Audiobook Review: The Crystal Singer Trilogy

Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer Trilogy– Crystal SingerKillashandra, and Crystal Line might be the only space opera to feature an opera singer as the main character. In an opening scene that speaks to my music major soul, music student Killashandra Ree has failed a crucial test. She will not be able to realize her dreams of becoming an operatic soprano. Devastated but still in touch with her theatrical side, she flounces off campus, determined to find a new career and be the best at it.

Fortunately for Killashandra, singing has other applications in the Federated Sentient Planets. Space operas need interplanetary communication. That’s accomplished with paired musical crystals that resonate with each other across great distances.

This was the cover image on the box of cassette tapes I had.
This was the cover image on the box of cassette tapes I had.

Crystal singers are the highly trained, highly paid professionals who mine the crystals. The only job requirements are (1) perfect pitch, since singers use voice-controlled laser cutters (2) willingness to relocate to Ballybran, the only planet where the crystals occur. Killashandra has both.

Crystal singers attain a sort of rock star-superhero-politician status. They get paid ridiculous money for cutting crystal, and living in Ballybran’s unique ecology gives them heightened senses, accelerated healing, and an extended lifespan. That’s if they don’t die in the adjustment process. Oh, and the crystal affects their memories, essentially dooming all singers to forget their loved ones as they enter old age.

All that risk seems worth it to Killashandra, who is desperate to prove herself. The first book is really about her decision to remake herself and how she finds her place as a singer. By the second and third books she’s developed enough to be concerned about problems beyond her own (she investigates human rights violations and new sentient life forms on distant planets), but her own emotional growth is always paramount to the story.

What sets Crystal Singer apart from most space opera is the lack of a larger conflict. There’s no war, no resistance, no ideological struggle. Killashandra isn’t out to make the galaxy a better place. She just wants a sense of purpose, and if she gets rich and famous in the process, that’s fine too.

She pursues her goals with single-minded, mercenary dedication. Minutes after finding out that a senior singer has perished in a crash, she’s trying to track the location of the vein of valuable crystal he was mining before he died. When her peers grow jealous of her early success, she starts sleeping with her boss. Romance is generally an afterthought for Killashandra, who approaches her attachment-free flings like an interstellar James Bond.

Nice haircut, Killashandra
Nice haircut, Killashandra

I discovered this trilogy as a pre-teen, and revisited it many times in the next few years. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the books had to say about sacrificing your personal life for your career or the damaging effects of untreated mental illness. I was interested in Killashandra being a badass. She goes on adventures, frequently risking her life but always rescuing herself at the last moment. At least twice a book she leaves for a trip without packing, because she can just buy new stuff when she gets there. She orders a beer like she knows what she’s talking about. So cool, you guys.

After many listens, I lost track of the cassette tapes. However, some years later, they showed up on Audible.  The audio is sometimes scratchy, but still easy to understand. All three books are abridged, coming in under three hours. Usually I prefer unabridged books, but it’s never bothered me in this case. The only crystal book I’ve read on paper is Crystal Line, and I didn’t notice major omissions from the long version to the short. I think it’s nice to have an audiobook that I can finish in just a few sittings.

This is my all time favorite audiobook performance. Adrienne Barbeau brings just the right mix of melodrama, humor, and compassion to Killashandra’s story. Everyone is from non-Earth planets, so every accent works. She drawls, lilts, and purrs her way through the dialogue. Physical descriptions are kept to a minimum, usually one or two traits—red hair, wrinkles, tall and tan. I don’t know if that was the author’s stylistic choice or a victim of the abridging process. Still, the strength of Barbeau’s voice acting gave me a clear mental picture of how each character looked and moved.

This is my first focused listen-through in a few years (mostly I just pop one of these on when I want something to fall asleep to). There are things I never noticed before, like the lesbian space ship in Killashandra. It’s a ship with an all female-crew that only takes female passengers. The captain warns Killashandra not to flirt with any of the crew because most of them are already dating each other. No one wants that kind of drama when you’re stuck together in outer space.

Blond, all of sudden? I am also just becoming aware that the title of this is a play on "crystalline," good noticing, Andie.
Blond, all of sudden? I am also just becoming aware that the title of this is a play on “crystalline,” good noticing, Andie.

Oh, and then there’s the way that as soon as Killashandra gets to a new planet, she starts insisting that singers need to consume a certain amount of alcohol to keep their modified metabolism working. I’ve always taken that at face value, but it doesn’t come up until the second book. Now I’m not sure it’s not Killashandra trying to trick her hosts into buying her drinks.

Anne McCaffrey did have some musical training in her youth, so what she incorporates here is all factually accurate. Still, you don’t need to understand music theory or history to appreciate the books, since most of Killashandra’s singing is applied to crystals and not performing. There is one lightly tossed off joke about Beethoven in the second book that I’ve never liked, but I’m totally behind any universe where “I made a killing in dominant thirds” is considered a smooth pick-up line.


Review: How To Be A Woman

Emma Watson started a feminist book club on Goodreads a couple months ago. I joined. I will never pass down an opportunity to be in a club with Emma Watson, even if it’s an online forum and not an excuse to hang out in her living room and drink wine.

Every month, Watson picks a new feminist book for the group (which now has over 100,000 members) to read and discuss. I am a self-centered book club member, so I waited until the book of the month was also something already in my to-be-read pile. April’s book club assignment was Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which I’ve been eyeing since it came out.


How To Be a Woman is part memoir, part feminist manifesto. Moran, a journalist and former rock critic, came of age in the UK in the 1990s. The book spans her life from her thirteenth birthday into her early thirties. The range of topics and emotions is broad. Lighthearted chapters about first love and high heels go alongside heavier ones describing Moran’s abortion and the difficult delivery of her first child.

The book has plenty of reviews, both good and bad. There’s one I need to address here, just to clear my palate before writing my own. Moran advocates politeness, so I will be as vague and polite about this as I can: it was written by a male author whose books I enjoy. Sometimes he has personal opinions, shared on social media, that I do not agree with. He quite enjoyed How To Be A Woman. His review praised Moran for not only being funny, but for being laid back. She doesn’t believe in a “secret conspiracy of the patriarchy.”

I’m also not sure how I feel about laid back feminists. A man complimenting a feminist for being “down-to-earth” sounds like a backhanded way of saying other feminists are irrational. Hey, most of those ladies are really uptight, but this one’s okay! She even laughed when I told her to go make me a sandwich. Being chill about sexism might make you popular with sexists, but it doesn’t tend to incite change.

I was delighted to find, then, to find that Caitlin Moran is not pandering to any misogynists. She proudly reclaims the term “strident feminist” and has, I am relieved to admit, zero chill where sexism is concerned.

If you had never read a word about feminism in your life, How To Be A Woman would be a good place to start. Moran outlines the basic goals of the movement, using examples from her own life to detail the inequalities and absurdities of modern womanhood.

And it is a funny book. Not that I ever believed strident feminism couldn’t be, but some people seem surprised. It’s raunchy, so if you’re bothered by cursing, sex, or drug use, maybe take a pass on this one. But if you, like me, are fascinated/amused by what other people nickname their vaginas (Moran did a survey on Twitter and shares the results in Chapter Three), this is perfect for you.

I didn’t agree with every idea that Moran put forth in the book. She’s a bit reductive on some subjects, like women in history and body image. But the wonderful thing about feminism is that it’s not a lockstep movement. We don’t all have to agree with each other about everything. We can be in the club even if we haven’t read all the books.

Review: The Full Cast Audio App and Into the Land of the Unicorns

A while back Full Cast Audio was doing a promotion for their new app. You could download a sample version of the app on iPhone or iPad and get one free audiobook. I love free stuff, so I downloaded the app right away and…waited a super long time to actually listen it. Sometimes even I am surprised by the depths of my own procrastination.

Some background: Full Cast Audio is Bruce Coville’s audiobook recording company. If you’re familiar with Coville, you know that he’s an incredibly prolific author. His books have been a big part of a lot of childhoods/young adulthoods, mine included. FCA records family friendly books, which means middle grade and a few young adult novels. The sample that I listened to was Into the Land of the Unicorns, by Bruce Coville himself.


It’s a cool concept, although not a new one: each character is voiced by a different actor, with and additional person (in many cases, the author) narrating. Done well, it gives the book more depth and variety.

I never read Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles series when I was younger. I think I just wasn’t that into unicorns when I was a kid. I vaguely remember getting one of the Tanith Lee unicorn books out of the library, but that’s it. There were a lot of books about ghosts and witches; I was busy.

Into the Land of the Unicorns is a pretty standard fantasy, centering on Cara, a human girl who has been transported to the magical kingdom of Luster. She has an important message to deliver and a magical amulet that plenty of people want to steal. She meets a sarcastic teenaged unicorn named Lightfoot who agrees to help her on her quest. They’re also joined by the Dimblethum (a sort of man-bear hybrid), the Squijm (a hyperactive lemur-squirrel-cat) and Thomas the Tinker (a long-lived human).

Despite the dangers that Cara faces, it’s mostly lighthearted up until the climax. There’s not much violence, but there is some pretty heavy emotional stuff going on. There are three more entries in the Unicorn Chronicles, and from what I’ve read on the internet they get progressively darker and more complex. They certainly get longer, with the last book being over 500 pages thicker than the first.

I can only speak to the first book, but I think this audio version would be really fun for and an elementary classroom. A read-aloud, but without the resulting wear and tear on the teacher’s throat. Kids would like the mix of adventure and humor, and characters face a lot of moral dilemmas that you could spin into a great discussion or writing assignment.

Into the Land of the Unicorns and the performing cast both get an A from me. What about the app, though?

I tested it out under all the major conditions that I use audiobooks in, which are:

  1. Running or walking (I use these headphones when I’m exercising, in case anyone’s curious)
  2. Driving
  3. Riding in the car when Husband is driving and wants to listen to a podcast that I don’t want to listen to
  4. In bed, can’t sleep but also can’t read because I have a headache

The app performed well in all those circumstances. My biggest complaint is that it took up a lot of space on my phone. I couldn’t even get all the chapters to download at first, although once I started listening to the first chapter the problem took care of itself.

The thing is, I already have apps for listening to audiobooks. I use iBooks, Audible, and Kindle, and I recently downloaded Overdrive. The Full Cast Audio app functions pretty much exactly like the others, but it only lets me listen to books recorded by one company. Incidentally, all of Full Cast Audio’s titles are also available through Audible.

The real app (which is still free) has some advantages over the sample one I tried. The “tour” function on the sample showed some features like links to author bios and places to read up on the book’s historical context. There is some sort of Audible-like monthly fee plan that you can sign up for, but I couldn’t find a satisfactory description of it anywhere.

I can say that Full Cast Audio recordings are generally less expensive that Audible or Amazon, mostly around $15 rather than $20-$30. If you read a lot of middle grade books, or you have a kid or kids that do, this app could be worthwhile. Otherwise, skip it and stick to whatever else you’re already using.

Book Review: Legend

When young adult dystopia became a big trend post-Hunger Games, I was really into it for a while. I’ve loved stories about people struggling to thrive in hostile future landscapes since I read The Giver in fifth grade, so when the dystopia boom came, I was eating them up. Then I got burned out, like you do. Lately I’ve been dipping back into the genre, and I’ve been generally enjoying the results. If you are also in the mood for teenagers fighting back against oppressive governments and Scary Capitalized Nouns, allow me to suggest Legend by Marie Lu, the first book in the Legend Trilogy.

legend cover

The premise is solid—many years before the book takes place, extreme climate change and natural disasters destroyed life and we know it. The map of the United States was redrawn, both physically and politically. Most of the East Coast is underwater, and the Western states have seceded to create the Republic. By the time Legend begins, good citizens of the Republic don’t believe there ever was a United States. All they remember is their seemingly unending war against the other states, now known as the Colonies.

The climate change element is what sells it for me. I’m so tired of speculative fiction where the evil fun-hating dictator takes over and everyone just goes with it. With so many resources wiped out, it’s plausible that people would have traded some freedom for a sense of security. Aside from the hurricanes and floods, there are also periodic outbreaks of plague to worry about. The government can cure that, of course, which helps to cement the people’s loyalty.

The story focuses on Day and June, two fifteen-year-olds living in Los Angeles. Day, the son of a poor family, was declared useless to the Republic when he was ten. After failing his Trial, an important aptitude test, he narrowly escaped being killed. The government murders children for not being smart/fast/useful enough, and that’s strangely not regarded as the worst thing they do. It’s not dismissed, but it’s not the Moral Event Horizon you’d expect (link to TVTropes, sorry not sorry).

Day has become a Robin Hood-like figure in the city’s slums, causing trouble for the city’s higher-ups and omnipresent military. His real concern, though, is caring for his mother and two brothers. When his younger brother, Eden, comes down with a new strain of the plague, Day is willing to take great risks to find a cure.

June, by contrast, was raised to wealth and privilege. After earning a rare perfect score on her Trial, she was accelerated through military school. All she wants is to graduate and serve her country alongside her brother Matias. Matias raised June after their parents died in an accident, and he’s the most important person in her life.

When Matias is killed in an attempt to capture Day, June’s whole life changes. Her first post-school assignment is to work out a new plan to apprehend Day, and she channels all of her grief into tracking down the boy she believes killed her brother. She goes undercover as a street urchin in order to earn his trust. Of course, this works out a little too well, and both June and Day wind up facing some difficult truths about themselves and the world they live in.

June and Day tell the story in the first person in alternating chapters. I should stop complaining about switching POV. I say I hate it, but maybe it’s time I admit that it’s just a technique, one that can be done well or poorly. It worked for me here, and I felt equally invested in both protagonists.

If I could ask for more of anything in this book, it would be romantic tension. I wanted more of a “will-they-or-won’t-they” pull. There’s a lot of emphasis on how similar June and Day are despite their different backgrounds. June has a lot more agency than your average uptown girl, but I was missing the conflict that could have come from that quarter. Wouldn’t June and Day have conflicting worldviews? Wouldn’t they butt heads over more than just misunderstandings?

There are two more books in the series, which hopefully explore their dynamic more. Legend has a satisfying ending, but certainly leaves enough mysteries unsolved and wrongs un-righted to fuel more stories.

Book Review: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, like many epic fantasies, is structured around a journey. A caravan of merchants and hired mercenaries must travel through a dangerous jungle to reach a distant city. Demane, one of the soldiers, is descended from a race of gods who have abandoned the world. Demane never felt like he fit in with ordinary people, but he’s afraid that using his godly powers at full strength will isolate him even more.

wildeeps cover

There are strong themes about feeling foreign and fitting in, underscored by the use of language. The default is similar to African-American English, but there’s a smattering of French- and Spanish-inspired dialects. It’s implied that Demane was highly educated in his home country, but he has difficulty expressing himself in other tongues.

Demane is able to be himself with the two characters who know the whole truth about his origins. Cumalo, his best friend, is another soldier from his native region. Isa, his lover, is another demigod. When a hyper-intelligent, magic-using, man-eating tiger starts stalking the caravan through the jungle, Demane knows he can use his powers to protect his friends and his beloved. He also knows that in doing so, he risks losing his own humanity.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is just over 200 pages, which is short for a fantasy. Novels in this genre tend to run longer, because the readers need to be introduced to an unfamiliar world and new systems of magic. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps doesn’t waste words explaining where we are and how the magic works. The reader has to learn on their feet.

This book is refreshing because it doesn’t over-explain. In between chapters are little excerpts of the imagined world’s culture—letters, literature, songs— but those mostly served to tease me with a picture of the wider world. There are footnotes throughout, but they tend to be emotional asides rather than information.

Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to really explain how the world operates, and I’m okay with that. A lot of my favorite books or series don’t make all their rules of magic obvious right away. They reward multiple readings. A second or third time through, I can catch things that I didn’t understand the first time. My imagination can fill in the gaps. I knew when I was halfway through The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps that I was going to want to read it again someday, which is a great feeling.

The brevity of the novel also gives it a fairy tale quality. I didn’t have enough time to get acquainted with the emotional lives of the supporting characters, and even Demane feels distant at times, more of an archetype than a person. That’s not a bad thing—I do love fairy tales—but I know it’s not everyone’s thing.

There is a notable lack of female characters. The men think of absent wives and girlfriends, and in flashbacks, we get “Auntie,” Demane’s mysterious goddess-mentor. A couple of female prostitutes show up early on, but it’s hardly representation. Strangely, this didn’t bother me too much. Maybe I would rather have female characters be absent than have them only representing tired stereotypes. Maybe I’ve been reading lots of books with interesting, creative, and badass girl and women characters lately, so this seems like the shrug-worthy exception rather than the eye-roll inducing rule.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a great way to dip into some swords-and-sorcery without committing to a long series, or even to a very long book. It’s a standalone that hints at so many more possibilities, a story rooted in tradition that doesn’t lean on clichés. The road is dark and dangerous, but in the end, the journey is worth it.

Audiobook Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

When I was almost finished with Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, I made a comment to a friend about how it covers a lot of squares in “sad middle grade bingo:” there’s death, bereavement, racism, bullying, divorce, alcoholism, absent and neglectful parents, and eating disorders. What I’m saying is, keep some tissues handy for this one.

my sister lives on the mantelpiece

There’s also humor and joy here. The main character, ten-year-old Jamie, is an ultimately optimistic kid who loves superheroes, drawing, and football (soccer, for us Americans—it’s set in England). The audiobook is narrated by David Tennant. There was no dissonance for me in hearing a grown man voice a young boy, since Tennant doesn’t attempt any squeaky kid voices, which are my #1 audiobook pet peeve.

Five years before the beginning of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, Jamie’s older sister Rose was killed in a fictional terrorist attack based on the 7/7 bombings. Jamie, Rose’s twin sister Jas, and their parents survived, but the loss of Rose has torn their family apart. Jamie’s parents separate after his mother has an affair and moves in with her lover in London. Jamie, Jas, and their dad move to the seaside town of Ambleside, hoping for a fresh start.

Not much changes for the better, though. Jamie gets picked on at school, he misses his mom, and his dad is drunk most of the time. At first, the only bright spots in Jamie’s life are his pet cat, Roger, and his relationship with his sister Jas. In the absence of competent parents, Jamie and Jas become each other’s best emotional support.

Things start to get better when Jamie connects with Sunya, the girl he sits next to at school. Sunya is another outcast who loves the things that Jamie loves. Together they create their own superhero mythologies, make up inside jokes, and plot to get back at the bullies who torment them. The only thing that keeps their friendship from being entirely sunny is that Sunya is a Muslim, and Jamie’s father is has been outspoken against Islam since the attack that killed his daughter. Jamie tries to keep Sunya a secret, but struggles with loyalty to his father and to his friend.

It’s an interesting coincidence that I downloaded this around the same time as All These Things I’ve Done. Both books deal with similar topics from different perspectives, and in drastically different settings. Jas has a lot in common with Anya—they’re both teenage girls who are forced into the role of primary caretaker for their siblings. But this isn’t Jas’s story, it’s Jamie’s. Anya is old enough to understand and process the deaths around her. Jamie barely remembers Rose, so the grief that his parents feel is distant and incomprehensible to him.

For me, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece represents an intersection of two things that showed up a lot in my preadolescent reading: live-changing childhood friendships (The Changeling, Bridge to Terebithia) and parent with dead children being awful to their surviving children (The Other Shepards, A Widow for One Year). I don’t think that second one was a conscious or morbid thing, ever. I was just super into some authors who have “dead older sibling” on the top rack of their plot element toolbox. Like a lot of those books, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is emotionally harrowing but also full of hope and laugher—just like real life, on a good day.


If you are on Tumblr, I now have a blog on that site that mirrors this one. If you prefer to get your content there, or you just want to spread the word about how great I am, a follow and a reblog would be a big help!

You can also follow me on Twitter, @andieinitaly. I post links to new blog posts and other deep thoughts. A sample:

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 5.46.41 PM

Fascinating stuff!

Audiobook Review: All These Things I’ve Done

I read a lot of dystopian fiction. It’s one of those things that I just eat up, ever since I read The Giver in fifth grade. I’m happy to say that Gabrielle Zevin’s All These Things I’ve Done is hands down the best dystopian novel I’ve read since The Hunger Games.

Previously, I had read only one of Gabrielle Zevin’s books, Elsewhere. It’s not a dystopia, but I did like it very much. I recommend Elsewhere to people who liked The Five People You Meet In Heaven because it’s also about the afterlife, but with more of a YA slant.

Not actually the audiobook cover, but I think I prefer this one.
Not actually the audiobook cover, but I think I prefer this one.

I picked up All These Things I’ve Done as an audiobook. Ilyana Kadushin gives a wonderful reading. The first person narration is the perfect mix of precocious teen and frightened, weary young woman. The interpretation of the dialog is spot on as well. Kadushin gives each character has a unique and consistent voice.

I tend to like character-driven stories, but I’m not immune to the allure of a really good science fiction concept. All These Things I’ve Done is delightful in that it has both.

First, the concept: The year is 2082. The United States is in economic shambles. Gas, water, paper, and other resources Americans once took for granted are strictly rationed. Crime is rampant. A recent administration decided that the solution was a new prohibition. Instead of alcohol, now coffee and chocolate have been banned. There’s a healthy black market in both, of course (more on that in a minute). Rebellious teens drink at coffee speakeasies.

Then, the character: The novel is narrated by sixteen-year-old Anya Balanchine. As I listened, I started to think of Anya’s character, and her character arc, as having three different layers. At one level, she’s a high school student. She hangs out with her friends, tries out for school play, and complains about the cafeteria food.

Once Anya comes home, though, she’s the caretaker for her two siblings and her ailing grandmother. There are a few helpful people, like the family’s lawyer, who step in when things get tough, but the day-to-day stuff is all on Anya.

What put her in this situation? Anya’s father was a crime boss, head of the Russian mafia in New York. Chocolate and coffee are still legal in Europe and Asia, so people with family connections there can make big money on the black market. Both Anya’s parents were killed because of her father’s work. Now, years after their deaths, Anya is working hard to distance herself from the Balanchine crime family. It’s not easy when the media wants to paint her as a mob princess and her criminal relatives come by the apartment to drop off cases of contraband chocolate.

As hard as Anya works to keep these three aspects of her life separate, there is inevitable overlap and complication. There are fights brewing—between the mob and the new assistant DA (who wants to clean up the city), between competing crime families, and even within the Balanchine family itself. Anya is drawn into it all against her will, but she fights to protect the people she cares about and keep her siblings together.

Anya is scrappy and unromantic, and I love her for it. She’s street-wise, a product of her upbringing. She loved her father. She strives to emulate his sense of honor, duty, and loyalty, but she doesn’t want to follow his footsteps into a life of crime.

There’s a big cast of supporting characters, both inside and outside the family. I would cheerfully read a spinoff about Anya’s grandmother, Galina. Even though she spends All These Things I’ve Done confined to her bed, it’s hinted at that she used to be pretty high up in the ranks of the family, with all of the adventures and misdeeds that implies. I also really liked Anya’s love interest, Win. He’s the exact sort of adorkable boy that I would have been into at sixteen, and watching his romantic idealism clash with Anya’s wide pragmatic streak feels very real. Did I mention Win is the son of the assistant DA? Star-crossed indeed.

This book has some pretty heavy sections dealing with death and loss. You could probably guess that, since the protagonist is an orphan, but I wasn’t prepared for the Anya’s grief when it hit. She spends so much of the book holding her emotions in and caring for other people. When she falls apart, it’s shattering. Anyone who’s lost a loved one will see some of themselves in Anya or her siblings.

I had a hard time finding anything to be dissatisfied with here. Every hole I thought I could poke was filled in. Checkhov’s guns abound; all are fired by the last act. Sometimes the dialogue seems overly formal, but maybe tradition-obsessed mobsters and ultra-smart teenagers are a narrative justification. It might not have rung false at all if I’d been reading instead of listening. Thanks to the title I’ve had The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” stuck in my head more than usual lately, but that’s less of complaint and more of an observation.

All These Things I’ve Done is the first in a trilogy, and I will definitely be seeking out the next one. Definitely recommended for anyone who loves 20-minutes-in-the-future dystopian or speculative fiction, especially with kick-ass girl heroes.





Book Review: I Was A Teenage Fairy

This post contains discussions of sexual abuse.

I feel like a lot of people are talking about Francesca Lia Block lately, especially her 1989 cult classic Weetzie Bat. Maybe people have been talking about it all along, or maybe the latest round of movie adaptation buzz has stirred up new interest. I notice two main camps: people who read Weetzie Bat as a teenager and will love it forever, and people who read Weetzie Bat as an adult and thought it was unbearable and a little racist.

I have a middle-of-the-road opinion. When I was fifteen, I bought it as a gift for a friend and read it before I wrapped it. I liked it, but not enough to buy myself a copy. Magical realism wasn’t my jam back then. I could only take so much drifting, dreamlike prose and characters with names like My Secret Agent Lover Man.


There was another Francesca Lia Block novel that I loved, though. I read I Was A Teenage Fairy (pub. 1998) over and over again, bookmarking the best passages to come back to. My favorites were these interludes where Block describes different cities as people. Just read the opening:

“If Los Angeles is a woman reclining billboard model with collagen-puffed lips and silicone-inflated breasts, a woman in a magenta convertible with heart shaped sunglasses and cotton candy hair; if Los Angeles is this woman, then the San Fernando Valley is her teeny-bopper sister. The teenybopper sister snaps big stretchy pink bubbles over her tongue and checks her lip gloss in the rearview mirror, causing Sis to scream. Teeny plays the radio too loud and bites her nails, wondering if the glitter polish will poison her…”


To steal from Block’s metaphor style, I Was a Teenage Fairy is like Weetzie Bat’s savvier, more cynical older cousin. It’s still magical realism, but there’s a lot more real here. If Weetzie Bat is a fairy tale about L.A., I Was A Teenage Fairy is a cautionary tale about knowing when to get out of L.A.

In the first part of the novel, Barbie Marks is a preteen girl living in the valley. Her mother is a former model and beauty pageant queen who wants Barbie to follow in her footsteps, and her father is mostly absent. One night after looking at a photo book that includes the Cottingly Fairies, Barbie goes outside and discovers Mab, a tiny pink-haired girl with wings.

I really like fairies, which is another reason I read this book so much. have mixed feelings about Peter Pan but Tinker Bell is fantastic. When I was in high school I loved all the Amy Brown merch at Hot Topic. I love the varied European traditions and legends of the fae and the Fair Folk.

Mab from I Was A Teenage Fairy is a combination of all these. She quotes Shakespeare and reads Vogue and Psychology Today. She dresses in flower petals and lives in a dollhouse. She likes to talk about sex and have her picture taken. She might be a figment of Barbie’s imagination, a symptom of her depression or PTSD, or she might be the actual deposed queen of the fairies, searching for her kingdom.

Either way, Mab becomes Barbie’s best friend and confidant when she most needs one. In the second part of the book, she’s sixteen, still a model, and still not-quite-dealing with being sexually abused by a photographer when she was eleven.

The book deals with Babie’s abuse openly, though never graphically. The effects of that experience, combined with the neglect and emotional abuse from her parents, have left Babie profoundly unhappy. What she really wants to do is escape the toxic modeling world she’s caught up in and create some art of her own, but she isn’t sure how to do that.

Barbie discovers her own talent for photography and falls in love with playboy movie star Todd. She also reconnects with Griffin, a former child model and another victim of Barbie’s abuser.

None of it’s subtle. Not everything needs to be. The language is dreamy but doesn’t mask or forgive the terrible things that happened to Barbie and Griffin. Mab meddles, but ultimately it’s up to them to reclaim their lives.

This was magical realism I could live with when I was in high school. And a moral: sometimes things are terrible, but they can get better, and fairies are probably real. I don’t know if I’ve convinced any of the Weetzie Bat haters, but this post has led me down a rabbit hole of searching for fairy-related merchandise on the internet. If you come visit and find me curled up under this blanket, blame Francesca Lia Block.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

It took me a long time to jump on the Patrick Rothfuss bandwagon. His first novel, The Name of the Wind, came out in 2007, and many people loved it. I got it out of the library, read a bit, but quit after about 90 pages. Which is not a small number, but it doesn’t really represent a big percentage of a 662-page book.

The thing is, I read so many books about wizards, dragons, and quests that they all start to look the same. There are going to be similarities, of course, that’s what makes it a genre. My life as a fantasy reader started off with swords-and-sorcery, and I love the genre. But sometimes I also just need something different, so I flounce off and read some YA or something for a while.

I always come back, though, and sometimes to the same book. I just finished The Name of the Wind—all of it this time!— and I liked it a lot. The prose feels consistent with the fantasy medieval Europe setting, but it’s never feels overdone or flowery. I had a very clear picture of what the characters and settings looked like, but there aren’t any overly long descriptive passages (I’m not anti-descriptive passages, as a rule, but I know that’s something that bothers a lot of people).

This is not a book I would give to a friend who is reluctant to read fantasy. I would give this to the person who’s finished J.R.R. Tolkein, George R.R. Martin, Jacqueline Carey, and Ursula K. LeGuin and wants to know what’s next. Rothfuss is a fantasy fan’s fantasy writer, and I think best appreciated by someone who’s really in it.

So everyone reading has probably decided by now if they are or aren’t interested in this book. For those who are still with me, I’ll keep it brief. Let’s have some lists:

Things I Liked About The Name of the Wind:

-It has an interesting structure. There’s a frame story that takes place in the present, at an out-of-the-way inn. There’s a war brewing elsewhere in the kingdom, but the rural townspeople are mostly insulated from it. Kvothe, an entertainingly unreliable narrator, is telling the story of his rise to notoriety as a sorcerer, musician, swordsman, and assassin.

– There’s a quest going on, but while Kvothe is working towards his goal, he still needs to make some money and feed himself and go to school. Which brings me to the next thing I liked…

-In a genre full of rags-to-riches stories, Kvothe has lived in poverty and is thus constantly money-conscious. His financial woes lend another layer of tension.

-So far, it lacks the obsession that a lot of fantasy has with nobility. One of Kvothe’s nicknames later in life is “Kingkiller,” so I’m guessing he’ll get involved with some royalty eventually, but it’s nice to read about average people.

-The villains are genuinely scary. The main antagonists, the Chandrian, barely appear at all, but the fact that we don’t know what they’re up to or what they’re after makes them more terrifying.

-Rothfuss gets the musical details right. Kvothe sings and plays the lute. He has to practice instead of just being instantly good at everything, which happens way too often in fiction.

-There are several different systems of magic that get introduced and expanded upon. Kvothe learns sympathy, which has some similarities to voodoo, but his real interest is in learning how to control the elements by commanding their true names. Hence the title.

Things I Didn’t Like About The Name of the Wind (a shorter list):

-One of the characters listening to Kvothe in the frame story mentions the narrative has “a paucity of women.” That’s one way of putting it. Most of the female characters seem to exist only to be rescued or romanced by the hero, or just to be plot devices. His main love interest is a little better developed, but she doesn’t even show up until halfway through. It didn’t make me throw the book aside in feminist rage, but it was hard to ignore.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. I’ll be checking out the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. Turns out there’s also a novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, that’s focused on one of the “rescued” female characters from the series, so I have hopes that Rothfuss gets better as he goes in that respect. He also has strong opinions about sequels, which I think are good things to have if you’re going to be writing one.

Coming up on Wednesday: Recapping The Magicians 1.3, “Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting.”

The Water is Wide

One of my friends recommended Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide to me shortly before I moved to North Carolina. It’s Conroy’s memoir of a year spent teaching in the South, and since I’m a teacher who has recently moved to the South (albeit temporarily and with little intention of teaching) it seemed like the perfect time and place to read it.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Water is Wide, read by Dan John Miller (It’s still on sale for $3.99 at Audible, even if you aren’t a member, which is a wicked good deal if you’re interested). It’s a great performance. Miller manages to capture both versions of Conroy: the young, idealistic teacher, and the slightly older, painfully wiser writer. He portrays the other characters with subtlety and warmth, employing different dialects and inflections without verging into parody territory.

It’s been very pleasant, for the past week, to wake up in the morning and let Mr. Miller read to me while I drink my coffee and eat my oatmeal. Still listening, I would head outside to go for a run. There’s one big difference living here has brought about; there’s no way I’d be running outdoors if I was in the Northeast.

Anyways. Pat Conroy reads his own introduction, where mentions that he deeply regrets naming his book The Water is Wide, since people mishear or misremember it so frequently- the water is wine, the water is wet, etc. But I think it’s an apt title, because the water in question—the river that runs between mainland South Carolina and Yamacraw Island—represents a broad gap, in the physical and spiritual sense. In the book, one of Conroy’s coworkers refers to the island as being “overseas” without a hint of irony. With no bridges to connect it to the mainland and no profitable homegrown industries to bring money or people to the island, Yamacraw in the late 1960s seemed like an entirely different country.

I should probably pause here and mention that Yamacraw Island isn’t on any maps. Conroy worked on Daufuskie Island, which he then fictionalized as Yamacraw. This may have been to protect the people of the island from outside scrutiny, but I suspect it’s also a way for Conroy to protect himself from accusations of embellishment. This book confesses and sometimes rambles like a memoir, but it has a certain economy of events and characters that make it seem more like a novel. Sometimes it gets shelved as fiction, sometimes as nonfiction. Whether not I count it towards my goal of reading 5 nonfiction books in 2016 will depend on how desperate I feel in December.

Daufuskie Island today-- eight square miles, four golf courses.
Daufuskie Island today– eight square miles, four golf courses.

Here are the facts that we know, then: Pat Conroy spent a good portion of his childhood and adolescence in South Carolina. Upon graduating from college, he taught at an integrated high school for some time before accepting a job at an all-black elementary school on a small island along the coast. He spent the next year commuting by boat and struggling to teach students who had been all but forgotten by the larger educational system.

Conroy was responsible for teaching eighteen kids between the ages of ten and thirteen. Most of them were reading far below grade level or were completely illiterate. Some could barely count. Their knowledge of the world outside the island was shockingly limited. The administration provided little beyond a set of textbooks the kids didn’t know how to read.

If this were a novel, it could have ended with young Pat Conroy as the hero who saved his students from their own poverty and obscurity, along with all the white savior garbage that storyline implies (be warned: both of those links go to, and I won’t be held responsible for any time you lose looking at them). But The Water is Wide refreshingly avoids most of that. Conroy is honest about his successes and failures, and about his own naiveté. He owns up to having been a card-carrying racist in his teens and chronicles his transformation to a white guilt-ridden, idealistic bleeding heart in his twenties. It’s the story of a white boy growing up in the 1960s as much as it’s a story about a school.

The Water is Wide contains a lot of stories. It’s the story of the islanders, who lost their main source of income when pollution made the waters unfit for shrimping. It’s the story of Southern schools at a time when racism was being forced underground by integration. There are plenty of pleasant, likeable white people in this book whose actions reveal their racial prejudices, demonstrating that you don’t need to wear a sheet to be a bigot.

The thing that I enjoyed the most, and that I think will stick with me, is the relationship between Conroy and his students. The personality of the class, and of some of the more memorable individuals, really shines through. He was ahead of his time in a lot of ways, from his refusal to use corporal punishment to his attempts to differentiate learning. It sounds like his classroom was a lot of fun, if sometimes noisy and chaotic. In the audio introduction Conroy mentions that he’s kept in touch with most of the students from that year, which is the most convincing proof that he had an impact on their lives.

Conroy seemed convinced that in 1972 the old generation of Southern racists was dying off, and that a more caring, more inclusive future was just around the corner. There are still problems in so many poor schools, and so many districts that are divided along racial lines. I like that The Water is Wide doesn’t pretend to offer a solution, just a small part of the larger story, and maybe a little bit of hope.