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05-03-12: S. G. Browne is a 'Lucky Bastard'

Charting the Luck Economy

It's been a bad day for Nick Monday — and he's luck poacher, a man who trades in luck, as well as a private detective. Now, as it all comes crashing down, he has a story to tell. Monday may or may not be the 'Lucky Bastard' in S. G. Browne's new novel, but anyone who picks up the book has certainly hit on a winner. Browne's engaging mystery is funny, inventive, and a terrific page-turning experience that any reader will feel lucky to have discovered. For all the mayhem, wicked humor and propulsive plotting, it's the genuine sense of heart that makes 'Lucky Bastard' feel like a jackpot. It's one thing to win; it's quite another to care.

Devil-may-care will probably seem more appropriate when you start the novel. Nick Monday, we are told, is the latest in a long family line of luck poachers, men and women who have the genetic ability to steal your luck — good or bad — with a handshake. Running a private instigation firm in San Francisco is the perfect cover / fill-in for his luck-poaching activities, which are more than lucrative enough to pay the rent. Browne has worked out a wonderful economy of luck, which he spins with just enough panache to seem believable. Good luck sells for a bundle, comes in all grades, and be lifted from folks like Tiger Woods with a handshake — then resold to those who want to shore up their lives. Monday's day begins with an offer he can't refuse from the local crime lord, followed lunch with a femme fatale. His already complicated life suddenly becomes more dangerous than he'd like, but perfectly entertaining for readers.

The real attraction here is Browne's prose voice, a snarky first-person monologue that is utterly entertaining, whether he's crushing PI clichés or musing on the permutations of his invented luck economy. Browne has a superbly dry approach that is remarkably, dangerously easy to read. It's also easy to underestimate how much this narration lets him get under our skin. We have so much fun listening to Nick Monday tell his story that we don't realize just how charming the character is. He's constantly trying to be ruthless, but fails at every important point. Browne complicates the plot and character with seamlessly enjoyable ease.

The sort-of supernatural aspects of the luck economy are well-imagined and bolstered by entertaining info-dumps about real-life recipients of unusually good luck. The mystery at the heart of the novel, which involves femme fatales, stolen luck, the local mafia and the federal government, unravels just as easily as Monday's day. The humor is actually funny, while the mayhem is threatening enough to keep us tense, but not overwhelming. Browne has worked this sort of territory in his previous novels, but here he really hits his stride in terms of pacing, plot and character.

What Browne does best here is to give us in Nick Monday a character who wants to be more hard-boiled than he finds possible. The lives of luck poachers are by necessity isolated lives. But isolation is hard to pull off. In Nick Monday, we find a man who would like to be hard enough to be unrespectable, but when he has the chances, he just can't turn away from his feelings. In those decisions, Nick Monday, S. G. Browne and 'Lucky Bastard' earn our respect. When he's run out of luck, when he's standing on the roof of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel with a naked woman pointing a knife at his heart — it makes all the difference that we know he has one.

05-01-12: Archive Review:Christopher Moore 'Fluke'

High Imagination

Editor's note: Editor's Note: When I spoke with Chris last week, he mentioned once again our first meeting and this book; looking into the current Review Archive, I noticed the review was absent and thus restore it, sans spoilers.

Veteran readers of science fiction, horror and fantasy are hard to surprise. I read plentifully and primarily in — and in-between — these genres, so when a novel manages to drop my jaw, I take notice. Before I'd even finished reading Christopher Moore's 'Fluke', I was busy searching up and ordering the every novel he'd written since the first novel of his I'd read, 'Practical Demonkeeping', and kicking myself for not having done so as the novels came out. 'Fluke' starts out nicely, with Moore's humorous patter keeping things lively and interesting. Quirky characters quip constantly, making the novel an easy-to-read delight. But when Moore kicks in his plots and premises, when he builds up his clever ideas, he will manage to take even veteran fans of weird fiction places they've never suspected would exist.

Weird fiction is usually defined as weird by the events that transpire, not the characters. For Moore, the characters are the beginning focal point. Nate Quinn is a marine biologist studying whale songs off the island of Maui. It's a pretty idyllic and unchallenging life; he records, he studies, he dives, he bums about with his friends and collaborators, Clay Demodocus (the underwater photographer), Amy (his research assistant) and Kona, the stoner Jersey boy who affects a thick pseudo-Rasta accent. All Moore needs to entertain the reader is these four tossing quips back and forth with the practiced ease of professional football players passing the pigskin. Moore has an easygoing prose style, full of smirking jokes and double-entendres that are high on entertainment value and slip into the brain with the stealth of a single malt scotch. These characters are a blast to be around.

If that were all Moore was up to, I'd be happy; it's a fun read that shows off a lot of skillful puns and a playful sense of humor. But as Moore plunges into the heart of his book, everyone, from the most jaded reader of far-out science fiction to the utterly unprepared fan of humorous piffle will experience an electric shock of surprise. Yes, there is a whale with the words 'Bite me' engraved on its tailfin. But how that happened — though it's thoughtlessly, heartlessly and unprofessionally spoiled at — is a matter of the highest and most unfettered imagination.

As I mentioned above, I'd only read Moore's first novel, which had some clever but decidedly lightweight supernatural plotting. That's not prep for the thoroughly mind-boggling journey upon which he sends Nate and his crew. Moore has created some extremely intriguing science-fictional conceits in 'Fluke', and he still manages to keep the chuckles coming. Moore cranks up the adventurous side of his narrative, but he also posits some thoughts on whale communications that are so believable, his afterward, wherein he explains what's real and what's, as he terms it, "magic" is required, riveting reading. He goes about five steps beyond what any reader has a right to expect, and he does it in the same enjoyable style as the rest of the narrative.

Once Moore gets where he's going, he's not done with the surprises. When you think you've seen it all, he ratchets up the weird yet again. This is a man who has been beneficently off his meds for along time. 'Fluke' is good enough to keep you thinking after you're done reading. It's even good enough so that when Moore launches into what he himself calls "the 'We're glad you enjoyed this story about the rainforest with all its cute little animals and charming native people, BECAUSE IT WILL ALL BE A CHARRED DESERT NEXT WEEK!'" portion of the book, you're inclined to listen. If you haven't read all his other books, you might very well be taken by this well-imagined work, enough so that you, like me, will be busy buying up the rest of his stuff before you've even finished this one. For all the high weirdness that one finds within, the reader is not inclined to believe that 'Fluke' is itself a fluke. It's just too good.

04-30-12: Christopher Moore Follows 'Sacré Bleu'

A Story in Color

Who — or what — inspires art? What was behind the Impressionists? Christopher Moore offers his thoroughly entertaining take on painting, art, artists and the color blue in 'Sacré Bleu,' a supernatural journey through the lives of Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and pretty much the entire catalogue of those whose works hang in the Louvre. Moore's feel for the history is madcap and detailed, his prose as engagingly funny as ever and his plot pulls the reader along at a fierce pace. Moore's novel captures the joy of both the art and its creation, and not just because he includes lots of penis jokes.

Moore starts, presciently, with the murder of Vincent Van Gogh, where we meet the Colorman; not surprisingly, the latter being a man who sells artists their paints. Soon enough we met the Zelig figure of 'Sacré Bleu,' Lucien Lessard, the son of a Parisian baker who is friends with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and the whole gang of artists who hung out together in the chaotic scene of late 19th century Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec is keen to solve what he is sure is Van Gogh's murder, Lessard finds a new and ineffably beautiful model, the Colorman is never far away, artists tend to die young, and at the center of the mix is the color blue. There are mysteries to be solved, loves to save, lives to save and something not of this earth to unravel.

Moore masterfully sets his tone and scene with perfection early on; between his humorous prose and his eye for detail, he captures the history, then brings the characters and places alive. The book feels packed, full to the brim with an almost pointillist sensibility that is fun to read but also striking and poignant when need be. Moore's light touch feels just right for these people; by not taking himself too seriously, he ensures that we can empathize fully with men (and the artists are all men) whose towering talent might otherwise make them seem remote.

Moore's novel revolves around the mystery of the Colorman, and his protégé, a strikingly beautiful woman. The book is very cleverly constructed, with a plot that unfolds compellingly across several time lines. It's a very enjoyably complicated reading machine, with a very satisfying resolution. Moore has crafted his work to exact the maximum tension as we are immersed in a world of creativity on all levels. He even manages to get in a nice steampunk riff.

Credit Moore and HarperCollins for producing a book with superb color reproductions of the paintings when they need to be there. In a novel about artists and art, it's a joy to see these paintings, placed right into the text where they serve the story best. Moore is not above turning great art into a visual for crude jokes. It all seems very right. Readers will feel as if the artists themselves would approve. The visuals slot well into the story and enhance the reading, rather than distracting the reader.

The most tangible accomplishment is, of course, Moore's ability to render this world with the perfect level of seriousness and levity. It's an incredibly difficult balancing act that readers will never even notice as they whisk through Moore's supernatural mystery, one that leads to some very unexpected but ultimately quite perfect settings. Moore's juvenile humor shows up when it's appropriate, makes you laugh, then characters you give a damn about make you turn the pages faster to find out why what is happening has come to pass.

'Sacré Bleu' is a dazzling historical novel that makes you laugh, think about art and artists, and even includes some actual art. Moore's penchant for the supernatural will certainly have you looking at art with a new set of eyes. Reading 'Sacré Bleu' is a lovely immersion in art, including the art of the novel itself.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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