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July 2007
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr,
HarperTeen, 2007, $16.99.

I'VE NOTICED a curious thing with the books that have come through my P.O. box in the past while: The so-called YA books often feature much more fully realized—and likable—characters than do the adult ones. In fact, it's been a while since I found a character I like enough in an adult genre book that I'm willing to spend a few hours in their company.

Not that a book needs a likable character to make it a good book. (See the review of The Memory Tree below for more on that.) But, well, call me old-fashioned. My reading time is limited and I'd rather spend it with characters that I can care about. And I certainly never reread books with unlikable characters.

Now I'm not saying there aren't adult genre books with good characterization, or even likable characters. I'm just not seeing much of them in the books that come to my attention.

Which isn't to say that the YA books are all gold. Any number of them also get put aside after a few pages for that same problem of flat characterization. But fewer of them are problematic, and those that are good are very good.

Such as Melissa Marr's assured debut, Wicked Lovely.

A quick touchstone would be Holly Black's books for older readers such as Tithe and Valiant, and I apologize in advance if that comment seems like a variation on the endless publishing promos for some new high fantasy being "in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings."

It's just that both writers can pull off the wonderful trick of penning contemporary fairy tales set in gritty urban environments with enviable ease. It's not a matter of suspending your disbelief while reading their books; the characters and story (however outlandish the latter might seem in a rational world) just sound right.

Wicked Lovely's Aislinn can see faeries and lives with her grandmother, who has set a number of rules for her teenaged granddaughter, which boil down to never attracting the attention of faeries, and never letting on that she can see them. The faeries are everywhere, tormenting humans in a hundred little ways. But that's nothing compared to what they'd do to a human who can see them.

Marr sets this up very well, with scenes that show rather than tell. She also sets the limits early on, such as how—unless they're very powerful, and there are few such—faeries can't abide anything with iron in it. So Aislinn's real place of refuge is not her own home, but that of her friend Seth, who lives in an abandoned railway car that's been remade into comfortable living quarters. The difference is, Seth's a few years older than she and he can live on his own. Aislinn still has to make the uncomfortable treks between school, her grandmother's house, and Seth's railway car.

Until the worst thing happens: Aislinn gets noticed by the faeries, by Keenan, the Summer King, no less. And he's decided that she's to be his next queen.

After that, things only get more complicated.

Marr does a number of things very well. I've already mentioned her characterization and the easy way she has of getting background information across without being obvious about it. But she also has a fine ear for both dialogue and descriptive prose. Her plot and subplots keep you on the edge of your seat, and continue to surprise right through to the end. And she's done a terrific job of integrating the dangers, folklore, and flexible morality of faerie with the real world.

What I like best, however, is how, except for the evil Winter Queen who's a bit of a stock villain, Marr's characters don't fit easily into "good" and "bad" designations. They have good motivations for why they do the things they do, and they're fallible. Better yet, they learn from their mistakes.

This is a debut that reads like the work of a seasoned pro and I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

*     *     *

Into the Wild, by Sarah Beth Durst,
Razorbill, 2007, $15.99.

But meanwhile, there are always other books to read…such as Into the Wild, another first novel by an author who delivers.

The readership this is aimed at is probably skewed a little younger than that of Wicked Lovely. I say this because the characterization is more straightforward, without as many nuances. But Sarah Beth Durst kept me reading because she's so inventive with her take on fairy tales' relevance to our world.

In this case, it's literal. Our point-of-view character is Julie, the daughter of Rapunzel. Yes, that Rapunzel. And her brother is Puss-in-Boots, still in cat form. Julie's in charge of keeping an eye on "the wild," which appears to be a mass of hungry vines that lives under Julie's bed and tends to eat her jeans and shoes if she doesn't keep them out of its reach.

But it turns out that the wild is more than simply a nuisance. Julie quickly finds that out when it escapes and begins to transform the whole of her small New England town into the dark forest of fairy tales.

I'm not sure why it is, but we seem to be having a bit of a run of stories dealing with the characters of fairy tales escaping the confines of their stories to live hidden among us. In this column alone we've talked about Bill Willingham's Fables comic books and Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm series, for starters.

But Durst has her own spin on things and there's something just so right about Rapunzel hiding out as a hairdresser and the wicked witch of Hansel & Gretel running a motel. And once the wild transforms the town into an old forest, Durst has a terrific explanation for how this has all come about and what Julie needs to do to set things right once more. Along the way, Durst also slips in some fascinating thoughts on the importance of these stories and why they still have as much resonance today.

Mostly, though, the fun of Into the Wild is in recognizing the iconic figures from fairy tales and seeing them in this new light that Durst has provided for us. You'll breeze through this book and you'll have a fine time while doing so.

*     *     *

The Memory Tree, by John R. Little,
Nocturne Press, 2007, $27.99.

Here's a case of a book where I never warmed to the main character (middle-aged stockbroker Sam Ellis), but everything else was so interesting that I still felt compelled to read it straight through.

Ellis lives in Seattle and life is good. He's successful at his job and he loves his wife. But he carries a secret—deep inside—and scars. And then one day he falls back in time to the summer he was thirteen, where he meets his parents and his thirteen-year-old self. It's the summer when everything changed for him, though he doesn't remember why. But the longer he spends there, the more he begins to understand.

John R. Little is another new writer for me, and a good one. His prose sometimes gets a little choppy, but he has such a compelling voice that most of the time you don't notice. I also liked how he didn't spend a lot of time explaining how Ellis keeps returning to the past, but does deal with the ramifications of his disappearance from the present time. Or rather, the fact that when he goes into the past, he falls into a coma in the present.

Is it a dream, or an hallucination? It doesn't matter. I was much more interested in finding out what happened next.

I don't want to get into too much detail for fear of spoiling the story for you, but I would like to return to the likability issue. The fact that I didn't much care for Ellis was irrelevant to my appreciating his story. I came to understand why he is the way he is, and could certainly empathize. But in the end, it still didn't make me like him any more.

But I loved how John Little brought the blue-collar lives of small town characters to life. And how he showed that while it might have been a simpler time back then, people are always complicated.

I always appreciate a good time travel story, no matter how the traveling takes place, and if you give this a try, I think you'll like it, too.

The Memory Tree is also available in a less expensive trade paperback edition ($15.99) and a pricier signed hardcover ($45).

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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