GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL (1966)

GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL is a self-reflexive work of sorts: penned by POPULAR HOME magazine editor Robert Dougherty, it’s a recounting of “The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell”, straight from her mouth, according to Robert.

Dirty Helen Cromwell (Helen, from here on forth), was — for some time — a Milwaukee fixture from the Prohibition age. While she was reluctant to lay down roots anywhere, she did find a home in Milwaukee with her boozy outpost THE SUN FLOWER INN, which is where Robert first met Helen.

What follows is Robert jotting down Helen recalling a good forty years of ‘good times’ as a self-proclaimed ‘woman of pleasure’. In other words: a sex worker. There’s a moment where she wishes that the term ‘call girl’ was popular in her time.

The tales recalled in GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL are certainly those of a willful, self-possessed woman, one who isn’t a skin-flint, but values what remains in one’s pocket, while still living a remarkable life, one the that included all sorts of fashionable dovetailing, as well as shoulder-rubbing with Al Capone.

“My advice is not to accept initiations to these cruises if you aren’t prepared for certain eventualities.”

That’s about as dark as Helen deigned herself to deal with, but as one dives deeper into GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL and reads about the litany of dead husbands, and the brave face she plastered on, the harder the read becomes. This is a memoir/auto-bio where the absence of details are more damning than the inclusion; you can almost feel the hurt in certain eras of hers that she glosses over, ambiguous hurt that hits harder than when she discusses the death of one of her several husbands.

That said, yes, you do have to read in-between the lines for that. Otherwise, it’s a bold, brash tale of a bold and brash and gregariously singular woman who made her place in Milwaukee. That alone is reason enough to read her tale.

Purchase: https://feralhouse.com/good-time-party-girl/

THE TINDALOS ASSET (2020)

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s THE TINDALOS ASSET is the third and final novella in the TINFOIL DOSSIER trilogy, a fitting bookend to their confidently wild portrayal of mostly scumbags trying to reign in — or perpetuate — horrors both otherworldly and extra-dimensional. Like the other two novellas, it’s an absolutely wild ride of clipped thoughts, traumatic events both past, present (and some future), all occasionally interrupted by bouts of depravity.

THE TINDALOS ASSET returns to The Signalman, the binding character of the series, while spending much of its time in other Dreamland agents’ heads. In several ways, both in setting and inciting events, TINDALOS feels smaller in scope, far more than the epic, wide-ranging state-of-the-world relayed via the second book in the series, BLACK HELICOPTERS. That feels strange to say, given that TINDALOS is centered around very apocalyptic events, but it primarily takes place in only three locales: a hotel room, and airplane, and by a body of water. Between the limited locations and the amount of exposition and dialogue expelled between the major players, TINDALOS often comes across more like a stage play, as opposed to the unseeable weird fiction it is.

That TINDALOS feels more insular and focused more on the headspace of its characters and their actions and motives, and this approach is to be applauded! Each act in this grand work has its own texture, its own litany of surprises. Don’t enter weird fiction hoping for more-of-the-same with every installment, because if you do? You should find a different genre.

After reading AGENTS OF DREAMLAND I noted: “To riff on the ‘it’s not a season of TV, it’s a 12-hour movie’ sentiment, the TINFOIL DOSSIER series is not so much three novellas, but a three-part novel.” I wish I’d taken my own advice and binged the novellas like a season of TV. Reading the three novellas over the period of a few months under a year proved to be too spread out. To those who read these as they first appeared, especially those who followed it via piecemeal through anthologies and the like, I salute you. I wish I’d read them all in one big gulp, but in time — instead — I’ll simply re-read them, hopefully shortly after being told the release date of a TINFOIL DOSSIER film or TV adaptation.

The complete TINFOIL DOSSIER: https://us.macmillan.com/series/tinfoildossier

THE NINE TAILORS (1934)

The moment I realized Dorothy L. Sayers’ THE NINE TAILORS was a special sort of murder mystery novel was when I encountered one passage and thought: “Wow, she’s really leaning hard on the details of this old church’s bells.” Ten pages later: “Cripes, I never knew that I wanted to know this much about bell-ringing!”

Sayers is best-known for her murder mysteries, specifically her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, featuring a rich, compassionate, gregarious but astute man who often finds himself surrounded by death. GAUDY NIGHT (the tenth Wimsey story, published in 1935, one a year after THE NINE TAILORS) is perhaps her best-known, but sadly, nowadays unless you’re attending an Edgar Awards afterparty, you’re probably unlikely to hear her name or accidentally stumble over a visual adaptation of any of her novels.

This is a shame — and something The Dorothy L. Sayers Society is trying to rectify — because, as THE NINE TAILORS exemplifies, she’s exceptional at weaving a engaging world, one dense with intriguing and idiosyncratic individuals, where actions are richly detailed, and each work is ornately penned to soothe even the most high-minded snob. In her hands, the murder contained in THE NINE TAILORS almost fades away as we’re drawn into this small town and its denizens.

In other words: THE NINE TAILORS is the complete package. It’s thrilling, it has depth, it goes unfathomably deep into the world of bell-ringing in ways that manage to be highly entertaining, and it sticks the landing in an amazingly satisfying way. It’s an absolute classic, one that should certainly not be overlooked by any mystery fan.

Read here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.512291

THE PARASITES (1949)

I’m at the point in my life where I’m filling in the gaps of my favorite writers over the years, nabbing books of say, James M. Cain or, in this case, Daphne du Maurier, where — while staring at a barely read, two-bit book in second-hand bookstore — I mutter to myself: ‘Why don’t I have a copy of this already?’

Such was my case with du Maurier’s THE PARASITES, which frankly, is overdue for a proper film adaptation, as it’s a fantastic distillation of her approach towards inherited talent and du Maurier’s own festering cynicism towards the world.

THE PARASITES focuses on a piecemeal family: the father is a legendary singer, while the mother is an acclaimed solo dancer, and the two create heavenly works together. (It’s worth noting that these two somewhat mirror du Maurier’s parents, as her father was well-known actor/theatre producer Sir Gerald du Maurier and her mother was the acclaimed stage actress Muriel Beaumont.) Between the two, they have three siblings, the eldest being Maria, who grows into a mercurial actress, the result of a coupling between Pappy and an unnamed Vietnamese stage performer, who died shortly after birthing Maria; Niall, the product of Mama and a pianist who may or may not have died of tuberculosis; and Celia, the child of Pappy and Mama.

Maria is married to Charles, the heir to a Lord, who — at the opening of the novel — calls the three Delaney siblings out as ‘parasites’. The three spend the rest of the day mulling over exactly what he meant by it, diving deep into their past to investigate how they may have become such creatures. Maria reflects on her cavalier attitude towards her own offspring and her husband; Niall mulls over his uncommon attachment to Maria and his difficulties and dissonance with the tunes that lilt through his head; finally, Celia speculates about a world where she didn’t spend so much of her life living to serve others, and what may have happened if she’d indulge her illustration talents.

Du Maurier spends the bulk of the novel peeling away the familial onion layers, revealing the fact that this isn’t an ensemble character drama, but is in fact a murder mystery of sorts: who (spiritually) killed Charles? What was the motive? Who had the means to induce the final blow? It’s a novel that consists of processing, of personal scrutiny, of evasion and ultimately acceptance.

While it’s one of the least sensational novels of hers, THE PARASITES feels icily personal; the siblings are constantly skirting and circling around their issues in the way an overly invested author flinches as they see themselves on their page, mining their strife for drama, but not quite willing to strike the major veins. Given that that it’s a work that is primarily spent on a specific sort of self-reflection, that feels right and welcome and fitting, but those hoping for a neatly satisfying ending may be disappointed.

https://bookshop.org/books/the-parasites-9780837604107/9780837604107

FULL-METAL INDIGIQUEER (2017)

Joshua Whitehead’s FULL-METAL INDIGIQUEER’s title is a concise mission statement of his collection of experimental poetry focused on issues of Indigenous identity, queerness, digital literacy, pop culture, and more.

His words are interwoven with ornate use of non-alphanumeric type — often utilized to display pseudo-code or mimic machine-to-machine communication — as well as visual design motifs: echoed photocopies of photographs; an extended opening entitled ‘birthing sequence’ that initially appears to be a static iris-in on a collection of colons; stark line art; also unconventional use of whitespace.

In lesser hands, this approach could come across as gimmicky, but the design, formatting, and excessive use of punctional help to tease out the underlying tension of each piece, emphasizing fracturing, splintering, disassociation, dissonance, and more.

The result is an array of powerfully pieces that, as a whole, makes for a substantial and intensely emotional read.

https://talonbooks.com/books/full-metal-indigiqueer

TRUCK (1971)

Katherine Dunn is best know for her exceptional misfit novel GEEK LOVE or, if you’re a fan of the sweet science, you may be familiar with her boxing observations such as ONE RING CIRCUS. However, well before she was writing about pugilists or carny folks, she penned two novels that focused on outsiders living in their head: ATTIC (1970) and, this recommendation, TRUCK (1971).

That both ATTIC and TRUCK were penned well over fifteen years prior to GEEK LOVE might explain why both of them are relatively unknown, even to fans of Dunn, but they’re no less gripping. However, as you might expect given the years that passed between them and GEEK LOVE, stylistically they are radically different, opting for more of a stream-of-consciousness tact that can occasionally feel like Dunn is being deliberately opaque, but this approach works to properly convey the protagonist’s mindset.

The premise of TRUCK is rather simple: Dutch (legally known as Jean Gillis) is an adolescent girl kicking against the confines of her small town, school and her well-meaning family, when she starts hanging out with high school senior Heydorf, a distant-but-philosophizing sort who plans to head to Los Angeles and commit small crimes. He encourages Dutch to meet him out there, and she embarks on a winding bus trip from Oregon to Los Angeles to leave her old life behind.

TRUCK excels at channeling Dutch’s scattershot, wide-eyed and trepidatious point-of-view. Her internal monologues often feel frantic, fragmented, scattered and difficult to follow, but they never feel anything less than authentic.

Dutch’s bus trip is especially striking. Dunn perfectly encapsulates the wide variety of emotions of a youth taking an extended, unsanctioned solo bus trip, ranging from fear of being found out as the bus pulls out of the station, to the wonder and relief of being on the road, to the awkward displeasure of dealing with nearby drunk companions and their life stories. Dutch’s running thoughts tonally shift throughout the twenty-pages, reflecting her ways of mentally coping as she drifts farther from home, coming to terms with the reality of shaping a new life in a strange land.

TRUCK is a remarkable portrait of a singular transitory time in a youth’s life, one of heightened intensity where aspiration, disillusion, anticipation, dissolution, spiritual questioning and fulfillment and even more, deluge one’s self, leaving one fundamentally changed and bracing for the world in front of them.

https://bookshop.org/books/truck-ccc6090b-769f-456c-806f-0d8373d59cf3/9780446391535

GIRLY DRINKS: A WORLD HISTORY OF WOMEN AND ALCOHOL (2021)

At first blush, you might think that Mallory O’Mera’s GIRLY DRINKS: A WORLD HISTORY OF WOMEN AND ALCOHOL is simply a compendium of influential women brewers and distillers throughout the ages, women whose names aren’t as part of the public consciousness as say, your Sam Addams or Jim Beams.

While GIRLY DRINKS does spend a significant amount of time shining the limelight on numerous women who aren’t as well-known, women like Isabelle Beaton — author of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a watershed book that was one of the first to detail cocktail recipies) — and Joy Spence, a master blender widely recognized as the ‘Queen of Rum’, O’Mera (who previously wrote the illuminating biography of Milicent Patrick, THE LADY FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) has higher aspirations with her singular look at women’s involvement with all facets of alcohol and spirits.

GIRLY DRINKS examines thousands of years of alcohol, from the discovery of fermentation and hunter/gatherer-friendly high-calorie liquids, to Mesopotamian priestesses brewing beer, a side trip through the middle ages and Li Qingzhao who brazenly wrote about sex and inebriation, to the tectonic shift in post-WWII alcohol culture, nicely encapsulated by Sunny Sund who turned Trader Vics from a hole-in-the-wall to one of the most influential booze-based franchises, then capped off with the recent South African brewing revolution helmed by Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela.

The sheer breadth and detail of the history of alcohol that O’Mera covers is extraordinarily valuable, but she also clearly and breezily delves into the particulars of the cultivation and business of how booze is gendered, which predictable is often the byproduct of cultural constructs.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, GIRLY DRINKS also uses the history of women and alcohol to scrutinize power and gender dynamics, how history repeats itself, while also extolling the progress that has been made and also looking forward to what hopefully will be a brighter, more inclusive, more diverse future.

GIRLY DRINKS is not just an informative look at important boozy women in history, but an instructional cautionary tale. It’s a bold, insightful, fascinating text, one that merits your interest even if you’re a teetotaler.

For more info on GIRLY DRINKS, visit Mallory O’Mera’s website at: http://www.malloryomeara.com/girly-drinks

Or you can order it directly via Bookshop!

MADE FOR LOVE (2017)

I love adaptations. Part of it’s the writer in me, as I love to scrutinize how a work is transformed to fit a different medium. However, truthfully, most of it boils down to the fact that, as a youth, my parents wouldn’t allow me to watch anything racy or violent or swear-laden so instead I simply read the novel adaptation of a PG-13 or R-rated film instead which, as you might suspect, played fast-and-loose and often were far more taboo than the source material.

That said, a lot of modern adaptations disappoint me. (To be clear, we’re mostly talking about comic/novel to film/tv adaptations, because the heyday of film-to-novel adaptations has long passed.) They often hew too closely and lose their luster, or go wildly off-the-rails. Rarely is there an in-between.

I first watched MADE FOR LOVE and loved it and immediately ordered Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel of the same name, curious as to how they’d handle the interiority of runaway wife Hazel Green. However, given how thrilling plotted and substantial the series was I figured they mostly followed the novel’s template and goosed a few scenes to play better visually.

That is not what they did. Instead, showrunner Christina Lee (SEARCH PARTY) enlisted Alissa Nutting (who also wrote the controversial novel TAMPA) to join the writers room and run with the core concept of Nutting’s novel: a desperately unhappy wife Hazel Green decides to leave her brilliant-but-psychopathic billionaire tech mogul Byron Gogol upon being told of his plan to ‘merge their minds together’ via a chip implant in her head. Hazel breaks free of his isolated work compound, leaving all of her belonging and any money behind, so she has no option but to crash at her widower father’s trailer home. Shortly after being introduced to her father’s partner — a sex doll named Diane — she realizes that Byron had already implanted the chip in her head.

So far, the source material mostly mirrors the adaptation, however, this is where it slowly starts diverging. Since I’m comparing and contrasting the two — I have yet to watch MADE FOR LOVE season two, so this will only refer to the first season — I’ll be noting specific plot points and character traits for both the series and novel, so if you want to go in blind, best circle back to this later. If you just want to know if it’s worth reading the book, regardless of whether you did or did not watch the show, I implore you to do so.

The first sign that the show is its own creature is that: in the novel, her father has to use a Rascal mobility device to get around, whereas in the show he’s very mobile.

The second sign is how the book handles Liver, who on the show is a handsome twenty-something working at a local bar, brewing beer at night, outside, shirtless, arms covered in foam up to his elbows. In the novel, he’s has forty years on Hazel, and they quickly fall into a very friendly, physical relationship, partially due to the fact that they’re cranks.

The third sign was that I kept waiting for Alissa to add a possibly more sympathetic side to Byron, even if it feels like he was pretending to do so — akin to the show. However, he remains a monster all the way through.

Similarly, Hazel is fleshed out a bit more and comes across as smarter and more aware than she is on the show, but also has an array additional issues that lead to her living life as a fuck-up.

There are also some minor changes with how Byron can access Hazel’s experiences. Unlike the show, where he has a direct live feed 24/7, in the novel he downloads them once every 24 hours, which significantly alters the tension dynamic.

Most importantly, while dolphins factor into the novel, they do so in a wildly different manner, and feature a con-man Jasper who hooks women into his orbit, bleeds them dry and moves to another town. At first it feels completely unnecessary, but Alissa manages to weave it all together in a smart manner. I do wonder if they may touch upon that in the second season (which I have yet to watch).

Lastly, the endings of each could not differ any more, but both are quite satisfying within the context of each work. (I’d argue the end of the novel would work as the end of the first season, but not vice versa.)

While the show is an amusing thrill ride that happens to examine human desire, tech and surveillance culture, and more, the novel touches on all of that but is mostly concerned with Hazel and Jasper’s personal journeys and growth, of reckoning with guilt and poor decisions, all while trying to figure out what they want their lives to look like. Both are vastly different and both have a lot that they want to say, and both are worth your time.

KILLING PAPARAZZI (2003)

(This was originally penned July 6th, 2021 for a platform other than this website.)

A writer friend recommended Robert M. Eversz’s KILLING PAPARAZZI to me, knowing I have a taste for noir and detective fiction, especially if it’s lurid and moves like a freight train, and KILLING PARAZZI does not disappoint. It’s my favorite neo-noir I’ve read since Megan Abbott’s QUEENPIN — my favorite neo-noir novel ever — one that I found to be a revelation, but that’s a story for another time.

First things first: my friend did not note that this was the second novel in Eversz’s NINA ZERO series, so it took a bit before I could really get a bead on exactly what the protagonist had done to be incarcerated. The events of the first novel are doled out in a trickle, but you eventually get the whole picture (and the following paragraph will help you along without major spoilers, just in case).

KILLING PAPARAZZI features Nina Zero — née Mary Alice Baker — as she’s getting out of prison in the early aughts for killing several men and accidentally blowing up part of LAX. One of the first things she does upon parole? A green card wedding to an unknown Englishman named Gabe. They have a fun night in Vegas, but she realizes she could fall for him and also realizes he could fall for her, so she darts back to her home city, Los Angeles, buys a used Cadillac and a camera, and starts using her streetsmarts to work the paparazzi beat.

A week later, she happens upon the scene of her husband’s murder, floating in LA’s finest drinking water, and finds herself wanting revenge.

It’s pulpy; it’s penned with a clipped terseness that I can’t help but adore; it traffics in L.A. lore; Nina’s an angry misfit, smart, funny, resourceful, and down for more than you might initially expect. It’s absolute catnip for me, and an enthralling read.

BLACK HELICOPTERS (2018)

BLACK HELICOPTERS is the second in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s TINFOIL DOSSIER trilogy. I wrote about the first part, AGENTS OF DREAMLAND, in September 2021 and, upon starting BLACK HELICOPTERS, imagined it’d be narratively and stylistically in the same vein.

That was a poor assumption to make.

AGENTS OF DREAMLAND is very weird, but its high-concept, futurist Lovecraftian ideas are told in — relatively speaking — more conventional storytelling terms. I’ll briefly say that both books deal with scientific hubris, parapsychic humans, outer world threats, and the fear of the unknown.

BLACK HELICOPTERS sees matters escalate wildly, both concerning in-world events, how humanity reacts to it, as well as Kiernan’s approach to the material. It’s wildly fragmented and opaque, racing through dialogue and internal monologues and depictions of the unearthly, never stopping to explain itself. There are numerous exchanges in French that are never translated to the reader when reading it, and the reader is not given enough context to quite make sense of it. (That said, translations are available at the end of the book, but in a way that matches the tone and experimental style of the rest of the novella.)

BLACK HELICOPTERS reads like a fresh, modern, queer fusion of weird fiction filtered through a MONDO 2000 mindset. It expects a lot from the reader and, given how brilliant and multifaceted Kiernan is, you’ll almost always be falling below her expectations, but that’s okay! It’s so smart, so vibrant, so unique both in voice and setting and exploration that you will feel compelled to continue reading, even if you’re completely and utterly bewildered.

https://publishing.tor.com/blackhelicopters-caitlinrkiernan/9781250191137/