Book Reviews · Middle-Grade

Book Review: Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate

If trees could talk, what would they say? That’s one of the many questions asked by Wishtree, a 2017 Middle Grade novel by Katherine Applegate.

The narrator is a red oak tree, but the story follows many characters: the animals that make their home in the tree, the owner of the land the tree is on, and the children of the two families who rent the houses on that property. Every year, the people of the town come to the tree to make wishes, which they write on pieces of fabric and tie to the branches. The tree has no power to grant their wishes, but it becomes determined to grant a little girl’s wish for a friend.

This little girl has moved into one of the two houses on the property, and she immediately forms a close bond with the tree, sneaking out to sit beneath it every night. The tree begins to care for the girl, and it becomes increasingly frustrated at its inability to help her. Not only does she have trouble making friends, but one day, a stranger carves the word “LEAVE” into the tree’s bark. She and her parents are immigrants from the Middle East, and not everyone is happy to welcome them.

Meanwhile, the owner of the property is growing increasingly frustrated with the annual Wish Day festivities, as well as the damage the tree’s roots are doing to the houses’ plumbing systems. The vandalism pushes her over the edge, and she decides to chop the tree down. While the animals that live in the tree search for new homes, the tree itself, who had expected to live for hundreds of years longer, has to face its own impending death and becomes increasingly determined to grant the little girl’s wish as a final act of kindness.

An unconventional narrator, like a tree, is the sort of thing that seems like a recipe for disaster. How can a human reader sympathize with a tree? How can a human author understand what a tree might think and do if it had a humanlike mind and the ability to act? How can any of this be pulled off without seeming ridiculously cheesy? It seems like the sort of thing that could never work, and yet somehow it does.

The tree never seems fully human. It looks at humans from an outsider’s viewpoint and cares for them but does not understand them. At the same time, though, it’s characterized in a way that, while distinctly tree-like, is relatable enough to seem real. I found myself seeing the story through the tree’s eyes, understanding its perspective as well as the human characters’. Its intervention in the story is just subtle enough to allow suspension of disbelief without making it a passive observer, and the story touches on powerful themes and ideas that make it a story worth telling, as well as one with potential to appeal to readers far older than its target audience.

Book Reviews · Young Adult

Book Review: Renegades

I absolutely love The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer, so of course I had to read her latest book, Renegades, which was released this past November. I’m not really a fan of superhero stories, so I was a little uncertain at first. However, once I got past the nicknames and costumes and secret identities, I found myself really enjoying the story.

Renegades is set in a grim dystopian future where the superheroes can’t save everyone, the villains just might have a point, and in the end, it’s the ordinary people who suffer. It doesn’t pull any punches. The main character, a young villainess who volunteers to infiltrate the superheroes’ organization, grows increasingly torn between the two sides as the book goes on. Her own superpowers are less impressive than her ingenuity and resourcefulness, and she truly believes the world would be better off with no super-powered “prodigies” at all.

Nova and Adrian, the two main characters, have opposite goals and opposite views of the world. Yet at the same time, they have a lot in common. Both of them have their doubts about the Renegades, the powerful superheroes who rule the city. Both of them lost family members at a young age and are still looking for justice/vengeance. They were raised by the leaders of opposing sides and began working for their families’ cause at a young age. And they both have not one but two superhero identities, one of which is known to the Council and the other regarded as a threat. Perhaps it’s no wonder that when they meet out of costume, ignorant of the fact that they’re already enemies, they get along quite well.

Although the book is long, the plot itself is very simple, and almost seems to exist just as a framework for the characters, world-building, and extensive backstory. However, I don’t mean that as a criticism. This simply isn’t a plot-driven story. Despite the action sequences and superhero imagery, it’s a character-driven exploration of shattered faith and divided loyalties, and personally, that’s something that appeals to me far more than fights and explosions. Both Nova and Adrian won me over so completely that I enjoyed following their emotional journeys and didn’t really care how slowly the plot developed. However, if you’re someone looking for an exciting adventure story, you may want to look elsewhere.

If I have a criticism, it would be that the book is such a morally ambiguous mess, its two viewpoint characters are essentially the only likable characters. Adrian and his Renegade team are true heroes fighting for justice, but they are heroic antagonists who you still can’t always root for. Nova is compelling and sympathetic in spite of all her flaws and misguided goals, and that’s a huge achievement in itself. But the other Renegades, while many are well-intentioned, come off as a huge case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, exerting control over every aspect of life in their city, serving as judge, jury, and executioner in all cases of crime, and encouraging a sense of dependency in those without powers, leading them to believe they cannot cope without their all-powerful superhero leaders. Meanwhile, the Anarchists – the supervillains who have dedicated themselves to bringing down the Renegades – are even worse. They kill in cold blood, see assassination as the best way to change things, and don’t care one bit whether ordinary civilians get caught in the crossfire. And yet, with one or two truly villainous exceptions, they care for their own like family and really do believe they’re trying to liberate the world.

There’s something grimly realistic about that. It’s sometimes almost too easy to classify fictional characters as good or evil, heroes or villains. By using those labels and yet creating a world in which there’s not much difference between the two, Meyer emphasizes that things are rarely that neat and tidy. In real life, few people see themselves as the villain of their own story, and few conflicts are purely good vs. evil. I won’t say none. But there’s something about the book’s murky moral conflict that rings true and definitely makes the main character’s internal conflict and eventual decisions far more believable than they would be in a world of good and evil.

In one scene, the two main characters have a surprisingly honest discussion about their beliefs. They don’t agree by any means: she thinks the public is too dependent of superheroes to solve all their problems, while he believes that’s a superhero’s duty; she believes the world would be a better place if no one had special powers, while he seems shocked by the idea; and she openly defends her infamous uncle, who he’s not aware she’s related to and definitely does have any sympathy for. However, they trust and respect each other, and each of them listens to what the other has to say, without dismissing it outright. I would love to see this part of their dynamic explored further, and I think it will have to be if the series is going to have anything resembling a happy ending.

Despite the fantasy and superhero elements, I feel like there’s a message somewhere in this book that is relevant to our present-day world. I’m not saying the Renegades and Anarchists have real-life counterparts, because they and their conflict are products of the fictional world they inhabit, but I am saying that the novel paints a picture of a polarized, volatile society where rival groups fight for control at the expense of the ordinary people. It comes across not just as a fantasy story but as a dystopian novel, and every dystopian novel carries some kind of warning that is drawn from the real  world in which it was written. The Giver has a message about individuality and conformity, Fahrenheit 451 explores censorship of information, and 1984 warns against surveillance and brainwashing. Likewise, Renegade explores the responsibilities of those in power, the ways in which good intentions do not always have good results, and the inability of the novel’s two rival factions to find a peaceful solution. Don’t let the superhero capes and clever code names fool you: this book is not an escapist fantasy.

Book Reviews · Middle-Grade

Wow. I need more books like this.

The other day, I was at Barnes and Noble and happened to pick up a book called Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. A 2011 Newbery Honor book, Inside Out and Back Again follows the story of a young girl whose family is forced to flee from the Vietnam War. They end up as refugees in Alabama, where the main character struggles to adjust to a new and very different life in an unfamiliar culture. It’s a powerful, moving book. But perhaps the most unusual thing about it is that it’s not written in prose: it’s a series of free-verse poems that come together to tell the story.

I didn’t expect this when I picked it up. If the back cover blurb hadn’t caught my attention first, I might have been hesitant to read any further. I do like poetry, and I write some of my own, but a whole novel-length book of poems? Who ever heard of that?

I’m glad I didn’t go with that impulse, because once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. The poetic format didn’t make it difficult to follow at all. On the contrary, it helped it move faster and to really get into the narrator’s mindset. It’s the raw, conflicting emotions that drive the story, even more than the plot. The simplicity and power of poetry were exactly what it needed. Written in prose, I’m sure it would still have been a moving story, but it wouldn’t have packed nearly as powerful a punch.

A few Google searches later, I now know this is a genre, and that it’s called the Verse Novel. I’ll definitely be looking for more of them.

Book Reviews · Shakespeare · Young Adult

Book Review: Ophelia

I love a good retelling of a classic story, especially when it provides a new perspective instead of just repeating the plot. When I saw that the play I’ve just finished (Hamlet) had been retold as a YA novel, I just couldn’t resist. After all, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the plots of his plays on his own – they come from history, mythology, and other writers’ work – but he gave them the language and the form that we know today. It seems fitting that we continue to reexamine these stories and tell them again.

The novel is Ophelia, by Lisa M. Klein, and as you can probably guess from the title, it’s told from Ophelia’s point of view. Its plot takes quite a few liberties with Shakespeare, which I don’t want to get into too much and spoil the twists. But I will tell you Ophelia survives this version, which is hardly a spoiler since it’s revealed on page 1. This is actually one of my biggest criticisms of the book. I would rather have assumed it would keep the tragic ending and been surprised by the bittersweet one than know from the start it would be changed.

The part of the play dealing with Hamlet and his uncle is only about a third of the story, which is divided into three parts. The first of these deals with Ophelia’s childhood and family, as well as the beginning of her relationship with Hamlet. It’s a bit chilling to see things like young Hamlet and Laertes sparring with wooden swords, knowing what’s to come. This section does a good job of fleshing out Ophelia’s character, making her a bit of a rebel who was allowed to run around with the boys and encouraged to study as a child, before suddenly being expected to act like a proper lady. The flowers from her final scene are woven in throughout the story, so that by the time she hands them out, the reader understands just how significant they are.

The second part retells Hamlet – the play – focusing entirely on Ophelia’s perspective as she watches Hamlet’s transformation and falls into despair herself. However, here, she is able to save herself. The book then follows her as she finds a new path. Ophelia’s identity develops over the course of the story: she grows from an unruly child; to a dutiful lady-in-waiting; to a naïve, lovesick young woman; to someone who has suffered and forced herself to survive. It’s a joy to watch her grow up and find her place in the world. What happens in the epilogue might be unexpected to some, but I thought it was sweet and fitting.

Elements from others of Shakespeare’s plays are woven into the story. Like Juliet, this version of Ophelia fakes her death and subsequently loses her lover; like Viola and Rosalind, she travels disguised as a man. However, it also bears elements of today’s fiction. It takes the point of view of a teenage girl exploring romance and independence for the first time, like much of the Young Adult genre.  It’s impossible to classify as a tragedy or a comedy; Ophelia loses much along the way, but the ending offers hope. The language is updated to be easy for the modern reader to understand, and an anonymous guard is developed into a menacing villain. Not all the changes are good ones (the death of Ophelia’s father, for one – I’m still not sure how he got from where we last saw him to where he was killed. I’m also not sure about inserting Ophelia into “to be or not to be?”). However, these are minor complaints. Overall, the story was great.

I found Ophelia to be a good blend of old and new, its lead character well-developed beyond who she was in the play, and the section following her faked death a realistic hopeful alternative to her tragic fate in Shakespeare. I would definitely recommend it!