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Books in Brief: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody by Matthew Landis

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; FlatIron Books, 355 pages ($16.99) Ages 12 and up.
This extremely creepy, wondrously original and beautifully written book conjures up a dark, bloody netherworld of fairytales and enchants and enthralls from the first sentence to the final page.  Seventeen-year-old Alice Proserpine is the granddaughter of  Althea Prosperine, a reclusive writer whose book of legendarily sinister fairy tales, "Tales From the Hinterland," is impossible to find but still has somehow managed to inspire a legion of obsessed fans.  Alice and her mother Ella have spent their lives moving from place to place, barely keeping ahead of the mysterious bad luck that seems to always find them (including a red-haired stranger who abducted six-year-old Alice and fed her pancakes before she was rescued). Ella has forbidden Alice to read the tales or to visit the Hazel Wood where her grandmother lives, but when Ella is abducted, Alice knows it's up to her to save her mother. She enlists the help of wealthy classmate Ellery Finch despite her misgivings about his obsession with both the tales and her grandmother, and together they set out to find the Hazel Wood and rescue Ella. Finch has read the tales, and so the reader is treated to the blood-soaked horror of "The Door That Wasn't There" and  namesake story "Alice-Three-Times" which begins: "When Alice was born, her eyes were black from end to end, and the midwife didn't stay long enough to wash her." But will Alice find the strength to change her own story? Alice narrates the tale and her whip-smart voice is often very funny: "We weren't supposed to smoke inside that place, a cramped apartment on New York's Upper West Side that smelled like expensive French soap and wet Yorkies." Or "My stepsister was a sexy zaftig motormouth who made me feel like an awkward breadstick." Familiar fairy tale elements are cleverly woven into the narrative, which is full of thrilling surprises.  A stranger leaves a feather, a comb and a bone on a cafe table; a blackbird bloodily crashes into a window to deliver a letter. As worlds collide, the terror mounts as Alice gets a terrifying glimpse of the Hinterland, on the streets of New York, of a sinister character named Twice-Killed Katherine carrying a birdcage.
The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody by Matthew Landis; Dial Books, 295 pages ($16.99). Ages 10 to 14. 
Seventh grader Oliver Prichard is a Civil War buff who prides himself on knowing everything worth knowing about Civil War generals and battles. He even wears a scratchy  wool uniform in the summer heat as the youngest member of  a local re-enactment group. So imagine Oliver's dismay when he is forced to be partners on a Civil War school research project with weird classmate Emmy Berry, considered by all to be a slacker. And to be assigned to research a lowly soldier named Private Raymond Stone who died of dysentery, rather than a famous general or at least someone who died a heroic death. Matthew Landis, who teaches eighth-grade social studies in Pennsylvania, does a marvelous job creating the vivid reality of middle school in this charming coming-of-age tale, with a touch of romance, as clueless Oliver slowly emerges from the isolation of his own universe to learn how to listen to someone else and be a friend and also to recognize the tragedy in the death of such a minor player as Private Stone. The classroom scene where the teacher sets up a Civil War hospital operating table to simulate a Civil War-era amputation is a classic. At the heart of the tale is the mystery of how Raymond Stone came to enlist, and the unraveling of that mystery is a first-class lesson in the use of primary sources for research, just as the novel itself is an eye-opening look at the Civil War including a timely reference to the debate over the removal of Confederate monuments.
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