Monday, January 7, 2013

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

We're going to do things a little different today, Esteemed Reader. Ashen Winter is a marvelous book and if you've already read its prequel, Ashfall, I'm sure you're planning to read Ashen Winter already. Therefore, as you're reading this you're either a Mike Mullin fan or considering becoming one, in which case I recommend you start with Ashfall.

So instead of spending a lot of time reviewing the book, I'm going to talk more about Mike Mullin, how he's become a great friend and one of my favorite writers, and what he's taught me about writing. As this blog has always been more about what books teach us writers about writing than straightforward reviews, I'm hoping you're cool with that.

Truthfully, I'm way too close to this book to review it objectively anyway, not that that's ever stopped me before:) The Ninja is thanked in the acknowledgements of Ashen Winter (as Robert Kent, not Middle Grade Ninja) along with the rest of the YA Cannibals "for making Ashen Winter take months longer to write than I anticipated. The extra time was worth it."

I know what you're thinking: does a writer have to thank me in their book before I'll post a review here (I was also thanked in the back of my last review, Courtney Summer's incredible zombie novel This is Not a Test)? Fair question, Esteemed Reader, and the answer is no, but it certainly helps:)

I've got a lot to say about writing and writers today and some helpful hints on how you too can get yourself thanked in the books of your favorite writers. So why don't we do this: let's spend the next few paragraphs plugging Mike's book. I'll tell you what it's about and why you should read it and I'll even share some favorite passages so when I next see Mike I don't have to explain why I talked so little about his book in my review of it. Afterward, I'll catch up to you and give you the inside scoop on what it's like to be in a critique group with Mike Mullin and the rest of the YA Cannibals and some lessons I think writers can take from Mike's success.

The first passage from Ashen Winter I want to share with you is actually the first paragraph of the book:

Ten months had passed since I'd last seen the sun. The rich blue of that final August sky was fading from my memory. Colors are slippery: If you cover your eyes and try to remember blue, you see black. Now we had a yellowish gray sky, dark as a heavily overcast day. Darla said Yellowstone's eruption had hurled billions of tons of fine ash and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, and it might be years before the sky returned to normal. I said the dim light was depressing.

Not only is that first line a heck of a hook, this paragraph delivers most of the exposition you're going to need to enjoy the book. Presumably, most readers have already had the pleasure of reading Ashfall, but a writer can't count on that. So here in a single paragraph Mike has filled us in on all the essential details. Sure, we're still going to need to become reacquainted with Alex and Darla and everybody else and the events of the story serve to expand Mike's vision of the apocalypse. But if for some reason the reader skipped Ashfall, the stage is set for them to still enjoy the new story.

Ashen Winter is all of my favorite things about Ashfall expanded. There are more desperate people struggling to survive, more rape, and most important, more cannibals:) There is, in fact, a gang of roaming rapist cannibals for Alex and Darla to tangle with. If you thought Alex got beat up and punished the last go round, you haven't seen anything yet. Mike never seems to be happier than when he's hurting poor Alex.

Yet, for all of that, Ashen Winter, like Ashfall before it, is a love story. Alex and Darla aren't just horny teenagers staying warm in the ashen apocalypse, they're soul mates destined to find each other--too bad so many people had to die to make that happen:) Mike knows the heart and soul of the Ashfall series is their relationship and so he wisely uses this second volume of the trilogy (I know how it all ends) to test that relationship and flush it out--which is as much as I can say without spoiling.

Ashen Winter is the rare sequel that's better than the original and you're going to love the third book in the series (I know its title, but I'm not sure that's public information yet).  Rest assured I'll be reviewing that one here (and I hope to be thanked in the back) as Mike Mullin is one of my favorite authors and the Ashfall series is one of the best series of books I've ever read. I'm very blessed to know Mike and to get to read his stories ahead of his legions of hungry fans longing for more Alex and Darla. I've even read a sole Darla adventure that's one of my favorite short stories that you can't read because it's not out yet (neener, neener).

That concludes my review of Ashen Winter. Buy it, read it, buy another copy so Tanglewood Press can grow and grow and publish books from the rest of Mike's group:)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: don't be a lone ranger writer. Writing is a somewhat lonely activity, but it doesn't always have to be. In my youth, before I went back to college, I used to come home from waiting tables, make a pot of coffee, and write all night, sleep a few hours, and wait some more tables. I don't regret that time as I learned a lot about the kind of writer I am and the kind of stories I wanted to write. I had friends, of course, but I didn't have any writer friends and no one to talk to about my writing except bored girlfriends.

I wrote some okay books that way and some not so okay and it's true that every writer has to churn out a certain amount of garbage to get where they're going. I sent form letters to editors and agents and collected rejections and they crushed me because I didn't know that rejections are the norm for new writers. Nor did I know enough to recognize how bad I sucked:)

After two years of this, I got tired of waiting tables and went back to school. This time I majored in English taking courses in literature and writing and editing and all sorts of things it's useful to know when trying to write professionally. A person doesn't have to study writing in an academic setting to be a writer, but if you have the means, I recommend it. Just bear in mind that if that's all it took, every MFA in the country would be a best-selling author.

I was taught by the great Will Allison and a few not so great writers who taught me what not to do. After graduation, I still had to get a day job. So now I was working for better pay, but once again coming home and writing alone and discussing my fiction with my wife.

I missed the community of writers I'd had at school, so I started a website that eventually became this blog. I went to conferences and met other writers and the agent who eventually signed me. Because I was writing in public, they're are many famous writers I now consider friends and eventually I met my writer's group, who are my closest writer friends, which brings us back to Mike Mullin.

As I write this post, it's Writing Day. On the couch beside me, a friend is editing a manuscript as is another friend in the chair opposite her. Mike couldn't be here today, but on past days I've sat writing my own apocalyptic YA novel across the table from him as he wrote Ashfall 3. There are six of us total and in a few week's time we'll be meeting to critique my finished manuscript before I send it off to my agent. They've already gone through it once and it is far greater for it. The book has been improved faster than I ever could've done on my own.

Ashen Winter is a wonderful book and the credit goes entirely to Mike Mullin and his editor. But I read it when it was too long and had a few characterization issues and a muddled plot. We call ourselves the YA Cannibals for a reason (aside from our connection to Mike's work) and we cut Mike's manuscript to shreds like a school of piranhas (including at least one merciless shouting match in the process). It was an absolute thrill to read the published version of Ashen Winter and to remember things that aren't there anymore because our group inspired Mike to take them out. I felt a real sense of pride for our group's contribution to making the book better and I know they've made my writing better.

Mike Mullin is our shining star and we couldn't be more proud of him. We were all at his launch party, which means I got to chat with his editor. I also got to chat with Mike about his plans to tour the country promoting his book. Mike's the hardest working writer I've ever known and he's forever on the road meeting with his fans. I've also got to attend some of Mike's presentations, which are always a treat because he breaks bricks with his bare hands. I've got to meet his younger fans and see the excitement in their eyes when they talk about Alex and Darla.

More, I've gotten to know Mike and we've become good friends. I've seen how he always makes certain to make his book events about the readers and the people who helped him get published, rather than about himself. The day of his launch he talked at length about everyone who helped him write his book and kept none of the credit for himself, despite that being where it belonged.

I've seen firsthand the attitude and the effort that make Mike a success. I've been to his home many times and seen his writing area and his book shelves. I've learned more about what it means to be a writer through my friendship with Mike than I could've ever learned reading books about writing or working in a vacuum.

Mike has made me a better writer with his critique notes and our discussions of what makes a good book (he would know). We argue constantly about valid uses for the word "that." I hate it, he defends it, and whichever of us is right (I am), it's worth having the conversation as it strengthens our convictions.

If I'd just read the published version of Ashen Winter without first reading it's original ending, I wouldn't appreciate why Ashen Winter now has the ending it does. Without spoiling anything, I liked the original ending better because I believe if characters go off with rapist cannibals they should be either raped or eaten. Now that the book is published and I've been able to hear excited reader reactions, I know that I was wrong and Mike's new ending is the better ending for the book.

What I'm saying, Esteemed Reader, is that writers shouldn't work in a vacuum. Get out there and get to know your fellow writers. If you're lucky, you'll find a group as great as the YA Cannibals and a friend as wonderful as Mike Mullin. And you might even get to add your own input to a book as fantastic as Ashen Winter.

The Cannibals keep me writing when the going gets tough. They encourage me when a story is working, and show me tough love when it isn't. They're there when the so-close-it-can-be-tasted publishing deal falls apart and they're there to share my oh-my-God-you-won't-believe-it news. We've been writing all day and in a bit we're going to enjoy some adult beverages and play cards. Every writer should be so lucky to have some Cannibals in his life.

Thank you Mike Mullin and my other beloved Cannibals for enriching my writing life.

As always, Esteemed Reader, I'm wishing you well. I leave you with some of my favorite passages from Ashen Winter:

A night spent spooning with your girlfriend isn't nearly so exciting when your uncle is curled up against your other side

Twenty small envelopes made from pages of an old Dan Brown novel were tucked into a cloth pouch. (best use for a Dan Brown novel -- MGN)

Darla screamed, "Down!" and her shotgun went crunch-crunch as she chambered a shell. Benson threw himself sideways, chair and all, hitting the floor with a crash. I dove the other way.
I head a pop-pop-pop and then a deafening boom followed by the crash of breaking glass. Darla screamed, "Go!"

But nobody was there--the door was falling open because of some quirk in the building. When it swung fully open, I saw  something else hangin from a meat hook, pink and streaked with frozen, red-black rivulets: half of a human ribcage.

My kick connected perfectly, catching him right between his legs. The hours of farm work, pedaling Bikezilla, and skiing had paid off--my kick was so powerful it lifted him onto his toes. Then he crumpled, collapsing and clutching his crotch.

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. Ashfall and Ashen Winter are two of my favorite books! I agree - Mike is the hardest working author in the world! Awesome post!


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