Book Review: The Trees Beneath Us

The Trees Beneath Us

A man named Finn goes for a walk, a really…long…walk; a hike actually, along a fifteen-hundred mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. As stories go, one might think it a yawner of a novel, but in the superbly capable hands of a master storyteller like Darren R Leo, it becomes a journey, not just of time and distance, but one that reaches into the soul. Leo leads a sojourn to the headwaters of emotion and treats us to the purest form of contemplative reflection on life and joy and heartache.

Like the switchbacks of a trail into the mountains, the book juxtaposes life along the path with snippets of the one left behind; the serenity of the forests, the perfect backdrop to sort out the experience of a lifetime in consideration of the question: “what do you do when you’re done living before your life is over?”

Readers who have suffered forms of clinical depression and anxiety, will instantly relate to Finn. Readers fortunate enough not to have suffered forms of clinical depression and anxiety, will have the opportunity to experience that cloud of darkness, which is the great gift writing such as this offers.

It’s hard to imagine how this book has not risen to the top of an Oprah booklist, or missed landing on the shortlist for any number of prestigious book awards. It’s said the true success of a book can be measured by how long the story will stay with you after reading the last page. This one might alter your DNA.

Book Review: The Giving Tree (with some additional commentary)

The Giving Tree

The other day, I took a call at the multi-story bookstore where I work. The customer inquired whether we stocked The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. A quick check of our inventory revealed that we did.

“Oh yes,” I said. “We have three dozen copies.”

“Wonderful,” she said. “Would you please make sure you reserve a copy and have it waiting for me by the cash register?”

I wanted to mention that the simple request required me putting her on hold, walking to a different part of the store, retrieving it, returning to the phone and the computer, filling out then printing a document with phone number and name, leaving a line of waiting customers, go downstairs to the register area to file the book on a shelf, and finally return upstairs to help the customers who had actually made the effort to come to the store and needed some help. Had she simply arrived, taken the escalator to the upper floor, we could have handed her a copy of the book in less than fifteen seconds. I didn’t mention any of this, it would have made me a bad employee.

There is a point to telling this, beyond my growing disillusionment with retail in general. A fellow bookseller offered an opinion on the book in question. It wasn’t favorable; my curiosity peaked. I took another copy (of the remaining 35 on hand) to read during my break; it’s very short.

The Giving Tree is a celebrated children’s book that features a tree who loves, unconditionally, a boy who plays in and around her, eating her apples, and napping in her shade. It’s charming through the first few illustrated pages. At each stage of his life, the boy details what he really wants, and the tree always finds a way to help him. He takes her apples to sell for money, takes her branches to build a house for his family, cuts down her trunk to make a boat because he feels like sailing somewhere, leaving her just a stump in the ground. As an old man, he even uses that as a place to sit, once again, for his comfort.

It’s true the parable delivers a message of inexhaustible and unrequited love. The tragedy is that the boy never shows gratitude, he merely shows up when he wants something. The tree’s unwavering devotion is evident as she derives joy by giving without question or remorse, sacrificing herself (literally) for the boy’s needs.

The book left me feeling angry and unreceptive to the theme. There is so much evidence in the world that suggests just how many people are that boy. The tree stands in for the devoted parents of selfish children, the battered spouse in an abusive relationship, the businessperson who climbs the ladder taking more and more with little or no thought of who gave so he could have.

The story seems to suggest it’s all right to give and give to the point of self-destruction. However, it’s not okay, and for my money, the book is over-rated for what it lacks to teach. Had there been even the slightest guilt on the part of the boy at any stage in his life, some recognition for what the tree had done for him, I might have had less of an issue with the book.

It made me wonder if the woman who called for a copy and insisted on the reservation and special shelving would ever realize she behaved just like the boy in the story. It never occurred to her what someone else must do to cater to her needs, or that sometimes it’s nice to consider what it costs another person to do something for you. It might be a good suggestion to use the book, not to teach about love, but to demonstrate how not to behave if on the receiving end. I’m afraid the lesson will never register with those who need to comprehend it the most.


Book Review: The Beast Is An Animal

The Beast is an Animal


Obviously, as an author of fantasy fiction, I love fairy tales. The Beast Is An Animal is such a story; think Brothers’ Grimm. Immersing in the story was like a cool swim on a hot day. The fictional setting felt like seventeenth century New England with small changes in the spelling of names and places to suggest a landscape that was different; forest became fforest and Alice became Alys, the story’s heroine.

The book touts the story of a girl coming of age while learning to deal with good and evil, beauty and ugliness. One cannot exist without the other, but she finds it all exists, within both her own character and her immediate environment.

I didn’t work hard to study the thematic treatments Peternelle van Arsdale infused in the work, but one especially relevant statement for our times rose to the surface, at least for me. Specifically, Beast demonstrates how extremism gives birth to evil, which continues to feed on itself until everything around it becomes tainted and ripe for destruction. In reflection, I’m not quite certain what role the Beast plays in the narrative as Alys must deal with creatures who morphed from children to something sub-human. The Beast itself did not appear to have much in the way of malevolence, and in fact, it seemed to be at risk right along with the humans of Alys’ world.

If there was one disappointment, it came at the end. Alys serves more as a spectator to the defeat of evil than an active defender of good, and the heroine who saves the world for the people she loves.

Overall, van Arsdale is a competent storyteller and should be on a short-list of authors to look for again.

Book Review: Reaper



One of the earliest forms of trauma for most young teens has to deal with the subject of coping with death. Reaper, by Kyra Leigh, follows the story of Rosie Wolfe, which starts with her waking up in the strangest looking hospital-like room. It’s a prelude to the discovery that she no longer inhabits the land of the living. Leigh puts a completely different spin on her examination of death by having her hero dealing with it post-mortem. Not only does the trauma of her father’s death from cancer still haunt her, she now faces some very unsavory tasks in order to win her place in paradise in order to reunite with him. There is a very clear Heaven Can Wait aspect to the story as the after-life has a fully functioning set of rules and procedures governed by the Grim Reaper and her administrative staff.

By alternating flashbacks of Rosie’s life with her current quest, we come to understand how tenuous the bonds of life are and how capricious death can be. They seem both cruel and uncalled for. Leigh is a competent writer who quite deftly tugs, and sometimes wrenches, at your heartstrings.

There was a level of disappointment in that Reaper never delivers a solid resolution except the conclusion that death, in and of itself, leaves loved ones floundering in its wake and that there is never a one-size-fits-all way to deal with it.