Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wordle of SUNRISE

I've been corresponding with a fan, Brian Alvarez, and he's expressed some annoyance that I keep teasing him with hints about SUNRISE. Being the kind of guy I am, I didn't think, "Oh, how can I make it up to Brian?" No, I thought, "How can I make it even worse? And share the pain with you, my blog readers?" So here you have it, a Wordle of SUNRISE:

Wordle is an awesome, free online toy that lets you create a histogram of any chunk of text you want. The bigger the words are, the more often they appear in the text. Try it for yourself.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review of The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria

Not long after ASHFALL came out, I did a panel presentation at the Indianapolis Youth Literature Conference. Elsa Marston was there and brought her copy of ASHFALL along for me to sign. She asked me a question--I can't remember her exact wording--about why I wrote such a violent book for young adults. I remember thinking yes, that's exactly the right question. I'd already gotten tired of defending the very mild fade-to-black sex scenes in ASHFALL. Sex is a natural part of being human that can both enrich and perpetuate life. The violence in my work, however, still makes me uncomfortable at some level.

The answer, of course, is that I never write down to my audience. In times of resource scarcity, humans are capable of absolutely horrific violence. The real reaction to a disaster of the scope I portray in ASHFALL is likely to be much, much worse than in my books. I suppose I could gloss over the violent scenes the way I do with the sex in my books, allow them to fade-to-black. But that feels dishonest. To take an extreme example, consider which makes a more powerful statement against violence: Saving Private Ryan or the cartoon antics of The Roadrunner? This is part of the reason I'm deeply ambivalent about ASHFALL being made as a movie. To earn a PG-13 rating, a movie would have to be far less graphic than the book. The anti-war message conveyed so powerfully in The Hunger Games is completely lost in the movie version amid the gorgeous--and bloodless--cinematography.

Anyway, Elsa has been a wonderful supporter and perceptive critic of my work right from the beginning. And so I was thrilled to get a copy of her latest book, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria, in the mail a few weeks ago.

Elsa's book, though written for the middle grade and young adult market, is a thorough and scholarly biography. Elsa holds a master's degree in international affairs from Harvard University and has written more than twenty books for children and teenagers. I knew next to nothing about Abd el-Kader before opening Elsa's book. Here's how the back of the book describes him:
Emir Abd el-Kader (1807 - 1883) . . . led the resistance to the French conquest of Algeria. He was a brilliant military strategist, superb horseman, and renowned Muslim leader. Known for his kindness toward his enemies, he became an international celebrity in his own time. Today he is recognized as a pioneer in interfaith dialogue.
. . . in 1860 in Syria, he saved thousands of innocent Christians from mob violence, earning praise from leaders as diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, and Napoleon III.
I particularly appreciate the complexity of Elsa's treatment of el-Kader. She doesn't shy away from the controversial aspects of his life, such as the massacre of two hundred French prisoners of war at a camp in Morocco. While el-Kader did not order the massacre--in fact, he reviled it--it did occur at a camp under his command. Later, while in exile in Syria, el-Kader rescued thousands of Christians from Muslim rioters. The contradictions in el-Kader's life--warrior and scholar, humanitarian and jihadist, Algerian nationalist and Francophile--are part of what makes him so fascinating.

My one criticism of The Compassionate Warrior is that at times it feels almost too scholarly. The book opens with a table of contents, list of illustrations, forward, preface, and prologue. That's twelve pages of material before the reader reaches the meat of the story. And while Elsa does an admirable job covering the breadth of el-Kader's extraordinary life, I wonder if the book might have been even more engaging with less breadth and more depth. For example, several years are summarized in one paragraph on page 51:
For a few years Abd el-Kader held lines of defense--major towns and fortifications--running roughly east and west. All were lost to the French army, however, by the end of 1841. In most cases the inhabitants had been warned to leave in time, so the French found only empty streets and buildings.
As a reader, I'm left imagining the battles and heartbreak glossed over in this bit of narrative summary. That's the sort of thing I would have absolutely loved to read as a fourth grader and still enjoy today. When I opened The Compassionate Warrior, I was hoping for an experience more along the lines of Steve Sheinkin's The Bomb: a solid history written with the immediacy of fiction, with more show and less tell.

I worry that because of its somewhat academic bent, The Compassionate Warrior won't reach as broadly into its target market as it should. It's an important work--one that begs to be read widely. There are 2.6 million Muslims in the U.S.--they need to see themselves in our literature, to find heroes like themselves. And el-Kader is a fabulous hero--a revolutionary warrior in the mold of George Washington, an intellectual champion of liberty like Thomas Paine, and a Gandhiesque defender of human rights.

Non-Muslims, too, need to read this book. The bedrock upon which compassion is built is understanding, and after reading Elsa's book, I have a much better understanding of el-Kader, Algeria, and Islam in general. The Compassionate Warrior is a worthy addition to your library, classroom, or bookshelf. I'll be sending my copy to my wife's classroom to share with her students.

Buy The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria:

Barnes & Noble
The Book Depository

Full disclosure: I received this book from Elsa Marston for free, and I'm proud to consider her a friend and mentor.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Book That Helped Inspire SUNRISE: Prepper's Home Defense

I’ve been working like crazy over the past six months to finish SUNRISE, the final book in the ASHFALL trilogy, while keeping up with my travel schedule. (I’ve done more than 350 presentations in 21 states over the last 20 months.) And so I’ve put off lots of stuff on my to-do list.

One of those things, unfortunately, was a review of this book:

The author, Jim Cobb, came to one of my events in Madison, Wisconsin last year, and we had a lovely hour-long chat about prepping, the Yellowstone supervolcano, and what Chicago might be like after the apocalypse. I’m not a real prepper—I keep enough supplies onhand to survive for about three weeks, which is what I figure I’d need to get through a regional disaster like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina. If the end of the world as we know it comes (what preppers affectionately refer to as TEOTWAWKI), I have a simple plan: I’ll die. I have no desire to live through the kind of events I depict in ASHFALL. Unlike me, Jim is a stone cold expert on disaster survival. He’s worked in related fields for more than twenty years, and maintains one of the best websites on prepping. I rely on people like him and their books in order to write my own.

For ASHFALL and ASHEN WINTER, I used When Technology Fails as my go-to book for inspiration. In SUNRISE, you may notice the influence of Prepper’s Home Defense throughout.

When Alex and Darla prepare the approaches to his uncle’s farm, trying to funnel potential attackers away from spots they can’t see from their lookout post, that’s an idea from page 52 of Jim’s book. Go-bags and scouting? Page 202. Lone wolf syndrome? Page 165. My depiction of Rockford, Illinois is in part based on the conversation Jim and I shared in the aisles of the Madison Barnes & Noble. (We talked about Chicago, but when I drove the route Alex and Darla would take to get to Chicago, I realized that they’d hit Rockford first and be able to get everything they needed there.)

What I particularly like about Jim’s book is its practicality. Reading it, I don’t get a sense that he has any ideological axe to grind. He’s intensely focused on what works. He points out, quite correctly, that semiautomatic rifles don’t offer particularly good “bang for the buck” when it comes to home defense. His section on martial arts is spot-on. I completely agree with his funny take on the uselessness of nunchuku as self-defense weapons. I recently started training with the Korean version, ssahng jeol bahngs, and I would NEVER try to use them in a real fight. (They are, however, a great workout for your wrists and shoulders.) He emphasizes practice—no one becomes competent with any tool, let alone a firearm, without thousands of hours of practice. (And I’ll add that competence is a perishable commodity—the moment you quit training, you start to lose your edge.)  This extends to practicing disaster evacuation, as Jim points out in a section titled “Drill, Drill, and Drill Again.”

If, unlike me, you’re serious about prepping, you should seek out serious advice. That means seeking out the experts who have no particular political or religious dogma to sell, experts who are laser-focused on what works. Jim Cobb is one such expert.

Buy Prepper’s Home Defense:

Full disclosure: I received this book from Jim for free, and I'm proud to call him a friend.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why I Write

Gratuitous Picture of a Cat
Here's an email I received yesterday (shared by kind permission of Heather and her son, Sam):
Hi Mike!
I have to tell you that I have a sixteen year old that has been on house arrest this entire summer. So, I, too have been on house arrest. However, I LOVE to read and I'm Buried in Books, (blog name and literally) so I am an avid reader. 

My son, Sam, used to love to read and read well above his grade level. He won spelling bees and had excellent test scores. Then, the expectations got so high that he wasn't able to meet them and so he was punished. While all the average and below average kids were rewarded for making their goals with a pizza party or ice cream sundaes, he had to do laps around the classroom. Needless to say, his desire to read was crushed. That was fourth grade. He's going into 11th grade. I combed my shelves looking for books for him to read this summer. He's not big on fantasy or romance, I have tons of MG and YA but most of my contemporaries are big on romance. So I remembered I'd picked up ASHFALL wanting to read it. I gave it to Sam to read it. He LOVED it! It might have taken him a week to read it. I promised to get him ASHEN WINTER so he read a few other things in between until I ordered it. One month later, he actually turned off the t.v. and the video game so he could finish ASHEN WINTER, which he finished in three days. 

Since fourth grade, he has chosen his books to read based on how few pages are in the book. I'm sure you're aware of how large your books are. We are anxiously awaiting SUNRISE and March! He's finally into reading again! He told me he learned a lot of new words from your novels, (Yay, SAT's coming up)! But more importantly, he's gotten his love of reading back. He's actually asking for a book. He is MAKING time to read. That is the sign of a good book. I don't think you could ask for a better review than that! You won't get any other kind from him. But know that you've made me very happy to see his love of reading given back to him!

Thank you for your incredible novels!


Two things:

1) This is why I write. Yes, I like winning awards. I've won my share. And yes, I like getting royalty checks. I'm making more money this year that I ever dreamed would be possible in year two of a writing career. But next time I doubt myself, believe I can't do it, I won't look at my last royalty statement or read the list of awards on my website. I'll pull out this email and reread it. (By the way, all writers struggle with self-doubt; it's just the nature of the beast.)

2) If you're the type of teacher who punishes kids who are struggling readers, please quit now. Seriously. I will raise funds online to pay your way through truck-driving school. You'll make more money as a truck driver, and you'll never, ever be around kids. Some a****** teacher cost this kid SEVEN M*****F****** YEARS OF HIS LITERARY LIFE. Yes, I'm yelling. And cussing. Sorry about that.

Don't get me wrong, I love teachers. I'm married to one, I love them so much. But not everyone has the talent, determination, temperament, or work ethic to be a teacher. If you can't hack it, hey, that's cool. I know I couldn't do it, so you're in good (maybe?) company. But switch careers before you mess up any more kids, please.

Let me close with Sam's own comments (also via email, and shared by kind permission from Sam, with minor edits by me):
Dear Mr. Mullin,
I really enjoyed reading your books. My mother originally got me the books a while ago but I wasn't really reading at the time. Well I read a lot of books this summer and I read Ashfall in about  day in a half. It was excellent. I read Ashen Winter even quicker even though it was a larger book. I have really enjoyed your books because they are truly brilliant. Please keep writing them. Make as many in this series as you can because Ashen Winter was even crazier than Ashfall. So I expect the next book to be very, very good. Thanks for writing back.
And that's why I write.

p.s. If you haven't already, be sure to enter the contest to win a signed manuscript of DARLA'S STORY, book #0.5 of the ASHFALL trilogy. The contest ends 9/4/13. Good luck!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Announcing DARLA'S STORY (And a One-of-a-kind Giveaway!)

My debut novel, ASHFALL, is an adventure story, but also a love story about Alex and a tough young woman he meets on page 127 named Darla. As you read ASHFALL you learn a lot about how Alex survives the first two weeks after the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, but not much about Darla's experience with the eruption.

About a year ago, I sat down to fix that. I wrote a novelette--60 pages about everything that happens to Darla from the time Yellowstone erupts to when she meets Alex. About every four months since then I've gotten it out and rewritten it. This fall, it will finally be published in an ebook format. It'll be available for all e-reader platforms for $0.99 or less.

But if you want to read it early, here's your chance. I'm giving away a one-of-a-kind signed paper manuscript with editorial markings from the inimitable Peggy Tierney of Tanglewood Press (thanks for letting me do this, Peggy!) Here it is:

I'll ship it anywhere in the world at my expense. (The books pictured above are not included, just the manuscript.) Want to win? Enter the Rafflecopter below. You can earn extra points every day by tweeting about the giveaway. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway