Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book of the Week: ASHFALL by Mike Mullin

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and it is filled with adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

Ashfall is a great story filled with great characters, and it’s that special brand of taught suspense tale to keep you up late until you've finished it. I love this book and I've greatly enjoyed selections from its sequels.

But Ninja, I hear you saying, how can you have read the sequels if Ashfall was only published in the later half of 2011? Mike Mullin lives here in Indianapolis and he and I are members of the same critique group. Rest assured, I am never as nice to Mike’s writing in the group as I’m about to be in this blog post:)

So, am I going to take this opportunity to label myself impartial and decline to review this book? Nope! Instead, I’m going to lecture you on the importance of joining a critique group and making sure some of its members are bloggers who will promote you and your book online for free. Also, don’t slouch so much, comb your hair, and for Pete’s sake, stop fidgeting:)

I’m sure there are plenty of you Esteemed Readers who are not also writers, but comments and traffic patterns tell me the majority of you are. There are a number of things you can do to improve your writing, such as seeking out blogs like this one. But sooner or later, you’re going to need someone to critique your work (that person shouldn't be the first agent or editor you submit to), and that someone should preferably have at least some knowledge about the market you’re writing for.

I believe there are moments in our own fiction that make writers proud to have written a thing, passages where we said what we most had to say and said it well and the effect on the reader is precisely the one we intended. I also believe that for every one of these passages, there are one hundred or so other passages to break a writer’s heart when he realizes he did not achieve his aim. A good critique group can help you cut the latter and at least help you make the sections around the good passages shorter:)

More than that, a critique group will hold you accountable. It seems there’s sometimes nothing so difficult as convincing a writer she ought to be writing. Work, kids, spouses, parents, marathon viewings of entire seasons of The Walking Dead, these things get in the way and sometimes its easy to drift from serious writing for a day, a week, a month. You may be able to convince yourself you were working 60-hr weeks last month and therefore didn't have time to write, but if you've got to meet with your group at the end of that month and give them an explanation, it’s a lot harder to miss writing the next month though you may be working 65-hr shifts.

And let’s face it: a grown person with a grown up’s responsibilities carving out time in their busy schedule to make up stuff no one may ever want to read anyway can sometimes seem a bit ridiculous, unreasonable, and even, dare I say, crazy. Therefore, it helps to have a network of fellow crazies to remind us we’re not alone. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous need each other for solidarity in not drinking, writers need each other for solidarity in writing, and so frequently the two can find each other in the same meetings:)
My group gives me strength and guidance. We meet once a month to critique, and once a month at someone’s house for an all day writing session. They break my heart when it needs breaking and accept my doing the same for them. Two weeks ago, my home was broken into and the (expletive deleted)'s stole my 3D television and all my movies and video games, which has the upshot of removing the very things that most distract me from writing. They also stole my computer, which contained the first 4 chapters of my new manuscript (the only one not yet backed up elsewhere) and the first version of this review. Well, Saturday we held a writing day and I was surprised to see the marvelous members of my group had got me a card and taken up a collection to help me buy the computer I'm typing this on. As you know, the Ninja is the toughest guy around, but that made me cry just a little.

Eventually, I know I’ll review every member of the group's published books here, but today we’re starting with my good friend, Mike Mullin. Mike's the fact checker in our group. He's very good at researching those little details to make sure what we've written lines up with what would actually happen. And somewhere along the way, he stumbled upon this little factoid: the boiling springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park are caused by a super volcano that has erupted 3 times in the last 2.1 million years. Sooner or later, the volcano will erupt again. If you're in Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho, you and Yogi Bear can kiss your butts goodbye. If you live in the surrounding areas, like say, Iowa, where Ashfall's protagonist Alex Halporin lives, you can look forward to earthquakes and a steady fall of ash to cut you off from the rest of the world. If you live on the other side of the planet, you can still look forward to ash darkened skies for months and a global volcanic winter lasting three years or more. Good times.

Here are the opening lines from Ashfall:
I was home alone on that Friday evening. Those who survived know exactly which Friday I mean. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, in the same way my parents remembered 9/11, but more so. Together we lost the old world, slipping from that cocoon of mechanized comfort into the hellish land we inhabit now. The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones, and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness, and hunger.
I just love that paragraph. I don't know of a reader who can read that and not be hooked. My female friends have assured me a woman knows within 30 seconds or so if she's going to sleep with someone and it's up to him to screw it up sometime before the clothes come off (hey, I'm reviewing edgy YA this week, so I can use sex metaphors). In the same way, I think readers know by the end of the first five pages or so if they're going to read the book in front of them and it's up to the author to screw it up.

Therefore, it's important to put your best foot forward and sell the reader on your book in the first line if possible. What I love about the above paragraph is not just that it hooks the reader in a way that makes it physically impossible to put the book down--in fact, if you haven't read Ashfall, you're probably ordering a copy now and no longer reading this review--but that it makes a pledge to the reader right at the start: this is a book about catastrophe and mayhem  Continue reading if you're interested in suspense, excitement, and a fight for survival.
A few paragraphs later, Mike Mullin makes a second pledge to us:

I’d seen those stupid movies where the hero gets tossed around like a rag doll and then springs up, unhurt and ready to fight off the bad guys. If I were the star in one of those, I suppose I would have jumped up, thrown the desk aside, and leapt to battle whatever malevolent god had struck my house. I hate to disappoint, but I just lay there, curled in a ball, shaking in pure terror. It was too dark under the desk to see anything beyond my quivering knees.

Aside from the fact that there is almost no way I can think of to start a novel that is more exciting than blowing up a protagonist's house, this paragraph serves two purposes. First, it tells the story of the present scene. But only the last two sentences of this paragraph serve that purpose. The first two sentences are making a promise to the reader: this is going to be a serious story. It's not going be like those stupid movies and the events that follow will be portrayed realistically.

Like any author worth his salt, Mike Mullin is setting the tone of the story and promising the reader what they're going to get. From this paragraph onward, Alex cannot single-handedly defeat an army of ninjas, survive a nuclear explosion in a refrigerator, or jump from a plane and fall hundreds of feet with only a raft and land in a river unharmed. If you prefer those sorts of antics, rent Indiana Jones. If, on the other hand, you want a more considered action tale that doesn't ignore the laws of physics, Mike Mullin has just assured you that Ashfall is your book.

What I love most about Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead is that its stories are never about the zombies, but the humans and their emotional transformation in surviving the apocalypse. And so it is with Ashfall. There are no zombies, alas, but there's plenty of apocalypse. As you might expect, it doesn't take long for a population cut off from the rest of the world with no social infrastructure, low on resources, and all suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, not to mention, covered in ash and surrounded by the corpses of their friends and family, to go bats**t crazy:
The next few hours were, well, how to describe it? Ask someone to lock you in a box with no light, nobody to talk to, and then have them beat on it with a tree limb to make a hideous booming sound. Do that for hours, and if you’re still not bat-s**t crazy, you’ll know how we felt.

It seems my writers group never spends so much time discussing looting, rape, cannibalism, and all of the worst acts humanity has to offer as when we're critiquing one of Mike's manuscripts. All of those things are present and accounted for in Ashfall and its sequels (if you're like me, that will just make you want to read it more). That's the reason I put the big red warning at the start of this review and this book is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers. The viewpoint is adolescent, but the subject matter is bleak and extremely adult. But I'm sure I could have handled this book at thirteen or older. The adult language is minimal, the violence is rarely gratuitous and always effective, and the sex and rape are mostly implied rather than depicted.

And the overall story of the book is hopeful and exciting. This isn't Cormac McCarthy's The Road, after all (thank God). It's an adventure story and a great one that's a lot of fun. But in order for the tale and the threat of the apocalypse to be credible, Mullin has to tell us the bad parts of the story with the good. Yet, his true interest is never in exploring these dark events, but in exploring the human element. What are the effects of this world on its human inhabitants? What are the social implications? How does their world change and more importantly, how does it change them:
Her face. It was a girl, maybe eight or nine years old. I let go of her hair—my right shoulder ached, anyway. I kept my left forearm locked around her neck. She had pulled two packages of peanut-butter crackers out of my pack. They slipped our of her hands and fell to the floor.

What was wrong with me? I’d been shocked to see Cedar Falls degenerate into looting and violence, but here I was with my forearm crushing a little girl’s throat, a little girl who only wanted something to eat. Was I any better than the looters?

I reached down and felt around the floor. I round both packages of crackers by touch. I scooped them up, put them back in her hand, and curled her fingers around them.

Now what would a good apocalypse tale be without a reason for the protagonist to tour it? If the foggy mist filled with monsters surrounds the grocery, you can just best sooner or later the inhabitants are going to have to go out in it for something or other. Alex could just head to a shelter and wait for rescue. Who could blame him? But what kind of story would that be? Not a good one. Sure, Alex needs to find food and some shelter now that his house has been blown up, but that's not enough of a plot for a story. But what if say his parents and sister were far away and he needed to get reunited with them. Well, that sounds like a story-worthy problem to me and along the way he meets Darla, and is it possible they might become friends, maybe even more than friends? Perhaps, Esteeemed Reader, but you know I'll never tell.

Rest assured, you need to get your hands on a copy of Ashfall today. I envy you the experience of reading it for the first time as it's going to knock your socks off. It's got everything you come to a book hoping to find: adventure, great characters, romance, and epic battles for survival. The pages will turn themselves and you'll be online searching for Ashen Winter before you finish (but you won't find it, because it's not out yet--but it's even better than Ashfall).
Mullin is a skilled writer. His prose is sparse and straightforward. He's ocassionaly very funny, but mostly he keeps the suspense tight and the story moving. He's also ends every chapter with some sort of cliffhanger to keep the reader going. This one's my favorite:

Then the explosions started.

And if I still haven't given you enough reason to read this book, how about the fact that Ashfall contains one of the few instances I know of a writer personifying testicals. It's passages like these that make me proud to call Mike Mullin my friend:

The door pulled inward in a rush, and I saw the long, black, double barrel of a shotgun pointing right at my nuts. My nuts knew where that shotgun was pointing, too; I could feel them trying to climb up into my body for protection.

And that's going to do it. As always, I'm going to leave you with some of my favorite passages from Ashfall. I have quite a few this week and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:

Even from the neighbor’s yard, I felt the heat of the fire washing over my body in waves. I smelled smoke, too, but that might have been from my clothing.

Blam-Blam! Darren shot him in the back of the head. His face exploded. I heard a thunk as part of it hit the door and then a dull thump as Baseball Bat’s body slumped to the floor. A dark stain marred the door, like someone had hurled a blood-filled water balloon against it.

A girl I knew walked up while I was talking. Laura. A lot of kids called her Ingalls because of her name and the old-fashioned long skirts she always wore. I didn’t because, well, she was cute.

I dreamed about Laura. The first dream was just weird, not particularly embarrassing. (The embarrassing one was stupid. Black lace under that long denim skirt? I doubted it.)

The few trees still upright were stripped of their branches, lonely flagpoles without a nation to claim them.

I stabbed the tip of my staff forward in a desperate strike. I’d practiced it thousands of times in forms and on Bob, the training dummy, but I had never figured I’d have to use it for real. I lunged, stepping with my right foot. I aimed for his eye, guiding the blow with my right hand, thrusting with my left.

The result was spectacularly disgusting. His eye pretty much exploded. Blood and some kind of fluid streamed down the side of his face. He staggered back a few steps toward the fire.

Darla began washing it using a bowl of water and hand towel. As she scrubbed the scabs, it hurt. When she finished that and washed the area around the wound, it felt good. Too good. By the time she finished, I had a hard-on so intense it hurt. It was pretty obvious, too, even in her dad’s loose jeans. The heat in my face at that moment had nothing to do with the fire.

It wasn't a big pelt; our hands were constantly touching, sliding against and over each other, slick with rabbit brain.

“Certainly,” Rita Mae said. “A librarian can’t live by books alone, and I wouldn't eat them if I could. Feel too much like cannibalism.” She shuddered.

He smiled, a twisted thing that crawled across the bottom of his face.

Darla jumped and let out a yelp. Maybe I should have been startled, as well. Finding myself in a room with a corpse would have scared the bejeezus out of me only five weeks ago. But I’d seen a lot of corpses since I’d left home; this fellow wasn’t the worst—and probably wouldn't be the last.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

1 comment:

  1. Just fantastic! I've yet to get this book. I have so many to catch up on. Summer read, for sure!


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