Book: “Heartwood Box” by Ann Aguirre
Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!
Book Description: In this tiny, terrifying town, the lost are never found. When Araceli Flores Harper is sent to live with her great-aunt Ottilie in her ramshackle Victorian home, the plan is simple. She’ll buckle down and get ready for college. Life won’t be exciting, but she’ll cope, right?
Wrong. From the start, things are very, very wrong. Her great-aunt still leaves food for the husband who went missing twenty years ago, and local businesses are plastered with MISSING posters. There are unexplained lights in the woods and a mysterious lab just beyond the city limits that the locals don’t talk about. Ever. When she starts receiving mysterious letters that seem to be coming from the past, she suspects someone of pranking her or trying to drive her out of her mind. To solve these riddles and bring the lost home again, Araceli must delve into a truly diabolical conspiracy, but some secrets fight to stay buried…
Review: This was an impulse request mostly because I was in the mood for something creepy and the title/cover art combo seemed to fit those criteria pretty well. The description of a teenager discovering the mysteries of a strange, small town just cemented by interest. But while the book does deliver on what it sets out to do, it didn’t quite match up with what I was looking for.
Araceli doesn’t know what to expect when she shows up at the small town where her great-aunt lives. But a town full of missing people and mysterious happenings in the woods surrounding it is not what she had in mind for her visit. Soon enough these mysteries end up knocking on her own door and curiosity and bewilderment quickly turn into fear and a fight for not only her future, but those who have been lost before her.
This is a tough book to evaluate, mostly due to the fact that it’s just not the type of book I read often. And for the reason that I typically don’t enjoy them as much as others. I’m not sure where the line is between “contemporary fantasy” and “urban fantasy,” but there definitely is one and it’s enough to make me greatly prefer the latter to the former. In this book’s case, there were a few aspects of the former that didn’t quite fit with what I was looking for.
First, our main character, Araceli. Most of the fantasy fiction that I read that features young protagonists is set in a world or time period where a young age doesn’t mean the same thing it does here. Teenagers often find themselves in very adult situations and it is perfectly normal that they be there. And, in fact, they have often been raised to expect to operate in an adult fashion by this age. This makes many YA fantasy novels essentially read as adult fantasy novels (I won’t start up again on the marketing mechanisms behind these choices).
So in part I’m simply not used to reading teenagers that, well, act like teenagers. It’s not really the fault of the book that Araceli is a believable teen and thus often makes poor decisions. But I won’t concede some of the dialogue. Teenage characters don’t have to sound immature in their speaking, and there were often bits of both her actual voiced comments as well as the commentary in her head that read as even more juvenile than necessary for belivablilty.
My other main struggle came down to genre confusion. Simply put, there are too many genres and genre conventions vying for page time in this book. I had a hard time settling in to any one type of story. Some genre blending is to be expected, but this one had a bit too much on its hands with fantasy, thriller, horror, and mystery all packed in. I think it was more a fault of blending than anything. It felt a bit too obvious when the story switched from one genre focus to another, reading as bumpy and jarring rather than a smooth, unnoticeable transition.
The mystery of the story is good, though the comparison to “Stranger Things” is a bit too on the nose. I mean, creepy woods. Dudes in bio-hazard outfits. People disappearing. We get it. But still, I was intrigued enough about discovering what exactly was going on that I was able to get through my general frustration with the main character and some bumpy writing.
Essentially, if you’re a fan of contemporary YA fiction and enjoy a fantasy/horror aspect to your tale, you might really like “Heartwood Box.” Most of my complaints for this one are purely my own preference, so take that with what you will. I do think the writing lacks a bit to be desired overall, but that’s not a deal breaker if this kind of story is your thing.
Rating 6: Not for me. “Realistic” teenagers apparently annoy me too much.
“Heartwood Box” is a new title and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it should be on “YA Fantasy Set in the Real World.”
Find “Heartwood Box” at your library using WorldCat!