Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Review: Ashfall by Mike Mullin (You Really MUST Read This Book!)

Publisher: Tanglewood Press
Publication Date: September 27th, 2011

Under the bubbling hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park is a supervolcano. Most people don't know it's there. The caldera is so large that it can only be seen from a plane or satellite. It just could be overdue for an eruption, which would change the landscape and climate of our planet.
Ashfall is the story of Alex, a teenage boy left alone for the weekend while his parents visit relatives. When the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts unexpectedly, Alex is determined to reach his parents. He must travel over a hundred miles in a landscape transformed by a foot of ash and the destruction of every modern convenience that he has ever known, and through a new world in which disaster has brought out both the best and worst in people desperate for food, water, and warmth. With a combination of nonstop action, a little romance, and very real science, this is a story that is difficult to stop reading and even more difficult to forget.
(Courtesy of Goodreads)

Wow! This book is just awesome!  I would have had this up sooner, but the publisher must have realized it's amazingness and moved the release date up, because it came out a full three weeks earlier than the date I was given with my ARC.  Because I had lots of content planned for Banned Books Week, I decided to wait; I didn't want my (rave!) review of this book to get lost amongst my BBW posts...

So- I loved it.  We have covered that.  Why? For so many reasons, so once again (and I've realized that an author should feel honored when I do my review this way), I will be doing my review in a bullet-point format (in no particular order, of course).  First though, I want to tell you a little about my personal reading experience with this book.  I read this as a buddy-read with my oldest daughter.  She's in 5th grade, and in hindsight, there are a few points in the book that might have been a little much for the average 5th grader, but I've always been a little more liberal with her, content-wise, because she has been reading so far above grade level for so long, and just is aware of more than most 5th graders are through her reading experiences.  I can tell you though, this book gave us so many thought-provoking discussion topics; more than any book since The Hunger Games, so if you are looking for a good book to read and discuss with your older kid, or if you are looking for a great teen book club selection, look no further.  Now for my review...
  • The Research~ I have to start here because I am just blown away by how meticulously Mike Mullin researched this book.  I am a science nerd, so I am always impressed when an author goes out of the way to make sure the scientific facts are accurate.  Not only did he do this, he put a whole section in the end explaining how he researched this book, along with a listing of web resources and non-fiction companion books.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for him in this aspect for two reasons.  One, teens often believe what they read to some extent, and when their fiction is based on fact, you have a win-win.  Add to that a source of instant gratification for more knowledge when the book is fresh in their minds, and it leads to a great opportunity for learning about something that they may never have known they had an interest in.  Two, this book is SCARY in a very real way.  Even as an adult, I wanted to find out the likelihood of this type of thing actually happening in my lifetime.  Having science behind the story and putting concrete facts out there helps with that.
  • The World Building~ Mike Mullin knows how to use an adjective!  He did his Mad Libs as a kid!  He has a way of describing even the most desolate landscape in a vivid way that puts you there.  I never had difficulty envisioning the backdrop of this story. I also never had any trouble feeling the emotional energy surrounding any particular part of the story, and that is so important.  It's one thing to be able to describe the physical world in which a story takes place, but capturing the emotional setting is so difficult.  Mike Mullin did it masterfully.
  • The Characters~ This book is really centered around two characters and of course, as any reader would expect, they are well developed and attachment-worthy.  Alex rose to the challenge of survival in very unexpected ways, even to himself.  Darla may be one of the smartest, most kick-ass female book characters I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know.  Neither one is your stereotypical hero, which makes this book so much more relevant to the average reader.  What I found great was that even the most minor players in this story were well developed.  A good number of people cross Alex and Darla's paths; some stay awhile, others are just passing through, but you form feelings, one way or another, for all of them.  
  • The Story~ Well, obviously, if the story sucks, the other points are just irrelevant, aren't they.  This story DID NOT suck!  It was amazing!  It kept a furious pace, and actually caused me to have to lie to my beloved child ("No hunny. I didn't finish the book without you while you were toiling away at school." *looks to the side guiltily*). I is just not a book to be put down.  There is no slow start; no build up.  It starts with a (literal) bang, and does not slow down. If you like action, you will love this book, but there is SO VERY MUCH MORE to it!  This book examines human nature, and without judging, shows that when it comes down to it, human nature is not always pretty.  When it comes to true survival, most people are going to do what they have to do, even if it goes against what they think they believe.  The subtle social commentary is what makes this book the amazing book that it is.  When books get too heavy with a message, kids shut down; they don't want to be preached at.  Mike Mullin manages a perfect balance that will make teens WANT to think about it.
Overall, I have to say that this is one of my top reads of the year.  I can't say that I "enjoyed" it in a way that means it gave me a good feeling to read, but I did enjoy it in a way that it gave me lots to think about. I love books that stay with you, and this one does.  I would say that it should be read in every high school English class because it is so thought-provoking and realistic, but I think it would end up challenged by (nutty) parents because there are people out there that would not want to see some of these stark realities... Book number two, Ashen Winter, is set to release in October of 2012 and I will be begging for a review copy!

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  

Grade Level Recommendation: If Emma had been reading this solo, without parental discussion, I would have made her wait until about 8th grade.  It's an intensely graphic book with straightforward talk about sex, survival, and the horrors of human nature.  There is some language, sex, and a great deal of very real violence (including rape, murder, and cannibalism).  All of this would maybe be fine in its context for a 6th or 7th grader, but what I found most disturbing were the attitudes and lack of humanity some of the characters had about these things, and that is why I would recommend it for independent readers ages 13+ (8th grade+).  If you're buddy reading and discussing this with your child, it would probably be suitable ages 12+.  If you are pretty conservative and really want to be safe, read it first before presenting it to a middle school aged child.  This is definitely NOT a book for most middle grade readers.  If it were a movie, a PG-13 rating would be borderline.


  1. I just finished this last night and it blew me away. It was detailed and authentic. I think my mouth was hanging open in shock the whole time.

  2. Oh I hadn't noticed that they moved the release date up. I got a copy too and was actually planning to read it right after Mara Dyer. Great to hear it's so good!!

    Xpresso Reads

  3. What an amazing review! By the way, you were right, I did do Mad Libs as a child!

    Okay, now that I've been properly inspired by your review, I'm going back to my revision cave. ASHEN WINTER won't write itself!


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