Puzzle Trees by Thom Mark Shepard is an entertaining coming of age novel with a bit of horror thrown into the mix. Joe Sheffield is an awkward but thoughtful high school freshman whose best friends move away. Entering high school is hard enough without having to tackle it alone. Joe begins looking for the principal’s missing cats in the area of the “puzzle trees,” a forbidding forest where it’s thought to be the home of strange aggressive primates. Along with his equally-tormented brother, Joe sets out to find the missing cats and locate the mysterious denizens of the Puzzle Trees, which leads to a deeper, darker mystery.
What makes Puzzle Trees work best is the liveliness of Joe’s voice and the depth of the characterization. “Change” is a pretty standard theme for a young adult novel, but Shepard’s characters are far from one-note caricatures. They’re fully-realized and complex. There are no outright heroes or villains, i.e. more like life. This alone would be enough to recommend the novel, but Shepard also adds in a compelling mystery, which adds an element of suspense to an engaging story about trying to fit in.
In short, Joe seems like a real person, making the mystery all the more suspenseful. Shepard has a fine eye for plotting and characterization, making Puzzle Trees both a moving and riveting read.