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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Christopher Moore: Conclusion of the CHARLIE ASHER DUOLOGY

Author:  Christopher Moore
Plot Type:  Comedic Urban Fantasy (UF)
Publisher: and Titles  William Morrow (Imprint of HarperCollins)
          A Dirty Job (5/2006)
          Secondhand Souls (8/2015) 

This post contains reviews of both novels in this duology arranged in reading order. Although there is a nine-year publishing gap between the two books, the plot-time separation is only one year. In order to get the most from your reading of Secondhand Souls, be sure to read A Dirty Job first. Be aware that my review of Secondhand Souls contains spoilers for A Dirty Job.

     Both of these novels are set in the same weird San Francisco that we find in other Moore novels, specifically his three vampire-centric "love-story" trilogy: Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me. (Click HERE to read my reviews of those books.) Several of the same characters play supporting roles, including the mystically nutty Emperor of San Francisco and the fumbling detectives Alphonse Rivera and Nick Cavuto. 

     Although these novels are threaded with humormostly aimed at the expense of modern-day inanities, his characters deal with death, love, and hope as they lose loved ones and fight valiantly against evil. 

                         NOVEL 1:  A Dirty Job                         
     Charlie Asher is a pretty normal guy. A little hapless, somewhat neurotic, sort of a hypochondriac. He's what's known as a Beta Male: the kind of fellow who makes his way through life by being careful and constant—you know, the one who's always there to pick up the pieces when the girl gets dumped by the bigger/taller/stronger Alpha Male.

     But Charlie's been lucky. He owns a building in the heart of San Francisco, and runs a secondhand store with the help of a couple of loyal, if marginally insane, employees. He's married to a bright and pretty woman who actually loves him for his normalcy. And she, Rachel, is about to have their first child.

     Yes, Charlie's doing okay for a Beta. That is, until the day his daughter, Sophie, is born. Just as Charlie—exhausted from the birth—turns to go home, he sees a strange man in mint-green golf wear at Rachel's hospital bedside, a man who claims that no one should be able to see him. But see him Charlie does, and from here on out, things get really weird.

     People start dropping dead around him, giant ravens perch on his building, and it seems that everywhere he goes, a dark presence whispers to him from under the streets. Strange names start appearing on his nightstand notepad, and before he knows it, those people end up dead, too. Yup, it seems that Charlie Asher has been recruited for a new job, an unpleasant but utterly necessary one: Death. It's a dirty job. But hey, somebody's gotta do it.

     Christopher Moore, the man whose Lamb served up Jesus' "missing years" (with the funny parts left in), and whose Fluke found the deep humor in whale researchers' lives, now shines his comic light on the undiscovered country we all eventually explore—death and dying—and the results are hilarious, heartwarming, and a hell of a lot of fun.

     Charlie Asher is your typical "normal" guy trying to survive life's challenges—a Beta Male, as Moore dubs him. Chapter one begins with this great first line that sums up Charlie's Beta Male status: "Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightest misstep might send him plummeting through the surface to be sucked to the depths below." Moore dedicates the entirety of chapter 4 to "The Beta Male in his Natural Environment," riffing in great humorous detail on the problems faced by men like Charlie as they have navigated treacherous societal waters since the beginning of time. "While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes—size, strength, speed, good looks—selected by evolution over the eons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, woolly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows…The Beta Male is seldom the strongest or the fastest, but because he can anticipate danger, he far outnumbers his Alpha Male competition. The world is led by Alpha Males, but the machinery of the world turns on the bearings of the Beta Male." The problem faced by modern-day Beta Males is that "there's just more Beta Male imagination than can really be put to good use. Consequently, a lot of Beta Males become hypochondriacs, neurotics, paranoids, or develop an addiction to porn or video games." 

The cast of characters includes the following:
   > Sophie, Charlie's lovely, good-natured daughter, who goes from birth to first grade during the six-year period of this novel. As a toddler, she develops several magical abilities, including the deadly "Kitty" command, and somehow acquires a pair of 400-pound black hounds named Alvin and Mohammed who serve as her bodyguards.

   > Lily, a clove-cigarette-smoking, tough-talking teenage Goth girl who works in Charlie's secondhand thrift store. "She was sixteen, pale, and a little bottom heavy—her grown-woman form still in flux between baby fat and baby bearing. Today her hair happened to be lavender: fifties-housewife helmet hair in Easter-basket cellophane pastel." Lily prefers to be called Darquewillow Elventhing, but no one will agree to use that name except the mailman, but "because he was cheerful and seemed to like people, she deeply mistrusted him." Lily's best friend is Abby Normal, one of the characters in You Suck

   > Ray Macy, a lonely, horny, retired policeman who also works in Charlie's store. He's "a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor with an unhealthy lack of boundaries between the Internet and reality" and spends a great deal of time looking for love on the web site called "Ukrainian Girls Loving You" (aka UGLY).

   > Mrs. Korjev, a large Russian woman, and Mrs. Ling, a small Chinese woman, both of whom live in Charlie's building and babysit for Sophie. "What they had in common, besides being widows and immigrants, was a deep love for little Sophie, a precarious grasp on the English language, and a passionate lack of confidence in Charlie Asher's ability to raise his daughter alone." 

   > Jane, Charlie's beautiful, blond, lesbian sister who keeps stealing and wearing his expensive (secondhand) suits. "It had long ago been determined who was the Alpha Male between them and it was not Charlie."

   > Minty Fresh, a seven-foot-tall black man who is partial to wearing green suits and carrying big guns. "Mr. Asher, you can resist who you are for only so long. Finally you decide to just go with fate. For me that has involved being black, being seven feet tall—yet not in the NBA—being named Minty Fresh, and being recruited as a Death Merchant…I have learned to accept and embrace all of those things."

   > The Emperor of San Francisco: "a great rolling hear of a man, his shoulders broad but a little broken from carrying the weight of the city. A white tangle of hair and beard wreathed his face like a storm cloud, As far as he could remember he and the troops [two dogs] had strolled the city streets forever, but upon further consideration, it might have just been since Wednesday. He wasn't entirely sure."

   > Alphonse Rivera and Nick Cavuto, two SFPD detectives who have seen some very weird things that they have never included in their police reports. Both played supporting roles in Moore's VAMPIRE TRILOGY, which is where they learned of the existence of vampires and other creatures of the night. They are suspicious of Charlie at first, but eventually become his allies.

   > And now the villains: a trio of sibling war goddesses (Macha, Nemain, and Babd—known collectively as the Morrigan) and their master, the underworld god, Orcus, who are living in the sewers and trying to capture souls before the Death Merchants can get them. If they eat enough souls, they can come up to the surface world and do their mad-power thing.

     And now, the story: When Charlie's wife, Rachel, dies just hours after giving birth to their first child, Sophie, Charlie's life moves into a very weird zone. For unknown reasons, he becomes a Death Merchant, a human who is forced to collect animate objectssoul vesselsthat hold the souls of the recently dead and then sell those objects to the people who are destined to receive them. You this world, not everyone has a soul.

     As part of Charlie's new duties, he is instructed to keep a calendar and a number two pencil next to his bed. That's where the names of the newly dead soul-bearers are written (in his own handwriting, although he never remembers writing them down) and the date by which Charlie must pick up their soul vessels. When Charlie arrives for a pick-up, he becomes invisible to by-standers. That's how he knows that he's on the right track. As a Death Merchant, Charlie has the ability to recognize soul vessels because to him, they glow "a dull red, nearly pulsing, like beating hearts." 

     Charlie is a nuanced character who can veer from slapstick clumsiness to heartrending emotion in the blink of an eye. Moore constantly reminds us of Charlie's Beta Male status. For example, unlike his sister, "Charlie was not a brown mustard kind of guy. Brown mustard was the condiment equivalent of skydiving—it was okay for race-car drivers and serial killers, but for Charlie a fine line of French's yellow was all the spice that life required." Charlie deeply loved his wife, and the early scenes in which he deals with his grief are truly touching. As the underworld villains threaten Charlie's friends and family, he steps up to (temporary) Alpha status, leading a motley crew of misfits against the villains even as he fears that he might not survive.

     This is another weird and wonderful tale from an author who specializes in freaky take-downs of societal norms. Charlie is another in a long string of well-developed characters who are like everyman on steroids, dealing with the ups and downs of their supernatural-infused lives and making us chuckle, laugh out loud, shake our heads, and sigh all along the way. 

     Click HERE to go to a GoodReads page with hilarious quotations from A Dirty Job. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this novel's page. Just click on either the cover art or the "Audible Narration" icon. 

    FAIR WARNING: This review of Secondhand Souls      
      contains spoilers for A Dirty Job.      
                         NOVEL 2: Secondhand Souls                          
     In San Francisco, the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing—and you know that can’t be good—in New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore’s delightfully funny sequel to A Dirty Job.

     Something really strange is happening in the City by the Bay. People are dying, but their souls are not being collected. Someone—or something—is stealing them and no one knows where they are going, or why, but it has something to do with that big orange bridge. Death Merchant Charlie Asher is just as flummoxed as everyone else. He’s trapped in the body of a fourteen-inch-tall “meat puppet” waiting for his Buddhist nun girlfriend, Audrey, to find him a suitable new body to play host.

     To get to the bottom of this abomination, a motley crew of heroes will band together: the seven-foot-tall Death Merchant Minty Fresh; retired policeman turned bookseller Alphonse Rivera; the Emperor of San Francisco and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus; and Lily, the former Goth girl. Now if only they can get little Sophie to stop babbling about the coming battle for the very soul of humankind.

RECOMMENDATION: Read A Dirty Job before you read this book because without that background, you will never understand the complicated story behind the creation of the Squirrel People, the true meaning of the word "kitty" when voiced by Charlie's daughter Sophie, or the the Death Merchants' tortured relationship with the Morrigan, all of which are key elements in this book.

     Nine years after Christopher Moore left poor Charlie Asher dead from Nemain's venom, he picks up the story again, setting it a year after the death of Charlie's physical body. Charlie's mind, emotions, and soul, though, are currently still alive "in a tiny body…cobbled together from disparate animal parts and a good-sized block of turkey ham" by his girlfriend, a Buddhist nun named Audrey. "When she'd met him he'd been a sweet, handsome widower—a thin fellow who wore nice, secondhand suits and was desperately trying to figure out how to raise a six-year-old daughter on his own in a world gone very strange, Now he stood knee-high, had the head of a crocodile, the feet of a duck, and he wore a puple satin wizard's robe under which was slung his ten-inch schlong." 

     After a year of relative peace, the underworld is again making a power play in San Francisco. Detective Inspector Alphonse Rivera, who has temporarily retired from the SFPD, is running a bookstore and has taken over Charlie's Death Merchant position, but he hasn't collected a single soul. After the Morrigan's serial murders of most of the Death Merchants in the city, only three of the original Merchants remain alive: Minty Fresh, Carrie Lang, and Charlie, who—in his present form—can't really do his Death Merchant thing any more. 

     The action kicks off when two very different people turn up in Rivera's bookstore with dire warnings. First, the Emperor of San Francisco claims that souls are floating to him from the fog of the bay, asking him to write down their names so that they won't be lost. Then, a shrieking banshee (aka bean sidhe) pops up to warn him that a new "dark one" has replaced Orcus (the underworld death god who was destroyed in the previous book): "This one won't come bashing through the front door like Orcus. This one's sneaky. Elegant." Next, Sophie's hell hound bodyguards disappear and her "kitty" command doesn't work any more. Minty Fresh contacts Charlie and sums up the situation for him: "So there's a banshee loose in the city, warning of coming doom. You, Rivera, and possibly many other Death Merchants have not been collecting soul vessels for over a year, and we don't know what happened to the souls of all those who died in the city during that year…And the only thing that was keeping the forces of darkness at bay has been demoted to, what, a first grader." Charlie responds, "Second…But she's in the advanced reading group."

     Added to the mix are a bridge painter named Mike Sullivan who can communicate with ghosts and a rebellion by Audrey's horde of Squirrel People, led by Bob, one of the tiny heroes of the previous book. Mike's connection with the Golden Gate Bridge, which is swarming with souls, is a key plot element: "A bridge is a place between, we are souls that are between." I'm not going to try to summarize the twisty-turny plot, except to say that the horrible Morrigan sisters are back, looking for payback and accompanied by their sinister new leader, who drives a huge, chrome-laden, vintage, yellow Buick.

     By the end of the book, Moore has tied up every loose end from A Dirty Job, making sure that all of the characters have either achieved their HEAs or have been properly punished for their accumulated sins. As in all of Moore's books, this one is a hilarious mix of slapstick action, quirky characters, snarky dialogue, bloody action, and snide commentary on modern life. 

     Particularly moving is Lily Severo, the wannabe Goth girl who worked in Charlie's thrift store in A Dirty Job. Lily wants nothing more than to have some important magical powers—just like Charlie, Minty, and the rest of their "Scoobie" gang. After she and Minty started a restaurant (a jazz/pizza parlor that failed almost immediately) and broke up, Lily became a suicide hotline responder, which sets her up to play a key role in this book's main story line. Moore gives Lily more layers this time around as she desperately tries to prove to herself and her friends that she is important—that she has a definite place within their ranks. At various times, she is outrageously profane (most of the time), devastatingly sad, efficiently in charge, and (always) emotionally on edge. In this book, she is the most highly developed of all of the characters.

     If you are a Christopher Moore fan, this duology is not to be missed, but please read the books in sequence or you'll hate yourself. (Really, you will.) Click HERE to go to a GoodReads page with humorous quotations from Secondhand Souls. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this novel's page. Just click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

     Just one small nitpick: Annoyingly, this book is scattered with word-use errors, probably due to a reliance on electronic spellcheck and a lack of effective eyes-on-the-page copy proofing. Just a few examples: "Here" instead of "her"; "ringer" instead of "wringer" (for a mop bucket); "It your daddy" instead of "It's your daddy." 

Some of the funniest lines:
   >> In a dialogue between Rivera and Nick Cavuto, his gay former partner, Cavuto complains, "I got outed by surprise." Rivera responds: "How is that a surprise? You were marching in the Pride Parade wearing your dress blue uniform with no pants and a yellow codpiece."

 >> Sophie Asher is in a time-out for sassing a nun: "Sophie…glared over her shoulder at Sister Maria la Madonna con el Corpo de Cristo encima una Tortilla, the Irish nun, who had stripped her of her recess and exiled her to this cold limbo by the fence." (Click HERE and HERE and HERE to see examples of Jesus images on various tortillas.)

 >> Lily keeps a tally of the suicides she prevents: She tells Minty, "I've saved five and a half lives this month already." Minty responds in confusion, "A half?" Lily replies, "Jumped but lived, so, you know, technically, I didn't stop the guy from jumping, but he failed, too, since he lived, so it's a tie, so half a save."

 >> Sophie composes a bear-centric poster under the heavy influence of Mrs. Korjev, her Russian babysitter: "LOST. 1 Irish Hellhound. Very black, like bear. Huge, like bear. Answer to Alvin and Mohammed. Like to eat everything. Like bear!" Lily asks Sophie if she wrote the text. Sophie responds, "I put in two bears and the Irish part…Daddy said that no one would believe you if you called them hellhounds, but if you said Irish hellhounds everyone thought they'd heard of them."

 >> Sophie becomes a vegetarian because "Jane convinced her you could still be a vegetarian if you only eat animals that eat vegetables, too."

 >> Lily is depressed because she is the only one in the group with no supernatural powers. After she is assigned to crosscheck lists of thousands of names of dead people, she grumbles, "I feel like the accountant for the Justice League. If someone finds a magical cat or an enchanted stapler or something, I'm calling dibs…"

 >> The Squirrel People revolt: "Ha!" said Bob. Don't call me Bob. that is my slave name. I now remember my name from before, when I was a man, I am Theeb the Wise!"

  >> Concepción Argüella and Nikolai Rezanov were real people with a real love story. Click HERE to read their story.

 >> The man dressed in yellow tells Sophie to call him "the Magical Negro," which is an actual American fiction trope in which a wise, insightful black man with supernatural powers mysteriously appears solely to help out a white character. The question here is this: Is that an accurate nickname for the man in yellow? Click HERE for a description of this trope.

 >> The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco looks just like Moore describes it: "the only church in the world designed after a washing-machine agitator….If the outside...resembled a washing machine, the interior was a minimalist starship, with the round dais and altar at the head of the nave, and a pipe organ built into a platform that rose and cantilevered over the mourners on the side, like the control center of the great vessel."

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