Monday, July 02, 2007

Telegrams from ALA Part IV: Freaks of Nature

And so much for posting images of the covers so you could judge them. I walked away with over 20 books/ARC/galleys and I have the bruises on my shoulder to prove it. I read two books on the train, and both were delicious.

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr is like reading the long lost cousin of a Holly Black novel. The mood feels borrowed--like you're filling in the blanks using what you've already imagined from reading other urban fantasy--and the characters aren't the minature masterpieces that Holly Black creates--honestly, that woman sketches characters the way those guys at Faneuil Hall write your name on a grain of rice. Tiny details. Stunning precision.

But Marr's novel is notable because it offers an alternative to the borderline-rape-wish romantic plots of many urban fantasy novels. It's that whole what's-the-difference-between-seduction-and-rape issue. We all know no means no, but does yes always mean yes? What if you've consumed fairy wine and danced to fairy music? What if you're bound by an ancient curse?

Marr's novel stars a Catholic High School girl chosen by a fairy king to be a fairy queen. But this girl, Aislinn, doesn't just pretend to resist his irresistable charms. She breaks out the salt, the holy water, and the pepper spray. And when that doesn't work, she engages in no-holds-barred negotiations for power.

I thought I was detecting a women's studies major undercurrent, and then I read this interview, in which Marr talks about issues of "volition." She's obviously 100% savvy about the messages we're sending young women when we make it seem attractive to be bound by ancient curses to dangerous, mercurial (and devestatingly sexy) men.

But she does it in the most non-preachy way possible: she creates an even more attractive, totally mortal, totally respectful male character to compete with said fairy king. Sure, it's just another woman's fantasy of a man, but at least it's a women's studies major's fantasy of a man.

My only remaining question: does the title intentionally reference that landmark of New England slang, the use of "wicked" as a qualifier? Or is it just a juxtaposition of two words describing fairies?
The second book was one I've been dying to get my hands on ever since I heard it existed. It's called Evolution, Me, & Other Freaks of Nature, by Robin Brande, and it's the best representation of psycho Christian teenagers since Saved.

Driving the plot is the youth group of a super-church (the kind with bowling allies and food courts). The teens in this group get their marching orders from a minister zealous to root out evil in the form of Biology teachers and possibly homosexual high school kids. But Mena, our main character, has recently been kicked out of the group (for some initially unknown sin), so she is suddenly on the other side of the looking glass. And she doesn't like what she sees.

Now that her old friends are calling her Judas and hip-checking her in the hallways, Mena makes friends with her adorably nerdy lab partner and his magnetic big sister, who is the editor of the school newspaper and who happens to be just as zealous as the minister, but with a radically different political agenda. So the question is, does Mena have to "choose sides" or can she find some middle ground? And should she tell the newspaper editor every damning thing she knows?

The narrative reveals how difficult it is for Christian teens to have normal high school social lives without a) lying to their parents or b) getting mocked by their peers. No wonder they band together. But of course, the book also demonstrates that real friendships often transcend social barriers. It's a relief to be around people who are like us, but we only evolve when we interact with people who are different.

I kind of wish this book mixed up the format a little. The plot is full of blog posts, letters, newspaper articles, and science reports, so why not change the design on certain pages and show us the "primary documents," so to speak? And OK, while I'm criticizing things, the pastor of the super church is definitely a caricature. But the symapthetic portrait of his daughter, Bethany, mostly makes up for that. I wish there could have been a scene between Mena and Bethany ...

Alright, I'm going to stop before I start writing fan fiction here. Maybe there will be a sequel ... about Mena and her lab partner dating across religious differences ... No, for real, I'm stopping.