I actually preordered Ashes by Ilsa Bick, only to have my youngest son steal it away from me when it finally arrived. This week it resurfaced under the couch in the living room, the natural resting place of all missing objects, and I read it in two days, staying up until five in the morning reading the first night.

Ashes is the story of Alex, a teenager who goes to the wilderness on an important pilgrimage. While she's there an extraordinary event happens, which changes the world and virtually everyone in it. In a flash a huge percentage of the population dies and the remaining people change. Alex is only aware of her tiny speck of the world. Birds and wildlife go mad around her and the companions she met on the trail either die or suffer from the same gushing nosebleed and terrible headache she does.

When she recovers a little she is left with a retired military dog and a young girl who is traumatized by first the death of her soldier father and now her caretaker grandfather. Ellie is eight years old and was extremely angry and recalcitrant before her grandfather passes away; after she is practically a textbook example of oppositional disorder. She throws a fit when Alex insists they start hiking towards a ranger station and refuses to leave, opting to stay with her grandfather's body. Alex argues, but eventually gives up and moves on, leaving the young girl and the dog behind.

Alex doesn't get far before a frantic Ellie joins her, without the dog, and inadvertently causes the loss of most of the supplies. As the two girls begin their journey together they don't just face cold weather and lack of food and water, they also have to watch out for feral dogs and survivors of the bizarre event, who are now undergoing a chilling transformation.

Alex is going through a transformation of her own. She isn't attacking and devouring other people like her contemporaries are but she has regained her lost sense of smell with a vengeance. Her sense of smell is more like a canine than a human. She quickly realizes that she can not only differentiate people by their odors but she can also tell what they're feeling and when they're lying, a very handy skill in a world gone mad and cannibalistic.

Ellie and Alex are soon in a terrible situation, which is when they meet Tom, a young soldier who joins their little group, and whose skills augment Alex's. The three of them together are much stronger than alone but are up against so many dangers that their chances of survival are slim.

This story was bound to remind me of other books I have read and I did see some strong similarities, mostly between Stephen King's Cell and Robert McCammon's Swan Song. Much like in Cell, the population is badly damaged and then changed by a mysterious pulse, in this case an EMP, and as in all three books the state of the survivors is a bit of a mystery. Are the flesheaters dead? Alive? In between? Are they cursed or ill? It's these questions that made these books such a compelling read. Sure, books that treat zombies as mere targets or predators can be interesting and suspenseful, but when we give our monsters a nice dose of humanity we have ambivalence towards them and this conflict is the source of real tension and intrigue.

I enjoyed this story very much but I'm sorry to say I didn't love it. For some reason I couldn't turn off my internal editor and kept getting pulled out of the story. Often it was for little things, like referring to a brain tumor as the size of a tennis ball, something never encountered in my eleven years working in the medical field. Tumors, especially tumors in women, are almost always referred to in terms of fruit. A brain tumor could be the size of a grapefruit or an orange. (The reproductive organs are really fruitcentric, with the ovaries the size of plums, the uterus the size of a pear and the pregnant uterus the size of a watermelon.) I think maybe if I weren't such a know it all I would have been able to really revel in Ashes and be looking forward breathlessly to the next book in the series. Since I couldn't, I give Ashes an A-.

You can read an excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is from Dylan Meconis. It's a comic called Outfoxed and it's both gorgeous and charming. It's about a laundress who is minding her own business when a group of hunters appear. A fox jumps into her laundry basket and hides out from the hunters, who question the laundress, then leave her. The fox isn't so ready to go. It's a talking fox, which then transforms into a young man and tries to woo the laundress, who isn't about to taken in by a shapeshifting fast talker. I loved this story and the drawings are beautiful.