Fantasy novel by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. * * * * 1/2 (explanation)

17-year-old Nick Varrou's life revolves around working in his father's store in a resort area near an Oregon mountain lake. And spying on people. Every morning, before opening up the store, he traces a route in the motels and campgrounds around the lake, On the half-hour lunch breaks granted by his father, he continues his spy routine, also visiting secret spots in the woods that only he knows. Nick plans to leave the lake as soon as he turns 18; he thinks he'd like to become a detective.

This is not to say Nick's a shirker. Every day since his mother's disappearance four years ago, he has minded the store every day during tourist season, and done all of the cooking for his father and grandfather. Plus, he's gotten pretty good at selling things. Sometimes he can convince people to buy things they don't want, but this usually gets him in trouble.

One day, two events happen that change his life forever. One is a miracle. A wild, beautiful girl walks into the store and makes note of his persuasive sales technique. Willow and Nick seem to "click" and she agrees to go to a dance with him. The other event is a disaster. The woman who fills in for him during his lunch breaks is talked into selling a family heirloom, an antique fishing creel once used by his grandfather.

Nick's father goes into a rage and orders him to find the man, and buy the creel back. Nick knows who it is almost immediately, as the truck is identical to one he saw this morning, and at a tourist cabin he noticed on his spy route. Of course it is Willow's family. They seem to practice a strange sort of nature religion, and spend each morning performing a ritual in which they appear to be calling to something.

Whatever they are calling does not appear to be responding. As Nick tries to build a relationship with Willow, he gets drawn farther and farther into her family's dysfunction. Willow's aunts and uncles seem ready to take drastic action to get what they want. In order to survive, Nick will have to discover who he is, and why his mother left. He may even have to forgive her. He may even have to forgive his father. And then he will have to make everything change. To learn more, read the book.

This novel is a wonderful example of "urban fantasy", the subgenre that attempts to combine ancient European fairy tales with a page from the Latin American magic realism movement. This isn't anything inane like elves and dwarves walking city streets. Ms. Hoffman paints a picture of a modern (if rustic) life with magic all around, and a humanity (or at least a strain of it) that is born with magic running through it.

Although Nick quickly finds himself falling for Willow, it is really Nick's relationship with Willow's brother Evan that drives the plot. Evan, who spends most of his time as a wolf. Oh well. As Nick's grandfather says, "A boy needs a dog."

The Silent Strength of Stones is a very good read, even with its heavy sauce of adolescent angst (well justified within the framework Ms. Hoffman creates). I thoroughly enjoyed it back in 1998 when it came out in paperback, and decided to read it a second time this winter, when I came across it while organizing my collection of science fiction and fantasy books. I loved it just as much this time.