YA Weekend Audio: Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 1.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Audio (February 25, 2020)
Length: 8 hrs and 14 mins
Bisou was just a little girl when her mother was murdered. After that, she came under the care of her grandmother, Mémé, moving to live with her in the Pacific Northwest. There, she grew into a teenager, went to high school, starting dating James, a popular boy on the basketball team. Then, on the night of the homecoming dance, she gets her first period—while in a very intimate situation with James in his car. Shocked, panicked, and embarrassed, Bisou flees for home, taking a route through the dark woods. It was then that the wolf attacked, drawn to the scent of her blood. Fighting for her life, Bisou manages to drive a stick through the vicious wolf’s eye and force it, in its blinded rage, to slam into a tree with its momentum and break its neck.
The next day dawns with normalcy, with Bisou shaken but unharmed, having kept her night’s encounter with the wolf a secret. But at school, dire news has unsettled the student body. Early in the morning, the naked body of Tucker, a star basketball player, had been found in the woods, his neck broken and his eye ruined. Even though she knows that it should be impossible, that stories of boys transforming into beasts is the stuff of fairy tales, Bisou understands deep down that Tucker had to have been the wolf in the woods last night. And she had killed him.
Now everyone is asking difficult questions, from the local police to Keisha, Bisou’s inquisitive classmate on the school newspaper. Apparently, the town has seen something like this before a generation or two ago, and whatever it was seems to be happening again. Sure enough, a month later, Keisha is attacked by another wolf, though this time, Bisou knew what to expect and was ready. Still, it is a mystery why boys are inexplicably turning into wolves, and why somehow the danger in the woods always seems to call to Bisou when the moon is full and she is on her menstrual cycle. Thankfully, Mémé may have some answers to that.
Before I start, I feel I should make it clear that I am reviewing the audiobook edition of Red Hood, which may have greatly affected my enjoyment—or the lack of it. I find that the audio format tends to accentuate certain quirks in the writing, making things like purple prose or unique stylist choices more obvious, and this was most definitely the case with this novel, which was written almost entirely in the second person. This narrative mode is tricky to begin with, and it’s incredibly awkward when done poorly. Any weaknesses in the prose are very obvious when you listen to it being read aloud, and that can be incredibly jarring. So with that being said, I absolutely hated the second person perspective in this, to the point where listening to it actually pained me, like a toothache that never went away and that you couldn’t ignore. While I believe it’s a bold choice for any author to attempt to write in the second person, unfortunately I just don’t think Elana K. Arnold was able to pull it off. Again, I stress that my experience might be due to the format; the second person narrative mode will likely feel different or better reading this book in print, but in audio it was distracting to the extreme.
Also, I’m not sure the themes in the story helped. I think the line between a book delivering a good message versus being preachy is very thin, and at times Red Hood falls on the wrong side of it because it is very open about its agenda. This is not an issue in and of itself, and I think it’s wonderful that there’s a market right now for feminist activism in YA fantasy and how some stories choose to send those messages in a way that’s loud, clear, and unashamed. Personally though, I prefer my books—especially my fiction—to be a little more perceptive and subtle. But from the violent themes of resistance to a character who was very clearly a mouthpiece for the author’s own views, the female empowerment message is ever present but often comes across muddled or misguided, not to mention how poorly some of its components are integrated into the plot. As well, let’s not forget James, the only good representation of masculinity, whose portrayal was as hollow and sincere as a plastic bucket. And finally, there was the over-sensationalism. Though I doubt it was Arnold’s intent (or at least, I hope it wasn’t), some of the more graphic descriptions of sexual acts and the messy realities of menstruation did not work for me, feeling less like a brave celebration of femaleness and more like exploitation of it for shock value’s sake, which was saddening and a disappointment.
Bottom line, I think Red Hood is a novel you will either embrace or reject, depending on your expectations. It’s also likely that readers who have the print version (or audio listeners who aren’t as picky as I am) will have a better time with it. January LaVoy did the narration for the audiobook, and even though I love her work, not even her solid performance could overcome the more distracting elements in the writing. All in all, sadly I can’t say this book was my cup of tea.