Goddamn, I love 90s chick-lit, even though I fucking hate the term chick-lit, but really: there is no better way of describing works like THE CIGARETTE GIRL. Carol Wolper’s novel is something singular, something special; it’s all about a woman trying to make her way as a action screenwriter in L.A. and she’s super horny.
Seriously. She can barely go five pages without mentioning a blowjob.
This is quintessential 90s feminism. The cover is a woman, smoke-stained, enveloped in bras from head-to-toe. It’s meant to be lethal, but is it? Really?
Nonetheless, it is a hell of a novel, one that doesn’t pull its punches. While it’s horny, it has a purpose and that is to be taken seriously and I love every bit of it.
As a fan of Linda Holmes — a mainstay of the delightful media discourse NPR series POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR — I’d been meaning to get around to reading her first novel EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER and her latest novel FLYING SOLO.
It wasn’t until I saw Linda Holmes reply to a tweet extolling her description of a library as a church, a spacious place to worship words, that I felt the need to immediately prioritize FLYING SOLO.
In my youth, I lived close enough to our local library that it was a five-minute walk. I’m not exaggerating: it would’ve taken longer to drive there than to walk.
For many years, it consisted of a small cottage house, wall-to-wall shelves with books crammed up to the ceiling. It was comfortably cramped, and it was overseen by a woman named Susan Overfield, who was the exact image of what you’d expect her to look like: short in stature, unkempt salt-and-pepper hair, but so passionate about books and knowledge and she knew exactly where everything was and would always give you recommendations for texts you never knew you needed. Essex, Vermont’s patron saint of libraries.
I’d walk out with an arm full of books and come back a week later to return them and repeat the process.
Time passed and it was suggested that the library had outgrown the cottage, so they decided to move to a more spacious building. I fretted when I heard the news, worried that they would move as far as possible from my home, fearful that it’d disrupt my weekly pilgrimage.
Instead, they moved into an abandoned church, on the same corner as the old cottage and, as Holmes alluded to: if you believe in a higher being, books get you there. If you don’t, well, consider it a temple to unbound delights.
(I’ve since learned that libraries moving into churches is pretty common in New England, so it’s nothing exclusive to my town.)
This is a very long-winded way of saying: I feel very seen by Holmes. Not only did I prioritize FLYING SOLO because of the library :: church bit, but also because, well, it’s right there in the name: flying solo. While, yes, I’ve spent more of my life entangled with people than not, but I’m a loner at heart. I love solo walks and I love reading by myself and watching films by myself and I absolutely love traveling alone.
Again, all of that is rather antithetical for someone who has been partnered up with folks for longer than not, but it’s true. Introversion and anxiety is a hell of a bad combination, not to mention a delicate balancing act, and I see that all over the protagonist of FLYING SOLO: Laurie, the sole daughter who grew up among three brothers.
FLYING SOLO centers around Laurie, 39-going-on-40 (yes, actually — it’s not an ‘I’m always 39!’ joke), whom is tasked with returning to the small New England hometown she left for the Pacific Northwest to sort through her dead great aunt Dot’s house and clean it out. She stumbles over two objects of note: 1) a wood-carved duck carefully preserved and hidden amongst Dot’s belongings and 2) the sweet ex she broke up with because she knew she wanted a life elsewhere and he did not.
While I thought FLYING SOLO would mostly focus on the will-they/won’t-they of the latter facet, it leans hard into the first. It turns out that the duck may have been crafted by a famous artists, and Laurie unknowingly offloads it before realizing that it may be worth quite a bit. What follows is essentially very soft heist, the softest, but it’s still quite fun and beguiling, and then matters unfurl.
I’ll note: this is a very specific book, despite straddling a number of genres. It’s all about the nerds and weirdos and misfits. It’s not a traditional romantic novel — Holmes draws that line in the sand very quickly — but it traffics in all of the comforts of everything from rom-coms to melodrama to thrillers to action — however on a much smaller scale.
It’s a fun and substantive ride, and the end payoff with Dot and the duck is expertly handled. If you are one who keeps people at an arm’s length in a warm way, this is for you.
Everyone knows the saying: “Never judge a book by its cover.”
Yeah, fuck that saying.
I’ll never refuse to read a book because of a terrible cover — I just bought a used Muriel Spark book that features an extremely off-putting cover, however I’m sure I’ll love it because it’s fucking Muriel Spark — but I will often buy a book solely because of a sharply designed, well-executed cover.
Jen Beagin’s BIG SWISS was one of those books. I mean, come on, scroll back up to the top of this post. I saw the cover, refrained from opening it, balked at reading the inscription in the slipcover and thought to myself: “I don’t know what this book is about, but I know I need it.”
I’ll note that I saw that one of my favorite media critics, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, wrote the best take on this novel — which I read well after reading the novel — please: read her words! Similarly, we both were won over on the cover alone.
BIG SWISS is a whirlwind of a novel, all focused on a capital L Literary take on queerness, therapy, interloping, trauma, power dynamics, and middle-aged insecurities. It’s about a 45-year-old fuckup of a woman falling in lust with a far-younger married woman and the cavalcade that comes with that undertaking, all while also trepidatiously straddling the trauma that both women have endured. It moves at a breathless pace and features some absolutely filthy notes that I have no idea how will be adapted in the forthcoming TV series. (Apparently it was optioned by Jodie Comer (KILLING EVE) a good year before it was even published.) That said, I certainly appreciate that they exist in the actual text. It also hedges way too close to home for me, something I never predicted based on the cover.
I read this while visiting family and couldn’t stop blushing, but also couldn’t stop reading it. It’s an exhilarating swing of a novel, one that is naked about its approach.
(Oh, I forgot to mention: there are a lot of bees. Way too many bees, and I’m someone who was told at a young age: “Don’t let a bee sting you” and I later rode a horse that trampled over a hornet’s nest and they took it out on me and also proceeded to ride a lawnmower over a wasp’s nest and they also took it out on me so I should kind of be dead by now, and I should feel a bit more affected by this material, but oddly I am not. Also: yes, I realize honeybees are completely different from wasps and hornets, but their stinger threat is still similar.)
I’ve been using notebooks most of my life. While I’ve jotted down almost all of my writerly drafts — including this post — via Scrivener.app for at least a decade, I use notebooks to err, well, note certain thoughts I have on what I’m watching or playing or reading or hearing.
I usually have two notebooks going at once (specifically Field Notes notebooks as I find Moleskines to feel too precious): one that lives in what we colloquially call the ‘media room’ — most people would name it as a dining room, but it’s where we watch tv/films and play games more often than eat. The other I carry from place to place, so I don’t have to run to my computer to jot a musing down and then get distracted, or it’s used while I’m out reading in the wild.
Additionally, I’m one of those folks for whom physically penning something gives it greater permanence in my mind, as opposed to word-vomiting into a digital word processor. I label the works on the front once I’ve wrapped it up and can transcribe the notes for easier searching. It’s a workflow that I’ve found to be positive for me.
One qualm I have about Holmes’s post?
“I kid you not, white out — AKA liquid paper — which we used to use in the olden days to cover mistakes made in pen. They make it in the form of tape now, so you don’t have to paint it on like nail polish and blow on it.”
I assume this was a bit of convenient underscoring, as I doubt that Holmes was unaware that correction tape predates liquid paper. It was frequently used by those who utilized typewriters, which I certainly did for many years — despite having a computer and WordPerfect as a youth — because it was far more tactile and memorable and put me in a different headspace. (In fact, a friend just gifted me a typewriter recently, which will live side-by-side with my departed grandmother’s typewriter.)
If you haven’t experienced any or all of the LIFE IS STRANGE works, normally I suggest experiencing the LIFE IS STRANGE universe in order of release, despite the fact that they jump backward and forward in time and place:
LIFE IS STRANGE: STEPH’S STORY (narratively predates TRUE COLORS and WAVELENGTHS)
However, I’d suggest reading STEPH’S STORY prior to playing TRUE COLORS, as you won’t have the knowledge as to how Steph’s journey plays out, and it will only enhance your enjoyment of TRUE COLORS and WAVELENGTHS. In addition, it doesn’t require any knowledge of post-LIFE IS STRANGE 2 games, and even better, it does a great job of introducing you to some of facets of the future games.
That said, there really is no wrong way to experience these works!
This post features mentions of familial death and spoilers for the first LIFE IS STRANGE game, LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM, LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS and LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS – WAVELENGTHS.
Franchise tie-in fictional novels have existed for years, probably most iconically via STAR TREK novels. Fans want more of their favorite characters, more experiences within this universe, and they allow writers a latitude that often isn’t an option with visual mediums or their purses.
I’ve played and penned a lot about the LIFE IS STRANGE series this past year, but was stunned to hear that they recently released a tie-in novel, focused on Steph of all people. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised: there was a LIFE IS STRANGE comic book series several years prior that continues exploring Max and Chloe in Arcadia Bay. (As I haven’t read them, I’m avoiding read any additional details as I’m definitely going to dive into them sooner-rather-than-later.)
LIFE IS STRANGE: STEPH’S STORY (STEPH’S STORY from here on out) — from young adult author Rosiee Thor (FIRE BECOMES HER and more) — picks up with a post-Arcadia Bay Steph, currently living in Seattle with her father.
One difficult thing about adapting an interactive work, especially one like LIFE IS STRANGE where your decisions have major ramifications, is simply laying the foundation for the text. The closing choice in the first game is that you’re given the option to save your best friend, destroying the town and killing many people, or sacrificing Chloe and allowing the town to limp along.
While Thor could have taken a CHOOSE YOUR ADVENTURE approach, instead the novel explicitly notes in the beginning that the events here take place in a world where Max saves Chloe, razing Arcadia Bay. Thor also underscores that the choices made in this book may not mirror your own if you played the first game, but urges you to keep an open mind.
As I’ve previously noted, there isn’t much Steph in the first game. You know she’s a proud lesbian who loves to run table-top RPG games with her best friend, she sells bootleg DVDs, she’s a tech nerd, and that’s about it. You don’t really even know her home situation, apart from her dad being a video editor.
If you’ve played LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS you know that Steph now lives in Haven Springs, Colorado and is still very openly queer. WAVELENGTHS sees Steph navigating her new job as the voice and DJ of Haven Springs radio throughout the timespan of a year, neatly broken up into seasons.
With STEPH’S STORY, you discover that Steph was living with her divorced mother in Arcadia Bay. Her parents had a very dysfunctional relationship and stayed together far too long. Her father moved to Seattle while her mother stayed in Arcadia Bay, effectively dooming herself and dying during Max’s tornado. (LIFE IS STRANGE does love to kill family members.)
Steph gets her college diploma from DigiPen, then after a bout of living with friends, finally moves in with her father.
Steph is still struggling with the loss of her mother when she meets Izzie, who has recently been kicked out of her band. The two become fast friends, then decide to start their own band — DRUGSTORE MAKEUP, with Steph as the drummer and Izzie fronting — and in the process they become romantically entangled. The band starts to pick up steam, matters escalate, and the next stage of Steph’s life begins.
There’s a fundamental facet to Izzie that I feel the need to mention, but also feel it could be construed as a spoiler, so you can see for yourself below:
Izzie is a gay trans woman, and rightfully isn’t as open about this as Steph is about being a lesbian.
Again, if you’ve played TRUE COLORS or WAVELENGTHS, we know ultimately where this ends up: her relationship with Izzie ends, she is no longer in a band but still loves music — although she has mostly moved along from punk — and she’s left Arcadia Bay and Seattle behind. However, as with so many stories, it’s not about the destination but the journey.
And what a journey. Even if this weren’t a LIFE IS STRANGE tie-in, I’d still seek it out. It deftly portrays the highs and lows of a tumultuous relationship and one trying to so while attempting to struggle with prior traumatic events. The prose is crisp and witty, the characters nuanced, and it is an extremely controlled example of building out a world using pre-existing characters.
That noted: this is a LIFE IS STRANGE tie-in, and Thor exceptionally weaves in all sorts of explicit fan-service in a way that feels respectful and rarely pandering and narratively fulfilling. It also contains a lot of clever wordplay and foreshadowing and tiny riffs on LIFE IS STRANGE dialogue from the past as well as Steph’s future. (There’s a lot of talk about choices and their impact, for example. You also learn the backstory behind Steph’s rainbow PRIDE woodblock, which is not as pedestrian as you might expect. Even the summary on the back mentions “different wavelengths”.)
A few quibbles:
While I know that Thor wants us to roll with her decisions, in this world Chloe and Max are romantically involved which feels like shipping to me, as my Max would experiment, but fundamentally consider herself straight. Max — to me — has always felt like Rory Gilmore — someone who is fundamentally reserved and while they may occasionally dip their toes into unconventional behavior, often they snap right back to being rather straight-laced.
Secondly, Steph seems like she’s far more involved and invested in Chloe’s life that doesn’t align for me with LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM and how Chloe connects with Rachel Amber. There’s really no mention of them being as friendly enough before the tornado hits Arcadia Bay and obviously Steph moved right after that.
Lastly, there’s a relatively vivid description of Izzie’s entwined ring necklace, which 100% mirrors the necklace Steph brandishes in TRUE COLORS and WAVELENGTHS. I kept hoping the book would circle back to that, but it never does. So it goes.
I don’t mind these choices — after all, they’re the author’s choices — as they’ll certainly satisfy those who want more Chloe, but their friendship feels shoehorned in, even though they both overly queer. (Perhaps it’s handled in the graphic novels and, if so, I’ll note that once I inevitably write about those.)
Otherwise, this is a perfect tie-in to the LIFE IS STRANGE universe. It has personality, it’s very gay, it’s character-centric, and it will make you cry tears of joy and sadness. In other words: perfect for any LIFE IS STRANGE fan, or any fan of a young, queer, punk human drama.
I’m not one for sweeping, multi-pronged epics. I like my works short and intense.
Have I read and watched all of GAME OF THRONES? Yes, but that was at the behest of my wife and, then later, to not be left out of the cultural conversation.
That said, I soured on the series around A STORM OF SWORDS but kept reading and watching. I finally drew a line in the sand with HOUSE OF DRAGONS, stating: “I’ve spent too much time in this universe; it’s not good for me and I need to move on.”
(To be fair, I will read the remaining novels, if they’re ever published. Sunk-cost fallacy and all that.)
However, within 100 pages of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND — the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels — I felt my face glow, felt a connection to these characters, to this life and its drama that I hadn’t felt towards a narrative work in years (apart from LIFE IS STRANGE, naturally). I told my wife: “This is my GAME OF THRONES. This is amazing. This is my everything right now.”
I fucking love this series, and I’m so happy others do too.
As I’ve previously stated, I love nothing more than to go out to a bar, have a beer or cocktail or two, and read.
Normally no one recognizes what I’m reading because I read a lot of weird stuff.
Not the case with the Neapolitan Novels. Those who have read them and recognize what I’m reading? Their eyes light up and they’re so over-eager to discuss them, and I’m more than welcome to indulge them.
Let me rewind a bit:
The Neapolitan Novels — originally penned in Italian, but have been translated to multiple languages — are centered around two childhood girls who become women, colloquially named Lenù and Lila. They both grew up in a shitty part of the outskirts of Naples. They’re both exceedingly intelligent and intellectually and romantically compete against each other. One became a successful author while the other …not so much. The entire four-novel series is about them growing, changing, adapting, and their push-and-pull.
I have yet to read the final novel, hence this post, but I revel in every word. Elana Ferrante — whose name I’ll note is a pseudonym as she prefers to not be known — has a quick wit and succinct brevity that I adore. It’s one of the rare times where I wish I could read the work in the original language.
Some have made claims that it’s a dude writing these, and while frankly I don’t care — most of the protagonists I write are women — it feels very genuine and authentic and lived-in. All I’ll say is: respect the author’s intent, especially when they’re serving you something special like this.
I’ll note that these books are famously known for their absurd covers that have absolutely nothing to do with the material they’re wrapped around. Personally, I love them, however I can understand how others might not. Please, do not judge these books by their covers.
It’s no secret that Megan Abbott is my favorite living author. QUEENPIN was absolutely foundational for me in the current phase of my life. She completely hones in on the physicality, wants and needs of folks, in many expert ways.
With her novel DARE ME, she focuses on cheerleading and bodily control and power.
Granted, I’ve never been a cheerleader, much less a teenage girl, but goddamn — as someone who was a former amateur gymnast — I love to throw myself around and be thrown around. It is absolutely thrilling. My body just wants hands on them, which kind of sucks and has managed to get me into more trouble than I’d like. However, I can’t help it, and there’s power and command that comes with that physicality, and Abbott absolutely nails that facet with DARE ME.
The show she helmed is dreamier and more heightened than even I expected from the source material, but it is glorious however sadly short-lived. It was exquisitely drawn for multiple seasons, but barely survived for one, but what a season.
BORDERLANDS has been a long-running horror short-story anthology, one started in 1990 by editor Thomas F. Monteleone. While it’s still going in digital format, I’ll be discussing the volumes released in the 90s. Released by White Wolf Publishing — if you were a nerd in the 90s, you’ll recognize them as pioneers in revitalizing role-playing games — Thomas F. Monteleone assembled four tomes of scary and imaginative tales from some of the best genre writers: Harlan Ellison, Poppy Z. Brite, T.E.D. Klein, Peter Straub, Kathe Koja, Whitley Strieber, and so many more.
For a long time, I only owned two volumes, but I read the others via my friend Chris — who introduced me to the series — and I repeatedly re-read them, especially around October. One story that stands out in particular is F. Paul Wilson’s FOET, of which I’ll let you speculate about given its loaded title, but it has stuck with me since I’ve ever read it; it was a horribly brilliant breath of fetid air that let me know immediately what I was in for with this anthology.
It’s a fantastic collection to take in at your own leisure, and all four volumes featured Dave McKean’s unique collage work as their cover art. I believe there are later reprints that lack the cover, so if you’re ordering used copies online and dead set on those covers, make sure they’re the White Wolf editions. Otherwise, there are newer editions that — while they don’t feature McKean’s covers — reprint the original stories, and the volumes from five and up are all completely new.
Traditionally I eschew direct Amazon links, but it seems to be the way the reprints and new volumes are being distributed:
Since this is the world we live in, the thick of 2022, and apparently people aren’t terribly familiar with the Satanic Panic but there seems to be quite a bit of discussion concerning it as of late, I will direct your attention to the FAB Press essay collection SATANIC PANIC: POP-CULTURAL PARANOIA IN THE 1980s.
If you are too young to be familiar with the Satanic Panic: it was a period of time during the 1980s where suburban institutions insisted that the ills of culture were due to teens being wooed to devil worship via media and coercion. At the time, it was inescapable. The scare permeated all of commentary and political culture which, as you can imagine, resulted in the Streisand Effect, boosting anything and everything, having a reverb effect on all artistic endeavors.
FAB’s SATANIC PANIC is an expertly curated collection of scrutinies of life during that time, one that ranges the gamut from what you’d expect: D&D, cartoons, metal and MTV, to forgotten culture like the wall-to-wall lies of the memory recovery of Michelle in the book MICHELLE REMEMBERS as well as HBO’s INDICTMENT: THE MCMARTIN TRIAL. It also looks at Satanic Panic beyond the US, including the UK and Quebec and Australia.
It’s an extraordinarily comprehensive look at the irrational pop culture paranoia of Satanism at the time, all wrapped up in an immaculately attractive package.
Pauline Kael’s TRASH, ART, AND THE MOVIES is an essay I want to hand out to everyone.
Kael simmers about being bored with films, about how she luxuriates in the garbage nowadays as opposed to the ‘prestige’ pictures, such as 2001 (a film she deftly eviscerates, an unpopular opinion around here, but one I respect given how she backs it up).
Ultimately, it’s Kael saying: stop trying to preach, give me something new, something interesting, take big swings! Trash with a glint of charm is far more intriguing than most art, and stop pawning off all film as art, because so many works are born of a simple consumerist need.
It’s a timeless piece, one that holds up over fifty years later, one that is still provocative.
Instead of blathering on about it, I’ll simply send you along to read her words. The entirety of TRASH, ART, AND THE MOVIES is available here: