Title: Heartwood Box
Author: Ann Aguirre
Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Thriller
Publication Date: July 9th, 2019
Word/Page Count: 336 pages (hardcover)
A dark, romantic YA suspense novel with an SF edge and plenty of drama, layering the secrets we keep and how appearances can deceive, from the New York Times bestselling author.
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…
This book caught my interest with that gorgeous cover and the blurb which per the author’s pitch is Stranger Things meets The Lake House. I recently binge-watched season 3 of Stranger Things, I’m a massive fan, so those vibes got me excited, and I’m old enough to have watched The Lake House when it was released 13 (!!) years ago, which makes me feel decrepit as the main character notes “If my great-aunt knows about it, then it’s probably pretty old.”
Unfortunately the sci-fi thriller conspiracies didn’t mesh well with the time-crossed love story, with not enough attention given to either leading to both plots feeling inadequately developed in the story. The premise was excellent as I could see the bones of a great book here, which is why I kept reading even when I was tempted to give up, but it was frustrating to see the lack of sufficient follow-through on either of the main elements because it kept me from being emotionally invested.
The Lake House aspect was particularly weak – our protagonist Araceli exchanges only a couple letters with Oliver, a soldier in World War I, before she’s looking forward to hearing from him as the bright spot in her day (despite being mostly convinced that this is an elaborate hoax) and after a handful more, they’re suddenly in love. It was completely unconvincing, which made Araceli’s reckless decision to send intel to help Oliver even more idiotic – I could see how being in love would make you disregard the possible consequences to changing the timeline, but when I didn’t even believe that love story, it made me feel even more detached and irritated with Araceli.
In contrast, watching Araceli unravel the mystery of what was afflicting the town and investigating the secret lab in the woods was much more interesting and a compelling enough hook to keep me turning the page. I couldn’t work the cause behind the supernatural phenomena or what exactly the shady scientists were up to and how it was all related, the author successfully bamboozled me there! I just wish that Araceli’s circle of friends were more well-developed because I couldn’t distinguish one from another – I normally worked out who they were from context when the group was hanging out and exchanging banter, but this obviously wasn’t possible in the action sequences.
The worst part is that Araceli had a best friend that she’d been communicating with online for years before coincidentally moving to her town and this built-in friendship was left to flounder instead of being given the page-time it deserved because Araceli’s interactions with Logan, the boy next door, was prioritized instead! It made no sense to me that the girls were supposedly so close and excited to meet up in real life, but then Araceli had no plans to catch up with her as soon as she arrived in town – it felt like a plot hole that Araceli turned up for her first day of school only to find out it was a public holiday because Eunsoo didn’t mention this for some reason when Araceli said she’d see her at school the next day! It seemed contrived just so that Araceli could meet Logan, which seems unnecessary as he lives right across the road from her.
When it actually IS the first day of school, instead of arranging to meet at a landmark like the front gate or the library or something that stands out, Eunsoo simply tells her that she’ll be wearing a black hoodie with their favorite band on it. Mobile phones DO exist in this book, but apparently not to facilitate friends catching up, even though that’s the main function of a teenager’s phone! It’s a shame that Eunsoo was set up as a character who would be important at the start because she ended up figuring so little into the plot that she could’ve been removed altogether without affecting anything, which is unfortunately true for a few characters and plot elements in this book that were equally undeveloped.
Overall, this wasn’t for me, but the mystery aspect was fun and quite unique. I also appreciated Araceli being a biracial character and how this was subtly incorporated with micro-aggressions from the kids at school (intentional or not, like Logan mimicking her accent) and bonding with another girl over being the few POC in a predominantly white town.
Personal Rating: 2 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.
Note: this may not have rocked my world, but these bloggers were more positive, so take my opinion with a grain of salt and try it for yourself. 🙂
Disclaimer: I received a digital copy free from Tor Teen via Netgalley for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.