.  Because the book is so rare, Alice has never had the opportunity to read the tales her grandmother wrote.  Because Finch is such a fanboy and has read them many times, he can basically recite them from memory and so he shares them with Alice whenever she asks.  And the tales are fabulous.  From Twice Killed Katherine to The Door That Wasn’t There, they’re dark, creepy, and just so delightfully twisted.  I think Tales from the Hinterland by itself would have been a 5-star read for me!

Another quality I loved about The Hazel Wood was how atmospheric and suspenseful it was.  The author drops us into a creepy version of New York with Alice where almost every time she turns around, it seems like someone is following her.  She keeps seeing a red-haired man that she remembers from her childhood, as well as a taxi driver who seems to mysteriously turn up where she is repeatedly.  Are these people really following her or is it a coincidence?  Then once she starts hanging around with Finch, he adds to the suspense and paranoid creepy factor as he thinks he recognizes some of the characters who keep turning up as actual characters from Tales from the Hinterland.  Talk about ratcheting up the WHOA factor!

Another interesting aspect of the story for me was that while I didn’t find the main character Alice an especially likeable character, I still felt myself drawn to her story and like her or not, I was determined to follow her as she unraveled the mystery of the Hinterland, her mother, and her grandmother.  Usually not liking a main character is enough to make me give up on reading a book, so I was intrigued that, in this case, it didn’t really deter me.  The Hinterland and its occupants were just that fascinating!

 

I think my biggest issue with The Hazel Wood was that the main characters felt a little flat and under-developed.  I’ve already mentioned that I didn’t especially like Alice, but I also didn’t feel like I really got to delve much into her character.  She clearly has some anger issues that she is dealing with, and while it gives her a little of that flawed, complex, realistic feel that I usually love in characters, I just didn’t really feel the love for Alice. I shared in her desire to figure out what the heck was going on and to find her mother, who has mysteriously disappeared, but otherwise, I didn’t feel like I connected with her much.  I found Ellery Finch a much more likeable character, probably because his fanboyish love of Tales from the Hinterland was so adorable, but I still don’t really feel like I ever got to know much else about him.  I guess the book was meant to be more plot driven than character driven, but I still just like to get to know the characters even if that’s the case.

One other issue, and this may just be me misreading the synopsis, but I went into the book with the idea that the entire book was going to basically be a giant twisted fairy tale, pure fantasy.  I was a little thrown when I started reading and it sounded like an ordinary contemporary novel set in New York. Even once we started getting glimpses of Hinterland characters, it still felt like magical realism rather than full-on fantasy until about the halfway point of the book.  I still enjoyed the read overall but was a little confused starting out since the story wasn’t what I was expecting and what had initially drawn me to the story.

 

The Hazel Wood would make a great read for anyone who likes the idea of dark, twisted fairytales with a supernatural twist.  Some of them are a bit violent and bloody, so I’d probably also recommend this to more mature readers.  It’s a dark and creepy ride that will keep you up late reading, and looking over your shoulder every time something goes bump in the night!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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.

three-half-stars

About Melissa Albert

Melissa Albert is the founding editor of the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog and the managing editor of BN.com. She has written for McSweeney’s, Time Out Chicago, MTV, and more. Melissa is from Illinois and lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Hazel Wood is her first novel.