Entirely Biased and Totally Subjective Book Review: ‘Sacré Bleu’ by Christopher Moore

Sacre' Bleu cover

You can dive into Sacré Bleu, the most recent non-spinoff work from comic/fantasy yarn spinner Christopher Moore, without an art history degree, but it might not be a bad idea to have a working knowledge of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters of Paris in the late 1800s before you start.

That’s because most of them (at least those Moore can place within temporal or physical proximity to the setting) make appearances in Sacré Bleu, a paranormal mystery that casts artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the unlikely role of investigator when his pal and fellow painter Vincent van Gogh suffers what appears to be  self-inflicted gunshot wound, but then proceeds to walk to find a doctor, dying not long after he arrives.

Toulouse-Lautrec has reason to believe that his friend’s death was instead a murder, and sets out to find out who might have been the killer. He enlists the help of a young baker, Lucien Lessard, whose father was both an aspiring artist himself and a patron of the Impressionist community. Lucien, it turns out, has some talent of his own, and as such is doted upon by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and his peers.

Central to the plot, as you might gather from the title, is the color blue, specifically the “sacred” blue reserved in European art for the shade of the Virgin Mary’s gown. Its origins and mysterious purveyors – and how they relate to the artists of late 19th century France – help Moore explore the primary themes of talent, inspiration and madness, and how the three can be inseparably intertwined.

Stylistically, Sacré Bleu hews mostly closely among Moore’s works to Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. In Lamb, Moore took the established canon of the New Testament and, through legitimate historical and theological research, filled in the blanks of the missing years of the life of Jesus with fictional suppositions about his travels and the earthly inspirations for his later, better documented ministries.

Of course, Moore being Moore, he did so with a heaping helping of satire, naughty wit and downright hilarity, and Sacré Bleu is no different, reflecting the same narrative base – actual people and history are folded into a completely fantastic storyline that somehow manages to incorporate real events and landmark art in a way that makes you pause and say, “Well, maybe it could have happened that way after all.”

As a character in a Moore novel goes, Toulouse-Lautrec is so perfect it’s like history planned for him to star in this book. Short in stature but overwhelming in his confidence in his own talent, the artist was well known as a libertine and based much of his oeuvre on the sensory experiences of spending lots of time in burlesque halls and brothels.

Complementing it all are the full-color (at least in the first edition hardback copies) illustrations of nearly every painting Moore references in the course of the narrative. They are used both as a (very subtle) art history lesson and to place into context the interactions between the artists and their mysterious muse. It’s a clever – and to my knowledge, unique – device that does nothing to interrupt the story and so very much to remind the reader that the characters placed in these fictional situations were indeed real people doing real and very relevant work.

I noted earlier that this is a “non-spinoff” work to distinguish it from the pseudo-sequels of two of Moore’s earlier novels, Bloodsucking Fiends and A Dirty Job – those being You Suck and Bite Me. While, as a Moore fan, I enjoyed the latter two, at times it felt as if the author was phoning it in to try and grab some of that tasty vampire mojo that keeps copies of the Twilight series flying off the shelf.

This novel doesn’t suffer from that feeling. Indeed, when Moore puts his mind (and research and shoe leather) to it, he can craft a detailed and stylistically pleasing novel that incorporates a detailed and well organized story, plenty of Tom Robbins-style wordplay and sexy-sexy plot points with the abundantly weird supernatural/science fictional elements that keep readers coming back.

One Amazon/Goodreads Combo, Comin’ Up

goodreads-and-amazonSo, Amazon – great, lumbering consumer juggernaut that it is – gobbled up literary social networking site Goodreads in (an impeccably timed) Good Friday announcement.

If you’re interested in catching up, check out the New York Timesoriginal story and this interesting bit of analysis on Amazon’s motivation from the Washington Post.

I saw the news but, consumed with pre-Easter prep and the celebrations of the weekend, put off posting until today. Not very New Media of me, but what the hell. Not much thoughtful analysis takes place by the bozos who insist on posting first.

But what struck me right off the bat when I heard of this move was, “Huh … Amazon, which already owns Shelfari, now feels it should own Goodreads, which was run by Barnes & Noble. Amazon makes Kindles, the most popular e-readers around, but couldn’t build itself a workable, popular literary networking site, while B&N, which produces the floundering Nook, had what was the most popular literary networking site around. Interesting how each could make one part of the puzzle work, but not the other.”

As I said, lots of other better informed folks have already chimed in on this, but I would like to point out that while ownership of the formerly pseudo-independent Goodreads by Amazon will likely put the recommendations portion of Goodreads under tighter control, it also puts two of the biggest arrows of the independent author/publisher arsenal into the same quiver.

Whether this will be good or bad for me and other indie authors remains to be seen. As both an author and a member of Codorus Press, I think my biggest concern is the danger of reader reviews somehow being deleted or diluted. As any author will tell you, one of the best ways to sell books – whether hard copies or e-books – is through word of mouth. And typically, that word of mouth these days comes thanks to online reviews from readers.

To take that major selling point from us kicks a leg out from beneath authors and small publishers who, shunned by big-box booksellers – of which B&N is the last – were standing on just one leg to begin with.

What Amazon should remember is that for many indies, Kindle Direct and the Amazon-owned print-on-demand service CreateSpace are the only places where some titles are available. For the company to keep Goodreads as intact and independent as possible would better serve Amazon by continuing to drive sales in what I would suspect are its two biggest growth sectors.

The Cranky Reader Redux

Back in October I wrote here about the Blessings of the Cranky Reader, in which I ruminated on the emotional and creative repercussions of receiving my first 1-star, boy-this-book-really-sucks review for my novel Immaculate Deception.

Strangely, in the last couple of days that review has disappeared from Amazon. I was aware that Amazon had started paring down the reviews of some authors’ works when they might have been written by those who could profit from the book doing well, but this certainly didn’t fall into that category. Amazon has also targeted “competing” authors who write poor reviews of their peers’ books, but this guy seemed more of a literary wannabe who took pleasure in eviscerating the work of others than someone who would be able to create on his own.

So now I’m trying to decide if the author of that review had a change of heart, or realized that because I had blogged about it his review might have gotten a lot more attention than he originally intended.

I’m not sure either way, but I’m going on record here to say that while I did direct people specifically to that review for purposes of illustrating the points in my earlier blog entry, at no point did I solicit any flaming, complaints or commentary from anyone who might have taken issue with what he review said. I don’t work that way, and was fully prepared to let that review stand as a testament to someone having read my book and just not liking it.

In fact (and this does sound a little weird), I kind of miss that brutal review. It was a nice little link to the real – a reminder that I should never start believing my own hype and that we’re never as good as we think we are, but we should still always strive to be better.

So adieu, Mr. Cranky Reader. I’m sure you’ll find other folks’ books to bash. But I just want you to know that I still appreciate you reading mine and taking the time out to bash it yourself.

The Blessing of the Cranky Reader

No matter how big or small your writing ambitions happen to be, there will come that point in your endeavors that someone will be happy to tell you that you suck.

I was fortunate in my career to work for newspapers for a good many years, and there’s nothing like a pack of newspaper subscribers to take it upon themselves to inform you of your many shortcomings with indiscretion and a hearty lack of tact.

Oh, and not to mention that they frequently do it via the letters to the editor, so those slings and arrows would almost always end up in print.

During the course of my stint as weekly columnist for my university paper and then my home-town newspaper, I was variously called a Marxist, Fascist, socialist, godless heathen, punk, whippersnapper and clueless kid. My skin was already thickened by my boot camp-like journalism instructors, and dealing with ornery readers put the last thick layers upon the callouses of my soul.

Since then, I’ve been happy to have my work critiqued by both friends and strangers and have been strong and open minded about accepting those negative comments that they had and using them to make my work better.

But when the novel you’ve worked on for 20 years finally ends up in print, you’re submitting your work for the approval/dismissal of an exponentially larger spectrum of folks. And the chances are pretty good that no matter how incredible you think you are, how great your friends and family say you are and what kinds of positive reviews you’ve received from readers, there will always be that person who’s ready to tell you how much you suck.

My worst reader review so far came in recently – a raging one-star review on the Amazon page for my novel Immaculate Deception, and I was immediately struck by a strange mix of emotions.

Much like the classic Five Stages of Grief, I was struck on a number of emotional levels. The first was the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach I used to get in school when I’d get a terrible grade back from a teacher. I had failed, and this person had called me on it.

The second was that punched-in-the-chest feeling I got whenever I would get the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech from a girlfriend. It was the “you’re just not good enough” feeling.

The third was boiling rage – how dare this guy have the nerve to say that about me?Had he been standing in front of me at the moment, I would have landed several powerful blocks on a couple of particularly soft and vulnerable points on his body.

The fourth feeling was one of inevitability. Not everyone likes everything, I said to myself, and it was almost guaranteed that someone out there would dislike my work enough to go on record about just how much they disliked it.

The fifth and final stage was dismissal. I looked again at the overwhelming number of positive reviews I’ve received across the board, then checked on other things the fellow had reviewed. He genuinely didn’t like anything he read, and my last thought was that perhaps he just needs to re-evaluate what he’s reading if nothing he picks ever makes him happy.

And in a way, a truly poor review is a form of validation. It demonstrates that your work is indeed being read by people who aren’t your friends, family and adoring fans. It shows that someone you don’t know and have never met was intrigued enough to pick it up, plow through it, turn their nose up and decide the entire thing was a waste of time and then take more of his valuable time to tell other people why.

This is perhaps the best compliment a writer could receive, because it means people are picking your book up or download on a whim – not because you begged them, not because they felt obligated, but because it sounded like something they might like.

Or, as my friend and colleague at Codorus Press, Tom Joyce, put it, “Scott’s really arrived, because he’s got his first troll.”