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Charlie Monk

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I dreamt I was a butterfly, and didn't know when I awoke if I was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who now dreamt he was a man.

Chuang Tzu's dream
500 Years BC

I had to start playing Bond from scratch - not even Ian Fleming knew much about Bond at this time. He has no mother. He has no father. He doesn't come from anywhere and he hadn't been anywhere when he became 007. He was born - kerplump - thirty-three years old.

Sean Connery
The Observer
1st March 1998

Reviews for The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk

Paul Davies - The Mirror
Daily Express
Sunday Telegraph
Booklist, David Pitt
Publisher’s weekly
Florida Press News

   More Pure Ambrosia, Paul Davies - The Mirror

Pick up any David Ambrose novel, browse the cover blurb and the first thing you'll learn about the author is that he began his career writing screenplays for Orson Welles. "What a pedigree," you might think (or indeed, "what a name-dropper"). But if you've ever watched any Orson Welles films you'll know that (notwithstanding Citizen Kane and a couple of others) he was responsible for more turkeys than Bernard Matthews.

So before the alarm bells start ringing I should point out that, while his screenplays for Welles might have been nothing special, Ambrose's novels really are something to boast about. The Discrete Charm Of Charlie Monk (that's "discrete" meaning "individual" rather than "tactful") is his fourth, scary scientific thriller, and while he still hasn't captured the brain-frying brilliance of his cultish, Crichtonesque debut, The Man Who Turned Into Himself, it's another quality yarn.

The title might make it sound like an Edgar Allan Poe short story, but there's nothing old-fashioned about Ambrose. He spins stories out of cutting edge scientific theory, taking the latest research to a terrifying "what if?" conclusion. As one character remarks in the new book, "All science is a double-edged sword". And in Ambrose's world, for every good scientist there's another who wants to use new technology for unethical, deadly purposes.

Plot wise, the book has more impressive twists and turns than the American high-diving Olympic team. Nothing seems to please Ambrose more than wrong footing his audience, taking the plot in strange new directions and causing readers to drop their proverbial bacon sandwiches every other chapter. Nobody and nothing is as it seems.

Charlie Monk is a one-man army, a cross between Arnie and James Bond. An ultra-professional killing machine working for a secretive organisation of American mercenaries. Charlie is trained to shoot first and ask questions later, and his mind is always on the job in hand. That's because Charlie doesn't have any proper memories. just a few dim recollections about being sent as an orphan to a special school called "The Farm". Meanwhile Dr Susan Flemyng. a biologist specialising in brain diseases, has found a way to transplant artificial memories into the minds of her patients. But her discovery has already found its way into the wrong hands and it seems that Charlie is in fact some kind of bionic military guinea pig.

To tell you any more about the plot would simply ruin everything, except to say the basic story is about the creation of the ultimate, superhuman soldier, with a hefty dose of mind control, genetic experiments and zoo animals. And there's enough virtual reality to confuse even the most attentive reader about whether what is happening is real or just taking place in the characters' imagination — but on the whole, it works.

Don't be put off by the disappointing (and rather messy) opening. Ambrose might be great at ending novels, but he's useless at starting them. They always seem to take an age to get going, no doubt because there's a lot of scientific theory to plough through before the action can begin.

His books are like roller coaster rides: the first 50-odd pages are a painfully slow climb during which you wonder what the hell is going on, before you plummet into the abyss with an unstoppable momentum, fingernails gripping the seat. But he's a clever novelist, too, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a more intelligent thriller writer at work today. No one monkeys around with your mind quite like David Ambrose.

   Daily Express
The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk...holds it own as a page-turner. Powerful stuff. This is really science fiction, dealing with virtual reality, but the central situation it posits cannot, surely, be that far away in the future. To summarise the actual story would be to give too much away. But it focuses on a hard man, Charlie Monk, who paints as a hobby and appears to have no memory, only shadows which tantalisingly come and go. Until he meets up with the delectable Dr Susan Flemying who conspires to give him his memory back and allow him eventually to learn what is going on.

"I dreamt I was a butterfly" said an ancient Chinese sage, " and didn't know when I awoke if I was a man who had dreamt he a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamt he was a man".

That is, loosely speaking, what this book is about, but I'm afraid you'll have to read it because I ain't telling you any more.

   Sunday Telegraph
David Ambrose has come up with something distinctly different and alarmingly up-to-date in The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk. His literate, stylish writing makes the labyrinthine story of a man trapped between virtual reality and what may - or may not - be true life seem almost believable. By the end of the book I was as unsure as Charlie what was real and what had been programmed into his brain.

   Booklist, David Pitt

Ambrose’s sixth novel, published in Europe in 2000, gives new meaning to the phrase “living a rich fantasy life.” Readers will leave the novel knowing less about what’s going on then they did when they began it, and thy won’t mind a bit. This book, about a man who might be a superspy, or perhaps he’s a clinic-bound mental patient, is a dazzling performance, a story that seems to be one thing, then turns into something else, then doubles back on itself, then stampedes off in an entirely unexpected, and bizarre direction. At its center is Charlie Monk, a government agent whose life seems to be a series of life-and-death episodes-unless, as Charlie discovers, he’s only imaging his life. This novel is mind-grabbingly elegant, a symphony of ideas that never, ever does what we expect it to. Propelled by its cast of characters, including Dr. Susan Flemyng (who is ether Charlie’s friend or enemy depending on the scene you’re reading) and Latimer West (who may or may not be a supervision), and by Ambrose’s immense storytelling skills, the novel gets fast, gets faster, and soon has us holding on for dear life. And when the story comes to its crashing finale, we sit there, blinking, wondering what just happened here. And who the heck is Charlie Monk ?

   Publisher’s weekly

Only a few people know who Charlie monk really is. Is he, as Monk himself believes, a highly trained government hit man? Or is he merely the laboratory fodder of scientists conducting mind control experiments ? Ambrose, who has previously dabbled in such reality benders (Coincidence etc), handles this one with confidence, twisting the plot gently at first, then with a hard, satisfying crank towards the end. In between government hits, Monk leads a casual life in Los Angeles partaking in the usual pleasures sought by virile young men. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C, Dr Susan Flemying toils away on the leading edge of her specialty: replacing visual memory in the mind of amnesia victims. She is doing so, however, under duress. A secret government organization has kidnapped her son and won’t give him back unless she oversees several experiments. Monk, it turns out, is one of them. Ambrose has several surprises in store, including government planners who want to create a fighting force of warriors with human intelligence and simian brawn. Monk figures out much of what is going on, and he doesn’t drag his knuckles in seeking vengeance. Featuring an intriguing castoff characters who never turn out to be quite what they seem, this latest from Ambrose provides several hours of exhilarating diversion and a scary glimpse of scientific possibilities.


The Great Ambrose returns (Superstition, 1998) for another paranormal thriller that may lack the philosophical darkness of Philip K. Dick but has all of Dick's endless identity inversions and reversals. Reader Warning: This novel may be unreviewable without giving away plot turns that the normal (or unprofessional) reader would want to know. The title refers to Louis Bunuel’s strange and seductively surreal The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about a group of fashionables who mill around a dining room, try to sit down to dinner, and never make it, though all Ambrose takes from that movie are Bunuel’s strangeness and surrealismo. James Bond can take a backseat to Charlie Mon, who has the fluidity and speed of a dreamBond. In fact, for a while, the reader wonders at the outrageous abilities of Monk – an agent for a governmental organisation so secret that it doesn’t exist – as when he brings off supremely dangerous and difficult missions with dreamlike ease. As in Dick’s Blade Runner, we wonder as well if Monk’s childhood memories haven’t been implanted: he has such difficulty bringing some of them back to mind, especially the face of beloved fellow orphan Kathy. Even so, when off-mission for long periods, Charlie beds an endless stable of beauties (sometimes two at once), drives his Porsche, and paints landscapes that a strange little dealer buys by the vanload. The reader keeps thinking that this is really unreal. Deathproof Charlie, is he superhuman ? or just inhuman ? We’re not saying. But the paranormal side of the story turns on Virtual Reality implants that restore perhaps fake memory, and these draw from experiments by Dr Susan Flemying, whose husband has been murdered in a superbly described decrepit Siberia. Midway through the story, Monk’s secret aspect is revealed, and there’s no turning back for Charlie or the reader.

Another all-nighter whose thinly real opening half sets up a dumfounding series of payoffs.

   Florida Press News, Jay MacDonald

Master secret agent Charlie Monk is a lean, mean killing machine, fearless in executing his bloody missions, irresistible to the ladies, an accomplished painter of "partly abstract" nature scenes.

Charlie has this problem: he can't remember much of his childhood before being sent to "the Farm," where he'd been trained as an efficient and effective one man execution squad. Everything after "the Farm" he remembers in color; everything prior he recalls in black and white. He is haunted by the memory of his first love and troubled that he is unable to picture her face.

Or is Charlie merely an imaginary alter ego of Brian Kay, a neurological patient of Dr. Susan Flemyng, a specialist in cutting edge visual memory restoration and simulation?

Welcome to the clever funhouse of David Ambrose's "The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk," the most entertaining book you will read this year.

Fans of Philip K. Dick will find a kindred spirit in Ambrose, who, like Dick, questions the nature of reality and human consciousness.

Where Dick's work often mirrored the author's paranoia, however, Ambrose's carries no such personal baggage. He's simply fascinated with exploring the great questions of life we've all had since childhood: Who am I? Who are you? Where are we? And how do I know?

Word of caution: do not research this book online. Like "The Sixth Sense" and "Memento," knowing too much ahead of time will spoil this year's most enjoyable reading surprise.


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