Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Review: SUNRISE 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.

First Paragraph(s): I left the farmhouse in the darkest hour of the night to make a weapon. The light from my oil lamp drew a pitiful circle of gray against the snow around my feet. Other lamps and torches shone here and there amid the ramshackle refugee encampment surrounding Uncle Paul’s farm, fading pockets of humanity in the chaotic dark. People huddled within the lights, cleaning guns and sharpening knives.
By sunrise I’d reached the dead forest behind the farm and cut a jahng bong. A staff was a ridiculous weapon for the coming fight, but it was the best I could do.

Hello there, Esteemed Reader. I know the blog has been slow and it's going to stay that way for the rest of the year. In addition to Little Ninja duties including a two-hour drive for daycare, I now have author duties. I have more books to get to readers by the end of the year and they take priority over blog posts. And every time I review a book here, I get requests to review ten more books and I hate turning writers down.

But of course I'm going to make time to review Sunrise, the final installment of Mike Mullin's Ashfall trilogy. I spent Saturday at Kids Inc bookstore here in Indianapolis and at Mike Mullin's house for the Sunrise launch party. If you read this blog, you know Mike Mullin and I are good friends and fellow members of the YA Cannibals critique group. Many of the readers of my book All Together Now were first attracted to it because of Mike Mullin's blurb. He's thanked in the back and there's a character in the story named after him (and characters named after the other Cannibals and Courtney Summers). I'm thanked in the back of Sunrise and Ashen Winter and I hope to be thanked in the back of Mullin's upcoming release as well as thanking him in the back of all my books. 

I tell you all of this upfront so we can agree I'm not an objective, impartial reviewer (not that I ever am). And it's a shame, because Sunrise really is the best book in the Ashfall trilogy. If I'd never met Mike Mullin, I'd tell you that. I spent an hour or so chatting with Mike Mullin's number one fan Saturday and he convinced me that Mike's an even better author than I thought he was. This young boy read Sunrise on a trip from Illinois to Indianapolis specifically to attend the Ashfall launch party and he was more excited about Mike's book than I've ever seen any reader for any book. If he were writing this review, he'd tell you to immediately go out and purchase your copy of Sunrise and if you haven't read Ashfall or Ashen Winter or Darla's Story yet, then both of us envy the hours of wonderful reading you have ahead of you.

But seeing as how my review can't be trusted, why don't we do this instead: I'll talk a little about the book, then we'll talk mostly about the critique process and a little about publishing. Sound like a plan? Ready, break!

It's one year after the events in Ashfall in which the Yellowstone supervolcanoe erupted and wiped out a whole lot of people as well as covered the countryside in great piles of ash. The survivors wage war on each other, naturally, and engage in all manner of nasty behaviors such as rampant cannibalism, rape, robbery, and senseless murder. Good times. And of course, like Ashfall and Ashen Winter, Sunrise is a love story. 

Since Tanglewood rolled out the revised cover for Ashfall in which two hands clasp each other, and then the cover for Ashen Winter in which the hands are separated and reaching for each other, I've been teasing Mike that the cover for Ashfall 3 should just be two bloody stumps. But the cover of Alex and Darla holding hands in front of a sunrise is also nice and quite brilliant in its own way. 

Alex and Darla have been through hell in the two books previous and things only get worse for them in Sunrise, which is what keeps those pages turning themselves, yet their very real love for each other is palpable in every paragraph. It's inspiring in the face of so much bleakness and their relationship is what invests readers in Mullin's world. The lesson for writers: you can get away with a whole lot of nasty business if you keep a warm and fuzzy center:)

So do Alex and Darla come out at the end of Sunrise happy and together, or does one of them die tragically but poignantly? Me, I'd have killed them both:) But readers will have to buy the book to find out as I'm not going to spoil Mike's incredibly satisfying conclusion to the three-and-a-half-ology fans have been waiting for. But I will say this: I got a little teary-eyed toward the end of Sunrise and so will you. 

By way of a plot summary, let us marvel at what a fine job Mike does of delivering exposition in chapter one and catching up return readers as well as giving newcomers a hope of following the story (why would you start with book three?):

The eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano had plunged Iowa and Illinois into chaos. Communications went down. Air travel ended. Roads became impassable due to the ashfall and brutal winter it triggered. Towns were on their own. And now, eleven months after the eruption, the towns of northwest Illinois had begun waging war on each other.
Almost two weeks before, a few hundred men from Stockton had attacked Warren. A short, sad battle ensued. The Warrenites lost their stored food and their homes. Many lost their lives. The survivors fled to my Uncle Paul’s farm. Mom, Darla, Alyssa, Ben, and I had arrived yesterday, finding the farm transformed into a rough refugee camp.
Today Warren’s mayor, Bob Petty, planned to lead a counterattack. The adult refugees would attempt to retake Warren and reclaim their food. Everyone was hungry. Replacing the stockpile of frozen pork stolen by the Stocktonites would be impossible. All the slaughterhouses and nearly all the farms had been shut down for months. If the counterattack failed, most of us would starve to death.
Apparently the term adults didn’t include me, despite the fact that I was sixteen.

Alex has really come into his own in Sunrise and in some ways I'm sad this is the end as I'd like to read more about him. One of my biggest notes for Mike when I wrote my critique for Ashen Winter was that Alex was frequently too passive and some of his poor choices annoyed me (the version I'm referring to isn't available as Mike sorted those and other cannibalized issues by the final draft pre-publication). In this third volume Alex is anything but passive:

Would Ed even do it? I lifted my gaze to Ed’s face. The flat look in his eyes told me yes, he would. He shrugged as if to say get on with it.
I nodded. “Do it,” I said. “Cut his throat.”
Ed’s grip tightened on the knife handle.
“W-wait,” Cliff stammered. Ed checked his cut. A thin line of blood, dark and viscous, appeared along Cliff’s neck. Two black runnels parted from the line, trickling toward Cliff’s collarbone.

Now there's an Alex I can get behind! I don't want to give away too much of the plot because if you're reading this and you haven't read Sunrise, odds are good you're going to. But Alex has come a long way in a year and in this book, he's a force to be reckoned with. Thankfully, he's the good guy.  

The way you know you're in a good critique group is you get honest feedback. The YA Cannibals can sometimes be too honest, perhaps, and it's not uncommon for one or two of our sessions per year to end in tears. I've never let them see me cry (though it's been hard a couple times) and I've never seen Mike cry, but I wouldn't have wanted to be him on the day we cannibalized the first draft of Sunrise.

Bear in mind, at the time of that critique, Mike was the only published member in the group. His first two Ashfall books sell so well he no longer has a day job and he's won multiple awards. Not for nothing, but he's kind of a big deal. It's a good critique group and more publications are forthcoming (I'll review them here, of course) and there's not a slacker among us. But Mike Mullin has been the big man on campus.

I tell you this not just because I know Mike is reading and blushing, but because I think it's worth noting that on the day we tore apart his baby, his final culmination of years of work, he took it like a professional. Mike is neither arrogant nor foolish and he knows that no matter how successful he is, the process is the process. We raked him over the coals, convinced him to drop an entire subplot (trust me, you'll never miss it), and rewrite entire long sections of the book. I wrote "boring" all over certain sections--I'm helpful that way.

Mike Mullin isn't driven by ego. He takes his success in stride and sometimes it catches me off guard when readers approach him with a sense of awe because to me he's just my friend Mike. But to readers he's a great deal more and the Ashfall books have meant a lot to a lot of people, myself included. He's taught me more about writing and the business of being a successful author by his example than just about any other one source I could name.

What he taught me in the case of Sunrise is what it means to be a professional writer. Mike didn't protest during his critique session. He took notes and put them to good use. It's not that Sunrise wasn't great from the first draft (it packs a second act surprise I love more than anything and I won't spoil it), but it wasn't perfect. Even with all the awards and success, Mike Mullin still puts his pants on one leg at a time, and he still writes a first draft, revises, gets feedback, revises again, and again, and again. He takes his medicine no different from the other cannibals and even appreciates it. I know because he said so in the acknowledgements:

I have a whole round table of literary knights in my corner: my wife, Margaret, slayer of unnecessary dialogue and prepositional phrases; Robert Kent, champion of the action scene; Lisa Fipps, warrior of word choice; Shannon Lee Alexander, chevalier of characterization; Jody Sparks, the emotional knight; and Josh Prokopy, the squire. Thank you all.

Well, check that out. I'm thanked first after the author's wife (**cabbage patches, raises the roof**). Sunrise is a family book. It feels like someone else's kid I used to babysit all grown up. I didn't raise the child, but I'm still proud, the way I feel about all the cannibal's books and the way they may feel about mine.

That's pretty much the end of the "review." I'm going to hit you with some of my favorite passages from Sunrise and of course encourage to buy your copy immediately, preferably using the link below:) And if you get a chance to see Mike Mullin in person, and as he's always on the road, you might--do it! Not only will you get to see him break a brick with his bare hand, you'll witness how an author can also be an entertainer and one-man spokesperson for his book.

But before we call it a post, I'd like to point out Sunrise's dedication:

To Peggy Tierney, for believing

Why it's our old friend, the managing editor and founder of Tanglewood Publishing. You know I'm a Peggy Tierney fan and I very much enjoyed chatting with her Saturday about publishing and rumors surrounding a possible Ashfall movie (fingers crossed). If I were going to risk being published traditionally, I'd want an advocate like Peggy in my corner.

You regular Esteemed Readers know I don't bash editors or even the traditional publishing model. I love literary agents and editors and I believe there are a lot of really smart, talented people working in publishing with a love of authors and books, which makes us natural allies.

Unfortunately, there's also a lot of sharks in suits, unfair practices, and unseemly behavior that goes on in modern publishing. I don't chronicle such things at this blog because frankly I don't have time or even that much interest. But I know a lot of writers and I've heard enough sad stories to be convinced that indie publishing is the safest route for my own work until the big five collapse into the big one. If you're interested in the sordid details of publishing, I highly recommend reading JA Konrath's remarkable (though often controversial) blog, The Newbie's Guide to Publishing.

Writers should be wary of publishers. No small number of agents have told me they spend large amounts of their days just trying to get publishers to pay their writers royalties owed. I considered linking to some recent stories of publishers behaving badly, but I don't want to confuse the point, which is this:

Whatever you may hear of other publishers, Tanglewood has done right by my friend Mike Mullin. Peggy Tierney has been there for all three books of the Ashfall trilogy and has given Mike the support all authors should expect but often don't receive from their publishers. Mike is the hardest working author I know and he's done plenty of promotion on his own, but Tanglewood has helped him build his career in a way most writers could only pray for.

When's the last time you saw an author dedicate a book, let alone the final book in a series, to their publisher? To me that's impressive and if you're a writer seeking a traditional contract, that ought to give you hope.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Sunrise:

As I stepped into the tiny foyer adjoining the living room, I noticed the smell. Sweat and a fecal stink blended with the stomach-turning stench of rotting wounds.

“Don’t go,” [Redacted] pleaded. “I love you.”
“I’ll never leave you,”
[Redacted] said. “I love you too.”
Three hours later, she was dead.

A dark figure rose from behind a monument, and suddenly there were dozens of people popping up from every hollow, tree stump, and stone marker on the hill above us. I screamed a warning, but my voice was drowned out by the roar of incoming gunfire.

In the dark, we raced through the main floor of the house, crashing blindly into unseen furniture, looking for a staircase. Finally I spotted a dim ray of light. I ran toward it, my empty gun held at shoulder level in front of me, commando style—at least I thought it was from what I’d seen in video games.

Darla choked back a sob, and I stood, wrapping her in my arms. Pretty soon I was crying too, crying for my dead father, for my estranged mother, for the whole disaster the world had become. Somehow it felt right to let it out there, in that greenhouse, our tears watering the kale that kept us alive. Only survivors are allowed the luxury of sadness.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: 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. So nice seeing you back for a review and comments, but so understand what you've been up to. Sounds like you have a wonderful "literary knights" team!

    1. Hi Brenda! Nice to see you too:) We're Mike Mullin's "knights." I prefer to think of the cannibals as a literary superhero team:)

  2. I loved reading the part about your critique group. I feel the same way about mine.
    But this passage you quote, seriously? That's just mean!

    “Don’t go,” [Redacted] pleaded. “I love you.”
    “I’ll never leave you,” [Redacted] said. “I love you too.”
    Three hours later, she was dead.

    The redactions are going to plague me all weekend! I've read the first two so I'll definitely be reading this one. And movie talks? That would be cool.

    1. That passage is a chapter ending and it builds plenty of suspense. It's genuinely a great passage, but it also works nicely for this review. Hopefully other readers find that passage of interest and rush out to buy their copies of Sunrise. Mike Mullin can't say I never did nothing for him:)


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