Sunday, January 3, 2021

Books Read in 2020 - Part II

In Part 2 of the 2020 list, we arrive at the Christopher Moore Project. Moore has been one of my favorite authors for a long time now – there isn’t a better writer of comic dialogue working today, as far as I can tell, and his stories often have an oddly melancholy undertone that I appreciate. At the height of the first wave of the pandemic last year I decided that what I needed to get me through the plague was to read (or reread) all of Moore’s novels, in order. And you know? It helped.

These are those novels.


Practical Demonkeeping (Christopher Moore)

Not much happens in Pine Cove, California, which is why it’s a perfect place for a lot of things to happen. Catch is a demon from Hell, sly, murderous, and only vaguely controlled by Travis, a former seminarian still paying for a seventy-year-old crisis of faith. Travis and Catch will come to Pine Cove and there they will get enmeshed in a whole lot of other lives: Jenny, about to divorce her loser of a husband Robert. Augustus Brine, a zen-like old man who owns a bait and tackle shop. Detective Rivera, still looking for the low-level criminal who ran into Catch first (a quest doomed to failure, given the outcome of that meeting). Effrom and Amanda. The King of the Djinn. It’s a novel that displays all of what will become Christopher Moore’s trademarks – screwball action, laugh out loud funny dialogue, and an oddly melancholy streak underneath it all – and it makes a great starting place for a run through all of his books. It’s a dark time in the world and it’s good to find somewhere fun to escape into. After carefully setting up his dominos Moore lets them fall in one final burst, and the end is quietly satisfying.

Coyote Blue (Christopher Moore)

This is a story about identity and how it can be lost and how it can be found. It’s a story about the Trickster god and how he can be an agent of both chaos and redemption. And it’s a story about Samson Hunts Alone, full-blooded Crow Indian who is, at the opening of the novel, an insurance agent in Santa Barbara CA on the run from his past and living under the name Sam Hunter. Sam’s path will draw in Calliope, a rootless free spirit and the most beautiful woman Sam has ever seen; Pokey Wind Medicine, an old Crow shaman; and Minty Fresh, a seven-foot-tall black man working as a casino troubleshooter in Las Vegas. Sam will lose everything and gain everything, and in the end he becomes precisely who he was all along. The screwball action, funny dialogue, and melancholy streak are all here and it’s a thoughtful look at what makes someone who they are.

Bloodsucking Fiends (Christopher Moore)

There are strange things afoot in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. On her way home from work one night Jody becomes a vampire – a traumatic process that leaves her with more questions than answers. Tommy came to San Francisco to be a writer but works the night shift at the local Safeway, turkey bowling with his crew (affectionately known as the Animals). The Emperor and his men – a large dog named Lazarus and a smaller one named Bummer – live on the streets of the city, keeping watch over his subjects. Inspector Rivera (late of Pine Cove) is now working the homicide beat in the big city with his partner, Cavuto. And an older, more evil vampire – the one who turned Jody – is out there, wreaking havoc and toying with them all. All of these characters will bounce off of one another in odd and entertaining ways and it all comes together with a fair amount of action and violence, snappy dialogue, and confusion on all parts. It’s a fun, if sometimes rather darkly comic, look at a time and place.

The Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Christopher Moore)

Tucker Case is a world-class screwup whose only talent is being able to fly pretty much any plane he wants, unless of course he’s consorting with a hooker in the cockpit which never ends well as far as successful flying is concerned. This gets him into a pile of trouble with his boss (Mary Jean Dobbins – a clear analogue to the Mary Kay cosmetics boss and not somebody to cross) and eventually sent to the tropical Pacific island of Alualu for a job flying for a shady doctor. There’s a cross-dressing navigator named Kimi; a talking fruitbat named Roberto; an island full of natives worshipping their cargo cult founder (the ghost of a WWII bomber pilot named Vincent, who appears every so often for a chat) – natives who include the chief, a disgraced old cannibal, and the ritual prostitute (a running theme, it seems); an expat journalist; and an ice queen masquerading as the Sky Princess. From there it gets weird. Moore is not afraid to have awful things happen to his characters or to go places where those with more delicate sensibilities might fear to tread, and he keeps the action moving along fairly briskly. This is mostly screwball comedy and darkly funny action, with a surprisingly serious moral center but without much of the melancholy streak that gives most of his novels their depth, and it carries you right along with Tuck’s redemption arc.

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove (Christopher Moore)

It’s been ten years since the demon Catch wrought havoc on Pine Cove, CA, and the town has settled back into the rhythms of life in a tourist destination. But this year things will heat up again. A woman will be found dead. A bluesman will find a job down at The Head of the Slug bar. The town psychiatrist will take everyone off of their medications at once. And an ancient Sea Beast will come ashore in search of prey and as a side effect ramp up the libidos of the humans living there. Many of the residents of Pine Cove – those who survived Practical Demonkeeping, anyway – are back and a few new ones are added, and Moore spins his story out well. There’s corruption and redemption and no small amount of tragedy played as comedy, and who can say who is crazy and who isn’t?

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)

This is without question the funniest book I have ever read. It’s where Moore’s gift for comic dialogue emerges as a national treasure (the rough draft of the Sermon on the Mount alone is worth the price of the book) and where his ability to tell a story that will keep you laughing and make you think at the same time is perhaps clearest of all of his books. It rests on the premise that Joshua ben Joseph of Nazareth – Jesus – was precisely who he said he was: Son of God, Savior, Messiah, all that, but his friends were, well, not so exalted. Particularly Levi ben Alphaus, generally known as Biff. Biff has been reincarnated and stashed in a hotel room in the US somewhere, along with a fairly dimwitted angel named Raziel and a pile of paper and given the task of telling the Gospel from his perspective to fill out the missing years. He starts with how he and Joshua (and Mary Magdalene) met as children, and he fills in the long gap in the Gospels with a story of traveling to the East to revisit the three wise men who came to the stable to mark Jesus’ birth. There are a great many laugh out loud moments, and a surprising number of poignant ones as well, and in the end there is the story because ultimately that’s all there ever is. I’ve given this book to evangelicals and atheists alike and they have all loved it. It’s one of my favorites.

Fluke: or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings (Christopher Moore)

This was the first Christopher Moore novel I read, and it is in some ways the weakest, perhaps because the plight of the whales is something that Moore seems genuinely to care about a great deal and it’s hard to write comedy about things like that. The plot revolves around a team of whale researchers in Hawaii – earnest Nate, mysterious Amy, loyal Clay, their benefactor The Old Broad, and a blonde Rasta surfer dude named Kona who started out as Preston Applebaum from New Jersey – and their work on humpback whales. Eventually they find themselves targeted because of their research, with their work destroyed and their boat scuttled, and from there it gets strange, as you would expect in something written by Christopher Moore. There are flashes of humor and melancholy, some fascinating world-building that takes you to some unexpected places, and a whole lot of weird by the time you get to the end, but this is a surprisingly straightforward novel once you accept its plot and subject matter. It’s well written and it moves you right along, but it’s not the comic experience that his previous or later books are.

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, Version 2.0 (Christopher Moore)

One of the things that becomes obvious when you read these books in publication order is that Moore likes to have characters from earlier books make appearances in later ones. This is more than just continuity of place, though in this last (for the moment) installment of the Pine Cove books you do see many of the usual denizens of that demon-haunted town – Theo Crow and Molly Michon, Mavis down at The Head of the Slug, Val Riordan, and so on. But Tucker Case and Roberto the Fruit Bat show up from The Island of the Sequined Love Nun, as does Raziel (the angel of the title) who was last seen in a hotel room in Lamb. The demon Catch does not return to where we first met him, perhaps because he’d had his second appearance already in Lamb. It’s coming on Christmas in Pine Cove and Dale Pearson – explicitly described as the town’s “evil developer” – is, as usual, being an ass toward his ex-wife, Lena Marquez. When he takes that a step too far she accidentally kills him with a shovel and thus one leg of the plot is established. The annual Lonesome Christmas Party at the old church by the graveyard full of the recently dead who still talk to each other is the second leg. And when Raziel decides to grant a Christmas wish in the most boneheaded way possible, the triad is complete and the plot can now stand on its own. Moore is back to his usual standard of comic dialogue and creeping vulgarity and it all ends with a flurry of action – as well as an epilogue written for Version 2.0 that takes the story just that much further – and in the end the scarred town of Pine Cove and its citizens move forward to another day.

A Dirty Job (Christopher Moore)

This is my second-favorite of Christopher Moore’s books, after Lamb, and it brings Moore’s storytelling back to San Francisco. Charlie Asher is about to become a father. He’s a decent sort – a Beta Male, which is an idea Moore has a great deal of fun with – and the owner of a second-hand shop with his two employees, goth girl Lily and ex-cop Ray. But when his wife dies giving birth to their daughter Sophie and he can actually see Minty Fresh (late of Coyote Blue) come for her soul, Charlie will find a new vocation as a Death Merchant, a phrase used by Minty to describe someone tasked with collecting the souls of the recently departed and ensuring that they find their way to people who need them for their next incarnation. There’s a lot of Buddhism in this book, both explicit and implied, and a fair number of familiar faces – along with Minty Fresh, there’s Detective Rivera and his partner Cavuto, the Emperor and his troops, and a cameo in Asher’s store from the modern vampire Jody. It takes Charlie a while to come to grips with his new job and until he does the Forces of Darkness advance on the bright world Above. For a while he settles into it and they retreat, and then it all goes awry again and it will be up to Charlie Asher, Beta Male, to make things right in the end. The comic dialogue is ramped up a level here as is the underlying melancholy of the story, and that combination is hard to beat.

You Suck: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)

This story picks up pretty much where Bloodsucking Fiends left off, with Jody as the newly minted vampire in San Francisco and Tommy as her loyal minion. Jody has managed to get out of the bronze statue in which she was imprisoned at the end of Bloodsucking Fiends, though the much older vampire Elijah Ben Sapir has not. She will eventually turn Tommy into her own new vampire, and from there it all spirals out of control. The Animals took all of the money they got and spent it all on a blue hooker in Las Vegas, and now she and they are back in San Francisco ready for more mayhem. Detectives Rivera and Cavuto are looking into things, as is the Emperor. And now Jody has a new minion – Abby Normal, a melodramatic goth teen who is, if reviews are to be trusted, one of the most popular characters in Moore’s books but who I find rather grating. From there the characters bounce off each other in increasingly strange ways, and at one point the scene from A Dirty Job where Jody comes into Asher’s store gets retold from her perspective, which was fun to read. It ends more or less back where we started in some ways, though not in others. It’s an enjoyable ride.

Fool (Christopher Moore)

I’ve always loved books that retold stories from different points of view and this is essentially Christopher Moore’s version of King Lear as told by the jester, an orphan named Pocket. It is, as Moore warns the reader before the story even gets started, “a bawdy tale” full of “gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity,” a warning the reader is advised to take seriously. The story follows the basic outline of Lear with some other Shakespearean references thrown in (the Weird Sisters from Macbeth play a large role, for example) and with Pocket’s story evolving alongside events. Pocket is a horndog, a bon vivant, a schemer and a man not to be trifled with, and when both Lear and Edmund of Gloucester trifle with him and his apprentice – a lumbering halfwit named Drool – there will be chaos. Like Moore’s best novels it’s full of comic dialogue and action with the underlying melancholy that sets those off into high relief. Pocket is an engaging character, as are Kent, Cordelia and, surprisingly Goneril and Regan as well. There are ghosts and sexual adventures and sexual adventures with ghosts and it all wraps up neatly if not precisely as Shakespeare intended, and that’s part of the fun really.

Bite Me: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)

The final installment of the Vampires in San Francisco trilogy (so far) is told in large part by Abby Normal (nee Allison Green, self-labeled as Countess Abigail Von Normal), which for most of Moore’s readers would apparently be a selling point but for me was a bit of a chore. But the story moves along nicely and you do also hear it from other characters (Rivera and Cavuto emerging as my favorite voices) and in the end it wraps up the story nicely in a way that makes sense and does justice to the characters. Chet – the large and unfortunately shaved cat who was turned into a vampire at the end of You Suck has created an army of vampire cats that is wreaking havoc on San Francisco and needs to be dealt with. Into this maelstrom stride Abby, Foo Dog (aka Steve Wong, Abby’s boyfriend), the Emperor, the Animals, Rivera, Cavuto, and eventually Jody, Tommy, and some of the Old Ones – vampires turned by Elijah long before San Francisco even existed who wish to clean up this situation by eliminating the cats and everyone who knows anything about them, including all of our heroes – and the result is a gloriously chaotic mess full of danger and all of the comic dialogue one hopes for in Moore’s novels. Lily from A Dirty Job also makes a cameo appearance, as does Kona from Fluke (now older and rather more tragic in a way) – it’s fun to see the characters evolve as the stories intertwine. My favorite new character was Okata, an elderly Japanese swordsman who appears at key moments of the plot and whose backstory provides much of the melancholy of the novel.

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art (Christopher Moore)

Out of all of Christopher Moore’s novels this is the only one that really isn’t a comedy in the modern sense of the term, even if the subtitle would give that impression to the unwary reader. Oh, it’s got funny bits – the man can’t not be funny when he writes and there are some joyous passages of dialogue in here – but in essence this is a meditation more than anything else. It’s a story about the color blue, about love and time, and about the price one pays for art. Lucien starts this story as a young boy in Montmartre, the artist neighborhood that overlooks Paris. His family owns a bakery and he is learning the craft at the same time that he is discovering a talent for painting – something that is recognized and nurtured not only by his father but also by the Impressionists who live in Montmartre. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the major characters here, as are Pisarro, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh (both Vincent and his brother Theo), and Seurat. Whistler, Degas, and others make appearances. All of the artists are plagued by The Colorman and his assistant – a beautiful woman who can inhabit other bodies and who is instrumental in the creation of sacré blue, the most expensive pigment in the world. It’s a story that is mostly set in the late 1800s, with flashbacks to the Franco-Prussian War, medieval France, and the dawn of human culture as well. Art has a cost, and these painters and their models will pay it until something changes, and in the end something does though how much is an open question. It’s a much quieter book than his usual style, in some ways, and a more thoughtful one. I’ve read this before, but between then and now I have since been to Montmartre and it was interesting to follow along and remember where I’d walked.

The Serpent of Venice (Christopher Moore)

Pocket is back and this time he is romping through high medieval Italy in a story that combines Othello, The Merchant of Venice, The Cask of Amontillado, and Marco Polo, among other things. Brought low by his enemies after his happy ending in Fool, left for dead in a bricked over room, he escapes and plots an elaborate revenge on Iago and Antonio (the villains of the two Shakespeare plays, here working together) with the help of Jessica (Shylock’s daughter), Nerissa (Portia’s maid), Emilia (Iago’s wife), his lumbering assistant Drool, and Jeff the monkey. This vengeance will take him from Venice to Corsica and Genoa and back, and in the end it all works out, more or less, though maybe not how you would have thought it would. The book is a return to comic form for Moore, after the more thoughtful meditations of Sacré Bleu, with slapstick, violence, murder, no small amount of vulgarity and sharp-witted dialogue, and a running joke about the Chorus – set off in red type – whose commentary is always somehow audible to the characters themselves, none of whom appreciate it. And lurking in the background is the serpent of the title – a creature who is more than might appear at first glance, which is, after all, saying something.

Secondhand Souls (Christopher Moore)

It’s odd in a way that this sequel to A Dirty Job is probably Moore’s most mature work, combining the meditative thoughtfulness of Sacré Bleu, the melancholy of Coyote Blue (a book explicitly namechecked in the text – you forget how long Minty Fresh has been part of Moore’s story universe, though in many ways he and Rivera are the longitudinal threads holding it together, which is pretty good for two relatively minor characters) and the vulgar slapstick comedy of, well, most of his books. When the book opens Charlie is still one of the Squirrel People, most of the happily-ever-afters of A Dirty Job have run aground on the reefs of ordinary life, and Sophie may or may not still be the Luminatus. The entire model of how souls are transferred is shifting, and all of the San Francisco crew are going to get caught up in the chaos that inevitably results from such changes. The usual suspects are here – Charlie and Audrey, Lily, Rivera and Cavuto, Minty Fresh, Cassie and Jane, Sophie, the Emperor and his men, Mrs. Korjev and Mrs. Ling – as well as a few new characters – Mike Sullivan and Concepción, Lemon Fresh, and an Irish banshee with a soft heart and a taser. There are some really funny bits in here (a long baseball story made me laugh out loud) and some incredibly poignant ideas of life, death, love, and family. I originally got my copy as an Advanced Reader Edition so there may have been a couple of changes to the final novel, but it was good as it was.

Noir (Christopher Moore)

One of the things that you can trust with Moore’s novels is that when he tells you something in the frontispiece it’s going to be accurate. Fool was, in fact, vulgar – joyously so – and this novel, set in San Francisco in 1947, features characters speaking and acting in ways that modern Americans would probably find at least cringeworthy and at most offensive, but that’s accurate to the period and so be it. It’s an enjoyable caper of a novel – “perky noir,” as Moore says in the afterward – involving a regular guy (Sammy), a dame in trouble (Stilton, often simply referred to as “the Cheese”), a wide array of supporting characters (Eddie Moo Shoes, Sammy’s Chinese-American friend; Sal Gabelli, the corrupt schemer who employs Sammy at his bar; Lone Jones, a friendly giant of an African American man; Myrtle, Stilton’s friend; Jimmy Vasco, who runs the lesbian drag club on the other side of town; Pookie O’Hara, the corrupt cop; a pile of mysterious government agents; a horrible kid; and the subject, who becomes more important as the novel progresses), all of whom add up to a long sad story of crime, misunderstandings, love, and snakes. The characters mostly speak in a flat mid-century staccato that, despite the California setting and the fact that Sammy is from Idaho, you can only hear in your mind as the sort of Brooklynese in which the word “mook” would feature prominently – something that Moore achieves in part by assiduously avoiding contractions. There is violence and slang, corruption and hidden machinations of power, all in the unsettling aftermath of WWII, and in the end Sammy and the Cheese are what they are. Moore did a video interview during the quarantine phase of 2020 where someone asked if he would revisit any of his other books for sequels now that Pocket’s story has hit three installments (see below), and he said that if any of them it would be this one. That would be swell, as Sammy would say.

Shakespeare for Squirrels (Christopher Moore)

And so the Christopher Moore Project comes to an end with his newest book, volume three of Pocket’s saga. This one finds our intrepid fool adrift in the middle of what is vaguely recognizable as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though with considerably more shagging, vulgar humor and, as noted, squirrels. Rescued by the fairy Cobweb after washing up on the shore near something vaguely like medieval Athens, Pocket soon finds himself caught in a web of intrigue involving Greeks, Amazons, fairies, goblins, clueless lovers, halfwitted players, a half-assed man, and an irritating spectre named Rumour, and only through wit, guile, bloody-minded nerve, and no small amount of innuendo and shagging can our hero emerge (mostly) intact. Moore sets himself up for another volume in Pocket’s story at the end of the book, should he wish to return to it, but for the moment we bid our character and our author adieu.

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