Spontaneous was written by Aaron Starmer and first published in 2016. It is a book aimed at older teens that focuses on love, friendship, being a teenager and spontaneous human combustion. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to have read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

Mara Carlyse’s life is pretty normal. She goes to school, experiments with alcohol and likes hanging out with her best friend Tess. She knows that life as the daughter of a deli owner is far from eventful. That is, of course, until Katelyn Ogden explodes in her calculus class. While people initially suspect that it’s some kind of bizarre terrorist attack, they soon realise that the truth is far stranger. Katelyn has just randomly popped like a balloon.

Although people try to chalk this up to a freak occurrence, things grow more insane when another student explodes during a group therapy session. As more and more teenagers randomly blow up, it begins to attract world attention. It’s clear that something is wrong in Katelyn’s school but no one can quite figure out what. People blame race, sexuality and drug use yet patterns grow blurred as more and more students are effected.

It’s not long until the town goes into lock-down to prevent the students from potentially infecting others. Yet Mara and her classmates slowly start to realise that the American government doesn’t really care about them at all. Their lives are rocked by the combustions and basic rights, such as graduation and even the ability to attend a prom, are stripped from them. Mara knows that they need to take some kind of stand. She just needs to figure out what she can do to convince the others…

Of all the books that I’ve reviewed for this blog, I think this one needs the biggest word of warning of them all. So here it is. Spontaneous really is not a book for the easily offended. While I would argue that it’s definitely aimed at older teen readers, you should be aware that it contains copious amounts of drug use, swearing, sex and gore from start to finish. If you’re planning on buying this book to a younger reader as a gift, you might want to flip through it yourself first to ensure that it’s suitable. You have been warned.

I can’t really express how much I loved this story. The concept of Spontaneous is totally original and it’s deliciously dark from start to finish. Really, this was a novel like no other. It’s a contemporary romance set against a backdrop of exploding students. And let me just be clear on this fact – they do explode. This isn’t a metaphor or my exaggeration. This is flame-free spontaneous human combustion – there one minute and then *pop*. I’m not making this up – it’s Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend levels of weird.

Yet, through this odd framing, Starmer really explores what it’s like to be a teenager. The novel is brutally honest in this regard and does a fantastic job of capturing the conflicting emotions that run through a seventeen-year-old girl’s head. There are the pressures, the all-encompassing friendships, the lust, the betrayal and the ennui. The concept may be surreal, but the novel itself is thoroughly grounded in the real world.

The novel also contains a huge dollop of social commentary. The way that the public reacts to the explosions slowly changes as the story progresses. When the first victim is of Turkish decent, the populous at large assume that terrorism must be the cause. As a couple of gay students fall prey to it, they next turn to homosexuality, and later drug use as an explanation. The theories grow wilder and more outlandish with each death, with people desperate to find patterns that aren’t really there. Although most of these theories will seem ridiculous to any sane person, we all know that the world is a strange place and people really do leap to ludicrous answers. If students did randomly start exploding, I could totally buy the world reacting the way that it does in this novel.

Yet for as much as I loved this story, it’s clear to me that this is the kind of book that will polarise readers. For everything that I enjoyed about the concept, I can see why others will find it to be distasteful or too bleak. Spontaneous isn’t always played for laughs. The story starts off tongue-in-cheek but slowly grows more poignant as the “Covington Curse” affects people closer to Mara. While she is fairly indifferent to the deaths when they effect bullies and those she does not know that well, it’s a different matter when the people that she calls friends start dying.

I don’t want to spoil what happens here but I will say that the story ends on a rather ambiguous note, offering some ideas as to what may be going on but leaving much open to the reader’s interpretation. While I personally don’t think the novel could have ended any other way, some readers may find the lack of closure unsatisfying.

Yet the biggest selling point of Sponaneous is Mara herself. For me, Mara was just a perfect young adult protagonist. She is a very realistic teenage girl, hiding her insecurities behind a veil of gallows humour. She doesn’t really conform to any of the usual stereotypes and certainly isn’t some paragon of virtue. Over the course of the story, she makes many mistakes and hurts a lot of people. She’s jealous, sometimes depressive, deceitful and foul-mouthed. And I loved her.

Mara is completely ordinary, yet her dry humour and ability to not complete break-down while her classmates explode around her makes her narrative utterly compelling. I became completely invested in her love-life and close friendship with Tess. I loved the way that she slowly matured, learning from her experiences and developing as a person. It’s really a shame that this book is a stand-alone story as I would have loved to have seen more of her.

I also loved the way that the rest of Mara’s class were presented through her narrative. While we only really get to know the members of her inner circle like Tess and Dylan, the rest of her class are diverse and easily recognisable. While most are only acquaintances as best, Mara had plenty of funny stories to tell about her peers, which helped to make them all memorable. The large supporting cast also helped to flesh out the scenes set at school, making clear that the combustions effected more than just Mara and adding a sense of realism to the predicament.

Anyhow, I don’t think I have a lot more to say. Spontaneous will not appeal to everyone but it blew me away (pun totally intended). I loved its concept, tone and just Mara in general. While the novel does contain material that some may find distasteful, it is still certainly a novel that I’d recommend to readers looking for something a little different.

Spontaneous can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Sobeks 2017 – Part 3 | Arkham Reviews

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