Monday, February 02, 2009

The Handsell: Jonathan Howard & Jim Lynch

I've spent an amazingly satisfactory day cleaning house, cooking soup, and enjoying the sunlight through the windows. Before I go in to the bookstore to host tonight's event, and while I wait for booksellers' reports on WI4, there's time for a book review or two. Neither of these books have been published yet, but they were both miss-my-subway-stop compelling January reading, so I wanted to talk about them now while they're still fresh in my mind.

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Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
by Jonathan L. Howard
(Doubleday, July 2009)
The jacket copy on this beautifully designed ARC (it looks like a Mexican Day of the Dead woodcut, very creepy/fun) suggests that Johannes Cabal should be compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Wicked. After we both read it, the ALP and I agreed that a more apt comparison would be Good Omens, the apocalypse comedy collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. You've got your self-important forces of evil arrayed, cocky mortals playing around with forces beyond their control, and most importantly, a very British dark humor based on double takes, slapstick, self-and-other-deprecation, and merciless wit. It's basically a "deal with the devil" story crossed with an "evil carnival" story, and the vaguely German titular necromancer, along with his reluctant vampire brother (who turns out to be one of the few decent people in the story), may just be clever enough to outwit Old Scratch. My only quibble with the book was that it sometimes seemed that as a novel it had some gaps, or could have used more backstory or motivation; the episodic chapters seemed like they'd make for an ideal long-running comic book series or TV show. But it's a hell of a carnival ride, and well worth the price of admission for any fan of the clever, literary end of the genre fiction spectrum. Can't wait to staff pick it when it comes out this summer. (The ALP reviews it much more extensively here.)

Border Songs
by Jim Lynch
(Knopf, June 2009
Jim Lynch's previous novel, The Highest Tide, was one of those books I loved obsessively that never seemed to find its audience on a large scale (though I believe it got Book of the Year from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and it is a very Pacific Northwest book). It was kind of a liminal book, somewhere between a powerful YA coming-of-age story and a thoughtful grown-up novel, and inflected with a knowledge and passion for nature so strong it made you want to learn the names of every animal and plant you saw. I think this new novel is going to get Jim Lynch the attention he deserves. Like Miles, the teenage protagonist of The Highest Tide, Border Songs' central figure Brandon Vanderkool is an awkward kid with a profound connection to nature. Where 13-year-old Miles' marine life obsessions were rewarded by the discovery of a strange creature washed up on the shores of Puget Sound, six-food-eight Brandon's possibly autistic birdwatching makes him the best Border Patrol agent on the America-Canada border, which mostly embarrasses him. Brandon is heartbreakingly lovable, but the novel is really an ensemble piece about the idiosyncratic farmers, academics, pot dealers, lost souls, illegal immigrants, and observers in a contentious border town in a present day much like our own. I suspect I'll be writing and talking a lot about this book in the months to come, so I won't try to articulate all my thoughts here; I just finished the book and it's still throbbing in my head and heart. Look out for it, though -- it will probably be sparking many conversations about authorial voice, about outsiders, about birds and other fellow creatures, about artists and originality, about government and media, about working class anxieties and dreams deferred. It's also one of those rare literary books you can recommend when someone says, "I just want something with a happy ending."

I wish I could show you the beautiful bird-saturated cover design, but Knopf hasn't made the image available online yet. It was fun, though, reading the ecstatic bookseller comments on the ARC and seeing names I know -- Mark at Politics and Prose, Dave at Powells, Rick at Elliot Bay. And just when I was feeling a teensy bit sorry for myself that I hadn't been one of those offered an early read, I came across my own words -- the PW review of The Highest Tide that I wrote back in 2005.* Full circle, eh? I'm grateful to still be reading and writing about books -- a happy ending in itself.

* Please excuse the out-of-date nature of the rest of the website where the PW review is posted -- I created it ages ago with free software from Earthlink that doesn't seem to be available anymore, so I can't change anything, but it's nice to see the old reviews I scanned and posted. Guess I should get a real resume / clip file up online somewhere one of these days.