A “Top Book of 2015” MG Read-it-if Review: Hoodoo…

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If you’ve been wandering around in a fog of “what-do-I-read-next?” then you have stumbled into the right place. I heartily recommend today’s cracking and original tale and I have taken the rather rash and possibly disputable decision to elevate it to a place in my “Top Books of 2015” list. I received a copy of Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith from the publisher via Netgalley. Apart from that stunning cover, this historical tale has folk magic, family secrets, stranger danger, talking crows, dream travelling and one very nasty demon…not to mention the fact that it is a book that could easily slot into the “promoting diversity” category.

But enough with the tantalising descriptions! Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can’t seem to cast a simple spell.   

Then a mysterious man called the Stranger comes to town, and Hoodoo starts dreaming of the dead rising from their graves. Even worse, he soon learns the Stranger is looking for a boy. Not just any boy. A boy named Hoodoo. The entire town is at risk from the Stranger’s black magic, and only Hoodoo can defeat him. He’ll just need to learn how to conjure first.     

Set amid the swamps, red soil, and sweltering heat of small town Alabama in the 1930s, Hoodoo is infused with a big dose of creepiness leavened with gentle humor.    

hoodoo

Read it if:

*you’ve ever had a bad dream that seemed incredibly real…then woken up to discover that it was actually…incredibly real.

*you are possessed of a name that implies characteristics that are absent from your personality

*you’ve ever thought the whole “Stranger Danger” thing is a big overreaction from helicopter parents

*you’ve ever ignored sage advice from a trusted elder. Or a deceased relative.  Or indeed, a talking bird.

What an original little offering this book is! I truly enjoy meeting books that stand out from the thoroughly well used plotlines and characters that have populated middle grade fiction since Moses was a lad. On reading the blurb, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was, in fact, a typical “chosen one finds magic within himself and saves the world” sort of a story, but there are some important details that set this one apart.

First off, this is historical fiction, with events taking place in the 1930s, when segregation was alive and well. The author manages to weave in aspects of the period as well as some nifty little informational nuggets while keeping the plot flowing and the setting authentic. I quite enjoyed the little historical tidbits and as the book is set in the US, there were some interesting things I learned from the tale, such as the use of patterned quilts hung in cottage windows that held secret instructions for slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad. I always liken fiction that teaches you something to a bonus prize you win after you think the game is over.

The sinister elements of this book are very sinister indeed, and I was surprised at how creepy the content got considering that this is a middle grade offering. Apart from the Stranger (who starts off merely unsettling and finishes in full-blown demon possession), old sulphur-boots himself makes an appearance (albeit off-stage) and the second half of the book certainly felt to me like it had a fog of malevolence blanketing the action. The plotline that requires Hoodoo to solve the riddle of the Stranger and use his folk magic to protect himself is tightly woven and will provide a challenge to those who like to puzzle things out along with the hero.

I almost wish that this was part of a series because Hoodoo is such a likeable character, and I really felt like part of his extended family as I followed his adventures. The supporting characters are well developed and there is a distinct theme of loss and re-connection as the story unfolds. The sense of warmth and welcome that exudes from the descriptions of Hoodoo’s home with Mama Frances and the obvious reliance on others that is evident in the community definitely balances out some of the more frightening aspects of the story and provides a consolation for the losses that Hoodoo has experienced in his young life.

Having read a few early reviews of Hoodoo, I do agree with some reviewers that there is something lacking overall in the execution of the tale. While I was highly impressed with the originality of the story and the way in which the author has pulled off the scarier bits, I did feel mildly dissatisfied at the end. Strangely though, I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly was missing or lacking. I did find the pacing to be unusual, with the earlier chapters almost devoid of anything magical at all (except Hoodoo’s first encounter with the Stranger) and the later chapters particularly intense in terms of danger and macabre doings. Perhaps it was this disparity in pacing that put me slightly off, making Hoodoo seem younger than his twelve years in the beginning and much older by the end.

Having said that, this was definitely a stand-out book for me for this year, for its original content, historical setting and the masterful way in which the author has developed the more frightening aspects of the story. This is certainly not a read for the faint-hearted or suggestible, but for advanced middle grade readers of stout heart and steady nerve this would be an excellent choice.

Until next time,

Bruce

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