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Dirty Wings

Sex, drugs, rock, mythology fill dark paranormal tale.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Literary allusions abound, and readers who know their Greek mythology will recognize recurring themes and images -- for example, the Cyclops and the three-headed dog who appear in Cass' dreams. References to classical music are common, and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit is intertwined with Maia's story. On a trip to New York, Maia's father goes on about the cultural attractions: "'The Algonquin is over there, too -- you know, the famous hotel, Dorothy Parker used to drink at the bar there, and all sorts of other people -- they were called the Round Table.'" 

Positive messages

There pretty much aren't any positive messages, as the various characters lie, cheat, steal, drink, use drugs, and have sex on their ways to their particular dooms. There is much talk of "love," but it's almost inevitably possessive, needy, consuming, and destructive.

Positive role models

Almost without exception, characters range from ineffectual with a hidden agenda to overtly toxic -- and that's before the beings from the underworld enter the picture. The closest thing to positive characters are Cass' fellow residents of a Seattle squat: "She loves them, to be sure. They've kept her safe and fed and watched her back. The squat is like a family, riddled with squabbles and bad blood and old grievances, but at the end of the day they take care of each other. They share what they have, split their food stamps, aren't stingy with their drugs or their booze. Cass fell into them, and they caught her. Brought her back to their derelict manor and welcomed her in."


One of the characters is being stalked by a sinister character from the underworld, who seems to want to snatch other characters to take to his dark kingdom.


There's a lot of casual sex, most of it out of view; the scenes involving more significant encounters are intense but not graphic. In one scene, the girls kiss passionately, and there are strong hints throughout that their friendship takes a sexual turn, even as they get it on with various boys.


Abundant, gleeful use of "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," "whore," "ass," and "dick" as part of several characters' routine conversations. "F--k my mother!" is a particular favorite of a central character.


The story is set in the early '90s; some products mentioned, from Chanel No. 5 to Corn Nuts and Doc Martens, still exist today. Most of the bands in the story are fictitious, but characters wear T-shirts from New Order, Crass, and other punk bands.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Protagonists Cass and Maia, both 17, consume a variety of mind-altering and/or performance-enhancing substances, with a particular fondness for speed. One of Cass' friends blames her weird dreams and visions on drugs rather than a "gift." One character takes speed before an important test, aces it, and mouths off to the test administrators. The story begins with Cass stealing beer by putting it in Maia's school bag. A plot thread involves witchcraft, spells, and dark forces inhabiting the blurry corners of the characters' druggy world.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Dirty Wings, which takes its name from a Nirvana lyric that's a rapist's monologue, has been billed as the anti-The Fault in Our Stars, with plenty of sordid darkness and despair surrounding its 17-year-old protagonists. The middle volume in Sarah McCarry's loosely connected trilogy, it serves as a prequel to All Our Pretty Songs and sets up the forthcoming finale, About a Girl, in a story arc following three generations of characters. Evoking and celebrating the downward spiral of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll that led to Kurt Cobain's death, Dirty Wings follows two 17-year-old Seattle runaways in the early '90s who steal, drink, do drugs, and have sex with random guys (and, by implication, each other) as they flee down the coast. They're haunted by dreams of scary, black-clad spirit figures, and they're on a collision course with a feckless but talented rocker named Jason, who's about to change their lives. Profane and often overwrought, McCarry's writing is frequently compelling in its snarky dialogue and descriptions of music-fueled ecstasy. Given the broken characters in such a toxic universe, this is best for mature teens. 

What's the story?

Seventeen-year-old Maia, adopted from Vietnam by affluent Caucasian parents, lives in early-'90s Seattle, where her whole life is focused on her piano studies and getting into a famous conservatory in New York. A chance meeting with Cass, a girl her own age who lives on the street, proves life-changing, and soon the formerly docile Maia has cut her hair, dyed it bright red, and joined Cass in a spree that starts with stealing the family Mercedes. The girls head down the coast in a blissful hedonistic adventure of booze, sex, and drugs, eventually getting mixed up with a rock band called Argo. Lurking in the background is a sinister figure who appears in both girls' dreams and seems to be pulling Maia toward the underworld.

Is it any good?


Author McCarry has a fine ear for snarky hipster dialogue and uses it well to define her characters. Told in flash-forward and flashback in alternating chapters, DIRTY WINGS is clearly part of a larger story, serving to define the history, the characters, and the forces behind the events in Book 1 and Book 3, all of which show a fondness for Nirvana and Greek mythology. 

Although sometimes overly purple, her descriptions of popular music's soul-and-body-shaking effects will strike a chord with many a teen whose life was saved by rock 'n' roll -- though these particular characters are racing headlong toward doom and self-destruction. 

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the myth of the doomed rocker. What's the appeal of this theme? What other versions of the story do you know? Do you think it's romantic or stupid?

  • Does Dirty Wings make you want to learn more about '90s punk and grunge bands?

  • How does Dirty Wings retell the myth of Persephone? Do you think all the allusions from classical mythology improve the story or get in the way?

Book details

Author:Sarah McCarry
Genre:Contemporary Fiction
Topics:Magic and fantasy, Friendship, Misfits and underdogs, Monsters, ghosts, and vampires
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:St. Martin's Griffin
Publication date:July 15, 2014
Number of pages:289
Publisher's recommended age(s):13 - 18
Available on:Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle

This review of Dirty Wings was written by

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Kid, 8 years old August 7, 2014
What other families should know
Great messages
Too much sex
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Adult Written bydinosaurlover September 10, 2015

this is an amazing book i loved it

ok besides the swearing, drugs and alcohol usage i loved the book i would totally read that every day
What other families should know
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking