I Dissect My First Ever ARC Review As A Book Blogger To Analyze My Past Reading Taste + Reviewing Style

Every bookish content creator has that one advanced copy they read and reviewed for the first time, probably having received it through Netgalley or a publicist—or rarely through Edelweiss. Since I first set up my blog on September 30, 2017 I have read quite a lot of early copies and have written reviews to show my love or disappointment. But I recently remembered the first early copy I was approved for on Netgalley and rushed to see how I had reviewed it. Clicking on the goodreads page of The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert was difficult because last year, when the sequel to this fantasy had released and I had luckily got an advanced listening copy through LibroFM, I had shown almost no interest in reading the second half of this duology. So what had changed? Why was I not interested in this story anymore? Especially when I had rated the first book with five stars? Read on to find out!

I absolutely loved this!! This is probably the first book of 2018 that has driven me crazy with all the amazing things it has and ugh, I don’t know if this review would even be coherent enough with my over-driven feels about this.

First of all, there was absolutely no need to italicize an entire introduction to a review, but I’ll keep my overtly critical views of everything I do on the back burner for now. I wouldn’t comment on the ‘absolutely loved this’ because as far as I remember, I did enjoy reading it then—even if  I might not now. The Hazel Wood was definitely crazy and sure, maybe some things were amazing, but wait, why am I using the word ‘overdriven’ [with the very unnecessary dash, by the way] to describe my feelings for this book when the adjective clearly has a negative intonation to it? Guess I hadn’t worked part-time at an editing firm then. As for my worries about this review not being ‘coherent enough’, I think I still mention such a doubt in my tweets while promoting a book review but not in reviews any more.

The Hazel Wood is a dark fables driven fantasy that evilly makes its readers pleasantly suffer the secret it withholds.

The one place I should have used a dash, of course I didn’t. But keeping aside the hyphenation rules, I evidently loved to start a long review with a quick sentence that can pull in readers or maybe give them enough to get a hint at what vibes the story has. Not to say I don’t do this anymore because one of the best reviews I’ve written this year, of Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena, has a lyrical start too but with more words.

“The story starts off with Alice and her mother, Ella, who have always been on the road to anywhere away from the bad luck that seems to keep following them. When one day, they receive a letter claiming Althea’s—Alice’s grandmother—death. Suddenly, everything appears to be falling in place: Ella falls in love with a rich businessman and both, her and Alice, shift to his high-end residence, Alice gets admitted to a school where only the rich kids usually go to, and she has a job like any other normal teenager would. But things weren’t as good as they looked—Alice comes across the guy who had once kidnapped her when she was a little girl and runs off home, only to find her mother missing. Taken by the Hinterland.”

I have grown past synopses in reviews, whether writing them or even reading them in other reviews. It’s one thing to give a hint at what the main storyline is but I now believe that blurbs are there for a reason and if someone’s intrigued by your little hints, that’s way more powerful to make them read the book than an entire paragraph laying down some foundation. I feel the need to mention: no offence to those who do add a nice, concise plot of the story in their review.

With no data to prove but my mere memory, I think I’ve used the phrase ‘the story starts off with’ in almost every such review where I’ve attempted to set up either the main event leading to the inciting incident or a descriptive gist of the story. The fact that the second line indicates the need for a single mother to find a rich businessman, for a young girl to go to a school that can only be praised on the percentage of rich kids going there, and for both to live in a posh neighborhood, to say their lives are falling in place is too far away from the views I now have on themes of classism, forced responsibilities, and the judgmental attitudes towards educational institutions on the basis of how much they monetarily demand. Anyway, the last line was exactly the point where I had gotten most interested in the story so I quite like how I ended this paragraph right there.

I should really be sitting with a thesaurus (or Google) to keep finding synonyms for love, because it’s gonna get too repetitive at some point. Apologies if me shouting my appreciation would be annoying to you!

Again with the italicization! First of all, the sudden break in the tone of the review because of this interactive, chatty nonsense is disappointing me to no ends. I clearly didn’t know anything about holding readers’ attention. Secondly, this isn’t even funny. Why did I think that adding ‘google’ in brackets right after thesaurus would be the funniest thing? Thirdly, I wish someone had told me how annoying I was being by warning readers about how annoying I would be while ‘shouting my appreciation’.

I might be one of those who hasn’t devoured every other fantasy (I’m a fan but it’s still not the first on my list) so this concept intrigued me so much. Fairy tales are my favorite and creatively crafted ones that doesn’t hint a happily-ever-after at all, is all the more interesting. 2018 is probably the year for dark perspectives being brought into the spotlight and this debut nails the growing trend. The plot is perfectly planned with all possible pessimistic probabilities (I swear I didn’t say this solely for the alliteration) and so much so that even the slightest happy thing makes your ears (eyes in this case) perked up for what might be lying ahead.

I- *stares at more than 250 fantasy books I’ve read in the past two years* I understand that the very bold statement I have made at the start of this paragraph is true to what I preferred reading when I first joined book blogging—science-fiction *stares at less than 50 sci-fi books I’ve read in the past two years* but it’s still shocking to me how fantasy quickly became one of my favorite genres, even though I like to falsely call myself an eclectic reader.

Well, what I think I meant was ‘fairy tale retellings‘ because I don’t think any fairy tale has ever given us a dark, sad ending. Oh, wait. Trends? I’m trying to point out a trend for a year that has only just started? Allow me to SMH a little. But I guess, considering the ‘dark perspective’ or the uncliched main characters, The Poppy War and A Spark of White Fire did give heroines who didn’t adhere to the typical YA voice, and I can see how Alice from The Hazel Wood was on an edgy track too. 2018 Fanna loved alliterations and 2020 Fanna still believes alliterations are adorable.

Alice had grown up with questions that Ella never answered and her curiosity peaked up even more when she came across a magazine article about The Hazel Wood—her grandmother’s multi-dollar estate. A relative she hadn’t heard about from Ella because she always refused to speak of her, Althea had always been a far-off star she wanted to touch. So despite of fair warnings to stay away from The Hazel Wood, Alice still takes off to this place because she hopes to get her answers—or her mother’s whereabouts—here.

Perked up, peaked up. I’m not going to dive into how ‘peak’ already implies something going up so there’s no need to use ‘up’ after it, because I don’t want to embarrass myself further. Also, I know it might seem that I’m always this judgmental about the language skills but trust me, I’m not. I’m just too hard on myself.

Diverting everyone’s attention back to the review, I like how I have mentioned what actually pulls Alice into the fantastical land, but there was no need of detailing it with the article, the grandmother’s estate, and ‘Althea’. Recently, I have avoided using any character names in my reviews, as you can see in the recent reviews on this blog: These Violent Delights & We Hunt The Flame. But even earlier, I’ve avoided using a lot of names, especially of side characters, because I don’t personally think that someone who hasn’t read the book yet would care about what name the MC’s grandmother goes with. So this mention of Althea is annoying me so much.

I loved Alice. She is sort of rude, appears to be arrogant at times, gets super furious, and often comes across as expressionless, but the thing here is: she does all that involuntarily; it’s her personality traits and have a justification that I would stray away from stating because this review is meant to be spoiler-free. As an expressing-limited-number-of-expressions kinda person myself* I could relate to those little things that were meant to be funny (or not, I’m not sure!). Basically, she was a really good character for me that I felt grow up from a confused little teenager to a stronger daughter.

Well, spoiler-free reviews have been a consistent standard for me. I don’t think I’ve ever tagged a review as a spoiler filled one—not even for sequels. I love how doubtful I am about my humor reception, like, ‘I’m not sure!’ if what I laughed at was actually a funny thing or not. As for me adoring complex, confused, flawed young girls in books, I still stand strong on my appreciation of such characters. And maybe 2018 started it all because I mentioned the same in my review of From Twinkle With Love from that year too.

Speaking of that, I also loved the whole mother-daughter relationship portrayal. Ella isn’t one of the usual moms but she’s nothing less when it comes to protecting and loving her child. Alice isn’t any usual either but again, she’s willing to got to ends for her mother and that’s about what every daughter would be ready to, too. Ella worked as a really good side character that came alive through Alice’s memories and past experiences.

Hm, cute.

While I’m at it, I’ll also mention how good of a person Finch was! He’s been a fan of Althea’s dark fairy tales collection forever and when Alice’s connection to her comes to his notice, he doesn’t even blink his eye before deciding to tag along with her to The Hazel Wood. He’s the smarter person because of his prior knowledge about the Tales of Hinterland which makes him important. He isn’t a love interest, far from it; he’s a partner in act who gives way to sequences and doesn’t simply follow around the main character. His role takes turns at all the right places that you should read to find out because (yeah, I know, I’m being monotonous with this excuse) this is meant to be spoiler-free. All in all, each and every character had a huge impact on the main story line.

Okay, honestly, I think I wouldn’t be appreciating Finch that much if I had been writing this review now. He clearly seems too excited for something so risky and being interested in Tales of Hinterland does not justify such excitement. I mean, I like Beauty & the Beast as a fairytale but there’s no way I’m ready to be trapped in a castle where roses are pretty and a beast is ghastly—definitely not a preacher of Stockholm Syndrome either. But I did like their friendship and I’ve always liked when side characters can get a good spotlight even if they’re not the love interest. Ah, we get it Fanna, we get it. This and all your future reviews will be “spoiler-free”. Okay, noted.

Coming on to the writing. I loved it…like everything else about this book! It’s lyrical, perfectly-paced, descriptively balanced, and just a pleasure to read. The narration is a first-person viewpoint of Alice and works tremendously to bring that expressionless soul to life. While Alice, out of all, is the most illiterate in terms of her knowledge about The Hazel Wood or the Tales of Hinterland, she doesn’t confuse or frustrate the readers because the writing does its job well enough to give exactly what it wants to and at exactly what time. Overall, this is going to be on my fave list and I can’t be more excited about the sequel!

Yeah, the excited-about-the-sequel predication didn’t fall in place. I also oops don’t remember much of the writing and if I considered it ‘lyrical’, I should’ve been remembering it. Like Circe or The Tiger At Midnight being two titles whose writing I vividly remember whenever I think of the books, I unfortunately don’t about this book so I guess, 2018 me either didn’t know how much weight the word ‘lyrical’ holds or simply enjoyed the book then and for that, I won’t judger her! Also, it’s not on my favorites list and I don’t think I’ve even recommended it to many people. Again, oops.

I would recommend this to all those who love a good evil fantasy that draws you into a fairy tale land that you would rather stay away from. No, but in all seriousness, this is perfect for the magical, fantasy fans who are always pleasantly surprised by a folklore that hangs in a dark world.

I love this conclusion and I still add such quick a-line-or-two kind of ending to my reviews.

*Come on, look at my profile picture! That’s like the maximum stretch of my lips to show a smile before I laugh and show off two large canines that I can’t flaunt. I’m a pendulum that only touches the extremes–it’s either a small smile or a cachinnation, nothing in between.

We’re not talking about my bad sense of humor, and definitely not talking about this descriptive projection of my dentition.

Finally, the rating is definitely not aligning with what I feel about this book now  (I would give it a three) but even when I consider all the things I must have liked then, I don’t think it would’ve gotten more than four stars. But why did I rate it five then? I’m not sure but I would say that getting an early copy for the first time might’ve made me generous with the stars, or maybe I hadn’t read enough books to set a standard I now have for such high ratings, or maybe I did simply enjoy reading it and at this particular point, I just can’t agree with that Fanna anymore.

And that’s fine. The purpose of this post was to revisit the first ever ARC review and see how much I still align with those feelings. But most importantly, I wanted to see how far I’ve come. My reading preferences, a critical lens, writing style, and the points I choose to build my review on, have changed a lot. Not to say I don’t like any books I might’ve read two years ago because I have found some absolute favorites then, but if I had to compare what I was recommending at the start of 2018 and what I would be recommending at the start of 2021, there is a vast change I’m proud of.

Do you remember the first ever ARC you reviewed? Do you find a change in your reading preferences and the way your write your reviews now? Let’s chat!

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22 / she | a desi blogger who loves books and anything related to stories! focuses on south-asian representation in literature, a writer working on a hindu eschatology-based fantasy.

10 thoughts on “I Dissect My First Ever ARC Review As A Book Blogger To Analyze My Past Reading Taste + Reviewing Style

  1. OMG i am not the only one that hates writing and reading synopses. I don’t do them anymore and vaguely recall feeling like I had to in order to be “a reviewer.” Maybe I’ll do a few sentences, just short and sweet. I really think it’s important to give something about the book that goes beyond and is not just a rewording of of how the publisher describes it. If I feel the publisher is not giving the full picture then that’s another situation.


  2. Oh I love the way you have critiqued your own review. And quite frankly I would not dare to do this one, cuz I am sure mine would be cringe-worthy! Good job.


  3. Fanna, I LOVE what you’ve done here, but now I’m afraid to go back and look at my early reviews. 🙈 It’s really neat of you to critique your own work and acknowledge how far you’ve come since you started, and maybe it’ll help other people do the same (and look at their work in a new positive light)!


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